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Friday, June 9 • 12:05pm - 12:15pm
Research-creation as social justice pedagogy: Alexandra Bell’s art activism in the critical making classroom

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Content warning: police violence, racism

In How to Make Art at the End of the World (2019), contemporary art scholar Natalie Loveless advocates for research-creation: a scholarly activity that considers art practices as research methods in their own right. To do research-creation “is not simply to ask questions; it is to let our curiosities drive us and allow them to ethically bind us; it is to tell stories and to pay attention not only to which stories we are telling and how we are telling them, but how they, through their very forms, are telling us” (24). For Loveless, research-creation is curiosity-driven, ethically binding, and narrative-based. We discern what stories’ content and form reveal about our beliefs. Stories hold power over us, and because this power falls differentially along intersectional identity lines, it perpetuates dynamics that empower some and disempower others. Research-creation requires us to self-reflexively account for our stories. We create, and we critique, iteratively.

This concept of praxis (or making) as method (or critique) informs my pedagogy in the Digital Culture and Design (DCD) program at Coastal Carolina University. In the DCD classroom, critical making renders digital humanities work politically and affectively responsive to contemporary social justice issues.

In this short talk, I introduce “News Bias Before & After,” an intro-level DCD assignment I designed in homage to the work of multidisciplinary artist Alexandra Bell. Bell’s public art project “Counternarratives” (2017) epitomizes her imperative: “deconstruct[ing] language and imagery to explore the tension between marginal experiences and dominant histories” (Harvard Radcliffe Institute 2023). Bell created large-scale paste-ups of New York Times pages—for instance, coverage of the police killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson in 2014—and annotated these pages to highlight biases dictating journalistic and design decisions like page real estate and word and image choice. Bell conveys the “framing” that shapes not just what news stories say, but how they say it. She lays bare racist stereotypes governing how these stories are systemically told, all to underscore that readers must systematically interrogate stories for this bias. I discuss how responses to Bell’s work—protestors papered over her posters, counter-protestors uncovered them, and so on—attest to both the investment of white supremacy in leaving racist narratives unchallenged and the resilience of anti-racist activists in deconstructing such narratives.

Inspired by Bell’s research-creation, I invited students to identify a news story in which they discerned a governing bias, use image editing software to expose this bias, re-make the news story, and reflect on their critique. Students described this assignment as an eye-opening, dismaying, yet empowering experience of civic engagement. In closing, I show provocative student work as a prompt for open discussion about pedagogical strategies for engaging issues of social justice through critical making.

Works cited
“Alexandra Bell.” Harvard Radcliffe Institute: Fellows. https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/people/alexandra-bell.
Bell, Alexandra. “Art that forms new narratives." National Geographic Society: Storytellers Summit, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXjkxdRtGe8.
Bell, Alexandra. “Counternarratives.” Public Work. http://www.alexandrabell.com/public-work.
Loveless, Natalie. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation. Duke University Press, 2019.


Anna Mukamal

Assistant Professor of Digital Culture and Design, Coastal Carolina University

Friday June 9, 2023 12:05pm - 12:15pm EDT
Main 210