Pockets – Objects +Story

I enjoyed the Reliquary Museum a lot, though the reasons weren’t instantly obvious to me. I generally don’t like visiting museums where static objects are on display, but this was an exception. Here were some of my major takeaways that I tried to replicate in my own project:

  • I really appreciated the lack of captions, and the context created in which that was OK. After creating many possibilities for visitors by curating an initial exhibit, visitors are left to pick out what they find most intriguing and then are welcomed to hear the story from and have a conversation with an actual person about it. Even if the museum had the space for it, a caption on each object would have contributed greatly to the museum fatigue I often feel with static exhibits. It was framed as an exploration, where the museum picked the broad location for my journey and I got to pick the stops along the way.
  • The objects and their underlying stories shed light on something I didn’t know before or challenged me to consider the past in a new way. Museums are at their best when they challenge assumptions, and I think the Reliquary Museum did a good job of this.

For this week’s project, I wanted to flesh out an idea that’s been in the back of my mind since my first semester and has been brought to the fore following the museum visit. Military uniforms have a great number of pockets, literally from head to toe (or ankle, but close enough). Pockets themselves are interesting because they immediately allow for the surprise of discovery. My idea this week is a live performance: wear a uniform with pockets filled with objects, allow people to pull them out (an uncomfortable and intimate interaction), and be there to share stories, answer questions, and engage in conversation.

I only have immediate access to pants, which is good because crafting the number of interactions needed for a full uniform’s worth of pockets would be hard to pull off in a week. If I had to choose one half to use for prototyping, it would be pants anyways, as it creates the discomfort of reaching into my pockets more acutely than the top would have. The pants have 6 pockets (these seem to not be regulation, as those have 8; this pair is missing the ankle pockets eta: if you include the pouches for knee pads, the number comes up to 10).

These are the 6 objects that I’m working with this week, and the kinds of stories I would craft around them during a performance (though the conversation might go other places, as dictated by the user’s wishes):

Blue Book

This book is one of the first things issued to new soldiers. This is my copy, with my notes in it. There isn’t any one particular story associated with this object. It’s more a collection of stories that together make up the first few weeks of transition from civilian to military. This object is content heavy, and as a result there are a wide range of stories depending on what within strikes someone as important.

Letters

The letters are the most personal objects in the pockets. Though folks are free to read and ask about the content of the letters, the story connected with them is not about the content itself. The letters represented contact with the outside world in a stressful environment where other contact was limited. Personal time and space to read them was also limited. The letters became important as a symbol for connection to the outside world, and as a result I would read them most days in a bathroom stall (the only place I had privacy, and a good time to multitask and do my business while reading), even if I had already read them a hundred times.

Name Tape

The name tape is worn on the uniform for identification purposes. The story I’d choose to tell would concern the first time wearing the uniform. It’s a moment that you look forward to with a sense of pride and excitement. The actual process itself, though, is pretty terrible. Each piece is thrown to you assembly line style as you move through a large warehouse. At the end, you have a really short period of time to throw it all in a bag and go. You aren’t given any time to reflect or feel what you were expecting.

I anticipate stories pertaining to identity and the uniformity of the military would also arise.

ACE Card

I’ve used this object in many of my projects at ITP because it’s really interesting to me. It’s a requirement that you carry it at all times (an “inspectable item,” you can be punished for not having it on you while in uniform). The card itself is representative of the Army’s attempts to erase problems with bureaucracy – ACE is a suicide intervention program and the card is part of a series of ongoing briefings. Carrying it on you doesn’t mean that you know how to intervene in a suicide situation, nor does having gone through a brief. For the Army, however, it’s enough for them to check off boxes. There are similar solutions to other programs (SHARP, the sexual assault prevention program chief among them).

Business Cards

The business cards for two of my recruiters are the catalyst for a “challenging assumptions” story. Many people, especially of a more liberal persuasion, have a negative perception of the military’s recruiters and recruiting tactics. To some degree, they are correct in that assumption, but not entirely. The idea that the military signs people up quickly without making them aware of what they are doing is false – for a variety of reasons, it took more than 18 months for me to ship to training after first speaking with a recruiter (this is atypically long, but it is still my story). At one point, almost nine months in and when I had a potentially large job offer on the table, my recruiter told me he’d be fine if I backed out.

Wristband

This object’s stories pertain more to my time since leaving the military. The Mission Continues is a veteran service organization that provides service and social opportunities for veterans. It’s provided me with an important social group outside of ITP, and there are many stories about my involvement (and about veterans in NYC and around the country – their needs, desires, etc.).

Use of Force – Audio in 3 Parts

Part 1: Drill Sergeant Ontiveros & Restraint

 

Part 2: Institutions Collide: Stephen Mader
Quoted Article

 

Part 3: Phil Klay & Respecting the “Enemy”
Quoted Article

 

Thoughts

I’m definitely no Ira Glass. I found myself really self-conscious while recording, despite being alone with just a recorder. I went through a few iterations of what kinds of stories I wanted to use and what point I wanted to make before settling on use of force. This, along with contrasting accountability and punishment mechanisms between policing and the military, is one of the two most interesting juxtapositions I’ve found so far for use in my thesis. Collecting these stories and tying them together with a single thread was an incredibly useful exercise both in storytelling generally and for my thesis specifically.

Hourly “Comic”

For my hourly comic, I did two things: first, I took around 2 minutes of audio in real time during each hour of my day; and second, at the end of each our I selected an emoji that seemed to best represent that hour.

General Thoughts

This was a hard exercise. Despite constantly trying to remember that I was doing this project, there was one hour that I forgot to record audio for. I definitely found myself behaving differently, from the planning of which day I was going to do it (making sure it had interesting things going on) as well as planning when I did things to ensure interesting hourly updates. I’m going to make a conscious choice that may weaken the project not to list what I did each hour; instead, I’m going to present the audio and the emoji without any additional information. Continue reading

Stories – Where They Come From, Why We Tell Them, How We Understand Them

I appreciate the types of stories presented in this reading, though I remain a bit fuzzy on what exactly constitutes a culturally common story. I also like and agree with the different categories presented for why we tell stories. The examples given in this chapter are illustrative and clear. From a content perspective, it seemed pretty mechanical – not too much to reflect on in this chapter.

I had major problems with the second chapter we read about how people understand stories they are told. From an academic perspective, I wished there was more citing and sourcing for the opinions presented; as it is, there seems to be little presented to back up his assertions. This may not be such a big deal, but I have major issues with some of what he says. The author seems to be saying that we work to understand stories through our internal process of responding to them, which in turn comes about as a result of our own experiences and understanding of the world. Though it is admitted that it may be overstating the case, the end claim seems to be that we don’t really, truly understand the entirety of stories told to us – only those parts of them that we can relate to. The biggest reason I have a problem with this is that, for me at least, experience proves this false. If I respond to a story in a given way, that doesn’t represent the totality of my understanding of it. I am also capable of hearing stories that are totally new to me without imploding or ignoring much of the nuances of them.

This reading makes storytelling sound competitive, a struggle to find our own responses to stories we are told. It devalues the capacity people have for listening and processing what they are told, even if it resides far outside their own experiences or perspectives.

Securing the Shadow: American Folk Art Museum

I should begin by saying that, though exhibit design is a likely career path for me post-ITP, I’m not a fan of visiting museums (that’s weird, I know). I have a hard time staying engaged and focused in art museums in particular, and the Folk Art Museum was no exception.

It was interesting to read about the various symbols used by postmortem portrait artists to denote that a painting’s subject was deceased. It was, to the extent that the exhibit did this, really interesting to ponder the ways death was looked at very differently in early America than it is today. I was fortunate enough to visit the museum on a day and time when they were giving a tour, and learned a bit of information not present in the exhibit pertaining to early Americans’ fear of burying loved ones alive; apparently, it wasn’t unusual for people to be buried with a bell, shotgun, and breathing tube in case they weren’t really dead.

What I missed was additional context, and this lack prevented me from really appreciating the stories embedded within the portraits. I felt like the exhibit only scraped the surface of death in the culture of early America. Several of the overview captions mentioned this culture, but there were only a couple journal entries and other artifacts that gave me a sense of how people really felt. More of that would have been nice. I also got the sense, confirmed more overtly by the tour guide, that the exhibit seeks to start a conversation about death in modern America. In that sense, I felt it failed. At no point during my visit was I really challenged to think about my own thoughts on death, and I didn’t feel like the art itself was presented in a way to do that on its own.

Some art becomes easier to appreciate when displayed on white walls, removed from context. The postmortem portraits here, though, are as much about the culture and context around them than about appreciating the pieces themselves. The Folk Art Museum had an opportunity to break with the traditional gallery presentation and try to transport me to that era and recreate that context. It was a missed opportunity that they did not do this.

The Volunteers, Part 2

For my final, I decided to work with the same data as I did for my midterm. This came after a lot of iterating over different ideas, starting with alcohol consumption tracking and moving to the toxicity of internet comments. I came back to this data in the end because people have told me each time that the individual stories are the most powerful component, and I wanted to use my final to develop a proof of concept of what a visualization would look like if things like photos and a bio were built in to the application itself.

The major design considerations pertained to scalability, and I’m honestly not sure I thought hard enough about this. Of course a design will work when the page only has to load 10 photos, but what happens when it has to load 7000? There’s power in the ability to show all that at once, but there would be a major hit to performance even with thumbnail-sized, low-quality photos. A next step might be to craft a pre-experience that users could run through while the photos were all loading in. This is all very hypothetical at this point, because it would likely take years of full-time work to collect all the assets needed to produce this project on a large scale.

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-34-36-am

I tried to keep the map in the background – I’m not sure this works, but at such a small scale it’s hard to know if it has the intended effect or not because it doesn’t look like a map yet.

The largest tech challenges I faced with this project related to CSS. I had weird positioning things happening with overlaying DOM elements over a canvas, and the fades were kind of weird. I managed to get them to fade out in a random order when you click on one (with the one clicked always been the last to fade with a bit more of a delay), and that took some time and mostly related to CSS. I also worked with an in-window pop-up to display information about the individual clicked, which involved some CSS shenanigans I had never used before.

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-34-58-am screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-35-09-am

I have to be honest after now working with this data in a very data-centric way over the course of three projects: it’s not effective at getting at what I want. I want people to consider the cost of war from a human perspective, and human stories are the only way that I feel I’m ever going to do that. Even with this iteration, there would be something overwhelming about seeing 7000 photos and stories that would detract from what I want people to get out of it.

By contrast, my project for Hacking Story Frameworks this semester was an installation that followed one person’s military story from start to finish. This was the centerpiece, and the larger systemic and structural things were accessories to that – not the other way around, as it has always been with this data as a project’s center. I received extremely good feedback about this project, including the very direct notion that the installation and story represented the best way in to the issues central to my projects that I have executed at ITP.

It raises philosophical questions about the point of data in social issue projects if people are never going to find it as persuasive as one well-told story. Will data always be best in supporting roles in projects like this? I’m not totally sure yet, but I’m on the cusp of giving up on data-centric social projects if the goal is public engagement and awareness.

That said, this project could make a good museum exhibit if it were ever finished, in a context where it’s overwhelming effect is part of some larger space with other components that would pull out important individual narratives and make them more digestible.

Administrative Discharges

For our final project, Taylor and I are going to be exploring the issue of abuse of administrative discharges in the military post-9/11.

“Administrative Discharge is the military’s way of “firing” you. It means your branch of service either doesn’t have enough evidence of misconduct to punish you with an Art 15 [non-judicial punishment] or they are just tired of having you around and want you gone.” (source)
During the Vietnam era, 6% of servicemembers were discharged in this way. Post-9/11, the number is 13%. Depending on the character of their discharge (generally either general or other than Honorable in the case of administrative discharges), a servicemember who would otherwise be entitled to benefits loses most (the GI Bill educational benefits being the first to go) or all (VA, housing, etc) otherwise earned benefits.
This is a problem for a variety of reasons. First, it represents a process that has the illusion of due process but in reality lacks it; second, the reasons administrative discharges are sometimes initiated show a disconnect between the things the military claims to care about and how they actually deal with it in practice (for example, administratively discharging suicide attempt survivors or those who report sexual assault); and third, there is a long, usually unsuccessful, and burdensome process for upgrading an administrative discharge to an Honorable one after the fact.
We’re looking to approach these larger, policy-based problems through a look at an individual story of a veteran (who at this moment will remain anonymous as we confirm this person’s interest and involvement in the project) who was administratively discharged after attempting suicide, was denied benefits he sorely needed as a result, and has spent 8 years unsuccessfully attempting to have his status upgraded.
Our next steps:
  • Confirm individual involvement in project.
  • Determine which pieces of the problem and story are most resonant with different populations of folks, especially those without any connection or interest in military issues.
  • Start to map where the individual story overlaps with larger policy problems to help inform where the story would allow users a way into the wonkier big picture.
  • Speak with people involved in the issue of administrative discharges and discharge upgrades to determine what the most effective last step is – what should the call to action be in an ideal world?