Ethnographic fieldwork with an arts organisation: the betwixt and between

Jessica Bradley

I am a PhD student on the TLang project, researching translanguaging and translation in production and performance in community arts. I approached a local community arts organisation, Faceless Arts (www.facelessco.com) earlier this year with a view to working alongside them on their creative projects with local community groups. This then led to me being invited to accompany them to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to work on a street theatre production with a group of multilingual performers.

One of the most interesting aspects of ethnographic research is the information that we absorb, as researchers, in the spaces and times ‘betwixt and between’, to use Victor Turner’s description of liminality within the context of fieldwork. I consider these periods of hanging around for the next workshop to start or travelling from one place to another as being liminal spaces and I’m starting to understand the importance of these periods of ‘waiting’. I’m currently in Ljubljana documenting the production of a street puppetry performance, which is a collaboration between the Ana Monro theatre (www.anamonro.org), based in the city, and Faceless Arts. The production will then be toured around Slovenia at the end of June and beginning of July as part of the Ana Desetnica street theatre festival, which is in its 18th year.

The building in which the Ana Monro Theatre offices are housed
The building in which the Ana Monro Theatre offices are house
The Kino Šiška arts venue
The Kino Šiška arts venue

Intensive period of fieldwork: I spend all day with the group observing and participating in the workshops, filming the performers, taking photographs, conducting interviews and writing notes. I’m staying in the city for six nights and trying to soak in as much of the atmosphere of the making and production process as I can, as well as the wider context, in order to understand as much as possible. As I write this, we’ve just finished the making process and, after a day to recuperate, we’ll be right back into the rehearsal and production stages. I’m sitting at one of the desks in the Ana Monro offices. To my right is a wide window through which I can see trees and the Kino Šiška arts venue (www.kinosiska.si), quiet for the first time since we got here as it’s now Sunday and the Drugogodba music festival (www.drugagodba.si) that has taken place over the last few days has finished. To my left I can see through the doorway of the studio where a handful of people remain, determined to get the heads to attach to the three large puppets, a merchant, a farm girl, and a hunter, each made from scraps of fabric, watering cans, tent poles and yoga mats (amongst other things), before they can call it a day.Jess3Jess4

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I have been reflecting on the betwixt and between of fieldwork and its central role in this process. It lies in the 3-mile cycle ride from the centre of the city to the studio. It’s in the evening meal at a Lebanese restaurant and a stroll around the city with the arts group with whom I am working for this research project. It’s in the conversations in the corridor in which one of the performers tells us we should visit the area of Metelkova, a squat district close to where we’re staying which is a hub for artists and musicians. The research doesn’t stop when the camera does: far from it.

It was during a lunch break back in March, as we ate falafels by the Ljubljanica river, that the performers talked about their languages, the dialects of the country and their history. When chatting with one of the freelance artists who has travelled over from the UK to work on the puppets, I learn about how shadow puppetry can be used to make opera and theatre performances in a particular language accessible to audiences who do not speak that language (more information about this at http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/baluji-shrivastav-and-dario-ma-91492; www.baluji.com; http://www.jonnydixon.co.uk). One evening, after a meeting mid-project, we were able to watch rehearsals from other groups of performers who will be part of the festival and to give our own feedback on these. The conversations that flow when the voice recorder is switched off and the camera stays inside its bag are the ones that provide the rich context, the three-dimensional and complex backdrop for linguistic ethnographic research.

The street theatre festival rehearsals
The street theatre festival rehearsals

With thanks to Bev Adams, Artistic Director at Faceless Arts for allowing me to be part of this, Goro, Tea and Špela at Ana Monro for their fantastic hospitality, the ŠUGLA students for being so accommodating in letting me tag along and Jonny Dixon for letting me intrusively record our conversations over coffee and lunch. Also to Anni Raw, whose research seminar on liminality in community arts first got me reading Victor Turner.

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