Changing Archaeological Conferences 2/2

Photo by Connor Rowe.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I took part in Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography session on Saturday. Sadly it overlapped with my graffiti session, so I missed the bulk of the presentations. The gallery space was great though, and the session was archaeologists/photographers presenting their work while the small crowd followed around the room.

Ruth Tringham, presenting her photos at TAG2011. Photo by Allison Barden.

The format was very informal, with many of the presenters speaking extemporaneously. It was much more of a conversation than a critique, which was probably for the best. Most of the photos were not obviously archaeological, with scales or excavators working, but were more phenomenological. After typing a lot of words on this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that archaeological photos need to do something archaeological. A pretty good rule of thumb: I have to be able to use something in the photograph to reconstruct (either verbally or virtually) the archaeological site.

Me, photo by Allison Barden.

I did something a little different with my photographs. As I’ve previously discussed, I put them into an album and set them up with a small, salvaged table and a lamp. I wanted to bring the viewer in, to have them engage with the physicality of the photographs in the album, in part to highlight the analog/digital disruption that was the primary theme of my work. I spoke about my creative process and got a few good questions from the gathered crowd. Adrian Praetzellis was particularly touched that I left one of the photos of the young family in the album, captioned appropriately. I’ll post a more in-depth discussion of the actual piece in a subsequent post.

Everyone that I heard from in the photo show really enjoyed it. Heather seems eager to do it again, and it would be nice to bring it outside of TAG to a larger audience.

The lessons from this session were more subtle – on the surface it could be compared to presenting a poster in a more structured setting. What distinguishes a photo session is the curatorial process of selecting, captioning, printing, and arranging photographs and the accompanying friction between artistic voice and archaeological vision. I also appreciated the directed discussion and greater interaction between presenter and audience.

USA TAG is in SUNY Buffalo next year and I hope to see more experimentation in the classic “conference” format.

Changing Archaeological Conferences 1/2

Deadeyes and Safety First, painting. Photo by Connor Rowe.

The Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting at UC Berkeley this past weekend assured that I would be screamingly busy. I was an organizer of the conference, participated in a photo session (which I will discuss in a subsequent post), read my friend Shanti’s paper, and organized a session on Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary.

The session faced issues from the start–a lot of people sent abstracts but ended up canceling, I was so busy with the Blogging and Archaeology session at the SAA that I neglected some finer points of organization, and I almost canceled the whole thing more than once. It was good that I didn’t.

There were four fantastic papers presented by people from four different places–England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. The papers were diverse in their content, but all grappled with the place of graffiti in archaeological research and in wider cultural heritage. The international scope of the research was impressive and the authors of the papers were obviously intensely engaged in the interpretation of graffiti. A traditional discussion session after the papers would have been lively, fun, and satisfying–you can tell by the abstracts that we were doing something right. But we did something different.

Two members of the Black Diamonds Shining Collective, Deadeyes and Safety First came up from Oakland to conduct a live painting session and discussion of the papers. I had given them the choice, they could just talk or just paint or do a mixture of both. The session was a bit chaotic and ran over time, but at the end of the last presentation, we cleared a big space in front and brought in the large, prepared scrap of wood that I salvaged from Berkeley’s art practice department (thanks, Nick!).

Deadeyes and Safety First started painting and the room was absolutely silent. Multinationalism aside, everyone in the room was academic & white, while the graffiti artists were black. Were they just performing? Was it a strange, silent, live, Othering-event? Afterwards, several people confessed their enormous discomfort at this intense scopophilic moment. The presumed silence of our research subject was made real, highlighting the epistemic injustice that underlies academic research.

Deadeyes and Safety First. Their faces have been intentionally omitted. Photo by Connor Rowe.

Deadeyes capped his pen, stood up and turned around. He spoke, outlining his decade-long interest in and documentation of Oakland graffiti art and the intensely personal and political nature of graffiti, emphasizing the sociality in their chosen form of expression.  Suddenly, the focus of the room shifted, and these academic archaeologists had the creator of their studied object pushing back, correcting assumptions, and throwing into question the entire enterprise. Safety First chimed in at times while still working on the painting.

I came away from the session humbled but also re-energized. This, to me, more than studying the ruins of theme parks or dismantling vans, was the archaeology of the contemporary. Having graffiti artists live-paint their reaction to the papers was dangerous–I actually had no idea how dangerous until I was in the room, watching the collision of these spheres. It was endangering our precious research, our preferred notions of how material culture was made, and how conferences should be run.

I still haven’t fully digested the whole experience, and I’ll be following up with the individual session participants and discussants. Changing archaeological conferences is hard, and risky, and most people resist, probably with good reason. That’s why we still sit in rooms, reading page after page, flicking through powerpoints. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I was deeply relieved to read a paper in such a session the very next day.

Tomorrow I’ll write about another risky and rewarding session I was in, Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography.

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?

(This post is also hosted at Then Dig, an archaeology group blog that will premiere in June)

The Other Photography – Getting Ready

I’ve been working on my photography exhibit for Heather Law’s session at TAG 2011, Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography off and on for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say, it’s a lot more rewarding than writing a conference paper. But, like a conference paper, it hasn’t gone exactly as expected when I wrote the abstract back in December. At that time I thought I’d be digging in Qatar, whereas I mostly conducted a large, lonely survey.

The photographs are a mix of shots taken with the Hipstamatic application for iPhone and cell phone photos that were edited entirely within the phone, usually with Plastic Bullet or Best Camera. I have the Hipstamatic photos already–they’re speedy, cheap and they look fantastic. I ordered the other photos from a local photo lab that has printed photos for me in the past.

Keeping with the theme of my presentation – Nostalgic, Personal, Neglected –  I was going to use vintage cardboard photo studio portrait frames. Sadly, the photos didn’t fit all that well inside of them and I think they would have been awkward to display anyway. So I decided to use a vintage photo album. I particularly liked the look and aesthetic that came with the 70s sticky-film albums and I found an appropriately destroyed example in a local reuse center, Urban Ore.

There were some photos in the album already–a young couple and their baby in 1975 & 76. It felt a little strange to remove them from the pages to replace them with my arty archaeology photos. A little strange, and a little cynical. In the very back pocket of the album I found a little sheet with gold foil letters so I was able to title the photo album, which pleased me.

Overall, I think presenting the photos in this way is more meaningful than hanging the photos on the wall. Personal photos in archaeology are often sidelined, stashed away, not part of the archive–lost and only occasionally recovered and treasured. How many people will bother to pick up the book and peruse? I’m not sure.

I’m pretty happy with the result and will have more photos of the final product after the show.