The remediation of ethnography involves two interrelated things: putting a remedy to a difficult ethnographic situation by changing the media of ethnography. Moving beyond the traditional text-centric approach of anthropology, remediation practices bespeak of the proliferation of digital media in our societies and the opportunity to embrace multimodal ethnographic inquiries. A common case of remediation involves the construction of site-specific digital infrastructures whose design process becomes integral to the ethnographic endeavour. These infrastructures are not mere accessories but sociomaterial and spatial arrangements disposing the conditions for inquiring: they sustain relations in the field at the same time that offer a relation of them. In this sense, they have ethnographic-like qualities and may be conceptualized as ethnographic infrastructures that invite us to envision ethnography as an infrastructural project. Against the vision of the ethnographic encounter as a face-to-face unmediated situation, thinking of ethnography in infrastructural terms demands to get hold of the sociomaterial textures of ethnographic relations (both in the field and beyond, in their later representation).
Field device: Ethnographic infrastructure.
Mode of inquiry: Ethnographic remediation.
Geographical location(s): Madrid (Spain).
Duration / time: 2015 – 2021 (6 years).
Ethnographic counterparts: Professionals, university graduates, urban activists, mainly architects and urban gardeners.
Resources: Funding for the ethnographic companions.
Substantive outputs: http://www.ciudad-escuela.org, http://www.ciudad-huerto.org
Degree of difficulty: Medium.
Which is the proper media of ethnography? The question may sound a bit vague for its meaning is not clear: it may refer to the media used for ethnographic representation; the media and format of empirical records, or even the different communicative media used in the field to relate to our counterparts. In any case, if there is a paradigmatic media of ethnography this would be the plain written text: anthropologists write when they are in the field and write again later in their home following established genres. Despite this established vision, we know that anthropologists have always resorted to more media than the written text, although the discipline has traditionally been reluctant to admit it (Edwards 2011) . Both the representation of ethnography and the genres and formats used in the production of field record have used a variegated diversity of media (photos, films, drawings, and even poetry). Nowadays, in a hyper-mediated world, this media diversity is integral to the ethnographic relationships that anthropologists establish in the field to their counterparts. In this piece I describe the design process of a digital platform that was essential to an ethnographic investigation I carried out in Madrid with two urban guerrillas (Basurama and Zuloark). The project started with an initial failure—since I was kicked out of the field—but the collective design of a digital infrastructure allowed me to get my counterparts involved in a prolonged collaboration. In this piece, I describe how my ethnographic project was imbricated with the design process of a digital platform, an activity that remediated the difficult situation I confronted by changing the media of my ethnography.
I started my ethnographic project in Madrid after obtaining authorization from my future counterparts, members of the urban guerrilla Basurama. It was set to be an investigation about their reusing practices and city interventions of a collective whose artistic/urban professional practice revolved around the topic of reutilization of garbage (basura in Spanish, hence its name). I started to visit their studio for a few hours during some days of the week. An old garage located in a peripheral neighbourhood, it was a mess of materials, tools and funny stuff—with a working arcade machine among their flashiest items. Just a few weeks had passed, time enough to have me visit the premises a couple of times per week, and they asked me to end my investigation. It was shocking but, as simply as that, they didn’t feel comfortable with my presence. I was asked to wait until the beginning of a project they offered me to join, but months passed and their call never happened. We were really interested in their work so with my colleague and fellow partner Alberto Corsín Jiménez we decided to change the situation by proposing Basurama, and the urban guerrilla Zuloark, to join us in a funded research project .
Basurama and Zuloark are two colectivos de arquitectura (in their common vernacular denomination) founded at the turn of the century in the School of Architecture in Madrid (ETSAM). During their university time, they started to experiment with modes of collaboration and irreverent interventions that explored the intersection of art, urbanism and architecture. Pushing the limits and strictures of formal education, these collective endeavours were the breeding ground to cultivate an architectural practice that displaced the conventions of their profession. Instead of following the track of an architecture focussed purely in construction—specially at that time, before the financial crisis—their professional activity was inflected with an artistic sensibility that questioned the epistemic primacy of architecture and urban planning in the design of the city. Their interest in the urban space led them to engage in all kinds of material interventions in the public space through auto-construction practices and multiple collaborations with neighbours and urban residents. The influences that their practice received were diverse, but among them, it was central the influx of free culture and open-source movement—this was a distinctive trait of some of the urban contexts I had been engaged in previous investigations. It was visible in the pedagogical inflection of their activities and the diverse archival and documentation projects aimed at liberating their designs, methods, and knowledge. An endeavour that led them very often to experiment with formats, languages and diverse aesthetics: creating archives, exploring different visual aesthetics for designs, and testing pedagogical formats for making circulate their knowledge.
The initial proposal made to Basurama and Zuloark was vague enough to offer ample room for improvisation: we found their work interesting and we just wanted to explore the possibility of doing something together, so during more than a year we met periodically (initially weekly) for a few hours to explore the kind of project we could carry out together. Sometimes we gathered in Basurama’s studio and on other occasions we met in Zuloark’s, an ample and ramshackle flat in the city centre cramped with offices that was crowned with a ping-pong table in their meeting room. It was 2014 and the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 were still present in the politics of austerity, but despite these difficulties, it was a vibrant moment. The wave of initiatives that came after the 15M movement—Spanish precursor of the Occupy movement—spread throughout the city. Our conversations fleshed out many of the urban and political issues emerging out of the many initiatives developed by neighbours and urban residents: auto-constructed urban spaces, community gardens, self-managed initiatives, squatted buildings and all kinds of neighbourhood projects. We were especially attentive and intrigued by the many infrastructural needs and achievements involved in these projects: the modest pieces of auto-constructed furniture that refurnished the public space, the methodologies used to document those designs, the many different practices of reuse materials involved in these activities…
The material practices of intervention characteristic of my ethnographic partners aligned with my theoretical interests—inflected by an STS sensibility—into the heterogeneous materialities of urban worlds. This practical and conceptual orientation was made explicit in the original name we gave to the project: 15Muebles—a pun with the acronymous 15M and the Spanish name for furniture (mueble). Besides this interest in the material retrofitting of public space, our attention—mine and that of my counterparts—was caught by the many apprenticeships urban residents needed to get engaged in these urban interventions. Those involved in community gardens learned how to auto-constructed modest infrastructures (like benches and terraces), while others involved in the 15M movement learned how to address a political collective in the many assemblies they celebrate or they got involved (and learned) how to use digital technologies in their coordination efforts. In all these cases, participants devised methodologies for documenting their activities, created large digital archives, and learnt how to use digital technologies to collectively coordinate their actions. Our conversations not only were carried out in this context of urban agitation but were drawn into it.
As time went by, our periodic meetings were intermingled with other encounters (seminars, events, workshops), they were enriched with new venues, and diverged into a few more initiatives we developed together. Somehow, my ethnography about architects turned into an ethnography with architects since they became formal research members and epistemic partners in our shared inquiry into the efforts of urban residents to make the city inhabitable again. This change involved for me a process in which I pulse the limits of previous learning and experimented with my ethnographic practice, shifting from what I had conceived—and previously practiced—as a practice of participant observation to an ethnographic modality in which I was engaged in an experimental collaboration with my epistemic partners, as I have argued elsewhere (Sánchez Criado and Estalella 2018). The prolonged relationship with Basurama and Zuloark devised the conditions to think together about what was happening in the city, a situation that let us to engage in an activity of joint-problem making, and those that I had initially considered informants turned into epistemic partners.
Our conversations were coming to an end when an opportunity opened: we received funding from the Reina Sofia Museum and we figured out a proposal that materialized our long conversations. Out of this came Ciudad Escuela (The City as a School) , a project of urban pedagogy that formalized our interest in the learnings involved in auto-construction practices of self-managed autonomous spaces. The project translated into a formal pedagogic programme our diverse interests at the same time that it sought to open the sources of urban learnings—such was the description we coined at the time. An art-cum-research project, Ciudad Escuela was devised to both inquire and instigate the inventive practices that proliferated throughout the city at that time. We designed a series of workshops and seminars that happened in different autonomous spaces and addressed topics like open designs, digital autonomy, distributed documentation, data and maps, resources, sustainability… These encounters allowed us, on the one hand, to animate the liberation of the many learnings taking place in autonomous self-managed spaces, and on the other hand, they offered a platform to inquiry in the many initiatives we visited. I followed the trail of Ciudad Escuela to the different locations where the project activities were carried out, in this process, Ciudad Escuela prolonged in time and expanded through the city my previous ethnographic projects.
The digital platform was cornerstone in the overall configuration of the project, indeed it served as a proxy for the whole endeavour. We counted for this with the skills of two architects turned over the years into hackers and digital provocateurs, Alfonso Sánchez Uzábal and Domenico di Siena. Far from a mere publicity website, this digital infrastructure fulfilled three functions: it made public its pedagogical programme, served as a documentary archive for learnings, and certified the apprenticeships of participants. The certification mechanism used Mozilla Foundation open-source badge technology, a system designed to verify skills and learnings achieved by those earning a badge. The documentation that participants produced and Ciudad Escuela archived had a twofold goal: it allowed to certify participants’ skills—since this documentation was attached to each personal badge—and at the same time it offered resources for others to learn. A beautifully drawn map of a community garden serves as proof of learnings associated with the topic of designing space, and a graphic of a piece of furniture proves the participation in an open infrastructure workshop. This certification mechanism materialized our profound shared conviction—and theoretical affinities to STS scholars—that sound knowledge is not produced just by traditional experts (Callon and Rabeharisoa 2003). Besides, this documentation and archival activity responds to the drive to liberate and open the sources of the knowledge produced in the project. In this sense, Ciudad Escuela was built in its entirety as an open-source infrastructure: not just the source code of its software was open but all its contents were published under a free license that authorized any kind of use and modification. I would like to pause for a moment to consider the role of Ciudad Escuela digital infrastructure in my ethnographic endeavour. I will draw on the recent anthropological literature that has shown us to appreciate that beyond their material form, infrastructures are singular objects that inscribe particular rationalities, desires and aspirations.
An example of documentation produced by Eva Seija Marcos, a participant in a workshop of Ciudad Escuela associated to the badge of distribute documentation.
Anthropology has for long envisioned the ethnographic encounter as an unmediated situation constructed in intimate and close face-to-face encounters. This is certainly true of many ethnographies, but it may not be considered a faithful description for many projects anymore. We are well aware that ethnographies in the contemporary are deeply engaged with diverse technological mediations because anthropologists use all kinds of digital media to get in touch and sustain the relationships with their ethnographic counterparts. Email, phone messages and video conferences are part of the routine technologies we use to relate to our counterparts. My experience evinces this increasing digital mediation in the field, but beyond this truism, Ciudad Escuela infrastructure represents a distinct kind of engagement with digital media, a differential quality that has a number of dimensions that I would like to unpack. First, the infrastructure I have described is not a ready to use technology, but a digital platform designed in the interior of the ethnographic project, it was in this process that my ethnographic relations were built and sustained. Designing Ciudad Escuela infrastructure thus devised a situation that allowed me to relate to my ethnographic counterparts, those that had previously kicked me out. I would intimate that this digital infrastructure thus remediated (or put a remedy) to this complicated ethnographic situation by changing the media of my ethnography. It was not just an infrastructure for the pedagogic activities of Ciudad Escuela, but an infrastructure for my own ethnographic endeavour. Under these circumstances, my field activity and the infrastructure became intimately imbricate, resourcing one each other, as I discuss below.
Ciudad Escuela could be aptly described as another urban infrastructure of the many that my partners auto-constructed during those years, some of them shared with Ciudad Escuela a mix condition since their digital and urban qualities resourced each other—that was the case, for instance, of the inspiring archive Inteligencias Colectivas developed by Zuloark and other colleagues over the years. Our imagination rapidly runs to large technological systems when thinking about infrastructures (dams, roads, or power systems come to us), however, when invoking the concept of infrastructure, I have in mind Casper Bruun Jensen and Brit Ross Winthereik’s conception of infrastructures as “platform[s] for action that are simultaneously imaginative and practical, simultaneously conceptual and technical” (Jensen and Winthereik 2013, xv). In this sense, Ciudad Escuela digital infrastructure does not merely refer to its website, instead I am thinking in the situated expression that Ciudad Escuela takes in each event and intervention that the project carries out, the infrastructure may thus be understood as the relational world that unfolds as the project ambulates through the city.
A second reflection touches upon the semiotic qualities of Ciudad Escuela infrastructure. While our imagination tends to pay attention to the preeminent materiality of infrastructures, Brian Larkin (2013) highlights the relevance of their poetic dimension and even their semiotic qualities for they are always evocative objects inviting imagination and offering a language to be learned. Certainly, the material design, conceptual proposal, and pedagogic aspiration of Ciudad Escuela speak of the urban contexts it was set to intervene. However, it is the pedagogical programme what largely encapsulates the semiotic qualities and conceptual vision of Ciudad Escuela. It is composed of what we called itineraries (itineraries), conceptual vectors aimed at understanding the emergent climate of the city, as their names evince: interfaces, codes and languages, beta urbanism, etc. One of the last meetings we had to close this program and its contents took place in a bar in Lavapiés, the centric neighbourhood of my previous ethnographic project. Cramped around a small table in the back we drafted the final design of six pedagogic itineraries. Each itinerary was composed of specific topics (badges) like open designs, cities in beta, open pedagogies, sustainability, resources and urban archives, among others.
The itineraries were a journey through learnings, but they were a literal displacement throughout the city too, honouring the ambulatory methodology of the project. More importantly though, the composition of the pedagogic program put together and aligned our multiple sensibilities. On the one hand, it offered a faithful expression of the urban sensibility and distinctive intervention practices of my ethnographic partners—this was visible in badges like open design, sustainability practices, recycling activities. On the other hand—and this is especially relevant for this piece—it inscribed the empirical findings and conceptual efforts of my ethnographic endeavour at the time. This was visible in itineraries like cities in beta or open infrastructures, and some of the badges like urban archives, these were ethnographic insights and conceptual elaborations that came out of the ethnographic situation.
I have always seen in this infrastructural composition the ethnographic-like qualities that I would have expected in any written monograph. Not just a material platform for action, Ciudad Escuela digital infrastructure thus offers conceptual expression of the ethnographic relations out of which it emerged. Certainly, these are not the same semiotic qualities we would expect from a textual representation, but nonetheless they offer a faithful relation of the empirical encounter. The legal licenses, the archival activity, the open-source code, the conceptual pedagogical programme… Each of these elements offers relevant insights to the complex urban entanglements Ciudad Escuela grows out and relates to. Anthropology has for too long assumed that writing is the paradigmatic (or even exclusive) representational media for anthropological knowledge. Clifford Geertz’s (1973) dictum decades ago is still alive in our visions of ethnographic activity: the fundamental practice of anthropologists is writing; they write in the field and they write again when they have left it. However, we know very well that plain text is no longer a sufficient media for ethnographic relations: neither for the relations in the field—those relationships we establish with our ethnographic counterparts—nor for those others relations produced out of the field—those narrations of the field taking the form of a monography. Recent invocations for multimodal anthropology evince the multisensorial, performative and inventive qualities of many ethnographies of the contemporary (Dattatreyan and Marrero-Guillamón 2019). In contrast to this fixation with text, I see in my engagement in Ciudad Escuela an index of the diverse sociomaterial textures and heterogeneous media through which ethnographic relations are built today—both in the field and out of the field. In my case, it is a site-specific infrastructure with ethnographic-like qualities that represents the ethnographic relations while contributing to sustain them.
The recent anthropological interest on infrastructures turns over ethnography itself in a recent reflection of Marilyn Strathern (2018) foregrounding the conditions under which anthropological inquiries are carried forward. Strathern calls for attention to infrastructures because it affords insights into the changing circumstances of ethnographic work. It would be intriguing to consider the relevance of Bronislaw Malinowski’s tent in his innovative fieldwork practice in the Trobriand Island (Stocking 1983), perhaps the modest technology set in the middle of in Omarakana village is though no more than the visible epitome of a whole practical infrastructure of support that the anthropologist used in his innovative fieldwork (Strathern 2018). Besides this practical infrastructure, Strathern highlights the relevance of ideational or conceptual infrastructures that subtend in any ethnographic project: theories that support the ethnographic endeavour. These (practical and conceptual) ‘infrastructures of ethnography’, as Strathern calls them, are outsides to ethnography. They may become thought of interest for the ethnographic inquiry when specific practical support or theoretical frameworks are problematized, in this case the infrastructures of ethnography become objects of inquiry and turn into ‘infrastructures in ethnography’. The transformation of the infrastructures of ethnography, she argues, bespeaks of changes of ethnographic enquiries in the contemporary.
Ciudad Escuela is not an infrastructure of ethnography—in the outside—and certainly it is not a mere object of inquiry—an infrastructure in ethnography—but something different. I would like to call it an ethnographic infrastructure: it is the media through which I build relations with my counterparts in the field and the media that (somehow) accounts for my ethnographic relations too. Ciudad Escuela is an infrastructure with ethnographic-like qualities that sustains my relations in the field at the same time that offers a relation of them. It speaks of the centrality of digital media in diverse ethnographic projects in the contemporary (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017) that are carried out by designing infrastructures as an integral activity of their ethnographic endeavours . In these situations, infrastructures are not mere accessories to the inquiries but sociomaterial devices for the remediation of ethnography. I use the concept of remediation in the two senses suggested by Paul Rabinow (2011): remediation refers to putting a remedy to a complex ethnographic situation, but remediation signals a transformation in media too. Neither an outside of ethnography or an object of investigation, this kind of infrastructure shows how the ethnographic encounter is mediated by site-specific material designs that invites us to envision ethnography as an infrastructural endeavour.
Beyond the traditional fixation with text—as the paradigmatic form of representation in the field and out of the field—anthropologists may resort—and have always used—other kinds of media and formats for their ethnographic relations.
The incorporation of standard digital technologies is a common trait in many ethnographies in the contemporary. Besides this practice, in certain occasions the design of a digital infrastructure may be a way to carry forward an ethnographic project. In these occasions, ethnography may be conceived as an infrastructural project.
Designing a digital infrastructure with our counterparts may dispose the conditions to relate to them. In these cases, the infrastructure is not an accessory or a mere support but the relational world out of which ethnographic relations can be established and sustained.
The anthropologist is not a mere observer in this process but an active participant in the design process and later infrastructural activity. More than an observational activity, it may be described as a situation of experimental contours.
An ethnographic infrastructure is not just a material network but a sociotechnical entanglement of people, techniques, spaces and materialities. Devising it takes time, requires funding, and demands technical abilities: it cannot be built on voluntary efforts, it needs resources.
Devising the infrastructure entails inscribing multiple logics, values and goals. Frictions and tensions may appear, this is not a problem but a valuable insight. It might even happen that the design process is not successful, this is not necessarily a failure since it may indeed be a fertile ethnographic situation.
Callon, M., and V. Rabeharisoa. 2003. “Research ‘in the Wild’ and the Shaping of New Social Identities.” Technology in Society 25: 193–204.
Collins, Samuel Gerald, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill. 2017. “Multimodality: An Invitation.” American Anthropologist 119 (1): 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12826.
Dattatreyan, E. Gabriel, and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón. 2019. “Introduction: Multimodal Anthropology and the Politics of Invention.” American Anthropologist 121 (1): 220–28.
Edwards, Elizabeth. 2011. “Tracing Photography.” Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology, 159–89.
Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Jensen, Casper Bruun, and Brit Ross Winthereik. 2013. Monitoring Movements in Development Aid: Recursive Partnerships and Infrastructures. MIT Press.
Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327–43.
Rabinow, Paul. 2011. The Accompaniment. Assembling the Contemporary. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Sánchez Criado, Tomás, and Adolfo Estalella. 2018. “Introduction. Experimental Collaborations.” In Experimental Collaborations. Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices, edited by Adolfo Estalella and Tomás Sánchez Criado, 1–30. New York, Oxford: Berghahn.
Stocking, G. 1983. “The Ethnographer’s Magic: Fieldwork in Bristish Anthropology from Tylor to Malinowski.” In Observers Observed. Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork, edited by G. Stocking, 70–120. Madison: The University of Wisconsin.
Strathern, Marilyn. 2018. “Infrastructures in and of Ethnography.” Anuac 7 (2): 49–69. https://doi.org/10.7340/anuac2239-625X-3519.
SOURCE: Drafrt for a forthcoming chapter titled How to remediate ethnography(15 June 2020)
TOP IMAGE: An auto-construction workshop held in the Adelfas urban community garden, Madrid 2016.