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
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Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

http://visualmedia-archaeology2013.blogspot.com/

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

Heritage Field School at York

As some of you know, this term I’ve designed and launched the department’s new ‘heritage practice’ module, intended to train the first cohort of York’s BA in Heritage Studies students in the field methods of heritage work. It is the equivalent of an archaeological field school, but focused here on hands-on heritage practice and assessment of key related skills. We are in the fortunate position of being able to collaborate with the Yorkshire Museum in the curation of the museum’s new exhibition After the Ice, opening later this month (24 May). In that context, the students (in two groups) are producing two short – 3-minute – videos for display both in the exhibition itself and online.

Some of our field school team working at the Yorkshire Museum with YMT staff in designing temporary displays and recording that design process.
Some of our field school team working at the Yorkshire Museum with YMT staff in designing temporary displays and recording that design process (Photo by me).

For various reasons, I cannot post the full class outline/syllabus until later in the term, but the module has been crafted to provide students not only with experience in filmmaking, but so too with collections curation (designing temporary displays for several of the Yorkshire Museum’s display cabinets), archival research (re-presenting aspects of a large site archive which will soon go online with the ADS; as well as related media archives), qualitative and quantitative data collection and audience research (in the context of studying visitor reception of the After the Ice exhibition), excavation work itself, collaborative design (with 50 archaeology students) of interactive displays for the department’s own year-end exhibition, and full planning, promotion, and implementation of that latter event on 19 June.

The students are also blogging about their experiences of engaging with curatorial work, filmmaking and general heritage practice on two group blogs which they built and released yesterday. True to the nature of social media, we are circulating links to these blogs below so that others can follow our progress and comment – constructively – on that progress. To date, the students have been actively shaping their ideas in response to the feedback of YMT, filmmakers from around the world, other staff at York, heritage practitioners in Yorkshire, their peers and lecturers. We would like to invite you to contribute to this process of idea development via engagement with the students’ blogs. As I and others have discussed elsewhere, blogging is part of the wild side of public engagement, and my students have never blogged before nor exhibited their scholarly work in any public forum, so we appreciate your kind and constructive participation in our experimental efforts.

http://yorkstudentheritage.blogspot.co.uk/

http://tentativestepsheritage.blogspot.co.uk/

I have to acknowledge the many people who have come together to help facilitate this field school including Natalie McCaul (Curator of Archaeology at YMT), Martin Fell (Digital Team Lead at YMT), Gavin Repton (independent filmmaker), Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist at University of York), Simon Davis (E-learning Adviser at University of York), Eve Firth and team (AV Centre at University of York), my colleagues in Archaeology at York, my two stellar teaching assistants who graduated from our MA in Cultural Heritage Management course last year and both now work full-time in the professional heritage sector in Yorkshire – and, in particular, the many filmmakers from around the world who have given their time to my students including Teri Brewer, Joe Tong, Stephanie Vierow, Sarah Fletcher and her team: Raven and Teesha; plus Angela Piccini and Howard Williams who generously directed me towards these filmmakers).

As you might be able to gather, it has been an adventure in coordination to bring together this module. Whilst I have implemented a new module every single term since I started my job (and there are 3 terms per year here), this has been – by far – the most difficult. That difficulty relates not only to the time commitment, but also (1) the fact that I am the sole coordinator of the module with an associated sense of deep responsibility for its success, and (2) the lack of other heritage fieldschool models (implemented in a university context) to help shape the course. There is a real feeling – both satisfying and frightening – of crafting something new entirely out of nothing, and I continue to seek examples of other people who have done the same thing elsewhere and who might be able to share their best practice.

I originally thought that my four years of work at Çatalhöyük would have been sufficient preparation for the creation of this module, given that we do very similar things in the field each summer with a team of new undergraduate students. But what’s become obvious is that, at Çatalhöyük, I am one of two or three other supervisors who are usually present with me for a short period of time at the start of our fieldwork to help set up that season’s efforts. And, of course, on top of that, there is the entire Çatalhöyük project team – now managed by the incredible Yildiz Dirmit – to facilitate such efforts and support me after the rest of the team departs. It wasn’t until this week that I became conscious of the importance of such support, because when all the little problems that inevitably manifest themselves in the field – problems with travel to site, or a misplaced piece of equipment, or a breakdown of technology, or personal matters that affect members of the team, etc. – do indeed manifest themselves, you have a series of other supervisors to call upon. I’m lucky to have two teaching assistants helping with some aspects of the module, and a small, insightful and enthusiastic cohort of heritage students. Nevertheless, I am always looking for advice on helping to manage the many responsibilities associated with such work, so if you have any tips, success strategies, troubleshooting recommendations, etc., I’d be so keen to hear them.

Your support of both me and my students’ efforts is always appreciated – thank you so much ++