Claire Shang, CC ’24, Editor-in-Chief
Sylvie Epstein, CC ’23, Managing Editor
Kat Chen, CC ’24, Digital Editor
Tarini Krishna, BC ’23, Publisher
Daniel Seizer, CC ’22, Publisher
Hart Hallos, CC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Madeleine Hermann, BC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Annie Poole, BC ’24, Layout Editor
Benjamine Mo, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Eliza Rudalevige, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Samantha Sacks, CC ’22, Podcast Director
Grace Adee, CC ’22
Dominy Gallo, CC ’23
Cy Gilman, CC ’22
Chloë Gottlieb, CC ’22
Elizabeth Jackson, CC ’22
Nicole Kohut, CC ’22
Sam Needleman, CC ’22
Willa Neubauer, BC ’22
Victor Omojola, CC ’ 24
Sophie Poole, BC ’22
Hailey Ryan, BC ’22
Lyla Trilling, CC ’22
Brooke McCormick, BC ’22
Alexander Aibel, CC ’23
Emily Bach, BC ’24
Zibia Bardin, BC ’25
Cole Cahill, CC ’23
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Michael Colton, CC ’22
Margaret Connor, BC ’23
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Cat Flores, BC ’25
Sadia Haque, BC ’23
Jaden Jarmel-Schneider, CC ’22
Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Kelsey Kitzke, BC ’23
Miska Lewis, BC ’24
Justin Liang, GS ’24
Will Lyman, CC ’23
Becky Miller, BC ’24
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Ellida Parker, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Jai Qureshi, CC ’23
Michaela Sawyer, CC ’25
Sarah Shapiro, BC ’25
Dariya Subkhanberdina, BC ’23
Muni Suleiman, CC ’24
Sona Wink, BC ’25
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Hazel Lu, CC ’24
Vanessa Mendoza, CC ’23
Samia Menon, SEAS ’23
Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Rosaline Qi, CC ’22
Aeja Rosette, CC ’22
Rea Rustagi, SEAS ’22
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Jace Steiner, CC ’22
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Maya Weed, CC ’22
Taylor Yingshi, CC ’25
Table of Contents
It's good to be back in blue.
Letter From the Editor
by Claire Shang
by The Blue and White Staff
Cocktail People by Chloë Gottlieb, Anouk Jouffret, Tarini Krishna, Brooke McCormick, Sam Needleman, and Sam Sacks
Harris Solomon by Nicole Kohut
Morgan Levine by Sam Needleman
Features and Essays
Staging New Features by Muni Suleiman
Anywhere But Here by Hart Hallos
An Underground Playground by Kelsey Kitzke
An Education in Life by Elizabeth Jackson
Measure for Measure
Lily in the Gilchrist by Nicholas Allen
Beginner Astronomy by Lara Smith
by Maya Weed
Season 7 by Michael Colton
Am I Drunk Enough? by Chloë Gottlieb and Daniel Seizer
In Which Our Hero Joins a Community of Like-Minded Peers by Cy Gilman
Anne Higonnet by Bella DeVaan
Arie Esiri by Victor Omojola
Daniel Alarcón by Cole Cahill
Bayeté Ross Smith by Muni Suleiman
by Cy Gilman
by Jace Steiner
The Print Issue
Layout by Annie Poole
A Letter From the Editor
It's time to play the music ... it's time to light the lights ...
This is my favorite time of year—just before spring unfurls in full, when each new day of sunlight still feels like a gift to be marveled at and savored and accepted, tentatively. Soon, when spring is solidified, we might get lost in the world’s new backdrop; it’s better that the cast of winter remains for a little. That we’re decidedly in between things allows us to see how the spectacle of spring forms, to find the processes explaining the sublime.
Our March issue is all about performance, which is to say this very balance of the organic and the orchestrated. For the most part, our writers, finding themselves in the presence of art and artists, take these pages to celebrate, to reveal and revel. It’s an exercise in ekphrasis, which is itself an exercise in attention.
Our four long-form Conversations are each about how art is presented and interacted with: Victor Omojola talks neorealism with director Arie Esiri; Bella DeVaan and art history professor Anne Higonnet walk through the Met Costume Institute exhibit; Cole Cahill speaks to Daniel Alarcón about storytelling and Spanish-language podcasting; and Muni Suleiman learns from Bayeté Ross Smith what it means to be Columbia Law School’s artist-in-residence. In our Campus Characters column, you’ll find Columbia seniors with similar devotion: to poetry, for Morgan Levine, and playwriting and production, for Harris Solomon.
Other pieces praise the possibility of performance. Muni Suleiman considers deeply both what diversity in theater looks like and how it might be achieved, starting with an examination of our campus ensembles. Kelsey Kitzke takes us into Barnard’s Movement Lab, where the ability to move becomes artistic inspiration and source material. And in our third installment of “Anywhere But Here,” our Cut-inspired column, illustrator-turned-writer Hart Hallos brings us to the Q to watch his suitemate in the prelims of New York’s largest drag competition.
And even for the haters of art lurking among our readership, I’d urge you to stay with us. After all, we haven’t forgotten about the important things in life. Our print issue opens with our Blue Notes, in which six writers tell us who they are through their cocktails of choice; it closes with Chloë Gottlieb and Daniel Seizer who ponder an age-old question: “Am I drunk enough?” Cy Gilman—vis-à-vis our trusty mascot, Verily Veritas—takes us through what must be only a lightly fictionalized frat rush. And if you find yourself scrambling over spring break plans, our in-house sage Michael Colton has your back (somewhat).
With all this talk about performance, I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly implicate myself. New to the job, I’m finding the position of editor-in-chief to be its own performance, chiefly one of competence. But it’s my favorite time of year, when things that will imminently become settled fact still feel precarious and precious in their newness. I’m marveling in and savoring every moment in this role and every piece in this magazine, and I hope you’ll join me in the latter now.
Illustration by Madeleine Hermann
(excerpted from cover)
To eat, to drink, to binge, to read, but mostly to chess.
Claire Shang, Editor-in-Chief: Gowanus. The StairMaster. Caio Fernando Abreu.
Sylvie Epstein, Managing Editor: The Avett Brothers, “February Seven.” Salmon over sesame soba noodles. Big scarves.
Kat Chen, Digital Editor: Craig Thompson, Blankets. ELIZA, A Real Romantic.
Tarini Krishna, Publisher: Fotografiska. Laura Les, “Haunted.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Daniel Seizer, Publisher: Danna Paola. FKA Twigs, Caprisongs. Tommy Genesis and Charli XCX, “100 Bad.”
Hart Hallos, Illustrations Editor: Liz Phair. Buying, selling, and eating NFTs. Hilary Devaney, Projections (on view at Harkawik from Feb. 26–April 2, 2022).
Madeleine Hermann, Illustrations Editor: Dan & Drum, “Mona Lisa.” Chai lattes from Liz’s Place. Mitski, Laurel Hell. Wordle. Staff Writer Kelsey Kitzke’s lemon pasta.
Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Peter Luger Steakhouse.
Benjamine Mo, Literary Editor: Beach House, “Myth.” NYC Ferry, Astoria Route.
Sam Sacks, Podcast Director: The Trojan Horse Affair. Bodhi (kosher vegetarian dim sum place in Chinatown).
Grace Adee, Senior Editor: Marry Me (2022). Black Country, New Road, Ants From Up There.
Dominy Gallo, Editor Emeritus: Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Amia Srinivasan, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine.”
Cy Gilman, Senior Editor: Julie Roset. James Meek, “Did I invade? Do you exist?” (London Review of Books). Paper extensions.
Chloë Gottlieb, Senior Editor: Chess.com (the app). Beer Buddy (the app). Beer buddy (a friend).
Elizabeth Jackson, Senior Editor: Sara Bareilles, “Once Upon Another Time.” The Open Ears Project (Spotify).
Nicole Kohut, Senior Editor: Summer of Soul (2021). Daisies (1966).
Brooke McCormick, Senior Editor: Call My Agent! (Netflix). Casa Magazines. Mama’s Too, bruschetta slice.
Sam Needleman, Senior Editor: Andrzej Żuławski. Pretzel shortbread cookies from the pork stand at the Greenmarket. John McPhee, “Giving Good Weight.” Drinking out of a can with a straw.
Willa Neubauer, Senior Editor: Justin Bieber fandom. Love is Blind, Season 2. From a Basement on the Hill, Elliot Smith. Aaron Altaras’ Instagram (@aaronaltaras).
Victor Omojola, Senior Editor: Station Eleven (HBO Max). Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. Saba, Few Good Things.
Sophie Poole, Senior Editor: Jean Rhys.
Lyla Trilling, Senior Editor: Hoop Dreams (1994). Peter Luger Steak House.
Zibia Bardin, Staff Writer: Benjamín Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World. Marco Polo tea from Mariage Frère.
Cole Cahill, Staff Writer: Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. John McPhee, “Tabula Rasa, Volume Three” (The New Yorker).
Iris Chen, Staff Writer: Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter.” Samurai Rebellion (1967). “It’s Not Your Fault You Can’t Pay Attention. Here’s Why,” The Ezra Klein Show (Spotify).
Michael Colton, Staff Writer: Saba, Few Good Things. The Righteous Gemstones (HBO Max). George Harrison, Early Takes Volume 1.
Margaret Connor, Staff Writer: The New Pornographers, “You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver.” Alberto Moravia, Il Conformista. Hungarian Pastry Shop, peach & hazelnut cake.
Sadia Haque, Staff Writer: Queens (ABC). Rachel Lynn Solomon, Weather Girl. Maisie Peters, “Brooklyn.”
Jaden Jarmel-Schneider, Staff Writer: Getting your friends into chess.com then not saying anything when they take the credit. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections.
Anouk Jouffret, Staff Writer: Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking. Orville Peck, Dead of Night.
Kelsey Kitzke, Staff Writer: D. T. Max, “Hanya Yanagihara’s Audience of One.” Being roommates with Illustrations Editor Madeleine Hermann and writing about it for the Valentine’s Day issue. Florence + the Machine, “King.”
Justin Liang, Staff Writer: W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn. Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. The Marías, CINEMA.
Will Lyman, Staff Writer: Garth Greenwell, Cleanness. And Just Like That … (HBO Max). Solange, “Locked in Closets.”
Becky Miller, Staff Writer: Love and Basketball (2000). As Good as It Gets (1997).
Ellida Parker, Staff Writer: Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Le Tigre, “Eau d’Bedroom Dancing.”
Michaela Sawyer, Staff Writer: Parliament, “The Motor Booty Affair”
Muni Suleiman, Staff Writer: Tony Kushner, Angels in America. bell hooks, All About Love. Learning how to love and be loved radically.
Sona Wink, Staff Writer: Getting a concussion and listening to the entire Dune audiobook in the dark.
Hazel Lu, Staff Illustrator: Beach House, Bloom. The Walkmen, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me is Gone. Danton Boller Quartet.
Vanessa Mendoza, Staff Illustrator: Tara Westover, Educated. Encanto (2021).
Oonagh Mockler, Staff Illustrator: Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation. Fleabag (Amazon Prime). Ben & Jerry’s, Cherry Garcia.
Rea Rustagi, Staff Illustrator: Big Thief, “Breathe in My Lungs.” Ian Frazier, “The Vertical Farm.”
Jace Steiner, Staff Illustrator: Quinton Reviews, “The Failure of Victorious” ” (Youtube). Opiartsy, “Hyperpop for Cybergayz” (Spotify). Enjoying moments.
Phoebe Wagoner, Staff Illustrator: Squishy yet chalky rubber grapes.
& Sam Sacks
On spritzes two ways, elderflower and Negronis, Fireball and Jameson.
By Nicole Kohut
Illustration by Maya Weed
Although he denies it, Harris Solomon, CC ’22, has earned his status as a campus character through three separate avenues of fame: 1) the “guy in mustard button down shirt who looks like Timothee Chalamet at Hillel,” 2) the Varsity Show newbie donning a diaper, and 3) perhaps most notably, the writer, producer, and cast member of Bard Overboard, an off-Broadway comedy that debuted at the SoHo Playhouse in November.
Those who managed to snag a ticket to any of Bard Overboard’s four sold-out shows exited the playhouse feeling like a VIP with a dash of vertigo—and not just because some Haim sisters could be spotted in the crowd. For nearly two and a half hours, playgoers got to experience the impressionable nooks and crannies of Harris Solomon’s mind, every moment brimming with excitement, humor, and a little bit of sex appeal. Now, a few months after the commotion has died down, Harris remains a man of simple pleasures—a Milano M5 on olive focaccia with balsamic glaze and the not-so-occasional Silver Moon cinnamon roll.
What few know, however, is that before Harris could fulfill his destiny as Columbia’s newest auteur, he played an infinitely more important role: the tech guy to my Violet Beauregarde in our fifth grade production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Thankfully, as time went on, Harris found his way to the stage and I found my way off of it. Over years of friendship, aided by the close proximity of our childhood homes, the file named “Harris” that rests on my computer’s desktop has grown to include a medley of his many projects, including the eulogy he gifted me for my 20th birthday. While I’m certain that, in a few years’ time, I will have sufficient material to write and profit from a cutting-edge musical memoir based on Harris (see Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tik, Tik … Boom!), one unanswered question stands in my way: When did the transition from booth tech to artist extraordinaire occur, and how?
In pursuit of answers, I met up with Harris to chat over a plate of “THE Dish,” a delicate balance of sushi rice with teriyaki sauce, fried tofu, and frozen vegetables that Harris perfected when we lived together our junior year. While I wait for Harris to wrap up a Zoom meeting for the Varsity Show, which he is co-writing this year, my eyes scan the rest of the room, taking note of Girl Scout cookies and Brazil nuts before landing on six large cases of Vintage Italia Penne Straws huddled in the corner. A present from his worried mom, Harris tells me after catching my gaze. He tosses me two bags—marinara and lemon garlic—to taste test, and it’s not long before we forgo “THE Dish” in favor of the weird pasta chips. The cannellini bean flour and xanthan gum crunching between our teeth creates a symphony similar to the soundtrack of our elementary school snack chats, and our conversation can finally begin.
Unlike many artsy Angelenos, Harris has never studied under Stella Adler and his parents are not producers. Instead, Harris became starry-eyed for the stage during a two-week sketch comedy class at his middle school led by a “hip, young, cool guy” from CalArts who would soon become his mentor. Presented with this neat history, I briefly kid myself that my burning question has finally been answered—the missing puzzle piece has fallen into place, and I can now continue laying down the tracks for a future biopic. But nothing about Harris Solomon could ever be that simple.
Before I can pivot to another line of questioning, Harris throws his legs into the sky, using them to propel his body from the crack of the couch onto less-than-stable footing—a physical mannerism I have come to know well, and a sure sign that his previous response should not be taken for anything more than a prelude. And so the true origin story begins: “Actually—I feel like you’ll get this—if I look way back into my life, part of my identity was getting our group of friends in elementary school to crack up,” he says. I remember this well. Harris would trot around the playground, finding comical ways to relay the relationship status of his cooler best friend to many ladies-in-waiting—or, as Harris prefers to call it, “fending off the press.” While Harris is most certainly a leading man in today’s world, the many years spent serving as a member of another’s entourage provided him with extensive joke-telling practice and fundamental comedic source material. Raw criticism spewed from the mouths and minds of sequin-wearing nine-year-olds has served as excellent fodder for material like Bard Overboard.
Despite its success at the SoHo Playhouse, Bard Overboard was originally intended for an audience abroad—in Scotland, to be exact. While visiting the Edinburgh Fringe during the summer of 2018, a starstruck pre-frosh Harris instantly knew that he wanted to return with a production of his own—and he knew exactly how to do it. Like a true Columbia hard-ass, he studied every element of the festival to determine how to craft a smash-hit play. For instance, Harris tells me that he deliberately constructed Bard Overboard around a comparatively large ten-person cast so that his play would stand out against the one-to-two-person shows typical of the Fringe. As for the plot, though it has evolved substantially, Harris initially thought to write about a group of cruise ship actors when he remembered, simply, that “Everyone knows Disney cruises, so that’s a thing that can get some attention.”
Unfortunately, the production was put on hold when the 2020 Fringe was canceled due to Covid. Nearly a year later, when the world was beginning to regain its color, Harris’ play faced a new challenge—New Yorkers. But tailoring the script to an audience with lots of opinions and limited free time was just the beginning of Harris’ to-do list. After scheduling rehearsals to accommodate his cast of current and graduated Columbia students, reading contracts, and laying down rental deposits, Harris schlepped to his grandmother’s (oftentimes flooded, most always moldy) basement in Queens to build the set with his Penne Straw-fueled biceps. Despite these troubles, Bard Overboard soon premiered at the SoHo Playhouse which, years earlier, staged the debut of Fleabag—a show that inspired Harris to “do both [writing and acting] … and thank God for that because I think I would go crazy if I had to choose one.”
I want to ask him about that second half—the acting half—but before I can, Sam Needleman, our third and final roommate from way back when, interrupts with a FOMO-fueled phone call. “Hey, bubby,” Harris answers after swiping my phone off the table. Moments later, Sam is with us on the couch, Penne Straws in hand. The completion of our triad sparks something in Harris, and soon he’s revealing all the juicy secrets behind each character of his play.
He tells us that he strives to be the antithesis of his own Bard Overboard character—a leotard-wearing narcissist with a BFA from the University of Central Florida. “I don’t feel like I’m that person, but I think there’s a place in everyone’s mind that is that … you know, that’s hyper jealous and is so ambitious and wants to do everything and thinks he’s God’s gift to the world … you know, everyone! Because we’re built that way in a world that values that.” When I ask him about Winston the Wonder Weasel, the cruise ship’s sexually charged mascot, Harris delivers a less wistful response: “I mean, I guess he’s just a furry.”
Not long after Sam makes an unwanted exit, Harris reveals that, despite the unique qualities he’s built into each character, he sometimes sees them as a single unit: “I wanted to show someone who was coming to terms with their fate. Someone who had a dream and was able to realize—well, this sounds very basic—but they were already doing what they wanted to do, they just had to look at things another way.”
“So, kind of like you?” I suggest.
Harris settles into the couch, shoots back up again, and does a little dance before pushing out a formal response.
“Yeah? Maybe … I DUNNO!!! Perhaps …”
Then a shy smile.
“Maybe a little like me.”
By Sam Needleman
I have been lucky to know, in my four years of half-fledged college life, four full-fledged graduates of Beyoncé’s high school: two very tall dancers and two very short poets. They’re a buoyant bunch, and they have all assured me, unprompted and on separate occasions, that a public arts school in Houston is a special place to come of age. “H-town till I drown,” they say, and they seem to mean it. They aren’t suburbanites like the kids supposedly from Boston; they aren’t malcontents of the Sun Belt sprawl like the kids from LA and Miami. They really do hold H-town down, and they do it artfully.
“It was a given that you were interested in something and doing something creative … you didn’t have to
Illustration by Mac Jackson
prove it,” short poet Morgan Levine, CC ’22, told me on a recent afternoon in Hungarian, gently knocking their more pre-professional peers here in the Northeast. It was getting tantalizingly warm, and hindsight was suddenly 20/20 for the ’22s. Levine, normally an energetic optimist, was expressing regret over time not well spent, people not met, literary salons not hosted. Above all, they seemed overwhelmed and perplexed by the careerism ensnaring their classmates, fellow artists included. They were making the classic case for art for art’s sake, and it’s never been so well-timed. “There has to be some kind of commune or arena where you can volley out creative impulses without having them be immediately hierarchized,” they said.
How to resist? Write an English thesis on ekphrasis, of course. What better antidote for post-grad pressures than artful descriptions of descriptions of art? Though postmodern poetry, especially Ashbery, is the central tile in Levine’s mosaic, their historical sweep is much broader. “The first ekphrastic description in the Western canon is Achilles’ shield,” they told me, insisting that the concept was porous from the get-go. “Even then, when you think about it, and the verbs that are being used, it can’t possibly be a direct representation. People are getting in fights and throwing shit in there! That cannot be going on in the shield itself.”
Fair point. And it’s not as if things got any clearer. “After Stein, you can describe a pin cushion by saying ‘sparkly sparkly sparkly’ over and over again,” they pointed out. So if what a poet describes ekphrastically isn’t necessarily a work of art—maybe it’s a text, maybe it’s an object, or maybe, said Levine, it’s the passage of time—then the lines between art criticism and literary criticism, between criticism and art itself, are quite blurry. Levine loiters there, and anyone racing ahead or lagging behind befuddles them: “You’re gonna only look and not taste?” Spoken like an artist at school. “Everything should be together,” they declared. “My goal has always been to merge.”
It’s difficult, of course, for a senior to insist on this sort of merging when everyone around them suddenly seems more interested in mergers and acquisitions. “You kind of watch people’s physical contours shift,” Levine said, recounting with disappointment and defeat the endless job searches, which too often entail abandoning passions. They described their friends “flitting back and forth” between campus and the nebulous world beyond. They offered an alternative, the one they know best: “Poetry is about creating and paying attention and allowing things to have a resonance beyond their physical contours.” A few hours with Levine serves as an edifying reminder—if you needed one at all—that consulting can’t hold a candle to poetry. For Levine, what can? Maybe going to Spain on a government-funded program, Ashbery in hand, Ben Lerner–style. If most post-grad paths are clichés, you might as well pick one that will let you eat good croquetas, go to the Prado, and break even.
They’ll be great at all of the above, I think. Levine tends not to traffic in superlatives, but I do: They are perhaps the best poet on campus, the smoothest barista at Journalism Joe, the most talented editor of the Columbia Review, and the host of the most sublime Central Park coloring parties. I hear that they also have one hell of a WBAR show and the best Instagram story on campus—a torrent of sumptuous reposts. “They posted my cake one time!” a Blue and White editor told me ecstatically, and, upon seeing the picture, I gave Levine as much credit for disseminating the glorious Maira Kalman–esque confection as I gave the editor for baking it. I imagined Levine, quarantined in Texas, periodically putting down Autobiography of Red to send spates of square pleasures to their followers.
Perhaps the only venue where they command more respect than Instagram is the Review, where they now enjoy a cushy emeritus perch. When they invited me to a recent meeting in Kent, I arrived late, bowed to all the literary heavy-hitters, set a three-minute timer, and bet myself a pint of mint chip Häagen-Dazs that “enjambment” would be mentioned before the beep. It was—and positively, at that! A rainbow-haired, turtlenecked Levine mostly kept quiet, including during a fierce debate over a poem about top surgery, but their slow Houstonian nods said it all. “I feel like you’ve been sitting on something,” one of the more loquacious editors finally said, turning to Levine, and the old sage launched into a sermon that somehow held the room rapt while loosening it up. “Mmm,” said everyone, all at once. Next poem.
While the editors weighed a piece “for Pollock,” I watched one of them google Pollock. I thought about Levine’s admirable mission to read every plaque in the Met, not as a pretentious auto-didactic project, but as—you guessed it—a sort of poetic practice. I wanted them to take me there and maybe read to me, but our trip was stymied by homework and Levine’s formidable February social calendar. At least we bumped into each other at an après-ski–themed party in the wee hours of my deadline. While we lounged on a couch—vodka-cran for them, whiskey for me—I turned to them and demanded the highest form of ekphrasis: the party report, a genre at least as old as Plato’s Symposium. Not all EC events are worthy of a drunken close read, but if hordes of seniors in white cable-knit sweaters don’t constitute an objet d’art, I don’t know what does.
“There are no flashing colored lights, which I consider a huge element of a good party,” Levine, ever the epicurean, said. “One bright white light—it’s like the moon. A bunch of people are moving!” Levine’s buddy, by the door, motioned for them. “Oh, shit. We’re gonna go.” And just like that, they were off to a party down the hall, their description still dangling as lightly as one of the cut-out snowflakes affixed to the cement walls.
“My way of accessing truth about the world … is by paying better attention,” they told me in Hungarian. After that chat, I told a friend that Levine is remarkably articulate. Just then, déja vù: I said the same thing to their face on Rockaway Beach a couple of years ago, stopping them mid-sentence, as if the spirit moved me. I had to say it! Even in languid summer conversation, their precision was astonishing, distracting. And as I caught myself marveling too myopically at their diction, I got a little anxious: Shouldn’t I be listening to what my friend is saying? Maybe; too bad. Their words became, Stein-like, too vital and pleasurable to tamper with, like sea glass or the carrot salad that Patti Smith is known to eat at Uma’s, just up the boardwalk.
Photo credit: Mac Jackson
Features & Essays
Staging New Features
Student ensembles do Broadway their own way.
By Muni Suleiman
Illustration by Kat Chen
I only learned of the Columbia University Black Theatre Ensemble in October, when it revealed its existence just to interrupt a quiet dinner with a friend. As an assistant director to their fall play, Once on This Island, she had to cut our dinner date short to make rehearsal. So there I was on Low Steps, alone but with new knowledge. And as a Black student, it mostly left me perplexed—that such an organization existed at Columbia, but also that I’d been utterly unaware of this fact.
I wouldn’t hear much more of it until late January, when I spotted a call for writers posted in Lerner. The posters advertised weekly co-writing sessions for film and theater writers, workshops with film and theater professors, and a writers’ room—all part of the Ensemble’s IncluBIPOC workshop program, an environment of “positive creative growth, as we create a writers community here at Columbia.” With no demands for prior experience or skill, this was an open invitation not only into a world for Black writers but into the vibrant and supportive community that is BTE.
In recent years, there has been growing mobilization directed at Broadway’s lack of diversity. Though more Black actors have reached Broadway stages, those behind the scenes, including playwrights, also need diversified spaces. Plays and playwrights provide the voice through which acting is interpreted. If the narratives we place on the stage aren’t inhabiting diverse perspectives, we run the risk of undermining more visible efforts toward diversity.
Broadway flung open its curtains for the fall 2021 season to unveil seven plays by Black playwrights: Chicken & Biscuits, Pass Over, Trouble in Mind, Lackawanna Blues, Skeleton Crew, Clyde’s, and Thoughts of a Colored Man. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 brought public demands to diversify the theater industry, and the season promised a meaningful change from the relative lack of Black-written theater on Broadway in previous years. But two years later, the commitment hasn’t stuck—as of now, Skeleton Crew and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf are the only Black-written plays still running. The explanation for each ending varies—financial backing and the impact of the Omicron variant have played major roles. Nevertheless, there remains a clear difference in the amount of real estate Black and white playwrights are allowed to occupy on the “Great White Way.”
For one, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over was the first play to open on Broadway since March 2020. After a pushed-up opening date, low ticket sales triggered industry voices, even before the first show, to question the play’s ability to survive its limited run. All major theatrical productions are financially risky endeavors; given the institutional and cultural barriers that can make Black-written plays seem like even greater risks, this pre-existing instability makes such shows even more difficult to produce.
As I read more and more into these stories of professional Black theater, I was particularly intrigued by how the conversations on Black playwrights and diversity on Broadway mirrored similar conversations that I also was hearing on Columbia’s campus.
Columbia’s connection to the professional theater world is twofold. On one hand, current members of Columbia theater spaces may become the famous actors, directors, and writers of tomorrow. On the other hand, the way that Broadway looks right now plays a major role in influencing the future of the theater community— inspiring those who see theater as a welcoming space while turning away those who do not. The theater industry’s racial and financial barriers, therefore, recreate themselves when there are no structural changes enacted to oppose them. While Columbia is an institution in which barriers to theater involvement are very much present, it is also a space for students to contest such barriers by encouraging broader participation in their theatrical groups.
Though optimistic about the accessibility of Columbia and Barnard’s Theater department, Kay Kemp, CC ’22, who helps lead BTE, noted the racial and financial pressures that potentially deter Black students, even those with high school experience, from engaging in Columbia student theater. “Theater is such a centralized, wealthy media,” they said, creating a need for an organization like BTE. “You cannot work in theater without a certain amount of exposure and backing.”
The same can be said of requirements upheld by clubs or productions prior to participation. When productions require prior experience, knowledge of the theatrical canon, or labor-heavy commitment, it can discourage those from marginalized backgrounds; such students are less likely to have had access to that prior experience, or may need to manage a job alongside academics and extracurriculars in order to support themselves.
Jane Walsh, CC ’23, has found similar issues in the audition process. She noted that, for hundreds of years, “theater has been, frankly, really not a diverse community just because of how it’s been structured with the casting, the audition process. You have to know certain people to get anywhere.”
Walsh is the co-president of Latenite Theatre, an experimental comedy theater group that produces an anthology of eight to nine student-written plays. Like BTE, it attempts to diversify its membership through a recruitment process that removes barriers to entry. The club maintains a casual audition process in which preparation is discouraged, bias training is done prior to casting, and production casts are large so as to include as many people as possible. “Shows are only better if you have a diverse range of playwrights, actors, directors,” emphasized Walsh. “[We] definitely try to do a lot of work toward it, but also I hope that we’ll never be complacent.”
Latenite and BTE share another rudimentary but essential practice: Both groups regularly put on student-written plays, rather than productions of canonical work. Walsh explained the significance of this long-standing practice: “I think sometimes so much of the theater world is so focused on redoing, that it’s so hard to break in anything you write to be seen anywhere.” Given the whiteness of the theatrical canon, frequent productions of student plays provide opportunities for budding writers of color to have their work performed, and for college theater spaces to diversify their material.
For Latenite and BTE, then, inclusivity is not limited to making participation more accessible, but also making all types of participation acceptable. Both clubs allow for first-time playwrights to write and produce their work without the pressures of being The Next Best American Play. One of Walsh’s favorite parts about Latenite plays, for instance, is that “there’s not a lot of emphasis on them being really good. The stuff we make is like stuff that’s just weird and halfway through.” Sometimes the plays don’t make any sense, and they don’t have to.
Kemp similarly emphasized BTE’s commitment to versatile productions, noting that they accept “people who are like, ‘I want to direct this thing.’ We’re just like, ‘Then direct it.’ Everything that we’ve done has been—this was a passion project from somebody. Was on the board or wasn’t on the board, it doesn’t matter. If you want to do theater, we’ll make it happen.”
While Latenite and BTE have made likewise efforts to make theater spaces more accessible, they’ve approached making them more diverse in different ways. They’ve created internal structures that differ not only from each other but also deviate from professional theater practices: At Latenite, that takes the form of color-evasive theatrical spaces, while BTE has created an identity-conscious space.
Typically used in reference to theatrical casting, as well as hiring practices at large, the term “color-evasive” refers to the disregard of one’s race, ethnicity, and/or gender, or not finding these identities relevant to a position if it does not explicitly call for specific identities. Latenite undergoes an anonymous submission process in which “everyone has the fair chance to have their play be selected,” and “people will discuss the plays for what they are,” as Leul Abate, CC ’23, Latenite’s co-submissions commission chair, described. Anonymity is maintained for as long as the writer wishes, at times even extending well into rehearsal, so qualifications like writing experience are not emphasized in the submission process.
For all it may do to reduce bias and requirements of experience, though, an anonymous and color-evasive process by definition cannot guarantee that a diverse array of playwrights are included in the anthology. Identity-consciousness, on the other hand, acknowledges and embraces that identities—including but not limited to race, ethnicity, and gender—can inform how a role or position is fulfilled. It goes beyond the concept that anyone can write a play and join their community, consciously recognizing and actively working against the barriers that specifically impact Black, Indigenous and Playwrights of Color. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, BTE wishes to develop as it dismantles: Another primary aim for the group is to further the theatrical artistry of its participants.
It was through BTE, for instance, that Kemp was able to turn their experience with whiteness in the theater world into a source of creative inspiration: “I acted, and then got to college and was like, ‘Oh, there's nothing on this campus that I want to be in. Because there's nothing on this campus for me.’ I went back to writing when I was like, ‘Well, nobody's going to make that but me. There's nobody on this campus who's making work like that right now.’”
The organization functions both as an artistic and a mentoring space, especially through projects like the IncluBIPOC workshop which—at the time of writing—remains open for any Black and other writers of color. It not only provides the resources for those who wish to develop their theatrical interests, but also establishes an identity-based community outside theater. Kemp described BTE not only as the Black Theater Ensemble but also as the Black Teaching Ensemble. “I feel like an important thing about [the IncluBIPOC workshop] is I am listed as the head writer, but that does not mean that I’m not learning,” they explained. “It actually means that I get the opportunity to learn more from these people who are new and have fresh voices and ideas. I'm not teaching anything. We’re all sitting around and teaching each other.” It’s these aspects of BTE’s environment that contribute to Kemp’s description of BTE as a community theater.
Formally, Kemp is BTE’s resident playwright, as well as one of its co-presidents, alongside Madison Hatchett, BC ’22, and Emily Ndiokho, BC ’22. In practice, the ensemble’s structure is much more decentralized, with the distribution of artistic work far more fluid than the rigid roles assigned on paper. Those who might otherwise feel unwelcome in theatrical spaces are thus offered an opportunity—not only for bit-part participation but for immediate immersion in the creative work of the ensemble. They might be experiencing, for the first time, that ideas outside of theatrical convention can be celebrated, as opposed to shunned.
“That’s extremely important—learning how to collaborate with people,” said Hatchett. “You don’t need to have experience ... You’ll learn just by the virtue of being in that space.”
Distinct from an approach that deemphasizes the quality of the plays to endorse creativity, BTE’s communal ethos and decentralized structure not only includes students without a traditional theater background, but also recognizes what they are capable of. Kemp summarized BTE’s messaging: “We’re making art like, ‘Hey, we think that stories are really valuable. We think that your story is really valuable, and we want to make it easy for you to tell that story. I want to give you tools. We don’t want to give you a framework, but we want to give you tools.’”
The depth of BTE’s communal support structure—artistic and otherwise—allows its members to produce something audiences might not see anywhere else on campus.
Even with the inclusive approaches of BTE and Latenite, there are still difficulties in trying to diversify theater on Columbia’s campus. For one, a strict timeline for auditions means that, even if one wanted to include as many people as possible in a production, there’s a limited time frame for recruitment. Moreover, there still remains larger institutional barriers within and beyond the university itself that these clubs cannot overcome themselves.
“We can’t change what’s going on at this university for people of color. We don’t have that capacity if we tried … we have to change the way that we’re making work to make it more accessible to those people,” Kemp reflected.
But BTE and Latenite are still valuable, serving as the campus conduits for stories. A “safe and restorative space,” as Hatchett described BTE, allows more people into the industry as well as the audience, whether theater is a long-term career aspiration or not.
“Just because some of us on this e-board want to pursue theater full time doesn’t mean that you have to take theater extremely seriously,” said Hatchett, in a reminder that these student ensembles value theater as process and not product. “You don’t have to be a theater person just to have people that you have fun with. That’s what rehearsal spaces are designed for.”
Anywhere But Here
Down the runway with Paloma LaMona.
By Hart Hallos
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Are you pro or anti gender norms? If yes, you might have heard of a little something called drag, which has been sweeping New York City ever since Season 10 of Rupaul’s Drag Race aired in 2018. Kidding! The drag scene’s recent influx of performers is no joking matter. Local competitions offer students, artists, and twinks vital exposure and connections in an industry where Exxposure and Connie Xtions might be the names you need to know to get booked.
Enter Paloma LaMona, CC ’23, who started performing in drag in June of 2021. In her first competition that September, she placed fourth and earned the judge’s gushing praise. But Paloma doesn’t just perform—she designs and makes her own costumes, does her own hair, and mixes her own performance audio. To walk into Paloma’s room is to walk into a veritable drag atelier: Wig heads gaze proudly over a floor dotted with pins and sewing patterns, and the entire back wall disappears behind a packed clothing rack.
It’s a slight change from two years ago, when Paloma and I (famously) lived on the same John Jay floor. But there might have been signs: Juliàn, Paloma’s out-of-drag identity, didn’t not wear heels to our 8:40. Since Paloma’s birth, I’ve followed her to gigs and competitions around the city—including last month, for a preliminary round of Lady Liberty on the third floor of the Q. Maybe it was food poisoning from the night before, or maybe it’s because I’m an empath, but something about the night felt special. You want to find out why? Okay, but you’ve got to control your erection.
5:39 p.m.: Paloma and I decide to meet at an up-and-coming psychedelic brunch palace that plays God to day-in-my-life-NYC TikTok: Carlton Arms Suite 8A. It’s also where we both live, and where I often run into Paloma and their whirring sewing machine on late-night trips to the bathroom.
6:52 p.m.: A knock on the door reveals itself as Dominique: Paloma’s roommate, a makeup artist, and SEAS student. She’s shimmering in a mint-green slip and matching sparkly eyeshadow, sipping Fireball from a Dixie cup. I opt for blue Gatorade, memories of vomiting in the communal bathroom still fresh.
7:10 p.m.: The next knock is Paloma and her boyfriend/dutiful drag helper, Julian. Both carry a huge bag stuffed with supplies; I spy an entire roll of paper towels, some boating tape, and a lavender Telfar mini. My eyes refocus on the huge pink poinsettia in Paloma’s hair—somehow chic when paired with a black knee-length down jacket and hot pink Crocs. We walk briskly to the subway, Paloma nervous about missing the 7:30 call time.
7:25 p.m.: We discover that we’re missing black eyeliner, which Paloma had planned on using to add a beauty mark. Possible solutions include a packed eyebrow pencil or Dominique and I doing a mad CVS dash, but the pencil is too light, and Paloma wants us to be able to enter together. The beauty mark is abandoned.
7:39 p.m.: Paloma goes straight to the dressing room upon arrival. Dominique, Julian, and I check out the empty second floor, which will host the sex party Qruisers later tonight. The floors and walls are Despicable Me black, decorated with graffiti and papered with posters of Elvira and hunkily-rendered cartoon characters. Passing by a Ned Flanders with particularly bulging pecs, I realize it’s okay to be gay.
8:06 p.m.: The third floor is also classic Gru-core (Grore?): cold black walls, vaguely industrial fixtures, and a high ceiling where iridescent plastic snowflakes dangle loosely. The pre-show crowd is us and the DJ, who sways somberly while puffing on a Juul. He’s wearing a cropped gray hoodie and black mesh boxer briefs layered over white cotton briefs, so the pre-show music is incredible. A club mashup of “good 4 u” and “Watermelon Sugar” plays, and everyone in the room simultaneously cums. Shaken from the collective orgasm, I stagger down blue-lit stairs to the first floor—a jazzier vibe, think big velvet curtain—to get cash. A possibly-bearded man (though I could be projecting) performs intensely on the piano, but no one is paying attention. Above the bar, stock footage of Earth as seen from outer space plays.
8:15 p.m.: Dominique and I decide it’s time for a drinkey-poo (industry term!) at the third floor bar. I ask someone whose porn I’ve watched on Twitter if he is in line, and he replies, “Yes,” in a way that makes it clear he is extremely attracted to me. In a pleasant and possibly sex-party–related surprise, I spot blue Gatorade behind the bar and get one, receiving with it a small gray puzzle piece. The mural across from the bar features two boys in medieval-esque attire (neck ruffles and jockstraps).
8:25 p.m.: I ask Julian how he thinks Paloma is feeling. “Nervous,” he replies. Tonight’s prelim consists of a runway, a performance, and a lip sync between the two top-ranking contestants. Lady Liberty is a staple competition in the NYC drag community: Winners earn scene recognition and have been known to appear on a certain RuPaul drag show. Tonight’s hosts, Brita Filter and Nicky Doll, introduce the judges, seated with a bird’s-eye view above the stage.
8:34 p.m.: The first contestant walks the runway in a satiny, pastel bodysuit embroidered with rhinestone avocados. Midway through, she pulls an actual avocado out of her bra and hands it to someone else in the front row. Obviously, I am crushed. I realize the “runway” of Lady Liberty is a small stage three feet above the ground, which contestants ascend via apple box and descend via shaky staircase. Brita offers an arm to contestants who seem like they might snap an ankle.
8:42 p.m.: Paloma is the eighth and final contestant to walk the runway. She’s adorned in cascading tiers of ruffled bandana fabric: blue, pink, white, pink, and blue again. Brita clocks the trans flag reference immediately. What Brita doesn’t know is the painstaking process and repeated dorm floor consultations that went into choosing each specific shade. The judges don’t know that each tier was hand-ruffled by Paloma over weeks of late-night lounge sewing sessions, or that the entire outfit, including matching headband and shoes, was rhinestoned by Paloma and Julian during finals season. Still, I watch the crowd nod approvingly as phones are rushed out of pockets to record the moment. As Paloma exits the stage, Nicky Doll reads the description she wrote for herself: “A little hood, a little classy, and proud of it.”
9:10 p.m.: Performances begin with live singing that leaves the audience unstirred. After each number, contestants walk around collecting tips in a plastic fish bowl. Audience favorites include the highest jump split I’ve ever seen and a TikTok-themed performance.
9:39 p.m.: Paloma is the final performer of the night. When she walks out in full Dora costume to the Dora theme song, a judge rushes down from their seat to tip her before she has even started lip syncing. The performance follows Paloma as a grown-up Dora: working at a job she hates, getting fired from said job, disappointing her parents, and drinking tequila. One of Paloma’s earrings—a gold bamboo hoop, worn for both the runway and performance—falls off midway and clatters to the ground. But when she kicks it determinedly offstage, sending it flying into Julian’s lap, the audience cheers. I glance at Brita, whose beam is unmistakable.
9:47 p.m.: Dominique and I nab another round of drinkey-poos during votey-poo time. Every puzzle piece cast into Paloma’s fishbowl fills me with a little bit of hope—until I notice one contestant’s bowl is conspicuously empty. It’s almost as chilling as the half-shaved head I just spotted in the crowd. Dominique and I savor the final minutes of votey-poo time by dancing alone near the bar (in a cool way), and I spot a Grindr match but don’t approach after convincing myself he was catfishing me. Cue the And Just Like That … theme song, hun!
10:02 p.m.: Brita and Nicky call the contestants up on stage, where Paloma, who drunkenly “fell” at the end of her performance, has a spot of blood forming through the knee of her tights. After a lot of gay drumrolling (in which gay people do a drumroll), the top four are announced: the second contestant, the fourth, the one who performed the TikTok number, and … Paloma! We absolutely lose our shit. Another round of drum rolls (less gay but more vers), and the fourth- and third-placing contestants are eliminated—leaving Paloma, holding hands with the other TikToking member of the top two. Later, Paloma will tell me that “people in the scene” told her to prepare for the top two lip sync after her Dora performance, but onstage, her surprise seems genuine.
10:13 p.m.: The top two lip sync is a classic drag anthem—“Levitating” by Dua Lipa—that even Brita admits has too many words. Both of Paloma’s knees are bleeding through her tights now. Still dressed as Dora, she claps to the beat, mashes my face with her hand, and steps over her opponent’s onstage barrel roll. Before I can process what’s happening, the song is over and Nicky and Brita are announcing the winner of Lady Liberty: PALOMA LAMONA! I watch Paloma’s face crumple as the space around me dissolves into cheers. Dominique and I jump up and down together; I get squashed amidst a crowd of people trying to get pictures; DJ Double Briefed-Up whispers (shouts) into my ear: “Your friend is such a fucking star.”
10:30 p.m.: My proposal of c’mon guys let’s just check out Qruisers for a little bit is roundly rejected (virgins!), so Dominique and I chat with contestant Lori Lu as we wait for Paloma. She teaches music to children, and says that they love her drag—“they want to touch everything.” As we leave the bar, someone hands us t-shirts wrapped in plastic. I ask what they’re for, and he mentions something about it being our lucky day. When I see what’s on them—No SHIRT, No SHOES, No GENDER, with a small Corona Beer logo underneath—I can’t help but agree.
10:52 p.m.: Paloma’s blood spots are growing slowly, but she’s more focused on recounting the night—were people living, can you believe that judge tipped her, why would someone barrel roll? Most importantly, she is already starting to plan what to wear for the semifinals. There’s a future here that is impossible not to feel excited about. A name—Rupaul—flickers excitedly and nervously on our tongues as we fantasize on the subway ride home.
11:34 p.m.: Paloma gets her first taste of the glamorous life of a Lady Liberty winner—a wig cap duct-taped to her hair. Quora offers no help, so Julian takes matters into his own hands, cutting Paloma’s hair in the dorm bathroom. Paloma winces as she cleans her knee scrapes. She will later reflect on the evening as “pain. But also good things happened.”
1:07 a.m.: We end the night in the lounge of Carlton Arms 8A, eating Koronet Pizza and watching Too Hot To Handle. If I were more poetically inclined (sorry: lame), I’d highlight the circularity of the moment: The very space where Paloma made her runway outfit from scratch, mixed the audio for her performance, and so often works on her craft is, for tonight, the space where she can just enjoy the win. But all I can think about is the delicious taste and widespread variety of Corona©’s new line of 2022 Pride Products! With new Hard Seltzers That Use They/Them Pronouns, everybody can join in on the fun—because life is a cele-GAY-tion! #Ad.
Photo Credit: Hart Hallos
Photo Credit: Hart Hallos
Photo Credit: Hart Hallos
Photo Credit: Hart Hallos
Photo Credit: Hart Hallos
An Underground Playground
Discovering Barnard's Movement Lab.
By Kelsey Kitzke
Before I could step into Barnard’s Movement Lab, I had to take off my street shoes—a reminder that in some ways, this is a dance studio like any other. Upon entering, I wasn’t greeted by a typical studio’s floor-to-ceiling mirrors, wall-mounted bars, and panoramic windows. Instead, the Movement Lab features stage lights, sound systems, and six different projectors—four project onto the walls and two onto the floor. Even as I found myself struck by the artistic possibilities around me, the bottoms of my feet tethered me to the cool dance floor—an uncanny convergence of the digital and the tangible. Of course, this is just one of the University’s many state-of-the-art performance spaces. But what distinguishes the Movement Lab from other venues is its dedication to exploring the intersection of movement and technology.
Tucked away behind an inconspicuous white door on the lower level of Milstein, the Movement Lab’s learning environment stands in stark contrast with the bustling study spaces and classrooms above. Curiosity in college is most often channeled toward predetermined goals: We learn new skills to complete a project, write a paper, take an exam. The Movement Lab, however, is designed to encourage “lateral exploration,” as associate director Guy de Lancey called it. Others used the simpler word “play.” The Movement Lab is a place for playing—with the technology, with bodies, with space, and prioritizing discovery over the final product.
That’s how Noa Weiss, BC ’21, the Lab’s post-baccalaureate fellow, explained the eclectic array of equipment we came across during my tour. Weiss turned on the six projectors, each displaying a different looping video of a serene landscape. The videos are often used at the weekly meditative Stillness Lab, one of the most common ways that non-dancers interact with the facility. Jellyfish floated below me, a cat jumped through swaying tall grass in front of me, and lava poured down the volcanic rock to my right. When I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine what lava could possibly sound like, Weiss used the studio sound system to demonstrate its crackling. Oh, and these are the skeletons, he added, pointing to the two long black bags of complete human skeletal models. A human anatomy class meets here, too.
First conceived during the development of the new Milstein Center, which opened in 2018, the Lab was proposed as a space on campus to give physical form to the intersection of art, movement, and technology. “We thought it should be like a sandbox,” de Lancey said, “just filling it up with all the latest technology.” The Lab’s equipment constantly evolves to meet artists’ desires. The result is a highly flexible space especially beneficial for the student artists-in-residence (SARs) that the Lab hosts each semester.
Last fall, the Lab’s adaptability had a clear utility: In becoming somewhat of a film studio, dance majors could shift their thesis projects from the stage to the screen. But the Lab has since been able to resume a broader range of in-person activities. And as a space dedicated to the creative utilization of technology alongside bodily movement, the Lab is poised to challenge what the return to the “physical world” even means.
As opposed to other “movement labs” on campus that understand bodily movement through scientific research, Barnard’s Movement Lab attracts more artists than scientists. Still, these artists represent a wide variety of artistic and technical backgrounds. Current SARs Eli Duncan, BC ’22, and Sophie Paquette, CC ’23, highlighted that the Movement Lab and its technology have provided some freedom from the restraints of their other artistic disciplines, allowing for a new kind of engagement with art and the physical body.
A combined architecture and visual arts major, Duncan uses the Movement Lab to experiment with virtual reality. It’s a rare opportunity for him to act upon his passion for the crossroads of architecture and installation art. “It’s really exciting—the idea that you can just take anything that you make on the computer and then instantly enter into it physically, or somewhat physically,” he said. Initially, Duncan used VR to “test out” ideas for the “real world,” but he described that playing with the technology has allowed him to discover an entirely new visual language. He’s become fascinated with the uncanny juxtaposition of real images and surreal transformations, describing a software process that projects photos of real textures (like close-up images of flowers or food) onto three-dimensional virtual surfaces to create a bright, colorful, and chaotic viewing experience. Rather than gawking at the hyperrealistic techniques in classical paintings, Duncan is interested in seeing the flaws the technological process reveals in his art.
Though she has a background in creative writing, Paquette said that her interest in the Movement Lab stemmed primarily from her experiences as a roller skater. When she took up skating a few years ago, she discovered her body could move in ways she hadn’t experienced before—a form of creativity that didn’t require being hunched in front of a computer screen. When we met, she showed me the bright purple roller skates that she’s carefully painted and tweaked herself, a manifestation of her artistic approach to skating and her interest in construing meaning through movement. Recently, Paquette has been utilizing the Lab’s motion capture suit to project her movements onto an avatar displayed on the Lab’s walls, experimentation grounded in themes of learned movement and muscle memory.
Paquette joked about the motion capture technology’s imperfections: As she moves, the avatar might completely contradict her movements, its arm impaling its torso or otherwise splaying wildly. “It’s just a different way of thinking about my movements that they’re being read, like they are legible, but also that they’re being transformed [by the technology],” she said. But she also highlighted how the technology’s imperfections are a big part of its potential: “It doesn’t matter if my movements aren’t super perfect because they’re going to be warped through the avatar anyway.” While motion capture might seem physically alienating as a medium, it lets Paquette pursue a new kind of artistic embodiment in which she’s learning the body rather than operating it.
In part because of his architecture background, Duncan resisted the idea that this technology connects the digital and the physical worlds. “When you're in a space, you feel like you can pick up on the presence of things that are physically around you, and VR is a completely visual medium where there's no actual mass or volume that surrounds you,” he said. Sometimes, though, VR plays tricks on your body: Your arm tingles when you put your hand through a virtual wall or you feel like you’re falling as you walk down a virtual hill. Sound is particularly tricky, Duncan explained. “There’s so much that we absorb and process about spatial environments like based off of the sound that we hear, and so I’m definitely really interested in using sound as the main property that kind of keeps it grounded.” In the VR experience Duncan is building, you maintain an understanding that the world you’re in is virtual—he’s not trying to trick you into its tangibility. But the experience also forces you to surrender to how your body and brain will try to make sense of the nonsensical. As a result, it’s the imprecision in the technology—its failure to create a hyperreal experience—that shapes the artistic process and product.
The Movement Lab maintains a close relationship with the dance department, where director Gabri Christa is also a faculty member, and with the campus’ dance community. Dance and art history major Sophia Fung, BC ’22, emphasized the Lab’s specialness as a campus performing arts space. President of CoLab Performing Arts Collective, a group dedicated to building a community for creators of all kinds to present their work, Fung hosts its semesterly showcase in the Movement Lab, where she is also a SAR this spring. She highlighted both the Lab’s access to an array of technology and its intimacy as a performance setting, particularly for experimental or unconventional works. “I think that a lot of artists are drawn to the kind of expansive ideas that you can have in the Movement Lab, because you can have so much more interaction between, say, yourself and the projection, as a mover,” Fung said.
While the Movement Lab emphasizes fun, curiosity, and play, it doesn’t shy away from the biases this new technology can initiate and illuminate. The Lab isn’t pushing a world in which technology rules supreme over our lives and bodies; it’s invested in critiquing the racial, gendered, and classed implications of the world of technology.
“This technology is new and exciting and pretty accessible and also so racist,” Weiss said while discussing the Lab’s work with media artist LaJuné McMillian’s “The Black Movement Library Potrrait Series.” The October installation consisted of motion capture representation of Black performers from their online archival project Black Movement Library, designed to push against the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Black movement in existing databases.
It’s exciting to play with the latest technology, to wave at your virtual avatar and see it wave right back. But as de Lancey noted, the Movement Lab’s always been about more than marveling at the latest gadgets: “If we get past the first phase of wonder about it—like, there’s you waving, what does it mean socially now?”
Illustration by Madeleine Hermann
An Education in Life
On Life at the End of Life, companionship, and care.
By Elizabeth Jackson
Scroll through the spring course listings for the American Studies Department, and you’ll see titles that seem to fit squarely under the department’s suggestive but ambiguous name: “Race, Poverty and American Criminal Justice,” “The Problem of Social Class in Post-War American Literature and Culture,” “Equity and Access in Higher Education.” Eventually, though, you’ll come to an entry that seems to have little to do with America specifically: “Life at the End of Life.” Don’t we all, after all, live and die?
Broadly speaking, Life at the End of Life is about palliative care. The course has a traditional seminar component, in which students discuss readings on facets of care at the end of a person’s life and listen to guest speakers ranging from chaplains to physicians to English professors. Between two and four mandatory volunteer hours with palliative care patients each week complement these seminars, during which students are paired with one or two “long-term companions” receiving care at Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in East Harlem. Companionship this semester is mediated through Zoom, but in years past, students worked with patients at the facility. In addition to spending time with and providing individualized support for their long-term companions, students might be called upon to assist with general tasks in the nursing home, like distributing coffee or organizing entertainment.
More broadly, but perhaps more accurately, Life at the End of Life is about reconceptualizing relationships to ideas that scare and overwhelm many of us. Death. Illness. Autonomy. Spirituality. Care. Intimacy. It is about confronting these hard themes rather than avoiding them, as American society often suggests we do.
Most of the students and teachers I spoke with mentioned the stigmatization of death and illness in American society, with some comparing this stigma to attitudes in other cultures. Rebecca Yao, CC ’22, remarked that “especially in America, we don’t really talk about death at all. It’s kind of taboo,” an attitude that contrasts with her experience with family in Taiwan. There, death is “talked about a little more widely,” though even these conversations, she acknowledged, may not be sufficient to cultivate a sense of societal comfort with death.
Changing the way we perceive death may also involve changing the way our society and medical professionals treat the dying. Hana Ghoneima, the teaching assistant for the class, mentioned that in some cultures, there is a greater sense of community surrounding death and dying. She referenced a recent study of Kerala, India that found death to be, as she described it, a “communal, social thing. It’s not a medicalized isolation.” Ghoneima elaborated that “if a person is dying there, they’re not sent to a fluorescently lit room where they stay by themselves.” The patient doesn’t experience isolation as a default, punctuated by periodic visits; instead, they are enmeshed in a social fabric of friends and community workers, who offer prayer or food or companionship. She connected this community mindset to the discussion-based nature of the class; the format helps to drive home the idea that death must not be borne entirely alone, despite the tendencies of American health care and society. Nevertheless, the class does not completely nullify the sad connotations death still holds for many. Instead, Nicholas Kime, CC ’22, describes the ultimate takeaway from the class as “the ability to live amidst the discomfort and be okay with that.”
In addition to recontextualizing death, the class also calls upon students to consider different conceptions of care and the medical system. Kime commented that even though the medical profession typically prioritizes the extension of life at any cost, in a palliative context, such a philosophy may not be the best or healthiest thing for the patient, depending on one’s definition of healthy. Zoe Lin, CC ’22, further explained that compared to other areas of medicine, palliative care is much less concerned with diagnosing problems and much more about managing relationships between the patient and their loved ones. Palliative care professionals often deal in the unquantifiable: the emotions of patients and their loved ones, including grief. We often think of the ultimate goal of medicine as finding a “cure,” said Lin, but in palliative care, there typically is no cure. “The shift has been, let’s think more about healing—not just of the body, but also of relationships and their community. And do they feel like they have any regrets, and if so what can we do to maybe make amends?”
Lin emphasized the importance of a varied roster of healers in the context of palliative care, including chaplains and spiritual counselors. In one class, a spiritual counselor explained that the most important phrases a person can say to a palliative care patient are “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “I love you,” and “thank you.” Lin asked the counselor what happens if patients or their families struggle to say these things so explicitly—in her own experience in Chinese culture, saying “I love you” can be unexpected. The counselors underscored that people may communicate these sentiments differently, potentially nonverbally; for loved ones and caregivers the task is twofold, both to identify and then interpret intimations of intimacy.
Care, particularly in the palliative context, is often found in simple acts, like remembering someone’s coffee order. Kime recounted his own experience working in-person coffee duty with a professional caregiver, saying that he would man the coffee cart while she told him the residents’ orders, which she knew by heart. The caregiver also brought a speaker, and she’d sing. “All these old people dancing, jacked up on caffeine with so much sugar in it,” Kime recounted. “And then this incredibly kind woman just singing so loudly, beautifully, dancing with some of the residents when they would come by.”
Part of caring sympathetically and effectively may also mean changing our natural responses to particular illnesses. Students are sometimes paired with long-term companions who suffer from dementia, and do not always experience reality in the same way as the students. One of Kime’s two long-term companions experienced severe dementia. Sometimes “you just need to, not play along, but entertain whatever they say and whatever situations and worlds they build for themselves,” he summarized. “That’s the world they’re in, and acknowledge that reality. And if you don’t, it’s going to be worse for them and for you.”
Sometimes, accepting the terms of his companion’s reality meant subscribing to outlandish premises, like a belief that she was on the run from bank agents. Never predictable, their interactions were defined by their variety, ranging from silly to poignant. One day, she might request that he write a letter asking the Pope to visit; another time, she spoke about being ready to die. “I didn’t know her well,” Kime remembered, “but the fact that she confided that in me. It’s so weird, like [a] handing off of responsibility, but it’s also so beautiful, in a sense.”
Dr. Craig Blinderman, who directs the course and Adult Palliative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, explained that reconsidering how we interact with dementia patients involves focusing on what this person can still experience rather than dwelling on the abilities and memories they’ve lost. He recounted a guest lecturer who encouraged students to observe what they were seeing without attempting to impose a cognitive frame on it. For example, students were meant to refrain from making value judgements or placing events in a context of earlier experiences The exercise allowed them “to explore reality as it is without the filter of our cognitive functioning to give it meaning or provide it with a context and so on.” Blinderman pointed out that some people that work with patients with dementia might view the condition as a “terrible loss” and irrevocable fall from an “idealized state of human functioning.” But it’s perhaps more productive to focus on the things these patients can experience, which are often more sensory than higher-order cognitive.
“What is that like for them, to feel the water touching their face, to experience chewing or to have a sensory experience of the sunlight hitting them? And what might that bring up for them? The memories might be shifting or disappearing or fading, or they might be mixed and hard to muster, but what else is there?” Blinderman asked.
The long-term companion structure lends itself to developing intimate relationships over short periods that are nevertheless unlikely to persist for years into the future. How do volunteers and caregivers strike a balance between the opposite imperatives of developing empathetic connections with patients, while preserving the emotional distance required to continue working without consistent pain? Lin commented that doctors are often trained to view their patients as diagnoses and “bodies that they need to heal” before engaging with them emotionally, implying that the secondary nature of the emotional connection may help some doctors to bear the loss of their patients.
In addition to maintaining professionalism, though, some shared that caring effectively for patients requires being fully present to every emotional moment. In discussing his own weighing of emotional intimacy and distance, Blinderman described a “flow” between home and work, and between tasks at work rather than the establishment of discrete boundaries. “I want to be completely engaged in that moment when someone is sharing something that’s tender or difficult or challenging. And then the next moment it may be something else. I may be talking to a nurse about getting the right pain medication dose, and then I’m going to be in that moment, right? And then the next moment might be reading a novel at home and being in that moment.” Phrased in terms not dissimilar to the strategies students in Life at the End of Life learn for patient care, Blinderman’s approach for himself is also one of accepting reality by allowing it to “flow through you as opposed to creating a sense of distance.”
One of Life at the End of Life’s central messages is that care—like death, like life—should be everyone’s concern. The responsibility to care falls not only to doctors or chaplains or family members but also to strangers who, in caring, become friends; it falls to listeners, to talkers, to those of us who can. One of the last memories Kime shared with me was of standing in front of a window with his long-term companion: “[It] looked straight onto a brick wall, and she was like, ‘Nicholas, look at the birds!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, the birds!’ She goes, ‘Look at all of them,’ pointing at her church.”
“It was so sweet,” he reflected, “sharing that with her, her joy from living in her reality, where she was able to look outside of that window into a shaft and then make something really beautiful.” And as we go on, there is suffering. There is death, and grief, and perhaps even forgetting. But there are also brick walls to be made into birds, dances around coffee carts, and tenderness—to be given and gotten and held fast in our hands.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
Measure for Measure
Lily in the Gilchrist
By Nicholas Allen
... I was sitting in
the Gilchrist in the
corner in the back
there minding myself
when who walks in
but Lily in her
and rubber heels
followed there by
a band of rattlers
teeth flashing like
them, but what
was I to do
but carry on
and eating smoke?
as the band tumbles
in from the white,
all this in the town
of Paint in the
heart of the desert
mind you, tumbling in
like the flakes
my glass is hollow
and nothing else to smoke
so up I step on over
to Ray who
fills me up
and slips a pack,
me a stare
from the other end
and I see my reflection in
her painted nails again
then back in the
corner I see
her blazing all
the other cowboys
as many looks as
she can sell,
and I remember
that smile from
with bear stew
and her architect son...
blazing like Lily
behind the blizzard,
for a moment
it again, no more
an Easter dress, she
leaves her coffee
and camel soup
I see her leave our life behind
and leave with her –
I turn to watch
myself watching us
Illustration by Maca Hepp
By Lara Smith
Animated Illustration by Jace Steiner
The first time I see a sky full of stars (and I mean real stars) I am around eight years old and visiting my grandparents in southern Germany. I say real stars because the light pollution in New York City, where I grew up, leaves the entire night sky a grayish yellow, no shining specks in sight. Before I see stars in Germany, they are a novelty that featured only in big, glossy printed pictures my father keeps on the glass dining room table. The pictures are taken from his telescope, the Calypso, the product of a doctorate in astrophysics he completed the year I was born. His relationship with stars proves to be confusing for me. In preschool, when I am questioned about my father’s profession, I respond: “He’s an astronaut.” When other preschool kids eagerly ask follow-up questions, I insist: “Yes, yes. He has been to the moon.”
Throughout kindergarten, on evenings where I am lucky enough to be allowed TV, I watch animations of orbits on educational DVDs. I sink into a big brown leather armchair in front of my father’s television, folded up so that my knees touch my chin. Mesmerized, I watch the digitized planets slowly spin around the sun while the tiring drone of the narrator fades in and out of my awareness. Sometimes I watch the same episode three or four times in a row, staring at my dusty reflection in the black screen before the automatic replay begins. The visuals stick: long after these astronomy programs have ended planets continue to orbit around my mind.
I have my first existential crisis at the age of seven while washing my face in a marble bathroom. I am blowing bubbles in the water that I cup to my face, absorbing the slight echo, the darkness of my cupped palms, when, suddenly, the remarks of a DVD narrator speed through my brain. The disembodied voice reminds me how space expands in infinite directions, endlessly. For the first time, I am aware of my ability to think. I understand myself as a mind, contained in a body, contained on an earth, contained in a universe, contained in … something unknown? My legs start to shake. I think I feel the forward motion of the planet barreling through the universe. We stand on a tiny dot covered by layers and layers of the unfamiliar, like a Russian doll. In my mind, tremendously large and colorful planets spin together, shrinking smaller and smaller until only a starless night remains.
I pass out on the floor.
The summer night I first see stars in person, I am lying on an old orange and green checkered blanket with corners so tattered that the threads dissolve into the grass beneath it. Beside me are my younger cousin, Hanni, and a neighboring farmer’s daughter. Both are fast asleep. Distant wisps of adult conversation blow towards us with the wind from the patio. The barbeque has been abandoned, it seems, after the group opened yet another bottle of wine. The musky and familiar scent of cigarettes overwhelms my senses as I lie there, trying to capture the enormity of the universe in a single image.
After the guests leave, I pull the soft quilt over me. The shutters of my grandparents’ windows close. I listen for the start of my mother’s car in front of the garage and imagine her driving back to her apartment in the dark, headlights illuminating the road ahead of her. Everyone is drunk and happy and asleep. Crickets converse in the neighboring wheat field as I lie on the dewy grass letting the wetness soak through my clothes. I feel exposed under the stars which shine over the entire world and, like billions of glimmering eyes, see everything we do. I lie with my arms outstretched, offering them all there is to see of my soul.
Years pass and, under the dull yellow night skies of New York, less and less light infiltrates my life. At sixteen, I end two difficult years of substance abuse by overdosing on my bed. In the throes of a drug-induced psychosis, I am floating in a universe similar to the animated replicas I saw as a child. Here, millions of light-years away from earth, I do not hear the 911 call or the ambulance’s arrival. Instead, everything is eerily quiet and I can reach out and touch the darkness with my warm, shaky fingers.
Months later, I am kayaking and whitewater rafting down the Colorado River with a rehabilitation program. During the day, I find myself caught atop the slimy river rocks, feeling my blood course through me like the murky water between my fingers and the current underneath my kayak, pulsing go, go, go. I fall in love, badly, with one of the instructors. At night, I lie next to a new friend, Emma, squeezing her soft, fleshy palm. One night I wake up early and see the entire Milky Way like a belt around us. Under the Colorado night sky, I think of the blind hands searching in the dark on my bathroom floor, on my bedside table, for the little round tablets of ecstasy that made my life worth living. And, suddenly, I am a child again at my grandparents’, and, suddenly, I am blowing bubbles in my palm. This is all me, I realize. In the early morning hours, for the first time, I reconcile my adult weight against the early abandonment of my mother.
That September, when I return to New York, I face a haunted city. Afforded the opportunity to move, I take it. I apply to an international school in Germany. There, I find a room with a long, cement balcony, and big, glass windows. During frequent rainy days, I hear nine different languages spoken in my dorm. When the weather is warm, my friends and I go out on my balcony after class to read or tan. Once it gets too dark, we sneak bottles of wine in the sleeves of our jackets and return to sit on the concrete, still warm from the day’s sun.
During a quiet weekend of my second semester at school, I decide to spend a night with my grandparents, who live less than an hour away. The house remains unchanged—like a tomb, dark, cold, and damp. Their voices take on an underwater quality, a fogginess that comes with the territory. My senses abduct me back into childhood. I stare warily at each object my grandmother sets before me. “Eat,” she says, pushing my plate closer. Hours after they have gone to bed, I remain sitting at the poorly lit kitchen table, brushing crumbs off the floral oilcloth and taking sips of my grandfather’s stale liquor. I drive back to school that night in the dark. I am tipsy and drive over the speed limit. Once I hit the halfway mark, I pull over on the empty autobahn and find myself splayed over the concrete, suffocating. I throw up onto the black tar road and stare at my spoiled shoes. I focus on breathing in and out. Ein und aus.
Half an hour later, when I am in sight of the campus lights, I park the car and walk across the cracked street flanked on either side by fields of growing wheat. The wheat swishes in the wind. I let my tipsy body sway with it. Once I arrive, the dorm is empty. Everyone else has signed out for the weekend. They are backpacking through the rainy German countryside, completing a wilderness certification. As I walk past the dark and vacant rooms, I discover that one light is still on: Andi’s. I jog back to my room and then return to her door, swinging a crate of dark beer by my side. Nights in March are still cold in Germany, so I lie across her narrow bed while she ransacks her closet for warmth. We pull layers of sweatshirts over our black clothes and don her duvet like a joint cape, the final insulatory measure. Andi fishes a weathered plastic bag from under her bed, filled with sample-sized bottles of tequila. “Mother’s milk,” Andi toasts. Mother’s milk, I reply.
Out on the balcony with Andi, I use an app like a telescope against the night sky. While talking in soft voices about the things in our lives we cannot understand Andi and I are at first unable to follow each other's fingers and line of sight. Hesitantly, I try to name the figures in the constellations. Eventually, the basic planets elude me. I feel like a child once more as I reach out to touch Andi’s hair, sleek and black and impossibly straight. It threads between my fingers as I touch the back of her neck. Silence falls between us. Supported by a red beanbag, withered from snow, wind, and sun, Andi and I sip our foamy beers with numb hands. My red knuckles sting as I bring them closer to the heat of my body. Around us, the night stretches endlessly. I feel myself drop.
This is me, I want to tell her. This is my life, I want to show. This is what I’ve gone through. These are the things that I cannot forgive. But I am too deeply cradled. To break the silence now would be irrevocable.
By Maya Weed
By Dante Alighieri
As Reincarnated by Michael Colton
What do kids at this school do for spring break? It’s coming up and, honestly, I have no idea how to make a plan for the week. A couple of my (crazier) friends are planning a ski trip to Vermont, but I’m kinda worried about falling behind on my work if I go with them. Any tips on making the most of spring break without jeopardizing the rest of my semester?
Dear SPRING BREAKER,
You’re not alone in feeling stressed out or overwhelmed ahead of break. It’s no easy thing to balance your social life with your academic routines when approaching a week-long gap in the semester, and you’re definitely not alone in trying to find the right way to do so. There are, to be sure, dozens of students at this school who struggle with this same thing. I like to refer to this bunch as: Not Invited to Miami.
A few years back, I was a boring, nervous first-year, not unlike yourself (although definitely a little more confident, and not very boring at all). I was in the same position you are now; just two weeks out of break, I had no real plans set and little desire to risk a dip in my stellar GPA. Something changed for me, however, when I saw how all of the most popular, interesting, and all-around likable people I knew were spending the week. That’s to say, all the cooler kids do go on Spring Break, and they were absolutely right to bully me for ever considering staying on campus for the week.
I’m kidding, of course. I’ve never been bullied. And I’ve also never once considered skipping Spring Break. If I had, I never would have made it to where I am now, i.e., on the personal contact lists of Pitbull, Matthew McConaughey, and Christina Aguilera. I guess what I’m saying is, you need to change course, and to do so quickly. Let’s chat logistics.
My first piece of advice is one you should expect if you ever read my column, which I doubt you have, given your trepidation and clear lack of party experience. It’s fairly simple, and it goes like this: ditch your loser friends, they’re holding you back. I know you’re looking to feel included, but I beg of you, find someone else to include you. If the best that your “crazier friends” can do is plan a trip to Vermont, then you’re surrounded by a bunch of accountants. The only thing “crazy” about a trip to Vermont is the amount of burnt orange Patagonia merchandise you will come across. You’re better off leaving that crowd behind and heading to the Sunshine State where, at worst, you’ll have front row seats to a Channing Tatum look-alike contest.
In terms of preparing financially for your one week of authentic college life, I’d suggest inheriting a huge sum of money from a late relative. If that’s not an option, I’m sure your parents can cover it. You’ll need a healthy dose of greenbacks in order to “make the most” of the week. Just working back-of-the-envelope, I’d say about $6,000 dollars should be enough—about 300 for an iPhone 12 Pro fisheye lens, a few hundred more for to rent a Tesla, and about a thousand more for rental/personal liability insurance on the car and yourself (you absolutely have to use the self-drive feature if you want to fit in down South). The remainder is on reserve for either gambling or investment into DJ Khaled’s new line of cryptocurrency. Housing should, of course, also be hooked up by your family. I’d recommend finding a close relative or family friend with a house right on the beach—that’s where I met Christina.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address your question about keeping up with schoolwork while you’re on vacation. This is me addressing that.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you about what Pitbull said to me when I first met him. We were walking the white sands, chatting about our favorite brands, when he looked me dead in the face and said, “Dante, live life. Don’t let life live you.” Afterward, we raced through the sea on jet skis. With the salt kissing our cheeks and the wind brushing through our hair, we were invincible—that is, until he crashed into a small fishing vessel. That clumsy goofball hardly even noticed, and that’s when I knew his advice was genuine. There’s something about watching a man book it away from a shipwreck while smoking a cigar that just screams confidence and class. And isn’t that what spring break is all about? I mean, you clearly have no idea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn! It’s as simple as having a lot of money, forgetting about your school work, and impressing a mid-tier rapper with your knowledge of his lyrics.
P.S. If you see me in Miami, just, like, be cool.
Illustration by Aeja Rosette
Am I Drunk Enough?
By Chloë Gottlieb and Daniel Seizer
9:30 p.m.: Calling all senior nite sluts!! U know the drill: cocktails at ours before Amity. We’ve already started drinking, have you??
I book it out of Uris upon receiving this text. Senior Night only sort of gets fun at 11:30 p.m. when mass heads start to show. So, we have to be at the pregame no later than 10:30, which leaves me an hour and a half to fight for a shower slot, cook and eat a meal, perform my signature Sexy Eye Twitch to seduce the bodega guy into giving me a deal on White Claws, put on the same outfit as last week, submit a discussion post, and get fucking sloshed.
I’m halfway undressed by the time I reach the EC lobby. I toss my clothes at my suitemate and dive headfirst into the asbestos-riddled communal shower. I frantically rinse my body of the Remedial Frosci grime, in anticipation of the Amity Hall filth. I know I will never be clean enough. Once my entire body is slick with moisturizer, I begin the Sisyphean task of texting the pregame details to everyone I’ve ever met. emma if u dont come im gonna kms. Amity is always packed but never with anyone remotely likable, so it’s imperative that I corral the troops.
Towel wrapped around my body, I stir my tequila-soda-lime with one hand and submit a homework assignment on Courseworks with the other. I set the toaster to high to start making my world-famous Olives On White Bread. It’s the quickest way to get carbs inside your body (other than beer). I’m running behind and my suitemates are already debating which of their three Going Out Tops matches tonight’s energy. andrew make sure u bring the fckin margaritaville machine tn. The olives don’t go down easy, but down they must go.
It takes roughly the length of the new Twigs album to get a group of six out the door and to the pregame: hair needs to be straightened to within an inch of its life and pits must be waxed raw, all while downing three Trulys. Mask, wallet, Senior Night punchcard—the checklist of essentials rests in my fracket’s trusty pockets along with my beer-for-the-road. Hey michael On My Way! meet us on 113? There’s a word in German that means “The subtle shame felt when drinking from an open container in the elevator next to people on their way to Butler.” This is that.
The front door to the pregame is ajar, and thank God for that because half of us are about to piss our pants. I say hi to my Lit Hum nemesis, my marriage pact, and the girl I’m scheming on (platonically). I’m handed a margarita and use it as a chaser for a shot of Jäger. It’s still not enough to bear the conversation with that weird dude from my NSOP group who told me he could tell who was circumcised just from looking at their face. yeah i think it’s apartment 3C but just listen for Drake. I finally understand the Law of Mass Action from chem when the pregame clears out in 30 seconds. I’m somehow stuck waiting to pee for the fourth time.
Outside of Amity and with 30 people in tow, I cut in line with Isaac, who told me last week he would never show his face here again. The bouncer is checking vaccine cards but not IDs tonight, so I’m expecting lots of freshmen who are awaiting a package from China. I toss my jacket on a pile of about 60 others and hope for the best.
With God and poppers by my side, I slither my way to the far corner that has a bit more oxygen. I am not drunk enough, but along the way I encounter the ancient Amity Hall Scrolls of Knowledge. Scrawled in Muji pen:
A Visitor’s Guide To Surviving Senior Night*
1. 2 drinks
2. A schtickle of shrooms
3. A 5 mg edible
4. 3-6 more drinks
5. Poppers to taste
*You may black.
I compress steps two through four in a mere seven minutes. I take a swig of my gin and tonic …
… YOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Fucking. Love. This. Song. I hear it literally every week and every single time it sparks the same amount of boundless joy. There is no greater high on God’s green earth than this bar mitzvah playlist the DJ plays every Wednesday. Anyone who's anyone is here; the entire men’s heavyweight crew team, every Barnard sociology major, and some “forever young” GSers. Someone texts me asking where I am. i am quite literally here, r u?
Every Senior Night attendee has a personal journey they must follow to get to the bathroom. It normally involves three classmate run-ins, two brawls, and a minute where you have absolutely lost anyone you know. This is my Vietnam. Tonight, I’m dodging one couple mid-coitus and all the people who haven’t texted me back. The line is infinitely long, but by the time I reach the front I haven’t actually seen anyone enter or exit the stalls. When my twink and I finally reach our turn, someone throws a large female condom at my head, shouting, “Enjoy the clam shack!”
As I leave the bathroom, Straight Michael hands me a beer. I place it on my head. “No,” he says and holds it to my mouth. “Like this.” Right. He makes it abundantly clear, borderline offensively so, that he is not buying me a drink, there’s just a $20 minimum here. And I shouldn’t get any fucking ideas. i’m by the really tall guy, do u see me. Someone spills poppers into my drink, but it’s already down the hatch. When the DJ plays “Cheerleader” by OMI, I see new colors. Rachel, im gonna live FOREVER
My entire body is fully torqued and a nice gentleman is teaching me how to dougie. Someone taps me on the shoulder. Oh my god, Isaac’s here? Isaaaaac. I need to take him to Chef Mike’s Sub Shop. He deserves it. Our sweat mingles as our bodies become one, united by the free abandon found only in da clerb. Someone shines an iPhone flashlight into my pupils and a look of horror flashes across their face. I don’t know why. This is what senior year is all about.
The drinks are hitting, the windows are sweating with condensation, and my suitemates are starting to give me the look. The goodbye-to-all-that look. I suggest that we stay until the next bad song. It’s not my fault they are all fucking bangers! We stay another 35 minutes. DJ Doesn’t-Have-Spotify-Premium turns on the mic and throws out some bday shoutouts. Inexplicably, he yells, “WHO SIGNED THE COLUMBIA HEALTH COMPACT?” Scattered yelps and groans arise from the crowd. When the beat drops, he screams, “WELL YOU’RE ALL BREAKING IT!” Oontz oontz oontz. So true, king. This is our cue to leave.
On the way out, I pick up my coat. It is absolutely drenched. Doesn’t matter—thanks to the magic of binge-drinking, you never notice the cold on the walk home. I fill out my green pass. When you do it this late, it lasts forever! I open a text thread with an unknown number which I’ve already texted my full name and social security number to. I double down, lov yu girlie let’s get lunch see you next wendfesday. I dump my body in my dorm bed. Finally, I can pass out to Sex and the City. (Obviously the original, not the reboot, And Just Like That… airs on Thursdays.) Thinking I’m logging into the HBO portal, I type my username and password into a discussion post on Canvas and publish it for the whoooole class to see. I just wnt to see carrie and bigggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhl;l;l;l;l;l;l;;l;;;;;;;;;;;
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
In Which Our Hero Joins a Community of Like-Minded Peers
By Cy Gilman
Illustration by Taylor Yingshi
Verily Veritas frequently thought about decline. At night, after a few sips of bénédictine, he would sprawl his body across Low Steps and gaze at the pillars of Butler, imagining them as naked stumps. “Nothing besides remains,” he would exclaim into the empty twilight air. “Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away!” Often, Verily’s nostalgic rapture would be punctured by the gaggles of students drunkenly loitering on the steps, nodding their heads to a high-BPM soundtrack, and calling out, “Man, are you okay?” or “Yo, Hamlet’s delivering his monologue!” They had no appreciation for Ozymandias, of course; he supposed that few had even heard of Percy Shelley. Still, he made sure to inform them that the poem was an ingenious commentary on civilizational decline.
Verily cursed the commonplace—for these hecklers were terribly common—and eyed a hackathon tee with loathing. He mourned the ripe renown that had made the school’s name so fragrant. He mourned Romance, now out on the town, and Art, a vagrant. Verily thought, and thought, and thought—and thought about it.
Verily Veritas, born too late, he would mutter to himself, wandering under Columbia’s firmament, crisscrossing the purgatorial stretches between Broadway and Amsterdam. It was on one such walk where, casting his gaze plaintively to the heavens, as he often did, Verily’s view of New York’s starscape was suddenly obscured by a dark green banner with “ΑΔΟ” printed in large white letters. Our hero was reluctant to extricate himself from a self-diagnosed state of sublime melancholy, but the sight of prominently displayed Attic lettering was intriguing enough to buoy his spirits and prod at his curiosity. He turned to the glowing door of the dimly lit brownstone. On it was written: “Nu Chapter Headquarters of the Alpha Delta Omicron Fraternity of the National Panhellenic Conference.”
Verily’s wide eyes were as round as a capital Omega. Had there been, all this time, tucked away in this lonely corner of the Morningside acropolis, a surreptitious circle of philhellenes, an underground network of budding Socratics? So long had he dreamed of Thebes and Camelot—had he now found it? Verily tore open the door
and followed the pulsating noises up the stairs.
Our hero soon found himself inside the house amid four men playing a strange game that involved a small orange ball and a series of red cups. Verily suspected they were engaged in a round of episkyros, and determined to enter the foray for the next round. Around the table were clumps of men engaged in animated conversation: One was explaining at length what he thought were the problems with modern art. Another was gesticulating wildly on the subject of something called “kryptos.” The deep pitch of the assembled voices was matched only by the deeper pitch of the blaring subwoofer.
Verily felt a full-fisted tap on his shoulder. “What’s up, man, welcome to Meet the Brothers.” Verily turned to his right and looked up to face a student with a dark, short-cropped tuft of hair, and a hulking gait. “I’m Bellicus Brutus, but the bros call me Bo. I’m the pledge master here, but you already knew that. I’ve been an Alpha D for two years.” Verily gaped back at him, thinking that his newfound acquaintance very much resembled the Penseur that stood watch over Philosophy Hall. Our protagonist even went so far as to picture, for the sake of comparison, his Herculean friend nude and crouched in the penitent pose of mental labor, and concluded that the resemblance was indeed uncanny.
Verily shook himself out of his reverie, remembering that the fleshy person facing him had continued to speak. “No hazing, of course—that’s against the rules! We just do, like, a fucking ‘initiation ceremony,’” Bo noted suggestively. “Just, like, beer and pushups—that kind of shit. Like, if you already work out you’ll be fine. Do you lift, bro?”
Verily was beginning to squirm underneath his turtleneck, whose fringes were getting sticky in the cramped brownstone heat. “My hours of exercise are devoted to the rigorous development of my cerebral muscles,” he pontificated. “I take to heart the words of Socrates, in his exposition on Diotima’s ladder: that a love for fine ideas outweighs the love we have for a beautiful body.” He let his eyes gloss over Bo’s frame before adding, “My modus operandi is to contemplate the beauty of Perfect Forms.”
It may be left for the reader to decide whether Bo was only halfway paying attention, or if he got stuck in his attempt to recall the meaning of the word “cerebral”—but his reaction was a laugh that sounded just like someone coughing into a tuba. “Bro, are you talking about, like, Lit Hum shit?” he guffawed. “Didn’t it say in the book that that Soccertitties dude was, like, butt ugly or some shit like that?”
Verily cleared his throat and stiffened his back. “Socrates possessed an aesthetically deficient body, which fell into further disrepair from his own neglect,” he explained, “but he was loved by the most beautiful youths of Athens because of his command of Truth and the force of his oration.” Bo shot a quizzical glance to his left, then took a real shot of something thick and muddy, as Verily continued: “Upon reading the Symposium, I too proclaimed to our seminar that, like him, I had refrained from bathing and shaving for the previous month. I then announced directly to the more beautiful members of my seminar that, as Socrates did unto Alcibiades, I too would not take them as a lover even if they were to lay in my bed and put their arms around me.”
“I dunno man, I do somethin’ kinda different with the people that lay in my bed and put their arms around me.” Bo’s reaction was somewhere between alarmed, puzzled, and vaguely turned on. “I mean, look man, even if you’re into all that Greek stuff, why copy the ugly dude? Aren’t there some of those peeps who were built, too? Like that tall white David sculpture thingy—that dude is fucking chiseled, bro! You could go, like, that route, right? I mean what you’d have to do is …”
As Bellicus continued to talk, Verily (who, during this conversation, had been taking swigs of sweet liquid from a red plastic cup of unknown origin) became increasingly convinced that this beautiful man was, in fact, a man of thick intellectual fibre. Bo was evidently adept in classical philology, throwing off Greek and Latin names for every muscle, bone, or limb on the human body. “Yo, once you pledge, you can come lift with me and my buddies at Dodge,” the pledge-master yelled cheerily over the ambient thumping. “I’ll show you the ropes—your fucking pecs are gonna swell up like you won’t fucking believe, bro.”
After Verily left the party and returned to his room, his mind wandered down many long, searching, meandering roads, as it often did. Questions lingered: How many pounds could Ajax Telamon have bench pressed? Could this Bellicus teach him how to throw a discus? How many grams of protein were in a poppyseed strudel? But under all his imaginative haze was a clear vision of himself, Verily Veritas, in the image of an Olympian athlete, doused in olive oil, crowned with a laurel wreath, his mind and body in perfect harmony. Verily was going to go to the gymnasium.
Verily quickly realized, supine in the second circle of the Dodge Inferno, that the oil had been a bad idea. His slick hands slid back and forth across a metal bar, which loomed over his head. A drop of sweat fell from his right cheek.
“Okay VV, I’m spotting you, so you’re all G about safety and stuff,” Bo pronounced from above him. “Just remember to grip the bar at about a shoulder’s width apart and lift evenly with both arms.” Verily lifted the bar out from its stationary rack, and as his thin muscles began to engage, brother Brutus became increasingly animated. “OK! Let’s start firing up your FUCKING ENGINES! Take it down … then allll the way back up. Ariiight, not too fucking bad for a noob. How does that feel?”
“I must admit, I am beginning to feel my heart beat a tad faster. I do suppose my face must appear rather sanguine at the moment.”
“Fucking LEAN into it bro! Let the fire FUEL YOU. Let’s fucking GOOOOO, c’mon you FUUKIN pOOssAY, downnnnn … and UHHHHHPPPPFFFF!”
“I am starting to sense a pattern to this. There is a rhythm, a symmetry, a cadence to it. It is rather beautiful.”
“NONE of this looks fucking beautiful to ME, you SKINNY PIECE OF SHIT! Get in the fuuuuucking GROOVE, bro, GRIND THIS OUT–come on, one more, let’s FUCKING GO!—DOWN! ... UOOOUUUHHHP!”
“You know, good fellow, I believe I may truly be capable of this!”
“OH YEAH?! You better fucking show me ’cause I DON’T FUCKING BELIEVE YOU. LET ME FUCKING SEE IT you FUCKING WIMP! One fucking more! DOWN! UUUUUUUP! Tell me right fucking now—can you fucking do this?”
“I have, contained in the set of my abilities … ”
“Nah, bro, COME ON! Stop fucking WAFFLING—say it like I say it, read my sweet fucking lips: I GOT THIS, BRO!”
“I … got this … breaux?”
“C’mon, like you FUCKING MEAN IT! I GOT THIS, BRO!”
“I got this, bro!”
“There you go! DOWN! UP! I FUCKING GOT THIS, BROOOOOOO!”
“I fucking got this, bro!”
“DOWN! UP! I MOTHER-FUCK FUCKING GOT THIS, BRO!”
“I FUCKING GOT THIS, BRO!”
“Did I just hear Verily Veritas say bro?” a voice called out from the staircase. Footsteps followed, and Amare Aspera entered the weight room with a squash racket slung across her back. “Verily wha—are you rushing a frat?” she blurted out, turning her head and glaring at Bellicus, who replied to her in the same tone of voice with which he had previously addressed our protagonist:
“RUSHING? This dude right here is one of the BROS—VV IS A FUCKING ALPHA DEEEEEEEE, BABY!” The pledge-master tried, enthusiastically and unsuccessfully, to give a high-five to Amare, who was busy muttering to herself in exasperation.
“My dear Amare, I believe your conception of this situation is utterly incongruous with reality,” Verily called back to her, his back still arched over the weight rack. A pool of olive oil was beginning to form around his feet. “This organization of which I am a member is a fraternal order of the Hellenic variety—it is very much in keeping with my classical sensibilities.”
“Verily, that’s a fucking frat!” Amare stammered, and turned back towards the stairs. Verily watched her leave in smug disbelief, until he noticed Bellicus nodding in silent acknowledgment. Had this man inducted Verily Veritas into a frat? Verily had heard tell of such rabbles from those of his acquaintances most embedded in the nether regions of Columbia party life. He knew of them as intellectual black holes, filled with gaggles of oafs and mercenaries, where answers to intro-sequence exams circulated alongside cans of cheap beer. And Verily, above all else, was a man of impeccable intellectual integrity and bibulous refinement. Even the word “frat” had an uncouth sound—could Verily possibly countenance joining an organization with such a brash fricative in its name?
Verily looked up with horror at the goliath who had so misled him—looked at his lying eye, his mischievous lips—and sat upright on the lifting bench. “There has been a grave misunderstanding between us, my dear man,” Verily announced to him. “I no longer have any desire for membership in your little club, and thus do not have any reason to maintain your acquaintance.” And with those words, Verily picked up the strigil stashed underneath the lifting bench, and began to scrape the olive oil off of his body.
Photo credit: Bella DeVaan
Photo credit: Bella DeVaan
An afternoon at the Met.
By Bella DeVaan
Illustration by Jace Steiner
As I prepared to meet Professor Anne Higonnet at the Met, I freaked out a bit about what to wear. It was only natural. Since graduating from her “Clothing” class—which premiered on Zoom in the fall of 2020—her sartorial expertise has inspired more intentional dressing. Finally, I landed on a sweater (a loose gesture to shibori dye techniques), a skirt (made by a nostalgic local designer), a blazer (playing with gender?), and cowboy boots (triumphantly copped on eBay). Timeless principles of craft, sustainability, self-expression, and function inform my choices. Sure, everything I wore may have been black, but that was simply a nod to the dramatic, monochromatic tendencies of Cristóbal Balenciaga. Thank you for the vindication, Professor.
On any given day, a Higonnet lecture could cover Harry Potter sorting tropes, the diasporic design sensibilities of Grace Wales Bonner, BestDressed on YouTube, or Malick Sidibé’s photography. Her idiosyncratic, roving, yet scrupulously edited syllabus met us students where we were: in the suspended reality of our childhood bedrooms or deep into clickholes, and thinking hard about how we might want to be, inside and outside, online and off.
Higonnet has taught art history in many creative incarnations, though often in conversation with the contemporary. She is an open-minded, versatile pedagog, the stalwart instructor of “Intro to Art History” at Barnard and the brain behind popular interdisciplinary courses like “A Virtual Enlightenment” (in which students coupled curatorial and computer acumen to create immersive, digital exhibits of 18th-century life) and “Collecting” (in which students considered private ownership and the politics of display). She’s an expert on the woman impressionist Berthe Morisot, the detective who discovered the true authorship of “Young Woman Drawing,” an advisor to Denise Murrell’s revolutionary “Posing Modernity” and “Black Models” exhibits, and perhaps the only person on Earth capable of contemplating the Nirvana Nevermind baby alongside Leo Steinberg’s analysis of child nudity in theological painting. “Today’s values dictate all of our perceptions,” Higonnet writes.
As New Yorkers settle back into taking museums for granted and Columbia students attend “Clothing” in person for the first time, I figured there was no better moment to check in with Professor Higonnet. I hadn’t only been her student online; during the halcyon days of Art Hum in Paris, I followed her through summer-packed museums, whisking past the unnecessary and pausing, purposefully, in front of masterworks. “Move like water,” she’d say, ushering us awkward student-tourists where we needed to go. “And now that you’ve come all this way,” she’d smile, “you should go the last few inches and look.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Readers are encouraged to open the hyperlinks as they go, for visual references.
The moment Professor Higonnet and I enter “America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Met Costume Institute, she points out that the exhibit has been set up for the social media generation.
Anne Higonnet: When you look at the rectangle, it’s the proportions of the cell phone photo. The way in which each outfit has been isolated in a box, and even the way that they’re stacked, it’s like an Instagram format: one, two, three, four …
The Blue and White: Gridded. What do you think that does to the garments?
AH: The good part is that it shows the Costume Institute delegating a lot of the news of the exhibition to visitors, and it’s democratic in that it’s allowing visitors to choose which of these images to put online. The bad part is that it limits the degree to which the objects can interact with each other meaningfully.
We pause to look at the one-word labels affixed to each mannequin, the “lexicon” superimposed on the American fashion panoply.
AH: It’s always semantically dangerous to try to attach one word to an outfit.
B&W: Your class is about not applying these spiritual categories to styles of dress, but thinking across space and time, to see patterns in how dress happens and is perceived. Obviously, everything here is sharing a craft element and a kind of durational element, but what do the words do to then parse these styles? I’m a little confused.
AH: I think the intent was to make the meaning of something extremely clear by distilling it to one word. But I think most people don't know why that word and not others … and I am myself not sure.
We look at four stacked mannequins—“commemoration,” “continuity,” “celebration,” and “connection.”
B&W: It seems like it's consonance over here with all the Cs. [laughter]
AH: There’s another “on the one hand, on the other hand” about this exhibition, which makes me wonder whether the Costume Institute isn’t at a very, very important crossroads in its history. There’s no doubt that the way in which the Costume Institute was organized in the past was wildly successful: so many visitors, so much interest in the Costume Institute and Anna Wintour. Its coordination with Vogue had been, I think, more productive than not, and it’s a financial stroke of genius to earn the budget of the Costume Institute in one night—
B&W: And to create an art-historical spectacle while doing it.
AH: Yes, exactly. And to extend the productivity of the Costume Institute into the Gala, it’s a bit like what I was saying about believing that people will relay the images of the show based on what interests them. The Gala has become a part of the Costume Institute’s cultural work, but which is delegated to a group of extremely culturally influential people. On the other hand, the whole fashion industry is so predicated on a kind of traditional femininity and so predicated on horrible waste—because fast fashion has pushed clothing to be, by some measures, the third-worst sustainability issue on the planet. One wonders how long such an important part of the museum can continue to be predicated on those gender and environmental assumptions. Before it just doesn't even appeal to people anymore, or it’s just too ethically bankrupt.
B&W: I thought we saw that at this year’s Met Gala—a wink of what’s to come with AOC's presence, and the ways that popular opinion has turned on the wealthy people we lionize and give this artistic authority in these events. And yet, everybody still loves it.
AH: And yet everybody still loves it! And that is a really important thing to remember—that the way through to sustainable clothing is not to get people to stop loving getting dressed up.
B&W: It’s not to take away the joy, or the expressiveness.
AH: No, I don’t think that’s ever gonna work. And just saying you have to buy less? I don’t think it’s going to work, either.
The basic idea of the show, which is maybe not articulated as clearly as it could be, is that there used to be two antonyms. There was French expressive fashion, which was about creative craft, multiplied by spatial imagination. And then on the other side was supposed to be this American sturdiness and practicality and utilitarianism.
What the Costume Institute is saying is that they don’t want to think of American fashion anymore as the opposite of French fashion—they want to celebrate the expressiveness and the autonomous creativity of American fashion. And that sounds good, especially when it means that you include so many different kinds of designers, and you have so many really, really young designers. It’s stunning.
AH: And have so many of the clothes in this exhibit made within the last five years. Back to this issue about femininity and a culture of throwaway obsolescence—
B&W: —and how that relates to American self-fashioning—
AH: Exactly. Is this celebratory idea that American fashion has escaped from one side of this old equation to the other just a way of masking that the whole equation has to be set aside as a thing of the past? Could it be that the Costume Institute has to play a part in a fundamental conceptual rethinking of clothing? So that it’s clothing, not fashion; or clothing, not costume?
I am myself trying to think through whether there’s some fundamentally different way in which we can think about clothing, including the gender binary part. There are a few outfits for men [here], but the message of so many of the outfits being for women is really continuing this bond between fashion and femininity, without rethinking what clothing could be for a genderfluid world, or one in which femininity is not the only gender that's associated with fashion.
We meander downstairs, stopping before the “Cascade” ensemble by EMME Studio from 2021.
B&W: I read about this designer, Korina Emmerich. She’s the only Indigenous designer in the show.
AH: This is also one of the outfits I am seriously tempted to try to get for myself.
B&W: I mean, come on. Look at those buttons!
AH: I don’t know what is more formally fun and wonderful about this. Is it that you’ve got four different—and maybe there’s a fifth one under there—plastic buttons? Is it that the stripes are clustering in just the right places? I love how you’ve got two sets of stripes around the hips to show how the jacket goes: that’s how you know that there are parts of the suit! And then the sleeves move up from those hip stripes, and then the other sleeve stripes move upward from the chest stripes?! Plus, the slight flare of the skirt is wonderful.
This is the new outfit that just most perfectly does something that’s as much about the specificities of history as about a fantastic timeless design, because there’s something so satisfyingly forward-looking about taking these blankets—which were so much about a commercial relationship between white people and Indigenous people that exploited Indigenous people—and then she turns it into something that’s so her. Although, one always has to be a little bit skeptical when you say [reading from the plaque] “they use upcycled, recycled and natural materials while minimizing waste.” Then you ask yourself, okay, minimizing waste by how much? One percent? Eighty percent?
B&W: Do we need to see some numbers here? [laughter.]
AH: Maybe yes, maybe no, as far as sustainability goes. But the idea is that that’s a positive thing to say about an outfit?
B&W: And coupling that definition of sustainability with the sustenance and survivance of history? That’s clearly happening, too.
AH: That I just love. Because instead of getting very mournful or angry about the past, it's saying, what do we need to do now to make things better? And the thing that is being asked for … addresses particular environmental exploitation, which just has to stop. This is one of my very, very favorite things in the show. I feel if everything in the show were as clear as this … and you took off the word, which I think is, by the way, an invented word ...
The word is “sustentation.”
AH: I checked in Webster’s Dictionary.
B&W: You did?!
AH: I think it’s not a real word.
B&W: I’m not convinced. I love what you’re saying, though, about doubling the contemporary and the historical concerns. That's always been what I’ve taken away from your teaching—we’re living today. It’s going to color the way the past looks to us. What do we do?
AH: Yes. What can be done right now? Plus, there’s just something joyful about looking great.
B&W: You can still look great and care about all these things, is what it’s telling us. Do you have any others that are speaking to you like this?
AH: Some of them are just so much within the fashion world, and that’s pretty much what I have to say about it.
AH: I just have to say, it’s so sad that in New York, you’ve got a homage to Princeton and an homage to Harvard, but nothing about Columbia. Where’s Columbia? Come on, we’re in Manhattan. Okay, enough of that.
We pause before Heron Preston’s redesigned uniforms for the Department of Sanitation from 2016.
AH: In formal terms, at first glance, it looks like the greens clash. But then the more I look at it, the more I think, actually, it’s a really subtle bunch of greens and graphics. And then it turns out that it’s a uniform that was designed for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Here we are now, on our New York home turf. I love the nod to the local concerns—
B&W: With the word “responsibility.”
AH: I love the idea that every job can have a gorgeously designed uniform. I think that’s very democratic. It seems to me that the Department of Sanitation deserves a super stylish uniform. And having a prestigious designer devote himself to that project is great. Then there’s something that you can’t know unless you read the label, which is that part of his design of the uniforms is actually a [reading from the plaque] “curation of thrift-store finds and decommissioned sanitation worker garments.” That idea of taking the old uniforms, going to the thrift store, and blending it with a really gifted formal vision is one of the great ideas of how to go forward. There are a lot of Department of Sanitation workers; we’re talking about a lot of uniforms. If we could be doing this in more and more sectors? Really taking things that are already made and improving them through style? I think that would be a really, truly modern design thing to do. So Heron Preston as well as Emmerich—these really seem to me to be what the exhibition could and should have been 100% about: visionary ways forward.
B&W: I know Virgil Abloh and Vanessa Friedman were talking about how the American fashion show is about aspiration. Friedman wrote “it’s homesteading of a new kind” that this exhibit is all about—really plumbing the possibilities of what American fashion could be.
AH: I want us to aspire to gorgeous excess. But what I’m hoping for is that our mindset changes in a way that when we see a redesigned thrift store item, that’s something we aspire to, because we aspire to be saving the planet. I would really like aspiration to not be conspicuous consumption or landfill.
We pause to look at a Naval Reserve uniform designed by Mainbocher, from 1942.
AH: This is the third thing that I really love. There’s so many things one can say about that historical moment. But like the Preston, I love the idea that fashion turned some of its energies to giving back to people who serve the nation. Look, I’m in art history, so I think the U.S. Women’s Naval Reserve deserved a beautifully designed uniform. I think that’s part of what America should give the essential workers of the country, something beautiful to wear. Although, of course, we say, “Ugh, why a skirt?”
B&W: [reading from the plaque] “Retaining a touch of femininity.”
AH: Ah, could women not be wearing pants? But, alright, it’s 1942. There is a beautiful awareness of the femaleness of the anatomy, giving it so much presence and dignity. And it’s so much about the quiet, quiet design details—like exactly how big the buttons are, and that there are four of them, and where the stripes are. And it’s so subtle. It’s so perfect. That’s the side of couture that I think gets lost in so many accounts of fashion history, where we’re drawn to what is spectacular and obviously sculptural about clothes. But what really excites me is when there’s just beautiful equipoise between acknowledging the body and its functions and then creating something better-looking than the human body for it to wear. To me, that’s the deep magic of good design.
B&W: Performing it more quietly, and for someone who’s not being photographed as the purpose of their wearing of the garment—that it’s going to work for them and how they spend their day.
AH: I think when women wore this uniform, there was a subtle way in which they looked in the mirror and said, “Wow, I look good.” And then they felt good, and people looked at them and said, “Oh, they look strong. They look dignified. They look purposeful.” And that had an effect on how they were treated.
B&W: A huge takeaway I’ve had from your teaching is how to more intentionally navigate a museum, how to make the most of it once you show up. What are some of your cardinal museum-going, exhibit-going rules?
AH: Everyone has a tendency to get stuck on the first things they’re seeing. So I try to go through and then I let myself love a couple of things: three to five. They catch my eye or I think about what they mean, or they’re the ones that really strike a resonant note in the larger scheme of history.
And then, on my second time around, I just go look at my favorite things so that as I leave the exhibit, I’ve imprinted my very, very favorite. No one should have any shame in only remembering three to five things.
B&W: The goal is not to be encyclopedic about it.
AH: No! Then nothing means anything. It’s good to just be very focused. And then, as you know, when an exhibit is very crowded ... “Be like water.”
B&W: That reverberates in my ears.
AH: Museums are not as packed anymore, but parts of them are still full. The trick is that you just stand on the edge of the crowd and you—just slowly, like water—go in through the cracks. Once you’re in front, then you just stay there. You get close, even if it takes a couple of minutes to infiltrate, and then you stay in your spot because you have to believe that those who want to really concentrate on something deserve to spend more time in front of it. No one should feel guilt about, “Oh, I’m going to let other people see it.” If you need to see it for 15 minutes, you need to see it for 15 minutes. And we all love our cellphones and taking pictures. I think the key is to take pictures erring on the side of excess when you first go and then look at them afterward and be a fierce editor.
B&W: You’re saying delete, delete right away.
AH: Delete, delete, delete, delete, delete, so many times. Just save the most important things. Partly because if you want to show off to your friends or family what you’ve seen, it’s a very good opening line: “I only want to show you the two things I loved the most,” because then everyone is intrigued. “Oh, what do you love the most?” And they automatically think: “Why did you love it the most?” That’s your way into really good museum storytelling.
B&W: That’s the nectar. If you're willing, would you take me to something that you could spend more time in front of? Something you like to take a peek at whenever you’re here?
AH: I have a number of things. But I'm gonna show you something you might not expect. Because it has nothing to do with my period.
We leave the exhibit.
B&W: When you were an undergrad, or first realizing your intellectual and academic interests, did anything help you decide that this was what you wanted to do?
AH: I knew I loved art, and I knew I wanted to teach some kind of art history. And that just came on me, out of the blue. When I was an undergraduate, I thought I wanted to be a costume department curator. Because I took textiles and women so seriously, I wrote my senior thesis on a woman artist named Sonia Delaunay. I wrote about her textile designs, and I argued something which, 40 years later, seems completely banal—like, of course!—which is that she arrived at a completely abstract form of art through textile design, through that flatness of fabric, and the process of designing geometric fabric. But at the time—
B&W: That doesn't sound banal to me.
AH: Well, at the time it was a heretical thing to do. To write about anything that was not painting, sculpture, or architecture. I didn’t think it through, but it was the beginning of what I’ve been interested in.
We pause in the corner, by a window and several fragments of Roman sculpture.
This is an object I’m very fond of.