Massimiliano Mollona: Art and Visual Anthropology: An Introduction

The Art and Visual Anthropology (AVA) section of the FocaalBlog is a conceptual and discursive space in which artists, anthropologists, and art scholars are invited to reflect on how films and images can be used for social analysis and political struggle, as well as on broader debates on economic and social change.

First, as editor, I’d like to restore the political legacy of ethnographic practices in visual production. Due to its association with the early colonialist gaze, ethnographic films and photos continue to have a bad press. But the central concerns of visual ethnographies (that is, the long-term engagement with marginal communities, the desire to involve them in the filmmaking process in transparent and empathic ways, and the aspiration to provoke radical change in the audience’s point of view) are unique contributions of the genre (see Asch 1992 and Banks 1992). For instance, the search for “other” forms of representations inspired generations of radical filmmakers, including the postcolonial films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Glauber Rocha and the Latin American Third Cinema movement in the 1970s. Particularly relevant is the way ethnographic films reflect on issues of power and transparency in the filmmaking process and act upon the world in the act of representing it (Nagib 2011; Nagib et al. 2011). These concerns within visual anthropology have opened a new critical field of enquiry on the ethic of fieldwork and on how, as anthropologists, we tell our stories. From Marcus’s proposal to infuse the spirit of modernist cinema into anthropological fieldwork, to MacDougall’s celebration of transcultural cinema to the contemporary ethnographic turn in visual art, ethnographic filmmaking continues to inform broader discussions on the politics of representations in art, social science, and activism.

When I talk about ethnographic film, I am specifically referring to the modernist filmmaking tradition emerged between the two world wars in Europe and the United States, when capitalism seemed to be deeply in crisis. In this context, politically engaged artists reached out to marginal constituencies through a new cinematic language—a blend of ethnography, documentary, and poetry—which challenged both commercial cinema and early colonialists’ visions. Instead, the modernist film canon had a “double gaze”—one of critique and “defamiliarization” of Western capitalism and imperialism and another of empathic familiarization with noncapitalist “others.” Examples of this modernist canon are Flaherty’s intimate depiction of the everyday life of the Inuit hunter Nanook, Grierson’s ethnography1 of labor among Scottish fishermen, or the revolutionary cinema of Eisenstein based on techniques of defamiliarization of bourgeois visual canons.2 What these films have in common is the desire to depict marginal constituencies—both in the West and outside—through a language that was neither entirely observational nor entirely fictional but rather, as Grierson put it, “a poetic documentation.” Holding such double gaze, of critique of capitalism and solidarity with “the other,” modernist artists were crafting a new genre of cinema for the working class.

In fact, AVA will also explore the centrality of films and images in catalyzing political consciousness. Marx’s famous discussion of commodity fetishism is an acute insight into the cinematic nature of capitalism, where commodities appear alive and humans look like objects. Building on such insight, film critics from the “realist” tradition speculated on the “double ontology” of films—as both reifications of social relations and avenues for political consciousness (Bazin 1967; Kracauer 1960; Lukács [1913] 2001). In their double nature, of both alluring commodities and political weapons, films have a revolutionary power. Lenin used cinema to celebrate the Bolshevik Revolution, Leni Riefenstahl to boost Hitler’s propaganda, and Chavez to kick-start his revolution. In the current era of immaterial capitalism—based on info-proletariat, media surveillance, cyber leisure, and debit card consumption—such reflection on the power of media is all the more relevant. Are we truly experiencing a cinematic mode of production (Beller 2006) in which our attention is the core of capitalist value production? Or is it just an increased paranoia of images that capitalism produces? If images are so central for capitalism, how can we use them to discard existing production relations, including those involved in the labor of filmmaking? Having researched labor for several years, both as an anthropologist and a filmmaker, I have become increasingly aware of the dangers of reifying labor in theories and images. Is it possible to portray labor without reifying or romanticizing it? Some scholars go so far as to argue that all films on the working class are propagandistic and bourgeois—that non-alienated labor can only exist outside the realm of representation. Other scholars have proposed forms of collaborative filmmaking, which are not fraught with unequal class relations. But the question remains: which audiences do films on labor and the working class address? Is revolutionary or radical cinema still possible in the contemporary world?

Reflecting these critical dimensions of social engagement, popular culture, and class-consciousness, the AVA blog will have three sections:

This section features conversations among artists, scholars, pedagogues, and activists in the fields of art and anthropology. Filmmakers and artists will discuss a piece of their work that has been particularly innovative in their discipline, and authors will describe the context of the work, their intentions, and how they feel these artworks changed the existing debate around particular issues.

This section features reviews, photo essays, and short texts accompanied by short visual extracts and sound fragments. Loose and nonscholarly, it is a blend of academic and nonacademic discussion, highbrow and lowbrow, social commentary and popular culture. People are invited to discuss films moments that have been particularly inspirational to them.

This section features images in the field, as tools, methodologies, objects of study, and environments. It can serve as a platform to discuss how images and films can inform issues such as class struggle both conceptually and in activist practices.

The AVA blog is primarily a space for young scholars and artists to experiment with new dialogues, artistic practices, and forms of political interventions.

Massimiliano Mollona teaches political and economic anthropology and visual art at Goldsmiths College. His research focuses on the anthropology of labor, class, and political economy.

1. The Drifters (1929) was officially the first example of documentary film.

2. For instance, in Strike (1925) Eisenstein uses animal figures to depict social stereotypes.

Asch, Timothy. 1992. “The ethics of ethnographic filmmaking.” In Ian Crawford and David Turton, eds., Film as ethnography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Banks, Marcus. 1992. “Which film is ethnographic film?” In Ian Crawford and David Turton, eds., Film as ethnography, pp. 116–129. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bazin, André. 1967. What is cinema? Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beller, Jonathan. 2006. The cinematic mode of production: Attention economy and the society of the spectacle. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press.

Eisenstein, Sergei. 1925. Strike. Documentary. Soviet Union: Gosinko, Proletkult.

Flaherty, Robert J. 1922. Nanook of the North. Documentary. New York: Pathé Exchange.

Grierson, John. 1929. The Drifters. Documentary. United Kingdom: Empire Marketing Board.

Kracauer, Siegfried. 1960. Theory of film: The redemption of physical reality. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lukács, Georg. [1913] 2001. Thoughts toward an aesthetics of cinema. Polygraph 13: 13–18.

Nagib, Lucia. 2011. World cinema and the ethics of realism. New York and London: Continuum Publishing.

Nagib, Lucia, Chris Perriam, and Rajinder Dudrah, eds. 2011. Theorizing world cinema. New York and London: I.B. Tauris.