Collectively Unmaking the Field

Robert Simpkins

Image description: A field lying alongside the River Thames, which flows southwards from the centre of Oxford, from the spires and museums of the University

Disintegration of the Field…


As a child I grew up in the shadow of the University of Oxford. The colleges dominate the city, though as a young boy their inaccessibility, their ancient stone walls and their arched doorways were a source of fascination and wonderment; a world I wanted to explore. The Pitt Rivers Museum, a famous museum of anthropology and ethnography, was a dark and secretive basement space of magic and witchcraft. It frightened me. It inspired me. I knew nothing of its colonial mandate, the hidden violence, the racism. As other audience members, however, my presence was silent complicity, a constituent part in the structure of representation. 


I often think back to those early museum visits as a formative time in my decision to become an anthropologist, to study people and societies unfamiliar to me. Today, the museum has been elevated, brightened and cleaned, now displaying claims of decolonised collections. But as ethnographers what have we learned, what do we practice, and with whose eyes do we see?


The discipline still calls our place of research ‘the Field’, as though it is somewhere that exists beyond the world of everyday things, a forest to explore as inquisitive children. The innocence of inquisitiveness is infused with the tenets of ethnography, as though the quest for knowledge about the Other remains upheld and untarnished by the crossing of borders and boundaries. Exhibiting and representing the Other is a shadow ethnographers and Western museums still walk in today. Still the grand narrative of ethnography remains of a lone ethnographer entering the Field, crossing intimate boundaries in order to unlock the mysteries of lives and cultures, and then to return from the Field with the materials of representation. In our collaboration, we aim to decentre this narrative, and in doing so to dislodge the power of representation that lies almost exclusively with the ethnographer.   


This is a proposal to unmake ‘the Field’, and the distance-ethnography that Ayano and I began during Covid-19 has gradually produced a methodology for this purpose. I could not ‘go to the Field’, I could not visit Ayano in Japan. I do not see Ayano when we speak, I receive no information from her gestures. Time difference, physical and audio distance intercepts the process of ‘being there’. This has caused a shift in the power dynamics of ethnography’s colonial logic. I have lost the power to visit ‘the Field’. I am only ever a temporary guest, an invited intruder, a non-observing observer. I see nothing. In the space left by the suspension of the still preeminent anthropological method, boundaries have become opaque and porous. Instead, a different horizon of ethnographic research is emerging: a landscape of broken and staggered text messaging, of time difference, and the disembodied texture of conversation. Thin metal avatars that beep and vibrate in the hand, representing a decentred practice of not ‘being there’.


As art has guided our discussions, so has it come to permeate the expression of our findings. Interviews have become meetings, online rooms in which we are seated in collaborative investigation. A fragile new ethics is emerging, slowly, in continuous consultation. The boundaries remain opaque, just as our positionalities shift with new invitations and intrusions of privacy. The self and other, in oscillation, in negotiation. 


I have not written a ‘field diary’, the foundational record of ethnography, the private property of the ethnographer. Instead, together we have intercepted the production of ethnographic knowledge with collaborative forms of creative practice. Ayano invites me to work and coproduce through media in which I am often off balance as an ethnographer. As such, the ethnographic inquiry is remoulded into a process in which the artist is as much director as she is collaborator, or research subject. Indeed, Ayano’s Ph.D work You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan incorporates an autoethnographic methodology, and this informs our awareness about the location of authorship and representation. Our cross-disciplinarity is concomitantly a post-colonial space of ethnography.

… through Art and Ethnography


The osmosis of art and anthropology in our project has given rise to the production of ethnography that has derailed the territorialisation and temporalisation between subjects and researchers; an arbitrary and overly rigid separation of spaces that is not properly negotiated in many ethnographic works. In this sense we have been engaged in ‘reverse anthropology’, occurring when the subjects of research become agents in articulating how they perceive the researchers studying them. Ayano gains power to represent the ethnographer. We also go further, by encouraging a continual dialogue and the coproduction of ethnography, which in its very inception challenges the established power dynamics of ethnographic research.


To do this through the intermixture of ethnography and art is a learning process presented in our work. In Spring, Ayano registers my hesitancy to intrude, my uncertainty upon entering a space of interaction unknown to me: the notion of the Field falling into disintegration. Our collaborative ethnography also becomes a record of our awkward partnership of trust and mistrust, of security and insecurity, of clumsy mistakes and welcome surprises, of the intimate blurring into the strange. Yet our dialectic creative co-productions have afforded us the opportunity to accept this as an alternative way of knowing and attempting to understand our conversations, our form of presence, and the intimacy of ‘being there’ in a hand, a pocket, on a walk, sharing a mediated view from a window or early morning chores [as explored in Gomi Dashi]. 


Our technologically interceded copresence has fostered the acceptance of not only alternative ways of knowing but also of ‘unknowability’, the gap in what we can know about each other. In Coat, Ayano’s sound recordings of her lived environment, of water melts and snow in a passing landscape, also document spaces where I am not, places I do not know. The gap is bridged only partially and interpretively. I attempt to recalibrate my sensitivity to hers. Her interaction with the world is reembodied not on the page, but in the format of music. 


Art pushes the limits of what is acceptable in terms of moral and aesthetic values, whereas ethnography alleges to legitimise its own work by considering its ethical implications; a legitimacy arguably enacted in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s claim to new decolonisation efforts. In presenting our collaborative fragments of ethnography as art pieces, we do not claim legitimacy, but rather ask questions and offer spaces in which an audience might contemplate them: to participate in the continuous generation of better questions. In sharing our collaborative distance-ethnography of place and intimacy, we hope to create a discussion that begins with postcolonialism, to invite people to participate in a decentred creative production involving the artist, ethnographer, and the public. 


All of this brings us back to the museum, to ethnography and to art. The presentation of our collective’s work, as text reconceptualised as novelistic prose, poetry, music, photography, and videography, calls for an interactive and engaged audience in order to continue and expand the dialogue that we have begun. In our attempt to unmake the Field, our collaboration appears as a new site of learning, knowing, and ‘unknowability’, mutual and reciprocal. Museums matter today, not because they claim legitimacy through decolonising perspectives on their collections, but because they exist as a location for interventions, as spaces for moving from new ideas to new understandings, where established hierarchies and narratives are not excused, but challenged and reworked. Our collective seeks to engage in a discourse about novel ways of being, of knowing other people, and of expression that accepts the ‘unknowability’ of one another. It seeks to share the renegotiation at the centre of our decentred practice.

Image description: A field lying alongside the River Thames, which flows southwards from the centre of Oxford, from the spires and museums of the University

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