Meet Zander & His Golden Magic Shoes | Mapping Diaspora class #unfinal and next steps

In the course of the last semester, students in Mapping Diasporas met with five refugees, and interviewed them about their memory objects.

Memory objects are objects held and cherished by displaced people, and that end up symbolizing concepts of “home” and “identity,” and that also carry innumerable layers of memory and feelings. The are tangible artifacts composing an archive of the invisible.

The refugees who visited with our class all live in the Bay Area, are approximately the same age as the students in the class, and—with the sole important exception of a man who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a child—have been recently relocated here. They were recruited by a member of the Mapping Diasporas working group, documentary film-maker Sam Ball (of Citizen Film). Several of them settled in the Bay Area through the fantastic work of the staff and volunteers of the Refugee & Immigrant Services at Jewish Family and Community Services of the East Bay.

We first met in class, shared introductions, and, sitting in a circle, passed around the objects that our guests brought with them. A fruit bowl smuggled from Germany to the US in a hat box. A keychain that used to hold keys to a lost home in Damascus. A traditional Afghan costume. Pakistani currency, a prized possession for Afghan refugees who could not find work once they left their country escaping the war. Bracelets made in a refugee camp in Kenya, full of memories about Uganda and hopes about the future. Photographs (not many), as well as smartphones containing digital images, songs (and playlists), and facebook contacts, were discussed as essential vehicles of memory and identity for displaced persons.

My #ucberkeley class, #mappingdiasporas meeting #refugees & exploring the evocative power of #memoryobjects today @themagnes #germany #syria #pakistan #uganda

Following this initial meeting, Sam returned to class to hold a training session on how to conduct interviews. Students learned how to plan an interview session, how to formulate questions, stay on target, and manage time. Subsequently, five interview teams were created, and we all worked on preparing interviews with the five refugee/guests.

On December 14, our class #unfinal (as I like to call the projects that I create in lieu of formal final exams) focused on welcoming back to class the refugees, and on carrying out five distinct interviews. Each interview was done as audio-only: a way to respect the privacy of some of our guests, whose faces could not be shown in order to protect the safety of their families, and to continue focusing on memory objects rather than on individuals.

A preliminary tangible result of this work consisted in five distinct audio files, which I then uploaded to the Pop Up Archive, where they can be heard and where their transcripts (which are still being edited) can be searched.

The semester ended, and some works of magic began.

First of all, several students in the class offered to continue working on the project, transcribing the audio interviews and examining the photographs of the memory objects taken during the #unfinal. This work, which was carried out throughout the entire spring semester, continues to this day.

The narratives that emerged from this process are all compelling. The focus on objects seems to have directed the interviews towards an array of specific concerns that are in line with what was discussed in class throughout the semester. Paying attention to material culture allows for unexpected details of an individual story to emerge, and also seemingly took some of the “pressure” off the interviewees, who were free to focus on the details they had not previously been able to express. Themes of identity, memory, and a history of feelings, were—and continue to be—omnipresent.

Secondly, Sam began working on a documentary prototype. Here it is, focusing on Zander, an LGBT refugee from Uganda now living in Berkeley:

This video, along with short segments about the other interviewees, was presented on June 22 in Berkeley at a sold out event, titled What We Carry With Us: A Refugee Storytelling Lab, hosted by the JCC East Bay.

Our goal is to continue working on the object-based narratives, to create more documentary work based on the other interviews, and to bring everything we collected—audio files, interview transcripts, still images, videographies, and maps—together into an integrated web platform. It is still a work in progress, and the progress is astounding.


Diasporas as Mindmaps | Themes and Variations on Cultural Hybridity

This week, we approached culture in diaspora in its dimension of hybridity. In order to master its unruly landscape, we tackled it in two related fashions.

Frist, we discussed the topic of theme and variations. Our core case studies were: Exercises in Style (1947) by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), a collection of 99 variations on a basic narrative; and “the mother” of all musical themes and variations, aka Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (published in 1741). Here, we pointed to two (well, perhaps three) elements of interest.

Moving away from the idea of building musical variations on a melodic theme, Bach used the bass line, rather than the melody, of the introductive Aria as the generative structure upon which each of the following 30 variations were composed. This approach tends to make the elements of continuity in the structure of the variations somewhat imperceptible to the listener. By connecting the variations via an underlying inaudible structure, Bach was thus able to use the variation as a template to build upon the stylistic canons of music past and present, crafting each individual variation as a summa of diverse musical ideas. The GV stand before us as both an anthology (or “collection,” a museum of sorts) of musical thought, and an archive of the invisible. We will investigate the related notions of collections, archives, and invisibility, in the coming weeks. For now, we focus on how to recognize patterns that tie together seemingly unrelated narrative units, and therefore how to “map” a unified atlas of cultural diversity.

In continuing to explore musical connections, we also examined how Uri Caine designed an innovative, yet faithful, approach to Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the sign of cultural hybridity (2000).

Through Josh Kun’s “Introduction” to Audiotopia, we connected hybridity and American popular culture. Kun pointed us to Pete Seeger’s cultural manifesto, All Mixed Up (1955), which is always worthwhile listening to:

We also noticed how Kun exposued the agenda of cultural (musical) hybridity in a contested political space. This allowed us to bring our opening theme — the relationship between culture in movement and the status of stateless refugees, displaced persons, and “undocumented” immigrants — back into our conversation. The “two countries” celebrated, and deeply questioned, by Los Tigres del Norte, pointed us to notions of cultural (when not existential) hybridity, of poly-identity, and multiplicity, which are inherent to diasporas.

Can the structure of diasporas be explained in terms of invisible themes and hybrid variations? Can diasporas (and cultures in motion) ever be “mapped,” or is their natural fluidity resisting such attempts?

In order to answer these questions, we worked on the etymological hybridity of the constellation of concepts that surround the notions of diaspora. Thus, the overlapping and conflicting notions of diaspora, as dispersion and as exile, as loss of political referents and of divine protection, and the meanings acquired by the word, diaspora (including its etymology), provided us with a series of theoretical questions. Among other things, we noted how the word diaspora, a Greek noun initially used to described the dispersion of the Jews, appears in most language in its Greek form, while in Hebrew it corresponds to a series of terms that share very little with their universally used Greek correspondent.

Diaspora: Meaning

The challenges in “mapping out” (or explaining) the cultural hybridity of diaspora also provided us with a series of practical issues. Here’s an attempt to map Jewish diaspora through time and space. It is presented in the form of a “mind map,” and is the work of the artist Ward Shelley (b. 1950).

Ward Shelley's Jewish Diaspora Painted Mindmap

Thus, we proceeded in examining, and testing out, a variety of mind mapping tools. We started from a very useful Wikipedia chart:

List of concept- and mind-mapping software (Wikipedia)

We then evaluated available options, their pros and cons, discussed technical needs and software adoption issues, and installed software on our laptops/mobile devices. This way, we were able to test if, and how, mind-mapping tools can be used to recognize patterns (and thus, “map”), with the goal of applying them to our initial examples of theme and variations (from Queneau to Bach)…

In class, we directly tested two mind mapping platforms:

  • Freemind: (as a stand-alone, multi-platform, open source application)
  • Connected Mind: (a web-based app that can also be added to Google Chrome)

We will continue to refer back to these tools in the coming weeks, as we proceed to explore and evaluate new ones.

Meanwhile, here’s a “mindmap” describing the first weeks of our course:

Mapping Diasporas MindMap1 (work in progress)

Fusion & Koiné | A Diagram for Jewish Languages

This topic always gets me in trouble, as any attempt to synthesize century-old debates tends to do. But that has never stopped me before…

This week, in Mapping Diasporas, we deal with the topic of “mapping the unknown.” We are doing so by juxtaposing theory and practice.

First, we analyzed the fantastic libraries described by J. L. Borges (in The Library of Babel) and Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose), connecting their descriptions to the relationship between labyrinths and the maps (or forms) of knowledge, as well as to the very important notion of “nonsensuous similarity” expressed in Walter Benjamin hermetic text on The Mimetic Faculty.

Benjamin on Nonsensuous Similarity

In a highly undigital fashion, we also tried to use paper and pencil in a (seemingly failed) attempt to draw networked labyrinths and the linguistic patterns of “nonsensuous similarity” that these texts pointed us to.

Moving forward, we will be working on organizing several cartons filled with Yiddish books. These books were printed in the course of the (early) 20th century in various parts of the world. They were assembled by the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in a (failed) community effort to create a shared Yiddish library (the attempt continued elsewhere, and propelled the creation of the Yiddish Book Center).

While a selection of these Yiddish volumes, all printed in California, has been cataloged and became the object of a digital humanities project (and map) I created with Erin Faigin (History BA, 2016), the remaining volumes are now used for instructional purposes.


While their language is a commonality, there’s very little else that unifies these books. Most of them (the totality?) will be unreadable to students enrolled in Mapping Diasporas, and therefore I expect that organizing them will be either an insurmountable challenge or (as I hope) and act of unforeseeable creativity. I will report back on the results.

In the meantime, I will also point students to resources on Jewish languages, and on Yiddish in particular. But I will also share my (very primitive) diagram of the “nonsensuous similarities” that one can detect in how Jewish languages are structured”, which in the past I’ve referred to as a “Jewish language galaxy,” or a “galaxy of meanings.”

The (equally impossible) map of this linguistic galaxy consists of an  array (or constellation) of satellite languages positioned around an intertextual “center” composed by a core language (German, for Yiddish; but Hebrew itself, for modern Hebrew) and its relations with Hebrew and Aramaic. (Note that the diagram was conceived specifically to discuss the linguistic arrays found in Jewish prayer books).

Jewish Linguistic "Galaxy"

I will leave it at that, for now…

Into The Web | A Review of Available Course Resources

As we get our feet wet with course materials, I want to make sure that everyone is aware of the resources I have set up for this course thus far:

As the semester progresses, more resources will be added to the various online venues listed above, and perhaps more will emerge. While using the additional resources, beyond bCourses, is not required, I believe that students may find some use in what is published there as well, especially in thinking about class projects and how to plan them.

As usual, do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions.

Until (very) soon,

Mapping Diasporas: Orienting Texts (1)

Below is a selection of cards excerpted from the texts created by Francesco Spagnolo for the  exhibition, mima’amaqim | from the depths of collections, by David Wilson and Francesco Spagnolo, presented at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco (July 30, 2015-January 3, 2016), in the context of the series In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art, curated by Renny Pritkin.

The cards explore varied and conflicting notions of diaspora, in relationship to words, texts, people, and objects.

diaspora | di·as·po·ra | dīˈaspərə/

diaspora is a greek word. it means scattering, of seed. usually, “seed” is understood as “sperm,” thus the genetic implication of the scattering of a people. but a botanical explanation may work equally well. if one has in mind how farmers used to spread seeds on a field, by scattering them with a fanning gesture of their arm. it’s a theatrical gesture. it’s a display of seed.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015

diaspora | golah | galut

in hebrew, diaspora is usually rendered as golah or galut. here, the traditional understandings of the word — ranging from “expulsion” to “captivity” to, of course, “exile” (which is both, in a way) — are not enough, and the conversation must go further. an implication of this word may instead have a lot to do with “nudity” and “exposure.” even ezekiel (ch. 12), who obsesses with the word golah, seems to suggest that exile involves being exposed to the sight, and specifically to the eyes, of others.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015


diaspora is to be seen.

Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015

biographies in diaspora

life in diaspora is life in motion.

is writing the biography of a diasporic artist all that different from writing that of a diasporic object? in describing the magnes collection, i’ve left behind most conventions. artists no longer have “nationalities,” even when they do carry a passport (some carry more than one, others none at all). their biographies are told, sparsely, by the dates that frame their lifespan and, even more importantly, by the territories, countries, and sometimes cities, in which they lived and worked.

take abram krol, the artist who donated the original etching plate of his portrait of isaac bashevis singer to the magnes in 1997 [Acc. no. 97.14]. according to, he is Abram Krol (French, born 1919). and if one follows, he was instead Abraham (Abram) Krol (Polish, 1919-2001). in his full diasporic biography, in his life within the jewish world, this visionary artist who crossed from hassidism to cubism is better described as Abraham (Abram) Krol (Poland, France & Nazi-occupied France, 1919-2001).

nationalities do not necessarily matter here. quite paradoxically, in diaspora, it is instead the sense of place that truly matters.

the same is true of objects. material culture in diaspora always belongs to many a place. the very materials that make a ritual object often come from different parts of the world — among my favorites @magnes are torah ark curtains, one of which combines an inscription from ukraine with a textile from india, where it was used by jews from iraq… the biography of diasporic objects does not stop at their materials, though. it includes that of the (often unnamed) makers, of those to which the objects were dedicated (this is the case of many ritual objects), and of those who used them. and each of these biographies may very well bring together an array of places, of individual paths, of narratives.

the biography of objects and of people in diaspora is not a trajectory — from here, to there. it’s a network — a network of places.

 Creative Commons License francesco spagnolo, 2015

God is in the detail: Clues, Quotations, Objects and Memory

The working group on mapping diasporas is concluding its series of monthly meetings for the Spring Semester.

Meetings continued to involve the exploration of theoretical issues, collaborative collection research  (based on the holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life), and the critical examination of digital tools and platforms.

The third and last meeting of the semester will focus on a presentation by Francesco Spagnolo, who will illustrate the plan for a new course on Mapping Diasporas, which will be offered in the Fall of 2016 by the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. The course will combine the critical examination (and application) of digital tools to the study of diasporas through material culture.

The focus on objects emerged in the analysis of the quotations that open the chapter, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” of Carlo Ginzburg’s, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1989, p. 96.
Carlo Ginzburg, Clues: Opening Quotations

God is in the detail. A. Warburg
Attributed to Aby Warburg

An object which speaks of the loss, of the destruction, of the
disappearance of objects. It does not speak of itself. It speaks of others. Will it also include them? J. Johns
Attributed to Jasper Johns via John Cage’s Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas, included in A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings, 1969. 

One can also listen to John Cage’s reading of Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas on the Internet Archive: