This post and "Adapting the Annual Symposium: Care and Conviviality in Online Spaces" are written by a group of graduate students from the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University.
Since 2014, a group made up of graduate students in the Anthropology Department at George Washington University has hosted a regular film series called Anthropocinema. Designed to cultivate relationships and conversations, Anthropocinema brings MA and PhD students, faculty, and staff together in a space separate from the formal structure of the classroom. As the organizers of Anthropocinema, we approach ethnographic film as a launching pad for thinking and feeling through broader questions of community, belonging, and anthropological inquiry. This includes how we relate to others in the various networks and roles we inhabit and how anthropological knowledge is and can be produced. The program was never designed primarily for visual or multimodal anthropologists but was conceived as a space for building a convivial and caring community, welcoming new department members, and nurturing expansive and responsive visions of what scholarly inquiry could mean to us.
Before the pandemic, Anthropocinema had always taken place in our department’s seminar room. With food, drink, and mingling beforehand and a circle of chairs for discussion after, learning, joy, debate, and catching up all took place in equal measure. Sometimes we screened a film from the library or online. Sometimes, we hosted guest filmmakers at various stages in their careers—from graduate students to professional documentarians—who shared works-in-progress or completed films. Each month, Anthropocinema transformed our seminar room into a place where our department could come together as both an intellectual and social community without the usual pressures to perform and impress that hang over more formal academic spaces.
When our campus, like many campuses across the country, closed in March 2020 due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, we questioned how to host an Anthropocinema event online. Streaming a film via a virtual platform like Zoom or WebEx was the easy part. The bigger challenge was how to create the same environment—the conviviality and refuge that Anthropocinema offered. We were planning an extracurricular event virtually while people were spending all day attending lectures, seminars, and meetings through the same virtual square grids. When the classroom, the office, video calls to home, and happy hour all take the same form, what steps could we take to break the mold of Zoom University? From these questions, what emerged was an iterative and experimental process through which we conceived of Anthropocinema and Zoom anew.
As remote, virtual work became the norm for many, the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” took hold as people endured long hours staring at screens and one other. Many were forced to attend to new regimes of visual cues and were confined to their computers. At the same time, folks were isolated, flung far and wide, and confronted with new demands without the benefit of running into a friend at the copy machine or spontaneously collapsing into the chairs at the foot of a staircase for an unplanned chat. Zoom meetings had removed both touch and spontaneity from collective department life, as well as the shared spaces, tables, and coffee machines that had structured and enlivened our time together.
Our first challenge was to get anyone to agree to log on to the same screen at the end of a day in the grueling Fall of 2020. We believed we needed Anthropocinema more than ever but screening was no longer the stuff of memorable and relaxing nights away from business as usual. And after we logged on, how would we keep it from feeling stiff? How would we keep Anthropocinema online from seeming like an extension of the workday rather than a reprieve and a different mode of interacting? Zoom encounters had restructured what we could expect from a group meeting in several ways. Turn-taking in conversation modulated dramatically, requiring a new sense of timing and a new array of cues for signaling that one had something to say, as well as new ways of attending to the cues of others. Zoom encounters also made everything a whole-group experience or a highly structured small-group experience in breakout rooms. Everything expressed was aired to the entire group; there was no pulling someone aside, no circulating among small groups, and no quickly mentioning an aside to a few folks. Our conversational repertoire was constricted by these changes. We were always facing forward, always addressing the group, always breathing different air even in a shared space, and still trying to learn new rhythms and pauses.
“We wanted to play with how we could expand our ways of interacting on Zoom by making it playful, by favoring and reflecting on misfires rather than prioritizing turn-taking, and by overhauling how it felt to be in a group event on Zoom.”
As we planned our first event, the invitations emphasized that Anthropocinema would be an experiment focused on conviviality during remote times. Our first decision was to dispense with the rules of Zoom etiquette that had been newly imposed on us. We invited folks to leave cameras on or off according to their comfort and mood but asked everyone to unmute their mics so that we could hear reactions, laughs, coughs, and stray sirens. We asked people to discard the “raise hand” button in favor of interruption, talking over one another, making more rather than less noise. We also suggested experimenting with voluminous use of the chat function. We wanted to play with how we could expand our ways of interacting on Zoom by making it playful, by favoring and reflecting on misfires rather than prioritizing turn-taking, and by overhauling how it felt to be in a group event on Zoom.
As we shared our hopes for the experiment with folks during our first session, attendees suggested their own ideas for how to create a different online space. We talked about entering and leaving spaces and the social effects of taken-for-granted practices, such as leaving a room slowly, walking out with others, or rushing out the door waving. A plea was made to honor leave-taking and make space for farewells, giving people a moment to be acknowledged as they departed instead of making flitting escapes. At the end of the event, this would also stave off the jarring shock of dwindling squares and the sudden evaporation of social space amid cut-off farewells. Instead, people took turns saying their thanks and well-wishes, while those who wanted to remain could continue chatting.
Conviviality had always been a central value of Anthropocinema, but it came to the fore as we moved online. The constraints of Zoom pushed us to think through what had been most valuable about Anthropocinema and how to cultivate those aspects in a new format. These included connection, a sense of ease in interaction, and multisensory engagement. We also wanted to introduce old-fashioned material objects into the mix in any way we could. We specifically did not want to approach the event apologetically, as if we were overcoming an unfortunate change in format; rather, we wanted to focus on how we could strengthen our community in new ways through the distinctive affordances of virtual worlds.
First, how would we kick off an event? A conventional opening statement from the organizers was not enough. We did not want to simply introduce the film; we wanted to create room for the mingling and catching up and sharing that always took place before our in-person screenings. This took intentional planning and involved structuring an array of ice-breaker activities as we shuttled friends into breakout rooms with prompts, asked everyone to select an object for an impromptu show-and-tell, and held whole-group games of bingo (with a prize sent through the mail). These activities ruptured the Zoom silence and blank screens of passive observation. They also brought everyone into a moment of virtual camaraderie.
Second, we worried that watching a film for ninety or so minutes, and then discussing it would be too taxing. We opted instead for short films, offering a reprieve from long hours of screening. For our earliest online events, we collectively screened episodes of Hay Betl7em هاي بيت لحم (Menchaca Ruiz and Handal 2020) and segments of Ek Dozen Paani (Agaaz et al. 2008). These brief, twenty-minute stories immersed us in other moments and places. Not only did we leave our mics on, but we also used the chat function to comment while watching. Hearing sighs and laughs, even tears, over the mic and sharing reactions in the chat helped us feel not only transported to another place but transported together.
Like designers prototyping or performers rehearsing, we kept coming up with new ways to build on previous successes and expand modes of involvement. Amid discussing the coffee in the “Qahwe Dayme” episode of Hay Betl7em هاي بيت لحم, one participant talked about how much they missed drinking coffee together in our common areas. As an improvised nod to the sharing of pizza and drinks at Anthropocinema’s past, we then decided to curate a menu for each screening, suggesting snacks and drinks that paired well with the films.
As our first semester of remote Anthropocinema came to a close, we contemplated the traditional Holiday Office Bash as an event we should reinstate, and decided it was also time to invite members to submit their own audiovisual contributions around the theme of “Comfort and Care.” To continue our experiment in weaving together the virtual and the material through film, media, and connection, we folded origami cranes together as our central party activity in a “Dance of Cranes.” Have you ever watched a dozen anthropologists try to instruct each other in the art of paper folding via webcam? It was absurd. It was also joyous and frustrating and perfect. And when we picked names at random to mail each other cranes, the friendships we nourished in that Zoom room took flight, moving along the networks of the United States Postal Service, Canada Post, and Correos de México. Some continue to fly.
Like any good dance party, folding cranes extended well past the slated time slot, and we had no time to screen our own audiovisual contributions. Preparing the cranes’ postal journeys pushed our “Comfort and Care” videos to the new year, which helped shape our Spring 2021 program into a collaborative, interactive endeavor. After sharing clips of singing and videos of baking crafted by participants, we launched a new initiative focused on shared sensory engagement through virtual means, inspired by our work building conviviality through Anthropocinema. Our Field Guides website was designed to suggest small “assignments”—photographing discarded objects or neighborhood plants and collecting sound clips—that people could complete quickly and easily with their cellphones. The tasks encouraged close attention to the world around us and low-stakes sharing of photos and audio clips. In this way, we experimented with ways we could join each other in our encounters in the world and the ways we tell individual and collective stories.
Anthropocinema was always about sharing space and laughter and wisdom. We watched and listened to films, but we also ate and drank together and shared conversations and stories and hugs. Why should a virtual screening be any different? Through every iteration of Anthropocinema Online, we cultivated new forms of virtual conviviality as we shared sights and sounds, food and crafts, and stayed close to one another, even while apart.
As restrictions around the ongoing pandemic have loosened, our campus has opened its doors again. Within our department, events vacillate between in-person and virtual. While we are eager to safely share physical space with friends and colleagues once again and be in each other’s presences, we have a repertoire of virtual space-making practices that remain useful. Some of our tinkering fed into our department’s annual symposium, which was held virtually last spring by Anthropocinema regulars as an experiment in care and incorporated a real-time iteration of our Field Guides website. As we adjust to life with one foot back on campus and one still in the virtual, we hope to continue offering online modes of engagement and bring some elements back to the seminar room in yet another iteration. The experiment continues.