by Nicolas Rasiulis, University of Ottawa
Along with their reindeer, horses and dogs, approximately 200 Dukha Tsaatans (Rasiulis, 2016: 1, 3) nomadically inhabit the rugged and wildly weathering alpine tundra and sub-alpine woodland that constitute Mongolia’s border with the Russian Republic of Tuva. Dukha people’s livelihoods emerge significantly through sustained engagement with the rich ecology of their homeland, referred to as the taiga, and with the animals with whom they cooperatively inhabit the taiga.
This engagement continually shapes both habitat and dwellers. Myriad paths of all sizes breathe everywhere along the pores of forests and valleys. Vestiges of past inhabitation remain in the landscape with calm strength. Calloused hands wield handmade axes, wood, ropes, stones, antlers, sewing machines, chainsaws, motorcycles and electric wiring. Humans and reindeer intimately acclimate themselves with one another’s characters and with their habitat’s physical attributes and conditions as dwellers share domestic space and cooperatively realize their respective livelihoods. Dogs keep wolves away and receive food from humans. Horses and reindeer serve as means of travel for humans, and the latter help keep wolves away and share salt with their livestock. Humans afford reindeer with considerable freedom in their grazing movements, establishing trust with the animals insomuch as the latter allow themselves to be handled by humans in the practices of riding, milking, tethering, antler cutting, play and, eventually, slaughter.
Doing Fieldwork Among Dukha Tsaatans
From August to December 2014 I lived among 12 households of Dukha Tsaatans, engaging cohabitation as a practice of cooperative livelihood realization. By dedicating my days both to contributing as best I could to the completion of Tsaatan mentors’ household tasks, and to recording occurrences, thoughts and analyses, I came to enskill myself in the practice of everyday life in the taiga. Cultivating skills with expert practitioners shed light on the improvisatory and acrobatic, or freestyle, nature of mentors’ livelihood realisation. Both instantaneous gestures and decisions (i.e. wielding blades, treading paths, paying attention to distinct features of a landscape, etc.) as well as longer-term movements and strategies (i.e. nomadic settlement itineraries, grazing patterns, purchases and sales, etc.) emerge as practitioners imminently negotiate their own bodies and intentions with the intentions, characters and energetic dynamics of the physically rugged, ecologically rich social world in which they dwell. The result of such negotiation is the novel, inexactly predictable realisation of anticipated goals. Correspondingly, my own methodological approach to fieldwork and research presentation emerged through acrobatic improvisation (Rasiulis, 2016: 7). Here in this article I focus on the importance of sensory and aesthetic vivacity in the emergence of my methodological approach.
Multimedia Anthropology: Senses, Aesthetics, Practice and Logistics
In practice, effectively engaging photo and video as media of research production and communication means expertly wielding a camera and tending to its mechanical components and energetic needs. For me, this implied tremendous technical enskillment. Having recently transitioned from film photography to digital photo/video for the purpose of my fieldwork, I intimated myself with my new camera’s mechanisms and corresponding functions on-the-go while attending to the multiplicity of other engagements my cohabitation with mentors included. In this on-the-go manner I also learned how to charge camera batteries with solar electricity. In addition to helping me relate with mentors’ energy procurement practices, maintaining my own stock of solar electricity afforded me with the juice necessary for daily photo/video documentation.
The precious occasions where mentors wielded my camera afforded me with both relevant documentation and insight into their aesthetic perception and photo-technical practices. But what should I document, and how? To this question I improvised an answer that developed along with myself throughout my fieldwork. My actions affirmed that just about anything is pertinent to document, because all things reflect meanings and memories, and that aesthetically pleasing images are media particularly salient for conveying memory and meaning.
As I intimated myself with my camera and with myself as an artist, I developed skills through steadfast equilibrium of improvised experimentations and of familiar practice. Documenting with familiar, dependable techniques in rhythmic counterpoint to expanding my technical and aesthetic comfort zone afforded me with personal growth along a line of flight through continually emerging plateaus of experimentation and subsequently enhanced familiarity. In so doing I succeeded in consistently documenting my fieldwork and the relational field within which I was working, while significantly improving my abilities to create multimedia documentation that effectively stirs meaning and memory with myself and/or others. Throughout all this personal enskillment I also grew ever more comfortable maintaining natural interpersonal dynamics with mentors from behind the lens of a camera.
The line of flight along technical and artistic enskillment I fared conducting fieldwork continued into my life at home in Canada, where I crafted my thesis in freestyle fashion while also engaging diverse, disparate personal and professional pursuits. At work and at play I experimented with multimedia montaging in ways which developed my abilities to edit photos/videos and to conceive of possible aesthetically enthralling layouts and sensory atmospheres of multimedia presentation. In rhythmic harmony with this experimentation, I applied its correspondingly refined abilities in the improvised creation of sensory vivid academic testimony of my fieldwork, the people with whom I cohabited, and the meanings that emerged through our relations. In such a manner, my published thesis PDF document came to exist as an ephemerally performed artistic arrangement of light pixels. This arrangement takes the form of an intricate layout of literary text, photos, and hyperlinks to video and sound clips on my Youtube account ‘channel’. This layout is designed to transduce visceral personal experiences and analyses into vivid, communicable sensory media through which my experiences and analyses can become palpable to its audience.¹
The technical and artistic enskillment I embodied in the realisation of my thesis project continue serving me in the realisation of my livelihood through academia and beyond, as multimedia presentation abilities are academically, personally and professionally pertinent assets. These abilities can be applied to effectively presenting research to academic and general audiences, to therapeutic artistic expression, and to professional practices such as organisational public relations. For instance, as coordinator at an outdoor recreation centre and summer camp I share combinations of photo, video and literary text over the internet to contribute to the animation of employee camaraderie, as well as of public knowledge of, and interest in, the Base de plein air Air-Eau-Bois and the enriching – even life-changing – experiences that emerge through this non-profit organisation’s operations. Here, as with anthropological endeavours, multimedia presentation means relating with people and artistically communicating lived relations and the meanings that thenceforth emerge. Multimedia anthropology can be more than its constituent sensory fieldwork methods or ethnographic accounts; it can be a way of life which propels the liver to engage all endeavours with the good-hearted curiosity and dedicated engagement that characterize anthropological practice. I encourage aesthetically inclined anthropologists to passionately engage multimedia artistry in their academic, professional and personal pursuits. The reciprocal spillovers between these pursuits could be significantly edifying.
¹ My thesis defense itself emerged as an ephemeral performance. Theatrically portraying a dramatic transposition of myself into a fictional yet realistic Dukha character within a room decorated as the inside of an urtz tent, I related with the examiners as my guests. Sharing home-made stovetop bread and milk-tea, splitting wood with a meat clever, speaking on a live-ringing cell phone, and sharing my thoughts and feelings, I communicated the essential notions of my thesis to the examiners and the general audience. I concluded the performance with a slam poem delivered in strategized synch with the music and imagery of a freestyle snowboarding video clip.
Rasiulis, Nicolas. 2016. Freestyle Bearing: Work, Play, And Synergy Among Mongolian Reindeer Pastoralists, MA thesis, University of Ottawa.
More videos from this multimedia project are available on the author’s youtube channel.