By Audrey Augenbraum
Listening through Time and Place is a multimedia, interactive pop-up exhibit curated by students and faculty from Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts program. This exhibit—which takes place annually, for one night only—is the culmination of our students’ work in the year-long Oral History Fieldwork, Archiving, and Documentation course. We believe that oral history has the potential to transform public dialogue about the most important issues of our time by amplifying diverse voices in the public sphere to provide new perspectives and historical context. Our core question in the course was: How do we present oral histories, with all of their length, depth, complexity, and intersubjective richness, in an accessible way to a public audience without sacrificing those qualities we so value?
The first thing that struck me about Listening through Time and Place: An Oral History Exhibit was the size of it. The information to wade in was both wide and deep. An average of four—and often more—five- to 10-minute excerpts of life history interviews featured in each of twelve exhibits may not sound overwhelming until you realize that each excerpt is designed as a gateway not just to that person’s life, but to an entire zeitgeist.
What does it make you feel as a spectator, to be privy to such juicy slices of history, with all their layers of increasing intimacy? And what is it like to have this experience alongside over 250 fellow spectators, milling about, now chatting about what they’ve just learned, now donning a pair of headphones and dipping back in, away from Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts program, at the Union Theological Seminary in 2016? The invented word “sonder” comes to mind: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Suffice to say that if you had never known such a moment, Listening through Time and Place doubtlessly induced one. And yet, it went beyond, complementing the sonderer’s usual focus on individual narratives by framing them within the narratives of families, wars, spaces, languages, foods, rituals, occupations, songs, and art.
This immersion was manifold. First, of course, exhibits juxtaposed the broader historical context with the micro view. According to Christina Pae’s Ki-ok poster board, “These narrators were among approximately 25,000 [Korean] immigrants who came to the United States from 1950 through 1968. They were in their early twenties, and they left their war-torn homeland and their families behind in search of better opportunities.” Reading about this period of rupture, I unconsciously formed expectations about what I would hear in the headphones—memories of confusion, detachment, sadness, or perhaps idealism. Instead, munching on a dduk (Korean mochi ball), I got a story about sugar. It was scarce in Korea, Chan II Chung—who flew into Portland, Oregon and took a Greyhound bus across the US—told me, and rationed heavily. Seeing those five pound bags of sugar in the New York City supermarket for the first time seemed to encapsulate his sense of wonder throughout the experience of emigrating. Meghan Valdes’ narrator Leonel Brito, whose father left Castro’s Cuba for the United States, described the stamp on his student file that followed him everywhere: “FATHER IS A TRAITOR.” Yet, he wasn’t pushed out of Cuba for this reason—people’s reactions to this label simply “put the interest in his mind,” and so, in his own time, he went. History books, far from the immigrant experience, often ignore these agencies in favor of more patronizing narratives, which victimize the individual without acknowledging their autonomy.
OHMA student Eylem Delikanli collaborated with artist and activist Aylin Tekiner to create Shattering Silence, which analyzed the linguistic forms in play. I hadn’t known that Turkish had two types of past tense—one for witnessing an event and one for events experienced second hand—until I listened to Aylin narrate the assassination of her father in Nevsehir, Turkey, during the 1980 coup. The immediacy of her sentences resembled a police blotter, carrying me through the gory scene in the restaurant, the autopsy, the coffin abandoned on a traffic island as bearers ducked away from sniper fire. She did not know anything of these events until many years later. When Aylin tells this story, Eylem informs me, she uses the past tense implying that she was not a witness—a detail that caused me to meditate on the many ways in which one can be “witness” to something.
Other exhibits called attention to erasures in our history. Most don’t know it, but a terrorist attack occurred in New York City in 1994, in which two homemade firebombs were detonated in the subway. Wu Chen met her narrators at a survivors’ luncheon convened by Charlene Wiggins, who was a 16-year-old victim of the attacks. Twenty-one years later and for the first time, this ‘survivors family’ shared their stories. How did they find each other, after over two decades? Wiggins searched for them based on names she remembered hearing in her hospital stay after the blasts. Wu was in the audience during this historic moment—and through Salvage the Sound of Silence, she helped ensure that it would be properly enshrined in our city’s history.
Objects bring the stories into focus. What do combat boots, the American flag, the Bible, or a radio have in common? Geraldo Scala’s Existential Cathexis examined his narrator’s processes of meaning making around these tangibles. “If a flag flies in front of something,” a sanitation worker-cum-American flag rescuer proclaims, “it is said to be in service. It is not cloth… not underwear, meant to be farted through.” Scala’s exhibit provided a framework for interpreting many others, imploring the audience to explore their own attachments to a bowl of fruit placed at an altar (Andrew Viñales’ Santería Stories) or a white dress hanging on a hanger (Nyssa Chow’s Still.Life). Pablo Baeza’s “creative mapping” in Nueva York es la Frontera made visible the connections between South and North America by extending strings that connected each of his Latina immigrant-activist narrators’ origins and destinations, and as the night went on those of many exhibit visitors. Margaret Gooding-Silverwood asked of a narrator who spoke of standing in her Louisville, Kentucky vegetable garden with the sun coming low, picking and eating a glorious red tomato—“What part of you was engaged?” “It was more than just taste,” she replied. “I was warm.”
Stories illuminate the process of art making. In Mario Alvarez’s Black Gotham Experience, Black photographer Kamau Ware described his tenure as a tour guide for the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, a storyteller for the experiences of German, Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants. One day, a middle school aged girl on the tour inquired, “Where were the Black people?” And he didn’t know. Through that interaction, he arrived at the research question that guides his photographic and historical work, which would become a graphic novel: What does it mean to be African American in the world? Yet, stories don’t just explain artwork—they become artwork. In collaboration with artist Raul Ayala, Fernanda Espinosa teased out the sound and visual aspects of Ecuadorian New Yorkers’ migration stories. In a short animation, Marivel describes waiting for her father to come back, bringing bread from Guayaquil, as intricate pencil drawings of a little girl watching the hills fades slowly in. Rushing water, whipping wind and Marivel’s breaking voice punctuate a profoundly tranquil moment.
Rhythm emerged from the exhibits in diverse forms. In the house where her grandmother performed Santería initiations, the drum taught Andrew Viñales’ narrator Hilda how to dance: “it was definitely the relationship between the drum and me.” Gospel piano mirrored the rhythms of Mark Campbell II’s autobiographical oration of his baptism and his little sister’s old-soul admonishments. Nyssa Chow showcased the rhythms of her Trinidadian narrators’ speech by mounting words on the screen to accompany the audio. The result was reminiscent of line breaks in a poem, lending an astonishing visuality to the narrative. You could almost see the perspective switching as if it were cuts in a film: “He look at her. She look at him…”
Listening through Time and Place, like the oral history field itself, articulated the individual’s embeddedness—outlining the interlocking traditions, values and memories that forge connections between people across time and place. This articulation is vital for communities seeking justice because it provides an alternative to the punchy, bite-size pieces of life history narratives we so often consume in today’s world—which scream “Individualism!” and deny the power and knowledge in community. Many assume we need those bite-sized pieces to engage the listener, but Listening through Time and Place showed that edited oral histories can convey something deeper, more in tune with social justice work. The exhibit did not just reveal the embeddedness of the narrators; it also revealed that of the oral historians and their audiences, each of whom seemed a step closer on their own journeys to find their place.
Groundswell was founded in 2011 as part of OHMA alum Sarah Loose’s thesis project, for which she convened a group of activist oral historians for a weekend gathering to meet, talk, and support each other. From that initial gathering, co-organized by Alisa del Tufo, Groundswell grew. The Oral History Master of Arts Program is a one-year interdisciplinary MA degree training students in oral history method and theory. Many of our students and alumni come in with experience in activism, organizing, or social justice work and the use of oral history for social change is one of the focuses of our curriculum. Groundswell is an important space for OHMA students and alums to continue to develop their networks, develop and share their skills, and connect with social justice oral historians.
Audrey Augenbraum (author) is Communications and Outreach Coordinator for OHMA and Research Assistant at INCITE, where she coordinates the Research & Empirical Analysis of Labor Migration (REALM) project and the Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellows Program, and manages the Social Sciences Summer program. Her research involves mobile populations and their relationship to the states in which they reside. Trained as an international historian, Augenbraum is interested in the potential of the oral history interview as a collaborative space to revolutionize historical practice.
Erica Fugger (photographer) is a New York-based oral historian whose focus lies in examining the personal narratives underpinning peace activism and social movements. She currently serves as President of the Columbia Oral History Alumni Association and Project Coordinator of the Oral History M.A. program, of which she is a recent graduate. Erica’s previous experience includes managing the historic collections of the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives, conducting oral histories for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center, and teaching interviewing workshops around the New York metropolitan area. As an Atlantic Philanthropies Research Fellow at INCITE, she coordinates the Wake Up Oral History Project, which uses oral history as a form of community and capacity building for a transnational Buddhist youth movement in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh.