Visual anthropologist, video artist
Senior researcher and lecturer, Institute of Research in Art and Design
University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland
Artist, Zurich, Switzerland
The following text is a transcription of a conversation between Sabine Hagmann and Flavia Caviezel conducted via Skype about the research and exhibition project “RhyCycling – Esthetics of sustainability in the Basel border area” (http://rhycycling.idk.ch/?lang=en); and about collaborative art practice, processes and teamwork.
Sabine Hagmann: Thinking about your project “RhyCycling,” I see many forms of collaborations. Particular to the project is the level of involvement everybody seems to have had. Despite you being the project leader, all members of the core team participated in all meetings and – from what I understand – in all decisions concerning the whole project, not just those related to their field of expertise.
Flavia Caviezel: There were different modes of collaboration in “RhyCycling” while we examined the border region of Switzerland, Germany and France and focused on how the non/human environment is connected, for example: with the core and extended team; with project partners; and with the individuals who were filmed for the project. An interdisciplinary team bringing together specialists from different backgrounds ranging from natural sciences, humanities, computer sciences, and art theory, scenography and music conducted the audiovisual research, based mostly on methods from Visual Anthropology. I was head of the project and researcher at the same time, responsible for the content and budget generally, and specifically working together with the core team elaborating – among other things – the contents of the shootings along the river Rhine with the film team.
We had a core team of 4 people working together quite closely for the research. Depending on the project phase and the personal expertise of team members, we worked in different constellations, yet always with other collaborators who intervened from an ‘external’ point of view on the issues under consideration – an illuminating but demanding process. It was a step-by-step approach. Field access for instance was conducted with the expert in environmental studies knowledgeable about the fish fauna of the Basel border region, one of our main foci. In order to later develop a detailed concept, our collaborators from art theory/curating and scenography met to discuss the issues presented – and through negotiation we defined the direction of our research. For the video production we collaborated with a video post/production company. While I was discussing intensively with the editor in the postproduction process, my three collaborators and the musician responsible for sound design were selectively involved in the editing process. The scenographer and I mostly elaborated the exhibition scenography in collaboration with the curator – who did a lot of media work as well – and also with the fish expert’s input regarding suitable locations for instance. A musician, a graphic designer and a computer scientist furthermore complemented the ‘extended’ team with their work. The musician created sound essays of Basel’s bridges with a similar methodology used for the videos working with sound captured from the urban environment – as you might know from “soundscapes.” The graphic designer worked on interface design and a computer scientist programmed the adaptation for the interactive computer platform (http://rhycycling.idk.ch/?page_id=8&lang=en).
As meta-level input for the project we collaborated with project partners working in the field of ecology and sustainable development. We involved experts from interdisciplinary practice (and theory) due to the special project format funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, in order to guarantee an impact in project related fields. During our workshops we discussed the ‘utility’ of sustainability concepts (a rather worn term) and the future development of the region; a fruitful exchange.
SH: All in all, were you still acting as the head, in charge of deciding and of holding everything together? Or how would you define the collaborative aspect in all these different constellations?
FC: As project leader I was responsible and had to coordinate all efforts, and I appreciated negotiating discussions to decide important issues. I was working as visual anthropologist and video artist as well, conducting the filmic interviews, designing the shoots together with a camera and sound person employed by the video post/production company we worked with, and doing some rather experimental underwater shoots of fishes with a GoPro camera.
It was an alternation between different roles that included switching position within a particular responsibility – for example, with regards to the filmed interviews, I needed to create ‘closeness’ with interviewees, getting involved with them beyond the filmic situation – and then I had to switch to the role of editor, and I had to gain distance in order to analyze or evaluate situations.
For instance, before we started to record, we involved the protagonists in conversation and observed their working day. Afterwards, we discussed our mutual interests in that specific field and what could be filmed. During the filming I tried to create an atmosphere of trust. I tried to approach the person based on the theoretical concept of “becoming and othering” proposed by anthropologist Peter Ian Crawford, to get deeper into certain aspects.  The manager of a hydroelectric power station, for example, didn’t agree to talk about fish ladders, a politically delicate subject, when I announced by email the topics we would like to discuss with him in the interview. But we were finally able to get around this because during our interview he brought up the subject of the fish ladders himself and this enabled me to easily make the link to an issue of great interest to the project.
SH: So you got him where you wanted in the end?
FC: During the interview he decided to bring up the topic himself, I don’t know exactly why. I didn’t expect the interview to take that direction, but of course, I was very pleased and I appreciated his trust. It’s not so easy to describe the feelings I experienced after the fact, because during the interview you act a little like an ‘accomplice’ even if you don’t agree with everything being said. But in that moment, you are interested in the other’s opinion. Afterwards you ‘return’ to a critical, distant role. Crawford calls it “othering.” Or “kill your darlings” as filmmakers use to say about the editing process.
SH: Would interview partners also bring up unexpected or new issues?
FC: Yes, of course. The pattern of the so-called qualitative semi-structured filmic interviews gives a lot of freedom to the interviewees to talk about their own main points. By starting with a rather open question, they had the possibility to set a direction, which I followed by relating to their answers. But, of course, I had in mind the main questions I wanted to get answers to.
SH: How did you reconcile giving everybody a voice on the one hand, but still being in charge and – I guess – also having a very specific interest? Not only in the interviews you filmed, but also in the collaboration with your team and the project and workshop partners?
FC: By treating all filmed people as experts, independent of their academic degree – a standard form of transdisciplinary cooperation in Social Sciences – it was not easy to include certain answers – ‘half-right’ in the eyes of our experts, but on the other hand illustrating how protagonists talked about and referred to a certain issue. In the editing process, you have the possibility to contrast certain statements with each other – like in the video about fish migration and fish ladders. I mean, as editor, you always make decisions and create meaning. And by organizing and keywording the edited material we created a stage – perceivable in the organization of the material on the interactive computer platform – to show the position of the team towards the research topics.
We held workshops aimed at bringing together experts from different disciplines, in order to bridge the gap between theory and practice and to come to insights and knowledge through common conversation despite differences and controversies. That the launch of the debate came from art and artistic research was considered innovative and unfamiliar in a positive sense. The aforementioned discussions about sustainbility concepts during the first workshop for instance were partly held in an extremely controversial way. Finally philosophers proposed the terminology ‘green culture’ as an alternative to ‘sustainability.’ This seemed interesting, because this meant that the somewhat abstract term ‘sustainability’ used particularly in a scientific, technical and economic context would be replaced by a broader and more politically established one. On the other hand and of equal significance, sustainability was explained as a concern of cultural interest – coinciding with a cultural studies’ approach and the transdisciplinary approach of the project.
And, after the group debate about first visions on the ‘best of all worlds’ in 40 or 50 years time, it became clear that despite the controversy, there is a pressing need to develop a “grandchildren proof” way of living. You may find details about workshops 1+2 on our website http://rhycycling.idk.ch/?page_id=29&lang=en.
Having talked about the “RhyCycling” project Sabine, I’m interested in talking about the kind of collaborative forms that you have experienced in your own artistic work. Hierarchical questions for instance may arise very quickly in filmic/interview situations.
SH: My work involves clear hierarchies, even though I generally understand my art practice as collaborative. I am still the one editing the material and tinting it by setting it in a context with my images. For “love stories,” I structured my conversations strictly along a set of questions I put forward to all interviewees, allowing them to tell their own story but along my specific interest in memory and how we create an image of ourselves through the way we tell our life.
However, “be-longing” (one of its outcomes is the audio-visual installation “affinities”) is more open-ended – I want it to be a dialogue where we would co-create a narrative, meandering. I was only setting the point of departure with the initial question, being quite curious to see where it would lead us. I chose my collocutors, because I felt they shared an ambivalent feeling of longing to belong. But sometimes I was wrong, or partially wrong, and their longing was located elsewhere than where I had envisaged. Such misunderstandings are part of the project and get us to unexpected places. The collaborator’s contribution is more than just providing material. But I am still the ‘author.’
I am also involved in collaborations though, where the people working together as a team become ‘one.’ That’s quite a different process, where in the end, often you can’t tell who had which idea and roles are not clearly distinguished. Sometimes difficult to bear – if there is no chemistry, it can be hell… . The project you and I did together from 2010 to 2012, “Blackbox,” is a successful example of collaborative work, in my view.
FC: Generally, the discussion about questions of collaboration and power structures is ongoing in Visual Anthropology and debated quite controversially in the sense that you as initiator of a project always will remain the leader – even working with concepts of empowering or shared authorship. There have been experiments with polyphonical modes of films, for example, – Jean Rouch as an ‘early postmodernist’ started this approach in the late 1950s – or community videos (from 1970/80 on) that attempt to empower communities and individuals to create their own movies. My aim is to try to approach people without hanging onto the illusion that questions of representation and power structures can be totally overcome. But I’m convinced that there are better and worse ways of collaborating with people. Trinh Minh-ha would call it “to speak near by” and not to speak about. 
SH: Maybe it is about transparency? I wonder if as an artist you are expected to be ‘subjective’, quite different from how work from anthropological ‘scientist’ is perceived?
FC: I would say that there are degrees of ‘subjectivity,’ of condensing and deepening the material and making the processes and reflections visible and audible to the community, the public.
SH: Do you see the public as a collaborator too? Is it co-producing the piece or merely navigating through preconceived settings?
FC: We used an interactive computer platform to organize all the edited research material in order to let the visitor click through the videos, audio essays, quotations etc. in a certain self-determined way – I mean, the media were organized in a pre-determined way, pertaining to certain keywords (invasive, toxic, etc.) and to locations along the Rhine, but the way people chose to surf through the material, creating their own dramaturgy, their own ‘story-lines,’ was self-determined, and this is of great interest to us. It’s a question of agency as well, in the sense of experiencing different degrees of control over the interactive situation as a viewer. In that sense we could say that the visitors are (col)laborating with the material. We opted for a more ‘playful’ approach against a ‘classical’ structured one. There were no guided tours or the like.
SH: You know I am critical about this approach. As a viewer/participant/user I often feel that I am being manipulated, lacking the prerequisite to really make a choice, to create my own narrative. I actually quite like to be told a story by someone specific, knowing it is an individual and subjective voice, one voice among many, expanding my own vision and preconception.
While I enjoy the chance encounters or insights I get through clicking on this or that icon on an interactive platform, comparable to Googling something and then getting to new places, I somehow also feel that I am constantly missing out!
FC: Maybe you are not the playful type?!
I found that generally, most people, after having fiddled around a bit with the interface, focused on the contents – I was pleased to notice that questions of format were not important at all.
And yet, a short answer to the above question is that hardly anybody watches a total of 110 minutes of video in an exhibition; the topics, connections, etc. are endless – we provide only a small insight into a very complex ecological microcosm.
SH: You are particularly interested in transforming the viewer, I understand?
FC: I’m interested in the state of mind a person gets into, their state of awareness, the insight gained; which could even lead the viewer to a self-reflective moment about their own life style in relation to the topics of the video(s) being watched. Interactivity might perhaps support such a transformation process?
SH: Talking about transformation: Does working in an academic context transform your projects? It must shape the way your work is conceived and perceived?
FC: I work in the context of an Academy of Art and Design, where academic formats are becoming more and more important. As my research projects often had non-textual final formats, the transformation lies in developing another presentation format for an (online) journal for instance and writing about certain aspects. It is a question of writing formats as well – as a researcher I’m meandering quite a lot between the so called ‘proposal prose’ and artistic-scientific modes of expression. Another aspect I need to consider is the public being addressed. With “RhyCycling” we aimed at a broad public interested in ecological issues and in a multi-sensory interactive experience. Therefore, I would describe the textual outcomes as byproducts for a certain rather specialized community. Being able to satisfy the different needs, textual and non-textual formats, is in the end a question of your own energy: “Which scientific and artistic communities do you need to interact with? Who will support the project’s funding needs? And, who will strengthen established alternative modes of research in art and design?
1) Flavia Caviezel, Mirjam Bürgin, Marion Mertens, Yvonne Volkart et al., RhyCycling – Fluid Borderland, 2010–2012, interactive computer platform (110 min. of short videos, several audio essays, quotations graphics) and video installations.
The research and exhibition project RhyCycling examined the border region of Switzerland-Germany-France along the river Rhine and focused on how the non/human environment is connected. An interdisciplinary team in cooperation conducted the audiovisual research, based mostly on methods from Visual Anthropology, with partners involved in topics of sustainable development and ecology. The emphasis was on fish fauna, energy and the utilization of the riverbank. The goal of the project was to provide insight into the network, the interdependencies and un/balances of this ecological microcosm. The edited research material was brought together in an interactive computer platform containing a complex search structure, visualizing the interdependencies of content, places and keywords. Users built their own dramaturgy and created their own storylines while clicking through the material.
2) Sabine Hagmann, Love Stories – Erinnerungen an den Anfang (memories from the beginning), 2002–2007, audio installation (carpets, stools, CDs, CD players, headphones).
Love Stories consists of a series of round carpets with two stools and two sets of headphones. Audible are two separate narratives of the two partners, talking individually about how they remember falling in love and becoming a couple.
3) Sabine Hagmann, affinities – Verortung #1 (placing #1), 2008–2011, 3 conversations, 9 images (c-prints, lightjet prints, CDs, CD players, headphones, stools).
affinities examines the ambivalent desire to belong through a series of conversations. The edited dialogues can be listened to surrounded by photographs.
4) Flavia Caviezel and Sabine Hagmann, Blackbox, 2010–2012, 10 public conversations and a printed publication.
A series of conversations with invited artists, writers, designers, musicians, dancers, etc. about inspiration and production in art and design, accompanied by a printed publication. The project was conceived and organized by Flavia Caviezel + Sabine Hagmann, and was done in collaboration with Corner College (Urs Lehni/Stefan H. Wagner/Sarah Infanger) and Kunsthaus Aussersihl Zurich.
1. Peter Ian Crawford, “Film as discourse: the invention of anthropological realities” in Film as Ethnography, eds. Peter Ian Crawford, David Turton (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1992), 68-71.
2. Trinh T. Minha-ha, Framer Framed (New York: Routledge, 1992), 96. [Quotation from her film Reassemblage (Senegal, 1982), 40 min.]
Flavia Caviezel is a video artist and researcher with a background in Visual Anthropology, based in Switzerland. Since 1991, she creates documentary essayistic video work for international festivals and exhibitions. For many years, she worked as a researcher and lecturer at ZHdK Zurich University of the Arts, and since 2007 at the Institute of Research in Art and Design (Academy of Art and Design / FHNW University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland), as well as in other universities.
Sabine Hagmann is an artist based in Switzerland. She works with photography, video, sound and words. She creates interactive situations often in collaboration with others such as participatory events with the group “mit,” residency project “Rotationsatelier,” “ARTSCHOOL/UK”, and “Blackbox”. Hagmann graduated with a diploma in Photography from the School of Art Zurich in Switzerland and an MA in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths College London in England. She also teaches and is Head of the Foundation Program at the F+F School of Art & Media Design in Zurich.