Slice of Life

‘Haunted Ethnography’ exhibition digs up graves of colonialism

Courtesy of Anneka Herre

The “Haunted Ethnography: New Experimental Documentary” group exhibition is featured at the Everson Museum of Art until Mar. 25, 2017. It features the work of Carl Elsaesser, Sky Hopinka, and João Vieira Torres.

Crinkled baby pictures. Bedtime legends worn with age. Falling-down childhood homes. Songs on drums or bagpipe passed down for decades. These are the dreams and memories “Haunted Ethnography: New Experimental Documentary” brings to the Everson Museum of Art.

The exhibition features films curated by Urban Video Project, the multimedia arm of Light Work gallery. On Thursday, the Everson will host an indoor screening event to compliment museum-goers’ experience of the gallery, which opened Feb. 26, with a more in-depth look at these films. The event is co-sponsored by the Syracuse University Humanities Center and will feature three additional films, an artists’ panel and a reception.


Courtesy of Anneka Herre

Each year, UVP picks a theme for its exhibitions. In the 2016 cycle, climate change wrestled with capitalism in “We Were Never Human.”  This year, “Interzones” is all about liminal states, ambiguity and places caught between the living and the dead. From this, “Haunted Ethnography” was born.

By old standards, ethnography — the study of rituals and norms of people from other cultures — was consumed as literature. But even when ethnography transitioned to film, the genre remained problematic because of its history.

“Just as that culture is engaged in this systematic violence, there is this desire to preserve on film some documentation of this vanishing culture,” said Anneka Herre, director of Urban Video Project and a lecturer at SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. “It presumably was undertaken with the best of intention. But it is, in fact, a kind of insidious extension of that colonial project itself.”

Filmmakers like Sky Hopinka, who is featured in the show, are challenging this history by redefining the genre and claiming the documentary form for themselves.

“Up until the present, there’s this strong tradition of ethnographers being white males who often are pointing the camera at people of color — or people that are ‘other’ — and explaining what they are and who they are,” said Hopinka, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation. “So with my work, I’m definitely interested in complicating this idea of an ethnographic film or using it as a springboard to try to do something else.”

In “Jaaji Approx,” Hopinka traces his own indigenous heritage figuratively and literally. Dubbed with recordings of his father’s pow-wow stories and prayer songs, Hopinka revisits the ground his father traveled.

Hopinka’s pieces showcase shadow and light. Sprawling deserts, grass trails and mountains are held up against Midwest sunsets and glowing gas station signs. Poetry, written and performed, is spliced with neon crosses and flickering brushstrokes of color.

For Hopinka, the recordings, images and experiences that went into filmmaking helped him feel closer to his father. The creative process may have been like old ethnography, but there is no colonial project here.

“It’s about my family, my culture. But I’m not trying to explain anything,” Hopinka said. “I’m not trying to teach anyone anything in the fashion that ethnographic film has tried to do.”


Courtesy of Anneka Herre

Carl Elsaesser, whose work is also featured in “Haunted Ethnography,” deals with getting reacquainted to a place in his film, “Vague Images at the Beginning and End of the Day.” The artist makes the voyage to an abandoned farm where his grandfather grew up. On the way, he confronts unfamiliar second cousins, the South Dakota landscape and his sexuality.

In the same vein, “Project Gasbuggy” deals with the spookiness of a “dead-zone” nuclear site in New Mexico. The film is strung together with pastel archival footage — a medium at home in avant-garde films and ethnographic work.

Elsaesser explained that he was constantly roaming when he was working on the films back in 2014. After graduating from Hampshire College in 2011, he still hadn’t rooted himself in any city. Despite the difference in subject matter — a grandfather that’s just passed and a fracking site long since abandoned — Elsaesser’s search for self and empathy is present in both of his films.

“I was really invested in the idea of the self and the body that was more uprooted and traveling,” Elsaesser said. “These films encapsulate that experience of figuring out a self that traverses through landscape, through the road, through history, through personal memory.”

The process of trying to figure it all out is where it can become “haunting” for Elsaesser.

“Thinking about these ideas of ‘haunting,’ these films present it as a thing that is ‘searched out for.’ Explored and never fully resolved. ‘Not over it,’” said Elsaesser. “And I don’t think it’s meant to be gotten over. It’s meant to continued to be sore, you know? Continued to be haunting and sore and painful. I want that.”

And finally, João Vieira Torres dissects family narratives in “Ghost Children” and puts a fresh spin on traditional ethnography in “Toré” when invited to film an indigenous tribe’s ritual. In “Toré,” Torres infuses the healthy, green lushness of rural Brazil with all kinds of music: wind rushing through the trees, crackly Tchaikovsky and indigenous percussion.

Supplementary films “Ghost Children,” “Vague Images” and “I’ll Remember You as You Were” are subtler, but watching them is the museum equivalent of flipping through family photo albums, scanning through home videos or coming home for the holidays.


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