It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down and properly write a reflexive blog post about anything to do with my PhD, and considering I’m currently finalising the last chapter of my thesis now seemed like as good a time as any! If you keep up with the blog you will know that one of the major case studies to have come out of my research was the Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae project, which saw collaboration between myself, Kieran Baxter, Aaron Watson and John Was. The experimental fieldwork and production methodology concluded in a collaborative mixed media short film which was shown up in Orkney at various venues – for three months from May to August 2013 onsite at Skara Brae and for two months from June to August 2013 at the Pier Arts centre in Stromness.
Feedback for the film and exhibition overall was hugely positive but of course, this isn’t the Time Out or Rotten Tomatoes film review and though positive feedback is fantastic to see for any project, it all boils down to research in the end. So from a research perspective hearing from people who really didn’t like the film was in most cases tremendously useful, even if they didn’t realise it when they wrote it! Negative feedback ranged anywhere from constructive criticism to being unapologetically mean. And then there were the few that mistook the comments box on the feedback form for some kind of visitor book. Well, at least Denmark liked it.
Some of the most interesting comments furiously insisted that this simply was not what the past was like, that people in the Neolithic were just like us and that the film rather than simply not being to their taste was unquestionably wrong. Collectively, comments indicated that a large proportion of people approach an interpretive visualisation with some level of preconceived expectation over what an archaeological reconstruction or visualisation should do and how it should be represented. In most cases this general public preconception seems to pertain to an archaeological reconstruction representing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I can say with all certainty – in no archaeological re-constructive situation is this ever completely possible! The issue with an attitude which expects an explanation as opposed to an interpretation is that it places all interpretive responsibility on the visualisation itself, excusing an audience of any need for critical awareness when consuming these images.
Our intention with the Digital Dwelling film was to engage audiences more readily with the more intangible side of archaeological interpretation and to challenge passive consumption of the ‘archaeological reconstruction’ by using a palette of approaches and techniques to represent the site and current interpretations. The film and exhibition weren’t intended to replace the existing visualisations in any way, but to compliment the interpretive content which was already available and equip the audience with a few key themes with which they could take forward to formulate their own questions about the site and engage with the subjective process of interpretation with more awareness. The feedback reflected that with this particular showing of the film and exhibition onsite the general audience was divided in this respect. Some immediately engaged with the material in the exhibition and film, understanding the intentions and consuming the media with critical awareness and what appeared to be a fairly cognitive engagement. Others seemed to have difficulty in overcoming the initial deviation from a format they were familiar with and the somewhat ‘fixed’ interpretation they already carried with them about the site. A few even took the film to be an outright ‘truth’ about the site, as opposed to an informed interpretation.
It seems we need to re-think our intentions with the use of interpretive visualisations by way of reflexively questioning what should be asked and expected of an image in these public contexts. In reference to the artists’ creative process Garner (2008, 17) believes that visualisation is undoubtedly a research process in itself because it supports a personal dialogue of enquiry and conjecture whilst offering the opportunity for others to engage with ideas through the resulting representation. For me, the value of visualisation in an interpretive archaeological context lies in its ability to convey ideas, theories and interpretive responses to the archaeological evidence, inspiring and developing discussion rather than presenting a definitive final conclusion on the site. Unfortunately it seems that in many cases it is this definitive conclusive answer that many visitors have come to expect. Granted, traditional terms such as “the artist’s impression” and preambles which suggest that the image presented is “what the site might have looked like in the past” all convey a feeling of subjective interpretation and uncertainty, and for that matter the boycotting by many academics of the term “reconstruction” in the past decade or so on the grounds that it implies an impossible level of certainty have not gone unnoticed. However in many cases it seems that a large proportion of the general public still expect to passively consume these images as a conclusive answer rather than a flexible tool to think with.
Interestingly (though unsurprisingly) in contrast to the feedback from the exhibition onsite at Skara Brae, verbal feedback from showing the film at the Pier Arts Centre throughout the summer was strikingly different – visitors seemed eager to share their own impressions of the interpretive themes within the film and although the project and its motives were detailed in an accompanying coffee table book in the gallery, few felt compelled to rely on it, preferring to let the film inspire their own questions and interpretations. I expect in many ways it all comes down to a question asked back when I gave a seminar about the project at the University of York last year – “Is the film art or archaeology?” And I’ll stick to my answer, why can’t it be both? Some of the feedback forms from the general audience at Skara Brae came back with comments to the effect of “a bit too artsy” and “artistically indulgent”, some even suggesting outright that creative and artistic methods had no place in archaeological interpretation. Why not? Archaeological interpretation and visualisation is by its very nature a subjective and creative process, so why can’t this be reflected in the approach and the media used?
Anyway, that’s enough of that for today! I’ll leave you with this thought – next time you see an interpretive archaeological visualisation don’t just glance at it and move on, engage with it. Ask yourself, what to I want to learn from this image? How does it compare/contrast/compliment/contradict what I already know about the site? Are my expectations of this image realistic?
….Does it make me feel deeply uncomfortable and a bit sick? If so you may have just watched Digital Dwelling.
In any case, don’t just look at an image, think with it!