Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology

New publication!

Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology came out today in the European Journal of Archaeology. The article comes from our session at EAA 2018, Human, Posthuman, Transhuman Digital Archaeologies, and is part of a dedicated volume. I’ll write another blog post when the volume is completely published, but contributions from William Caraher, Ruth Tringham, and Katherine Cook are up on FirstView.

The article examines posthuman theory to understand how we use digital tools to interpret archaeology. I use the concepts of avatars, monsters, and machines to argue that digital archaeology should go beyond traditional representation to challenge and change interpretation and to transgress boundaries between “real” and “digital.” I made a horribly confusing diagram to try to explain the interstitial space where present and past people commingle. I coin a neologism that will probably relegate me to some hall of shame. The whole thing makes me want to hide a little, but it brings a lot of theory into conversation with digital archaeology, so might be useful for the bibliography at least.

Title: Avatars, Monsters, and Machines: A Cyborg Archaeology

Abstract:

As digital practice in archaeology becomes pervasive and increasingly invisible, I argue that there is a deep creative potential in practising a cyborg archaeology. A cyborg archaeology draws from feminist posthumanism to transgress bounded constructions of past people as well as our current selves. By using embodied technologies to disturb archaeological interpretations, we can push the use of digital media in archaeology beyond traditional, skeuomorphic reproductions of previous methods to highlight ruptures in thought and practice. I develop this argument through investigating the avatars, machines, and monsters in current digital archaeological research. These concepts are productively liminal: avatars, machines, and monsters blur boundaries between humans and non-humans, the past and the present, and suggest productive approaches to future research.

If you don’t have access, here are the pre-proofs.

15 Questions with an Archaeologist

Joshua Guerrero (York Master’s alum!) was kind enough to ask me to appear on his podcast, 15 Questions with an Archaeologist. The episode is out and he asked me questions such as:

If money were no object what type of archaeology would you do?

Please tell us about some of the most interesting sites you have ever worked on.

How do you feel about Indiana Jones?

To hear what I answered, check it out:

http://15questionswithanarcheologist.libsyn.com/dr-colleen-morgan-15-questions-with-an-archeologist

Anarchist Feminist Posthuman Archaeology – CAA 2019

I was grateful to be invited to the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA 2019) conference in Kraków, Poland this year. I participated in the Our Knowledge is all over the place! roundtable organized by Paul Reilly, Stephen Stead and John Pouncett. We had one slide and five minutes in which to discuss a bespoke “knowledge map” that captured our collective disciplinary knowledge.

I’m still digesting the discussion afterwards and my fellow panelists’ perspectives. I was pretty nervous ahead of time as I had basically made a very personal knowledge map about how I framed my own practice and it felt very revealing. I drew heavily from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and carla bergman and Nick Montgomery’s Joyful Militancy, which have been profoundly impactful in my current practice. I’ve had the kernels of these ideas for a while (see my graduation commencement speech) but the books have given me some of the language and tools to precisely address and actualize this thinking. Empire. Paranoid Reading. Alternatives, not multivocality.

I was also very happy to hear from my fellow panelists: Paul Reilly, Pricilla Ulguim, Tuna Kalayci, Katherie Cook, Lorna Richardson, Daria Hookk (et al), John Pouncett, In-Hwa Choi and Natalia Botica (et al). We all had very different takes on the concept of knowledge maps and it was illuminating to hear from everyone.

I made a loose script, which I loosely adhered to for my five minutes–if you are interested, find it below.

Continue reading “Anarchist Feminist Posthuman Archaeology – CAA 2019”

Archaeology, Westworld, and Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that people form with other people (or animals, or things) who are unaware of the other’s existence. It was coined by psychologists Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe “intimacy at a distance”–the emotions and investment that members of an audience feel in mediated encounters with actors, particularly on TV. I began thinking about parasocial relationships with people in the past; could our interpretive media create such a strong response as to evoke this sense of intimacy? Would a truly engaged public look like fan culture?

Let’s play this out a little bit. Would a true marker of the impact (ugh, I’m beginning to hate that word) of our research be if someone wrote fanfiction about the site, artifact, human remains featured? Should we be applying for funding to host an Archaeo-con, where people cosplay as their favorite beaker person? Or are archaeologists themselves the actual fans, forming parasocial relationships with their particular time period, region, material focus? Are we the ones writing fanfiction about the past? And if so, isn’t that freeing?

Yet a parasocial relationship implies that there is a barrier between the fan and the object of adoration. In archaeology that barrier would be time depth, our focus fuzzy from our various interpretive lenses. But I wonder if parasocial relationships have changed with digital media–harassing your favorite actor is just a tweet away. I’ve previously argued that archaeological interpretation and mediation creates an interstitial space, being “telepresent“–not in the past, fully, but also not quite fully in the present. This can be with any media, but I find it can be particularly affective with digital interpretations. Arguably, the feeling of telepresence and accessibility to the past through an interstitial space might be ascribed to a changing media metaphor–instead of TV we have VR.

In 2018, HBO promoted the second season of Westworld with the Westworld Experience. Westworld plays with tropes of human/android/cyborg experience and so it was fitting that for the Westworld Experience, they hired actors to play androids programmed to think they were humans. And other humans came to interact with the actors and treated them as…less than human. But the experience the Westworld Experience actors had themselves as fully immersed within this world recalled the experience of living history practitioners as described by Handler and Saxton in their article on Dyssimulation. Perhaps the past feels more authentic because there is a more coherent narrative (in retrospect) than our mundane, disjointed lives exhibit. A story feels more true.

So, as archaeological/heritage interpreters, do we aim for a more coherent story that feels true, to fully immerse other people, to omit breaks of presence, or do we dive straight into the dissonance and make interpretations that highlight the disjunctures in interpretation, but may be ultimately self-serving? Are the parasocial relationships we form with those cunningly inaccessible people in the past more compelling because they don’t have the temerity to talk back? …yet?

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Happy publication day! Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis has been published by the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. It’s a collaboration between Daniel Eddisford and I and reflects long conversations we’ve had while working (and living and raising a child) together. It takes archaeological site management, something that is always conceived of as rigidly hierarchical, and tries to reimagine it through more egalitarian means. Conveniently, we found that single context methodology actually lends itself well to a flat management structure. Sadly we also found that recent erosion of autonomy and craftspersonship in archaeological fieldwork has contributed to the neoliberalization of the profession.

If you are one of those Mortimer Wheeler military campaign-types, this is probably not for you, but it has a snip from a big old-school Harris Matrix made out of political leaflets and some Çatalhöyük gossip, so it might be worth a look.

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Also available HERE as an uncorrected proof.

The Invisibility of Hi-viz

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Urban archaeology with the Origins of Doha Project

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people protested in France, demanding that French President Emmanuel Macron resign over increased fuel taxes. These protests have become increasingly violent and draw from anarchist and extremist far right factions, all aligned in working class struggle. The banner that these disparate groups have used to signal their solidarity is the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vest,” a ubiquitous piece of clothing worn by those in construction and industrial labor. Also known as high-vis or hi-viz these vests are part of what is called “PPE,” personal protective equipment and is mandated in jobs that deal with heavy machinery and protect the user against hazardous working conditions. In France, it is mandated that drivers carry one in their vehicle.

Wikipedia states that Scottish railway workers in the 1960s were the first to wear “fluorescent orange jackets, known as ‘fire-flies’” to keep them safe. Since then, motorcyclists, cyclists, cops, hunters, even chickens wear the reflective vests to direct attention to their presence. Which is ironic, as I’ve often noticed an increased invisibility as a result of wearing hi-viz. (Though this invisibility can help, as previously mentioned, with a bit of productive urban exploration.)

That the protestors are wearing hi-viz is no accident. This uniform codes the wearer as working class, and hides and homogenizes identity. As Elaine Glaser notes, politicians often don hard hats and hi-viz while simultaneously eroding workers rights, but the contrast between the expensive wool jackets of Macron and his colleagues is stark when compared to the black and yellow worn by the protestors. As an archaeologist, I wear hi-viz while working on construction sites that have active, heavy machinery present. Yet this measure of safety while on construction sites can also contribute to a surprising invisibility while wearing hi-viz on the street. I have never felt so reviled as when walking through the City of London, amongst businessmen in suits, as when I was in hi-viz, carrying a hard hat and walking in steel-toed boots covered in Victorian excrement. Okay, being a punk in Texas might have occasionally come close.

The protests in France continue. The #giletsjaunes have published their list of demands and have been joined by students and ambulance drivers, amongst others. The list is a mixed bag with a bit of racism thrown in for good measure. The protests stay in France, but perhaps people in hi-viz will be a bit more visible in the future.

Update: I’ve been told that they’ve moved beyond France, so look for a hi-viz jacket in a locality near you.

Teaching They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s collaborative documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old was released for the centennial anniversary for the end of WWI. Using archival footage from the Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his legion of effects wizards stitched together a 99 minute long take on soldiers’ experience of the front in color, filling in frames to smooth out motion and adding a voice-over that was drawn from oral histories. Happily, miraculous restoration of archival footage was released the week before my “digital futures” lectures in Communicating Archaeology (second year undergrad) and Analysis and Visualisation (Master’s module). I switched up the syllabus (don’t tell teaching committee) and added the documentary.

The purpose of assigning the documentary was to incite discussion around three major points:

  • The creation of narratives with archival materials–whose story is being told and for whom? Who is being omitted and why? How is this similar to the ways we tell stories using archaeological remains?
  • What can we do with digital technologies to tell stories about the past and are these effective? Should we just leave it to the professionals, ie forming collaborations with Peter Jackson instead of trying to do it ourselves?
  • What are our responsibilities to the people that we are digitally resurrecting? As these technologies become more accessible, it is easier to use dead people in ways they have not imagined or authorized.

The students were up to the challenge, and we also discussed the “Wizard of Oz” moment when the soldiers arrive at the front and suddenly transform from ragged, black and white figures from the distant past to full-color, real people with faces and names. Archaeologists are familiar with this feeling of the past becoming more real to us through our multiple encounters with traces of the past, and Peter Jackson was able to bring that feeling to general audiences.

To accompany this discussion I also played this “making of” video:

The video shows the painstaking process involved in colorizing the footage, and the creation of the sound effects–my postgraduate students, deeply involved in creating multimedia interpretations of the past for their assessment, groaned in recognition. Peter Jackson’s description of retiming the footage, of the excitement of the filmmaker in the field as they cranked their camera and the unscientific way that they had to translate this irregularity was an excellent lesson on learning how to look for embedded meaning in media archives. Finally, will Jackson’s “restoration” of this film be seen as a new archival standard, sought after to meet our HD standards for the visual record?

They Shall Not Grow Old was not uncontroversial; this excellent discussion from Historian Alice Kelly highlights the film’s use of the propaganda magazine The War Illustrated to illustrate battle scenes. Kelly also rejects the word “documentary” for the description of this film, which I found a bit curious. From my experience in making interpretive media about the past, I wondered what her threshold was for authenticity in these narratives–was Ken Burns okay, even though his “animation” of still photography, (now a staple of documentary filmmaking) instills these photographs with a sense of urgency and life? If you let me film you for an hour or so, I could probably recut it to make you look incredible or despicable just through editing,  not to mention using cutting edge technology:

They Shall Not Grow Old was timely and good to teach with and it was nice to be able to take advantage of very current popular media to discuss the use of technology to make interpretive media.