Author Archives: Haidy Geismar

Haidy Geismar

About Haidy Geismar

Lecturer, Digital Anthropology and Material Culture, UCL

Made in Palestine

Christopher Pinney, UCL

[Please note: this  post was written before the intensification of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza]

I decided to transgress the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) injunction and attend a conference on ‘The Photographic Imagination’ in Tel Aviv in June 2014 for several reasons.  The two central ones concerned, firstly, the Apartheid analogy. Having taught a short course at the University of Cape Town in 2000 it was quite apparent that there were many courageous dissident academic intellectuals that had been a key element of the resistance during the 1980s and earlier. Collaboration with them would have been quite different from buying South African produce. The second reason has an element of illogicality, which is repeatedly pointed out to me: Syria. At a time when a nearby regime is murdering so many of its opponents (albeit opponents increasingly gripped by a fanatical politics), it seemed disproportionate to single out Israel for one’s disapproval.

So I went, in the spirit of openness, empathy and wanting to be challenged, not knowing what might unfold. In the previous three weeks I taught in Krakow and spent much time in Kazimierz and the ghetto, and read Tadieusw Pankiewicz’s Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy and Wladyislaw Spzliman’s The Pianist. I felt I was in no doubt about the profound historical shadow that would inform much of what I would encounter in Israel/Palestine.

We flew El Al (a condition of the conference organisers) and (I was subsequently informed), because I was half of a married couple, did well in the psychological profiling at London’s Heathrow Airport (it seems single females have the hardest time). Getting on the El Al flight was considerably more straightforward and hassle-free than boarding any flight to the US or India. There were no preliminary checked baggage x-rays, pat downs or random extraction for additional lengthy screening — all of which have become frequent features on those other routes.  Similarly on arrival — a few hours after the Pope’s visit had closed Ben Gurion (other conference participants complained of circling over the airport until it re-opened) — security and immigration was courteous and rapid, nothing like the totalitarian protocol of which the guide books warned.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our first experience of what a Palestinian cab driver we would subsequently spend a lot of time with called ‘the situation’ came after we left a visit with other members of the conference group to the Israel Museum (in West Jerusalem) and attempted to take a taxi to East Jerusalem (where we were booked into a Palestinian hotel). Several taxis plain refused to take us, proof as an Israeli friend later observed that the ‘green line’ which is ignored politically (Israel absorbed Palestinian East Jerusalem after the second Intifada) is strictly enforced socially. Finally one taxi driver agreed to take us, but with the proviso that he didn’t know the area and we would probably get lost (we gave him a detailed street map with directions). En-route he wanted to know how why it had taken us so long to visit Jerusalem (‘the origin of the world’) and how come we had made such a terrible mistake booking into a hotel on the wrong side of town (‘filthy’, ‘chaotic’: I told him I spent several months of the year in rural India and was used to such things). This was our first experience of ‘the situation’. The Old City is a textbook palimpsest of overlapping and disjunctive identities, all increasingly subject to military regulation since the second Intifada. But it is only in Bethlehem, on the other side of the Wall, where you start to experience the rhizomic involution of territory. Through the presence of massive settlements, one is shaken by the intractability of an invasion that has been fully sanctioned by the present regime, and it is only then that one can start to grasp the political dimensions of material culture in Palestine. The estimated 300,000 West Bank settlers make their presence felt through serried, semi-fortified encroachments  around much of Bethlehem whose alien architecture stands as a very visible political demand.

In the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour you look across a valley to the Har Homa colony in which vast tower blocks, regiments of condominiums, are advancing towards Palestinian territory. They are monolithic and endlessly repeated: dwelling paces but also ideological embodiments of an unstoppable state-sanctioned invasion: material culture mobilised in the cause of politics.

 

A Fateh-proseltysing (and decidedly anti-Hamas) cab driver took us under his wing, and after a chilling slide show delivered on his smart phone (young child cavorting on the beach of Tel Aviv juxtaposed with a Palestinian child in Hebron having an IDF machine gun pointed at his head), we departed for Herodium and Hebron. It was there that two other kinds of settlement presence can be experienced. The first involves sporadic land-grabs fuelled by an extraordinary frontier spirit: settlers will occupy hill tops overnight and wait for the Israeli Defence Force to install water and electricity supplies. Tents become portacabins which rapidly become houses, forming the nucleus for whole new towns built in months. Central to this process is a politics of invisibility in which the near-total Israeli military control of much of the West Bank is denied. On the road up to Herodium (in an Oslo Accord Area C, under full Israeli military control), for instance, you pass a large IDF base on your right, filled with armed personnel carriers and surveillance equipment. At the top of what remains of Herod’s extraordinary creation (from where you can see the Dead Sea and Jordan in the distance) there are helpful photographic panoramas, provided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority which identify topographical features and nearby towns. The Bad Fulah ruins are identified and also Solomon’s Pools even though they are, as the legend says, ‘hidden’. But in the foreground (such exorbitance being one of the inconvenient conditions of photography) lies the un-named sprawling military camp, built to protect several recent settlements nearby and new kibbutz. On another of the photographic panoramas an unknown visitor has helpfully hand-written the word ‘settlement’ below the printed name of Tko’a.

 

Departing Herodium we encountered another aspect of ‘the situation’ that seemed to give some insight into the the subsequent abduction and murder of three youths that resulted in the lockdown of Hebron. A Settler resident and her adolescent child approached our driver and asked whether she could get a lift to the bottom of the hill. We said fine, no problem (it was very hot, she looked parched). Our driver explained that he would like to help but that legally he couldn’t (the fine for driving Israeli citizens in a Palestinian green licence plated cab was 50,000 shekels and two years arbitrary detention he later told us). We were starting to get a sense of the existential dilemmas and anxieties that both Palestinians and Settlers face in this extraordinary occupied landscape where the occupation itself is made invisible and the occupied are forced to apologise to the occupiers.

 

As a casual visitor to the West Bank you encounter the tyranny that Palestinians are living with on a daily basis in relation to their material culture. I heard plenty of stories from the conference in Tel Aviv from participants and friends of theirs who had been strip-searched, forced to miss flights, and in extreme cases, detained for two days and then formally deported because of evidence of West Bank visits. A Polish friend told me she had been required to check in five hours before departure and that every item in her luggage meticulously inspected before each book was held upside down and shaken vigorously in ways that reminded her of 1980s martial rule in Poland (don’t take any books she said).

 

Driving further south, toward Hebron (El Khalil), where we would encounter another form of Settler presence, we criss-crossed in and out of Area A — nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled zones — where it is illegal, as numerous large red road-side sings declare, for Israeli citizens to enter (‘at risk to their lives’) and I noticed that our driver would, as a form of bodily hexis, unbuckle his seat belt whenever we passed a red Area A sign. After a while I started to do so too.  Hexis, so Bourdieu argued is ‘political mythology, realised and embodied [and] turned into a permanent disposition’. In this case the unbuckling seemed to perform the mythologised possibility of political freedom, promised by the red road-side signs but obliterated everywhere else.

 

Hebron has a peculiarly bitter and contested history. It was the site of the massacre, in 1929, of sixty-seven Jews following rumours of attacks on Arabs in Jerusalem, and in 1994 of the murder of twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by US-born member of the Kach movement, Baruch Goldstein. Apparently one tour company offers a day tour of Hebron starting with a Jewish guide who narrates ‘their’ history, followed by an afternoon with a Palestinian who provides the competing, and incommensurable account. The Ibrahimi mosque was initially closed but has now been partitioned with both Muslim and Jewish access heavily controlled both spatially and temporally. The old town has been completely reconfigured by the conflict. Most of the Palestinian markets are closed, the majority of shops having been welded shut by the IDF. Despite the notices prominently displayed in the Jewish sector which complain about the thriving Arab market, it is a desolate picture, the open parts ‘roofed’ with wire netting to protect those below from the garbage which Settlers throw down on their new neighbours in an attempt to drive them out.  Security turnstiles control access to the mosque and the Settler-controlled part of the town is off limits to Palestinians. Foreigners can get through after an inspection of passports and Israeli border entrance stamps and can mingle with Settlers who openly carry semi-automatic weapons in the largely deserted streets along which IDF vehicles frequently zoom.  After Sabbath many dozens of Settlers march with cordial IDF protection through the Arab old town raising slogans about how this will become part of Israel. Closely scrutinised by many peace observers (from Temporary International Presence in Hebron, among others) this was a ritual-political occupation of space of the kind that is familiar from Northern Ireland.

 

Hebron is full of amazing things: embroidered cushions, beautiful kaffiyas and amazing glass work with a distinctive striated green sedimentation that reflects the quality of sand from the village of Bani Na’im and the sodium carbonate from the Dead Sea. The glassworks were established in Roman times and Hebron glass beads (especially efficacious in the protection they provided against the evil eye) were traded throughout many parts of Africa (becoming known as Kano beads). Export restrictions mean that this local industry now faces exceptional difficulties.

 

We threw away the wrapper for the Hebron kaffiya which proudly said made in Palestine and hid it in an internal zipper in my suitcase (it was a ‘fashionable’ red one, not the politically ‘authentic’ black and white variety). My book on old Hebron, which detailed the full-blown Apartheid division of the town, I could at least say was bought in the Educational Bookstore in East Jerusalem, now a de facto a part of the Israeli state. The assistant there had said it was easier to import class A drugs than books sympathetic to ‘the situation’. The Hebron glass was bought in the old city of Jerusalem (‘a small shop’ I would say if necessary), although I would be unable to remember its exact location. As it happened, we passed the profiling. I had been thinking that next time I visit the West Bank I’ll go via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, in order to ensure that I can fully consume the extraordinary riches that are made in Palestine. But I now understand that Israeli border controls there are even more severe. I departed with a sense of the double politics of material culture in this part of the world. Landscape and the built environment are fiercely contested in ways that make disputes about the future of Stonehenge seem positively parochial. The built environment and its aesthetics (condominiums versus olive groves) are centrally important. And then there is the question of the distribution of the sensible, what is made visible and invisible in a traumatic politics of appearance (and non-appearance).  But there is also the question of Palestinian material culture in a more prosaic sense, those made objects, material manifestations of Palestinian endurance and resilience which the visiting anthropologist (or indeed any visitor) is unable to consume because of the impending shake-down at Ben Gurion International Airport or the Allenby Bridge. The Israeli state has tacitly declared these to be taboo, contaminating artefacts that reveal unauthorised itineraries or illegitimate sympathies. Never has a politicised study of material culture been more necessary.

 

 

Mundane Objects: Materiality and non-Verbal Communication by Pierre Lemonnier

Haidy Geismar, UCL

The latest issue of Hau has a symposium on Pierre Lemmonier’s latest book, Mundane Objects, with commentary by Bruno Latour, Chris Ballard, Tim Ingold, Paul Graves-Brown, Susanne Küchler and a response by Pierre Lemmonier. The series of comments essentially sum up a “state of the art” comment on material culture theory, which Tim Ingold pithily sums up to date:

Perhaps there is something to be said for going back to the anthropological debates of the 1960s and 1970s on such themes as symbolic condensation, the distinction (or lack of it) between ritual and practical-technical actions, and how to do things with and without words. Arguably, our understandings have not been much advanced by subsequent approaches to material culture, for example by treating it as a system of signs whose meanings could be read off from the objects themselves, by entering them as candidates for social life but only as tokens of exchange among human beings, or by focusing on their consumption at the expense of their production.Nor—and here I agree wholeheartedly with Lemonnier—is there anything to be gained from leaving the heavy lifting to such philosophical juggernauts as “agency” and “materiality.” Most agency-speak is as tautologous as the functionalism it replaced: where before, if the presence of a thing has effects (and it would not be present if it did not), these effects were attributed to its functioning, nowadays they are attributed to its agency. The argument is no less circular, and equally ridiculous, especially coming from the mouths of celebrity philosophers. The concept of “materiality” is just as vacuous, no more so than when the abstraction that led from materials to materiality is followed by a counterreification from materiality to materialities, leading to the absurdity of describing a thing made from many different materials as an assemblage of multiple materialities. We have had more than enough of both agency and materiality, and they have got us nowhere. We need to go back to basics. But do we start with objects or affects, artifacts or materials,communication or participation? In each of these pairings, Lemonnier opts for the former. I opt for the latter (Ingold 2012). I wonder whether there might be some way of putting these two perspectives together. Now, that would be an advance.

In other commentary, Latour applauds Lemmonier’s emphasis on techniques and technology as a way to subvert the ethnocentric preoccupation with a crude object focus that comes with many contemporary theorizations of materiality, recognizing the very plasticity of the material world and Susanne Küchler provocatively thinks through the nascent material qualities of computers and other interactive digital technologies.

 

 

Copies, Copyright and Preservation

Special Issue co-edited by Ines Weizman and Jorge Otero-Pailos

Future Anterior invites essays that explore the relationship between copyright and preservation from a historical, theoretical and critical perspective. Both copyright and preservation laws are aimed at protecting unique human achievements, but they point to different, even opposing threats. Whereas copyright is meant to protect private interests from public encroachments, preservation mostly aims to safeguard the public interest against private forces. But as the categories of private and public are redrawn under the pressures of globalization, what challenges and opportunities lay ahead for preservation?

Both preservation and copyright law attempt to answer a basic question: Who has the right to make a copy? This question has a long but unexplored history within preservation. Carlo Fea, the Italian neo-classical jurist and preservationist, passed laws to forbid overzealous collectors form taking original sculptures from churches and using poor replacement copies as payments for cash-strapped priests. But as copying techniques improved, it became common to place copies outdoors and to move original works of architecture and sculpture inside museums (think of the copies that replaced the original capitals of the Doge’s Palace, or the replica of Michelangelo’s David in Piazza della Signoria). These days, preservation and copyright are both challenged by new modes of digital production, which put new pressure on the notion of absolute authorship and ownership.

What makes mechanical architectural copies so interesting is that, even though they emerge at the same time as reproductions in other fields, they escaped the same association as representative phenomena of modernity. Yet, just like the print, the photograph, the film or the digital file, architectural copies are a product of architecture and a media form in themselves, part of an endless series of ‘aura-less’ multiplications. Legal scholar Bernard Edelman has shown how in nineteenth-century France photographs were at first considered to be mere mechanical reproductions of reality, and hence in the public domain. It was only when photography became accepted as an artistic practice that it received legal protection and ‘the real as object in law [became] susceptible to appropriation, sale and contracts’. To what degree does contemporary art still serve as the measure and instrument for the regulation of copies? Can copyright law help explain the opposition to consider preservationists as artists, or even authors? Essays may investigate these questions, as well as critically analyze modes and practices of appropriation in preservation as they compare to other fields.

As the production of architectural copies is becoming more digital, networked and diffused, we are witnessing more aggressive legal attempts to control the right to reproduce architecture. As Winnie Won Yin Wong wrote (Future Anterior 9.1) recent legal attempts to define “trade dress” signal an attempt to regulate, not just architectural form, but also ambiance and atmosphere as property. From the perspective of preservation, which relies heavily on design guidelines to implement legally binding decisions, what is the future of aesthetic regulation? We welcome essays that explore how objects (and specifically architectural interiors, buildings and cities) have been and are today presented, discussed and contested (in court, or other legal debates) as a dispute over authorial, private or public property.

In preservation, intellectual copyright is hard to define and regulate – harder than in most other arts. Its potential scope is also overwhelming, implying that almost every gesture in the construction of space would have to be protected. What sorts of architectural and urban copies are subject to copyright? If copyright is the right to copy, replicate, duplicate and receive the financial benefits of this act, could one argue copyright law in fact enabled architecture to be copied, replicated, mass produced and exported across the world? How did the circulation of copies help or undermine the idea of preservation in-situ? How could the history of national and international copyright laws inform that of modern preservation?

Future Anterior invites papers from scholars in preservation and its allied fields (juridical studies, architectural history, art history, anthropology, archeology, geography, political science, urban studies, and planning) that explore these and related questions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Future Anterior is a peer-reviewed journal that approaches the field of historic preservation from a position of critical inquiry. A comparatively recent field of professional study, preservation often escapes direct academic challenges of its motives, goals, forms of practice and results. Future Anterior invites contributions that ask these difficult questions from philosophical, theoretical, and practical perspectives.

Articles submitted for peer review should be no more than 4000 words, with five to seven illustrations. Text must be formatted in accordance with the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition. All articles must be submitted in English, and spelling should follow American convention. All submissions must be submitted electronically. Text should be saved as Microsoft Word or RTF format, while accompanying images should be sent as TIFF files with a resolution of at least 300 dpi at 8” by 9” print size. Figures should be numbered and called out clearly between paragraphs in the text. Image captions and credits must be included with submissions. It is the responsibility of the author to secure permissions for image use and pay any reproduction fees. A brief author biography (around 100 words) must accompany the text.

For further manuscript guidelines, please visit:

www.upress.umn.edu/journal-division/Journals/future-anterior/manuscript-submission-guidelines-future-anterior

Acceptance or rejection of submissions is at the discretion of the editors.

Please do not send original materials, as submissions will not be returned.

Please email all submissions to:

Future.Anterior.Journal@gmail.com

Material culture in Hungary and everywhere else

Daniel Miller, UCL

 

Krisztina Fehérváry 2013 Politics in Color and Concrete: socialist materialities and the middle class in Hungary. Indiana University Press

Léna Pellandini-Simányi  2014 Consumption Norms and Everyday Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan

Hungary is a good place to take stock of the current state of material culture studies. Because Hungary is simply a good emblem of `anywhere,’ in that it represents neither a vanguard nor a backwater, but works as simply another ordinary place. That is significant to me because the material culture studies that I guess I have always wanted to promote are precisely about this same ordinary whether as blue jeans, or domestic interiors.

Fehérváry’s exemplary scholarship, both historical and ethnographic, takes us through both socialist modernism and post-socialist consumer modernism in the development of contemporary Hungary. We see the discrepancies between the creation of demand and the problems of actually fulfilling the expectations that these gave rise to, a problem in both socialism and capitalism. We see unexpected links between modern organicist appeals to nature and older socialist appeals to collectivism. Above all this leads to her ethnographic sense of the contemporary middle-class. The middle class is always beset by contradiction and ambivalence. It is there is the very words `middle’-class. But it is rare to see the routes and reasons so carefully laid out, or its consequences.

Central to this is the appreciation that the built landscape as a palimpsest of various historical periods works to a quite different temporality. It means that having considered how it expresses a relation to ideology we than have the additional problem that as times changes the built landscape becomes at once both anachronistic and yet maintained as the landscape of the present. Her book shows the impact this has on ordinary people’s understanding of their worlds and the betrayal of successive ideals. While also grounding foundational notions of normality and morality, creating what she describes as the normal state of abnormality. These are obviously important issues that can be generalised across the world as people in all regions struggle to literally build their modernity and aspirations in the teeth of failures of all kinds.  I was particularly impressed by the way she blends the descriptions of these material worlds with a sense of humanism and poignancy in respect to their impacts upon ordinary people.

Pellandini-Simányi tackles several of the same themes concerning the normative foundations of contemporary consumption but relates them more to current concerns with `over-consumption’ and sustainability. Rather than using historical and ethnographic sources she focuses on the underlying issues of consumption norms and their moral foundations in a given society. This is a more general, comparative and sociological book though some of the material is from her own research, also in Hungary. What is particularly valuable about that part of the book is that she looked at households which sometimes spanned three generations so she could observe the way these norms change over time.  As in the best of material culture studies this again excavates the most taken for granted aspects of what simply looks appropriate in the same way that Bourdieu examined taste. She has far more emphasis on change compared to Bourdieu with a focus on the reasons that something so engrained is nevertheless subject to change even if this is simply the replacement of one generation by the next. At the same time, as with Bourdieu she retains a strong sense of the link between the normative and practice. She makes good use of comparative studies of how norms of consumption change over time including the Osella’s excellent work in South India, while not ignoring the pressures from commercial institutions. I admit that in some ways I would have liked to see more of her own research findings which here get a bit buried within the more general discussion. But along with Elizabeth Shove she makes an important contribution to seeing consumption as normative pertaining to local ethical debate. She ends with what she calls a qualified liberal approach Habermas and Rawls.

These books are very different with Pellandini-Simányi looking to more sociological debates and Fehérváry exemplifying the depth of engagement and scholarship found in classical traditions of anthropological ethnography. But both speak to the way in which contemporary material culture studies, whether based in Hungary, but equally it could have been Argentina or Australia retain this driving ambition to expose the lightness of materiality. That objects seem to contain a kind of cultural gravity that makes them a heavy burden – they want to remain grounded and foundational and taken for granted as the landscape we live within. It is only by refusing to accept this and giving them an almighty academic kick, that we can excavate underneath to find that actually they came to be there through quite historical, cultural and sometimes fleetingly fashionable reasons. Without this consciousness we lose the ability for introspection with regard to our own material foundations, and granting us this consciousness is the greatest boon that such modern material culture studies has to offer the world.

 

Best of Material World Blog: On Making, Craft, and Unmaking

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this post, I link to the very best posts in our archive focused on making, doing and craft.

In Fixing, Things, Fixing Ourselves, Lydia Nicholas writes about Suguru, an open source material for extending the life of mass produced (or any other) artifacts.

In Plan B for a Nuclear Reactor, Paul Williams describes the transformation of a nuclear power plant into a heritage site.

Gabriella Coleman outlines her  theory of hackers, liberalism, and pleasure, which became an important part of her book, Coding Freedom.

Ian Ewart was an Anthropologist Looks at Engineering. 

Adam Drazin presents the Mechanical Postcard, an intervention into UCL Ethnography Collections by Mattijs Siljee, of Massey University, New Zealand.

And on the opposite side of making, unmaking, Helen Polson writes about how Death Bear Wants Your Unhappy Things.

 

 

Authoring King’s Cross

0057cee9-0582-4db8-8abb-ba03da4dbfc6

Who will author the future of King’s Cross? You are invited to join us for an in-person and on-location collaborative update to Wikipedia’s entry for King’s Cross Central on 21st June at The Crossing, Central Saint Martins, 1 Granary Square, London N1C 4AA.We will consider the contents of the existing article and identify what is missing and why. Throughout the afternoon, we will update the Wikipedia entry to more fully reflect the history and contemporary dynamics of King’s Cross from a variety of perspectives. Anyone with an interest is welcome to drop by between 2.30 and 5.30pm.This event is part of the Contested Spaces forum at Central Saint Martins and will be immediately followed by a panel discussion on the theme of Gentrification and Regeneration.

Rebecca Ross & Chi Nguyen

Best of Material World Blog: Art

Haidy Geismar, UCL

In this new series of summer posts, we, the editors look back at the past 8 or so years that Material world Blog has been going and curate a series of “best of” themed post. Here, I link to what I consider to be some of the very best postings about art on the site.

In his post Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway Christopher Pinney presents a series of his own technicolour photographs, inspired by Ed Rucha’s 1963 series.

Jonathan Patkowski and Nicole Reiner unpack Alfred Barr’s infamous artist network diagram and unpack the neoliberal logics of the avant-garde as presented in the exhibition “Inventing Abstraction“.

Ryan Schram describes the tensions and identity around the speaker of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea trying to destroy the carvings evoking customary art and identity, made upon independence to decorate the new Parliament House.

In Museums Get the Best Gifts, Marcus Moore describes several gifts from Marcel Duchamp to collections in New Zealand.

Ross Hemera reviews Damien Skinner’s The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century.

Dan Perkel writes about The Art of Theft: Creativity and Property on DeviantART

Fernando Dominguez Rubio looks at the conservation of modern art as a Material Ecology of Culture

A team of scholars from Leiden University examine Photographic Traditions in South African Popular Modernities

Jennifer Deger presents her collaborative exhibition about a Yolngu Christmas: Lights, Tinsel, Presence.

William Viney writes about the work of Mark Dion

Edmund Clark presents his work on secret detentions in the UK: Control Order House

Finally, in our most popular post ever, April Strickland discusses the case of Maori tattooing, appropriation, and Mike Tyson.(in the case of the film Hangover Part Two)

 

Technology and knowing at the British Museum

Haidy Geismar, UCL

Unknown-1

I have been thinking a lot about the power of digital imaging and the kinds of subjectivities that are built into the construction of three dimensional images as particular kinds of visualizations of museum collections. The British Museum is currently host to the exhibition, Ancient Lives New Discoveries,  an exhibition of eight mummies from Egypt and the Sudan ranging from 3500 BC to 700AD. The exhibition presents these eight mummies as individuals and showcases a collaboration with digital imaging and technology partners. Instead of actually unwrapping the mummies, CT and other scanning technology was used to look inside both the sarcophagi and the textile wrappings of the bodies, to uncover the bones and flesh within and to create new three dimensional visualizations.

 

2014051612mummy

The exhibition showcases the wrapped figures alongside interactive screens which allow the visitor to peel back the layers, ostensibly to see into the very heart of the mummy. Each of the eight figures is presented as a named person, with a dossier describing their appearance and any known health issues, their height, date of living, and some basic facts that were put together, largely from inscriptions on their coffins, and they are displayed with other relevant artifacts.bm2Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum is quoted on the exhibition press release as saying: “This new technology is truly ground-breaking, allowing us to reconstruct and understand the lives of these eight, very different, individuals.” (and see this Guardian interactive for a full experience). Whilst the interactives are effective in demonstrating the deftness of CT scanning to look without disturbing the fabric and wrappings, the assertion that these are new forms of knowing these mummies as people was in fact jarring. With each mummy, careful discussion of the lavish care and attention paid to the wrappings, and to the carving and painting, often with gold leaf of the sarcophagus spoke to the esteem with which these figures were held and to their unique qualities as individuals. The exhibition text explained how important the stylized presentation of the cultural, carved body was in mediating the both the memory and status of the person in their own present, and in ushering them into the world of the dead, where amulets and small carvings facilitated their comfortable passage. As interesting as it was to look through the digital visualizations at the painstaking ways in which the bodily organs and brains were stored within the skeletal frame, the painting of fingernails and toenails with gold and the scattering of gold leaf within the wrappings, we learn little more of real significance about these people than we do from the embarrassment of riches within which they were wrapped and contained.

I visited the exhibition with my six year old daughter and we were very struck by the figure of Tjayasetimu, a young temple singer, who was probably seven years old when she died in 800 BC. “Why did she die?” my daughter asked. Despite entering the intimacy of Tjayasetimu’s shroud and scanning her body, we do not know. We know more about her humanity from her magnificent coffin. gold-face_624x624

Most tellingly, unlike other mummies, whose carved hands are presented as wrapped within their funeral clothes, Tjayasetimu, Singer of the Interior of Amun, is presented as though she was still alive, with her hands free of her shroud. This more than anything suggested to me a sadness at the death of a child, more than 2000 years ago. The presentation of these mummies as bones, flesh, brains and organs, cannot make them more into individuals then those who crafted their memorials. Indeed, that act of humanity, to protect and preserve these bodies for an infinite future, was what was stripped away through this sterile peeking inside. I felt certain that this was not the afterlife envisaged.

 

 

Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous

ColemanFlier v2

In March, Gabriella Coleman gave a talk at the UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology drawing on her research with the activist (non)collective Anonymous. Her talk, entitled Anonymous and the Craftiness of Craft and the Trickiness of Trickery, linked Anonymous activists to the anthropological archetype of the trickster, and developed the trope of craft – as an engaged, wholly material practice – as a way to enact trickery.

The talk can be watched by clicking on the following link, or the one above (I’m trying to figure out how to embed it into wordpress)

Gabriella Coleman, March 11, 2014

Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

Circulation, Appropriation and Visual Consumption of Crafts in Chennai.

 Dr.Kala Shreen

Founder & Director,Cultural Dynamics & Emotions Network (CDEN), School of History and Anthropology,Queen’s University Belfast, U.K. www.qub.ac.uk/cden
Chairperson,Center for Creativity, Heritage and Development, Chennai, INDIA, www.cchd.in

 In 2012, a world crafts summit was convened by World Crafts Council in the metropolitan city of Chennai, South India.  World Crafts Council is a non-profit organization, affiliated to UNESCO, that works “to strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life” as recounted in their web portal.  In a press meet during the summit, the President of the World Crafts Council said, “One of the objectives of this summit is to reinforce the importance of crafts in our society and culture…  Why should crafts take a back seat to other forms of art such as paintings, sculptures, music, dance and films?  Crafts are also works of art in their own way…Therefore, I also feel that craftspeople should be given the same kind of respect and social status that fine artists are given.”

This summit, among other events and activities, comprised craft expositions organized at various renowned art galleries in the Chennai city.  The organizing team of the summit said that they wanted to create an interface between art and craft and had labelled this initiative as the “interdisciplinary art-craft exhibitions series”.  A range of crafts including textiles, puppets, baskets, furniture and home accessories moved into the art space in local art galleries that predominantly hosted art exhibitions comprising sculptures and paintings in the past.  The ensuing circulation and consumption of crafts shall be the focus of my following discussion with specific reference to two examples.

 Furniture Exhibition

An exhibition, held in a renowned art gallery in central Chennai, showcased several works of furniture wherein various art elements were appropriated into their production.  For example, folk art themes were incorporated into home accessories such as wall lights (fig:1).  A set of chairs possessed hand painted back rests.  In another instance, the religious themes of the Tanjore style of painting was utilized on the facade of a wooden wall cabinet (fig:2).  The furniture drew varied comments from the spectators.  For example, the wall cabinet in the photograph received mixed reactions from different people, both positive and negative.

A fifty-one year old art collector, said,

 “I do not like the way the image of Krishna has been cut up here. The Tanjore style of painting which predominantly carries Krishna themes is one of my favourite art choices.  I have many Tanjore paintings in my house.  I admire its beauty in its entirety…The beauty of the face, the expressions on the face… To see this kind of torn up Tanjore painting is a bit disconcerting for me…  I certainly would not like to have this in my house…”

A teenager, fifteen years of age, in response to my question, commented,

 “I think it looks weird.  It is like taking a picture and tearing it up into many pieces and then trying to tape it back to together.  How can that look nice.  I like seeing a whole picture.”

This piece of furniture comprising fractured images of Krishna’s face thus provoked negative reactions to the designer’s aesthetic approach and was regarded by some as a distasteful appropriation of a religious image.  The above comments of select viewers of this piece of furniture also served as a reminder to me of reactions to the controversial appropriation of Hindu religious images elsewhere in the world.  While the appropriation of Krishna’s image did not generate extreme responses with regard to the cabinet, in the case of the Lisa Blue swimwear collection in Australia, the images of Goddess Lakshmi on the bikini and other swimsuits, angered many Hindus. In some cities in India protests were carried out and images of her collection were burned.  Many Hindus clearly did not accept the design aesthetics of the swimwear line, regarding it as a malign appropriation of an image of religious significance to the Hindus.  As a result, the collection comprising Goddess Lakshmi images were stopped from being retailed and the designer had to issue a public apology.  Thus the transition of religious art to contemporary craft or fashion can also lead to debates about social norms.

IMG_2224

IMG_2265

Basket Exhibition

At another gallery an exposition titled “Antique Chettinad Basketry” was held.  Kottans are baskets made in the villages of Chettinad in Tamilnadu, India.  These baskets, originally used by the Chettiar community for ritual and storage purposes, were appropriated by the exhibition curator into a visual display for public consumption.  At this exhibition, the baskets were mounted on display pedestals and brightly illuminated; kottan weaves were glass framed and hung on the wall; the exhibits were neatly labelled with the kottan taxonomies and pertaining descriptions (fig:3).  The visual display drew some interesting comments from visitors.  One visitor said,

‘I have seen many art exhibitions where paintings and sculptures are displayed.  This is the first time I am seeing crafts displayed like works of art.’

Another spectator said,

 ‘I never thought that baskets could qualify to be displayed in the likes of an art exhibition.’

Kottan baskets were thereby made to downplay their mundane utility and ritual context and were perceived as artistic objects as can be seen from the museum-like display and the above comments of the spectators.

IMG_2155

The exhibition of the antique palmyra kottan baskets also brought to light the importance of the constructed settings in the visual display of these objects (fig:4).  A set of small baskets were displayed on an antique chest of drawers alongside traditional Chettinad saris under old black and white photographs of Chettiars.  A pair of large sized baskets was exhibited below an antique painting.  This display scene also comprised an antique chair and a footstool on which were placed a vernacular newspaper and a pair of reading glasses.  An adjoining area consisted of brightly coloured baskets in various sizes and filled with vegetable and fruits.  A section of the adjoining wall comprised a panel explaining the history of the baskets and a photographic depiction of their usage in ceremonies during ancient times in an effort to tease out the baskets’ historical place and age-old use among the Chettiars.

IMG_0809

Many of the objects such as baskets, photographs, furnitures and paintings looked old and were used to create the setting of the ancient Chettiar lifestyle.  The visual evidence of aging seen in the objects and the props in the basket exhibition such as rusted lids on the beaded bottles, the chipped portions of the furniture, the termite eaten patches on the frames of the paintings, the black, white and faded colours of the photographs play a significant role in establishing the age and antiquity of the objects on display and projects a heritage value.  It is therefore this ‘age’ factor that places the Chettinad baskets in a privileged contemporary position in the heritage practices of visual consumption.

Thus, I have tried to briefly capture the dynamics of craft production, consumption and circulation in contemporary Chennai during an international crafts event.  Crafts are not static objects with a fixed status or value.  Rather, as seen during the above two expositions, they traverse the shifting boundaries between crafts, art, religion and heritage in their movement across time and space.