This Friday night from 6PM to 9PM, the CSULB Department of Anthropology is presenting the 2013 Visual Anthropology Showcase at the Historical Society of Long Beach. The showcase will feature student-produced augmented photo essays, ethnographic films, and a Khmer classical dance performance.
Dr. Steven Rousso-Schindler, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, and Dr. Scott Wilson, Associate Professor of Anthropology, teach Visual Anthropology at CSULB, and coordinated the showcase.
"The line between ethnographic films and documentary films are often blurred," explained Dr. Rousso-Schindler, "especially at CSULB where Dr. Wilson and I encourage experimentation in ethnographic practice and form. More specifically, visual anthropology students at CSULB go out into their local communities and study - and then document visually - cultural phenomena that interests them.
"So for example, this year we have one film that follows an amazing Cambodian-American and tells the story about why traditional Cambodian dance and modern dance are so important to him. As anthropologists, we are interested in Cambodian-American culture, traditional dance, modern dance and all of that wrapped around the issue of identity.
"We have another very interesting film about the role gender plays in online gaming--in particular, in World of Warcraft. The students who produced this film created a completely animated film based on players' avatars - so that is a fairly unique style. From the anthropological perspective, they investigated how women players are treated by men in these unique social situations.
"We have another ethnographic film about the impact the Holocaust has had on tattooing in the Jewish community. It is a very interesting approach to getting to questions of Jewish identity. We also have another ethnographic film about Wintersubrg, the first Japanese-American church in Orange County. The story is about whether it is possible and desirable to preserve this important Orange County building, given its historic value."
The specific differences between visual ethnography and documentary film making remained unclear to me, and Dr. Rousso-Schindler admitted that the question is still debated in academic circles.
"Traditionally, ethnographic films were most often visual studies of indigenous populations around the world. As production equipment has become more affordable, more anthropology students make films about the cultural stories in and round their own communities. My own take on this question is that ethnographic films are almost always interested in exploring a cultural issue, with varying levels of commitment to storytelling based on character development. Having said that, when it comes to social justice films, with calls for action at the end, ethnographic films and documentary films are almost indistinguishable.
"For some time now, it's been acknowledged that we anthropologists often 'alter' a culture just by our participation with that culture. The question after that becomes to what extent should we become politically engaged? I have to admit that this approach to anthropology is not universally accepted by anthropologists - but it has been a trend in anthropology for some time now."
"New Media in ethnography has not replaced any of the traditional means of visual ethnography," Dr. Wilson explained, "but it has added some useful new ways of telling people's stories. For one, it enables us to work even more collaboratively with communities. Content is more easily updated, and even the community members can add, edit and comment on the story lines in these new works.
"Also, it has helped re-define authorship. Not only do community members participate more actively, but the viewers of new media works also participate in creating the stories. They can often discover connections that the anthropologist didn't see, and in that way further the conversation. That is the goal of interactive design.
"We have a few examples from my New Media Ethnography course, and a project I'm working on at the moment. One project from my course is on the concept of improvisation in jazz performance. The students are creating an interactive installation that works through an augmented reality smartphone app (Aurasma) that uses trigger images to launch an interactive 'player.' In the player, the viewer can view a performance, and then touch the musicians on screen to hear excerpts from their interviews. It allows the viewer (we actually call them 'vusers' - viewer + user) to mix the music, performance and interviews. We hope that the interactivity can help viewers better understand how improvisation works from the perspective of the performer.
"Also, I'm currently working with another anthropologist from CSULB, Karen Quintiliani, on the 'Augmented Cambodia Project,' which uses the same app to place trigger images all over Cambodia Town in Long Beach. Interviews, archival footage, food reviews and local histories will be accessible as virtual tours in the community. There's even a language teaching 'layer' that can help people learn to speak Khmer.
"With Aurasma, there are two ways of delivering content. If the trigger image is GPS enabled, an icon of the trigger will pop up on the view finder, showing you that you are within five meters of this image. This works great for landmarks, murals, street signs, etc. The other way we're using it is to 'augment' objects. For example, we're creating restaurant histories and food reviews to be embedded in restaurant menus. These short videos would play on the surface of the menu. And, of course, the content will be about the culture and history of Cambodia Town and its residents."
Dr. Wilson's PhD thesis explored an invisible Chinese minority group in Taiwan, the Hakka, and he uses that experience to help students understand that culture, identity and ethnicity are not always what they appear to be.
"During my own research and teaching, for example, I discovered a long history of Afro-Asian global connections that I wasn't even aware of. It is challenging to teach about culture from a non-Eurocentric perspective, but the millennial generation seems to be more open to this. The students working on the Cambodia Town project are really good at noticing the differences between different ethnic groups from Cambodia. They've taught me a lot about that.
"One layer in the project is about food, for example. I have learned a lot about the differences between Cambodian cuisine and other Southeast asian cuisines, like Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian. This helps in understanding the stories behind the immigration experiences of Long Beach's Cambodian community."
Students continue to discover and explore groups that Dr. Wilson had no knowledge of.
"One group discovered a fascinating steampunk sub-culture that has a massive membership of artists, musicians, writers and scholars, that is international in scope. They're working on a documentary about it right now. We've had similar projects over the years on things as diverse as survivors of near-death experiences, users of medical marijuana, and even devotees of the traditional Maori dance called the Hakka. In the age of the internet, it seems, full-fledged communities can form around the most eclectic of interests.
"One of the biggest changes in visual anthropology over the years is that we can produce ethnographic studies alongside these various communities, as they also produce documentaries and artistic works themselves. This has always been a part of visual anthropology, but the collaborative aspects are coming to the forefront now more than ever."
The concept, in traditional anthropology, of cultural relativism requires that the anthropologist who is engaging in the culture makes a supreme effort to avoid changing it significantly. I asked Dr. Wilson what role it plays in current ethnographic studies?
"For me, cultural relativism is about respecting and studying cultures in their own right, rather than in some ranking or comparative perspective. Part of this is the idea that we make an effort not to change things. That attitude is still with anthropology, but one thing that has made this issue more complex is that we no longer tend to view cultures as separate and bounded. Even small scale societies have very complex connections to other, large scale processes like capitalism, imperialism, etc. The very fact that the anthropologist is there in the first place is an indication that he/she belongs to the same global processes as the community under study. So, our concept of 'culture' has changed a lot since that idea was put forward in the early 20th century.
"Also, American anthropology, since the early 20th century, has had more of an activist bent to it than its European counterparts. Mainstream American cultural anthropology has never fully adopted the more scientific studies of culture, which advocate against intervention. Traditionally, American anthropologists tended to study impoverished or marginalized communities. And, we've tended to think its ok to help them if there's an opportunity to improve their life situations through advocacy.
"Which brings it back full circle: One of the best means of advocating for marginalized groups is by amplifying their voices, and their concerns. Visual anthropology has been a fantastic way of doing that."
The Historical Society of Long Beach is located in Bixby Knolls, at 4260 Atlantic Ave.
Facebook has more information about the event.
Some of Dr. Wilson's older works can be found at AnthropologyAndFilm.net