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Mapping Narratives and Fieldwork

Andrew Paterson

Project Introduction

'Mapping and Sewing Together Mythologies' (referred to as 'Mapmyths' for short) is a collaborative project between Signe Pucena and myself that began in Karosta -Latvia, July 2003, inspired by specific local acoustic and cultural environments, and documented with mobile media-capture devices: image, sound, GPS-trace, movie - from a person-centred position of narrative and experience.

In two physical locations, the project explores cross-cultural (Russian-Latvian at Karosta, Latvia and Sami-Finnish-Russian at Inari and Ivalo, Lapland) and mono-culture (deeply local) experiences. The initiative began with a cultural focus on the Orthodox Cathedral in Karosta, and an interest in the personal circumstances which made people to go there and why: the stories, personal narratives, mythologies and songs that people use to describe or show a sense of shared, common and collective memory to others, in relation to the environment in which they are situated. The following journey to Lapland continued the search in a different landscape for similar cultural (Orthodox) values.

Although the work does not claim to be ethnographic research, the project touches upon ethnographic fieldwork craft and situated narratives, exploring the potentials of emerging mobile and collaborative media practices. As part of the process of development, it aims to elaborate tangible representations and appropriate means of feedback interfaces to encourage poly-vocality, and present the project in the local environmental contexts where the media was gathered.

Fieldwork as Situated Work

Karosta, a suburb of Liepaja that was a sealed naval city during Soviet Latvia, was rapidly abandoned by 80% of its population when the Russian army withdrew in 1994. We were present there during a hot summer, July 2003, as part of a 10 day 'locative media' workshop gathering of artists and researchers, hosted by local organisation K@2 Culture and Information Centre - which organizes cultural activities in this socially and economically marginalized community. Signe was familiar to the place and had been a couple of times before in the capacity of a cultural coordinator, while for I, it was new and interesting.

The common subjective, aesthetic and ethnographic attraction that acted as a catalyst for collaboration between myself and Signe, was the rejuvenated Orthodox Church which had a significant presence among the inhabitants of the Soviet-era apartments that surrounded it. Signe was interested to elaborate this interest by listening to personal stories related to the Church. As she could communicate well in Russian language, she arranged an interview in the home of a 77 year-old Russian woman called Baba Dusja, who lived in the same building where we were based, and was well known to the coordinators of the Centre. Both the K@2 Cultural Centre and the Orthodox Church were the strong social contexts which determined this communication.

Inari village is a small community in Finnish Lapland, but has many visitors and tourists who pass though regularly due its position as a significant Sami cultural and political centre with museum and parliament, and as a base for outdoor leisure activities. As the situation for 1 week of fieldwork in December 2003, it offered different challenges to our presence there. Unlike Karosta, there was no familiar organizational support to make contact with local persons, and although the museum did help with some institutional contacts we relied on the informal contacts with local people. Also I was already familiar with the place, visiting the village before in 1998 for 1 week so there was a mix of nostalgic return, but for Signe it was new and interesting.

Once a temporal threshold of days has been crossed, beyond the usual couple as a visitor, locals began to be curious in what we were doing there, and would start asking questions and start conversations rather than with our prompt or arrangement. Personal stories shared with locals emerged in the social setting of the bar of Hotelli Inari - where we stayed, eat and drank - only after a couple of days. As we had no ability between us to speak the native language of Finnish or Sami, we managed conversation in English language to a greater or lesser effect. Within this informal environment, and possibly due to this language issue, we began speaking on an almost daily basis to Pekka, who frequented the hotel bar/restaurant. He worked within the tourist industry about 40km away as a wilderness guide, and was used to contact with visitors to the area, and was happy speaking English to us. So in this case the bar frequented by tourists, and 'Kaamos' season - where social meetings withdraw as it is dark outside at 2pm - was the social context for communication during our field-visit to Inari.

Fieldwork as Biographical Work

As noted in the introduction above, we are interested in stories and personal narratives encountered in the field, including our experiential stories. This thematic has some parallel to an ethnographic research practice, where there is a common belief that biographical experience and social contexts contain highly valued information about a community; and practice observing, interaction, and representation of people's lives. In both locations, the activity of meeting and talking to people not surprising involved intuitive feeling of what may be given, and listening gently (without push) when it was.

The focal conversation with Baba Dusja, and her sharing of life story 'draws' together connections between the different activities we experience and engage in during the Karosta fieldwork - visits to the Church, the military navy base, the abandoned apartment blocks - into narrative relations. Less focused conversations in Hotelli Inari, either at eating time or with tea and alcoholic drinks, involved sharing local experiences (ours - Signe and my own, but also Pekka's) that day, leads towards also facilitation of experiential narrative - Pekka helps arrange our car driver on the Saturday morning to attend the Orthodox Mass service in Ivalo.

There are strong autobiographical elements due to the transparent presence of ourselves as active participants and authors in the field of interest. Autobiographical elements of the fieldwork, i.e. experiences and perspectives documented and mediated, including the elaboration of narrative attached to them, are gathered with the potential of incorporation as equivalent to the stories of others in the field. We perform actions which relate to fictional 'recovered' stories, that relate to the real social context, but from another time past: In Karosta, the 'ghost congregation' walk between empty apartments and the Orthodox Church, we re-enact imagined journeys for the congregation who no longer lived there. In Inari, during another walk following a tourist trail to a wilderness church, I construct a subject in role of attending a wedding in another season. These are occasions where experienced reality blends with mythopoetic realities.

Recognizing the Relational

The 'Mapmyths' project documents within the text significant personal interactions, both formal, real and - maybe more problematically - imagined interactions. However, our project documentation extends the idea of 'recognizing the relational' beyond only interpersonal relations.

Relations between social gathering places - architectural 'centre-points' - and persons who frequent the social gathering places - personal 'centre-points' in the narrative construction is a notable feature of the documentation. The narratives and fieldwork emerged from the personal relations to places as a subject of the research: We arranged a conversation with Baba Dusja about what was important to her at an everyday level, knowing her relation to the Orthodox Church. While in converse, but no less relative, our contact with Pekka in Inari was based more upon our repeated mutual presence over time and shared conversations in the Hotel bar, than any organized interview.

Recognising the Importance of Memory

Not explicit but part of the process, emphasis is made between fieldwork and memory, and how our memory informs the data that is gathered, arranged and reconstructed. The data medium mostly referred to in ethnographic practice to assist memory is textual, the writing of field-notes. Field-notes are mostly written individually and so are personal records and link to places, people and events. Although often sectioned separately, they may also record emotions and private experiences or thoughts. It is here that the 'researcher-self' narrates, acknowledging their presence and conscience.

In relation throughout the 'Mapmyths' project, production of textual field-notes is not a core activity within the fieldwork. Instead media content - in the form of image, sound sample or short-movie - as captured by mobile devices - digital camera, media-phone, mini-disc or DAT sound recorder - takes the role of written notes. The process of gathering media was a day-to-day activity and parallel to engagement in the field. Using digital media devices, personal experience was mediated, and given temporal or location-based context (or both) to guide, structure and assist memory recall. Like field-notes, media was also gathered that was personal and private documentation, which did not become part of the constructed representations of the field.

At the end of each fieldwork period, the media went through a process of subjective - rather than objective - selection and analysis. For example, while gathering media in field, the time-date context of each was the principle order. However, at this stage of the process this became of less importance, allowing cross-relations between different experiences to emerge into different elements for representation [*]: Personal 'informant' narratives, for example, 'Baba Dusja', 'Pekka'; places such as 'Hotelli Inari', 'Sami Radio'; events, for example, Orthodox Mass', 'Hand Bells'; performative journeys such as 'Military training', 'Wilderness Church', 'Ghost Congregation'; ethnographic themes relating to the project, for example, 'Orientation', 'Duodji'. The 'Karhunpesäkivi' element pushed most the storytelling aspects of re-organising and re-presenting the field.

As 'media field-notes' the organized elements acted as stimulus for memory and reminiscence in the writing of an accompanying text or narrative. Digital-mediated memory, documenting personal and embodied experience - and especially in the case of visual media - situated perspective, is a link in the 'Mapmyths' project between autobiographical field experiences and the consequent text.

Documenting Decisions, Reflections and the Self

In such a context, the merging of our own and the Other's personal experience as narrative is motivated by questions towards collaborative and multiple-perspective documentation: Who is such documentations for? And if it is to benefit local dialogues, what tangible representations and appropriate means of feedback interfaces within the community are needed to encourage poly-vocality and present the project back in the local contexts where the media was gathered?

Pekka, once online, maintained email contact with Signe, sending other pictures from his work environment, and extending the field beyond the period of time and shared space in Inari, informing from afar. The coordinator of the K@2 Cultural Centre in Karosta sends us anecdotes about Baba Dusja months later, and pictures from her recent Birthday party.

Such continued dialogues, post-presence in the field, raises notice of research pathways and the questions that may emerge due to our project aims:

What form of documentation would allow these persons to contribute to the narratives presented, with their own perspectives? Would some-one in the field be interested to continue to document what is part of their own lived environment after reading our gathered stories within it? If the project, as audio/visual media and translated text, was (re)presented in the field, for example as an exhibition in Hotelli Inari, or broadcast on the local radio station, how might it be understood and who is it for? As a media art project? Intangible cultural heritage? Or as an opportunity to continue to make stories and gossip about the visit one December by a Scots man and a Latvian woman? These questions presume that people are interested or care about the personal narratives - not only of people in the community, but also those of the researchers - collected, told and celebrated within the local community.

As a nod towards this suggested shared contributory space.. The 'Mapmyths' documentation appeals to subjectivities and lived experiences of the fieldwork, but the text is written occasionally as 3rd person narrative as if a story told by some-one else. Other sections place the reader within the situated context, inviting presence, based upon the our lived experience. The only first person reference - 'I' - in the textual documentation is the external narrator who is clearly not the researcher-self, or the informant of ethnographic research. Indeed the narrator is even not human - it is suggested to be a black cat who watches both!


In parallel to conventional ethnographic representation processes, the 'Mapmyths' project explores how the production of the text draws upon socially shared contexts as experiential 'resources', cultural meanings, language and mediation to help provide a framework for remembering. Instead of field-notes, the practice is supported by situated media-capture, emphasizing the sense of 'being-there', mediating and sharing experiences with the stories of other people in the field.

However, performative actions in the fieldwork - the walks related to the Churches in both locations - tended towards mythopoetic narratives, increase the significance of small details creatively forming other imagined realities of 'being-there': The package lying on the floor of Baba Dusja's floor became the imagined item delivered between no-longer-present friends in the congregation. A 'bear marriage' story evolves from an unusual art photography postcard bought at the SIIDA Cultural Centre in the village, and of course this bear 'appeared' in the bar later in the week to talk with us. Here and there, in the juxtaposition of small details and an imagined 'bigger picture', story-making becomes an influential resource for shaping memories, constructing, rather than documenting.

Mythologies are a collection of myths belonging to a people and addressing their origin, history, deities, ancestors, and heroes. The full project title - Mapping and Sewing Together Mythologies - suggests the construction, representation, acceptance and sharing of mythologies - stories with veiled meanings, fabulous, commonly-held beliefs that may or may not have foundation in truth; stories where aspects of reality and experience attain a significant meaning and importance, and are incorporated into a larger belief system. One of which is an everyday belief-system where people and things become known to represent places.


[*] Organisation of media gathered during Inari field-work can be viewed here:http://mapmyths.rixc.lv/InariChapter/elements.pdf [116 kb]

For further reading about ethnographic fieldwork practice: Amanda Coffey, "The Ethnographic Self: fieldwork and the representation of identity", Sage Publishers, London, 1999.











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