INELIGIBLE Exhibition: Shoe

Last February Doug Bailey emailed me (and many others) to see if we’d participate in a unique experiment: he would mail us artifacts from the excavations that preceded the recent construction of San Francisco’s Trans Bay Transit Center that were deemed unworthy of archival. His prompt:

In accepting the invitation, you commit to repurpose (disassemble, take apart, grind up) the artefacts that you receive so that they become the raw materials with which you will make creative work. There are no other limitations, instructions, or guidelines, beyond the suggestion that the work you make should engage contemporary social or political issues and debates. Engagement may relate to San Francisco and its current energies (e.g., the tech revolution, disenfranchisement, home/houselessness). Engagement may flow from your personal reaction to your assemblage of artefacts, or to your own personal, professional, or local political experiences, desires, and frustrations.

A few months later, I received a box with some disintegrating leather inside. I put it on my desk and thought about it for a while. I’ve been teaching filmmaking to Master’s students for a couple of years now, but most of my time behind a camera has been spent making promotional videos for York in my publicity administrative role. I really wanted to engage creatively with film again and this was the perfect chance.

The Ineligible prompt also included the line:

Ineligible urges contributors not to think of the material as archaeological, as artefactual, or as historic.

Well, damn. So over the summer I put the shoe in peoples’ hands and filmed it. Though these people happen to be archaeologists, I think I was able to draw out different encounters with materiality, beauty, and our association/disassociation with the lives of our objects. To be honest, I think I failed in that part of the prompt, but these are the stories we wanted to tell.

I was prompted to write an artist statement, and I wrote this clumsy thing:

As an anarchist, a mother, an archaeologist, I’m deeply concerned with making kin through the investigation and care of objects, places, and people. Finding a politics of joy and intimacy, and building things together as a way to resist Empire. In this short film I gave an alienated object, a child’s shoe, to my kin, the caretakers of the discarded to understand and reanimate this object, even as it disintegrated in our hands.

I was delighted when it was selected to be shown at the Ineligible exhibition curated by Doug Bailey and Sara Navarro at the International Museum of Contemporary Sculpture in Santo Tirso, Portugal. The exhibition opens March 6, 2020.

 

Archaeology and Capitalist Realism

This is a speech I gave at a Teach-Out during the 2019 University and College Union (UCU) UK Industrial Action. We were on strike for pensions, better pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads. We regularly hold teach-outs to provide liberatory space for teaching and discussion and the subject of this teach-out was Neoliberalism, Marketization and Education. Forgive some of the miscellaneous citation, I was away from my books. 

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism begins by quoting Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek:

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Capitalist realism is “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher 2009, 2). It creates the illusion that change is impossible. It coopts any subversion and and sells it back to us. The product is you.

It is certainly easy for archaeologists to imagine the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic fabulism is not just limited to popular media and books, but also fuels our archaeological teaching and interpretation. We tell stories about death, destruction, and collapse as we sift through what is left behind. Garbology and Pompeii scenarios can help us think about durability of material culture and the stories we tell with what evidence remains.

So too it is relatively easy for archaeologists to identify Empire. Empire is the name that Bergman and Montgomery (2017, amongst others) give to the organized destruction under which we live. It is the “interlocking systems of settler colonialism, white supremacy, the state, capitalism, ableism, ageism and heteropatriarchy” (Bergman and Montgomery 2017). The commodification and monetization of…everything. The constant anxiety and depression. The ways that we measure and are measured that are destructive to learning and conviviality and that remove meaningful contributions and creativity in favor of fulfilling yet another Personal Learning Outcome, adding to your CV, conforming to grade descriptors. This manifests probably most profoundly in the horrendous mental health crisis amongst students AND educators. Are we all deeply, individually, broken, unable to cope, in need of mindfulness, “resilience training” and yoga?

Fisher cites Oliver James’ work that identifies a correlation between “rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism” (Fisher 2009, 23). The reaction to this has been what Fisher calls the “privatization of stress”—if these are all caused only by individual problems, neurology, family background, “any question of social systemic causation is ruled out” (Fisher 2009, 23). You must suffer individually, be diagnosed individually, be treated individually, submit your Student Support Plan on time and to our exact specification instead of coming together to FIGHT the thing that is making you ill. The fact that so many of our students and my colleagues suffer from poor mental health makes me sad, frustrated and monumentally ANGRY. This is the work of Empire. (With the caveat that regardless of structural causes of poor mental health, you should get help early and often)

The reason I get so angry about the organized destruction that Empire enacts upon ourselves and our communities is that we (archaeologists) have the distinctive expertise to break capitalist realism, and we don’t always seem to know to mobilize this expertise.

Three points:

1. Contemporary archaeology has been scrutinizing the links between material culture and structural violence since its inception. Rathje’s garbology showed us that all of the trash that we are putting into landfills is not rotting safely into the ground. He famously found “perfectly preserved 40-year-old hot dogs,” and a 25-year old head of lettuce. Buchli and Lucas’ (2001, ethically dubious) examination of a recently abandoned council house showed the violence of the privatisation of council housing during the Thatcher years and its potential impact on women who were the victims of domestic violence. Rachael Kiddey’s work on homelessness and more recently on migration is also relevant to this discussion. This is no surprise to this audience, but we can meaningfully use archaeological methods on contemporary assemblages to critique social and political structures.

2. We must use the creative, generative, collective forces within archaeological methods to engage in what anarchists call prefigurative politics, making small-scale versions of the societies we want to live, love and work in. Daniel Eddisford and I have identified significant instances of prefigurative politics within existing archaeological practice, both within the housing of archaeologists—how does your workspace change how you think about archaeology and how you interact with your colleagues? And, within commercial archaeological uses of single context methodology. In examining a large, extremely complex Harris Matrix from Billingsgate we found annotations in varied handwriting, with many changes, long lines of white correction fluid, and erasures.

These materialize the process of collective decision-making and interpretation through the inscription of stratigraphic relationships on paper. Individual archaeologists are able to meaningfully contribute to the site-wide narrative. The construction of a record of the stratigraphy of the site as a coherent whole is undertaken by archaeologists in conjunction with those working around them without the direct oversight of a manager. In this way archaeology can fostered a model with similarities to anarcho-syndicalism, wherein a small, non-hierarchical group works together towards a common goal, side-stepping more formalized authority. At its best, archaeology is non-alienated labor, making communities of practice instead of reproducing hierarchy.

3. People who are already fighting Empire need our help.

At the end of Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher (2009) states:

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

Bergman and Montgomery (2017) quote Silvia Federici in discussing the social amnesia imposed by Empire:

What most matters is discovering and recreating the collective memory of past struggles. In the US there is a systematic attempt to destroy this memory and now this is extending across the world, with the destruction of the main historical centers of the Middle East—a form of dispossession that has major consequences and yet is rarely discussed. Reviving the memory of the struggles of the past makes us feel part of something larger than our individual lives and in this way it gives a new meaning to what we are doing and gives us courage, because it makes us less afraid of what can happen to us individually.

Reviving the memory of struggles of the past, uncovering egalitarianism and forming critiques of social inequality is deeply important, and is the work of a small but growing cohort of archaeologists. Archaeology is the collective, deep chronological documentation of the capacity of humans to imagine different ways to live. As archaeologists we are the discoverers and keepers and storytellers of the different ways we have found to be human. Capitalist realism tells us there is only one way to be, only one way to imagine ourselves, while people trying to break free of Empire are begging for us to use our expertise to find different ways to be. The more we find out about the past, the more we find it to be a weird, wild, wonderful place. Our gift as archaeologists must be to tell stories of human resilience and diversity of experience to help people dream of alternatives to Empire.

That’s why it is so important that we come together to fight the deadening of this remit, the blunt forces of neoliberalization and marketization in education trying to subvert this gift into another avenue for capitalism.

Bergman, C., & Montgomery, N. (2017). Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. AK Press.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books.

Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory 2019: CHATmethod

I’ve got secret plans and clever tricks….

Sara Perry and I are running a workshop at the CHATmethod conference at MOLA on Friday, 1 November, 2019. We tend to have a ridiculous amount of fun (and trouble) when we team up, so I don’t expect this will be any different. Register here.

The workshop: A Contemporary Context? Recording Sheets for the Sublime and Ungrateful

Description:

The archaeological context sheet has been fashioned and refashioned extensively since its adoption. These context sheets are embedded within disciplinary lineages and reflect the questions and assumptions of archaeological knowledge making, both on the intimate and global scale. In this workshop we use the context sheet as a platform for reflection and play, with a particular intention to query its utility in recording contemporary archaeological contexts.

For this workshop we envision a hands-on, creative, trouble-making session, including constructive critique and display of our various takes on the contemporary context sheet. Join us to experiment with ruining and re/designing one of archaeologists’ most ubiquitous inscription devices.

I’m also going to be on a panel discussion that evening:

Methods for the 21st century hosted by London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE.

Chaired by Janet Miller, CEO of MOLA, with Colleen Morgan (York University), Laura Hampden (Museum Detox), Neil Redfern and Isabel Nolan (artist).

I’m really excited for both events, but slightly nervous about the panel discussion. I have been investigating (and now teaching) future-facing methods in archaeology for…a while now and I hope to speak to the creativity and diversity of the archaeologists, artists, and other phenoms who have inspired me over the years.

EJA Special Issue: Digital Archaeologies

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EJA cover, courtesy of David Osborne

I’m thrilled that our long labor of love, this special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology on Digital Archaeologies has finally been published. Several of the articles were available ahead of time online, but seeing it all together like this is extremely gratifying. Marta Díaz-Guardamino and I wrote an introduction to the issue, here is a brief excerpt:

Current archaeological thought evokes a sparking Catherine wheel: spinning fireworks that detonate light, colour, and sound with every movement. These theoretical turns swirl alongside the ongoing development and adoption of scientific and digital techniques that have wide-ranging implications for archaeological practices and interpretations. Two particularly combustible developments are posthumanism and the ontological turn, which emerged within the broader humanities and social sciences. Posthumanism rejects human exceptionalism and seeks to de-centre humans in archaeological discourse and practice. Linked to this is the so-called ‘ontological turn’ (aka the ‘material turn’), a shift away from framing archaeological research within a Western ontology and a movement beyond representationalism (i.e. focusing on things themselves rather than assuming that objects represent something else).

(…)

Collectively, these papers are a provocation to rethink normative practices in analog and digital archaeology before they become comfortably ossified. The papers describe play, experimentation, transgression, hope, and care as forming the basis of a posthuman archaeology and invite future researchers to engage with this work as a form of resistance. Queer, weird, monstrous, fun archaeology will never be as lauded or rewarded as mainstream digging and lab work; but it is vital to the creative lifeblood of the discipline. The sparking Catherine wheel will keep turning, inviting a new cycle of archaeological theorists to (re)imagine the complexities of archaeological interpretation. But perhaps we can stop spinning through these endless turns and start kindling revolutions instead.

The individual papers have already started to make an impact, particularly Sara Perry’s on The Enchantment of the Archaeological Record, (which she has discussed in far better terms that I could manage on her own blog) and many of the other contributions are deeply important comments on the current state of digital archaeology, and point toward productive futures in the field.

Ruth Tringham’s article, Giving Voices (Without Words) to Prehistoric People: Glimpses into an Archaeologist’s Imagination, on the emotive power of storytelling, the importance of ambiguity, and evoking the past through experimentation weaves past and present together through…a basket! (obviously!) Her presentation at the EAA was breathtaking and completely inspiring and I am happy to see it translated into this article. Like most of her work, it’s a decade ahead of its time and informed by her deep experience in digital storytelling.

Bill Caraher’s Slow Archaeology, Punk Archaeology, and the ‘Archaeology of Care’ is also a particular inspiration, as he’s been thinking about, working through, and publishing about the risks of alienation in digital work and response to this alienation through low-fi, DIY, and punk methods. I’ve obviously been a deeply interested and invested fan of Bill’s throughout the years and appreciate his approach to an Archaeology of Care. As he states:

The awareness that tools shape the organization of work, the limits to the local, and the place of the individual in our disciple is fundamental for the establishment of an ‘archaeology of care’ that recognizes the human consequences of our technology, our methods, and the pasts that they create.

Annie Danis’ Augmented, Hyper-mediated, IRL is an incredibly engaging exploration of  how the indigenous teenagers of Pueblo de Abiquiú used digital technology during the community archaeology project but also in their personal lives. She provides an example of how collaborative work could and should be, but also the fantastic insight that the time saved by paperless digital recording in archaeology can be productively used to build community. In this case, it was a zine that:

represents a significant part of archaeological research by framing the methods for data collection within the interns’ personal experiences and providing an opportunity for young Abiquiúseños to tell the story in their own words.

Katherine Cook’s EmboDIYing Disruption: Queer, Feminist and Inclusive Digital Archaeologies reviews her engagement with digital projects and the professional risks of this engagement and examines problematic power relationships within the field. She discusses disruption and support networks established to help combat “the privileging of (Eurocentric) archaeological discourse, research, and interpretations.” Mobilizing what Cook terms Disruptive Digital Archaeologies “to defy, to confront, to derail, to remix, to subvert” is a clear call for change in the way that archaeologists use digital technologies.

I’ve discussed my contribution, Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology previously on this blog, but it remains an initial offering in the ways to understand the place and potential of digital practice for informing theory and knowledge production in archaeology. You know, no big.

Please read, download, immerse yourself in this series of papers as I believe they collect some of the finest current thinking in digital archaeology.

Archaeology in 360 video

Ahh, 360! I’ve been wanting to play around with using 360 video in archaeology since seeing this video of the Hajj in 360–something that I will never be able to experience:

I also use this excellent example from the Crossrail Excavations for teaching and I love pointing out the various “actors” in the scene, the manager, the person recording, all these people standing over the two archaeologists digging up a plague pit:

Great use of diegetic sound, placement of camera, but the “actors” are oddly silent, as though waiting for the pesky camera to turn off before getting back into the ever-present trench chat. Maybe Crossrail thought it would be disrespectful to have discussion intrude into the excavation of a plague pit.

360 video would generally fall into what I’d call the phenomenological genre of archaeological filmmaking, granting the viewer the gaze of an archaeologist. The ability to pan around the scene provides a small modicum of agency to the viewer, a sense of being there in a way that eludes still photography and fixed-frame videography. There’s also the matter of surveillance and the panopticon (mentioned in the article above), so beware of abuse, obviously.

As the guest of the Elizabeth Castle Project in Jersey I took advantage of being there by trying out the 360 video camera (Insta360 One X) we have in the department. I knew there would be a learning curve, but it was great fun trying to figure out a new workflow, how to presence the archaeology, where to put the camera.

I was not very successful, particularly compared to the Crossrail video but I’ve learned a lot for the next go-round.

  • Put the 360 right in the middle of the trench. If it’s not in danger of being knocked down, it’s just not that interesting.
  • Get the remote bluetooth control working on your phone sooner rather than later. I have a lot of footage of me standing around looking like a jerk, staring at the 360 camera.
  • The file sizes are pretty huge so pushing them around while on fieldwork can be tricky. I had to wait to return to mess around with them much.
  • The editing software from the developers is pretty rubbish compared to FCP or Premiere. You can export your footage from this software into a file format that works with either of the above…but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it.
  • Make sure, when you start the video, you want it to be facing the way you’d like to open the scene. Something more interesting than you staring down at it.

I’d like to be able to fit it in with still footage, add audio tracks, and just generally mess around with it a bit more, but for now, it’s a fantastic piece of kit for fieldwork. I’m also intrigued by composing the story of an archaeological excavation with a 360 camera. Would you narrate to the camera? Compose the shots to draw the eye to various elements within the scene? Have various archaeologist-“actors” yelling out for attention? Can someone buy me out for a year or two so I can play around with this damn thing??

The outtakes are pretty fabulously weird as well. I love that the device makes itself invisible…that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

Archaeological Fieldwork with Children: Update

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It helps to have excavation directors who are intimately familiar with all of the My Little Pony names.

I’ve spent the last three days on Jersey, as the guest of the fantastic Elizabeth Castle Project. I am working with a separate(ish) small research team on a digital drawing project, details of which will be revealed at a future date. I’ve been excited about this project as it follows on from me and Holly Wright’s Pencils & Pixels article that examines digital and analog drawing and it fits well within my larger career goal: doing cool research with good friends.

Anyway, I was interviewed by the excellent Emily Sohn writing for Nature on Ways to juggle fieldwork with kids in tow a while back and the article came out more recently. I went to Qatar twice with T at 8 and 20 months and most of the experience I had was about towing a baby around. Now at 3 years (!!) T is officially a preschooler (shock, horror) and things are way different in pretty much all respects.

I’m not on the Elizabeth Castle Project team but part of another, adjacent project and so I have a lot of agency–my results do not inform the main ECP project goals. Other factors: Jersey is closer to York, culturally very similar to England, T is very independent, we are in a hotel, and…I’m single parenting. Dan is in Leiden, running the Seminar for Arabian Studies and very busy in his own right.

It has been pretty full on, but, similar to last time, I have a lot of help and have been given a lot of slack. The directors of the ECP have been great about having T around, the project itself is basically in a park, and my research team have been super supportive, walking at preschooler pace, okay with waiting through melt-downs, helping me out with the tremendous amount of luggage (apparently bringing an assortment of stuffed animals to site is non-negotiable) and watching her for brief periods of time when I’ve had to scamper off to take photos and such. T has also been taking long afternoon naps, during which I try to be useful.

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Shelters: essential kit for kids (and adults!) on site

I can’t imagine giving advice on this stuff, as I know many, many more people who have carted their kids around much more successfully, but…snacks and cartoons have gotten us pretty far. I am very lucky and very privileged to be in a position where I have a lot of control over what is required for this research and our schedule. Sometimes we need to go and check out flowers. Or climb to the top of the castle. Or play in the backdirt. Right now T is watching cartoons and eating a bell pepper (her choice) while I type this out in a spare moment.

T’s afternoon nap means we will be able to attend a team dinner. There are other things that we are very limited in–that’s mostly socializing and extracurriculars. Which is, honestly, fine. Getting T around, living out of a hotel and engaging in a research project is…enough. I guess as a parent and as an academic I’m starting to understand my carrying capacity and this is it. It’s good though.

 

6 Reasons I Quit Social Media (and why I’m sort-of back on it)

A couple of months ago I had enough. Social media was driving me crazy. I have long term personal accounts that I’ve maintained for ages, archaeology project accounts, and now as my admin job for my current job I manage the Departmental social media. I probably owe a lot to social media for visibility of my research profile, but I was sick of it and needed a break. Some issues had come up in the Departmental social media and I found it overwhelming to manage these in addition to the heaps of teaching, research, and other administrative tasks that are part of my job. So I killed off my Twitter and Facebook profiles for the following reasons:

  • Social media was giving me a lot of anxiety and it made me really angry. And that’s what it’s designed to do.
  • It encourages passivity–it’s enough to rail against this or that, feel better, then cease any kind of drive to change at just that. So I posted an angry tweet. So what?
  • It took up too much brain space. I found myself thinking in 280-character fragments. I was annoyed at what people said and annoyed at having to talk myself down from responding. I became increasingly mute on social media, though I thought a lot about it. I missed blogging, I missed reading, I missed creativity and quiet.
  • I was tired of performing–performing research, performing teaching, performing activism. What’s more is I was tired of other people doing this.
  • Outrage theatre is richly rewarded. Want to get lots of likes? Be angry about something, post something snarky, perform your virtue. I found it exhausting. Combined with the point above, it led to the point below.
  • It made me dislike people I mostly agree with. They were too whiny or attention-seeking or posted about their pet too much. Honestly, if any of these things bothered me, it wasn’t their problem, it was me needing to get offline. So I did. We need to build allies, not engage in call-outs.

It was mostly Twitter that was the problem, I hadn’t done much with Facebook for a long time. And quitting…was amazing. Freeing. It took a couple of weeks to stop automatically punching in the urls. I enjoyed sitting in incredible lectures and not sharing them. I enjoyed not feeling like I had to converse with or impress anyone. I shut down and it was really incredible. During the CAA in Krakow I felt like I had earmuffs on, totally oblivious to backchat. Marvelous.

But I’m back, in a limited fashion. I’ve kept Facebook dead (though I realized the other day I need to check in on a few groups I maintain, uh-oh) but I re-activated Twitter. It’s annoying actually, you have to re-activate monthly anyway so you don’t lose your account. I might have just let it go, but I realized that there’s pretty much no other way to link to your blog, update people with publications, that sort of tedious stuff. But after my break, I feel like I’ve broken the back of it. I login when I have something to post, then logout again. I don’t check it, except for the Departmental accounts.

It makes me wonder, though, how I’ll teach social media for outreach. I’m already been a bit wary, wondering Is it ethical to use social media for teaching archaeology? Is bad practice in social media good practice in self-preservation?

When I worked in the Computer Science department at the University of Texas I was always surprised that Edsger Dijkstra didn’t have a computer in his office. In fact, he didn’t have one at all. One of the fathers of Computer Science, didn’t have a computer. He didn’t want actual computer to limit his imagination about what a computer might be able to do. Would that I had the brain of Dijkstra, but something is damned compelling about that.