Making Research Material: Anthropology, Creative Art, and New Materialisms
Location SOAS Senate House - S314
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Richard Baxstrom (University of Edinburgh) email
  • Neil Mulholland (University of Edinburgh) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Angela McClanahan (University of Edinburgh)

Short abstract

The material turn in scholarship is a reconceptualisation of the role of materiality in shaping culture and society. This panel will address the implications of these encounters that allow artists and anthropologists to retool their relation to the study of 'things' in general.

Long abstract

Over the past twenty years, researchers have been increasingly preoccupied with materiality as a field that unites the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, one that calls into question the binarism and anthropocentrism of critical theory and the cultural turn. The material turn in scholarship is a reconceptualisation of the role of materiality in shaping culture, society and more-than-human cognition. The questions we wish to address on this panel pertain to the implications of these encounters and the potential for links with contemporary art that allow artists and anthropologists to themselves retool their relation to their own field and to the study of 'things' in general. Artists and anthropologists alike are at present broaching many different materialist approaches, developing processes that echo wider materialist ruptures. Fowler and Harris describe a schism between materialists who regard materials as singular and composed, and those that view materials as processes, as things that grow and move, a co-relationist/realist division that remains very evident within both artistic and ethnographic research. Are the differences of approach irreconcilable; need they be reconciled? This panel wishes to consider the possibility of an intermedial zone between practice-based and practice-led research wherein artefacts may emerge from technê, and technê from artefacts. While differences of approach persist in this zone, there is much that might be gained by bringing these disciplinary differences together in a shared research environment. What shape might such a shared intermedial environment take? Could it adopt a familiar model?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Skin of Walls and Animals; Film Notes on Work, Labour and Materiality in Kerameikos and Elaionas, Athens

Author: Ektoras Arkomanis (London Metropolitan University) email

Short abstract

This paper analyses the on-film juxtaposition of two current material processes — the archaeological restoration of the wall in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos in Athens, and the treatment of sheepskin in a tannery nearby — and how these, respectively, relate to the polis.

Long abstract

This paper stems from recent filmmaking-led research. It analyses the on-film juxtaposition of two current material processes: the archaeological restoration of a wall in the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos in Athens, and the treatment of sheepskin in a tannery nearby. Both processes deal primarily with the outermost layers of their respective material fabric, but while the former painstakingly restores it, the latter expediently removes it from its original body.

Filmic observation can reach beyond the immersive and the visceral experience of the workers, and illuminate how work and labour relate to the polis. At Kerameikos, through close-ups and wide shots the film shows how the material friction on the minute scale of restoration work plays out against greater forces, such as weather, urban pollution and political realities. In contrast, labour in the tannery is inward-looking, related to one's body rather than directed towards the polis. The film uses footage of labour but also frames devoid of humans, such as close-ups of sheepskin, in order to notionally separate the ever-changing processes and conditions of labour from the commodity, skin, which has been a constant from antiquity until today.

Through these two paradigms the paper addresses the reliance of commodities (the cultural commodity of ancient artefacts or the commercial value of leather goods) on their changing materiality and on processes that reverse or accelerate the effects of time on materials. In parallel, the paper discusses the artistic language and filmic methods which can help hold such diverse paradigms in a dialogic relationship.

Voiced into being: materiality of sound and shamanic voice in cursing rituals in post-Soviet Kyzyl, Tuva

Author: Mally Stelmaszyk (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

This article concentrates on the materiality of sound and voice in shamanic rituals dedicated to curse infliction and deflection practices in post-Soviet Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva. It seeks to reconfigure the understanding of sounds as immaterial and primarily representative.

Long abstract

This article concentrates on the materiality of sound and voice in shamanic rituals dedicated to curse infliction and deflection practices in post-Soviet Kyzyl, the capital of the Republic of Tuva. Given the Tuvans' conceptualization of shamanic vocal apparatus as a unique musical instrument along with perceptions of sound as a key tool in the mechanics of cursing, it seeks to uncover how sounds are imbued with a potency of their own, rather than simply constituting a sonorous aspect of language. Through engaging with an ethnographic example of a curse deflection ritual, this article discusses further how shamans, perceived by clients as distinct artisans of curses, generate an indexical presence of spirits which triggers different tactile, aural and visual experiences in the audience. Concentrating, thus, on the agentive role of sound and the shaman's voice, the article illuminates what it means that sounds, according to Tuvans, make spirits materially present which, concurrently, shapes and reflects the efficacy of shamanic practice. In this way, while presenting the process of voicing into existence concrete non-human beings, the article shows how shamans not only actualize a unique momentum of sociocosmic drama, but also establish 'performative ontological linkages between humans and non-humans' (De Mori 2015: 25). Taken together, while delineating the characteristics of voice and sound production in Tuvan shamanic rituals dedicated to curses, this article contributes to a better understanding of the notions of (im)materiality and representation.

Questionable Objects

Authors: Leila Sinclair-Bright (University of Edinburgh) email
Laura Major (University of Edinburgh) email
John Harries (University of Edinburgh) email

Short abstract

After years lying dormant, our department's collection of ethnographic objects is being recurated. We confront the many things these objects become when they are deliberately exposed to reconsideration and reorganisation by multiple publics.

Long abstract

The anthropology department of the University of Edinburgh holds a collection of objects that we could call 'ethnographic'. Although their origins are often unclear most appear to have been collected and placed within the department by staff and students of anthropology over many years, possibly since the founding of the subject area in the 1960s. After the department moved into a new office block in 2008 an organised curation of the objects fell into disarray. They now sit together, haphazardly collated, on a dusty set of shelves. This paper describes our ongoing project of engaging with this collection, work which aims to disorder, reorder, inscribe, expunge and ultimately recurate. We have encouraged meetings between these objects and a broader public, including anthropologists, museum and archive professionals, artists, and a wider community of staff and students within the university. In many ways, the character of this collection is attuned to recent tensions within anthropology regarding the subjects link with colonialism, as well as related turns and (re)turns in the study of materiality.

This collaborative project intends to exploit that uncertainty, in as much we also hope to the objects appropriate display and renewed relationality. Finally we hope to question the nature of the objects themselves and their meaning in the contemporary academic space. What ethnographic objects might emerge from our project? How might the objects rebel or conform? What will the glass case reveal or conceal? What do the objects want?

"I like Mongolia and Mongolia likes Me". Using a lasso to draw figure-ground reversals between art and anthropology 

Author: Hermione Spriggs email

Short abstract

How might a Mongolian lasso known as the 'uurga', facilitate a new style of exchange between art and anthropology? "I Like Mongolia..." re-evaluates the performance of an interspecies object, and the role of drawing as an anthropologically relevant method.

Long abstract

"I Like Mongolia..." re-evaluates the performance of an object as a social participant and the role of drawing as an anthropologically relevant method, exploring the potential for an object-centred approach to interdisciplinary exchange between the fields of participatory art and anthropology. In light of Alfred Gell's thesis of 'traps as artworks and artworks as traps' (1996), the lasso presents an alternative point of view to the western zoological framing criticised by Massumi (2014). Instead the lasso functions as a non-Euclidean drawing tool, a frame through which to view collaborative efforts between species, and between art and anthropology, differently.

From the digital capture of the Photoshop lasso to the 'drawing in' of a wild horse in nomadic Mongolia, drawing is explored as an inherently mimetic and intimate method for analysing moving relationships. With a focus on the drawn line as a connecting device that lends itself to figure-ground reversal, drawing itself becomes a lasso-like technology that suggests new possibilities for practice-based research. 

(This presentation includes two-channel video drawing by Hermione Spriggs + Rebecca Empson, 2017. A version of this work is also installed as part of the conference exhibition.)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.