[-empyre-] Why Westworld?

Margaret J Rhee mrhee at uoregon.edu
Mon May 22 13:58:26 AEST 2017

Hi Lawrence, Murat, and all,

Many thanks Lawrence for your insights, and connections of Westworld to 
the politics of the museum. I appreciate the point about history, 
because I agree that is what makes the show unique, as well as the 
future. Your thoughts on how museums, decide and have control over our 
genealogies and histories prompts for me, a return to Andrea Fraser's 
writing on institutional critique, and the activist art of the Guerrilla 
Girls: "Do Women have to be naked in the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of 
the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes 
are female."



It feels important and generative to think about the transformation 
needed within the museum space, and in particularly issues of race.

I'm wondering what interventions occur, in the pop-up exhibition you and 
Betsy so magically co-curated together, and how it created alternative 
worlds? Would the actual space itself, speak to the possibility of 
transgression, and what it means to create a space for the future?

I think your point about user experience is fascinating, and have been 
grateful for the innovative ways you curate within the museum space, and 
literary space as well.

Also as you note,

The need for violence, for institutions like museums, (and the academy) 
to function, as well as Westworld (overtly) is really key, and central 
to make real. I see how Westworld then offers ways of illuminating the 
cycle of violence inherent in the upkeep of the theme park. It is an 
appealing show that is overt, and perhaps holds up those resisting these 
artifices, these violences in some ways.

Murat, thank you for your email, and you bring up an important point 
around spectacle, and still thinking about that aspect in Westworld, 
especially since the show relies on loops.

Still thinking about all these points, wonder if Betsy and Sarah may 
have alternative responses to the issue of institutional violence, and 
the appeal and work of Westworld?



On 2017-05-21 09:39, Murat Nemet-Nejat wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hi Lawrence and others, it seems a much simpler and basic precedent
> and analogy seems to be overlooked here: Roman gladiator spectacles,
> delectation and frisson for the privileged and circus for the masses
> to appease them. By raising their thumbs or not they have the illusion
> that they have control over something.
> Instead of meeting people's needs, creating spectacles where someone
> else is suffering more than they do-- momentarily being at a safe
> place (in the galleries of the Coliseum or in front of TV) while
> someone else is buffeted with mortal peril.
> Ciao,
> Murat
> On Sun, May 21, 2017 at 8:40 AM, Lawrence-Minh Davis
> <lawrence.minh.davis at gmail.com> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Why _Westworld_? Because I work at the Smithsonian, and _Westworld_
>> feels all about museums to me.
>> We get a theme park in Westworld that epitomizes the interactive,
>> “user experience”-centric model of encountering history so
>> prevalent in museums today. Helpfully we get to see the park from
>> the participant and the design end of things (the management end,
>> too). Added bonus that _Westworld_ twins the wonder of museums and
>> the violence that always inheres in that wonder—the violence the
>> traditional museum endeavors to hide, or at least normalize. I mean
>> representational violence, I mean epistemic violence, and, of
>> course, I mean real-time physical violence. Museums need them all.
>> Westworld the park makes no effort to pretend to be a faithful
>> recounting of history. Nor is it even showing us how history is
>> made, wink wink. Westworld’s Old West is a ritual, a flashy means
>> of codifying relations, reenacting or recreating an imagined past
>> that is, of course, present and future as well. Meaning it is
>> playing out collective desires, most immediately for white male
>> power, that are not at all past, never past, but present, and in
>> tension, therefore in need of continual rehearsal so that they might
>> carry into the future. This is pretty much how our museums work too.
>> Complicating matters in _Westworld_ are the hosts, historical props
>> who are not static but living, and feeling, and inconveniently
>> fucking up the ritual, not all happy to keep playing out the
>> collective desires of park visitors and designers.
>> Museums of today don’t have hosts…well, see the recent scandal
>> at the 2017 American Alliance of Museums Expo, when the museum
>> vendor LifeFormations exhibited a true-to-scale diorama of a white
>> man selling an enslaved black man on an auction block. The
>> mannequins didn’t revolt, but, surprise surprise, expo-goers of
>> color did (side note: the theme of this year’s expo was
>> “Diversity, Equity, Accessibility: Inclusion in Museums”!)
>> The message across spaces is pretty clear: you can’t stage human
>> bodies as props, or rather you can, but get ready for violent
>> blowback.
>> In the museum world as in _Westworld_ we're asking who gets the
>> power to tell stories, and the answer is never simple, even as more
>> people from marginalized communities make their way up museum
>> hierarchies.
>> Watching the show I feel this deep sympathy for Bernard, who as park
>> engineer is a kind of curator, trying with conviction and
>> bewilderment at once to balance his various imperatives and
>> impulses, trying to be ethical and good at his job while figuring
>> out on the fly his limitations, his shifting allegiances, his own
>> shifting identity, his relative privilege and power, his
>> complicity—feelings I certainly experience, and I would guess
>> pretty much all curators of color experience to some degree or
>> another. Like Bernard, we get the shock of getting put in our place
>> sometimes. But we're also in a time of revolt, and our own season 2
>> is coming.
>> --
>> Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, PhD
>> Curator, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
>> Editor, The Asian American Literary Review
>> Adjunct Faculty, University of Maryland Asian American Studies
>> Program
>> (443) 878-3796 [1]
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Margaret Rhee, Ph.D.

Visiting Assistant Professor
Women's and Gender Studies
University of Oregon

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