Contemporary Issues in the Art – Anthropology Encounter

A panel at the Norwegian Anthropological Association Meeting, Bergen, May 2014, convened by P. Wenzel Geissler, Gro Ween, and Arnd Schneider

The following paper was presented, alongside contributions by Arnd Schneider, Gro Ween and Sabine Popp, Amy Robbins, Annemarie Bucher and Dominique Laemmli, Cassis Kilian, Richard Backstrom, and Thera Mjaaland:

The field station as stage: ethnographic re-enactment, memory and affect in African science

Paul Wenzel Geissler (University of Oslo) & Ann Kelly (University of Exeter)

Drawing on ethnography from Amani Research Station, Tanzania, we develop methodological and theoretical potentials of reenactment to probe relationships between science and place, material traces and memories, aesthetics and affect.

Through its 120-year history, Amani has been a site of bioscientific endeavours, providing expertise for imperial expansion, colonial welfare, national progress and international development. The station’s heyday was between 1950s and 70s – a period of global visions of disease eradication, and of decolonisation. Science-making, then, was inseparable from civic applications and global extensions, enhancing lives and improving welfare, and unsettling relations of race, class and gender. Changes and aspirations for change registered in the station’s mundane routines and collective scientific labours, where shifting mores and codes of conduct were worked out and held, albeit briefly, in tension.

Today, the station lies in a state of suspended motion, a quiet site of sedimented routines and material traces. Buildings and vegetation are minimally maintained, some staff report for duty, but no research is done. To recuperate the aesthetic and affective vitality of past collaborative explorations, and to experiment with our own projections of their political significance – we assembled retired African and European scientific workers around the station.

Re-enactments – of naturalist collection, control experiments and laboratory procedures – rendered available habitual movements and rhythms, unspoken pleasures and exhaustions, longings and disappointments of scientific work. As collaborative performance, these stagings also entangled their memories with our own desires, rethinking the present by disrupting straightforward narratives about the promises and shortfalls of scientific and societal progress.