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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI art professor’s project to focus on visceral and virtual Americans

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 28, 2005 -- On a rainy morning last year, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, an associate professor of art at the University of Rhode Island raised her hand and became an American citizen. The photographer was handed a brochure entitled “A Welcome to USA Citizenship” that read: “Today you have become a citizen of the United States of America. You are no longer an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole. Neither are you a hyphenated-American.”

The Providence resident remembers feeling a sense of melancholy. Legally she was now an American, but culturally and psychologically she remained an Indian.

She was reminded of this blurring of her identity on a yearly trip to India, to visit her mother in Bangalore. A nearby call center was bustling with activity.

The call center and others like it have become a profitable industry for India, opened for business 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Employees answer international phone calls, mostly from Americans seeking answers, especially to computers and other high tech equipment problems.

To work in these centers, employees must neutralize their accents, study American culture, and become fluent in American idioms by watching football and sitcoms such as Friends. In short, they become Americans for the workday.

One employee told the URI professor she chose “Jane” because she found it empowering. “They become Americans for the workday,” says the artist.

After reading about the psychological consequences of identity switching and meeting some call center workers at social events and observing them in public places, Matthew decided to create an installation using photography and new media with audiotapes to compare the experiences of these “virtual Americans” with the visceral experiences of immigrants and recently naturalized American citizens in New England.

While personal identity is typically associated with such concrete things as race, age, ethnicity, gender, or income, Matthew hopes to take the viewer where the fluid identities of both visceral and virtual immigrants reside. She also hopes her work will spark conversation and awareness about the repercussions of the homogenizing nature of globalization and immigration while emphasizing the effects of technology, especially the cyber or virtual effect on identity.

Her work is funded by two grants: a $10,000 American Institute of Indian Studies grant and a $14,400 Rhode Island Foundation grant.

Matthew envisions the final work will be shown as two multimedia presentations, forcing its viewers to physically and mentally move back and forth, mimicking an immigrant’s feeling of being both here and there. Similarly, the images will blur and morph, reflecting the changing identities. Taped conversations will also reflect a sense of belonging and the sense of loss.

The exhibition is expected to premiere at URI’s Fine Arts Center Galleries during the fall of 2006. A satellite of the larger exhibit will be exhibited simultaneously at the T.F. Green Airport, a place of multiple transitions.