Friday, August 17, 2007

Connecting anthropology & art

I was working on my paper for the CJC special issue on wireless technologies and mobile practices when my friend (and exceptional research artist*) Kevin Hamilton sent me a link to a workshop held earlier this year at Manchester Metropolitan University called Connecting Art & Anthropology.

Because I'm writing about connections between critical cultural studies and art in the development of pervasive computing and locative media, I was excited to see Amanda Ravetz draw out some of the affinities and discomforts between two practices dedicated to defining culture:

"A consistent issue for contemporary art practice has involved negotiating the borders between ‘life’ and ‘art’ that originated in part from Kant’s idea of a distinct realm of aesthetic human judgement. Anthropologists on the other hand are trained to approach each aspect of sociality in relation to a wider context. The western conception of art – as something transcendent and external to everyday life – is understood by anthropology as socially and historically contingent. However, the line that separates these two positions is neither stable nor neutral... "

Even closer to my interests, Pavel Büchler hints at "particular issues for the recent forms of artistic practice that seek a close critical participation in the social, for the validation of their results, for their sense of purpose, integrity and legitimacy, for the ways in which they conceptualise and reflect on their own condition and so on" - and perfectly sums up my own academic concerns about art:

"When anthropologists are interested in art, they are interested in what art can make of life. When they ask ‘What is art?’, they want to know what life is - or, more accurately, how life is lived, experienced and expressed. And when they enquire about what it is that artists do, they want to find out how their diverse creative pursuits are shaped by the specific cultural and social relations and practices which, at any given moment, make both art and life what they are."

And as if that's not enough, the Connecting Art & Anthropology website contains all the documentation for how 14 workshop participants responded to this intriguing brief.

Anyway - good stuff and lots to mull over as I continue writing!

* To learn why I prefer the term "research artist" to "artist researcher" you'll have to wait for the paper.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Next stop: Banff

On Saturday I leave for my month or so at the Banff New Media Institute, where I'll be working with Sarat Maharaj, Andreas Broeckmann and a great bunch of resident artists and reseachers for the Reference Check co-production lab.

Each week I'll be facilitating a three-hour workshop on research methods and theories:

Through a set of individual and group activities and discussions, participants will be encouraged to critically explore the values and interests of different research cultures, as well as tackle questions about research collaborations and broader social and cultural ethics.

Through a set of individual and group activities and discussions, participants will be introduced to a range of concerns and issues in critical cultural studies, as well as a variety of related qualitative research methodologies.

Through a set of individual and group activities and discussions, participants will continue to engage select issues in new media and cultural studies research, as well as how different methods of qualitative inquiry can intervene in these matters.

Through a set of individual and group activities and discussions, participants will critically evaluate select approaches to research documentation, as well as both historical and emerging forms of individual and collaborative research dissemination.

And each week I'll lead (optional & weather-permitting) fieldtrips around the local area:

Meet in front of The Kiln at 9:00am, and we will walk down to the Old Banff Cemetery. Walking around this historical burial ground offers the opportunity to ask questions about spatial history, identity, embodiment, memory and materiality--as well as ways of knowing. We will have lunch at the Main Dining Room at the Banff Centre, and can resume our walk and discussion in the afternoon.

Inspired by Wrights & SitesMis-Guides series of guide-books, we will playfully explore what happens in-between a host of downtown landmarks. Meet in front of The Kiln at 9:00am, and we will walk downtown. We will take a lunch break at Wild Flour: Banff's Artisan Bakery Café in the Bison Courtyard, and can resume our walk and discussion in the afternoon.

This time we will explore the mobilities at play in the gondola ride up the mountain, on the observation deck on the summit, and along the boardwalk to Sanson's Peak and its historical weather observatory. Meet in front of The Kiln at 9:00am for van transportation to the Banff Gondola. We will have lunch in the Summit Restaurant on Sulphur Mountain, and can resume our walk and discussion in the afternoon.

On our final fieldtrip, we will temporarily immerse ourselves in the dreamscape of tourist window-shopping. Meet in front of The Kiln at 9:00am, and we will walk downtown. We will visit the Banff Book & Art Den in the morning and take a lunch break in the park. We can resume our walk and discussion in the afternoon.

I'll be documenting both the workshops and fieldtrips online, and next week I'll be posting information about all the amazing projects people are working on.

Now, maybe I should start thinking about packing...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Now back in Ottawa but thoroughly depressed to find it cold, dark and rainy, I'm nursing a nasty cold I picked up and wishing I was still in warm and sunny Oslo.

By all accounts, my lecture went well and Timo Arnall and I even got interviewed for Norwegian national radio! The local news (in Norwegian) chose to focus on Nokia senior designer Tapani Jokinen's presentation, which reminded me that presentations broken down into easily digested chunks and slogans are more amenable to being repeated. I didn't give people anything that clear-cut to take away, but that's actually part of the point I was trying to make: Life is messy but protocol is not.

I also spent two days in a workshop with Timo and Mosse Sjaastad's physical computing and interaction design students, learning about their projects and helping them get to know what anthropologists do. This was truly a highlight for me because they were incredibly talented students who quickly grasped some of our basic methodologies and were completely open to getting out there and seeing what's going on. Of course, many designers find this sort of thing interesting but struggle to see how it can directly contribute to, or improve, their work. If I succeeded in communicating only one thing, I really hope it was that they should question their assumptions and value what people already do.

After six days hanging out in west, central and east Oslo, I could still attest to how beautiful the city is. The streets are clean and safe, public transport is good (I really liked the ferry) and people take advantage of public spaces. I particularly enjoyed spending time in the wonderful cafes and restaurants in Grünerløkka, where I made friends with skillingsbolle and had some really excellent sandwiches. Timo and I also visited the Viking Ship Museum and the Folkemuseum. I had underestimated how beautifully engineered and crafted the Viking ships were, and the building in which they're displayed, designed by Arnstein Arneberg, really cultivates a sense of reverence. Both the ships and the small collection of artefacts also offer a lovely take on notions of mobility: the Vikings were great travellers and they used a wide variety of materials and decorative styles from the places and peoples they encountered. We spent most of our time at the Folkemuseum admiring Norwegian vernacular architecture. The large open-air museum has a collection of farmhouses and gorgeous storage buildings from 1200-1900, as well as a stunning stave church from the 13th century. I also enjoyed the small Sámi exhibition which included a section on contemporary life, including political struggles, which prevented the museum from acting as a tomb.

Special thanks to Finsk-norsk kulturinstitutt, Norsk Form, AHO and DogA for sponsoring the lecture, to Grafill for the beautiful accommodations, and to Timo, Mosse and Even Westvang for their excellent hospitality and conversation. I can't wait to return!

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