Skype Chat 2.5 – The Anthropology of the Object

 

Link to recorded lecture. Videos do not appear for confidentiality reasons; they depict operations, practitioner-patient interactions and other private situations. 

It took a little while for it to emerge that the lecture was aimed at design students as an introduction to ethnographic field studies of how everyday objects are used: detached observation, immersed in the context of the subject. A form of emic anthropology. The purpose, however, is not to elucidate the place in society of these objects, the reasons for their use, corresponding beliefs or thoughts. The purpose of such field studies using ethnographic tools such as drawings, photography, writing etc, is to find ways of designing things to enhance their use and better respond to their users needs and idiosyncratic behaviours and imaginative gestures. The behaviours that accompany the use of mundane or commonplace objects is often elusive to the user. Christian Heath thinks that interviewing subjects regarding their subconscious, automatic movements and gestures can be misleading or  yield little insight as the subjects are often unaware of the reasons why they behave in such ways. According the Heath, the object is shaped by the situation through interaction with the user and the way it is used varies according the conditions during the moment of use. The methodology is not an exercise in trying to be objective: product design itself is often highly subjective, led by trends, fashion and the influence of contemporary theories and commercial strategies.

The conversation on Skype veered to considering the ethics of anthropological methodology. However, the principle idea from our (fine art) point of view of the exercise is to look at ways of looking at how the behaviour attached to the use of mundane objects rather than relying on data or anecdote might help in the evaluation of one’s work. From my point of view as artist, this methodology can form part of reflecting on my practise. Is not considering audience behaviours regarding one’s own work a principle reason for exhibiting?      Anthropological observations of audience behaviour and experience can perhaps offer a way of informing the development of one’s practice, throwing light on work-receiver interaction and most importantly in evaluating curatorial ideas. This all may seem obvious and it is something I have done many times but thinking in terms of the anthropology of the artwork could help focus on the aspects previously mentioned more productively. 

 

 

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