I am very happy to participate in another conference I’ve never been to before–the SHA 2015 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, as part of a Punk Public Archaeology session organized by Christopher Matthews. John Lowe and I have been talking about punk and archaeology for a long time now, glad to have a chance to talk about some of those ideas.
Title: Punk as Organizing Structure and Ethos for Emancipatory Archaeological Practice
“Think about the kind of revolution you want to live and work in. What do you need to know to start that revolution? Demand that your teachers teach you that.” -Big Daddy Soul
The basic principles of punk archaeology reflect an anarchist ethos: voluntary membership in a community and participation in this community. Building things–interpretations, sites, bonfires, earth ovens, Harris Matrices–together. Foregrounding political action and integrity in our work. It is the work of the punk archaeologist to “expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination…in a democratic fashion” (Graeber 2004:7). Public archaeology and community archaeology are embedded in this project; punk archaeology is collectivist action, with especial attention to marginalized and disenfranchised peoples. In this paper I present punk archaeology as a provocative and productive counter to fast capitalism and structural violence.
Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
There’s a fantastic conference going on at University College London on the 8th and 9th of November, Digital Engagement in Archaeology, which I have co-authored a presentation in with Matt Law about a lovely data set he collected when Geocities closed down. Check out the abstract:
Title: The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment
Abstract: After fifteen years of hosting millions of user-built webpages, in April 2009 Yahoo announced that they would be shutting down their United States Geocities webpages. Geocities was once the most common hosting service for low-cost personal webpages, including hundreds of public outreach sites about archaeology. Were the webpages moved to another hosting site, archived, or abandoned? We tracked and recorded the fate of 89 of these webpages, eventually sending a survey to the webmasters asking them a range of questions. While we received relatively few responses, the answers to the questions were illuminating. Much of the current digital outreach performed all over the world relies on “free” services such as Twitter, Flickr, WordPress, Google Pages, or Facebook to host their content. What can the fate of archaeological content on Geocities pages tell us about the benefits and risks of using commercial infrastructure for archaeological outreach? In a conference dedicated to understanding digital public engagement, we sort through the digital wreckage of past outreach efforts to evaluate the fate of the online archaeological presence.
All of the other papers look really interesting, I wish I could be there to check it out. The paper will get developed into a piece of longer length to be published in an Open Access journal.
I must admit, one of the things that I’m the most excited about is the mind-blowing opening slide that Matt made, full of gifs and broken links–truly retro-geocities-fabulous:
I immediately regretted my decision to walk to the University of Sheffield. My hair whipped around my eyes and mouth and I had to keep dodging blowing garbage. The hurricane that had ripped up the east coast of the United States was making its presence known on the other side of the Atlantic. This was represented on the news by what looked like a giant invasion of white ghosts in a psychedelic, swirling arc across Ireland and Northern England. (Learning about how the English talk about the weather has been an education on its own–who’d’ve known that the forecast could be “white cloud,” “gray cloud,” or simply “dull.”)
I ran into the conference room for the Assembling Archaeology seminar late and windswept, but quickly found a seat at the back and settled in to hear Helen Wickstead speak about art and archaeology. She memorably spoke about some of the annoying aspects of conducting this “cross-disciplinary” research, in short, that the only relevant art within archaeology is illustration and depiction of antiquities; that art/archaeology is “self expression” and not research; most research of art/archaeology looks mostly at the boundaries between the two; finally, that art is primarily used to communicate with the public. I think it was this last point that riled up a certain Twittering audience member, but I think it was just a misunderstanding of terms and positioning.
Next, Bill Bevan and Bob Johnston presented separately the fantastic photographic work that Bill Bevan was doing as the Leverhulme visiting artist at the University of Bristol. His residency and the work that he produced definitively proved the value of such a program. It would have been amazing to be able to have an artist in residence in anthropology at UC Berkeley to collaborate with on projects. I asked my first annoying question–did he actually do any kind of content or semiotic analysis of the assemblage of photos that he had created during his time as an artist in residence. Sadly he had not. I’m not sure how useful it would be to analyze your own photos, but I found the big analysis of the photos taken over the years at Catalhoyuk extremely informative to my own photo practices. I really should publish that sometime. I also wanted to ask him nerd questions about his camera, editing process and whether or not he uses Creative Commons–judging by the image protection set up on his webpage, I’d guess not. I just wanted to look at your metadata! And maybe link to an image! Honest.
Paul Evans is another Leverhulme artist in residence, creating and interacting with bioarchaeology, in particular, bones that have been modified in some way. I highly recommend his blog, Osteography. His work ranges from very intense and gripping:
to a bit more lighthearted:
I was happy to see my friend Aaron Watson again, who has a finished version of his Stones From The Sky film, which combines digital photographs, video, and 3D animation seamlessly into a fantastic meditation on the stone axes and quarries of the Lake District.
Probably the most entertaining presentation of the day was Mark Antsee speaking about his work reflecting on the Stonehenge Cursus. He began by tagging the landscape (in non-permanent charcoals and chalk) with a line representation of the Cursus, then, influenced by the deep ties that the region has with the military, elaborated on this work by making flags and cow trough sarcophagi around the landscape.
I particularly liked that he framed his work as a provocation, a response to the provocation of the act of archaeology, particularly the act of digging in the landscape. Mark was able to reframe this monument, add a sense of disorientation to this well-known (though often overshadowed by its neighbor Stonehenge) monument. I loved that he managed this all while staying within the bounds of what you can feasibly do at historic monuments–I’ve often struggled with methods of inscribing landscape or indicating that there was interpretive material available without getting the park rangers and such angry with me. Anyway, he also made sure all of the seminar participants were similarly inscribed: My very own Cursus Awareness bracelet!
Simon Callery presented the work he had done a decade ago wherein he lay down plaster directly on top of the excavated chalk ditches, creating a curvy, chalk-embedded representation of the site surface. He spoke about the long collaboration he had with the University of Oxford archaeologists and spoke at length about the true nature of this collaboration. He felt it was key that neither artists nor archaeologists “leaned” on the other’s work but rather explored the question, “what is it about questions that we ask do we share?” That is, what are archaeologists and artists interested in and how can we use that shared interest as a collaborative space.
ADDED – (sorry, I skipped a page in my notes)
Antonia Thomas presented another perspective as an archaeologist who made an incursion into an art gallery, presenting art and artifacts associated with excavations in Orkney. She took up residence in the art gallery, much like the artists who come and live with archaeologists in the field, and transformed that space into a more ambiguous blend of art and archaeology. Her reaction to the space of an art gallery is probably the same one I would have had–she recorded it in 1:20 on a sheet of permatrace. I probably would have phased it as well, or started peeling off the layers of paint in one of the corners to understand past installations.
The last presenter was Angela Piccini who showed her video work as she spoke about her experimental video work and using the camera as part of her research process. She is interested in working against the aesthetics of film and narrative to find the “anti-beauty” in place. I asked her how it was to work against narrative when digital editing tools enforce placing video clips on a timeline, etc. It was nice to be able to talk to another archaeologist who deals in film, and really made me want to delve into one of the several projects that I don’t have time for right now.
In all it was a good experience, especially in that I was able to see some folks that I’ve met over the years and check out the progression of their work in particular and of the dialog surrounding art and archaeology in general. I’m happy that we seem to be moving on from the same discussions (as noted by Wickstead) into a more productive space. I came away both inspired and motivated to continue my work in the art/archaeology/digital realm. One quick criticism is that while most of the speakers had a defined online presence, much of their work was either hard to find or annoying/hard to link. It is tempting to just leave these people and works out of the discussion.
Anyway, as Angela Piccini said, (and I paraphrase) “I hope that the relationship between art and archaeology continues in its grubby way, afraid of neither the banal nor the sublime.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.