By Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, University of Victoria
(Please note: What follows is a condensed version. You can read the complete commentary by clicking on the PDF at the end of this page.)
The ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar taught during the Fall semester 2015 in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria addressed the following questions: What is a medium? How can we understand media and analyse it from different perspectives? And most importantly, how can we produce, make, and create media content? As the instructor of the seminar, I was interested in developing a space that would encourage the students to interpret and ‘make’ media from a critical perspective.
As part of this seminar, students were invited to develop a media project that would allow them to reflect critically about how media can serve as a creative means of exploration, vulgarization and dissemination in anthropology. In focusing on the idea of ‘making’, (Ingold & Hallam 2007; Ingold 2013), the seminar encouraged students to discuss and think about the act of making from a concrete perspective by using their hands to manipulate materials, including “the digital”.
Two premises of the seminar were: (1) ‘Making’ is a process that encourages one’s active engagement with the materials under transformation, and (2) Through the act of ‘making’, students can potentially reflect on how this approach can be translated to ethnographic theory, fieldwork methods, and dissemination.
There is an increase of interest for the graphic novel format in anthropology. There is also a growing acknowledgement that graphic novels can potentially allow anthropologists to explore new avenues of research creation and dissemination in our discipline. For these reasons, I strongly encouraged my students to pick a final media project that would involve the creation of an original graphic novel inspired by a story (from newspaper, book, documentary, etc.), an ethnographic account, a place, or an object. During the semester, I gave various examples of graphic novels used in anthropology, social sciences and journalism. For instance, I shared the blog series “Graphic Adventures in Anthropology” by Teaching Culture associated with the University of Toronto Press, the “graphic medicine” website, the blog by Hannah Wadle (2012), the graphic novel by Michael Atkins in Manchester, the graphic novel project by Aleksandra Bartoszko, Anne Birgitte Leseth and Marcin Pnomarew at Oslo University College and some of the first entries of this blog series on the CIE website. Students also shared examples of graphic novels they liked, such as the autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis (2000) by Marjane Satrapi and Maus (1991) by Art Spiegelman, Palestine (2001) and Journalism (2012) by Joe Sacco, and the comics “Syria’s Climate Conflict” written by Audrey Quinn and illustrated by Jackie Roche. Two workshops were offered during the semester, and led by two students registered in the seminar: “How to draw with a digital tablet?” and “How to scan and process drawings in digital format?” Following the comics theorist Scott McCloud’s (1993) definition, graphic novel was understood as a form of “sequential art” and all kinds of media (photography, collage, etc.) placed in order were considered as forms of comics and/or graphic novel.
Out of the 20 students registered in the seminar, 16 decided to work on a graphic novel or a graphic based media project. This blog entry is about the work of some of the ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar 2015 students who opted to create a graphic based project, and who kindly accepted to share their work in this blog. Seven themes emerged from their work: process, tools, the relationship between the written and the visual, the desire for authenticity, the art of storytelling, reflexivity, and audience. For a description and examples of each of these themes, download the document below. Each of these themes encouraged the students to reflect on their work, which motivated the learning process. Below, and in the downloadable document, I refer to their drawings, their presentations and their final essays, which were produced in the context of this seminar.
What did the students learn from ‘making’ graphic novels?
Despite the fact that drawing remained a challenge for most of the students, the process of creating the graphic novels, as a form of sequential art, raised reflections that generated new forms of knowledge. The process of drawing encouraged the students to determine the salient aspects that needed to be represented to make the storyline meaningful. The question of what to represent and in which order also involved a decision of what to exclude, of what would fall in the gaps between the frames. There is something about drawing that encourages the artist / student to think in terms of essentials, to question what are the main ideas that one wishes to transmit. Similarly, Michael Taussig (2011:13) argues that images “capture something invisible and auratic that makes the thing depicted worth depicting”.
Emily Thiessen, who created a graphic novel about her travels to the ancestral land of her mother in Malaysia explained that drawing involves the condensation of all the facts that one wishes to represent as well as its emotional content, because “it takes a long time to draw” (oral presentation). Emily created a graphic novel that focused on one episode of her trip: her visit to the Sungai Asap settlement. Emily expressed the preoccupation to represent her emotionally charged experience. In order to depict them as faithfully as possible, she used photos of people she met, as well as the architecture, the clothes, and places she visited, to work on the drawings (Illustration 1). Emily who wrote and draw in a sketchbook during her trips, explained that drawing allowed her to fill up the gaps, of what she was not able to capture with her camera. Drawing also allowed her to illustrate people and situations that she would have felt intimated to photograph. In many ways, the use of the photographs as references and sources of inspiration allowed her to “play with the subjectivity of her drawings and the more objective rendering of what was represented in the photographs” (oral presentation).
For her media project, Aviva Lessard made a creative map that represented the legacy of the Oka crisis of 1990 in Canada. She included photos that she altered, and drawings that she incorporated onto a map of Canada in order to relate the various events in Canada that concurred at the same time as the events at Oka (Illustration 2). She explained:
“For the elements that I decided to draw, I really had to consider exactly what I wanted to represent […]. For example, while I was drawing the Mercier Bridge, I looked at pictures to try to capture it. I was forced to visually consider the bridge, and reflect on the magnitude of blockading such a large passageway, as Mohawk people of Kahnawake did in the summer of 1990. Through the creative act of drawing, I was able to better engage in my research.” (Lessard 2015)
Some students pointed out that the most difficult aspect of making the graphic novel was to visually translate the theoretical message lying behind the story. “How does one graphically depict NAFTA and global capitalism? What do remittances look like pictorially?” questioned Mark McIntyre (Illustration 3) who did a graphic novel about deindustrialization and circular migration in Cape Breton. Mark’s project also echoes the concrete and cartographic ways in which drawing can become a tool of exploration of various territories. He writes:
“Drawing the outline of Cape Breton Island, for example, I came to comprehend the sheer amount of inlets and coves that the island has, realizing that each major community on the island is located near the ocean. Being so connected to maritime subsistence strategies, such as fishing, of course this fact makes sense, however it was not something that I actively engaged with previously. Drawing these images, for me, was a new way of seeing and relating to them […]” (McIntyre 2015).
At the same time as drawing destabilizes the ways in which students are used to work (mainly through writing), it also forces them to think differently about some of the challenges that they encounter in the discipline of anthropology at large. During the semester, Katherine Thwaites was especially concerned with issues of representation in relation to media and how certain people’s images are excluded or transformed due to various factors. In her auto-ethno-graphic novel called “Buy! Buy! Buy! Bi (?)” (Illustration 4) she explores the ways in which the increased capitalization of queer identities is exploited by consumer capitalism and identity politics. Her project encouraged her to think outside of the academic box that have divided academia and activism and brought her to reflect on “how an inter-relational praxis can benefit our work and our action” (Thwaites 2015). In reference to this concern, she wrote:
“Explorations of radical and political media in the visual are but one way to facilitate this, and this project is just one example of innumerable potentials. By supporting a growing standard of accountability through alternate media, anthropologists of media and the visual can be at the forefront of important academic and activist practice.” (Thwaites 2015).
The production of a graphic novel, which is based on a series of iconic forms of representation, brought Katherine to reflect on broader issues that speak to the challenges of representation in anthropology. This reinforces the idea that experiential learning can become a fertile approach for understanding how concepts and ideas can be put into dialogue outside of an all made model.
Graphic novels are a unique form of storytelling as they combine the visual with the written texts, they offer an alternative way of relating temporally with a narrative, and they are as much about what is depicted than what falls between the gaps of the frames. Graphic novels offer anthropologists a rich territory that is still to be explored. As Emily Thiessen wrote:
“In a culture dominated by the written word, it’s time we pay more attention to how much can be learned through the process of drawing and how the unique properties of juxtaposed sequential art are a powerful tool to communicate concepts and evoke empathy in the reader.” (Thiessen 2015)
It is through the act of ‘making’ that we will experiment the full potentials of the graphic format in anthropology as a tool of investigation and dissemination. The ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar has demonstrated, once again, that so much can be learned when we engage with the materials. At least, this is what my students taught me.
* * *
A special thanks to the ‘Media and Creative Practices’ students 2015 from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria who courageously decided to ‘make’ and experiment with the graphic format. Please download the document below for a description of the works by: Melissa Adams, Spencer Armitage, Matt Branagh, Deirdre Campbell, Jill DeSilva, Brent Davidson, Aviva Lessard, Mark McIntyre, Veronique Plante, Emily Thiessen, Katherine Thwaites.
Bartoszko, Aleksandra, Anne Birgittte Leseth and Marcin Pnomarew. 2011. Public Space, Information Accessibility, Technology And Diversity at Oslo University College. https://anthrocomics.wordpress.com/
Graphic Adventures in Anthropology. 2015.
Quinn, Audrey (writer) and Jackie Roche (illustrator). 2011. “Syria’s Climate Conflict”.
Ingold, Tim & Elizabeth Hallam. 2007. “Creativity and Cultural Improvisation: An Introduction.” In Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, edited by Elizabeth Hallam & Tim Ingold. New York: Berg, p. 1-24.
Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: Routledge. Chapter 9: Drawing the Line, p. 125-141.
Lessard, Aviva. 2015. “The Oka Legacy: An Exploration Through Creative Map Making.” Unpublished essay. ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar, Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria.
McCould, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton: Kitchen Sink Press.
McIntyre, Mark. 2015. “From Natural Resources to Remittances: Cape Breton, Deindustrialization, and Circular Migration: A Graphic Novel.” Unpublished essay. ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar, Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria.
Sacco, Joe. 2011. Palestine. Fantagraphics Book.
_____. 2012. Journalism. Metropolitan Books.
Satrapi, Marjane. 2000. Persepolis. Paris: L’Association.
Spiegelman, Art. 1991. Maus. Pantheon Books.
Taussig, Michael. 2011. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Thiessen Emily. 2015. “Drawing Anthropology.” Unpublished essay. ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar, Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria.
Thwaites, Katherine. 2015. “Drawing Our Own Self: Re-Policitizing and Radicalizing Queerness Through Visual Media: A Media Project.” Unpublished essay. ‘Media and Creative Practices’ seminar, Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria.