Tag Archives: materiality

On Scanning Fluff

Haidy Geismar, UCL


I’ve been working on a paper for a workshop on “Transforming data: drawing otherness into data debates” next week. I will be talking about one of  my current research projects, Te Ara Wairua – Pathways of the Intangible. In collaboration with Kura Puke and Stuart Foster of Massey University and Te Matahiapo Research Organization in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been exploring how digital technologies can connect to a Maori Korowai (cloak) held currently in the UCL Ethnography Collections.


Tukutuku roimata, I.0013, see, ethcat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx?parentpriref=[/caption]

Together we are developing a critical perspective on the ways in which digital technologies can, or cannot, be used to connect communities to far away collections. We all have different interests and investments in the project, and these have generated different research questions. Kura Puke and Te Matahiapo have brought the Maori conception of Wairua (meaning spiritual energy), to the project. This is a category that instantiates Maori philosophies of the virtual within which the digital fits neatly inside. Wairua is understood as a form of connectivity across space and time connecting people, through taonga such as the Maori cloak. Stuart Foster, a spatial designer, is interested in creating virtual environments in which people can simultaneously experience the same events and objects. As curator of the Ethnography collection and director of the UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology, I am interested in thinking about the process of digitization and exploring different digital modalities in order to critique the world view and subject position that is all too often celebrated unthinkingly in contemporary efforts to reconstruct objects as 3d Digital surrogates.


Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru, Mereiwa Broughton, Te Urutahi Waikerepuru, Tengaruru Wineera being projected through Facetime into UCL Octagon Gallery from Wharenui Te Ururongo, Pouakai, on June 17, 2014


Representatives of Ngati Ranana, and UCl Museums and Collections engaging with Te Matahiapo in the UCL Octagon Gallery, June 17 2014

 Together our project has had a number of different events and outputs. We have held several virtual powhiri – ritual environments in which Maori elders have been able to connect to communities in London through real time broadband and cellular connections. We have exhibited the cloak within a digital environment using specially developed sound carrying light. These LEDs channel live sounds to bathe the cloak with light drawing attention to the materiality and environmental qualities of the digital and creating a DIY method of facilitating connection between communities and artefacts across time and space. We have experimented with 3D imaging of the cloak, using laser scanning, photogrammetry, and different software platforms.


An attempt to create a 3D image of the cloak using photogrammetry

In the places I’ve presented this already we have started to think a lot about deconstructing the positivism of 3D scanning in museum projects. The Korowai, made up of flax, wool, and the hair of the polynesian dog is remarkably resistant to digital data capture – its very difficult to scan textiles or to recreate the exact form of hair tassels. I’m interested to explore this process in terms of what the digitization process can illuminate about the object even if it is a failure in terms of creating a perfect simulacrum. Do my “failed” scans and photogrammetric representations of the cloak expose something else about the object? A sense of loss and disconnect? or do they open the door to alternative ways in which digital technology may represent the cloak?

I’ve therefore been thinking about failed scanning and failed digital representation. I took a piece of wool, similar to that on the cloak, from the Ethnography Collections to UCL’s Institute of Making and have spent some time trying to scan it with the intention of showing the limits of current technologies to represent certain kinds of objects. Working with the Institute employee and artist Zachary Eastwood Bloom we struggled to scan the fluff to various degrees of failure.


3d scan of a piece wool from the ethnography collections

Whilst there are craftspeople who could create a perfect simulacrum of wool using digital tools, the photographic metaphors currently used to describe 3d museum collections failed us in trying to understand the kinds of images of wool and fluff we generated directly from the 3D scanner. The conversation turned at the Institute of Making in the same direction my conversation with Kura and stuart had turned – what other properties of digital materialities could bring us closer to these objects?

Eastwood Bloom’s own work mirrors that of our work within Te Ara Wairua. He has been interested in converting 3D digital scans of objects by editing the scans to create new kinds of objects and like us is interested in the process of translation that the digital affords – converting light into shape, two dimensions into three. Uncannily just as we were converting the cloak into a landscape using gaming software, converting sounds channeled from New Zealand into light to connect to the Cloak at UCL, and converting images of the cloak into sound,  Zachary was experimenting with creating digital terrains from audio outputs.

This convergence shows the benefits of having a make space like the Institute of Making on campus  enabling academics to move their ideas into material realm no matter what their discipline or skills set. These experiments, and our research project with the cloak, are increasingly working with the digital as a medium of translation rather than a technique of perfect visualization which has important effects for the possibilities of how we may use digital collections to connect objects to communities in ways other than that of the simulacrum, using discourses other than that of “virtual” repatriation.

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.



Our Writing on your things

Diana Young, University of Queensland Art Museum

The University of Queensland Director Diana Young writes…

Since 2009 the Anthropology Museum has again had a rolling exhibition program both to enable more of its significant 26,000 item collection to be seen, to present academic research in ways that engages with a wide audience whilst challenging and expanding ideas about what an ‘anthropological’ collection can be in the 21st century.


Eshewing long text panels the installation of all exhibtions must in some way convey ideas and context. In Gapuwiyak Calling the curators wanted a rainforest in which to hang the tiny projections of films made on mobile phones and the Museum team worked to make that forest from plinths together with the paper, mini projectors and repro retro phone handsets sourced by Miyarrka Media.


My aim also has been to include collection things in each exhibition and initially Gapuwiyak Calling seemed to be a show composed entirely of intangible media. But a sculpture of a spirit figure arrived with Miyarrka media  and was armed with spear, spear thrower and yidaki from the collection. He resides in the gallery video projection of the forest in where he dwells.

In this double bill in one gallery space written on the body, curated by Waanyi artist Judy Watson and Diana Young, is an exhibition that is seemingly the inverse of Gapuwiyak Calling – crammed full of stuff. Both these exhibitions question received ideas about Museum processes by making them more visible to the visitor through different Indigenous interventions.


In written on the body playfulness and visual poetry is evident in the tableau of written on museum collection things that have been arranged with used kitchenware, mirrors and anthropometric measuring devices. These have been deployed both to reassure through their worn ordinariness  and to emphasise the violence in the gesture of writing on someone else’s property.

As Watson writes in her catalogue essay;

‘To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descendants of the places from which these museum – held objects came, the act of writing onto the objects can be seen as an act of vandalism, a sacrilege, an infliction of control by another, dominating culture.’

This sentiment is played out in the film Watson made in the Anthropology Museum collection store in which descendants of the people to whom the things once belonged touch and talk to them. In Watson’s words these  ‘… are an extension of their family’s embrace, carrying messages from home’. The used kitchenware conveys similar sentiment.

Jennifer Deger, anthropologist and co-curator of Gapuwiyak Calling describes the exhibition as “…an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum”.

The performativity of Gapuwiyak Calling contrasts with the meditative stillness of written on the body.  But in this exhibition too is an intention by the curators to activate things through a richochet of relationships that destabilises the layers of information and misinformation on the museum labels ( mostly dating from the early period of the collecting of 1940s to 1960) and provide a rich visual experience for visitors.

The exhibition catalogue can be download here


Materiality in Japan: Making, Breaking and Conserving Works of Art and Architecture

April 11, 2014

Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Organized by Anton Schweizer, 2012-2014 IFA/Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
RSVP is required. Please find instructions below.

Japan is widely regarded as an exemplar in terms of the preservation of material integrity, the perpetuation of historical production techniques and the responsible preservation of works of architecture and artifacts in museum contexts. The Japanese certification system for Cultural Property – which also includes the category of Living National Treasures for specialist craftsmen who embody manufacturing techniques as Intangible Cultural Property – has earned far-reaching acclaim. It is frequently overlooked, however, that there is actually a wide range of divergent approaches towards originality and authenticity even in contemporary Japan. While some of these inconsistencies find their counterparts in the West, others are related to pre-modern cultural practices, e.g. concurrent concepts of artifacts in divergent contexts of reception and evaluation.

This conference attempts to shed light on this issue with a series of case studies as a means to deconstruct overly simplistic explanatory models.

The conference schedule will follow three thematic sections:

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Media, Materiality, Infrastructure Workshop

Friday, March 7, 2014

Department of Media, Culture, and Communication
New York University Steinhardt
239 Greene Street, Floor 8
New York, NY 10003

This one-day workshop in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication will consider emergent approaches to media, materiality, and infrastructure. It is inspired by the recent expansion in research on the materiality of media and communication, undertaken in diverse scholarly lineages ranging from material culture, to urban studies, to German media-theory inspired media archaeology. The workshop will explore questions such as: how are new forms of material assemblage affecting mediation? What new forms of agency, sociality, and connectivity are at play? What kinds of materialist approaches are necessary to come to grips with the shifts in media infrastructure? It is our hope that the session will serve as a forum to foreground critical questions on media and materiality, and to connect and advance projects on these topics.

We request that participants register for full-day participation in order to assure a continuous conversation as well as stakeholders for future directions based on this workshop.


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A New Government Breaks With The Past in The Papua New Guinea Parliament’s “Haus Tambaran

Ryan Schram, University of Sydney

The 2013 session of the Parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG) ended with drama from an unexpected place. After months of stories from PNG of mobs and armed gangs torturing women and men they accused of sorcery, and a campaign of symbolic mourning by women across the country against violence, most of December was given over to a media scandal about a decision by the Speaker of Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc, to remove carvings and statues he considered demonic from the parliament building.

The lintel and facade of the National Parliament Building, October 2013 (Credit: So Much World, So Little Time http://somuchworldsolittletime.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/arts-of-png-parliament-house/)

The lintel and facade of the National Parliament Building, October 2013 (Credit: So Much World, So Little Time somuchworldsolittletime.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/arts-of-png-parliament-house/)[/caption]

On December 6, a normally quiet time in PNG before Christmas, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that the Speaker of Parliament, Theo Zurenuoc (Finschhafen, Morobe Provnice) planned to remove a lintel of 19 ornately carved faces from iconic facade of the national Parliament House.1 Objections came in from all quarters – from academia, unions, churches – and the Post-Courier, but the speaker’s staff continued to work, erecting scaffolding around a group of carved poles representing the nation’s diverse woodworking traditions in the main entrance hall of the building. Zurenuoc insisted that he would “cleanse” the building all “ungodly images and idols”2, not only these works, but all of the decorations in the building. It was part of his plan to “reform” and “modernise”3 Parliament itself. Critics accused the Speaker of magical thinking about merely artistic and “cultural” objects. They attributed his efforts to millenarianism, animism, religious fervor, and even foreign interference from Israel. Many said his actions would damage national unity because they brought religion into the state in a new and divisive way.

The lintel after it had been removed, damaged by Parliament workers and discarded. (Credit: Andrew Moutu, Facebook: Sharp Talk[1])

The lintel after it had been removed, damaged by Parliament workers and discarded. (Credit: Andrew Moutu, Facebook: Sharp Talk[1])

One reason why this issue seemed to catch fire has to do with PNG’s famously byzantine political machinations. Yet, as a bit of summertime political theatre, it also caught the public’s attention both domestically and internationally. In December two separate conferences were held by the National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG)4 and the National Cultural Commission5, and an international network of anthropologists rallied online to support their colleague, Andrew Moutu, the director of NMAG, who has been challenging the action in court. It was a dispute over symbols on several levels: not only whether Christian or indigenous symbols should be used for national institutions, but also whether either of these kinds of images could still express a credible national identity, and one could still gave credence to the secular belief that there are no gods or ghosts in the constitutional machine, that symbols were merely objects. These kinds of disputes have come up several times in the history of PNG’s iconic ‘spirit house’ (haus tambaran).

Papua New Guinea’s Men’s House

As PNG prepared for independence from Australia in 1975, the territory’s government held a design competition for a permanent home for parliament. They wanted a grand building in the government district of Waigani that would symbolize the country’s future as a free nation. The design by Cecil Hogan entitled “A Modern Haus Man (Men’s House)” envisaged a complex of three buildings under a sharply steeped roof over the central hall, creating a profile evoking a haus tambaran (spirit house) of an East Sepik province men’s cult. The other buildings referenced places of male leadership found in other regions. Archie Brennan, a lecturer from the national arts school, was selected to manage the process of producing decorative artwork for the complex which would reflect different artistic traditions from around the country. Mimicking the painted bark facades of spirit houses, Brennan designed an intricate, colorful mosaic based on drawings by the renowned artist Mathias Kauage and others for the building’s front facade. It combined cultural motifs, symbols of the nation’s resources and future progress, and excerpts from the preamble to the constitution. Students from the school and carvers produced the lintel of nineteen faces for the front facade. Brennan also oversaw the creation of an assemblage of wooden poles entitled “Bung Wantaim” (Coming Together), placed in the front foyer. After four years construction and 23.4 million kina (approximately US$25 million then), the building opened in 19846.

The Parliament Building and flags of PNG’s provinces (Credit: ABC)

The Parliament Building and flags of PNG’s provinces (Credit: ABC)

From the beginning, the design and artwork of the building was controversial. Students from the University of Papua New Guinea protested the opening over the expense. Many other criticised that such a large building and grandiose design was chosen as opposed to a project that could be built in stages. Critics read it as a monument to the country’s new leaders, and suggested that the design really only symbolised the Sepik region of Michael Somare, the first prime minister, and not the country as a whole. Architects also faulted the use of indigenous design and artwork. One of the design competition’s judges, Balwant Saini said that indigenous styles and images were stripped of their original cultural context in order to make a political statement about national unity. The whole thing was a “cultural abortion.”7

As an attempt to plan a national identity, the haus man design and artwork is by its nature heavy-handed. It draws an explicit, rather simplistic analogy between the men’s house and the parliament. It leaves itself wide open to satire. Letters to the editor by readers of the PC over the last few years regularly poke fun at the haus tambaran image.

In a 2012 letter to the PC lamenting ethnic violence and lawlessness, Riwi Rindi “Let us not think as our so called leaders from the haus tambaran but as real Papua New Guineans. … The regionalistic thoughts are not from our fathers or a Melanesian way of thinking. It is a thought introduced by our so called leaders in the haus tambaran which is now beginning to eat away the fabric of this nation.”8 The author suggests that parliamentarians don’t deserve to be associated with the virtues of traditional leadership, and subtly reminds his readers of the Sepik roots of the supposedly national building.

Another letter-writer in the PC decried the influence of ‘millionaire’ donors on politics, saying those elected are beholden to them “in order to stay on the comfortable chairs of Haus Tambaran.”9 Writing a letter from the “Works Compound” (a Port Moresby housing compound for Department of Works staff), Robert Akunaii wrote a letter to the PC recently to lament the corruption of public spending. He writes: “[At independence] the Haus Tambaran was built with the finest materials and even the size of the building is huge, it is one of the best Parliament House amongst the Commonwealth Countries … [Today] Waigani has become a synonym for graft.”10

Among the many ironies that people play on, one is that parliament supposedly represents a Christian nation, yet its members can be quite wicked. In a 2008 speech in Parliament Francis Awesa MP remarked that “it was ironic that parliamentarians prayed for God’s guidance at the start of every session in a building dubbed Haus Tambaran.”11 In a 2010 opinion article in the PC, Isaac Lupari called for a parliament with a more “Christian environment.” He quipped that “the National Parliament changes people;” members are “converted” to a religion of corruption when they enter the building. Citing the country’s Christian principles in its constitution, he suggested that not only should its national legislature not be housed in a traditionally styled building, but that since the haus tambaran came from the Sepik, it could never be a national symbol anyways.12 The Christian critique of the state often sounds exactly like the traditional critique of the state. As Riwi Rindi says: “They are called leaders when in fact they lack all the leadership traits that makes a person be a leader.”

Some people see a deeper meaning in the building. For instance, Peter Pere, a pastor of the Port Moresby Church of God said that many public sculptures in Port Moresby, including Parliament House, were traditional idols that offended God and brought God’s curse upon the country. This was based on research for a forthcoming book “relating to Haus Tambaran and political leadership of Sir Michael Somare and his reign in his 40 years in political leadership.”13 For the pastor, traditional artwork should never symbolise a modern, Christian nation; in his worldview, traditional forms were by definition pre-Christian, and hence, evil. Awesa, in the speech cited above, also suggested that the traditional styles of sculpture in Parliament invited demons to enter.

10-toea stamp for the opening of Parliament House in 1984. (Credit: Stampmall http://stampmall.com.au/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=4417)

10-toea stamp for the opening of Parliament House in 1984. (Credit: Stampmall stampmall.com.au/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=4417)[/caption]

These critics of Parliament don’t just question whether the metaphor of the building’s design and decoration is apt. They impose their own alternative meanings on traditional forms, connecting traditional ancestor and spirit worship associated specifically with men’s cults and men’s initiation rituals in many parts of the country, including the Sepik region, and pagan worship of Satan. Because the nation-state of PNG continues to celebrate non-Christian institutions, even in a token way, leaders in effect reject the salvation offered by Christianity, and the modernity and membership in the global Christian community this brings. For the independence generation, tradition was a key symbol of the new nation because it distinguished the country from Australian society and the colonial past. They did not, of course, have any desire to perpetuate traditional forms that prevented economic growth. In fact, many early politicians were hard anti-traditionalists. Yet then everyone mostly seemed to agree that traditional art, stripped of its original meaning, was still appropriate as a symbol for a uniquely Melanesian nation. For revivalist Christians like Peter Pere, though, colonialism and independence are in fact the same step in a totally different story, the advent of Christianity in PNG and the beginning of a totally new kind of society.

Cleansing House or Cleaning House?

Somare was the country’s first prime minister, and also most frequent, leading four governments between 1975 and 2011. Being the so-called father of the nation has been double edged. He has been a fixture of politics, but his longevity has made the public anticipate the rise of the next generation of politicians all the more eagerly. In 2011, after months absent from the capital for medical treatment in Singapore, a group of parliamentarians led by Peter O’Neill (Ialibu-Pangia, Southern Highlands Province) changed the government, yet under a questionable application of procedure. Both sides obtained court decisions and orders bolstering their claims to a parliamentary majority. For months, the national media, unable to decide who was legitimate, referred to two governments, two governors-general, two police commissioners, and so on. Finally, a compromise was reached that placed O’Neill’s faction in power just in time for the 2012 general election. Claiming the mantle of the next generation, O’Neill and his supporters cemented their victory in the election. Since returning to office, O’Neill has formed quite possibly the broadest coalition in history – of parliaments, everywhere. By the end of 2013, the official opposition consisted of 6 out of 111 members and the government has 105 (although press reports suggest that groups within the government can still block legislation).

At the height of the crisis, the government formed by O’Neill met in Parliament. The session was boycotted by the Somare government. Theo Zurenuoc, one of O’Neill’s supporters, rose to speak on the dark days facing the republic. Poreni Umau, a reporter for the PC was in the gallery that day and wrote the following:

“I believe that this house (parliament) is cursed,” Mr Zurenuoc said. > > He went on to relate to parliament where on one Sunday, he went to pray in > parliament and saw 19 designs on the wall of the building. > > He said that he was taken aback by these designs saying that they represented > the 19 provinces and these designs may be evil spirits that have brought curse > to the parliament house. > > He said that he went ahead and began praying against the evil spirits, > rebuking them out of the house. > > […] > > He also spoke out against Sir Michael . . ., alleging that the Grand Chief > [as Somare is also widely known] and his followers were agents and > facilitators of evil. “I must say it here. I do not fear anyone. They are > agents and facilitators of evil,” he said.14

Zurenuoc’s prophecy recalls a lot of religious rhetoric one finds in PNG, but it also brings together all of the common critiques of the building. Amidst the monuments selected by Somare to represent the nation, Zurenuoc turns the building from a spirit house into his own private chapel. Where many see mere symbols of the national community, he wills himself to see more than meets the eye, the hidden powers behind the public image. What’s needed, he suggests, is not simply new people in power, but a new system and a new spirit – led by Christianity. After O’Neill and his group were returned to office, Zurenuoc was elected as Speaker of the ninth Parliament of PNG. From early days, he declared his intention to “restore, reform and modernise” the parliament, as he said in a speech at the Centre for Democratic Institutions at Australian National University during a workshop on parliamentary management.15 In that speech, he clearly distinguished himself from the independence generation of Somare. That generation’s approach to policymaking was derived directly from a traditional cultural system, and clashed with the principles of democracy. The traditional ethos had led to official corruption and ethnic favoritism, and his generation must break with this a build a rationally managed parliament based on formal procedures. Rather than pork-barrelling, every member should serve the public interest alone.16

After his first year in the Speaker’s office, Zurenuoc took an opportunity for an act of symbolic nation-making of his own by dismantling artwork that, for him and many others in government, represented the bad old days in more than one way.

Church and State

The response to Zurenuoc’s action was swift. The director of the National Museum and Art Gallery, anthropologist Andrew Moutu said that Zurenuoc’s actions a “perverse political form of millenarianism” and potentially illegal because the artwork was national cultural property.2 The Catholic archbishop of Port Moresby, John Ribat, called it a “disgrace.” He said that the Zurenuoc should have properly sought the input of “mainline churches, anthropologists, historians and educationists before going ahead with his action, as they are ones who can give a balanced opinion on the importance of our cultures and traditions”.17 The statement, like many, implied that Zurenuoc’s personal beliefs were fundamentalist. The reaction, especially internationally, seemed to play on primitive imagery twice over.18 Zurenuoc not only believed in the traditional spirits of indigenous beliefs, but also that they were demons from hell, too. PC editorials compared Zurenuoc to the Taliban, and his actions harmful to democracy.1920 In other words, when they called on the prime minister to intervene, implicitly, it was to rein in a zealot acting illegally. While the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Council of Churches, claiming to represent mainstream belief, condemned Zurenuoc2122, several pastors from Pentecostal churches spoke out in favour, one calling the removal “the work of God.”2324

“Please Stop!” The front page of the PNG Post Courier on December 13, 2013.

“Please Stop!” The front page of the PNG Post Courier on December 13, 2013.

The situation became quite tense, it appears. On December 11, O’Neill said in an interview with the PC that work has stopped, then it commenced again.25 The speaker’s office issued no statement, while the PC published a front page story on the issue every single day for two weeks.26 MPs current and former made their stances known. Many prominent members gave support to Zurenuoc, saying he had the authority to act and endorsing the religious meaning as well. Others, including former Speakers and current members, opposed him. The PC ran a picture of Somare on the front page with the headline “‘Please Stop!’: Sir Michael Appeals for End to Desecration.”27 The PC editors accused the speaker’s staff of intimidating reporters on the parliament grounds.28

Finally, on the 18th, Zurenuoc took out a eight page advertisement in the National, a competing newspaper. He toned down his spiritual interpretation of the artwork, saying:

While the carvings are harmless and lifeless wood, they symbolically represent > ancestral gods and spirits of idolatry, immorality and witchcraft. I am not > making this up. I am paraphrasing what the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare said > on the eve of Independence. (In the book Living Spirits with Fixed Abodes: The > Masterpieces Exhibition of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art > Gallery, edited by Barry Craig, published in 2010.)3

He wanted to “modernise” Parliament by installing works that would symbolise what he said were the true sources of national unity, the constitution, the Bible and (oddly) Michael Somare. He announced a plan to erect a National Unity Pole which would combine these and the word ‘unity’ in the 800 indigenous languages of the country. His plan was still steeped in religious language, but carefully avoided anything that smacked of animism, instead attributing that view to Somare and anthropologist Barry Craig.29

On December 27, O’Neill called for a debate in parliament over the fate of the artwork.30 Meanwhile, the issue was debated all over Port Moresby. NMAG held a conference on the topic with several academic and religious speakers.4 Another conference was sponsored by the National Cultural Commission.5

If one looks only at the positions taken by politicians and editorialists, the debate revolved around proving that one’s position was the most consistent with Enlightenment rationality. On Twitter, Deni ToKunai (@Tavurur) tweeted:

My people have a custom of chasing evil spirits away every NY. We bang > saucepans. The Speaker should invest in crockery. Seems to work > #PNG31

For his part, when he finally did speak up, Zurenuoc took the emphasis away from what he wanted to remove, and talked up his own vision. His National Unity Pole would consist mainly of words, of God and the law, not to mention a single abstract noun in 800 different languages. In other words, it would be an expression of pure rationality, ornamented only by a single eternal flame. It seemed calculated to present him as moderniser, working according to his stated plans for parliament, instead of a renegade. Readers of the PC, however, expressed a much broader range of views. While opinion was split, there was much more openness to change.

People’s House

Between December 6 and January 15, the PC published 21 letters and opinion pieces on the issue. A quick read shows a nearly even split in opinion among the 20 authors. Nine supported Zurenuoc, nine opposed him, and two others expressed a neutral view. The trustees of NMAG32 and a linguistics professor at Divine Word University33 both strongly opposed the speaker’s actions as destruction of cultural heritage. Joseph Walters, the pastor of a popular Pentecostal church, endorsed Zurenuoc and called on churches to support him.34 One tour operator said that cultural heritage was good for the tourism business.35 The other writers, though, actually did want to discuss whether and in what respect PNG was Christian, which traditions still mattered and what would really represent them as a nation. They engaged directly with the question of whether or not the carvings were good, evil or maybe something else. The realm of public discourse was a lot wider.

One strand uniting them is a Christian critique of Zurenuoc’s focus on objects. These authors more or less agreed that PNG was a Christian country, for some even a country founded on a covenant with God, as Zurenuoc claimed. But they said that true reform would come from conversion of parliament’s members. In a sense, these writers make the same kind of critique that PNG people have always had of their government. The dismantling of the decorations was just as empty a gesture as putting them up.363738

Related to this was a position articulated by a few against the speaker. As Nema Yalo writes, “It is contrary to … Christian faith to despise other religions and superimpose Christianity.”393640 The supporters of Zurenuoc were not ready to believe that the state should be neutral on religious questions. In the words of one writer, calling for tolerance is an “atheist’s” view.41 If the state paid respect to culture, or other religions, it would be breaking the first commandment.42

Some people wanted the objects removed because they were part of the past, not because they were evil. Two letter writers recommended that they should be removed, but donated to NMAG. They represented the traditional cultures of PNG, and should be respected as such, just not in Parliament.4344 One author compared the faces and poles to the ritual objects of the Old Testament Canaanites.44 Another author, tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that women had polluted the national haus man. Typically women are forbidden from entering men’s houses, and men’s affairs are officially secret to women. By building a men’s cult building as its national legislature, PNG chose to follow the rules that come with this. Yet this society has always embraced gender equality too. “Don’t you agree?”, the author winks, “[I]f we follow customs and traditions we have ourselves to blame for the traditional misdemeanour and a breach of the cardinal rule – women are out of bounds from the Haus Tambaran.” IF PNG really wants to live up to its own ideals, it needs a change. “I propose we build a new Parliament House with a new design and get rid of the Haus Tambaran full of evil spirits.”45

Blessing or Curse

With Parliament away, the criticism of Zurenuoc’s actions in last two months has focused on its religious underpinnings and its implications for a secular, liberal democracy in PNG. As Parliament reconvenes in February, it is possible that another narrative will come out as members of parliament take a stand. Zurenuoc’s speeches during the recess indicate that his stance is good populism as well as moral politics.46

When one looks more closely at people’s reactions, it becomes clear that one can’t explain the scandal purely as a war of ideologies or mere manoeuvring. Zurenuoc has reopened an even bigger question in the minds of many grassroots people. Is it possible at all for there to be a symbol of the national community? For Zurenuoc, the answer seems clearly to be yes. Christianity can transcend all of the different communities of the country more than any traditional expression. While he has a lot of support, people’s views are much more nuanced in their answers.

Zurenuoc’s critics want people to come together as fellow citizens with rights to their beliefs and respect for each other. It’s hard to argue with this liberal vision, especially given that any alternative is bound to exclude someone. So why are people debating the carvings? The real conflict at the heart of this issue is not between religious unity and secular tolerance. There is a deeper difference over what you can and can’t debate in the modern public sphere. Let’s for the moment assume that Zurenuoc was within his authority to hack off a piece of the Parliament facade – and that still remains to be seen as many different laws apply. If he could though, many people wanted to say he shouldn’t simply because basing policy on the supernatural is out of bounds. The carvings could not be evil, because they were symbols and nothing more. Even Zurenuoc himself ultimately conceded that the works were “lifeless wood.” You can believe whatever you want about them, but that’s all it is, a personal belief.

And yet, these tenets of the liberal modern creed sound pretty hollow to many in PNG, and have for some time. The possibility that there were unseen forces has been, though, if not credible, good to think and good to debate. It’s a debate that is not, at least in a strict sense, rational. It still resonates in part because it draws upon the long tradition of accusing politicians of hypocrisy. It starts as a joke, and becomes a speculation. While officials and experts confidently assert claims to truth, letter writers, tentatively and pragmatically, probe, question and suggest. If it is possible that there are hidden forces in state pageantry, people can then ask an unaskable question. Just why is this constitutional order the right one? The parliament house tangibly embodies the PNG polity more tangibly than the constitution and other national symbols. While the objects that adorn it may or may not have powers of their own, the possibility that someone could take down one embodiment of the collective self and put in place another seems to be what critics fear and others find fascinating. In PNG, “Christian country” and “Melanesian way” are more often than not empty slogans. Politicians flog them to stir up sentiment. Why do people keep talking about them in earnest? Because they offer a chance to rethink things that are often too readily left unquestioned.

  1. Moutu, Andrew. 2013. “PNG Parliament Carved Heads.” ABC News, December 17. www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-17/png-parliament-carved-heads/5160698
  2. Evara, Rosalyn Albaniel. 2013. “Zurenuoc Banishes ‘Ungodly Images and Idols’ from Parliament: Speaker ‘Cleanses’ House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 6. 
  3. Gerawa, Maureen. 2013. “National Unity Pole a Uniting Symbol; National Pledge to Be Changed House Plans Revealed.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 18. 
  4. Emeck, Natasha. 2014. “Supporters Insist Culture, Religion Can Co-Exist.” The National (Papua New Guinea), January 20. www.museumpng.gov.pg/index.php/news/view/supporters-insist-culturereligion-can-co-exist. ;
  5. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Forum to Debate ‘Cleansing.’” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 19. Excerpts from this forum can be seen in EM TV. 2013. “Forum Held on Preservation of Culture.” EM TV. December 19. www.emtv.com.pg/news-app/item/forum-held-on-preservation-of-culture. ;
  6. Rosi, Pamela C. 1991. “Papua New Guinea’s New Parliament House: A Contested National Symbol.” The Contemporary Pacific 3(2): 289-323. scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10125/8518
  7. Balwant Saini quoted in Rosi 1991, p. 311, speaking at a seminar entitled “The State of the Arts in the Pacific.” 
  8. Rindi, Riwi. 2012. “We Must All Strive for Unity.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, April 11. 
  9. Observer. 2012. “Please Respect Democracy.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, July 18. 
  10. Akunaii, Robert D. 2012. “Corruption a Major Stumbling Block.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, July 4. 
  11. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2008. “Awesa: House of God or Satan?” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, May 21. 
  12. Lupari, Isaac B. 2010. “PNG Resource-Rich yet Spiritually Poor.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, May 7. 
  13. Eroro, Simon. 2011. “Pastor against Sculptures.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, February 2. While Somare has been prominent in national politics for nearly 40 years, he has not actually led the country for 40 years. As discussed below, he served as prime minister for about 17 years on four separate occasions. Naturally he casts a long shadow and this is how readers of Pere’s statement would take it. 
  14. Umau, Poreni. 2011. “Parlt Is Haunted.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 15. 
  15. Zurenuoc, Theo. 2013. “Restoring the People’s Parliament.” ANUchannel, July 17. www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ecnW9S3BU
  16. See especially minutes 4:15-8:00 of Zurenuoc 2013. www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2ecnW9S3BU?t=4m15s
  17. The National. 2013. “Ribat: Leave carvings.” The National, December 12. www.thenational.com.pg/?q=node/61261 
  18. Pearlman, Jonathan. 2013. “Evangelical Christian Speaker of Papua New Guinea’s Parliament Destroys ‘Evil’ Pagan Carvings.” Telegraph.co.uk, December 23. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/papuanewguinea/10534323/Evangelical-Christian-speaker-of-Papua-New-Guineas-parliament-destroys-evil-pagan-carvings.html
  19. Akane, Milka, and Alexander Rheeney. 2013. “Cultural Terrorist.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  20. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Speaker Should Resign from Office.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  21. Bauai, Gloria. 2013. “Church Condemns Speaker’s Moves.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  22. Bauai, Gloria. 2013. “Council of Churches Demand Face to Face Meeting with Government Parlt Move Fuels Tension.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 17. 
  23. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Walters Supports Speaker.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 23. 
  24. Martin, Melissa. 2014. “Removal of Masks a Work of God.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, January 28. 
  25. Rheeney, Alexander, and Armstrong Saiyama. 2013. “Parlt Madness Ends.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 11. 
  26. The other major English-language newspaper, the National, published only a few news stories, one editorial (favourable to Zurenuoc) and a handful of letters on this issue, compared to the daily drumbeat of criticism of Zurenuoc from the PC. The editorial positions of the two papers often contrast. The differences in coverage among PNG media, though, is outside the scope of this essay. 
  27. Rheeney, Alexander. 2013. “‘Please Stop!’: Sir Michael Appeals for End to Desecration.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  28. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “Harassment of Our Staff Unjustified.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. December 18. 
  29. Craig has since disputed the way his work his being used in Zurenuoc’s announcement, denying that he writes anything that Zurenuoc attributes to him, and arguing that Zurenuoc is overinterpreting his claims about the cultural and religious significance of carved objects in PNG societies. For his part, Zurenuoc seems not to rely on Craig for ethnographic evidence per se, but is attempting to claim the privileged position of epistemological relativism that ethnographers claim. Ethnographers speak about magic credulously, as if it were real, without being challenged, and then step away from that position and provide an objective explanation of a person’s belief. In a sense, many critics of Zurenuoc attempted claim epistemological authority when they refused to engage with his statements and declared him a maniac. In his supplement, Zurenuoc seems to be turning the tables. 
  30. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier. 2013. “PM Calls for Debate on Parlt Cleansing.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 27. 
  31. ToKunai, Deni. 2014. “My People Have a Custom…” @Tavurvur, January 2. twitter.com/Tavurvur/status/418631383783727105
  32. Violaris, Julius, Andrew Abel, Nora Vagi Brash, Michael Mel, and Peter Loko. 2013 “Leave Traditional Images Alone.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 9. 
  33. Volker, Craig. 2013. “Cultural Terrorism in the Parliament House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 10. 
  34. Walters, Joseph. 2014. “Lutherans, Please Break Silence.” Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, January 15. 
  35. Folock, Brian. 2013. “Tourism’s Uniquely Iconic Ruins.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 16. 
  36. PNG Tauna. 2013. “Clean the Hearts of Those within the House.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  37. Concerned citizen. 2013. “Removal of Carvings Not Justified.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 24. 
  38. Lutulele, Robert. 2013. “What It Means to Be Christian Nation.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 31. 
  39. Yalo, Nema. 2013. “The Covenant and the Constitution.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  40. Eragairmayal (Moromaule). 2013. “Zurenuoc Should Be Arrested, Sacked.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 20. 
  41. Father’s son. 2013. “Sir Puka, Your Views Are of an Atheist.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 19, 2013. 
  42. EKit Kuu Kange. 2013. “Mr Speaker, You Are Correct.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 13. 
  43. Orlando W. 2013. “Speaker Must Be Very Cautious.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 11. 
  44. Ora, V. 2013. “Relocate Artefacts to Museum.” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 17. 
  45. Tubuna, Jijiro. 2013. “Have Women Poisoned House?” The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, December 18. 
  46. EM TV. 2014. “Zurenuoc: Artifacts Removed to Be Replaced.” EM TV, January 7. www.emtv.com.pg/news-app/item/zurenoc-artifacts-removed-to-be-replaced. ;

Workshop: Materials and Materiality in Native North American Art History

A four-day workshop for graduate students and junior professionals

Sponsored by the Otsego Institute for Native American Art History, in cooperation with the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York

May 18-23, 2014

The 2014 Otsego Institute for Native North American Art History will focus on two interrelated issues of fundamental importance to advanced students in this field: the connoisseurship of materials and the theorization of materiality. Through workshops and close hands-on examination of objects in the Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, as well as lectures, readings, and group discussions, we will develop skills in identifying the materials, styles, and techniques of preparation used by Native North American artists in the production of both historic and current art. At the same time, we will explore Indigenous and Western intellectual engagements with material phenomena: the nature and culture of materiality, how it embodies the spiritual, and how different materialities – human, animal, environmental— act on each other in artistic contexts.

The workshops will include presentations, discussions and hands-on examination of original works of art. There will be time for participants to present informally their own current and prospective dissertations and curatorial projects to co-participants and faculty.

Application deadline: February 15, 2014

For more info, download the application here: Call_for_applicants_2014

CFP: Music Flows, IASPM-US Annual Conference

Water Flows 33_29_9_web

March 13-16, 2014 

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Submission Deadline: Friday, 15 November, 2013

Music flows. Evocative metaphorically while directing our attention to the global circulation of songs, the theme for the 2014 IASPM-US Annual Conference takes its inspiration from the UNC campus-wide Water initiative. Water in its many forms is a ubiquitous subject of pop songs. Whether as metaphor or literal reference, water imagery as a theme in popular music has been used to celebrate identity, express emotions, address environmental issues, convey pleasure, pay homage to spiritual beings, and shape communities of resistance. Here we take up notions of fluidity and flow to address not only what many deem our most important natural resource, but to consider the ways in which water’s qualities may yield productive insights into the present and future of popular music.

Fluidity suggests smoothness and flow, as well as uncertainty, indefiniteness, and mutability. This tension is felt across global capital, ecology, and the business of music, as money, energy, and sounds flow around the world, their movement unevenly enabled and restricted by a range of economic, political, and cultural forces. From the licit or illicit circulation of songs to the melting of glaciers, popular music – and the world in which it exists – faces a future in which the status quo is quite literally in flux. With seemingly solid foundations melting away, we face a moment of productive instability, in which new potentialities emerge even as life as we know it may be dramatically transformed.

The 2014 IASPM-US Annual Conference will take place from March 13-16, 2014 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Center for the Study of the American South (CSAS) will be our host on campus, in collaboration with the Department of Music and the Southern Folklife Collection. Papers related to popular music and southern culture are especially welcome. Look for a featured panel on southern music and enjoy a lively reception hosted by the Center.

Papers may focus on one of the following aspects of the theme, on other aspects of the conference theme, or – as always – any other issue in the study of popular music.

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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 (www.si.edu/consortia). 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.

Occasional Paper No 4: Properties and Social Imagination

Haidy Geismar, UCL Anthropology

We are pleased to announce the latest issue of our Occasional Paper Series as well as the relaunch of the site with new and improved design by our newest editor, Matt Hockenberry.

Properties and Social Imagination is a book length project that drew on explorations and experiments by students and staff working with UCL’s Ethnography Collections.

The project has drawn together Masters and PhD students, staff, and a team of scholars and artists based in the College for Creative Arts at Massey University. Our primary focus is UCL’s ethnographic collections and we have explored the dynamic ways in which the formal qualities of stone, wood and cloth create new cultural sensibilities and new collaborative research practices. Our projects instantiates the dynamism of collections-based research and presents a number of visual projects inspired by these processes, demonstrating that collections are not static but continually in motion.

Housed within the Anthropology department, the ethnographic collection is used as a teaching collection, but our understandings of what can be learnt from it have changed radically over the past few decades. The collection, comprising over 3000 artifacts, contains objects from every continent of the world, made out of every kind of material, and referencing many different cultural groups and practices. Originally part of the Henry Wellcome non-Medical collection, the collection was gifted to UCL in the early 1950s and has been periodically added to over the years through fieldwork of departmental staff. The collection was separated from its original catalogue and supporting documentation and arrived in UCL as essentially a series of orphaned objects. This was of less concern to anthropologists at that time, who were able to draw the collection extensively into their teaching, allowing students to handle objects as three-dimensional illustrations of the cultural groups, ethnographic data, and theories they were being taught at the time. For many decades the collection was used to exemplify ritual and artistic traditions, regional variation and specificity, and as a tool in the comparative analysis of cultural production. With the emergence in the 1990s of Material Culture Studies as a subfield within the department, the collection was increasingly recognized as a storehouse of materials – different forms with properties that themselves contributed to the cultural environments that had produced them.

We wanted to respect the unique qualities of each object in the collection, rather than subsuming their materiality to understand them as “typical” or “illustrations” of culture located elsewhere. We wanted to explore what we could learn from the objects themselves, starting first and foremost with their material properties. We chose three objects – a piece of unadorned barkcloth from Sulawesi, a greenstone adze from Papua New Guinea, and a carved wooden Aboriginal spear- thrower from Australia and breaking into small groups started to explore the objects, from their surfaces, both outwards and inwards.

Our starting questions were:

  • What kinds of cultural information, context and knowledge may be found in the form of the object itself?
  • What kinds of research methods can be developed from a focus on the material or physical properties of objects?
  • What methods can we, as anthropologists, contribute to others (material scientists, artists, and so on) working with materials?

Working in groups we pulled apart our understanding of what the objects were, using the sensory experience of the objects and their physical forms as the starting point to engage with the cultural uses and practices that these objects inhabit. Alongside these investigations, our project partners in New Zealand worked remotely with these, and other, objects from the ethnographic collections, making them the centerpiece of artistic explorations of form, physical encounter, and indeed loss.

The book can be downloaded here and is also available to purchase as a print copy here: