ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

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

Poster session

Free experiment: examining the environment of sustainable living innovation

Rachel Harkness, University of Aberdeen

In the 1940’s great swathes of land in the southern U.S. state of New Mexico were set aside for testing the atomic bomb. Today, the state legislature of New Mexico is again considering the suspension of certain regulatory mechanisms. This time however, what is proposed is experimentation with a new twist. A draft bill called the ‘Sustainable Development Testing Site Act’ sits before them, with a similar draft in position to be introduced to British and Scottish Parliaments in the near future. It will allow for the designation of plots of land on which current regulations for conventional development are not mandated, with a view to encouraging the emergence and development of new sustainable methods of living.

The people behind the proposals are a group of builders with whom I am working. This poster examines their opinions on the importance of having the space and freedom to learn from open experiment; of the key role of trial and error in the evolution of their signatory architectural construction – the autonomous dwelling unit, ‘the Earthship’, and of the sense of urgency they feel in the search for alternatives to conventional, and inadequate, methods of living.

The process of Earthship-building is understood and analysed as one of learning by doing, of experimentation and innovation with the materials to hand, and of challenging convention. Drawing on builders’ writings, speeches, building practices and lived-in constructions, I shall consider how this affects notions of planning and design. More widely, I shall ask what the case of a growing international movement calling for an end to the legislative restriction of innovative and often radical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental issues of our day, can tell us about the tension between creativity and constraint, and about the relationship between the state and its citizens. Finally, I will examine the power of the alternative voice and the strength of risking change in one’s own lifestyle and leading by example.

Creativity in tradition: ensuring survival in Swedish Sápmi

Anna Järpe, University of Aberdeen

Reindeer tending is often regarded as the traditional livelihood of the indigenous Sámi of northern Fennoscandia and the Kola peninsula, and as such it is rarely thought of in terms of creativity and innovation. In fact, when reindeer tenders apply modern technology to their traditional practices, such as snowmobiles for surveillance and helicopters for gatherings, they are sometimes accused of breaking with their true tradition and thereby forfeiting their claims to land for grazing with reference to customary rights. This poster will consider the notion of creativity within reindeer tending culture and practice. My argument is that an aptitude for creative thinking is one of the most fundamental requirements of reindeer tending. It is not foreign to this ‘traditional way of life’ but an integrated and socially encouraged part of it.

Using images from my fieldwork among reindeer tenders in southern Sápmi, Sweden, I will consider the physical and practical conditions of reindeer tending, and how children and young apprentices learn to deal with these conditions through the education they receive by way of social and professional activity. The informal teaching methods used, often based on practical participation, trial-and-error, and patient corrections when mistakes are made, promote a creative and independent way of thinking that is often necessary for survival in the reindeer tending world.

By this, I want to show how individual creativity is developed in and through the socio-cultural practices of reindeer tending, and how this form of creativity should be understood not as a break with culture, nor as a sign of the degeneration of a traditional way of life, but as a way to preserve a livelihood and the opportunity to pursue it that is just as traditional as the livelihood itself.

Creative traditions: culture, dance, and identity among indigenous Siberians

Alexander D. King, Univesity of Aberdeen

Dancing in Kamchatka is an excellent entry point for investigating local ideas about culture, tradition, and creativity. It presents an opportunity for observation, discussion, and interpretation of both unselfconscious activity and self-reflexive ideology. This poster presents my work exploring a semiotics of indigenous dance forms in moves toward an understanding of cultural continuity and change and the political economy of ethnic performances. All dancing in northern Kamchatka seems to have an ethnicity, and traditional indigenous dances are popular with many youth in towns and villages. Nearly every village has some kind of ensemble devoted to indigenous dance, usually organized under the aegis of the local klub or dom kul’tury or through the energies of a particular family. Young people take part in these ethnic dance ensembles for a variety of reasons: fun, a connection to their grandma, interest in ‘our traditions’, enjoyment of the performing arts, and others. Local discourses about the value and authenticity of dances as performed by professional or semi-professional ensembles focus on this relationship between elders and youth. Dances are iconic of elders’ actions and index intergenerational relationships.

Getting lost in Tokyo: translation and the creative act

Raymond Lucas, University of Aberdeen

For this poster presentation I shall collate material from my ongoing thesis project, entitled ‘Towards a Theory of Notation as a Thinking Tool’.  A poster presentation is particularly appropriate as my work concentrates upon inscriptive practices such as drawing, notation and diagrams. I will select from the body of works supporting my thesis a selection of inscriptions which explore the ideas of translation from one form of mark-making to another.

The idea of translation is crucial to the presentation, as one of the important qualities of an inscription is that it makes an observed phenomenon available to other forms of understanding.  Thus, by expressing an event such as getting lost in the Tokyo subway as a diagram, we can begin to reformulate this into Laban notations, architectural drawings and even photographs and maps.  This creative opportunity is important, and supports my assertion that an inscriptive practice is a form of knowledge, a thought process, rather than simply a way to represent an already crystalline idea.

Machismo and individuality among the nomads of north eastern Tibet

Fernanda Pirie, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

Instability, violence and feuding characterise the social organisation of the nomads of Amdo. Unlike the centralised polities of central and western Tibet, segmentary tribal formations united and disunited these pastoralists before the arrival of the Chinese in 1958. While systems of mediation and localised authority counteracted the norms of feuding, historical accounts describe shifting allegiances, migrations, raiding and warfare. The Chinese occupation introduced a measure of stability through the collectivisation of pastoral practices, but has now allowed the nomads substantially to return to their former tribal organisation and practices of feuding have re-emerged. While the police administer harsh criminal punishments, the nomads deny any legitimacy to the judicial authority of the state by pursuing their practices of revenge until appropriate mediators, ultimately Buddhist lamas, have negotiated a settlement. At the same time, however, the nomads look to the Chinese administrators as a useful source of authority in order to determine land boundaries and to restrain (rather than settle) violence.

The nomads’ patterns of violence and order are, thus, being creatively adapted to suit a radically new political context. My poster explores this dynamism by examining the issue of creativity at the level of the smallest social groups, the tent and the encampment. An ethic of individualism, carelessness, indolence and machismo characterises the habitus of the male nomad. Rule-breaking and selfishness are expected. At the same time, such practices are constantly counteracted by those individuals who take on responsibility for imposing the countervailing norms of order. There is an inherent dynamism and unpredictability within nomad life, which demands individual performance and creative reactions. These are the features, I argue, which are playing themselves out in the nomads’ adjustment to the powerful administration of the Chinese state.

How does visual culture related to creativity influence ways of making knowledge in immunology?

Klaus Spiess, Vienna Medical University.  Co-authors: S. Bauer, B. Bernatzik, A. Mejstrik and R. Reichert

To shift the recognition apparatus into the foreground was a radical departure from conventional art, psychoanalysis and biology practice between the 50s and 80s.  We reviewed the literature and the arts to investigate how the use of optical models by the arts and psychoanalysis has impacted on immunology. Mirror models were used between 1950 and 1975 by Welles, Cocteau, Schoffer, Godard, Birnbaum and others, who explored the relation of the body self to the ‘visual’, ‘public’, ‘represented’, ‘alienated’ body.  Lacan emphasized the development of the self by the (emotional) visual integration of the reflected ‘(m)other’ as an I. In his Nobel lecture, Jerne (1984), who often cited the mirror works of artists, regarded the inside mirror image of the outside alien as an I (the antibody) and simultaneously as the other (the antigen). What happens to the mirrored antigen, happens to oneself and both cannot go separate ways. Recognition happens within an endless ongoing process, a ‘hall of mirrors’ (Jerne 1984) of antibodies. This mirror model was also used to distinguish between antibodies, which are ‘recognizing’ and ‘being recognized’. We conclude that stimulated by the arts and psychoanalysis, optical models were metaphorically transferred to immunological theory to structurally change the level of representation within immunological theory.

Oral into Material: traditions of story telling and wood sculptures in Sakha, Siberia

Tanya Argounova-Low, University of Aberdeen

Sakha people were renowned for their skills of storytelling, in particular olonkho, an epic genre of story telling. Olonkho required particular skills from the storytellers: a natural gift for performing, a good memory, rhetoric, but above all the ability to improvise. In olonkho, a philosophical understanding of the world, a hero-warrior fights with evil spirits of the Lower World and is blessed by the good spirits of the Upper World.

This poster focuses on the transformation of olonkho into wooden sculpture: how oral narration takes material form and how words are converted into sculptures. I follow the wood sculptor Ernest Alekseev who weaves olonkho motifs into his creative work. According to Alekseev, in his wooden sculptures he appeals to the literary stylistic device of hyperbole. I follow hyperbole in olonkho and in conveying olonkho through a different medium, bringing up the significant question of what is false and what is genuine.

Culture from the ground: walking, movement and placemaking

Tim Ingold and Jo Lee, University of Aberdeen

This poster presents ongoing research, first introduced at last year’s ASA conference, on the topic of the sociality of walking. Taking our lead from Mauss, who argued that walking was one of a number of ‘techniques of the body’, we investigate the lived experience of walking and how it varies in different environments and through the course of a life. The current themes of the project include: (1) places: learning, perception and risk, (2) time, biography and rhythm, (3) the material culture of walking, (4) A history and ethnography of Union Street in Aberdeen, and (5) the politics of walking. Ethnographic fieldwork underway in and around the city of Aberdeen aims to show how these themes offer rich material for an anthropology of everyday environments, in which locomotion is the basis for engaging with the world. The poster contains details of the themes together with photographs and quotes from interviews.