Multimodal Anthropologies

By Annie Tucker (Elemental Productions)

A recent piece in American Anthropologist, “The Balinese Cockfight Reimagined: Tajen: Interactive and the Prospects for a Multimodal Anthropology,” provided a detailed process-oriented account of the conceptualization and making of Tajen: Interactive by Elemental Productions, directed by Robert Lemelson and codirected by Briana Young. A multimodal interactive ethnographic documentary about the Balinese cockfight responding to Geertz’s (1973) seminal piece “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Tajen: Interactive comprises a thirty-minute sensory ethnography, fifteen short supplemental films, five readings, and a discussion guide. The AA article discussed why we felt the project was ripe for a multimodal exploration and presentation, which various feature film and ethnographic web projects served as inspiration, how we theorized and conducted the fieldwork for the visual ethnography, how the team collaborated to create and interlink various components, and how we determined the look and structure of the sensory ethnography and interactive interface. We also touched upon the rationale for the topics, structures, and aesthetics of the different supplemental films, going into detail for a select few.

Here we will spend a little more time with the supplemental films, which were designed to incorporate new developments in anthropological research approaches, foci, and technique since the early 1970s when Geertz’s article came out; add updated ethnographic information to address cultural, political, and social changes and related shifts in cockfighting practices over the past half-century or so since his fieldwork was conducted; and respond to some of the critiques of his work, filling in some omissions in his original research. We hoped that a diverse and well-rounded collection of shorts would be able to provide a more holistic picture of the Balinese cockfight than either Geertz’s interpretivist take or the impressionistic sensory ethnography alone could provide. Each film runs from approximately two to five minutes each, and together they investigate multiple cultural, historical, and psychocultural aspects of Balinese cockfighting, from ritual lore to gender identity and gambling addiction to interspecies relationships.

Different styles of visual narrative are used to evoke and explain these different facets, according to their subjects. Expository shorts use traditional interview and b-roll editing to delve into personal experience and “expert” opinion.

Warning: Some excerpts contain graphic scenes of animal violence. 

Excerpt from “Compulsive Gambling”

Excerpt from “Globalized Perspectives on Animal Rights”

Other videos, such as one exploring the historiography of the Balinese cockfight, use archival film and photography.

Excerpt from “Balinese Manhood”

Shorts illustrating and explicating abstract anthropological concepts, such as structural analysis, and complex ethnographic information, such as elaborate betting schemes, use “real-time” whiteboard drawings and kinetic motion animation.

Excerpt from “Betting Then”

Excerpt from “The Raw and the Cooked”

Other films incorporate stop-motion, found images, mixed media, and evocative imagery from the field.

Excerpt from “History and Anthropology of Cockfighting”

Our aim was to provide educational and engaging material for today’s media-savvy student and/or general viewer while upholding academic rigor.

 The website, and supplemental films specifically, also provided an opportunity for us to experiment with what “multimodality” might mean. Clearly, in this project it involves the mobilization and combination of multiple forms of media toward the ethnographic purpose of a more tangible familiarity with and understanding of the Balinese cockfight. But we also went a step beyond a parallel presentation of visual and written ethnography, where these different modes are presented on equal footing and each is valued for the way they might complement, extend, challenge, or otherwise be in dialogue with each other. Rather, many of the supplemental films also combine different modalities within a single presentation. For example, moving video might be combined with still imagery or overlaid with written text, or animated text and drawings might be accompanied by a voice-over.

These combinations were designed to appeal to different learning styles and keep viewers alert, engaged, and encountering each new supplemental film with a fresh sense of discovery. In crafting these combinations, we attempted to appropriately match modalities to the material being communicated. There is of course no one “right” way to do this; we used our own judgment and followed our own creative impulses.

At the same time, the educational but contemporary and fun approach we took was transparent about the different “modes” in which anthropologists can operate in our roles as scholars and educators. Standing alone, the sensory ethnography Tajen can serve various purposes; at once an aesthetic evocation of a cultural practice and a visual embodiment of ethnographic theory, we imagine it could serve in a classroom, at a film festival, in a museum, and elsewhere. The supplemental films, whether viewed in a discussion section or on a home computer, are explicitly aimed to teach—to introduce new concepts and provide a framework and context for understanding a complex cultural practice. And they are explicitly aimed to do so for a young and/or general audience, using a multimodal idiom that has become familiar through contemporary and social media.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 412–53. New York: Basic Books.



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