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.

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.

Nostalgic, Personal, Neglected, Treasured, Rejected: The Other Photography in Archaeology

Fort Ross, Hipstamatic
This is my abstract for Heather Law’s TAG 2011 session, Open Dialogs in Archaeological Photography. I’m hoping that the photos I take will be worth the billing!

Our view of the past is hazy, inaccurate, hard to discern, never quite all there. Yet our record of such uncertainty is becoming dazzlingly clear; professional-quality digital SLR cameras producing high-dynamic range imaging are becoming the norm on archaeological projects and our photographic archives, once highly-curated collections of “scientific,” carefully set-up shots have exploded in size and diversified in content accordingly. Along with this extraordinary, high-tech verisimilitude runs a counter-narrative–photography on sites performed by students, workmen, professionals, and tourists using their cellphones.  These images are too casual, personal, low-rez, and are often unavailable to the official project. They find another life online, emailed to friends and posted on Flickr and Facebook, living beyond the archive and often becoming a much more visible public face than the more official photographs released by the project. 

Inspired by this tension between the personal and the formal and Damon Winter’s recent New York Times iPhone photo essay of soldiers in Afghanistan, I shed my cumbersome and conspicuous DSLR to explore the affective, casual, and nostalgic qualities of archaeological photography with my cellphone and on-board photo-editing applications. In a session focused on exploring the work that archaeological photography does, I will investigate the hazy, inaccurate, personal, and extra-archival qualities of the archaeological snapshot.


TAG USA 2011: Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World

Archaeology of the contemporary world; contemporary theory in archaeology; archaeology and its contemporary social context; archaeology, popularly associated with a dusty past, is thoroughly embedded in the contemporary world.

TAG Berkeley invites participants to freely imagine ways in which archaeological theory, practice, politics, and publication articulate with “the contemporary”. Whether looking at how archaeology is represented in popular culture, how archaeologists are examining the events and processes taking place around us today, or how archaeological examination of even distant pasts is bound up in the perspectives of our present lives, archaeologists are not of another time: we are here and now, and our discipline speaks to that time and place.

Confirmed plenary speakers:
Rodney Harrison
Bonnie Clark
Deadline to submit session proposals: November 1

Conference venue: International House, University of California, Berkeley
Sponsored by the Archaeological Research Facility, University of California, Berkeley


Open Dialogs in Archaeological Photography

Session Proposal by Heather Law, PhD Student, UC Berkeley
Confirmed Discussant: Dr. Ruth Tringham

In a discipline that has yet to master the balance between the subject and the object; the human and the thing, photographs can inhabit uniquely limbic and potentially very powerful positions. Photographs provide a tangible middle ground between the observing subject and the observable object, and in so doing, reaffirm both the situatedness of human perspectives and the sovereignty of the material world.  Photography’s ability to transcend time and space imbues it with more power still, allowing it to trigger a spectrum of reactions in and effects upon its viewers, all of which both distort and convey meaning.  Among other things, photographs can remember, forget, idealize, anesthetize, and democratize (Benjamin 1936; Barthes 1966; Sontag 1977); yet archaeologists have just begun to question the authority, ambiguities and tensions that lie within the photographs we use in our work.  This session will attempt to discuss the past and potential roles of photography in archaeology.  From artifact photography to photographs as artifacts, from documentary photography to art photography (and everything that lies between); what does archaeological photography “do”?  How might we rethink or renew the practice?

I would like to invite archaeological photographers to participate in a uniquely formatted session, designed to initiate a dialog between fellow participants and their work.  Each participant will submit a cohesive body of work either digitally or in print, along with a short (400 words or less) statement of intent explaining their position as a photographer and the goals of their work.  These submissions will be displayed in the Ryder-Worth Gallery for the duration of the conference.  During the assigned session, participants will introduce their work by presenting their prepared statement, after which discussants will lead the group in a short (10-15 min) discussion about the work and its potential for dialog with other works in the session.

Here are some of the specific guidelines:

·         Participants will be asked to submit a title for their submission along with a short bio detailing their experience and interest in photography and archaeology for inclusion in the conference program.

·         The size of the photographs will not be restricted, but it will be asked that they be a cohesive group in some regard and that you try to keep your submission to under 10 pcs.

·         The participants will be asked to send a copy of the statement of intent and copies (either digital or in print) of the photographs to the discussants two weeks prior to the scheduled session.

·         The display of the work, i.e. in print or digitally, and the presentation, i.e. matting and the aesthetics of arrangement will be left to the discretion of the participants.  Each participant will be responsible for hanging and/or setting up their work in the Ryder Worth Gallery at beginning of the conference and taking it down at the end of the conference.

One of my fellow UC Berkeley grads is running a session on Archaeological Photography for TAG 2011 in Berkeley. I’ll have some photos in the show–I’ll need to figure out which ones! She invites wider participation–contact her directly if you are interested.

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