Studying and thinking deep about material culture is an interesting business. It is interesting because there is both the objective object, or the thing in front of you, and then there are the ideas that we as flesh-and-blood human beings attach to that object. And the word “attach” does not mean to suggest that an idea is somehow unreal, or fake. Ideas, after all, come
from the mind, and since the mind is real, so is the abstraction that is the idea. One doesn’t have to act on the idea, but nonetheless, the idea remains real.
In the last month and a half, North Dakota State University’s Michael Strand has had at least one conversation with me about this, well, idea. One evening he explained how he worked on creating an artisan bowl for food (and Michael often asks that his artwork be physically used for family style meals, especially if they are bowls and cups, as his Ted Talk video expands on below), and he used this serving bowl at a dinner with an ethnic Kurdish family in Washington state. He is poised to take this bowl to another Kurdish dinner, this one in northern Iraq. I believe that dinner is pending, but no doubt the bowl and the individuals around it (from Washington state to northern Iraq) will serve to connect ethnicity and individuals. In the business, we often call this community.
In a separate but similar vein, on September 14, 2012, Michael expanded on some of his art at a collaborative exhibit with his colleague Amy Smith. He encouraged me to photograph and share this art, and then I asked if I could put a digital camera in his face while I questioned and he provided answers to his latest works. He said it was no trouble at all. So I will do that here:
And then contrast it with his TedX Fargo Talk that colleague Angela Smith forwarded to me here…
…Michael was and is speaking in large part to how objects, or material culture, carries with them archaeological and historical — aka, humanized — provenance, at least if we, as humans, stop to consider it. This material culture can be both 2-dimensional in form (or what historians often refer to as “primary sources”) or it can be 3-dimensional (what everyone often calls “stuff”). The notion that objects carry ideas with them can loosely be referred to as Romanticism (which is a word with a LOT of baggage, none of which I will go into here), but it can also be referred to as an archaeological school of thought known as post-processualism. In another archaeological way this is what Ian Hodder asked readers to consider in an article I am furiously searching for throughout my shelves… ah, here it is. In his 1991 piece, “Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role” in American Antiquity (Vol. 56, No. 1, page 9) Hodder said,
…new theories and the new ways of writing them often serve to make archaeological texts more obscure and difficult for anyone but the highly trained theorist to decipher. How can alternative groups have access to a past that is locked up both intellectually and institutionally? Subordinate groups who wish to be involved in archaeological interpretation need to be provided with the means and mechanisms for interacting with the archaeological past in different ways. This is not a matter of popularizing the past but of transforming the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures.
The more I think about all of this, the interplay of ideas with material objects, the more necessary and impending it is to have a Punk Archaeology conference on the evening of February 2, 2013, in downtown Fargo, North Dakota (insert “Grow Buzz of Punk Archaeology Conference” here)…