Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Results of Technical Wizardry...

After some significant time arguing with reticent hardware and even more reticent intangible software, we are finally hooked up with Australia and about to discuss string figures with Robyn McKenzie.

As part of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhamland in 1948, a multidisciplinary team explored the area. Frederick McCarthy, an anthropologist, was seconded to the expedition. He worked with string figures, designs and patterns made with string using all parts of the body. They are not just completed by singular people, but by groups. Many had been collected in the early 19th and 20th century. McCarthy's collection became the largest of it's kind and it is now housed in the Australian Museum.

But he also collected photographs of the makers (namely Ngarrawu Mununggurr) and descriptions of the creation of the figures. So what, actually, was he collecting? Was this a Western attempt to collect the anthropological culture of another? But it was nothing so simple. Through the anthropological concept of diffusion, the creation of string figures in different areas and through different methods could be used to show wider relationships.

McCarthy had three collecting methodologies - collecting ready mounted figures; collecting figures 'commissioned' and recording their methods of construction; then the recording of the 'social' material and information which surrounded the significance of the figures to different groups within the society. He recorded myths and stories of origin and creation. But he did not collect from their natural context. How does this change the meaning of the figures? The meaning and significance of them was very different to Ngarrawu than to McCarthy - and they are very different in their meaning now. We see them, not as McCarthy saw them, as products of one culture, but as the products of a cultural collaboration which could not exist without the participation with either of the participants. They are a document of an historical event, a meeting, a combination of understandings. Earlier this year, Robyn McKenzie made a return visit to the area, to bring the string figures back into the limelight in the museum, and to reconnect the McCarthy-Mununggurr articles with the practice in the present.

Fantastically, Robyn made string figures to show us how they were created - there was even a magic trick! But these figures, while fun, are also deeply significant and ritual objects. Where, I wonder, did the game of Cat's Cradle come from? Is there something more behind what seems at first to be a childish game?

People have posed some really interesting questions in both of the presentations this morning. The concept of what constitutes an object and where the meanings of that object lie have permeated this conference. What are those things with which we engage and how might we extend our ability to do so - through cultural collaboration, through new media, or through our own and the object's movement through time. There are so many possibilities for object engagement and understanding.

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