Sight meets Sound
Frank Heidemann (University of Munich) and Richard Wolf (Harvard University)
In this conference, we bring experts oriented toward the visual together with those focused on sound to ask the question, What kinds of knowledge can be apprehended and communicated through the conjunction of the visual and the sonic? By “apprehension of knowledge,” we mean specifically the work of ethnography—investigating society and culture through fieldwork in the broadest sense. By “communication,” we mean analogues of writing ethnography: creating ethnographic films and designing sonic ethnographic projects (sound installations and collages), but with special attention to the effects of joining image (still or moving) with sound. We note some of the special challenges and invitations suggested by the sight-sound interface. In everyday life, visual and aural information may operate together, one drawing attention to the other. For instance, the sounds of footsteps followed by the creaking of a door draw our eyes to the door opening and set forth further expectations (to see the face of someone we were expecting perhaps, or the face of a stranger). After seeing lightning we expect an auditory gap before hearing the thunder. We may perform a quick calculation telling us how far away the lightning is.
In ethnographic fieldwork we may note not only the conjunction of sight and sound in everyday activities, but also those situations in which one element of the pair is suppressed: rituals performed in complete darkness, or situations which prohibit certain kinds of sounds. What can it mean in local terms to remove sight or sound from the sensory context?
Visual anthropologists are interested, in part, in “reading” culture through visual means: Murals, graffiti, popular television programs, advertisements, cartoons, sand designs, scroll paintings, indigenous maps—all rich sources for the visual anthropologist. Communicating knowledge, visual anthropologists use still or moving images to tell stories in ethnography without relying entirely (or at all in some cases) on scripts, captions, or verbal theories.
A growing number of scholars in anthropology have become attuned to the cultural aspects of sound, including but not limited to what may be locally recognized as music. A new kind of experimental ethnography challenges the researcher to use arrangements of sound (sequential or overlapping, and manipulated to varying degrees by electronic means) to convey insights in ways that extend beyond the logocentric form of traditional ethnographies.
For “communication,” then, we have two possible models for representating ethnographic knowledge that go beyond the word—one through (primarily) visual means and one via sound. One question arising from the creation of such new ethnographic work is the degree to which visual and aural communication can be de-linked to communicate each on its own terms. That is to say, a visual image need not be “accompanied” by a supporting sound but rather set in counterpoint with a challenging information-packed audio construct. Whether in visual, auditory, or some combined form, ethnographies that transcend or push the limits of the verbal lie at the boundaries of science and art. They retain some of the ambiguity of true field experiences and demand the viewer/listener to take part actively in the process of understanding the objects of anthropological knowledge. In this conference we will ask scholars involved in visual and sonic media in different ways to bring challenging work to the table for discussion and set in motion collaborations between those who have been, until now, oriented primarily toward either the visual or the sonic. The goal will be to create a series of short ethnographic pieces that attempt to work out or work through some of the challenges that these pairs of visual-sonic ethnographers experience in their collaborations. The more general goal will to be increase the sensitivity of anthropologists to visual and sonic data in ethnography as well as challenge them to use visual and sonic tools in the presentation of critical new work.
"Sight meets Sound" Conference
When: June 17-19, 2016
Where? Internationales Begegnungszentrum der Wissenschaft (IBZ München), Amalienstraße 38, München