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  • The Science of Nostalgia In Film: Spider-Man: No Way Home

    By Abigail Shumway As a child, movies served a central role in developing my imagination and creativity as well as being a way that my family could spend time together. Every Friday night (almost) we would make homemade pizza and snuggle down on the couch, with excessive blankets and pillows, to watch a movie together. While there was always some conflict in the movie selection part of the evening, a favorite of everyone was the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film. Since the first time we watched the movie, Silly String could be found all over the yard and “with great power comes great responsibility” was ingrained in our vocabulary. Whenever I watch that movie, joyous memories of my childhood, and a time when my younger brother and I actually got along, come flooding back into my brain adding an immensely intimate feeling to the movie watching experience. This is why when the new Spider-Man: No Way Home came out I was not only blown away as a Marvel fan but my inner child also got to come out to play. When talking about nostalgia in film, especially in recent years, Spider-Man: No Way Home is an incredible example. Not only did this movie attract dedicated fans of Marvel Comics and the MCU but it also drew in the slightly older crowd who were more intrigued by the choice to bring back characters and actors that they were more familiar with from the original films. When moviegoers saw this film they were greeted by a familiar phrase of “with great power comes great responsibility,” as an explicit callback to the first Spider-Man film eliciting cheers from the audience (including myself). Not only was Tobey Maguire featured in this film but the familiar amazing face of The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, greeted viewers with his friendly smile. Not only did the mere presence of his character bring about immense nostalgia but also we see that this Peter Parker is able to save the MCU’s Peter Parker’s love interest thus bringing closure for this character over the loss of his own love, Gwen. The feeling of joy and nostalgia over the closure for this character in an all too familiar setting moved myself, and many other viewers around me (and probably elsewhere as well), to tears. Along with our favorite web slinging heroes being brought back to the big screen, some of the best Spider-Man villains from the previous franchises also graced the screen. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin were welcomed to the theater with excited cheers and gasps (even though they were attacking our friendly neighborhood hero), hitting the audience with wave upon wave of reminiscent emotions. Seeing the characters that are known and loved by so many come back, from beyond the grave, to grace the silver screen once again in a different universe created a surreal viewing experience that I, and many others, would give anything to see for the first time again. Now, why? May you ask. Why are so many people driven to immense amounts of joy or even tears over these fictional characters who they have no tangible connection to? Well, scientists have found that there are actually immense psychological benefits to viewing this nostalgia in film and there could even be influence from our fast moving world to be driven back into the past. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College, says that “the desire for nostalgia tends to spike during and proceeding transformative life events…because it offers stability and a peaceful remembrance of a time when life was not so stressful” (Rossen), so this Spider-Man film could not have come at a more strategic time. Still being amongst the pandemic and continued political turmoil, the producers not only needed to appeal to a wide audience to bring people out of hiding and back into the theaters but they also aimed to give people a happy escape from the stress of day to day life, and in most cases, once they see it once they have to see it again (that is definitely how it was for me). Other psychological experts say that watching your favorite reruns or rewatching a childhood film can actually be used as “an instant — and for the most part healthy — regression in the service of the ego” (Vivinetto), thus potentially decreasing the effects of anxiety and mild depression. Others also say that these past favorites, even if they do not trigger positive memories, can remind us of where we were in our lives when we were first watching the film and help to “make us appreciate how much we’ve evolved” (Vivinetto). This appreciation of personal growth can also immensely benefit the ego and help to keep oneself grounded in the present while being able to acknowledge their past journey in a healthy way. In a scientific research study, using fMRI technology to perform brain scans, scientists monitored participants' brain activity when they were cued to recall positive and neutral memories. In this study, it was found that there was “enhanced activity in the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex [that] was associated with increases in positive emotion during recall” (Speer) of events that had a positive connotation with the participant. In the brain, the striatum is made up of “the caudate, putamen, and nucleus accumbens” (Purves), which are together generally responsible for “facilitating voluntary movement” (Purves). The medial prefrontal cortex on the other hand “plays an important regulatory role in numerous cognitive functions, including attention, inhibitory control, habit formation and working, spatial or long term memory” (Jobson). Meaning that when you watch a movie that you enjoyed as a child, or even just a couple of years ago, the medial prefrontal cortex is triggered in response to this movie now being a part of your long term memory and thus bringing about the same, positive, emotions that you felt when you first watched the movie. Further into the study, participants were even offered monetary rewards in exchange for choosing to recall a more neutral memory but it was found that they would sacrifice “28% of potential monetary earnings to recall positive rather than neutral memories” (Speer). Ultimately the researchers concluded that their “findings suggest that recalling positive experiences from the past increases one’s positive emotion and engages reward-related neural circuitry, such as the striatum and mPFC” (Speer). Meaning that “reminiscing about positive experiences is intrinsically valuable to an individual” (Speer), proving that there are tangible neurological benefits in viewing these movies and TV shows that use tactics of nostalgia. All of this is why Spider-Man: No Way Home worked so well. Reviewer after reviewer references the older, original, Spider-Man movies and how they associate with the new film in a positive light with almost a childlike wonder. One says that Tobey “Maguire was the awkward Parker we know from his franchise, but with the wisdom that comes with age” (Ross), and another states that “Garfield…didn’t receive a conclusion to his trilogy” (Velasques), showing that not only are these movies still very present in viewers minds but that this film not only brought this past nostalgia but also a kind of closure that does not seem to be present in our real life day and age. With a pandemic, the failing or our criminal justice system with the rise in police brutality, and now a war overseas, closure, conclusion, and progress is not something that is being seen in the news so many viewers, like myself, let out a sigh of relief and released some sort of the felt heartache by having this closure and reminiscence seen on the big screen. Another experience that a reviewer shared that was felt by so many viewers was “A tender moment that made many people in the audience hold back tears was the scene of MJ falling off a building and Andrew Garfield’s spider-man rushing in to catch her. Something he could not do for his own love interest back in The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (Stoutenborough). Seeing this stark juxtaposition of the same scene from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in Spider-Man: No Way Home played out but in a different way where this character, who has suffered from so much hurt, gets the redemption and closure that fans have wanted for so long proves what scientists were testing in the aforementioned study. In this instance, nostalgia was used to bring up this memory, long term, which had immensely negative emotions attached to it just for the producers to be able to reframe it as a hopeful instance thus replacing the feelings of the viewers with happiness and solidifying the emotionality of the scene. Long story short, these big film companies are immensely profiting off of people’s desire to not only feel but be reminded of happier times that are less complicated than the world we are living in now. Human beings have an innate desire to feel something and are immensely satisfied when there is clean cut closure to a situation which never happens in day to day life giving even more importance to the movies that we choose to watch. Whether it is a live action version of one of the animated films we watched as children or a sequel of a film that is decades old, the feelings and memories that they bring up are immensely beneficial to a person's neurological wellbeing. Even though the movies mentioned throughout this piece are not realistic to what we are living today in any way shape or form, the emotions that they elicit makes the money spent worth it to the consumer and draws them back in for more. Viewers such as myself saw Spider-Man: No Way Home three plus times with no regrets (except when I looked at my bank statement) but I hope what can be taken away from this is that science says it is not your fault. While we all consciously know that the closure for the characters that we see on screen will not improve our day to day lives, we all still jump at any chance to see these nostalgic moments making it so opening night alone at AMC theaters across the country 1.1 million people came out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home (Datta). As long as the world is complicated and does not make sense, movies will be here to comfort us. Like Academy Award Director Joseph Mankiewicz said, “the difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't” (“Joseph”). Works Cited Datta, Tiyashi. “AMC says over a million people watched new ‘Spider-Man’ movie at its U.S. theaters.” Reuters. 17 December 2021. /amc-says-over-million-people-watch-new-spider-man-movie-its-us-theaters-2021-12-17. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, Hall WC, Lamantia AS, McNamara JO, White LE. “Neuroscience.” 4th ed. Sunderland, MA. Sinauer Associates; 2008. 20striatum%20refers%20to%20a,%2C%20putamen%2C%20and%20nucleus%20accumb ens. Jobson, Dan D, Hase, Yoshiki, Clarkson, Andrew N, Kalaria, Rajesh N. “The role of the medial prefrontal cortex in cognition, aging and dementia.” Brain Communications. Volume 3, Issue 3. 2021. "Joseph L. Mankiewicz Quotes." BrainyMedia Inc, 2022. Rossen, Jake. “Retro Analysis: The Science of Nostalgia.” Mental Floss. 30 September 2019. Ross, Braden. “When nostalgia bait succeeds: ‘Spider-Man No Way Home’ Review.” The Badger Herald. 2 January 2022. nostalgia-bait-succeeds-spider-man-no-way-home-review-sk/. Speer, Megan E., Bhanji, Jamil P., Delgado, Mauricio R. “Savoring the Past: Positive Memories Evoke Value Representations in the Striatum.” Neuron, Volume 84, Issue 4, 2014. Spider-Man: No Way Home. Directed by Jon Watts, performances by Tom Holland, Zendaya, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Willem Dafoe, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Studios, 2021. Spider-Man. Directed by Sam Raimi, performances by Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Joe Manganiello, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Enterprises, 2002. Stoutenborough, Amber. “‘Spider-Man’ found a home in nostalgic Marvel fans.” The DePaula. 25 December 2021. home-in-nostalgic-marvel-fans/. The Amazing-Spider-Man 2. Directed by Marc Webb, performances by Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, etc., Columbia Pictures in association with Marvel Enterprises, 2014. Velasques, Diana. “‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is nostalgia at its best.” The Pitt News. 9 January 2022. -spider-man-no-way-home-is-nostalgia-at-its-best/. Vivinetto, Gina. “Watching nostalgia TV has psychological benefits, experts say.” Today. 29 June 2019. -experts-say-t157090.

  • Artist Spotlight: A Conversation with Sculptor in Residence David Page

    By Abby St Jean David Page is a Sculptor in Residence at American University as well as being an active artist in the greater DMV area. He was born in Cape Town, South Africa and holds a National Diploma in Fine Arts from Cape Tecnikon as well as an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park. I sat with him this week to ask a few questions about his art and experiences as an artist. In our conversation, we discussed his motivations as an artist and the life experiences that led him to become one. After growing up in South Africa, attending art school, and hand-crafting luggage to sell in a local market, Page moved to the US where he continued to pursue art. While met with its challenges, Page entered the art scene in the DMV where he teaches at the university level along with his career as an artist. Themes of Page’s art explore “labor and power” which is explicit in many of his larger installation works that attempt to navigate power dynamics as well as labor practices. Particularly, he discussed with me a piece titled “100 Years Without Progress” which comments on the exploitation of garment workers through a series of industrial sewing machines hung by various suspension mechanisms. “Generally, my art is about labor and power, who gets to call the shots and who does the work. But then it’s also about power relationships, not just vertical power relationships but lateral power relationships as well” - David Page After seeing one of Page’s sculpture installations in person, I can speak to the effect that the scale and magnitude of his pieces have on viewers, and the themes behind the carefully crafted sculptures are certainly not unnoticed. Interestingly, Page noted that his art often begins with the material, which he uses to bring him to an idea or theme that he wants to explore. “I can look at a piece of canvas or a piece of felt and get an idea, so sometimes it’s as elemental as that.” - David Page Continue reading for the rest of our conversation. Interview with David Page Abby St. Jean: What drove you to want to become an artist? Was there any particular moment in your life that impacted this choice, was it always something you wanted to do? David Page: So, nothing in particular. It was just one of those things where I knew I had an ability, a visual and manual ability. But the thing that did it was I went to art school and I realized that art was more than just making images or objects. That was the realization that made me realize “Oh, yeah, that’s what art is about.” That there was something more to it than the making of things or depicting of things. I learned what it was to be an artist and to make things; it was about the meaning of being an artist more than the things themselves. It was an awareness of that. AS: You grew up in South Africa and went through most of your schooling there. How did the opportunities for you as an artist differ in South Africa compared to now in the Maryland and DC area? DP: I don’t know that they did initially. There [in South Africa], they had a market that had been the central market in the city forever, it was this cobblestone square, and you could make stuff and go there and sell it. So I’d make luggage and go and sell it in the market square, and it was a pretty good opportunity, because I could make income when I needed and wanted to. But there wasn’t that casual or informal sector, or I couldn’t find an informal sector. But I mean, when I came here I made a living as a waiter or a bicycle messenger or things like that, it’s difficult. In the end I suppose there are more opportunities to do anything in the United States, but it’s a difficult way to make a living either way. AS: Can you talk about a favorite piece that you’ve produced? If not a favorite, then one that challenged you the most or that you feel most satisfied with. DP: I did this piece “100 Years Without Progress,” it’s the one that includes the sewing machines. It can be a static installation, or it can be a performance, and I think that was the most gratifying [piece] to do. Mainly because it was one of the largest pieces that I did. Everything you do uses up all of your experiences and all of your discoveries to make that piece, so I’d say I had more discoveries and more experience when I made it. AS: And the fact that it can be standalone but also a performance as well makes it more special. DP: Yes, the discovery of that was great as well. Although it sort of started as a standalone piece which I did in the rotunda over here [in Katzen], and that was called “Ornamental Cookery,” but it was dealing with a lot of the same issues and had some of the same elements. AS: How does your environment and what is going on in the world around you impact your art-making? DP: Generally, my art is about labor and power, who gets to call the shots and who does the work. But then it’s also about power relationships, not just vertical power relationships but lateral power relationships as well. AS: Do you think it’s more about your personal experiences or what you observe in the world? DP: Both. Like I’ve never experienced a building collapse or a large industrial fire. But it’s about how I see the world around me. AS: How do the implications of your art change when real people are used as a part of the performance aspect of it? Do you think that viewers have more strong reactions? DP: I think it becomes much more urgent. One, because there’s going to be a limited period of time, so it’s sort of like figure drawing as opposed to drawing a still life. And then it’s also, the viewer projects themselves into the body of the subject, of the performance. And obviously there’s the whole business of empathy. So, yeah, there’s just much more emotion involved. AS: Does your art process begin with an idea or a material, or both? And how do those initial ideas shift while you are making a piece? DP: I think it starts with the material. And that sounds weird, because it should be about the idea, and if I was trying to impress somebody I’d say it’s the idea, but ideas have to come from somewhere, and in my case ideas sort of bubble up from the material and the process. Sometimes it can be the actual material itself, I can look at a piece of canvas or a piece of felt and get an idea, so sometimes it’s as elemental as that.

  • Modern Day Textile Art and Intersectional Feminism

    By Isabel Chaparro Hale Ekinci. Untitled (2022), Embroidery Painting. More often than not, handcrafted textile art is immediately associated with a grandma in a rocking chair knitting or as a picture of sexism and domesticated women. Interestingly however, post-pandemic social media has seen an influx of female identifying individuals reconnecting with textile works. It’s become common to meet someone who is passionate about crochet, knitting, lacemaking, etc. Even I am now a crocheter as a result of needing a pandemic hobby. However, what I find especially interesting regarding the resurgence of textile art is that with it has grown a unique intersection in feminism. Rather than the depiction of female domesticity, there is a growing sentiment around textile art as a celebration of Women’s work. It rejects the reinforcement of patriarchal values and instead, young textile artists are emphasizing ‘Women’s work’ as inherently valuable. Textile art has been used for social activism countless times historically and this time around is simply a modernized version. Even more exciting to learn, is that this resurgence puts emphasis on promoting intersectional feminism. Textile/fiber arts have never been restricted to specific regions and has long been a bonding factor between women globally. That trend has continued. It promotes the work of ALL women as invaluable. The beauty of textile arts is its versatility. Women of all identities are able to be creative and gain the support of other creatives. In my opinion, this is the most amazing part of this trend. Textile arts are both the past, present, and hopefully, future; and illustrate, visually, long traditions shared between women as a form of rebellion and feminine connection. Through the art comes exploration of queerness, sexual assault, addiction, racism, environmentalism, and other social movements. Personally, this growing emphasis on female power, activism, and community is something necessary in maintaining a sustainable intersectional feminist movement. I think that this form of it is invaluable to building feminine bonds and strength. It is accessible, diverse, and a beautifully powerful way of continuing activism via daily life and in simple hobbies. If you’re interested in learning more Elena Kanagy-Loux is a New York-based lacemaker who often uses lacemaking to educate around lace/textile history, and its place in the feminist movement via TikTok and Instagram (@erenanaomi). Her content is a great place to start!

  • Philip Guston Now: An Exhibit Reflection

    By Mia Weintraub If you are considering visiting the Philip Guston Now exhibit on display at the National Gallery of Art from March-August 2023, I sure hope you like the color pink. “I’ll just take white and I’ll take cadmium red medium, which is my favorite color, and mix it up and make a pink. That mess of pink makes me want to paint.” - Philip Guston. The exhibit walls are drenched in Guston’s pink, along with the decades of artwork that his pink inspired. However, I would be incorrect in crediting Guston’s inspiration to a singular color. In actuality, his inspiration came from everything around him; other artists and artistic styles, social and political injustices, and simply the world he saw around him. The exhibit was a storybook, showing the beginnings of Guston’s life and artistic journey, traveling through his years of learning and exploration, building to his collections of great emotion and controversy, and concluding with self-examination and open-endedness. As I’m writing this review, I’m finding it difficult to describe the exhibit’s rare power without spoiling the magic. Thus, I’ve decided that I do not want to report, I want to reflect. This exhibit is only meaningful when one experiences the story on their own, using their own eyes and personal contexts to make sense of Guston’s abstractions. So here is my viewing experience, presented to you with the hope that you will see this collection for yourself. If I was plopped into this exhibit without the knowledge of where I was or what I was seeing, I would assume that I was viewing a collection of about a dozen different artists. Throughout his five or six decades of artistry, Guston mastered works of surrealism, abstract-expressionism, realism, pop-art, cartoons, and much more. And if this art history jargon means nothing to you, just know that most of the historically famous artists you think of only worked in one artistic style. The drastic changes from style to style were almost manic to look at, like I was viewing the work of a child who kept getting bored with his craft and starting over. But style aside, the most jaw-dropping aspect of Guston’s work was the content. No matter how a piece was painted, it was showing a reflection of the world at the time. He showed images of political violence, social issues in his home of New York City, general human suffering, and created a collection that caused great uproar and controversy at the time of its creation. An annexed room from the main flow of the exhibit held this collection, marked by a sign that read, “Please be advised that this exhibition contains depictions of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, including images of lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and victims of Nazism.” As I stepped in, I was quite nervous to see Guston’s interpretations of these horrific acts. However, I was met with cartoon pictures and even more pink. At first glance, the paintings were… friendly… sweet even. But as I moved closer and absorbed their content, their imagery was disturbing and not at all sweet. As I walked through this section, I realized that their approachability made these works even more scary. Guston was again mimicking the world, showing us that the most heinous of acts are not always going to scream “EVIL!” at you, but can often be hiding in seeming goodness. At the end of the exhibit, a short video of an old interview with Philip Guston himself was available to view in a small theater. As I watched, Guston spoke in the same manic fashion that his pieces replicated. He was talking to the interviewer, saying that he always wants to keep moving and he becomes exhausted and dissatisfied by his works and that he never created anything new in his life, he just replicated the past. I was taken aback by his words at first, but I soon began to make sense of who he was as a person. Philip Guston was a feeler of feelings. He was empathetic and caring and just wanted the world to be a happy place and thought his art could make that come true. But I think as he grew older, he became overwhelmed and sad by how much hurt and darkness there really was… and how little he could do about it. Sadness can easily turn into mania and discontent, and I could only hope that he was satisfied with all he created in his lifetime. By now, I’m sure you can tell that I loved this exhibit. The artwork was fascinating, the history was engaging, and Guston’s story was one worth telling.

  • Finding Me by Viola Davis

    By Ava Stern I am one season away from finishing one of my favorite shows of all time, How to Get Away With Murder. A victim of Shondaland, I am immediately drawn to the melodramatic fast-paced series. Although I love Shonda Rhimes’ work, Viola Davis is what makes me love this show so much. Viola Davis is an extraordinary actor, and after reading her memoir Finding Me, I was in awe of her talent and perseverance. Growing up poor, battling racism, family problems, relationship disasters, and countless failures, Viola succeeded when the world didn’t want her to. Davis tells the story of her life leading up to her impressive acting career, including the specific events that changed her mindset and ultimately led her to be an EGOT winner. The most compelling part of her memoir was her personal growth regarding relationships. She describes a childhood plagued by her father beating her mother, but by the end of the book, she explains how she has forgiven her father. Her personal growth is illustrated through her accomplishments as well as her professional prestige. She discusses race and its role in every part of her life, from being chased for her dark skin color to hundreds of auditions for white characters. As I learned of her upbringing and the barriers that blocked her from having a successful life, I respect her even more than I already did. Her change in perspective early in life drove her to her impressive career and she has a hell of a lot more determination than me. She is inspiring, strong, and kind. “Annalise Keating released in me the obstacles blocking me from realizing my worth and power as a woman.” Her character of Annalise Keating will inspire black girls across the world to reach for their dreams and be the strong, assertive, and intelligent women that they can be. I applaud Viola for sharing her story and looking out for anybody who has had any similar experiences. Viola’s writing is rhythmic, and seeing her on my TV every night has given me the awesome superpower of reading her words in my head in her voice. 5/5 Stars

  • Read What You Want to Read

    By Ava Stern All over social media, we see books being used as accessories. Whether that be a Colleen Hoover book that has sold millions of copies or a self-published novel by a small author, I’d like to say: read what you want to read. I have seen online discourse regarding the use of books as an accessory and judgment about books that sell and garner worldwide attention. Personally, I didn't really like Colleen Hoover’s books, but I gave them a try. The literary community has a bad habit of having an elitist point of view regarding commercial fiction. The internet is a perfect home for unsolicited criticism and so-called “hot takes” regarding other people’s personal choices. In the literary community, there has been a theme of looking down on commercial fiction purely because of its genre. Commercial fiction and YA novels are best-selling books. These books are often not regarded as “serious” or “intellectual”. To unpack what is wrong with these negative connotations and elitist perspectives, we must consider who these audiences are. The audience of commercial fiction is huge and the demand rises every day. Colleen Hoover’s books, published by Hachette, sold more books than James Patterson and John Grisham combined. She sold more copies in 2022 than the bible. Her influence is crazy and through social media, her fanbase and readers have increased significantly. The literary community has a lot to say about this and has expressed disdain for her books. Colleen Hoover’s audience is mainly teenage and adult women. This makes sense when you see male literary critics bullying young girls for enjoying commercial fiction. If the audience of these novels were academics, would the response be different? Girls have been criticized for virtually everything under the sun. Language, subject, and author aside, these novels are popular because a lot of people like to read them and tell their friends about them. Let people read, even if it is the worst book you have ever read. If the book that someone wants to read isn’t as riveting or thought-provoking as your favorite novel, who cares? People should do what they want to do, and honestly, if anyone breaks into reading through a fun commercial novel, that’s great. Despite the negative reputation that commercial fiction has, read what you want to read and don’t let it get in the way of your enjoyment.

  • The Magic of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms

    By Julia Kane Last month, the Hirshhorn Museum announced that its exhibition One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection will be extended into spring of 2023, and last week they launched an online feature allowing visitors to reserve timed entry passes the day before their visit. (Previously, visitors would have to show up at opening time and wait in line in hopes of securing a pass for the same day.) I had been wanting to visit the exhibit, which has been open since April, all semester, but was somewhat deterred by the prospect of waiting in a long line for a small chance to see the exhibit. Now, with the new online ticket feature, I jumped at my chance and visited the Hirshhorn on a warm Saturday morning. Yayoi Kusama, sometimes called the “Priestess of Polka Dots” for her colorful patterned clothing and artwork, is a Japanese artist known for her installation and performance-based works, especially her “infinity rooms.” Her long and prolific career (she is now 93 and still active in the art world) spans Pop art, Assemblage, Minimalism, and anti-war protest performance, as well as a multitude of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, and etching. She created her first infinity mirror room, Phalli’s Field, in 1965 and has since made more than twenty others. Phalli’s Field is one of two on display in this exhibition, along with My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, a much more recent work produced in 2018. This exhibit was unlike any other I had experienced before. Firstly, it was strictly organized and sequenced, with stanchions guiding visitors’ path. Upon entering the exhibit, one can’t backtrack or move against the established flow of traffic. Secondly, there is the waiting. Though the limited number of tickets prevents the exhibit from becoming crowded, only two people at a time can enter each infinity room, necessitating a few minutes of waiting for each. The exhibit begins with a detailed timeline of Kusama’s life, from her childhood to the present, as well as a self-portrait etching covered in her signature polka dots. From there, the next room, covered from floor to ceiling in black dots on an orange background, houses one of her famous pumpkin sculptures. Then, the exhibit moves on to a waiting area, where I stood in line for a few minutes for my turn in Phalli’s Field. In these waiting areas, as well as in the pumpkin room, an interactive feature allows visitors to access more information about the work on their smartphones. I have mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand, I prefer to use my phone as little as possible while in a museum, and there was plenty of empty wall space where this information and accompanying videos could have been displayed. On the other hand, this choice anticipates the instinctive tendency of modern visitors to pull out their phone when forced to wait more than a minute or two for anything, so this feature at least keeps them focused on the exhibit rather than their Instagram feeds. While in the waiting area, an attendant instructed me on the rules for entering the mirror room and told me I would get thirty seconds inside. This, according to the Hirshhorn’s website, is a choice by the artist, but I don’t think it is long enough to appreciate the work- the craftsmanship, the spatial illusions, and the sensation the space evokes. It was otherworldly, breathtaking, and totally euphoric. Though it may sound cheesy, I felt, upon entering the room, a rush of serotonin I have rarely felt in other museum visits. This, I think, is part of Kusama’s appeal: she makes her works a wholly enveloping physical experience, not just a visual encounter. I could have happily stayed in Phalli’s Field for an hour, though I wish I had spent my limited time more on simply looking and less on taking photos. While Phalli’s Field is full of bright light, the next room, My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, is dark, yet both have the same feeling of warmth. This time, the waiting area was also dark, and each visitor got one minute inside the room, which is full of polka-dotted paper lanterns lit from within by color-changing LEDS. This room was equally magical but less selfie-oriented, given that it was dark. The darkness also adds to the illusion created by the mirrors- at times I truly couldn’t tell which lanterns were right in front of me and which were reflections, which was a bit disorienting. The otherworldly feeling I had felt in the previous room was equally present, but in a different way; whereas Phalli’s Field seemed endless, My Heart was captivating because it created an enclosed, almost imposing space that pressed in from all sides. Though the exhibit was shorter than I expected (both in duration and content), the minute and thirty seconds I spent inside Kusama’s mystical, imaginative creations was completely worth it. She is a master of distorting and recreating reality in a way that feels exciting and fun, and the Hirshhorn’s exhibit of her work offers a small taste that leaves me wanting to experience even more. For more information, visit the Hirshhorn’s website

  • Why We Need Community Bookstores

    In December, I took a quick trip with a friend to Solid State Books, a community bookstore by Union Station with a cutting-edge, political theme. In just a few hours spent there, we were treated to a long list of personal recommendations for books from the staff, all of whom were clearly passionate about art and literature, each person having their own genre or specialty they were more than happy to discuss with us at length during our visit. Even now, I remember the hospitality and free exchange of interests and passions we experienced at the store, and there’s one thing I can say for sure about it – it’s the kind of experience you’ll only reliably find in independent, community-oriented spaces like a locally-owned bookstore. Sadly, these independent spaces for art and literature can be hard to find at the best of times, and often, they may only be accessible for those with the means to travel between towns and cities to search for them in some situations or completely unavailable in others, with their niches often being filled by more commercialized, corporate spaces. While these spaces shouldn’t be dismissed or discounted – they have their own contributions to make to artistic and literary scenes, even if the contribution is limited to offering spaces for art and writing groups to meet – they still miss out on a level of authenticity and personal touch most smaller, local and independent operations have. With less personal involvement between the staff of corporate bookstores and art-related groups, less opportunities are offered for groups such as art collectives and collaborative writing clubs to put down long-standing roots in the local community. As such, opportunities for artistic expression and to reach broader audiences and for community members to discover new interests and communities are fewer and further between the less access to independent and locally-owned spaces is available. If you’re interested in furthering the cause of independent bookstores, there are a few simple ways to support your local independent outlets and help keep these neighborhood institutions around. Simply paying a visit to one and spreading the word about these alternatives to larger, more commercial bookstores goes a long way towards ensuring they can keep doing business and serving their communities. In Washington, I recommend visiting Solid State and Politics and Prose, two modern independent bookstores with laid-back vibes and plenty of topical, witty offerings. If you’re looking for one closer to home or further off the beaten track, offers a list of local bookstores in every state and the ability to order books from each one, making it easy to support a local shop even if you don’t live nearby!

  • Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

    By Ava Stern A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is a heartbreaking dual-storyline novel that follows two Afghan women brought together by tragedy. The novel opens with Miriam, a product of wedlock living with her protective mother in Herat, Afghanistan, before she moves to Kabul with her new husband. After years of infertility, Miriam lives a life under the control of the Taliban until a local girl moves in as Miriam’s husband Rasheed’s second wife. Hosseini takes you to an incredible relationship and character development with Miriam and Laila, the new houseguest. This novel exposes the ugliness of war, not shying away from painful details. The continued female perspective gives a voice to any mother, sister, or wife living in Afghanistan under the Taliban and their continued struggles. The two powerful women come together to raise kids, fight adversity, and continue to have hope for themselves and their children. Singing is forbidden. Dancing is forbidden. Attention women: You will stay inside your homes at all times.. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a male relative. You will not, under any circumstance, show your face… Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately. Hosseini uses the feelings and inner thoughts of both Miriam and Laila to illustrate the pain and suffering that Taliban rule and Shar’ia law brought on all women in Afghanistan. When reading this book, you will have your heart ripped out of your chest, stomped on, and put right back in. Hosseini gives a voice to a whole group of people who were silenced. One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls. A Thousand Splendid Suns will leave you crying, I can guarantee it.

  • Grammy Nominees: A Comprehensive(ish) Review

    It’s award show season! Red carpets, outfits, and (in theory) the celebration of the art of the past year. The Grammys, like most award shows, have a diversity problem. Critics have hailed this years’ nominees as changing the dynamic of the award show, but frankly; I’ll believe it when I see the winners. It is really important, though, that some really incredible artists and bodies of work were nominated and I (as always) have many opinions. Here is my comprehensive(ish) review of the General Field Grammy nominees (because I simply do not have the energy to go through 84 categories) and who I personally would like to see win. 1. Record Of The Year HEY, MA Bon Iver BAD GUY Billie Eilish 7 RINGS Ariana Grande HARD PLACE H.E.R. TALK Khalid OLD TOWN ROAD Lil Nas X Featuring Billy Ray Cyrus TRUTH HURTS Lizzo SUNFLOWER Post Malone & Swae Lee I guess this one really depends on how you define record of the year. Old Town Road broke records of longest charting song in Billboard history, spending nearly 20 weeks at #1. So it is, indeed, the Song of the Year based on charts alone. My runners up are Bad Guy and Sunflower, which I also truly enjoyed and are, arguably, better quality songs. 2. Album Of The Year I,I Bon Iver NORMAN F***ING ROCKWELL! Lana Del Rey WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Billie Eilish THANK U, NEXT Ariana Grande I USED TO KNOW HER H.E.R. 7 Lil Nas X Montero Lamar Hill, songwriter; Eric Lagg, mastering engineer CUZ I LOVE YOU (DELUXE) Lizzo FATHER OF THE BRIDE Vampire Weekend While I (truly!) thoroughly enjoyed every single album on this list, I have to give it Lizzo. As a diehard Lana fan who thought NFR was incredibly well done, and her best album since Ultraviolence; I must admit that Lizzo absolutely blew up this year, and Cuz I Love You was a tour de force. The way that Lizzo makes people, especially women and people of color, feel is what makes her such a powerful artist. Not only is she talented and empowering, but the album is well crafted and dynamic- certainly album of the year. 3. Song Of The Year ALWAYS REMEMBER US THIS WAY Natalie Hemby, Lady Gaga, Hillary Lindsey & Lori McKenna, songwriters (Lady Gaga) BAD GUY Billie Eilish O'Connell & Finneas O'Connell, songwriters (Billie Eilish) BRING MY FLOWERS NOW Brandi Carlile, Phil Hanseroth, Tim Hanseroth & Tanya Tucker, songwriters (Tanya Tucker) HARD PLACE Ruby Amanfu, Sam Ashworth, D. Arcelious Harris, H.E.R. & Rodney Jerkins, songwriters (H.E.R.) LOVER Taylor Swift, songwriter (Taylor Swift) NORMAN F***ING ROCKWELL Jack Antonoff & Lana Del Rey, songwriters (Lana Del Rey) SOMEONE YOU LOVED Tom Barnes, Lewis Capaldi, Pete Kelleher, Benjamin Kohn & Sam Roman, songwriters (Lewis Capaldi) TRUTH HURTS Steven Cheung, Eric Frederic, Melissa Jefferson & Jesse Saint John, songwriters (Lizzo) Truth Hurts was released in 2017, so why it’s on this list is beyond me. But Emily, you say, it rose to prominence/ “public awareness” (via the Grammy rules) in 2019. To which I would argue that it didn’t, I and many others were jamming out to Truth Hurts in 2018, for which reason I say that the song of the year is Lover. I feel the need to qualify this in a couple of ways. I loved NFR and its titular track, as stated in my album of the year shpiel, I just don’t think that song specifically got big enough to be song of the year. “Doin’ Time”? Maybe. But NFR? No. Lover (the album) deserved to be nominated for album of the year, but since it isn’t, I’ll settle for Lover (the song) as song of the year. It’s an instant classic, it’s romantic, it’s sweet, and it’s a new era for Taylor. It’s nice to see the girl happy, okay? 4. Best New Artist BLACK PUMAS BILLIE EILISH LIL NAS X LIZZO MAGGIE ROGERS ROSALÍA TANK AND THE BANGAS YOLA Even though Maggie Rogers has been out here since the famous Alaska/Pharell incident and the video came out, her debut album “Heard it in a Past Life” came out this year. She has really been getting the recognition she deserves for her solid indie pop discography in 2019 and I really can’t wait to see where she goes next. Honorable mention goes to Rosalía who really did break into the mainstream this year. “Barefoot in the Park” with James Blake was one of my favorite collaborations of 2019. I also think it’s interesting that Lizzo is in this category, when she’s been working in the industry for over 10 years now- something to think about. All in all, this should be a really interesting year for the Grammys. I’m excited to see who wins! If you want to watch the show, it’s airing on January 26th on CBS at 8pm ET.

  • On Campus Event: The Play’s the Thing: Vaclav Havel, Art and Politics

    Mia Saidel | Dec. 6, 2014 There’s always room for artistic expression, so the saying goes. In the context of the Czech Republic, such freedom that was leant to the creative minds of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) during the waning of the Stalinist regime helped lead the state to democratization in 1989. The cinema in the 1960s was an arena for Czechoslovakian political dissent, where film directors enjoyed a state-supported film industry and increased creative license. Among these visionaries was Vaclav Havel, a gifted playwright who later became the first president of the democratic Czech Republic. The 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and Havel’s presidency coincides with this year’s Czech film series titled The Play’s the Thing, brought to the Malsi Doyle Theatre by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, the National Gallery of Art, and the AU School of Communication. Prior to the Velvet Revolution, the dismal implications of Communism clouded the lives of Czechoslovakian citizens. Disgruntled filmmakers took to the cinema and brought political satire, dark, absurd humor, and unscripted dialogue to shape the Czech New Wave, a period in the early 1960s of cultural declaration and relatively eased film censorship where statements against the government as a Soviet satellite state could be made for the first time. However, the liberalization of the Czech cinema tradition did not come without repercussions; Havel was imprisoned for five and a half years starting in 1979 for the political dissidence of his plays and writings. The first film out of the two that were screened at the premiere of the film series certainly contained many political implications. The Uninvited Guest, directed in 1969 by Vlastimil Venclik, satirized the house searches that were imposed on Czechoslovakian citizens who were accused of resisting socialism. The film opens with a young married couple getting ready for bed and preparing to share intimacy when several loud, demanding knocks on the door of their flat forces them to open the door. A large, imposing man ambles into the flat with a cigar and suitcase and tells the couple with a grudging voice, “They sent me here, so I have to stay here.” The man offers no explanation for his stay thereafter. Such abrupt, vague language characteristic of the film was reminiscent of the enigmatical nature of the communist regime, where purges and searches of the people in the 1950s were swift, anonymous and unexplained. The small amount of time in which the couple obliges to the strange man’s presence in their home not only adds to the absurdity that is indicative of this particular film era, but also speaks to the helplessness of the common man in the face of Communism. The man’s brutish interruption into the couple’s lives, depicted through the subsequent scenes wherein he dumps the contents of his suitcase onto the floor, plays the harmonica at the dead of night, and eventually makes himself at home on the couple’s bed reinstates the notion of almost despotic governance. The black and white of the film further enforces the strict dichotomy between Marxism-Leninism and the people. Though the couple and the domineering man are given the central focus, there is a poignant scene in which the husband steps out of his flat in his striped pajamas into the corridor and sees his neighbors in identical pinstriped nightwear with similarly large, imposing men towering over them. The message was clear: every home had its own private intruder under the rule of the proletariat. The power of the film was met with an equally powerful response; after it was released, the government forbade Venclik from making films for the next 20 years The last film, titled Every Young Man, directed by Pavel Juracek in 1966, highlights the more banal realities of socialism. The storyline about the mundane and slow-paced lives of two Czechoslovakian soldiers is muddled and unclear, an intentional motif. Most of the story follows the two soldiers involved in idle activity, wandering about during their free time in a vacant city most likely alluding to Stalinist Prague, sitting on a train, or even waiting outside a doctor’s office. Staying true to New Wave film technique, there is minimal dialogue and music; on the occasions when there is dialogue, it is between two people at most and involves one soldier asking another an existential question that is not answered directly. The questions are about marriage, love, and the meaning of life. Such ponderance on the part of soldiers, free of their menacing war artillery and left only with their thoughts, alludes to the questions that were unanswered by the regime with regards to the enforcement of Stalinist ideals in Czech society. The theme is cemented when the two approach a window with a noose hanging from the ceiling, and the younger soldier asks the older major: “Have you seen any men who hanged themselves?” The major walked away silently without looking at the inquisitor, as if the depression and loss of identity representative of the period spoke for itself. The two then proceeded to tend to their military rounds in the countryside in silence; the silent eyes of the government were always watching. The selection of the films shown at the premiere of the film festival not only highlights Havel as a great cinematic force, but also speaks to the authenticity of the arts as a vehicle for political change. Though Vencliv and Juracek were not as famed as their fellow New Wave counterparts, they contributed to giving a face to Communism in ways that surely resonated with audiences that lived during the regime as well as those who did not. These films were empowering and compelling, and demonstrate to the fullest degree that there’s always room for artistic expression.

  • Eggshells & Red Pills: The Matrix as a Trans Allegory

    The White Rabbit “You ever have the feeling that you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” – Neo After a high-paced chase scene, the Wachowskis’ introduce us to their protagonist Neo found sleeping by a computer. Suddenly, the screen starts flashing messages, one of the most iconic being “Follow the White Rabbit,” after which Neo hears a knock on the door. This scene reminds me of my closeted or “egg” days. This is where I would relentlessly search and try to figure out whether I was indeed transgender. As described by a Vox article, being an egg (closeted) describes a time when “everything is muffled, and the world is hazy and translucent” and that “there is always some barrier between you and reality.” The world, muffled by dissociation and the unknown, remains incomplete. Therefore, we go searching for the “white rabbit” – a sign, group, or person that will guide us. Neo does eventually find his “white rabbit” in the form of Trinity at the club, who ends up introducing him to the world beyond the Matrix. Part of a Whole “One of these lives has a future. One of them does not.” – Agent Smith Once given the opportunity to find his true self, Neo meets some trouble the next morning in the form of Agent Smith & his cronies. These men, at least to me, represent the doubt and fear in coming to terms with your identity. Whether that be via societal, cultural, or familial pressure, you end up interrogated and feeling alone, like Neo in the interrogation scene. In this scene, Neo is “deadnamed” as Mr. Thomas Anderson, and told he is to comply with the rules of society, or else. When Neo refuses, he is physically silenced as the script notes, “[Neo] feels his lips grow soft and sticky as they slowly seal shut, melding into each other until all traces of his mouth are gone.” In a terrifying scene, Neo is bugged and tossed home, physically shaken and traumatized as he is unable to tell if anything happened or not. This entire set of scenes shook me to a point where I had to pause the movie to collect myself before continuing. The interrogation scene is so reminiscent of many coming out stories, including my own. Questioned, and not really listened to much at all. Down the Chute NEO: “I can’t go back, can I?” Morpheus is sitting like a shadow on a chair in the far corner. MORPHEUS: “No. But if you could, would you really want to?” The Matrix After a few scenes, Neo finally meets the fated Morpheus. Morpheus offers Neo the red or blue pill. He takes the red and his “egg” is literally cracked open – physically and mentally. He emerges from the “red rubber cocoon” and is suddenly sent down a chute. After this, he meets the crew again, who helps nurse him back to health as his muscles atrophied while in stasis. Once healed, Morpheus takes him on a tour of what the Matrix is, and the current reality he lives in. Neo finds it difficult to believe and once out of the simulation proceeds to vomit, and emotionally break, as he too, has a hard time wrapping his head around it. This is reminiscent of the egg cracking and coming out period. Both processes are physically, emotionally and even spiritually painful, but do become easier over time with the help of others, and eventual self-acceptance via therapy. Guides “Then you will see that it is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.” – Spoon Boy Once training begins, and Neo gets to know the crew, Morpheus takes him to the Oracle within the Matrix. There he meets other “Potentials” who are either in various meditative states or levitating objects around the room. The Oracle calls him in and discusses his fate. This scene reminds me of therapy that a transgender person may have to go through to gain access to surgery and hormones. However, it also contradicts this sequence with the quote, “Know Thyself” in the sense that no one else can determine your transness aside from you. But to know oneself, therapy is always helpful. Finally, to reference the quote above, as you begin to build yourself and your chosen family, the world begins to change in both positive and negative means around you. The Ugly “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are… the cure.” – Agent Smith Alongside the guides, there are those who discriminate and systematically work against us. The more one embraces trans identity, thus breaking the Matrix, the more people who may come after you. This “ugly” side of humanity shows through Switch’s death and Morpheus’ torture. Switch’s death, and last lines, “not like this” are reminiscent of those we lost too soon. People who the trans community mourns, people who couldn’t live out their lives as who they wanted to be. Further, Morpheus’ torture relates to conversion therapy. As the agents try to break his mind and spirit, Agent Smith revels in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, citing humans as a disease, and them to be the “cure.” This side of the movie shows the hurt and suffering one experiences as an LGBTQIA individual. It is painful to watch these scenes, especially in these times when so many trans and LGBTQIA people are hunted and lynched for being who they are. The End “…you’re going to realize just like I did the difference between knowing a path and walking a path.” – Morpheus Though there are some sad moments, the movie reminds us that we can still live and breathe despite the bondage we were born into. As Morpheus escapes, Neo realizes his true power as “The One” and manages to not only fight but defeat Agent Smith. Through these last few minutes, the movie shows the power we do have in numbers as trans individuals, if we are to accept our true selves and embrace identity. At the end of the film, Neo leaves a message for the machines, that they do not have to fight, even though Neo will do his best to defeat them. To me, this ending is symbolic to the times we are experiencing right now. We lost people. People we loved and care for. And now, it is time to fight back. The choice is only ours.

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