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Transforming oral histories into interactive art

The Cincinnati Project partners with local women to create installation that highlights the leadership roles of local women of color

By: John(na) Jackson

The Cincinnati Project (TCP) works as a “matchmaker,” pairing University of Cincinnati College of Arts & Sciences faculty with marginalized communities in the city. By uniting those most frequently absent in academic discourse with UC A&S faculty, TCP strives to fulfill their mission: Working for equity in Cincinnati through research.

Most recently the collaborative focused their work on uplifting the voices of women of color in Cincinnati. What Is and What Can Be: Women of Color and the Struggle for Justice in Cincinnati is an interactive and multisensory art installation constructed by TCP and their community participants. The exhibit debuted to a lively crowd Sept. 5 at Reverb Art + Design, then ran Sept. 16 – 19 in the UC Tangeman University Center (TUC) atrium.

Roane holds a microphone and speaks with a hand gesture; Dutt and Shaw are visible in the background

Roane speaks at the panel discussion in the Tangeman University Center about his involvement with The Cincinnati Project's art installation - also featured are Dutt and Shaw. Photo/John(na) Jackson

Jennifer Malat, cofounder and director of TCP, believes the team work surrounding the project is integral.

“The project was important for TCP because it demonstrates what faculty, students, and community can do when working together on a common goal. In this case, the goal was to amplify the voices of women of color,” said Malat.  

On Sept. 18, at 3 p.m., around 50 people from both the campus and greater community gathered in the TUC atrium to experience the exhibit and hear from the panel contributors.

Panel participants included:

- Ariel Shaw, women’s, gender, sexuality studies student (WGSS)

- Brittany Bibb, program coordinator for the African American Cultural and Resource Center

- Anjali Dutt, assistant professor of psychology

 - JT Roane, assistant professor of women’s, gender, sexuality studies

- Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, associate professor and co-director of the critical visions certificate programce with your text

A pair of white headphones hangs from a bright yellow fixture, also holding a row of small paperback books

Bright colors make the exhibit feel more interactive. Headphones are available to hear the oral histories, and attendees could take home the small books. Photo/John(na) Jackson

From a distance, the exhibit catches the eye with its bold and playful colors. It is a highly interactive experience, including panels filled with large printed quotes, headphones that allow you to hear the voices behind the stories and small, physical books to keep.

Traditional research relies on rules that regulate the interviewer from the interviewee – the researcher from the researched. The work of TCP blends this binary through its collaborative, community-partnered method. The “What Is and What Can Be” exhibit highlights their commitment to “centering the margins” by prioritizing the needs of those who are most vulnerable to social oppression and marginalization.

During the panel discussion, Dutt noted the importance of highlighting communities historically left out of larger discussions related to social progress.

“We know who doesn’t get acknowledged all that much in these conversations are the women of color who have always been shaping the city of Cincinnati,” said Dutt. “What was particularly exciting about this project for us was to show that women of color have for centuries and decades been shaping what Cincinnati looks like. And to document that story ideally creates an empowering message.”

An exhibit attendee reads a panel filled with quotes that explore the question: What is ours?

An exhibit attendee reads a panel filled with quotes that explore the question: What is ours? Photo/John(na) Jackson

The exhibit was intentionally built to be mobile, allowing it to be easily installed across the city. Its second stop at TUC included a panel discussion featuring UC students and scholars who were involved in the exhibit’s creation. Former UC student and current program coordinator at the African American Cultural and Resource Center, Brittany Bibb participated in the panel discussion.

Bibb, also the co-founder of the UC student group The Irate 8, was interviewed for the exhibit. “I think it was very interesting that they chose to include people from the actual university and not just the city, because I think that they’re all interconnected,” said Bibb.

The exhibit asks viewers to consider questions like what is home? What is community? What is ours? What is fair? What is action? Through engaging with its multisensory components, exhibit attendees are challenged to re-conceptualize their relationship with space-taking and resource access.

“It also includes opportunities for visitors to contribute their own stories, to connect to resources and support, and become actively involved with local organizations working to create policy changes that will improve the employment, economic, housing, and community experiences of women of color in Cincinnati,” according to Sadre-Orafai.

Roane sees collaborative work like this as imperative to social progress. He notes that oral history collections are not historically neutral sites for research, but believes that his role as researcher is meant to act as a bridge, connecting stories across generations.

Exhibit attendees listening to the panel discussion in the Tangeman University Center atrium.

Exhibit attendees listening to the panel discussion in the Tangeman University Center atrium. Photo/John(na) Jackson

“One of the benefits, or the beauties, of this project was our ability to incorporate students,” said Roane. “Part of this is pedagogical. I think oral history methods, like most methods, aren’t ambivalent. They have been, and can be used for terrible – and they’ve also been used to make practices of social history more expansive, including people who are not normally considered in archives as part of archives. It also puts you in a role as a bridge, where so often in this society, we’re sort of fed the narrative that we should do what we need to do for ourselves – but in the long trajectory of human history, we’re actually bridges. It’s folks in the middle who are bridges between ancestral, elder knowledge, and the folks who are coming behind us.”

Dutt and Roane each came to this project as first-year faculty, new to Cincinnati. Dutt saw the community collaboration as an opportunity to better connect with a new city, while understanding the psychology behind its construction.

“JT and I were both new to Cincinnati,” said Dutt. “Part of the benefit to doing this project for us, as new faculty members, was learning about the people who work to create Cincinnati. So, seeing it here at UC, is really exciting because now we are more a part of this community. In psychology we tend to focus on how society is shaping the individual. In this project we were emphasizing both how society is shaping individuals, but also really what individuals are doing to shape the environments that they’re a part of."

An exhibit attendee leaves feelings and feedback on sticky notes provided by the curators.

An exhibit attendee leaves feelings and feedback on sticky notes provided by the curators. Photo/John(na) Jackson

The benefits of combining the student community with the greater Cincinnati community are evident in the participation of UC student, researcher and activist Ariel Shaw. Shaw, a third year WGSS student, began by transcribing interviews in her position as Roane’s research assistant, to eventually also being featured in the exhibit as a change-making woman of color.

“When I did it, I felt like this was a really cool idea,” said Shaw. “I’m really grateful for the experience, but I didn’t think we would be this big! This is for all the trans women of color who have been silenced through oppression, through murder, through feeling like they couldn’t fit in.”

Oral histories gathered by Dutt and Roane are available to listen to on a Soundcloud page accompanying the exhibit, and digital copies of the small books are accessible on the TCP website. To stay updated on future installation locations, follow TCP on Facebook and Twitter.

The exhibit is funded in part by grants from The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U.S. Bank Foundation, The Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation, and the UC College of Arts and Sciences.