Karen Cunningham is a Glasgow-based artist who also curates events and exhibitions and occasionally writes texts. Recent projects include, ‘An Endless Theatre: the convergence of contemporary art and anthropology in observational cinema’, a symposium which featured film and video by Karen Cunningham, Edward S Curtis, Geoffrey Farmer, Rosalind Nashishibi, Jean Rouch, Sterling Ruby and John Smith. Curated by Karen Cunningham and organised in collaboration with Dr Richard Baxstrom, the screening event was held in the department of Social & Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Karen is currently working on a new video work commissioned by LUX, which will be exhibited at Collective Gallery, Edinburgh in October 2013.
“MAP asked me to curate a season of film and video works that consider the intersection between contemporary art and anthropology. For the first installment I have selected two recent works which are both ostensibly situated in the present and which, I hope, encourage the viewer to consider the possibility of anthropology and ethnography manifesting as self-reflexive approaches employed by independent individuals rather than existing as exclusive and institutionalised Western disciplines located in an archived past.
In ‘Localized’, 2013 by South African artist Ravi Govender and ‘The Pickers’, 2009 by UK artist Adam Chodzko it is the subject, rather than the filmmaker or ethnographer, who has travelled. In both works economic migration is shown as the key factor in the subjects’ choice of living and working situations, thus both videos draw distinction between colonisation and colonialism.
Both pieces can be viewed, in different ways, as successors or by-products of ‘direct cinema’ or cin é ma v é rit é , such as the seminal film Chronicle of a Summer, 1960 made collaboratively by filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin and filmed by Michel Brault. Like ‘Localized’ and ‘The Pickers’, Chronicle of a Summer looks at employment, immigration and quality of life, issues presented as fundamental concerns, not only to the subjects, but also to the filmmakers themselves.
The implied auto-ethnography within the works conveys a shift in power dynamics as the subjects, young Romanian fruit pickers, are shown editing archival footage of British fruit pickers. This constructed scenario implies that via technology the ‘subject’ can regain control over their own representation.
Editing processes and audio-visual manipulation are also to the fore in ‘Localized’. The highly stylised editing employed by Govender feels as though it might distract from the thoughtful nature of the dialogue which he conducts with the participant/subjects (mainly 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant shopkeepers in one of Johannesburg’s business districts ) but it is the absorbing use of this collaged treatment which enables the work to function with a heightened awareness of its production. As in ‘The Pickers’, the transparency of the work’s construction creates a level of self-reflexivity which anthropological and ethnographic filmmaking has sought to achieve.
English is presented as a common language in ‘Localized’, while in ‘The Pickers’, although filmed in the UK, it is presented as a foreign language. In this way the political as well as cultural implications of a specific language are highlighted. English is employed in both pieces as a signifier of dominant or universal communication, especially in relation to the global field of contemporary art.
Both selected works go beyond purely observational filmmaking—they are engaged pieces which not only underscore the usual anthropological topics of representation, colonialism, Western & non-Western cultural differences, but also invoke ideas of technology, participation, authorship and attribution.
In each case the multifarious mechanisms of contemporary film and video making; recording, editing, sampling, interpretation and audio visual manipulation are not only made visible but are as much the subject of the work as the people and places depicted. As Rouch states, ‘The observer is always a participant…’ ”