Representation through archives

I have been thinking the upcoming project in Lesvos quite a lot the last few weeks. Art based ethnography is a relatively unknown terrain for me which I currently introduce myself through the readings provided by Tormod and by personal research on the web. I must admit that I am really intrigued by the field and the new perspectives it gives you as an artist and as a researcher. 

Since I have very little experience in doing ethnography I wanted during my staying on the island to further develop my skills in the field and understand better how ethnography is related to the arts.

I have been always interested in how people perceive their own surroundings, their familiar places. I found always myself studying the history of a place before visiting it to discover how different the reality is from what I read. I suppose this must be the case also regarding the island of Lesvos. Doing a small research on the island I found much interesting information about its history and its people and also a lot of information targeting mostly tourists. I am very interested in seeing how the island is really like away from the touristic masses. How do people living on the island perceive their surroundings? What do they consider important and what not? What are their stories? I want to talk with locals – maybe in the community of Kalloni- and try to see the region through their eyes. I want to get to know them and see what interesting stories they have to tell me about their community, about their village and their culture. Through their narrations, through their stories and throughout the observation of the region I will have the chance to better understand how these people live, what they care most about and what their land means to them. 

Since is my first time on the island I thought of spending some days in getting familiar with it and getting to know the people, what they care about and see how I will personally experience the island. After a first impression with the local community, I will form a more specific approach and try to guide my observations and interviews into a more specific direction. 

Personally, as I have already mentioned in previews posts, I am particularly interested in the dialect of the island and also to the local traditions, crafts and also stories of the island, real and fictional.

Mark Dion_ Ethnographer at home_ 2012

I have been always interested in collecting objects and studying their history. Creating archives as a way to tell a story. Studying the works of the artists presented by different reading related to the field I was particularly interested in the work of Mark Dion and the ways he uses archives of objects to tell a story, to show what is important and talk about what people choose to preserve, protect and display. Studying the works of Dion made me question the whole process of displaying things. What is considered as valuable to be displayed and what not? How objective the representations of the archives are? Can I create a representation of the life of Lesvos through objects and stories – maybe recordings, videos, or drawings – which the locals themselves will indicate to me as important? I want to see how the process of archiving can be related with ethnography.

In the following weeks before my arrival on the island, I want to further study ethnography and its relation with the arts in order to understand them better and better form my own project. The readings provided by the other participants of the course are really interesting and useful and I am looking forward to discussing them in person as well as collaborate with them.


  1. Emma Crouch

    I like this quote from the Mark Dion video that you linked to, asking questions around the “Connections between things, our actions, our personal behaviours and the way that effects a broader field, the rest of the world for example”. I too am interested in working out a bit more how art/ethnography sit together, and maybe these questions are enough?

  2. Jennie Gubner

    Damianos, thank you for your post. I am delighted that you and Emma are both interested in further tackling this idea of art/ethnography. In fact, the whole point of the course is that we get together and work on these ideas collaboratively. There is no exact science to these things, and as we bring together our different experiences, hopefully we can begin to create different models and ideas and recipes for how arts based ethnographic work can happen. We have examples from others of course, but I am eager to see what we come up with as a group, thinking together about the limitations and potential of different forms of representation. For me, I became interested in art/ethnography based on the question “what can I do with film that I cannot do with words on a page, and what can I do with words that I cannot do through film or photography?” Similarly “how might a film with a more “artistic” quality, created thinking about both ethnographic representation and fieldwork ethics, but also about aesthetics and artistic sensibilities, be able to reach a wider or different audience? I think for me, much of this work is inspired by thinking about how fieldworkers in fields like anthropology often research fascinating subjects and write very dull manuscripts, and those manuscripts seem to be empty of creative spark that helps us connect to subject matter. It used to be that researchers thought they needed to do “objective scientific documentation” but now, since we recognize the subjective qualities of ethnographic work, we are more free to think about how to translate different kinds of knowledge from one place to another, and more free to use creative modes to do that work. On the flip side, ethnographic methodologies ask lots of important questions about representation, ethics, transparency of how research was collected, the importance of representing multiple voices, etc… and sometimes when I see art projects that leave out these things, I wish they were there. So the art/ethnography space is that in between space where we can find creative and different ways to draw on the strengths of these different approaches to knowledge making. I am certain it will be more fun to discuss these things in person, but, I hope that helps to show you my perspective.
    In the case of your project, I am excited to see what you might do with dialects on the island. This is a great candidate for an arts/ethnographic project. In traditional ethnography perhaps you would document conversations, transcribe them, put those recording in an archive with some field notes. In this course, I would encourage you to think about what kind of an artistic/creative piece might emerge from these collections you gather, that would allow you to share this knowledge with a broader or perhaps different audience. I look forward to seeing where this goes!

  3. Hydar Dewachi

    Hi Damianos,

    your post brought to memory Lamia Joreige’s work Objects or War where she presents objects selected by people who survived the civil war in Lebanon and a video of them telling the story of this object. Below some links about the project:

    Objects of War, 2000–6 (Tate website)

    Objects of War by Lamia Joreige (YouTube)

    The Aesthetic Archive and Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War, Dina Georgis (PDF)

    There was also an exhibition I saw last year in Stockholm called “Stories from Syria” which consists of object Syrian refugees brought with them to Sweden and the stories of these objects.

    You may also be interested in the book “Dissonant Archives” which present work from the Middle East and North Africa that work with or around the archive.

  4. Tormod Wallem Anundsen

    Dear Damianos,

    Thank you for your interesting post! I think “the archive” is a very powerful tool that artists have adapted from various scientific fields of inspiration, such as the natural sciences and anthropology (the more object-oriented traditions). One interesting question about the archive, which stems from critical thinkers like Michel Foucault, and which artists have helped explore and highlight, is the power of representation and selection of the archive; how an archive has a particular story to tell based on what is collected and displayed there (and what is left out). Such as the old “Wunderkammer” (curiosa chamber) from the age of discovery, collected randomly from the most spectacular and eclectic things that traveling explorers or sailors brought home (i.e. to Europe), to the meticulous systematical sorting and naming of species stemming from Darwin and his successors.

    (Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities; Wikimedia Commons)

    Darwin's beetle collection
    (Darwin’s beetle collection, Courtesy of the University Museum of Zoology Cambridge.)

    An interesting artist that you may know, who uses an archival approach, is Susan Hiller; she was originally trained as an anthropologist, and has continued to use, and produce, archival objects in her works. At the last documenta (in Kassel) I observed her sound installation based on archive recordings of dying languages (“Lost and found“). So maybe that could be an inspiration in some ways? Still, I perceive this part of her work as based on archival research, and not so much ethnography (which means engaging with others in a more direct manner, I would say). Is it possible to work more collaboratively on an archive – such as of dialects? Not to be the old-style ethnographer who just collects things and leaves, but one who engages with people, builds things with people (a shared archive?), listens to what is important to people? I sense this type of awareness in your posts.

    Artists using archives often find ways to both use and challenge the ‘scientific’ modes of representation; In the book Site specificity: The ethnographic turn (Coles, 2000) there is a nice interview with the famous anthropologist James Clifford. He describes Susan Hiller’s work as making a ‘fictional museum’, where the artistic, new arrangement of objects starts creating new stories, interrupting or challenging established worldviews. (I can bring the book to Lesvos in case you want to have a look).

    If you’d like some other references: I taught a workshop last year with my colleague Anna Svingen-Austestad (you saw her video lecture), where she provided the following resources;
    – a PhD dissertation by Tiffany Shafran (2012): Relics of All Things Precious: Curiosity and Wonder in Artists’ Collections
    – a chapter by Okuwei Enwezor (2007): Archive Fever. Photography between History and the Monument. (Part of: Archive fever, uses of the document in contemporary art)

    You may also like Anna’s comments to Renée Green’s work as archival (see “Library“).

    Looking forward to seeing your work evolve!

    Best, Tormod

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