This is the third episode in the What Does Anthropology Sound Like series. In it Dr. Cassandra Hartblay, Dr. Greg Pierotti, and Dr. Cristiana Giordano join contributing editor and producer, Dr. Cory-Alice André-Johnson, to discuss performance. As the primary focus of the series is to showcase the various forms anthropology takes, in addition to answering a few questions about style and method, both guest also share examples of the ethnographic performances they've written and produced.
Dr. Hartblay discusses her play I WAS NEVER ALONE OR OPORNIKI and shares a scene performed by Samuel Valdez. Drs. Pierotti and Cristiana discuss their collaboration on Un-stories and “Affect Theater” and share various moments from a performance of Un-Stories.
Cassandra Hartblay is Assistant Professor in the Graduate Department of Anthropology and the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she also heads up the new Centre for Global Disability Studies. Her scholarship has appeared in outlets including American Ethnologist, South Atlantic Quarterly, and the Fieldsights series on Ethnography and Design on this website. More about her ethnographic theatre project, I WAS NEVER ALONE OR OPORNIKI, is available at https://iwasneveralone.org, and the book (University of Toronto Press 2020) via major booksellers.
Samuel Valdez graduated from San Diego State University in 1991 with a B.A. degree in Theater Arts. He is an actor, playwright, director, and producer who has worked with several groups around San Diego, such as Sledgehammer Theater, Chronos Theater, Los Amigos del Rep., and currently his own performing arts bi-national company CARPA San Diego. He has served on the National Performance Network (NPN) board, is currently on the Alternate Roots Executive Community, and National Disability Theatre board. In 2016, he received the Ashley Walker Social Justice Award by the City of San Diego for his community theater work.
Cristiana Giordano is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book, Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy (University of California Press, 2014), won the Victor Turner Book Prize for ethnographic writing (2016), and the Boyer Prize in Psychoanalytic Anthropology (2017). Her current research investigates new ways of rendering ethnographic material into artistic forms. She has been collaborating with playwright and director Greg Pierotti on a new methodology at the intersection of the social sciences and performance. They have created Unstories, a 50-minute performance around the current “refugee crisis” in Europe, and Unstories II (roaming), a 45-minute performance which furthers the reflection about movement and borders.
Greg Pierotti is an Assistant Professor of devising and dramaturgy at the University of Arizona’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. He is also a playwright, theater director, and actor. He co-authored the plays The Laramie Project, Laramie: 10 Years Later, The People’s Temple, and Un-stories. His honors as a writer/director include an Emmy nomination, NY Drama Desk nomination, a Humanitas Prize, and the Bay Area’s Will Glickman Award for Best New Play. In 2013, he was nominated for an Alpert Award for outstanding contribution to the theater. Since 2015, he has conducted research on structural racism and police violence. Also since 2015, with anthropologist Cristiana Giordano, he has developed a method for research, writing, and theatrical devising called “Affect Theater.” Together they have authored articles playing at the intersection of anthropology and theater, which have been published on a variety of platforms for The Society for Cultural Anthropology. Last February, their journal article Getting Caught: A Collaboration On- and Offstage Between Theater and Anthropology, was published by The Drama Review. They teach workshops in “Affect Theater” internationally.
Videos of Performances
This episode was produced by Cory-Alice André-Johnson. Special thanks to Dr. Cassandra Hartblay, Dr. Greg Pierotti, and Dr. Cristiana Giordana, as well as Samuel Valdez and all of the collaborators on Un-Stories, for sharing their work. Deep gratitude and appreciation to Shelmith Wanjiru, the Associate Producer for this episode.
Intro and outro: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.
Logo designed by Janita van Dyk.
[All the Colors in the World, Podington Bear] [00:00]
Cory-Alice André-Johnson [00:13] Hello, and welcome to AnthroPod. I'm your host Cory-Alice André-Johnson. Today, we'll be discussing performance with Cassandra Hartblay, Cristiana Giordano, and Greg Pierotti. This is the third installment of the series “What Does Anthropology Sound Like,” in which I asked the same three questions of anthropologists using a variety of different mediums so that we can think together about the relationship between content and form. If you hadn't had a chance already, I encourage you to go back and listen to the episodes about activism and poetry. At the end of each interview, we will listen to extracts from performances of I WAS NEVER ALONE OR OPORNIKI and from Un-stories. Let's kick things off with Cassandra Hartblay an Assistant Professor in the graduate Department of Anthropology and the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she also heads up the new Center for Global Disability Studies. Her scholarship has appeared in outlets including American Ethnologist, South Atlantic Quarterly, and the Fieldsights series on ethnography and design on the Cultural Anthropology website. More about her ethnographic Theater Project, I WAS NEVER ALONE OR OPORNIKI is available at iwasneveralone.org, and the book, published through University of Toronto Press in 2020, is available through all major booksellers. Welcome Dr. Hartblay. It's a pleasure to speak with you today.
Cassandra Hartblay [01:35] Thanks so much for having me. I'm really glad to be here.
CA [01:39] I'm really excited to speak with you today. And I'm just gonna jump right into the first question, which is: Why did you choose to make this piece and in this way?
CH [01:48] That's a great question. So I WAS NEVER ALONE OR OPORNIKI is an ethnographic play or a documentary play, I use either phrase. And it is both a play script and a longer book project that includes an accompanying essay. Today we're talking about the script and the production of the play itself. I described that in part in the essay. In the book, I also argue that disability is not only something that is pushed to the edges of social networks, or that causes social networks to fall apart, but is also actually something that binds together social networks and increases human connection through vulnerability. So the work itself is comprised of basically six portraits or themes that are derived from nearly verbatim interviews with interlocutors with disabilities that I've edited down. And taken together, they form a single narrative arc that each one is portrait of a person. And the play itself captures this moment in time in 2012-2013, when I was doing fieldwork in one Russian city where the play is based. I was always interested in thinking through how sort of creative works or imaginative or artistic works were part and parcel of the ethnographic process for a lot of people, including myself, and I wanted to figure out how to work that into my own ethnographic research and output. And as a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, in North Carolina, I was part of a performance ethnography group where there were several training seminars, and it was actually in the Communication Department because this concept of performance ethnography in the US has been developed in performance studies under the umbrella of communication in the critical sense. So in some ways, it came out of the Victor Turner tradition, but then has, since the 1980s, really taken on a life of its own and Communication departments, and has only rarely been brought back to Anthropology as a discipline. [3:51] So I trained in that method. And then when I went to do my fieldwork was thinking through how I might bring some of these ways of thinking with and through performance into my fieldwork with people with disabilities. And one of the historical concerns of disability studies is to try to understand disability on its own terms and to return the kind of expertise of people with disabilities to the center of the story because the medicalizing gaze and the pitying gaze are so successful in denying the expertise of people with disabilities and putting their own observations and ideas at a lower level than that of so called professionalized experts, like physicians, teachers, or therapists. So while one component of my ethnographic project has to do with the more theoretical space of what is disability as a category, and what does it do in the world, another really important element of the project for me was to really create some aspect of this work where the point of view of my interlocutors or at least some of my interlocutors really took center stage.
CA [04:56] Thank you. So heading straight into the second question, can you please describe a stylistic choice that you made and why?
CH [05:05] Sure. So once I had kind of come up with this idea of creating a play script, based on my research participants lives, I quickly found out upon return from the field and my sort of first attempts that you can't actually tell if a play works as a play until it's performed. And so you know, that's very obvious to all the playwrights out there and to anyone who does theater, but I think to many anthropologists who tend to read our works silently back to ourselves, the amount of asking other people to read my work out loud that I did in the process of developing this work was really interesting and essential to the process. So there were several rounds of kind of workshop table readings, and informal asking a friend to read something out loud, asking an actor to do an offhand performance of something. But when it came time to actually do a staged reading with an audience, there was a really important stylistic choice that had to be made about how to portray people with disabilities on stage. And because there's an array of different kinds of disabilities in the play, including mobility impairments, speech impairments, sort of the kind of illnesses that change the way your body works, the question of how to represent those disabilities on stage was something that was very much in the public ethos. There's been a lot of discussion about actors with disabilities, and actors without disabilities playing people with disabilities on TV, in film, and then also in theater. So one thing that was really important to me was that, in casting even a very sort of process oriented staged reading, it was very important to have actors with disabilities in the cast. And that meant not necessarily casting people based on their disability type, so that I'm not saying that someone with cerebral palsy had to play the character with cerebral palsy, or the person with a speech impairment had to play a person with a speech impairment, but rather, in creating roles for people with disabilities as main characters in the play to actually cast those people.
[7:14] And then when it came to the kind of audioscape of the play, the space where that's really been the most obvious and interesting is in terms of one monologue in the play, the second portrait, which is a man with a speech impairment. So obviously, his original interviews were recorded in Russian because that's where I did my fieldwork, and the primary language is Russian and most of my interlocutors speak very little English, if any, at all. So I always communicated with them in Russian. And this is someone who speaks very, very slowly in real life. And one of the things that we had to negotiate with the director that I worked with for stage readings, and then also with the actors that we cast at various readings, was how slow is too slow for a stage performance. And in some senses, there's a really evocative and interesting performative moment that happens when someone presents speech in a way that is slowed down, has extra pauses or pauses in unexpected places, when there are silences or the kinds of noises that are out of the ordinary, in a way this casts light on the very performative nature of speech itself because it kind of takes us out of our throne state of listening to human speech and in the act of listening self becomes more foregrounded. But for actors, it also meant having to make some really hard choices about how to portray someone else whom, for English-speaking actors, they had never heard this person speak, and they wanted to create a performance that did justice to the kind of process and life experience.
So I also didn't actually record this person when I did interviews with them because, the interlocutor, he was very aware of his own voice and how different it is. [9:15] And he felt self conscious of the idea of an audio recording being out there in the world that he might lose control of. So rather than audio recorder interviews, as I did with most of my interlocutors, I hand transcribed what he said to me. And this was possible partially because he does speak very slowly. Of course, it meant that my Russian grammar as a non-native speaker wasn't always perfect. And so I had to make a lot of corrections when I went back and transcribed the interview notes from my handwritten notebook to computer. But of course, my interlocutor was able to check things over, and sometimes he would send me blocks of text that he had typed in advance rather than speak it to me in person. And it created some really interesting moments in performances because the audiences at first seem really anxious because the speech is so slow. The first reaction is sort of, “Oh no, is this entire section of the play going to be like this? I don't think I can take it.” But then similar to the way that a contemporary English speaker after the first two and a half minutes of a Shakespeare play kind of settles in and starts just breathing into the rhythm of that timbre of speech, similarly, the audiences kind of eventually relax into the temporal rhythm of this storytelling, and then the temporality of the speech that the actor and director settle on.
And I'll say one more thing about that, which is that one of the most interesting moments came about when the actor who we cast for staged workshop of the play in San Diego, Sam Valdez, played this role of Vakas. He had to make a particularly interesting choice because he himself has a very mild speech impairment. He has cerebral palsy, so the kind of sound of his voice is just a bit, but not very, different from what we think of as unaffected human speech. So he had to decide how much to invent a speech impairment versus how much to kind of rely on his own speech impairment, but slow down his voice, or his speech rather, in the pauses between words. So that created some really interesting conversations in the rehearsal studio, and then also in the talkback sessions from the play when he kind of discussed those artistic decisions with the audience.
CA [11:38] So the last question is: What about anthropology is performance? And what about performance is anthropological?
CH [11:46] Yeah, this is a great question. And it's one that I really thought a lot about, as I was writing the accompanying essay for the book that I'm working on with the play script in it, and what I sort of started to think about came partially from the disability politics of the work itself. But it also comes from some of the insights of people like Victor Turner, and Richard Schechner, who, you know, 30 or 40 years ago, were talking about anthropology and performance. So what I came to was this sort of realization that anthropology and performance are both this kind of special design for a circumscribed event and type of human relations, right. On the most basic level, when we embark on ethnography, we are setting aside the normal roles for human interaction, placement in space, movement, and relation and vulnerability. And the same is true for theater and the sense that when you embark on a performance when you ask an audience to sit, and watch, and listen, there's a very different kind of set of social rules for interaction. And both ethnography and theater do this in the hope that by suspending the normative rules, there might be some kind of coming together or some kind of togetherness or being together that could potentially create kind of social change or some kind of difference in the world. There's an obvious moral claim there, right, where there's a hope that something good might come from the work we do as ethnographers or the work that we do theatrically.
I think one place where performance has really surged ahead of ethnography in terms of theorizing is that contemporary performers really think about process as being the thing itself, whereas I'm not sure that we are as comfortable talking about the processes of ethnography as being the work itself. [13:51] I mean, certainly when we define what is ethnography, we say there is the output of ethnographic research, and then there's the ethnographic research itself. But I think that there's a way that performers talk about the kinds of relational bonds and interdependencies that emerge in being together and time that happens in theater that is really interesting and important, and kind of dovetails with the Fabian ideas about being together in time with interlocutors. So that was something that I kind of discovered in the writing of this essay that I hadn't really anticipated. And, and it really echoes through the way that this work, doing a play based on my ethnographic research, has continued to bring up new kinds of insights into the project to foment new kinds of relationships with my ethnographic research participants as they've become collaborators on the play or readers of the play script, contributors to sort of the soundscape of the performances of the play as musicians. And then also the kinds of insights into how to explain what was going on in my fieldsite in Russia, in 2012, to North American audiences is something that the rehearsal process, interacting with actors and directors who've never been to Russia... And who kept saying to me, “Okay, like, I know this is a play about disability, but I have a disability here, and it sounds a lot like there. What about what she's saying is Russian? What makes this particularly Russian?” Or recognizing the kinds of stereotypical representations of Russia that we see all the time on TV, from the kind of gray and green limited color palette to the kind of winter landscape that never turns into summer that are just simply not quite true, but are so pervasive in Hollywood depictions and television depictions of Russia that I had to be very explicit in the script to say, “Please don't represent things in this way.” [16:01] So all of that is to say that the rehearsal space and the performance space became a secondary fieldsite that continued to inform how I did the kind of interpretive work as I write, you know, more theoretical and traditional academic work about ethnographic research. And in that sense, the kind of interdependencies and relationships that emerged from that mean that it's a kind of communal interpretive process that is quite different than the kind of traditional idea of the ethnographer interpreting and establishing authority alone.
[All the Colors in the World, Podington Bear] [16:38]
CA [17:00] We will now hear a scene from I Was Never Alone, performed by actor Samuel Valdez during a live performance of a staged workshop at UC San Diego in 2016. This audio was pulled from a research video recording of the performance, meaning that the audio wasn't intended to be production quality. You can view it with visuals on the AnthroPod website. This is the second scene of the play following the opening scene, which has a chatty fast talking and people pleasing ambience. The slow pace of this scene thus marks a shift in the rhythm of the play. We open to the character Vakas describing his daily life to the audience on a stage set representing a bedroom in a Soviet era apartment building
Samuel Valdez (as Vakas) [17:46] So you heard that I write poems?
[18:00] The fourteenth was the concert.
[18:05] That was really unusual, since I went out.
[18:14] Yeah, but this outing makes me feel something.
[18:27] But today I asked -
[18:32] it was beautiful.
[18:39] Can we go outside?
[18:45] He, papa, didn't want to
[18:53] But that's what I live for,
[19:00] seeing people, art.
[19:07] Getting to know someone makes me feel good.
[19:18] When I was going to the store,
[19:25] so, I used to talk with the salesgirl there,
[19:33] and I liked that.
[19:38] So when I got out, and go outside of the house,
[19:50] so to speak, I would always show up at the store
[20:02] found this really interesting salesgirl.
[20:12] It was in The Capitol shopping center,
[20:17] it has music CDs.
[20:24] I would go there often,
[20:28] a bunch of Sundays,
[20:32] and it was always the same salesgirl, and I liked her.
[20:43] One time when I saw her,
[20:48] I asked for her to show me some things in the store,
[20:58] and I said that I liked her,
[21:09] but she was just at work,
[21:12] she looked at me and left.
[21:20] I just wanted to show her my book — the first one,
[21:28] but it was a different sales girl - a different person.
[21:37] I asked, "Where is she?" -
[21:41] no one could tell me.
[21:45] I didn't even know her name.
[21:49] I couldn't even leave the book for her.
[21:58] And the next Sunday I went back,
[22:03] and there standing there,
[22:09] was a different sales girl.
[22:15] I asked,
[22:19] "Where is she?"
[22:21] She said, "What's her name?"
[22:31] Then, "I don't know who you mean."
[22:37] And then the next Sunday
[22:41] a different salesgirl.
[22:46] I just wanted to show her my book, and I complimented her -
[22:54] these sorts of emotions.
[22:57] I went every Sunday,
[23:07] and asked a question,
[23:10] just to get to talk with someone,
[23:18] but obviously I shouldn't have,
[23:24] because then she disappeared.
[23:31] And I wrote this poem -
[23:33] it’s in my first book
[23:36] [acoustic guitar music] The Deity of my Love.
[23:55] [acoustic guitar music] I named a deity in my dreams for you.
[23:59] [acoustic guitar music] And it's true: that's what you've become to me!
[24:07] [acoustic guitar music] And this world suddenly seems small.
[24:14] [acoustic guitar music] And these stars - my star has fallen.
[24:23] [acoustic guitar music] And with her fall.
[24:27] [acoustic guitar music] I offered my desire to the summer:
[24:34] [acoustic guitar music] To love, to be feverishly aflame,
[24:40] [acoustic guitar music] by this love, kept warm.
[24:48] [acoustic guitar music] I just wish that at sunset,
[24:55] [acoustic guitar music] my destiny would come to me, washed out by rain;
[25:07] [acoustic guitar music] And I would say, “Enough from me! Become my goddess in waking life!”
[25:39] But that's not why they don't let me go out,
[25:52] So they let me go out on the street,
[25:58] when I started going to the group.
[26:04] I was not in very good shape three or four years ago.
[26:15] I met this new volunteer,
[26:24] this one was Olga -
[26:26] I forgot her last name,
[26:34] it was nice talking to her,
[26:39] and I asked her to take me outside in the yard,
[26:48] and there - the asphalt,
[26:53] and it got windy.
[26:57] So there was a pavement with a curb at the edge,
[27:09] and for some reason I thought I’ll step down,
[27:14] and because of the ledge,
[27:21] I just fell right over.
[27:36] And my face,
[27:39] I broke a tooth on the pavement.
[27:46] She just stepped away,
[27:50] she was doing something with the kids, up ahead,
[27:55] and so I come up with this gorgeous mess with blood,
[28:11] without teeth, [laughing]
[28:16] and she was losing it. [laughing]
[28:27] She was losing it.
[28:37] And then after that - that tooth,
[28:47] mama knew someone who could fix it.
[28:56] And then another time,
[28:57] inside the school,
[29:03] on the pipe - I tripped over the linoleum,
[29:10] and broke it up to the nerve.
[29:15] so there, there it is.
[29:23] After that I started staying at home,
[29:28] and I told them so many times but they -
[29:37] “You fall, your teeth! your head!
[29:43] “and we'll be sitting by your hospital bed
[29:49] “like after the accident.
[29:54] “You can only go to places in cars,
[29:58] and if you've called before.”
[30:10] So that's what the fourteenth was,
[30:18] I'm only allowed to go out for things like that.
Narrator [30:25] Vakas spins in his chair towards the window, and looks out for a time.
Vakas [30:52] You know the game “Heaven”?
[30:58] I've played it lots of times.
[31:08] They even have a contest that I entered there in the game,
[31:20] I entered a contest.
[31:31] That “Miss Heaven”, the sweetest girl -
[31:39] it was even on the radio,
[31:44] I entered a question on the site,
[31:50] and the announcer read it.
[31:54] It was my question about poems,
[32:03] and she read it while I was listening.
[32:13] And I found her page on VK,
[32:19] and showed her my poems,
[32:29] and she wrote back.
[32:34] She said that she liked my poems,
[32:41] she said, “There's something of love in poems.”
[32:59] Sometimes I get really tired and rest awhile,
[33:05] about ten minutes or so I don't do anything -
[33:08] [acoustic guitar music] lying down with eyes closed.
[33:19] [acoustic guitar music] Really, it's to take a break from the computer.
[33:33] [acoustic guitar music] I forget about time,
[33:35] [acoustic guitar music] and sometimes I forget about food.
[33:44] [acoustic guitar music] In here
[33:44] [acoustic guitar music] I can do whatever I want.
[All the Colors in the World, Podington Bear] [33:52]
CA [34:12] Next, we'll be hearing from Cristiana Giordano and Greg Pierotti, a collaborative team. Dr. Giordano is Associate Professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Her book, Migrants and Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy, published with the University of California Press in 2014, won the Victor Turner Book Prize for ethnographic writing in 2016 and the Boyer Prize in Psychoanalytical Anthropology in 2017. Her current research investigates new ways of rendering ethnographic material into artistic forms. She has been collaborating with playwright and director Greg Pierotti on a new methodology at the intersection of the social sciences and performance. Together, they have created Un-stories, a 50 minute performance around the current “refugee crisis” in Europe and Un-stories II (roaming), a 45 minute performance which furthers the reflections about movement and borders. Greg Pierotti is an Assistant Professor of devising and dramaturgy at the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film, and Television. He is also a playwright, theater director, and actor. He co-authored the plays The Laramie Project, Laramie: 10 Years Later, The People's Temple, and Un-stories. His honors as a writer/director include an Emmy nomination, New York Drama Desk nomination, a Humanitas Prize, and the Bay Area's Will Glickman Award for Best New Play. In 2013, he was nominated for an Alpert Award for outstanding contribution to the theater. Since 2015, he has conducted research on structural racism and police violence. Also since 2015, with anthropologist Cristiana Giordano, he has developed a method for research writing and theatrical devising called “Affect Theater.” Together, they have authored articles playing at the intersection of anthropology and theater, which have been published on a variety of platforms for The Society for Cultural Anthropology. Their journal article, Getting Caught: A Collaboration On- and Offstage Between Theatre and Anthropology, was published by the Drama Review. They teach workshops and “Affect Theater” internationally.
Cristiana Giordano [36:22] Thank you for having us, Cory.
Greg Pierotti [36:24] It's great to be here. I'm really excited.
CA [36:26] Thank you both. It's exciting to be having this conversation with the both of you. I'm going to go ahead and get started with our first question, which is, why did you choose to do this piece together. And in this way?
GP [36:39] Christina had reached out to me because I came to UC Davis, and she had seen my work earlier and liked it. And we started to create a collaboration, and we spent a good bit of time developing Affect Theatre before getting into Un-stories and that particular material. We had worked with a piece of mine, initially, and then the following year, the empirical material that we had was Cristiana's, and it was very strong, and felt really like an exciting pool of research to pull from to create work. So, it just came from where we were with the empirical material that we had, and where we were with the practice we were developing.
CG [37:17] You know, we use the ethnographic material from my work in Italy on questions of borders and migration. We had some funding from UC Davis, and I had new ethnographic material from work in the south of Italy at ports of entry. We started working on this material in 2016, up to now basically, and so those were also years when, in the media, we started hearing a lot about the refugee crisis. So it was also kind of the topic. So that's why on this piece, and Un-stories is a title that Greg came up with because the idea was that through the workshops and the lab, the theater labs, we wanted to approach the ethnographic material in a way that would allow us to get to unofficial stories, not the official stories that are usually told about migration and borders, but to that which kind of escapes the dominant narratives. And so we thought that those moments would be not stories, but un-stories in a way—not linear, not logical as the narratives and stories that we collect in institutional study, for example.
GP [38:43] Like, one of the things that we were considering is material that exceeds sort of the state categories for people. So there's actually a section in the performance piece called “Crocs Categories,” which is a moment about all the different ways that the body in motion is categorized for the state to be able to offer care, but also control that body. And so we were really interested in looking at the material that you meet in the field that exceeds, or you know, goes beyond those categories. And so, again, because we're interested in affect, as much as we're interested in narrative, that's another way in which we count Un-stories to be a usable title, because we're talking about not just the stories of these people, but also the affective reality that you encounter in the field of research. We're trying to find a practice or a mechanism or, or a way of working with our empirical material that enabled us to get kind of drawn into the field of research as writers in the same way we were when we were researching in the field.
CG [39:52] Yeah, we were thinking with Jeanne Favret-Saada and her idea of getting caught, of how when we do fieldwork, it's not so much about understanding what is going on around us, but it's more about getting caught in what is happening around us, which means that you know, things and relations in the field, position us, despite of our self and despite our will to be certain kinds of subjects. So we get positioned by others, we get positioned by what is happening around us. And so that's one thing that she says about fieldwork, the purpose is not to get uncaught from the experience of fieldwork but to get caught again, while we write. And so Greg and I have been wondering what that means to get caught again when you write. And the workshop space and theater experimentation that we've been doing seems to provide that base of getting caught again in the empirical material because what we do during the workshops. We share transcripts of interviews, field notes, images, objects, newspapers article, and then the company create relationship with this material that is made of language through other elements of the stage, like lights, sound, props, other bodies, the space itself of the workshop. And so it seems to us that working this way with the empirical material is a way of getting caught in it, again, physically, materially, like literally, but also analytically.
GP [41:39] And I think one of the other great things that Cristiana is pointing to is so Favret-Saada is an incredible inspiration to us in terms of her frame of getting caught or re-caught, and not catching the material that you gathered in a theoretical frame and kind of making it fit, but rather writing from that place of being caught. And what happens when we share material with each other, so we make up little episodes, and we you know, that include like sound costumes, props, as well as texts and empirical material, and we share it and then there's a process of discussing what it means for the maker of the... the maker of the piece doesn't actually get to describe what they were going for. The audience simply responds and says, “This is what it means.” And so obviously, for everyone, it means something a little bit different. And sometimes, it can mean something remarkably different. And so it's a way of wading into those waters of being caught or having that affective experience in the field rather than understanding. The actual confusion or lack of agreement or lack of understanding is the generative space where we can think a new about our research. And it's kind of one of the most exciting places in the work because you have to navigate all those distinctions and what people are understanding from the moment that was shared, and then eventually, the makers of the episode themselves will weigh in and get into the discussion. But that part where your work gets misunderstood, like or at least your intention gets misunderstood, is where a lot of the great analysis comes up.
CA [43:25] So my next question is, can you please describe a stylistic choice you made, and why?
GP [43:34] I think one of the things that's great about Un-stories, or that I really love about Un-stories is that it doesn't have a lot of unifying aesthetic. It has things in it that you can sort of like track and follow, but the style of the piece is disjointed in that kind of disjointed quality where you know, one episode that runs in a particular way, you know, that's very abstract and strange could be followed by another scene from the play that reads like a scene. But rather than stylistic, I would say just formal choices that we made, I think one of the most useful ones we could talk about is the fishbowl that we use in the piece. So this came from a moment that was created by Ante Ursić. So he did this brilliant piece where he read some material off a page, you know, a stack of papers that represented a pile of empirical material, and he read about what it's like crossing borders for the body of the person who's immigrating, or the body and movement. And after he read it, he had placed a fishbowl in front of him, and he folded the paper into a paper boat, and he placed the paper boat on the surface of the water in the fishbowl. And it was a very powerful moment for everybody who was watching. There were some discrepancies in terms of what it all meant, but I think one of the things that we really all resonated with is the impossible gap between the research that we might gather in the field and the actual experience of a body in motion or in movement in these dangerous situations. It was just this eloquent dramatization of that. And so we knew we wanted to use that moment or some part of that moment in the actual piece. And what developed was that we decided at certain points whenever anyone was dealing directly with empirical material on the page, that they're reading from the page, they would do the same thing, they would fold the paper into a paper boat and place it in another fishbowl. [45:41] So we lined the stage with 10 fish bowls. And it became a non-narrative form that the audience could actually follow. You know, after they'd seen about the third boat go into the third fishbowl, they could say, Aha, this is something it's not narrative, but it's something that I can expect to fulfill itself throughout the course of the piece. So they were able to anchor on to something that moved through time that they could follow but that was outside the realm of story.
CG [46:11] We received this feedback from some audience members that the performance felt like entering into a dream because it's kind of a dreamscape in the sense that it's composed of all these disjointed episodes or theatrical moments that are kept together in some ways but not in linear or smooth transitions. Like in a way there is this style that emerged at the dreamscape, which was not intended, but it kind of resulted in the workshop space. But there's something very important that I've learned from working with Greg of how in this work, there are forms that emerge, like the fishbowl and the paper boat, that later can become containers for text from the empirical materials. So for example, one form that emerged in our work are the Crocs, these plastic shoes. Fake Crocs are given to people who disembark at ports of entry. So refugees, migrants, foreigners are rescued at sea. They're brought to the nearest port. When they're disembarked, there are different humanitarian organizations welcoming people, and one of the first things that they do, they ask people to take off their old shoes, and they're given a pair of fake Crocs. And so we started using the Crocs as something that resonates with the state ways of welcoming and also managing the bodies of migrants. And so in our workshop, we started pairing Crocs, empty Crocs, or people wearing crocs with text that came from immigration laws or moments where people get identified at the immigration office. [48:10] So the Crocs became almost like a material synonym of a state category. So every time people put a pair of Crocs on they took on also the persona that is attached, to say, the category of the refugee or the category of the victims of human trafficking, or the asylum seeker, or the unaccompanied foreign minor. And every time they step out of Crocs, the kind of stories and narratives that the actors would engage had nothing to do with state categories. And so the Crocs became another form that could be used to layer texts that had to do with the official language of the state and how the state talks about foreign others and migrants through categories.
GP [48:59] Yeah, and I'll just add about the Crocs. One of the things that Cristiana has expressed to me that's exciting to her about this work is that in anthropology, there's a lot of emphasis on the individual research. The individuals research is not something that you necessarily share, and here the research is out on the table, the empirical material is there, as are all of these objects and lights and theatrical opportunities. And so when you ask collaborators who haven't been in the field, or aren't necessarily coming from where you're coming from when you think about Crocs as the primary researcher, which Cristiana is, you get a whole array of different ways of understanding that material. And now because she's been in the field and knows the experience that we don't know, she may go, “Well, that doesn't ring true to me,” or “that doesn't help me,” but also things that haven't necessarily occurred to us as researchers get brought into this space by these other people because they don't know what they're supposed to know. So the Crocs is a great example. So a bunch of people made a bunch of moments or episodes about Crocs or using Crocs as one of the primary elements. And it just allows your non-understanding or understanding of your own research to broaden significantly, and it's pretty exciting.
CA [50:15] Thank you. And my last question is, what about anthropology is performance? And what about performance is anthropological?
CG [50:24] So a lot of people in anthropology are experimenting with poetry, with the fiction writing, with drawings, with performance, as well. And I think the desire is to blur the distinction between reality and fiction, and in fact, to valorize, how fiction can teach us about the real. So I think there's a lot of performative potential in the kind of empirical material that we gather, because performance provides us a genre, a form that allows us to talk about things in a way that, through psychoanalysis, I would say it's oblique, it's not literal. So you can listen to language in its evocative form in what it gestured towards, rather than what it says literally. And I think this performative potential is present in any kind of internal material we work with, whether we are anthropologist or journalist or a historian. So that is how I am thinking about performance in anthropology.
GP [51:33] For me what's exciting, and what's also I feel anthropological, and what I'm learning so much to allow in my work, because of working with Cristiana, is that you can actually dramatize the problem of truth claims, right? That you can actually use the language of the stage to point back to the fact that these are really just our perspectives. And that it's a very complicated thing to make a claim that you are telling the truth about a situation. You know, all we have is our own lens. And so again I'll just refer back to Ante's moment with the paper boat. I think that's another thing that was very meaningful to me about that moment was you present a piece of material, and it's just understood as true, but then by folding the boat and actually placing it in silence on this kind of beautiful surface of colored water with this angled light source, you can call attention to the fact that it's really just a person's research. It's not the life. It's not the life of the person who made a crossing that never got all the way across. And so for me, that's the real power of the theatrical form and what it can do for anthropology, but also, you know, what anthropology does for theater similarly, is to enable it if it wants to, to be more precise about world situations and particular issues. There's a way in which a lot of theater is really just about either entertainment, or storytelling, or storytelling in the service of creating some kind of cathartic experience because we identify with a character, etc. But we can also make work that enables thinking,
CG [53:26] This is something we haven't developed, Greg and I, but something that we want to is the question of the documentary because you know, when you talk about anthropology and then theater of the real, one association that people make is “Oh, this is kind of a documentary performance, documentary kind of theater,” and it is really not. We're not interested in documenting as in giving you a window onto reality. It's more a way of resonating with certain realities in a more evocative way. That's why the dreamscape is more what comes out of this work. And so does the dream document, while the dream is a response to the world and also to other things that are going on in our psyches and bodies. And so it's, again, it's not a literal documentation. It's an evocative documentation of something that happens. And so is that less true? No. It's just another form of truth.
[All the Colors in the World, Podington Bear] [54:30]
CA [54:49] We will now hear moments from Un-stories performed live at the University of California, Davis, Della Davidson Studio in 2018 by Ugo Edu, Julian Gatto, Regina Gutiérrez, Sarah Hart, Alvaro Rodriguez, Maria Massolo, Carolina Novella Centellas, Mercedes Villalba, Ante Ursić, Greg Pierotti, and Cristiana Giordano. This audio is also pulled from a video recording of the performance by Jorge Nunez that you can view with visuals on the AnthroPod website. These moments illustrate the dreamlike aspects of Un-stories, the use of paper boats, and the collaboration between anthropology and performance. Because Un-stories is as much visual as an auditory, you will also find additional video materials on the AnthroPod website highlighting the use of Crocs described in the interview.
Julian Gatto (as Antonino) [55:41] This is Antonino Audino: December 26, 1988. Late afternoon we set sail from the Syracuse port: regular service, no signal, no warning. The sea was calm and flat. We came across some solitary fishing boats and thoroughly checked them. Once we finished the routine control, the captain suggested we broaden our route.
[Sonar Sound Cue begins as Ante finds his place and Regina comes out from under the ladder to perform a solo] [56:13]
The sun had already set, and our radar [sonar] signaled an echo. What we call a target in technical terms. [sonar] There was a boat 27 miles from the coastline sailing towards Malta. We reached it. It was a simple fishing boat, the Valentina. We came up beside the fishing boat. Everything was by the book.
Greg Pierotti (as Captain) [56:42] Coast Guard. We have to board. Who is the captain of this fishing boat?
Antonino [56:47] The fisherman replied:
Ugo Edu (as Fisherman) [56:49] The captain is in his cabin...He doesn’t feel very well....
Captain [56:52] What happened?
Fisherman [56:54] It’s not a big deal! When we left from Portopalo, he already felt unwell...now we are going back!
Captain [57:00] Anything to declare?
Fisherman [57:02] There’s nothing in the hold... nothing worth declaring!
Antonino [57:04] We tried to light up the fishing boat as much as we could with our torches. [Greg moves his light across Ugo's space] Our attention fell on the fishing nets: they were perfectly dry. That was suspicious. That was suspicious and the cap... oh sorry. The captain said to me:
Captain [57:22] Get on board. [sonar]
Antonino [57:24] We got on board. We expected the usual routine [sonar]: smuggling cigarettes, weapons or drugs. [sonar] After some minutes we heard our colleagues screaming.
Ante Ursić (as Customs Officer) [57:34] [sonar] Captain! There are many people with strange faces. [sonar] There are a lot of Christian souls down there...
Antonino [57:43] [sonar] There were forty people clumped in the hold. What were they doing [sonar] there? It was 18... sorry... 1988. [sonar] We did not know what it was all about. Nowadays we [sonar] would have explained all this with two words: illegal immigration. [sonar] [Regina has another minute of solo. Ante drops down with Regina’s help. The sonar fades out.]
Antonino [58:58] A journalist later interviewed me about that detention. At the end of the interview, he looked me in the eyes. And said: “Get ready for an invasion of a size that no one can imagine. This is just the beginning.”
Sarah Hart [59:16] This is from field notes taken at the port in Siracusa, Italy, in the summer of 2016, where boats of people rescued at sea arrive. Steps: 1) As people get off the boat, they are given new Crocs and water; 2) They go through a medical Triage under the red cross tent; 3) The sit on the ground forming a rectangle encircled by police men on the pier until everyone has been disembarked. [Sarah makes a paper boat demoing for the audience. Drops a light in one of the bowls and places the boat in the bowl.]
Greg Pierotti (as Silvio) [1:01:10] And it’s there that the war between the poor begins. Everyone defends their own culture, their own mentality...Those cultures aren’t as open as we are, their religion, their day to day, how the woman is viewed...we’re more “simple,” open...we have a big feast, we all eat together: for them, that's trouble...it is really a clashing of cultures and mentality. Not just the economic factor. We are all poor here. [Maria hands Greg the boat. He puts a light and the boat in a fishbowl.]
Cristiana Giordano (as Legal Doctor) [1:02:10] I am a forensic doctor. I work for the Immigration Office. We attempt to give the most certain estimate on immigrant patient’s age. There are many methods. [Regina enters from behind curtains upstage center with a large roll of paper inside her clothes. Greg, Mercedes and Julian turn and see her. They run to her and embrace her, covering her up. Julian is downstage of her making an opening between his legs. They freeze in this position.]
One is an x-ray of the left hand. In young bones there’s an interruption called the accretion cartilage, which allows for elongation. But as you grow more and more, this cartilage turns more and more into bone. It’s like a little accordion. [Regina slips out from the helpers through Julian’s legs and unrolls the paper. She lays down on the paper drawing.]
The bones complete their ossification in adulthood. And so when it’s retrieved, one can deduce this is someone under 18 years old. [When the Doctor stops talking, they notice that Regina has moved and go to get her. They pick her up and carry her to downstage center, stand her up. As Cristiana speaks next line they examine her, checking her pulse, looking in her eyes, ears, and mouth, touching her forehead, while the doctor continues talking.]
Legal Doctor [1:04:05] Obviously there is no complete certainty. We can give a range: 16 to 18 years old, 18 to 20. The results are then sent to the police headquarters, or the immigration office. And the magistrate knows this is the most imperfect of situations. They even ask me to give some sort of probability curve, as long as it’s established that they are a minor. [Regina slides out from the group and goes back to her paper and continues drawing.]
So it's a reception for minors or a reception for adult. If it's for adults, it's three days and then you go home: I wash you, I dress you, and then you go back to your country. If you are a minor, I can't do anything. I have to maintain you. I have to help you. [M, J, and G notice that she is gone and go get her again. They carry her to the chair upstage right and sit her down and resume the positions they started out in. They take turns asking her questions in a circle.]
The minor has a cost. Those who are of age can be shipped back to their home country. I need to establish whether or not the person is of age. You can’t expel migrants if they are minors. Obviously profiteers say they’re minors even though in reality they’re thirty years old. And if I say I’m a minor and you say I’m not, well...prove it. [Regina escapes again. She gets her paper and takes it out center right. G, J, and M notice Regina is gone and race out after her.]
Cristiana Giordano [1:06:08] This is Janet Roitman, Anthropologist: When speaking of history, one might ask: what sort of narrative could be produced, meaning is not everywhere a problem?
Greg Pierotti [1:06:22] [holding up paper] BUDAPEST — In Hungary, hundreds of migrants surrounded by armed police officers were tricked into boarding a train with promises of freedom, only to be taken to a “reception” camp. In the Czech Republic, - [Goes to sotto voce] the police hustled more than 200 migrants off a train and wrote identification numbers on their hands with indelible markers, stopping only when someone pointed out that this was more than a little like the tattoos the Germans put on concentration camp inmates.
Ugo Edu [1:06:34] [holds of paper and speaks loudly after “reception camp”. She tops over Greg who goes to sotto voce] Turkey: This year we have seen a record number of refugees trying and too often dying to get across Europe’s Mediterranean frontier [dropping to sotto voce], propelled by brutal wars, the collapse of Libya and other states, environmental disasters and grinding poverty that both cause and feed on this human misery.
Julian Gatto [1:06:34] [Holds up paper. He tops over Ugo who goes sotto voce] Rome: Hundreds of people were feared dead on Sunday after a ship crowded with migrants capsized [goes to sotto voce] and sank in the Mediterranean, as the authorities described a grisly scene of bodies floating and submerging in the warm waters, with the majority of the dead apparently trapped in the ship at the bottom of the sea. The fatal shipwreck may prove to be the Mediterranean’s deadliest migrant disaster ever and is only the latest tragedy in Europe’s migration crisis.
Ante Ursić [1:06:34] [Holds up paper. He tops over Julian who goes sotto voce] Berlin: There is a direct correlation between the number of immigrants entering the country and the rise in the crime rate [Ante also goes to sotto voce]. A recent study conducted by the Confcommercio group on the statistical connection between crime and immigration found that in a determined area, if the number of immigrants increases by one percent, the crime rate in the same area goes up by 0.4 percent.
Cristiana Giordano [1:07:10] How did crisis come to mean a protracted historical condition? The very idea of crisis as a condition suggests an ongoing state of affairs. Can one speak of a state of enduring crisis? Is this not an oxymoron?
Legal Doctor [1:07:21] [Regina starts to walk in with head lamp on.] And yet crisis is the defining category of our contemporary situation. [Regina begins dancing and the media is pushed out by her energy receding backwards. Then exiting one by one starting with Julian.] There is no politics without crisis because we have no language for it.
[1:07:57] [Dancing. Sonar sounds increasingly loudly]
CA [1:08:38] Thank you for listening to AnthroPod, the podcast for the Society of Cultural Anthropology. My name is Cory-Alice André-Johnson, and I've been your host for this episode. Again, I'd like to thank Drs. Hartblay, Pierotti, and Giorgano for joining me to discuss their work. A big thanks as well to Shelmith Wanjiru, the associate producer for this episode. If you liked this episode, please do go back and listen to the others in the series “What Does Anthropology Sound Like” and of course subscribe to AnthroPod. Thank You.
[All the Colors in the World, Podington Bear] [1:09:25]