(This guest blog comes to us from Theodoros Kyriakides. Theo is a PhD student at the University of Manchester social anthropology department, currently writing his thesis on the political and subjective dimensions of thalassaemia in Cyprus. You can follow him on twitter at @bio_karneia. -Rx)
I am reporting on the wrapped up EASA 2014 conference, entitled “Collaboration, Intimacy and Revolution,” which took place at Tallinn University from July 31st to August 3rd. EASA is the main body of European Social Anthropologists, and the conference takes place once every two years. This was the 13th EASA conference, and with an attendance of 1,200 delegates it was one of the biggest gatherings of anthropologists in the world this year.
I arrived two weeks before the conference, as part of an exchange scheme the Tallinn anthropology department recently set up with the Manchester anthropology department, where I am doing my PhD. Tallinn finds itself in a marginal position, not only in terms of European history and identity, but also in terms of anthropological relevance. As a scholar of illness I have always been interested in the marginal, not as a space of withdrawal, but of creativity and production. This has been the case with Tallinn anthropology: a relatively new initiative, founded in 2006, the department in the process of producing the first batch of Estonian anthropologists, conducting research in Estonia and also abroad.
The department has been steadily growing in size and activity: a winter and summer school are now a regular fixtures in the academic year, while several photography exhibitions have thus far been organised by students (in a recent interview with Allegra, staff member Professor Patrick Laviolette provides a succinct overview of the department’s history and scope). In addition, Associate Professor Carlo Cubero, in cooperation with the Baltic Film and Media School, is adding a new track in audiovisual ethnography to the department’s already established MA course, come September 2014. This year the department found their number of undergraduate and masters applications booming, with almost triple the number as last year’s. Having been invited to participate in the undergraduate admission interviews I got the opportunity to talk to students from all sorts of backgrounds: semiotics, dance, nursing, and cultural studies, to mention but a few.
But to say that EASA 2014 is their crown jewel in their capacity and effort as a department thus far is an understatement. Contrary to the short-lived four days of the conference, this has been an arduous two year trajectory of organising panels, plenaries, ceremonies, finding speakers, sponsors, caterers, venues and overall preparing for the imminent descent of an anthropological horde in Tallinn. I had the pleasure of partaking in the final meeting of the local organising committee, a week before the conference took place. Coffee, pens and tablets in hand, the crew put the finishing touches on the conference schedule. By the end of the nearly three-hour long session a serenity and joking mood overcame all; nothing else was left, the wheels were in motion.
The conference ran smooth. The four interconnected buildings of Tallinn University allowed delegates to fluidly move in-between panels, laboratories and films. Lunch was busy with people mingling in spacious atriums, conversing over well-cooked food, wine and cake. The coffee was good and plenty. #EASA2014 was buzzing. Tallinn Old Town, where the heart of Tallinn beats, is a short walk from Tallinn University where the conference took place, and provided an ideal setting for delegates to roam and go out after panels. Remnants of Estonia’s history were more than capable of tickling anthropological imagination. Between abandoned breweries surrounded by cafes and restaurants, derelict factories turned into bars, and black-clad hipsters kick flipping their skateboards off brutalist buildings, Tallinn seems to oscillate between two aesthetics – enigmatic architectural spectres of the past, now infected by youthful bustle and energy.
The baroque style of the Estonia Concert Hall, where Elizabeth Povinelli’s opening keynote took place, provided a warm, intimate and at the same time grandiose setting for the opening ceremony. The dimly lit hall was packed with whispers and anticipation, while the domed ceilings and marble-carved pillars showcased Estonia’s artistic heritage. Povinelli’s provocation of rethinking “collaboration” as a form of “investigation and alteration” is timely to the increasingly widespread demand of making anthropology more applied and publicly relevant. Thought of as a form of collaboration, anthropology sheds all pretences of objectively and distantly documenting the people we conduct fieldwork with. Rather, anthropology, as a collaborative practice of investigation and alteration, unapologetically adopts an intentional stance of addressing, informing and directly participating in socio-political dilemmas of our time.
To this end, “Collaboration,” and the two other themes of the conference, “Intimacy” and “Revolution,” figured prominently in the panels of the conference. The problems currently affecting Europe, both as a political entity and as a geographic locale, took centre stage, with papers addressing the numerous social, political and economic fronts of what came to be known as a European in scale “crisis.” Particularly evident was ethnographic engagement with new types of socialites, subjectivities and social movements emergent of intensifying migration patterns, austerity politics and nationalist sentiments apparent throughout Europe. Several panels also concentrated on the growing ecological relevance of anthropology, and focused on issues such as environmental politics, climate change, biodiversity and mining. Besides panels, the conference also introduced two new innovations: the young scholars forum taking place according to a Pecha Kucha style of presentation, and laboratories. The forum consisted of short presentations by several early-career researchers, while laboratories provided an unstructured, interactive setting which encouraged the formulation of new concepts and ideas.
I cannot think of any serious mishaps or insufficiencies from an organisational or disciplinary perspective. If any of the delegates have any feedback please write in the comments section below, I am sure the local committee and the EASA executive committee would love to hear anything you have to say. To me the conference was a success. New ideas, concepts and presentation formats were put to the table, tested and discussed. In addition, Estonian anthropology was affirmed. This is important: whether it is Estonia or other anthropologically “marginal” parts of Europe, resources, labour and attention need to be supplied to turn them into centres. I believe this was the case with EASA 2014 and the Tallinn University anthropology department.