A Conversation on Discarded Recordings

Ernst Karel, Jonathan Larcher, Heikki Wilenius



What can be considered as a discarded recording in an ethnographic inquiry? Do the instabilities and technical errors show that technology is really part of the encounter of ethnographic situations? Furthermore, is there a limit beyond which a sound that is too degraded can no longer be restored but simply described in writing, the preferred medium of the human sciences in general and anthropology in particular? These three ideas were at the center of the EASA Lab “Rubbish, Noise, Experimentation: New Afterlives of Field Recordings,”[1] as we have written in the “Introduction: Exploring the Phenomenon of Sonic Waste in Anthropology” to this special issue. 


Since we did not bring our own sound excerpts to this Lab meeting in July 2020, we organized another meeting in March 2022 so that we could continue our conversation around the discarded recordings of ethnography, this time with sounds selected by ourselves, starting with the film Expedition Content (2020) made by Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati from the sound archives of the Harvard-Peabody expedition (1961) in Dutch New Guinea. The recordings made by Michael Rockefeller give voice to the world of the Hubula of West Papua and, at a second level of listening, composes a sonic counterpart to Robert Gardner's film Dead Birds (1964), a classic of visual anthropology made during this expedition. Initially conceived exclusively as a sound piece, before becoming a film, Expedition Content gives back a sonic presence to the bodies of men, women, and children presented in Gardner's film, while opening attention to all the elements and living beings encountered during the expedition. The contrast with Dead Birds is sharp, as the latter is built around the cycle of death, inter-tribal wars, and Gardner's voice-over. The many errors and failures that punctuate Rockefeller's recordings – we also listened to some recordings that did not appear in Expedition Content – form a fertile ground for thinking about the tactics and listening that can make examining ethnographic rubbish a heuristic, both for the history of the anthropological discipline and for the history of the place where it was recorded. 


We also listened to recordings with various technical defects made by Jonathan Larcher during his fieldwork in Romania in 2007 and 2008 and a badly distorted smartphone recording made by Heikki Wilenius during his fieldwork in Indonesia in 2013. By listening to and discussing these sound recordings, the conversation[2] was extended to the techniques and methods by which these technical errors, silences or saturated sounds can be recycled and made to contribute to the production of anthropological knowledge. 

Engineers from the Nigerian National Film Video and Sound Archive, in Jós, replacing the ring belts from a Nagra tape recorder. Photograph: Jonathan Larcher