“Pretend I’m not here…”: Observing (re)actions in research

By being present in an environment, you become part of the context and things will subtly shift and adapt in response. Ethnographic and social science researchers need to be aware of this. By asking questions and showing interest in people and events, you are in effect asking people to direct their thoughts and focus in particular ways, and this can in turn affect their actions. These are the rules of interaction in action. It makes the research process fascinatingly messy and multi-layered.

I’ve now completed two fieldwork trips to post-conflict countries for my PhD research into music education and participation initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and these unintended consequences of my presence and participation are interesting to document and ponder.

Last year, when I was preparing to do fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reviewed relevant websites and information available online. The focus of my research was the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] and I visited their website. It was only written in Bosnian. The PMC was originally started by UK-based NGO, but today it is wholly-owned by the local government of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I assumed that having a monolingual website was a kind of assertion of the PMC’s place as a Bosnian/Mostarian institution now.

Around that time I also got in touch with the Director of the PMC, introducing myself and informing him of my research.

When I got to Mostar I spoke with the Centre Administrator, a woman that I’d worked with there in 1998, about obtaining copies of the current ‘mission and vision’ statements. She told me, “Well, of course they are on our website.” I confessed that my Bosnian language skills were too rusty to give me a complete understanding of what was on the site.

“No, it’s in English as well,” she told me. I was taken aback, as I thought I had read the website extremely thoroughly. Had I somehow missed a little Union Jack in the upper left hand corner, indicating I could read the text in English? Later that day, I revisited the website, and sure enough, there was an English language version.

Of course it is possible that Union Jack was there all along and I missed it. But it is also possible that, as I began to make contact with staff at the PMC and let them know of my interest, they began to think about the external image of the PMC that was available to people around the world. It’s possible that the site was updated with an English language version sometime between the first time I read it, my emails to the Director, and my arrival in Mostar.

It is inconsequential, of course – who cares when the website was updated? – but I use this story to illustrate the way that outsider interest can influence levels of self-consciousness/self-awareness. This in turn can generate changes of behaviour or new actions in response to the perceived scrutiny.

I have three case study countries I am investigating for my PhD research; Bosnia is one case study country, and Timor-Leste is another. I have just returned from a month of fieldwork in Timor-Leste, based mostly in the capital city Dili.

In Timor-Leste, plans have been in development in recent years to establish an Academy of Arts and Creative Industries. Staff from Griffith University in Australia consulted on the initial idea, and a Timorese implementation team is in place. However, while the government has agreed that the Academy should go ahead, things have slowed somewhat, according to some of the people I interviewed – artists, senior government staff, arts organisers – for my research.

How well known is this Academy of Arts and Creative Industries project? At various times over the last few years, there have been events – concerts, conferences, forums – that have drawn media attention to the plans for the Academy. However, you couldn’t say that the project occupies any kind of prominence in the minds of the general population of Timor-Leste. It is a possible topic of conversation among the small number of people currently engaged in areas of contemporary arts practice in Timor-Leste.

Therefore, I was extremely interested to see this piece of graffiti on the wall of the building that is the home of the Secretary of State for Art and Culture, the government department that has been driving the Academy plans. It appeared ten days after I began my fieldwork in Timor-Leste.

Graffiti, Dili, 1 June 2014 (G. Howell)

“Art and Culture is sick. The Arts Academy is dead.”

There are different ways of interpreting the graffiti artist’s statement. The word ‘Akademi’ could in fact be more general, and refer to the Art and Culture building, suggesting it is a “dead house of art and culture’. The words ‘Arte Kultura’ could refer to art and culture in Timor-Leste, or could refer specifically to the government secretariat.

Who might have done this graffiti? And more to the point, why do it now? There were no other events taking place, or media attention (as far as I’m aware) that might have shifted people’s attention to the Academy of Arts project at that time. Was it because I was there, asking questions, and directing people’s attention towards a project that had fallen frustratingly silent at that time? Or were there other influencing factors? Was graffiti like this a regular occurrence? While street art and graffiti are not uncommon in Dili, the reactions of many of my research participants to my photograph of the graffiti suggested that the content and its placement on the wall of a government building were noteworthy, and particularly provocative.

The graffiti remained on the wall for less than a week. I first saw it on a Sunday morning. It was gone by the following Saturday. Whether coincidental, serendipitous, or an unintended consequence of me asking questions and being interested, I am certainly not complaining! It’s a powerful image that alludes to some of the key issues impacting contemporary cultural life in Timor-Leste. Sickness. Death. Government efforts. Artists wishing for more. Hopes, expectations, and disappointment. Lots of layers to peel back and unravel here.

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