Joan Dobkin
Department of Visual Art
End-of-Year Fellowship Report for 2002-03

Joan Dobkin

My proposal and the initial focus of my work was an examination of the "vocabulary of aggression in social space", e.g. "war on drugs", “war on poverty", neighborhood "war zones." The planned outcome was, and is, the creation of visual art based on the ideas I have formulated or interpreted. In particular, I was interested in exploring the war metaphor in urban settings, not primarily as a concept handed down from above (the federal government) but first and foremost as a reality experienced by marginalized urban communities.

In the Fall I began surveying literature on the cultural dimensions of past and present "wars" inside the United States--such as the "War on Poverty" and the "War on Drugs." I examined the history as well as more recent developments in the aforementioned "wars" in local, regional, and national contexts focusing on welfare, welfare reform, poverty, and education.

I also investigated the work of other artists and art theorists whose work focuses on political and social issues. Artists such as Martha Rosler, Felix Gonzales Torres, Les Levine, Dennis Adams, David Hammons, Jenny Holzer, and barbara Kruger have greatly influenced the direction of my work. The Center director's knowledge of these artists and their practices helped deepen the level of discussion when I gave my seminar/presentation to Center fellows and staff in October. I focused specifically on the writing and practice of Martha Rosler and the questions her work raises in relation to my own artistic practice.

At the same time, the events of 9/11 and the ensuing national and international responses became a strong focus of discussion at the Center. The Center's October 2002 conference 9/11: Reconstructions introduced me to multiple and complex perspectives on the meaning of this event. A highlight of the conference was Professor Elaine Scarry's (Harvard) analysis of our military's defense systems and her call for a more "egalitarian model of national defense." Professor Stephen Toope's (McGill University) presentation on international law in relation to potential responses by the United States to 9/11 brilliantly contextualized the actions, threats, and intentions of the U.S.

Joshua Cole's (University of Georgia) seminar, Remembering Police Violence in Paris: 17 October 1961 in France and Algeria, and the discussion that followed pushed me to think more deeply about the forces that promote the identification of a particular group e.g., national, ethnic, religious, military, as well as the formulation of a group's identity from within. This helped me to examine further the role of nationalism, particularly as employed by the Bush administration as a strategy for repression, coercion, and obfuscation. It also helped me to analyze further the coercive effect of these strategies in relation to the media's coverage of the war on Iraq and resulting government-instituted policies.

The ideas accumulated throughout my research, the 9/11 Conference, seminars given by my Center colleagues, and the many stimulating guest seminars expanded my thinking, creating a shift in my approach to the concerns expressed in my initial proposal. My research and ideas began to focus more strongly on the Bush administration's attempts to use the war on Iraq as a partial cover for dismantling federal and state infrastructures that protect civil liberties and provide much needed services to people in the U.S.. I am currently in the process of completing the visual work resulting from my stay at the Center. It is to be exhibited from September 20 - October 18 as part of Inova's Fall 2003 exhibition schedule.

Several other activities furthered my research. Work developed for my presentation "Identity and Representation in Design" at the 27th Annual University of Wisconsin-System Women's Studies Conference helped me examine further questions on human rights, stereotyping, and social/political repression. In response to the war I created various visual works commenting on war as spectacle and its seductive beauty, one of which was posted on the Center's website during the opening days of the war. [editor’s note: see] As a panelist/presenter in the Center's "War" seminar/speak-out on the war in Iraq, my presentation "War and the Media" allowed me to articulate more specifically aspects of my visual work in regards to the ambiguous nature of spectacle. [editor’s note: a transcript of this seminar is available as an on-line working paper:]

I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this fellowship to the advancement of my research. The fellowship provided: much needed time to read, think and work; access to stimulating cross-disciplinary ideas through seminars and presentations with guest scholars and my Center colleagues; a well designed program that allowed adequate time for research; a director and staff that did everything possible to help foster a positive and thought provoking experience. 

27th Annual University of Wisconsin-System Women’s Studies Conference, (invited)
Panel: Contemporary Art and Design: Image and Identity
Paper: Identity and Representation in Design, Madison, Wisconsin, November, 2002

"War" seminar/speak-out on the war in Iraq
"War and the Media" panel presentation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, April 2003

publication (Note: written--but not by me—about my work)
"Who’ll Speak for Them? The Streets Are a Canvas to Activist Artist"
(project: Allocations) City Scenes, Shepherd Express, Milwaukee, p. 21, November 21, 2002

forthcoming exhibition
"Giant Puppy" (Working title), 3 room installation
Inova, Peck school of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,
September 20 - October 18, 2003

Current department website




Center for 21st Century Studies

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Center for 21st Century Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
P.O. Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201 USA
tel: 414-229-4141; fax: 414-229-5964; email:



  Last updated 7/23/08 by EMW