Dear Michigan

I am very sorry for having caused such a disruption in our classrooms. I had absolutely no intent to insult or offend anyone and had mistakenly assumed that everyone was in on the joke. I had been under the impression that we had collectively agreed to integrating masks into our Skype format. I can’t speak for the others, but I personally misunderstood the resolution of that question, and I was surprised, confused and (extremely) embarrassed by your surprise, confusion and embarassment. I am still not entirely sure what the actual level of outrage here is, and how that fits into the events that occurred. Any additional information that you could provide is not necessary, but would be much appreciated. But regardless, there is no doubt that it was an ill-timed misunderstanding at a very crucial juncture of our working relationship.

As someone exterior to the architectural field, this seminar has been a great learning experience. I am extremely grateful to both classes for allowing me to sit in and contribute to the conversation. The amount of critical thought and rigor in the discussion is both admirable and intimidating. This also relates to my ongoing adjustment to the academic environment. This form of critical discussion is not something often encountered in an art critique, which at Syracuse, is constructed as a fluid and unstable mix of personal narratives, theoretical and cultural interpretation, technical analysis, and a running competition to disrupt any form of convention.

I was shocked by my first graduate art critique experience when my advisor spent two hours relating his personal experiences, including how he came to discover that tall toilets exist. Yesterday morning, he asked me to lead my class in a Tai Chi exercise, and it is not unheard of to respond to a piece with a guitar and a freestyle verse. This was especially jarring because I have been working with a group of hardcore marxist artists attempting to create heavily theoretical contextual practice art. We often run into the discursive problem of contextualizing the many cultural and historical threads running through our projects to the people that we’d like to have participate. Much of the rhetoric that we utilize parallels the ‘social good’ rhetoric emitted by the NGO’s we are studying. Due to the gap in rhetoric and how things often operate on the ground, and how it compromises our ideological positions, we have grown to become a very cynical, jaded and hypocritical bunch. We criticize both art that does not have enough ‘critical’ punch and art that is so hyper-theoretical that it is inaccessible to those who haven’t spent years absorbing theoretical texts.

So to arrive at Syracuse and hear my professor talk about his preference for toilets was initially very irritating. Yet in a seemingly incomprehensible contradiction, my current professor  is very strict on making sure that nobody is using their cell phone or reading a text, or generally not participating in class. He is harsh on those who do not produce and bring work to be critiqued. I was extremely confused initially, and thought he was abusing his power, but I realized that every narrative and joke he makes is strategically deployed to structure the environment. He employs these as disruptions to prompt self-reflexiveness or question the discursive expectations that often leads to a biased interpretation of meaning. Often they don’t and they come across as just an old man testing out his stand-up material. But the advantage of allowing for these derailments (from others also)  is that it encourages people to speak up who feel uncomfortable speaking in a situation where each word has to be rigorously precise. This is crucial in a classroom where half of the class had arrived from China last month and possess only a day-to-day understanding of the language, and even less understanding of the cultural customs.

For me, I’ve realized that it’s easier to speak up after a less well thought-out statement as opposed to one than one that seems unassailably sophisticated. The uncertainty of my art critique allows for the space for both nonsensical tangents and incredibly brilliant insights (mostly nonsense), but it requires a lot of time. There are also many tense arguments, hostilities, personal breakdowns, etc. which are sometimes and sometimes not reconciled. Although this is a fantastic and necessary way to critique art, where most are giftedly inarticulate, I realize now that this is not an efficient model that is appropriate to other environments, especially one as time constricted and precarious as a double-seminar Skype session. I hope you’ll understand and forgive me for so enthusiastically embracing a supposedly legitimate (and extremely rare) opportunity to wear a horse head and discuss theories of non-governmentality at the same time.

I wish we had spent more time together in person, maybe that would have more firmly clarified our expectations and mutual understanding. I believe the conversation between Michigan and Syracuse thus far has been extremely productive—at least for me. I would hate to see this relationship being terminated because of this incident. Again, this is something that needs to be decided as a group, but I hope to continue exploring questions of non-governmentality together.



Chongha Lee


  1. Dear Michigan,
    The incident on Tuesday was a regrettable set back especially after the productive weekend we shared. As you heard from Peter, however, we did not mean to insult you. Before we met in Detroit, we were struggling to better use the web meetings and one of the ideas was to liberate ourselves by wearing masks. After we met, however, I realize that the masks were no longer useful and I can understand if you thought “Get with the program already!” Perhaps the masks would never have worked anyway, since they take away facial expressions and require even greater verbal communication skills. The Tuesday’s incident was another example of difficulties associated with web conferencing. If we were in the same room, you would have seen that we were not laughing at you knowingly, but laughing at the horse surprisingly. If we were not looking at the screen at one end of the room we would have noticed the horse earlier and wouldn’t have started laughing in the middle of the presentation. But I hope you know that we would never do anything to insult you intentionally – why would we? – and I hope you give us the benefit of a doubt.
    The general sentiment in the Syracuse classroom was confusion. We were confused about why you were confused then angry. I think we were also hurt because we hurt you. It was exactly what Andrew said: we are in a long distant relationship that started on-line and now that we have met, we need to adjust the way we communicate. It makes perfect sense to take a break from video conferencing. We were never able to find a productive way to use the technology anyway and, now that the cross-university groups are working, we have secured other means of communication. It is unfortunate that this pedagogical decision had to be accompanied by an emotional distress. Misunderstandings occur inevitably whether in web conferences, emails, letters or in person, so I hope we can continue and improve our collaborative methodologies.
    Lastly, I personally enjoyed meeting with you in Detroit and I learned a lot from the trip. I have always appreciated your inclusiveness toward my students even though you are older and more advanced in your studies. We at Syracuse appreciate and benefit from collaborating with you. I hope you feel the same.
    Now I hope to hear from you and from Syracuse.


  2. Dear Syracuse,

    I would like to offer an olive branch or as Barbara said “a big, warm hug”. I can’t speak for all (and I hope my colleagues will chime in here), but my intuition is that we at Michigan are also very confused and not outraged at all. Thank you Peter and Yutaka for bringing up a reconciliatory thread on the blog. However, I just want to emphasize to you all…don’t worry over there, IT’S ALL GOOD.

    It seemed that a variety of issues came up during our class videoconference on Tuesday, and most of them were benign miscommunications. From our end, we were listening to the discussion about the readings, sort of acknowledging the horse mask, then we were confused about laughter coming from Syracuse, and then even more bewildered at a prolonged silence (perhaps due to a microphone malfunction?). As for the horse: To me, it was a prank, we noticed it, and then we were ready to continue discussion about the readings, but due to awkward videoconferencing miscommunication, we didn’t know who was going next, or what we were supposed to do.

    I think what we are supposed to do now is take a break, and return to you soon. I would very much like to continue (in whatever manner /mode/ method) communication with you all. I had such a wonderful time meeting and exchanging with you in Detroit, and I’m really glad you made the long journey over to visit with us.

    in Solidarity,

  3. Dear All,

    The situation reminded me of a play of Ionesco, called “The Rhinoceros.” There is a huge paper puncher (grotesque scale) standing on the stage from the beginning of the play to the end, which shows an office where general paper work is going on. Nobody even cares the absurd scale of the tool but uses it. However, the audience become shocked at first and wait for something to happen. When the time passes, the audience also get used to the existence of this huge tool, because everybody ignore it. Then, suddenly at one moment of the play –to the end of the play when people start to transform into rhinos- a kind of an illumination moment, the players realize that the tool is “not normal;” they stop and react by staring at it surprisingly. Then the audience remember their first shock and feel cheated or disturbed.

    Although the situation and the intention was different, the horse-mask and its effect reminded me of this type of an “alienating effect” as discussed by Brecht in theater. It is used as a method to make the audince awake-poke and prevent them being emotionally engaged with the story. The alienating effect should make the audince feel disturbed and realized that they are in a play. After the play finishes, the audience should “move”, “act” instead of feeling a “katharsis,” that means just getting satisfied with the messages of the play and then forgetting their social responsibility/effect in their real worlds.

    May be, we generally expect a “katharsis” from the courses that we attend; in a proper line, we expect readings-discussions-exhange of ideas-well expressed ideas and then hopefully some solutions to the problems cited, I mean an efficient way of production within the limits of seminar room.Of course we need this discipline and there should be exact rules to satisfy our needs as students, scholars. However, if we don’t get this habitual or expected katharsis -we can call it a collective-learning process in our case in academy-, if anything somehow distracts the way it should be, -video conferences for ex.- or our process of expectations is interrupted by an undefinable object for a course like horse-mask, we feel desperate, angry or shocked. Although it didn’t create a successful effect in our case -but poked me-, we may now read it as a way of awakening from an “academic katharsis.” Such a consideration I guess does not challenge the ethics of this course based upon “non-governmentality”. This course from the beginning always poked me in this way, and reminded me of “awakening”, so I am grateful to it. To me, this so-called “disruption” as Peter named, is not a disruption at all. It should be regarded not only as a “rupture” but also as a “leap” for our relationship. We can regard this situation as a critical tool to discuss our “agency” as architects/academicians who seek/work for an awakening beyond our seminar rooms. -like Brecht did beyond theater halls- However the tools of awakening can be re-discussed in terms of academy, in terms of the limits of a seminar course. We can invent new tools, which would make us a collective body.

    For instance, what can we do for Detroit “intentionally” as discussed in the last class? How can we work in a more active way to “effect” the environment? What would be the effect of our projects on Detroit? Or should it be an effect? How? All those questions came to my mind after the last class we did together, each word/act of which became the part of my learning processes.

    No hard feelings! And I am completely agree with Lizzy, there was a lot of miscommunication, because it is hard to push the limits of the conventions in terms of codes of conduct and/or logistics. Although we take a break from video conferencing, we would be seeking more efficient ways of communucating and producing, because our mutual labour, our efforts since the first day of the course are worth to being extended and transformed into a collective product. -like the lexicon and blog-

    I am sorry, it was a long long comment.
    And my best regards!

  4. As always, I am amazed and struck by the insight and clarity with which Secil brings to all of our discussions, whether it be Foucaultian critique or horse-masks – and I second Lizzy’s explication of our mutual layered confusion and no worries. A horse of course is such an absurd thing to see in a seminar room (especially on a screen) and I know we were all generally amused – I love and completely agree with the likening of this event to “The Rhinoceros” and hope we can use this as a means to ‘break up’ with negative feelings toward mediocre technologies and to commit to, as Secil keenly pointed towards, some awakening of why we are all (UM and SYR) a part of this course and what it is questioning. It is such a unique opportunity to have the same subject matter taken up by students of two (seemingly) very different institutions, and I’ll look forward to what this seminar can further question, attack, and press forward on critiques of governmentality.

    In solidarity,

  5. I would first like to take a moment to apologize if we came across as angry in response to the horse mask stunt. I would like to echo Paul, Lizzy and Secil’s comments insofar as they point to this “thing” being blown out of proportion and becoming much more drama inducing, than a) it was intended, and b) than it actually was.

    Now to me all of this is a case in point of the exaggerated difficulty of conducting a teleconference style conversation with 20 people on each side, with skips, jumps, noise feedback etc. This is not new. We have experienced this every day since our first meeting. And, we have also spent much our seminar time together simply talking about re-talking about the difficulty of this predicament. I have no answers regarding that predicament.

    However, the mask stunt did something new. And I think it is important we recognize this, and I thank you Peter for creating an opportunity for us to see it more clearly. The way I see it, the stunt highlighted, exaggerated, and articulated the very real negative ramifications of all of these technological shortcomings/opportunities (however you want to look at it) as they point to our collective attempt to simultaneously learn, analyze, and workshop the very premise of this course. Learning about nongovernmentatliy, and workshopping it are two very different and conflicting pedagogic approaches. Up until now, we have been learning about nongovernmentatliy through our readings, and then trying to “workshop” it through our critique of the videoconferencing. This makes our collective learning very taxing, because we are deconstructing it through the very means of learning about it, and it basically results in a zero sum game.

    However after our recent trip to Detroit I see an opportunity to externalize our workshop so that we can learn from it, and simultaneously work on it. I don’t propose this as a way to simply dump our problems on Detroit, much to the contrary I feel as though the work we had talked about doing last week could be incredibly positive, and would give us enough time to work within our own discipline without trying to dismantle it at the same time.

    I don’t have any answers regarding how we should proceed as a collective, however I find that our different scenarios, circumstances, school pedagogies and experiences can be folded in collaboratively to produce some very positive work but on the level of our own learning, and on the level of nongovernmental politics in Detroit and beyond.

    I know some of you have been very excited about the prospect of dismantling the seminar here. To those of you I ask if this might not be the best place to do that? Is there another opportunity where that would be equally constructive as destructive? Just because up until now this course has been presented as a possibility for that sort of dismantling, does it necessarily mean it’s a productive one? Again, now answers, just questions, but I look forward to trying to tackle answering them together.


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