Yesterday I came home from some intense conference days at the VIII Ethnology Days 2014 in Helsinki. The theme of the conference was the elusive thing we call analysis and how it is coupled to processes of interpretation. How is analysis really conducted in the practices of ethnology?
This is how the theme was described on the conference website:
The theme of the VIII Ethnology Days is interpretation and analysis. We invite researchers and museum experts to reflect on the way they go about analyzing and interpreting their data. What kinds of concepts do ethnologists use in their analysis? How do we incorporate our informants into the process of interpretation? How to do interpretations that are in line with research ethics? And what kinds of interpretations do museums offer to the wider public? The question of analysis and interpretation concerns both academic research and cultural institutions as well their interactions with their audiences.
Interpretation and analysis is at the heart of ethnological practice. But it is not often discussed as explicitly as issues of data collection and how to write up results. We have to communicate more about the methods and irregularities of analysis and interpretation and how it is enmeshed in ethnological processes as a whole.
Since ethnology is done in several different contexts, through various collaborations and with different stakeholders involved, ways of working (with analysis) also differ. Some commentators have called ethnology a centrifugal discipline, meaning that we can find practices of ethnology spinning away in different directions. Depending on where it is heading the requirements, challenges and opportunities also differ. A conference like this gives a good chance to examine the trajectories and velocities of ethnological practice moving towards often very shifting goals.
The conference took off with a keynote by Anu Koivunen, who spoke intriguingly about her analysis of the film Auf Wiedersehen Finnland. Here we could see how a close examination of moving images, sound and narrative can give us insight into issues of national identity, gender and the politics of memory. The day continued with Jörg Niewöhner‘s talk on co-laboration and the challenges and potentials of ethnographic practice. Jörg stressed how co-laboration (a kind of laboring together) open up possibilities to analyze with different stakeholders, instead of just seeing analysis as a one-way endeavor.
During the afternoon it was time for a number of parallel sessions. Me and Tom O’Dell were chairs for Rendering Culture – New Openings in the Micro-Practices of Ethnography. Here’s the abstract for the session:
The past 15 years has seen an unprecedented expansion of the accessibility of new digital technologies to people in their daily lives. The possibilities created by this digital expansion have even direct consequences for the manner in which cultural researchers think about, collect and process empirical materials, as well for how research is assembled and communicated. Unfortunately, the consequences and potentialities these developments have for the methodological micro-practices through which cultural processes can be studied as well as represented and rendered has not been systematically studied to a sufficient degree.
This session welcomes papers that critically discuss the latest advances that are occurring in the collection, processing and presentation of ethnographic materials. New digital technologies have paved the way for new and intensified micro-practices for gathering and composing ethnographic materials, however, we see these advances as intimately linked to the developing field of sensory ethnography. Digital technology is not simply an artifact of some disembodied “cyberspace”, but is very much grounded in corporeal activities that activate and draw upon the senses.
Here we encourage contributors to re-think the manner in which digital and sensory methods can be understood as being implicated in new modes of “Rendering Culture”. By using the concept “Rendering Culture” we mean to indicate an approach to ethnographic practices that is both an analytical and creative endeavor capable of touching and moving those exposed to it on both a cognitive as well as a corporeal/emotional plane. As part of the session we welcome contributions which are experimental in nature and which push our way of thinking about ethnography and ethnographic practices in a direction which moves us further away from discussions about writing culture and challenges us to test the boundaries of what it can mean to render culture.
During the sessions we could see different takes on potential ways of working with ethnography and of rendering culture. The conference was rounded off with the keynote by Tom O’Dell, based on our research on composing ethnography, rendering culture and multi-targeted ethnography, followed by a panel on ethnology and its uses of new technology. All in all it was a wonderful time in Helsinki, with great discussions, upcoming collaborations and great hospitality. Thanks to everyone organizing and making this possible.
Within circles of bird watchers there has been debates on field uses of smartphones and similar devices to create attractant noise. With eg. an iPhone you can easily playback the sounds of different bird species in order to lure birds out of their hiding places. Several bird watchers do not appreciate this use. Yesterday Sarah Portlock wrote in Wall Street Journal about recent debates.
As Christopher Vogel approached a hot spot for Louisiana waterthrushes in a New Jersey state forest one spring day, the professional ornithologist could hear the bird’s complex crescendo of “CHEE-CHEE-CHEE-titi-WEE.” But something didn’t seem quite right.
Then he spotted the trouble. The warble wasn’t coming from a bird. Rather, he said, a large man in full birding regalia—khaki field vest, floppy sun hat and expensive binoculars—was standing there on a bridge, his iPhone chirping away. It was loudly playing the bird’s song, seemingly on a loop, in an effort to lure the bird into view.
“He thought he was alone. He was being on the sly,” recalled Mr. Vogel, 41 years old. “And then somebody caught him.”
“I told him, ‘You know that’s exactly what you’re not supposed to be doing.’ ” Mr. Vogel then snapped a photo of the man and threatened to post it online for public shaming. The birder blanched, said nothing, went back to his car and left.
I’m not a bird watcher, and don’t have any specific idea on where to draw the line between appropriate and non-appropriate technology use in this context. But I feel tempted to relate the debates and controversies about smartphones and bird watching to a concept I introduced in the text “” last year. In the text I discussed how recent debates on Instagram aesthetics could be related to earlier controversies around imaging technologies like the Claude Glass. The concept I used to try to understand the debates and often strong feelings around technology use was “borrowed features”. The concept has to do with normative aesthetics and the negotiations on uses of new technologies.I’m not a bird watcher, and don’t have any specific idea on where to draw the line between appropriate and non-appropriate technology use in this context. But I feel tempted to relate the debates and controversies about smartphones and bird watching to a concept I introduced in the text “Enhancement or Distortion? From The Claude Glass to Instagram” last year. In the text I discussed how recent debates on Instagram aesthetics could be related to earlier controversies around imaging technologies like the Claude Glass. The concept I used to try to understand the debates and often strong feelings around technology use was “borrowed features”. The concept has to do with normative aesthetics and the negotiations on uses of new technologies.
Here’s a part from the text, in which I described how disdain and strong feelings around technology use could be interpreted as: …a historically recurring theme of what could be called normative aesthetics. It is part of a defense of craftsmanship and ideas about professionalism. It is part and parcel of the social dynamics that occur when new technologies are introduced in various practices. When electric, then electronic and digital music instruments were introduced there were reactions against the loss of musical craftsmanship. Some writers still prefer mechanical typewriters, arguing that computer-based writing is numbing and dumbing. The same goes for imaging technologies. (…) But there is more to the story.
New tools encourage and strengthen some practices. New technologies are to some extent often prosthetic (McLuhan 1995). They offer new possibilities, they might enhance the abilities of the user, while they are also numbing or blocking some capacities. (…) This shift of knowledge (and skill) can be challenging.
There is a moral undercurrent that seems to run along much of the critique against uses of various technologies. The undercurrent is best illustrated by the fable about ”the bird in borrowed feathers”, in which a bird (sometimes a crow or a jay) borrows finery from another species in order to impress. The beautiful bird is however revealed to be ”fake” and the borrowed (and sometimes its own) feathers are torn off. This moral stance seems to spur critics when they disdain uses of new technologies as ”cheap gains” or as reliance on tools without having any real skill. I feel tempted to slightly tweak the fable to being about borrowed features.
It feels appropriate to use the notion of borrowed features/feathers when it comes to electronic imitation of bird song. And when Jeffrey Gordon (president of the American Birding Association) speak about thoughtless playback of sound out in the field , borrowed features/feathers comes to mind .
“I find it so boorish when people are just out here, indiscriminately blasting stuff,” said Mr. Gordon, who uses an app, but says he does so judiciously. “When we’re getting out, we’re trying to become more attentive to what’s around us, and playback—or any kind of overreliance on gadgetry—can quickly start to erode the experience.” Technology use in settings associated with wildlife and nature is a truly thought provoking topic.
Ethnographic Terminalia is a curatorial collective that exhibits new forms of anthropology engaged with contemporary art practice. Playfully exploring reflexivity and positionality, we ask what lies within and what lies beyond disciplinary territories.
This year Ethnographic Terminalia is pleased to present “Exhibition as Residency—Art, Anthropology, Collaboration”. It brings together international artists and anthropologists for a five-day residency in which to perform, exhibit, and experiment with collaborative research practices in a public space. Projects explore visual ethnography, material culture, indigeneity, colonialism, diasporas, realist painting, fine art, fashion, and video art. The gallery space represents an opportunity for resident artists and visitors to participate in the process of collaboration and the diverse intersections of art and anthropology.
My contribution was the production of a five-minute video work called Almost There The other participants of the residency were: Charlotte Bik Bandlien (anthropologist), fashion design label HAiK with us! and Ruben Steinum (artist) “Exhibition as Residency” was also connected to the 112th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association as one of its “Installations“. The Arts Incubator in Washington Park is part of Chicago University’s Arts + Public Life initiative.
Zoe Bray (artist/anthropologist) [USA] The EBANO Collective [Portugal] The Ethnographic Terminalia Collective
Jesse Colin Jackson (artist), Tori Foster (artist), Lindsay A Bell (anthropologist) [USA/Canada] Ian Kirkpatrick (artist) [UK] Andrea Walsh (anthropologist), Trudi Lynn Smith (artist/anthropologist), Sylvia Olsen(artist/historian) in collaboration with Coast Salish Knitters Adam Olsen and Joni Olsen[Canada].
The other participants of the residency were:
Charlotte Bik Bandlien (anthropologist), fashion design label HAiK with us! and Ruben Steinum (artist)
“Exhibition as Residency” was also connected to the 112th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association as one of its “Installations“.
The Arts Incubator in Washington Park is part of Chicago University’s Arts + Public Life initiative.
Yesterday I had a seminar at The Department of Culture and Media Studies at Umeå University. The theme was Art Probes and I presented my work in the borderlands between art and cultural analysis. The discussion was thought provoking and fruitful, so thanks to everyone who took the time to participate!
In the evening before the Seminar I walked around the city, taking some photos. Especially the large number of yellow birch trees standing along the streets caught my eye. When I should convert one of the photos to JPEG-format a glitch occurred, resulting in the color effect in the image to the left. There is something about birch trees, visualization and digital effects.
During the evening we visited the local jazz club, listening to an energizing concert by Tarabband, CLEO, Le Système and Julia Spada with a guest freestyle rapper from Texas. Back at the hotel was a grand opening party , with guest appearences by Lisa Miskovsky and the punkrock band Sator. An unexpected large dose of music this time in Umeå.
The book Anthropology and Art Practice, edited by Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright has just ben published. I have contributed with a chapter called “Out of Hand – Reflections on Elsewhereness”. Among the other authors are Kate Hennessy and Craig Campbell, both part of the Ethnographic Terminalia collective. This is how the book is described:
“Anthropology and Art Practice takes an innovative look at new experimental work informed by the newly-reconfigured relationship between the arts and anthropology. This practice-based and visual work can be characterised as ‘art-ethnography’. In engaging with the concerns of both fields, this cutting-edge study tackles current issues such as the role of the artist in collaborative work, and the political uses of documentary. The book focuses on key works from artists and anthropologists that engage with ‘art-ethnography’ and investigates the processes and strategies behind their creation and exhibition.
The book highlights the work of a new generation of practitioners in this hybrid field, such as Anthony Luvera, Kathryn Ramey, Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, Kate Hennessy and Jennifer Deger, who work in a diverse range of media – including film, photography, sound and performance. Anthropology and Art Practice suggests a series of radical challenges to assumptions made on both sides of the art/anthropology divide and is intended to inspire further dialogue and provide essential reading for a wide range of students and practitioners.”
A couple of short reviews:
“Those familiar with the two previous outstanding collections edited by Schneider and Wright, examining the relationships between art and anthropology, will find this addition, making a trilogy, equally indispensable. The distinctive value of this collection is indeed its close examination of ‘practice’ amid the growing importance of thinking and experiment that blurs the boundaries between anthropological research and artistic intervention. No other work better shows, rather than tells, what ‘keywords’ like performance, collaboration, participation, installation, and curatorial/ ethnographic method mean in this lively realm of the senses, imagination, and contemporary curating.” – George E. Marcus, Director, Center for Ethnography, University of California, Irvine
“One of the most promising directions for new research into contemporary art practice can be found in the rapprochement between art history and anthropology, as artists increasingly find themselves working in complex social contexts beyond the confines of galleries and museums. Schneider and Wright’s collection provides an invaluable compendium of current research at this important disciplinary intersection.” – Grant Kester is Professor of Art History at UCSD, USA and author of ‘The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context’
At the end of May and the beginning of June I was in Melbourne together with Swedish colleagues Martin Berg, Åsa Bäckström, Vaike Fors and Tom O’Dell to initiate collaborations with digital ethnography researchers at RMIT. It felt like the start of something good, with a lot of thought provoking discussions as well as fruitful strategical roadmapping. We also had a workshop aimed at producing a book. As part of the workshop I screened two parts of my new video series Fieldnotes. Some of the RMIT-people participating were Heather Horst, Tania Lewis, Cecily Maller, Sarah Pink, John Postill, Yolande Strengers and Jo Tacchi.
From September I will participate in the research project/theme DigiTrust at the Pufendorf institute, Lund university. The group of researchers include experts in cryptography, intellectual property rights, media history, innovation management, information science, media and communication, sociology of law, software engineering as well as hands on experience from the industry. Yesterday we had a meeting to plan the coming research. Here’s a short description of the theme:
The purpose of DigiTrust is to better understand the importance of trust in a digital society, how issues of privacy and identity are handled, and how legitimacy is reached or breached. This is a multi- and cross-disciplinary research theme centered on the complexities of trust in a digital context that will study privacy, identity and legitimacy in relation to 1) Security and privacy awareness in a digital context; 2) What knowledge (institutions) are trusted and how is this constructed; and 3) Surveillance and data retention as a legal trend.
My experimental essay “The Imaginary Scream” has been published in HZ, the journal run by Fylkingen. Based in Stockholm, “Fylkingen is a venue and artists’ society for new and experimental work in music, performance, video, film, dance, sound-text composition and intermedia. Since its establishment in the 1930s, Fylkingen has been committed to experimental work in the contemporary performing arts. The organisation is made up of over 250 member artists from many disciplines who use the venue to develop and present new work.”.
I have just finished a sound composition for the videowork /installation Edifice by French artist Véronique Mouysset. Edifice is a work in several iterations, where composers are invited to contribute electroacoustic music and sound compositions in order to evoke acoustic dimensions of architectonic structures. Previous contributors are: Michèle Bokanowski, Jean-Philippe Renoult, Laurence Bouckaert, Pierre Couprie and Francis Larvor. According to Véronique Christine Groult has also just finished a piece.
On Saturday April 19 the book “Sarai Reader 09: Projections” was launched at Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi. I participate in the book with a chapter called Enhancement or Distortion? From The Claude Glass to Instagram. The chapter deals with the ways that imaging technologies and various kinds of creative tools can be related to landscape representation. I juxtapose recent discussions on Instagram aesthetics to similar issues that appeared in relation to uses of earlier visual tools like The Claude Glass and The Lorrain Mirror. In the text I introduce the concept “borrowed features” to tweak the understandings of creativity, digital tools and “cheap gains” . The book is available as PDF via the link above.