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The following is an abstract and description of the paper I delivered at the October 1999, Memphis, Tennessee, meeting of the American Folklore Society.

I also presented a paper at the October 2000, Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the AFS.  To see the notes on which that paper ("The In-Performance 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 videoconferencing to folklorists.  The paper suggests some possible ways that folklorists might use the medium.  The paper also discusses how videoconferencing has been used, since 1992, by a traditional people, and argues that this 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 field involved some sort of editing on the part of the ethnographer, for the ethnographer controlled the recording medium and the means of transmission and distribution. But what if the people under study could frame themselves, and themselves could directly relate with the 'outside world'?  This is the potential offered by "ethnographic videoconferencing."  The ethnographic videoconferencer can, for example, be in the field with the people under study, videoconferencing back to someone at the ethnographer's home university library; or the ethnographer can be in the library, with the equipment in the field being operated by the people under study themselves and/or by the ethnographer's facilitators/technicians.  In either case, videoconferencing is not necessarily a medium of recording: it is a medium of relationship.

There is a wide range of possible uses of videoconferencing by scholars, including: enabling scholars to "attend" and "present at" conferences from afar; enabling people under study to "attend" scholarly conferences; and, in the evening when the work is done, enabling scholars to socialize, and dance and sing should the occasion arise, with others (both scholars and people under study) from afar.

Videoconferencing can be defined as a form of electronic communication in which each party presents video and audio, and each party can perceive the other parties' video and audio (although not necessarily all at once).  What, one may ask, could videoconferencing possibly have to do with folklore?  Folklore has been defined as "artistic communication in small groups" (Dan Ben Amos).  In the case of videoconferencing, small groups of individuals can be co-present and can communicate artistically via electronic representations of their bodies and voices, rather than via their actual bodies and voices.

Not waiting from the okay from folklorists or anyone else, members of the Warlpiri people of Tanami region of the Northern Territory of Australia have been videoconferencing via satellite with PictureTel equipment since 1992 between locations in Sydney, Darwin and Alice Springs.

Unlike the telephone or radio, this medium effectively conveys the extensive system of hand gestures that aborigines use while speaking. And unlike broadcast television it is interactive and therefore facilitates 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 geographic isolation and the overwhelming influence of Australia's dominant Western culture... Perhaps the most intriguing use of the system is a continuing series of videoconferences among the Warlpiri aborigines and indigenous groups on other continents, including the Scandinavian Saami, Alaskan Inupiat, Canadian Inuit, and the Little Red Cree nation in Alberta, Canada. These videoconferences have so far focused primarily on land rights and language preservation -- two issues of deep concern among indigenous peoples worldwide. But one recent session allowed an exchange of native dances with members 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 music.  (Mark Hodges. "Online in the Outback: The Use of Videoconferencing by Australian 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 to 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 because the stories are so personal and have been handed down from generation to generation.  In a sense, Warlpiri stories are living creations.  A story consists of a painting, songs, dances and storytelling -- all occur simultaneously in a kind of communal social event.  The social aspects of video conferencing make it a natural medium for sharing these experiences.  (Jeffrey Young. "Downlinks in the Outback: A Videoconference Between Yuendumu, Australia and San Francisco, California."  Forbes, Dec 4, 1995, vol. 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 technical factors that can make videoconferencing a more or less disjointed experience. Some of these factors are:
    1)  The parallax problem (the difficulty of making video-mediated eye-contact).
    2)  Screen configuration: where is self, where are others? Must images remain in separate frames?
    3)  Angle of regard (toward camera): Looking downward/forward/upward.
    4)  Angle of regard (toward screen): Looking downward/forward/upward.
    5)  Frame-rate: physiological and emotional responses to various rates. The standard video rate of 30 frames per second is rarely achieved in most forms of videoconferencing.
    6)  If there a delay between speaking and being heard, participants' timing can be thrown off (especially in overlapping talk), and participants 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 negotiated?
    8)  Showing face: results of various degrees of the close-up. Results of various sizes (smaller-than-life, life-size, larger-than-life). What about the rest of the body?
    9)  Horizontal reverse image: a contributant to alienation from the process.
    10)  Arrangement of equipment: The most privileged participants can see everyone at once.
    11)  Taking advantage of multi-track possibilities: types of back-channel feedback (e-mail...); possible additional input devices and interface designs (electronic painting...); pre- and post-event communication.
    12)  Emotional dynamics of experimental and special event telecommunication events: emotions tend to range from the euphoric to the extremely frustrated. There is a need for calm improvisation and flexibility -- one must always 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 telephone lines, ISDN lines, the Internet, etc.), and briefly discussed the biases of each variant.  My video business partner in NY, Diane Dunbar, attended the talk and assisted via videoconference over a normal telephone line.

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