In this piece of performative scholarship I show how the dance technique developed by Katherine Dunham is rooted in anthropological fieldwork and theory, and constitutes an embodied form of liberatory knowledge.
For more than 30 years now, I have been studying and performing Haitian folkloric dance. This video is from a performance at the University of Florida in 2012. These are the dances of the Haitian vodou, born of the enslaved people brought to the island of Hispaniola. The dances are an embodied history and present-day form through which people experience, embed, move, and consecrate their lives. I first began studying Haitian dance in New York City in the early 1980s, and it turns out it was an exceptionally lucky accident that a friend dragged me into class (until then I had studied only classical ballet and several styles of modern dance). Without knowing it, I was studying with the founder of Haiti’s national ballet, the incomparable Jean Léon Destiné. He had also been a member of Katherine Dunham’s company, and it was through him and through Haitian dance that I first became interested in Dunham’s life and work. After I moved to Los Angeles, I founded a Haitian dance troupe, and we performed for over 10 years throughout Southern California and in Haiti. I also was lucky to study with Elle Johnson, who had also been a Dunham student in the 1940s in New York, and who was good friends with Destiné. When Elle moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, she joined the Lester Horton company.
Why should white guys and their dogs have all the fun?
GoPros are a technology that is pretty heavily raced and gendered in form, format, marketing and use. With their rugged housings and gazillion gadgets, they male-focused, and and sports-oriented. And yet there’s nothing about a wearable camera that says “this oughta be for a guy!” Narrative Clip is producing wearable cameras that seem to be aimed at the white hipster set, as their intro video shows. Here, too, there’s nothing about self documentation that inherently says “this ought to be for white people!” In fact, with the growing number of incidents of Black men being harrassed and even killed by police and citizens, it seems to me that the people most in need of wearable cameras are people of color. This got to thinking about reframing GoPro accessories.
Because I have been so interested in and influenced by afrofuturism, I did not start with the #blacklivesmatter accessories that I still have in my mind. I started with afrocentric designs, drawing from my travels to Uganda. The basic question I was asking is this:
What if GoPro accessories were engaged with African aesthetics and fashion?
The first AfroGoPro I made was the headwrap version. I hand-stitched a cover for the GoPro then covered it in Swarovski crystals, mounting it on a headband, and then using African Dutch Wax fabric I bought in Uganda to create the headwrap. The second AfroGoPro is based on a Maasai wedding necklace. Here I used a 3-D printed base, and then attached it to a Maasai necklace I purchased on the web. My friend Joy Aketch is the model.
Since coming to work in a design school, I have been challenged to try taking my ideas and expressing them through made objects. Here, I wanted to produce objects that were beautiful and wearable, but also to make a challenge to the racialized and gendered way in which technology operates. Why NOT have GoPro accessories that are afrocentric and “girly”? Juxtaposing a “traditional” ethnographic item like the Maasai wedding necklace with the “modern” technology of a GoPro issues a challenge as well. With the still powerful stereotype of Africa as a place that exists in the past, or as a site filled with animals and no Africans, as noted in an NPR article about Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” video, this kind of challenge remains ever necessary. But I do try to have a bit of sense of humor, as well as an insistence that these experiments can also be about craft and beauty.
My work with Jovenes, Inc. has been a long-lasting collaboration. Jovenes provides housing and support services for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. A former students of mine, Eric Hubbard, is the director of development at Jovenes, and through his hard work, the partnership has kept going for four years now. As part of my course Field Studio A, students from the Art Center MDP/Field track work with youth from Jovenes, learning with and from them about their lives and stories.
Using a community based learning approach, the partnership is one that is designed to meet the needs of the organization and the needs of my course. Sometimes it takes us a while to really do the work it takes to make sure that one set of needs is not displacing the other. Designers ultimately need to make things, but what they need to make for my course may not always be something that the organization identifies as useful or important to them. I try to make sure that as we do our design research, the work “throws off” material that is easy to identify as useful. Sometimes that might be interviews that Jovenes, Inc. can include on its website, or high quality photographs. Another time it might mean scheduling a special tour of our studio for Jovenes clients who want to see what an art school looks like. We also occasionally design things that our community partner needs — like a calendar that can be used for fundraising — because that is an important part of the reciprocity involved in working with community partners. Some of the odd, speculative gizmos my students might explore for their own work may not seem useful to Jovenes. Similarly, for my students, designing a calendar is not an especially gut-busting challenge design-wise, but might be very much worth doing because it helps to support the partnership at large.
There are many challenges for my students. They must confront their own assumptions about who is homeless, what homelessness looks like, and how homelessness happens. They are also challenged because they are not allowed to make use of the typical design strategy of making a thing that solves a problem. Their task is to meet the guys, engage with them on a very human level, and then use design both as a means to conduct this engagement, and a medium through which to create new ways to engage the idea of homelessness. That kind of critical thinking is central to the teaching we do in MDP/Field.
In our first year, now-alums Jeff Hall and An Mina developed a very simple, yet very effective tool for facilitating and documenting life stories. They wrote about it on the ethnography matters blog in a post entitled “Designing for Stories.” I continue to use that tool they developed with successive groups of students, to show them how design research materials can be invented and used.
In a successive year, another group of students completed a successful project called”Caminemos Juntos.” I have coauthored a chapter with them about the Jovenes partnership and their project; It appears in the book Participatory Digital and Visual Methods.
Since beginning my travel to Uganda, I have been collaborating with dancers there on a set of projects I loosely call “Traffic Jam.” Many of the dancers are or were students at Makerere University. Others are members of Lifechangerz, a gospel and hip hop group based in the Kivulu slum adjacent to the university. The video below is from 2014, and takes place at Treasure Life Youth Center in Kampala. The music is from the Jovenes project “Caminemos Juntos.” I took that music with me to Kampala and my friends there wanted to choreograph something to it. They were very excited about the idea of connecting to the stories of the homeless youth from Jovenes Inc., in Los Angeles. Many of the Ugandan dancers were dealing with struggles of their own. We had hosted a research event at TLC, and the dancers were due to perform at the end. Everything took longer than we had anticipated (not unusual in fieldwork!), and so by the time it was time to dance, the sun had set. Luckily, we managed to talk a passing ambulance driver into parking on the soccer pitch with his lights on long enough for the dancers to perform. I love how the strong lights in the darkness add to the feeling of the dance.
A Quick Seven Day Experiment
Technology for development projects (T4D) typically import expensive and unsustainable equipment when trying to improve a situation. The one laptop per child project is an example of a typical T4D kind of initiative. Although its laptops are, for the world of laptops, inexpensive, at $200 each their cost is still prohibitive in the places where they are deployed. Lily Irani, et al. have an article called “Postcolonial Computing” that provides a broader discussion of some of the issues.
I take the opposite approach. My aim is to use existing technologies in novel ways. Drawing in equal parts from design and anthropology, In May-June 2015 my research assistant Amanda Stojanov and I did a quick 10-day experiment in the village of Matènwa, Haiti. We worked in collaboration with Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa (LKM).
Doing Fieldwork Means Changing your Plans.
I had arrived with a general plan to use data cards and feature phones as a way to distribute school materials. Early in our trip we spent a few days in Miragoane, and did some testing as to the capacity of phones to read files (they can’t), display photos (they look great!), and play video (no problem, though screen is small).
We thought we had a workable plan. As often happens in fieldwork, however, the minute we arrived in the village it was clear our plan was not practical. We quickly regrouped, and saw that the school had lots and lots of small tablets, all Haitian-made. After consulting with Abner Louima and Chris Low, we decided to try a photography workshop using the tablets. We worked with 12 young people, and Mackanaky, a youth leader and tech whiz, was our right hand. He picked the participants, two from each of grades 6, 7, 8,9,10,11. We were advised to have 8 girls and 4 boys, since boys tend to dominate technology settings.
Part of the point we were making is that kids can learn photography even without cameras. And they certainly did. Over seven working days, we introduced participants to such concepts as framing, lighting, composition, micro/macro and point of view. Pierre Richard was especially excited about the “micro” concept and produced several photos of his hand.
“Remember that what you are doing here is learning about technology. It’s photography, but it’s technology too, and these are skills you can take with you into other areas.”
– Eligène, Gardening Teacher
We also got lots of interesting photographs of feet.
Exploring the school garden
As participants gained confidence, they went out with their tablets to explore the school site. Many gravitated to the garden. LKM’s garden is the busy hub of the school in many ways. Each class from the kinders to the oldest spends one session a week in the garden. The week we were working, we saw a class learning about transplantation. The school has teachers who work in and teach about the garden every day. Students bring their notebooks, write down vocabulary, draw pictures of their observations, learn about plants, and their garden learning is connected across the curriculum.
The LKM photography students spent a lot of time in the garden taking photographs of cabbages, carrots, and other plants. Some, like Shella and Michaela, produced still life compositions.
Everyone also learned how to edit photos, first on the tablets, and later on the school’s Mac computers. As youth chose their photos and continued to edit, we could see their individual artistic styles emerging. Richamie loves strong forms and colors, and her finished portfolio emphasizes contrasts in shape and tone, focusing on plants.
Delkaneji has a special talent for creating beautiful compositions. He also has a knack for taking photographs of people. He especially loves eggs, and many of his photographs were of eggs and chickens. A new element at LKM is the chicken program, and children at the school each get an egg a day, and this is an important boost of protein in their diets.
On our final day, we arranged our room so that visitors could see each person’s portfolio of finished images on a Mac. We also wanted people to see what the photographs looked like on the tablets that had been our technology platform for so much of our experience. Here, we got some help from Billy, a student at the school who also teaches woodworking. He made us some very beautiful tripods, and even chose the parts so that the piece on which the tablet rested had a groove in it that helped to hold the tablet in place.
Eligène, who teaches in the garden, was one of our visitors that day. He had been stopping by throughout the week, giving students encouragement. When Cathiana was writing about carrots, he sat down with her to discuss the kinds of things that carrots are good for. It was exciting to have a teacher taking interest in what we were doing. After the student presentations, he said to them, “Remember that what you are doing here is learning about technology. It’s photography, but it’s technology too, and these are skills you can take with you into other areas.”
Now back in Los Angeles, Amanda and I have been printing up each participant’s portfolio. Once they are finished, I will mail them off to Chris Low, and she will get them to the village next time someone heads over. I am still amazed at how high quality the photos are, given that we were using tablets that cost about $140. We were able to get a lot done in just seven working days, and I’m looking forward to returning next summer for a longer time, this time to set up an electronics lab where kids can learn circuitry and basic coding–by building sculptural decorations for motorcycles. Because part of what we have learned, and part of what we want to share, is that art is a vibrant part of Haiti’s culture, and that T4D can embrace art with fantastic results.
Design often uses speculation as a way to imagine objects freed from constraints of time, technological limitations, and other aspects of present reality. What value might ethnographers find in utilizing speculative approaches? Answering this question isn’t so easy. For ethnographers, the speculative flights of fancy typical in design are antithetical to our methods and our goals. Another stumbling block is that design speculation too often defaults to a set of assumptions privileging modernist form, westocentric ideas, capitalist world view, and, increasingly, neoliberalism. Another barrier is that anthropology focuses on producing texts (whether written or visual). Making speculative things, then, has not been an ethnographic pursuit.
In bringing together the imaginative verve of design with the ethnographic deep texture of anthropology, the Laboratory seeks to articulate a synergy between ethnography and design that affirmatively claims space beyond normative, white territories. Working explicitly with an antiracist framework, the Laboratory is strongly influenced by ideas from afrofuturism, critiquing “the future” as a colonialist form of of what Kodwo Eshun calls “chronopolitics.” that works to relegate the global south to the past, the margin, the colorful but irrelevant. Similarly we draw from Arturo Escobar’s perspective that the “pluriverse” must be reckoned with in design, which still tends to default to what he calls a “one world worldview.”
In February 2022 the Lab participated in the Smithsonian Symposium on Afrofuturism.
There is a published piece about the suits of inquiry in e-misférica, the Carribean Rasanblaj issue, edited by Gina Ulysse. Be sure to read the footnotes, since they’re half the paper.
Throughout summer 2014, the Lab engaged with a changing cast of participants to engage these questions: How might ethnographic grounding encourage designers to speculate in new ways? Moving beyond producing texts, what sorts of objects might anthropologists seek to make as ethnographic product?
Movement experiment on the Roof
How can performative design challenge longstanding normativities embedded in studio practices? How might design and anthropology productively address their own persistent race problems?