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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Taking time to think

Still frame from a video interview used to inform “Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology”
Still frame from a video interview with K. Killackey – one of several artists working at the site of Çatalhöyük – used to inform “Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology”

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. I’ve been thinking about how I think, and the time I need to think, and the battle I have in safeguarding that time.

This issue has been on my mind for ages–it intersects with my research interests and features heavily (although relatively implicitly) in some of the publications and conference papers on which I’ve been working recently. What concerns me is that to create, to play, to invent, experiment, make, write, and do, takes time. Whether you’re a researcher like me, or a creative producer like those with whom I work and study, you need time to craft and hone your art. Yet time is so elusive. It is occupied by so many niggling and pernicious demands. It is always slipping away, and always disturbed by a perpetual series of tasks that leave you frazzled and longing for even just a couple of unbroken hours to think.

In my quest to understand the relation between time and creativity, and time and productivity, I’ve read a lot of disturbing things. This began when I was in Rochester in September and a colleague began to reflect on the connection between time and experimentation (he’s blogged about it here), which in some (often privileged) cases leads to innovation, and in others, harassment and deep, debilitating oppression. Then I was given a copy of Jonathan Crary’s new book 24/7. (I’m a big fan of Crary’s visual culture volumes, Techniques of the Observer, and Suspensions of Perception.) While I found 24/7 to lack some nuance and come across as overly deterministic in parts, Crary makes a passionate and worrisome argument about the “systemic colonization of individual experience”(52) by an increasingly unremitting pace that is destroying everyday life, and is now threatening to eliminate one of the only remaining times of respite: sleep. Crary talks about the consequent reduction of individuals into “a site of non-stop scrutiny and regulation”(32), and goes on to suggest that “24/7 denotes the wreckage of the day as much as it concerns the extinguishing of darkness and obscurity…24/7 is part of an immense incapacitation of visual experience…24/7 disables vision through processes of homogenization, redundancy, and acceleration”(33).

After reading Crary, everywhere I turned I saw a bleak tale about time. Philip Nel published a piece in Inside Higher Ed where he dissects the poisonous logic and structural systems that lead academics (but, really, people in general) to work so much. Then a friend referred me to Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward’s Guardian piece on the rise of mental illness in academia, which is here partly related to poor work-life balance. Then another friend posted a link to an article by Konstantin Kakaes in Slate about the “absurdist culmination” of academic evaluation and publishing expectations that both lead people to rush and over-produce written work, and allow nonsense articles to survive peer review.

The subject of time came to a head for me recently when one of my colleagues asked me what I actually do as a researcher. The question was well-meaning, but it made me sad to think that what inspires and motivates me intellectually—and what drew me into academia in the first instance—is perhaps invisible to everyone around me. It’s easy to see how this could happen. I direct 5 different undergrad and Master’s-level university courses, and instruct on 2 others, and these all have a necessarily general orientation, catering to those who tend to be new to the topics of museums, audiences, heritage practice, media, visualisation and quantitative and qualitative research methods. This means that I often have to instruct at a level of abstraction that only scratches at the surface of the meaty and provocative ideas that underlie the larger thematic areas. While this seems to be productive for students—who then find a thread that interests them and push off to explore its epistemic depths—sometimes it leaves me feeling lost and distanced from my own research because I don’t have the time to actually get into it.

My favourite class of the year, though, is the one that reminds me of what I’m passionate about. It’s part of my colleague’s Master’s course Analysis & Visualisation, and I have two hours to teach the students about the history and future of realism, photorealism and hyper-realism in archaeology. In what’s been a particularly difficult term for me with regards to teaching workload and lack of time, that two hours that I had a couple of weeks ago with these Master’s students proved an incredible reprieve for me. I could teach again about the specificities of visualisation in archaeology that have been my concern for the past 10+ years. And it also gave me the final propulsion to complete an article that I’ve been having to piece together in small chunks of time carved out over the last six months.

That article is an important one for me, not only because it’s for a forthcoming volume edited by the inimitable Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie, but because it brings together a series of theoretical tensions around visual practice (especially digital visual practice) that I’ve been trying to work out for a while now. What’s critical is that it’s impossible to sort through those tensions without time—without committing yourself to making time for thinking, and without the support and respect of others who help to protect this time for you.

The abstract of my paper is below. I’m interested in the devaluing of visual skill in archaeology, and the implication of visual practitioners themselves in this devaluing. Digital visualisation, for example, is often disparaged as being less soulful, less skilled and purportedly less meaningful than hand-drawn imaging in archaeology. But here I demonstrate the continuities between digital and hand-based crafts(wo)manship, and link this to the very long (at least half-millennium-long) history that visual producers have in pushing forward paradigm change across disciplines. I make the argument that visual production (whether digital or not) has deep consequences for the continued development and basic sustenance of archaeology. And to be ignorant of these consequences, I think, is to set the discipline up for obsolescence.

This chapter grows out of a larger project linked to my work at Çatalhöyük where I’ve been studying the nature of reflexivity as it’s played out among the site’s visual practitioners since the Mellaart era, but especially over the past 20 years. I gave a talk about these ideas at the Institute for Archaeologists conference last April 2013 (titled: Debating the legacy of postprocessualism: Visual reflexivity at Çatalhöyük, Turkey). There, I discussed the deleterious effects (which are somewhat ironic, given the 25-year-long excavation permit) of the lack of time and relentless, constant demands upon practitioners, and I ended with a proposal for a “slow archaeology movement” that would value time, rumination and the privileging and creation of spaces and methods to think. This built off of some conversations I’d had with colleagues at both Southampton and York about such a ‘slow archaeology’, and I’ve been keen then to see that the excellent Bill Caraher has separately begun to articulate some possible dimensions of such practice on his blog (here and here).

The topic of time and making time is one that I’ll come back to in the future, but I’ll end by saying that one of the most exciting things that’s happened recently is the institution of a new ‘Heritage & Play’ group here at York, which has been spearheaded by Colleen Morgan. As Colleen described it in our inaugural email about the initiative, the aim is “to creatively experiment with cultural heritage and expression. Each meeting is loosely structured around a topic, theory, or making session, but focuses on Play as a productive means to engage with heritage in a new way.”

What I see as at stake here is, to borrow from Crary’s (2013:92) discussion of the film La jetée, the “indispensability of the imagination for collective survival…a mingling of the visionary capacities of both memory and creation.” To put it differently, I think that it’s in these playful moments that the best and most important things come about: friendships, collaborations, ideas and inspirations. They are the breeding ground for intellectual revolution and change. And, as this is what I would argue is one of the principle mandates of the university system, I believe we need to invest some of our work time in actually making these moments possible. Our thinking depends upon it.

Perry, S. (forthcoming) Crafting knowledge with (digital) visual media in archaeology. In Chapman, R. and Wylie, A. (eds.) Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Archaeologists have long drawn on the skill of visual producers (e.g. artists, illustrators, designers, photographers, filmmakers, etc.) to enable and extend their expert practice.  The success of these alliances, however, is a matter for debate, as visualisers have often been consigned to the discipline’s sidelines, their epistemic credibility and relevance challenged even by the visual community itself.  Such tension is apparent with digital graphic producers whose craft skills, contributions to knowledge, and reliance on new technologies are not uncommonly subject to suspicion and misunderstanding.  Moreover, these producers are often unaware of the extant representational scholarship—a predicament that exposes them to critique and to the reproduction of foreseeable errors.  This chapter seeks to challenge the status quo and expose instances where practitioners are truly changing the nature of thinking. It considers digital reconstruction in action, tracing the collaborative knowledge-making process between artist and archaeologist, and by artist-archaeologists.  I aim here to demystify this process, and in so doing, speak both to best practice in the application of visual technologies and theory, and to the epistemic productivity of visualisation in archaeology overall.

Reference:

Crary, J. 2013. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.