The Line Artist Spotlight: Johnny Finn

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 
— Maya Angelou
“I’m interested in the spaces and places of identity, and the spaces and places that identities, both individual and collective, create. And I’m interested in cities, in the way we organize ourselves both socially and spatially in these highly dense population clusters.”
—Johnny Finn, 
Identity, Space, Media, &; Mapping Media as Vectors for Mapping Social Identities
Johnny Finn in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba in 2013

Johnny Finn in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba in 2013

Academic. The word conjures images of a person hunched over a computer in an ivory tower, removed from the world with many leatherbound books. It’s hard for us to imagine an academic with their sleeves rolled up out in the world making a difference. Johnny Finn, cultural geographer and professor at CNU, is actively breaking this stereotype. For The Line, Finn will be blending his intellect with his passion for social activism by bringing his historical knowledge of segregation in the Hampton Roads area to discredit the lie we tell ourselves that modern segregation is natural because “birds of feather flock together.” Perhaps I should let Finn’s writing speak to his mission (from an essay published last year)…

"We realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present… a ruthless criticism of everything existing"
— Karl Marx
This quote, in an 1844 letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, informs my approach to geography education more than anything else. In its original context, this quote was about the difficulties of social change; the idea that, according to geographer David Harvey, “we can approach the construction of a new world through a ruthless criticism of the ideas and realities that constitute the old.”
It seems to me, though, that the basic idea encapsulated in this quote is much more broadly applicable, especially to geographic education. This quote reminds me of the necessity of remaining skeptical about the way the world seems to simply exist in a particular social and spatial order. As geographers and geographic educators, our goal should be to demystify that which seems natural, to denaturalize that which seems to be just the way it is. Our goal should be not to simply describe the world, but to understand the social, cultural, economic, and political processes that bring it into being in one particular way rather than in infinite other possible ways.
That is, our goal should be to mount, together with our students, a ruthless criticism of the
existing socio-geographical world, to ask not just how (and where) things are, but why things are the way they are, how they got to be that way, and if that’s the way they should be.

I was excited for an opportunity to work with a fellow “woke” academic and couldn’t wait to ask him a few questions

KM: Who are you?

JF: By training, I’m a geographer. I have my undergraduate degree in International Studies focused in Latin America from the University of Missouri - Columbia, an MA in Geography also from the University of Missouri - Columbia, and a PhD in Geography from Arizona State University. During all my studies I’ve spent nearly 3 years (cumulative) in Cuba, and about 1.5 years in Brazil. My PhD research was based on my time spent in Brazil and focused on music, race, and place-based identity in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador. Based on this research I’ve published extensively about music from a cultural and geographical perspective. More recently, however, my research has taken me in two new directions. First, I’m involved in a large-scale project in Cuba that uses food, food production, and food culture as a method of broader socio-economic-cultural analysis. Specifically, my research partners and I are collecting in-depth interviews and oral histories with many people in Cuba, but especially the elderly and women. So far this project has culminated in several short publications and photo essays, and we are currently working on a book manuscript. Second, I also do a lot of work that focuses on the production of cultural landscapes. While many consider the cultural landscape to be a rather unproblematic reflection of the cultures that produce it, I’m more interested in how the landscape is wholly produced of social struggles and how the seeming finality of the landscape’s physical form disguises the social inequalities that produce it in the first place. That is, the physical form of a fully produced landscape naturalizes both the fact that it is produced and the forces that produce it. In this way, all kinds of socially produced inequalities are manifested, made physical, made real, and made natural in the cultural landscape. This is the line of work that I’ll be talking about for The Line. That is, I’ll focus on the socio-geographical (re)production of persistent racial segregation in US cities in general, and in Hampton Roads in particular.
KM: How would you describe your work?

JF: Well, first and foremost I’m an academic. I write academic articles, give academic talks and lectures. But I’m increasingly interested in broadening the reach of my work beyond the walls of academia. Thus, I’ve done a lot of work with photography, including several solo gallery shows (the #WhoAreYou projects that I’ll talk about briefly in The Line, and also a solo gallery show based on some of my work in Cuba, digital exhibit here), and I’ve also published several photo essays. Basically, I’m constantly exploring ways to merge my academic work with my creative work.
KM: What is the most challenging aspect of what you do?

JF: An important concept in the social sciences is the dual idea of structure and agency. For many people (my students, the general public, politicians, etc.) it’s easy to see and understand human agency, or the capacity for individual conscious action (or what might be called “free will” in a more religious context). But it’s much harder to see and understand how both social and spatial structures influence and order social life, how they influence and constrain individual action. I think the most challenging aspect of my work is finding ways to make visible though my teaching, my academic writing, and my creative work, the otherwise invisible socio-spatial structures that play such an important role in organizing social life. Precisely this point is going to be a big part of my discussion of the history and persistence of segregation in the American urban landscape in The Line.

Finn interviewing a graffiti artist Marcos Costa Brazil 2012

Finn interviewing a graffiti artist Marcos Costa Brazil 2012

KM: What/who inspires you?

JF: This is a really hard question. In general terms, both my academic and creative work is deeply inspired by artists and activists of all kinds who put their bodies on the line for their work. In that sense, I think academics generally have it easy, and I take a lot of inspiration from those who actually embody their own creative and political work in the course of that work.
KM: What drew you to The Line?

JF: For me, participating in this event fits perfectly in what I aspire to do with my own academic work. That is, find a space at the intersection of academic research, creative expression, and community engagement/involvement. I’m really honored to be a part of it.
KM: Is there a piece of art or music that especially inspired you?

JF: For me it’s impossible to name a single piece of art or music. There is simply too much amazing work out there that constantly and continuously inspires me — photography, film, music, writing, theater, dance, even (dare I say) academic — to single out one, or even two or three pieces.
KM: What do you hope will come from your participation in The Line?

JF: More than anything I really hope that I can help visualize how the social and urban reality that we all live is not random or coincidence. Rather, this material reality is the end result of many different conscious and unconscious actions taken at all levels — federal, state, and local— over years, even decades, that have produced this deeply fraught landscape of social (in)justice. And really, in the end, I just hope that I can add to the conversation at least a fraction of what I’m certain to take from it.

For more of Finn’s work check out:

  • The Cultural Legacies of Slavery in Virginia. The Geography Teacher (2015, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 139-143; co-authored with Ann Mazzocca, Evan Goetz, and Lisa Gibson). 
  • Teaching Race, Place, and History through Culture and Performance. The Geography Teacher  (2015, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 144-151; co-authored with Ann Mazzocca, Evan Goetz, and Lisa Gibson).
  • In this clip, Johnny Finn is the first speaker on this pannel regarding ending capitalism 
  • Soundtrack of a Nation: Race, Place, & Music in Modern Brazil. Journal of Latin American Geography (2014).

In partnership with Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, our Education & Community Engagement Department will present “The Line: Art for Social Change," the first interactive, forum workshop in the department’s Art For Social Change Series, on August 21 at 3PM at The Slover Library. By empowering community members to investigate and deconstruct racially divided areas, The Line will inspire the creation of democratic and equitable spaces in southeastern Virginia. To register for this FREE event, please click here.

Kat Martin is a Resident Theatre Artist in Virginia Stage Company's Education & Community Engagement Department. She is also Virginia Stage's Assistant Director and Resident Dramaturg.