Multimedia anthropology: an interdisciplinary art genre

© 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. 

VR art: return to Disneyland or breaking the fourth wall?

Still from VR artwork, The Styx, courtesy of Gazelli Art House and the artists, Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx

Enter Through the Headset

Gazelli Art House, Dover Street  until 25 June

On my first visit to Disneyland LA in 1978, the animatronics and holography were eye-scorchingly advanced. The Phantom Manor and Pirates of the Caribbean “experiences” cut through my 22 year old cynicism and I revelled like a kid in the  visual playground. But I also felt a certain smugness at the expensive technology Disney had marshalled just for our pleasure. Now that access to high tech computer technology is no longer the preserve of the media corporations, artists have begun to explore its potential. Judging by the inventiveness of the three VR works in this exhibition this genre of MI art is managing to avoiding the lure of Disneyfication and map out a revolutionary new direction in the use of technology.

Veil – Iain Nicholls and Tom Szirtes

The fourth wall* seems to disappear when we don a VR headset. But this work modestly reminds us that Velasquez got there first. We enter a virtual gallery and are faced with grandmaster signature works, including Las Meninas, often cited as the world’s best ever painting. Among other things, it is a self-portrait of Velasquez standing at a canvas too huge to set on an easel. With his palette and brush ready, his penetrating gaze transfixes the viewer. We are  the subject of his painting. Seeing it at the Prado in Madrid I felt absorbed into the paintings space. It was like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole where your perceptions seem strangely skewed, a feat achieved four centuries ago without the aid of VR.  With your headset on you have entered a high tech, virtual world looking at a real painting that creates its own virtual world using old school techniques.

There is a second phase of this work where we experience a replay of the notorious scene of the train advancing headlong on the audience of the early Lumiere Brother’s film but this time the train does actually smash through the screen and hurtles past you. This sophisticated yet elegantly simple work is a terrific arty in-joke and a telling commentary on the history of the fourth wall that only VR could achieve. The homage to these two seminal artworks was a masterstroke.

The Styx – SkullMapping  (Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx).

I can hear the call of the fairground roister man.

“Roll up, roll up. Experience the final journey from your death to the afterlife. Meet the ferryman, Charon, with his bottomless eyes who will take your coin that guarantees you the ride. Recoil in horror at the lost souls languishing in the water as your boat carries you across the River Styx.  Feel the chill of the cavern deep below the earth and the icy water dripping on you from its roof. Feel the heat of the breath of the three headed monster, Cerberus, as your ferryman defeats him to carry you to your repose in Hades. Roll up, roll up”.

Who could resist? Terrific experience. Hard work for the assistant who provided the real-time tactile effects, though. This VR experience should be given as therapy to all those suffering from a phobia of death. The ferryman is a quite a comforting figure, much less judgemental than St Peter with his tally of good and bad deeds. You just need that coin.

 Nature Abstraction –Matteo Zamagni

The abstract coral like formations and wave like swirls were sensibly leavened with some figurative emblems, human and animal figures briefly glimpsed and disembodied eyes enmeshed in a gloriously coloured tapestry. This type of VR art could be the way to kick start the abstract art movement which sometimes feels a bit moribund at the current time

This was my first visit to this gallery which originated in Baku, Azeberjan and their focus on encouraging young artists to exploit new technology is very heartening to see.

*Thanks to David Blandy who has raised this important question in his latest short film- A Tutorial on Ideas