Current OHMA student Kyna Patel (cohort of 2017) reflects upon the challenges and collaborative nature of oral history highlighted by Sara Sinclair and Mary Marshall Clark in the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project.
In developing any project design, it’s important to understand what contributions can be made; has a similar project been done before? What new information, narratives, or analysis arise from this work? In their presentation about the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, Sara Sinclair and Mary Marshall Clark (along with Alessandra Nicifero and Cameron Vanderscoff) discussed what it was like collaborating with the people at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the challenges and highlights of interviewing and researching for this oral and art historical project. Throughout the presentation, collaboration was brought up several times: the collaboration of art historians and oral historians in designing and carrying out the project, the collaboration between the artists/interviewees and Rauschenberg, and moments of unconventional collaboration, like one between interviewer Alessandra Nicifero and performance artist Simone Forti.
During the presentation, Nicifero elaborated between her exchange with Forti. She told us that upon trying to contact Forti for an interview for this project, Forti made it clear that she did not want to partake in an interview that asked the same questions about her life and work as was done in several interviews she had given throughout the years. After pondering this dilemma, Nicifero and Forti decided to find a new, more engaging way to interview. They created of a chart with numbered categories of inquiry, and Nicifero rolled dice to determine the order of questioning, which in turn gave Forti new ways to talk about her life. Like any relationship, it’s crucial to meet someone halfway, especially in an oral history interview, but it’s clear that this method of questioning was unconventional.
I think Nicifero’s anecdote with Forti is key; it emphasizes one aspect of the collaborative relationship inherent to oral history and to the work that Robert Rauschenberg dedicated his life to creating. Because oral histories are intersubjectively constructed narratives that are shaped largely by the narrators’ answers, experiences, and emotions, and by the interviewer’s goals, approach, questions, and understandings, there is almost always some degree of shared authority in the interview itself. When interviewing people, like established artists, who give interviews and talk about their work frequently, the interviewer must be wary of the narrator giving answers that reconfirm an existing narrative regarding their lives or work, as Nicifero mentioned in the talk. Life history interviews can use structured categories in terms of narrative that are marked by the passing of time (e.g. childhood, primary and secondary education, marriage, careers, parenthood, death, and so on), and someone who has been interviewed several times about their life in similar capacities can consciously or unknowingly fall back on or reaffirm the same anecdotes or narratives every time, potentially making the interview a waste of everyone’s time.
Nicifero’s account of the dice and map is an exciting anomaly, because rarely do we see an interviewee get involved in the design and structuring of the interview questions in such a direct manner that is collaborative, transparent, and does not necessarily obstruct the interviewer from asking certain questions. It’s an extension of shared authority on a level that most narrators do not get to see. By using Forti’s suggestion of an entropic method of questioning, Nicifero and Forti disrupted the linear narrative approach of a life history interview; the resulting interview still has elements of a life history interview, but by shuffling the order of questions, Forti shared moments of her life in a way that allowed her to interject personal stories that would not have been shared if the order of questions remained as originally expected.
All of this serves to show how interdisciplinary oral history can be and gives merit to its malleability and importance. The collaboration between Forti and Nicifero in the planning stages allowed for Forti to share new information that would have otherwise remained unspoken. A project with the goal to create a biography of an artist through the oral histories of the people who knew him is one of a kind and had not been done at this scale. However, the innovative methodology developed by the team that created the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project is useful not only for art/oral history projects, but also other oral history endeavors.
To read and download transcripts, listen to the audio, or watch the videos of the interviews conducted for the Robert Rauschenberg Oral History Project, check out the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation or the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives.
Kyna Patel is a current OHMA student. She studied anthropology at and graduated from New College of Florida in 2015 and was an English teaching assistant in Germany through the Fulbright Program (2015-2016). She is currently studying the generational differences in understanding the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 and the current U.S. political climate in Arab, Muslim, and South Asian families.