On weird ethnographies

Thinking about my way to approach field research/ethnography, I've re-read today three intriguing excerpts of articles that I find interesting.

The first one is from "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory" by Norman M. Klein (1997, Verso Books), who I met few years ago when I stayed art Art Center in Pasadena:

"In many ways, the materials I have assembled look like research gathered by a novelist before the novel is written, before the writer turns the contradictions into a character-driven story. Like blending notes with a diary, I plan to leave the chronicle often, to break off into essays on the social history of media, and of Los Angeles. (...) my primary sources are urban planning reports, local interviews, the detritus of neighborhood conversations, urban legends, movie locations, and so on. Primary or otherwise, sources of this type, even when they look more empirical inside scholarly articles, are unstable and fundamentally fictional. Therefore, to be honest, the text I produce must be partly autobiographical. What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents? The documents are a mix of history, fiction and urban anthropology: more a form of historicized ethnography, always cooked, certainly never raw." (p.7-8)

The quote describes Klein's modus operandi for his book about the process of memory erasure in the city of Los Angeles: the accumulation/production of material which is then turned into his "docufables". I'm less intrigued here by the semi-fictional character of the book, and instead, it's the fragmentary nature of the documentation that caught my attention. Also, his selective focus on weird insights is interesting... which leads me to the second article. It's from "Toward a Conception Of 'Gonzo' Ethnography" by E. M. I. Sefcovic (1995):

"Gonzo ethnography rejects the notion of any privileged vantage point for observation, insists on recognition of the participatory dimension of the researcher’s role, and urges experiments with research methods and reporting practices that can liberate and empower general audiences."

Sefcovic's article is mostly focused on a rejection of positivism, the need to involve oneself in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories, and to bring a critical stance.. However, I do think there's another aspect of gonzo "approach" that could be relevant too: it's the tendency Hunter Thompson had to pick stories/anecdotes/factoids/stuff which are mostly peripheral to the subject he was supposed to cover as a journalist. I find that aspect important in my work, i.e. the need to consider things out of my perspective. This is close to what Justin Pickard included in his "Gonzo Futurist" manifesto:

"the observation stage of this operational loop looks like some vernacular, ad-hoc ethnography. This kind of observation is shorthand for all kinds of evidence-gathering, so read widely, take photos, and ask questions. Probe. Keep records. If something seems incongruous, it’s probably important. When it comes to observation, your nemesis is the filter bubble — an echo chamber forged by Google and Facebook; a ‘unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (Pariser, 2011: 9) It may be comfortable in the bubble, but ‘there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.’ (Ibid.: 15)"

One way to get out of the filter bubble IMO relies (for instance) on finding non-standards informants (such as non-users, extreme users, people involved in intriguing practices) or collecting weird material (documents, fictional elements that can describe the social imaginaire you're interested int, etc.). I call that "peripheral ethnography".


electricWhenever exploring a city, you’ll hear locals and guides encouraging you to ‘look up’. I’d argue that you learn an equal amount about a city from looking down. You see discarded litter, infrastructural markings on the tarmac, bus tickets and graffiti. You see past the towering monuments of man’s achievement and see the everyday remnants of regular life. I wrote a while ago about the curious multicolored dots beside San Francisco’s drains and I recently completed another short project in a similar vein. All across the Bay Areas are holes in the ground, some permanent, some temporary, each covered by a sheet of metal. Whilst there exists a small cadre of manhole afficionados they become almost invisible by their regularity. A closer look reveals that each of these metal coverings carries data, be it the company who owns the infrastructure below, the type of service, or the owner/manufacturer of the plate itself. Often this information is cast directly into the plate during manufacture, but from time to time this information is handwritten. Upon installation, a piece of text is added to the plate via a welding torch, leaving a permanent metal version of the creator’s handwriting. This tickles me for many reasons, but perhaps mostly as it’s a great example of finding humans – a small piece of human expression evidenced by a mass produced object. Many of the characters are wonky and malformed, perhaps evidence of a lack of care, or the difficulty I imagine comes with writing with a welding torch. Nearly all of the type is capitalized, but every now and then you will see a piece of cursive handwriting, which is lovely. A few covers around the city also seem to have been signed, although I could be wrong.


I began photographing these frozen characters about two years ago but recently accelerated the project (on account of the vlog). On Saturday I finally completed a full alphabet (I found a ‘B’, thank you Pac Bell) and I’ve gone through the somewhat awkward and painstaking process of creating a font. It’s far from usable, and definitely not pretty, but it’s crowdsourced, and that makes it modern. You can download the font here: WELDTYPE

If anyone has the required skills and inclination, it would be nice to cast around these welded letters in-situ and make printing blocks from them… maybe?

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