Ways of Inhabiting Academia: Ethnographic experiments with #Colleex in Cieszyn

Francisco Martínez, University of Leicester

FIG 1 Chocolate ethnography. Photo by Zoe Aiano

How do academic conferences shape anthropological research? And how do anthropological events change the participants in turn?

From 4 to 6 July 2019, over fifty scholars and artists met in Cieszyn (Poland) to explore novel forms of knowledge production, cultivating cross-disciplinary accents and gaining an experimental sensibility in fieldwork, in an event organised by the #ColleexEASA network and the local friends of the Institute of Political Critique (Świetlica Krytyki Politycznej “Na Granicy” w Cieszynie).

I arrived to Cieszyn a day before the event to attune myself to the surroundings. Well aware of the gastronomic and architectural pleasures of central Europe, my first impression, after a walk, was to notice the prominence of the Olza river and its bridges, which have served for many years as the geopolitical border between Czech Republic and Poland.

FIG 2 Olza river. Photo by Francisco Martínez

Walking continued during the workshop, yet through the outlands and suburbs of the anthropology, practicing boundary work while re-equipping our modes of performing ethnographic methods (Estalella and Sánchez Criado 2018). We discussed not just the actually existing ways of doing ethnography, but also epistemological deviations that create ways of knowing and learning differently, and by extension, ways of inhabiting academia differently.

The theme of the event was ‘The use-full-ness of the experiment’, and the description read like this:

“Experiments are singular events producing the unexpected: Throwing us questions we didn’t have, changing our notions of values, and creating the conditions of their own appreciation … From practical experiments that test what we already know to experiments carried out for the sake of them, experiments often challenge notions of value–this goes also for the value of the experiment itself. A situation that is not unusual in the experiments of artists and anthropologists: Working with their counterparts in the field and engaging in multiple collaborations, they interfere in coded hierarchies of value and subvert obvious notions of need in shared experimental exercises”.

Some of the participants came for crafting a taste for experimentation, or perhaps just to get a sip of it. All fine, those are also welcome. Some others, including myself, came to Cieszyn though willing to stay longer on the boundaries of what we know in the field, or even to lose ourselves there, not always finding the way back to our corresponding centres. I remember that after my talk, Tomás Sánchez Criado encouraged me to be even more excessive, more radical, intensifying the practice of surprise, searching for ways to go beyond the limit.

The exercise of re-training ourselves unequivocally involves unlearning, walking through the fertile ambiguity of the experiment, being open to the consequences of the unknown in the way we do research. Tomás talk was precisely about learning to relate, pedagogically and research-wise, proposing a sensorially engaged understanding of the relations taking place in the controlled space to experiment, whereby we draw together people to do things otherwise.

FIG 3 Tomasz Rakowski. Photo by Zoe Aiano
FIG 4 Eeva Berglund. Photo by Zoe Aiano

The repetition of an experiment leads always to its transformation, as a questioned answer to the coming, concluded Thomas Binder in his lecture; the same with an academic format, and with a walk.

During her talk, Eeva Berglund tried to bring Tim Ingold to the urban space, inviting us to walk with her towards a multisensorial sustainability science, building a capacity to be affected – a living inquiry. As she insisted, how to “solve problems” and issues of usefulness might go together with having fun, and the use of unusual methodologies should be noted for coping with contemporary risks, the background of economic hardship among researchers, and the crisis of crisis.

Also Ewa Klekot invited us to walk, to visit the river and to stay on the border while flying a kite. Her workshop consisted of making kites with our hands, flying them on the bridge, and exhibiting the nicest ones in the conference venue. Another experiment geared towards beyond human thought and perception was also organised by Hermione Spriggs. In her “Agility training”, she designed a series of preparatory exercises for engaging with hard-to-access perspectives beyond human worlds, combining animal empathy with muscular agility.

FIG 5 Flying the kite. Photo by Francisco Martínez.
FIG 6 Making the kite. Photo by Tomás Criado
Fieldwork research is embodied and alive, being part of a haphazard accumulation of notes, things, observations, feelings, ideas, encounters and time regimes. This was one of the key messages of Guy Julier, not merely translated and transmitted through words, but also performed in a multimodal presentation. For months, Julier has been studying how Helsinki has become a prime destination for investment funds through property development, including housing complexes, and so-called, “smart cities”. His way of analysing the verticality and horizontality of contemporary urban planning was not, however, based on choosing one of the two perspectives, but through juxtaposing different vistas and answers to the question “How is a community planned?”, which was complemented itself by a series of simple yet highly revealing questions such as: Who are the workers? Where is the money coming from? And what is made purposely invisible through design?

Julier made use of his body as sensing record, embodying the fieldnotes of his research performatively. In his talk, Julier re-enacted what use-value does an hour have for the different agents involved in the creation of a “smart city”, trying to transmit that embodied knowledge by playing roles through t-shirts of different colours. This was, perhaps, the most magical moment of the whole workshop, seeing how one us explores the limits of research through performative iterations and embodied imagination.

FIG 7 Guy Julier during his performance. Photo by Zoe Aiano

The summer when I found my academic subculture

A common mistake among Funding institutions and conservative anthropologists is to take academic formats and methods without time, as if they don’t mature, evolve, age, mutate. This is not the case of #Colleex, fundamentally open to new ways of extending our discussions and of developing our competences and sensibility to contemporary times, and also self-reflexive about the way academic conferences generate conditions that facilitate the production and dissemination of knowledge.

Local organisers, Tomasz Rakowski, Eva Rossal, and Joanna Wowrzeczka made of the Institute of Political Critique a place for multidisciplinary accommodations. They gathered people to share their questions and think through the relationship between the possible and the actual together, our tools and concepts, our notions of evidence, the future we imagine and of our own worth as academics.

FIG 8 Fran and Tomás searching for a disciplinary route. Photo by Zoe Aiano

Experimental knowledge production is characterised by temporal and spatial concentration. In Cieszyn, Martin Büdel and Zoe Aiano invited us to embrace the aesthetics of experimenting, illustrating different circumstances encountered in the field while filming. Also Maica Gugolati and Ofri Lapid foregrounded the importance of creating an atmosphere of sensing and sharing, demonstrating them all that the experimental is not necessarily difficult or intellectual, in some cases, it can be quite enjoyable.

The two #Colleex workshops organised so far have had as key aim to refigure the relationship between anthropologists and informants. However, if paying attention to the themes discussed, one can find differences between them, or perhaps a sense of evolution. The first #Colleex workshop, organised in Lisbon (13th–15th July 2017), was more focused on how documentation and multi-modal formats intervene in our research and the embodiment of knowledge. There were discussions about twitter as an ethnographic device, about colonial legacies and venues for experimentation, and also fundamental questions of what is a fieldnote, who is an anthropologist, and what is anthropological knowledge.

The second workshop, however, was rather focused on pedagogical designs and epistemic limits, on re-training ourselves, on failures, risks and vulnerability, on affects and shame, the weight of tradition and national myths, and also about different materialisations (and aesthetics) of knowledge. In Cieszyn, there was a (sometimes felt taxonomical) effort to define experimentation, while in Lisbon the programmatic exercise was to ground and delineate the meaning of collaboration.

FIG 9 Reunion. Photo by Francisco Martínez

The #Colleex workshop in Cieszyn was an event in which anthropologists did not present minced facts, but produced knowledge in situ, with the rest of participants, entailing along a new approach to the particular devices of undertaking fieldwork. In a self-critical way, we also reflected if these formats could be pedagogically powerful but politically toothless; also discussed about the sustainability of the experiment, and the infrastructures that alternative formats of engaging with fieldwork unequivocally require.

Both #Colleex workshops managed to constitute a counter cultural approach to method, and a sense of communitas among participants, relying on the locality, but also creating a collective spirit that goes beyond the locality. I did not feel these gatherings as the typical one-night-stand scholarly encounter of traditional conferences, but something close to falling in love, as one of those Linklater’s “Before the Sunrise” films. For me, to join the #Colleex was like to be part of an urban tribe or subculture back in my teenager period, call it steam punk, skater like, neo-romantic, mod, gothic, anarchist, also agrofolky, hacker, queer and a bit Hare Krishna too, all of this is in #Colleex.

Events such as the one experience in Cieszyn make possible a different way of inhabiting academia, attending to alternative modes of knowing, learning and acting in the field, while creating a renewed public for ethnographic experimentation. We need to peripheralise ourselves from time to time, instead of always leaning towards a core (disciplinary, epistemic, geographical). It is positive to unsubscribe ourselves to the standard and the central, even if temporarily, as a way of re-training ourselves and understanding the world with more perspectival vistas, as a way of pushing further toward the limits of what one dares to do and imagine in anthropology.

FIG 10 Ofri Lapid. Photo by Francisco Martínez

Parasitic Reading

Alyssa Grossman and I organised the format “Parasitic Reading”, intended as an open-ended reading intervention. The exercise consisted of a platform for knowledge-contagion created through acts of collective, out-loud reading. This pedagogical experiment aimed to invoke archaic forms of storytelling in which people were assembled and communities were formed by gathering to listen and tell stories. It is also inspired by a learning prototype originally designed by Rosario Talevi and by the knowledge transfer form proposed at the end of Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451”, in which people try to preserve written ideas by recalling books verbatim. Our proposal of parasitic reading had four specific yet complementary goals: To instigate a new kind of attentive listening practice, to see what happens when someone else reads your own work, to try and make something new out of all of the fragments, and to generate an imaginary sense of community, even if temporarily. For this workshop, a dozen of participants submitted an experimental fragment of any written text that they would like to share with the rest of the group. These textracts were a poem, a fieldnote, a song, an extract from a novel, from an academic paper, from an artistic catalogue, or from a how-to-guide or cookbook…

Here below my three favourite contributions:

  • Ofri Lapid

I said, Maybe he does really know how to read. So he turned (the pages) over and cleared his throat. Heeeeeeeheehe, he said. Then he frowned and kept on raising his eyes, and nodding his head. After that he made a little bow and began to read. It says: Telente. Ten-telente. Ten-ten-ten-te telenten telelen ten ten ten, ten ten ten ten. Telelenten. Ten ten. Tentelen. My Europe. My Manaos. My Para. Telententen. Ten ten telelen. Ten tan tan. Tan tan ten telen. Telen. Ten ten telelen. Telen telen telen ten ten ten ten ten. Telelen ten ten ten ten ten, he read from it.

  • Hermione Spriggs

Excerpt from “Spring Gobbler Strategies”, Dane County Conservation League http://www.dccl.org/information/turkey/turkeyhunt.htm

The more the bird roars, the more you feel an uncontrollable urge to cluck and yelp. But be careful! Too much calling at first light can hang a tom on his limb as he waits for the hot “hen” to sail or walk beneath his roost tree. And the longer he sits up there and fails to see a girl, the more he smells a rat. When the bird finally flies down 30 minutes later, there’s a good chance he’ll run the other way.

So fight the urge to call too early. Wait until pink illuminates the sky. Then give a bird some pillow talk to let him now you’re there. A couple of sultry tree clucks and yelps are about right.

If the turkey bellows shut the heck up! He has honored you as a hen, he likes what he heard, and he knows where you are. Let him fly down and come looking for you. But if the tom fails to gobble, cluck and yelp a little louder to focus his attention in your direction.

If he still doesn’t talk, it’s no big deal. Listen for the bird to fly down, then hit him with a spirited hen cackle. Try flapping a Primos turkey wing against your leg to sound like a hen pitching to the ground. If the tom gobbles and steps your way, you might not need to call again. But if he hangs up after 5 minutes or so, cluck, yelp and purr a little louder. As long as the turkey hangs around and gobbles keep playing the game.

  • Elisa Ayerza Taber

Fom Mar Paraguayo by Wilson Bueno. Translated by Erín Moure (pages 45-46).

one dusk après une autre I sit ici on this sofa diagonal to the window, and in sitting it’s presque as if everything’s crumbling into bits: cramps in the guts: setting sun weaving humid nuances: spaces from où move déjà les occupations cérémoniales of light and lune: between the crowns of sombreros or entre les durs vides of the fig tree that devastate into shadow and suspicion in the crépuscule of the beach town: figuier, couronne, sombreros: la ancestral speech of fathers and grands-pères that infinitely vanishes into memory, they entertain all speech et tricot: these Guaraní voices eternalize so simply as they go on weaving: ñandu: there is no better fabric than the web des leaves tissées all together, ñandu, together and between the arabesques that, symphoniques, interweave, in a warp and weft of green and bird et chanson, in the happy amble of a freedom: ñanduti: ñandurenimbó:

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