not a dreary place

Art and history: Using Tumblr to document "The End of Austin"

Art and history: Using Tumblr to document "The End of Austin"

I35 East Avenue Composite
Composite image of I35 and it's predecessor East Avenue
Austin Skyline 1910/2006
Outline of Austin's skyline 1930/2006 Kathleen Shafer
Cemetary
I35 East Avenue Composite
Austin Skyline 1910/2006
Cemetary

The process of recording and handing down history has always been an incorporation of creativity and scholarship. From ancient Greek mythology to Shakespeare’s dramas to modern documentary film, historians have necessarily made their accounts of the world both entertaining and informative.

This method draws a much wider audience, engaging not just those who would spend their lives scouring volume after volume of historical texts, but also those less interested in the minutia of ancient life. The importance of academia reaching as much of the community possible goes without saying, and Austin is privileged enough to host a group of scholars working to achieve just that.

A graduate studies project coming out of the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas, lead by associate professor Dr. Randy Lewis, is taking a new approach to the marriage of art and academics. Students in Dr. Lewis’ “Documenting America” summer course were tasked with creating an interactive narrative via the popular blog/social network Tumblr. The “collaborative documentary” set out to chronicle "the end of Austin," a purposefully broad theme granting the contributors freedom to broach “the end” from a multitude of angles.

Dr. Lewis — “a less gruff, academic version of Mr. Miyagi,” as described by student Carrie Andersen — says of the project: ”As an American Studies scholar who wants to understand our rapidly changing culture, I have a responsibility to keep experimenting and looking for new ways of doing things. I want my classes to produce work that is beautiful, enduring, and useful to people both inside and outside of the university.” And that is the heart of The End of Austin, an experiment in combining creative digital art with cultural understanding (available to anyone who can point their web-browser to end-of-austin.tumblr.com).

The contributors touch on a variety of subjects: what genres define the boundaries of Austin’s legendary music scene; what the city limits sound like; how Austin almost wasn’t the state capitol. They use a variety of mediums, including text, photo essays and audio recordings. The expansiveness of this project lends itself to the theme: “the end” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
 
“‘The end’ is a somewhat loaded phrase that encourages us to consider what Austin is right now," explains student Andrew Gansky. "What it has been and what it's in the process of becoming.” The project, then, is not a grim exploration into the demise of a beloved city, but an artistic endeavour that pushes individuals to appreciate what they have, be grateful for what those in the past have done, and to plan for what will be.

By opening this project to the general public, Dr. Lewis hopes to change the way non-academics interact with the materials and research available to those within academia. In one respect, The End of Austin is a completely free gateway to the insights of public researchers, openly accessible to anyone interested. According to Dr. Lewis, this a model public universities should embrace. “We need to take the money out of the dissemination of academic knowledge and creativity whenever possible. This is why 'open access' projects should be the future. You shouldn't need an expensive subscription to an academic database in order to access high quality scholarship.”
 
A promising philosophy, one that encourages the cognitive development of society — no textbook required, no subscription necessary.

Dr. Lewis and his students haven't settled on where the project is headed. They have considered accepting contributions from anyone in the city, or helping to maintain it for future students as a “living project,” or simply to leave it suspended in time, a frame for Austin in the year 2011. Whatever direction the collaborative work takes, it will certainly set a precedent for how public knowledge is created and shared, advancing the tradition of historical creativity in the digital age.

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CultureMap would like to thank Dr. Randy Lewis and students in his “Documenting America” course for taking the time to help with this story. See the End of Austin Tumblr here.