Collaboration

David. C. Ward

Biography

David C. Ward retired as Senior Historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution where he curated exhibitions and written widely on subjects in American history and culture in April 2017. He is now working as a consultant and independent scholar, most recently on the reinstallation of the museum at the US Capitol.
Ward closed his career at the Smithsonian by redoing the exhibition of America’s Presidents and exhibitions on Alexander Gardner, the photographer, and the American working class. Previously, he was co-curator (with Jonathan D. Katz) of the award winning and controversial exhibition Hide/Seek. Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (2010-12. More recently he organized, Poetic Likeness. Portraits of Modern American Poets (2012) and co-curated Face Value. Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction (2014). In addition, Ward has organized special exhibitions on Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, among others. With graduate degrees from Warwick University (England) and Yale, he is the author of Charles Willson Peale. Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic (2004) and has co-edited four volumes of the selected papers of Charles Willson Peale and his family.
In addition to his work at the Smithsonian, Ward is a poet and literary critic. He has published a small book of his poems, called Internal Difference, and in 2014 a larger collection, called Call Waiting, will be published by Carcanet Press (England). He writes the “Poetry Matters” column for Smithsonian Magazine.


The internet as a centre for community is currently touted as one of the beneficial and constructive developments for society as it adapts to the new technology. Facebook and other social media, such as plans for communal cyber “wikis” are held up as organising templates through which fragmented communities can be both created and restored. One is inclined to be sceptical of the extreme claims that technology can create the sense of organic and personal connection that technology has itself in many ways hindered, if not destroyed. Facebook, for instance, is in the process of transforming traditional ideas of friendship from an actual, personal connection based on one individual’s ties to another – through love, work, intellectual or personal interests – into a passive accumulation of connections based on nothing more than the click of a computer key.  People pile up hundreds, even thousands, of friends – with whom they share nothing more than a shared, carefully edited “personal page.” 
If  internet technology is going to serve the interests of actual human needs, instead of accelerating the process of ongoing alienation already implicit and driving modern societies , it must be the starting point, not the end point, for human connectivity.

Scarlet Monahan and I met in the superficial way that internet connections begin. She was Facebook “friends” with someone who I “knew” and not being immune to the allure of piling up a big count of 
“friends” – and because I was intrigued by the military helmet she wore in her carefully cropped profile picture – I sent her a Friend request. She assented, not least because as an artist (she later explained) she was interested in expanding the possible market for advertising and selling her work.
What ensued was, I believe, exceptional. Through a series of off-hand comments about politics and art – I am a left liberal American male academic historian who writes poetry; Scarlet is a socialist Englishwomen who makes art – we evolved a conversation that moved into collaborative art making and genuine friendship — although we have not met.

The immediate product of our early internet connection, and from which our subsequent relationship developed, came from our joint dismay and anger at the war(s) in Asia Minor. Responding to Scarlet’s antiwar comment, I wrote a poem called “Death from Above” about American drone warfare, an issue that is as troubling to me as my country’s use of torture. Scarlet responded by creating its visual complement, “Fear the Reaper.” From that initial artistic connection, we have gone on to create the series of artistic and verbal collaborations that are presented here, with more to follow.  The subjects range across topics from politics to the enervating anomie of modern life to sexual desire.  They are all political, in the sense that they try to create an alternative way of seeing and conceptualising the world.
Not all of the poems and artworks match up seamlessly. They are individualised even as they are collaborative:  they are both our voices, existing in call and response, the one to the other.  But they would not have existed at all but for Scarlet Monahan’s remarkable generosity in creating a connection out of the thin social fabric of cyber-space.