Friday, January 14, 2022

Cannibal Adderly

Expedition Content (2020) - Karel, Kusmaryati Screen Shot 2022-01-14 at 9.21.17 AM Ernst Karel, a sonic artist and a familiar name to audiences attuned to watching many of FSC-Harvard/Sensory Ethnography Lab alum's projects, together with fellow anthropologist Veronika Kusmaryati, comes up with Expedition Content, a hour long audio clips strung together from 1961 Harvard Peabody Expedition led by Robert Gardner, Anthropologist who pioneered the visual anthropology field, and recorded by Michael Rockefeller, of THE Rockefellers, then a 23 yr old Havard student who disappeared without a trace in West Papua, then The Netherlands New Guinea, during the same expedition.

Watching Expedition Content, or rather listening to it while staring at the black screen is rahter a fascinating experience. I mean, I've been always interested in the use of sound in relation to cinema and always preaching the importance of it. As usual, with any Sensory Ethnography Lab's project, Expedition Content tinkers and plays with the boundaries of the cinema as the visual/aural medium.

But what we see, in this case hear- dialog among white ethnographers and Hubula or Dani people doing their everyday chores, singing and conversing, need to be digested in context. After hearing expedition team's discussing the technical aspect of photography and the sound of the Hubula people, we see a little bit of the background of the project in texts across the screen.

So the context is this: the expediton is sponsored by the Colonial Netherlands Government. The Rockefeller family's business, Standard Oil, had a big stake on West Guinea, Michael's father Nelson, then the New York Governor, later became the Vice President of the United States. Keeping this in mind, perceiving this project becomes a little different. It's not some random collection of soundbites from an exotic world.

Surely, there are some wondrous aural moments like the sound of storm passing by, a woman washing sweet potatoes in the stream and yelling at little Mike (Rockefeller who recorded most of the tracks we hear) not to stay too close to her, swarm of bees morphing into a singing chorus which turns into a group wailing. And because it is mostly sound recordings (there are about 30 seconds of Gardner's film footage of a bat cave exploration inserted with the sound in the middle), there are some candid conversations caught on tape (hotmics so to speak), of boys locker room talks and making fun of jazz music and its coolness by imitating how African Americans talk. These supposedly civilized, well educated people would make an (un)intented, racially, culturally, doubly insensitive joke, Cannbal Adderly (playing on Cannonball Adderly the jazz musician).

At times tender and jarring in others, Expedition Content is a wondrous experience to be had. In order to experience it properly, unless in theaters, which I stupidly missed my chance when it was playing as part of Art of the Real in 2020 and at Anthology Film Archive just past week, I suggest you to wear a set of headphones and experience it alone in the dark and let your mind wonder.

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