August 2009

Chile has the nastiest, meanest looking riot cop vans I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Big hulking blocks of dark green metal with barred up blacked out windows, always lurking round the most innocent looking street corners on sunny afternoons.

I’m doing fieldwork on a university campus at the moment, a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment. Jumping off at the stop a short block away from the university this morning, I noticed again that there were two large riot vans parked in the drive through McDonalds nearby. I have been trying to work out what this signifies. Do the Santiago police really like Big Macs? Is there not enough parking space at the cop shop? Is McDonalds perceived to be in need of two van loads of riot cops to protect it? Or maybe its McDs itself that’s considered subversive, and we the public are being protected from its revolting pseudo food by the boys in riot gear? One of my many daily mysteries.

Sometime this afternoon, during a rather boring class I was observing, we were disturbed by the sound of crowds of voices and loud sharp cracks outside the window. The guys sulking at the back of the class jumped up to peer out the window – but the window was closed and we went back to work. Let out half an hour later, I followed the shouting and smell of burning to the other side of campus – where one of those huge hulking riot vans was squatting in the street close up to the spiky iron perimeter railings of the campus. The water cannon was aimed at a crowd of protesting students and onlookers (but not at the burning trash cans, sadly, which would perhaps have been more useful).

Things progressed, and eventually the armoured-up cops marched back to their riot vans, while the cat calls and wolf whistles of the crowd rained down on them: punctuated with a few farewell rocks and bottles.

A classic moment – the black clad figure, face masked by a red and black scarf, runs forward with arm pulled back to sling his rock at the retreating cops. The Bansky pose, if you will, iconic whether he holds a rock or a flaming bottle or a bunch of flowers.

Except in mid hurl he slipped on the wet pavement and landed on his arse, and the entire crowd of protesters and onlookers burst into giggles.

Poor guy. He did manage to jump up again and land a good thonk with his rock afterwards, bless him. I guess his pride took a bit of a battering too. But he has given me something to remember and laugh about whenever I come across those scary scary machines in the future.

Check out this video:

But then watch this one for a longer interview with Maxine Johnson, the woman dragged out. Its worth watching to the end to hear her opinions on the healthcare debate.

I’m a huge fan of the documentary maker Louis Theroux, as his work often has a very ethnographic flavour to it. While he famously choices “weird” and often highly distasteful subject matters, he shares with ethnography the attempt to empathise with his subjects, that make his films more than voyeurism. Rather than encouraging the viewer to point and judge, his seems to be trying to understand the world in the way his subject understands it – even if he doesn’t agree. And that, ultimately, is what anthropology is about.

I’ve been watching his documentaries again recently and trying to use them as ways of thinking about doing ethnography – as a kind of foil perhaps. Given that I think so highly of them as a form of (very popular) communication and education, what do they have in common with ethnography, and what are they lacking? Given that in a documentary you see what in ethnography would be both the data gathering (fieldword) and the presentation (publication of a final work) stages at once, watching them provides some food for thought on both how to relate to subjects in order to find out something about them, and how then to present what you’ve learnt to a wider audience.

(All this in in the context of the fact that I’m reading the fantastic book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” right now, which is a bit like ethnography bootcamp. Its full of insightful but sternly phrased instructions on what one must and must not do as an ethnographer, most of which I had never even thought about before. Its seriously whipping my ass.)

I’m starting with Louis’ documentary on African hunting holidays, which I think is one of his weakest films, while paradoxically one of the most interesting subjects. While there was a lot of good stuff in there, I was left with the feeling that it was too complicated a subject for him to handle. That in this case Louis’ own view point made him unable to explore the issue from a different – and ultimately more interesting – angle.

The 45 min long documentary follows Louis as he spends a weekend on various South African ranches where wild animals have been bred in order to be hunted by US tourists. We see him talk to a couple of hunters from Ohio, as well as various South Africans involved in the business. Louis is obviously highly distressed throughout the entire process. He can’t get over the fact that the animals are being killed, and when at one point he tried to bring himself to join in and shoot something himself, he backs out at the last moment.

The impression Louis seems to want to make with this documentary is that there is something really fucked up about shooting wild animals for sport, when the animal is practically domesticated and you are shooting it point blank with a very powerful gun. The problem is that this is really not that insightful a point. Most people viewing this film probably already share the same opinion, so we are not really learning much that is new. What I wanted to learn more about was why, then, do these US guys (and girls) want to do it? While Louis keeps asking them, he never gets closer to an explanation other than that it just feels amazing. At which point I read into the situation my own interpretation – that there is something about that adrenalin rush we see in their faces after they “make a kill”. That its not so much about a sense of skill (because there is barely any involved), as a sense of power.

But I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, because its never asked or explored.

Other more fundamental questions were raised though, that seem only unintentionally to have come up. And by ‘unintentionally’, I’m refering to the moment when one of the ranch owners gets really pissed off and starts telling Louis he’s asking all the wrong questions. While Louis keeps going on and on about how pretty the animals are, the owner points out that they would kill him if he got too close. Louis says isn’t it sad they have to die, and the owner replies that Louis doesn’t think its sad that cows and chickens die in far worse circumstances. Louis asks in a sad voice whether the owner likes animals, and the guy finally explodes that his country is “fucked”.

His land used to have orange trees and cattle, but that’s all gone. This is all the sells. The animals they are standing looking at were on the verge of extinction, and thanks to his work raising them for hunting they’ve been saved.

As the program ends Louis is still getting weepy about the pretty animals, but I’m left with more sympathy for the owners of the ranches who he has spent most of the program trying to run down. I might possibly be able to understand why someone would want to shoot an animal for sport. But I think I would find that person revolting. I think I can understand why someone would want to turn their failing agricultural business into a successful tourist industry, by switching from breeding domestic animals to wild ones and throwing in a hotel. And I don’t really have Louis moral repugnance to that.

Which then throws up the entirely unintended question of, why does Louis Theroux have such an issue with the whole set up? What image of the urban liberal is he projecting, that he can’t look at an animal without seeing Bambi?

So if this were an ethnography with the luxury of being able to spend one or two years doing fieldwork on this topic, rather than a 45 min documentary based on 3 days of research – I guess I’d start with the following:

    There ought to be more attention to context. What are the bigger social conditions in South Africa that have made farming so unprofitable, and tourism so attractive?
    How come he only ever talks to the owners of the ranches? Who are all those (black) guys we see working doing the driving and beating and skinning and hauling… What do they have to say?
    So those US hunters – what’s with them? So much of the kill seemed to be focused on getting a good photography. They kept using the word “trophy” without anyone asking anything about what that meant. How come its mostly men (and young men, given that the older ones all said they “grew out of it”)? Asking some deeper questions than “don’t you think its mean” might help get a little more insight.
    In this case – and this isn’t usually the case – Louis couldn’t get over his own issues enough to listen to the people he was studying. What is that saying about Louis’ own conceptualisation of animals?

I don’t think this was Louis Theroux’s best work, but it did get me interested in this topic. Next up to watch – plastic surgery!

I had the most amazing steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten last night. Here in Chile, of all places!

I’m a tad embarrassed about where I went, though. For the last month I’ve been walking past this very tacky looking “English Pub” near my house called The Phone Box Pub. Of course, it has a big red phone box on the patio, just like you can’t find in England. Plus an exciting range of revolting bitters, just like those I tried for so many years to avoid back home. Every day I roll my eyes at it, in the condescending way that people who live abroad for a long time like to.

So its quiet amazing that I ended up there last night, given my own snobbishness. Even more so given that I absolutely hate going to bars or restaurants on my own in the evening, something that’s a bit of a draw back if you spend a lot of time travelling on your own. I don’t mind eating lunch or other innocuous meals on my own in public. Though given that lunch is the main meal of the day here, I’ve been getting some very odd looks for sitting on my own reading a book or writing notes over my sandwich and coffee. I’ve become something of an amusing quirk in the little street of coffee shops I spend most of my time hanging out in. I’m usually the only person there on their own. Still, I would usually rather go hungry, or sit on my own in my hotel room with something depressingly portable like a cold sandwich and a cuppa soup, than sit alone in a restaurant at night.

But I’ve had an ongoing cold for three weeks now, and its really been wearing me down. I am not a good cook at the best of times, and living with someone else’s (very tiny) kitchen, I tend to resort to the most basic of meals. I’ve been subsisting on toast and omelets and egg sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads and fruit, usually followed by those addictive little pots of vanilla “flan” and packets of bitter-orange chocodonut cookies.

I think some part of my brain snapped last night and craved great big chunks of meat. I was in that place and ordering the steak and kidney pie before the rest of my brain had time to work out what was going on.

And meat I got. Its taking me a while to work out how to order meals here. Like I said, lunch is the only really large meal. Breakfast is quite small, the evening meal rarely more than a light snack or a sandwich. And then there is this odd (but delightful) meal called “Once” which consists of tea, cake, and light sandwiches, eaten around 6 or 7. Yes – they have elevensis at 7. Go figure.

The few times I’ve tried to eat a larger meal in the evening – including last night – I’ve been thrown off by how the meal arrives. Namely, wysiwyg. So for example, I went out with some friends my first week here, and I ordered the prawns.

What I got was a bowl of prawns. But just a big bowl of prawns. Unadorned with bits of lettuce, or some kind of carbohydrate, or anything in fact – other than more prawns.

The next time I went out I tried to pre-empt a protein overload by ordering a side of roast potatoes with my steak. What I got that time were two large bowls – one filled with potatoes and the other with chunks of steak. Which were lovely. But a bit heavy.

For my steak and kidney pie event, I was curious if the “English” pub would produce a meal based on the English grammar of food serving – i.e., meat plus carbs plus some small veg based component on the side. Nope. I got a big bowl of meat, covered in a thin pie crust. With complimentary ketchup. And still I think it was the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten!

So ok, why was it the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever had? Well, not because of the pie-ness of it. The crust was basically an large circle of empanada dough stretched over the top of the dish. But the inside… oh my. It was amazing. None of that gloopy, commerical-gravey tasting sauce you would usually expect (and which I usually have no overpowering objection to – steak and kidney pie is one of my favourite British foods). It was insanely rich in flavour, had huge great big chunks of really amazing meat in it.

And – I began to suspect – actual kidney! I don’t think I have ever had a steak and kidney pie that actually had kidney in it before! I’m strictly a non-offal-eating kind of girl. But this thing was just amazing. I even managed to get over the texture of the chunks of kidney – the flavour was just so incredible!

So there you go. The secret to the best steak and kidney pie in the world is to use kidneys. And probably better steak than will ever be available anywhere in the world other than Argentina and Chile. Plus, one has to get over one’s “I’m-not-going-in-to-that-tourist-trap-and-anyway-I-hate-English-beer” snobbery.

Never having been a big fan of racist and misogynist humour, I’m cheered by the rumours that Top Gear may finally be axed. And about time too. Of course, this won’t change the fact that it was a very popular show. Stopping the show won’t suddenly mean that the huge numbers of people who enjoyed being thrilled by bigotry on the telly undergo a revelation, and decide to stop being wankers. No doubt they will find plenty of ways to continue shocking each other with admissions of pretty minded bullying and hatred. Because its so, like, daring to see a white guy making jokes about foreigners and women! What a rebel!!

So it goes. But it would be nice to not have it supported by the BBC.

Jodie Matthews has a brave opinion piece in the Guardian today on the move to drop the show. I say brave because, as the hundreds of comments the article has attracted show, when you point out that “humour” is racist you open yourself up to the braying crowds who try to shout you down by telling you you’re just not funny/intelligent/cool enough to ‘get it’. Pitching yourself into a battle, especially as a woman, with the kind of people who enjoy slapping their bellies and wiping away the tears of laughter while Jeremy Clarkson undermines a century of social progress: well, its not exactly going to be an intelligent debate, now, is it.

Moreover, she’s chosen to use the example of racism against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers – people its considered perfectly acceptable to be racist towards these days. They are the great big blind spot in the country’s multi-cultural dream. (I’ve talked about this before over here.) Ask your average British “liberal” friend about Travellers, and they start frothing at the mouth about dirty gypsies who, everyone knows, are all thieves and violent. All of them. Even the children. No doubt your anti-war, pro-life, organic-food, Obama supporting friend will have known someone who knows someone who once got robbed by someone they knew was a gypsy. Probably because of their beady little eyes or evil gypsy nose or something equally rational. Trying to point out the incredible double standards that permeate this kind of common-placed attitude is surprisingly hard work.

So it was refreshing to read her article. But depressing at the same time, that still – yes still, even though the US has a black president – we have to spell out in such explicit, point-by-point, arguments exactly why laughing at minorities is racist.

(And for those who want to squeal “oh its all about cars, not making bigoted jokes”, I give you: Car Talk. Less venom, more cars. Should suit you fine.)

I (very) recently came across the work of Do-Ho Suh, an artist whose sculptures filled with hundreds of tiny figures pressing up and out at the world conjure up images of pressure and conformity, but also collective space and solidarity.

Do-Ho Suh "Public Figures"

Suh’s Korean origins are a major theme in his work – in particular he returns to the effects of compulsory military service on both an individual and a nation. A giant chain mail suit of armour that seeps out into a carpet: each link under foot is a dogtag, and all there is inside the suit is a mirror. His self portrait is a line of suits, each rigidly neat. Nostalgia for something hated, the memory of having been dehumanised, the trauma of militarisation across generations.

Other works explore the existence of a foreigner, and that thorny issue of where you consider “home” to be after half a lifetime spent as an im/emigrant. But its his works that make use of the tiny figures that have really captured my imagination. There is an obvious reference to communist propaganda iconography, but he’s doing more than shoot at that particular pop-culture fish in a, like, totally ironic barrow.

The figures stand shoulder to shoulder, arms raised high, backs and legs bent under the same weight. Literally holding up the viewer in some cases; in my favourite piece holding up the plinth rather than sitting on top of it. Their faces could be expressionless – or they could be relaxed. Other sets of figures glow, gently melting into sensual pools of light. Somehow they don’t seem to imply repression so much as solidarity, warmth. Suh himself has said he sees them as expressions of the crowd, as a comment on collective and personal space.

And yet… their tiny stature, the sense that they are a collective version of Atlas doomed to stand holding the world for eternity… There is no doubt these are also images of repression, of the endlessly replaceable little people who make world go round but are oh so easily trampled under foot. But is it repression through forced solidarity (collective dehumanisation), or solidarity as a means of pushing back against (resisting) repression? I can’t decide. And I think that’s really the point.

Detail from "Public Figures"

I feel I can’t leave it without mentioning Antony Gormley, given that I already talked about both his “One and Other” plinth piece, and his “Fields” project which makes use of thousands of tiny blobby figures. But I’m actually finding the similarity between the two artists quiet irritating. I always appreciated Gormley’s work, but seeing Suh’s subtle, multi-layered and frankly far more interesting sculptures, I’m starting to find Gormley a little smug. Perhaps its wrong to put two artists next to each other like this. But if we do, say for the plinths, what do we get? Much as I like the idea of selecting people to “become” art on camera and be broadcast live around the world, I can’t help but love the concept of the people taking up the plinth above their heads and carrying it off.


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