Collaborative Migrations: Contemporary Art in/as Anthropology

Steven Feld, in conversation with Virginia Ryan

Between Art and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg, 2010

Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, eds.

Arnd Schneider's Three Modes of Experimentation with Art and Anthropology (Schneider 2008) voices concern about the general reluctance that exists within anthropology, including its sub-discipline of visual anthropology, to engage beyond a narrative textual paradigm with visual work in the contemporary arts(2008: 172).? He calls for ??a new engagement with visual forms of research and representation beyond the sub-disciplinary confines of visual anthropology?(ibid)? and asks about new possibilities of experimentation in visual research and representation which so far have rarely been contemplated by anthropology(ibid).? This article responds to Schneider's concerns by discussing three experimental collaborations; each was initiated in visual projects by artist Virginia Ryan, who then invited anthropologist and sound/visual artist Steven Feld to join through anthropological response in written, acoustic, and visual media. Each project speaks distinctly to issues Schneider raises about ways experimentation in art might simultaneously and reflexively experiment with anthropology.

At the same time, the three projects described also push up against Schneider?s focus on ?the visual in its entirety (ibid),? by describing works that variously and multiply combine visual media (sculpture, painting, photography, video), acoustic media (ambience, music, sound art), and text, as well as experimental modes of publication, installation, exhibit, and symposia. Additionally, these projects, like others analyzed by Schneider, are sites where art appropriates anthropology, but equally projects where anthropology reflexively and reciprocally appropriates art (see Schneider 1993, 2006; Schneider and Wright 2006). While in agreement with Schneider?s call for more progressive and searching forms of experimentation across the fields, these projects offer an amplified call for multi-media experiments and collaborations where mixed materials, performances, and installation can engage the complexity of ways artists and anthropologists think about the contemporary world.

Creating collaboration

In the three cases described here, collaborative multi-media experimentation is presented in both exhibition and publication (Ryan and Feld, 2007a, 2007b, Nortey et. al. 2008), and the projects speak to modes of witnessing and issues of concern to both contemporary artists and anthropologists: post-colonial identities; race and representation; the sensuous materiality of history; place and memory; nostalgia and loss; environmental degradation and reclamation.

These collaborations begin in the practice of Virginia Ryan, an Australian-born and Italy-based visual artist who works in photographic, painting, and sculptural media. She has resided, produced work and exhibited in Australia, Egypt, Italy, Brazil, Scotland, ex-Yugoslavia, and Ghana. Her work has often concerned displacement, migrations, memory, loss, and involves multiple engagements with local artists, communities, and art worlds in the places where she has resided. She is a founder and former co-director of the Foundation for Contemporary Art-Ghana, and in Ghana met Steven Feld, a US-based anthropologist who has principally done ethnographic research in Papua New Guinea (Feld 1982, 1991). A musician, sound artist, photographer, and filmmaker, Feld has produced anthropological work in textual, sound, and visual media, and publishes equally in print, radio, exhibit, and CD/DVD formats (e.g., Feld, 1994, 2007, 2009).

From 2006-2008 Ryan and Feld collaborated on three Ghana-based projects, Exposures, Castaways, and Topgraphies of the Dark. Each project was initiated by Ryan as stand-alone visual work for exhibit in Ghana and Europe. With Feld?s participation each project moved into the realm of a collaborative publication and expanded exhibition. Although Feld continued with music and film projects in Ghana after Ryan closed her Accra studio in 2008, he has also continued to collaborate with Ryan, through sound installation, on The Hand, The Eye, The Voice, her current multi-sited and multi-year project with women sewers and embroiders in six locations in Italy (Ryan 2008b, c).

Exposures: A White Woman in West Africa

From 2001-2005 Virginia Ryan staged several hundred photographs of herself in diverse situations in Accra, Ghana, and surrounding locales in West Africa, where she was living and working as an artist, administrator, and member of a diplomatic mission. The photographs are of Ryan with African and non-African interlocutors, hosts, and co-workers in diverse public situations, and a few private ones. The images inquire into and create an artistic conversation about the experience of being white in West Africa, of a European woman being the exposed object of a non-European gaze.

Ryan showed Feld an informal selection of these images in Accra in 2004, and asked for an off-the-cuff anthropological response to them. Feld responded by telling Ryan about anthropological projects that experimented with reflexivity and self-representation in contexts of encounter (Ruby 1982, Jaarsma and Rohatynskyj 2000), and in particular discussed with her the anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch?s notion of ?reverse anthropology,? a term that provocatively catalyzes the clash of politics and aesthetics in situations where those more typically positioned as representers come to be represented (Rouch 2003, Feld 2003).

What then evolved was a series of co-editing conversations, where Ryan and Feld selected and paired sixty of the collected photographs, discussing the qualities that made them most poignant from overlapping artistic and anthropological viewpoints. Feld wrote an essay on race and representation to accompany the sixty photographs. The essay blurs voices, mixing analytic and evocative registers, incorporating fragments of recorded conversation with Ryan, and situating the work in perspectives from art/photo/film history, anthropology, African studies, and critical race and gender studies. The images and essays were published as a book (Ryan and Feld 2007a) and the essay was also translated to Italian and published with a small selection of images in Voci, an anthropology journal of La Sapienza University, Rome (Feld and Ryan 2006).

The sixty images were subsequently exhibited in embassy, gallery, museum, university, and research center settings through 2007 and 2008 in Ghana (Accra, at the Australian Embassy), Italy (Rome, at St. Stephen?s Cultural Center; Spoleto, at the Galleria Civica d?Arte Moderna), and the USA (Harvard University Dept. of Anthropology; School of Advanced Research, Santa Fe; University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Department of Film), in each case combined with a forum or symposium on race and photographic representation, involving critical feedback and conversation from artists, academics , and community participants.

The publications, exhibits, and conversation join art and anthropology as anti-erasure, getting ?in your face? with the visible evidence of what race and postcolonial privilege look like in contemporary Accra and West Africa. In resonance with the title ?Exposures,? and the highly ironic subtitle ?A White Woman in West Africa,? they ask what has changed, or been left unchanged, about the look or display of whiteness since colonial times, and who and what is exposed, made vulnerable through the gazing of inter-race encounters.

The book and exhibits exploit the double-entendre of the title word Exposures to ask how the trope of photographic exposure, of concentrating light onto celluloid film, finds its double in social exposure, of the vulnerability of racial gazing. And as a method of inquiry, both the images and text ask how this trope of exposure can operate simultaneously on the planes of analysis and poesis. Ryan?s artistic revelation about the awkwardness and recognition of gaze was to seize on the double exposure of her skin as a canvas onto which images, and thus stories, were beamed, projected, fixed, destabilized. Feld?s anthropological response was to write about the duality of gazing through transparency, rejoining the image of the skin to the skin of the image. In the juxtaposition and slippage of image and text we find moments of art and anthropology mutually exposing and exposed.

Fragments from a conversation about Exposures

VR: Going back to ground zero, so to speak, what did you first see in my pictures that interested you, anthropologically, that is?

SF: What I saw in the photographs, what interested me most, was the gesture of reflexivity, the photographs as instances of you looking at people looking at you.

VR: Well it was even one step beyond that, because it was also about me looking at the photographs of other people looking at me.

SF: From there, this project really followed a kind of classic and obvious pathway of collaboration between art and anthropology. You created the visual work as an artist and used me as an anthropological sounding board, to sort of see what kinds of images resonated with what kinds of issues or ideas, particularly about colonialism and post-colonialism. And that became another artistic collecting process, so to speak, collecting reflective distance from the immediacy of those pictures after you left your Ghana posting in 2005.

VR: I?m very aware of that, and was from the very beginning, when I first started taking the photos. I knew that they would become more powerful and more poignant with time. But one way that I collected distance was by learning how an anthropologist thinks of or thinks with a photograph. What I found interesting, probably the most obvious aspect but maybe the most important, was the way everything is so carefully contextualized in anthropology. Of course this can be so in an art project as well, but with art you can somehow remain more on a level of surface, within the boundaries of the material, whereas as soon as we started talking about these pictures we were cataloging and discussing all of the things that were outside the frame as well, and it made me aware of this anthropological way of thinking across the lines of the frame, how you tended to contextualize the inner material with regard to everything that is not rendered there directly.

SF: Well, that acknowledges an anthropological commonplace about the social lives of photographs: that photographs are the beginning of telling stories, not just the ends of them or the summaries of them. That?s why anthropologists think of photographs as doubly social. First because the material they encode is about social moments or social events. Second because they bring out the sociality of storytelling, their viewing unleashes stories about when and where and what, about feelings, memories. They?re not just private events. You offered these photographs in public.

VR: Okay, but had I not been talking to you, the anthropologist, had I just presented these as a series of art self-portraits, for example, in a gallery, I would have never have told even the beginning of a possible story. It was that anthropological dialogue that made me focus on the myriad meanings of being exposed. As I started to see the photographs as a possible continuum in book-like form I was taken by the nauseating fear that ?Oh God, she?s still there. I?m so sick of her. She should get out of the picture.? That was a realization of extreme vulnerability for me, not as an artist but as the person behind the artist.

The word exposure is so evocative of different ways of being vulnerable in the world, being under a constant strong light, and with that the inability to hide from being constantly noticed. And of being farcical, being more than me, being a character in a history play, the ?White Woman,? that whole way of making fun of colonial roles and what just won?t go away in the postcolonial. Because when you are in a moment of vulnerability or exposure, you try and find ways to lighten the load. So using a little bit of irony and trying to pull people into the joke, that?s a way of exposing that the White Woman also sees the completely banal and unimportant side of herself in the mirror. But you know and I know and most people who look at those photos intently, with attention, will know that actually there?s nothing farcical at all. Because there was no masquerade. That?s me, that?s how I lived, and what I did, and who I met, and how my life there unfolded. So that?s important to me, that in the end, you don?t see a farce, you see a certain dignity, at least I do. You see a lot of people accepting or dealing with their roles on all sides, and doing their best with them, even when struggling. But tell me, in that regard, were there any images that made you particularly uncomfortable as an anthropologist?

SF: No. But there are images that I would say are extremely edgy, in terms of cutting more quickly to artistic techniques of visceral provocation.

VR: Like which ones, or which one most does that for you?

SF: Several, like The Night Guards, The Gym, The National Museum, but a perfect example is the photograph of you in bed, the one you called The Malaria Attack.

VR: Why?

SF: Because you are in bed, very pale, and wrapped in white sheets. And there is a black woman sitting next to you, but not looking at you. She?s dressed in a white uniform, and she?s sitting there staring off into space. But she?s your guardian, she?s looking after you because you can?t look after yourself. Maybe she?s a nurse, maybe a maid. You?re obviously vulnerable because you have to be cared for by somebody else. You are asleep and we can?t see your face; she is awake, but she is looking far away. You?re exposed because you are sick and in bed and for all we know you weren?t aware that a photo was being taken in such a private moment, behind closed doors. She?s exposed because she is doing her job but maybe not comfortable with it, or not comfortable with being photographed in that scene. We can?t know. We can only look at the image and ask the questions. But surely for many people, black or white, it?s uncomfortable to see a picture of a black woman like that in a nurse?s uniform or a maid?s uniform attending individually to a white woman in the bed, someone who is getting this kind of attention because of power and privilege. It?s not like she?s standing there giving you an injection or handing you a pill or doing something directly to help you, so we would not read this strictly as a photograph made in a medical institution. The larger context makes clear we are not in a hospital room, we are in a private bedroom. And everything is heightened by the fact that your bedding is bleached white, that you?re shrouded in white, that you?re sick and very, very white, that there are white flowers at the bedside, and that the burst of color is a black woman who is all dressed in white.

In terms of both the word ?exposures? and the words ?white woman in West Africa,? it?s a hugely provocative image around anthropological issues of race and class and wealth and power and what those categories mean in health or domestic care, of who looks after and has looked after whom in the world. For anthropologists too, as for colonial historians, there is also the tristes tropiques written all over the image here; we?re in the sad tropics, the place where whites get sick with malaria and have to be looked after. Isn?t that a classic part of colonial storytelling, or anthropological storytelling? What does the explorer do? The explorer gets sick. But lives to tell about it.

VR: And with it a sort of colonial glamour, too, you know, ?I survived malaria.? What you say makes me think immediately about the diplomatic life and the fact that a huge amount of time before one goes on a tropical posting is spent talking about possible diseases and illnesses in the place that you?re going to and how you?re going to protect yourself, which I always found really curious. But to go back to art, that image also references renaissance portrait paintings, reclined women with attendants, I mean, there are art historical ways that you could read that image in terms of representations of attending to and being attended. So picture reading is really about reference points, isn?t it? If one is aware of certain sorts of paintings, or photographs, one also will read that picture in particular kinds of ways. If one?s main reference or only reference is to colonial history and power of race relations it is another set of associations.

SF: Yes, and of course, there are, outside of renaissance paintings, other visual histories of imaging the attended and the attender; Edward Said talks about some of them in his book on Orientalism (1979) where this is a very potent kind of template, resonant with other legacies of colonial and imperial power and privilege.

VR: Anyway, the whole thing about exposure here is about risk, isn?t it? Artists take risks. Anthropologists too. So yes. But I liked the idea of asking what someone who?s not in the art world would say about this, and particularly, what someone who?s not in the art world but has been in this place would say about it. But also I?d read texts on African art or contemporary art in Africa and I knew the genre and its limitations. I wanted to learn something different. So I liked the idea of taking a different risk for the text, by exposing my art to anthropological scrutiny, and wondering if it would bounce back in a way by exposing anthropology to art.

The Castaways Project

From 2003-2008 Virginia Ryan made, in her Accra studio, two thousand sculptural paintings titled Castaways. Each collage is 9 x 11.5 inches/ 23 x 29 centimeters and constructed from objects Ryan and collaborators collected on Ghana?s shorelines at Pram Pram, Jamestown, Labadi, Anomabo, Korlegonno. These are objects that were once desired and purchased, used and worn, carried and discarded, left to wash out on the tide and then carried back in. All the collected materials were then white-washed by Ryan, composed, and flicked through with grey-gold, resonant with the colors of foam and sand as the waves break on the very shores from where the inhabitants were once taken and enslaved to build the new world. Castaways are exhibited as a collective artwork, walls or rooms, two hundred or more pieces hung closely together in rows creating continuous wave of memory and repetition, referencing gold, slavery, oceans, beaches, people and displacements. This exhibit format emphasizes the power of repetition and number, of place and pasts in the present.

Feld first saw Ryan?s Castaways in 2004 at her Ghana studio and found them quite echoic. In their material tactility, color, volume, and assemblage he found them audible as a complete sound environment. Viewing some one hundred Castaways on Ryan?s Accra studio floor, he told her that he felt like he was putting an ear to a huge seashell and listening to the detritus of history. In the rows of objects he could hear the washing-up-and-out sounds that deposited Ryan?s raw environmental data, her signs of multiple human and material pasts, on the shorelines of Ghana in the present.

The conversation that followed led to Feld?s production of Anomabo Shoreline, an ambient sound composition where he responded to this way of hearing the visual material of the Castaways, creating for and with them an acoustic memory of the Gold Coast becoming the Black Atlantic (Gilroy 1993). Recorded at Anomabo beach, one of Ryan?s key collecting sites, then created in the recording studio, the sixty minute composition consists of a continuous and seamless mix of eight separate spatial stereo sound tracks recorded from the shore, at the water?s edge, in the ocean, in and behind rocks and rock pools, and even under the sand. Constructed as a site-specific sound installation to accompany exhibit of Castaways, the soundtrack plays continuously at ambient volume, bringing the water?s motion to the viewer as s/he moves in to experience of waves of Castaways.

As an additional accompaniment to Castaways Feld produced a fifteen-minute video on DVD, Where Water Touches Land, also made for installation. The video consists of time manipulations of multiple visual elements, from still photographs of the shoreline?s sand and water formations, to portraits of individual Castaways, to video of Ryan at Anomabo beach collecting washed-in objects, and in her Accra studio working on composing and transforming them into Castaways. The video uses as key soundtrack material ambiences from the Anomabo Shoreline recording. But it adds additional ambient sounds from Anomabo beach and from Ryan?s studio, as well as music from two tracks of the CD Meditations for John Coltrane by Accra Trane Station (2006), featuring Accra musicians Nii Noi Nortey and Nii Otoo Annan, with whom Feld has been performing and recording since 2005. Where Water Touches Land mixes real time images with different kinds of contracted or expanded time, fusing time-lapse photography with the real time of waves coming in, evoking a sense of place and history while at the same time documenting artistic work.

Ryan presented early exhibits of Castaways in Ghana (W.E.B. DuBois Center for Pan African Culture, Accra; Alliance Française, Kumasi) and Italy (Palazzo Trinci, Foligno); these were purely visual installations. The development of the project for presentation in Ghana and Italy followed on from a similar way of presenting, and creating cultural conversations, around her earlier, and first large-scale Ghana project, Landing in Accra (Ryan 2002). In the aftermath of arriving in Accra Ryan drove around the city, getting to know it and its artists by stopping to meet commercial sign painters who work along the roads. After looking at their work she showed them hers, in particular a painting about a floating dream of landing in Accra. This led to over one hundred collaborative paintings, the left side of each canvas a scene painted by an Accra sign painter, and on the right side a variation of Ryan?s dream painting. The project was exhibited in Ghana (National Museum in Accra; Alliance Française in Kumasi) and then Rome (Sala 1 Gallery) and Viterbo (Palazzo Calabrese).

Castaways exhibits with the sound and video installation were presented in Ghana (Alliance Française, Accra), UK (The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, 2007) and Italy (Galleria Civica d?Arte Moderna, Spoleto, 2008, which also involved a major catalog, Ryan 2008a). The Castaways Project, a collaborative publication consisting of a small catalog of Castaway images, plus an audio CD of Anomabo Shoreline and DVD of Where Water Touches Land, was published in 2007 (Ryan and Feld 2007b).

Fragments from a conversation about The Castaways Project

SF: Do you remember that I stepped on one of the Castaways when I first came to your studio in 2004? I was kind of tiptoeing along the edge of one line of them on the floor, and lost my balance. That must have been related to the sensation of their audibility, that sense of listening into a conch shell.

VR: Don?t you think that?s connected with your life as an anthropologist? It?s a kind of metaphor for the anthropologist as listener, no? I remember very distinctly when you talked about listening to the shell, but that thought reminded me of childhood and magic, of the beaches of Australia where I grew up. And that resonated with how some of the Castaways were dolls, and together with other miniatures in these little domestic environments there was a feeling of protection, childhood and both the pleasure and the mystery of hearing the ocean, finding shells as they wash in, and seeing them wash out and just being taken over by the water?s rhythms.

SF: Anthropologists writing about shorelines picked up this phrase ?contact zone? from the literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, to talk about places where cultural histories become porous, clash, and struggle in contexts like slavery and colonialism. This is in her 1992 book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Beaches are a perfect example of sites where histories blur because so many kinds of objects and people wash up. And then there are the things that are taken away, again objects and human beings. So collecting things on beaches is always sensuously connected to the memory of all the stuff that happened there, all the crossings of people and objects. And the contact zone is not just a zone of actual things that happened between groups of people at a site. The contact zone is also a history of memory as well; James Clifford extends the idea to discuss museums in his influential 1997 book Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. But from the side of sensuous anthropology of place, I also want to connect contact zones to the dreamy side of memory, to Gaston Bachelard?s The Poetics of Reverie. That?s perhaps the Australian beach connection for you; there?s a piece about beaches that takes this up, by an Australian anthropologist, Mick Taussig (2000).

VR: I think reverie is a good word here and connects well with the sensual history of this project. I makes me think of walking along up and down Anomabo shoreline countless times with that sea breeze and the very hot temperatures and sort of wandering along and seeing things and choosing intuitively which to pick up and which to leave. It was very dreamlike, very concentrated at the same time, like any intense activity where you are totally in the moment with it, any creative activity. Reverie suggests how you give yourself to the place and the place gives itself to you. Both your sense of time and your sense of space go and then there is a kind of mirage effect too, of seeing things in the distance and then you get close to them, or seeing things as they get swept back into the water, or seeing things as the tide deposits them in front of you and sort of gifts you with these charms. The reverie part of it is perhaps also tied to taking care of something that?s been abandoned that was really important. I felt like I was kind of mothering these discarded things, taking them and transforming them into something that people might care about. And giving back some kind of innocence to the objects. But I was helped very much in the process by the sea itself, because these objects had all been in water, or near water, touched by water. And then they were literally sun-bleached. So they?d already gone through a cleansing rite before they got to me. In a way I just kept the process going.

SF: Can we talk about how that historical sense of place, memory, and reverie worked in the context of the installation for the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, in June 2007? I mean it was there in an art gallery and thus contextualized as art. But the exhibit was timed to be a featured part of Beyond Text, a conference on anthropology of the senses that linked the Whitworth exhibit up to The Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. And in addition to the art gallery and visual/sensuous anthropology connections there was the historical setting of 2007, the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian national independence and the UK bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. A long wall featured eleven stacked rows of Castaways, about 680 of them, and the sound speakers were on the floor of the opposing wall, emanating out in a 5.1 surround mix. So the sound was shooting along the floor from directly across the room, moving towards the pieces, and then, almost like water waves, hitting the wall and then floating up to them, floating up with them, and rising in the room and swirling into a massive wave-like roof structure of the gallery.

VR: What I recall very well was something that I felt every time I was there, which had an impact on other people too. Before you got into the room with the Castaways you could hear the sound of the waves drawing you there, lighting the path to them. There was a sense of very much entering into a different sort of relationship with the museum but also of entering a much more intimate place, an acoustic premonition of entering the place for viewing. I hadn?t been there to set up the work, the actual visual installation was complete when I arrived, so having that sound coming more from behind created in me a sense of almost being in the water, rather than walking towards the water. And I imagine this was so for a lot of people, because many came in and sat down and rested or lay down on the benches. That was for me the most remarkable moment in the audience encounter of that exhibit, people not just standing in between the speakers and the objects or walking close to the objects, but actually sitting on the floor or lying down halfway between them as if they were on the beach. Did you get comments about the relationship between the visual and the acoustic?

SF: Do you mean about the transport, the sensation of being at the beach?

VR: Yes. There was something quite synaesthetic about it in terms of the sensation on the skin; that wetness, that reverberant space, that sense of time being a little more watery or elastic.

SF: Yes, people made comments to me about that, especially about the feeling of wetness of the room and work. It did create a more timeless sensation for the work, and I think people let time and space expand to open up to the acoustic horizon. People also made comments about that to Rupert (Cox, the conference organizer who liaised the exhibit with the Whitworth and led several tours and discussions of the exhibit).

VR: I?m listening to this and I?m thinking, hey, we?re supposed to be talking about collisions and collusions of art and anthropology, but basically we?re talking both as artists, talking about the materials and how they affected people, right? I think that?s interesting.

SF: Well, in a sense the project involved equal or more participation from me as an artist, but it was hardly clear-cut, because I responded to your Castaways first in an anthropological way. I mean after I saw them for two years I really wanted to use sound and image to theorize these key ideas about the sensuousness of place, the materiality of memory, the beach as a contact zone, the presence of the past in the present, the continuous horizon. I wanted to bring everything together around this great line from Walter Benjamin?s essay ?Theses on the Philosophy of History? where he says: ?The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at an instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.? I wanted to use sound and picture to make that image that flashes up and I wanted to use the ephemeral and material nature of sound to grasp that idea of historical seizure so poignant in Benjamin?s thinking. It is such a key to the sensuous material of the contact zone. With the sound I took one approach, from ambient sound art and installation, making a piece that was equally dreamy and hyper-real. But with the film I wanted to try something even more radical in terms of representation, something that used and acknowledged all the conventions of art film in terms of both acoustic and visual space-time compression and expansion, but where that artful evocation was equally part of a multi-site document of the birth and maturation of artwork, in other words, an anthropological film about how an artist theorizes place and sensuous history through the materiality of collecting and making and installing objects.

VR: I had to accept that in some way by being in that film I was something like a case study, a subject of anthropological gaze, whereas usually I think about my work as something I can disappear from after its creation. So, to me, that was the moment when I guess I had to shift and ask myself how you were working as another artist but also really thinking as an anthropologist and doing something very different to what I was doing.

SF: What about the moment when I shot that very brief sequence that?s used in the film, the one shot from over your shoulder where you?re sitting in your apartment in Accra and looking through a book of old images of these slave castles. All of a sudden we go from images and sounds of the sensuous power and reverie of the washings in and out to oh, there?s this other historical set of traces that is all over this work: the forts, slavery.

VR: The question was, then, what kind of story are we going to tell about it? Because this was not to be an anthropological film about slave forts and castles. The story is about an artist in a place, about how art meets and makes memory. And watching me look at that book acknowledges that artists are also viewers with a visual relationship to history, not just a visual relationship to their own art.

SF: You become a particularly reflexive agent at that moment in the film, because while we?re listening to the sound of that water, we see you, from over your shoulder, looking at the book of slave fort pictures. We?re not looking at your face. We don?t know what kind of state you?re in, but you?re turning the page and that visible evidence of you turning the page, like the evidence of your hands picking things up and putting them in your bag as you collect from the beach, is a point of reference, like the way the radio is playing in your studio during the sequences where you are at work. So while the image of you looking at the pictures of the castles has one level of suggestion of historical awe, there is this other, more ironic relationship to history on the soundtrack?

VR: ?the BBC?

SF: Yes. In your studio, in your workspace, the BBC Africa Service was on constantly, it?s the drone of history, playing everything from the Pink Panther theme song to banal news stories about the history of the Queen?s head on British money. And that?s the acoustic background that anchors what you?re doing in the moment. We don?t see the source of that sound. You never see a picture of the radio, because I didn?t do the standard ethnographic or documentary film thing of using a cutaway shot of the radio itself. But the radio?s sound is the actual synchronous sound recorded in that moment and directly attached to images of you at work in that moment.

VR: I liked having the BBC on the soundtrack, both because the BBC Africa Service is constantly replaying the past, but it?s also constantly playing the moment of what?s going on. And it?s comforting for an artist alone in a studio to be at the same time connected to hundreds of thousands of other people all over the continent listening to the same program. I feel like the years I lived in Ghana were often accompanied by the BBC?s African service. It was like a heartbeat. And yes on one level it is very banal, but on another level it was often whimsical and quite poignant. And that?s how I often experienced the passage of time there, working in that tiny little studio with my little battery-operated radio.

SF: And that?s the metaphoric suggestion I make in the editing of the soundtrack, that in your studio the BBC was your ocean, and that sound is as much inside the Castaways you made as the sound of the waves breaking at Anomabo is part of the histories of the sun-bleached prima materia. So the sound of radio and the sound of the ocean become parallel tracks, as both have important relationships to the experience of space and time at the beach and in the studio, to the histories of the material objects that became Castaways and to the process of making the Castaways, and to the sensuous experience of place. The place of the BBC is triangulated by the washings-in and out of the water, and the music tracks of Accra Trane Station.

But enough about my blurring roles between anthropology and art, because I think you do too. I mean there is an anthropology in your art here, and it comes out as you attach the history of making that work to the sounding out of the waves of history on the BBC. And the way you collected, transformed, and displayed the work speaks to the anthropology of place. Aren?t you doing work that grapples with displacement, replacement, emplacement? That speaks to your own sense, historically, of often moving places? Of your experiences of being displaced? Anthropologists spend time theorizing their consciousness of what it means to be out of place. Perhaps what you are doing is migrating art to anthropology and vice versa. Even your reference to the stuff on the beach as data, environmental data; I was very taken by the metaphor. You?re even using a kind of social science language, no? That?s exactly the kind of thing that interests Arnd Schneider in his writings on art appropriations of/as anthropology.

VR: Well, I?ve been displaced many times and have lived in a number of different countries. But rather than that becoming a kind of misplacement and just asking what am I doing here, the experience of displacement feeds into my work totally, because I am always trying to create some kind of stability amidst experiences of movement. And perhaps that is why I have so often worked with shoes, with the visible evidence of feet and motion, and the historical patina of things that have been used, worn, and hold history in that kind of way. You see that from Cento Passi, where my way of moving into a new place was to go around and ask people if they would give me a pair of their old shoes and tell me a story about them. That was a way of connecting the movement of my feet to theirs. And creating a work for exhibit in that place so that people might understand how something like their old shoes could become a shared poetry, an art exhibit that validates their stories in mine (Ryan 2000).

So yes, my work is about migration in multiple ways, because a great portion of my work is about settling and unsettling and the experience of home and movement. Moving into cultures or places which aren?t my own and where I am the outsider has created approaches to how my temporary residence relates to other histories of residence, temporary or not so. So in Ghana I wanted to work with place and history at the water, with objects that have left and come back, or moved in from far away brought by water. But I was very aware that I did not want to become known as the strange white artist who deals in rubbish. It was very clear to me that this would get in the way of people being able to see the work. So I thought, well, I have to immediately find another way of talking about this, I?m not going to refer to it as rubbish, and so it seemed obvious that it should be called environmental data. So in that sense, like you as an anthropologist, yes, I was collecting data about the experience of place, even if in a very different kind of way and with a very different purpose.

Topographies of the Dark

Topographies of the Dark is a very different kind of collaboration to Exposures or to Castaways. Following and repeating the collecting and construction techniques for Castaways, and a sculptural painting series called Blues for Charlie completed in Accra in 2006, Ryan began, in January 2007, to experiment with various scale (2? x 2? to 4? x 8?) sculptural paintings composed of macheteed flip-flops collected from Accra beaches where they had washed up. Assembled in two and three density layers, nailed and glued to plywood, the pieces are covered in shiny and dull mixtures of black paint, sand, and coal tar. One immediate local reference for the work was a November 2006 New Yorker magazine article talking about architect Rem Koolhaas describing flying over Lagos, Nigeria and experiencing the density and chaos of habitation and refuse there (Packer 2006). Another reference was the darkness of blackouts experienced every other day in Accra due to power cuts. And yet another was the question of the oil spills along the coastline. Additionally there was the question of travel across oceans, particularly poignant to Ryan as Accra geared up for the March 2007 celebrations of Ghana?s 50th anniversary of independence.

During the period that Ryan was working on these pieces, early 2007, Feld was continuing to collaborate as producer and musician with Nii Noi Nortey and Nii Otoo Annan on their Accra Trane Station recording projects. Nortey is inventor of a family of instruments called afrifones, African winds with saxophone mouthpieces. He also plays Western wind instruments (saxophone and flute) as well as African strings and percussion. Annan plays APK, the African percussion kit of local drums, bells and xylophones together with jazz cymbals. Feld joined them playing ashiwa, a West African rhythm box bass, working on musical connections between Africa and the legacy of the African American saxophonist and innovator John Coltrane.

In the early part of 2007 Nortey and Feld conversed about the confluence of Coltrane?s 1957 classic LP record Blue Train and Ghana?s 1957 independence. That led to Accra Trane Station?s 2007 CD project Another Blue Train, a train ride through the blue diasporic night of African jazz to celebrate the two 50th anniversaries and to join them in the image of Ghana?s night train, which was coincidentally painted blue. On a visit to Ryan?s studio near the time of independence, Nortey, who is also a visual artist working in sculpture, saw the first Topographies paintings, and said he wanted to sound them. So in the process of recording Another Blue Train, two dark and moody textural improvisations, each titled Topographies of the Dark, were recorded, each connecting Ryan?s paintings to the deepest part of the night train ride. A few months later, when Nortey and Annan visited Feld in the US to perform together with American jazz artists, a full-blown project was created in a Santa Fe recording studio, a complete CD of compositions, Topographies of the Dark, in dialogue with some of Ryan?s paintings that had just arrived (Nortey et. al. 2008).

Fragments of a conversation about Topographies of the Dark

VR: What is quite powerful to me about Topographies of the Dark is not just it?s connection to night, to the African coastline, to oil and electricity, but that the work crossed the ocean multiple times. The flip-flops landed on the beaches where I plucked them, washed and machete them, worked them into the paintings there in Accra, where you and Nii Noi and Nii Otoo saw them at the studio. And that led to the pieces you composed for Another Blue Train. Then some of the paintings went to the USA, and after that Nii Noi and Nii Otoo went there and recorded with you. So that was another crossing, both for the work, and the musicians, and a very unique kind of conversation between art and audibility of transport. Moving big and physically weighty artwork is hard, moving music was easier, and like Castaways, there is a story about mobility, the movement of things and people through the waves, as an art of replacement.

SF: One of the things I had been encouraging Nii Noi to work on more was the relationship between his music and his own sculpture. So the connection between the feeling or the sounding-ness of visual art material was familiar to him, and he even called his work ?sounding sculptures? like the ones he made named for titles of major Coltrane compositions. And the instruments he made, they were also sculptures. So this connection to your work developed slowly and organically, first using two tracks from the Accra Trane Station Meditations CD to mix in with the sound of the Castaways video, and then the conversation about crossings in the night for Another Blue Train, then the full development of a Black Atlantic conversation for the Topographies of the Dark CD. But the idea of actually composing music that could connect to the paintings and could be published together with pictures of them was not something that we all sat down and worked out in advance of going into the studio. What was going on in the studio was much more a process of trying things out and things just developed that way.

V: Exactly like me. . . seeing what will happen, hearing what will happen.

SF: We didn?t sit down and say, we?ll relate this piece to this painting or something like that. I wasn?t even thinking about a CD when we went into the studio. We just recorded to experiment with bringing Nii Noi and Nii Otoo and me together with Alex (Coke) and Jefferson (Voorhees). It?s kind of amazing that in just two recording sessions, five people meeting for the first time would come up with this music?.

VR: ?but there?s going to be that sort of frisson, that inspiration in first meetings which is often hard to repeat, especially because it was a first crossing to America for Nii Noi and Nii Otoo, and you brought them together with people who had not been to Ghana, but who were musically kindred spirits, people who knew the Accra Trane Station music. There?s something quite magical about the idea of the music arriving from travel and footsteps and . . .

SF: ?and then you told me that a major retrospective of your African work would be mounted in Spoleto during the annual international festival, and that you wanted to feature the Topographies like the Castaways and Exposures projects. But this time there was no explicit anthropology in the conversation about exhibit; it was a conversation about having sounds of the musical compositions interact with the sculptural paintings.

VR: When we did Exposures I would describe you as my anthropologist collaborator. Then for Castaways, you were anthropologist, but also filmmaker, sound artist, sound designer, both a documentarian and collaborating artist. But for Topographies, your role was as a musician despite the conversations about environmental reclamation and damage, about ecological vulnerability, and the crisis of energy and society in Ghana as revealed by all the black outs.

SF: Yes, at the Spoleto exhibit (Ryan 2008) collaboration itself was on display as part of the idea of a 2001-2008 retrospective of your work in Ghana. With Exposures my role as anthropological interlocutor took on another kind of life once juxtaposed and in the same exhibit space with the collaboration you did with Accra sign painter Nicholas Wayo. His paintings of you, and his later collaborative paintings with you, reframe the White Woman photographs and the issues they raise about gaze and the representer becoming the represented.

The dual role of documentary and art collaboration around Castaways took on another kind of life in the exhibit space at Spoleto too, because of the juxtaposition with exhibiting the Topographies.

The Topographies sound installation featuring the CD was confined to a room in the center of the whole show, a room with two series of the smaller pieces. But what led to that room was the long hallway with the massively imposing large door-like Topographies, an extraordinary presence, facing Western windows such that their lighting constantly changed, particularly into the afternoon. That hallway featured the sounds of the ocean, so there was this water bridge from the exhibit?s first rooms, featuring Castaways, to the hallway of Topographies, and into the room where the Topographies CD was playing. That center room was like a little heart space, an inner chamber, and there were chairs there so people could pause and listen and look. Meanwhile, the sound of the Topographies soundtrack left that room and acoustically mingled and flowed into the sounds of the water, which was piped into all of the twenty rooms. So what starts as a focused experience of the water, the ambient sounds of the shoreline in the two first rooms filled with Castaways, then continues and sonifies the whole exhibit. Spatially ?all the rooms?and temporally ?the history of the work?make the Black Atlantic connection by this surround ambient of the water, and in its center, the musical pulse of the Topographies suggesting the aesthetic figures of jazz, of race, of movement. The sounds of the water interacted differently with the exhibit in each of the twenty rooms. But having that moment where water takes you to music and music leads back out to the water, really created, for me, a special relationship of the visual and audible materiality of the Castaways and Topographies projects...

VR: Because I think it worked aesthetically as visual display and also sonorically to have that little pulsing heart there in the middle with the different waterway entries into the room.

SF: Now it?s me whose thinking about how comfortable I am with this conversation, speaking about materials and materiality to you as an artist, but thinking that where my anthropology migrates toward art is also where your art migrates toward anthropology. This is not a difficult conversation for me to have with an artist. But it is considerably more difficult, a good deal of the time, to try to have these kinds of conversations with anthropologists, because they are just so much less familiar with how we make visual and acoustic things, so much less familiar with how visual and acoustic materials are also media of articulation through which one can work on or express very complex ideas. I mean, the more I work with art, and with artists, and try to migrate the sensuous materiality of sound and image and object into zones of anthropological knowing the more I encounter this kind of academic fundamentalism, like when people say ?that was very poetic, but you didn?t theorize the material.? What is to be done about anthropologists reducing theory to the literal, anthropologists refusing the possibility that theory gets done in all media and in multiple ways, including artistic assemblage, performance, exhibition? I mean just a couple weeks ago we were talking about that with Howie Becker, whose Art Worlds book laid it out thirty years ago, you know, how once audiences put genre categories onto works they create rigid frames that constrain declarations about what is ?documentary? and ?art? (Becker 2008).

Remember what happened at Manchester? We had the Where Water Touches Land video playing constantly in the room with the Castaways exhibit at the Whitworth, so the work and video and Anomabo Shoreline sound track in that room were all mutually reinforcing and contextualizing and interacting. So there the film was ?art,? and a number of people told me that it was a beautiful art film, and that they loved being able to walk back and forth between the wave-wall of Castaways and the video where they could see you walking the beach, collecting the pieces, and building the work in your studio. People really stood and watched the video.

But what happened when I screened the whole video in the context of giving the keynote speech for the Beyond Text conference just down the street in a university auditorium? The viewing frame shifted to ?documentary? because people assumed that it was to be an academic lecture. And I violated all of those genre expectations. I mean, that keynote deliberately made no academic citations or quotes. I just used images and sounds, told stories, just indulged completely in taking the trope of ?Currents? and suggested the way it sits between analysis and poesis, playing with the electrical, current affairs, and ocean senses of the term with musical, ambient, and criss-crossed art and anthropology materials from New Guinea, Europe, Japan and Africa. Well, this was meant to keynote a conference on the anthropology of the senses and my idea was to sensually perform the idea of anthropology as a quest in currents, to suggest that analysis meets poesis at that place of sensual ?flash? that was so poignant to Walter Benjamin. So I ended that talk with the screening of the film, making the connection between the conference and the Whitworth installation. But talking with anthropologists in the following days I found that people mostly asked me to paraphrase myself, to explain what I really meant, to make it theoretically legible. So is it safer and easier to migrate or appropriate anthropology to art than art to anthropology? Art creates so much space for a sensuous theorization of knowledge. And I would think anthropologists would be more inspired by that. After all, anthropology has, like contemporary art, been committed to the rupture of epistemic obstacles. Hopefully that will only escalate.

Illustrations- photographs, one per section of the essay

1. Malaria Attack, photograph from Exposures, © Virginia Ryan, 2003

2. Castaways, Whitworth Art Gallery, © Steven Feld, 2007

3. Topographies of the Dark, Galleria Civica Spoleto, ©Lorenzo Ferrarini, 2008

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