Downloading Cultures

New media and digital techniques are transforming the way some visual anthropologists approach the discipline, from field work to online archives.
December 3, 2007

Evoking associations with musty, forgotten archives and spiral notebooks in the field, anthropology doesn't immediately come to mind as a discipline fully situated in the modern, wired world. On the contrary, anthropologists have been tackling the implications of technologies on ethnography with each new innovation, from handheld 16-millimeter film cameras and cassette tapes several decades ago to the Internet and digital video in more recent times.

The information age hasn't rendered anthropology obsolete, but it has brought with it a host of issues and controversies -- as well as injected longstanding debates into new forms of media. At a session Friday at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, scholars and graduate students in visual anthropology discussed projects that harness new media to enrich scholarship, focus the ethnographical microscope on media producers themselves, or both.

In doing so, the presentations encompassed applications on both sides of the ethnographic pipeline: the gathering of oral, visual and audio material; and the storage of such content in online digital archives. Presenters at the "New Media Anthropology" panel raised issues of intellectual property, cultural sensitivity and the intersection of commerce and culture -- hot topics in any anthropological pursuit, but especially pertinent in the more open, chaotic online realm.

Kate Hennessy, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, described an online exhibit on the indigenous culture of the Doig River First Nation that she helped to develop for the Virtual Museum of Canada. It makes songs, photographs and video of the Dane-zaa people freely available to the general public, in what Hennessy described as "a form of repatriation" -- the term for returning objects and artifacts to the cultures from which they came, although here the term was used in a virtual sense.

As an elder of the Dane-zaa told the team of scholars and students, she recounted, "I’m talking to this white man through this tape recorder, but what I’m really doing is talking to the world."

That realization led the team to confront, belatedly, the implications of the Internet's openness and availability. An object central to the exhibit is a "Dreamer's drum," a sacred object painted with symbolic images important to the culture's self-representation. Over the course of several meetings with community elders, the team came to realize that, according to the Web site, "it is not appropriate to show Dane-zaa Dreamers' drawings to a worldwide audience on the Internet. Even though the drum is central to this website, in order to ensure that the Dreamers drawings are treated properly and with respect, no images of Dreamers' drawings or the drum that we describe here are shown."

Hennessy noted that the "articulation of these restrictions only came out after active participation of elders in the process." In other words, as the community members' exposure to the technology increased, so did their understanding of consequences of using it, she said. But online, no one entity is in control; a Google search can still turn up images of a Dreamer's drum painted with symbols and maps.

The issue of control similarly applies to the community being studied in questions of who wields the authority to make decisions about the availability of such objects. "Who within the originating communities has the right to decide how cultural heritage should be distributed?" Hennessy asked. And what if there is no consensus?

Although there were no easy answers, the online exhibit project extended discussions about when the display of cultural heritage crosses the line into appropriation, and how giving communities access to digital tools can provide a means for self-representation.

While new media can foster participatory ethnography and enhance access, the panel seemed to suggest, it can also provide innovative means of investigating subcultures -- and rich source material in and of itself. Adam Fish, a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles, turned the lens on a group of media producers who themselves mine a subculture to create television and Web programming. Seeking to "map a transmedia story of queer visibility," Fish was both employed by, as well as an investigator of, the media producer World of Wonder, a company whose manifesto states that "the underground of today is the mainstream of tomorrow."

The WOW founders' roots in the gay club scene of 1980s New York City provided Fish with a window into cultural production as it migrates from the underground niche to increasingly mainstream media. Critical to that intersection was the producers' own participation in the culture they examine, Fish said.

But what about old media? In an effort to bring those musty archives up to date, projects currently under way are exploring ways to digitize and organize material in accessible, searchable databases. Alan Burdette, the director of digital initiatives at Indiana University's Archives of Traditional Music, discussed the EVIA Digital Archive, a $3.3 million joint project with the University of Michigan, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Still in development, the project is a "digital archive of ethnomusicological video for use by scholars and instructors," encompassing software development for the online database, preservation methods and exploring intellectual property solutions. Although none of the material is online yet, the ethnographic video is in the process of being peer-reviewed -- YouTube this is not -- and converted to the necessary formats.

Burdette described the need for digital archives as the result of "media failures" with both current and outdated formats. Today's digital formats could become obsolete tomorrow so that they "catastrophically become unplayable," he said, while old storage methods eventually turn to "chemical goo."

Since the material for such archives often comes from private collections with uncertain origins, intellectual property and fair use inevitably become part of the discussion. The project is delving into the problems encountered when trying to seek permission to post such video online, especially when the owners or subjects are not reachable. The legal concept of fair use, meanwhile, is defined by multiple and often conflicting court decisions.

One consequence of these issues, Burdette suggested, was the possibility of embracing a pay-subscription model for the database.


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