February 01, 2015

Using interactive arts and technology to explore possibilities with ethnographic research


How did you discover the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and what influenced your decision to become a student here? What brought you back to academia after your professional work?

Following graduate school in London and Australia — where I completed programs in Social Anthropology (The London School of Economics) and Visual Anthropology (The Australian National University) — I moved to New York City to gain hands-on professional experience related to visual and material culture. I worked as a production assistant for a documentary film company in Brooklyn, while simultaneously contributing to a research project within the Anthropology Department of the American Museum of Natural History. In the museum, I became fascinated by one object that was sealed away in the storage vaults — a Hawaiian royal necklace made of human hair and whale teeth. The object’s origins were unknown. I wrote an application to the Smithsonian Institute to research these objects in their collection in greater depth. Following my proposal review, I was invited as a research participant in the Smithsonian Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA) program. We were provided an apartment to live in over the summer, and my roommate was a student in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology in the Making Culture Lab. She quickly pinpointed my similar research interests (documentary film, experimental ethnography and art) to her supervisor, Professor Kate Hennessy, founder of the Making Culture Lab. When I spoke with Kate and learned more about the Making Culture Lab at SIAT, I knew it would be the perfect home for my research. 

As someone with a background in anthropology, filmmaking, archaeology, visual art, and science, what is it about Interactive Arts and Technology that appeals to you? How does it all relate to one another?

I feel very inspired by the projects that are happening at SIAT and am constantly compelled to reconsider my views of culture, mediums and approaches. I’m in my first year of the program and am beginning to develop a repertoire of alternative (digital and virtual) methodologies that build on traditional anthropological methods. I view anthropology as an incredibly exciting and collaborative discipline, but like other fields of study, it is a challenge to share research findings with the communities we work with. In the Making Culture Lab at SIAT, we are working towards collaborative research with communities using participatory design methods. Often this involves working with the community members to create films, virtual exhibits, and digital archives of culture for their own personal and educational use. Through this process of collaboration, we gain research insight, while creating something that can be of use to the community once our shared fieldwork is complete. The digital archive and virtual museum projects that are ongoing within the Making Culture Lab include community archaeology databases and the “digital return” of First Nations objects from the Smithsonian collection. The materials for the digital archive are created through interviews, filmmaking, art and design, and provide a unique opportunity for me to utilize my background and training in ethnographic, technical and artistic methods. 

What does your research focus on? Tell us a bit about your doctoral project.

My doctoral project builds on a documentary short I filmed last year entitled “Appalachian Punks: A Resurgence of Tradition.” Within this documentary, I explore the ways in which new media (YouTube) is contributing to a resurgent interest in traditional Appalachian music, which was once relegated to isolated mountain communities. Now, you see urban buskers (street musicians) playing banjo and fiddle music, and many of them learned these songs through YouTube. Most of the young musicians who I interviewed transitioned from the punk genre to traditional old-time Appalachian music. Old-time music often has underlying themes related to social and economic struggles that in many ways mirror the songs from the punk movement of the 1970’s. Within my documentary, I consider the trajectory of these “punk ethics” to emerging social movements, such as “DIY” culture (based on anti-consumerism), anarchism, permaculture and zero-carbon cooperatives.

My doctoral project at Simon Fraser explores these concepts in much greater depth and via an experimental medium: a web-based interactive documentary. Based on fieldwork with musicians in urban metropolises and Appalachia, and through archival research that I will complete at the Smithsonian, I will demonstrate the historical trajectory of this music from the European folk tradition, to the mountains of Appalachia, to the field recordings in the archives in Washington D.C., and finally to young musicians in urban centers such as Brooklyn who are now uploading the songs to YouTube. The videos, field recordings, photos, interviews, and archival materials that I collect will be presented in a user-navigable website and will be a case study in exploring the effectiveness of the “interactive documentary” to convey and safeguard cultural heritage. 

What does SIAT’s Making Culture Lab do, exactly? What is like conducting research there?

I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Making Culture Lab at SIAT, as a synergistic space in which we experiment with the potentials of ethnography. To me, ethnography represents an extremely creative process that reports on something intangible and dynamic — culture. Inherently, culture is a vibrant and living concept, yet methods to report it have been very static and colourless. I never felt that text-based publications were an ideal medium for conveying cultural information. I believe that anthropology is often more easily conveyed, understood and shared through visual approaches, such as photography and documentary film. It is for this reason that after completing my Master’s degree in Social Anthropology, I applied to study Visual Anthropology with a focus on Ethnographic Filmmaking. With this regard, I feel very at home in the Making Culture Lab, where there is no need to justify the value of visual media, art and documentary film as productive research tools. I feel honored to be a part of the innovative push towards the development of a participatory anthropology and in the creation of new visual and virtual research methods.

Having studied, worked, and done research in many parts of the world, what would you consider the most interesting place you’ve been to, and why?

Living in Patagonia (Southern Chile) was one of my most challenging and most rewarding experiences. The terrain of Patagonia is extremely picturesque and beautiful, but also rugged and unforgiving. I will never forget backpacking through the mountains, sleeping in a tent and drinking from a stream for three days as we hiked over a series of snow-capped mountain ridges. On the last day, we made a wrong turn and ended up in a remote mountain village. It took four hours of waiting by the road, but a car finally drove past and we were able to hitchhike into the nearest town two hours away.

Following that experience, for three months, I lived in a small cabin on a remote farm in an area of designated Mapuche land. Living “off the grid” had unique challenges and benefits, and quickly I realized how many small things I take for granted on a daily basis: such as a stove, central heating, and not having to wear a hat and gloves to sleep in. Although difficult at times, I truly appreciated the benefits of life there: fresh eggs every morning, learning how to identify medicinal plants, the clear skies at night, and the daily foraging for local mushrooms and piñon nuts.

Initially, I had traveled to Patagonia with the specific intention to explore the cultural negotiation of gender in female spiritual practitioners in that region. I worked with machis (Mapuche shamans) and completed fieldwork that contributed to my master’s dissertation. At the same time, I volunteered in a local K-8 Indigenous school, where I quickly realized that the loss of Indigenous culture and language was occurring at an alarming rate. It is speculated locally that the extinction of the Mapuche language will occur in as little as one generation. From that point forward, much of my stay was devoted to developing a model framework for school-age (K-8) cultural education and preservation programs. I found it to be an extremely rewarding experience and learned a lot about working with a community as a whole (parents, elders, children and teachers) in collaborative research and education projects.

Rachel’s concluding thoughts:

I’m very grateful to be in a field that I find extremely rewarding and meaningful. I am especially thankful to have found a place within an academic program that encourages alterative, interdisciplinary and artistic approaches. I truly appreciate the breadth and holistic nature of SIAT as a program that unifies culture, art and technology for meaningful and applied research.

Do you have a website or online portfolio that you would like to share?

Making Culture Lab page: http://hennessy.iat.sfu.ca/mcl/rachel-ward/