From Rubbish to Archaeological Treasure


JL: Regarding the transcript, the wind is a major reason for failure; it's a problem, on many occasions. So, what was your experience, actually, of these wind recordings? Are they really unsuccessful? How did you relate to them?


EK: You mean in all the material? [pause] You know, I’m not sure. Again, like we were talking about earlier, the way I'm listening to the recordings is not the same way Michael would have been listening to them or the same way that Gardner would have listened to them. And speaking also back to the audience for whom Michael is announcing the tapes – I think, first of all, himself – I think he also realizes he's part of a team, and other people may be listening to these too or go through the recordings later after the expedition, and so on. I think he's aware that it's not private. He's making these announcements as a way of logging the material. So, when they would have listened to it at the time, probably the wind would have been too much and wouldn't have worked for the film. But when I was listening to it, I didn't have that frame of mind. So that’s why I'm actually not even sure how bad the wind was – whether or not it rendered the recordings a failure. Because for me it always just sounded so interesting, and was such evidence of his inexperience, of the microphone in his hand, of whatever kind of wind protection they had. Apparently, he had some wind protection, and whenever there was explicit reference to these kinds of things, often those made it into the edit. I was interested in those moments when he talks about the technique or the practice of field recording. So, for example, he’s recording a swarm of bees, and he says: “Okay, the same thing except now with a windscreen.” I don't know if that meant a sock or what, as the recording is not that different, but it is a bit muffled. They didn’t have a Rycote, you know, or a blimp or something like what we have now where it's acoustically transparent and actually protects against the wind.


HW: Somebody mentioned that he put the microphone under his coat.


EK: Right. So in my listening, the wind added to the quality of the recording rather than made it a failure. [pause] The wind was definitely present a lot of the time. I think, in simple terms, a lot of the recordings were ruined by wind [laughs]. For our purposes of listening and being interested in it, they weren't ruined, you know; it's just a quality, an extra quality.


HW: I think we've established so far that all of those recordings we consider quite unequivocally to be a kind of archaeological treasure. What does it take for rubbish to become this kind of treasure? Is it just a historical contingency, or simply a sufficient passage of time? Do you have any thoughts on that?


EK: I'd be interested in both of your thoughts on that. I think these things are changing, given the proliferation of recordings. Part of the reason these are treasures is because it's unusual for the time. And in this case, in particular, and very specifically, this moment in the history of West Papua, the history of colonialism, the history of the idea of an anthropological expedition, the history of the development of visual anthropology. So all of those things, in particular, focus a lens on this moment. Whereas now, with our recordings that the three of us make, we're part of millions of people all making recordings digitally and so on, and it's unlikely that any of them will be such a special treasure to someone 60 or 100 years from now. With Expedition Content, it always just boggles my mind, what an important turning point this was in so many different ways, in particular for the people of West Papua, as they were about to lose what self-determination they had under Dutch colonial rule. It was not a good situation. Gardner writes in his journal about hearing gunshots, and we know that Dutch colonial officers just ruled with impunity and were brutal, like colonial officers everywhere. But things got much worse for them with the handing over of their country from the Netherlands to Indonesia. And they were betrayed by the United Nations and the US and every other country in that process. Korneles Siep has done some public conversations with us in the last couple of years, and he has talked about how this disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is not just a kind of historical oddity, not just a little bit of extra drama in this. Since it was an international event, it was all over the newspapers, and his father was the governor of New York and future vice president. There were well-publicized searches. [pause] So that itself played a role in public perception of West Papua and how “primitive” the place was, how they needed to be governed. All this stuff was brought up and made into an international issue because of Michael Rockefeller, and not in a good way. West Papuans were portrayed as savages. I mean, Gardner continued to refer to them as a stone age society. And so, of course, there was no question of self-determination for them. They had to be handed over to another responsible party, and this brings us to the United Nations and the so-called New York agreement of August, 1962. So, in the horrific, drunken “party scene” near the end of the film, they describe this kind of New York geography with jazz clubs and so on.  So all these references to New York for us also refer in a way to the New York Agreement. And that was because the UN meeting was held in New York, where the determination was made that Indonesia would take over West Papua, and the UN basically gave their blessing to that. And the UN still does not recognize that West Papua is officially a colonized territory. For Korneles Siep, it’s not just a side note to history, it's a central event in the entire fate of the country.


HW: Yeah, that’s very interesting. It was a very specific conjuncture in all these historical progressions. This guy just happened to be there. I have no idea about the reception history of these recordings, but I suppose that their value as ethnographic evidence was established fairly quickly, even though perhaps this historical conjuncture was not understood yet. What kind of historical process do we need to go through before rubbish – the margins of these recordings – become of interest? That’s also perhaps too tall an order for us to try to answer tonight. But that's what I'm interested in. I wonder if that has something to do with the historical structure that you just described.


EK: The recordings themselves haven't really been out there. So, in a way this film is the first way that they're being heard publicly. But we are working with Korneles Siep and others – Veronica and I are coordinating an introduction between two West Papuan museums and the Peabody to make sure the digital archive is shared. It's not happening via us; the Peabody wants to work directly with an institution in West Papua. The idea would be that the whole archive will be available not just raw, but with structure and some organization and translations and things like that. That's still in progress.


HW: How did you stumble on them, then?


EK: The tapes were donated by Michael’s surviving twin sister, in 2005 or 2006. I just found out about them in 2015, which was a year after Gardner died, when an assistant who was working with his estate contacted me because they were finishing these short films that he and various assistants had been working on that were using unused footage from that expedition. She asked if I would be interested in helping to make audio soundtracks for the films – and here’s the archive to do it with. And I was like: “Whoa!” [laughing] So I had no idea that it existed. That’s how I found out about it. And I did do that project, and DER (Documentary Educational Resources), will publish the short films. But, then I shared them with Veronika Kusumaryati right away, because she works in West Papua as a media anthropologist. We knew that we wanted to do something with the audio. And so there's actually three parts: one is Expedition Content; the other is the whole archive and making sure that's kind of shared and repatriated, and so on; and the third part is that, in collaboration with the musician Korneles Siep, we are collecting highlights from the many musical-type recordings and trying to publish them as CDs, or the equivalent of CDs in this post-CD era of music distribution.

Mention of recordings being “unsuccessful” from Michael Rockefeller’s tape journal (Peabody Filename: XF_2005-15-01Edited).