Book chapter: “Performing Urban Collectivity. Ethnography of the Production Process of a Community Based Project in Brussels” —  2007

TitelVisual Interventions
EditorPink, Sarah
Published byBerghahn Books, Oxford New York

Performing Urban Collectivity. Ethnography of the Production Process of a Community Based Project in Brussels

This chapter offers an analysis of the process through which a community based film project was developed. It is a study of a visual social intervention that emphasises process as the subject of its analysis. I argue that researching processes rather than the final ‘text’ is of crucial importance in dealing with the way (cultural) identity and visual representation are intertwined. To achieve this goal, I analyze the mediated interactions between the ‘author’, the ‘viewer’ and the ‘other’ in their plural and variable agencies during the preparatory phases of a community project in Brussels. Through this ethnography of a visual arts project I apply visual anthropology to further understanding the kinds of social interventions applied visual arts community projects can produce.

The community art project is titled The Return of the Swallows led by artist Els Dietvorst. This work can be regarded as an ‘off the map place of dominant media cartographies’ (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002: 8). Dietvorst collaborates with a collective she named The Swallows located in a marginalized area of Brussels. Mostly populated by immigrants from different descents, the area can be characterized as a transit zone. Although she had never worked with a video camera before, Dietvorst felt drawn to this medium because of its social and collective qualities, and proposed to make a film with the people of the area. The ultimate goal was to produce a fiction feature film based on the lives of the inhabitants. Abstract notions such as utopia and collectivity, and more pragmatic concerns, such as encouraging communication in the area by inviting the inhabitants to express themselves in a joint experience are of primary interest. They created a broad area of presentations over the course of five years such as street performances, ‘jukebox stories1, films and glossy magazines covering the activities of the Swallows. Their final performance was a concluding exhibition of their archive in Bozar, the ‘high cultural’ palace of ‘Beaux Arts’ in Brussels.

As a filmmaker and anthropologist, I have been involved in this project for more than five years, sometimes as an observer, sometimes as an assistant or consultant. It allowed me to fully submerge myself in the project, to collaborate but also to inspire confidence in the Swallows. The aim of my participatory collaboration was to produce an ethnography of the project. By considering the subject of this ethnography a performative event, while at the same time applying performative methods, I emphasize the turn Fabian proposes from ‘an informative to a performative anthropology’ (Fabian 1990: 18), ‘the kind where the ethnographer does not call the tune but play along’ (Ibid. 19). Being part of this project and at the same time reflecting on it, urged me to develop complex interpersonal roles, affirming the reflexive correspondence (performative) anthropology invites.

This ethnography offers a way of understanding how community arts projects can create social interventions, demonstrating the complexities of imagining or performing collectivity. The project of the Swallows stands out from other community projects in its flexible methods, by focusing on negotiating different values and codes, rather than on a pre-scripted film product. These methods are difficult to analyze solely from the artistic end results. I therefore stress the importance of not simply analysing the end product but by attending ethnographically to the processes, relationships and identities that are integral to its production. In doing so, it is my aim to suggest an investigative tool for the examination of the rich potential of (audio)visual media in the construction of the self and the formation of sodalities. This tool allows to assess the ideological and social forces at work in film production in a particular context. 

The Process of Production as a Site of Critique

Some years ago I worked for the Flemish Broadcasting Cooperation as a documentary filmmaker. An independent production company that offers programs to different television channels engaged me. Because of my anthropological background, my employers wanted me to work for a documentary series that was sold to Canvas, the so-called quality channel. The story line I was asked to create needed to deal with a family of Turkish descent who were looking for a house. Before I started my research, my series editor, to my utmost surprise, handed me a detailed script in which not only the specific scenes were described but the quotes of the main ‘characters’ were already written. In this script, stereotypically, the family lives in a scrappy house with lots of relatives, the women are veiled and they all encounter many racist situations. ‘Make it happen’, my series editor said, clearly affirming that I needed to model my interaction with this yet unknown family in such a way that I made them fit the script. ‘Of course, otherwise we couldn’t have sold the format’ he answered when I asked him whether he was serious. The story quickly ended: I encountered a very interesting family with whom I made a documentary, without connecting to the script, so obviously this experience resulted in my dismissal. 

From the perspective of the ‘viewer’, it seems that crucial information about the production process is obscured. As images are not critically contextualized the way written texts are – there are no footnotes, or bibliographical references – the audience seem to depend on the status of the channel to evaluate the truthfulness of the images they see. In this case that is precisely what is shocking. Next, from the perspective of the Turkish family, this script seems absurd, as they were unwelcome guests in their own script. Finally, from the point of view of the author, this story questions the process of production as a site where authors, producers and editors are tangled up in a web of values, responsibilities and audience ratings. 

This experience inspired me to scrutinize the production processes of (documentary) film practices through a critical understanding of the image and its impact in our society. My research follows a key strand in anthropological thought, which questions the transparency of the transmission of information claimed by method and ethnographic writing. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has a powerful voice in this debate. He states in his book Works and Lives that the construction of texts ostensibly scientific out of experiences broadly biographical, which is after all what ethnographers do, is thoroughly obscured (Geertz 1988: 10). His main goal is to strip off the pretensions of textual discourses, which mystify their construction so as to assess critically their authorship and discourse. Written ethnographies are grounded on pseudo-claims such as text-positivism, ethnographic ventriloquism, dispersed authorship and so on (Ibid. 104-145). These pretensions are even harder to challenge in documentary film production. Indeed, as visual media actually are able to present recognizable and even mimetic traces in the audiovisual counterpart, positivist assumptions appear much harder to combat. The idea persists that images represent without any censorship or manipulation whatsoever. This can be explained by their indexical qualities, which Bill Nichols defines as ‘signs that bear a physical trace of what they refer to, such as a fingerprint, an X ray, or a photograph’ (Nichols 1994: ix).

In contrast to Geertz’s approach, in my exploration of documentary film production it is thus not sufficient to analyze the end result (a film, a documentary), as is classic in cultural and film studies. A final film product would not inform me for instance about the scripting of the producer that I experienced when working for Flemish Television. The indexicality of the image and the resulting positivistic assumptions hamper a critical analysis. Rather, I investigate how the audiovisual system is employed by the principal agents who are implicated. I therefore propose to understand the process of production as the mediated and variable relationship between ‘author’ and ‘other’ in which the ‘viewer’ is prefigured. It creates a complex set of interactions, during the production, reception and consumption. It involves many stages of and negotiations on the creation and appreciation of visual presentation. This analysis therefore offers a study of a visual social intervention that emphasizes process rather than the final ‘text’ as the subject for its investigation.

The ‘author’, the ‘other’ and the ‘viewer’ are plural positions, related to one another through several aspects of the medium, such as recording, editing and screening. As such, I propose to view these positions as inherently mediated: they cannot be understood without referring to the medium. Furthermore, not only is the ‘viewer’ prefigured throughout the entire production process but it is also necessary to question how the ‘viewer’ is perceived as having a critical position within this process (Dornfeld 1998 and 2002; Mandel 2002). 

An ethnographic approach to cultural production offers the possibility of rethinking and bridging the theoretical dichotomy between production and consumption, between producers’ intentional meanings and audience members’ interpreted meanings, and between production studies and reception studies. In doing so, it transcends disabling debates in media studies, moving beyond the binaries of media power versus resistance, ideology versus agency, and production versus reception. (Dornfeld 1998: 12)

Moreover, as Winston and Volckaert argue, not only is the audiovisual configuration a socially elaborated construal, which is ideologically embedded, but it has also certain specific parameters which cannot be ignored as they constitute the very operational forces of this configuration (Volckaert 1995; Winston 1996). I therefore explore the hypothesis that the audiovisual configuration with its social, ideological, operational and technological features determines the interactions between the main agents during (documentary) film production. By examining this hypothesis I want to question the way narratives reconstruct the experience of the real, to investigate the manipulation of the contexts, to trace selection and intrusion and to analyze the technological, social and ideological forces at work.

Fieldwork in a Swallows’ Nest

Performing Multi-Vocality

I hope to demonstrate the relevance of investigating film production processes by presenting some examples of my fieldwork in what I like to refer to as ‘my tribe of filmmakers’. Because of the specific audiovisual choices, be it on the elaboration of the medium, the process, the authorship or the narrative, these cases can be referred to as ‘alternative’, ‘experimental’ or ‘independent’ cinema. Without locking these cases into a genre, I understand them as ‘off the map’ places, a term formulated by Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin in reference to the research on indigenous media to point out differences in the cartography of dominant media (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002: 8). In this article I elaborate on the process of a community based film project in Brussels. Artists Els Dietvorst and Orla Barry in collaboration with a hybrid tribe, which they named the Swallows, direct this project. The film is called: The March, The Burden, The Desert, The Boredom, The Anger and had its premiere on May 2004 at the Brussels KunstenFESTIVALdesArts. 
To explore my fieldwork I adopt Fabian’s reorientation “from informative to performative ethnography” (Fabian 1990: 18): 

‘Performance’ seemed to be a more adequate description both of the ways people realize their culture and of the method by which an ethnographer produces knowledge about that culture. In search for a catching phrase I proposed to move ‘from informative to performative ethnography’. This has epistemological significance inasmuch as I recommend an approach that is appropriate to both the nature of cultural knowledge and the nature of knowledge of cultural knowledge. 

Fabian claims that a performative approach is not only the subject of ethnographic research – it is ‘appropriate to the nature of cultural knowledge’ – but it is also descriptive of the ethnographic method, – ‘appropriate to the nature of knowledge of cultural knowledge’- by which ethnographers continuingly engage with the communicative, corporeal, sensory, and performative dimensions that define the activity of ethnographic field research (Ibid. 86). Fabian states that various forms of cultural knowledge cannot be represented in discursive statements (Ibid. 6):

What has not been given sufficient consideration is that about large areas and important aspects of culture no one, not even the native, has information that can simply be called up and expressed in discursive statements. This sort of knowledge can be represented – made present – only through action, enactment, or performance. (…) The ethnographer’s role, then, is no longer that of a questioner; he or she is but a provider of occasions, a catalyst in the weakest sense, and a producer (in analogy to theatrical producer) in the strongest.

Asad also claims that translating another culture is not always best done through the representational discourse of ethnography (Asad 1986: 159). MacDougall highlights that many aspects of social experience are not finally translatable (MacDougall 1998: 266). On the contrary, an interaction, an encounter can simply not be represented by textual discourses without transforming it. Rather, they are productions of the original and not mere interpretations: transformed instances of the original, not authoritative textual representations of it, as Asad underscores (Asad 1985: 159). 

I hence view this chapter as a production of my encounter with the Swallows, without any interpretive or even representational pretensions. It is a transformed instance of the original performance and I therefore present it as a performative production – ‘the kind where the ethnographer does not call the tune but play along’ (Fabian1990: 19). I attach three important qualifications to this type of production. The first one is that the subject of my research can be described as the Swallows’ performances and their mediated interactions during the preparatory phases of the film. I regard these social interventions as performances. I hence use the word ‘performance’ in Fabian’s first meaning, namely as the way people realise their culture. My research deals with processes, which occur before the end result is presented. I suggest an ethnographic approach towards film processes that deals with the mediated interactions between the main agents. In doing so I present an alternative to an exclusively text-based interpretation of film. I hence deliberately shift the attention from analyses focusing exclusively on the end result of (Documentary) Film Productions towards an examination of the context of interaction in which this result is submerged. 

The second qualification deals with the interactive nature of the methodology of this research. I have been involved in the making of this film for several months, sometimes as an observer, sometimes as an assistant. This enabled me to fully submerge myself in the project and to collaborate with the Swallows. This methodology could be regarded as an applied visual anthropological perspective. It values Pink’s definition of ethnographic research which ‘aim(s) to produce a loyal and reflexive account of other’s people experiences that is based on collaboration and recognizes the intersubjectivity of the research encounter’ (Pink 2004). A crucial ingredient of performative research is ‘the ability of grasping a coeval experience with others and to translate this experience into something that can be performed to another audience’ (Meyer 2005). Of particular significance in this performative fieldwork is that it involves studying people whose projects have such reflexive correspondence with the practice of ethnography (Dornfeld 1998: 20-21) and applied visual anthropology. Indeed, Pink describes applied visual anthropology as follows (Pink 2004):

(It) entails designing visual productions that are informed by anthropological theory, have ethnographic integrity, are appropriate to the context one is working in, and can communicate with specific target audiences. Here however by ethnographic integrity I do not mean that they are necessarily based on long-term fieldwork. Rather they have achieved an understanding, developed though a reflexive process of collaboration and research with local informants, and an understanding of both the researcher’s and local people’s subjectivities. .. In these projects applying visual anthropology means representing the voices of individuals and groups to others, as well as to themselves by promoting self awareness. 

Els Dietvorst adopts a practice, which has several similarities with this type of survey involving concepts such as collaboration, feedback, and interaction, aiming at giving a voice to minorities in a collective and integral way. Given my experience as a filmmaker, and my ‘double’ identity in these projects, I faced complex interpersonal roles, urging me to sustain a reflexive attitude throughout the fieldwork. Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin point out that this type of correspondence should be understood by the position of media in society: 

Anthropologists now recognize that we are implicated in the representational practices of those we study; and we are engaged or complicit, as the case may be, in complex ways, with all those communities for whom media are important (Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin 2002: 23).

The third qualification deals with the formal presentation of this fieldwork. This ‘produced’ fieldwork was deprived of its oral and physical qualities as it transferred to a text. The citations are weaved and intertwined with the pictures as in a multi-vocal conversation to recreate a performative production instead of an authorial representation. This discourse suggests a discussion, a happening where my voice is clearly contextualized as the one who has selected the citations and is situated between others. As Fabian contends: 

Translation is a process; the texts we call ‘translations’ are but documents of that process. They, too, are produced through contingent events – in fact, they may in turn be regarded as rehearsals and performances – and are therefore never definitive. (Fabian 1990: 99)

I interviewed eleven people from the cast and the crew in French, or Flemish. The interviews took place immediately after the main shoot in Brussels in June 2003 and before the film had been completed. Seeing that during the interview, matters such as balance of power, hierarchy and financing were discussed, and because of some of the participants’ frail position within society, all interviewees remain anonymous. The participants have been divided into three groups: the Swallows/actors, the crewmembers and Els Dietvorst. This allowed me to contextualize the quotes and, at the same time, remain sufficiently vague in order not to reveal the person behind the answer. All questions asked during the interview have been underlined. After a first draft I have invited the participants to correct where necessary, thus using their feedback to enhance the understanding of this collective experience. 

The interviews consist of open, semi-structured conversations and deal with three broad strands of questions. The first strand looks into the relation between the ‘author’ and the collective: How does the author handle the parameters of the medium and how are they employed and negotiated with participants: Who introduces what? When and where? What is the barrier between author and participant? I focus on the interviewees’ expectations and input at the various stages of the process and the differences between preparations and shooting.  I consequently monitor the participants’ input in their own representation. Next, I look into the social and ideological forces at work during this type of film production. How are these forces tangled up with the goals of the Swallows? Lastly and briefly, I investigate how this project has impacted on the lives of the Swallows, their self-esteem and the community relations. In sum, I investigate how this project ‘can lead to innovations that give it the potential to be the basis of theoretical, methodological and substantive contributions to academic visual anthropology’ (Pink 2004).

The Breeding of the Swallows

Sculptor Els Dietvorst was invited by a contemporary art gallery in the Anneessens area to exhibit her artwork. Although warned by the gallery curators about the area’s high crime rate, instead of remaining inside the gallery, she started to explore the area on foot. The area is located near the Southern railway station, in the heart of Brussels. Yet whereas other areas in the centre recently were revived through several urban activities by which local government officials invited the inhabitants to designate the most acute problems and helped to solve them (1994 – 1998), the Anneessens area remained isolated (Demeyer and Van Pee 2003: 164). Main arteries such as the ring road, and two new housing projects, physically lock in the area and so prevent integration with other parts of Brussels. Dumps of rubbish, vandalism, neglected public spaces, all these elements create an atmosphere of carelessness, negligence and sloppiness. Mostly populated by immigrants from different descents, the area can be characterized as a transit area: these different communities are very separate entities, without any common goal or interest whatsoever.

As Els Dietvorst crossed this area, she experienced various interesting encounters, which encouraged her to work with the people of this neighbourhood instead of imposing her works of art on them. Although she had never worked with a video camera before, she felt drawn to this medium because of its social aspects, and proposed to make a film with the people of the area. According to Els, it was this type of collective experience that the area lacked. Her ultimate goal was to produce a fiction feature film based on the lives of the inhabitants.

Els Dietvorst’s fascination with the area is born out of a deep concern for others, in her words: ‘I always want to defend people who are oppressed or deprived of their basic rights.’ Her note of intent is reminiscent of George Marcus’s notion of ‘the activist imaginary’. He describes how subaltern groups turn to film, video and other media not only to pursue traditional goals of broad-based social change through a politics of identity and representation’ but also out of a utopian desire for ‘emancipatory projects… raising fresh issues about citizenship and the shape of public spheres within the frame and terms of traditional discourse on polity and civil society’ (Marcus 1996: 6). Dietvorst stipulates that she wants to encourage communication by inviting the inhabitants to express themselves in a joint experience. 

(Els Dietvorst) My dream was to create something collective, not something individual. Call me an old-fashioned Marxist, but I do not believe in a society solely steered by individuals. When it comes to that, I’m a utopian. I believe in collective values, even if we all remain individuals. It’s animal nature. Why? I think it’s a way of bridging our own culture with others’. I’m interested in other people because I think that perhaps I can improve myself by learning what others do. I’m not interested in my own culture, or purely in myself. I’d get terribly bored if I had to draw from my own life. Looking for and finding other things opens up new perspectives. But to use the words of Lévi-Strauss, there’s always a chief. I think a collective need a chief. I gave the people involved in the project a lot of freedom, which I did so deliberately. I wanted to know what the limit was and how far I could go.

Els Dietvorst organized a casting in a container that she planted on the Anneessens Square located in the centre of the area. Although, again, many people warned her about criminal acts, 200 people presented themselves. Els invited them to improvise, inspired by texts of Arthur Rimbaud, as he has lived in the Anneessens area and has written on exile and migration. In the container, alone with a video camera, Els recorded these performances. Rimbaud seemed a stimulating source for them: people sang his texts, recounted emotional slave narratives, some even performed somersaults and other acts of physical prowess. 

(actor/Swallow) Let’s go back to the moment where you were doing an audition in front of Els. You walked through the door of the container. What happened?  Well, I’d been given a sheet of paper with several extracts written by Arthur Rimbaud. I read them several times and selected one I particularly liked, a text about slavery. The history of slavery is a subject that has always touched me. When I was standing in front of Els, she said to me: ‘Ok, we’re listening.  You can do whatever you like with the text, you can sing, dance… Do whatever you please’.  So I started reading out loud, in my own way, and, all of a sudden, I don’t know whether I actually sang, but I do remember I became one with the text. As soon as I read out a phrase, I saw the image described in the text in my head. That’s how I did the audition and that’s why Els selected me.

This successful casting was the start of a four years project funded by several organizations, mainly governmental and helped by different community groups based in the Anneessens area. With this support, Els managed to engender a hybrid group she named the Swallows, consisting of people without passports, prostitutes, migrants from Moroccan, Iranian and Italian descent, a computer designer and even a Belgian policewoman.

(actor/Swallow) How do you personally feel about the image of the swallow? I do feel like a swallow, as a matter of fact. Proof of that is that I can say what I want to say, I can make a film and talk about Togo, about everything that, in terms of politics, goes wrong there. It would be impossible for me to do that in Togo. Over there, I would feel like a sheep or a dog on a leash or a chicken in a coop, whereas here, I feel like a swallow, I can fly to wherever I want and say what I think without having to worry about it. Does this add something to your identity? Have you perhaps taken on a new identity? I believe I have, for thanks to the Swallows I’ve been able to meet other people and share my experiences and this has helped me to talk about my problems and the other way round. We’ve all poured everything out and mixed it all together in order to reduce it to one single issue. What do you mean? We’ve all come from countries with different problems. We created ‘the Swallows’, set round the table and shared our experiences in order to create one single problem, namely that of the immigrant living in an environment that is not his.  

(actor/Swallow) Did your personal background as an immigrant have anything to do with your decision to stay in the group?  It didn’t. During the casting I had no idea what the film was going to be about. I didn’t know what they were going to shoot, what it was all about. I don’t think Els was one hundred percent sure either. I was attracted by the word FILM, like a moth to a flame.

People came and went, Els insisted on creating an open atmosphere where people felt at ease without having any obligations other than collaborating with the others on an art project. 

(Els Dietvorst) How did you select the participants? Diplomas are of no importance. In principle M. could say: ‘I am the king of Belgium’.  As long as he’s a good actor, he can be the king of Belgium. I’m not going to say to anyone: ‘This is not realistic’ or ‘You’re telling a lie’. I don’t care. If he invests in the group and wants to be Pinocchio, he can be Pinocchio.  Being inspired and feeling passionate about the part was important for you during the auditions? There were different levels. Some people stayed in the group, like L. and G., because of their tremendously positive impact on the group. In the group they had a healing influence. They stayed, although they didn’t get the biggest parts. The audition was an open, organic process. Every character that has stayed within the group has his own story.

Els Dietvorst, who rejects strict boundaries between art, community projects and anthropology, deliberately opted for the experimental, even freewheeling character of the project. She didn’t focus exclusively on the film during these four years, but remained open to suggestions from the Swallows, who were very creative and inspired by their new nest. There were street performances, jukebox stories based on the lives of the inhabitants and recounted in a local pub, glossy magazines covered the activities of the Swallows in full-colour pictures and rave reviews. Much was left to try out, to experiment, to defy easy categorization or definition, which was not always effortless.