Special Feature: Reflections

Reflections on 2018 by Laurel McLaughlin

PhD Candidate and Curator, Bryn Mawr College

WFU Class of 2013

Our ‘Reflections’ series continues with the brilliant Laurel McLaughlin sharing her thoughts on 2018, contributing an aptly titled feature called ‘2018 in Hindsight: Timescales of Relationality’. Enjoy!

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2018 in Hindsight: Timescales of Relationality

by Laurel McLaughlin

In this contemporary world so focused on the present, how do we look at our past—especially considering milestones and project-based work which seems to compartmentalize academic time—and the future, wherein goals attempt to overpower all else? As a PhD candidate at Bryn Mawr College, it’s something I’ve been considering after a mammoth year of doctoral exams, symposia, two major exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), two retrospectives at PAFA and Bryn Mawr College, and the development of a programming series. I’ll share two experiences from this past year, which have proven to challenge this conception of “production” between the past, present, and future.

This past fall, I had the pleasure of working on Tania El Khoury’s residency: ear-whispered, her exhibition: Camp Pause, and a related programming series at Bryn Mawr College. El Khoury’s practice relays the experiences of subjects caught in political upheaval. Her “live art” performances and installations tell the stories of refugees, migrants, and political activists in the Middle East, particularly in the regions of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. Alongside Bryn Mawr College’s Curator for Art & Artifacts, Carrie Robbins, I developed a series of programs throughout the fall semester that activated the themes in El Khoury’s work, including migration, diaspora, memory, and trauma, with scholars, curators, and artists from interdisciplinary fields, such as anthropology, archaeology, art history, performance, poetry, political science, and urban studies. The extension of the programming throughout the Fall semester enabled a meditative engagement with El Khoury’s practice that related to my Masters work at The Courtauld with Sarah Wilson, my current dissertation with Homay King at Bryn Mawr, and an upcoming presentation at the College Art Association with Carrie Robbins for a panel investigating migration in contemporary art. Drawing these past, present, and future endeavors together caused me to consider the types of knowledge that both moved and challenged me. Rather than acquiring or mastering such knowledge, the experiential seemed to function within a type of relational structure, as I learned with the subjects in the works, the artists, and the regions in which they practice.

Another experience which challenges me to consider the past within present terms, and vice-versa has come from my doctoral prelims. At Bryn Mawr College, we define four major fields of study, select advisors from each, and then embark upon a year-long study program until we sit for four written exams and then an oral exam. I studied Post-War Monuments and Trauma Studies with Christiane Hertel; 20th–21st-Century Performance Art and Studies with Homay King, my primary advisor; Global Contemporary and Post-Colonial Theory with James Merle Thomas; and Feminist Video and Installation Art with Kaja Silverman. The opportunity to research works and texts, develop bibliographies, and think alongside such dedicated and brilliant scholars, was fascinating and simultaneously humbling. I found that as I examined the canon in the beginning of the process, and reviewed my bibliographies in retrospect, the holes and even erasures within the canon and my own thinking as well emerged. But these lacunae somehow continue to fuel present and future goals, in this kind of ever-evolving exchange with the past. These reminiscent thoughts ultimately stem from a kind of internal resistance to seeing milestones or personal accomplishments as such—as “products” of an art world, or an emblem of “mastery” over a field—but instead as generative and continually-evolving encounters with others.