Ideological Matters Surfacing From Rubbish


HW: There was this peculiar intimacy to the way he whispers to the recorder – it’s almost like a diary. He’s talking to himself, and I suppose in a way he was, because it was intended as a note-keeping device. I kept wondering what kind of audience he envisioned for these recordings, and maybe you can shed some light on this. But it’s hard for me to imagine his recordings supporting other media products. Also, I didn't really get the sense that he had an ethnographic or ethnological passion for recording this exact cultural setting. Perhaps it was more about documenting interesting sounds.

EK: Well, we don’t have a record of what the conversations were about sound recordings. There’s that amazing conversation about photography at the beginning.[4] And that itself survived, speaking of rubbish, only because they reused that tape and recorded over it. And then the tape stops, and you hear that conversation. It's actually backwards on the tape because they're reusing it [laughing]. The archivist had the presence of mind to flip the tape and transfer it. Maybe Michael was just practicing recording, and they didn't need to record this photography lesson. I don't know. But, that itself is just literally taken out of the rubbish.


HW: That’s fascinating.


EK: The tape actually stops at that moment where we cut it, when Gardner says: “Not exactly” [laughter]. He was about, probably, to continue to say something about his ideas about “naturalism” and making a film for scientific purposes, and so on. It would have been amazing to know what his thoughts were at that early moment in his career – but we don't have it.


HW: It’s wonderful that, from this rubbish, discursive things surfaced – like the ideological presuppositions they had when doing that work. Amazing.


EK: Clearly, Gardner already has ideas about “naturalism,” and so he’s disagreeing with Elisofon, the Life magazinephotographer, who was already famous at that time. And so he's about to disagree that it should be some kind of objective representation, that there’s no poetry to it, no subjectivity to it, and that’s clear, in Gardner’s whole career, with projecting his own issues onto a place or a people. But the extent to which Michael Rockefeller has these things in mind, one imagines probably not. He's probably got a more literal view, just trying to make good recordings. I mean, he's only 22 years old. He’s also probably more interested in photography than sound recording himself. But he seems to enjoy it, the sound recording. When Veronika [Kusumaryati]  was listening to the tapes with Nicolaus Lokobal, the West Papuan anthropologist, and Korneles Siep, the West Papuan musician, they had an affection for Michael. When they listened to him on the tapes, they liked him. So that was nice to hear, because, when I listened to it, I didn't have that experience. Of course, he does seem to have learnt a fair bit of Hubula language, not so much in what we selected in the piece, but you hear back and forth a little bit elsewhere in the tapes. But they felt like he was a friendly young person.


HW: I can relate to that: if you cut off the American social context, and disregard the moments of racializing language and implied sexual violence that emerge in the latter part of the piece, there is a voice that sounds pleasing. I noticed that he seemed reasonably fluent considering he had only been there for a couple of months. Do you know if they took language studies before?


EK: Just a little bit, it seems.


HW: Yeah, so that meant that they hadn't just been drinking by themselves in front of their tent all night. So they had actually been curious about people there.

A photography lesson by Elliot Elisofon, with Michael Rockefeller, Sam Putnam, and Robert Gardner (First scene of Expedition Content).