Materialising the Imagination: How People Make Ideas Manifest
Location Brunei Gallery - B211
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 4


  • Jessica Symons (University of Manchester) email
  • Andrew Irving (University of Manchester) email
  • Nigel Rapport (St. Andrews University) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

This panel calls for ethnographically-inspired explorations into how people bring their imagined worlds into material form, whether through drawing, music, software design or political systems. We are looking for patterns in the creative process that work across sectors or thematic groupings.

Long abstract

This panel calls for ethnographically-inspired explorations into how people bring their imagined worlds into material form, whether through drawing, art, animation, music, theatre, ritualised expression, scientific endeavour, software design or the development of political systems. We are looking for patterns in the creative process that work across sectors or thematic groupings, whether cultural, geographical or ideological.

The productive tension between artists and anthropologists lies in the difference between emphasis on the enquiry (anthropologists) and emphasis on the product of enquiry (artists). However anthropologists are increasingly reaching beyond academic texts and communities seeking to share insights and stimulate change, urged on perhaps by the social and political vortex of current times. As 'activist anthropology' collapses into anthropology, it is important to clarify exactly what anthropologists bring to the 'producer' community. The difference potentially resides in how anthropologists trace the process of enquiry itself, bringing creative production into light and into analytical frameworks.

Creativity is a highly desirable asset in an industrialising marketplace and an anthropologist's craft allows us to clarify the creative process. By providing a 'design trace' on the journey of ideas into material form, ethnography has the potential to truly shine as an analytical tool.

Papers might include the following themes:

- How artists (musicians, designers, animators, performers, filmmakers) practice

- How groups of people negotiate new and emerging ideas

- How communities adapt to changing environments

- How programmers write software

- How scientists experiment

- How new ideas are absorbed into existing practices

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Experiments in living: the value of indeterminacy in trans art

Author: Elena Gonzalez-Polledo (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

Short abstract

This paper considers how London-based trans artists imagine art as coextensive with open-ended embodiment, identity and sociality. Conceptualising indeterminacy in arts practice, the paper explores the affordances of imagination to make worlds and the difficulties of thinking with difference.

Long abstract

This paper considers how London-based transgender artists imagine art as a practice coextensive with open-ended forms of embodiment, identity and sociality. Living between and across gender binaries, these artists defy conventional artistic regimes of value while using art practice as a way of knowing otherwise. They draw on experimentation, abstraction and composition to transform conditions of living, engaging in arts practice as an alternative, open-ended and ethical form of life. Trans artists invite us to think of arts practices and materials as unfinished interfaces that reframe identities, bodies and politics by redrawing relations between material and propositional worlds. This paper takes their invitation to think through ontology through and against the value of indeterminacy in arts practice, exploring art making as a site of difference through historical and ethnographic analysis. Drawing out a theoretical conceptualisation of the role of indeterminacy, the paper explores the affordances of imagination to make worlds, yet also on the difficulties of thinking with difference against pervasive forms of discrimination that center idioms of identity, as well as the binaries that structure the conditions of possibility of 'trans' life. The vitalities and relations implicated in artistic practice as an experiment in living, I argue, draw out the significance of ontology as a site of (self) determination, yet point out to ways in which arts practice implicates indeterminacy as a core feature of the process of living.

Whereupon the Road to Erewhon

Authors: Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull) email
Patrick Laviolette (New Europe College / UCL) email

Short abstract

Drawing on material that is both cross-generational and multi-sited, this paper explores some of hitchhiking's political paradoxes and material features. It does so through certain duo auto-ethnographic considerations for transport infrastructures, fieldwork intimacy and methodological liminality.

Long abstract

Travel, adventure, exploration and freedom - not to mention place and nowhere - these are all fairly loaded, even at times quite abstract concepts. The practice of hitchhiking (which has captured the public imagination in many diverse ways for nearly a century now) provides a particular form of mobility whereby freely acquired journeys, solicited via one's thumb, begin to take shape. Just like any other means of automated transport, hitchhiking relies on road infrastructures. It is nonetheless anomalous in that hitchers rely on more different dimensions of such infrastructures than your average motorist, despite not necessarily contributing to, perhaps even resisting, their normative ideological core. Thumbing a ride is thus by its very character liminal, antistructural and peri-urban. Hitching overlaps with many facets of stochasticity, sousveillance, gender, trust and the uncanny, whilst still being a complex multi-modal form of 'carporeal' displacement. Moreover, this type of travel demonstrates telling features of non-places, placelessness, borderlessness and the stateless. In terms of interpersonal relations, potential problems and challenges can arise, especially when the hitchhiker(s) and driver have very different notions of state hegemonies or subversions. Bizarre, even dangerous misunderstandings may occur. Alternatively, such encounters may trigger crucial insights precisely because they take place in a state-free vacuum. Based on a recent collaboration in progress of duo-autoethnographic memories and fieldwork findings, this joint presentation will explore some of our own cross generational experiences with 'auto-stopping'. These are mainly drawn from our respective adventures in Europe (i.e., Britain, France, Benelux, Spain and Slovenia).

Meeting, reading and writing: an anthropological approach to some practices of imagining new normals

Author: Eeva Berglund (Aalto University) email

Short abstract

The paper explores Finnish environmentalists and critics of growth economics who propose and experiment with alternative "normals" in grassroots initiatives. It foregrounds meetings, reading habits and types of writing as key to collective imagining, sustaining enthusiasm and making ideas manifest.

Long abstract

Materialising imaginations goes hand-in-hand with articulating political critique in many contemporary prefigurative grassroots initiatives like urban gardens and maker spaces. As this creative activism has gained visibility around the world, anthropologists have researched it and treated it as a source of political and intellectual inspiration, often reaching analytical insight through personal engagement.

This is the tradition I follow here to explore the collective imaginings of Finnish environmentalists and critics of growth economics who challenge an unsustainable mainstream by proposing and experimenting with alternative "normals". Such activism has been unfolding for over two decades in small-scale yet ambitious projects of future making, some of which I know through personal involvement, but also through interviews and documents. Activism is at once practical and intellectual, simultaneously convention-bound and self-consciously creative, but in the paper I focus particularly on activist meetings, reading habits and types of writing. I show that these take up much time and are key to the whole endeavour, yet appearing unremarkable, they have rarely been explicitly explored. Alongside important recent analyses that have foregrounded bodies, affects, infrastructures and material transformation, these too demand ethnographic attention. They are fundamental to collective imagining, sustaining enthusiasm and to making ideas manifest.

Analytically I build on Adam Reed's work on reading (2011) and Stine Krøijer's (2015) notion of figurations of the future in radical politics. Empirically the focus is on the production of documents and an activist publication that ran from 1996 to 2003 whose main writers remain active social critics.

Between duty and rebellion: unearthing the 'culture of shaming' in Polish villages as art (auto) manifest

Author: Tomasz Rakowski (University of Warsaw) email

Short abstract

I will discuss the unearthing of 'culture of shaming' in post-socialist Poland, undertaken by the artist Daniel Rycharski. I will argue, his open-air laboratory in his home-village may be conceived as a struggle to reopen his own deposits of shame and at the same time to pursue his (auto)manifest.

Long abstract

In my paper, I will discuss a case of artistic unearthing of the 'culture of shaming' i.e. quite painful, affective strand of identity in post-socialist Polish society, that appears when modernizing discourses are confronted with the experience of having village roots. I will focus on artworks and actions performed in Kurówko and two other villages in central Poland, which have become known as a kind of open-air laboratory set by the multi-media artist Daniel Rycharski, who grew up there, and whose works I have recently followed, researched and ethnographically consulted.

What Rycharski is aiming in his projects may be initially understood as a struggle to reveal the self-organization and cultural potentials of rural communities, especially in the face of the current market-driven harsh competition among farmers. Yet, later on, it turns out that his ideas are both ethnographically and artistically dangerous, and capable of opening unfixed affects of the villagers, built on their ongoing sense of socioeconomic marginalization. Rycharski, in his well-recognized projects, such as "Monument to the Peasant" seems to focus on 'peasant grieving', a quasi-rebellious act of the villagers as well as a form of 'affective subjectivity' linking them tightly to the state (Aretxatga 2003). However, what is really important here, is his strategic setting, interactions with his closest family, their households and possessions. By arranging such scenery, I will argue, that he is striving to reopen his own deposits of shame, in a way to make his open-air laboratory a form of particular art (auto)manifest.

Staging Silence: Arab Women's Cancer in Wasafuli al-Sabr

Author: Abir Hamdar (Durham University) email

Short abstract

This paper is a critical reflection on my play Wasafuli al-Sabr (I am Waiting for You) which premiered in Beirut in July, 2017. It explores the ethnographic and creative strategies the play deployed to render Arab women's silent and invisible experience of cancer visible and audible on stage.

Long abstract

This paper will offer a critical reflection on my play Wasafuli al-Sabr (I am Waiting for You) which premiered in Beirut in July, 2017. Based on extensive interviews with real-life female cancer patients from the Arab world, the play is the first dramatic staging of Arab women's experience of cancer. To be precise, the paper will particularly focus on the fact that the history of women's cancer in the Arab World is at one and the same time the history of a silence - of shame, taboo, prohibition and repression - and it will reflect upon the ethnographic and creative strategies the play deployed to make that silence 'speak'. If the play focuses on women's cancer testimonies, it also attempts to highlight the story of those women who continue to be bound by the dictates of silence and who refused to be interviewed or who, when interviewed, remained silent. In summary, the paper will reflect on how the play sought to offer what Michel Foucault (in his History of Madness) famously calls an archaeology of silence. What creative and dramatic strategies were employed and adopted to make silence speak or rather to make the silence audible? How did the unspoken and unexpressed experience of cancer act as a structuring device for the voices of other women who chose to break the silence?

The Man Who Almost Killed Himself: Three Modes of Co-Creation

Author: Andrew Irving (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

Suicide raises fundamental questions about people's relationship to themselves and the world. Ethnography of suicide is fraught with ethical and practical difficulties. Here I try to understand the mind of a person about to attempt suicide through fieldwork, writing and creative visual practices.

Long abstract

One of the most fundamental issues a person, group or society can face is suicide: a subject that raises critical questions about human nature, society and people's most basic relationships with others and the world. However ethnographic accounts of suicide are rare and what might constitute an ethnography of suicide or how anthropology might research or represent suicide is fraught with ethical and practical pitfalls.

In response, this paper attempts to understand the mind of someone about to attempt suicide—including the personal motivations, religious doubts and existential dilemmas someone undergoes—by considering three modes of collaborative and co-creative practice. The first is fieldwork and the second is ethnographic writing. The third, which will be elaborated on and forms the main content of the presentation, is that of artistic re-enactment and adaption in the form of a theatre and television piece that I developed with theatre director Josh Azouz and producer Don Boyd based on ethnographic research. The resulting work, "The Man Who Almost Killed Himself" was shown at the Edinburgh Festival, on BBC Arts and cinemas nationwide.

In engaging with actors and directors, alongside theatre, broadcast and cinema audiences, I argue (following Sartre) that a distinct form of collaborative consciousness emerges that encompasses both the act of imagining and the diverse worlds the imagination brings into being between artists and audience and that new forms of anthropological knowledge, evidence and understanding emerge through the process of adaptation and co-creation that otherwise would not be realised.

'I move my hand and then I see it': Ways of knowing with young artists in Japan

Author: Iza Kavedzija (University of Exeter) email

Short abstract

Based on an ethnographic study of young contemporary artists in Japan this paper will explore the tropes and images invoked by the artists themselves to describe their work. By highlighting the movement of their body in the process of making they shed light on emergent qualities of imagination.

Long abstract

When describing their creative efforts and practices, my Japanese artist friends often invoked an image of movement. Similarly, when describing their own lives they frequently used a comparison with a path, albeit a much less clearly delineated one then the trajectory ahead a practitioner of traditional Japanese arts. Based on an ethnographic study of young contemporary artists involved in improvised music and dance, painting and multimedia installations this paper will explore the tropes and images invoked by the artists themselves to describe their work. Their description of the creative process, with no single pre-given mental image, emphasizes the processual knowledge involved in the act of creation. By highlighting the movement of their body in the process of making they highlight the emergent qualities not only of their work, but also the evolving understanding of questions they did not heretofore consciously know they want to pose. Imagination here, it seems, is not a precondition for making an artwork, it is an emergent property itself.

Making Manifestations Accessible: The Case of Theatre Audio Description for Sight-impaired Audiences

Author: Harshadha Balasubramanian (UCL) email

Short abstract

This paper asks how theatre Audio Description (AD) makes artists' ideas manifest for sight-impaired audiences who cannot fully perceive visual materialisations. I argue that some processes of making ideas manifest can be better understood in the experiences created than the materials used.

Long abstract

Theatre performances frequently express imagined worlds in material form, but for audiences with visual impairments, not all of these materialisations are perceivable. This paper analyzes ethnography of Audio Description (AD), a service making artists' ideas fully accessible to blind and partially-sighted audiences, and it traces the creative processes through which describers prepare and deliver descriptions. Rather than verbalising exactly what sighted audiences see and dictating how this should be understood, describers provide specific details enabling visually-impaired listeners to use their available senses and references to form independent interpretations. For example, colours are described with tactile adjectives; environmental sounds are not described, assuming that listeners will know what these signify.

I will argue that generating this phenomenological experience (Desjarlais & Throop, 2011)- foregrounding individual modes of perception and discourses of independence- would remove obstacles to making ideas manifest for sight-impaired theatre-goers. Such an experience would establish a certain orientation with the artist's imagination, where sight-impaired audiences can be immersed without unnecessary mediation by others' interpretations, including from describers. Keeping in the phenomenological vein, the second half of this paper asks how describers enable this orientation to develop. I suggest that describers' practices involve regulating their own relationship with both artists' imagined worlds and listeners, so as to protect and not hinder the independence of sight-impaired audiences' interpretations. This research results from three months of participant observation and semi-structured interviews amongst describers from the National Theatre, London, and the Audio Description Association, Scotland.

Open Fields

Author: Kristen Sharp (RMIT University) email

Short abstract

This paper traces fieldwork in the practice of three contemporary sound artists as a process that forms and materialises the imagination through the presence of being in place. It draws from anthropology, art history and human geography to analyse the practices of creative production in sound art.

Long abstract

This paper traces the use of fieldwork in contemporary sound art practice as a research process that materialises the imagination. As a practice of artistic enquiry, fieldwork borrows from anthropology in method and concept and yet is grounded in approaches and concepts from art practice and production. Using the example of three contemporary sound artists: Samson Young (HK), Philip Samartzis (AUS) and Eric La Casa (FRE), this paper seeks to understand their practice of creative production through an inter-disciplinary framework drawing on anthropology, art history and human geography. These artists have been selected as examples of different methods of practice in fieldwork: remote regions (Samartzis), local and everyday urban spaces (La Casa), and historical and socially significant sites (Young).

The paper seeks to understand the role of fieldwork and how it operates as a material, social and symbolic form in and of itself, and as part of the process of creating finished artworks for exhibition. Undertaking fieldwork for these artists shapes not only their material engagement with place, but also the perception of place and subjectivity through the interrelationships of artist, site, artwork, audience and exhibition. Fieldwork, and the presentation and exhibition creative work generated through fieldwork, brings the process of creative production to the forefront. This analytical approach expands the understanding of artistic practice to examine fieldwork as a vital process of materializing and forming the imagination through the presence of being in place.

The materiality of Virtual Reality (VR): ethnographic insights into 3D digital drawing in Northern England

Author: Jessica Symons (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In this paper, I explore how Virtual Reality (VR) tools shape the interpretation of ideas into material form, drawing on ethnographic encounters in Northern England. I argue that VR has the potential to re-engage people with their creative selves, lost through careless art teaching.

Long abstract

In the UK, most people decide if they are 'good at art' during school art classes. They base this opinion on their ability to render a convincing 2D drawing of a 3D object. By adulthood, many are so distant from drawing and making that requests to sketch out an idea or create a costume for a parade are often met with immediate resistance - shaking their heads, saying 'Oh no, I'm not creative'.

When drawing a 3D object as a 2D representation on paper, there is a translation to be made - an interpretation of the object through sketched lines and shapes. However drawing with light in Virtual Reality (VR) reduces this translation layer. It creates an opportunity to generate a direct copy of a 3D object, using software such as Google Tiltbrush, rather than a 2D interpretation of an object. At the same time, artists who are 'good' at interpreting 3D objects into 2D drawings can struggle with accurate renditions in 3D digital making.

In this paper, I draw on ethnographic encounters to explore the interpretation of ideas into material form, focusing closely on the technics of production and what guides the producer. I share a hypothesis that the design process in VR is sufficiently different from existing drawing techniques that new competencies are emerging.

This theory was tested in practice through fieldwork in Cheshire and Greater Manchester when I took a VR kit on tour.

Participatory artists as expert creative ritualists, harnessing liminal capacities in the creative process to catalyse transformation

Author: Anni Raw (Newcastle University) email

Short abstract

Paper discusses participatory arts workshops as ritual sites of creative 'potency and potentiality'. Field observations highlight complex spatial relationships, slipping between imagined and experienced worlds; as, in a workshop 'ecology', artists foster collective capacity for reflection and action

Long abstract

Drawing on ethnographic examples this paper discusses participatory/collaborative arts workshops as ritual sites of creative 'potency and potentiality' (Turner, 1979: 465-6). Studying the creative practices of artists working with disadvantaged groups in participatory projects, and their expertise in harnessing ritual capacities in the creative process, we discover a contemporary practice exemplifying Turner's potential of the 'liminoid'.

In ethnographic research (in the UK and Mexico) I have framed highly skilled artists' participatory practices as echoing the interstitial fluidity of the 'trickster', disruptor of the status quo, making visible alternative reality perceptions. Engaging with workshop groups, such artists work creatively with the human capacity to slip into imaginative, parallel realities, opening up spaces of validation and potential to make real the imagined worlds explored.

Field observations highlight complex and profound spatial relationships that enable the slipping between imagined and experienced worlds in order to propose new (at times transformational) pathways forward.

'Creativity is conceived [here] as a catalysing force, acting within a liminal space which practitioners work carefully to co-construct with participants. This force engages the juggling of realities, the 'making special' through ritual processes, and the worlds of imagination and play to create conditions for change.' (Raw 2013: 357)

Contributing new thinking to conceptualisations of spatial relationships in creative encounters within a workshop 'ecology', I propose that such sites can catalyse capacity and agency in community settings: that arts practitioners harness expertise in Turner's 'liminality' to foster, within these groups, a collective capacity for reflective refocusing, and for action.

Performing Print at Polari: literary ethnographies of literary events

Author: Ellen Wiles (University of Stirling) email

Short abstract

Live literature events have become central to the contemporary literary scene. Through an ethnographic glimpse of the Polari salon, this paper explores the merits of literary ethnography as a means to explore their role and value for participants and within literary culture.

Long abstract

Live literature has become a core part of the contemporary literary scene, following the rapid growth of events from festivals to salons. These events transform writers into performers, and readers into audiences. They have multiple functions, including as a means to sell books. But how are they experienced and valued by participants? How do they affect the ways in which writers and readers relate to their texts and to each other, and negotiate social and cultural identities?

Through an ethnographic glimpse of Polari, an LGBT literary salon in the UK, this paper proposes that 'literary ethnography', in the sense of both style and subject matter, has a unique capacity to explore the phenomenology of live literature events, their aesthetic and socio-cultural value for participants, and their relationship to literary production and reception. It will also reflect more broadly on the relationship between creative and ethnographic writing, publication and performance.

Reimagining the Aztecs: the transformation of a dance form that never changes.

Author: Susanna Rostas (Cambridge University) email

Short abstract

The paper looks at how dancers in Mexico City bring a world that is very different from that of their everyday life into material form by means of their dance practice backed by an explicit ideology which at its inception challenged the practices of others.

Long abstract

This paper looks at how dancers in Mexico City bring a world that is very different from that of their everyday life into material form by their dancing and the clothing that they wear to enact it. Known as the Mexica, they aim by means of their practices to reinvent the reality of the Aztecs. Initially their movement, altered (very self-consciously) the way the existing dances (of those who call themselves 'Concheros') were performed, restyled the clothing, modified the ritual language and generally reshaped the representations. The Mexica's stance was a political one that claimed that the Concheros' practices were strongly influenced by Spanish antecedents: they thus performed in separate groups and often in different locations. In the early 1990s, there was a very clear difference between the ideology of the Mexica and the far less overtly stated beliefs of the Concheros whose tradition was still at that time largely an oral one. However although many Concheros denied that their practices ever changed, it was clear to the anthropologist that modifications frequently occurred. The paper will trace how the new ideas put forward by the Mexica which were of their time (the 'celebrations' for the 'discovery' of the Americas), have slowly persuaded the Concheros that change is acceptable making the distinction between the two more difficult to draw as each has taken on aspects of the other's practice: the Mexica have softened their anti-Catholic stance while the Concheros have become more 'Aztec' and their strong admonitions against creativity have weakened.

Dissonant imagination: cartooning as the art of the absurd in Iran

Author: Mirco Göpfert (Goethe University Frankfurt) email

Short abstract

My paper explores cartooning in Iran as an art of the absurd and it disentangles how its dissonant imagination and pictorial combinatorics of incommensurables is not a solution to, but the desperate celebration of the experience of an existential paradox in contemporary Iran.

Long abstract

Many Iranians see their lives spanned up between binary oppositions, at least when they try to convey how they make sense of their lives to me. To make it brutally brief: They said that their lives are shaped by the constant pressures of a profound schizophrenia: the weight of tradition vs. the aspiration toward a modern future; the architectural juxtaposition of the inside and the outside, the total-social opposition of private vs. public; the rich north of Tehran vs. the poor south of Tehran; the existential juxtaposition of inner self and the outer self; and, last but not least, God and the Great Satan.

And yet, people know that it's more complicated than that. Life is messy and defies simplistic black-white categories. Thus, many are haunted by the feeling that living, thinking and breathing according to -- and reducing the messy complexities of their lived lives into -- two neatly separate and often incommensurable opposites is, in a word, absurd. Cartooning is a way of dealing with such binaries. It's the art of dissonant imagination.

My paper explores cartooning in Iran as such an art of the absurd, including its heuristics of the "third element", and it disentangles how its dissonant imagination and pictorial combinatorics of incommensurables is not a solution to, but the desperate celebration of the experience of an existential paradox in contemporary Iran.

High ideals & harsh conditions: making sense of ordinary tragedy in Tirana, Albania

Author: Matthew Rosen (Ohio University) email

Short abstract

This paper concerns the material effects of the ethical attitude shared by two friends and business partners in Tirana, Albania, who brought a local bookstore-café out of bankruptcy in 2009, transformed it into a vibrant literary institution, only to be unceremoniously evicted in 2015.

Long abstract

This paper concerns the material effects of the ethical attitude shared by two friends and business partners in Tirana, Albania, who brought a local bookstore-café out of bankruptcy in 2009, transformed it into a vibrant literary institution, only to be unceremoniously evicted in 2015.

There were two lines of problem leading to the eviction. The first concerned tensions between the moral economy of a Muslim café in a mostly secular city and the financial demands of the family who depended on the rent from the property to sustain themselves. The second problem had to do with the demands of the independent publishing company the two friends launched from the bookstore.

The publishing company also operated according to two principles that were in tension with the economic realities of running a busy café in one of Tirana's most expensive real estate markets. The first ideal was social. It was predicated on introducing contemporary Albanian readers to authors and ideas that were not available during communism. The second ideal, which one informant admitted to be the real driving force behind the project, was 'to keep in contact with [interesting] authors, ideas, and books'.

If their only problem was the landlord's insistence on a higher rent, I think the subjects of this account could have survived with the bookstore intact. The more intractable problem (if a passion for reading can be called a problem) was that it wasn't possible to satisfy the demands of managing the café without losing touch with their ideals.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.