Looking back to move forward

Four years ago we founded the Collaboratory for Ethnographic Experimentation or as we prefer to call it: Colleex (pronounced /kɒli:ɡz/, homophone and perhaps also synonym to ‘colleagues’). From its inception in 2016, we aimed “to open a space for debate and intervention around experimental forms of ethnographic fieldwork”, as expressed in the original Colleex manifesto

Now, the first team of convenors composed by Anna Lisa Ramella, Tomás Sánchez Criado, Eeva Berglund and Adolfo Estalella, is stepping aside and handing over to a new team that will coordinate the network. We have welcomed them and we would like to briefly account for our exciting journey over these years and summarize some of what we have learned.

Colleex was born with the goal to explore forms of ethnographic experimentation in multiple instances of anthropological practice. We were interested in experimental forms of representation and different modalities of fieldwork experimentation. From the onset the network has aimed at sharing, describing, valuing, conceptualising and discussing the many forms of experimentations that are happening in our discipline nowadays. 

Somehow, this keen interest in experimentation as a social form turned to the network itself. From a matter of academic interest, experimentation turned into a matter of care that was cultivated by the network: Making us pay attention and affecting how we meet to discuss and explore. The experimentation has thus become over these years in the ethos of Collex itself, opening a space to experiment with forms of academic organization.

We would like to highlight three fertile lines of reflection and intervention (or, what we have called elsewhere intraventions) that are the result of this first period of Colleex, these are: a focus on shared problems beyond disciplinary boundaries, an exploration of ways to meet and do events that breached academic limits, and finally, an experimentation with the methodologies to learn together.

Firstly, with the shared focus on problems beyond disciplinary boundaries, Colleex wanted to operate as a platform for those concerned with ethnographic experimentation in anthropology (cutting across fields like visual, sensory, art, design or digital anthropology, as well as the anthropology of science and technology) and beyond anthropology proper.

In fact, the network was conceived as a convivial space of encounters with other disciplines as well as with a wide variety of practitioners “from other domains like artists, cultural producers, designers and practitioners of any discipline interested in the creative experimentation with ethnographic practice” (Colleex manifesto). Creating the conditions for these interstitial encounters we invited our fellow anthropologists to learn from other practitioners, as well as validate and foster non-disciplinary collaborative approaches to ethnographic experimentation. 

Secondly, concerned with ways to meet, articulated around event-based and fluid forms of membership using off-the-shelf means of networking (a Google Group email list for anyone to join rather than a regular EASA members’ listserv), we always gravitated around exploring and expounding the limits of modes of academic encounter. Our encounters have indeed been experimental spaces on their own, fostering an off-bounds exploration including non-academic professionals. 

The two Colleex workshops have been fertile testing grounds for this. In both of them, the powerful vibes of the host venues took centre stage. They were much more than mere backdrops for conversations of what ethnographic experimentation might mean, becoming instead agent-like in how they shaped the emergence of particular approaches and reflections:

  1. In Lisbon’s 2017 workshop “Ethnographic Experimentation: Fieldwork Devices and Companions”, Chiara Pussetti, Francesca de Luca and Vitor Barros invited us to explore the colonial hauntings of the Jardim Botânico Tropical in a series of wonderfully hot days living together with peacocks, reminiscing from the agricultural archives – made out of paper, plants and sands –  and miniature buildings from the former Portuguese empire.
  1. In Cieszyn’s 2019 workshop “The use•ful•less•ness of the experiment: Anthropology and the assembly of the unexpected”, Tomasz Rakowski, Eva Rossal and the team of Świetlica Krytyki Politycznej “Na Granicy” w Cieszynie, took us into an amazing journey at the hard edges of the Polish/Czech border, making us explore how situating oneself at the periphery, and testing the borders between the useless and the useful should be a central concern for any ethnographic experimenter.

Thirdly, and following the powerful impact of these site-specific meetings, a conversation sparked amongst us on how to call these experiments in meeting and how to grant them relevance. In our EASA 2018’s The Lab is not blah, we briefly started thinking about this, and we argued that: “we strongly believe that formats to share and think together should be considered as part and parcel of a discussion on ethnographic experimentation. In our work we have been exploring these venues using the rather loose term open formats” (Colleex Open Formats). This is the third line of exploration opened by the network.

One of the most important outcomes of these last years for us as conveners has been learning to understand and explore the meanings and the modalities of the many ‘open formats’ displayed and showcased in the events we co-organised. For this, we have tried to bring them for discussion as pedagogical spaces for the apprenticeship of ethnographic experimentation. In that attempt, we have tried to argue for the need to document these ‘experiments in meeting’ so that they may travel, be learnt and reproduced elsewhere: something that led us to explore with Ofri Lapid the possibilities of the DIY genre of the Zine, which in times of the pandemic allowed alternative modes of being present with one another, the zines being mailed to Colleex all over the world.

In these intense years, launching the network and having had the immense luck of co-organising and taking part in these events and endeavours has proven to be one of the most fruitful things we’ve ever done as anthropologists. We have learnt a lot from the co-organisers of the events in Lisbon and Cieszyn and from all participants in them. And we are also happy to have made new colleagues and friends along the way. Through those events and meetings, a new experimental contour of academia as a joyful space began to take shape for us. 

But Colleex was originally conceived as a temporary network, and our convenorship was time-limited: We wanted to pursue the network only as long as there was something to explore together with others; rather than slowly sinking into oblivion, the network has stayed alive because the conversation has stayed alive: as long as Colleex members derive fun from meeting others, although winding it up was always a possibility, we wanted to give it the best chance to continue.

And so, true to the network’s experimental spirit, our meetings did indeed bring amazing results. And we are also very lucky to have found along the way an astonishing team to take up the torch. The incoming Colleex convening team – with cross-disciplinary expertise in anthropology and art and practices ranging from making to curating – promises a great future for all things Colleex. We are very much looking forward to enjoying what this new period will bring, happy to be taking the back seat.

Thank you all for all of these years!

Adolfo, Anna, Eeva & Tomás

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