The power of making – or what it means to do archaeology through creative experimentation with media

The Heritage Jam
Poster by Ian Kirkpatrick

(Note that this post was produced for the Day of Archaeology & has been re-blogged here.)

I’m oodles of days overdue in contributing to the annual Day of Archaeology (11 July 2014). The delay relates in part to what I’ll discuss below – The Heritage Jam – and in part to the fact that I’m simultaneously prepping to leave for fieldwork at Çatalhöyük on Sunday, finishing multiple articles and reports, and preparing for the adventure that will be the next five months of my life, wherein I’ll be abroad for my sabbatical (more on that another time!). But being late in writing this post has given me a bit of time to reflect—and most importantly, to collate reports from others—on the event that consumed my Day of Archaeology, not to mention all of the days leading up to it, and all of the days immediately after.

On 11 July 2014, supported by the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, and the Centre for Digital Heritage, we hosted the first ever international Heritage Jam. The Jam was a variation on the jamming sessions common in the gaming industry, where adhoc groups congregate for intensive periods of time to produce game prototypes. But instead of games, we were keen to put a spotlight on the many different media that comprise the portfolio of heritage interpretation – from illustration and art to moving-imagery and animation to photography and design to sound and tactile interventions. And instead of live in-person sessions only, we were keen to open up participation to both remote and local registrants, weaving together the online and offline worlds.

The Heritage Jam
Flo Laino and Julie Rugg discuss the York cemetery, gathering resources for the Heritage Jam

The Heritage Jam ultimately coalesced into a multi-part project, all of which is documented on our websiteblogTwitter and Facebook pages. The goal was for individuals or groups to create some kind of visual output (whose process of creation was also documented in a paradata paper) for upload to our online gallery and for physical display at the University of York. The entries were judged on a series of assessment criteria, and had to attend, in some fashion, to the theme of burial (literal or metaphorical, of humans or non-humans). For in-person contributors, we decided to focus the Jam Day efforts on a particular case study site—the York Cemetery—which was necessary to provide some focus to what was an otherwise vague directive (i.e., “work with an assigned group to make new interpretative materials”).

And our team created a series of multi-media resources to support understanding of that site, including videos, photos and compilations of archival records.

By my reckoning, the day was a success, attested to not only by the phenomenal outputs submitted by an incredible range of contributors, but also by the feedback we’ve received from those involved and those who’ve viewed the gallery, some of whom have documented the constructiveness of the approach & its outputs on their personal blogs & Day of Archaeology posts (see links below). Coupled with a specific social media use/evaluation plan that we’ve designed for the Jam, we’re analysing experiences and engagement with the project for a larger report that we’ll file at the end of the month. But the superficial numbers (which will soon be blended with qualitative data to provide a rich, contextualised understanding of participation) indicate that we had 92 registrants from most continents of the world, 17 official entries submitted by 37 contributors, 249 Twitter followers & 161 tweets, and 474 Facebook followers from more than 40 countries, speaking more than 30 languages, with a total reach of posts to over 6600 people. Given that we only launched the project in May, we’re pleased with the visibility it’s received—but more so with the quality of the entries, which are truly fantastic.

You only need to browse the entries in the gallery to see the remarkable talent that infuses the tiny proportion of the heritage sector that registered for the Jam. This is important, because there is ample evidence that creative experts working in the heritage sector are undervalued, underpaid, underestimated and often undermined. Part of the intent of the Jam was to expose the depth and breadth of expertise amongst the professional community, and the possibilities that come with actually investing in such expertise. My colleague Anthony has worked to summarise each contribution, and others have gone further, with the brilliant Archaeogaming blog (a forum for exploring video games as they intersect with archaeology) reviewing in detail the winner of the Remote Team Heritage Jam category – Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham’s Buried: An Ergodic Literature GameBuried (created with the open-source, nonlinear, interactive storytelling tool Twine) is ingenious, thoughtful, fun and sensitive, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. As Archaeogaming’s Andrew Reinhard writes, “Buried is both a game and not a game. It is a playable book, and one with exceptional replay value. Archaeologists and archaeology are both portrayed realistically, and at the same time are neither boring nor sterile, proof that archaeology can stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks or stereotypes…Buried is playful, but also provides plenty to discuss regarding what is a game, and how our personal experiences are brought to bear on choices made within this kind of media, and on this story specifically.”

Equally astounding is the winning entry for the In-Person Group Heritage Jam category: Stuart EveKerrie HoffmanColleen Morgan, Alexis Pantos and Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Voices Recognition. As Morgan summarises it on her and Eve’s joint Day of Archaeology post about the work, it was an effort “to create a cacophony in a cemetery — geolocated stories emanating from graves that would increase in intensity with the density of burials in different areas.” In true collaborative fashion, it drew upon previous experimental efforts by the great Shawn Graham in partnership with Eve, which Graham describes in evocative fashion: “I want to develop an app that makes it difficult to move through…historically ‘thick’ places…with a lot of noise when you are in a place that is historically dense with information. I want to ‘visualize’ history, but not bother with the usual ‘augmented reality’ malarky where we hold up a screen in front of our face. I want to hear the thickness, the discords, of history. I want to be arrested by the noise, and to stop still in my tracks, be forced to take my headphones off, and to really pay attention to my surroundings.”

This is exactly what Voices Recognition achieves in its prototype form, put together after a 30 minute trip to the York Cemetery and about 10 hours of intensive group work in a classroom at the university.

I have to admit that when the group presented their output at the end of the day, I was truly awestruck, so much so that it rendered me quite emotional. For it was a glimpse into what great things can be accomplished when you’re able to nurture the right context: an incredible idea (tested out previously with Graham) comes together with an incredible team of people (some of whom were strangers to one another), all converging here into something with a real and profound power to resonate. As I said to Morgan after the event, it was inspirational – and it really was; it made you want to learn how to do such work; it made you want to use the app; it made you want to join their team, and create with them, and be energised and motivated by their ideas, and to experience the cemetery through this lens that they invented right there, in the moment, on the Day of Archaeology.

These entries are just two of 17 that deserve your attention and perusal, so please browse through the gallery, and add your comments to the site or to our Twitter or Facebook feeds. There are contributions from around the world, articulated via a plethora of media, submitted by both new and established practitioners.

The Heritage Jam
Touring the York Cemetery for the Heritage Jam. Photo by Colleen Morgan

I won’t pretend that all the comments we got about the Jam were positive (although the vast majority were), nor that there’s no room for improvement. It was a massive amount of work; it depended on a team of 11 organisers; it required openness to creating things quickly, which means making mistakes and wrestling with practicalities and exposing one’s process, and hence one’s potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses; it demanded doing just as must as intellectualising, which can be problematic given how theoretical much extant ‘archaeological representation’ discourse is; and the in-person event hinged upon teamwork, which as any educator will tell you, can go horribly wrong—but, in the best cases, can equally blow you away in admiration.

In our effort to provide some definition to the exercise of heritage jamming, we did consciously choose to focus on a particular site – the York Cemetery – and this caused some concern around why we were privileging that environment. But archaeology has these tangible dimensions to it, and as much as we wanted to leave the Jam brief entirely open, we also wanted to create a project that knitted the material and the immaterial, the online and the offline, the tangible and the intangible, the process of abstract thinking with the real-world, concrete act of making.

To have eliminated the cemetery would have returned the event to the intellectual exercise that the subject of ‘visualisation in archaeology’ has long been. Moreover, to have deprived Jammers of the opportunity to visit the cemetery would have meant depriving them of a series of experiences—from the reflectivity that’s encouraged through walking, to the camaraderie and knowledge that are built through shared embodied engagements with a physical landscape. In her blog post about the Jam, Holly Wright of the Archaeology Data Service, speaks about of the nature of the cemetery, a breathtaking and deeply reverberating space which is barely known in the York community (despite the fact that it houses the history of much of that community). There is value cultivated for heritage spaces through both our analogue and digital—and our physical and intellectual—engagements with them. The cemetery provided us with a site to experiment with the weaving together of it all.

I’m proud of what we achieved through the Heritage Jam and I would encourage others to consider this format for their own work, particularly if you’re directing the outputs into larger, targeted, useable resources. The fleeting composition of the Jam belies a venture with a longevity to it that extends beyond the Day of Archaeology, so I hope you’ll keep your eyes on the project to see how it develops from here.

The Heritage Jam
Heritage Jamming at the University of York. Photo by Colleen Morgan, http://www.heritagejam.org

Anthropology, Archaeology, the British Curriculum and Sunny San Francisco

AAA 2012 – Our Visual Ethics Roundtable

I’ve arrived in San Francisco for what is my favourite scholarly event of each year, the American Anthropological Association annual conference.  This conference is certainly the most major of any that I typically attend, as it hosts upwards of 6,000 people – 6,000 anthropologists no less! – all populating the corridors and meeting rooms of the local Hilton or other such hotel (usually two hotels given the number of attendees).  It is also the place where I’ve listened to some of the best papers I’ve ever heard delivered at a scholarly gathering.  Last year, I sat in on a talk by Kathryn Denning who interrogated Gunther von Hagens’s new Animals Inside Out exhibition (which I saw in London a few months ago at the Natural History Museum), and his entrepreneurial foray into selling human and non-human animal body parts on the internet.  The year before I heard Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh give a completely spell-binding and, at once, disturbing account of the questionable development and curation of the 9-11 Memorial Museum.  Before that I attended a keynote speech by Alison Wylie on the epistemic productivity of collaboration — her talk fundamentally impacted the trajectory of my PhD, and provided critical testimony to why archaeologists (and other specialists) should be prioritising collaborative research.

These papers are ones that I have incorporated directly into my teaching, and which have stimulated some of the greatest debates that I’ve had with students and colleagues.  They are a witness to the power of anthropology as a discipline, I think, because they suggest the potential of anthropological theory and method to question common behaviours, expose slippery practices, rethink our intellectual agendas, and reshape the world around us—both in the past and in the present.  With that in mind, one of the great shames of the British educational system would appear, from my perspective, to be the divorcing of anthropology from archaeology in most university curricula.  I’m fortunate enough to work on a programme at York whose focus – cultural heritage – demands a broad-based interdisciplinary scholarship attending to the very research that animates anthropology: human culture.  However, not everyone is so lucky.

It seems a disservice to British students and budding archaeological practitioners that their exposure to anthropology is typically collapsed into a couple of theoretical lectures and a few assorted citations on course reading lists.  Having said this, I’m simultaneously struck by the creative practice that underlies a lot of the work being produced by British academic archaeologists.  There is a culture of experimentation, critique and openness to redesign that seems quite distinctive to the UK system.  Whilst there is also a sense of hostility towards such culture (cue previous posts about the ‘real archaeologist’), British archaeology has an element of the anthropological spirit that is otherwise often missing from the syllabus.  Various factors obviously work to facilitate this culture—institutionalised events like the Theoretical Archaeology Group meetings; the terrain of Britain itself and its concentration of departments of archaeology (which allow many people to meet up and toss ideas about more quickly and easily than in larger countries)—factors which hark back to Wylie’s point about the epistemic promise of dialogue/exchange.  Arguably the siloed nature of academic archaeology has also frustrated people to the extent that they’ve purposefully pushed on the boundaries of the discipline.  There seems to be a lot of potential and infrastructure here, then, to elaborate the nature of our practice by more explicitly and purposively drawing anthropology into our university programmes.

At the AAAs this week, I’ll be taking over the reigns of the position of Treasurer for the Society of Visual Anthropology (hence I have to attend a lot of business meetings), and I’ll also be chairing our 6th Visual Ethics roundtable.  I’ve posted the details of the roundtable below, and it’s worth noting that archaeologists (British and North American!) are typically highly underrepresented at these events.  There’s no reason why this should be the case, and I’d like to change the demographic in the future, especially to help to break down cultural anthropologists’ own misguided assumptions that archaeologists don’t confront ethical issues that demand interrogation.

Given that this is also our 6th year, it would be worthwhile to start experimenting with the format of the roundtable in the future, and so I’m keen for suggestions on opening up and changing its nature.  I say this now because the minute that we finish the session on Friday afternoon, Jonathan and I will begin to plan next year’s event.  We’re already looking for contributors – the CFP will be circulated in the new year and the conference is, very excitingly, set in Chicago! – so please get in touch if you might be willing to participate.

ON THE BORDERS OF THE IMAGE: A ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON VISUAL ETHICS

Friday, November 16, 2012: 4:00PM-5.45PM

Hilton San Francisco – Continental 5

This roundtable discussion, organized on behalf of the Society for Visual Anthropology’s (SVA) Ethics Committee, seeks to continue the SVA’s now six-year-old tradition of nurturing debate and critical reflection on the ethics of anthropological imaging. Building on this year’s conference theme of “Borders and Crossings,” we probe anthropologists’ ethical negotiations with image creation, circulation, and consumption within and across disciplinary boundaries. Of particular interest is the iterative and unstable nature of image use—the navigation of visual value systems and moralities across time, space, cultural and institutional context, particularly when circumscribed by programmatic ethical review models. How have histories of anthropological, scientific, and related social-scientific practice impacted on our contemporary management of imagery? Where is representational authority situated in unstable, multiply-occupied/authored anthropological contexts? How are shifting visual technologies and intellectual paradigms disrupting or rearranging our ethical priorities? How do we anticipate and negotiate future relations with pictorial materials? What legacies are our current approaches to image ethics likely to leave behind?

Launching the roundtable, Esperanza attends to the implications of mass-produced ethnic artworks, using a case study of a Balinese community that has profited from the production and sale of African masks, Native American totem poles and Australian dijeridu, to name a few. She highlights changing ethical debates surrounding mass-produced ethnic art and the dilemmas involved in conducting fieldwork on this business, which often calls upon the ethnographer to translate, acquire sources and provide feedback for artisans/handicrafts producers who seek to learn “new” designs and aesthetics.

Johnson next problematizes her use of photographs and video in traditional knowledge research, primarily with Canadian First Nations. Her concerns are two-fold: (1) the difficulty of imagining and securing consent for photography and its potential future uses; & (2) power relationships: Who holds and can deploy the imagery? How can sharing this power be maintained over long periods? Where or how should images be archived? What about implicit contracts with the original subjects of the image, who may be deceased? Zane then contemplates the place of fiction filmmaking in anthropology via reference to his fieldwork on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Here, outsiders taking photographs of locals is placed in the same category as slavery; i.e., taking value without giving equivalent value in return.

Turning away from visual documentation of human subjects, Zane discusses his experiences in adopting fiction filmmaking to negotiate power imbalances between indigenous people and Western
filmmakers.

Finally, referring to videographic work in Ruginoasa, Eastern Romania, Rus reflects on ethical conflicts related to the documentation of intangible heritage in rural community life, particularly the filming of violent ritual. Rus questions the role of the anthropologist who records events which result in severe injuries, hospitalization and even traumatic cranial fractures, probing his obligations both to the community itself and to the police.

Taken together, the intent of this roundtable is to give practitioners an opportunity to discuss the ethical implications of in-progress or recently-completed visual research, and to draw upon the collective input of roundtable attendees to plan for or rethink our visual responsibilities.

Organizers:

Sara E Perry (University of York) and Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas)

Introductions:

Sara E Perry (University of York)

Chairs:

Jonathan S Marion (University of Arkansas) and Sara E Perry (University of York)

Roundtable Presenters:

Jennifer S Esperanza (Beloit College), Leslie Main Johnson (Athabasca University), Wallace W Zane (California State University and Santa

Monica College) and Alin Rus (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Hopefully see you at the AAAs this week!