Week 8: Art and Design Anthropology 2

Reading from Anthropology and Art Practice. Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, 2013.

Chapter 17: “Skylarks: an Exploration of Collaboration between Art, Anthropology, and Science” by Rupert Cox and Angus Carlyle

This chapter focuses on the ways that a project develops and changes as it runs up against material challenges. The team of artists, scientists, and anthropologists started out with a goal of researching the noise pollution that an airport was creating for a small farm and monastery in Japan, but they ran into problems almost immediately. As they tried to record a soundscape of the area, the intimate farm noises were constantly interrupted by the whines and drones of planes taxiing, taking off, and landing. The sounds were so muddied that they had to get creative with their approach to sound collection.

Cox and Carlyle 2012.

They ended up appropriating recordings from a nearby wooded area to simulate what they monastery would have sounded like before the installation of the airport, the sound of a skylark song from Britain, and recorded audio of an air control tower to build a chimerical representation of the soundscape that wasn’t based on the current physical realities of life on the farm. Once their content was recorded, they remixed it and published it in a multitude of different ways, including a multimedia art gallery installation, multiple books, and two sound-films.

This chapter helped to illustrate the complicated process of brining a project from idea to publication, including steps like:

  • navigating the realities of what’s possible due to unforeseen limitations
  • brainstorming creative ways to steer the project in a different direction based on available materials
  • linking to academic scholarship
  • organizing information into multiple formats and delivering to people effectively


The authors sharing the challenges in their process is critically important for researchers and artists who are developing projects of their own. I can use this project as a model for my own project and learn from the authors’ commentary on how their decision-making affected their ideas of scholarship and authenticity.

Reading from Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. Edited by Wendy Gunn, Ton Otto, and Rachel Charlotte Smith, 2013.

Chapter 10: “Ethnographies of the Possible” by Joachim Halse

This chapter was exciting because it showed a clear example of a project that applies an anthropological perspective and design thinking to solve a real-world problem. Halse points out the traditional differences between the observant, backward-facing role of the anthropologist and the interventional, forward-facing role of the designer and suggests that a synthesis of the two roles could lead to better designs more informed by the needs of all parties affected by a design decision. Rather than looking at typical representations of existing cultural paradigms, Halse thinks with Victor Turner and Richard Schechner’s work on transformative events and invites the anthropologist to get involved in them by facilitating well-rounded and informed conversations to guide the design process.

The author describes their work as part of a design team workshopping new ways of handling waste management at a mixed residential-shopping zone. In this case, they disrupted the traditional hierarchical methodology of policy development by inviting waste management experts, shopping plaza representatives, vendors, shoppers, and nearby residents to act out imaginative potential future waste management setups. Through multiple stages of increasingly detailed role-play, stakeholders imagined different ways that waste management could be implemented in their specific environment, drawing out points of tension or conflict at an earlier stage in the design process than is usual in strictly top-down design methodologies.

Halse draws on the axiomatic role of the cultural anthropologist in making “the strange familiar and the familiar strange” by claiming that “everything that is ordinarily taken for granted can be rendered exotic and in need of explanation; for example by revealing how dominant assumptions rest on sociohistorical contingencies” (102). He urges anthropologists to not end their work at the “implied conclusion, that the world could be different” but to use their critical thinking and observational skills to help shape the world to come (102).


I’m encouraged by Halse’s discussion of why and how the complementary practices of anthropology and design can be incorporated to yield more successful policies and user experiences. Seeing the methodological approach his team took in collecting information and gaining stakeholder buy-in makes me think about how I could arrange to incorporate stakeholder involvement as a bedrock of this and any future research and design projects. The author also talks about the entanglements that an anthropologist inevitably has with the projects they take on. Remembering to reflect on this in the context of any project I work on will help me keep an open mind and develop balanced solutions to challenges encountered within the scope of the project.