Art and Anthropology: Parallels in Practice

As part of my current thesis research in Queenstown Tasmania, I am interviewing Queenstown born local artists, newcomer artists and visiting artists in residence. When preparing for this process, I began to find myself comparing some parallels in practice between anthropologists and artists.

In practice, anthropologists extract meaning from an environment or group of people through observation and interview. In anthropological literature concerning interview technique, there is often an emphasis on constructing ‘extractive questions’. The data they collect is then often used to form an ethnography, which pays critical attention to the anthropologists’ observations. An artist that makes work in response to the dynamics of a particular locality and landscape similarly extracts meaning from their observations and develops a critical perspective on the world around them, producing artworks that represent that perspective. Ethnography and artwork are distinctly different products of this process, but both are unavoidably embroiled in the politics of representation.

This comparison may be easier to entertain for those who fall on the side of considering anthropology an art rather than a science, and those fully on board with the ethnographic turn. The relationship between art and anthropology is indeed often considered with the ethnographic turn at its center, with personal understandings, narratives and representations of culture being central to both disciplines.

There is a substantial amount of literature on the relationship between art and anthropology, including explorations of the fieldwork practices I began to describe above, and the implications of sensory ethnography as bringing the two fields into even more overlap. Sources I have found particularly useful are Schneider and Wright’s book ‘Between art and anthropology’ (2010), and an article ‘Archiving Epistemologies’ (Takagawara and Halloran 2017). Schneider and Wright present a series of ethical considerations that both artists and anthropologists face, and how they might learn directly from each other’s practices. The article cited conducts a direct dialogue between anthropologist and artist which sees them both listed as the authorship, and explores the direction in anthropology towards ‘explicative ethnography’ that can take ‘communicative visual, sensorial, and aural forms’ (2017, p.127).

As I write this I am doing my research while staying at a gallery that is hosting two artists in residence. They will stay here for a month, immersing themselves in local history, culture and landscape, with the obligation to produce a body of work during their stay that will eventually be edited, curated and shown at a gallery back in Melbourne. This reminds me of my own process of creating my thesis. I, too, will craft something from this place to be expedited back to a Melbourne audience, though academic in this case. It is with this speculative comparison in mind that I keep wondering: What are the future interdisciplinary possibilities that anthropology and art could produce? This is a question that I may not be able to attend to extensively within the scope of my small project, but I am excited to carry it with me into my future endeavors.


References:

Takaragawa, S. and Halloran, L. (2017) ‘Exploring the Links of Contemporary Art and Anthropology: Archiving Epistemologies’, Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 31(2), pp. 127–139.

Schneider, A & Wright, C 2010, Between art and anthropology : contemporary ethnographic practice, Berg Publishers.

A Schooey of Lager and a Shot of Anthropology

In this post I’ll be speaking directly from personal experiences of slinging booze and how I, over the years, have not been able to stop myself from seeing my world of work through an anthropological lens.

First, a brief description of the bar to set the scene:

On entry the bar is dark and its wood paneling, teal velvet and painted brick, gold lamé curtains and pink neon light tie together a paradoxically obvious and non-specific nostalgic aesthetic. The bar staff and owners are all women, ranging from 22-34 years old, and they stand behind a long bar that takes up much of the space, making sitting at the bar the most obvious option for positioning oneself in the space. Lone customers and regulars always make for those bar stools, whereas those in groups might order standing at the bar and then move collectively to a table outside or to a booth by the window. The bar has 4 beer taps served only in schooners, a large volume of a small range of tinnies (canned beer), liquor for cocktail-making and shot-taking, and a growing number of hats stacked in high places to serve the sartorial whims of the bar team.

From my side of the bar I watch a steady stream of people, known and unknown, come through the front door every night. It is my job to serve them what they order, yes, but more so it is my job to maintain a particular social environment. This is an environment of alcohol consumption practices, social relations on both sides of the bar and the spatial realm of the bar itself, unspoken rules, and unexpected forms of community and ritual.

For some, the fact that we don’t sell pub staple Carlton Draught is disorientating. For others, a lack of high-end whiskey is a disappointment. Many are more than happy to just choose from what we stock with no expectations. The process of ordering is a kind of negotiation in which the customer indicates preferences, and the bartender sells them whatever experience the bar can offer as closest fitting to those preferences.

The bar top itself is the site of exchange of alcohol for money, but also a site in which social relations are mediated: a safe barrier between bartender and stranger, a place for regulars and bartenders to lean in and exchange affection, even a platform on which to dance where both bartender and regular can be raised up above the room in a joyous performance of territorial freedom. It’s a place where payment is occasionally even waived for ‘friends of the bar’. These are our long term customers, our friends and family, and the local network of other bartenders and bar owners (who also have a Facebook group to warn of troublesome customers leaving venues and what direction they are headed, to ask for advice and to raise community issues). Over the years working in several bars I’ve noticed that nearly all of these instances of giving, or gifting, rather than selling are done through the medium of shots. They’re quick to pour, and after one customary tap on the bar top, they’re quick to drink. Shots are how we show affection and gratitude. When the bar team huddles together on a busy night after one of us queries ‘Morale?’, shots are how we bolster our team spirit and ward off weariness.

There have been varied anthropological studies of drinking culture and the bar environment, and some have even been corporately commissioned by breweries and distilleries to investigate how sales actually work in individualised bar environments. The reason that these sales vary, surely, is because bars are not universally identical spaces with a common clientele. I believe the environment of a bar can support as much of a community as a church, with a similarly regular rotation of social interactions, support for personal issues, and a safe space to meet. Granted, this community’s binding ritual practice is the consumption of alcohol rather than any spiritual worship.

So, where is the line between capital-driven hospitality and a community? In my current family-like environment, my job often feels like a mutual investment in our community that each of our small team is committed to. The sales philosophy is implicitly based on building relationships. The business makes the most out of a harshly capitalistic system by refusing to aspire to unlimited growth and corporate empire, instead privileging locality and familiarity by catering to a clientele who share similar values.

And a note to first year anthropology students:

Make the most of what you start to see from anthropological perspectives in your everyday life. The ‘field’ does not have to be some far off village, or even your neighbor’s backyard. Your backyard is a great place to start!


See also:

Wilson, T. M. (2005) Drinking cultures : alcohol and identity. Berg.

Thing We Wish We Knew in First Year : Art/Science Debate

AnthropOLOGY. It is the ‘ology’ that often misleads those unfamiliar with anthropology to assume that it is a science. It is indeed a social science, but the degree to which it can be considered truly scientific has long been a subject of debate, mostly within the discipline itself.

This is the art/science debate, in which some use the data-collection, theory-based analysis and systematic ordering of the world within anthropology to argue that it is a science, and others use the intimacy of participant observation, literary description and subjectivity of it all to call it an art. While it would seemingly make sense to just decide that anthropology is perhaps both a bit art and and a bit science, there are important political and ethical implications to which side one approaches the discipline with, in theory and in practice.

There are prominent anthropologists on both sides of the debate, and sometimes their arguments are published side by side, like with this Harris and Geertz debate (Endicott and Welsch 2005). Marvin Harris argued that anthropology should be used to discover ‘verifiable laws’ of culture, like a scientific method, through his theory of cultural materialism (an evolutionary model). Geertz conversely says that anthropology is about creating deeper interpretations of culture, and that it should not be concerned with proving or disproving things. The politics of these different viewpoints become clear when observing a cultural setting; will you look at a scenario as something in which evolutionary functions of cultural forms can be identified, or will you prioritise the investigation of meaning and symbolism? As a researcher, are you a scientist seeking to prove objective fact? Or are you a glorified tourist armed with critical theory?

I would personally take pride in embodying the latter, but how you interpret the scope of anthropology is, as always and wonderfully, entirely up to you.


References:

Endicott, K.M. and Welsch R.L. (2005), Taking sides: clashing views on controversial issues in Anthropology (third edition) Iowa: McGraw Hill, issue 9, pp. 168-191.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year : Ethnography

The word ‘Ethnography’ can etymologically be broken down into two root concepts: the writing (graphy) of people (ethnos). ‘People’ in this sense, refers to their culture and systems of meaning.

Though ethnography can be written for a variety of reasons, and any piece of writing can be ‘ethnographic’ in nature through an attention to describing culture, ethnography is most explicitly linked to social and cultural anthropology as the product of anthropological investigation and qualitative research. It is a transcription of observation in which the experiences of the anthropologist are recorded with varying emphasis on the participatory presence of the ethnographer themselves in their research environment; it may be autobiographical or make no mention of self at all, with every degree in between as a possibility.

In origin ethnography is often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski (a name you’ll hear a lot if you’re studying anthropology), who in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific was one of the first to write descriptively from an attempted emic , or insider, perspective. Ethnography is produced from participant observation in which the researcher is immersed in a group, sometimes without hypotheses to test, instead forming their theory from what is observed and from existing cultural theory.

The proliferation of ethnography as a common academic text since Malinowski’s work has lead to the emergence of too many revered publications and academics to count. As anthropology has shifted its focus and experienced philosophical ‘turns’, so has the content and form of ethnography transformed. Postcolonial, postmodern and feminist discourses in the latter half of the twentieth century paved the way for current forays into multi-sited and multifocal research, meaning that the people or culture written about in ethnography might be drawn from multiple locations, transnationally, from the digital world, or even using the absence of location. The focus of the research can also be interdisciplinary, with ethnography providing a descriptive supplement to something else.

Each of the contributors to this blog are likely to use some form of ethnography in their honours theses, but a text that can be described as an ethnography proper will generally be a product of months to years of immersion in ‘the field’ (physical or otherwise), and culminate in a long published piece as a book or in an academic journal.


Check out these ethnographies for some of the greats of the past century of ethnographic writing (ordered by year) :

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.  (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mead, M. (1943).  Coming of Age in Samoa: a study of adolescence and sex in primitive societies, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Turnbull, C. M. (1968). The forest people. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Taussig, M.  (1980). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, University of North Carolina Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993).  Death without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, University of California Press.

Graeber, D. (2009) Direct action : an ethnography. AK Press.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: The ‘Field’

Source

Where do anthropologists do anthropology? Where do they participate and observe and collect data from which to write ethnography (link)?

The field!

Fieldwork is what anthropologists do, alongside constructing and analysing cultural theory, in order to answer the questions they construct. The field can be a village, a town, a city, a neighbourhood, a country, a border, a journey, a combination of any of these things simultaneously, a political debate, an archive, a multi-player online game, a social media platform; it can be anything where people are, physically or otherwise. It can be a literal field, if that is where people are doing something interesting. Some academics defy even that caveat of human presence, exploring multispecies ethnography to tackle anthrocentrism (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010), or probing the possibility of an anthropology of absence and the ‘spectrally resonant spaces of culture’ (Armstrong 2010).

Gupta’s writing on ‘the field’ as constituting site, method and location in anthropology is useful for unravelling the various dimensions of this term. Gupta argues that locations in anthropology are political and epistemological, rather than a physical locality (1997, p.38). A conscious construction of this kind of conceptual location by a researcher proves more useful for understanding complex contexts than an assumptive geographical location, which a researcher relying on the empirical might set their ‘field’ to be. The mobility of the anthropologist is also crucial to describing ‘the field’, because of the intent that shapes a researchers moving in and out of the field. Gupta describes this intent as a ‘motivated and stylized dislocation’ (p.37). The field is as much constructed by the positionality (link??) of the researcher entering it as it is defined by geographical location.

Gupta claims that the idea of the field is in constant change due to its different manifestations in ethnographic practice, regardless of conscious debates in the discipline, which makes an un-wielding adherement to Malinowskian fieldwork traditions futile and unproductive (p.39). The traditions referred to here are that of early anthropology and colonial contexts; the Western scientist sailing to some isolated island and learning the ways of the ‘primitive’ people in order to better understand their own societal development. In the 21st century the possibilities of the field are now seemingly limitless, and rightly so.


References:

Armstrong, J. (2010) ‘On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography’, Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies, 10(3), pp. 243–250.

Kirksey, S. E. and Helmreich, S. (2010) ‘The emergence of multispecies ethnography’, Cultural Anthropology, (4), p. 545.

Gupta, A. (1997) ‘Discipline and Practice: ‘the field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology’, In Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: boundaries and grounds of a field science, p. 1-46.

The Precarity of Job Automation

Maximum Homerdrive

At the intersection of political, economic, and power-focused anthropology there is an emerging concern for the current state, and more importantly future state, of job security in the face of the widespread automation of production and services. In the technological age change is rapid, and the consequences of this are especially significant for the working class. Granted, there are multiple perspectives on this debate, with some arguing that jobs will simply need to be redesigned to accommodate changes and that this will be an opportunity to re-engineer businesses. I think this might be easier said than done (how’s our re-adjustment to renewable energies from fossil fuels going?).

I don’t present the total automation of working class jobs as a given, but it’s worth thinking about. When talking about this issue recently, I remembered an episode of the Simpsons that dealt with this: ‘Maximum Homerdrive’. In this episode, Homer ends up taking over the last job of a truck driver after beating him in an eating contest (the trucker died from over-consumption). After driving the truck for some time, he realises that with the push of a button the truck went into autopilot. Of course, he soon takes advantage of this and blatantly stops driving on the highway, to the dismay of other truckers who then band together to protect their secret and keep themselves in work. The Simpsons quite often tackles social issues, but I was surprised to find out when I looked it up that this episode actually aired in 1999. To me this is testament that anxieties around job automation have been around for some time, though in this case it was in jest and might soon be added to the Simpsons surprising track record of predicting the future.

The trucking community is huge in America, at 3.5 million drivers. A quick look at some of their online forums, shows a concerted effort to track the possible timeline and consequences of autonomous vehicles hitting the roads. Truckers only represent one coherent block of employment that we risk to lose; what about the slowly cumulative changes in factories and offices? What about mining? My own thesis topic concerns a town currently suffering under a indefinite mine closure by the town’s main employer, and should the mine re-open at all they will have to expect changes that will likely mean fewer jobs. And this predicament of underemployment and uncertainty ripples through the other interlinked local concerns of community, identity, art and regeneration, just like it would in any part of the world.

In recent years, anthropology has adopted the notion of ‘precarity’ to describe the current instability of work and incomes in the neo-liberal age (though now its use has stretched beyond political economy to describe a more general contemporary vulnerability). The emergence of precarity is a good example of how changing global dynamics challenge anthropology to attend to the culture of work and push further the scope of anthropology. If we are indeed headed for an employment crisis, could it be anthropology’s attention to job automation that could offer insight on solutions? LSE anthropologist David Graeber thinks we should have a 15 hour work week by now with the level of technology available, while others who delve into post-work theory tout the idea of a universal income.

So what will the future hold? A post-work socialist future where robots do the work and we… pursue our passions? Sounds wonderful, but not like something the corporate stakeholders of capitalism, our true overlords, would go for. While we wait to find out, it might comfort you to know that the job of anthropologist is not yet remotely threatened by the lighting fast growth of AI.


References:

Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit jobs : a theory. Allen Lane.

See also:

https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/blog/automation-and-the-future-of-work-understanding-the-numbers/