Kasper Jelsbech Knudsen: The Comedy of anthropological experiments



As we approach the first anniversary for the Comedy of Things (CoT) workshop, I feel compelled to share some of the ways in which the event has informed and, in a very practical sense, affected my own work. While there surely are facets and insights from the workshop that have yet to dawn on me, there is one concept in particular that I associate clearly with CoT: Anthropological experiments.

Let me clarify what I mean by this in relation to CoT and how I think this concept can be applied elsewhere.

Out of the Box

During our four-day workshop at Helenekilde we engaged in highly creative, freethinking yet timely and materially constrained exercises. While this was certainly an ‘experimental’ mode of working, it is rather the final output that informs my work-in-progress understanding of anthropological experiments. The result of our collective effort in group 1 was an installation piece entitled “Out of the Box”. In it we had attached seemingly recognizable objects (a cigarette bud, a clock, a space helmet, a scarf, nail polish and so on); metonymical objects loaded with contextual meaning from our different backgrounds. Once at the museum the idea was for audiences to interact with the installation and unveil (literally) these meaningful objects but in a new context of mythical creation in which the significance of the objects would, or so we hypothesized, reveal itself anew with each individual visitor creating his or her own narrative of the cosmological function of these objects. However, at the time we were not able to observe audience responses to our installation in order to comprehend, retrospectively, what we had actually created with “Out of the Box”. Nonetheless, I came to think of CoT as an endeavor to explore the elusive ways of experimentally derived, anthropological knowledge-production characterized precisely by this continuous meaning making in which ethnographic data reads itself through itself, so to speak.

Thinking the experiment beyond CoT

Might it be possible, then, to front-load (borrowing a term from philosopher Shaun Gallagher) not only objects, but also ethnographic phenomena in which meaning is defined depending on the socio-cultural context as informed by fieldwork yet open to novel interpretation in a completely different setting? Might it be possible re-position sensorial and affective experience into an exhibition in which audiences can re-create a foreign phenomenon albeit in a simulated way and thus imbue it with their own understanding particular to the social and cultural context in which they live? What kind of comparison would we end up with and would it be anthropologically relevant at all? Furthermore, what if the audiences where informants dictating their own analytical premises by engaging with the ethnography through the installation and in dialogue with the anthropologist?

Spirit Places – an ethnographic art exhibition

These questions lead to the realization of Spirit Places//Åndesteder at Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, between March 16 and May 26, 2015. The exhibition was an integral part of my research into global Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity and, as such, a comparative experiment in which Danish Charismatic Christians along with Ghanaians living in Denmark would engage in conversations with each other and me about faith, spirits, materiality, representation, and missionary Christianity in relation to the cultural and socio-economic contexts of Denmark and Ghana respectively. It was an anthropological experiment hypothetically informed by (1) an ethnographic phenomenon (the presence and expansion of religious communities in Southern Ghana is largely conditioned upon struggles to dominate social space through sound and visual expressions), which was then (2) re-positioned through material representations and simulated interaction into a Danish ‘lab’ setting (the museum) where (3) observation, questionnaires, and ‘comparative dialogue,’ as I call it, made it possible to extract analytical insights from audience responses to re-read my fieldwork from Ghana and gain understanding of the comparative dynamics between faith-based communities and their social and cultural context.

Originally, Spirit Places, which was done in collaboration with Ghanaian art photographer, Nii Obodai, was supposed to be exhibited in Ghana after the initial responses from audiences in Denmark and thereby function as a kind of cross-cultural conversation between Christians in Denmark and Ghana about the function and position of Christianity in modern societies that face different societal problems. However, due to lack of funding the exhibition never moved to Ghana. Instead, we created an online platform for the exhibition (not unlike this site) in which Ghanaians, Danes and others can take a virtual tour through the exhibition, get a deeper background understanding of the project, and, most importantly, engage in an online dialogue about the themes of the exhibition (you can access the website for a full description of the exhibition here: www.spiritplaces.dk)

Designed as an experiment, Spirit Places sought to isolate two variables of Ghanaian Charismatic Christianity as basis for comparison: (1) the European missionaries and (2) the traditional Ghanaian world-view of spiritual presence in people’s day-to-day lives. Isolating these two variables in sections 1 and 2 was necessary to have audiences engage in a comprehensive way with section 3 of the exhibition, which was divided into four installations and depicted scenes from Accra, the capital of Ghana, where the notable presence of Charismatic Christians can be seen as the synthesis between the two previous sections. In each installation there was a pair of headphones in which Ghanaians talked about their Christian worldview in relation to the practices shown in the images. Additionally, in each installation there was also a button that, when pushed, would activate a set of loudspeakers with recordings of the scenes depicted. In effect, whenever a visitor pushed the loudspeaker, he or she would activate that particular space (say, a prayer meeting, a preaching in a bus, or an exorcism). If other visitors did the same in the other installations, a cacophony of Charismatic Christian sounds would fill up the exhibition room (with the traditional drums from section 2 constantly in the background). Thus interacting in the exhibition, audience members created an audio simulation of the presence of Charismatic Christians in Accra through sound. In addition, we attached small analogic counters disguised as on/off buttons that audiences could push if they wanted to turn off the sounds in the other installations and thereby dominate other people’s spaces through sound (the ethnographic phenomenon from Southern Ghana). The counters, however, did not turn off the sound but merely counted how many people actually pushed them.

I collected data from the experiment in three stages: (1) observing audiences interacting in the exhibition, (2) using questionnaires of audiences’ experiences and comments on the exhibition, (3) conducting tours and subsequent in-depth interviews, the so-called comparative dialogues, with groups of Charismatic Christian Danes and Ghanaians living in Denmark as well as non-Christian Danes.

The ethnographer conducting a comparative dialogue with Danish Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.
The ethnographer conducting a comparative dialogue with Danish Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.

A ‘failed’ experiment

I will leave it for my forthcoming dissertation to go into detail with the many ways in which audiences helped to reformulate my initial understanding of both my ethnographic material from Ghana as well as the exhibition itself as a comparative experiment. For now it suffices to say that the audience feedback consistently emerged from the failure of the exhibition to predict how audiences would interact with the exhibition. For instance, while there were many attempts at turning off the sounds (as indicated by the counters), observation revealed that people were rather trying to turn off the sounds that they themselves had activated. In terms of the questionnaires, most were filled out by young people (from seven to fifteen years of age) and many of those were not answers to the questions but rather objections to the project and the media through which I communicated (images, sound, and objects) by drawing genitals, calling me an idiot and so on. Most thought provoking, however, were the interviews with groups of Danes and Ghanaians because they turned my attention to analytical blind spots in the exhibition that I had not considered relevant. These are insights that have emerged through the exhibition and could not have been predicted beforehand as they are a result of the situated knowledge and beliefs of the people I invited to come and their view of my analytical understanding of Christianity and spiritual belief in Ghana.

Engaging difficulties

This work is ongoing and my thoughts above on the anthropological experiment are meant as preliminary sketches to be discussed and clarified further in the future. But to clarify why I think we should take this notion of anthropological experimentation seriously, it is is primarily because of the generative nature of knowledge-production inherent in this type of research. While the concept of the anthropological experiment certainly borrows from other conceptualizations of experiments in terms of hypotheses and unrealistic simulation (see, for instance, Nancy Cartwright’s paper on experimentation), the crucial difference, and one which emerged through the CoT workshop, is the ‘ping-pong’ nature of the experiment in which people themselves retrospectively inform the experiment by loading the material on display with their personal and idiosyncratic knowledge regardless of how these might otherwise go against or problematize the original ethnographic meanings.

This is not to say that we should abandon our insights from neither fieldwork nor our informants’ perspective outside of the experiment. It is rather the opposite. The anthropological experiment as a comparative exercise is a methodological and analytical tool that allows us to expand our knowledge by engaging various perspectives and understandings (however imaginative and biased) in relation to our fieldwork and, as such, it functions as a dialogue between informants and anthropologist about the appropriate analytical concepts. With this in mind I should note from experience that to engage in this type of anthropological experimentation is also, in some sense, to open up a Pandora’s box of biased interests and ethical questions. While such issues remain extremely difficult and elusive, my point is, however, that they are not issues that emerge because of the exhibition but rather they are made visible through it. The anthropological experiment confronts us with hard problems inherent, I think, to ethnographic inquiry and, what is more, it lets our informants articulate their opinions to these matters as part of the process of creating and communicating anthropological knowledge to people outside of academia.

A process-related experiment in three-steps

So, to sum up: What is an anthropological experiment? First, the anthropological experiment must be hypothetically informed by ethnography since it is the raison d’être of the anthropological experiment to function in dialogue with and expand current ethnographic data. Secondly, the experiment unfolds as interplay between material representations of the ethnographic phenomenon in question and simulated interaction among informants/audiences. Thirdly, by using what I here call comparative dialogue (in lack of a better phrase) informants can re-formulate the initial analytical premises that went into the experiment making it possible to re-read the ethnography in dialogue with its comparative ‘other’, in my case: Charismatic Christians in Denmark informing my ethnographic understanding of Charismatic Christians in Ghana. In short, the anthropological experiment is a framework for retrospective and process-related knowledge-production that assumes a non-linear and non-static character through representations and comparative dialogues.

Finally, I should note that these preliminary thoughts on the anthropological experiment emerge, of course, from issues relevant to my field of research, namely global perspectives on Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity. As such, this commentary is also an invitation to people in other research areas with interest in anthropological experiments to expand on the concept. This will, in time, allow us to get a better understanding of the useful and limited applicability of anthropological experiments as spawned from the Comedy of Things workshop.

Street preacher in Accra. From the exhibition “Spirit Places//Åndesteder.” Photo: Nii Obodai.
Street preacher in Accra. From the exhibition “Spirit Places//Åndesteder.” Photo: Nii Obodai.

Brit Ross Winthereik: Destruction as way of knowing

Comedy of Things 2014

I take writing this comment as a chance to reflect on the task we were given to make an exhibition as part of the Comedy of Things. Making an exhibition was premised on the assumption that new anthropological insight might be gained by setting a constraining scene for playful engagement with things (some of these constraints are described in the ‘about’ section). Indeed, the Comedy of Things can be described as a set-up for experimenting with re-articulations of the relations we conventionally believe we have with objects, artifacts, materials – the stuff of the world. I find the experiment successful in this regard, because it achieved such articulation. In the process of making the exhibition some of the objects that were part of ‘group four’ demonstrated a curious capacity to transport us, the experimenters, back into the worlds from where the objects had been taken.

Let me first briefly sketch out the general procedure. We had each been invited to bring with us two objects, one from our ‘primary site of origin’ and one from our ‘primary site of field work.’ We were told to deploy a ‘totemic method’ developed by Morten and Morten as a way of working with these objects. The totemic method prescribed a playful engagement with objects that would pair the objects and observe the pairing as we went to see if a pattern would emerge. Based on what we could remember from Morten Nielsen’s run through of the method, we tried it out using the materiality of the object as our guide for pairing (clay with clay, nylon with other textiles, glass with glass, rubber with rubber). But we soon encountered certain analytical blockages. Not least among these was the following problem: even if we were able to associate our wildly different objects, what would those relations be expressions of? Having no theory for solving this conundrum, we developed a practice of ‘moving juxtaposition’: we simply moved the objects around until we were able to envision some kind of relation between them. This procedure eventually allowed us to produce a tableau that we called “Fox and Fieldworker.” (see exhibition box four, section ‘exhibition’).

I’m embarrassed to admit that I felt distinctly uncomfortable in this situation where the method so tangibly emerged together with the objects forming relations. To alleviate this unease, I came up with the idea that we could split the group in two. Half of the group would observe the other half as they struggled to relate the objects, first inside the hotel and later in Freya and Arnar’s design space.

Although we did not know precisely what to do and how to do it, we slowly found a way through (and I should mention that this did not happen as an effect of the attempt to control the process through observation and note taking). Gradually relations were indeed formed among the materials. Some objects acquired a certain prominence while others moved silently into the background (we were not sure why and the experimental setup did not really enable us to think through this). Nevertheless, this was a rather pleasant process, and we felt more or less in control. Indeed, after a while we came up with a product.

In the end, we had produced a tableau and a peculiar but somewhat evocative title that might be taken to hint at an underlying myth. Yet the lack of a narrative that interwove our materials made the operation random and the result seem rather naïve. Because the objects did not belong together in any obvious sense everything could be made to fit everything else. Although what we had produced was rather ugly, in our pursuit of knowledge this particular constellation has gained a “positive inflection” (Strathern 2014: 7). Paraphrasing Marilyn Strathern (1996, 2014), we might thus say that this process was testimony to the fact that relations release certain capacities and do things. Yet that observation was of little assistance when it came to addressing another question: why on earth should that be considered an interesting or good thing.

Soon enough our comfort turned to discomfort. After all our efforts would be put on public display. We decided we could not serve our monster up to the public and decided to destroy it before it was too late. Curiously, however, we had all felt some sort of affinity with the ‘thing’ we had made. This led us to define a new methodological principle: we would have to destroy the monster we had created with care. This principle may have evolved in anticipation of the relations that were to form, rather than as an effect of our relation with ‘Fox and Fieldworker’, but that may be pure speculation. In practical terms ‘destruction with care’ implied that we would indeed destroy every single object, but we would do so with a keen eye to its materiality. At least the materials should be involved in determining the process of their elimination.

Compared to building the tableau, destroying it was a much more mechanic process. In one of the video clippings that document our process (see Box 4, this web site), Ben describes the lack of pleasure he experienced when committing to such ‘reverse archeology’. Indeed, in contrast with the hopeful naiveté that characterized the making of the tableau, our ‘creation through destruction’ had a deeply bureaucratic aspect: Since we have decided to destroy, we shall carry through. Quickly, the anticipated empathy for the objects that informed the principle of destroying with care had been distorted into procedural meticulousness. Ben bears witness to this transformation: the principle became ugly (just like the monster it was invoked to destroy), “it made me feel quite sick, wanton destruction”.

But as we meticulously engaged in tearing, breaking, cutting and sawing, we were in for a surprise: The objects began to demonstrate their value. The Mongolian bear pipe that Morten had received as a gift many years ago suddenly pressed upon him its ‘giftness’ (this pipe ended up being re-giftet). The sandals that Anne Line had purchased in Brazil and in Denmark came to life as she remembered their economic value (the sandals suddenly were “good sandals”). Ben hesitated at having to break the reconstruction of a prehistoric pot from Tucumán as breaking it made him remember the costs and the difficulties of going to the field site. And Matt expressed concerns about smashing a Psion Organizer-II, a portable computer that the Kalahari scientists would find at once retro and very useful for documenting meerkat behavior.

From the outset the selection of these objects had been complicated by the lack of guiding criteria. What objects to bring to the Comedy of Things? There were so many to choose from? In our different ways we had solved this problem by a process of imaginative recall of what our places of origin and our field sites were like. All of us had also thought about how these objects would perform as representatives of faraway worlds when transported to a hotel on the Danish coast. We had not brought them along to be destroyed. Yet, whereas the process of destruction succeeded in wiping them out, it also succeeded in bringing to new life the worlds from which they had come.

I have not yet told you about my object. In destroying this object with care, I came to see that it had actually been destroyed long ago. The object I had brought along was a wave captured in a jam jar. This seemed a suitable object, since I work among innovators who design and develop technological devices and infrastructures for capturing ocean waves to transform them into renewable energy. Smashing the jar with a hammer and seeing the water disappear into the gravel on the floor of the design space, taught me something new about waves: they cannot survive capture. If there is any ontology to waves it is surely only of movement and flow. Realizing that the wave had already been destroyed at the moment of capture made me wonder anew about the relations of energy engineers and waves. And wonder turned into analytical puzzlement: How to capture movement without stopping it? In developing technologies to harness energy from ocean waves, physics certainly helps. But what about metaphysics?

The moment delivering me to new insight about the ontology of fluid objects extended into a conversation with Kasper one night at dinner and formed a broader and pressing question: How to form relations with a world that is differently composed than the one you know? In the case of wave energy, engineering is part of the answer, but what are the other parts and how do they hang together. In the case of religious practices in West Africa, various kinds of amplification is certainly part of the answer, but what about the other parts and how do they hang together? Indeed, how to form passages to a world of movement and energy (or a world of gods and spirits) when the tools you have at your disposal need to be static to stand against the very movement they seek to capture?

UntitledFig. 1: Wave energy capture technology maintenance. Photo by Louise Torntoft Jensen

As I said at the beginning, I think of the Comedy of Things as an experiment in how to ally with objects in such a way as to expand our own registers for seeing worlds. Comedy has thus enabled me to rethink energy worlds. Conversely, it might also help energize anthropology.

However, although our experimental tinkering with objects was comic it obviously did not create a passage into the world of comedy. On the back of Alberto’s comment that the Comedy of Things might set new standards for anthropological knowledge making in the future, I would like to suggest that energizing anthropology through new standards depends on further experimenting with our forms of experimentation. With rules: as exemplified by our systematic, yet unwanted process of destruction. With bodies: as in the various choreographies that emerged (in contrast to moving objects around, the bodily choreographies were much harder to document). And with forms of witnessing: Comedy of Things adds to the conventional repertoires of anthropological presentation through the exhibition, the web site and the comments and practices they instigate. Further experimentation in these multiple registers might help anthropology know how and what it is that it knows.

Afterthought: Destroying the objects from our ‘primary site of origin’ did not seem to have the capacity to create a passage or rearticulate what those sites were like. Perhaps we were simply not able to enter this territory and be vocal about such passages. Or, which is more likely to be the case, rearticulating these worlds needed other methods than destroying with care.

Strathern, M. (1996), Cutting the Network, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2(3): 517-535.

Strathern, M. (2014), Reading relations backwards. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 20: 3–19.

George Marcus: Comment


I make these initial comments (1) as a reaction to  a wonderful conversation I had with Morten Nielsen on a stroll at Moesgaard about a month after our   CoT week, when he explained to me  your ideas and rationales in designing and conducting our project, and  (2) as notes I took on reading about two  weeks  ago  your  jointly composed essay, essentially explaining on paper, what  I had learned from Morten during our walk.

(1) In retrospect, I am wondering how effective it was to keep us all so much ‘in the dark’ since from your essay and my conversations  with you, you had very specific references  and ideas  in mind. There was indeed quite a bit of ‘theory’ and desire behind the design. Knowing a bit more of it would have been helpful–at least  in my case. How, and  how much, to disclose is itself an art.

(2) There were also certain assumptions operating  about what the subject as anthropologist is  like–shared ethos, shared knowledge, anthropologist as ‘out of the box’ thinker–as the primary operating identity of those who were participating. In particular, knowledge of anthropological theories of myth was presumed.

(3) There were no spectators for what we were doing except ourselves in our divided parallel groups   The ‘wild cards’ did not function as
spectators or a stand-in public for us –in fact for the most performative one, we collectively were  an attentive public.

(4) “Totemic dialogue” seemed to be a key kind of  ‘theory  or operator of the case’. But really was it in play?

(5) You open by saying “The Comedy of  Things was an anthropological experiment  on anthropology itself conducted by , with and on anthropologists (anything else would  have been unethical).” Why, and  what alternative would  have been, unethical??  The  parenthetical seems absolutely critical to me. This  seemed to both limit and close off possibility–it in effect  set  the boundaries for the project, much more explicitly than I had supposed  coming as participant told very little beforehand.  Are we talking about the ethics of  anthropologists?
of artists? of  friends and comrades? More on this below…

There was an investment in a certain sort of ethos of the anthropologist…as ideal intellectual, as artist or not? To reverse Hal Foster’s 1995 essay title, “The Ethnographer As Artist?” I sensed quite a bit of resistance to such an identification, even though we were seemingly placed in this position. The Icelanders, I noticed, were amused–in their way.

I think not, as well,  but in terms of  historic avant-gardes, ‘chance’ (a  la John Cage; the exquisite corpse of the surrelaists) seemed to be a more  important principle  of making than improvisation…but  this is  not how comics invent–timing, yes, but not  ‘chance’ over improv.

I guess I would judge  how good we were as kinds of comedians or producers of comedy by registering the level and quality of laughter that  I heard,separate from fellowship  and solidarity in a common endeavor. I have to say that  I didn’t hear or see much laughter that comedy elicits. From whom? An audience, spectatorship, or public for what we were doing on site– which we did not have and for which each group serving as spectators  of the  performance of the other  was not sufficient. What comes to mind is that very old Culture and  Personality essay that  Bateson wrote around the Naven ritual –where he said in American culture the children are exhibititionist, and the parents observers; in English culture the other way around–but the  dynamic of  Naven was precisely moieties playing the spectator/ exhibitionist roles for each other in a building process of ‘schismogenesis’.  This begins to resonate with what I observed at Helenekilde!.

In retrospect, those three cds were the most important predistributed artifacts  to think about.  I personally would liked to have had them earlier in the game, or yes, I admit, I would  have liked the sort of explanation of why we  were viewing them that you disclosed in  the essay, which  you have just circulated.  My  impression is that far too little attention was paid to them by the others. They were mentioned but not  much engaged with, when they were key clues  to what you were up to (‘your theory of the design’, so to speak).

So, why comedy ? and in what sense, comedy? Morten Nielsen revealed how  much he admired the agility and creativity of contemporary comics in the world of entertainment (e.g. Richard Pryor).  So to move in the direction of  the tropological history of Comedy (as  Nick and  I did) while it could  have been interesting was probably a diverting  move. You  literally had the skill of comics in mind.  But  comics  always anticipate, live or die by a  public , a presumed audience, even when there is  none, and they are playing only with one another.  In this sense, a resource for what we were doing relationally among ourselves with the comic (like  Pryor and others) in mind is the 2005  film The Aristocrats (which precisely parallels within the ‘inside’ world of comedians what we were trying to do creatively in the inside world  of anthropologists).

But really, these are quibbles for certain discomforts, which were, after  all, very much the  point amid all that  comfort, luxury, and true comraderie of those days.  Indeed, it is  as yet impossible  (at least for me) to render any sort of  coherent account of those days together –what they might mean– that possibility is  potential, is  in the future ,as what we made  is subject to the seeing, experiencing, and discourses  that arise in places where  ‘art’ and ‘artifacts’ are curated.  That is the point–the story of what we did  can’t yet be told.

A comment on my own group  …it got too textual too quickly and for too long. I was overwhelmed  by the structuralist assimilation of stories, which in my case, did not do justice to the  things I/we brought.   Nick and  I writing  a dialogue (a pretty interesting one) in the context of what others were doing was  like  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flipping coins a la Tom Stoppard. We made that kind  of space amid the industry of anthropologists being  other  than scholars.

Let’s see how things turn out….

Alberto Corsín Jiménez: Higgs Boson Blues: Sounding Out the Anthropological Prototype


We were the Guinea pigs. The neutrinos. The Higgs bosons. We were theorized upon, modelled, desired. We were called forth into existence. We were experimented into the world.

In their masterpiece on the life of experiment Leviathan and the air pump, Steve Shapin and Simon Schaffer described Robert Boyle’s ingenuity in designing and setting-up the conditions for experimental work in 17th century England. Three technologies were involved in the production and validation of experimental facts: material, literary, and social.

The material space of experiment (the instrumental equipment, the paraphernalia and architectural environment of experiment, Boyle’s very own house) was all-important in centering the discussions to be have. It helped locate the extent and reach of controversy. Experimental facts occurred somewhere, and debate over them should remain circumscribed to that material space.

Experiments further required a particular technology of reportage: a language of description, a “naked way of writing” (69) that was theoretically innocent and capable of attesting to matters of fact rather than opinion. The genre of experimental writing should display humility, demonstrating the author’s standing as a disinterested observer, a voice whose testimony was reliable.

Last, the life of experiment necessitated a community of witnesses wherein matters of fact could circulate and obtain validation. It is well known that the community of such witnesses was first restricted to Boyle’s circle of genteel acquaintances and friends. The social standing of a witness was a sine qua non of his trustworthiness, of his credibility and hence ability for divulging and lending authority to the results of experiment. Over the years, witnesses were recruited virtually, through the networks of correspondence maintained by Henry Oldenburg at the Royal Society (which in time would supply the epistolary material for the Philosophical Transactions).

Experimental arrangements have changed quite a bit since the time of Boyle. Notwithstanding, historians of science have shown us the continued importance of material, literary and social technologies for the work of experimentation (e.g. Peter Galison’s How experiments end or Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s Towards a history of epistemic things). Moreover, today we find “epistemic cultures” of experimentation, as Karen Knorr-Cetina calls them, that work hard at opening spaces for playing, distorting and challenging the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the material, literary and social technologies that underwrite the lives of experiment

The Boylean Experiment and the Anthropological Prototype

Was the Comedy of Things an experiment, and if so, of what kind? The organizers say it was an experiment on us (anthropologists), by us, about us: an experiment that modelled how anthropological concept-work is made.

The experimental conditions were indeed carefully planned and executed. The material, literary and social technologies were thoughtfully crafted to test the conventional limits of academic exchange (seminars, workshops, conferences) and its taken-for-granted outputs (papers, articles). We were spatially and temporally manipulated, and asked to manipulate our own spatial, temporal and material trajectories / biographies.

The Comedy of Things website provides abundant information on such an experimental design and layout. Moreover, it frames the experiment in terms of its desideratum and dramaturgy – the associational flights of comedy – and its machinations and energetics – the material enchantments of installation art.

As originally conceived by its organizers, then, the Comedy of Things lines up nicely with the Boylean tradition of experimentation. It laid out material, literary and social resources with which to experiment (upon ourselves); it imposed spatial and temporal rhythms on the execution of experiment, and invested strategically on designing an environment that was at once under-determining, yet simultaneously expecting, output.

The Comedy of Things thus functioned as an anthropological (version of a Boylean) experiment.

Yet I want to suggest here that some of the things that happened at the Comedy of Things laid out the grounds for thinking of it as an experiment outside the Boylean tradition – a tentative assay, perhaps, of an anthropological experiment in its own right.

The website provides an example. The website you see today is not the website that was ready for launch on August 28, 2014. The original website proved incapable to accommodate – both technically and conceptually – the Comedy of Things output. A number of us felt that the Comedy of Things deserved better; that we should not give away to the urgency and pressure to publish our results; that the web could and should be something more than a digital exhibition space, that it should be an integral part of the experiment itself, even if that required postponing its launch.

Or take the role of the ‘wild cards’: the museum curator, the performer, the artists. They were invited to disrupt our work, to challenge us to re-examine our progress. But in truth they played little more than a ‘facilitating’ role, especially in the case of the artists, who were vital in helping all groups manufacture our installations. Various people expressed discomfort with the situation, noting that it would have been more stimulating and generative to have Freyja and Arnar work with rather than for us. In fact, over the course of the week a number of people developed close relationships with Freyja and Arnar, opening up directions for possible future collaborative work.

The very futurity of the experiment provides my last example. The days spent at Tisvildeleje were jovial, controversial, indulgent, intense, agonistic, cathartic, and as George Marcus put it to me, “a strange contemporary rehearsal of Durkheimian communitas”. But this perception of communitas provoked ambivalence and concern. Some people expressed serious doubts as to what the whole purpose of the exercise was. They felt the experience of communitas ran too close to sheer self-indulgence, and worried about what (say) future auditors might have to say about our cosy little experiment in an increasingly austere political economy.

Thus, in these terms, it proved difficult to appreciate how much of the relational space we were clearing up was experimental and how much was experiential, notwithstanding that the spilling of one over the other might be signalling the very location of anthropological concept-work that we were looking for.

As it turns out, over the following weeks the confusion, fears and uncertainties proved particularly fruitful for thinking through the nature of the experiment. In my own case, in a number of conversations with Morten Pedersen we observed that an aspect worth considering was not just what the Comedy of Things had accomplished, but what it had enabled for future accomplishment. We came to realize that beyond the event itself – beyond the week-long workshop – there was scope to think of the Comedy of Things as a sort of anthropological prototype: a methodology and an infrastructure, a machine for concept-work, but also an experience and social form, an intuition and excitement for the promises of collaboration. The Comedy of Things as a creative un/commons.

The sustenance of this anthropological prototype, however, calls for very different resources than those traditionally mobilized by the Boylean experiment. It has demanded a singular inventiveness in the design of novel spatial and pedagogical forms (at the Museum of National History in Oslo), of documentary registers (for instance, the new website, as well as the afterlife of commentaries, reflections or social media interventions offered by participants), of collaborative and relational exchanges (in the iterations and bifurcations of the original event that have seen the light since), and of infrastructural equipment. The very licensing of the whole website with a Creative Commons license came as an afterthought to the workshop itself, and nicely captures the project’s re-description as a pedagogical, collaborative, infrastructural and commons vision.

I wonder, therefore, whether the success of the Comedy of Things lies not so much in its identification of an experimental protocol for anthropological concept-work, as in sounding out new horizons for anthropological experimentation. The Comedy of Things would fare in this latter guise not quite as an experiment itself but as a perpetual prototype for experimentation.


The title of my post comes from a recent Nick Cave song, one of whose stanzas goes like this:

Hannah Montana does the African Savannah
As the simulated rainy season begins
She curses the queue at the Zulus
And moves on to Amazonia
And cries with the dolphins
Mama ate the pygmy
The pygmy ate the monkey
The monkey has a gift that he is sending back to you
Look here comes the missionary
With his smallpox and flu
He’s saving them savages
With his Higgs Boson Blues

It took physicists close to 50 years to find evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson. I am proud to be part of an intellectual project (anthropology and/of the Comedy of Things) that is committed to sounding out a new tune for the Higgs boson blues.

Debbora Battaglia: Installation Ethnography as Gelotology


I arrived at the project on a leap of faith – basically, that an ethnographic experiment that could, perchance, become an event.

When I left the project grounds, I had not a nanosecond of doubt that an event had indeed occurred, at least to my way of thinking – though in two competing senses.

First off, I was prepared by the organizers’ invitaton for the radical rupture of the workshop from ethnography taken as tacking between field and representation – the space of writing something up, for example, or taking a film to its final cut.

But I was surprised by the affective intensity of the experience of making the break.

This fact raised for me the worrying possibility that my unconscious mind is more Christian than I’d realized. It so happened that I’d been reading Zizek’s Event (2014), which at one point enters into a distinction between Christ’s “’good news’ of a radical break . . . event as rupture in the normal run of things”, and the Socratic concept of event that stands for remembrance – “for rediscovering the higher reality of Ideas which are always already in us” (emphasis mine).

Asked to comment “afterwards” – as if we’d left this event behind when we left the physical site, along with the ideas we’d come with and the ones born of collaboration – was something I couldn’t quite make sense of. So, I immediately forgot about the organizers’ post-op request to think back on the experiment and to comment on it. Of course, this half-willed forgetting broke the First Commandment of faith in the Creative Commons, namely, to act in the spirit of the common good. Instead, I had selfishly embraced my inner abductee.

Now, any abductee will tell you that it takes time and intellectual labor, not to mention a will and a little help from one’s friends, to recollect (as distinct from remembering) an abduction experience – whether rapturous or traumatic. Remembrance that refers to a collaborative event is another order of work than recollection entirely, a project “always already” a rupture from the specialness of anyone’s experience. It cannot avoid speaking or anyway thinking for others.

So much for Zizek. The event had already collapsed in on at least one category distinction before I’d finished reading Event.

This returned me to the more familiar realm of ethnography, which I took to be the object an experiment to, on one level, configure itself as an installation of its own project – an encounter literally and figuratively at a remove from the particularity of the texts and materials and ideas we’d brought with us for working out from, as particular histories. If there were a problem, it would be along the lines of what might interfere with installation ethnography optioning itself to the comparative project more generally speaking, other than as an object of socioaesthetic controversy: Whatever else, this could not be ethnography for ethnography’s sake just at the moment it had come face to face with its actants’ differing capacities to do and to undo the ethnographic project’s future in “comparative relativism” (as Jensen figures this). It could not stop with its surprise-in-recollection, such as what I’m attempting to relate here.

CoT could only be reproducible as its own laugh.

This seems so obvious to me now. By no accident transported to hotel space apart from our Ordinary Worlds, one could no more deny the nature of our collective’s knowledge and productivities as shaped in the de/construction of ideas and materials sacred to anthropological productivity, than as owing to experiential immersion in the confounding “being there” moment of the experiment’s abductive liminality. In this sense, the “meeting of the heterogeneous” as Ranciere puts it, expressed a meta-relational challenge, namely, to go beyond cultural entification and entity relations (human and nonhuman), in order to examine those relations’ relation to the realm of the senses: North Sea plunges during work breaks and breaks taken (or refused) for teatime Danish cakes: in effect, to examine the negotiations of the CoT program (in the strict sense of the term) relation to all that exceeded it, spatially and temporally, materially and conceptually.

It now appeared that fundamentally, CoT had charged itself to laugh collectively and also contagiously: to create conditions of possibility for contracting-while-releasing persons and things, thereby aerating installation ethnography’s future.

Which is how our working group (which was Group 1) must have come to its “Out of the Box” assemblage: an artifactual cosmos floated as a laughably serious invitation to engage with the thing in a still-open future. As all ontologies do, this one would require particular kinds of aerative negotiations for it to see the light of day – diplomatic releases from idea-locks, unscheduled breathing spaces, cigarette breaks, technological and affective irritabilities (as Antunes Almeida and I have explored this), and so forth. It would need to embrace to some degree the exposure of its distinctively emergent “attitude toward reality” – as Zizek (yes, I couldn’t leave him behind) defines technology (emphasis his) – to the risk of translation, and furthermore, to alteration beyond recognition by its sources. (However good it is, the CoT website brings us up against the evidence of this effect.)

Gratefully, then, I accept that the project all along was at least to some extent for claiming installation ethnography’s distinctive capacity to aerate new ethnographic zones of exchange elsewhere, elsewhen, and in the terms of other beings – gelotologically.

Whether or not we, or they, think of ethnography as a laughing matter.

Nigel Rapport: Five Moments of Comedy


Moment One.

My first impression was ‘Who are all these people?’. I mean I recognised many of them but what were they doing here in this remote Danish beach-side hotel that had taken me such a long time to reach (and in different stages and by different modes of transport). I was expecting the select group of Danes with whom I was working—a joint project on ‘distortion’ as an aspect of social life and the broader human condition: Morten and Morten and Nina and Henrik and Sandra and Lise.

It seems I had not understood, or sufficiently remembered, Morten and Morten’s email: some 20 anthropologists would gather to take part in a non-specified ‘event’, ‘The Comedy of Things’, and be prepared to devote a week of their lives to the process. The devoting had not in fact been onerous: a secret box to open beforehand at a specified time (GMT); three DVDs to watch; three short texts to write concerning (1) humorous anecdotes from our ‘home’ environment and our ‘field’ environment(s), and (2) ‘myths’ from ‘home’ and ‘the field’, and (3) what we thought The Comedy of Things might be about.

Nor was the devoting onerous once arriving at the remote location (Tisvildeleje): an area of holiday cottages on the Siælland coast, north-west of Copenhagen. Indeed, the setting was stunning, plus fine company, excellent food, a spa hotel with a spiral staircase to suites with balconies overlooking the beach and sea; even a sea warm enough to swim in after a hard day’s anthropologizing under the meticulous guidance of Morten and Morten (and the ability to ham it up in front of the camera (since the whole event was filmed), and even the ability to ensure you were the best (at whatever it was we were meant to be doing) since we were divided up into competing working groups).

Moment Two.

What did I think I knew? That as a practitioner of anthropological science, my subject was the ontology of the human condition. What is it to be human? What is our universal nature and what is our singular and personal experience? In particular, what is our experience of one another, and what models fit social life, where the experiences of different individual human beings abut?

I understood this knowledge of humanity, individuality and sociality to be incremental: This was what our knowledge consisted of according to what we had learnt to date; what did any new ethnographic experience add to this corpus?

I also understood this knowledge of humanity, individuality and sociality to have a moral purpose: How could humanity and individuality best prosper, given the changing nature of social life in changing natural conditions—and given the ignorance and the immoral capacities of certain actors and certain social arrangements and certain cultural constructions of the world?

Lastly, I understood this knowledge of humanity, individuality and sociality to have an aesthetic component: How could the knowledge of humanity and individuality be best represented and disseminated so that change occurred along lines of personal freedom and opportunity: so that all human beings irrespective of the accident of birth that placed them in different geographical, social and cultural environments might benefit from the best knowledge of human ontology that had been accumulated to date?

The ‘comedy’ here to which Morten and Morten referred, I felt I knew at the outset, was that individual consciousness and social life alike operated according to (‘comedic’) principles of distortion. The processes of consciousness and social interaction were neither of them linear or predictable. The ‘comedy of things’ was that in human life ‘things fall apart’. Intentions are not fulfilled, plans go awry, systems and relations collapse; our bodies and our minds mutate in ways that cannot be known in advance; and the effects that these bodies and minds have upon others with which they come in contact—and how they are affected by others in their turn—cannot be known in advance either.

Given this anthropological knowledge of (comedic) distortion, how ‘optimally’ to deploy it? That is, how to incorporate a distortive view of human personal and social life into anthropological theorizing? And how to deploy it in the pursuit of a global society run on liberal principles (of personal freedom)? How to inscribe distortion?

Moment Three.

What did I think Morten and Morten knew: what did I think, in advance, that the Tisvildeleje event might be choreographed to display? ‘Comedy’ was not to be taken literarily. I thought it might refer to the serendipitous connexion between things in a life, the contingencies and coincidences and muddle, and the way that accidental events and occasions and actions ramify, even into tragedy. (Social relations I knew to be a muddling-through in which no neat, mechanical models fit, and no overarching systems, structure and function, synthesis and consensus, actually existed.)

Were Morten and Morten wishing to have us enact variations on the theme of social life being farcical, chaotic, multiple and contradictory? Was this the story of the DVD they had had us watch beforehand on a Lars von Trier exhibition in which the random movement of ants filmed at the entrance to a nest in an American desert and then transmitted to a computer screen in Denmark determined the moods and behaviours of a set of actors whose characters and ambitions were unknown to one another (and only vaguely fleshed out to themselves) and who were placed together—their lives set against one another—in the confined spaces of a certain number of rooms in a Copenhagen museum? There is ‘comedy’ in the inadvertent and indirect and miscommunicated effects that each human being has on others.

I supposed that the DVD was also to show the effects that Gregory Bateson would have described as schismogenesis, or feedback. Each human being has effects on others that were incremental: more from one leads to more, or less, from another in measurable gradations. These knock-on effects were the visible matter of another DVD we had been instructed to watch: ‘Der Lauf der Dinge’. The ‘comedy of things’ also concerned perhaps what I knew that Morten and Morten liked to consider to be things’ affordances. What did one thing have to possess in order for it to be affected by some thing else? Things must possess properties that could be triggered, however inadvertently, by the otherness in their environs. ‘The way things go’ in human life depended on the intricate and accidental ways in which human beings were connected by their affordances, whether of a chemical or physical or locational, a semantic or emotional or social-relational or cultural-traditional kind.

I was also struck by the correspondence between what I imagined to be Morten and Morten’s intentions for us at Tisvildeleje and what I had just been reading from the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in his Book of Disquiet. ‘The only reason we get on together is that we know nothing about one another’, Pessoa wrote. Human social life is a masked ball. The means that one human being has to communicate with another—words and gestures—are ‘uncertain, divergent things’, such that ‘the very way in which we come to know each other is a form of unknowing. When two people say “I love you” (or perhaps think or reciprocate the feeling), each one means by that something different, a different life, even, perhaps, a different colour and aroma in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the activity of the soul’.

Moment Four.

Finally, having completed the Tisvildeleje course, having reflected over the intervening months, and having read their text ‘About’, what do I now think Morten and Morten were about? For them, ‘The Comedy of Things’ was a version of ‘fieldwork’—broadly understood as those moments of self consciousness at which particular social and material conditions generate our specific ways of anthropological knowing and conceptualizing. At the heart of the anthropological enterprise as they see it is the making of ‘paradoxical connections between seemingly disparate domains’. They conceive of these acts of making as ‘associational flights’—akin to the obviations of myth or the perversities of comedy. And they conceive of a hidden structure to these flights or obviations that derive from hidden qualities of the (apparently) disparate domains and objects now being associated in the anthropologist’s mind. What appeared initially ‘comic’ or ‘ludic’ or ‘mythic’ was in fact the anthropological uncovering of a sort of ‘comic capacity’ of these domains or things to be thus properly associated together, or enchained.

In short, ‘at the heart of much anthropological thinking’, for Morten and Morten, lay making ‘unexpected and often awkward connections (and disjunctures) between disparate sets and scales of ethnographic materials’. Rather than making linear connections between things—from premise to conclusion—might we achieve a better perspective on ourselves as anthropologists by exploring the ‘comedic’ way in which we produced knowledge through processes of categorial distortion?

Was not our anthropological knowing a matter of thinking through things—objects, situations, places, scales—such that a distortive logic was revealed to us concerning the connections (affordances) between these things, and hence these things’ true, deeper natures?

Moment Five.

I think I understand Morten and Morten better now, and their version of an anthropology that is different to my own (concerning ‘things’ affordances and capacities’, ‘the mythic nature of relationality’, ‘“things” as including human beings and objects and situations’, ‘deep structures’, ‘ever emergent concepts’). But maybe I’ve got it all wrong.