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.

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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.