Research Slam 2012

This past Friday, I took part in my fourth (holy cow, has it really been fours years?!) Annual Research Slam in the English Department at UCSB. To quote Amanda Phillips, when the Slam first started in 2008 it was described as an “Experimental Research Event.” Having spent quite a bit of time, effort, and money at various conferences (both local and national, discipline specific and interdisciplinary) this year, I have to admit that I really look forward to this event at the end of each year.

From a participant’s standpoint, the event is so much more enjoyable than many of the bigger professional conferences I attendthe anxiety and labor that goes into putting together a short talk, the panic when I learn that I have ten minutes to speak and not 20, the confusion at trying to figure out why our papers were put on the same panel, and anticipation of questions from an audience that wasn’t expecting literary analysis on a panel blandly titled “Immigration Issues” — are generally absent (Ok… not all conferences are like this, but that was just one of the more memorable and least enjoyable conferences I took part in). For the Research Slam, however, all of the anxiety comes from my waiting till the last minute and making myself use programs and platforms (this year it was Photoshop) I have no experience in. So, that’s all my fault.

As an attendee, I love how interactive and free-flowing the event is as a whole. We’re encouraged to circulate and talk with the presenters, to navigate and play with their projects, which this year included a video game that Adam Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz collaborated on, Meghan Skahan’s Excel deformance of David Foster Wallace’s  The Pale King, Amanda Phillips’ work on avatar creation systems, Michael Hetrick’s iPad polygon creator, and many others. The full list of presenters can be found here. (Not gonna lie–all these amazing projects are enough to give me a complex, but then you love everyone so much and they’re all so supportive, so you get over it.) Even my project, which was offered in the form of a more traditional slideshow/movie (and it looks way less like a movie on Slideshare, sadly), was viewed and navigated backwards and forwards while people offered questions, discussions, and recommendations. I’m still mulling over some of these and wondering about different media and the politics of staging and appropriation, so if anyone has recommendations…

As far as my presentations go, each year I try to mix it up and present something different in relation to my research. I’m a bit of a masochist and always force myself to pick up new skills or experiment with a new mode of analysis. Over the years my posters and presentations have included social network maps, text analysis visualizations, and GIS mapping of literary narratives. This year, as an accompaniment to the first dissertation chapter on spatial politics and temporariness in Dubai, I decided to do some non-conventional academic work (especially in literary studies) and take an artistic approach. Let’s face it, as important as I think my dissertation is, it is written with a specific audience in mind, and an even more limited audience will read it. The pieces that make up this project, however, might speak to a more general audience and will probably be viewed by way more people. (Yay, for the Internets!)

Inspired by CédricDelsaux’s Dark Lens series, I set out not only to develop my image manipulation skills but also to unsettle the accepted and enforced notions of work and luxury consumption in Dubai that depend so heavily on the labor of workers from the global south, and that also systematically excludes them from the very spaces they build. Though much of the official rhetoric around the various burj (برج – Arabic for “tower” or “castle”) in Dubai has been celebratory of the engineering feats, the monumental luxury, and even the diversity of its construction team, this type of language masks the inequities, segregation, and exploitation experienced in the “free accommodations” provided to these “temporary” workers by their employers, which isolates them to segregated labor camps a two hour bus ride into the desert and away from the city.

It’s hard to write about Dubai and not be horrified when you come across this information, though somehow, there are still authors (even academics) who characterize these men as economic mercenaries who go wherever they’ll earn the most. If only.

This project, to clarify, is intended to question the politics of invisibility as they play out spatially in Dubai. I mean no disrespect to these men in using their images, and want more specifically to make them visible in spaces from which they are barred. Through these images, I want to destabilize understandings of who belongs where.

The images:

Construction worker in hallway of the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa.
Businessmen on construction site of a tower.
Construction workers inside the Burj al Arab.

Link to the full presentation: “Burj Refracted: Reimaging Labor and Consumption in Dubai.” It originally had much more dramatic transitions and font, but this rudimentary version should offer a bit more context.

Admittedly, I am a novice at photo manipulation, but I do hope that my intent is somewhat adequately expressed in the images. I am quite proud to have the Research Slam, and the inviting and animated space it provides, to share this work and to be able to talk through it with colleagues and mentors.

Don’t forget to check out Amanda’s excellent entry on HASTAC about the Slam, with more information on all the presenters, and other non-traditional spaces for sharing research and scholarship. We’re still talking through ways of developing the Research Slam, of encouraging participation from students and faculty outside of our core group.

Many thanks for the unflagging encouragement and support of professors and mentors like Alan Liu, Rita Raley, and Bishnu Ghosh who visit each year and interact with the students and their projects.

I must also note that as valuable as this event is, though, it otherwise receives little institutional support in terms of funding and participation, even though non-traditional conferences and events are becoming more visible as independent events (like the THATCamp unconference phenomena) and as parts of major conferences like ASA and MLA which are incorporating poster sessions, “lightning shorts,” roundtables, and electronic exhibits. Then again, the attendance at these events probably does not reflect the larger academic conference attending population and signals towards certain problems within the academy that many have discussed elsewhere, including #transformDH.

With all the talk of crisis in the academy (massive funding shortfalls, increased student fees, bleak job prospects, lack of job security, huge economic pay gaps, etc.) we need more innovative and safe spaces like the Research Slam, and we need more support for them. We also need participants and proponents to keep this kind of work going, and to keep producing such spaces for alternate modes of inquiry. This started as an event that is organized and populated by graduate students and continues largely to be one (not for want of trying) but hopefully the Slam can expand and grow and become viral.  A lot of ideas and desires for the Slam were voiced afterward in the post-Slam roundtable. We have yet to see if any of these great ideas will materialize in future Slams, here or elsewhere. For now, all we can do now is work toward making them so. Hopefully, others will consider putting on their own Research Slams or incorporating them as part of other events. If you do, please share!

Remixed images are used under a Creative Commons License and were found via Flickr. Many thanks to morner, St1ke, Paul Keller, ramen lover, mikething, and octal for sharing their photography.

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