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Work: Philosophy, Architecture
By Grace Williams, 2014-03-09
My current residence in Auckland is situated perhaps two hundred meters from Western Springs park, which plays host each year toPasifika Festival, whose two days of celebration have just finished. Today I went down to the park with my partner to join in the crowds.
Pasifika Festival, first occuring in 1992, has become one of the biggest cultural festivals New Zealand has to offer. New Zealand hosts a lot of people that identify themselves as Pacific Islanders, and within that group of people there are many different cultures which each could identify with. The festival was set up so that each of the eleven cultures represented this year had their own area of the park, each containing a stage, a fale (a Samoan house with open sides and a thatched roof) and stalls with food, goods and services relating to the culture. The festival is a great way to learn about lots of different cultures within a close location: what foods each might commonly eat, what musical instruments each might favour, what goods might be produced by each or might be readily available. Housing them all together, with seperate areas, works to strongly illustrate both what many of the islands have in common with each other, but also what is distinct to each.
I was largely interested in food on this trip (having headed down to the park on an empty stomach), and found what was on offer to be cheap and appealing. Cuisine can give a lot of interesting information about a culture, so I paid attention to what we saw and ate. My partner settled for a crumbed mahi mahi fillet sandwich from the Cook Islands section: fish (indeed, seafood) is a big part of the Cook Islands diet (indeed, many of the Pacific Islands), sometimes eaten raw with lime and coconut cream (coconut being another staple of cooking in the Pacific Islands), other times grilled, other times baked. Mahi mahi, while not having been subject to a formal population assessment yet, are supposed to be a sustainable fish to catch because of the known wide distribution of their population, their tendency to stay in shallow depths and the quick rate at which they reproduce. Given the small size and residing populations of many of the Pacific Islands, it should not be surprising that seafood is so prominent in their diets.
I purchased a hangi dish from the Aotearoa section: hangi is the Maori name for a process of cooking food whereby a pit is dug, hot coals are placed at the bottom, food in containers or wrapped in tough leaves are placed on top of these, and it is all covered up for perhaps five or so hours. My dish had pumpkin, kumara (the Maori name for sweet potato), a pork chop, some chicken, cabbage and a potato, and all were beautifully moist thanks to the method used. Starchy vegetables are very common foods to go in a hangi, as are chops, chicken legs and drumsticks, or bigger pieces of meat. Other common foods at Pasifika were taro (hey, Peter!), pineapple, chop suey, doughnuts and starchy vegetables.
The live stages were points of excitement for me too. Today we watched a Niuean group perform, which consisted of numerous drummers with drums of varying length and material, while Niuean dancers moved to the beats in flax and grass dress. The music had little tonal variation, but was intensely rhythmic and loud, and the actions of the feet and arms of the dancers seemed attractively seperate. Many of the cultural areas had stalls selling ukeleles, which seem to be the available instrument along with smaller wooden slit drums, called pt in the Cook Islands. We saw many ukeleles played onstage across the festival and heard many loud, diva-like soul voices today.
The festival was an excellent day out: we got to enjoy foods which are not usually in our closer radius, performances which are not so familiar to us, and we learned something about the variation between islands in the Pacific. For anyone potentially interested in any of the parts of this monologue, here are some related links of interest:
A page ofstatisticsregarding the Pacific Islands population of New Zealand
A little bit of information abouthangi
The page on the website of the event organizers which talks about thefoodthey usually have on offer (with top of page tabs to link to its home page and other links)
A little bit of information onCook Islands cuisine
Finally, please forgive me for the lack of macrons on the Maori words. I am not sure how to use my keyboard to produce them.
By Grace Williams, 2014-02-28
Currently the Royal Academy in London plays host to a diverse group of architects in an attempt to draw attention to the influence that architecture has on our lives (and vice versa). The exhibition is called Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and runs until the sixth of April. Kate Goodwin, the curator, has put together this wonderful blogwhich outlines the creation and reception of the exhibition, and it is a great read. Has anybody here been to see the exhibition?
What first drew my attention to the exhibition was this article on the Guardian, in which the author argues that, because of the nature of the medium under discussion (fluid as it may be), there is a certain sort of deception to presenting such an exhibition. Architecture, he argues, is not a form of visual art, and yet we are presented with displays in the context of a gallery as if it were. I found this interesting: does the presentation of these works somehow devalue the experience which the exhibition is trying to stimulate? I feel like the gallery context serves in favor of the exhibition and not against it: like the mentality which one adopts when entering an exhibition space makes the viewer more susceptible to the ideas present, even though these ideas might be more appropriately exercised in an everyday setting. The point of it, from what I can gather, seems to be to stimulate thoughts for the viewer such that when they leave the gallery, the spaces which they find themselves in register in new and interesting ways. So, while the experience might not be 'full', it is what one takes away from the exhibition that is of more value. What does everyone else think?
By Grace Williams, 2014-02-24
Recently I read Solaris, a science fiction novel written by Stanislaw Lem in the 60s. I have read few works of science fiction, and this was an exciting introduction to a genre which, to me, seems flexible in its ability to work out ideas on society and existentialism.
The story concerns a man called Kris, first introduced as he is preparing to leave for Solaris [space] Station, where live-in scientists spend their days conducting research and experiments to do with the planet Solaris. The research has been ongoing for many decades, and yet the progress made in the attempts to understand the planet, its movements and reactions, is bare. The planet is entirely covered in a sort of ocean, and though it reacts to disturbances from the hands of the scientists, its reactions are not as predictable or intelligible as they should be, given the time, effort, and financial backing of the project. When he arrives at Solaris Station, Kris finds the place in disarray, and the scientists in various states of mental deterioration. Of the three people he expected to meet, one is dead; a second, Snaut, is tired and mistrusting of Kris; Sartorius, the third scientist, refuses to speak to him. Sartorius has an unexplained visitor in his room, and when Kris finally questions Snaut about it, he simply laughs and says When youve received some visitors yourself, youll understand.
The truth of that statement is thrown into doubt. The story goes on: Kris visitor, when he receives one himself, is Harey, his ex-wife, who committed suicide in response to his dissolution of their marriage. How is it possible that her doppelganger can appear to him aboard the ship, given, firstly, that she is dead, and, secondly, that it is no mere feat to board an isolated space station? The solution is to do with an experiment conducted by the three scientists aboard Solaris Station prior to Kris arrival, while Gibarian was still alive: a prolonged radiation blast directed at the surface of Solaris. The visitors then started appearing to each of them afterwards, and it is judged that their appearance be some sort of communication between each of them with the planet.
Why did each fellow receive his visitor and not another person? Snaut suggests that each visitor is meant to be a sort of embodiment of the darker side of our minds, the physical manifestation of the horrors which we can safely imagine because we believe that it is impossible they will ever come to exist. There are things, says Snaut, situations, that no one has dared to externalize, but which the mind has produced by accident in a moment of aberration, of madness, call it what you will. At the next stage, the idea becomes flesh and blood. Thats all. He then goes on to argue that the whole aim of communication with a higher being (so to speak) like Solaris is to find something informative of ourselves in another being outside of our sphere of knowledge. Solaris, he argues, has acted like a mirror in this instance, but the image it shows us is not what we want to see and so we are revolted. Our exploration, our communication, all fails because we cannot find the right way to make sense of this being outside of our own faculties of knowledge.
This is perhaps the crux of the story. How are we meant to communicate with a being whose terms of communication cannot be said to be intelligible to us? Is it right for us to attempt at communication, or do we commit an abhorrent act? Indeed, is it even right to think of communication with other beings in terms of right and wrong? And what was the point of this book-review-slash-fan-spiel? I am not entirely sure, to be honest. I am now reading Summa Technologiae, in which Lem seems to be drawing connections between our evolutionary history and the evolutionary history of technologies, and it is a thrilling read. I think what makes Solaris relevant in this instance is the idea that our methods of research and interaction are always developing, and that it makes very little sense to have assumptions (any, at all) about communication with these other possible alien beings, given that we do not know the terms of their own forms of communication, while at the same time we cannot escape a developmental history of thought, and our place in this history, except by pushing forward. Forgive how rushed (and possibly nonsensical) this post is, please. Just a point of interest from somebody for whom the whole world of science fiction is only now blooming.
By Grace Williams, 2014-02-05
I have recently come across the website of the Kyoto Costume Institute, an establishment whose mission seems to be researching the place of clothing, design and textiles in our lives across time and the world, with a particular eye to the relationship between Japanese designs and their counterparts in different contexts. Clothing, the president of the Institute argues, changes as we do, and its changes are reflective (or constructive) of other changes at different levels in a society: the goal of the Institute is thus to archive pieces it deems of interest, which are available to view (and sometimes exhibited thematically) as well as both producing and keeping abreast of scholarship on topics relating to the development or role of clothing in different social contexts. As he puts it, "the distinctive characteristics of each age, the way that [each] society worked, and the changes in fashions and tastes are all thrown into clear relief by clothing. Clothing symbolizes the state of humankind at a particular juncture in time, thereby also throwing light on our own existence."
Since I have not (yet?) visited the Institute, I thought I might (very briefly) write on its biannual publication, Dresstudy, and in particular one of the articles free to download from the website, Through Western Eyes: Japanese Fashion in the 1980s (published in Dresstudy, vol. 57, april 2010). Dresstudy aims to support fashion research through publication, and encourages academics from different countries and fields to submit articles on fashion movements and garments, which lends a broader perspective to its publication than one might at first imagine it has. To illustrate, Dorinne Kondo, author of Through Western Eyes, is a professor of Anthropology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California: thus the article gives an extremely brief description of the state of economics in Japan over the twentieth century, and in particular its economic relations with the USA, before attempting to slot in the emergence of the popular avant-garde Japanese designers of the seventies and eighties in Europe.
The argument that Kondo pursues is two-fold. On one hand, the designers discussed produced clothes which had a profound influence on fashion at the time: the shaping, colour and fabric choices were all said (by Kondo) to bring about a change in the way designers and buyers thought about and wore clothes in the USA and Europe. On the other hand, the grouping together of these designers and the similarities in their individual aesthetics under the category of 'Japanese Designers' worked to reduce what was unique about their collections to factors exclusively race-related: Kondo maintains that this was an embodiment of 'Japan-bashing', and that the treatment they received as a group was well below the standard which European designers of the same calibre received. Even respectful remarks had superiority undertones, as Kondo illustrates when describing a compliment paid to the work of those Japanese designers discussed regarding their understanding of the French aesthetic. She finishes by writing that "when we analyze the fashion industry in a global frame, it is crucial to remember that these interactions and encounters occur within sedimented geopolitical and economic histories. The Western reception of Japanese fashion in the 1980s cannot be understood outside these sedimented histories, and it provides an exemplary case of the contradictory, ambivalent complexity of Japan's relationship with 'the West'."
The Institute is interesting, I think, because of the archival approach it takes to clothing and its related historical-cultural artifacts, which most of us nowadays understand to be cheaply produced and easily disposable. The subset of fashion which it archives is generally inaccessible to many on an average wage, and the Institute serves as an access point to pieces whose primary design focus is not mass production for mass consumption. As well, the understanding of each piece becomes fuller thanks to the encouragement of broad research, at conceptual, constructive, and contextual levels. The website is in Japanese, but is mostly translated into English as well, and some of the articles from older Dresstudy volumes are in English too. For anybody interested in browsing the website,hereis a link to its About page;hereyou can see their available articles online; andhereis an access point for their digital archives. Happy Wednesday, all!
By Grace Williams, 2014-01-31
This morning I watched an interesting documentary on the pilgrims of the French Way of St James, at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. The pilgrimage, for those that have not heard of it before, is intended to be a journey from one's home (and, being the French Way, it is implied that the pilgrim resides in, or at least begins their journey, along one of the designated routes in France) to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia, Spain), where it is said the remains of St James are buried. The film was created by Yasuhiro Omori, an ethnographic filmmaker and professor emeritus at the museum. In 2007 the museum presented a special exhibition, named Sanctuary and Pilgrimage, of which I think this was a piece, though I have not seen this claim confirmed anywhere. I think the film is worth mentioning here because it raises some interesting questions regarding anthropological documentation and the nature of pilgrimages over time.
The film revolves around Michael Lavedrine, who (at the beginning of the film) is preparing to go on his fourth pilgrimage along the route, in September of 2001. The nature of the pilgrimage, for him, is spiritual: numerous times, when he is interviewed on camera, he speaks of the sense of reaffirmation in his belief that he has felt previously at the end of the journey and the spiritual elation that comes over him upon completion. Lavedrine prepares to leave from Angers (in France), and arrives in Galicia after 48 days of journeying. The trip takes him across rural countryside and in and out of small French and Spanish towns, viewing many smaller-scale churches along the way.
It might seem like an odd or somewhat irrelevant point to make, that the journey for Lavedrine is a pilgrimage in the spiritual sense of the word, but the film emphasizes the point that many of the people encountered along the way did not seem to be of the Christian faith. Many of the people encountered along the way, when interviewed, spoke of various reasons for participating, and it was noticeable how many of them were not religiously inclined: for some, it was a cheap form of tourism, in which an opportunity was presented to see parts of countries which they had a strong interest in; for others, the challenge of the physical exertion required for such a journey was appealing; some felt that the journey was an opportunity to think on weightier topics for an extended amount of time, in an environment free of distractions. As well, the variety of people from different parts of the world was overwhelming: in one French town, a Kiwi couple were found cycling the route together; in another, a married couple from Osaka, enjoying the lack of everyday technology along the way which they were used to facing in the city; in Spain, a strictly devout Roman-Catholic Irish man, with rosary beads handy, completing the pilgrim's tour of the churches along the route. The film and its numerous encounters thus calls into question the nature of the concept of pilgrimage as we see it and participate in it today: with so many different participants of so many different backgrounds, many of which are non-religious, does the spiritual 'quality' or 'effect' of the pilgrimage reduce? Despite being a route which pilgrims have traditionally taken, can the term 'pilgrimage' be used to describe the journey of a non-spiritual journeyer? Given the technologies available to us today (nylon waterproof jackets, hiking boots with traction, light camping packs), is the value of the journey really the same, or are we taking away from the richness of the experience by embracing them? Judging from the experience as we view it in Lavedrine, we might perhaps want to say that the journey can be called a pilgrimage, if undertaken with the right intentions, despite the changes in each execution of the journey over time.
Another point of interest for me was the documentation of the support network which functions along the route to aid pilgrims in their journey. Hostels and houses are set up along the way as venues with cheap accommodation for pilgrims, which can be used with a credencial, which is basically a passport of sorts in which the pilgrim collects stamps from each official house he or she stays at. At the end of the journey, the credencial is used as evidence of the journey which the pilgrim has taken, and he or she is presented with a certificate to verify the completion of the journey. The venues pilgrims stayed in were often small and intimate: one woman, the hostess of a pilgrim house, was interviewed on camera and she spoke of the pleasure with which she received the pilgrims, how humbly they asked for accommodation, and how pleasing it was for her to encounter previous pilgrims after their journey had been completed. Churches often had fountains with clean drinking water for pilgrims (one even had a fountain of wine) and townspeople often gave fruit to passing pilgrims. The film drew attention to the fact of awareness of the tourism which being situated along the Way could bring to a town, but also painted a picture in which the pilgrims were aided and not exploited by townspeople on their journey, which one might like to assume would not be the case with all pilgrimage ways across the world.
When watching a film like this, one's mind inevitably wonders about the efforts which the filmmakers must go to so that the effect of their presence might be minimized, both on film and as the situation occurs. This is, I think, a question which might be raised for much of the body of anthropological field work (both as it is practiced as well as its results): how can the presence of the anthropologist and his or her tools be so minimized that we can say it has no bearing or influence on the material produced? Lavedrine was upbeat for most of the time he was on screen: how much of his actions and attitude can we attribute to natural actions, and how much can we attribute to camera awareness? How does the effect (if there is perceived an effect) of the anthropologist's presence on the material affect our judgement of the quality of the object presented as a cultural artifact? These are all questions which I think are relevant from a researcher's perspective, which the film raises. If anyone would like to discuss these questions or the film with me, please do send a message to me via the Research Cooperative.
By Grace Williams, 2014-01-20
My partner and I, residing currently in Kyoto, began an attempt to find, visit and map museums in the Kyoto prefecture with a particular focus on its archaeological history: the attempt, with successes and failures, is outlined here. From a list of eleven or twelve museums, we managed to make it to five; of the five we made it to, we managed to view exhibitions at only two of them.
Kyoto prefecture has a rich history of human settlement, with an archaeological history that goes back over 10,000 years, and there are numerous museums of differing sizes with different focuses which introduce its various periods. I took great interest in the common appearance throughout the prefecture of small pockets of agricultural land within high-density suburbs full of apartment units, finding these pockets attractive partly because of their smaller scale, and partly because of the polarity they held against their surroundings. Though it might seem like an odd or silly thing to say, as a tourist on my first visit to Kyoto the agricultural fields did not fit with the picture of Kyoto as a high-density cultural and political capital which I had imagined, and this picture was perhaps what also formed my expectations of what artifacts we would come across at the archaeological museums we intended to visit.
The first museum we visited was the Kyoto City Archaeological Museum, located in the northern part of Kyoto city. The museum was small, covered two floors, and focused particularly on artifacts found in the Kyoto prefecture. The first floor was divided into an information center (with computers and resources relating to archaeology in Japan), a special exhibition room, and a photography room (which was closed when we visited); the second floor was dedicated to the items in the museum collection.There were many examples of pottery to illustrate the evolution of ceramic shapes and materials in Kyoto from the Jomon period to today, accompanied by photographs of the areas they were found in, and examples of pottery from China and Korea in the same time frame for comparison. Some of these were intricately detailed, others flat and devoid of decoration. I found this found interesting, particularly since the items themselves were remarkably preserved (and, in cases where salvage was needed, lovingly repaired), but also because the photographs served to emphasize just how rich in historical artifacts the land upon which Kyoto city was built must be. Many of the photographs of artifact sites were taken in blocks behind apartment buildings or in the gardens of people's backyards. As well, the museum had a display which encourages you to touch pottery items, an engraving on glass of the Rajomon gate, and tools for agricultural production in stone and different metals.
Though the museum's collection was interesting to view, almost all of the display text was in Japanese with no English translation, which was disappointing for us. A museum's grip on the viewer diminishes steeply when the viewer does not understand the relevance of the objects displayed to the story of the exhibition. We could guess at the concerns of some of the displays, based on the odd English word or time frame within the Japanese text, but would no doubt have a fuller understanding if translated text was available. However, the museum's objects were still of interest.
The second museum we visited, the Kyoto University Museum, focused its exhibitions primarily on the research and learnings of the students at the university, so it also felt more intimate and local. The space was larger and better maintained than the KCAM, and the exhibitions varied in discipline, with exhibitions on natural history and technological history as well as cultural history. Of particular interest archaeologically was a permanent-display exhibition on the first floor of artifacts from and about the Jomon and Yayoi periods: objects included stone tombs, pottery, maps, jewelry, figurines and metal tools for fighting and agriculture. Our visitation occurred two days prior to the opening of a new exhibition, so some sections were closed off at the time. This museum, unlike the last, had most of their display texts in English as well as Japanese, so the stories and the links between objects were much clearer, and the purpose and manufacture of the objects on display was not guesswork for us. The period it covered, with particular respect to the cultural exhibitions it had on display at the time, was
I mentioned earlier that we had intentions to visit eleven or twelve museums, but only managed to view two in the end: there were numerous factors which worked to stop us from visiting the others, which are worth mentioning for anybody planning to do the same sort of exploration as us. A time-limit is the restraint which every tourist faces when she plots activities in the country she visits, as is a limit to her budget: the task at hand becomes to organize one's time to fit the optimal amount of activities one can complete given the time and budget on hand. And, as was mentioned earlier, the language barrier was a hindrance too, not just in terms of viewing the exhibitions themselves, but also for finding out information regarding the museums: many of the websites of the museums we intended to visit did not have English versions available. Addresses and contact details were sometimes quite hard to find, and a few of the websites would have these details, but no information whatsoever on their current exhibitions, opening hours and accessibility. Three times we located museums of interest, only to find upon arrival that they were either closed on the day (take note, Monday is the most common day for museums in Kyoto to be closed) or were not displaying exhibitions at the time, a problem very easily solved by updating one's website! And that is not to mention the museums that did not even have a website, Japanese or otherwise. Given the small scale of some of the museums we looked at, perhaps one might infer from the lack of English information available that curators, organizers and funders of some of these museums do not expect many tourists will have an interest in what they have on display. If this is the case, however, the situation is somewhat cyclic, given that information is often what spurs the interest in the first place.
It would be an interesting project to undertake if one were to try and map out these museums and write up a pamphlet for tourists with key information such as opening hours, transport routes and details of the collections held by each museum. For anybody interested in the history of Kyoto prefecture, there is a wealth of objects and information available which helps to build a coherent picture of how those that settled and inhabited the land for over 10,000 years lived and worked. Unfortunately it is a task which we could not complete, but for anybody else interested in taking up the project, or with any questions, ideas or thoughts, please comment on the post or send a message.