Since coming to Rollins College in 2003, I've been deeply engaged in community history. When I began this process, I was not thinking about it in terms of Community Engagement, instead I was thinking about it in the framework of public history. In particular, I was especially concerned with collect community stories through oral history projects linked with community partners such as the Winter Park Historical Association. Over the years my partners have expanded to include the Winter Park Public Library, Hannibal Square Heritage Center and the Hannibal Square Community Land Trust. These links allow me to align the course content with the community in way that bolster student learning. This is no simple task, but it is an important process.
My TrIP started with me reflecting on the landscape around my neighborhood. Audubon Park is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. This is especially intriguing as I recall Audubon Park was/is "near downtown" in real estate parlance. As I made my way to a bus stop near Maguire and Woodcock to head downtown, I realize that moniker described more than a physical location.
As the headline from The Day indicates, the area around Audubon Park is linked to a legacy of post-1945 development. Situated next to Baldwin Park, this area was closely aligned with suburbanization and Cold War politics that shaped the twentieth century. From 1940 to 1968 the land that would become Baldwin Park was an Army Air Corps and Air Force base. In 1968, the base became the Orlando Naval Training Center (ONTC). The ONTC trained thousands of sailors from 1968 to 1999 when the base closed.
The base closure came as a shock, but the emergence of Baldwin Park as New Urbanist development suggested to some the postwar emphasis on suburbanization was in doubt. In reality, criticism of New Urbanism continues to highlight the persistent of the middle-class aspirations associated with home, car, and job. This trinity was formulated and culturally inscribed after WWII. The relief of defeating Germany and Japan was quickly replaced by a need to win the ideological and political contest against the Soviet Union. While the Cold War was hot in many ways, the domestic impact of Cold War sociopolitical thinking was to enshrine a consumptive republic that served to demonstrate the US experience equated to freedom and success (there were other things too). If you thinking about it, the postwar trinity: home, car, and job remain markers of freedom and success in American society. While achieving them should be considered an accomplishment, since it is expected, you must do more, you must excel at them.
As scholars such as Dianne Harris and Thomas Sugrue have demonstrated, the exclusion of racial minority from the suburban experience after WWII created a structure of inequality that continues to shape daily life. The government made this system possible through low interest loans for returning veterans and they in turn used that money to finance homes and education that propelled them into a middle-class lifestyle. This Mad Men America was created to serve broader political and social aims. The postwar trinity had symbols, associations, and actions every American recognized and the coercive power of that framework made "success" in the United States a very specific experience. Supported by government policy and reinforced by media representation, millions of Americans saw "hard work" and "good values" at the core of the national character and we never discuss the structures and process that made that way of life work.
The assumption of achievable success was both an individual and societal mantra. Arguably, the struggle to achieve that success has gotten harder and harder for Americans. Contemporary concerns about inequality represents the establish mythology breaking down as more and more Americans find themselves joining racial minorities, the poor, and gender minorities that never lived that dream.
As watch the landscape on my TrIP journey, I recognize it tells this story in many ways. Middle-class consumers were assumed to be living the two car household dream, as the classic Ford commercial above suggests, the bus service for the neighborhood speaks volumes about expectations. The bus system uses a "hub and spoke" design that assumes the riders want to go to the central business district. Service is more frequent Monday thru Friday immediately before and after traditional working hours. Weekend service reflect the leisure activities expected on Saturday and assumption of spiritual services (which tend to be neighborhood specific) on Sunday.
Arriving downtown, I leave the LYNX station and make my way over to Juice Bike station using an iPhone app as a guide. On the way, I transition into contemporary urban development and design landscape that is attempting to update the expectations linked to the postwar trinity. Her, I see the impact of SunRail transforming life in downtown Orlando.
The presence of SunRail in Central Florida has not addressed the complexity of the transportation challenge facing the region. I say this, but perhaps a more accurate statement is that SunRail is one part of a broader process attempting to address transportation concerns that represent shifting economic and social expectations. While the operating hours for SunRail do not align with low wage service workers, it does correspond to millennials searching for new professional and housing options. Thus, the juxtaposition of bus and rail in downtown Orlando says much about the evolution of postwar expectations. For more than a decade Orlando has attempted to create more residential living options downtown. Like many southern cities that grew with the automobile, Orlando's postwar growth drew people away from the city core for everything except work and governmental transactions. Countless southern cities have been described as ghost towns after 5:00pm for decades. Efforts to create event spaces using sports stadiums and other recreational spaces in downtown has had varying degrees of "success."
Orlando falls neatly into this pattern. For more than a decade the city has supported development projects. Success in the form of residential condos has created destination neighborhood around Lake Eola that serves as one benchmark of Orlando's urban identity. Indeed, if you see any visuals designed to described the city by the city, they tend to rely on the Lake Eola. At the same time, much of this residential narrative depends on presenting this local space in a manner that align with urban expectations of urbanism.
One new landmark for the Lake Eola area makes this idea clear. The Vue, located at 150 E. Robinson Street is high rise with an amazing view. The building's website proclaims it is a "Modern Classic Urban Community." One of the tallest buildings downtown, it informs your mental picture of Orlando. Yet, that slogan, "Modern Classic Urban Community" makes little sense. That is a little harsh, but understanding the Vue really rests on on single word in its slogan. It is URBAN. The other descriptors in the slogan are merely there to acknowledge consumer desire linked to cosmopolitan life. You are moving there to experience urbanity. This idea, that unique cultural and social activities are achieved in urban space is consistent desire in opposition to suburban life. You know the particular of this tension, I don't really need to spell them out.
As I move from the LYNX station I slip into space created by this tension. I'm walking into alternative transportation option system that incorporates Juice Bike Share. This system represents an evolution of the postwar trinity and answer to a new consumer reality. Less suburban, housing options such as the VUE and other residential developments downtown rely on services like this one. This is a chicken and the egg process. Without people living downtown, you don't get bike share. On the other hand, are there enough people living downtown to force the physical landscape to allow bikes to become a viable transportation option for everyday life?
SunRail is latest stepping stone in the residential push, but the promise of urban experience is defined by high density city life found in places like New York or Chicago. This push matters most for millennials who increasingly want to avoid the hassle (and cost) associated with car travel. Choice is key here. While countless poor people may employ a bike as a means of transportation, the reality of bike share services like Juice is that they are catering to riders looking for an alternative to the car they likely own, but don't want to use for social, political, or economic reasons. This is a generalization, but it worth discussing. Opting out of car culture and embracing a different set of sociopolitical benchmark represent a challenge to postwar expectation driven by generational perspective.
As I rented by Juice Bike, I recognized how much its placement and my use spoke to these shifting expectations. I walked a short distance from the bus station, but I was a socioeconomic world away. I needed smartphone to use the app to find the station. I needed a credit card to create an account to recent the bike, and my ride itself was influenced by previous consumptive development.
My ride took me from Orange Avenue down to Lake Eola. In part, a decision made easier by the bike lanes that made for easy navigation. As I rode along I realized how much those paths made me feel safer as a rider, but I also realized how much I was fulfilling the consumptive dream linked to downtown development. While there has been and will continue to be friction around bike use, my TrIP avoided that reality. Traveling on a Saturday, I avoided the "hipster" hate associated with bikers in the public sphere during the work week. The socially inscribed narrative I was engaged with spoke to the kind of infill development that are transforming city centers. Whether labelled gentrification or displacement or something else, the class driven dynamic shaping perception is undeniable. Postwar consumptive ideas linked to the car are flatten and extended to bike and rail experience. If you can afford this alternative, you can live in the right place, use rail and bike service and only brave automobile travel when you need to do it.
This realization was made clearer by my return trip. I returned by Juice Bike to its station and caught the bus back home. Staring at the intersection, I wondering about biking on Colonial and reality of its dangers. When I see people doing it, they don't have a choice.
My TrIP was bit of a historical reflection on urban development. I can read the spaces around Orlando in light of broader concerns linked to urbanization. Transportation acts as a kind of signal of broader expectations. TrIP gives its participants a chance to pause and consider the implications of the system we are in. For me, the idea that the postwar trinity persists is clear. Yet, in many ways our contemporary debates are just beginning to deal with the painful implications of what it will means to undo that world and create a something new.
Vidhu Aggarwal’s work draws from multiple arenas to create a unique narrative experience. Mediating modern technological paths while unpacking the mythological legacy that informing our global urban experience, Aggarwal combines words and images to produce digital poetics that explore the fallacy of the machine and the struggle between alienation and connectivity. Aggarwal’s new project Avatara takes the modern day fascination/fetishization with representative objects as an invitation to examine the shifting relationship between physical and digital embodiments. This work interrogates the unsettling truth that the modern context allows the body to yield to our yearnings in way previously only imagined. The modern experience is informed by new spaces informed by this fluidity around identity. Yet, our notions remain locked to established categories and traditional expectations. It is no surprise then that she would be drawn to comic narratives. For all the immaturity attached to comic books in the United States, the medium has and does offer a space for experimentation, exploration, and expression that more “serious” counterparts can sometime lack. Aggarwal’s concerns mirror the work of her collaborator Bishakh Som. Som describes his work as “investigates the intersection between image and text, figure and architecture, architecture and landscape.” A quick examination of his previous comic projects in Hi-horse, Blurred Vision, and Pool demonstrates his work builds on the legacy of autobiographical and investigative comic narrative pioneered in anthologies such as Zap Comix, Arcade, and Raw. Som’s ideological roots link him to creators such as S. Clay Wilson, Art Spiegelman, and Robert Crumb. Like them, Som’s work examines society and uses the comic narrative to spotlight shifting boundary. Aggarwal and Som are busy on all levels. Aggarwal’s other job is full time professor of poetics and founding editor of SPECS: A Journal of Arts and Culture, as well as managing two manuscripts under review with publishers. Som has recently completed Apsara Engine, a 200-page collection of seven short stories he too is sending to publishers for review. I caught up with Aggarwal and got her to answers some questions about comics, narratives, and the unstable other.
JC: Why collaborate on a graphic narrative now? What can this kind of project accomplished for you?
VA: In a recent piece in the New York Times, A.O. Scott laments the seeming end of adulthood/patriarchy via an analysis of pop culture — he talks, for instance, of the popularity of comics among adults. Graphic forms definitely have this childhood and particularly boyhood resonance in our culture — unlike say movies or painting. Also, both graphic narrative form and poetry can be done with limited materials (unlike say making movies) and therefore are available to the amateur. And I love that! Of course, Bishakh’s complex, architectural graphic sequences could never be described as amateur! But “high-seriousness” is usually not a quality associated with comics — there’s a history of superheroes and alternative universes. Scott McCloud describes comics as “a sequential art” — one in which the gaps between panels is part of the meaning of the comic, much like line breaks in poetry. And I had seen some of Bishakh’s amazing interpretations of H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in this literature/comic book anthology series called “The Graphic Canon.” So I was curious about collaborating with him myself. I had also commissioned work from Bishakh for two issues of SPECS, a journal I edit — and his work has a thrilling architectural play between figure and ground, humans and technologies, animate and inanimate objects. My own work, particularly the poems in The Trouble with Humpadori, concerns a monstrous, shapeshifting figure, which I call Humpadori — an entity that seemed to belong more to a science fiction universe rather “Poetry” per se! Poetry associates would tell me they just didn’t “get” this idea of this weird kind of infantile monster that takes on the properties of any number of objects, The Taj Mahal, unicorns, maps, etc? Where was I, Vidhu Aggarwal, in the poems? So instead of a poem about me posing in front of the Taj Mahal, Humpadori becomes a monstrous, drooling version of the Taj Mahal. These poems seemed to call for a visual rendering. Because this figure of Humpadori seems to break down the boundary between the figure and the background, I was really fascinated to see how Bishakh might visualize this figure, given how the backgrounds in his work are often as pulsing and alive the characters. The skyscapes can be fleshy.
JC: You have a focus on identity and community in your work. How do you think your work reflects the contemporary debates around these issues? How much is your heritage identity influencing your thinking?
VA: Well, I’m really interested in the violence of identity — how identity is imposed upon us beyond our consent. We are gendered, raced, and so on — in ways that are difficult to escape. The superhero comic was always a fantasy about excess or surplus identities. I’m interested in narratives of escapism, camouflage, and disguise. My hybrid poetry manuscript Avatara is about an immigrant tech worker who finds a godlike gaming identity far more compelling than life. Part of my own experience as an Indian immigrant girl growing up in the South (New Orleans and Houston) was picking up cultural codes in an awkward, piecemeal way — the dilemma of being a bad copy of an American where the racial landscape still had the residue of the Civil War: black or white. There’s always the question of: What are you? Much of my understanding of India growing up was filtered through Bollywood musicals. Similarly, I learned American English by watching television. I really felt like I was learning about the U.S. through soap operas or Star Trek. Humpadori is my version of a Bollywood spectacle combined with a New Orleans Mardi Gras float—the hybrid cultural mechanism that is identity. Humpadori is an identity performer. Humpadori is like a lumpy, campy, and awkward Houdini — an escape artist obsessed with his bindings — the markers of identity he invites the audience impose upon him.
JC: Comics offer a complex cognitive experience for the audience; can you talk about how your project capitalizes on the graphic form?
VA: What has been most fascinating for me in working with Bishakh is how his graphic interpretation of Humpadori is very feminine. I gave him the manuscript and told him to do as he pleased without any instructions. I myself thought of Hump as alternatively male and female depending on the incarnation (for instance Humpadori Unicorn is very male, Mermaid is female). I really did not know exactly what to expect from his initial drafts, but I was blown away. He combined the technological with the biological with vivid umbilical cables uniting the bodies from different poems — lions, mermaids, playback singers. Like a giant cosmic desiring machine (a la Deleuze) but very womanly. Also his figures took on aspects of the Hindu (pre-Vedic) goddess Kali/Durga both violent and life-giving. There was an aspect of these gods and creation myths in my work that his images really brought out in new ways. I wrote the poem “Lady Humpadori” as a specific response to Bishakh’s Humpadori images. And then Bishakh did this short comic book based on “Lady Humpadori.” I loved how the lines sounded completely different split into panels—took on different meanings. I thought the dialogue bubbles with the elevated lines were hilarious. I think Bishakh is particularly masterful in writing dialogue. He often punctures the high-toned musings of his characters with great wit and he was able to do this puncturing with lines of the poems. That poem and process was a total surprise — a real back and forth.
JC: I see your work drawing on an urban aesthetics that engages with afrofuturism and desifuturism narratives common in fictive texts, but becoming more widely seen in contemporary art and culture. How would you describe your aesthetic to those unfamiliar with the ideological landscape you are working in?
VA: I’m a fan of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Janelle Monae, Nnedi Okorafor, Michael Jackson, John Jennings and Stacey Robinson’s project Black Kirby, Nick Cave’s soundsuits — they create alternative fictive spaces for black subjectivity through futures: wild techno-bodies, new familial modes, Afro-diasporic myths, and fantastical world building in fiction, music, comics, art. I don’t know of as many South Asians working in speculative modes, but what’s out there is inspiring. There’s Mary Anne Mohanraj and Vandana Singh, two science fiction writers. There’s also the poets, Monica Mody and Bhanu Kapil. You could also include the work of Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. There’s artist Rina Banerjee. And, of course, Bishakh Som, who draws these highly detailed futurist architectural spaces with South Asian motifs. A lot of science fiction has borrowed from South Asian mythologies — avatar, the word for digital incarnation we get in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, comes from the word for the embodiment of gods into flesh. I was joking with Bishakh that the time is ripe for South Asian or desi-futurism given how many science fiction stories take on South Asian tropes (James Cameron’s Avatar, Ian McDonald’s Cyberdebad Days). Shouldn’t we out desi-scape them?
JC: Is your work supplanting established forms or subverting existing systems?
VA: I do think it’s a point in time where we are beginning to recognize the graphic narrative as a high art as much as a popular medium. Art Spiegelman, Osamu Tesuka, Alison Bedchel, Winchluss, Junko Mizuno, Marjane Satrapi. At the same time poets are engaging with popular culture more than ever: Joyelle McSweeny, Tan Lin, Stephen Burt. There’s something in the air. Personally, I’m interested in a greater flexibility and mobility in poetry. I grew up thinking of a poem as a sacred object, and recombining my own work through video and comics is a way of smashing that idea. Are we going to see further projects? I’d love to work with Bishakh again and collaborate on a longer graphic narrative. We’ll see!