Ethnography & Design on the AnthroPod PodCast

I am glad to be featured this week on the AnthroPod podcast, produced by the journal Cultural Anthropology. The piece is the first of three in a series on ethnography and design, featuring two other dear colleagues and my collaborators the past two years in the UC Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design, Lilly Irani and Keith Murphy. As an avid podcast listener myself, I am especially fond of the work that AnthroPod does to bring the anthropological perspective into my podcast app and earbuds (take that, Freakonomics!), and commendations are especially in order to the exceptional Tariq Rahman and Katherine Sacco, both in the PhD program at UC Irvine, who put the series together.

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Still Images from the Staged Workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE

One of the interesting challenges of conducting performance ethnography is learning anew how to document non-text-based happenings that become part of the ethnographic record. The recent staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE, my ethnographic play script, produced an overwhelming barrage of moments of meaning-making and storytelling as actors, directors, lighting and set designs, and our access researcher, came together to create two performances and move the work toward a full staging (the workshop engaged professional actors and MFA theatre student designers in a very short a two week process with light tech and props, but no set. In director Joseph Megel’s hands, this stripped away aesthetic was just enough to draw the audience into the stories in the play, presented with stirring energy by the talented cast.

Regan Linton, a woman with blond center parted bangs, sits with legs crossed wearing a leather jacket and silver earrings, facing the camera, but lookign elsewhere. Behind her and to the right, out of focus, Vladimir Rudak sits behind a music stand illuminated by two small lights over the music. He holds a guitar in his lap, and his reading glasses are fogged or made otherwise opaque by blue-tinted stage light that washes across the image; the background of the photo is black. They are both seated, but only someone who saw other angleswould notice that they are both seated in wheelchairs because the wheels and handles hardly appear in the frame.

Regan Linton as Vera, and Vladimir Rudak as Musician, during the October 2016 staged workshop of I WAS NEVER ALONE at UC San Diego’s Shank Theatre. Photo copyright Jim Carmody, please visit his website for a full gallery and contact him for usage requests.

As an ethnographer, of course, I wanted to capture every moment of the process. What notes did the director give the actors? How did disability theatre specialist Jason Dorwart, the assistant director for the workshop, who also played the role of Rudak, differ in his interpretation of the script from our nondisabled director? What kinds of problems – embodying a role, pronouncing Russian words, working out what a Russian speaker might mean when referring to a particular political issue – arose during the rehearsal process? Most of these elements were captured by my digital audio recordings. And, with the help of Communication Department graduate student Olga Lazitski, who has a background in television news production, we were able to capture research quality video for several rehearsals and the two performances.

Finally, Jim Carmody, of the Department of Theatre & Dance at UC San Diego, brought his theatre & dance photography artistry to our final rehearsal, producing a series of stunning photos. View his gallery here: http://jimcarmody.zenfolio.com/iwasneveralone.

As performance ethnography scholar Dwight Conquergood underlined in his discussion of textocentrism, the process of knowledge production, and the kind of knowledge that is ultimately produced is curtailed if we cave to the hegemony of text-based forms of recording and knowing. Visual media like video and photography can only capture a limited glimpse of the social phenomena that live performance produces; a photo of a still moment in a performance can hardly produce the kind of communitas or social shift in emotive and interactional awareness that live performance creates. But these forms of documentation help us to understand the ways in which those performances continue to reverberate in the lives of people that the work has touched. How these images are taken up and used in the future is a question that interests me as a methodological problem: are they data, or are they objects in and of themselves? Are the publicity, interventions, illustrations, or texts? How will they be edited, read, shared, compiled, critiqued, or ignored? In an increasingly mediated world, these are questions that no longer pertain only to digital, media, or visual anthropology, or performance ethnography, but to many ethnographers whose fieldwork archives become increasingly media rich. In this way, I suspect that looking again to theatre, and understanding how our colleagues in those institutional locations have understood production photos, can be a useful pathway (as was Victor Turner’s alliance with Richard Schechter). Just some thoughts as I sort through the various media piling up in the wake of the play workshop.

I WAS NEVER ALONE keeps on moving

I WAS NEVER ALONE (IWNA), a play script based on ethnographic fieldwork in Petrozavodsk, Russia with adults with disabilities, just keeps on moving – developing in new ways and finding collaborators and possibilities that, as a first-time documentary playwright, continue to astound and amaze me.

The February  2016 staged reading  of IWNA (dir. Joseph Megel) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was the focus a recent video from Carolina Performing Arts. Check out a few clips from the reading, and me, trying not to not say the wrong thing, in the two-minute video feature.

Thanks to a grant from the FISP program, the play is moving forward with a more elaborated workshop that will take place in the fall at the University of California San Diego. Auditions for cast members, and meetings with prospective production team members will take place on June 2 & 3rd at UCSD (Dept of Theater & Dance, Galbraith Hall, Rm 20 on the lower level). Sign up for an audition slot here, or contact me or assistant director Jason Dorwart for more information or with access requests.

Meanwhile, script development continues on the Russian side of things, with the Russian-language version of the edited script nearing completion thanks to the collaboration of Valeriya Markina, my colleague at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, whose own project looks at disability theater in Moscow. This version of the Russian-language script will be shared with research participants, who will have the opportunity to review their own segment privately, and then, in late July, participate in a day long table reading and workshop about issues of disability representation that the script brings up. I’m looking forward to heading back to Russia for the first time since 2014 in order to conduct that workshop!

I guess the show’s subtitle, Oporniki, might have something to it — this thing really does seem to have a backbone!

 

 

I WAS NEVER ALONE workshop and staged reading

This week takes me back to North Carolina to work on logistics leading up to a planned workshop and staged reading that will take place at UNC-Chapel Hill Performance Studies during the first week of February 2016.

The workshop will be the second process presentation for I WAS NEVER ALONE, a documentary play script and performance ethnography project that I am developing in collaboration with Joseph Megel (UNC Performance Studies artist-in-residence and director of FREIGHT) and collaborators in Russia. The script focuses on the personal narratives of  seven adults with disabilities living in contemporary Russia, presented in a 90 minute play as a series of monologue-type portraits. The narratives are drawn nearly verbatim from translations of interviews with Russians with a range of disabilities in Russia who have participated in the development of this project since 2012.

Find more information about the casting needs please contact me (cassandra.hartblay@gmail-dot-com) or Joseph Megel (megel@unc-dot-edu). Casting will continue through November 2015.

New photo essay on Disability in Russia

I’m happy to announce the publication of my photo essay and accompanying text in the interdisciplinary journal Landscapes of Violence. You can download the PDF version from the LoV website, or read the abstract, below.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk,  the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk, the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.

Abstract

A recent Human Rights Watch report documented the ways in which people with mobility impairments in Russia are both physically and socially marginalized by the built environment in Russian cities, which is strikingly inaccessible. These photos attempt to center the perspective of people with disabilities traversing (or being limited by) the Russian cityscape, and explore the ways in which (failure to adhere to) building codes effectively limit the public participation of people with (certain) disabilities in the daily life of the democracy. Subtle barriers, immediately obvious to a wheelchair-‐‐user, begin to emerge for the viewer considering these photographs. They document the ways in which people with disabilities recognize the material structures of the city as socially produced, and as a key factor excluding them from public life. Seemingly passive objects and the history of particular infrastructures turn out to be arbiters of marginalization, domination, and discrimination. Some of these photos have appeared on a collaborative blog documenting accessible and inaccessible entryways in the city of Petrozavodsk, Russia. Some images are examples of what I call check-‐‐mark ramps -‐‐ objects that look like ramps, but don’t “work,” i.e. that don’t actually facilitate access for people with mobility impairments. Images of such “failed” ramps have circulated as an internet meme, but their ubiquity elides the fact that there are far more places that simply lack the elements of accessible architecture altogether. This photo essay is related to the ongoing digital installation project DYTLI, based on the same ethnographic research.

What are we doing when we say Putin has Asperger’s Syndrome?

I am someone who thinks about disability and Russia for many hours of the day, most days. So, naturally, I paid attention when the social media world was suddenly flush with posts and tweets about the strange story that a US government report had speculated that Putin has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This was a story that hit the trigger buttons for two constituencies that aren’t usually found together: the neurodiversity community, and Russian conspiracy theorists intent on documenting US Imperialism and incompetence.

After tracking down the report for myself (so middling, it’s hard to believe it was newsworthy) and surveying both the US and Russian popular responses, I wrote a thought piece for the medical anthropology blog Somatosphere.

While much of the critical response focused on what The Guardian called “the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance,” or, via media footage, I found a different element worth considering. What happens to a diagnosis when cultural traits are pathologized using that diagnosis? And what happens to ethnic or national identities when cultural traits are pathologized? Is there something specific about scenarios in which both occur simultaneously?

You can read the full blog post on Somatosphere, here.

Society for Disability Studies takes Minneapolis!

I find out what a nerd I really am when I realize how excited I am for the Society for Disability Studies conference. The conference will take place this week, June 11-14th, in Minneapolis. This will only be my third time attending, but I truly love this community. I look forward all year to finding out what people have been working on, congregating in hotel lobbies (bundled up to bear my Reynaud’s in the too-cold air-conditioning), and building new relationships. It’s also an extra-fun year for me to attend SDS, because I went to college at Macalester College, just across the river in Saint Paul. So, the Twin Cities are where I first got to delve into disability studies as a field – taking classes with Cindy Wu, doing campus activism (Disability Awareness Month) with SDS board member Joan Ostrove, and interning, then working at Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. Now in the culminating years of my graduate studies, it all comes full circle.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

The poster for Disability Awareness Month 2005. Artwork adapted for this poster is RUSTY CAT MEOW, tempera on matboard, 8.5×11″, by Ron Christopherson, 2005. RUSTY CAT MEOW was one of the works featured in an exhibition on the 2nd floor of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center at Macalester College in October 2005. The exhibition included narratives and photos that Ron and I gathered together, as well as his multimedia artworks.

This year my presentations will be as follows:

Dual regimes of productivity?: tracing ableisms and resistances in Soviet and postsoviet welfare states” a paper presentation extending the questions raised in my recent DSQ article, on a panel titled Performing resistance outside of capitalism: Interrogating Soviet, postsoviet, and global leftist ableisms with Anastasia Kayiatos (Presenter in absentia), Stevie Peace Larson (Presenter), David T. Mitchell (Discussant/update: Dr. Mitchell is unable to attend at the last minute) and Louise Hickman (Moderator). Panel 9d/Friday 5:00-6:30 pm.

“Do You Like This Installation?” a paper presentation about my Ethnographic Installation investigating the built environment of public space and cyberspace in Russia, on a panel titled Cripping Cyberspace: Exploring Online Disability Aesthetics. With Amanda Cachia (Panel Organizer, Presenter, this year’s Zola award winner!!), Sara Hendren (Presenter in absentia), and Margaret Price (Chair/Moderator). Panel 5c/Friday 8:00-9:30 am.

I’m really lucky to be engaging with all these amazing folks, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds.

A screenshot from the home page of the installation website, showing the heading, the menu, two paragraphs of text, and three photos of unusable ramps in RussiaFellow graduate students, if you’re not already a member, check out the Facebook group for the SDS Grad Student caucus (you need to request membership, but one of us administrators will add you promptly). Join us for a happy hour at Brit’s Pub on Thursday evening, and for the Caucus Meeting Saturday 6:45-7:45 pm (holla, caucus coordinator Adam Newman) and the special panel on professionalization (how do you get a DS job, y’all?) that Jess Waggoner put together (Thursday 12:15-1:15pm).

See you all there!