Festival Internacional de Video Arte Camaguey
Documenting Oneself: Experimental Ethnography and the Social
Is it possible to overcome power imbalances in research, regardless of method or ethos, either community-research, co-production, art as research, or visual storytelling?. The production of text carries implicitly the notion of order and authority as language is a matter of power and control, colonisation and submission. However, as tensions remain between academia, community and the social, we need to rethink the role of the final product of research, not as a claim of knowledge, rather as “representation as practice” (1). It’s within this paradigm that both my roles of artist and researcher comes to terms to the never-ending thought process about the epistemological debate about the nature of knowledge, positing the act of contesting research methodology as part of the methodological project itself. “The exceptional thing about research in and through art is that practical action (the making) and theoretical reflection (the thinking) go hand in hand” (2). The one cannot exist without the other, in the same way action and thought are inextricably linked in social research, community-research and co- production.
I realized that in order to achieved a more inclusive and complex mode of representation, my own documentary practice should combine several research methods, such as: ethnography and oral history; analysis of content in mass media; investigation of archival footage; and academic research as well. My incursion in this new territory of cultural representation it’s informed by Russell’s Experimental Ethnography, as she says “that experimental ethnography is intended not as a new category of film practice but as a methodological incursion of aesthetics on cultural representation, a collision of social theory and formal experimentation” (3).
In most of my installations I have been using social research methodologies, not only to overcome the simplistic operation of creating a confessional narrative, but also to pose several questions about the processes involved when documenting the other and oneself. One of the challenges in my quest for broader and more complex modes of representation in documentary practices was about how to overcome and make visible power asymmetries and hidden power dynamics in documentary practice, revealing instead how collective memory intertwines with personal history. What is the importance of the dissemination of personal narratives, in contrast to the on-going construction of official history?. Could it be that the combination of these constitutes our collective memory?. Social exclusion and hidden power dynamics are not exclusively present in the production of knowledge in academic research and other fields, but moreover, in the hegemonic nature of social order. Does art production and visual storytelling overcomes power imbalances in research?. Some authors seem to think it does as they say that “Beyond text can act as a point of difference, symbolizing a research ethos as well a set of tools for research which facilitate co-production” (4).
Alternative models for documentary storytelling are needed, beyond the conventional viewing conditions of cinema, such as fixed seating position, single screen, linear storytelling and fixed screen duration. We’re witnessing the induction of a new genre of memoristic, autobiographical, and metafictional narratives, challenging conventional strategies of representation in documentary filmmaking practices, by examining the intersections between video art, social research and documentary. The use of video art and installation as the medium for the creation of collective history and social identity not only reflects on the contradictions of modern societies, where spectacle and collective memory collide, but also significantly underlies the potential of the projected image for the construction of collective memory. As Youngblood states, “multiple-projection lumia art is more significant as a paradigm for an entirely different kind of audio-visual experience, a tribal language that expresses not ideas but a collective group consciousness (5).
Although there are currently many discussions concerning the nuanced relationship of documentary with reality (and therefore the exhausted conversation about realism and verisimilitude), that isn’t really what’s at stake here. What’s happening is that these new narratives, these hybrids between documentary, ethnography and fiction, are redistributing the relation between the self and fiction. All of these narratives point to a new paradigm where the self is considered a living thing composed of fictions. These hybrid narratives are no longer seen as false or make-believe, they include the narratives we tell ourselves, and the stories we’re told as well. These are narratives that vigorously reasserted the self. The self is no longer intertwined in a system of entropy and subjectivity, nor does get washed away between hyperreality and unreality. We can call them autoethnographies, which is a new genre, something in between cultural theory and narrative. “Autoethnography is a method that allows us to reconsider how we think, how we do research and maintain relationships, and how we live” (6).
Ethnography is more honest and powerful if we know something about who is doing the observation and documentation, rather than pretending that our descriptions of culture comes from an universal view from nowhere in particular. The researcher is the instrument of data collection. We all observe the world with our biases and baggage, despite our best efforts of accuracy and verisimilitude. The myth of documentary objectivity lingers in part because of its apparent transparency. Documentary practices relied on as accessing reality, because strategies and methodologies such as eyewitness accounts and archival material have a strong link to real life, however, documentary forms embody a neurotic uncertainty over their relationship to reality and the social. This uncertainty follows from a contemporary effort for destabilizing the authority of the image and the author, but it is also an ongoing conversation with the documentary genre about its own identity. Historically, documentary practices have been in perpetual flux. The genre has seen a multitude of approaches attached to distinct ideals, but never quite resolved into anything definitive. Since its emergence, the documentary genre has been self-probing; it is continually reassessing its methods, as well as its social function.
“Traditional ethnographers once worked as documentarians, entering a (foreign, “exotic”) culture, observing and often participating in the lives and activities of the community, making recordings and writing field notes, and then leaving to “write up” and publish a representation of the group. Historically, this representation was not shared with members of the studied group. However, researchers eventually came to understand such practices as unethical and incomplete. The researchers took advantage of often-vulnerable others—and, as we note above, their representations of these others often were incomplete because they omitted the ethnographer’s history of, presence among, and experience with others, as well as the ethnographer’s decisions in recording and representing them” (7). Multidisciplinary practices such as autoethnography, experimental ethnography and documentary, could contribute to the struggle against the epistemological domination of academia, but this requires a proper understanding of the dynamics of social research; an understanding which I contend can only be obtained by acknowledging the political antagonistic dimension as well as the contingent nature of any type of social order. It requires in other words recognizing the hegemonic nature of every kind of social order and the fact that every society is the product of a series of practices attempting at establishing order in a context of contingency. Every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices. The frontier between exploitation and the inclusive is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents. Every order is based on some form of exclusion. It is a struggle between opposing hegemonic projects which can never be reconciled rationally. These political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts. Properly political questions always involve decisions which require us to make a choice between conflicting alternatives.
Should the documentary aim for seamless neutrality, minimizing authorial voice, rather letting the subject speak for itself? Or essayistic and aesthetic efforts offer greater clarity and incisiveness?. Does revealing some aspect of our personal life in our research improves our understanding of the subject we are trying to illuminate?. First-person narrative has a democratic quality. Not only because appeals to broader audiences but also because allows us to present a version of ourselves to the world. The personal is much less personal than we think, it’s mediated by way of culture and the social, powerful institutions that shape, discipline and constrain us. Even emotions are not personal. They are historically contingent and often manipulated by cultural politics. “When the ‘‘I’’ seeks to give an account of itself, it can start with itself, but it will find that this self is already implicated in a social temporality that exceeds its own capacities for narration; indeed, when the ‘‘I’’ seeks to give an account of itself, an account that must include the conditions of its own emergence, it must, as a matter of necessity, become a social theorist” (8).
To acknowledge the dimension of the social as the ever present possibility of antagonism requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability which pervades every order. If we agree with the following formulation that “challenging the dominant form of expression of existing unequal power relationships sometimes stimulates a change of ethos” (9), then we are situated in the never- ending thought process about the long standing epistemological debate about the nature of knowledge and how contesting research methodology should be a methodological project by itself. Researchers should not be complacent about their scope of investigation, and every research investment should be also an investigation into epistemological protectionism. As the authors posit, “text is the primary medium of academic research and contains within it power, privilege, exclusivity and exclusion” (10).
Documentary has become too fictional. It has become a genuine fiction – an imitation of fiction, not of life–, too little resembling life. The documentary form needs to shift from record to discourse. To empower the documentary image as a vehicle for political engagement opens up the form as a discursive space that is skeptical of certainty and authority. What does the word ‘documenting’ mean to us?. Is it a way of investigating the world?, a compilation of methods to generate knowledge?. What about community and the social?. Together, these words enact and shape our understanding of researching in and about society; moreover they reveal a particular understanding of how documentary is concerned with capturing and addressing reality. The dialectic ‘text/beyond text’ though provides a rich space for reflection and imagination, it fails to recognize that maybe the challenges on research-community are not in the methodology itself, but maybe, there is an epistemological contradiction expanding beyond the realm of academia. The epistemological contradiction is not a methodological problem, but rather a consequence of it. This contradiction is based on the attempt of documentary and ethnographic practices of making sense of the social. The social is linked to the acts of hegemonic institution, but the social is also the realm of sedimented practices, that is, practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution and which are taken for granted, as if they were self- grounded. How can we generate knowledge when the social, by its own nature, conceals their originary acts and documenting is entrapped by the transparency and indexicality of the medium, incapable of overcoming this concealing?.
Since documenting cannot overcome this epistemological contradiction, not only because the indexicality of the medium, but also because his desperate attempt for authenticity, and in love with artifice at the same time; autoethnography then, becomes a powerful tool, since “autoethnography is a method that allows us to reconsider how we think, how we do research and maintain relationships, and how we live” (11). We need to situate ourselves as part of an on-going reflection, implicitly pushing forward for social inclusion on research methodology and documentation practices. “Whether by epiphany, aesthetic moment, or intuition, we begin autoethnographic projects by starting where we are. From there, we begin to situate ourselves in story—our own story, the story told in existing writing and research on our topic or experience, and the stories told by others” (12).
The work of art is not the end product of the artist’s thinking, it’s just a moment at best, it is an intermediate stage, a temporary halting of that never ending thought process. The work of art is the materialisation of thinking. What kind of thinking is it that gets materialized?. Artists usually enact their political beliefs in their research. Artistic research into the social has cultivated individual politics as part of their strategies of resistance, addressing identity and cultural practices as tools of political dissent. It is when artists-researchers position their own practice as projects of resistance that they contribute to the epistemological debate about the nature of knowledge, positing the act of contesting research methodology as part of the research methodology. This methodological re-conceptualization presents a significant challenge to existing ways of doing research, requiring an epistemological change from researchers, as their personal agency not only gets visible, but also intertwines with their object of study. “When we do autoethnography, we study and write culture from the perspective of the self. When we do autoethnography, we look inward— into our identities, thoughts, feelings and experiences—and outward— into our relationships, communities, and cultures. As researchers, we try to take readers/audiences through the same process, back and forth, inside and out” (13).
It is a completely opposite approach to research, as “noted by Redwood (2008), who suggests that research is ‘an inherently violent activity’ on a symbolic or meta-physical level: ‘What makes research violent is the way that moral choices, ethical and analytical decisions, representational practices and personal investments of the researcher are secreted away and so are made to appear natural and innocent’ (14). The challenge on making community-research less prone to power asymmetries doesn’t rely on making “research ‘with’ communities rather than ‘on’ communities” (15), as the authors suggest. Exclusion and power imbalances in research would always exists. The artist-as- researcher would distinguish from other researchers by revealing hidden power dynamics and power asymmetries, as they tend to make statements about the production of their work and its thought processes. Reflection and research are closely interwoven with artistic practice. For artistic research to be meaningful and successful has to be debated in the public domain.
(1) Yasminah Beebeejaun, Catherine Durose, James Rees, Joanna Richardson and Liz Richardson. “Beyond Text: Exploring Ethos and Method in Co-Producing Research with Communities”. Community Development Journal, Vol. 49 No 1 January 2014. P: 49.
(2) Wesseling, Janneke, ed. See It Again, Say It Again: The Artist as Researcher, Valiz/Antennae Series, 2011. Pag. 2.
(3) Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography. The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Duke University Press, 1999. P: 11.
(4) Yasminah Beebeejaun, Catherine Durose, James Rees, Joanna Richardson and Liz Richardson. “Beyond Text: Exploring Ethos and Method in Co-Producing Research with Communities”. Community Development Journal, Vol. 49 No 1 January 2014. P: 43.
(5) Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. Dutton, 1970. P: 387.
(6) Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, Carolyn Ellis. Autoethnography. Oxford University Press: 2015. P: 8.
(7) Ibid., at 11.
(8) Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham University Press: 2005. P: 8.
(9) Yasminah Beebeejaun, Catherine Durose, James Rees, Joanna Richardson and Liz Richardson. “Beyond Text: Exploring Ethos and Method in Co-Producing Research with Communities”. Community Development Journal, Vol. 49 No 1 January 2014. P: 18.
(10) Ibid., at 41.
(11) Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, Carolyn Ellis. Autoethnography. Oxford University Press: 2015. P: 8. (11) Ibid., at 49.
(12) Ibid., at 46.
(13) Ibid., at 49.
(14) Yasminah Beebeejaun, Catherine Durose, James Rees, Joanna Richardson and Liz Richardson. “Beyond Text: Exploring Ethos and Method in Co-Producing Research with Communities”. Community Development Journal, Vol. 49 No 1 January 2014. P: 42.
(15) Ibid., at 37.