ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

4th - 7th April 2005, University of Aberdeen, UK

Panel 1: Creativity, visual perception and material culture

Panel convenors: Dr James Leach & Dr Victor Buchli,
Panel abstract

We invite the submission of abstracts on the themes of visual culture and material culture in relation to ‘creativity’.

Some guiding questions might be: What is the relation between imagination, plans, designs and realisation? How and where are these relationships best understood as social practices? What does drawing have in common with more obviously sculptural and plastic arts? And how does technology effect the conventional distinctions between representations through images, and reality itself? Representation has been extensively examined in anthropology in recent years, as has landscape, and the meanings of human environments. What tensions are there between the materiality of objects/land and representational practices? Is the tension inevitable? Is it creative? Borrowing notions from ecological psychology, how might we describe work in the realm of the visual as an exploration of, or creative engagement with, others? How does visual culture influence ways of making knowledge about the world in various disciplines, or across cultures? With algorithms being written that mutate and ‘evolve’ to ‘compose’ classical musical scores (for example), how are we to understand, describe and account for the relocation of forms of creativity in machines, or in digital code with its own ‘life’. Is it time to re-examine the limited location of creative energy in restricted human-bodily spaces? How might we begin to describe kinds of creativity that occur when agents act together? Is there such a thing as mechanical creativity? Do we need a concept of creativity at all, or is that concept so wholly enmeshed in particular gendered, political and economic discourse that it needs thoroughly exposing? How would such a critique relate to the visual?

Design, innovation and agency in pattern construction

Amar S. Mall, Doctoral candidate, University College London

Recent developments in the anthropology of art indicate a return to formal analysis, a resurgence of interest in technical aspects of art production, and increasing attention to issues of design and innovation. This paper aims to explore the question of intention in indigenous design and its implications for our understanding of the generation of form, taking as example the ephemeral geometric patterns produced by Hindu women in Tamil-speaking southern India.

Known locally as kolam, these patterns are generated on a grid of dots around which continuous closed lines are encircled to produce intricate geometric designs. This is achieved by subjecting geometric motifs to any combination of systematic transformations that include repetition, rotation, reflection and changes of scale. Women remember and learn execution sequences by reducing kolam to their minimal form, these kolam prototypes forming the basis of women's design repertoires. The structural properties of kolam patterns means the likelihood of making mistakes is high, and value is placed on women’s capacity to execute patterns accurately or to ‘bring a pattern back’: spontaneously innovate on a design to create a new form should it become apparent that the original intended form will not ‘come’. The materialisation of different kolam during the process of execution is well attested to by informants and valorised as epitomising the kolam’s elusive character, indicating the cultural value placed on openness and flexibility and an appreciation of the revelatory aspect inherent in the generation of form. The research therefore poses interesting questions concerning the attribution of creative agency, notions of structure and complexity, and ideas concerning the emanation of form at the local level.

Visualisation as collaborative act and process in film production

Cathy Greenhalgh, London College of Communication / University of the Arts London

This paper will use interview and video material from my ethnographic research on feature film cinematographers. I will argue that technology and collaboration produce specific performative relationships and position creativity throughout production as a dynamic process, dialogical, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary (Vera John-Steiner, after Vygotsky and Bakhtin; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Visualisation is assumed under the director’s aegis as auteur, but if it were deconstructed by identifying the actacts and network (Latour, 1992), a radically different notion of agency would seem evident in this area of cultural production.

“Visualisation” is a process often referred to by cinematographers. Use of the term relates to art history, cinema history, the talent the profession is assumed to possess and for which they are hired as individuals; the collaborative process between cinematographer, director and production designer; the needs of particular films in relationship to budget and technological requirement; what happens during pre-production location recces and serendipitous events on set. Sketching, storyboarding, videoing locations, lighting diagrams, art direction designs and script coordinate production planning. Film production can be emphasised as a cognitively distributed activity in which cognitive phenomena occur across individuals, artefacts, media and representational languages (Hutchins, 1995).

Cinematographers’ working practice has been affected by the rising professions of  telecine colourist, visual effects designer, pre-visualisation artist; and more greenscreen shooting, digital processing and computer generated imagery in films. Fellini used cartoons used to describe mise-en-scene to his cinematographer (Rotunno, 1999). Christopher Doyle collages and collects video clips working with Wong Kar Wai, (2004). Oliver Stone and Rodrigo Prieto’s work on Alexander  (2004) exemplifies the range of picturing devices used on a large blockbuster production. This paper will present a narrative of the visual documents used and generated by the cinematographer in particular and how these artefacts have developed through new media technology.

Fieldnotes and sketchbooks: challenging the boundaries between descriptions and processes of describing

Wendy Gunn, Creativity and Practice Research Group, University of Dundee

Every description of the world we inhabit, whether undertaken by an artist, an architect, anthropologist, embodies certain practices of describing. Any practice that describes must involve some system of notation, but these systems are various, and by no means confined to the written word. I am concerned with the potential of alternative notations, involving different media, to transcend the boundaries between ways of working/ knowing specific to the disciplines of art, architecture and anthropology. My research focuses on the interconnections, in practice, of speech, gesture, drawing and writing, and the role of narrative and coupling of actions and perceptions in artists’ working practices. I am addressing specific questions concerning the nature of artists’ skills, how they are acquired, how the artists’ knowledge relates to anthropological and architectural knowledge traditions, and how this is affected by technological changes. Building upon my doctoral and post-doctoral research (1998-2004) working with artists, architects, archaeologists, historians, systems developers and philosophers, I ask if it is possible to develop a language capable of describing a dynamic creative process?

In my paper I will present ethnographic examples from working in collaboration with artists, architects and anthropologists, towards developing an exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery (April - June 2005). Testing whether learning can be a way of doing research, and practice a way of doing theory, the exhibition considers different ways of using media and notational systems to facilitate translation of knowledge between disciplines and a public audience. The exhibition represents an ongoing dialogue, or conversation, and the relations created during a process of making of alternative notations, involving different media to transcend the boundaries between ways of working specific to the disciplines of art, architecture and anthropology, will be the focus of my presentation. I aim to highlight how the positioning gestures of design within differing inscriptive practices, are influenced by professional knowledge traditions and technological development. Within these dialogic contexts of interaction I consider my role as an anthropologist, asking how acts of bringing together, juxtaposition and comparison influence ways of knowing in anthropology.

“It’s the look and feel… and it’s fresh”: the laboured articulation of the aesthetic in television production

Ivan Kwek, PhD candidate (Anthropology/Media), SOAS & Lecturer, School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological Univ., Singapore

How is creativity understood, contested and negotiated in forms of social practices as industrialised as television production? This paper, based on fieldwork at a minority language television station in Singapore, explores the complex overlapping of discourses and cultural practices which inform how TV producers and executives create and evaluate television programmes.

While often regarded as a creative industry, it is the industrial (and the ideological) aspects of the   medium that gets the most attention. On this account, the literature typically cites ratings as the ultimate judge of programmes. But the ethnography suggests that the use of ratings is often a strategic ritual to “confirm” a prior judgement about aesthetic or other standards.

What about creativity?  The station executives set it as a criteria for commissioning programmes or judging entries for the annual awards. It supposedly informs scripting, filming and editing decisions, and offers the viewer cinematographic pleasure. Yet, attention to ethnographic and historical details reveal how media professionals often find themselves struggling when they try to articulate their sense of the aesthetic. Furthermore, they tend to become enmeshed with the cultural, economic, political and even religious.  

What counts for creativity in television is therefore highly contentious as competing claims, ideas and approaches coincide or clash along each stage of the production process. The paper pays attention to when and how arguments about creativity arise.  How was it talked about? When is a production regarded creative, and when is it not?  How do they relate to actual practices, and relations, of production? What do they tell us about the work of the notion of creativity in the creative industry?  Tentatively, it seems most productive to think of it as a set of articulatory practices - one which seems to alternate between the contestation and the attribution of agency.

The inscribed mark as an embodied process of understanding

Raymond Lucas, University of Aberdeen

Based on my work with the Creativity and Practice research group, a collaboration between the department of anthropology at Aberdeen and the school of fine art at Dundee; I propose to demonstrate the status of the inscribed mark as a thinking tool. By inscribed mark, I include any mark made upon a surface, such as a drawing, notation, diagram, or writing.  My research holds that such marks are not simply representations of an abstract thought, but that they are continuous processes that allow understanding.  My research seeks to understand more fully how this process operates, and how the inscription offers an embodied form of knowledge.  The subsequent interpretation of the drawing or notation continues this activity, making the inscription anew for each active spectator. In order to understand the differences in these thinking tools, I shall present short case studies examining the qualities inherent in Laban movement notation, commonly used for dance notation; and architectural drawing conventions including plan, section, perspective and axonometric.  Each of these traditions of inscription works within certain rules and frameworks, each of which focus the creative process in particular directions. Key to this approach is regarding the inscription as a temporal artefact, in the manner that Bergson approaches duration.  This opposes the traditional view that such modes of inscription as Laban notation or perspective drawing might be understood as spatial organisations of information. Demonstrations and examples of this work shall be drawn both from the canon of fine-art and architectural inscriptions.  I shall also use my own practice of inscription through various projects.

Creating or performing words visually

Fuyubi Nakamura, University of Oxford

This paper seeks to reconsider issues of creativity in art by exploring the roles of reproduction and nature in the Japanese calligraphic practice. In the Western modernist paradigm, creativity and originality are often regarded almost as prerequisites for art to be art. Yet they are not always encouraged in Japanese calligraphy. Instead, reproduction has been regarded as a vital component of calligraphic practice. Reproducing masterpieces is the way to attain the skills of a competent calligrapher. The calligrapher is not therefore necessarily aiming to create a new type of calligraphic work, but “a new token of an existing type; so he is not [always] seeking to be original” (Gell 1992). Yet differences in the degrees of interpretation of the model works and performance by each calligrapher result in something new. In this sense, calligraphy is similar to musical performance, particularly of classical music. Both musical and calligraphic practitioners interpret and practise the old masters’ works numerous times, but the actual performance or the time when their interpretation is ‘played out’ happens only once.

The role of nature in the production process is another important factor. For instance, particles in the ink move around and leave their ‘traces’ on paper after the calligrapher has played his part in creating a work with his brush. Executing calligraphic works thus involves extensive knowledge of materials and techniques so that calligraphers can exert a significant control to dictate nature to achieve intended results. It is the interaction between human agency (the calligrapher and his techniques) and thing agency (nature and materials) which results in new types of ‘visualized words’. In other words, a calligraphic work is finalised by the ‘natural’ creativity of materials (which can be considered as a type of ‘mechanical/automatic’ creativity) and how human creativity resists, controls, embraces or prompts it.

What is it that performance poetry is not? A thumbnail enthnography of poetry in Scotland

Peter Cudmore, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh

Drawing on Plato’s (and Derrida’s) counterposition of written and spoken language, and drawing too on Derrida’s critique of Austin, this paper is part of a larger ethnographic account comparing the practices of two genres of creative endeavour that routinely cross between written and spoken forms. Its purpose is to argue that the semiotic content of the oral encounter has significance that the mediated encounter tends to efface. The genres in question are the academic paper, and poetry.

In respect of the academic paper, the question is simply this: why do scholars give papers, when so much of the apparatus available in the printed word - subheadings, italicisation, quotation marks and so on - are lost?

The question addressed in respect of poetry is: what is it that performance poetry is not? The genre is of relatively recent origin, and has a degree of correspondence with the similarly recent genre, ‘reality television’. People who describe themselves as ‘performance poets’ implicitly distance themselves from the practices of poets in other contexts. The purpose of the ethnographic research is to discover what these boundaries are supposed (by actants) to be, and whether these boundaries - especially in relation to the function of the graphic mark and the page in opposition to the oral experience of performance - are not more artificial than real.

1.  What is it that performance poetry is not?
Edinburgh has two regular poetry events: the Shore Poets, and Big Word Performance Poetry. I shall begin by giving an ethnographic account of the content of a typical evening with each, attempting to define the performance genre in doing so.

2.  The poetic spectrum
A middle ground between the avant-garde and the demotic is generally held to be a craft-intensive practice that communicates as easily in written and oral forms. However, an alternative spectrum sees poetry as pure sound, evacuated of syntactic meaning, reaching across to poetry that is pure vision. The middle ground reveals itself as that space where the senses are able to authenticate each other’s input.

3.  The performances of Norman MacCaig
As well as being an accomplished performer of his work, MacCaig performed the role of senior Scottish poet, and the role of distinguished poet (a subtly different category) with similar accomplishment. His persona exemplifies the way in which performativity extends far beyond the performance.

Becoming also artists: Aboriginal sculpture as Chinook Jargon

Peter Sutton, ARC Professorial Fellow, School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide, and Division of Anthropology, South Australian Museum.  Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Wik Aboriginal people of north Australia enjoy a religious sculptural tradition that has effloresced aesthetically and socially over the last century. Recently they have become 'artists' as well, as their carvings move increasingly into the world of museum exhibitions and art sales. While official and market focus tend to be on the indigenous makers and the traditional meanings of the objects, the transformative process has rested crucially on key innovative relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals and a partial meshing of their interests. How much and how little each understands about the other and their way of being is vital to the process, but also, collusively or otherwise, something of a secret. These are ships that pass in the day. What I seek to explore here is the peculiar mix of knowing, ignorance and chimera that maintains the frontier character of the cultural transaction. It reminds me of Chinook Jargon (Silverstein 1972): the Indians and the colonists each thought it was the others' language.

Tradition and Improvisation: from the domestic to the divine, a study of Kyrgyz felt shyrdak

Stephanie Bunn, University of St Andrews

This paper is based on ethnographic field research carried out in Kyrgyzstan over the last fourteen years, including during the Soviet period.

Felt is an extremely important textile for Central Asian pastoral nomads, including the Kyrgyz. It is a domestic product made by women from the raw fleece of Kyrgyz sheep. Felt provides people with shelter (coverings for tents), insulation (including carpets and bedding), and bags and clothing. It also has important ritual and symbolic significance.

The paper will begin with a consideration of the domestic place of felt among Kyrgyz pastoral nomads. It will include a brief history of nomadic feltmaking among Central Asian nomads and the different domestic uses of felt by Kyrgyz pastoralists. This will be followed with a discussion of the range of Kyrgyz feltmaking processes, including feltmaking techniques and applied decoration: - mosaic work (shyrdak), sewn on cords(couching), quilting and embroidery.

The following discussion will then focus on Kyrgyz mosaic felt, known as shyrdak, a technique which is highly developed among the Kyrgyz. Shyrdak designs and styles from different regions of Kyrgyzstan and innovative contemporary developments will be included.

The central focus of the paper will be the contrasting and potentially complementary perspectives through which the meaning incorporated into Kyrgyz shyrdak, can be analysed. This will include the comparative perspectives of collectors and historians, theories of Soviet academics, including Bernshtam, Cherkasova, Makhova and Antipina, concerning Kyrgyz ethnogenesis, and contemporary accounts collected in the field. It will include a consideration of the relationship between pattern, colour and form, and the significant links between family relationships, ancestors, and nomadic beliefs and practices linked to the environment. This multi-perspectival approach will show that competing discourses of the relationship between form and meaning in Kyrgyz felts can give a richer texture to our understanding of the relationship between tradition, improvisation and inspiration in cultural processes such as material culture and art.

The paper will be illustrated with high quality slides which will be dual projected.

'Context variation and context interaction in episodes of creativity'

Tony Penny, Retired, Open University
This paper is about two major case studies and makes reference to two other inventive episodes. The two major studies are of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson; and the invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner by James Dyson. The two other episodes are of the development of aseptic surgery by Joseph Lister; and the solution of electrical generation by Michael Faraday.

Three main findings came out of these studies; firstly, creative episodes are the result of agency, as characterised by Alfred Gell, involving choice, decision and discrimination; and that they are functional (following Malinowski); secondly, that the eureka experience in each case can be explained , and probably correctly, in terms of context variation (this includes the original eureka experience of Archimedes); and thirdly, typically there are five separate, though interrelating contexts in a creative endeavour, two precursor, two situational leading to the idea, then an installtion or effector context, where the idea is turned into an effective peice of material culture. The ideas in both the main studies were notably visual/spatial. Crick and Watson made the final discovery of DNA structure by manipulating structural models; and James Dyson was a trained industrial designer (Royal College of Art)

Discussants: Dr James Leach & Dr Victor Buchli