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Open Access Publications from the University of California


Issue cover
Cover Caption: Still image from Zachary Norman, Endangered Data, 2018 (this volume)


Letter from the Editor

Visual studies is a method of looking. Yet, it is a method of looking that aims to supersede what we might frame as “visual,” interrogating hegemonic tropes vested in that which we “see.” Visual studies is a contentious discipline, still preoccupied with defining itself or, perhaps, intent on evading a reified definition. Despite that, dozens of enthusiastic thinkers, including Refract’s editorial board members, enroll in graduate programs annually in the United States, pointing to the value in such an elusive discipline.

Introduction to “Refraction”

Refraction. The word evokes notions of light, optics, wave transmission, energy, and oblique angles. It is used in the field of physics to refer to the way a wave changes direction upon contact with a new medium through which it is transmitted. For instance, when sound waves hit the surface of water, their frequency changes—you may have experienced this yourself, noticing how noises become muffled when you are submerged in a busy swimming pool. Or this might occur when light waves, travelling through the air, come into contact with a new medium. For instance, you may use a straw in a glass of water and notice the straw looks bent at the point where it crosses the threshold of the water’s surface. Taking this notion of bending and shifting waves, the inaugural issue of Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal asks how refraction can be a tool for critically engaging with ways of seeing.

What is Radical Writing in Visual Studies?

From its North American beginnings in the late 1980s, its German beginnings in the 1970s, and its prehistory, going back to Derrida, Benjamin, and before, visual studies has taken as part of its mission the breaking of disciplinary boundaries. Visual studies has always pictured itself questioning conceptual domains and hegemonic identities, inhabiting margins, rethinking received ideas of cultural inquiry, identity, and place. Refraction, the theme of this issue, is one such boundary formation.


Collective memory as an essential component to the survival of African people, enslaved and brutalized, dispersed and disoriented, finds an expression in VOLTA VOLTA. This expression begins quietly, gently, as we see images of Black bodies engaged in ritual spaces, such as young women dressed in white for a church ceremony, and ritual exchanges, like a man shaving himself in a small handheld mirror. These moments of the first half of the film are treated with a delicacy and patience to match their reverence, allowing for the viewer to sit through any restlessness that surfaces as the camera observes with a steady gaze, and to arrive at a place of knowing.

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VOLTA VOLTA: An Artist’s Statement

While the cinematic work of Erick Msumanje’s MFA thesis statement was completed in 2017 at UC San Diego, VOLTA VOLTA (VOLTA for short) presents in itself an opportunity to decode space in all forms, including perspective. This written work by Alexis Hithe, a friend and colleague, will serve as AN artist’s statement—if not THE artist’s statement—and a container for the two artists to reclaim the outdated, solitary space of “the artist’s statement” as a critical, collaborative one, more suitable to the collectivity of the Black creative spirit.

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In Conversation with Erick Msumanje and Alexis Hithe

Erick Msumanje’s short film, VOLTA VOLTA, and the accompanying artist statement, written by Alexis Hithe, reflect on the “ritual” and “digital” spaces experienced by Black bodies. Editorial board member Kristen Laciste had the privilege to interview Msumanje, who is currently a Film and Digital Media Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Hithe, an alumna of the Visual Arts program at the University of California, San Diego, and a collaborator with the collective, Lotus. Laciste asked them about their endeavor, particularly the film’s inspirations and the articulation of “ritual” and “digital.” Laciste interviewed Msumanje in person and Hithe via Skype and over the phone on June 14, 2018. The following is the result of the dialogue between Msumanje, Hithe, and Laciste.

The Double Edge of Visibility and Invisibility: Cassils and Queer Exhaustion

In attempting to understand the divisive power of gender and sexuality, one can begin by pointing out that certain genders have more social and political visibility than others. Feminist post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler reminds us that only in the naming or recognition as boy or girl can we become viable. Butler says, “Desire is always a desire for recognition and [...] it is only through the experience of recognition that any of us become constituted as socially viable beings.” To be viable, one must be recognized, and this battle for recognition within the power structures of gender and sexual identity catalyze queer exhaustion.

Cough, Spit, Swallow

Culture is the beam of light flowing through the built environment and it is the medium that bends the stream of architecture and design. Cough, Spit, Swallow (2018) depicts three conventional sites of ritualized physical contact (intimacy) that have created unique, specialized, and broadly recognizable furniture: the exam table, the dental chair, and the glory hole. The work both satirizes conventional propriety and shows us a method of reading the messages inscribed in the seemingly mundane.

“Tool of Enlightenment”: The Dreamachine’s Effects for Individual Autonomy

Brion Gysin (1916-1986) was an artist, poet, lyricist, linguist, musician, and performer, but first and foremost he was an experimenter and innovator. Spanning 1935 to 1986, his oeuvre illuminates his extreme interdisciplinarity, a quality that has granted him cult status in New York, Paris, and Tangier subcultures, such as the Beats. Though Gysin’s work has been exhibited worldwide, he is best known for inventing the Dreamachine—an apparatus that uses the flicker effect to produce visual hallucinations in the minds of its observers. He conceived of the machine after what he later discovered was the natural flicker effect from the sun. This occurred in 1958 while he was travelling by bus from Paris to the Mediterranean. As the setting sun shone through the branches and leaves of a tree-lined avenue, the fragmented rays of light, combined with the precise speed of the vehicle, produced flashes of light before him. He described the effect this created as: “An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns and supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time.” The brief phenomenon that ended as abruptly as it began—as soon as the bus passed the line of trees—spawned Gysin’s determination to develop a machine that could reproduce the natural phenomenon “at the flick of a switch.”

Linguistic Spatial Violence: The Muslim Cameleers in the Australian Outback

Architectural space can be both absent or present. Architectural absence in previously architected space represents a manifestation of violence and removal. Whether through human, temporal, or natural induction, the disappearance and elimination of architectural form reveals the role of process in creation–deconstruction of both the linguistic and the architectural. I pose linguistic space as the absence of the architectural. The Muslim cameleers in the Australian outback built and forged their architecture and spatial behaviour in the un(der)privileged foundations of what was for these camel drovers a foreign land. While most of their architecture is now gone, helped through apparently violent instruments of time and neglect, their linguistic spatiality protrudes unfadingly in the form of personal names and placenames (toponyms) embedded in the(ir) cultural landscapes-cum-archiscapes. In these remote and removed bivouacs, our subjects built with force and were driven to the edges of their towns to eke out their livelihood. They travelled far, spoke their languages, redistributed creole cants and architectural vernaculars, and used local means to devise their own miniature organisational vehemence (read: spatial violence through building). I use the methodology of (linguistic) spatial writing to link the presence of linguistic landscape ephemera in the namespace/namescape to the absent architectural traces of our amateur builder exemplars. This narrative should be of interest not only to scholars of architectural spatial writing but also linguists of minority languages, students of the linguistic landscape, and historians of violence in colonial localities.

Am I a Generalist or a Linguist? Or, How Relevant Are Emotions and Refracting Methodologies to the Academy? An interview with Joshua Nash

In his piece “Linguistic Spatial Violence: The Case of the Muslim Cameleers in the Australian Outback,” Joshua Nash utilizes innovative methodological approaches, spatial writing, and sensuous scholarship to explore the architectural and linguistic traces of Muslim cameleers crossing the Australian desert in the late 19th and early 20th century. Refract’s editorial board saw a unique opportunity to highlight interdisciplinary methodologies and diverse approaches to scholarship through an interview with Nash, who is currently Associate Professor at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark. Editorial board members Leslie McShane Lodwick and Maggie Wander interviewed Nash in August 2018 to learn more about the methods he employed to write his contribution to this issue. The following is the result of the email exchanges between Nash, Lodwick, and Wander.

Endangered Data

Following the 2016 election, information scientists, librarians, and laypeople began to backup or mirror publicly-available government datasets from institutions such as the EPA, NOAA, and NASA onto private servers and personal computers. This was done in response to the growing concern that data confirming the reality of anthropogenic global warming might be subject to manipulation, repression, or erasure by the current administration. Endangered Data represents an algorithm that can be used to preserve and transmit this vulnerable data by storing it within the pixels of digital images using an encryption method known as steganography. Encrypting the data within the pixels of images protects against attempts at manipulation or erasure. Because the data is hidden within images, it can also be transmitted surreptitiously and retrieved using a decryption algorithm. The steganography algorithm can be adjusted; the user has control over which pixels the data is stored within and how much the color of the pixels shifts. Inverting the premise of obscuring data, the user instead helps visualize the potentially catastrophic outcomes implied by the data itself, creating both metaphor and meaning through the image.

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Glitching the State: The Mechanics of Resistance in Ricardo Piglia’s La Ciudad Ausente

Torture is a storytelling device in that it attempts to (re)narrate and extricate the lives of others, often in the name of a potentially fallacious official memory. In the torture chamber, violence is posited as a search for knowledge whose veracity is not always necessary. States around the world have used torture to extract information and reaffirm their own narrative; due to this legacy of state violence, many post-trauma works aim to reveal the extent of the practice and the damage it causes as a form of resistance. This is particularly relevant to contemporary Argentina, where the legacy of state violence, particularly forced disappearances and torture during the military junta’s Dirty War (1976-1983), is still being dealt with in the public sphere and in institutions such as the Supreme Court, which last year controversially allowed the early release of hundreds of convicted human rights abuses.


Happy Bullish 2011!!!: Olek’s Project B

Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull is imposing in scale. It is a model of muscular machismo and a popular tourist spot. It stands taller than most people in the middle of a very busy part of Manhattan, usually gleaming in the sun like a trophy of capitalist masculinity. Its scale is met with detail, as the Charging Bull features expressive eyes and eyebrows, a stance that exudes motion and energy, and a detailed musculature, from ribs to thighs. Very early Christmas morning (about three o’clock) in 2010, the artist Olek escaped from any potential sugar-plum fantasies and stole down to Wall Street to leave a Christmas gift for New York City. Olek had crocheted, by hand and without assistance, a covering for the Charging Bull, perhaps a sweater or a sort of “bull cozy” and installed it in the dead of night so as to avoid the authorities. She would later entitle this piece Project B (Wall Street Bull).

Harun Farocki, Serious Games III (Immersion) (Review)

Immersion is the third of four documentaries by Harun Farocki that explores the use of video games in the U.S. military. The first film demonstrates training software in which a young soldier called Watson is killed; the second, a live action role play training exercise; the third, virtual reality (VR) immersion therapy; and the final film compares these pre- and post-war simulated environments side by side. The demonstration of the virtual reality software Virtual Iraq employed in Farocki’s film Immersion will be reviewed here.

From a Native Daughter: Seeking Home and Ancestral Lines through a Dashboard Hula Girl

In the Hawaiian language the term ‘ae kai refers to the place where land and sea meet, the water’s edge or shoreline, the beach. It is, as Pacific historian Greg Dening has written, an “in-between space…an unresolved space where things can happen, where things can be made to happen. It is a space of transformation. It is a space of crossings.” This expanded definition of ‘ae kai serves as a cogent touchstone for examining Adrienne Keahi Pao’s and Robin Lasser’s most recent installation work Dashboard Hula Girl: In Search of Aunty Keahi, which featured in the Smithsonian’s Culture Lab exhibition ‘Ae Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence in Honolulu, July 7–9, 2017. In the following writing, I invoke a sort of ‘ae kai of my own in which I merge scholarly analysis with visceral first-hand experience of Dashboard Hula Girl. The result, I hope, is a richly textured exposé that simulates in written form the enigmatic domain that comprises the convergence zone—that is, the ‘ae kai—of intellectual understanding and felt encounter.

Refract Journal, Issue 1: "Refraction"

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal

Refraction | Volume 1 | Issue 1