Public interactions in Jaffna are heavily constrained for everybody living there, apart from for representatives of the army. For me personally, this had a large impact on how I could use my cameras, which in turn increased my self-reflection, particularly on what my artistic practices mean and do in my life. I began to study myself more closely in this context, and this moved into self-reflexivity – how my own position affected the research I aimed to carry out. My official status was that of a tourist and I was supposed to make images in the manner of a tourist, not as a researcher or a researching artist. I do not mean that I would normally take photos regardless of people’s responses, but that in this case I was worried about catching the attention of the many soldiers posted in the area who regularly make critical voices disappear.
In addition to filming for the video, I considered the possibilities of making photos that could be used in a new collaborative project with the artists, this time initiated by them. I will come back to this shortly. Despite the government’s surface reconstruction of roads and buildings, many Tamils still live in houses largely destroyed by bombs and shelling. I wanted to photograph these and juxtapose my experiences with the romanticised ruins of nineteenth-century European explorers. But of course it was not in the interests of the government to have this side of their triumph against terrorism shown to the world. It was extremely frustrating to be unable to engage with the environment through my camera. This made me feel alienated and it affected how I interacted with people around me. Even though I was a visitor who could leave at any time, and was not explicitly involved in political issues and therefore under no threat in relation to the Tamils living in the area, I still strongly sensed the oppression of the army and how they confined people’s lives.
My knowledge of photography and art has mainly developed through practice-based learning, where images and vision were valued more highly than words; I am continuously searching for verbal articulations that are suitable to describe what this practice is about. During parts of the fieldwork in London, I unconsciously resituated myself in an exchange of knowledge about art practice through this implicit, unspoken way of interacting. Although I had many conversations with the artists, I sometimes found myself forgetting to ask for verbal clarifications of my tacit understanding of their works. In my search for better ways of wording, I found a text by the researcher artist Lily Markiewicz. She describes art practice as a dialectic process between accommodating and unaccommodating oneself. In the first instance, as a form of dwelling, to make oneself at home in a place, and to feel at home – a notion that art practice implies housing oneself, or that it offers a refuge (Markiewicz 2007: 38). And simultaneously, in interaction with a process of creating disruption, of losing oneself, a kind of unaccommodating in order to accommodate the notion that life is partly experienced in situations of displacement. Markiewicz’s description of making oneself at home through art practice resonated with my previous engagements with the Tamil artists, already articulated in the title of the video Making Home, but she added another level through the notion of creating disruption, to bring on the unfamiliar, the ‘unheimlich’ (ibid.: 41).
I perceive the homemaking aspects as part of the experiential knowledge gained through interactions with an environment; nevertheless, I perceive also that this is not necessarily a simple process of becoming at ease. It is more a back and forth between developing belonging and distancing oneself, or becoming distanced by responses from the environment – processes that all form part of art practice. Disruption and defamiliarisation can be aspects that unfold in the analytical process of art making, which can be traced in some of the Tamil artists’ work. They explored the unfamiliar to make sense of it, to make themselves at home and feel a belonging, but in the making of their artworks some also created tensions between that which had made them feel at home and that which had caused disturbances.
When I was not allowed to accommodate myself in Jaffna through exploring the unfamiliar with my camera, as a first step of making photographs, I became aware of how much this practice forms part of how I make myself feel at home. It connected with how the Tamil artists engaged in their work in London and how we had explored the city and ourselves together through the video making. It was this realisation of the overlaps between my own way of image making and those of the artists, through the articulations of Markiewicz, that made me turn more clearly towards autoethnography. My understanding of the artists’ practices has thus evolved in resonance with an increased understanding of what my own art practice is about. This is of course a precarious claim to make as my own experiences might take over those that I interpret to be the artists’.
The new joint art project, initiated by one of the Tamil artists in London before I left for Sri Lanka, conveys the mutual trust and blurring of boundaries between ethnographer and ‘other’ that developed during fieldwork. I was invited to participate as an artist, to contribute with images rather than studying the images the others made. At times before, I was perceived as an artist as well as a researcher. But in the new project, the artists saw me as an artist rather than a researcher in anthropology. The porosity between us increased as we made and discussed images together, whether our own or at other artists’ exhibitions; sometimes I was a colleague, sometimes a facilitator for the artists’ verbal articulations of their aims. A couple of them had or were going to study anthropology; one had written an essay on young Tamil diaspora artists. The Tamil artists and I ‘got caught up in each other’s way of thinking and doing’, a phrase used by Grimshaw, Owen, and Ravetz (2010: 155) in their description of an explorative workshop organised for anthropologists, artists, and curators.
Perhaps we should not focus on cultural or ethnic identity when we define autoethnography – a focus that has produced the notion of the migrant as its most convincing example. Reed-Danahay suggests that displacement, globalisation, and transculturation are important issues that the autoethnographer can elucidate through personal experience. If we consider the kind of art practice that the current project engages with – rather than where the artists lived or which language they spoke – these issues are partly touched upon. The participants identify with art as it developed in the West, which was then imposed upon and later localised in South Asia, then migrated back to Europe with the Tamils, subsequently to take new forms in relation to the art scene in London and to being in exile. That which we share is in this sense part of a globalised art practice.
Among contemporary artists who make video and film, the video diary has emerged as a form of autoethnography. These works have brought forth a range of identities as wide as the possible definitions of ‘auto’. It includes, for example, sexual orientation, class, and generation, and according to Catherine Russell (1999: 312) this expanded sense of the term ‘ethnic’ broadens the notion of possible pluralist social formations. Autoethnography as a method has also developed among artists engaged in academic research to pose biographical inquiries such as concerning their artistic skills. The postmodern emphasis on multiple shifting subjectivities opens up for an ‘auto’ that refers to various kinds of identities. In a similar way to how we recognise that a migrant can become part of a new environment at the same time as being part of a previous one, and thus oscillate in-between, I suggest that we can recognise a profession as one aspect of many that accounts for the ‘auto’ in autoethnography.
Strathern’s critical examination of autoanthropology and doing anthropology at home has been helpful for my interpretation of fieldwork as an autoethnographic situation of shared practices and knowledge production. She asks ‘how one knows when one is at home’ (author’s emphasis) and stresses that investigator and investigated need to share productive activities and techniques for autoanthropology to take place (Strathern 1987: 16). If the people studied are not using the same theorising techniques as the anthropologist – for example, if the investigator uses culture as a category for organising knowledge among a people who, instead, draw on divination or myth as techniques to know themselves – autoanthropology cannot be applied. Belonging to the same physical place or society is subordinated to the researcher’s capacity to understand, use, and translate the research subjects’ own conceptualisations of the world (it is Strathern’s focus on theory that makes her use autoanthropology rather than autoethnography). Following Strathern, it can be suggested that during fieldwork in London, where I shared methods and theorising techniques with the artists, although not first language or place of birth, we developed a space of shared practices that makes autoanthropology and autoethnography relevant. The Tamil artists are researchers in their own lives and at the same time participants in my research, which concern how they research their lives. I explored their research in collaboration with them, partly through methods that were close to theirs. The boundaries between who was who and who was doing what largely dissolved, and this undermined culture and ethnicity as defining identities. In my understanding, autoethnography is based on lived experience and shared skills rather than cultural rules, and it aims for a balanced distribution of power in the research situation.
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