In early June 2022, the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology held their biennial conference. Called the “Virtual Otherwise,” this year's conference consisted of pre-recorded video panels and presentations streamed according to a scheduled program, with each event followed by a live online discussion. In addition to its digital content, local communities were invited to organize in-person “nodes” for participants to commune around the central conference program and to produce their own, localized conference content.
In this AnthroPod episode, we provide a retrospective on the Virtual Otherwise conference from the perspective of the local node in Agria, Greece. Touching on matters of accessibility, engagement, and multimodality, we ask: where is anthropology conferencing headed?
Penelope Papailias is an associate professor of social anthropology at the University of Thessaly, where she also directs the Laboratory of Social Anthropology. She is the author of Genres of Recollection: Archival Poetics and Modern Greece (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and co-author with Petros Petridis of the open-access e-book Digital Ethnography (2015). Her research areas include cultural memory, death and mourning, and new media.
Emiko Stock is an assistant professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo and and a multimodal ethnographer whose work includes visual and textual approaches. She works among Cham Sayyid Muslims in Cambodia and Iran.
Penny Paspali is a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology and gender studies at the University of Thessaly and a researcher at the European Observatory on Femicides. Her dissertation investigates digital feminist activism against femicides in Greece.
This episode was created and produced by Contributing Editors Nick Smith and Sharon Jacobs, along with our assistant producers, University of Thessaly students Dimitra Morosou, Ilias Chaliamalias, and Olga Parthenidou-Fotou. Joyce Rivera-González provided late-stage review. Thanks to the “soundbooth” participants at the Virtual Otherwise Agria node for the ambient soundbites heard throughout this episode.
[00:00] [the sound of waves]
Sharon Jacobs (SJ) [00:12] That’s the sound of the water off the coast of Agria in the Thessaly region of central Greece. Located midway up Greece’s eastern coast on the Pagasetic gulf, the town of Agria backs on to the lush forests of mount Pelion and lies adjacent to the larger city of Volos, home to the university of Thessaly and its Laboratory of Social Anthropology.
Nick Smith (NS) [00:35] For three days this past June, a cultural center in Agria played host to an international conference, featuring multimodal ethnography and ethnographic film from around the world. Or rather, Agria was one “node” among many around the world that took part in the Virtual Otherwise conference, jointly organized by the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology. Attendees at the Agria node could come and tune into the conference’s livestream, ask questions of panelists online, and engage in a range of node-specific activities, experiments, and workshops.
Anonymous conference participant [01:10] Well, I would like to record my childhood sounds now.
[01:15] [cowbell sounds]
NS [01:17] The sounds you’re hearing now, for instance, were recorded by conferencegoers as a part of an exercise in experimenting with recording equipment and soundscape design. In its virtual form, the Virtual Otherwise conference encompassed presentations and audiences from around the world, but at Agria, it also felt extremely localized, being conducted primarily in Greek, featuring the work of local students and the catered food of local Pelion residents.
SJ [1:42] In this Anthropod episode, we consider how virtual conferences cross local and global scales. We talk about the potential for this form of distributed engagement to unsettle the power dynamics that privilege conferences located in centers of academic knowledge-production—and that privilege academics who are based in those centers. And we query the potential of multimodal anthropology for reaching new students and non-specialist audiences.
NS [02:07] I’m Nick Smith.
SJ [02:09] And I’m Sharon Jacobs.
NS [02:10] And we’re co-producers on this episode. A huge thanks to our assistant producers, Dimitra Morosou, Ilias Marios Chaliamalias, and Olga Parthenidou Fotou for their help in translating and overdubbing sections of the episode.
SJ [02:24] As always, AnthroPod is the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology—the organization that convened the Virtual Otherwise conference. All of us who worked on this episode were also involved in organizing the Agria node.
[02:29] [sounds of bells ringing]
SJ [02:47] In 2018, the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) held its biennial meeting in a hybrid virtual/in-person format for the first time. The “hybrid” model meant that conference content—academic presentations, as well as a film festival—was all available online, streaming during a three-day period. At the same time, conference participants were invited to form in-person local nodes in their own cities, to engage with the conference socially and hold their own conference-related activities face-to-face.
The experiment in conference format followed several rationales. One was environmental—reducing the carbon footprint produced when academics converge on a single city. Another had to do with access—the in-person SCA conference had usually been held in North America, but anthropologists are active all over the world. The SCA’s 2018 conference, called Displacements, was attended by over 1,300 people from 40 countries—compared to about 200 attendees at the typical SCA in-person conference.
[03:49] [background noise from conference]
SJ [03:54] The SCA planned to repeat its hybrid conference experiment in May 2020. Due to the pandemic, in-person local nodes did not take place as planned, but the online conference, called Distribute, helped to usher in a period of videoconferencing and online anthropology.
So this year’s Virtual Otherwise conference was the third iteration of hybrid conferencing for the SCA—and marked a return for the local nodes, which were organized in York, Canada; Cairo, Egypt; and other cities in addition to Agria, Greece.
NS [04:25] We spoke with some of the organizers of the Agria node about the experience.
Penelope Papailias (P Paspailias) [04:30] I’m Penelope Papailias. I’m an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Thessaly. I also run the Laboratory of Social Anthropology there, and we’ve taken on the organization of the Greek node this year.
Penny Paspali (P Paspali) [04:47] My name is Penny Paspali, and I’m a PhD candidate in the University of Thessaly. I’m doing my ethnography about digital feminist activism against femicides in Greece. I’m also a researcher in the Greek research team of the European Observatory on Femicides.
P Papailias [05:07] We’re in Agria, Greece. It’s a small city outside of Volos. We’re sitting now on the terrace of this cultural center where we’ve been holding the node, looking at the sea.
P Paspali [05:22] I really liked that we had this international stage, in a really small—like, in a village in Greece. And at the same time, we have all these parallel things going on.
NS [05:41] In addition to streaming the Virtual Otherwise conference in a large, air-conditioned amphitheater of a local cultural center, the Agria node held its own events, including outdoor film screenings, collective podcast listening sessions, and conversations about public anthropology. Events at the Agria node were meant to be participatory, and also to highlight the work of anthropology students who were attending the conference from the University of Thessaly in Volos, the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Panteion University in Athens, and the University of the Aegean on the island of Lesvos.
P Paspali [06:14] It makes sense for students to be engaged in this kind of practices, like presenting something in a conference, in their early stages of being in the university. It gives them the chance to reflect on what they do.
P Papalias [06:35] And reflect on who they are. So, this is really a lot about sort of claiming voice for themselves. But also I think the power of multi-modal forms—things that might seem for an older generation something really new is very organic for them.
NS [06:52] One of these new forms is “desktop cinema”—a kind of filmmaking that presents the world as it’s viewed on the filmmaker’s computer desktop or smartphone screen. At the Virtual Otherwise Agria node, undergraduate students from the University of Thessaly presented anthropological desktop cinema works and podcasts they had made.
P Papalias [07:08] We did this one exercise that was about their personal names. So, one student just said that this is something that I’ve always thought about and I’ve always thought someday I want to say it, and now I’ve had the opportunity to say it.
[07:21] [sound of cars]
Dimitra Morosou (DM) [07:29] My first name is Dimitra, my last name is Morosou. People call me “Dimitra.” The servant of God, Dimitra, is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t choose this name, but I’m not. I’m not a servant, nor a slave. I don’t know if I believe in God. I never made this choice. I have the name of a goddess who had animals slaughtered for her sake. I have the name of a deity of fertility and motherhood. Through this name I am forced to give birth. My body must become the fertile ground so that mortals can sow their seed. I’m not a goddess, though. It’s funny to think that I get my name from my grandfather, a grandfather I didn’t meet. I have the name of a stranger, the name of a deceased person. And yet, my first name is, in every respect, a name doomed by patriarchy. Father, grandfather, fertility.
SJ [08:42] That was a clip of University of Thessaly undergraduate student Dimitra Morosou discussing the political significance of her name for the podcast “Apo ton Pempto”—“From the Fifth”—the podcast of the University of Thessaly’s department of social anthropology, produced from its fifth-floor headquarters. The name podcasts were created as part of the course, “Digital Narrative and Multimedia Productions in Anthropology.” You can find them on Spotify and other digital platforms in Greek, and they were presented at the Agria Virtual Otherwise node.
P Paspali [09:15] The final productions, the desktop cinema productions and the podcasts, [were] the outcome of writing and rewriting over the same topic. Because at first it was an abstract about their names, and then it was an essay, a short essay about their names in Greek. And then they had to translate it in English, which is also some sort of task, because you have this translation gap.
NS [09:41] In Agria, these student podcasts were played out loud in one of the conference common rooms for people to listen to collectively. With the creators on hand to listen along and discussions following each podcast, the idea was to think about how podcasts can be a collective experience, not only an individual one.
SJ [9:58] We’ll now hear a clip from Olga Parthenidou Fotou discussing the origins of her name for “Apo ton Pempto.”
[10:04] [water sounds]
Olga Parthenidou-Fotou (OPF) [10:08] What can I say about this? I find it euphonious, airy, small, and comprehensive. As meaning as they can give two vowels and two consonants together. “Olga” is east-centered, and comes from the Scandinavian “Helga,” which means “sacred.” To those who introduced me when I was young, they used to answer, “Oh, that’s a royal name.” And they were referring either to Queen Olga of Kiev, later Saint Olga, or to the Dutch woman of King George I of Greece. But at the university, I obtained a nickname which I now hear more than my name. Every student’s username in online university services is created by the first letter of the surname and the whole name, in Latin characters. So, in my first university year, “Polga” was created, which I am very happy to hear from my close people, and I think it will be representative of myself in my twenties. I am glad I like my name. And I love being called “Olga.”
[11:09] [the sound of a car driving]
P Papalias [11:22] In terms of being involved in creating the conference, I think it’s kind of an act of hospitality and academic conviviality that they participated in, which has a certain ethics and a politics, and I think that now they’ve realized that that is a part of what they’re learning, too.
SJ [11:40] One thing I thought was really cool about the node was getting the community more involved—so is there anything that either of you can say to that, getting people engaged in anthropology more broadly, as well as this conference?
P Papailias [11:56] We just actually had a discussion about public anthropology now, and if we need it or not. But the sort of idea of also coming to this place that’s a little outside of where the university is located, was sort of the idea of creating this welcoming space that would make—what we’re doing is engaging, and it can be fun to do anthropology and learn about it. So, we had a lot of events, besides listening to the podcasts, but also we had some workshops which were about, sort of—one was called, “Say it Otherwise,” theatrical games of improvising how you can talk about anthropological topics to different audiences, and... Anyway, other events, which we tried to make participatory.
NS [12:52] In a lot of ways the Agria node felt more like a festival than a conference. There was food and laughter, there was movement and visual art. There was also a “soundbooth,” where participants could record their thoughts in a studio setting reflecting on anything from their own names to their experiences at the conference generally:
Michael [13:10] Good afternoon, I’m the Cinnamon.
Daphne [13:12] And I’m the Nutmeg.
Michael [13:17] And today, during the improvisation, as part of the workshop “Say it Otherwise,” we came into conflict with a Cumin. And we got fed up because of some Anthropologists, who were even tired, and they were the Oregano.
Daphne [13:35] Essentially, it was a pretty nice experience, reflective about our own identities, but also about the identities of others, and how we can discover all these, through collaboration, and start redefining some meanings, which maybe we had for granted in our minds, seeing them from the rest of the people’s multiple and different perspectives.
NS [13:58] The things we heard from participants at our node gave the conference a particular character in Agria.
SJ [14:04] But of course, Agria was just one of the Virtual Otherwise nodes. In preparing this episode, we also heard from Emiko Stock, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The American University in Cairo and a node organizer in Cairo, Egypt. Conference events in Cairo included a film screening at Cimatheque, the alternative film center, and a conference panel screening and conversation at CILAS, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Emiko Stock (ES) [14:30] Those two nodes wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Cimatheque and Siham Shaheen, communications officer and project coordinator, and CILAS and Farah Halaba, resident fellow. It was also supported by a grant from the Humanities and Social Sciences School at AUC, the American University in Cairo.
SJ [14:53] Professor Stock stressed that at both locations, the audience was made up of students and professors engaging with each other outside of the university environment and its formal affiliations—oriented directly towards questions of knowledge and curiosity.
ES [15:08] We are getting to rethink the conferencing model, which usually begins and ends with the conference itself—while here, we have communities of thinking that are not only pre-existing the event, but also that will outlast the event. The event is just an excuse for the community to think about something today that might be very different from what they were thinking yesterday, from what they might be thinking tomorrow—but is just really a way to get together and pursue this quest of knowledge and curiosity together.
And what I think is particularly relevant to us anthropologists here is that it enables different communities around the world—or different communities in the same city but across a city, in different fields—to tune into the same event, the same conference but have very different interpretations of the same screenings, the same panels, the same films, and therefore different conversations.
NS [16:09] This really brings home one of the most important features of virtual conferencing: that it allows more people, around the world, to engage in the production of anthropological knowledge without having to fly halfway across the world and stay in a hotel to do it. In a discipline which has a long history of excluding voices, and where Western institutions continue to dominate the conferencing landscape, it feels as if virtual conferencing might be more important than ever as a tool to democratize academic knowledge production. But as was the case at the Agria node, virtual conferencing doesn’t mean abandoning in-person activities. It might actually be a path towards a much more expansive and inclusive model for how we think about in-person conferencing.
P Papailias [16:48] I think it really needs to become a more rhizomatic conference, with the nodes somehow becoming more central rather than the sort of central organization. So I think the nodes have to become more central in the planning, and really the emphasis on the combination of physical presence and the stream. The idea of the conference I think is still really relevant in terms of issues of access and issues of hybridity, which I do think is the future of conferences—so that's my thoughts.
SJ [17:28] In producing this episode, one throughline among everyone we spoke with was an appreciation for how conferencing uses anthropology to connect people. Virtual and hybrid conferences hold the promise of highlighting multiple localities at once, expanding on the connections between them, and bringing in people who might otherwise be excluded from in-person-only events. With that in mind, we’ll see you at the SCA’s next biennial meeting, in 2024—whether on a screen or in a room.
[17:57] [water sounds]
NS [18:08] Thanks for listening to AnthroPod, the podcast of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. This episode was produced by myself, Nick Smith, along with Sharon Jacobs, with support from our assistant producers Dimitra Morosou, Ilias Chaliamalias, and Olga Parthenidou Fotou. For show notes, please search for AnthroPod on www.culanth.org—that’s c-u-l-a-n-t-h-dot-org.
SJ [18:34] If you enjoyed today’s episode please subscribe to the show. We’ve just added a whole host of Contributing Editors who are hard at work on AnthroPod’s next season.
[18:42] [continuing water sounds; fade out]
[18:56] [sounds of students chatting in Greek]