What creative potential does an anthropology with, not of, the performing arts offer?

Can such a collaboration offer the tools to better communication with non-specialist audiences?

Or is it primarily a vehicle to improve fieldwork methods and experiment with different forms of notation for anthropologists interested in embodiment?

 

These are some of the questions that were explored in varied ways during the second EAP workshop this January on anthropology and the performing arts. A group of 15 of us, anthropologists and performance professionals, got together for a two-day workshop/exchange to explore the potential that the creative processes of performance might bring to anthropological methodology and vice versa that anthropological approaches may offer performance creation.The two days included very varied sorts of work such as, balancing the studio space through our movement, presenting short improvisations as interpretations of interviews, juxtaposing bodily activity as well as ideas in order to develop creative thinking, and of course discussion. 

 

We would like to extend and develop that conversation, based on the questions above, here.

Have you ever had experience of presenting your anthropology research through performance?

How can different forms of training, such as practice-based training of performance artists, change how we do anthropology - both in fieldwork and the products we create after fieldwork?

What other creative potential may there be between anthropology and performance art?

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Fieldwork methods? Sorry, I don't do fieldwork. I write a lot, though. And often I write about anthropology, which makes me an anthropologist. Maybe not. I'll let you decide. Anyhow, I wrote a play a few years back that might be the sort of thing you're looking for. It's about the problem of the "alien" (NOT "the Other" thank you. I don't do cliches, sorry). It's an attempt to dramatize a theoretical problem, roughly along Brechtian lines. It deals with three kinds of aliens, the ones from "outer space," the ones from "inner space," and the ones we don't want crossing our borders unless it's in the "other" direction. It's never been performed, but it has been published. Online. Here's the link: http://www.artistasalfaix.com/ancrage/spip.php?rubrique9

 

Dear Caroline and all,

 

I would like to answer to the question: Have you ever had experience of presenting your anthropology research through performance?

 

Yes, I had. During the first year of my M.Phil at Oxford Brookes University I had to present my research project to my professors and other Ph.D students. The project consisted in an ethnographic study of ('Japanese') butoh dance among the Oxford-based butoh dance and theatre company Café Reason. 

As part of the presentation, I decided to involve some of the members of Café Reason. The 1-hour presentation would be constituted of a 30-min butoh-show (three solo dances) by members of CR, followed by my presentation on my research project. During this year I was very much drawn into experimentation - coming from a quite experimental and open-minded place such as Goldsmiths college, where I had studied for my MA in Visual Anthropology.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the whole thing did not turn up as I had planned. After the butoh performances which, in my opinion, were stunning, some of the anthropologists and research students in the audience literally attacked me: they were upset because the Ph.D presentation was held in a theatre (the Brookes Drama studio) and because it involved a non-specialist audience. I did, in fact, advertise the presentation to the general audience of Brookes students and friends of the performers, beyond the restricted circle of anthropologists and research students.

Before I could even start my presentation, I was interrupted by an anthropologist and expected to offer my 'anthropological theory' of butoh, which of course, at that time, was non-existent. This was quite shocking for me; the criticism had been so direct that the butoh dancers who, at that point, had moved into the audience, intervened in the discussion and begun arguing with the anthropologists. This was very interesting for me to see. I did however begin thinking that my approach to anthropology had been quite naive.

I had many thoughts about that experience. The main one relates to the idea of language. Butoh is not an easy performance art to watch; it can be grotesque and upsetting. It is said butoh challenges the rational mind. In effect, the very problem of 'understanding butoh' is what drew me towards doing a whole Ph.D.

The anthropology professor and students who came to my presentation were maybe expecting to see something already 'packed up', a reality already worded and presented to them. I think they did not appreciate the fact they had to make an effort to decode what was going on, and also that the they had been put in a context which was not the usual, familiar one of the classroom - it was a performance space.

In all this, my intention had been simply that of giving a glimpse - a sensory one - of the ethnographic reality I was going to study, a fragment of my fieldwork. How could that be different from showing a sequence from film footage, as other students had done in previous classes? Maybe because, in front of the anthropologists' eyes were the people in flesh and blood, as opposed to distant, immaterial, objectified  'subjects'?

As self-criticism I can certainly observe that, at that time, I was not ready to handle and communicate the ideas that I was strongly drawn to. I had a strong sense of what I wanted to do but I had not asked myself the questions: how to convey what I think and want to do? Is this going to be understood? Such questions could have been addressed as a first step towards a methodology of performance. 

 This is a reason why I think that something like a workshop on anthropology and performance was so needed, and still is.

To conclude, I might just say that when we think about bringing together anthropology and performance, or moving back and forth from anthropology to performance, or viceversa, we need to understand the contexts and the languages of both. Other than this, to me anthropology is a state of mind; one that consists of a struggle for understanding, rather than yet another institutional 'zone,' with its own codes, norms and taboos. 


 

Dear all,

 

Thank you Caroline, for starting an inspiring opening of discussion - and to Paolo, for sharing your experiences and thoughts!

 

I have to say I am surprised to learn that the anthropologists at your presentation were so shocked by the presence of laymen - I would insist that anth is nothing if it has no application to the wider world, so one would think they would have been thrilled to see interest in their topic. I see your argument regarding 'just another' way of presenting the world as a valid point, but the directness and the grotesque elements of butoh might be an important factor in the reaction. A presentation is already such a finely balanced performance, that any challenge to the prescribed formula is upsetting and a threat to the scientific discourse that keeps a level of 'mysticism' in what we do - hence the violent verbal attack, I suppose. I would be interested to hear how you developed alternatives to presentation in your later work? 

 

That said, doing research on performance is in itself a challenge - it is a double awareness where you are performing the role of the ethnographer of the performers, so to speak, and the level at which you do or do not engage with your own body will obviously affect the work, how you think about it, and what 'information' they share with you physically and verbally. How does one participate in the research as a 'secondary' character, and what sort of 'hat' are you wearing when you are doing it? How can it be put into a framework afterwards, that will both stay true to the performance and to the academic institutional setting? What does it look like, how does it communicate? 

 

I have just started my involvement with a physical theatre studio in Poland (Studio Matejka, the Grotowski Institute), and am facing these and other questions myself, as the group, the work, my research and the people are all developing at the same time. With the focus being the body as the explicit tool and locus for change, instability is inherent to both research and performance practice. I think the fluidity and malleability, but also the rigidity of creating work and practices can be beneficial to the research and future presentations/connections between the two. Especially, I think anthropology with (as Caroline states) performance practice offers a reemphasis and readdressing of embodiment, and thus a challenge to the intellectual distance - and maybe overcome the idea that one is "either/or", but can be "present-in-mind-and-body-as-one"?

 

Regarding Caroline's comment on creative potential and ways of connecting the two, some thoughts immediately spring to mind;

1) Forum Theatre, as practised by Augusto Boal and Adrian Jackson. Much like the anthropologist situation (what would happen if...?), the forum is a rehearsal for reality whilst being reality at the same time - just like the anthropologist in the field is participating whilst 'not' participating, because what happens in the field is not his or her real life, but the research-side of life, the forum is a research on different possible realities. The difference is, of course, that the forum is a collaborative enterprise, whilst fieldwork is ultimately solitary when it comes to outcome and 'risk' - - for the people researched, the situation is real, and they do indeed 'risk' all there is; relationships, connections, lives. Both may, however, spring out and affect real life; the anthropologist makes friends, enemies, complicated and less complicated relationships, family ties, and physical presence and participation. It is real, but it is a different reality from the subjects of his or her research, like the forum setting (paraphrasing Boal) is one where the participants partake in a reality that is 'safe', because 'just' an image of the real, but this image (because real as an image), has effects on the reality it represents.

(I hope the analogy is clear - it is more a thought than a statement, so any further development will be much appreciated!)

 

2) Turner's wedding ritual, performed with and by her students in the 70s (See Turner and Turner Performing Ethnography, TDR 1982). This is a way of presenting anthropological insight through performance and active participation by the people who are being 'taught' about it. This happened to be a university setting, but similar approaches are surely carried out elsewhere, perhaps without the banner of being 'anthropological'. Are these ways in which we can look to present, develop and transmit work?

 

Performance is a huge topic, and these are just a few fragments of thought for now. I look forward to seeing the discussion develop.

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