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‘Wasted hours in the field’ as a key to understanding the research topic

By Herbert Ploegman  Originally attributed to Winston Churchill, the statement “never waste a good crisis” has become an aforism that, by now, has been appropriated by many voices. The expression carries several layers, all of which contribute to its perceived versatility. Applying the statement to a research field in contemporary Greece may seem ironic or cynical, given the state of ‘crisis’ the country has gone through (or is currently under). Nevertheless, I feel confident enough to do this without too many scrupules. As an anthropologist having spent almost a year in Greece throughout the past few years, I believe that sincerely unpacking it in relation to the context of Greece would lead to remarkable insights about the country that many of us don’t have in Western Europe.

In this brief text, I would like to focus on the layer of the aforism indicating that something troubling or something to avoid – a crisis – may in fact be something not to waste. In a professional climate of (expected) academic rigour combined with increasing imperatives of effectivity, planning, anticipation, and accountability, research is easily reduced to that which appears within the delimitations set in advance. However, a recent conclusion of mine, based on a project of creating an ethnographic film about an art installation in public space in Athens, is that a temporality that traverses these delimitations has been key to understanding what was taking place in the field.

I recently presented a conference paper in which I explored the role of the senses within the context of one particular art installation presented in the framework of Documenta 14, a large-scale art exhibition held in both Athens and in Kassel, Germany, during the summer of 2017. It was only during the rethinking of my and my colleague’s film project, and a first attempt of theorizing the film and the filmed events, that it occurred to me how time gave an empirically grounded understanding of the event. For a year, (academic) work combined with other things prevented me from thinking this through any earlier. Remembering the process of filmmaking, one of the things that popped up was the hours of waiting at the field site, while enduring heatwaves under the burning Athens summer sun; an exercise that I had previously related to as being ‘boring’ or as ‘wasted time’.

Writing my paper, I started to realize that it was mostly thanks to these hours that I could develop an argument about what was taking place in the field site. In my (unpublished) paper, I wrote the following two paragraphs:

Taking an embodied and situated approach, for this exploration I wish to revisit Rasheed Araeen’s artwork for Documenta 14, ‘Shamiyaana: Food for Thought: Thought for Change’, like I visited the art installation for about 10 days throughout July 2017 for an ethnographic study. Shamiyaana was a tent-like structure set up at Plateia Kotzia, a square between Omonia and Monastiraki in the centre of Athens, in which daily collective meals were prepared and served to visitors from April until mid-July 2017.

In an interview,

“[t]he German art visitors’ words show that the ways their senses were addressed, and how they were made to experience the installation in the short time between arrival and the serving of the meal, didn’t put them in connection to something that, to her, seemed crucial for the project. By contrast, the durational experience of the art installation, that we had while spending many hours around it for our film project, and that had us sitting and waiting, observing, discussing and hesitating, seemed to be more attuned to what the German visitor deemed crucial and it gave us insights in the modes of operating of the artwork”.

These hours of waiting provided us with several insights: we gained an experience of the square and the social dynamics taking place in it that was rather close to that of a group of Athenians coming to the artwork for their daily meal, something they would otherwise collect at one of the soup-kitchens. In order to get the meal, they would line up hours before the meals were served, so as to secure a chair at one of the tables in the art installation. The hours spent also made us sensitive to patterns and irregularities happening in the daily operation of the artwork. Lastly, by learning and documenting what a quick visit to the work did to two of our informants (the interviewed German couple), we were able to disentangle how temporality was bound up with what meanings were attributed to the artwork, and also how temporality connected to an ambivalence in the perceptions of it: whether it was perceived as an artwork, or rather as a (temporary and strange) social facility.

By embodying the position of the durational observer, my colleague and I ended up in the position of knowing ‘from below’ how the work came to signify different things for different visitors. These insights gave us the ability to criticize the supposed ‘site-specificity’ of the work, as described on the Documenta 14 website. Like a sentence takes time and space, also the argument of temporality takes time (and in this case cross-European space) to unfold and to appear to me in the first place. It was through moments that appeared as empty and wasted – from what Mary Douglas would call “out of place” – that these insights grew, and that my academic work moved a step forward.

Herbert Ploegman is currently working as a teacher and coordinator for the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Additionally, he is doing a PhD research on art practices in Athens in the aftermath of Documenta 14. He is an editor for the academic journal Kunstlicht, also related to the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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