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November 11, 2004

Observational Conference Notes

I have just returned from a conference titled, Modernity and Contemporaneity: Antinomies of Art and Culture After the 20th Century that was held at the University of Pittsburgh November 4-6. www.mc.pitt.edu I joined the conference on the evening of the 4th, missing the first days lectures but was able to attend all of the lectures on the 5th and 6th as well as a receptions with opportunities to see the exhibitions at the Mattress Factory and the Warhol Museum on the evenings of the 4th and 5th.

For this assignment on Observation/Participant Observation/Fieldnotes, I will use this conference as my site for observation. The reasons I have chosen this site include, first, that notetaking is not an unusual practice and so will not likely have a great effect on the subjects I am observing. Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw explain how notetaking can at times appear obtrusive and affect the relationship between participant and observer. Second, in so far as I am an academic, this is a community I am a part of. While Emerson, Fretz and Shaw �suggest that the strangeness of the ethnographer is created and maintained exactly by writing filednotes [that}� reflect and realize this socially close but experientially separate stance,� in this site, amongst a room full of presenters and audience members, many of whom occupy both roles, this site is one where the distinction between participant and observer remains indistinct as many of us take notes, some perhaps not so different from my own. (36) Third, the subject matter of many, if not all, of the papers given take up issues of representation that directly concern the construction and presentation of observations such as those that this assignment seeks to explore. This third reason also presents difficulties since some of the observations I made do not directly concern the content that a speaker was attempting to convey, and at times notetaking kept me from being able to pay attention to what was, at times, extremely dense subject matter.

Because of the density of this subject matter, and the importance of retaining multiple layers of meaning, it will be important to augment my fieldnotes after they are written. Because this event is one which is relatively static in format, primarily a single speaker at a podium, observations on aspects of what I am observing that are outside of the prepared content of the lecture do not occur as frequently. Because I am interested in making some general claims about trends in the conference as a whole, rather than choosing a specific half hour from my notes that cover over 15 hours of observation, I will make selections that pertain most directly to this assignment, and the ways that various practices reflect on the content on the discussions.

My checklist of what I paid attention to grew out of and alongside various themes that became apparent as the conference unfolded as well as my own developing understanding of the current and potential relationship between the academic disciplines of performance studies and art history, as well as, but perhaps to a lesser extent, visual culture, and comparative literature.


What are the various methods of translation used? When are translations not made? Why?

How do various speakers deal with the presentations of images? What challenges are faced? If they are overcome, how are they overcome?

What are ways that the presentation of images �says� something that can�t be said with words? Are there places that the presentation of images close off discussions that might otherwise happen with words?

How are the speakers grouped and classified, by the convenors, each other, audience members, and other conference structures? How do they classify/identify themselves?

How is the role of the convenors different from the presenters, what practices mark their interactions?

How are audience questions solicited and responded to? By whom?

How do presenters and audience members interact with the physical spaces in which the conference is held?

Are there patterns to the ways that presenters physically and verbally refer to each other?

How do I interact with the presenters and the other audience members? How do these interactions change my engagement with the conference as a whole?

In terms of the question as to whether or not the compilation of my fieldnotes will or will not be an ethnography, I don�t really have a problem with calling it such. Though she didn�t discuss (and perhaps doesn�t understand them as I do), the full implications of her chosen method, Helen Molesworth did her presentation in a format not unlike an ethnography, on an artist whose work, while in photographs, is also not unlike an ethnography. While upon publication I might not choose that word because of the assumed distance between the participant and the observer that is usually generally understood as a part of that format, for the purposes of this assignment, and amongst a cohort that is involved in bridging that distance between participant and observer, �ethnography� is an acceptable working classification.

Posted by at November 11, 2004 9:11 AM