September 2008

Cultural Farming: Bricolage, Surrealism, Parody

By: Holland Wilde



Video Research Examples:

FOX Nation

Bush 8 Nov 06

Shut the FOX Up

Clinton-Obama in 1984




Simply calling Cultural Farming’s brand of video 'ethnographic' or 'experimental' provides little “doing” definition.  In this paper I will outline a method-construct for implementing Cultural Farming’s qualitative, experimental video.  I begin by quoting, yet again, the eminent qualitative research scholar from University of Illinois, Norman Denzin (2005:4-6):


The qualitative researcher may be described using multiple and gendered images: scientist, naturalist, field-worker, journalist, social critic, artist, performer, jazz musician, filmmaker, quilt maker, essayist.  The many methodological practices of qualitative research may be viewed as soft science, journalism, ethnography, bricolage, quilt making, or montage. The researcher in turn, may be seen as a bricoleur, as a maker of quilts, or, as in filmmaking, a person who assembles images into montages.  …The bricoleur produces a …pieced-together set of representations that is fitted to the specifics of a complex situation…(it) is pragmatic, strategic and self-reflexive.


Montage and pentimento, like jazz, which is improvisation, create the sense that images, sounds, and understandings are blending together, overlapping, forming a composite, a new creation.  Here, montage uses brief images to create a clearly defined sense of urgency and complexity.  It invites viewers to construct interpretations that build on one another as a scene unfolds:


     - The methodological bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks, ranging from interviewing to intensive self-reflection and introspection.


      - The theoretical bricoleur reads widely and is knowledgeable about the many interpretive paradigms that can be brought to any particular problem.


      - The researcher as bricoleur-theorist works between and within competing and overlapping perspectives and paradigms.


      - The interpretive bricoleur understands that research is an interactive process shaped by his or her own personal history, biography, gender, social class, race, and ethnicity, and by those of the people in the setting.


      - The critical bricoleur stresses the dialectical and hermeneutic nature of interdisciplinary inquiry, knowing that the boundaries that previously separated traditional disciplines no longer hold.


      - The political bricoleur knows that science is power, for all research findings have political implications. There is no value-free science.


      - The gendered, narrative bricoleur also knows that researchers all tell stories about the worlds they have studied.  Thus the narratives, or stories, scientists tell are accounts couched and framed within specific storytelling traditions, often defined as paradigms.


      - The product of the interpretive bricoleur's labor is a complex, quiltlike bricolage, a reflexive collage or montage - a set of fluid, interconnected images and representations.  This interpretive structure is like a quilt, a performance text, a sequence of representations connecting the parts to the whole.


Denzin's typology makes me smile: Bricoleur, the equivalent to the English "do-it-yourself;' or etemologically (French) to fiddle, tinker and, by extension to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose).  Without question, I've been performing bricolage throughout my professonal life.  Trompe l'oeil, assemblage and juxtaposition, as means of textual visualization are second nature to my theatrical and television careers -- and they have been entirely so since 2004 with my initial video experiments in Cultural Farming.  Indeed, even my extensive usage of quotations within these Cultural Farming’s writings is but another example of my natural predilection.  Likewise, it is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's obsession with collecting quotations.  As scholar Susan Buck-Morss (1989) explains in her revealing book on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project:


“Benjamin's laborious and detailed study of past texts, his careful inventory of the fragmentary parts he gleaned from them, and the planned use of these in deliberately constructed 'constellations' were all sober, self-reflective procedures, which, he believed, were necessary in order to make visible a picture of truth that the fictions of conventional history writing covered over” (p:220).


Buck-Morss continues:


“For Benjamin, the technique of montage had 'special, perhaps even total rights' as a progressive form because it 'interrupts the context into which it is inserted' and thus 'counteracts illusion' (Is this Laura Mulvey?) and he intended it to be the principle governing the constellation of the Passagen-Werk: 'This work must develop to the highest point the art of citing without citation marks.  Its theory connects most closely to that of montage'” (p:67).


Interestingly however to Hannah Arendt (1968), it was this fastidiously materialistic approach that branded Benjamin's critical thinking “undialectic” to Adorno and Horheimer (p:10):


“In his concern with directly, actually demonstrable concrete facts, with single events and occurrences whose 'significance' is manifest, Benjamin was not much interested in theories or 'ideas' which did not immediately assume the most precise outward shape imaginable” (p:13).  “In other words, what fascinated Benjamin from the beginning was never an idea, it was always a phenomenon” (p:12).  Strongly influenced by surrealism, it was the 'attempt to capture the portrait of history in the most insignificant representations of reality, its scraps, as it were” (p:11).


Hannah Arendt continues:


When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of a collection of “over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged” (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary.  The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another and were able to prove their raison d'etre in a freefloating state, as it were.  It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage.” (p:47).


In addition, Benjamin's work was particularly infused by his connection to Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre and its techniques of ‘distanciation’ of both actor and audience from the comforts of realism by turning the strange to familiar and the familiar to strange.  In my Cultural Farming work, surrealistic performance plays an equally vital role.  And likewise to Benjamin, my notions of surrealism were informed through a variety of very personal connections to experientially surreal (critical) performance during my formative years:


  1. - Broadway stage:  Bill and Jean Eckhart, Ming Cho Lee, Robert Altman

  2. - Classic stage:  Desmond Healy, Lesley Hurry, Robert Edmond Jones,

                             Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival, Donald Oenslager

  1. - Experimental stage:  Josef Swoboda, Richard Schechner, Dubrovnik Arts

                                        Festival of 1975, Bread and Puppet, Robert Wilson

  1. - Dance:  Joffrey Ballet, Alwin Nicholai Dance Theatre, Martha Graham, Musical

                 Theatre, gay club culture

  1. - Music:  The Mothers of Invention, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, The Monkees,

                 Laurie Anderson, The Beatles

Film:  Andy Warhol, Salvadore Dali, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen

  1. - Fine art:  Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, David

                   Hockney

Parodic humor:  Mort Saul, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor

  1. - Television:  American network news, Neil Postman, Laugh-in, Smothers

                        Brothers, my own professional TV career


While some of the above can clearly be seen as more surreal than others, cultural scholar James Clifford (1988:147-148) helps synthesize much of my patchwork historicity into concrete experiential methodology with this ethnographic statement:


“Ethnographic surrealism and surrealist ethnography are utopian constructs; they mock and remix institutional definitions of the arts and science.  To think of surrealism as ethnography is to question the central role of the creative 'artist,' the shaman-genius discovering deeper realities in psychic realm of dreams, myths, hallucinations, automatic writing.  This role is rather different from that of cultural analyst, interested in the making and unmaking of common codes and conventions.  Surrealism coupled with ethnography recovers its early vocation as critical cultural politics, a vocation lost in later developments.  …Ethnography cut with surrealism emerges as the theory and practice of juxtaposition.  It studies, and is part of, the invention and interruption of meaningful wholes in works of cultural import-export” …The procedure of (a) cutting out and (b) assemblage are of course basic to any semiotic message; here they are the message.  Cuts and sutures of research are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the works raw data into a homogenous representation.”


And, where formalistic surreal expression rose historically through the machinations of the stage, camera and film, this approach can be further appropriated as a response to our rapidly changing mediated world with its contested realities that resist grand theory.  As Marcus and Fischer (1986:123) write:


“Like the Frankfort School, the surrealists contested a reified culture, in which they viewed traditional norms, conventions, and collective meanings as artificial, constructed, and repressive.  They reveled in subverting, parodying, and transgressing those dead conventions through unexpected juxtapositions, collages of incongruous elements, drawing from the erotic, the unconscious, and the exotic.  Indeed, their juxtaposition and collage techniques acknowledged the increasing speed and normality with which the fragments of once different cultures could come together in a modern world.  They used the tern 'ethnographic' to convey their relativist, subversive attitude which could contest the contemporary work of French anthropologists in Africa, Oceania, and aboriginal America.”


Marcus and Fischer (1986:125) continue, however, tempering the use of surrealism by cautioning that a “liberating commentary on modern life,” one that ultimately remains “unreflexive about its own epistemological viewpoint” offers little more than “semiotic guerrilla warfare” when simply altering an object out of context.  For these authors:


“The ethnographers who emerge from the dialogue with surrealism, however, are left with a duel legacy.  First, to bring out the critical potential embedded in the ethnographic method requires that anthropologists take seriously the notion of modern reality as a juxtaposing of alternative cultural viewpoints, which exist not merely simultaneously, but in interaction, and not as static fragments, but each as dynamic human constructions.  Second, the view of culture as a flexible construction of the creative faculties encourages ethnographers to expose their procedures of representation, makes them self-conscious as writers, and ultimately suggests to them the possibility of including other authorial voices (those of the subjects) in their texts.”


This “juxtaposing of alternative cultural viewpoints” in many ways guides my Cultural Farming approach to constructing video for analyzing media generally and TV journalism specifically.  Heeding Marcus and Fischer's reflections of the Frankfort School and French surrealists of the 1930's; I do not intend to simply “toy” with ungrounded, “semiotic guerrilla warfare” ethnography.  Moreover, my research is not mere toothless, ambush, culture jamming (Heath and Potter 2004; Hebdege 1979, 1988; Lasn 1999; Poyner 2001).  Whereas Walter Benjamin saw “shock…was the condition of modernity that needed to be mobilized by the avant-garde… that the revolutionary potential of surrealism lies in its blasting open” (Russell 1999:39) -- my ethnography will be intentionally, theoretically and methodologically more.