Chemical Immersions: The Chemo-Ethnography Installation at #AmAnth2017

Photo by Ned Dostaler.

Stepping into the Chemo-Ethnography installation felt a bit like walking into a party. Noisy, excited conversation filled the dark, hot room, which was lit by small, multicolored LED lights. And like any good party, this one was fueled by a plethora of chemical offerings. On one wall a screen showed pink clouds of smoke rising from bleak industrial landscapes at one moment and then a seemingly pristine natural landscape the next—part of a video piece by Jason Pine. On another wall, a projector flashed old family photographs drawn from Ali Feser’s project on how former employees of a Kodak factory in Rochester, New York continue to associate photographic chemicals with nostalgic memories, even after Kodak was found responsible for damaging pollution. As Elizabeth Povinelli (2017, 508) describes it: “The sensory history of chemicals sear into the affects, creating bonds of desire, nostalgia, and mourning for the very toxins now slowly overheating bodies and landscapes.” Walking into and through the installation, with sights and sounds coming from all directions, one could sense this history leaching into the present.

Still from Natasha Myers and Ayelen Liberona’s “Becoming Sensor.” Photo by Ned Dostaler.

The installation, staged at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC, was curated by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey. It was the third iteration of their ongoing work on chemo-ethnography. Produced alongside the Openings collection that appeared in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology and several online supplements, the installation brought together a collection of printed stills, moving images, and chemically laden objects for display in a dimly lit suite at the Marriott hotel. The installation included contributions from Stefanie Graeter (University of Chicago), Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto), Cristina Bejarano (University of California, Irvine), Natasha Myers (York University), Ali Feser (University of Chicago), Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University), and many others.

At the installation, what were described as “drugs” openly circulated. In a back corner, a table offered what appeared to be candies with shiny wrappers labeled “toxic waste.” Next to them were small bowls of unwrapped candies and some unidentified white pills. Were we expected to partake? Two partygoers, braver than we were, tried them. Elsewhere, Shapiro could be found offering clear capsules filled with white powder. “Harmless,” he told us. Dare we try?

On another table sat more mundane pharmaceuticals: a bottle of bright pink Pepto-Bismol and a bowl of chalky pink tablets. Next to these was a hunk of a strange, almost otherworldly substance, cubic and hard, glittering blue, green, and pink. When Kirksey could pull himself away from his duties as host, he patiently gave us a tour of the room. This brick of stuff, he explained, was bismuth, a key ingredient in gut-calming Pepto-Bismol. Bismuth lasts for longer than most humans can fathom; some estimate its half-life at about a billion times the age of the universe. Picking it up, he offered it to us. It felt indestructible.

Pepto-Bismol and bismuth. Photo by Ned Dostaler.

In her contribution to the Openings collection, Michelle Murphy (2017, 495) ruminated on the ways in which “industrially produced chemicals like PCBs have become a part of human living-being.” She noted the alarming fact that “all people alive today contain PCBs within them. . . .The pollution of the water has joined the molecular fabric of our bodies.” Situating mundane objects in new contexts, the installation invited us to question our own “epistemic habits” (Murphy 2017, 495).

A short video by Jason Pine showed a bottle resting on a wooden shelf. “It takes just a few banal consumer goods to make meth,” the captions told us before the bottle burst into flames. The fire raged, filling the screen as the bottle melted. This on-screen representation of an oft-demonized act of chemical creativity as a powerful, visually engulfing event flipped the script on meth production. Those in attendance were invited to have more appreciation for a frequently hidden, criminalized activity that is both everyday and extraordinary.

Still from “Heartland Alchemy,” courtesy of Jason Pine.

In their introduction to the Openings collection, Shapiro and Kirksey (2017, 490) invited us to speculate on “what life might or could be like . . . if technologies of power were to open up alternative explosive possibilities.” The curated chemical stimulation of their 2017 installation certainly offered some mind-altering possibilities. What does it mean, we found ourselves asking, to have all of these chemicals around and in us? And what did it mean to have the usually invisible made partially tangible? While there was plenty on display to ponder, without the curators’ commentary or some other written context, it was sometimes hard to know what to make of it all. Perhaps this is the perennial conundrum of the installation—too much context and its creator is telling viewers what they are seeing, yet not enough and the viewer does not know what to think. Yet this uncertainty enacted the very problem that the installation thematized: there is still so much we don’t know about chemical worlds. In the process, we were asked to immerse ourselves in that chemical uncertainty, opening ourselves to new possibilities and carving out a space for questions about what it might take to realize them.


Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2017. “Fires, Fogs, Winds.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 504–513.

Shapiro, Nicholas, and Eben Kirksey. 2017. “Chemo-Ethnography: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 481–93.