Just Visiting: Curious Ethnography, Intentional Design, and Collaborative Art
From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times
From the Series: Art and Ethnographic Forms in Dark Times
If we think of making as knowledge and the process of knowledge making, making as art and the process of art making, we cannot draw clear lines between one and another.
—Elizabeth Chin, “Needlework”
Kate and Mig are makers. Kate is an anthropologist. She makes books and jokes and connections. Mig is a designer. He makes graphics and interactions and animations. They both make photographs and breakfast and good trouble. Together they’ve been making a zine series as part of Kate’s ethnographic research on race and placemaking in Rochester, New York.1 The zine and the research are both “fertile ground.”
The finished zine measures 3.5 by 4.5 inches, with forty professionally printed glossy white interior pages (designed by Mig) and cardstock covers letterpress printed (hand typeset by Kate). Each zine is lovingly folded (by Kate and a rotating cast of friends and volunteers), and hand-bound (by Kate) with red embroidery floss to symbolize the enduring effects of redlining on Rochester’s present physical and social landscape. The form reflects the content, is the content. The zines also contain photographs (shot by Kate) and illustrations (drawn by Mig). By design, they are to be consumed materially, not digitally, held in one’s hands, and Kate and Mig give them away for free. The zine is a gift. Ephemeral. Intended to be shared and circulated, but also tucked away and archived. A precious artifact. Inalienable and limited edition, “self”-published and not “peer”-reviewed, in the traditional sense. Each one has a feel, a weight, a smell.
The process of curating, designing, organizing, folding, cutting, stitching, and trimming helps Kate think about the anthropologist as maker and the zine as integral to the research process, about ethnography as a form of craft. Not simply an artifact of “findings,” but a co-created mode of question refinement (just visiting), analysis (haiku), and outreach (open access analog). It epitomizes art as design, art as theory and method. Elizabeth Chin (2020, 1) notes that her own practice of sewing Vodou flags is “a rich material and metaphorical way to explore doing ethnography and producing ethnographic knowledge.” She observes the therapeutic power of making: “It’s an exercise of sewing through the madness, fending off existential dread of facing the implications of everything our crappy species is responsible for, and continuing to work at creating beauty in spite of everything” (Chin 2020, 5). Art is a coping mechanism. A crisp fold, a blade crunching through a signature, a needle through the spine, everything pulled tight without tearing. Holding a finished, clean, freshly trimmed zine in one’s hands feels really good. Giving that zine to a friend or stranger feels even better.
The process starts for Mig with establishing a reliable grid to divide up the printed space. He defines margins, gutters, and columns appropriate for the zine’s physical proportions. He adheres to a vertical rhythm to guide the bounds and baselines of illustrative objects, photographic artifacts, and typographic forms. Mig collaborates with Kate in a virtual design studio as he builds, attempting to communicate Kate’s words, ideas, photos, comments, and intentions—rendering her insights with affirmative keyboard strikes and mouse taps. Mig calculates visual consistency, curates scale, balances contrast, and builds composition. He cultivates restful areas for the eyes while considering legibility, readability, and contrast. Mig’s intent is to make it all feel palpably simple. Designer John Maeda asserts that “simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” Mig’s designs and illustrations are subtractive; no more is rendered than enough needed to convey his, Kate’s, and their collocutors’ concepts. The visuals are there to emphasize and draw importance to the ideas, to add meaning, to co-exist and uplift the art.
The zines are a way to reimagine, rearticulate, re-inscribe ethnographic praxis and collaborative design. Their unfolding mirrors the unfurling of the research process. Volume One, “just visiting” (2019), was a curious introduction to place and the practice of asking questions. Its primary feature was a series of queries that arose organically in Kate’s preliminary conversations with Rochesterians. It made a set of conversations, a set of queries, into a thing. The curious practice of visiting involves becoming attuned to the questions important to one’s collocutors (Haraway 2016). Flanking these questions in “just visiting,” are maps and photographs as well as original illustrations created by Mig, because the words alone are not enough. And because who doesn’t love looking at pictures? A drawing of an anatomical heart with leaves and roots rendered in black and white with two line weights.
Volume Two (“fallow time”)—which was made in 2020, while Kate and Mig were cooped up together, and Kate was more or less cut off from her ethnographic research—is about what happens when a fieldworker does no fieldwork. It’s also about the potential of quiet times and “vacant” spaces for emergence and creativity. In this dark and fallow period, Kate started making haiku out of things her collocutors told her, and Mig started making illustrations to convey the weight of isolation and the joy of growth.
i wanna be a fruit tree
that place where folks see themselves
in someone’s backyard
This poem, which appears in “fallow time,” is not a haiku. It was supposed to be, but Kate made a mistake when organizing phrases from her collocutors into haiku ingredients, and the first line has seven syllables instead of five (sometimes makers make mistakes). This is how you know a human made it and not a machine. That was what Kate would remind herself when she was first learning letterpress printing. That wacky kerning, that upside down “f,” those three lines that somehow floated left of center—those are all clues that one or more human beings were involved in the making. Sometimes the mistakes we make are more artful than the original design.
Kate and Mig’s collaborative toolkit/toybox:
Use these tools/toys and make moves. Make change. Make art. Make love. Make cookies. Make decisions. Make waves. Make the bed. Make friends. Make faces. Make peace. Make a mess. Make mistakes. Make kin. Make time. Make believe. Make noise. Make room. Make a scene.
Kate originally got the idea for the zine from artist, activist, and scholar Shana M. griffin, who created a similar passport-sized booklet for her project “Displaced New Orleans.” Learn more at displacedneworleans.com.
Chin, Elizabeth. 2020. “Needlework.” Feminist Anthropology 1, no. 1: 1–7.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.