ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Creative horizons: steps towards an ethnography of imagination
Location Science Site/Maths CM221
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Dolores Martinez (SOAS) email
  • Ramon Sarró (University of Oxford) email

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Short Abstract

Crapazano challenged us to explore imaginative horizons and human experience. By considering the 'as if' we grasp others' intentions, act upon our environments, initiate change and create futures. In this panel we invite scholars to discuss innovation and creativity and the human imaginative nature.

Long Abstract

Although there may be little consensus on its definition, psychologists and philosophers seem to agree that imagination is part and parcel of the conditions of the possibility of thinking. Without exploring possible "as if" scenarios, humans would have difficulties in comprehending others' intentions, acting upon their social and material surroundings, or initiating change and creating possible futures. Thus invention, innovation and creative thinking are not "extra-processual" events, but are part and parcel of our social, as well as individual, natures. Institutions, as well, evolve because someone, at some point, had one particular idea. In this vein, Crapazano challenged the anthropological discipline more than a decade ago, asking us to explore the making of imaginative horizons and their place in the human experience. We feel that the challenge could be relaunched today by adding an emphasis on innovation and creativity: what are the individual and social processes that go into imagining and creating something new? Who is a creator and who says so? What are the cultural logics that dictate the acceptance of the novum? How do creators see themselves? Keeping in mind the theme of cultural revolution, we invite scholars to explore these issues through any domain of human activity such as (but not exclusive to): art, science, literature, religion, architecture or agriculture.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The aesthetic imagination: speculative forms

Author: Elizabeth Hodson (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how anthropology might engage with the aesthetic imagination. Specifically it asks how an artist moves between the immanence of the art object and its relational context, and in so doing how the imagination reveals itself to the artist.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how anthropology might engage with the aesthetic imagination. Specifically it asks how an artist moves between the immanence of the art object and its relational context. Since Kant aesthetics has signaled art's autotelic potential. But it's emphasis on sensation and affect has also supported charges of inwardness. Alfred Gell's (1998) call for an 'agnostic' approach towards aesthetics has been instrumental in eclipsing a consideration of the specificity of the art object within anthropology. With its demise, imagination becomes correspondingly characterised as beyond anthropology's reach. For Edmund Husserl imaging was a form of 'nonactual' and 'irreal' experience that differed in kind to perception through it's relinquishing of the actual in favor of the speculative. But like perception the imagination is an intentional act (Kind 2016), or as I suggest in this paper, imagination is the means to realise intention and forms captured on the page evidence how this intentionality comes into being. Based on ethnographic research with Glasgow-based painter Louise Hopkins, I explore this intention anthropologically, and ask how the imagination exceeds the imagistic as generative projection. Hopkins appropriates found images and everyday fabrics into her work. Using them as a material support, their prior collective meaning is distilled through an aesthetic intervention on the pictorial surface that is both formal and indexical. Within each painting the weight between content and form is deliberately measured. This paper addresses the anthropology of the imagination through delineating how this oscillation occurs and how the imagination reveals itself to the artist.

Bold innovation or vulgarity? Accounting for creative choice in a Persian literary field

Author: Zuzanna Olszewska (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper takes up the panel’s theme in relation to innovation in literary genres, specifically in Persian poetry, based on ethnographic study of contemporary Afghan poets in Iran.

Long Abstract

This paper takes up the panel's theme in relation to innovation in literary genres, specifically in Persian poetry. Benefiting from extensively documented accounts of continuity and change over a millennium of Persian literary history, I explore the additional insights offered by the ethnographic study of contemporary poets, linking their creative choices to their social contexts. Placing such poets in a field of cultural production, as Bourdieu did for French writers—insisting on the necessity of understanding the multifaceted relationship among genre, audience, patronage, criticism and political economy, among others—gives us a partial explanation for the trajectory of a particular poet's oeuvre, and can help us understand the conditions in which innovation is either resisted or welcomed. It can even help us understand why some daring departures from convention are naturalised into 'tradition' while others are vehemently denounced as mere vulgarity. But how are we to account for the sometimes radically different creative choices of poets from broadly similar social backgrounds working under similar conditions? On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork with Afghan refugee poets in Iran, I argue that the creative work of a poet lies not just in composing verses, but in 'composing' sympathetic audiences and carving out a channel between her own imagination and theirs—a task involving numerous contingencies, including the poet's unique personality (shakhsiat).

Emergent creativity: interrogating imagination with Japanese contemporary artists

Author: Iza Kavedzija (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

Based on ethnographic fieldwork with contemporary Japanese artists working in a variety of genres, this paper explores the tropes they invoked to describe their work. Imagination here is not seen as an image, visualisation of what is to be made, but an emergent property of the process of creation.

Long Abstract

Images of movement were often invoked by young Japanese contemporary artists when reflecting on their own creative practices. Similarly, when asked to describe their own lives they frequently compared it with a path, albeit a much less clearly delineated one than that which lies ahead of practitioners of the traditional Japanese arts. On this path, they suggested, one has to move without a clear idea of a goal. Based on ethnographic fieldwork with artists involved in improvised music and dance, painting, and multimedia installations, this paper explores the tropes and images they invoked to describe their work and the ways in which it came into being. In lieu of a single, preformed mental image or plan, their descriptions of the creative process emphasised the processual knowledge involved in the act of creation, and in particular the importance of movement of the body. In this way they effectively drew attention to the emergent nature, not only of their work, but of their own evolving understanding of questions they had not consciously posed. Imagination is here not a precondition for making an artwork, but itself an emergent property of the process of creation.

Startup ecosystems: socio-economic milieus of imagination and creativity..

Author: Richard Pfeilstetter (University of Seville)  email

Short Abstract

This contribution discusses contemporary institutionalizations of ‘imagination’ and ‘innovation’, where new ideas, risk taking and creativity are part of an explicit moral imperative or lifestyle and a marketable resource of the individual.

Long Abstract

Creativity and innovation were seen as the distinguishing feature of socio-economic organization in the 20th century dichotomy between modern market societies and traditional-static communities. The economist Schumpeter defined the entrepreneur, who introduces novel, innovative forms and combinations of ideas, as the constitutive agency of capitalism. "Creative destruction", a term derived from Marx he has coined, was seen as the core momentum of economic innovation. Today, a growing number of young people in global cities create intimate social relations based on a shared desire for starting a ground-breaking, revolutionary (tech) business at the forefront of 'innovation' that eventually would change the world. These 'startup communities' and 'digital nomads' are socio-spatially brought to life in 'creative quarters'. I will discuss my ethnographic research in such a quarter in Manchester (UK), where I attended network meetings and tech events taking place at premises especially fashioned as 'creative', such as co-workspaces, incubators, accelerators or 'coffices'. My main argument is that this are contemporary institutionalizations of imagination and innovation, where thinking different, risk taking and creativity are part of an explicit moral imperative or lifestyle as well as a marketable resource of the individual. Is the 'creative industry' a collective contemporary utopia or the outcome of new, agency-driven 'imaginative horizons' in global cities?

The agent and the artist: innovating 'African' circus performers in China, Europe and Ethiopia

Author: Jessica Kendall  email

Short Abstract

Recent years have seen both the growth of 'African' circus, and the rise of Ethiopian circus performers working as independent players in an international industry. This paper explores the roles of the agent and the artist in producing innovative African circus bodies that appeal to a global market.

Long Abstract

The creation of circus performances involves innovative collaborations between circus performers and the 'agents' they work with, including individuals, proprietors, agencies, companies and local and/or foreign governments. In a global world a circus performer is dependent upon these mediators as essential mobilizers in the act of building a successful international career. The stakes of the collaboration between artist and agent become particularly clear in the case of Ethiopian circus performers who are attempting to build better lives for themselves and their families through working hard with their bodies, thus increasing their own market value and mobility in the corporeal economy of circus. This paper is based on data collected during 12 months of multi-sited fieldwork through six different countries in which I tracked the movements of a troupe of six Ethiopian circus performers as they trained in China on an acrobatics cultural exchange and subsequently performed in an 'African' themed circus production in Europe. Utilizing a largely person-centred ethnographic approach, I examine how the troupe's various collaborations with agents innovated and developed their acts into a so-called 'African' style that was highly marketable in Europe. I further consider how one particular key agent - a former circus performer from Zimbabwe - was emblematic of what Nikolas Rose calls an expert of subjectivity; an authority on the micropolitics of 'African' circus who helped the troupe creatively channel their extreme embodied habituses into something that they could truly call "their own."

Digital architectures of imagination

Author: Kåre Poulsgaard (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

I take up Crapanzano’s challenge in two related ways: One explores imaginative horizons enacted in digital design practices in architecture. The other relates these to ongoing work in anthropology seeking to expand the horizons of the field to understand creativity and cognition in a digitising world.

Long Abstract

Crapanzano highlights questions of time, contingency and memory as key elements for the anthropology of imagination. I add technics to the mix and propose an inquiry into creativity and innovation in digital architecture as a way of exploring the genesis of imaginative horizons.

At present, digital technology not only changes notions of design but also holds the power to fundamentally re-structure its practices. The completion of Gaudi's Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona offers a case in point: with few surviving instructions to work from, architects instead use the material memory of existing buildings as templates for design research into possible architectural futures. This would not be feasible without extensive use of scripts to customise digital tools according to the contingencies of the buildings.

Design scripting literally re-imagines the tools and practices of architecture, forwarding a privileged view of the double nature of imagination highlighted by Crapanzano; every time we creatively and imaginatively overcome a problem we open new horizons for imagination itself. In this vein, the study of digital creativity and cognition should open new venues for ethnographic research into imagination.

My presentation will proceed through a short theoretical framing before investigating case studies from the literature on the Sagrada Família. I will show how the design team draw on materials, memory and contingency to collapse the distance between material and digital elements in the completion of the cathedral; and discuss this interpretative play as a template for an anthropology concerned with how technics constitute the horizon of our imagination.

Gaps, traps and trips: how ideas manifest in practice

Author: Jessica Symons (University of Salford)  email

Short Abstract

Gell argues for objects as ‘vehicles of complicated ideas’ (Gell 1996:36). However fieldwork in a Salford community shows that ideas themselves have become ‘vehicles’ that get trapped in particular times, places and contexts

Long Abstract

Gell embraces a Zande hunting net in an art exhibition as a trap that can "communicate the idea of a nexus of intentionalities between hunters and prey animals via material forms and mechanisms" (Gell 1996:29). The hunting net alongside Western artworks is an object that can be "scrutinised as vehicles of complicated ideas" (ibid:36). The net constitutes art because it captures social meaning in relationship with people and objects.

In my paper, I explore how social meaning is born from ideas trapped and tethered to a particular time, place and context. Through fieldwork in a 'hard-to-reach' community in Salford on a AHRC funded project focused on cultural intermediaries, I show how particular ideas of culture, creativity and community create traps for local people whose values do not align with policy-driven government instruments that dominate their lives.

I argue that paying attention to local people's ideas and supporting them to realise their own ambitions created a gap for productive work whilst also tethering the activity to a particular individual. It was through the combined effort of local mentors to support the process and the individual's commitment to their vision that the 'material forms and mechanisms' were able to cohere into a 'nexus of intentionalities'.

I suggest that creative city agendas trip up by over-focusing on ideas in the abstract rather than on the processes through which ideas come to be manifest in practice. Gell's insight into agency and how ideas are actively grounded in social contexts draws

attention to this gap.

Dona Flor and Scarlett O'Hara: a comparative analysis of Brazilian and United States cultural imagination

Authors: Everardo Rocha (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro - PUC-Rio)  email
Marina Frid (Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro - PUC-Rio)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates Jorge Amado's "Dona Flor and her two husbands" and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the wind" to understand aspects of the cultural imagination of Brazil and United States. The study demonstrates how these narratives conceive the transition from "traditional" to "modern".

Long Abstract

This paper investigates two celebrated narratives, one from Brazil and another from the United States, both of which present leading ladies that face a similar problem but have diametrically different solutions to it. Specifically, this work examines and compares Jorge Amado's "Dona Flor and her two husbands" from 1966 and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the wind" from 1936 as a path to understand certain beliefs, ideals and contradictions that permeate the cultural imagination of both countries. For 34 years the 1976 film adaptation of "Dona Flor" led the box-office ranking in Brazil amongst national cinema productions. The 1939 version of "Gone with the wind" is considered to date one of the most profitable and watched movies in the US. The former represents everyday life in 1940s Salvador; the latter is an epic novel set during the American Civil War. Both narratives have a love triangle in which a woman is torn between two contrasting loves. However, Flor's solution to her emotional conflict, to commit to two men, is symmetrically opposed to Scarlett's solitary end. This work seeks to demonstrate how the characters' opposite decisions in matters of love reflect broader issues of Brazilian and United States cultures. The analysis indicates that the male protagonists of both narratives represent the dualism between "traditional" and "modern" values. The forms by which Brazil and the United States made that transition were quite different and, as the investigation shows, both narratives offer an interpretation of these specificities.

Managing imponderable problems in Egyptian film production

Author: Chihab El Khachab (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

This paper describes some ways in which Egyptian filmmakers manage ‘imponderable problems’ in the course of commercial film production. A filmmaking problem is ‘imponderable’, I argue, when it has an expected outcome yet no specific weight can be assigned to each course of action leading onto it.

Long Abstract

This paper examines 'imponderable problems' in the context of commercial film production in Cairo, Egypt. At different moments in the filmmaking process, Egyptian filmmakers are faced, in the present, with problems of uncertainty concerning the future of their activity - e.g., when and where they will shoot a scene; how the scene will look like in the final film; how the audience will react to the film. This uncertainty is not absolute, however, since it involves an expected outcome - an eventual shooting day, an eventual movie, an eventual audience. What is uncertain, however, is the weight assigned to all possible courses of action leading onto this anticipated outcome: this is why I call these problems 'imponderable', as a case of more general categories like 'uncertainty' or Crapanzano's 'imaginative horizons'.

Imponderable problems, I argue, are insufficiently examined in media anthropology, even though they are common to many long-term media production processes. This paper will present some ways in which these problems are managed in Egyptian film production. I start by giving an outline of the Egyptian film industry's political economy, while insisting on the role of interpersonal relations in the industry's everyday working practices. Then, I describe the importance of a hierarchical division of labor, a flexible conception of the socio-technical sequence of filmmaking, and a variety of technological devices in setting standards over who manages imponderable problems when and how. I will illustrate the way in which these factors intervene in one specific problem: how filmmakers try to imagine their audience.

Tsumkwe, Namibia: the Stone Age film set

Author: Aglaja Kempinski (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Where John Marshall foresaw a “Plastic Stone Age” for the San, Tsumkwe has turned into a Stone Age film set. Reversing what has been their passive relationship with film leads to the realisation that while film has consumed Tsumkwe, this Stone Age film set abides by distinctly San rules.

Long Abstract

Tsumkwe - the administrative center of an area which used to be referred to as "Bushmanland" in Apartheid Namibia - is steeped in a longstanding engagement with film, ranging from John Marshall's famous documentary "The Hunters" (1957) to comedy feature film "The Gods must be crazy" (1980) and a whole range of BBC documentaries. These have contributed to an environment which is heavily romanticised by tourists, San, researchers and film makers alike. An attempt to reverse what has been a passive relationship with film shows how the place itself has turned into a film set in which the roles played by different actors are heavily prescribed by the processes governing the maintenance of San identity.

The focus of this research is an indigenous filmmaking project (CEDU). Fieldwork has been conducted throughout its establishment, negotiation with parties who resisted it, some of its successes and ultimately its failures (while also considering finshed film products)

The qualitative data obtained shows that Western notions of "real" versus "fake" in relation to film material are misguided avenues of assessing Tsumkwe and its development (or lack thereof). Rather, we need to understand that while Tsumkwe has embraced the medium of film and itself become a film set in many ways, the rules which govern this space are still distinctly San.

The biggest challenge to the San making films is an epistemological system which understands a fetishized relationship the San have with nature to be incompatible with active use of modern filmmaking technology.

Creative collaborations: imaging new documentary film in Chile

Author: Maria Paz Peirano (Leiden University )  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the creative processes of Chilean documentary filmmakers, which have developed a field of ‘creative’ auteur cinema. It focuses on how filmmakers expand the material and imaginary boundaries of film, based on traditional collaborative practices and new forms of collective work.

Long Abstract

This paper analyses new creative strategies of Chilean documentary filmmakers, who highlight collaborative work in their filmmaking processes and expand the imaginary boundaries of documentary cinema. Chilean so-called 'creative' documentary film is flourishing, as a form of artistically-driven and groundbreaking auteur cinema. Since 2010 documentaries have achieved unprecedented success in international film festival circuit, which works as "gatekeeper" of the art-cinema world and promotes innovative filmmaking practices. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork of the Chilean scene, the paper argues that these new 'creative' films are embedded in alternative forms of filmmaking, exemplified in such films as Propaganda (Murray and collective MAFI, 2014), which have combined the idea of 'auteur' with collective modes of production. Filmmakers have reinterpreted both traditional forms of collaboration in the documentary field and recent narratives of global 'creative economies'. The paper draws attention to the collective learning process and collaborative practices involved in the production of successful documentary films, which have an impact on the new ways of doing and imagining film in Chile. It discusses how documentaries' creative processes are intertwined with the re-articulation of traditional networks of cooperation, new practices of production and exchange, and new ways of imagining documentary as an art form. Thus, it looks at the ways filmmaking processes promote the construction of new creative subjectivities and expand the materialities and visual imaginaries of the field of production.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.