RAI Film Festival 2021
Although ethnographic filmmaking is now an established approach within contemporary anthropology, there remains a problem of how to build and sustain a critical community around ongoing practice. This is particularly difficult for graduate students and young scholars who are working outside formal programs in visual anthropology. Taking the example of the Visual Scholarship Initiative (VSI) originally developed at Emory University, we discuss how an expansive critical community was generated through engagement with a range of creative research practices. Led by graduate students, it developed outside of formal institutional structures and sustained itself past the institutional affiliation of many of its members. Building on a studio critique approach, VSI emerged as a site for the exploration of experimentation as a central, rather than peripheral element of scholarly inquiry. In this session, members of VSI lead a discussion about practice-generated critical community and its resilience in an era of dislocation and uncertainty.
The Visual Scholarship Initiative (VSI) was started in 2006 by a small group of graduate students at Emory University. Its core members were doctoral students in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA), where interdisciplinarity was at the center of scholarly practice. Founded in 1952, the ILA had long been recognized as a site for innovative work and its graduate students were consistently bold and innovative in their pursuit of projects that could not be contained within the confines of conventional academic disciplines.
VSI quickly established itself on the Emory campus as a place where students from different departments could meet to share work and explore the creative possibilities of scholarly practice. From the beginning, students in anthropology were actively engaged in VSI, drawing on its critical community to experiment with the different ways that film and photography could serve as a medium of ethnographic research and presentation.
At the core of VSI was critical appraisal of work in progress. Meeting regularly, students formed an ongoing discussion group that took specific examples of practice as its point of departure. VSI followed an art school “crit” approach – that is everyone except the presenter responded to the work, and only after everyone had spoken was the presenter allowed to speak. Comments focused on the formal and substantive aspects of the work under review and the particular choice of medium. The varied backgrounds and academic locations of participants yielded lively exchange and laid the foundation for subsequent dialogue among participants. This second stage of discussion focused around where the presented work stood in relation to existing forms of scholarship and what kinds of arguments might be made as to its academic legitimacy.
Students supported each other in experimenting with different approaches and media. Collectively they worked toward establishing an intellectual context for non-traditional work and the grounds for its evaluation as scholarly practice.
VSI was unusual in contemporary academic culture for several reasons. First of all, its impetus came from the students themselves and its distinctive character and concerns were defined by particular problems and challenges they encountered in their graduate work. VSI was never a formal program with institutional expectations and, as a consequence, its agenda was open and forged through dialogue and practice.
Secondly, VSI was a direct expression of the intellectual seriousness and creative energy of graduate students. This may seem an obvious statement, but the prevailing academic culture tends to discourage deviation from established norms and conventions. In particular, VSI stood against the prevailing climate of academic discourse that emphasized “training”. In its place, VSI sought to catalyze an expansive discussion about scholarship as creative practice.
In 2012, the ILA was eliminated and, with it, a space on the Emory campus where experimentation was at the heart of scholarly work. Given its membership, VSI subsequently migrated to the Department of Anthropology. For the last three years, it has primarily existed as a digital community. Most of its original members, now dispersed through a range of academic institutions and contexts of art practice, are still actively engaged in the circulation and critique of ongoing projects. And new members are always welcome.
For a selection of essays by VSI members, please see Participatory Research and Visual Methods: editors Sarah Franzen and Joey Orr, special issue,
Vol 4 No 1 (2016) | Visual Methodologies (sfu.ca)
Andy Ditzler is a curator, musician, artist, and scholar based in Atlanta. He is founder and curator of the long-running moving image series Film Love, which was honored with a 2019 retrospective at the High Museum of Art. He co-founded the idea collective John Q, recipient of the Artadia Award and other honors. Ditzler earned a degree in Music Performance from Indiana University and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Emory University, with a concentration in curation.
Sarah Franzen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology and an Affiliated Faculty in African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on ways of knowing embedded in farming related practices and how these practices are used to retain culture, foster environmental relationships, build institutions, or create social change. This focus is applied to how individuals and collectives resist, refuse, or survive the racialized and exploitative dimensions of an extractive agricultural system. She has worked extensively with African American farmers and cooperatives in the southeastern US.
In her research, Franzen uses film collaboratively as a tool to better understand tacit, embodied, affective, and sensory knowledge. Filming serves a creative practice of heightened sensory awareness that attends to and frames the moments of intersubjective experience between participants, researcher, camera, and environments. Her research uses this engagement around filmmaking (including the planning, editing, and screenings) to co-produce reflections on and material artifacts of cultural practices. Her digital and written works use this approach to explore diverse systems of wealth (Economic Anthropology, 2020/Attala County, in production), environmental perceptions (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 2017/Dog Days 2017) and public/participatory scholarship (Qualitative Research, 2013; Visual Methodologies, 2016).
Anna Grimshaw is an anthropologist and filmmaker. For ten years she taught at the Granada Center for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester before moving to Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA) in 2004. Here she worked closely with graduate students seeking to explore visual and experimental approaches as an integral part of their doctoral research. The Visual Scholarship Initiative grew organically from this work, as graduate students took the lead in creating their own informal critical community that encouraged scholarly explorations beyond the established academic norms and conventions. When the ILA was eliminated 2015, Anna moved into the Department of Anthropology and continues to teach courses in visual anthropology and related topics.
Since 2010, Anna has been making films in Machiasport, a small fishing town in Downeast Maine. Using an observational approach, she is interested in how people make their lives – materially, socially and imaginatively – in a particular landscape. Her work explores questions of skilled practice, seasonality, solitude and sociality. She is the author of The Ethnographer’s Eye(2001) and co-author of Observational Cinema (2009). Her films include: Mr Coperthwaite: a life in the Maine Woods (2013, Berkeley Media/RAI), a companion piece, A Chair: in six parts (RAI), At Low Tide (2016, RAI) and George’s Place.
Sasha Klupchak works as a producer for a film and digital studio, Mala Forever, that centers unheard voices in media. She holds a PhD in interdisciplinary Media Studies from Emory University, where she was a Woodruff Diversity Fellow and Andrew Mellon Teaching Fellow. Grounded in disability studies and feminist and media anthropology, her research and teaching investigates how sensory media production (film and photography, digital storytelling, podcast, installation, soundscape) can document the sensuous movement of disability in space in expansive ways, talking back to generations of medicalized and objectifying representation. Her scholarship has been published in Yearbook of Literature and Medicine and in Images and Human Rights: Global and Local Perspectives, and her films have screened at museums and film festivals including Ethnocineca, Society for Visual Anthropology, Days of Ethnographic Cinema, and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
Klupchak’s broader research agenda theorizes sensory media production as a method to advance renderings of a complex crip subjectivity and embodiment. She takes up “crip technoscience” to task the sensed role of access in the material and conceptual environment of the national park system. What this generates, then, is a pursuit of disability justice by theorizing multisensory media ethnography as a productive method for crip world-building. To explore these spaces, she plans to initiate place-based dialogues and explorations alongside scholars specializing in universal design, environmental science researchers, indigenous activists, anthropologists of the Anthropocene, and disabled artists to produce short, collaborative multimedia works to be disseminated episodically.
Joey Orr is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator for Research at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, where he directs the Integrated Arts Research Initiative and is affiliate faculty in Museum Studies and Visual Art. Previously, he served as the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where his major project aligned three exhibitions around artistic research. Recent writing has been published in Art Papers, Art Journal Open, BOMB, Hyperallergic, Journal for Artistic Research (Network Reflections), and Sculpture. Juried writing has been published by Antennae, Art & the Public Sphere, Images, Journal of American Studies, QED, Visual Methodologies, and the chapter “Collecting Social Things” in the volume Rhetoric, Social Value, and the Arts (Palgrave Macmillan). He holds an MA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD from Emory University. The Visual Scholarship Initiative gave important early interdisciplinary feedback on projects exploring public interventions based on archival research in his work as a member of the idea collective John Q.
knowledges 2019-20 exhibition:
Inquiries 2019 museum publication that documents the program’s inaugural years:
Short-format video about the Integrated Arts Research Initiative (IARI):
Kwame M. Phillips is Associate Professor of Communications and Media Studies at John Cabot University, specializing in sensory media production, visual anthropology and audio culture. He received his PhD in Anthropology and Film and Media Studies from Emory University in 2014 and is a former Filmmakers Without Borders fellow. He is co-author (with Dr. Shana Redmond) of the chapter "'The People Who Keep on Going': A Radical Listening Party" in The Futures of Black Radicalism. He is also co-creator (with Dr. Debra Vidali) of the multi-sensorial sound art work, “Kabusha Radio Remix: Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host David Yumba (1923-1990).” He most recently co-authored the article, “Ethnographic Installation and 'the Archive': Re/Dislocation, Reverberation, and Aspiration” in the “Bodies of Archives/Archival Bodies” special issue of Visual Anthropology Review.
Phillips’ work uses multimodal and experimental methodologies, often grounded in remix and repurposing, to center on multidisciplinary engagement and focus on resilience, race, and social justice. He is committed to teaching in underserved communities and has taught workshops in Thailand, The Maldives, Pakistan and Palestine. His current interests are in what he calls 'mixtape scholarship,' a curation and reprocessing of sensory media to "convey sonic narratives of the disenfranchised, the under-represented, and the marginalized in a manner not bounded by academic tradition or traditional form."
Sydney Silverstein is an anthropologist and filmmaker. She earned her PhD from Emory in 2018. She is currently an assistant professor in the Center for Interventions, Treatment, and Addictions Research/Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine. There, she leads a number of mixed-methods research projects on substance use disorder in the Dayton, Ohio area. She has also conducted ethnographic research in Amazonian Peru since 2010 on a variety of topics, including but not limited to the impacts of the region’s decades-long entanglement in illicit coca production and trafficking.
Her anthropological work is animated by a participatory, multimedia practice. In addition to producing two ethnographic documentaries, she has engaged a number of participatory visual methods in her work both in Peru and the United States. Currently, she is editing an expanded version of a film she made in collaboration with the residents of a drug rehabilitation center in Iquitos, Peru. She is also working on a participatory photography project with people with opioid use disorder in the Dayton, Ohio area.
More information about Sydney’s research can be found on her personal website, https://sydneymsilverstein.com.
Mael Vizcarra is a filmmaker from Tijuana, Mexico. She holds a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies from the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University. Mael's work focuses on the everyday life of working-class people along the Mexico-U.S. border. Her films have been shown in various festivals and venues, including the Athens Ethnographic Film Festival in Greece, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Cine Tonalá in Mexico.