Stefanie Kiwi Menrath & Kiran Kumar

What Place is This? Islands and Imaginary Ethnography 

Islands are cultural figures of both isolation and connectedness. Their splendid isolation has made some islands the settings for cultural and political utopias. The relationality of the archipelago though focusses on the connectedness and the movements in-between. In an „archipelagic“ (Glissant 1997) understanding, islands and cultures are networked and linked rather than separated by the ocean. This presentation focusses on artistic-scientific projects using the figures of islands and archipelagos for strategic cultural hybridization and critical postcolonial re-imaginations /re-constructions under an approach here called „imaginary ethnography“.

Imaginary ethnography strategically creates foreign worlds in the imagination - for the sake of criticizing essentialistic, static, land-based notions of „culture“, accessing violent, colonial histories of „exploration“ and questioning the discourse of otherness through speculation. In recent decades, a number of artists have turned to such a form of creative ethnography – often in collaboration with ethnographers and cultural anthropologists.

Traditionally, in ethnography and cultural studies, the notion of “imagination” has been used in a critical manner (see Said 1978, Anderson 1983, Appadurai 1990). Likewise, in 1977, the German anthropologist Fritz Kramer used the term „Imaginary Ethnography/Imagin√§re Ethnographie“ to critique ethnographic texts that alienate other cultures to the point where they appear as the reversal of the ethnographer's own cultural premises – as inverted worlds. Imagination and the imaginary are an inseparable part not only of history but also of today's practice of ethnography. Ethnographic methods, having been developed in anthropology and sociology, have traveled and been translated between different spheres of inquiry. Imaginary ethnography is one of these hybrids of academic research and art – based on a non-representational methodology (Vannini 2015).

The practices of two such collaborations will be the subject of this presentation – of cultural anthropologist Stefanie Kiwi Menrath with dance/visual artist Kiran Kumar and with musician/sound artist Andrew Pekler.

In „Archipelago Archives “ Kiran Kumar positions his artistic research to (re)imagine dances danced on an imaginary archipelago somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Embedded within the history of exchanges across the ocean rim during and pre-dating European colonization of the region, this artistic-scientific speculation considers dances as art-e-facts that point towards an(other) understanding of being human in relation to the cosmos. In doing so the project aims to bring these understandings into a deeper and nuanced dialogue with our contemporary world.

In the multimedia project Phantom Islands – A Sonic Atlas, sound artist and musician Andrew Pekler interprets and presents the (historical and contemporary) imaginations around “phantom islands”. In the form of an interactive map, ASonic Atlas charts the music and environmental sounds of Phantom Islands - islands that during the time of colonial “expansion” were sighted, charted on maps and described – while in fact they never existed.