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‘More and more historians understand the value of the arts’

Meet the new co-directors of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling
October 23, 2017
By Marieke Gruwel and Andy Murdoch

Cynthia Hammond and Kathleen Vaughan. | Photo by Concordia University Cynthia Hammond and Kathleen Vaughan. | Photo by Concordia University

The recent appointment of fine arts professors Cynthia Hammond and Kathleen Vaughan as co-directors of Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) marks a new direction.

Founded in 2006 by Concordia history professor Steven High, the centre now has a mandate to build stronger bridges with the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Hammond, associate professor in the Department of Art History, and Vaughan, Concordia University Research Chair in Socially Engaged Art and Public Pedagogies (Tier 2) with the Department of Art Education, became deeply connected with the centre while leading the Right to the City interdisciplinary teaching initiative.

Funded through Concordia’s curriculum innovation envelope, the initiative began in 2014 and has involved more than 150 students from multiple disciplines, drawing on oral history interviews and methods.

Under the aegis of the centre’s 200-strong affiliate members, including academic and community-based researchers, artists and cultural agencies, Hammond and Vaughan will supervise this expansion of the centre’s core narrative.

With the help of Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro — Canada Research Chair in Oral History and Performance and associate professor in the Department of Theatre — and a Canada Foundation for Innovation grant, they will also undertake a major renovation of the space itself to add a Performing Listening Lab.

‘Life stories can be part of creative practice’

How did you become co-directors of COHDS?

Cynthia Hammond: The best possible thing happened — COHDS approached us. They saw us as people who were on board with the centre’s mandate to promote cross-disciplinary storytelling.

The added bonus is that we’re situated in the fine arts and many people at COHDS are interested in how oral history and life stories can be part of creative practice. So, they also saw us as being able to build stronger bridges with the Faculty of Fine Arts.

How did this new fine arts–focused mandate come about?

CH: At the 2015 annual general meeting, COHDS had a visioning exercise for all the affiliates who were present. They asked, what direction should COHDS take over the next five years? Repeatedly, the ideas that were put on the whiteboard had to do with making connections to fine arts, having exhibitions, strengthening the centre’s ties to practice and research in the visual and performing arts.

Kathleen Vaughan: I think the main thing is that over the years, certainly since I have been involved with the centre, there has been increasing interest in the arts and interdisciplinarity. That's one of the things I think all of us have noticed in the university — a breaking down of disciplinary divides.

Why do think there is this focus on the arts?

KV: More and more historians are understanding the value of the arts as ways of embodying stories for popular engagement, discussion and impact. More people in the arts are looking to the social science disciplines (of which history is naturally one) to think about how to create artwork that’s really got social relevance and impact.

CH: The work of translation is something that artists are very good at doing. The aim is to work with and transform these stories so they can be shared more broadly without wounding the person who has shared them. If artists have training in the ethics and the mandates of oral history, they can do this work in a sensitive way.

Was your work on the Right to the City project really when you became involved with COHDS?

CH: Although I had known about the centre for quite a while before I became personally involved, leading the Right to the City project was the real transition for me. Seeing how 150 students used oral history interviews over several years has been an astonishing and exciting process.

KV: While I have been an affiliate of COHDS since 2009, with our development of Right to the City, I’ve really had the chance to see how our visually oriented students take up oral history. I think some of it is this desire for impact, to be doing work that actually makes a difference to real people, to be moving out beyond the confines of the institutions.

Can you speak a little about the upcoming renovations that will be happening at COHDS?

CH: Luis Carlos Sotelo Castro is in charge of a very big renovation that will see the creation of a new Performing Listening Laboratory. Listening is a central part of oral history as a method, but there is not always that much creative reflection on listening itself. This lab will be a space for all kinds of explorations along those lines.

There will also be lots of new equipment. There is going to be a black box, within the existing COHDS space, which will be a performance space, a recording facility and a listening facility. It will have top-of-the-line lighting, amplification, recording and video capture. Luis is very well known for moving around the city with different listeners and performers, and so there’s also going to be equipment that is designed to enable this kind of work.

What’s next for COHDS?

CH: During the renovations, we are going to have less space to work in, but we are seeing this as an opportunity to take COHDS to the Faculty of Fine Arts. We’d like to bring our rich roster of activities and workshops physically into the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex (EV) and the Visual Arts Building (VA). It is an opportunity to get more fine arts students and faculty involved with what COHDS does.

KV: The other thing that we’re hoping to do is to move forward with some curriculum-based innovations that would link the arts and storytelling more specifically.

CH: We’re also preparing for the large, international Oral History Association conference that Concordia will host in October 2018. With Steven and Luis, we’re on the committee to oversee the selection of oral history research–creation projects that will be curated around the events of the conference. It will be a showcase of Concordia’s leadership in the field. 

Find out more about
Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, one of Concordia’s 22 Senate-recognized research units.



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