In this special extended interview, Che Applewhaite speaks with Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati about their project Expedition Content, which can be experienced in a livestream presented at Open City Documentary Festival on Thursday 10th Sept, 19:00, with an extended conversation afterwards.
“We think Expedition Content is an experiment of sonic ethnography, of sound as a way of knowing. So not that sound is less colonial and peaceful for instance, or that sound is less colonial than gaze, but what we want to experiment with is, what if we turn away from the gaze, and leave it entirely—just not looking, you know, what will happen if you listen? What kind of knowledge, feeling and affect can you get from just listening?”
– Veronika Kusumaryati, July 2020.
Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati, anthropologists and artists affiliated with Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, engaged in a four-year long process of deep listening, in and of snatches and fragments, to make their film Expedition Content. Indeed, listening is a core practice of ethnography’s commitment to meaning-making. But not often does the method’s concentration of an everyday wonder reduce distances between locations thousands of miles apart. Cambridge, Massachusetts, West Papua, its occupier Indonesia and Manhattan, New York all unfold from the work’s seventy-eight minute long sound piece. From control by the Dutch monarchy in the 17th century to exploration by the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil Company and Harvard anthropology in the 20th century to takeover by the Indonesian’s government in 1969; colonialism’s conquest of West Papua intertwines them all. The ongoing nature of this cultural and ethnic genocide propels Expedition Content’s uncompromising formal spirit—containing only two minutes of images. The work demands a certain surrender to what first feels like unknowing and turns into something different. As Kusumaryati continued in our conversation, “…we want to think about the other ways of knowing through the sound. In his Global Transformations, Trouillout, a Haitian anthropologist contends that we are always reminded by the fact that the uneven power of historical production is expressed also through the power to touch, to see, and to feel”.
From Indonesia herself, Veronika Kusumaryati’s research, of which the film is but one product borne of a longer-term collaboration with anthropologists and artists on the island, calls West Papuan’s experiences of continual occupation that of a “colonial present.” Kusumaryati, who finished her PhD at Harvard as a College Fellow in Anthropology, began working with Ernst Karel in his practice-based class, “Sonic Ethnography.” The class shares his experience in making nonfiction sound works through composing with unprocessed location recordings. It’s from their critical and experimental perspective that the film listens against the grain of the thirty-seven hours of sound tapes recorded by Michael Rockefeller on the first 1961 Harvard-Peabody Expedition to West Papua. This listening and lack of images, for me, allows Expedition Content to fully explore the form in which Michael Rockefeller’s ghost haunts us, especially when we hear him introduce recordings through an expository tone that shrouds his illusory perceptions in categories and labels. But throughout, his presence does not, and indeed cannot, displace the vibrant echoes of who he recorded; the Hubula tribespeople and their sound world.
Organized by famed ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner and funded in part by the Dutch colonial government, the expedition wielded 16mm film cameras, still photographic cameras, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and microphones for five months among the Hubula (also known as Dani) people in West Papua. The original expedition led to many research products: books, monographs and Gardner’s highly influential film Dead Birds. Karel became aware of the Expedition’s sound archive through an assistant of Robert Gardner’s widow, Adele Pressman. Pressman approached Karel to edit and produce soundtracks using Rockefeller’s 1961 recordings, for unused footage that Gardner had wanted to make into short film studies, similar in scope to John Marshall’s early films, his contemporary in visual anthropology at Harvard. In 2015, after getting to know the material, he approached Kusumaryati about working with her on it. The sound archive itself, donated by Michael Rockefeller’s surviving twin, Mary Rockefeller, to the Peabody Museum in 2006, had already been digitized by the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music. It’s these digitized files that Karel and Kusumaryati worked with to make Expedition Content.
Two separate Zoom calls in July 2020 with Karel, quarantining near San Francisco, and Kusumaryati, quarantining in Indonesia, formed this interview. Full disclosure: Kusumaryati advised me during the making and release of my own film, A New England Document, that recently premiered at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. Here, our conversations meandered around shared concerns of cinematic form and distribution, archival and anthropological practice, institutional critique and imperialism that Expedition Content raises. All remarks have been edited for clarity and concision.
Che R. Applewhaite (CRA): Did your views on Gardner and Rockefeller’s previous or originally published work from the Harvard Peabody expedition influence the construction of Expedition Content and if so how? More broadly, why did you decide to make a creative piece?
Veronika Kusumaryati (VK): So as an anthropologist in West Papua, I have seen Dead Birds. Dead Birds is a landmark ethnographic film, it is very controversial, not only in terms of its position within the canon of visual anthropology, but also in the history of the representation of the Papuan people with whom I work as an anthropologist. We are very critical of Dead Birds, precisely because of its emphasis on the fetish of the visual that is based on the representation of black bodies, [particularly],male black bodies and how the Papuans are muted. They cannot speak. They are dehistoricized. And the film only focuses on one single aspect of Hubula life, which is about warfare and it’s very gendered, it is very masculine. Women seem to occupy a secondary place.
[But] we not only watched the film Dead Birds. We saw the photos that come with it, [published in] Life magazine, Michael Rockefeller’s photographs; we also read Heider’s ethnographic book,The [Dugum] Dani. This whole project is really interesting because it is one of the last anthropological expeditions done in the “old school’ ways. It took place in 1961, one year before [control of West] Papua transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The expedition itself had an ambitious purpose— to document all the aspects of this ethnic group to the world. For us, we consider the film and the whole project of anthropology in history. Not only the history of colonialism, and the emergence of the US as an empire, but also its relation to the fate of the Papuan.
So the way we composed Expedition Content, we attempt to challenge Dead Birds by meaningfully engaging with and being in conversation with it. The film really shaped the way we edited and composed our project. For instance, in the archive, we found so many recordings of women. Women who speak, women who laugh, women who work. So, for expressivity, we want to put women voices in there, in the recording. So, that again, is the erasure or the silence of the film, right. In the film, women, you know, [only] have faces. And then the emphasis on warfare in the film like, we don’t want to reproduce that kind of representation. You know, like, because the life of the Hubula is not only about warfare.
And the second part [on] why we decided to make a creative piece. Initially, it was easy for us to decide that this would be a sound piece, rather than a visual piece or even writing. Of course, we will write too— we will write a journal article on how we work with the archive and what we found interesting about this archive. But I think we want it to be a work that is faithful to the original material of the archives.
Ernst Karel (EK): Yeah, I mean obviously you could think of it as institutional critique. We’re definitely thinking of this in relation to the legacy and history of the Film Study Center, and Robert Gardner, and visual anthropology. And that’s part of the reason too in one of the very first title cards, anachronistically, we use the word ‘multimodal’ anthropology…. American Anthropologist, flagship journal of The American Anthropology Association recently renamed their sub section of ‘visual anthropology’ as ‘multimodal anthropology’. ‘Multimodal’ has all of these other senses of what they’re kind of hopeful for the kind of these kinds of engagements to include, so it’s not just a renaming of visual anthropology, but it’s a little bit also of a kind of hope that multimodal includes collaboration…The goal of multimodal work should be not just the goal of the anthropologist, but a shared goal with the people that they’re working with—these kinds of things, which is all positive and good, but we wanted to sort of situate this expedition in that history. That history of visual anthropology / multimodal anthropology. And not to show the greatness of the history but kind of the opposite really, the messiness and the ugliness of it.
CRA: Why did you choose to form the archival sounds for cinematic distribution rather than an exclusively sonic piece? I found the synaesthetic elements of Expedition Content are at once spellbinding and disconcerting.
EK: The cinema, a physical space which we’re taking a vacation from right now, all of us, is a wonderful space for listening. You know, it’s got built in sound systems, they’ve got built in multi-channel sound systems, left center right speakers at the front, full range speakers and surround speakers, left and right in the back, sometimes even 7.1. That’s like a built in multi-channel listening environment. Whereas in the field of electro-acoustic music, and other kinds of more sound centric situations, venues are really not to be found. Basically people set up loudspeakers for concerts, it’s not like there’s usually a setup place where you go, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna have a multi-channel concert, so we’ll go to the multi-channel concert hall (laughs)’. They don’t really exist, you know, but cinemas do exist, so we kind of imagined it from the beginning as a sound piece for cinema, and even before there was any visual element at all. I’m not claiming any originality in that idea, like there’s one essay that we sometimes read in my class: Four and a Half Film Fallacies, by Rick Altman. I think it’s the ontological fallacy, as he describes it, which is the idea that image without sound we take as cinema, but, the fallacy is sound without image, for some reason, wouldn’t qualify as cinema. He’s arguing with a lot of old historical examples that there hasn’t always been image combined with sound. So that was part of it from the beginning, even before there was no image that we’re using the sound space in the cinema. It was a pretty late decision actually to add the image.
CRA: How come you decided to add the images?
EK: I think what’s interesting to me about our own process is that when we decided to add image, we actually didn’t change the sound composition very much. We had already made selections for what would go in there based on the sound quality, based on what the acoustic experience of those things were. So for example, relatively early in the piece, [there is] the woman washing sweet potatoes in the ditch. And she’s laughing, having this wonderful fascinating interaction. We’d love that just from the sound of it—what you could gather about what the nature of that interaction was just from the sound.
A fair bit later in the piece, the film footage shows up for a few minutes. That was in the bat cave and we’d already had the radio announcer mentioning this scratched footage. It’s maybe hard to get [the sound]—we don’t subtitle the radio announcer because we want that to be an ambiguous sort of electroacoustic experience; maybe you catch a few words, maybe you don’t. But he’s talking about footage that they had sent to Rochester, where Kodak was, for processing and [he’s] reporting that this particular roll was scratched, “in the bat cave,” he says. They read the number, and I realized [that] I’ve got a lot of that footage on my hard drive and I looked up that number and I had that shot— there’s these beautiful scratches on it. And what we’re hearing during that footage is Michael Rockefeller’s recording of as he puts it, ‘natives yelling in the bat cave’ which is interesting on all of those different [fronts], you know, ‘natives’ and then ‘yelling’—their vocalization, their communication and so on is ‘yelling’—and then ‘bat cave’ is there also; their slang for what that place is. All of them [are] these different kinds of meanings that Rockefeller is imposing onto the situation. And the nature of that shot, too. First, it’s incredibly beautiful, but it also doesn’t really spoil the idea of not giving an image; the human figures are shadowy, you can barely discern them. And so we sort of get the best of both worlds of having there be an image but it’s not like ruining, for us, the pleasure of listening without seeing who’s speaking.
CRA: I’ll continue with the listening experience—I watched [Expedition Content] online on the Vimeo link with earphones because I wanted to hear as much as possible. I’m wondering how you feel about like the new kind of listening environment that this pandemic presents… [for example] there seemed to be a reverb on the mono track itself—like a twinkling sound in one ear at least, and then it changed throughout—
EK: —Like that beginning conversation—
EK: So one thing is, there is no added reverb: you’re hearing the sound of the room in the original recording. I never used any added reverb. The first scene, it’s kind of the only place where we use, what you might call, a special effect on the audio. It occurs before the expedition, and for that reason, I wanted to sort of almost literally de-center it, so we panned it on one side so that it’s in the right channel. But then at the same time there’s this nice kind of tone from as an artifact of the tape recording. And so what I did is, just for fun basically, filtered that out with a strong notch filter to identify what their frequency was, but put just that frequency in the left channel. So I sort of double the same recording in both channels, but on the left, I’m filtering out everything except that tone, and on the right we’re hearing the sort of original audio. So that gives us a sense of spaciousness and maybe almost reverb that you are commenting on.
CRA: What you say is pretty interesting in relation to Stephanie Spray’s essay about the film. She talks about how intervening in a sound archive isn’t really done as much as image or text. So it’s interesting to hear about how you’re kind of manipulating the sound through, like say, modern means but like maintaining some other like, you know, archival aspects…
EK: Yeah. In a way, I see it less as, I mean, it is me manipulating but I’m [more] accenting an artifact that is there in the original. Throughout, that was also the approach. We never ‘cleaned up’ the audio, it’s already perfectly clean and the nature of the sound of the tape, and of the artifacts of Rockefeller starting and stopping the tape and the self noise of the microphone or the hiss of the tape or all those thing; that’s part of the whole encounter, very much. So we’re not prioritizing, or making a hierarchy of good and bad sounds on the tape, you know, so that was the approach throughout.
CRA: How were people of the Hubula involved and what do they think about the project?
VK: We worked with Papuan [anthropologists and] artists, Nicolaus Lokobal and Korneles Siep, to translate a lot of the recording. [Lokobal] was my teacher and collaborator, a Hubula (Dani) anthropologist and historian. Born in the Baliem Valley in 1958, he went to study theology at the Fajar Timur School of Theology and Philosophy. He worked as a lay cleric at the Catholic church before deciding to work in politics. In 1987, he met Karl Heider, Robert Gardner, and Susan Meiselas when they came back to visit the Baliem Valley. Nicolaus Lokobal wrote several books about the Hubula cultures and I worked with him on this project from 2015 to 2017 when he passed away. After Nicolaus’s passing, I have worked with Siep on the project (until today), mainly for interpreting the recordings and liaising with the Hubula community in terms of how these recordings and the project will be returned. Siep records contemporary Hubula music with his band, Pikalu.
What [Lokobal] liked about the recording is that the recording has the capacity to preserve the Hubula language or the Dani language that was spoken in the 1960s. So many words have disappeared from the contemporary lexicon of Hubula or Dani speakers. It was great for him, and he appreciated Michael Rockefeller a lot because he recorded a lot of songs that are no longer easily found in West Papua. It is very interesting for me to hear the comments of our Papuan friends. They listen to our composition but what they like is the preservation that comes with it and the documentary values that come with the work; how we present the sound, the life of the Hubula.
I think for my Papuan friends, the notion of culture is very important for them because they are under colonization. So the stakes are quite different. Of course, there have been a lot critiques of the academy and artwork in reproducing the colonial gaze, or being part of colonialism itself, but we really need to talk to the people we work with [and ask] what do they want, what do they need and I think you will be surprised by how perceptive they are and how strong their agency is. They have their own ideas about certain projects, Michael Rockefeller for instance, Harvard for instance. Jean Rouch has this word, doing ‘shared anthropology.’ It has a bad rap and people have criticized it a lot. We are very conscious about our institutional power—with Harvard, with the Sensory Ethnography Lab. But I think I’m still interested and fascinated by the space of encounter that we share with others. I’m not sure if we can call it shared anthropology but we have some point or concern that we share as humans. That’s also part of the experiment. I think if you write an ethnography, only a few people will read it. Not really because of language but because people do not have time to read 200 or 300 pages of dissertation. But if you make a film or composition, there is more possibility that your work can be accessed by our friends in West Papua. This is also an experiment in re-thinking the way that we present our work as anthropologists and artists. It’s not necessarily successful but we have to continually share this space and this film is part of that, but only one aspect.
CRA: You mean one aspect of an engagement or a relationship? It’s interesting to hear you talk about how your collaborators in West Papua relate to the work because I’m curious: what do you hope the life of the work will be in West Papua?
VK: The film Expedition Content is one of a few projects that we plan to do with West Papuans. The film itself was supposed to be screened in the Papuan film festival this year, but because of COVID-19, the festival was postponed, so that’s unfortunate. They also have a film festival in Bali, to be held in August but I think that was pushed to next year. The second part of the project that we are still working on is making kind of like an album. An album of Hubula (Dani or Papuan) songs. We have the music so we want to make a CD. That will be fun (both laugh). And the Hubula communities themselves, they are in the middle of trying to figure out how to ‘revitalize their culture’. They are trying to find ways of how to adapt to colonisation, what they call, ‘slow-motion genocide.’ I’m in conversation with them [about] the revitalization of their museum. They think it’s important to have a museum there. So we kind of share this space.
CRA: Do you want the film to counteract this history in some way?
VK: We should really follow the lead of the community with whom we work. I don’t know whether you can speak about decolonising anthropology, I don’t think that is the case here. But speaking about the Hubula community, they have their own ideas about anthropology, they have their own ideas about culture, they have their own idea of a museum. So I think we are in constant conversation to talk about their revitalisation project, precisely because we have a unique case here. I mean first, they are under what I call a ‘colonial present.’ They feel like they are colonized by Indonesia [and] by the US also through their support to the Indonesian occupation in West Papua. I and Ernst, for instance, I am from Indonesia, he is from the US— so we are also navigating our political positions in ways we can share this space of anti-colonial struggle so to speak. I think that we are clear that we are aligned with anti-colonial struggle but the form that it takes will be really dictated by the situation of the community and their demand to us and our position as anthropologists and artists.
EK: I feel like, as you know, the other bigger project part of this project which is still in-progress is to basically make the whole archive available. Preferably online or, you know, in cooperation with the Peabody but are available to Hubula people—part of that wider move of repatriation, but in this case, we’re not talking about actually putting the original tapes in West Papua. It kind of doesn’t matter, maybe, where the actual tapes are. The original tapes might be still sitting in Indiana, I’m not sure, and it’s just this digital archive now. And that digital archive should be on the internet and it should be available. We also want to have the digital archives on an actual hard drive in West Papua, but we want to make it available and then for what purposes are going to be up to Hubula people themselves. So we’re sort of not saying what purpose it should be used for, or what we hope will happen to it, but you know they’re in, as I’m sure Veronika talked to you about, basically a struggle for their continued existence. It’s an incredibly dark, problematic thing that’s going on there. I mean, it’s seems like an attempted cultural genocide if not actual, you know, human genocide.
Part of [Veronika’s] larger project is translating the various texts that came out of these engagements, like Karl Heider’s ethnography, and so on, into Hubula which they’ve never read. He spent years and years, over there studying them, and never reported back, never had his works translated into a language that they could read. So that’s part of Veronika’s larger project— to make that happen.
[Kusumaryati and I continued the conversation on how the work has been received so far at its previous screenings.]
CRA: When you gave the quote by Trouillot, I was really happy to hear it. I’ve not heard him speak about sensory experience before. Have you been able to hear anecdotes about how audiences processed the film?
VK: [At February’s Berlinale], I think some people left the screening in the first ten minutes because they expected some visuals (laughs), but those who stayed told me that they really couldn’t expect what happened in the piece because there are no visuals and they were shocked by this. So it seems to me that this kind of work calls for different kinds of response, bodily responses for example, but also a different kind of expectation from the audience.
The film itself, we call it a film (laughs). We use some cinematic languages, like cinematic grammar: we have scenes, we have short kind of shots, so we still use that but we reject and are quite insistent on rejecting the need to gaze; to know in advance. I think we are quite uncompromising and people were taken aback by that. [They take it] just like art-house kind of stuff. But we didn’t want it to be an installation. You know, we wanted people to sit and listen. There’s a labor of work that, you know, labor that we may expect them to do. But a lot of people love it precisely because they are not sure of what they’re listening to and they find it provocative. Some said it reminded them of being in West Papua–some audience members in Berlin were sons or daughters of Christian missionaries so that’s very interesting as well.
[Kusumaryati and Karel also showed Expedition Content at University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Experimental Ethnography during Karel’s fellowship there during the Fall 2019 semester.]
EK: It’s been a very positive reception, even given how horrible it is to listen to. I mean, just like it’s horrible to listen to certain [parts] like the party sequence, which casts a sort of a retrospective tenor over the whole thing. But they were super supportive, they thought it was a strong piece. Deb [Thomas, editor-in-chief of American Anthropologist and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography] keeps saying she wants to hear what the reaction is gonna be when we show it at Harvard [both laugh] which at this point we’ll, we’ll see if we do.
CRA: I think it worked for me in the sense of having a kind of crescendo. It felt like we increasingly got the sense that the expertise that they’re trying to portray at the beginning is like on shaky ground and then like, it bottoms out when it comes to the party sequence, in terms of, this knowledge is not really trustworthy in the same way…
EK: ‘[imitating Eliot Elisofon’s intonation, from the first part of the film] Scientific purposes. We are making a film for scientific purposes.’
CRA: It’s so funny to hear them speak! I was reading through the Marshall Archive for A New England Document and it’s text, right, so I’m reading it in my voice but hearing them say it, it’s like, “oh they really believed this!” [both laugh]
EK: We don’t really put out in front [of] our materials that it’s a critique, partially because this is a bit of a complicated thing. It is the kind of thing that you might want to have a trigger warning for— [a] warning of like, it’s violent. But at the same time, cinematically, we feel like it needs to emerge in the course of viewing it, you know, and that’s part of your shifting evaluation of this whole enterprise, is the revelation that happens [at the end].
[We ended both of our conversations talking about the ‘party sequence’ and what it signifies for us.]
CRA: At the end, there’s an extended sequence where Michael and the other expedition members trade racist jokes to each other. I noticed a particular moment where they are talking about Black American jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus but their speaking tone is as if they are doing an ethnographic study. I was interested in your reaction to those clips, because they take up quite a lot of time at the end.
VK: We call it the party sequence and we decided to put that in early on actually precisely because the sequence is very revealing about who they are. [Their] social class, [and] in terms of their attitude to race, particularly to Black people. You listen, they talk a lot about Black musicians, they love Black jazz musicians. But on the other hand, they have denigrating comments on black women! It’s very telling about the state of anthropology in the sixties, and the whole project of the Harvard-Peabody expedition to West Papua. I asked, why are there no women in the expedition? Were there no female anthropologists? Why are they all white men? I think that’s very telling, the party, precisely because of the conversation they had, that was very racist and very sexist. So we decided to put that on, because it’s part of the politics of the expedition in the sixties.
EK: I was curious, you mentioned in your comments that you also saw similar equivalences made [in the Marshall Archive compared to Rockefeller’s sound archive]. You know, [between] black Americans and indigenous folk—
EK: —What’s an example you saw in that material?
CRA: There’s a bit in Lorna [Marshall]’s diaries where she’s talking about how the colonial officials treat native people and she’s analogizing it to the relationship between like white Southern Gentlemen and black people in America. But also there’s these aspects in Dan Blitz’s memoir. He wrote a book that was never published and it’s in the Peabody [archives]. I didn’t get to include most of it because it would have just taken over the film. I was very interested in this kind of analogizing of race between like black people in America and indigenous folk given that it’s a completely historically different formation and existence. For me, it spoke more to whiteness in the sense of how there’s a particular process of Othering that’s happening in these kinds of anthropological expeditions. That’s why it’s so kind of mind blowing to see the party sequence, because, and I mean I think it’s more masculinist in the party sequence, but there’s still the sort of equivalency drawn between [black Americans and indigenous folk]—
EK: —And [they are] imitating African American vernacular speech too. What really struck me about that was when I was first hearing that tape, after listening to the other tapes, was; they’re in this foreign environment obviously, but in also a foreign kind of sound world, and the kinds of what they describe as war whoops, and these kinds of call and responses and even the funereal, kind of, singing, but just a very different kind of sound world. Their reaction in a way, when they have a party and they get drunk, is to enact their own sound world, right they’re beating with silverware on plates and making music, but the music that comes to their mind is this African American music—jazz and so on; just that kind of relationship. When they vocalize themselves, they bring their ‘own’ sort of musical traditions up, but it’s not really theirs—it’s this African American tradition that they’re exposed to, and at the same time, this sort of New York geography comes up you know like, ‘Where is the Five Spot?” and in relationship to the New York Agreement.
CRA: In terms of the foreign sound world, it’s like these clashing sound worlds, and they’re making them clash in some way.
EK: And then of course earlier on, though, when in the piece when a woman and a child are singing, and then they asked Michael to sing. And he sings a little bit and this song that comes to mind is this minstrel song from the slavery era, called Blue Tail Fly. Yet again, racial imagination really coming into the foreground of their consciousness, like out of nowhere.
C. R. Applewhaite is a Trinidadian-British writer, filmmaker, and college senior in Anthropology, and History & Literature at Harvard University. His first short film, A New England Document, received its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020. He has worked at the New York African Film Festival, the Harvard Art Museums and as a research assistant to artist and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary. He is currently a recipient of Harvard Magazine’s 2020-2021 Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellowship for which he writes a bimonthly column.
Expedition Content screens as a livestream presentation on Thursday 10th September, 7pm BST, and is available to watch worldwide. Tickets are on sale now.