This Anthro Life – Savage Minds Crossover Series, part 2
by Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins, with Leslie Walker
This Anthro Life has teamed up with Savage Minds to bring you a special 5-part podcast and blog crossover series. While thinking together as two anthropological productions that exist for multiple kinds of audiences and publics, we became inspired to have a series of conversations about why anthropology matters today. For this series we’re sitting down with some of the folks behind Savage Minds, SAPIENS, the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology to bring you conversations on anthropological thinking and its relevance through an innovative blend of audio and text. That means each week for the month of June we’ll bring you two dialogues – one podcast and one blog post – with innovative anthropological thinkers and doers.
What makes something culturally relevant in a local context?
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between form, aesthetics, and belonging. In my own archaeological practice (Rizvi 2015), I have enmeshed the notion of resonance with new materialism, empathy as linked to aesthetics, and belonging. As I have argued, resonance emerges as an intangible affect that the material thing has beyond its formal boundaries within larger planes of perception creating dynamic relationships among humans/nonhumans and illustrating cultural decisions of material as vibrant matter (c.f. Bennett 2010). In so far as the material has vibrancy and frequency, it has then the capacity to evoke an emotional and affective response to a similarity of material, style and/or form. Such response can be coded as a sensory aesthetic empathy that links to constituting subjective belonging. This argument had been posited with the ancient world in mind, but I have recently been applying archaeological theory to the contemporary, particularly within art and design.
As my anthropological concerns have found themselves situated within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I have found myself working through contemporary things and assemblages in order to understand the past within this political geography. More often than not, working through such questions falls within the ways we understand critical heritage discourse – an intersection of perceived distance or lack there of, between the time of now and that of the past. As such, and not surprisingly, I have found contemporary art and design in the UAE deeply engaged with and within the constructions/discourses of heritage. Right now, my social media feed is full of reporting on Dubai Design Week. As a part of the thematic, there is a strong focus on using local materials that have local resonance, local meaning, local heritage, and local technique. Even the design of the space is being lauded as keeping a local environmental sensibility in mind. There is a sense that what we are experiencing is some negotiation and an authorizing of what constitutes Emirati vernacular design as Rahel Aima might argue (see her piece in Frame – summer issue), or as Laura Egerton reports in Vision, Dubai Design Week becomes a space within which forgotten crafts have the potential to change the future. It is easy to see the relationship between contemporary design, uses of heritage to be future-oriented (and arguably, on fleek in that hipster way), and the ways in which a local aesthetic has been co-opted for contemporary design so it can speak to a local market and sensibility. The form taken by the local aesthetic significantly lends itself to an empathetic sense of belonging, which is integral to these conversations. Interestingly, however, the contest of heritage in the contemporary is less about what is authorized, but rather, what form can account for commitments of time, place, and access to these conversations.
Media forms are constantly calling into question each other’s ability to represent the authentic, and these remediations raise the possibility of the decay of aura, the loss of authenticity of experience. (Bolter et al. 2006: 34)
Over the last decade, we’ve both been thinking about the fundamental problem of how the authenticity of historic objects and monuments is produced, experienced and negotiated. In particular, this has coalesced in our recent work on digital 3D models, where we have engaged directly with the questions raised by Bolter and his colleagues. To what extent does the use of new 3D digital media in the heritage sector result in the loss of authenticity? What do digital 3D models of historic objects do to their physical counterparts and visa versa? How do their biographies intersect? How does participation in their production inform the experience and negotiation of their authenticity?
Archaeology has a long tradition of using visual representations to depict the past. For most of its history, images were done by hand and based on artistic skills and conventions. But the last fifteen years, we have witnessed 3D models take over archaeological visualization. It is interesting to note that while hand-drawn depictions tend to show human figures and seem to be associated with scenes of “daily life”, virtual reconstructions mostly show architectural remains and public spaces, usually devoid of people and objects. Yet, authors state that their intention is to represent the past.
My field of research is what we now call Virtual Archaeology, but I started investigating when we still talked about “VR applications in Archaeology”. I have seen it become mainstream and evolve; and I wonder why after almost twenty years of technological improvements and theoretical debate, virtual reconstructions are still empty. Especially in comparison with drawings. Do the virtual and the physical have implicitly different goals? Are they subject to different perceptions or expectations by researchers and/or audiences? Have they received different historical influences? Maybe technological capacities still play a role?
This is the first in a series of posts, coordinated with Colleen Morgan, on the relations between analog and digital cultures. Over the next month, through the contributions of a variety of archaeologists, we will explore the concept of materiality in an age where the nature of ‘the material’ is rapidly shifting. How do physical materials and digital materials shape one another? How does experimentation with the digital rethink the dimensions of the analog, and vice versa? How, if at all, do we distinguish between one and the other – and is this even necessary (or possible) today? How have our understandings of ‘the real’ – of ‘things’ and ‘facts’ – of presence and the body – of aura and authenticity – been shifted by interactions between physical and digital materials?
As the premiere scholars of materiality, archaeologists are well-versed in the continuities between, and changes to, artifacts. Here, we probe their boundaries through discussion of our engagements at the intersections of the analog and the digital. I begin with some critical comments on mobile apps: oft enrolled in visitor experiences at archaeology and heritage sites, are these digital tools actually valuable?
Earlier this year (2014), I was cleaning out my room at my parents place in New Jersey, going through old boxes, trying to make sense of decades of saved letters, newspaper articles, early printed emails, and old address books. During this time, I came across my first (and only) philately kit with the stamp tongs, magnifying glass, and a perforation gauge, all barely recognizable with age. I must have been about eight when I was gifted this by my maternal grandmothers’ brother who had the year prior brought me a stamp book from England. I remember him telling me it was a fun and educational hobby and one that would make me worldly. The year between the two gifts, I was an avid and easy stamp collector. The year the kit came into my life, I spent much time picking stamps up carefully with my stamp tweezers/tongs and placing them into various stamp books, photo-albums-converted-into-stamp-books or slid them into translucent envelopes. I forgot to collect. I began to curate. I thought more about how groups of stamps might go together, rather than see what was in circulation. The kit-ed-ness created a structure of how the stamps were handled, thought of and collected. Admittedly, I was too young then to recognize how this might be a critical insight into the production of national archives, or to recognize the desire of my grandparents to make me ‘worldly’ at eight as some inflection of postcolonial aspiration.