To Eric Miller's homepage
The following is an abstract and description of the paper I
at the October 1999, Memphis, Tennessee, meeting of the American
I also presented a paper at the October 2000, Columbus,
of the AFS. To see the notes on which that paper ("The
Identification Process") was based, please click here
"Videoconferencing for Folklorists"
(panel on research methodolodies)
The purpose of this paper is to introduce the medium of
to folklorists. The paper suggests some possible ways that
might use the medium. The paper also discusses how
has been used, since 1992, by a traditional people, and argues that
people is, in part, conducting its folk culture via videoconferencing.
Thus, the paper presents videoconferencing both as a means for ethnographic
study and as an object of ethnographic study.
In the past, all methods of recording data gathered in the
some sort of editing on the part of the ethnographer, for the
controlled the recording medium and the means of transmission and
But what if the people under study could frame themselves, and
could directly relate with the 'outside world'? This is the
offered by "ethnographic videoconferencing." The ethnographic
can, for example, be in the field with the people under study,
back to someone at the ethnographer's home university library; or the
can be in the library, with the equipment in the field being operated
the people under study themselves and/or by the ethnographer's
In either case, videoconferencing is not necessarily a medium of
it is a medium of relationship.
There is a wide range of possible uses of videoconferencing
including: enabling scholars to "attend" and "present at" conferences
afar; enabling people under study to "attend" scholarly conferences;
in the evening when the work is done, enabling scholars to socialize,
dance and sing should the occasion arise, with others (both scholars
people under study) from afar.
Videoconferencing can be defined as a form of electronic
in which each party presents video and audio, and each party can
the other parties' video and audio (although not necessarily all at
What, one may ask, could videoconferencing possibly have to do with
Folklore has been defined as "artistic communication in small groups"
Ben Amos). In the case of videoconferencing, small groups of
can be co-present and can communicate artistically via electronic
of their bodies and voices, rather than via their actual bodies and
Not waiting from the okay from folklorists or anyone else,
the Warlpiri people of Tanami region of the Northern Territory of
have been videoconferencing via satellite with PictureTel equipment
1992 between locations in Sydney, Darwin and Alice Springs.
Unlike the telephone or radio, this medium
the extensive system of hand gestures that aborigines use while
And unlike broadcast television it is interactive and therefore
the extensive consultations that aborigine leaders traditionally employ
in reaching ceremonial and community decisions... Regular communication
among extended family and friends is especially important in Australian
aborigine communities, where social cohesion has been threatened by
isolation and the overwhelming influence of Australia's dominant
culture... Perhaps the most intriguing use of the system is a
series of videoconferences among the Warlpiri aborigines and indigenous
groups on other continents, including the Scandinavian Saami, Alaskan
Canadian Inuit, and the Little Red Cree nation in Alberta, Canada.
videoconferences have so far focused primarily on land rights and
preservation -- two issues of deep concern among indigenous peoples
But one recent session allowed an exchange of native dances with
of the Little Red Cree nation. Spurred on by the success of this dance
exchange, the Warlpiri hope to collaborate this year with other groups
in a global videoconference festival of traditional and contemporary
(Mark Hodges. "Online in the Outback: The Use of Videoconferencing by
Aborigines." Technology Review, April 1996, vol. 99, no. 3, p. 17-9.)
These people use the gear daily to allow separated family members to
talk with one another; to perform family and tribal rituals that used
require a great deal of travel...and to display and sell their artwork
to galleries and collectors around the world... Personal contact
with anyone interested in their art is very important, especially
the stories are so personal and have been handed down from generation
generation. In a sense, Warlpiri stories are living
A story consists of a painting, songs, dances and storytelling -- all
simultaneously in a kind of communal social event. The social
of video conferencing make it a natural medium for sharing these
(Jeffrey Young. "Downlinks in the Outback: A Videoconference Between
Australia and San Francisco, California." Forbes, Dec 4, 1995,
156, no. 13, p. 68-70.)
For background about the Warlpiri and telecommunication, I referred to
the pioneering work of Eric Michaels (Bad Aboriginal Art, Aboriginal
Invention of Television).
The talk also briefly touched upon a number of practical
that can make videoconferencing a more or less disjointed experience.
of these factors are:
1) The parallax problem (the difficulty of making video-mediated
2) Screen configuration: where is self, where are others? Must
images remain in separate frames?
3) Angle of regard (toward camera): Looking
4) Angle of regard (toward screen): Looking
5) Frame-rate: physiological and emotional responses to various
rates. The standard video rate of 30 frames per second is rarely
in most forms of videoconferencing.
6) If there a delay between speaking and being heard,
timing can be thrown off (especially in overlapping talk), and
can seem and/or feel socially incompetent; the entire social event can
feel dysjunctional. What are some ways such discomfort can be overcome?
7) Can parties speak simultaneously? If not, how is turn-taking
8) Showing face: results of various degrees of the close-up.
Results of various sizes (smaller-than-life, life-size,
What about the rest of the body?
9) Horizontal reverse image: a contributant to alienation from
10) Arrangement of equipment: The most privileged participants
can see everyone at once.
11) Taking advantage of multi-track possibilities: types of
feedback (e-mail...); possible additional input devices and interface
(electronic painting...); pre- and post-event communication.
12) Emotional dynamics of experimental and special event
events: emotions tend to range from the euphoric to the extremely
There is a need for calm improvisation and flexibility -- one must
be prepared to use alternative tracks and/or simplify.
In the course of the presentation, I showed videotaped clips
of various types of videoconferencing (as it can be done via normal
lines, ISDN lines, the Internet, etc.), and briefly discussed the
of each variant. My video business partner in NY, Diane Dunbar,
attended the talk and assisted via videoconference over a normal
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