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On Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film and Anthropology

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From Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film and Anthropology (DER 2008) is a documentary DVD that explores ways of building bridges between practices of the social sciences (anthropology, communication), the humanities (philosophy, cultural studies, cinema studies), and the arts (documentary film, interactive media, performance). Presented as a keynote film at the meetings of the International Visual Sociology Association in Buenos Aires in 2008, and screened at events such as the International Festival of Ethnological Film, Belgrade and the Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival, From Vérité to Virtual offers preliminary steps in developing interdisciplinary practices of visual and cultural research that take into account questions of documentary truthfulness, collaboration and digital representation. The participants came together from across disciplines to join in a discussion about what the agenda for interdisciplinary visual anthropology might look like in this era of globalisation. The responses range from the theoretically provocative to the practical, and the participants also take up concerns about the role of visual research in academia. Participants include symposium panelists Phillip Alperson, Kelly Askew, Rebecca Baron, Michel Brault, Kathy Brew, Roderick Coover, Jayasinhji Jhala, Paul Stoller, and Lucien Taylor, as well as roundtable discussants Warren Bass, Noel Carroll, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Oliver Gaycken, Sarah Drury, Gordon Gray, and others. This article presents a significant extract of the film's transcript supported by a bibliography of related works.
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On
Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film and
Anthropology
Roderick Coover 1
Online publication date: 13 November 2009
To cite this Article Coover 1, Roderick(2009) 'On
Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film and
Anthropology
', Visual Studies, 24: 3, 235 — 249
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ISSN 1472–586X printed/ISSN 1472–5878 online/09/030235-15 © 2009 International Visual Sociology Association
DOI: 10.1080/14725860903309146
Visual Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, December 2009
RVST
On Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film
and Anthropology
On Vérité to Virtual
RODERICK COOVER
1
From Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of
Film and Anthropology (DER 2008) is a documentary
DVD that explores ways of building bridges between
practices of the social sciences (anthropology,
communication), the humanities (philosophy, cultural
studies, cinema studies), and the arts (documentary film,
interactive media, performance). Presented as a keynote
film at the meetings of the International Visual Sociology
Association in Buenos Aires in 2008, and screened at events
such as the International Festival of Ethnological Film,
Belgrade and the Göttingen International Ethnographic
Film Festival, From Vérité to Virtual offers preliminary
steps in developing interdisciplinary practices of visual and
cultural research that take into account questions of
documentary truthfulness, collaboration and digital
representation. The participants came together from across
disciplines to join in a discussion about what the agenda for
interdisciplinary visual anthropology might look like in this
era of globalisation. The responses range from the
theoretically provocative to the practical, and the
participants also take up concerns about the role of visual
research in academia. Participants include symposium
panelists Phillip Alperson, Kelly Askew, Rebecca Baron,
Michel Brault, Kathy Brew, Roderick Coover, Jayasinhji
Jhala, Paul Stoller, and Lucien Taylor, as well as
roundtable discussants Warren Bass, Noel Carroll,
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, Oliver Gaycken, Sarah
Drury, Gordon Gray, and others. This article presents a
significant extract of the film’s transcript supported by a
bibliography of related works.
From Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of
Film and Anthropology (DER 2008) is a documentary
DVD that explores ways of building bridges between
practices of the social sciences (anthropology,
communication), the humanities (philosophy, cultural
studies, cinema studies), and the arts (documentary film,
interactive media, performance).
While the participants come from differing disciplines,
in their work each has arrived at methods which
combine genres and practices. For example, Kelly Askew,
Roderick Coover, Jayasinhji Jhala and Lucien Taylor all
teach, write and make films in and about differing
cultures. They produce scholarly papers and books,
and, at the same time, they make creative works that
range from museum installations to narrative films.
Quebecois film-maker and cinematographer Michel
Brault is a pioneer of cinéma vérité who makes both
fiction and non-fiction works, while Rebecca Baron,
whose works include a documentary about the
British cultural ethnographer Humphrey Jennings,
creates video works for art and broadcast contexts.
Anthropologist Paul Stoller, who has written at times
about the works of film-maker Jean Rouch, integrates
scholarly and creative writing, while Kathy Brew
is a film curator who has worked with the Margaret
Mead Film Festival, which also attempts to bridge
practices of the arts and ethnography. The panel
conversation branches into conversational roundtable
sessions that include contributions from artist Sarah
Drury, aesthetician Noel Carroll, film scholar Oliver
Gaycken, communications scholar Fabienne Darling-
Wolf, visual anthropologist Gordon Gray, film-maker
Warren Bass, and performance artist Kimmika
Williams-Witherspoon.
Traditional documentary has always struggled to
overcome the tension between subject and maker. This
tension has been addressed, although never overcome, in
many of the great works in documentary history. New
technologies, however, may provide the tools to reframe
this discussion, while also allowing for increased
integration of the interdisciplinary questions of place,
being and culture. These shape praxis and subject
matter. Innovative works of cinema vérité and
ethnographic film-making in the 1950s and 1960s began
to engage these questions. In doing so, they drew
attention to the illusory nature of non-fiction
representation and of actuality itself. What emerges from
that point of departure and continues today is a
foregrounding of the research and productive process:
motion images are but a reflection of activities of
observation, exchange and collaboration between the
Roderick Coover is an associate professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. His works include the interactive CD-ROM Cultures in Webs: Working in
Hypermedia with the Documentary Image (Eastgate) and the interactive webwork Unknown Territories (www.unknownterritories.org), among others. His URL is
www.roderickcoover.com.
Downloaded By: [Temple University] At: 00:39 5 March 2010
236 R. Coover
maker and the subject – activities that may require many
differing kinds of tools, methods and media.
The conversation begins with a discussion about cinema
vérité and its hold on contemporary documentary
practices. A debate develops about the relationship
between fiction and non-fiction film-making that
continues in the first breakout session. Cinema vérité is a
naturalistic style of documentary film-making developed
in the 1950s by film-makers such as Edgar Morin, Michel
Brault, Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker
and Al Maysles, among others. Developed in conjunction
with the production of portable motorised film cameras
and audio recording devices, cinema vérité was well-suited
to the conditions of ethnographic film-making of the
period. The technical changes allowed for synchronised
sound, handheld shots and long takes, and they also
allowed film-makers to work under diverse conditions
and in much smaller teams – often just one or two people.
The conversation continues with a discussion about
collaboration. Ethnographic film-making practices
require collaborations of many kinds both among media
makers themselves and between the media makers and
the communities with which they are working. The
nature of these collaborations is changing as indigenous
peoples develop their own production skills and media
literacy. The conversation goes on to consider some of the
requirements of developing new forms of ethnography,
including doing ethnography within one’s own
community. The breakout session advances these issues
with further discussion about collaboration and trust.
The third part of the conversation advances questions of
aesthetics in relation to cinema vérité, and the breakout
session goes on to consider how documentary aesthetics
and ethnographic voice are being altered by digital
forms of recording and transmission. Special attention is
given to the role of the ethnographer and the process of
erasure that occurs in editing and choice-making. These
issues of choice-making and erasure lead into the final
discussion and breakout session on the nature and future
of educational programmes in visual anthropology, and
the relation of visually oriented ethnographic methods to
ethnographically minded practices in the arts. The
original dialogue has been revised and edited for
grammar, clarity and brevity. A bibliography is included
that offers a selection of works cited in the conversations
along with a few additional, seminal works that may
offer readers further insight into the core terms and
issues of the day.
THE PANEL CONVERSATION
Kelly Askew, Rebecca Baron, Michel Brault, Kathy Brew,
Roderick Coover, Jayasinhji Jhala, Paul Stoller, Lucien
Taylor, Phil Alperson (moderator)
Part One: Truth and Fiction
Michel Brault: I would like to read from Edgar Morin:
There are two ways of looking at the cinema of
reality. The first is to pretend to show reality.
The second is to pose the problem of reality.
Thus, there have been two concepts of cinema
vérité. First, it pretended to show truth. Second,
it posed the problem of truth. . . . We have
reason to know by now that cinema and film is
much less illusory and less mendacious than so-
called documentary because author and
audience know it is fiction. In other words, its
truth is in its make-believe. In contrast,
documentary hides its truth behind the image, a
FIGURE 1. Kelly Askew, Jayasinhji Jhala, Kathy Brew, Rebecca Baron and Roderick Coover in conversation in From Vérité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of
Visual Anthropology and Documentary Media Making, dir. Roderick Coover, 2008.
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On Vérité to Virtual 237
mere reflection of reality. Now we have even
better reason to know that social reality
camouflages and dramatises itself to even
greater effect for the camera. Roles express
social reality and, in politics, contrivance is
more real than reality. That’s why the so-called
cinema of reality has presented, proposed, even
imposed the most incredible illusions. In those
marvelous regions from which fleeting images
were brought back, social reality was staged and
occluded by the political system transfigured in
the dazzled eyes of the filmmaker. In other
words, that aspect of cinema most troubled by
illusion, irreality and fiction, is that same
cinema of reality whose mission is to confront
the most difficult philosophical problem of the
last 2000 years, the nature of reality itself.
(Morin 1980, as translated by Michel Brault)
Lucien Taylor: Cinema vérité, as much as we talk about
it as being the vérité of cinema rather than the cinema
of vérité, nonetheless had a certain stake in giving us a
return to reality that had not been possible since the
invention of the talkies. Cinema vérité, in a kind of
reductio ad absurdum consequence, has spawned
reality TV. I don’t watch a lot of it so I don’t want to
claim any real understanding or knowledge, but
obviously it is linked to the spectacular, to thematise
the abject, especially pain, anything that’s taboo or
transgressive. Even vérité itself, remember, for all of its
claim, for all of its legitimising itself in redeeming the
everyday, on giving us everyday experience or some
sense of the dailyness of human experience,
concentrated for the most part on eccentrics or
celebrities. It had narrative forms and narrative logics
that were borrowed from fiction.
Rebecca Baron: I think I learned my fundamental film-
making questions in a cinema vérité editing room. I was
working as a young editor for D. A. Pennebaker, and it
struck me that here was the most highly constructed
form of editing that I had ever done. There is all this
pressure on the image to be true to reality. But it is a
representation. So, then, how do we then shape our films
to be true to the experience we have been through or true
to the actual material reality of being there?
Jayasinhji Jhala: Perhaps the assertion and the conviction
that you are telling a truth might be altered by offering
an opinion. That allows there to be a kind of fragility in
the utterance as well as it carrying your own conviction.
Roderick Coover: The impact of film-makers as catalysts
must also be considered. The boom taking place in
documentary film today is due in large measure to the
fact that all the more wide a spectrum of people can take
the cameras out and be active in the scene. What you are
documenting is what is happening before you,
something that you might be making happen or might
be different because you are there. The role is active
on the making side, not passive – it is the same for an
ethnographer or for an activist; it is the same across the
board in documentary films except for the streaming of
observational material from hidden cameras.
Audience member: I want to ask the question if we are
documenting cultural practices that are more real than a
certain mode of reality then I wonder how the panel
situates itself or imagines its relationship to the fictional?
Kelly Askew: As opposed to the doing documentary of
popular entertainment, one strategy that some of us are
now involved in is doing ethnography through popular
entertainment: employing popular entertainment as a
way of showcasing a culture, providing knowledge about
a culture, gaining access to that culture by being drawn
into a narrative style. Narrative can ask people to engage
in a culture in a very personal, phenomenological way,
something that documentary can’t always achieve. For
me, in terms of the essay Paul cited about the ‘Truth of
Fiction’, there’s also the fiction of truth. You think
you’re always going after the document; but, of course,
you always fall short because there’s always the staging,
always the framing, there’s always the re-enactment . . .
you’re freed of that when you do fiction.
Paul Stoller: In my case, writing fiction or writing
ethnography depends on a number of factors. First, there is
no one way of representing reality. The kinds of things I
have written have varied over time – the styles I have
adopted, the genres I have adopted. My rule of thumb has
been to let the materials speak to me. The materials would
maybe indicate that a memoir is appropriate or an
ethnog
raphy is appropriate. Or, the set of experiences
would indicate that I would want to fictionalise. Fiction is
well suited to some subjects that ethnography is not.
Because of the fluidity of situations, one must be flexible
and not to say I’m going to do just this or just that, but to let
the wondrousness of the world penetrate you and indicate
the representational strategies that you want to take.
Lucien Taylor: Kelly, you said earlier that with good
fiction you have this sort of phenomenological intensity,
or plenitude, or intimacy that is so hard to achieve with
non-fiction. It is incredibly hard. And cinéma vérité’s
technological innovations in the 1960s were perhaps a
necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to
approximate anything like the degree of intimacy and
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238 R. Coover
the psychological and subjective complexity that you can
get with fiction.
For my part, I should say I am really invested not in
posing problems about reality – I am certainly interested
in watching them and addressing them and maybe trying
to answer them occasionally – but I am really interested
in evoking reality, in representing reality, in trying to
throw up a mirror to reality, in all that naiveté. I am
interested in producing works that have an excess that
exceeds my intentionality.
BREAKOUT SESSION ONE: DOCUMENTARY
AND NONFICTION
Lucien Taylor, Michel Brault, Warren Bass,
Gordon Gray
Lucien Taylor: Anthropology can no longer
claim to have a monopoly on ethnography.
Ethnographic film is situated within a much
larger spectrum of cognate, culturally-
inflected media practices. This is really
nothing new. Think of how the work of
Cavalcanti, Victor Masayesva, Trinh T,
Minh-ha, Tracy Moffatt, Kidlat Tahimik –
a Filipino film-maker – and many others is
inflected with anthropology and in dialogue,
often very oppositionally, with anthropology.
The most interesting work of this kind is not
really inflected by an ethnographic sensibility.
It doesn’t have the same investment in
ethnography as we’ve been talking about.
Visual anthropology attends to
the particularities of the personal
experience and subjectivity of lived
experience long before it does to the
abstractions of culture. I think that is its
particular power. But, in terms of the raison
d’être for visual anthropology, we are all
trying to do something that isn’t supported
by the market, that isn’t supported by
capitalism, to provide other stories and
other voices and other visions that are not
FIGURE 2. Still, Hell Roaring Creek, in Sweetgrass, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009.
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On Vérité to Virtual 239
being heard and contribute to the public
spirit. I think one of the things visual
anthropologists can contribute – it is not this
black box; it’s not like you go to PhD school
and suddenly you come out with this ability
that no one else has – but, it is this huge
investment of time. What is the big deal
of going to Bongabonga for a year or two
years? It is phenomenal. When you
compare it to what a regular film-maker
can go to the field or engage with his
subjects for, it is an amazing luxury. As a result,
a year is not even that much of a time dent,
compared to 7Up or 14Up or 21Up. To be
able to have that exposure to your subject, it
provides a real opportunity if those students
had prior training in film-making, being media
literate as well as academicians in training.
Gordon Gray: Speaking as an anthropologist,
one of the ironies is that all anthropologists do
visual anthropology, but they don’t do it very
well. How many anthropology textbooks
have photographs in them? Why are they
there? They are used to illustrate some point
in the text, but they are not important. I
shouldn’t have to explain that they (images)
can be incredibly powerful tools to aid
understanding, to work, to evoke ideas, and
yet they are just there in a one-dimensional
way.
Lucien Taylor: I don’t identify myself as a
documentarian, maybe that’s snobbism?
The word documentary seems to be very
reductive, as if all I’m producing is a mere
document. Documentary implies that
there is very little artistic engagement. . . .
It allows the documentary to be
conflated with broadcast journalism,
which has very narrow topical interests
and very circumscribed aesthetic
possibilities.
Warren Bass: I think for a lot of us
documentary doesn’t imply that, in that the
difference between a document and
documentary is the point of view, the
statement, the development of the idea.
Lucien Taylor: . . . The arts world is also
showing a pronounced gravitation
towards reality and towards non-fiction.
Many of the most accomplished artists
that I know of internationally – artists
whose work is at the summit of
consecration in the art world – are people
whose works are infused by cinéma vérité.
They are receiving the acknowledgement
and recognition from the art world that
isn’t necessarily happening within the
academy. People like Steve McQueen,
Sharon Lockhart, some extraordinary
artists. They are not relinquishing artistic
control; they are deeply invested in reality
in a way that is quite new and incredibly
exciting. Film schools for the most part,
because they are oriented toward the
industry and the mainstream, are not
always producing the most exciting work.
I don’t want to leave that in the art world.
I think it is very important that we provide
a nurturing space within the academy.
Part Two: Collaboration and Ethnographic
Methods
Kelly Askew: The question that I was thinking to pose
today concerns the issue of collaboration. My experience
is not necessarily typical because I didn’t go through a
film program per se, and so I was not a student who had
to go out and make my own films. I’m looking at it as a
member of multiple teams of film-makers. I know that is
not the only model. There is still the lone film-maker
who has a high level of control over of the product and
can be true to a singular vision. But in a lot of film work
there is more than one person involved, and, as a result,
you often times have to deal with conflicting artistic
visions.
I think involving local communities about whom these
films are being made as co-equal collaborators leads us
to gain more, however awkward and difficult it might be.
The challenge comes from having to defer to the cultural
authority of the people with whom you are working
on a given film – oftentimes the people about whom the
film is being made. It means abrogating your authority as
a narrator, as an author, as a film-maker, and subsuming
your own personal narrative desires, expressive desires,
aesthetic desires, or even documentary desires to the
people with whom one is working.
Jayasinhji Jhala: I see this as a tremendous potential. No
longer are we in a world where films are made about
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240 R. Coover
people for us. They are made by people for themselves.
This needs to be shouted from the streets and from all
pulpits. It’s not a question of quality, it’s not a question
of orientation, but of immense diversity. And, many of
us who are in the business of promoting indigenous
production, especially in Fourth World environments,
have to understand what we mean by our role in it.
Paul Stoller: It’s also not just making one trip. It’s going
back. When you go back a second time, people see that
your commitment is not just something that is verbal . . .
you’re displacing yourself. If you do it over a period of
years, it creates a deep set of relationships that allows
people to entrust information to you. It gives you a sense
of great obligations and responsibility as well.
Lucien Taylor: I have worked in West Africa and in the
Franco-Creole Caribbean, and, for the first time, I’m
now working in the United States with a group of native
English speakers – with sheep herders of Norwegian and
Irish descent in Montana. I’m not an enormously gifted
linguist. To be working in a community with which, for
all our differences, I’m able to relate to so easily and with
such facility has been incredibly enriching and
enormously enabling to me. Ethnography is invested in
local knowledge, in really having a purchase on cultural
differences and on lived experience that other
methodologies don’t give us, but I think it’s very easy for
anthropologists to hide the shallowness of their
knowledge. Working in your own community you don’t
have that luxury.
Paul Stoller: Ethnographers need to apprentice
themselves, spend a lot of time doing ethnographic
fieldwork, honing their skills: honing their observation
skills, honing their skills of interpretation, learning
languages, learning how to interpret the social realities
that they confront . . . it takes a lot of time to
understand a group of people enough to represent
them with a degree of sensitivity and fidelity. And, I
think it takes a while for ethnographers to become
practitioners. That is to say, people who have really
learned the bits and pieces of what it takes to become
an ethnographer in the field and to be someone who
can represent the field experience in whatever media
they choose.
FIGURE 3. Samburu extras on the set for The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). Photograph by Mike McLean courtesy of Kelly Askew.
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On Vérité to Virtual 241
Ethnography is an incredibly flexible genre of
representation. It can be stretched to fill all different
kinds of subjects, and a diverse array of media can be
used to do ethnographic representation. Most
importantly, I think for today, given its flexibility as a
genre, ethnography fits the complexities of
contemporary life. It is not reductive. It expands
with the complexities of contemporary social
cultural living. So it is a device that many people
can use to try to make sense of what goes on in
contemporary social worlds either here in
Philadelphia, in New York City or in West Africa.
The big issue, I think, in doing ethnography at
home is the issue of accountability. If you’re an
African American working in an African-American
community your subjective position may be as
an ethnographer, but membership of the
community is going to be multi-layered and
there are a series of negotiations you need to
engage in if you are going to do that kind
of research.
BREAKOUT SESSION TWO: COLLABORATION
Kelly Askew, Fabienne Darling-Wolf,
Jayasinhji Jhala, Kimmika
Williams-Witherspoon
Kelly Askew: One cannot do ethnography
without collaborating – it’s impossible. This is
something we have been talking about in
my department. not so much about self-
censorship, but how one is constantly
negotiating between private and public
forms of knowledge. We do our research
individually, and when we create our
products, be they monographs or written
text or a film, it becomes public. One is
constantly having to make decisions about
what is public and what is private
knowledge – what is shared and what is
not. This becomes ever more obvious in
films which have a potential to reach a
greater audience than ethnographic
monographs which . . . well, we wish more
people would read them. In my original
discussion of the question, I was debating in
my mind with a former member of this
programme for whom anthropological
cinema should remain primarily oriented
towards anthropologists to protect the
integrity and that scholarly import of it.
I guess I see film having so much potential
for breaking those barriers, that I’d like to
employ collaboration to the best possible
degree to reach the broadest possible
audiences. I see no problem with that
personally. Collaboration toward that end,
I am all for it. It is fraught with difficulties,
and requires constant compromising. It’s
like being in a marriage.
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon: I find that in
my work dealing with African-American or
Afro-Caribbean or African ritual that there is
always going to be a public transcript and,
then, embedded in the public transcript
there is a hidden transcript, and only
members of a particular group will get all of
the nuances. Sometimes informants can give
the researcher some of the understanding of
the other nuances. I am assuming that that
kind of collaboration is the same in film. I am
always mindful of members of the
community and what they want known
versus what, as an anthropologist, I need to
tell. I don’t know . . . Sometimes I think I give
too much information.
Jayasinhji Jhala: One section of the
audience which films include but
our writings exclude is people who are
not literate in our way. Well before the
whole reflexivity discussion in mainstream
anthropology this was already
something we were seized with, because
immediately images had impact and
meaning – sometimes very violently
misconstrued meanings and appropriations
of a very violent kind. Despite our clarion
calls for others to pay attention, they didn’t,
in fact, until someone wrote about it.
The written work we share very easily.
Our filmic work we share very poorly
amongst ourselves. But it is the inverse
for our collaborators in the field. They
share the visual product and not the
written one!
Part Three: Documentary Aesthetics
Rebecca Baron: My question arose out of a
meeting with a student who showed me a work in
progress that struck me as too beautiful. I was surprised
at my own criticism of the work. She seemed so
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242 R. Coover
preoccupied with a formal aesthetic emphasis that I felt
like it was distracting attention away from the subject of
her film. The piece was about three families who had
been evicted from a housing project. The subjects in her
film were striking to look at. They were presented in a
way that was quite stylised, but I was less bothered by
that than by the way the environment was
photographed. It didn’t really serve her purpose, which
was to follow these three families and what happened to
them after they had been evicted. So, my question is,
what are the criteria for our aesthetic choices?
Sometimes, they are determined
by technology; I think the most interesting work
in the history of ethnographic film occurs in
these moments when technology shifted so
radically – that sync sound was available or the
camera was mobile – that it had a very profound impact
on the aesthetic of the work. Now that we have a lot of
tools at our disposal and now that we have more
choices available to us, what criteria do we use to
determine our aesthetics?
Michel Brault: I don’t really see much room for aesthetics
in documentary, except things like respect for the natural
lighting, for instance. But, this is not aesthetics. It is
fidelity or something. The other aesthetics that could
happen would be in editing. That’s a very important
part; it is the essence of film-making. You can record
anything. But the way you handle the material you’ve
taken from other people in time, in form, in shape if you
manipulate the material . . .
Rebecca Baron: I think it is complicated, though,
because the aesthetics of direct cinema have been
adopted by television, and in many other contexts. I
think it appears more now as a style to the audiences
than it has previously. I feel there is no real
neutral aesthetic. In fact, I was asking for a more
neutral aesthetic from her, but it really made
me think: ‘Which lens do you choose? Where do
you put the camera? If you have a low angle, it
looks very different than if you have a high angle.
Do you always use a normal lens?’ She decided not to.
FIGURE 4. A montage of surveillance images depicted in How little we know of our neighbours, dir. Rebecca Baron, 2005.
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She used the physical space very creatively, and it
bothered me. It really made me think, ‘Am I still looking
to an aesthetic that cinema vérité produced?’ That
aesthetic is as much a style as any other style.
Kathy Brew: In cinema vérité aren’t you making aesthetics
choices by how you frame your shot? You are bringing
up the interplay between practices; there are
experimental film practices that are coming to
documentary film-making and vice versa. I think we are
seeing more expanded forms coming out of it.
Authenticity to the subject is one thing, and, then, there
is authenticity to the maker’s vision as well.
BREAKOUT SESSION THREE: DOCUMENTARY
AESTHETICS AND DIGITAL TRANSMISSIONS
Rebecca Baron, Noël Carroll, Roderick
Coover, Sarah Drury, Oliver Gaycken
Rebecca Baron: In late-1930s Britain, a
surrealist poet, painter and film-maker,
Humphrey Jennings, co-founded this thing
called Mass Observation.
2
The idea was
that if they could create an accurate
portrait of society, society could look at
itself and make informed decisions –
because the way the press and
government represented public opinion
did not reflect the reality. They were
going to find out what people really
thought and did. So they recruited
volunteers to go all over England to observe
people’s behaviour in public space and do
surreptitious observation – photographing
surreptitiously was part of it and ordinary
people writing for Mass Observation was
part of it. But they really didn’t do a very
good job of synthesising the material. In their
book about behaviour in a pub, you really
get things like how many spits on the floor
versus in the spittoon, or how long it takes
someone to drink a pint alone versus with
other people . . .
3
Noël Carroll: . . . It’s the worst kind of
positivism.
Oliver Gaycken: It’s the spit on the ground
versus the spit on the spittoon. Of course, on
some level it is significant, but it’s also utterly
useless on another level because what’s
the argument about that? The idea that
everything is important . . .
Rebecca Baron: I think at a distance what
is interesting is the practice of doing that
at all . . . That they thought that gathering
all this stuff was useful. So, that
methodology is interesting to look at, and it
is contextualised by all sorts of things . . .
Oliver Gaycken: And this has its champions
in film theory when you think about
Kracauer [2005] and his interest in precisely
how film can document the flow of life.
Noël Carroll: But Kracauer is very different
because Kracauer thought we should use
the mechanisms of cinema creatively. He
didn’t favour going back to the wider shot
that includes the most. He had the idea
that you had to be using these things . . .
you have to edit. He did believe that you
could penetrate reality, but he didn’t
fetishise any kind of technique . . .
I do some work in dance films. And one
thing that happens in dance films is that,
well, if you were to set up a camera at the
ideal distance from the stage so that it
was flush with the wings of the stage and
film the dance, you wouldn’t get an
impression of what it was like to be there.
What you have to do to get an impression
of what it is like to be there is cut it and edit
it. That will give you the impression of the
life and the vitality of the dance. That
is how you are going to get a closer
approximation to what the performance is.
You are going to have to build up a certain
kind of rhythm in your shots. You are going
to have to exploit certain psychological
tendencies and views to complete actions.
If you put the camera back, it is going to be
leaden. You can take the greatest
performance of the New York City Ballet
and try to be authentic by being sure you
didn’t leave anything out, and what you
would create would be exactly the
opposite of the impression of what it is to be
there.
Oliver Gaycken: This is something that you
were talking about at various points, Rod,
with the idea of the video blog – how do
you account for that as a practice? It
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244 R. Coover
sounded like you were really trying to
emphasise this paradigm, this model, of this
space where there are a bunch of things
from different people, and there is no way
that film can account for it because of its
linearity, because film always demands
that one frame precede another.
Roderick Coover: One way of thinking
about this is that the long film is dead. What
works in streaming and in new media are
short works; they are works accompanied
by text; they are works from different
people contributing to a common space;
they are fragmented; they are multiply
linked. On the other hand, in the case of
the long work, we hold the auteur
accountable for it – the researcher, the
ethnographer. If they didn’t do their
research well, if they lied, we hold them
accountable. In these kinds of new media
spaces, it sometimes can become difficult
to pull out particular contributors or even
name them . . . So, we have a tremendous
problem of reliability.
Sarah Drury: The shift in visual anthropology
is to the ethnography of ourselves or of the
cultures here in the US: there is a sort of
documentary going on right now in regards
to video blogs and this whole notion of
truth. Maybe this is moving outside of
ethnography because it is more about
news and media documentation, but that
is where the blog comes in – it’s an effort to
document the ‘now’ and ‘here’. The idea is
that documentary is communication, and
the document in itself is nothing – it’s just
about how it feeds into a conversation, a
sort of moving target of what is real.
FIGURE 5. Extracts from Edward Abbey in Canyon Country. Print and video installation, Roderick Coover, 2009.
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Noël Carroll: There doesn’t have to be a
single auteur, but, certainly, for it to be
visual anthropology rather than just life that
happens to be recorded, as it might be by
surveillance camera – you wouldn’t count
that surveillance camera in the bank
recording all that activity in the bank as
visual anthropology - there still has to be the
figure you call ‘the visual anthropologist’.
Or a group of people you call ‘the visual
anthropologists’. In the way you are
picturing the group of bloggers having an
ongoing conversation, it doesn’t seem to
me that you have ‘an anthropologist’.
Roderick Coover: I think one successful
model which offers a way one can work is
Fred Ritchin’s Pixel Press [www.pixelpress.org]
in which you might have many contributors in
a field sending in materials gathered around
a theme. You send out people to retrieve
stuff and that journal is accountable for what
is there. It facilitates work on a theme and this
works well for journalism, but does it work for
broader ethnographic practices where we
want to learn something more substantial
than brief news snippets, the way we learn
something in an hour-long movie?
Oliver Gaycken: Well, isn’t that like mass
observation?
Noël Carroll: People often think that what
would be an ideal history would be if we
could have cameras set up so that
everything that happens in human history
would be recorded as it happens. But that
would never count as history. It’s inadequate
even if you had perfect replicas, and the
reason is pretty simple. A historian is a person
that can tell you that, let’s say, for example,
when da Vinci was born the Renaissance
began. Da Vinci’s father couldn’t have said
that, because you have to be in the future to
be able to know what is important about the
past. They couldn’t have said at Stalingrad
that that was the beginning of the end of the
Third Reich. You had to be in 1946 to know
that, and that is why people should be
careful, as Oscar Wilde said, about what
they wish for. We don’t want a set of
snapshots of our own time; that is useless. We
won’t know, as I suppose we’ll realise about
the war in Iraq, we won’t know what is going
on until 15 years from now.
Oliver Gaycken: This notion of the necessity
of selectivity and of things being erased . . .
I think you were posing the question of
negative things. But I think about the end of
Godard’s History of Cinema where he
recreates the ‘M’ and says only the hand
that erases can write. The precondition of
writing is the ability to erase.
Part Four: Future Anthropologies
Roderick Coover: Anthropology in its film-making
practices had as one of its aims to hold and pass on, to
carry something forward in time in the face of erasure.
One of the problems that we have to face is our ability to
move forward. Because what we saw in the early days in
visual anthropology was a trend to grasp cultures as they
were being reconfigured by the global spread of western
wealth, in terms of industrialisation, colonisation and
post-colonial development. Now we find that we’re in a
different game. Those cultures have changed, and we
find ourselves sharing a global deluge of visual
information. And we all share the processes of erasure,
each new tide of material erasing what came before.
Ethnography, now is it about our world or other worlds
or can we even make such distinctions?
Paul Stoller: I see each successive level as a kind of
foundation upon which we build rather than erasure.
There are elements of traditional societies in
contemporary reconfigurations. I look at it influenced by
Jean Rouch’s notion that you stand on the shoulders of
the people who came before you . . . It is all part of a
process – a slow building up and refining what has come
before. Yes, I think the challenge is that we have complexly
reconfigured worlds. But I think that the foundations are
there to build on, and I think that the people who have
come before us have made a tremendous contribution. I
think that things are different, but I think that we can see
that as a tremendous strength rather than something that
has passed into the ether.
Lucien Taylor: In terms of the future of cross-cultural
media practice, it doesn’t seem to me that
cross-cultural makes sense as a category. It’s not that
cultures are more ultra-porous and ultra-fragmented
now. Of course, they’ve always been more
porous and fragmented than we would have liked to
believe – that’s a factor too. I think it’s also that
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246 R. Coover
image-making practices that negotiate intercultural
differences are not essentially different, or the problems
that they have to engage with are not essentially
different, to my mind, than image-making practices that
don’t deal with those differences or with intra-cultural
differences, or just personal and political differences.
I think there is a danger here in not recognising this
problem of erasure; the fact that visual anthropology
has never been institutionalised. Whether or not it
should be I don’t know.
Between 1895 and 1920 there were huge hopes that there
would be a truly constituted visual anthropology. People
like Felix Louis Regnault, Alfred Haddon and Sir
Baldwin Spencer all believed that the motion-picture
camera was a crucial piece of anthropological apparatus.
That has never really been followed up. Visual
anthropology came of age shortly after the war for a
period of one and a half generations. There were various
efforts before the war. Mead and Bateson became
popular because we had a kind of Comptian positivistic
ideal of Margaret Mead’s butting up against Gregory
Bateson’s much more interesting engagement with
aesthetics. But it went nowhere. Another interesting
possibility might have been Maya Deren, who spent many
months between 1947 and 1951 in Haiti, but she lost
confidence in herself as an artist. She felt she would only
be manipulative of her subjects. There was no aesthetic
that was adequate to the authenticity of her experiences.
She became an adept of voodoo in Haiti, and she ended up
writing a book in 1961 called Divine Horsemen (Deren
1970) – a very conventional book that was nothing
exceptional by anthropological standards at the time. But,
it was in the fifties that visual anthropology came of age,
with Jean Rouch in France, with Robert Gardner and with
John Marshall in Boston, and with David and Judith
MacDougall, half a generation later, at UCLA and at Rice
and at Australia University.
We might on the face of it think that this is some kind of
utopian moment for visual anthropology to come of age,
or media anthropology; not the anthropology of the
media done by default through written expository prose,
but an anthropology that is conducted through media in
some sense, so that the media become part of the
signifier and not simply the signified. There is an
efflorescence of programmes, journals, festivals and
conferences. UCLA, Temple and Santa Fe are now joined
by New York University, Harvard, Manchester, Oxford,
Kent, Goldsmiths, Loughborough, University College
London (UCL), Kunming in China, Köln in Germany,
Tromsø in Norway and Dublin Institute of Technology
in Ireland. But this picture seems to be misleading. These
programmes have had very short half-lives in general.
They were often tied to one or two charismatic
individuals and insufficiently institutionalised within the
university. Honestly, and this speaks to my own
parochialism, I haven’t seen more than four or five
interesting works, media works to come out of Visual
Anthropology programmes, whereas I can think of
hundreds of works to have come out of film schools or
art programmes. There has been no passing of the baton.
There has been no generation that has succeeded them.
They are not all dead. Some of them are still practising
and practising really well, but it’s staggering that the
most interesting work that is self-identified as visual
anthropology is coming out of people who are in their
sixties or their seventies.
Jayasinhji Jhala: I think some of this might be tied to how
we reward visual anthropologists in programmes such as
visual anthropology, where the visual text and many
forms of visual texts or expressions do not carry the same
weight, even in departments that celebrate and study the
visual. We are still a word-driven discipline. We
periodically have discussions of how this might be done.
But I think a more systematic approach is required. How
do you celebrate the contribution of people who are
engaged in this product?
BREAKOUT SESSION FOUR: FURTHER NOTES
ON BRIDGING METHODS OF THE ARTS AND
ANTHROPOLOGY
Oliver Gaycken, Lucien Taylor, Rebecca
Baron
Oliver Gaycken: I wonder if you followed up
on something that Lucien said in the first
session – this idea that anthropology has to
be reinvigorated by art and not by the
academy, if you wanted to expand on that
. . .
Lucien Taylor: I am not a theorist of film or
art, and my exposure to other people’s
work is quite limited. There is an Albanian
artist, Anri Sala, who is interesting. Sharon
Lockhart is somebody who has worked in
Japan and Brazil and Mexico and has just
released a new work called Pine Flats set in
the Sierras that is quite remarkable; Steve
McQueen, David Hammons . . . all these
artists are engaging with reality with a
certain kind of reinvigoration of cinéma
vérité in ways that are incredibly interesting;
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it is infecting their work and that is receiving
recognition within the art world. It is often
said that vérité makes up in immediacy and
authenticity what it lacks in aesthetics – but
here we have people whose artistic vision is
very compelling, very controlled, very
pronounced, and also very interested in
that reality and in that degree of excess.
Rebecca Baron: Criteria are really different
in different contexts. In the discipline of
anthropology, I would be surprised that
Sharon Lockhart’s work would be
considered ethnography. She engages in
issues of ethnography, but the work is
directed. People are told what they can
and cannot do. This is not visible in the work,
so it appears as though this is people’s
natural behaviour, but in fact she is limiting
what they are allowed to do, which is
crucial to the work. She produces very
precise, beautiful, formal pieces that have
an investment in looking at other cultures,
but she is the director of their behaviour to
a large extent. It is very interesting, but I
would find it hard to believe that it would
be acceptable as ethnography.
Lucien Taylor: Goshogaoka, one of her
earlier films about a high school girls’
basketball practice in Japan, is an
extraordinary work. It was all
choreographed by her and a
choreographer, but she spent six months or
nine months there with an internship, going
to that gymnasium every day, so she mimics
these methodologies like participant
observation to the extent that she was able
to on her budget. In Teatro Amazonas, she
went to every neighbourhood in this town in
Brazil and had a demographically
representative audience that constituted a
sociological survey of this town.
Rebecca Baron: But she also told them
things they weren’t allowed to do while
listening to this very difficult musical
piece. They are not allowed to applaud.
They are not allowed to speak, they are
not allowed to get up – so it almost
doesn’t matter who is sitting there if they
are being directed.
NOTES
[1] Thanks to Anabelle Rodriguez, Daniela Gutierrez and
Alanna Miller for their assistance with transcriptions,
research and review.
[2] Jennings’ co-founders were poet and sociologist Charles
Madge and self-taught anthropologist and polymath
Tom Harrisson. The M-O archive is housed at the
University of Sussex. A brief history and further
information can be found online at http://
www.massobs.org.uk/index.htm.
[3] See Mass Observation 1943. M-O published numerous
other publications, details of which can be found on the
M-O archive website.
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Panel Participants: Phillip Alperson (moderator),
Kelly Askew, Rebecca Baron, Michel Brault, Kathy Brew,
Roderick Coover, Jayasinhji Jhala, Paul Stoller, Lucien
Taylor
Roundtable Participants: Warren Bass, Noël Carroll,
Fabienne Darling-Wolf, Sarah Drury, Suzanne Gauch,
Oliver Gaycken, Gordon Gray, Thomas Jacobson, Priya
Joshi, Jeff Rush, Concetta Stewart, Charles Weitz,
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon
Downloaded By: [Temple University] At: 00:39 5 March 2010
... Other scholars, frustrated with the perceived limitations of linear texts, found opportunities in multimodal digital representation. Scholars across various disciplines showed how digital platforms, like other mimetic media, could help ethnographers approximate complex, sensory social worlds (Coover, 2009;Marion and Offen, 2009;Pink, 2015;Underberg and Zorn, 2013;Underberg-Goode, 2016). Like ethnographic film, multimodal digital ethnography can be leveraged to create "spaces analogous to those we experience in everyday life, as we sample visual and other sensory information" (Marks in Pink, 2015: 140). ...
... The American Sociological Association (ASA) for example, has hosted several digital media workshops, and, in 2017, unveiled a strategic public engagement plan that relies primarily on the use of digital media tools to increase the public reach and relevance of sociological research (American Sociological Association, 2017). 2. The exception to this is, of course, ethnographic film (see Coover, 2009 andPink, 2006). 3. The repertoire of digital tools and features we discuss is not exhaustive. ...
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Book
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