Multimedia anthropology: an interdisciplinary art genre

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© Raffaella Fryer-Moreira and Erick Marques Polidoro – still from 360 video Thick Forest of the South showing monoculture replacing forest in Brazil

The Anthropocene is an ecological buzzword with a polemical edge referring to the geological era of serious human despoilment of the earth. Academics hotly contest whether this began 15,000 years ago with rudimentary monoculture economies or at anytime up to the 1960s with mass consumption economies. I’m not convinced it really matters. What does matter is convincing the climate change deniers that global warming is not a liberal conspiracy.

The few remaining non-industrial cultures all have an embedded sense of stewardship of their natural habitat so they cannot be held responsible. An environmental historian, Jason Moore, in the grand tradition of inventing a neologism to achieve academic longevity, suggests we should rename this era the Capitalocene.  In his view, the environmental crisis is a result of the unequal accumulation of capital with its attendant power imbalance and that a different global socio-economic order is our only salvation. It might mean reducing the living standards of the richer countries or limiting the growth in living standards of the poorer countries or a bit of both.  I would love it if we could all return to the type of utopian small scale economies so vividly imagined in Marge Piercy’s 1976  novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, but I suspect that this would only be possible with a much reduced world population. 

I have been an unwavering advocate of interdisciplinary study since the 1970’s when I had to fight to be allowed to study a combination of humanities and science A levels. I had to move sixth form to study Maths, Biology and Eng. Lit and eventually combined biological and social science in Human Sciences at uni). It was with huge anticipation therefore that I visited UCL’s Multimedia Anthropology Lab exhibition Speculative Immersion last Friday. The research group’s aim is to develop innovative approaches to anthropology through the use of multi media technologies. Many of the works are joint projects involving artists and anthropologists investigating the loss of cultural diversity and/or environmental degradation. Ten interdisciplinary projects were on show, many at an “experimental” stage, including olfactory art, photomontage, VR animations and interactive audio art.

Sender-chaldecut-Padcal's garden
Still image from VR animation Pascal’s Garden (2019) courtesy of the artists Pascal Sender and Maya Hope Chaldecott

Two moving image works appealed to me. A short 360 degree VR animation, Pascal’s Garden is a cheerfully impressionistic and colourful reimagination of a lush surburban garden with occasional sombre flashes. In the headset the vertical span covered is sufficient to give you vertigo before you plunge down below the surface of a garden pond. The palette and mood remind me of Hockney’s iPad landscapes. I had an interesting exchange with one of its creators, the RA student Pascal Sender, on the potential and limitations of VR /AR art. He apologised for its low resolution but I thought that this was an apt way to represent environmental dissolution and degradation.  The work was created in a single afternoon taking turns on the VR software with his collaborator, the digital anthropologist and XR producer Maya Hope Chaldecott. 

Spriggs Hermione - Gee,Ulaanbaatar

Video still from Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2017)  Image credit: Hermione Spriggs

Hermione Spriggs is an artist-researcher and curator of the project, Five Heads (Tavan Tolgoi), consisting of five artists/collectives and five anthropologists exploring the dramatic rise and fall of the Mongolian mineral industry and its impact on the indigenous culture. Her punchy and concise video, Gee, Ulaanbaatar (2018) produced in collaboration with Alice Armstrong and Curtis Tamm is a fascinating showcase for the Mongolian rapper Big Gee whose lyrics link the loss of traditional values with the environmental degradation of his native land. He emphasises that the solution lies with his fellow Mongolians joining him in resisting the demands of globalisation. Mongolia was until recently a non-monetary culture in balance with nature so Big Gee’s activism can tap into this ethos. “You cannot eat money”  he raps resonating with the cry of the dead primitive gift economies bulldozed by capitalism. The “power of the gift” in such economies has much to teach us. If we could recover the fundamental human value of pro-social reciprocity and scotch the idea that inequality is “natural” we might have a chance of saving the planet.

The fusion of multimedia art with social anthroplogy, a discipline that offers the most profound insights into the human condition, is an interdisciplinary genre with huge potential. Given this blogsite’s mission, its development will be avidly covered. 

Sam Austen: the real horror story

Sam Austen (2)

© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

Eyes featured prominently in the films of the four artists I saw today: a Syrian boy whose eyes had seen too much (Erkan Özgen), an evil eye belonging to a capriciously tyrannical and omniscient shapeshifter (William Kentridge) and the dead eyes of computer animated females (Kate Cooper). But it was Sam Austen’s poetic exploration of the relationship  between the eye and consciousness that gave me the most profound aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation. The others will get due consideration in a future post.

Sam Austen’s enjoyably eerie video installation, Real Mirror (2017), at the RA Schools two years ago demonstrated a distinctive combination of imagination and technical ingenuity so I am chuffed, but not surprised, to see growing recognition for his work since then. A group show at LG London gallery, curated under the ambiguous title, Out of Eye, features his latest film, an intense 11 minute meditation on the eye’s slippery, multifaceted metaphorical power, touching on its relationship with love, desire, death, the mind and memory.

Its title, Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, spelt out in a script suggestive of a horror film poses the question: is this the horror of trying to excise an image we would rather not have seen? A devastating scene directly outside the gallery was still freshly minted on my mind’s eye: a group of a dozen junkies living on the street with their drug paraphenalia spread out around them on the pavement.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The apparent physicality of our visual memory has encouraged much material imagery  such as branding, burning, etching and tracing to describe the process, but this is an analogy that misses out the non-material complexities of repression. The film  constantly references the mysterious physicality of vision by describing images as material objects as if located in a topology of the mind. I have no quibble with this as visual memories must be encoded by our brain neurons in some way. Austen’s caption “Images travel out from the eye” evokes the Greek theory of vision accepted until the seventeeth century which assumed that the eye emitted rays to capture images of the “real world”. The idea that we are receivers rather than emitters of light gives a completely different concept of the mind’s role in perception and paved the way for the Freudian take on imagery. For me this is summed up beautifully by another of Austen’s powerful coinages: “the cauldron of glances”, a vivid evocation of the mayhem inherent in the storing, sorting and retrieving of snippets of memory from the conscious and unconscious mind. 

Art - various

Austen’s text appears pinned to the screen in the form of pithy slogans crudely painted on fragile banners. The language is not the heavy pseudo-mystical style which seems to attract (and trip up) so many artists; it is snappy and vivid, expressing ideas that although enigmatic are capable of poetic decoding. We are drawn in immediately at the start as the text suggests that the film is addressing a loved and/or desired  person who is the subject of the artist’s gaze and anxious thoughts. “What are you carrying in there? Mountains, Sea, Death? All Dark Now. ” This personalises the narrative giving added poignancy. 

Sam Austen
© Sam Austen – installation view of Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

The film has carefully controlled pace and structure building to a ferocious climax, the electronic whine and growl of the soundtrack matching the accelerating rotation of a plaster “eyeball”  its pitted surface reminding me of the white fatty covering of the cow’s eyes I would source from the abbatoir to dissect for GCSE biology classes. The black “pupil” is evoked by a static blurred dot in the centre of the screen while the eyeball whirls in the background like a lonely hyperactive planet, just one example of the value of his trademark use of physical casting, celluloid film and superimposition.

Sam Austen, still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina, 2018.
© Sam Austen – still from Hologram Burnt On To The Retina (2019) courtesy of Laure Genillard

A stunning sequence which introduces a blast of colour for the first time right at the end of the film sets up the kind of visual ambiguity made famous by the face/vase illusion illustrated below. We are either inside the eye looking out or outside looking in at the back of the retina with our interpretation constantly switching, the background matrix of red dots either representing the retinal cells or the visual field.  Yet again we are forced into acceptance of an uncanny truth: the “real world”  is only a physical construction in the brain’s  visual cortex. Perhaps this is the real horror story.

face vase ilusion