Robert Kett writes about the anthropology of historical art, architecture, and science, particularly in Mexico, California, and the Americas, and is currently Curatorial Assistant in Architecture + Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. While a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, he published his first book and curated a correspendonding exhibition (with Anna Kryczka), titled Learning by Doing at the Farm: Craft, Science, and Counterculture in Modern California. I had the opportunity to speak with Kett about the periphery of mainstream academia and how public engagement can make academics better thinkers and scholars. Other highlights of the conversation: the secret influence of Mexican science on the West, monumental heads, a Nickelodeon game show, and silver linings to the crisis of the academy.

Julia F.P. Ostmann for Cosmologics


Cosmologics: Traditionally the history of science has not focused on science in Latin America. How do you see this changing?

Robert Kett: We’ve seen in the past two decades so many fascinating and enlightening investigations of sciences of colonialism and encounter that have done a really excellent job of thinking about what it meant for science to go to Latin America. What’s exciting about what’s happening in studies of Latin American science now is to look at the work of native Latin American scientists to see not only how they are “consuming science”—the analytic often at work in what we read about Latin American science—but to think about how Latin Americans are developing sciences of their own, how they are both interacting with and speaking back to “global science” writ large.


There is a secret influence of these Latin American scientists, which goes well beyond their function as local representatives of a new European or American school of thought.


Cosmologics: Why does understanding Latin American science matter for the big picture of global science?

Robert Kett: What’s been interesting for me looking in archives of nineteenth-century Mexican scientists is how work by Mexican scientists is often criticized in published accounts by European and American scientists. But when we look at their archives, we see that they own copies of all of these Mexican scientists’ works, that they’re borrowing their illustrations or using their field data or their analyses within their own work in ways that are often not acknowledged.

There is a secret influence of these Latin American scientists, which goes well beyond their function as local representatives of a new European or American school of thought. If we truly pay attention to the lives and works of Latin American scientists, we begin to understand the science itself as something that is always already local and always already entangled in particular politics.

Cosmologics: What do you think scholars working on regions outside of Latin America can learn from your work on Mexican science?

Robert Kett: Mexican scientists often have approaches that are quite different from their European and American peers when it comes to communicating their scientific work. For instance, they focused on printmaking and public displays in presenting their work. And when they make scientific publications that look different from European and American publications, they’re trying to say something different about what science is, how it should be practiced, and what it can do.

Even though a lot of standard narratives of science tell us that, by the end of the nineteenth century, science has been divided into very distinct fields, in Mexico, scientists were practicing very freely across any number of disciplines. For instance, in the work of one of the scientists whose work I’ve been focused on lately, he published (at the same time) in botany, in archeology, and in engineering!

And this interdisciplinarity in Mexico has important implications for the development of science and of the state. Scientists are trying first to establish a unique Mexican science by working very liberally across scientific fields, while also trying to find ways that science can be of service to a new Mexican nation.

Cosmologics: You write frequently not only about interdisciplinarity, but also about the idea of “monumentality.” What is monumentality, and why is it a useful concept?

Robert Kett: I developed the idea while working on the history of Olmec studies in the twentieth century. The Olmec are known as Mexico’s cultura madre or mother culture, but they’re only discovered archeologically in the twentieth century. This creates an interesting dynamic in which the discovery of a civilization happens through the lens of twentieth-century science—and also the aesthetics of twentieth-century modernism. What I call “modern monumentality” is about the “discovery” of the Olmec, but also about twentieth-century scientific and technological confidence in the exploration and development of southern Mexico.

The more frightening underbelly of this modern monumentality was the violent development of Southern Mexico through resource discovery and extraction. Archaeology, oil science, and art projects all find resources in this region for their purposes—whether it be petroleum or a monumental colossal head.

Cosmologics: Is there a particular reason you feel drawn to analyzing the idea of monumentality?

Robert Kett: When I try to explain my work, the thing that I always mention to people (because usually they don’t know the name “Olmec”) is a colossal head. This is how they appear in popular media. People often respond by bringing up the Legends of the Hidden Temple, which is some Nickelodeon game show wherein an Olmec head serves as our host or an oracle or something. That’s something to contend with, because it’s through that lens that we’ve decided what so many of these ancient cultures are.


We found a new, really unexpected radical history in a space that we usually associate with the birth of the Republican party and the generic planned community.


Cosmologics: I am curious about how this relates to the idea of academia beyond the academy. Why did you decide to publish your book, Learning by Doing at the Farm: Craft, Science, and Counterculture in Modern California with an art press rather than a traditional university press?

Robert Kett: The book documents a series of interlinked experiments in Irvine, California, in the late 1960s. Both the city (which is North America’s largest planned community) and UC Irvine were developed in the 1960s in what was open ranchland. After the school opened, there was a real interest in interdisciplinary practice.

The School of Social Sciences inherited an old farm that was part of the old Irvine Ranch. They decided to use that farm as an ethnographic laboratory where they could recreate “native environments,” but one that was connected to new computer technologies at the university. They invited craftspeople from Guatemala and Mexico and Samoa to make pottery, to weave, to build pre-Columbian and “colonial” buildings at the site—while they were observed.

In this space, there was a collision between modernism, social science, counterculture, and non-Western craft. It was a really fascinating case for my co-author Anna Kryczka and me to think through questions of art-science intersections, interdisciplinarity, and the modern frontier in California. For instance, students who were involved in this work were inspired to create a progressive commune at the farm. So we found a new, really unexpected radical history in a space that we usually associate with the birth of the Republican party and the generic planned community.

Cosmologics: On your website, you write that you and your collaborator attempted in the book to “get these materials out of the archive, reproduced in beautiful ways and responsibly reproduced.” I’m struck by that—why does beauty matter in this context? And what does responsibility look like?

Robert Kett: We tried to reproduce our materials in a way that gave a sense of the period. We worried: “What fonts do we use that feel like they would be sensitive to 1968? How do we lay out documents, photographs and other materials in a way that might begin to reproduce some of sense of what it is to investigate these materials in the archive?”

So we made choices like preserving contact sheets, which you don’t see reproduced very often. They are not the most beautiful way to present photos, but for us they communicated a lot of the ways in which this experiment was being documented in the late sixties.

That speaks to this notion of getting things out of the archive. In doing work that is—however we want to characterize it—extra-academic, translational, or public scholars can end up in a pedagogical mode, teaching the public lessons. But I think the promise of public humanities is that it offers opportunities for collaborative learning, for scholars to learn new questions, or learn new things about their objects of analysis, from new audiences.

Cosmologics: How did public engagement benefit your scholarship?

Robert Kett: In the book, we tried not only to present our opinion of what happened there but also provide enough background for the reader to become their own interpreter of the materials. Not in any naïve sense—of course, we know that publications are mediated sites and that access to history is partial.

Nevertheless, how can we create products of scholarly work that are not the very closed kinds of argumentation that we primarily see within academic publications? How can scholarly work become an opening, not a closure, to a process of collaborative investigation?

Through the book and an exhibition, we met so many people who had active opinions—had historical experiences—of these materials and so they became co-interpreters, not just consumers of our perspective on this event. I think we received more of those kinds of responses than we would have had we published an article in a scholarly journal.

Cosmologics: I think there is something to be said for beauty or aesthetic considerations playing a role in that accessibility.

Robert Kett: Yes—and at a certain level, it’s not just about beauty, it’s about responsibility. Some of the photographs we have in the book are Kodachrome photographs. They’re color, and not all scholarly journals would allow you to publish color images. Even scholarly presses will often limit the number of color photographs that can appear in a book. Working with an art publisher on this book, and in recruiting funding from the Graham Foundation, we were able to guide those choices in design and reproduction in ways that, like you say, are about beauty, or being able to appreciate the aesthetics of these materials.

But then they also begin to speak to the history. It matters what kinds of cameras or film, how visions of this experience were framed at the time. And that’s something that we can communicate better if we take the forms of our products seriously.

Cosmologics: How do you see public engagement fitting into the future of academia?

Robert Kett: The current crisis of the academy is forcing us to think in new ways. The silver lining to that crisis is that it’s becoming an invitation—but also an imperative—for us to think about how our work can engage in new kinds of ways.

The academy needs to get better at training scholars in thinking beyond (and really supporting, not just paying lip service to) ideas of collaboration, outreach, digital humanities, etc. I think that we’ve seen a very big rush toward the digital humanities as this space that will revolutionize the academy, that will make us relevant, that will importantly become a new source of funding for what we do, and I think that’s wonderful.

But I also think that there’s a way of rethinking the bread and butter of academic practice—whether it’s about what kind of book we publish, or making an exhibition, or engaging in new kinds of work with concerned communities—that are not as perhaps cutting-edge as the digital humanities. These methods can still open up our work to new constituencies, enliven our own thinking, and really make clear why the humanities are critical for our survival.

Robert Kett is a curator, writer, and researcher based in San Francisco. He is currently Curatorial Assistant for Architecture + Design at SFMOMA and received his PhD in the anthropologies of art and science from the University of California, Irvine. Prior to joining SFMOMA, he held positions at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Getty Research Institute. Robert’s projects have examined art/science intersections; modernism and modernity; experimental and interdisciplinary practice; and architecture and design in Latin America and the United States.

Julia F.P. Ostmann studies History and Philosophy of Science — and in particular the mind sciences — at the University of Cambridge. She is the Weekly Geekery blogger at The Rumpus and can be found @JuliaOstmann.


Image from Flickr via DanG73.


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