Category Archives: Conference and Event Reports

Yuri Vella’s celebrated at Tartu World Film Festival

The University of Tartu has recently hosted its XI annual Maailma World Festival of Documentary Film (March 15-22). The event opened with a session to honour the career of the Siberian filmmaker, reindeer herder and environmentalist Yuri Vella [1948-2013] In memoriam: Filming and Being Filmed.


The festival session dedicated to Vella’s memory included documentary tributes from his closest filmmaker friends — those who have been on his camps numerous times and whom he called whenever he needed a camera. Olga Kornienko lived not very far from Yuri’s place and specialises in filming the native people of the Khanty-Mansi area. Vella often asked her to be present at some of the significant moments in his life in order to record it. Liivo Niglas, while living in Estonia, has always been receptive to his calls. These filmmaker friends of Yuri Vella and their materials kicked off the festival with a discussion focusing on Yuri and on the relationship between his oeuvre and their own documentary styles.

Stephan Dudeck, anthropologist at the Arctic Centre of the Univ. of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland has written an obituary to mark the passing of his friend, teacher and mentor.

Y Vella




Absence, Presence, Distance

At the end of January ’14, the Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts hosted its fourth international Winter School at Tallinn University. The event, entitled Absence, Presence, Distance: Ways of Seeing the Past, featured such prominent speakers as Zymunt Bauman (Leeds), Mieke Bal (Amsterdam), Victor Buchli (UCL), Francois Hartog (EHESS, Paris), and Miri Rubin (QM London) amongst others.

In addition to public lectures, film screenings and multi-media exhibitions, this winter school included student seminars and workshops, guided visits throughout the city’s medieval and post-industrial landmarks as well as some fine dinning and plenty of drink.

Over 120 postgraduate students were involved in a week’s worth of discussion intended on revisiting the traditional distinction between absence and presence. They discussed and debated how far from an object or event we need to be to see it clearly. And they considered what it actually means for something or someone to be situated in historicity — located, either singularly or simultaneously, in the past, the present and the future.





Installation – Urban Infrastructure: Obsolescence and Futurity Walking Tour

New Projects

American Anthropological Association Meetings 2013

Chicago, Illinois USA

Sunday, November 24th, 10 am – 1 pm

Crucial infrastructures in North America have begun to reach the ends of their lifespan, with malfunctions and their effects increasingly commanding public and political attention. Our installation draws on a burgeoning conversation in anthropology on infrastructure, while emphasizing its aesthetic and material dimensions alongside its practical and functional ones.

This two-part “installation” consists of a tour of infrastructure on Chicago’s mid South Side (sites tbd), followed by lunch and informal discussion at New Projects space ( All sites are accessible by CTA transit. Reservations kindly requested by November 1st for details and 2 short discussion texts. Participants are welcome to join after this date, but must contact organizers for location details. Marina Peterson:

Sponsored by SUNTA/ SANA


Linguistic and Material Intimacies of Mobile Phones – Report on a Wenner-Gren Funded Workshop

by Joshua A. Bell, Joel Kuipers, Jacqueline Hazen, Amanda Kemble, and Briel Kobak

In June 2013, our collaborative George Washington University/Smithsonian Institution team–Joshua A. Bell (NMNH Anthropology), Joel Kuipers (GWU Anthropology), Briel Kobak, Amanda Kemble, and Jacqueline Hazen–hosted a Wenner-Gren funded workshop, Linguistic and Material Intimacies of Mobile Phones, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The workshop grew out of our anthropological project “Fixing Connections: The Art & Science of Repair,” which is funded by support a grant from the Smithsonian’s Consortium for World Cultures and Understanding the American Experience ( Since May 2012 we have been conducting ethnographic research in cell phone repair shops across the Washington, DC area to investigate the cultural intimacies associated with cell phones as well as their materiality. Repair shops are dynamic sites in which the social and linguistic components of technology – anxieties about damage and loss of information, connection and availability– articulate with the material realities of cell phones– the parts, supply chains, and labor that are required for repair (See Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Cell phone repair technician takes apart an iPhone 4S in the shop’s backroom. (Photo Credit: Joshua A. Bell)

Figure 1: Cell phone repair technician takes apart an iPhone 4S in the shop’s backroom. (Photo Credit: Joshua A. Bell)

Figure 2: Cell phone repair technician replaces iPhone 4 cracked screen on countertop in front of customers. (Photo Credit: Briel Kobak)

Figure 2: Cell phone repair technician replaces iPhone 4 cracked screen on countertop in front of customers. (Photo Credit: Briel Kobak)

To further explore the ways in which the social, linguistic, cultural, and material facets of cell phone use overlap and intersect, we convened a diverse group of 14 international scholars to explore the social and material implications of cell phones, from the mineral extraction necessary for their manufacturing, through their various cultural uses and adaptations, to their breakdown and repair. Ten papers were presented with Anna Tsing (UCSC) and Webb Keane (Michigan) acting as discussants. A number of themes and motifs emerged over the course of the workshop, including not only the profound ambivalence that users feel towards the technology’s affordances and drawbacks, but also the uncertainty we felt as a group of anthropologists attempting to document the use of such a ubiquitous yet highly personal device. Because of this uncertainty, we talked about cell phones through a number of seemingly opposing binaries: connections and disconnections, intimacy and anxiety, rupture and repair.

To organize the contents of the workshop, we categorized the articles into three synthetic, cross-cutting themes: fetishization, inscription, and intimacy. This first dimension allowed us to examine agency, value and meaning-making along the various points of the commodity chain of a mobile phone (Appadurai 1986; Spyer 1998; Tsing 2009). Papers on this theme included explorations of the political economy of coltan in the DRC (Jeffrey Mantz, GMU), attributions of value in processes of material repair (GWU/SI Repair Collective), and anxieties over ownership and privacy in Brazil (Alexander Dent, GWU). The second analytic of inscription interrogated the cultural variation by which mobile phones structure new forms of temporal and spatial practices of users in their respective media worlds (Orr 1996; Latour 1999; Keane 2003). Papers on inscription included examinations of the re-curation of museum artifacts via Instagram (Alexandra Weilenmann & Thomas Hillman, Gothenburg) and the worlding of worlds through video sharing amongst the Yolngu in Australia (Jennifer Deger, ANU). The third thematic, intimacy, centered on the ability for these devices to construct subjective emotional experience along specific cultural dimensions (Ito et al. 2005; Horst & Miller 2006; Katsuno and Yano 2007). Participants in this grouping wrote on varying topics, such as experiences of disruption across 15 cultures, including the blind, deaf, and elderly in the US (Elizabeth Keating, UT Austin), state and familial networks on a Caribbean border (Heather Horst, RMIT University), communicative patterns among Norwegians during times of crisis (Rich Ling, IT University of Copenhagen), the management and presentation of self through social media (Ilana Gershon, IU), and the cell phone’s role in romance and the intimate economy in Mozambique (Julie Archambault, Oxford).

Figure 3: Participants conversing at the workshop held in the National Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit: Rob Leopold.

Figure 3: Participants conversing at the workshop held in the National Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit: Rob Leopold.

Read together as a special collection or edited volume, the articles presented at this workshop will bring together actor-oriented, fine-grained ethnographic data with broader anthropological theory on materiality, technology studies, linguistics, and anthropology of the self. The workshop will also provide the theoretical foundation for a planned exhibit on mobile phones tentatively titled, Unseen Connections: Natural Histories of the Mobile Phone to be held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC

Read together as a special collection or edited volume, the articles presented at this workshop will bring together actor-oriented, fine-grained ethnographic data with broader anthropological theory on materiality, technology studies, linguistics, and anthropology of the self. The workshop will also provide the theoretical foundation for a planned exhibit on mobile phones tentatively titled, Unseen Connections: Natural Histories of the Mobile Phone to be held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.


Appadurai, A. (Ed.) (1986). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Horst, H. A. and D. Miller. (2006). The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. New York, NY. Berg Publishers.

Ito, M., D. Okabe, M. Matsuda (Eds). (2005). Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press.

Katsuno, H. and C. Yano. (2007). “Kaomoji and Expressivity in Japanese Chat Rooms.” In B. Danet and S.Herring (Eds.), The Multilingual Internet (278-300). New York: Oxford University Press.

Keane, W. (2003). Semiotics and the social analysis of material things. Language and Communication 23 (3-4), 409-425.

Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Orr, J. (1996). Talking About Machines. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Spyer, P. (Ed.) (1998). Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Places. London: Routledge.

Tsing, A.(2009). Supply Chains and the Human Condition. Rethinking Marxism 21(2), 148-176.

Conference Report–”Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity”

This summer saw the conclusion of ‘Disturbing Pasts: Memories, Controversies and Creativity’, an international research project led by Leon Wainwright (Department of Art History, The Open University, UK) which began in December 2011. (For an overview of the project, visit: )

The main focus of Disturbing Pasts was a major conference that took place over three days at the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna (recently renamed Weltmuseum Vienna) on 20-22 November 2012. The majority of speakers were from outside academia, the event was free to attend and widely publicised, while ample time was allowed for discussion and interaction with the audience and for networking among participants. It consisted of panels of highly-illustrated presentations on five distinct yet complementary themes. Each panel combined speakers from the three selected groupings of stakeholders (artists, curators and academics) and saw a productive exchange between them.

The sessions were filmed by technicians from The Open University and an audio-visual record of speakers’ presentations is now available at the Open Arts Archive ( Click on the links below for each presentation, available by ‘open access’.

Panel 1, ‘Cultural Loss and Fragmented Heritage’, began with two presentations from the artists Peju Layiwola (Lagos, Nigeria) and T. Shanaathanan (Jaffna, Sri Lanka), who showed how historical episodes of violence and the removal of cultural property – a British punitive expedition of 1897, and conflict in Sri Lanka – have been explored in each artist’s creative practice, as well as those of their peers. The curator Shan McAnena (Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast) evaluated recent curatorial attempts to reconnect the city of Belfast to the troubled memory of the Titanic. The visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards (De Montfort Leicester) and art historian Simon Faulkner (Manchester Metropolitan University) responded with a related critical debate on museum practice and colonial archives across the UK, and issues of public memory that are raised by paintings of Gerhard Richter recalling the history of Left-wing extremism in 1970s Germany.

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Becoming Exotic

Notes on the Workshop  “Objects from Abroad: The Life of Exotic Goods in France and the United States”

by  Noémie Étienne  (Wissenschaftliche Assistentin, Univ. of Zurich)

Fig. 1. Eugène Boban’s importation and exchanges network, between 1870 and 1890. © Manuel Charpy.

Fig. 1. Eugène Boban’s importation and exchanges network, between 1870 and 1890. © Manuel Charpy.

The interdisciplinary conference “Objects from Abroad: The Life of Exotic Goods in France and the United States”, held at the Centre for International Research in the Humanities, New York University, in April 2013, addressed the question of the lives of exotic objects in the United States and France between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Within this context, the focus was on Western use, display and function of objects coming from “abroad”: in other words, on the consumption of material culture according to the expression used by Ann Bermingham.[1] This conference’s emphasis on travelling objects prompted us to broaden Bermingham’s notion to “cross-cultural” consumption. With this expression we had in mind the way certain objects made in a specific cultural context, generally non-Western, did indeed take a new turn in their lives by stepping into another location in Paris or New York (fig. 1). This, in turn, raised questions such as: what are the specific implications of a cross-cultural perspective? What kind of impact does the movement from one culture to another have on artefacts, and vice versa? The conference demonstrated that consumption of culture in a cross-cultural context is not only an economic transaction but also a process of translation and appropriation. Here consumption is understood as part of a creative process, which transforms the objects as well as their new contexts.

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From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy

Eleanor Williams  &  Theophile Desarmeaux,  UCL  Anthropology

magic lantern

The lanternslides exhibited in ‘From the Image to the Lecture Slide: Exercises in Anthropological Ventriloquy’ emerge from the depths of the UCL Anthropology Department’s Material Culture Room, part of UCL Museums and Collections.  From this cave of curiosities, the exhibition excavates a medley of largely anonymous ethnographic lanternslides, which were used for teaching anthropology during 1940 and 1950.  Today, a variety of slides are re-cast into three mock lectures that both explore the breadth of the collection and interrogate the use of images for teaching.

Lecture 1: We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia

The first lecture reveals the collection’s cornucopia of slides and questions the images’ instrumentality within a teaching context.  Employing a random number generator enabled the curators to have minimal input in the lecture’s creation.  To select the images, random numbers were applied to the list of slides.  An arbitrary narrative to accompany the images was obtained from Raymond Firth’s 1936 ethnographic monograph We, The Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia.  Pages of the book were selected according to random numbers and text was extracted from the pages’ first indented paragraph.  The curators explore how the encasement of these multi-vocal images within the un-related narrative may manipulate one’s interpretation of the image.  However, the images simultaneously emancipate themselves from and subvert the narrative by visually bringing new meanings to the text.

Lecture 2: Duplicates

The second lecture concentrates on the collection’s duplicated images.  By exploring ‘the duplicates’ the lecture brings to the fore the slides’ materiality and resultant polysemy.  The material disparity of the duplicated images, in terms of their framing, inversion, enlargement and magnification, are examined in the lecture.  The varying material qualities cleave the same slide into two highly different images.  By contrasting pairs of duplicates, the curators explore how their varying materiality offers an avenue through which the images’ polysemy may be unleashed.  The curators question what the implications of using slides with different material properties might be when used for teaching purposes.

Lecture 3: The Image Speaks

The third lecture provides a space in which the most unruly and restive of the lanternslides may be revealed.  The lecture investigates the spectrum of the images’ semantic contents and aesthetic qualities that exists within the collection.  The selection exposes the images that confounded the curators during their exploration, due to their qualities such as blurriness and either under or over exposure.  The images’ incomprehensible nature and their ability to seemingly evade anthropological categorisation, led the curators to question how these slides might have been used for teaching.

[Editor's note: during their tenure in the teaching collection these slides have largely been separated from any contextual information and provenance. They are thus presented here as they emerge and are experienced within this particular archive, which is of course an archive that rests on the problematic histories of anthropology, photography, and colonialism. If anyone has any commentary or context to add to specific photographs, please either contact us directly or add to the public comments in this posting.]

Call for Papers International Workshop on: ECONOMY, MORALITY AND MATERIALITY

Date: 26 – 27 September 2013

Venue: University of Pardubice, Czech Republic

Long-held convictions about the immoral or amoral nature of capitalism have recently lost some of their force in light of illustrations of how moral conflicts unfold in the economic realm and examples of how religious and non-religious morality works its ways in the capitalist economy. Subsequently, the articulation of economy and morality has returned as a topic of interest in the academia. Depictions of how moral meanings are implicated in economic choices have been added to descriptions of the individualistic, economistic, immoral and amoral behaviours fostered by capitalism in societies all over the world. In addition, the mutual entanglement of capital, Islam and the market has become an active sub-field of enquiry in response to recent transformations. While capitalism and Islam have long intersected in Muslim societies across time and space, in the last decades their articulation has intensified under the impact of the concomitant spread of Islamic revivalist movements and neoliberal capitalism.

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By Eugenia Kisin, Anthropology, NYU

 “Assemblage has been something that has been part of our fabric, the art historical fabric, since the beginning of time. If you think about the notion of hunters and gatherers, until we became an agricultural society 10,000 years ago, that is how we found our food, we scavenged, we foraged, we hunted, we gathered. And I always felt that impulse embedded in our genes, and that artists themselves are a particular kind of hunter-gatherer.”[1]

Assemblage is an ordering of the world. Both act and creation, it encompasses production and collection; in its finished form, assemblage prefigures its consumption through the deliberate juxtaposition of materials. In art historical terms, assemblage is a medium, albeit one that is sometimes too capacious—materials are all technically “assembled” to produce artworks, and all can be traced back through a political-economic circuitry. Yet in the realm of art, both the innateness and consciousness of the act seem to be significant. In the words of Sotheby’s Chairman Lisa Dennison, quoted above, the capacity for assemblage is an impulse “embedded in our genes,” and, as an act, characterizes the work of an artist as “hunter-gatherer” – assembling in order to produce meaning and value; in other words, the stuff of art world survival.

Such ideas about assemblage—its impulses, capacities, and routes—inform my discussion of a ‘selling exhibition’ held last year at Sotheby’s gallery space in New York called “Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage” (on view November 18th to December 16th, 2011). Showcasing a massive range of Western and non-Western objects that embody, in the words of its curators, the “accumulative tendency” in art, “Hunters and Gatherers” intended to show (and sell) nothing less than a new narrative of twentieth-century art history, a narrative grounded in material. Surrealist objet, neo-Dada collage, Songye power figure, Haida headdress, modernist Combine – major movements and diverse media were brought together under the rubric of their fabric, their status as assemblage. It produced a compelling, unifying story of art, looking forward as well as back: Nick Cave’s soundsuits appropriating (assembling?) tribal spiritualities, Dan Colen’s surface-obsessed painted sculpture a kind of fresh, contemporary Happening.

Based on catalogue descriptions—the “polychromed” Haida headdress, Western materials “ingeniously incorporated” into Native American material culture, the exclusively ceremonial contexts of the non-Western art, and the dubious universalism of the geneticized and apolitical urge to “assemble”—it would be warranted to dis-assemble this exhibition on the basis of its familiar primitivist tropes. Indeed, having not seen the exhibition in person, I can only imagine the visual force that such a juxtaposition of works would have as an assemblage. Together, the works might have comprised a perfect balance of on-the-wall and in-the-round, the wooden angles and planes of the African sculptures and Northwest Coast masks complementing the colors and textures of mid-century paintings and collages. There is a reason that modernist interiors are often decorated with tribal art, instantiating a visceral-yet-contained chromophilia, or “tiptoeing around the perimeter of the color danger zone,” that Michael Taussig argues is an effect of colonial and post-colonial encounters[2]– the inimitable effect of a contained, colorful, polyglot assemblage in a white cube, and an exhibition designed to sell.

But the questions I want to consider through “Hunters and Gatherers” are more general, given my limited experience of the exhibition via its catalogue and media. There is also something perversely imprecise about saying anything ‘contemporary’ of an exhibition held over a year ago—time moves fast in art, and assemblages are often ephemeral. Still, one year later, the questions this particular cluster raises are, to use that value-laden term of the contemporary, ‘fresh.’[3] Why this story, and why in 2011? My suggestion is that this exhibition tells us something lasting about contemporary art, and its relation to theories of assemblage. It also tells us about the perils of making materiality too capacious a frame for theorizing the contemporary as an instantiation of, as the catalogue puts it, the “impulse to scavenge.”


First, a note on ancestors. “The Art of Assemblage,” the subtitle of “Hunters and Gatherers,” was likely a deliberate reference to the famous 1961 exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – and one of the ways in which “Hunters and Gatherers” is bound to an art world lineage of modernism. For William Seitz, the curator of the 1961 show, assemblage was a modern notion, and thus had a history; both the creation of new art from fragments and the self-conscious execution could be traced back through all of the major modernist movements of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract-Expressionism, and even further, to avant-garde nineteenth-century figures like Manet. Such a media-and-sentiment based narrative could include a spectacular range of work, encompassing, as Seitz put it in the catalogue, “The Art, Non-Art, and Anti-Art of Assemblage”– and, it should be remembered, providing a unifying narrative for MoMA’s collection, re-assembling the assemblage into a story of art.[4]

This reference to the 1961 show was, and is, extraordinarily generative. By including recent works, the “Hunters and Gatherers” established a connection between “the contemporary”—that ever-emergent, always-becoming, impossible category—and art history’s past, containing the unknown, un-categorizable contemporary within a stable framework of value and judgment. It produces a modernism for the contemporary, or a contemporary that can be fit back into the story of modernism. This is, as art historian Terry Smith has recently argued, a very contemporary thing to do. Smith suggests that both the tired return to an older avant-gardism – a process he names “remodernism”— and the self-conscious embrace of neo-liberal spectacular consumption—“retro-sensationalism”— are returns to modernist aesthetics that characterize much of contemporary art, naming many of the artists included in the Sotheby’s show as exemplars of such returns.[5] Moreover, as returns, they repress what is, at least for mainstream art histories, really new, and really now: other art histories that are global, decolonial, and deeply unsettling.[6]

Unlike its modern predecessor, “Hunters and Gatherers” explicitly addresses these other art histories. The incorporation of other cultures into Western art has, after all, had a long history in relation to modernism, and the catalogue recognizes the production of “hybrid compositions” throughout time a result of these encounters. Yet such recognition contains them within this modernist vision, a vision that is made contemporary by virtue of our shared genetic assemblage—no longer the “spirit” of Seitz’s bricoleur, but the genetic drive of the hunter-gatherer provides the compulsion to create. In such encounters, as in primitivist formulations, only the Western artist emerges as bricoleur-scavenger, Baudelaire’s ragpicker meets Indiana Jones as a disaffected, nomadic archaeologist of modern and contemporary civilization. What makes a difference in this new formulation of assemblage is how it submerges even as it incorporates. By acknowledging other art histories, “Hunters and Gatherers” enables a one-way tracking of routes between the West and non-West through a universalizing concept of assemblage, a concept that becomes a contemporary rubric under which non-Western objects—and only historical, ceremonial ones from the classic periods of collecting—can be recognized as “art.”

It is a familiar narrative, well-rehearsed in stories about the tribal and the modern. Yet this tracking is a particularly problematic framing in relation to the concept of assemblage. As Julia Kelly has argued, the 1961 “Art of Assemblage” exhibition, which did not explicitly include non-Western art as a form of assemblage, missed the extent to which non-Western ontologies of objects had conditioned many of the artists’ approach to materials.  Specifically, Kelly suggests that “assemblage” as conceived here is as much about magical efficacy as components – hence Seitz’s emphasis on spirit and transformative potential – and thus draws much more upon anthropological translations of non-Western practices than on some essential tendency of the modern towards bricolage.[7] In other words, assemblage happens as art because of the capacity of objects to do things.

This idea of efficacy continues to inform contemporary approaches to assemblage. In the video that accompanies the online component of “Hunters and Gatherers,” curator Elizabeth Gorayeb seamlessly connects early-twentieth century art as a mode of action – “representing the world as it could be, or how we can transform it in our mind” – to the contemporary desire to assemble as “universal force among all of us.” Such a framing is highly connective: it draws lineages between the past and the present, artist and collector, West and non-West, a connectivity and encompassment that justify the broad scope of the exhibition. As such, “Hunters and Gatherers” proposes that assemblage may itself be a theoretical tool, which is a position that uncannily resonates with much contemporary social theory.

Tracing the theoretical appeal of assemblage as a Deleuzian concept for analyzing such contemporary social formations, George Marcus and Erkan Saka suggest that the concept itself belies a particular kind of re-modernism, a desire for structure amidst the upsets of contemporary social theory. For Marcus and Saka, assemblage can provide an “evocation of emergence and heterogeneity amid the data of inquiry, in relation to other concepts and constructs without rigidifying into the thingness of final or stable states that besets the working terms of classic social theory.”[8] In other words, assemblage, as a theoretical tool, allows for an explanation of social action, of doing things, that is sufficiently ephemeral and processual. Analysis in such a frame consists of tracing the contingent connections that constitute emergent social worlds, and many of these social science approaches to social assemblage run parallel to certain art historical theories of relational aesthetics, which emphasize the emergence of social action via engagements with the material world.[9]

I wonder about the extent to which both kinds of approaches to assemblage are constituted by notions of thing-ness that did not emerge from a hermetically-sealed modernism’s encounter with globalization, but from particular entanglements of the Western and the non-Western—indeed, the recognition of objects’ efficacies owes much to the messy entanglements of art worlds and artifacts. Such entanglements also include long histories of critical indigenous activism and scholarship that uses, usurps, and transcends modernist historiographies to inscribe what Steven Loft calls a cultural aesthetic, nuanced ways of knowing that presume different relations between subjects, objects, meaning and time.[10] Yet these routes between indigenous aesthetics and notions of contemporary effect remain largely unexplored.

So we have a partial answer to “why assemblage” – it is a capacious category with ties to modernism, efficacy, and emergence. But what does invoking these ties mean now?



© 2011, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, 1997–99 Translucent resin, fibreglass Dimensions: Figures: 79 x 69 x 137 cm Infinity cove: Painted medium-ply board Dimensions: variable Photo: Robert Fairer Source

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s The New Barbarians is a work that embodies the themes of “Hunters and Gatherers.” Formed out of fiberglass and resin, it is a sculptural self-portrait of the artists as early hominids, their hairless, sunken figures captured mid-stride in a foraging love story. The New Barbarians is deliberately evocative of an anthropological diorama in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, which imagines the early hominids, figured according to gendered expectations as a man and a woman, who might have left footprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli 3.5 million years ago. The exhibition catalogue for “Hunters and Gatherers” notes the pathos that this reference to the diorama enables, as the New Barbarians are “installed in isolation and presented naked to the world, [evoking] a sort of exit-from-Eden melancholia.” It is also an uncanny evocation: the New Barbarians maintain the contemporary facial features of the artists, bringing “this seemingly primitive pair into the present.” Simultaneously monstrous and innocent, the work is a hybrid assemblage, depicting the artists as literal hunter-gatherers, and it riffs on evolutionary science with all of its innocent hopes and explanations of the hetero-normative family of man.

Yet it also embodies the naturalness of these hybrid materialities, which, I argue, is an integral subtext of “Hunters and Gatherers.” The image of artist-as-bricoleur has always carried a certain innocence, an apolitical inscription of the encounters between modern and primitive. In such a story, we are all New Barbarians, our melancholic exodus a result of modernity. Like Baudelaire’s ragpicker, we assemble ourselves from the detritus of civilization – Julian Schnabel’s broken plate collage, Johnny Swing’s coin couch, Jaehyo Lee’s nail bed, routes, materials, and labor assembled to produce the contemporary and what Johanna Drucker has named its “complicit formalism”: a focus on materiality that transcends both anti-modernism and critical post-modernism’s political avant-gardism.[11] What is new about these New Barbarians is that their accumulative tendency, the innocent appropriation of materials, is figured as evolution: inevitable genetic destiny, an “impulse,” a “tendency.”


Wukchumne Yokuts Pictorial basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino. Source


Much of the non-Western art in the exhibition is also claimed by this narrative. For example, Northwest Coast art, we are told, is the result of “natural abundance” in the region, the success of hunting and gathering. Similarly functionalist language describes a late-nineteenth century basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino (Wukchumni Yokuts) as an object of beauty enabled by the “adaptability” and “high level of skill” of “hunter-gatherers.” None of this is untrue; certainly, art, environment, and the valuing of well-made objects are inextricably linked. Indeed, Surrealist Hans Bellmer, in his assemblage of doll parts for his puppes, could be considered similarly “adaptable” or “resourceful” in his recycling of his society’s material playthings. This cycle of accumulation and re-purposing is, in fact, the link drawn between West and non-West throughout “Hunters and Gatherers.” But the “adaptability” of Bellmer and his fellow artists is never named as such; instead, it is of a different, more active, sort, called “creativity” or “genius,” or, in Bellmer’s case, “obsession”: a conscious rather than an environmentally-enabled act.

Nothing is particularly new about these primitivist art world tropes, but they are worth highlighting here, because they reveal something about the kinds of connectivity that constitute assemblage. Coupled with the scientific romance of the “impulse to scavenge,” stories of adaptability obscure other networks and connections. For instance, the cross motifs on Topino’s basket, documented elsewhere in relation to her work as Christian imagery associated with two specific mission schools,[12] are not even mentioned in the basket’s relatively extensive catalogue note – indeed, certain kinds of “adaptability” are not considered part of the assemblage. Likewise, a marionette (“polychromed,” again) attributed to a Kwakuitl maker is noted as belonging to the Surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen, who travelled to the Northwest Coast, where he assembled a collection whose “aesthetic exerted a profound influence upon his work” – a glossed mention of the complex encounters enabled by the process of creating assemblages. In effect, the real entanglements generated in the process of assemblage are forgotten, as the genetic impulse removes the very real stakes behind the question of who is assembling whom.


* * *

In archaeological terms, when an assemblage with similar contents is repeated, it is referred to as a culture. If there is a lack of context for the recurrent assemblage, it is not quite a culture; it is an industry. “Hunters and Gatherers” assembled many of the tropes and strategies of containment that we have come to associate with the culture of art world primitivism, and did so in a way that I have been connecting to particular tendencies and narratives of “the contemporary” and its hybrid of scientific romance and willful forgetting, its particular engagement with materiality. Like good archaeologists, we would do well to not take every assemblage as an industry, and assume that “assemblage” is always-already complete. For it is precisely the unexplored potentialities of this mix, of the entanglement, that make assemblage a powerful metaphor for describing social and material worlds.



[1] From Hunters and Gatherers promotional video, available here . The catalogue of the exhibition may be found here .

[2] Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 11.

 [3] This usage of “fresh” is emphasized by the critic Johanna Drucker, who calls for fresh forms of theorizing that are complicit with the pace and materials of contemporary art. See Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005), xv.

 [4] William Seitz, The Art of Assemblage (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961): 6.

 [5]  Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 7-10.

[6] Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, 169.

[7] Julia Kelly, “The Anthropology of Assemblage,” Art Journal 67, 1(2008): 30.

 [8] George Marcus and Erkan Saka, “Assemblage,” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2006): 106.

 [9] On relational aesthetics, see Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. S. Pleasance et al. (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2004). On the connections between anthropological bricolage and assemblage, see Anna Dezeuze, “Assemblage, Bricolage, and the Practice of Everyday Life,” Art Journal 67, 1 (2008).

[10] Steven Loft, “Aboriginal Media Art and the Postmodern Conundrum: A Coyote Perspective,” Transference, Tradition, Technology, ed. D. Claxton, S. Loft, and M. Townsend (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 2005), 90.

 [11] Drucker, Sweet Dreams, xv.

 [12] Record 760/826, Fenimore Art Museum (n.d.), , accessed December 5th, 2012.


Diasporas on the Web: e-Diasporas Atlas Project

Date: Thursday 13th December

Time: 6-8 p.m.

Place: British Academy, Reading Room, 10 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y5AH

What kinds of diasporas are formed by connected migrants? Do the online networks woven by migrants scattered throughout the world, and the traces they leave on the Web, reveal traditional or novel functions of diasporas? Do these ’e-diasporas’ merely mirror physical diasporas, are they an extension to these diasporas, or do they generate new forms of communities? From a more general perspective, can they be considered as an echo-chamber of globalization – of a society which is itself a diaspora in the making? And how do digital methods help us to adopt a more reflexive stance on this phenomenon?

On this occasion, an event will be held at the British Academy in London, involving contributors as well as invited speakers, from 6 to 8 p.m on Thursday 13th December 2012. A cocktail reception will follow at 8 p.m. Researchers working on migrations and/or web studies and digital humanities will be welcome.

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