An edited excerpt from an ongoing conversation between Jennifer Deger and Zeynep Devrim Gürsel
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: How has twenty five years of making media with Yolŋu shaped your approach to media theory?
Jennifer Deger: It’s emboldened me. I’ve become convinced that anthropologists who want to theorize media must also make it. Somehow or other. Media methods and media theory-work shouldn’t be approached as separable acts. Digital technologies not only blur once distinct boundaries between field site and home (and of course, these days, home and work in general), they allow us to disrupt stubbornly long-standing academic distinctions between research methods and research outputs. So all these years of co-creating with Yolngu has propelled me to a broader commitment to the on-going work of re-defining what scholarship can look like, sound like, and feel like. By making media, we can begin to make media theory; we can craft social analyses that refuse to be abstracted from the mediated dynamics, affordances, and digital demands that shape our lives, thoughts, and actions.
While what this experimental making might actually entail will no doubt vary wildly—from acts of archival image repatriation, to participating in WhatsApp chats with interlocutors or, in our case, designing a book as a media object, in its own right—the point remains the same. Contemporary media theorists can be—and bloody well should be—going so much further than using multimodal research methods to create works positioned as secondary or supplementary to the ‘real’ and substantive scholarly work of text-based analysis. Digital media delivers more than data; it brings a new performative potentiality to our work, a fantastically rich opportunity to work with, and respond in-kind to, the media worlds we study. That, at least, is what our book attempts.
In Phone & Spear we took enormous pleasure in creating vibrant fields of colour, pattern and story directed by a Yolŋu appreciation of remediation and remix as techniques of social enlivenment and relationship making. Whether we are working in film, exhibition or interactive art, our projects have never been simply about documentation or display—even when we are recording endangered songs and stories at the request of senior Yolŋu everything we’ve done together, from films, exhibitions and interactive artworks, has entailed forms of collaborative creative labor with a view to fostering emergent knowledges and relationships. This is the yuta [new] in yuta anthropology.
Encouraging other scholars to try working, thinking, and feeling with media as an analytic and socially-engaged strategy seems absolutely essential if we are in any way to adequately respond to the multiple and often-brutally-colliding worlds to which digital media provides form, intensity, and new potentiality. In attempting such making, we must of course bear in mind that sounds and images do not circulate as stable or unproblematically self-declaring objects of knowledge, as the photo-collages in Phone & Spear make abundantly clear. Therein lies the challenge and the responsibility that as anthropologists we are particularly well placed to recognize and respond to.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: What were the particular challenges of writing this book in these terms? How did the expectations or investments of your Yolŋu friends shape the process?
If making media allows us to rethink what collaborative scholarship might look like, writing a book together posed a particular set of challenges in term of voice, especially given the necessarily different and sometimes profoundly different places from which we speak—not to mention our different epistemological orientations and expectations. A specifically-situated politics of knowledge determines who can, and should, speak for Yolŋu worlds—and for what purposes. This is not an oppositional politics, nor necessarily a race based one. It’s concerned with a situated forms of knowledge and authority, driven by a profound understanding that stories and images are the means by which relational worlds must be made, affirmed, and renewed.
A language of crisis infuses so much of the contemporary anthropology of Aboriginal Australia—and for good reason I reckon. Yet, the other members of Miyarrka Media had absolutely no interest in our work figuring the intercultural and intergenerational dynamics of their lives as problematic in those terms. Likewise, they were not motivated to conceive and deliver critiques of the workings of the state, its assimilationists apparatuses, and the resulting forms of structural violence (though one might detect an oblique commentary). What we all agreed from the outset was that we would each have our own voice in the book, allowing for our own, sometimes clashing perspectives. So the key challenge to writing the book lay in finding a form that might hold all us and our varying perspectives, where we could speak collectively as one in ways that were not reductive, in ways that claimed both the playful and the optimistic, but still acknowledged the tremendous daily difficulties of life and death in these remote settlements, so far from the rhythms, values and imaginative reach of mainstream Australia.
If this was going to work at all, I knew that I had to prevent balanda [white, or non-Aboriginal] theory from pre-figuring the book and our discussions, and we achieved this by pressing almost all the references to other scholarship under the line, in the notes. I promised myself that the word ontology would not appear. But beyond that, we were stuck for a very long time in terms of finding the right form for this collective experiment.
As it turned out, the solution—to create our own collage of voice, story and images—had been right in front of our eyes the whole time in the collaged form of the photographs themselves. What I love about the form we found is that it manages to hold the lived commitments, the responsibilities, relationships of care that extend beyond fieldwork and beyond our academic lives. Our constantly shifting voices, adds, I think to the aliveness and the animating dynamic of sameness-difference that we were aiming for.
All that said, I will confess that for me it was an extremely painful and uncertain process putting together this book, a sustained sense of uncertainty and love and despair that I managed over many years. There are likely many omissions and mistakes, many ways I could have done it better. But this was what I managed. What we managed.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: Please tell us more about what you and your collaborators see as the difference between revealing one world to another versus bringing worlds into relationship.
Jennifer Deger: I will paraphrase Djingadjingawuy here. Talk-talk is not enough. You have to feel to know, to understand. Through feelings you connect, with your family, with the land, with the old people (ancestors). Through feelings we are marked in relationship. If we share our feelings with balanda and they share theirs in response, then we come be together. Together, but not mixed up, as Gurrumuruwuy puts it, so marvelously.
I wish Miyarrka Media were not so geographically dispersed these days and had been able to work together on this piece for you. As you know I am reluctant to become the official spokesperson for our group, exactly because of the ways it undercuts the performative ethos of the book—and I find myself falling back into the earnest, explanatory voice that the others undermine so brilliantly. However, Gurrumuruwuy has no such qualms. He sees this kind of thing as exactly my job at the moment. He is managing other relationships, expectations and curious interrogations back in Arnhem Land.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel: This is a book that exists in many formats. Can you explain how you collectively decided to produce it in so many formats. Also why a book about digitally worked cell phone images?
Jennifer Deger: From the outset we wanted to do both a digital and printed version of the book and this framed discussions with potential presses—along with our (expensive!) commitment to printing in full color. If you spend time with the book, you’ll see that to print in black and white would have really killed everything that mattered about this project. We’re very grateful to Goldsmiths for letting us art direct the entire project, and to Santiago Carrasquilla and Eugene Lee from Art Camp for their fantastic commitment to a design collaboration that stretched over many years.
The multiple formats allow for the work of remediation and remix to continue in ways that we find pleasurable and satisfying. We’re interested in the energy and allure that can arise in giving new form to old media—this, after all, is the foundational ethos of the images themselves. Of course, we risked losing a lot of brightness and image clarity in deciding to do a print book, but the decision to make a hold-in-your-hand book as a patterned relational object was something we all wanted.
The open access version we developed in collaboration with MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group allowed us to return to a media rich digital world of brightness, color, and added sparkle. I think that having made the book first was really important, because we worked through a lot of the curation and design challenges in that process; we found the analytic form for our ideas through the design, which then found new expression in the online design. The printed and digital “books” basically have the same content, but they are very different things. I’m a bit surprised that I prefer the printed book. That said, the online version has its own qualities and character.
And perhaps that’s the most exciting outcome of all from our shared experiment. Each time the book takes new form, it re-instantiates a commitment to remix as a technique of social enlivenment; and, of course, in this instance, as anthropological method.
We spent five years designing and assembling a printed book and now we’re sending it out into the world in forms that undo its very status as ‘book’ (see for example our promo for the online version, ‘What is a book?’). Earlier this year we were invited to contribute a keynote to Distribute 2020, so we recombined elements from the book and elsewhere to make a 30 minute video. Just last month we cheekily entered that conference “talk” into a film festival and just found out it has been accepted. And so the work of remix continues.