A highlight of the recent AAA conference in New Orleans was a visit to one of the three art galleries participating in Swarm: Multispecies Salon 3, one of the new “inno-vent” functions spun off from the usual conference proceedings. There was a “Multispecies Anthropology” panel at the conference itself, but sadly it was timed to overlap with the very panel I was participating in. As a multimedia art installation Swarm was highly stimulating and a lot of fun too, I would have loved to see it tied more directly to contemporary cultural anthropology and theory. Fortunately I can turn to the journal Cultural Anthropology Vol. 25, Issue 4 (2010), a special theme issue edited by some of the co-curators of Swarm that explores the intersections of bioart and anthropology, humans and non-human species, science and nature.

Saturday evening, after the SANA business meeting and a catfish po-boy, I slinked back to my cheap hotel for a change of clothes and to get the address of The Ironworks studio on Piety Street. It turns out hailing a cab in New Orleans on a Saturday night can take awhile, especially when you’re in the CBD. And when I did get a cabbie, he confessed to not knowing where Piety Street was and his sole map seemed to be a tourist brochure which only listed major intersections. (“Here put these on,” and he gave me his reading glasses as if this would help.) I bargained that waiting to catch another cab would take longer than navigating with a lost cabbie and so we set sail on the streets of New Orleans.

After the confusion, a train, and about six blocks of streets without names we arrived. The Ironworks was an ideal setting for this experiment in art and anthropology. At the end of a city neighborhood, under the comforting glow of the street lamps, the building suggested a past life as a warehouse or place of light industry. Inside a high fence folks gathered around a keg of beer or perched on picnic tables on the edge of a interior yard whose distance brought darkness and a sense of privacy. This is where the robots roamed, clacking and blinking.

Inside I soon found my friends, alums from my alma mater New College – many of us became professional anthropologists – had agreed to swarm the Swarm. Much to my surprise there were even some undergrads who spotted me right away by my tattoo of the school logo and a fellow from my class who became a criminal lawyer and now lived right down the street. Also there were tamales. And a band of noise musicians. It was good crowd to be in, a mix of ages, anthropologists and artists.

Swarm was like a poster session on acid. What narrative there was appeared in sudden snippits and disjointed revelations. There was a clear connection to the human, it remained consistently relevant to anthropology throughout. Then it sent out rhizomes tapping into relationships with other living things: animal, plant, microbe. Themes of interdependence emerged alongside those of dominance. And hidden ecologies, networks of bioculture where history, gender, and trade play out alongside pathogens, evolutionary fitness, and geographic isolation shattered by human behavior.

There were no noble savages to be found in this clearing of naturecutlures. Indeed, romantics were largely absent while the surrealists, with their love of the found object and the psychoanalytic, were embraced with revelry. The moral seemed to be that we all would do well to follow their example and play. Just a little. Play and see where the transgression takes you.

The media present at Swarm was varied. There was painting, sculpture, fashion, architecture, collage, video, photography, and installation art. There was even a irruption of performance art as a troupe of actresses shared a interspecies home pregnancy test: injecting urine into a frog. Anthropologist Eben Kirksey hovered on the stage above them interjecting commentary on the consequences of this practice for the global health of amphibians. At the conclusion of the performance he seemed to mock the commoditization of both art and animals, declaring that his frog pregnancy test was available for sale. Only $120.

Amid the imaginary animals and recycled science of Swarm I thought back to an art installation I curated in “the field” while conducting my dissertation research. For the first time I reflected on how the installation became a part of my ethnographic methodology. Like a lot of fieldwork it was happenstance that I came to curate that installation at all, but it was very productive for me. To have art, video, photography, and props thematically arranged, set aside in a space and made available to the public I was trying to reach. I left Ironworks with a great deal of admiration for the artists and anthropologists involved and a new appreciation of my own work.

Its rare to get that from a text. Rare enough that when you find that special essay or book that speaks to you it soon gets devoured by dog ears, underlines, and manic notes in the margins. We all have those special books. But folks, there’s more to anthropology than the written word. Swarm made this plain like a compulsory fit of deja vu. I remember now. There’s an excess to what we do that doesn’t fit in conventional ethnographic text. Poetry, performance, and art are lurking just beyond our peripheral vision.

Turn your head.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

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