The Comedy of Things was an anthropological experiment on anthropology itself conducted by, with and on anthropologists (anything else would have been unethical). We asked: Can comedy be used as a method for exploring how anthropological knowledge is made? From 24th to 28th August 2014, twenty scholars were invited to a beach hotel north of Copenhagen to test this hypothesis. Three days before arriving, they had been instructed to select two artefacts and prepare two myths and two jokes from their primary place of origin and research site respectively, as well as a one-page text outlining what the Comedy of Things might be. During the next four days, they worked together in four groups to produce a creative commons based strictly on the prepared inputs. At 6 p.m. August 28, the material output from each group was assembled in four flight cases and shipped off to the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, as the first of several destinations.
The purpose of the Comedy of Things experiment was to explore how certain kinds of anthropological knowledge come into being. By asking participants to work collaboratively with a limited set of materials within an extremely tight framework, the ambition was to simulate and intensify the social and material conditions under which certain kinds of anthropological concepts are made. At the same time, given the parameters of this experiment – the fact that participants were forced to work outside their areas of expertise and comfort zones within the strict limitations imposed by the organisers – what took place at the event was not meant to be, nor did it turn out to be, scholarship. Evidently, the different textual and material products presented on this website do not abide to the norms of “anthropology” (let alone “art”). Rather, the Comedy of Things was something in and of itself: a sui generis ethnographic commons comprised of paradoxical connections not comparable to any other thing.
Two original fascinations fostered the idea of experimentally exploring anthropological knowledge production through comedy. The first was an obsession with late-night talk shows with stand-up comedians such as Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, and Louis CK. Oddly enough, the abrupt staccato-like and endlessly detouring conversations between host and guest felt as if they might contain generative potentials for making paradoxical connections between seemingly disparate domains of social life. For while having no immediate resemblance to processes of anthropological knowledge making, the form of these comic detours seemed to closely reverberate with certain modes of thinking that lie at the very heart of the anthropological enterprise. In particular, these deliberately orchestrated lines of associational flights called to mind influential anthropological theories of myth that chart the radical transformations’ or ‘obviations’ through which mythological narratives are established. Certainly, both comedy and myth would appear to operate through series of non-arbitrary associational leaps without adhering to any linear narrative structure. Could the classic ethnographic study of myth as experimentally probed through late night talk show interviews with stand-up comedians elicit new insights into the nature of anthropological knowledge as whole?
The second fascination that spurred the idea of re-imagining the making of anthropological knowledge as a form of comedy was the video installation Der Lauf Der Dinge (“The Way of Things”), which was exhibited as the Danish Museum of Art in 2013. Created by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss in 1987, the 29.45 min long installation/film shows how a collection of mundane objects are put together into a carefully choreographed enchainment of cause and effect. By removing things people use in their everyday lives and restructuring their relationship in a dynamic tableaux of creativity and destruction, Der Lauf Der Dinge has been described as controlled happening that playfully explores the logics that animate the universe of objects. And again, there seemed to be something about this ludic elicitation of more or less hidden qualities of objects that called to mind certain forms of anthropological conceptualization that seek of re-invent the meaning of ethnographic artefacts by extending their conceptual usage. While the means and the goals of these two endeavours – installation art and anthropological reconceptualization – differ, both seemed premised on the assumption that things are imbued with a sort of “comic” capacity for becoming other to themselves. Could anthropological concept making be experimentally re-imagined as vernacular, inevitably but perhaps productively amateurish, installation art? To do so, the method of study would again have to assume the same form as its object, namely comedy itself.
Both of these two inspirations – stand-up comedy and installation art – seemed to operate via of certain paradoxical yet somehow intuitive connections between seemingly incongruous things. As anthropologists, whose knowledge production inevitably involves unexpected and often awkward connections and disjunctures between disparate sets and scales of ethnographic materials, what might we learn from such associational leaps? Might the unlikely comparisons that lie at the heart of much anthropological thinking be imagined as inherently comic? Such were the original questions behind the Comedy of Things experiment.
If new insights about the anthropological knowledge making can be obtained by experimentally probing the relationship between the associative leaps of comedy and the distortion of everyday causality and functionality of objects in installation art, how best to test this idea? The most straightforward solution would be to organize a conference following standard academic conventions: presentations of individual papers followed by gradually digressing discussions of selected themes. While this approach has its advantages, it was clear that it would induce people to reflect upon – as opposed to test – the hypothesis concerning comedy as a method for exploring the anthropological knowledge production.
A better and bolder solution, it seemed, was to design an experiment that could directly test the hypothesis. In setting up such an experimental design, the obvious challenge was thus how to allow participants to make associational leaps and intuitive connections between different ethnographic materials while bracketing their anthropological proclivity for reflecting about what the “meaning” of these creative processes might be. Accordingly, it was decided to keep information about the idea behind the experiment at an absolute minimum but to outline in detail the necessary preparations and procedures needed to carry it out. Basically, the participants in the experiment would be told how to do the Comedy of Things but not why.
As the planning progressed, the Comedy of Things experiment came to comprise two parallel collaborative procedures and sets of prepared materials; one involving texts and one involving artefacts. A well-tried method had already been developed for how to set in train a collaborative process of associational leaps and this method, called ’totemic dialogue’, would guide both procedures so that similar associational leaps could be made irrespective of form (that is to say, whether pertaining to texts or artefacts). While the participants were thus essentially banned from making standard analytical reflections, they were encouraged to document the concrete steps whereby new associations and connections were made.
The experimental design that emerged from around 1,5 years of planning, then, was a series of ‘productive limitations’ that would force participants to act outside their expertise and comfort zones. One such limitation resided in the fact that various practical information was only made available to participants as the experiment unfolded. For example, it was only after arriving at the venue that it would be revealed to people whom their fellow participants were, and that they would be working in pre-composed groups for the next four days. Similarly, each morning people would be presented with a program for the day, but not the following days, so that only by the end of the last day would they be able to form a full picture of the event.
It is only through the carefully-timed collapse of the continuity and coherence of his or her performance that the comedian proceeds to his or her next ‘bit’ with a new crescendo, and thus perpetually set in motion the very series of associational leaps and conceptual jumps that together lends the show its paradoxical coherence. Similarly, in much installation art, the goal is to destabilise pre-existing associations between things, concepts and and events by recontextualizing and re-enacting them in oftentimes meticulously choreographed tableaux of paradoxical connections and disrupted flows. In stand-up comedy as in certain kinds of installation art, then, progress is measured by the extent to which the performer is capable of perpetually undermining his or her own ground through a sort of optimal distortion of the all too human proclivity for making linear connections between premise and conclusion, setup and punch line, cause and effect.
A vital but difficult question thus became how to ensure that the Comedy of Things would be infused with the same degree – and the same kind – of paradoxical coherence. To reach this goal, four ‘wild cards’ were invited to disrupt the experiment and thus force the participants to perpetually undermine their premises, assumptions and conclusions. On the first day at the venue, an ethnographic museum curator was brought in to formally register the artefacts that each participant had prepared and brought with them. The next day, two Icelandic installation artists set up a workshop space with tools and materials in a tent outside the hotel, and over the following days, they acted as practical midwives for two groups each, helping to put together (or take apart) the eight artefacts that each group had to fit into one of the four flight-cases. And finally, a professional improvisational dancer was invited to ‘translate’ the different texts both prepared and co-produced by the four groups into a one hour long Comedy of Things improvisation.
Severe but hopefully productive restrictions were put on participants in terms of not only what materials they were allowed to work with but also how, and for how long. Thus, the texts and artifacts that they prepared served as building blocks for two non-scholarly outputs (co-authored mytho-jokes and co-created installations) which each group were told to complete during their four days of collaboration. And to demonstrate that the Thursday deadline was meant seriously, commitments and expressions of interest were secured beforehand with museum curators in Denmark (Næstved and Odder) and Norway (Olso) as well as with a publication house in US (Punctum Books) about eventually disseminating the experimental ‘results’.