Looking for a good example of the arm wrestling match between structure and agency, between authorized systems and the way they’re inevitably contested? Then visit the University of Alabama.
For if you come to our campus and stop by historic Woods Quad, where our Department is located, you’ll surely see “Goldie, 1971” — a sculpture that dates from 2009.
As phrased in the local article that ran when it was erected:
What I find particularly interesting about this sculpture is how the university has managed it — and, I would argue, its message — since it was first put in place back in 2009. For the picture above is no longer how Goldie looks.
The narrative that I recall, when it first was put in place, was that with the demise of the steel industry in Birmingham, Goldie walked here and just fell over at that spot, running out of steam and unable to go any further — it’s just lying there, embedded in the grass, where it fell.
The installation was therefore part of the art, part of its message. Its apparent randomness was on purpose.
But then the campus beautification team, part of our campus’s master plan, got their hands on it….
You see, about a decade ago surveys started telling us that prospective students and their parents don’t select a university based on, say, the reputation of its professors, the job placement rate of its graduates, or even the student:teacher ratio but, instead, based on how pretty the campus is. So, being the home of rigorous, rational discourse for centuries means that, yes, universities jumped at this news and put flower beds and mulch everywhere.
So the team from landscaping arrived in Woods Quad, a couple years after Goldie first arrived, disassembled the robot, lifted and moved its heavy pieces to put in a symmetrical flower bed that matched the other three they’d created in the quad’s other corners, moved Goldie a few yards over, nicely centered in it in the new bed, planted some ground cover and sprinkled mulch, and that was that. Until this past January when a new crew arrived, stripped away all the sod from the quad, put in yet more symmetrical flower beds, yet another sprinkler system, some drainage, and new shrubs and sod, thereby framing Goldie even better (as per the above photo).
And voila: a political statement about the U.S. economy has been turned into a garden gnome.
The context still makes the text meaningful, but a new context does it in a whole new way.
So a quad that was once all grass, where our campus’s first football games were played (or so say the parade of campus tour guides who lead groups through it non-stop throughout each workday — when they also make much of the fact that Women’s Studies is located in Manly Hall [insert ironic laughter here]) and where international students used to routinely play cricket on sunny Alabama afternoons, which I’d watch from our building’s second floor balcony, is now a sculpture garden filled with meandering flower beds and bushes.
It looks very pretty, of course but you can’t really use it for much other than looking at it.
The moral of the story?
Surely a permit or official permission was required to put Goldie there in the first place, which was only a temporary installation to begin with, but then the administration allowed it to stay, but it’s message of economic and historical happenstance was soon harnessed in favor of purely aesthetic concerns — in fact, it was even roped off when it first was installed, as I recall, but that didn’t stop people from climbing all over it for photos. And now, this piece of seemingly random but semantically potent public art is all the more nicely framed and cordoned off, requiring you to tiptoe through the ground cover for that irresistible pic.
Social life is structured, to reflect dominant interests, of course (I didn’t get to decide where to put the sidewalks or the interlocking stone walkways on campus), but those structures are continually tweaked, adjusted, undermined (I do get to decide where to walk, wander, stroll, taking short cuts across the lawn, leaving official sidewalks whenever I want). And those in dominance then reassert themselves (the muddy shortcut path eventually gets made into a authorized paved path), only to be tweaked again, and again….
Like I said, people climb all over it to take pictures.
These are none other than examples of Michel de Certeau‘s notion of authorized strategies and the unpredictable tactics that continually oppose them, the two locked in a constant, oscillating relationship — both are structured, both comprised of agents with interests, though each operating in different modes, for each has a different relationship to official power and thus legitimation — one in synch with it, one opposing it.
Yet each require the other.
So yes, if you want to study the way power is exercised, undermined, invariably reasserted, and then tweaked yet again, just make a trip to Tuscaloosa and come visit Goldie (who, you may have noticed, got painted brown at some point and is no longer rusty — yet one more strategy at work…).