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  • From Displacement to Quarantine

    By
    Aymar Mariño-Maza
     |
    May 14, 2020

    Aymar Mariño-Maza is the 2018 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

    In last month’s post, I ended by saying that I would use this final reflection to see if it was possible to move past displacement. I planned to turn to the Balkans for inspiration, to use the countries that once made up former Yugoslavia as the multicolored field from which I might harvest some of the ideas that surround the “homecoming” of the displaced. This was late February 2020 and the coronavirus had begun its dramatic appearance in Europe through Italy. I ignored the warning signs in the news and the guidance of my family and friends. I left my family—with a casual kiss on each cheek—in a Madrid that was still feigning normality and set off for Belgrade. It seems clear to me now that I was, ironic though it may be, unwilling to come home. But it wasn’t long before warnings became regulations and I found myself rushing past closing borders to catch a last-minute flight back to the United States. I was forced to leave what research I had begun unfinished, many sights unseen, and the possibility of writing that last post with a semblance of qualification in the gutter.

    The abrupt way my travels were cut short was a trivial omen of the global crisis humanity is currently facing. So, instead of writing about the homecoming of the displaced, it seems the only homecoming I am qualified to write about now is my own: the homecoming of the forcibly replaced traveler. In normal circumstances, I would write about my experience the way previous SAH Brooks Fellows have, summing up the things they learned on the road and how they intend to use this newfound knowledge in their future work. A month ago, this would have come easily. But I can’t help thinking that, in the climate we currently find ourselves, introspection is insufficient. In the same way I am currently quarantining myself as an act of solidarity with my society, so must I look back over the past year as a chance to contribute what I can to the current situation. In other words, how can what I have learned about displacement speak to the current health crisis and the manifold repercussions it will have on humanity? This is what I will attempt to do instead.

    I always felt there was a beautifully inadequate symmetry in writing about displacement while on the road—with funding, a working passport, and the easy feeling of knowing I could always go home. Sure, I had given up my Chicago apartment and put all my things in storage, so technically I was without a home. But it should be self-evident that the homelessness of the deliberate traveler has no parallel with that of the displaced person past the purely superficial “lack of home” and the shallow definition of “home” that it presupposes.

    Now I feel a similar lopsided symmetry between displacement and quarantine. But what does it mean to compare these two states? And, even though it is an inadequate comparison, what can knowing about the former tell us about the latter?

    Most obviously, they are both spatial. In displacement, we find the fracturing of a social unit’s space of habitation from its original physical and/or mythical socio-spatial frame. In quarantine, the space of habitation is restricted and partially disengaged from its original physical and/or mythical socio-spatial frame. But let me translate that into English. When displaced, a person or a group of people can no longer live in the place they consider “home” or depend upon the emotional, historical, institutional, and symbolic safety nets that this space provides. When quarantined, a person or group of people can live only in the narrowest space of what once was their “home” and no longer have access to many of those same safety nets that displaced people have to fully do without.

    It should go without saying that the degree of loss is disproportionate, just as degree of loss from quarantined person to quarantined person is disproportionate. In displacement, the socio-spatial frame is nearly entirely fractured, while in quarantine many of the frame’s elements may still keep. For example, I can shake my useless fist at the notice below Amazon’s shipping estimate telling me it will take a few more days than usual for my copy of Michael Mann’s thrilling four-tome textbook, The Sources of Social Power, to arrive at my doorstep, but I’m still fairly sure that it will arrive in perfect condition, whenever that happy day may be. As I mentioned in last month’s post, this is one of the many things I can still take for granted, one of the many expressions of my own privilege that still survive within quarantine, and which will most likely survive well past it.

    As in displacement, the preexisting conditions of the quarantined reveals even more glaringly the inequalities that already existed among people. And much like displacement, quarantine looks different for each person it affects. A teenage boy living with his family in rural Vermont cannot experience quarantine in the same way as a resident of a high-density Hong Kong neighborhood, nor can a retiree living in a Madrid nursing home experience it in the same way as a Delhi street vendor. Not only is this pandemic revealing the inadequacies of our governmental bodies and our sanitary standards, it is also revealing the inhumane consequences of a world built on inequality. I beg forgiveness to all those travelers who may have come to the conclusion that we are all the same, but no, actually, we are not. Most of humanity lives within an economic, political, and social framework that depends on hierarchy in order to function and changing differences in order to evolve. It is only by taking a closer look at these differences that we can begin to take the necessary steps of promoting that ever-necessary evolution. Ignoring the differences in our world does not bring humanity closer. In fact, it might tear it apart.

    This is a lesson one finds repeated in so many of the histories of human displacement, where the desire to homogenize humanity, to dissolve difference, and to leave the governed body as an easily digestible whole comes with brutal ramifications. From the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II to the expulsion of dissenters from within the Soviet Union, the mass and violent forced displacement of people seems inexorably linked to this idea of homogenization. Now, I’m not saying that displacement will be one of the outcomes of this pandemic. Though, it would not be too farfetched to imagine that countries with underlying xenophobia would take the crisis as an impetus to legally cleanse their population of unwanted difference.

    Another way that we can compare displacement and quarantine is by looking at the relationship each state has with movement. On first glance, one may be inclined to say that displacement is to mobility what quarantine is to immobility. But that’s not the way I see it. That starts from the premise that the state of displacement exists solely within the period of exodus. But displacement extends well past the exodus, into various states of immobility. Take the refugee camp. The camp is a quarantined hub of habitation for persons without a readily approved space of habitation. People in refugee camps can remain immobilized for decades. The kind of immobility that the inhabitant of the refugee camp experiences is disruptive on all levels of how we define humanity. Think of humanity as social, historical, emotional, and intellectual—and the kind of immobility we find in a camp affects all these aspects. The camp is an extreme situation but not the only one in which a displaced person can find him or herself immobilized in this way. In the life of displacement, forced mobility is usually accompanied by an underlying immobility.

    The effects of this immobility are manifested in quarantine. Here, social fabrics are unwound, work structures disrupted, and the public space abandoned—the framework of social life so indispensable to humanity ceased to exist as it did at the start of the year. Here we see a strong parallel with what happens during displacement, where the displaced lose, among so much else, this very framework. Forced to move away from it, they must find creative solutions to the newfound problem of social space. In displacement, the framework lost is either replaced by that of another community, recreated in other environments, or even reimagined to create entirely new social forms. In no instance does social space simply disappear. In the quarantined world in which we currently find ourselves, much of this seems to be happening as well. With people unable to go to work, to school, or even to a bar to meet friends, digital communication has taken the place of person-to-person interaction. Morning video chats with my sister in Austin, Texas, my brother in the outskirts of Madrid, my sister in Madrid’s city center, and my parents in Washington, D.C., have become a daily routine. I’ve been messaging, calling, and video-chatting old friends with whom I’d long ago lost contact. New friends I’d only known for a couple of days before the quarantine have become my go-to persons to call anytime something happens to me—in any other context these things would have been unworthy of mention. In other words, my social network has restructured itself to fit the new context and its formal expression has changed to work within the new parameters of social space. The nostalgia many of us currently feel for our mode of life a few months ago and the sense of indignation we have for our current standards of living might help us all to gain a measure of empathy for the struggles that displaced people face.

    Looking at the forms of immobility caused by this pandemic on the psychological, economic, and social landscape, one can see traces of the kind of stagnation and destruction that displacement causes on the communities it affects. As always, the long-term effects of this quarantine will most likely look nothing like the short-term ones do. It will be interesting to see which elements of the current situation are maintained, which return to normal, and which evolve to create something new. From the restrictions imposed on travel to new sanitary standards, the long-term effects of this crisis will inevitably change the way we act within the social sphere. What’s more, it wouldn’t be too strange to imagine that this crisis may even force us all to redefine the social sphere itself.

    So, my twelve months of travel are up and I am in quarantine. After a year of changing beds weekly, if not daily, I am relatively sure I will be sleeping in this same bed, in this same room, in this same house, in this same city, and in this same country until the end of summer. It is safe to say I’m a bit disoriented by the change—or by the lack of change. But, if there’s one thing this fellowship has taught me is that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. We are in uncertain times—nothing is more certain than that. My father, whose need to proselytize seems to be growing within confinement, told me that this is the time to analyze, that analyzing the situation is our responsibility. An avid reader of current events and a lover of tracking trends on excel sheets, he was talking specifically about the pandemic. I laughed off his comment at the time, but of course he is right. All of us have a responsibility, a single and impossible responsibility, to take a deep and critical look at what is happening during this pandemic. Under the umbrella of such analysis, we must look closely at the world in which we have lived, the one in which we are living, and the one in which we will soon be living. Because, in this time of uncertainty, we have the opportunity to choose how we want our world to change.

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  • Early excerpts from the SAH Data Project’s COVID-19 Snapshot Questionnaire

    By
    Sarah M. Dreller
     |
    May 11, 2020

    Last month the SAH Data Project started circulating our COVID-19 Snapshot Questionnaire, a brief set of questions about how people who study, work, and volunteer in architectural history around the world are experiencing the coronavirus pandemic right now. The idea was to give you a chance to contribute to the project in a way that might also help you cope—and hundreds of you responded to that call.

    There was so much demand in the first hours that, in fact, the questionnaire platform itself briefly crashed. The problem was resolved a short time later so if you tried and failed to access the questionnaire during that period, feel free to try again now.

    Meanwhile, to honor your level of engagement in this initiative, we’ve decided to share a few representative excerpts a full month earlier than originally planned. So here, for the first time, are some of the things you’ve been telling us about the challenges, anxieties, and support you’ve experienced during this extraordinarily difficult time.

    We’re leaving the questionnaire open until May 27, so don’t worry if you haven’t had the time or ability to contribute yet. We welcome you when you are ready. Thank you and be well.

    SAH Data Project chart

    This scatter chart indicates the relative frequency of common words across the three groups of respondents that completed the SAH Data Project’s COVID-19 Snapshot Questionnaire most often during the initiative’s first few weeks. Students led references to archives/libraries and jobs, faculty overwhelmingly referenced time and being online, and non-higher ed professionals referenced access to archives and sites by a clear margin. Research was referenced with virtually the same frequency by everyone.

     

    STUDENTS

    5. What is the biggest challenge you're facing in your architectural history-related studies right now?

    I will no longer be able to do my preliminary dissertation research this summer, so I will be behind when I go to being working on the dissertation this coming year. This will put me almost a year behind where I would be.
    — PhD student in the U.S.

    6. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution could take that would help you with the challenge you described in question 5 above.

    Possibility to visit the archive alone, on a fixed scheduled time.
    — Master’s student outside the U.S.

    7. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution has taken that has reduced the pandemic's impact on your architectural history-related studies. 

    My institution luckily has encouraged long distance learning and enabled us to have remote access to specific software that we do not have at home.
    — Bachelor’s student in the U.S.

    8. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic already disrupted or otherwise affected your life? And how do you expect this crisis to alter the direction of your life going forward?

    My research has come to a halt, completely. I am a PhD candidate writing my first chapter and I feel despondent about the possibility of finishing. I can't travel to my sites and archives, and due to their geopolitical locations, I don't know when I will ever be able to return. My university has not extended any funding or delayed any requirements for graduate students, despite offering such life boats for faculty. At the same time that I am worried about being hospitalized…I also have to worry about what might happen if I can't make my chapter deadline. These things are utterly incongruent and should not be given equal measure in my mental space. But they are. Fellowships and grants are few and far between, and the process of fellowship cycles is one that is already unkind to mental health. At times, I think I may just give up if some break doesn't come through.
    — Ph.D. student in the U.S.

    This public health crisis has made me think carefully about what work will be most important going forward. Studying the built environment can give us important information about how and why we use space the way we do, and how it informs and informed by larger cultural shifts. But in this moment, it is perhaps most important to make things as easy as we can for everyone—make sure that everyone has a place to be that is safe and comfortable, thinking through the ways that we can make public space as it exists better able to facilitate interaction while social distancing, finding historical examples of these things that can help inspire action and hope for our own future. Moving forward, I'm concerned about my ability to find work that will provide material stability, and am reconciling myself with remaining in unstable conditions. As a working class person, this isn't new for me, but I was certainly hoping that an advanced degree would ameliorate the situation. In the long term, I'm sure it will. In the short term, I'm just hoping to do some good.
    — Master’s student in the U.S.

    FACULTY

    5. What is the biggest challenge you're facing in your architectural history-related studies right now?

    It's hard not to have feedback from student body language. And they're all overwhelmed.
    — Full-time contingent/postdoc/VAP with contract of more than one year, outside the U.S.

    6. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution could take that would help you with the challenge you described in question 5 above.

    If we move forward to actual online courses (as opposed to remote teaching), having a platform for sharing best practices would be great.
    — Professor in the U.S.

    7. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution has taken that has reduced the pandemic's impact on your architectural history-related studies. 

    Hats off to the undergraduate students I am teaching this semester.  They've been very supportive and often write in "thank you" into the chat at the end... something they never did in class.
    — Associate Professor in the U.S.

    8. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic already disrupted or otherwise affected your life? And how do you expect this crisis to alter the direction of your life going forward?

    There has been a complete collapse of a healthy work/life balance as emails and Zoom calls have completely dominated my calendar. My own academic research has become severely limited because of having to pivot mid semester to offer my classes online, and for the amount of time we are now expected to engage with students. Some within the University administration feel that since faculty are no longer holding classes in person, we suddenly have additional time to take on other projects, including as acting as a psychological counselor to our students, a position that none of us are professional trained.
    — Assistant Professor outside the U.S.

    Our university relies on tuition numbers to exist. If we see a dip in enrollment faculty with my type of contract (adjunct with an annual contract) will be the hardest hit. I could come out of this pandemic without a job. They will continue to need class-to-class adjunct because they're super cheap and easily disposable. FT faculty will protect themselves and their jobs. But those of us who do the equivalent of FT work for 1/3 of the pay (calculated by the number of units taught and administrative duties) will be the hardest hit.
    — Part-time contingent/adjunct in the U.S.

    DEPARTMENT CHAIRS/PROGRAM ADMINISTRATORS

    5. What is the biggest challenge you're facing in your architectural history-related studies right now?

    The biggest challenge has been in the Historic Preservation curriculum and in courses with Digital Humanities content, which we run more as hand's-on workshops than as typical lectures or seminars focused on shared readings.
    — Chair/administrator in historic preservation in the U.S.

    6. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution could take that would help you with the challenge you described in question 5 above.

    Capsule information about different digital tools/platforms by fellow historians who have used them would be helpful.  It's hard to know where to start when you have not taught online before and have to do it all of a sudden.
    — Chair/administrator in a professional design program in the U.S.

    7. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution has taken that has reduced the pandemic's impact on your architectural history-related studies. 

    The university offers online teaching training and has extended deadlines for graduate students
    — Chair/administrator in art history in the U.S.

    8. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic already disrupted or otherwise affected your life? And how do you expect this crisis to alter the direction of your life going forward?

    After the initial crisis management phase of the situation, I see my institution now entering the financial panic moment, when one of the most pressing issues I am currently grappling with is the desire to embrace seemingly easy solutions that threaten to disrupt or entirely halt critical efforts towards creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive educational environment, despite the fact that the pandemic has revealed just how deep these inequities are across institutions of higher education at all levels. I envision multiple challenges moving forward, among them a rapid escalation and exacerbation of austerity measures, bottom-line thinking, rapid expansion of online education, and other measures taken to try to generate tuition dollars without any regard for pedagogical, educational, or intellectual values. I can already see the ways in which there is a move to use COVID-19 as an excuse to implement previously unpopular ideas, whether it is in the sudden drive to expand online teaching far beyond the necessary response of this semester and the coming academic year, or in the move to make the most vulnerable among us—especially on the staff side and on the side of adjunct and general faculty (lecturers with long-term employment in my institution)—work even harder in less stable and secure positions.
    — Chair/administrator in historic preservation in the U.S.

    PROFESSIONALS IN AN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY FIELD OUTSIDE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

    5. What is the biggest challenge you're facing in your architectural history-related studies right now?

    Completing onsite fieldwork and photography and research at libraries and other repositories. Not everything is online.
    — Historic preservation independent scholar/consultant in the U.S.

    6. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution could take that would help you with the challenge you described in question 5 above.

    Increased digital access to research archives
    — Independent scholar/consultant in historic preservation in the U.S.

    7. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution has taken that has reduced the pandemic's impact on your architectural history-related studies. 

    Some sites working out ways of reducing the number of trades on site so that social distancing can be observed but work can go on.
    — Design professional in historic preservation and museums/historical societies/curatorial, outside the U.S.

    8. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic already disrupted or otherwise affected your life? And how do you expect this crisis to alter the direction of your life going forward?

    My work also includes managing schedules and budgets for the museum's exhibitions, and we have had to scramble to rearrange several of our own exhibitions both in-house and traveling at the moment. With so much uncertainty, this is still not clear, but we are trying to make decisions that will also benefit other museum partners. We are also starting to discuss what reopening the main museum building will look like—including what our staff and our visitors' comfort levels are about coming back. This means re-prioritizing the work of the museum for exhibitions and installations as well. Because the museum depends largely on in-person visits, this is very important. We have developed online content, but ultimately the in-person experience is what we are about.
    — Professional in museums/historical societies/curatorial in the U.S.

    Over the past decade, it's been my experience that the contribution of the (degreed) architectural historian in historic preservation planning has diminished. Even among architects and engineers, the information we sometimes bring to the table is regarded as irrelevant and reflecting "elitist" concerns. I fear that with society facing such grave challenges, concerns about maintaining the authenticity of important historic architecture will likely become increasingly obscure.
    — Independent scholar/consultant in historic preservation, publishing/criticism, and non-profit advocacy, in the U.S.

    For my business in historic preservation I can't travel to work on assembling National Register nominations, can't utilize archives that aren't on line, can't meet with clients in their homes or visit interiors of comparable buildings. Can’t work on tax incentive projects to take photographs.
    — Independent scholar/consultant in historic preservation and publishing/criticism, in the U.S.

    HERITAGE VOLUNTEERS

    5. What is the biggest challenge you're facing in your architectural history-related studies right now?

    I volunteer as a docent at multiple historic house museums; all had to cancel tours due to shelter-in-place orders.
    — Volunteer in museums/historical societies/curatorial in the U.S.

    6. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution could take that would help you with the challenge you described in question 5 above.

    Not much can be done until people can gather once again.
    — Volunteer researcher/community lecturer in six different sectors of non-academic architectural history work in the U.S.

    7. Please describe at least one action that a person, organization, and/or institution has taken that has reduced the pandemic's impact on your architectural history-related studies. 

    Various organizations are already providing virtual tours and lectures.
    — Volunteer in historic preservation and museums/historical societies/curatorial in the U.S.

    8. In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic already disrupted or otherwise affected your life? And how do you expect this crisis to alter the direction of your life going forward?

    I only hope that the libraries and architectural sites where I volunteer my time with have the funding and ability to continue their work after the pandemic is deemed over. Most are non-profits who have lost considerable revenue. Tourism will probably take a long time to get back to its earlier impact on certain sites.
    — Volunteer in historic preservation, museums/historical societies/curatorial, libraries and archives, and non-profit advocacy in the U.S.

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