Autoethnographic Video

“Autoethnography is a form or method of research that involves self-observation and reflexive investigation in the context of ethnographic fieldwork and writing” (Maréchal, 2010)

This autoethnographic video was made in order to showcase the deep unconscious beliefs and thoughts that I hold about reality and my place in it. This was done in order to reflexively describe myself as an anthropologist. It includes shots of water as a unifying theme; water asks questions, soothes, and flows through us.

The audio recordings consist of scrapped audio I found on my iPhone and were not scripted for this video; they are all pooled from multiple sources, moments, and contexts in order for the fragments to illustrate my inner drives for undertaking anthropology as a subject of study. This video asks: who am I as an anthropologist? Why do I research what I research?

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Poetry as a Process of Elucidation:  Self-Disclosure, Liminality & Community

In One Vital Motion Reflexive Essay

In One Vital Motion is an ethnographic portrait of three poetsKyle Lovell, Henry Maddicott, and Anh-Khoi Nguyen. Firstly, my fieldwork and the participative and observational ethnographic filmmaking that shaped In One Vital Motion will be delineated. Secondly, the fictive and imaginative elements of literature will be framed as allowing for a particular kind of art-knowledge, reflexivity, and intersubjectivity. Thirdly, the liminal space created by creative writing groups and poetry events will be explored through the themes of self-disclosure, intimacy, and literary friendships. In One Vital Motion illustrates how in Canterbury, as Khoi states: “People write poetry for different reasons, but they all come together at these beautiful events”.

As Kyle mentioned in one of our interviews, poetry is a process of elucidation in which people aim to make sense of themselves and the world. In One Vital Motion showcases this process by illustrating the differing ways in which poets pull from their social worlds, portraying poetry not as a product, but as a continual process through which people negotiate their positions as social actors and create narratives that give meaning to their lives. In the film, Kyle, Henry and Khoi are seen negotiating their relationship to poetry and identity of ‘poet’. This is shown through their reflections upon their own condition—for Kyle it is an almost tortured condition in which writing is not fun but ‘necessary’, for Henry it is a political and expressive condition through which struggle can be overcome, for Khoi it is at once a bonding and isolating condition that necessitates a community through which to share one’s writing. These three characters because they consisted of three ‘nodes’ in the network of the poetry scene in Canterbury; that of the solitary poet, slams, and the creative writing community. My footage was intentionally unselective and unstructured, and I allowed for two months and a half of extended participant observation at the Creative Writing Society and other poetry events such as I Speak My Truth, the Chocolate Café Slam, and the LO FI Zone. This long-term and in-depth exploration of the Canterbury poetry scene allowed me to experience the shifts in character and disposition of my informants under different environments, and observe the various ways in which poetry was shared, received, and exchanged. It also allowed me to invite audience members, writers and performers to lead the direction of my research, which positioned them not as passive subjects but rather as active participants in the film. In the manner of Jean Rouch, I let the poets give significance and context to their own experiences. As Khoi states in response to the film, the camera allowed him to access the personal reasons for writing and sharing poetry that he seldom got from his creative writing group members, seeing the ways in which he directly affected their lives; ‘it’s very nice to hear that it means something to them’. My fieldwork was additionally auto-ethnographic; performing and sharing my own poetry allowed me to access the visceral and vulnerable sensations of performance and reflect upon its cathartic and bonding effects. It also served to forge meaningful and genuine anthropologist-informant relationships with other poets. My decision to structure the film as three portraits rather than oversee one poet or poem can be surmised by Renov’s point that: “If life’s paradoxes and complexities are not to be suppressed, the question of degrees and nuances is incessantly crucial.” (Renov, 1993: 100). In Khoi’s considered feedback, he stated that, “using different people, and different voices, I think you put together quite a comprehensive image of [the community]”. The meaning, definition and locus of poetry remains a contentious issue in the documentary, which centers on these debates not as factual contradictions but as differences in the lived realities of poets, who navigate their own, yet overlapping, social fields.

In One Vital Motion highlights the role of fiction as producing a particular kind of art-knowledge, showing how the sensibilities and insights created through poetry are primarily experiential and imaginative. Although the film itself does not take ethnofiction as a method of ethnographic research and representation as in the work of Johannes Sjøberg, the presence of fiction in the creative writing I filmed allowed for a reflexive and collaborative research experience between my informants and I. As Banks and Ruby state, “the ethnographic encounter can itself be a work of art, an exercise in social poetics—the skill in managing social relations in which the ethnographer, always more of a learner than the informant, begins, however clumsily, to master that skilled elaboration of everyday habits that garners real appreciation in the host society.” (2011: 318). Reflection and interpretation was a vital part of the creative writing scene, and feedback from the audience at poetry slams was fundamental—this forged an intersubjective environment through which various approaches to writing were exchanged, and styles particular to Canterbury can emerge. Cultural studies approaches towards poetry have focused on analyzing its production and exchanges through a critical framework, thinking historically about aesthetic judgement. In the manner of Barthes, the text tends to be seen as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture’ (Barthes and Heath, 2010: 146). Although this succeeds in deconstructing the economic and political dimensions of poetry, it does not account for its cathartic effect. Although I included issues of class, the sensorial, emotional, and communal aspects of poetry are the centre-piece of the documentary. I framed the poets’ sensibilities as taking precedent over cultural capital in their poetic production; demonstrating how differing spaces for poetry are carved out in social fields. Indeed, “Value, one must remind oneself, is contingent, mobile, and situational, not ­perfectly absolute.” (Nelson and DuPlessis, 2015). The fictive opens up a space through which social actors can imagine themselves, others, and the world, and engage in acts of self-disclosure which encompass their deeper, felt, realities. Aligning with Ingold’s observations on knowledge and creativity, poetry is framed as a process of elucidation additionally showcases knowledge not as a ready-made product but as a creative process through which one’s sensibilities connect with those of others (2013). As Khoi mentions in one of our discussions about poetry and politics, a speech is not always effective as ‘change starts in people’s hearts’.

The inclusion of the poetry community as creating a liminal space for self-disclosure and intimacy showcases the intersubjective element of this art form and opens up the space for the viewer to be included in the atmosphere of the writing process itself. Theorized by Victor Turner, the liminal space forms the core of social reproduction and is the second stage of ritual, in which one’s social role become suspended; the former self dies whilst another is reborn. Neophytes forge strong bonds through the liminal stage, as it forces reflection on the origins, meanings, and functions of one’s culture—they become a singe body in communitas. Similarly, the performance or reading spaces render social actors devoid of their societal roles and expectations, with every audience member giving their undivided attention and embodying the perspective of the reader or performer for the course of the poem. Poetry performances can include the taboo and vulgar in a way which becomes humorous and insightful within this liminal space. As Henry states in the film, poetry allows for people to say to a room full of strangers what they otherwise wouldn’t dare say to their best friends. Audience members also take part; their social selves are suspended and in a state of flux as they re-imagine their own vulnerabilities and insecurities through relating to the poets’ own acts of self-disclosure. Indeed, “cultural performances are not only reflective—in that they show something—but also reflexive, in that they indicate that they show something and install a consciousness” (Møhl, 2011:234). My auto-ethnographic research allowed me to directly experience the spontaneous communitas present at these events, and see the literary space as a locus for personal and intersubjective change.

In One Vital Motion allows for poetry not to be conceived as emerging in isolation or through a particular method, but showcases the ways in which it is personal in content and practice, inviting the viewer the make their own interpretations. The liminality present in the creative writing and performance spaces is showcased through the suspension of social roles, deep bonding, and spontaneous communitas—allowing for acts of self-disclosure and intersubjective negotiations of the lived realities of poets, performers, and audience members. It illustrates the cathartic effects of poetry and the deep yearning we all have to share how we feel ‘in one vital motion’, and how this yearning creates literary friendships and intimate communities that can hold space for vulnerability.

Bibliography

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (2010). Image, Music, Text. 1st ed. London: Fontana Press, Harper Collins Publishers.

Banks, M. and Ruby, J. (2011). Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bell, S. and Coleman, S. (1999). The Anthropology Of Friendship. 1st ed. Oxford: Berg.

Bruns, G. (2012). What Are Poets For? An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. 1st ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Møhl, P. (2011). Mise en scène, Knowledge and Participation: Considerations of a Filming Anthropologist. Visual Anthropology, 24(3), pp.227-245.

Nelson, C. and DuPlessis, R. (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. 1st ed. Oxford: Scopus.

Renov, M. (1993). Theorizing Documentary. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

My Truth

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My journey in the world of poetry and creative writing in Canterbury has been a personal one. It has guided me back to writing and back to performing poetry, something I used to do more in High School when I performed at slams. I have found joy in sharing my writings, and listening to others share theirs, and genuinely bonding over the incredibly moving, sometimes sad and melancholic, sometimes hilarious pieces! I have gotten over my fears of opening up and sharing my work when I realized that I enjoyed everyone’s poetry, regardless of skill or performance, because I oftentimes could connect with some aspect of it, and as Henry would say, everyone has their own truth.

I also have my own truth, I realize, and I can share that truth, and that truth will be valued. This is why I wanted to put the emphasis on the various perspectives on poetry writing and also on the community that is fostered through poetry. I want to invite the viewer to realize that they can position themselves in this discourse, and that they most likely have something to share, and have a community of poets all over the world just like this one that they surely have access to and can open up to. I want people who are looking for an outlet, or who hold their poetry in secret notebooks, away from other people, to realize that they can write, and they can share, and it will be valued. I suppose I have found real solidarity with Khoi and Katrine’s mission to make people feel comfortable opening up, and making sure they are listened to.

I have grown fond of so many beautiful people. At first, I must admit that I thought some people were strange, because perhaps they did not fit some mold that I had in my head. But in fact they are all so unique, and courageous in their self-expression, so completely in their own perception. That is a strength. I grew to really admire their bravery, and although I was studying them, they taught me so much. I learned about the writing process and about overcoming my own stage-fears and anxieties. I felt myself grow over the course of my participant observation in ways I never imagined. I suppose this is the place to say: it is not only the anthropologist and his / her research that affects the participants, but also the participants and their culture that inevitably affects the anthropologist. I am grateful to have been received so openly in this community.

At first, I was mostly behind the camera, filming others, but the more I genuinely participated by sharing, the more I felt confident, and like I could relate to the people there. Before I got onstage, my nervousness decreased. Instead of thinking ‘what if this isn’t good poetry?’, I thought ‘I have something to say’. In the same vein, I feel that I have taken a similar approach to the making of my film over the course of my research. Instead of stressing over my film as needing to be a ‘good documentary’, I see it as a small testament to my experiences with the poetry scene in Canterbury, which withholds its own nuggets of wisdom and genuine moments which will resonate with the people that are meant to resonate with it. I see this community as a way to showcase how people can hold space for each other’s vulnerabilities.

Feedback from Peers & Friends

In my final stages of the editing process, I got my visual anthropology peers and my friends to give me their considered feedback. I showed them the whole film, after asking them to pay attention to its pacing and inclusion of poetry. I was happy to hear that there was a lot of positive reception about the diversity of the poets, and this reaffirmed my decision to do the documentary in three parts, with varying perspectives.

My friend Sasha told me that he felt that he had entered the reality of every poet, and seen how their poetry was derived from the world around them. He liked the contrasting perspectives. He also enjoyed how I came into the film at different parts but I wasn’t narrating or taking over. I realised then that although I had been anthropologically involved (in terms of my observations, how I developed my curiosities and explored certain themes, and in terms of my editing), I am a total participant in the footage, going to La Trappiste and conversing with the poets as if with poetry community peers. Some other feedback I got was to make sure that there were calmer spots in between the talking with filler footage, and bits that I could cut out were pointed out to me.

Experimental Music Soundtrack

I asked one of my friends from New York, Ben Zucker, to use his experimental music in the film. Above is an e12400717_10208888505353612_7715730045288584079_nxample of his music. I really like the experimental nature of the music, which is not meant to overpower, make commercial, or render emotional certain scenes but rather reflects the poetic journey as one the is a ‘process of elucidation’ much like the experimental music. I enjoy the textures it has and thought of using different songs, with their differing moods and soundscapes over the title sequences to introduce each poet.

After some tinkering, I decided, however, not to include the music over the poetry. The poems themselves should be standalone, with the voice of the poet taking the viewer along on a journey. Ben Zucker was kind enough to supply me various different songs to try out.

Editing Dilemmas

I am struggling at the moment to maintain the documentary as I would want it – I have to cut it down from 25 minutes to 10 minutes, but I don’t really want to cut the poems as I’m afraid that it will hurt the integrity of the portraits. In addition, I realized that it’s difficult to make a documentary about poetry because the ‘action’ is the people performing, but I cannot include their performances whole, or out of context, and it is incredibly difficult to create a sense of movement.

I am attempting to get more filler footage and focus on the interviews to create a stronger narrative throughout in order to maintain this integrity.

Performing at the Jolly Sailor

Photos courtesy of Invi Brenna

I performed a ten minute set at the Jolly Sailor and was the first to go onstage after the musicians. It was a tough crowd but it was nice to have all of my ‘poetry friends’ and informants there. I was introduced as the ‘anthropologist going native’. Khoi has studied some anthropology as a sociology student so he is very aware of my research and anthropological discourse, which gives rise to an interesting dynamic. He will often engage in in-depth discussions about my analyses at these events.

A Poetry Community: Henry, Kyle, Khoi and Katrine at the Jolly Sailor

Alex Vellis gave me a ten minute slot to perform at the Jolly Sailor on Sunday, so I arrived and saw all of the poets I had been following in my documentary there too. Henry and Katrine were both hosting and they all performed on the night. Below are photos of them all interacting at the pub, supporting each other’s work and creating an atmosphere for attentive listening.

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Henry and Katrine hosting the night

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Khoi at the bar

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Henry and Khoi listening to a performance

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Kyle comes to enjoy the poetry although he is not reading on the night

RAI Film Festival

Notes on Lectures & Workshops, Thoughts on Bristol, and an Open Mic Performance at the Arts House

RAI Film Festival

I spent the weekend taking in lectures and workshops relating to my personal curiosities in ethnographic filmmaking. In the Interactive Documentary lecture, Judith Aston and David MacDougall debated over the value of digital ethnography and new media works that gave readers archival content, or chances to develop their own paths through ethnographic content. We discussed ways of including multiple perspectives, multi-linear journeys, and narrations in one ethnographic piece. We spoke about interactivity and how the structure of a database changes the way users ‘read’ ethnography.

“The way we tell stories defines the way we make sense of the world.”
– Thalhofer 

MacDougall made a good point when he said that we should be careful not to deprive the anthropologist of authorship. There is an interesting paradox in this discussion, I found. Judith was arguing for a new media kind of ethnographic practice and content which would allow for deviations from objective, rational, and unilinear approaches, but she assumes that much of contemporary anthropology is this way when it is not, and also assumes that ethnographic journals and books stick to one structure when they don’t, necessarily. This is why I enjoyed MacDougall’s approach, because he acknowledged the sovereignty of viewers / readers in their own perception – we inevitably always-already have divergent, contradictory, and multiplicitous perspective emerging from a film or book! Spectators are active, and they contribute in their own ways: as was stated, for example, films are themselves fragments through which viewers reconstruct scenarios in their minds, and different viewers will pick up on different details and narratives.

I kept thinking throughout of what the role of the anthropologist is if we are only there to collect data and archival footage only to let viewers ‘decide for themselves’ – is there not a synthesis that must take place, that we are responsible to make sure takes place, if not just for ourselves then as a duty to our communities, to our values and aims as anthropologists? What is the role of an anthropologist but to encompass as many perspectives and observations as possible into a cohesive and clear integrative framework?

Another person from the audience commented with an interesting observation that we are seemingly yearning for a kind of pre-literate logic. He recalled a tribe which recounted stories in ways that would change and diverge every time – if every detail is a node (a rock), and rocks are laid out in a grid or matrix, there can be countless ways of weaving through the storyline. This allows for the storyteller to react to the audience. His comment reminded me of Ingold’s conception of creativity as a process with no start or beginning but as concrescent – similar to a person drawing on a blackboard (in opposition to ‘powerpoint logic’ which creates the myth that ideas come read-made and are fixed products).

I also had the thought: is this empowering? Are we, in some way, assuming passive viewership or readership with this new need for a ‘multi-perspective’ approach? Do we want our ethnographic fieldwork and research to be participative because it reflects the desires / needs of the subjects / viewers or just because it resolves some kind of inner conflict about being an anthropologist? 

Bristol & Rave Culture

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The city of Bristol was inspiring for my documentary as it reminded me of the importance of artists, writers, and other creatives, in shaping the social and material environment of a city. The nightlife seemed to reflect this celebration of alternative culture as well – with its bars full of live music, cafés running open mic nights and independent film showings in their basements, and so on. Artists’ works could be found in restaurants and cafés, and bordering the sidewalk in graffiti, with political messages.

The Arts House: A Community Feel at the Open Mic / Poetry Performance

I took advantage of being in such  lively scene to perform at an open mic taking place around the corner from where I was staying. I noticed that, similarly to Canterbury, people were very welcoming and supportive. There were people from all walks of life, with their various stories and ‘truths’. I realized that showcasing this would be fundamental for my documentary, and what I should focus on. The interaction between characters engaging in acts of self-disclosure at different points in the night through the liminal space that the stage offered created a sense of community and resounding intimacy. Mutual appreciation was definitely in the air.

I particularly enjoyed the music of Reece Hughes: VIDEO.