ANTHROPOLOGY|ART|AESTHETICS: Engaging the society (2016)

Anthropology is a discipline that can impact those who embrace it so deeply in their vision of the world and attitude towards life that many times person and anthropologist can’t be distinguished anymore. Still, when the same academic world is analysed under anthropological lens, it can’t but reveal its ethnocentrism. This was the reason of my unease with it, and the reinforcement of my long-standing interest in working beyond the ivory tower in the broader human society. Here work is truly engaged with people lives – both when with direct consequences on their living conditions and when in intellectual production where they are interlocutors.

Besides being involved in migrant professional education and in urban community project, art practice is the one I devote myself spending my competences as an anthropologist. In fact, while I see anthropological methods as the most accurate to reflect upon cultures, I also perceive this professional as a mediator in the communication between human beings. Furthermore, I think this ‘shaman’ role to be more effective when insights are shared in aesthetic (=”moving the senses”) modes. I then became an artist myself, sharing my findings on crucial issues of our times by photography and video, writing on magazines under a charming retro style fictional character, poetry reading, and composing books in narrative playful storytelling forms.

My contribution will then engage the audience in a conversation about anthropological work when aimed to broaden collective reflection by art strategies – performance, visual arts, storytelling etc.
I consider anthropology not just an academic discipline, a field of inquiry, a potential job, but a real way of looking at the world and to relate to it. The journey deep into otherness that characterizes it is the harbinger of specific information related to the ways of conducting the existence in the various human cultures and hence the possible identification of constants and differences in which the existence of the animal-man takes place. But this has also the indirect result of theoretical awareness of ethnocentrism, the way of seeing of any human being, so that he who embraces it and its practices tends to implement a continuous practice of deconstruction, disruption and reconstruction of categories with which observes and interprets reality: in fact, therefore, the anthropological practice transforms the individual to the extent that person and anthropologist can no longer be distinguished.

Inevitably, such a practice may also invest the contexts in which the researcher originated or operates, potentially provoking a crisis in the relationship between the individual and the context. In the absence of the possibility of objectivity and neutrality (possibilities, these, unthinkable for our discipline, admitted that for other there are) the willingness to do so seems to me an index of reliability and accuracy of the work that one is going to do. In my case, this had as a consequence, in my relationship with the academia, of a certain ‘discomfort’ – for the ambiguity between theoretical aims and actual practices, and even before for its same (and apparently neutral) reason of existence in the function of the specific place devoted to the production and reproduction of knowledge.

A discomfort that however led me to sensitivity and solutions which for me are now useful and positive. Returning to the general situation and then going into the specifics of anthropology scope, its traditional interests are nowadays increasingly less and less exclusive in the discipline. Exposure to cultural diversity, the shock and ensuing estrangement, the problem of interpersonal relationship, the dynamics ethnocentrism-relativism are now common issues and must-experiences for anyone living on the contemporary world, so that he finds himself forced (willingly or unwillingly) to have to develop some methods of interpretation and relation with this culturally different outside. In summary, the contemporary individual finds himself having to develop some anthropological expertise sui generis.

In my experience I don’t see then the production of anthropological knowledge as located exclusively in the academy. Beyond this, in fact, awareness and knowledge – maybe completely wrong, but always of anthropological order – can generate hetero-and autoreflection in the actual experience of individuals, and this happens more and more often (according to that cultural process flow well summarized by Ulf Hannerz). Assumptions at the basis of the reflection can be so scientifically wrong to lead to disastrous drifts – consider the issue of racism resurgence today – but they can also lead to profound insights, happy and above all, first and foremost, scientifically correct.

ES. 1: When I was working on my PhD project on intercultural theatre in Italy I realised, for example, that a key concept in anthropology as that of ‘cultural identity’ had been widely and thoroughly explored starting from their direct experiences as migrants by the company’s actresses of my case-study, and the results of that investigation coincided perfectly with the more complex nuances identified in the academic context by researchers who had spent their existence in the deepening of the theme.

ES. 2: In the context of a mapping+storytelling workshop that I conducted in a small village near Milan, the variability in the meaning of the same symbol between individuals from different cultural origins and/or generations became so immediately visible to all participants in the course of conversation, that they automatically became also aware that, in contrast to the fixity symbols are usually perceived, they are actually “dynamic cultural signs” (as stated by Victor Turner) characterized by changeability. I feel my participation in todays cultural process entirely out of the academy, and situated in the wider society, as well as freed from the constraints of the discipline when carried out in that context – although still informed by the discipline in its origins, methodologies, and, when existing, broad perspectives.

In this sense, field work, interpretation and return of results resolved in the establishment of ‘experimental space’ where new relationships between different actors as well as different events/situations take place, and where the characteristics of these spaces are not given once and for all, but are from time to time based on stakeholders, contexts, purposes. Where my purpose, in participating in this process, is to bring content and methodologies developed within the anthropology in the broader society, and make it as well aware of the resources it already holds to reflect on urgent matters and accompany it to the awareness and to the transition towards a peaceful coexistence between its members (“Artists have a function. We’re part of a conversation. It’s our job to represent and mirror back the values of the culture in a way that people haven’t seen before.”– Susan Hiller).

Person-between-persons, I’m informed by the idea that “everyone is an artist”, as Joseph Beuys – an artist but as well an anthropologist sui generis – stated while perceiving himself as conducting a “shamanic” and therapeutic work, and I agree with him in thining that critical thinking had to marry with the charm. As well, I match with taims and practices International Situationism elaborated (in their revolutionary and ‘anarchist’ intentions) in opposition to the current society of spectacle we live today in, and its misuse of the art.

My work, then, today, takes place in many ways
Ex.1: Photography, writing, and artbook
Ex. 2: Minerva, her blog, reading, origami.
Ex. 3: Reading (“The flavour of the world”) and actor’s activities (“Emma Goldman”).

If a future free coexistence of different people, each driven by desire, is a project that has the flavour of miracle or utopia, I think that the practice of anthropology, especially when declined in artistic form and with aesthetic (i.e. involvement of the senses and provocation of emotions beyond the cold calculation of convenience) purposes can lead humans to mutual listening and empathy, essential pre-conditions of their potential positive meeting. Here, if desired, those of us who already have these skills can facilitate the mutual understanding, and therefore the fulfillment of the miracle.

That is why today I am an anthropologist, but I work as an artist – from time to time storyteller, performer, curator, activist – telling, even through inventions, things that are real, shunning the society of the spectacle that has commodified art and even going beyond this – going back to life! – because “anything art can do, life can do better” (Situazionist International).