Possibilities and limitations of multimedia ethnography
With the description below, Riches and Fox (2008) try to explain the ambiance of a heavy metal rock concert. They try to describe what exactly they are experiencing at that very moment. They use words, and the medium of writing, to explain to the reader what they see, feel and experience at that very moment. I myself have never been at a ‘death metal’ concert and the above description of this event only gives me a vague idea of the ambiance. I find it very hard to imagine how such a concert looks like, what kind of people attend, how people behave, what they feel and experience. In other words, when reading this description, I hardly can empathize or comprehend what a death metal concert is about. Since reading those words feel like not enough to know what the authors talk about, I directly tend to gain information via other media. I directly tend to listen to death metal music, watch some video footage of a concert and search for some photographs, in order to get a better understanding of what the authors mean by those written words.
“The American death metal band Dying Fetus walks onto the small stage at the Mead Hall, Edmonton’s [Canada] exclusive heavy metal venue. Over a hundred metal fans are crammed into this small, dark underground venue in the middle of May. Sweat is dripping, hearts are pounding, and bodies are swaying in anticipation. There is a powerful surge of electrical excitement running through the fans in attendance and it quickly permeates the venue. As the band members get ready to introduce their first song there is a strange energy, an ominous calm before the metal storm. Suddenly blast beats explode from the drums; the singer utters a bottomless growl into the microphone, the distorted guitars vibrate the walls and the crowd erupts into a vortex of inexplicable movement. There is a sea of bodies adorned in black metal shirts slamming arbitrarily into one another as they become a blur, the frenzied behaviour is heightened and with one last raise of the horns I jump into the pit.” (Riches & Fox 2008)
In anthropology we are used, and often told to, to give voice to our ethnographic research findings through the medium of writing. We are used to make notes and write academic papers in order to translate our fieldwork into valid data. But is the medium of written language always the best medium to translate, and thus represent, ethnographic findings? In this essay I will challenge the medium of written language and explore the possibilities, and limitations, of other media in ethnography. This I will do on behalf of an own research project on how to (re-)present the experience of a mosh pit. I will first give a short overview of the research project and its topic. Then I will analyze the medium of choice and in the end I will examine the ethical dilemmas of representing the experience of a mosh pit through this medium of choice.
In nearly every concert there comes a point where the audience starts to dance. This also happens during life heavy metal concerts. Since the metal music often is described and experienced as ‘aggressive’, the dancing also seems aggressive and violent. Or at least, this is how outsiders and the most scholars describe the “ritualized and furious form of dancing which combines physical aggression with collective displays of emotion” (Riches 2011, 315). This form of dancing during life heavy metal concerts is called moshing or mosh pit. Since the body and physical contact is an essential part of a mosh pit, it is often associated with violent, aggressive and masculine characteristics. However, Riches (2011) argues that a mosh pit much more creates an opportunity for “good-natured” and “playful aggression”. For this, the participants of the mosh pit use the dance and their bodies to challenge common understandings of pleasure, pain and physical interaction. Therefore, so he argues, the mosh pit should much more be seen as a way of playful and good-natured aggression which creates a strong feeling of solidarity.
This tension Riches describes in his scholar, between how mosh pits are represented by outsiders and how mosh pits are experienced by insiders of the metal scene, is exactly what the participants of our research told us too. They all really liked moshing and did not associate it with aggression or violence at all. They much more saw it as a “very respectful play” and “a moment of happiness”. They also highlighted that in their opinion the media representations, mainly video footage, often misframed the experience of a mosh pit, as it often enlarged the sometimes harsh physical contact.
Since a moshpit is a very sensual and physical experience, for which written language often is not enough to explain the ambiance, and in the extension of this course, my peer group and I decided to present our research on moshing by using different media. To represent and explain the tension between the mainly negative media framing and the mainly positive experience of a mosh pit, we want to disrupt the conventional representation of the experience. We decided to disconnect the visual video images from the heavy metal audio. In order to give the ‘reader’ of our research an insight in how participants experience a mosh pit, we will create an art installation which combines silent video footage of the inside of a mosh pit with audio fragments of the interviews we held. To highlight the importance of the body in a mosh pit, we will support the video footage with close up images of a body. With the contrast between the chaotic video footage and the serene audio we will create a montage to reinterpret the mosh pit experience.
Since our research combines moving visual images and sound, I will now explore their use in anthropology. Since the days of Malinowski, writing, very occasionally in combination with photographs and drawings, was accepted to be the best form of documenting ethnographic research (Buckley 2016, 746). Even though the written language is still seen as the most common medium for ethnographic research, there are some anthropologists clearly fond of using other media. Henley (2007, 55) for example clearly states that “film can show – with a comprehensiveness and experiential quality that goes beyond anything than can be achieved by a textual transcription”.
However, in opposition to artists who use the medium of film in various different ways, ethnographic filmmakers conventionally used the medium of film to present visual evidence of the world in a naturalistic way. The medium was only instrumentally used and had the aim to catch the purity of reality and producing an accurate copy of reality (MacDougall 2005, 265). This way of filmmaking is often referred to as observational cinema (Henley 2007). Even though it this way of filming does not claim to represent the world in an objective way, it definitely avoids obvious manipulation. This implies that video footage of observational cinema often correspond to the heard audio. However, thinking of film as only a visual medium, has its very limitations. Through the framing of film as a visual medium, observational cinema does not pay very much attention to the effect of sound. It often forgets that “there is no separation of I see in the image and I hear on the track. Instead there is the I feel, I experience, through the grand total of picture and track combined “ (Henley 2007, 55). This illustrates that sound is as important as the video itself and needs some careful attention when working within visual anthropology. Rather than talking about it as commonly linked to vision, I would rather suggest to use MacDougall’s (2005, 269) term of film as an integrated sound-image construction.
When putting film in the broader picture of visual anthropology, there are several interesting notes to make. Firstly, in the beginning of visual anthropology in the end of the 20st century, it had some major acceptance struggles. In mainstream anthropology, the method of visual anthropology was not very welcome. It could not always live up to the intellectual expectations of the medium of the written language. Visual anthropologist tried for a long time to do the exact same as what they did when writing, instead of developing new ways of using the medium of film. For that reason, visual anthropology should be seen as a “different kind of anthropology, not a substitute for anthropological writing” (MacDougall 2005, 268). This leads to the second important characteristic of visual anthropology. By accepting visual anthropology as different from written anthropology, this opened the possibilities to research yet unexplored topics. MacDougall (2005, 269) principally means sensory knowledge, knowledge which can not be described with words.
As stated previously, writing and the textual production of papers, has an important role in anthropology. It has been the core of regulating and expressing the professional culture of the field (Marcus 2010). But with the raise of other mediums and representation strategies such as film and sound, the limitations and boundaries of the field are challenged. Art, a field which also makes use of these same mediums and sometimes even the same subject matters as anthropology, is such an example. According to Buckley (2016, 745) there has been a strict separation of the two disciplines. Ethnographers presenting their data in an ‘arty’, or in other words in a way other than writing, were never seen as artist. However, artists who chose social issues akin to anthropological issues, could turn into ethnographers. But this one-way exchange of disciplines has changed with the collective Ethnographic Terminalia in 2009. This collective brought the two disciplines together with an annual show of “anthropologists who make art, and artist who engage with anthropological theories and methods” (Buckley 2016, 754).
Where writing can be seen as an old fashioned and limiting research method, these new techniques of visual anthropology, give anthropology the possibility to reinvent the boundaries and functions of fieldwork in anthropology (Marcus 2010) and reach beyond the implicit limitations (Henley 2007). Since the medium of the written paper is mainly limited to the academe, visual anthropology is not necessarily. It much more speaks the language of the public, since film and audio is also common in the public discourse. The use of a variety of media give the opportunity to broaden the audience, go beyond the books and leave the academe (Lewis-Harris and Wali, 2010).
Even though these multimedia techniques are tempting to step outside the academic realm, Moskowitz (2015, 36-48) states that this tendence evokey some noteworthy dilemmas which challenge the moral chord of the disciplines self-definition. Firstly, the knowledge produced and presented is not always translatable to a wider community. As the public is not familiar with certain anthropological theories and backgrounds, the knowledge can occur as alienated and out of context. Secondly, the consequences of stepping out into the public can not always been foreseen. The characteristic anthropological moral obligation towards the researched community needs to carefully thought of. Lastly, states that in the public not everything can always be said, which leads to the moral dilemma of the compromise. A story or idea wants to be told, but in order to get understanding of the public and the general reader, the complexity has to be simplified into the language of the mass media.
The previous examination of moshing and visual anthropology provide some practical and ethical dilemmas to consider for our own media project. According to Henley (2007) we should not see representation of moshing as simply visual, but focus on the interplay of the moving visual image and the sound. These two aspects of the installation should complement each other and form an integrated sound-image construction. This implies that we do not use the medium as a simple extension of a textual transcription, but think outside ‘the box’ and make the medium our own. To legitimace the use of film and sound as valuable to the research, we will aim to provide sensory knowledge on the experience of a mosh pit.
Next to these practical considerations, there are also two more ethical dilemmas, we have to give thought to. Firstly, as we make us of representation techniques which are also commonly used in art, we might have to think about how we will frame our media project; as art or as anthropology? This automatically raises the question of whether the media project stays in the academe or whether it will be made public. Whatever decision we will make, I have now learned that all these considerations and questions will influence the tone of voice of the media project. Whether this is a bad thing, whether this contradicts with the nature of anthropology and whether this blurs the line between anthropology and art, are questions I can not yet answer. The media project on how to (re-)present the experience of mosh pits will be the first step to explore the limits and boundaries of anthropology through multimedia ethnography and search for answers to these questions.
Buckley, Liam M. 2016. “Ethnography at Its Edges: Bringing in Contemporary Art.” American Ethnologist 43 (4) : 745–51.
Henley, Paul. 2007. “Seeing, Hearing, Feeling. Sound and the Despotism of the Eye in “Visual” Anthropology.” Visual Anthropology Review 23 (1): 54-63.
Lewis-Harris, Jacquelyn, and Alaka Wali. 2010. “Educating Publics: Beyond Books and the Classroom.” Anthropology News.No. September: 2010.
MacDougall, David. 2006. “New Principles in Visual Anthropology”. In The Corporeal Image, Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 264– 274.
Marcus, George E. 2010. “Affinities: Fieldwork in Anthropology Today and the Ethnographic in Artwork”. In Between Art and Anthropology. Contemporary Ethnographic Practice , edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright. London: Bloomsbury, 83-94.
Moskowitz, Nona. 2015. “Engagement, Alienation, and Anthropology’s New Moral Dilemmas.” Anthropology and Humanism 40 (1): 35-57.
Riches, G. and K. Fox. 2008. “Places of Metal: Women, Leisure and Identities” International World Leisure Conference, Quebec City, 6-10 October.
Riches, G. 2011 “Embracing the Chaos: Mosh Pits, Extreme Metal Music and Liminality.” Journal for Cultural Research 15 (3): 315-332.