letters from the north

ignore the figure in the corner, they're just the anthropologist

I am in the midst of writing a grant that will hopefully allow me to go back to Copenhagen and make work using the Arctic Institute's archives. Mainly the Knud Rasmussen collection from his Thule missions. The one I am most invested in is the Fifth Thule mission which set Rasmussen across the Arctic, from his Greenland base of Thule to the Russian coast. First he spent a year with Peter Freuchen, Therkel Mathiassen, Kaj Birket-Smith, Helge Bangsted, Jacob Olsen to excavate ruins and talk with the people who lived around Baffinland and Danish island. His intention behind the mission was to record a people in a state of transition and to engage the idea of the original migration of the Eskimo. What is interesting if you pull back the lens, is that western Europe was also on the verge of up upheaval and transition. His expedition, whose official title was 'The Fifth Thule Expedition- Danish Ethnographical Expedition to Arctic North America' was from 1921-24, very critical years in Europe. He visited, accompanied by Anarulunguaq and her husband Iggianguaq, every small ethnic group scattered across this vast landscape collecting artifacts, stories, and advice. Word spread: at times, before he had even made it to the next group, the news of his endeavors had already reached new ears. He mingled with medicine men and anyone who would offer him their stories, even the women and wives.

My interest in this has to do with cross-disciplines and telling stories from afar, something that both artists and anthropologists know a lot about. In my previous writing, I liken the work of myself as artist to that of an anthropologist or historian but with more allowances for the blending of facts and fictions. Something that I didn't touch upon was the idea of situational knowledge and how new genres of anthropology are not afraid of the using the 'I'. Artists have never shyed away from neither the personal nor the 'i' when making artwork. But this has been tougher for anthropology, a discipline rooted in the sciences, which often demands a certain tenor of academic voice in order for it to be legitamate. This is even despite the fact that the anthropology is affecting the history of the subject matter they are studying while trying to ignore the fact that they are standing in the same room.

As one of my professors, Dr. Ruth Behar, approaches it, there is room for the vulnerable observer in the same landscape. How can we approach personal accounts, diaries, fiction books set in specific time periods and particular places and not pull knowledge about people and why they do the things they do from these 'other' sources? The arts thrive off of this: From Genteleschi's master painting of Old Testament stories to Shirin Neshat's photographs of women and islam. The polar archives at the Institute will hopefully allow me to do just this: situate myself in the Copenhagen landscape as a vulnerable observer of a collection that has fallen asleep deep in the archives. All it needs is a little coaxing to re-energize it from its 80 year sleep.

My grant will probably culminate just as the International Polar Year is winding down in 2009. This is ok but it has me realizing how long a timeline it is for grant writing, from when you submit it to when you find out yea or nay. Going into my thesis year, i'm sure I will have many other committments to diverge my attention. There is a key, the artist-as-researcher, that I was introduced to by the determined professor Jennifer Pepper the very first semester of my undergraduate career. I hope to smuggle it into the classroom setting this year when I team teach the senior undergrads. As Clifford Geertz said, "You put yourself in its way and it bodies forth and enmeshes you".