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?

NEW PUBLICATION: Animated GIFs as Expressive Visual Narratives and Expository Devices in Archaeology

I’ve been intrigued by the narrative potential of GIFs for archaeological explanation and outreach for a while; in 2011 I played on Mitchell’s famous article on photography in asking, What do GIFs want? My early attempts were pretty much just short videos, but I developed them into a small publication in 2012 for a graduate journal called The Unfamiliar, wherein I explored archaeological illustration conventions, particularly the Uncertain Edge. I left them alone for a while, even though I explored their utility within my dissertation as polyvalent media/digital readymades in my dissertation.

Since that time GIFs have grown ever more popular, and are still mostly ignored within archaeology. As such, I’m very happy to announce a new publication: Animated GIFs as Expressive Visual Narratives and Expository Devices in Archaeology. 

Abstract:

Animated GIFs are uncommonly well suited for representing archaeology. A shudder-start, temporally ambiguous fragment of sequential media, the animated GIF (just GIFs, hereafter) occupies the margins of formal discourse, visually annotating everyday life on the Internet. The creation of a GIF – compiling frames of action into a sequence – draws an easy parallel with the mode of atomizing that characterises excavation, treating archaeological deposits as discrete entities and their subsequent reassembly into a stratigraphic sequence (Morgan 2012; Morgan and Wright in press).

Complex cultural expression is distilled into a brief gesture, the digital equivalent of an archaeological trace. Yet GIFs are fleetingly rare in archaeological representations, with only a handful of examples since the introduction of the media format in 1989. In this GIF essay (modelled on a photo essay), we briefly review the history of the animated GIF with particular attention to archaeological GIFs, discuss their utility in representing archaeological remains and narratives, and argue for a more creative integration of visual media into archaeological practice.

The “GIF essay” was co-authored with Dr. Nela Scholma-Mason, who was a PhD student at the time. I was inspired by her fantastic use of GIFs to communicate how the Norse would have viewed the prehistoric landscape of Orkney. Nela led a Heritage & Play workshop on how to use GIFs and I immediately wanted to co-author a paper with her on the topic. I mean, check out this incredibly striking GIF:

The article was part of a series invited by Gareth Beale and Paul Reilly on Digital Creativity in Archaeology and we are honored that our article is in such good company! Check out the Open Access paper in Internet Archaeology and let me know what you think:

Morgan, C. and Scholma-Mason, N. 2017 Animated GIFs as Expressive Visual Narratives and Expository Devices in Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 44. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.44.11

Inappropriate Vessels & Food Presentation

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Tom Davie, an artist from Oklahoma, has repackaged food into transparent glass bottles. It looks surprisingly revolting. Perhaps it is only highlighting how disgusting processed foods are, but there is a frisson between the form of the bottle and the understood contents. This kind of art is fairly typical of remix culture, but it still makes me wonder…

GRCA 62460
Grand Canyon Tusayan Grayware Pottery, by the Grand Canyon National Park Service

…would what have looked absolutely disgusting and inappropriate in this pot, for example? I’m not a ceramicist and I have a tendency toward pragmatism that can be hard to suppress. I took it for granted that vessels, being useful things, would be used for miscellaneous foods. Sure, some vessels could ONLY be used for corn, or wine, or some such–we can tell that through paleobotany and isotopic analyses. But what if something is put in them that is wildly inappropriate? Amphorae full of…goat meat? Willow pattern teapots filled with creamed corn?

I guess it’s asking a bit much of archaeological interpretation to try to think about things that were NOT put into pots.