Ethnographic Salon 2020: GRAPHIC

We hosted the 2020 Ethnographic Salon, GRAPHIC, on February 28. Continuing our tradition, the Ethnographic Salon celebrated the value and potential of ethnography as an intellectual and collaborative practice. This year’s Salon was an interdisciplinary exploration of the notion of the GRAPHIC. How are evidence and data represented visually and what do various graphic forms communicate? What forms of non-traditional visuality can we envision? We were thrilled to have Dr. Coleman Nye (Simon Fraser University), Dr. Juan Llamas Rodriguez (UT Dallas), and Dr. Jeffrey Himpele (Princeton University) join us for the activities.

The Salon was funded by the Department of Anthropology, the Humanities Research Center, and the School of Social Sciences.

Below are a selection of student participants’ graphic explorations.

Kristin Gupta, Dendrochronology or; Against Telos

Related to my research on death and dying in the Anthropocene, I have begun to think critically about the category of life expectancy , as well as its histories, logics, and foreclosures. Although most societies have some conception of what constitutes a “good” death, our dominant cultural ideal has become a death that happens in old age while asleep. This imaginary has only become more achievable over the past two centuries: since 1840, life expectancy has grown globally at around three months with each passing year due to medical and technological advances (Riley 2001; World Health Organization 2011). Functioning as a summary statistic, life expectancy has become a key metric of demography and undergirds both medical literature and the life insurance industry as a series of ratios and equations. However, not just a value-neutral prediction or collection of averages, life expectancy is the product of a historically-specific regime of valuation created with techno-economic practices to calibrate the differential length and worth of human life. These kinds of calculations take place at the macro-level of the population, but also have profound effects on the individual psyche, structuring orientations to the future that one is entitled to a certain amount of life. (This is incredibly evident in language as well, such as a life being “cut short.”) To what extent is this related to neoliberal, capitalist notions of progress and failure that have resulted in an ever-expanding, non-stop world that “disavows its relation to the rhythmic and periodic textures of human life” (Crary 2013)?

These assumptions around maximization can be seen in a typical life expectancy graph (shown below), where the average age of death is visualized through a series of dramatically upward lines. For my own graphic, I wanted to explore other ways of representing quantity of life. (Although at this point, I admittedly remain unsure if this kind of aggregation and abstraction should be recovered at all. But alas, one probably should not submit a blank page for a graphic workshop). One idea I came upon was dendrochronology or tree rings, which are already a visualized form of data where one can play with the number, shape, and size of rings instead of teleological lines, as well as explore the ways they overlap. How would thinking about life in different ways upset assumptions about how long we can/should live?

Gebby Keny

In my research I study efforts in South Korea to quantify and govern the distribution of carbon throughout vast intertidal mudflats located on the country’s western coastline. This work has made me interested in questions surrounding national territorial formations and how global flows of carbon, capital, and power as well as specific types of techno-scientific/legal practices shape territorial imaginaries and condition experiences of/notions of sovereignty at both individual and state levels. Most fundamentally, my graphic creation aims to underscore the point made by several scholars that the notion of territory is best conceived as an act or practice rather than an object or mere physical extension of the state. Additionally, it seeks to explore both the expressive and functional dimensions of territorial forms. I began by balling a sheet of graph paper up into a sphere, marking its surface with a pastel the way countries may be marked on globes, and then unfurled the sphere to see how this flat and relatively tidy territorial marking would splinter after the dense, wrinkled foldings that kept the sphere’s shape came apart. Next, I transferred this new territorial shape from the gridded graph paper to a blank and less-defined space by pressing the unfurled pastel marking onto a blank sheet of paper. Next, I smeared this newly printed territorial form in a more impressionistic style, loosely aiming to recreate the spherical shape I began with. Lastly, I photographed this impressionistic sphere, imported it into Preview’s photo-editing program, and, using the magic wand tool, allowed variations of contrast across pixel color values to delineate new territorial forms (pictured via the fuzzy black and white lines) and took a screenshot of this process. After all of this, I photographed critical steps in this process and layered these images atop a photograph of the surface of an intertidal mudflat relevant to my research. While my arrangement of these images can be read sequentially, I purposefully wanted to leave some ambiguity in this sequential reading to underscore the ongoing, processual, and non-teleological nature of territorialization and re-territorialization practices.

Yesmar Oyarzun, Race Is… Race Ain’t: The Graphic as Cultural Critique1

My research centers on how dermatologists work on racialized skin while ostensibly knowing that, scientifically, race is not real. The form I chose is a comic strip that represents an amalgam of sticky situations my interlocutors from a previous project got into when practicing both medicine and antiracism. The composite of those situations is that even physicians of color who actively fight racism and racialization in medicine end up utilizing the racialized shorthands of medicine and public health discourses.

I chose the comic strip form for two reasons. First, as an anthropologist of dermatology, my mind initially goes to the grotesque when confronted with the word “graphic.” Dermatology textbooks, websites, and even tweets are tinged with the graphic, often in unpleasant ways. In choosing a cartoonish and light-hearted form, I wanted to engage with skin in a way that does not make one’s skin crawl. The background, though, is archetypally flesh-colored to thematize the work.

The second reason I chose the comic strip form is for its humor. While one axis of my research project is medicine (i.e. dermatology), the other is race. Race, too, can be an “unpleasant” subject. The idea behind the comic form is to show how the vexed logic of race seeps into people’s minds and actions even as they intend to do the opposite. It demonstrates how silly racialized logics can be. They are embedded and tautological. They are embodied even as they are off-putting.

Finally, part of the aim of the comic is to convey a form of black humor (Carpio 2008), one that points at the absurdity of race while reminding readers of its continuance, of its inescapability. More than the art itself, the dialogue is meant to be almost surreal in the sense of being hyper-, rather than, un-real. The whole comic acquiesces in the paradox: race is… race ain’t.

1Borrowed from John Jackson Jr.’s “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t” that was, itself, borrowed from the title of documentarist Marlon Rigg’s 1990s film “Black Is… Black Ain’t”.

Tim Quinn, PrEP Map/Mapping PrEP

My dissertation research focuses on Teno-Em, a Thai Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) manufactured generic version of Truvada/PrEP (an HIV prevention drug that came onto the market in 2012). My approach to studying PrEP in this context is one of “studying through” (Shore and Wright 1997) – tracing the policies that create an object like PrEP, while also attending to how a range of actors encounter and make use of PrEP in ways that exceed those same policies and prescriptions. Following PrEP as it circulates both within and beyond the formal infrastructures that have emerged to proffer, facilitate, and govern its use, I am interested in how PrEP is repurposed in the fashioning of subjectivity, relation, intimacy, and care.

For this exercise, I chose to re-engage with a graphic that was created through a fraught and challenging collaboration during my preliminary fieldwork. In 2018, an organization I was working with asked me to be a part of a survey project, playing the role of “anthropologist” alongside a virologist/epidemiologist and a biostatistician. The goal of the survey was to acquire data on how people were obtaining PrEP, their dosing practices, as well as other behaviors, attitudes, and considerations. As an extension of this project, the team also wanted to work with the organization’s communications wing to create an information hub/platform that would provide access to knowledge about the drug. These included things like dose/regimen and efficacy statistics, where and how it could be acquired, legal regulations for import and travel while carrying PrEP, reporting cases where people were stopped by customs or suspected of being HIV+ etc.

In this collaboration, I had some friction with the rest of the team over a map that we produced. While I had some qualified victories (for example, others wanted countries with poor PrEP services and programming in red and countries with good PrEP services and programming in green – a rendering I spoke out against), it was still challenging to be part of a project that was producing data and visualizations of that data that I did not always agree entirely with. Nonetheless, I wanted to be in the room. I did not want to lose access to these kinds of spaces during my preliminary fieldwork. I admire and respect many of the people I’ve worked with despite the disagreements I sometimes have with them.

In my own drawing for this workshop, I decided to constrain myself to the same data, but instead draw lines in an attempt to show movement. Rather than using color saturation within particular national boundaries (something that ignores the role of cities and the connections between them that transcend national borders), I chose to instead use color pencils to chart the flow of Teno-Em out of Bangkok. Each line represents roughly ten respondents (I mostly rounded up) and each line uses a different color. While I wanted to get away from the nation-boundary saturation of the original map, as I drew these lines, a new kind of (rainbow) saturation emerged.

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