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In the Spotlight: Mary Walling Blackburn

“A site can be productive when it is unresolved, and Dallas is rife with unresolved sites.”

By Andrew Kaufmann

Mary Walling Blackburn, new associate professor of art, doesn’t teach her Art and Urbanism class by taking students to museums or galleries. Instead, she wants her students to look outside museum walls where they can examine spaces and the people who inhabit them, and then create statements. If the terms “spaces” and “statements” sound vague, it is intentionally so: Her methods and mediums change, but they consistently provide inspection of a subject while taking the witness on a journey of emotions and discovery.

“Mary takes an innovative and deeply thoughtful approach to art making. Specifically, she directly engages sites and social spaces and their layers of political history through her teaching and work,” says Noah Simblist, associate professor of art.

Take, for example, what she is doing with an Art Matters grant for a project near the Turkish/Syrian border. In it, Walling Blackburn asks: What does it mean to be a stranger? She answers by becoming a test subject as a Western stranger entering the Middle Eastern world. And she transforms herself into even more of a spectacle by asking the local citizens whether or not they have had any encounters with the strangest of strangers: extraterrestrials.

“For the first part of the project, I had to go around and ask, ‘Have you ever seen an alien? Do you know anyone who has?’” Walling Blackburn explains. “It was very humiliating. But the humiliation was central to the project. I couldn’t act as though I didn’t believe in aliens or as though anyone who did could only be an object of derision. That meant accepting others’ derision.”

Always aware of the world around her, Walling Blackburn stresses to students that art doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. “Site specificity is imperative,” Walling Blackburn says. “It’s a material, just as much as paint or clay is. And human subjects are a part of the site.”

That concept of site is the focus of exploration in Walling Blackburn’s Art and Urbanism class. Luckily for artists at SMU, Dallas is a petri dish for the arts.

“One thing that’s imperative in any of the work I make is that I don’t want people to have a sense of resolution. A site can be productive when it is unresolved, and Dallas is rife with unresolved sites, making it a very generative space,” Walling Blackburn says.

Students are learning just how unresolved Dallas can be. One class project was to have community members perform and discuss a short play by award-winning poet Amiri Baraka. The subject matter of the work is challenging, however: racially tinged police brutality. Even more challenging were the audiences and sites the students asked to participate, ranging from a sorority house to area law enforcement organizations. Most of those who were asked to participate, perhaps unsurprisingly, declined. The histories and contexts of the sites the students approached greatly affected their ability to find participants.

While Walling Blackburn may be new to Dallas, she is certainly not new to unresolved spaces.

In a project titled “Radical Citizenship: The Tutorials,” Walling Blackburn was invited to do a project on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, in view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. She and more than 25 experts from a variety of disciplines met with island tourists and held one-on-one discussions on citizenship, called “tutorials.”

“The site itself is in this constellation of immigration history, so I decided that we would have to contend with what citizenship is, and can be,” Walling Blackburn says. “The way citizenship is conceived of by government documents is very shallow. We could have a much richer, nuanced and individualized American convention.”

The project expanded to the West Coast on Angel Island near San Francisco, a major immigration processing center for the West. Meanwhile, selected tutorials have been recreated at the Tate in London, and Walling Blackburn’s students have recreated some in Dallas.

One student chose to recreate a tutorial by playing an audio loop of a voice saying simply, “I am a person.” The audio, intended to force the listener to consider the meaning of humanity, took on a new dimension because of the site selected for its performance: the banks of the Trinity River, which the student had discovered was where the Ku Klux Klan once disposed of lynched bodies.

“Professor Walling Blackburn doesn’t always use literal art mediums,” says student Stephanie Epshteyn (B.A. Psychology, ’13). “We enter into a space and experience the space itself as art, through all of our senses.”

Walling Blackburn believes that approach has a universal application extending beyond the artistic world.

“Students from any discipline can apply lessons from a course in art and urbanism toward their own subject area and expand the approaches they would take when tackling a problem.”

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