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.”
I recently 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?
Participating in the Perform Chinatown event