michael naimark

Leonardo Electronic Almanac Vol. 9:1, January 2001


Michael Naimark

December 2000

This fall I had a chance to visit Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany. Over a decade in the making, it was expected to rival the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where 47 countries showed 83,000 exhibitions, including sound cinema, electricity, and Art Nouveau, to over 50 million visitors.

World Fairs ought to be great. They’re a chance to be physically co-present with international architecture and artifacts, to encounter cultural diversity with exhibitors and visitors, and to experience unique large-scale special-venue media (Imax, for example, grew out of Expo ’67 in Montreal).

But something went wrong in Hannover. Attendance was less than half the expected 40 million. The Expo ended up with a two-thirds of a billion dollar debt. CNN labelled Expo 2000 "bland."

I managed to blitz through 44 of the 50 pavilion buildings in two days (with a press pass, as I’ve done since Expo ‘86). It was a curious disappointment, and a consistent one. It seemed as though all the attractions were designed by the same U.S. ad agency. Instead of "here is what we’re proud of" it was "here is what we think you’ll like," and instead of "here is the way we express ourselves" it was "hey — we have the same style and high-tech as you." Someone put the melting pot on "homogenize," and the results were useless flash and volunteer colonialism.

There was, to be sure, some edgy, interesting stuff, but so little. The United Arab Emirates had a great CircleVision film, using the nine-screen panoramic movie format to combine their own culture pride with an internet theme. The Finland pavilion housed a multi-sensory landscape in a soundproof space with soil under foot and forest scents in the air, combining a static panoramic painting with several video projectors on pan/tilt heads which served as "movie spotlights." The Dutch pavilion produced a six-screen short film which was fast, richly detailed, and witty. The strongest architectural statement was made by the Swiss, whose pavilion was a dense labyrinth of stacked solid rough-sawn wood beams, with nothing inside but a small café and roving improvising musicians. In the theme pavilion area, the "Knowledge" exhibition included a large, dim, open space with dozens of human-size robotic blobs (designed by the ZKM) wandering, flocking, and responding to visitors. And the enormous Africa Hall was a refreshingly real bazaar, with scores of booths from 40 African nations selling their wares.

Only six interesting attractions? Why was everything else so, well, bland?

I couldn’t help wondering: where are the anthropologists? If anthropology purports to have the experts of humankind and cultural diversity, where were they? Why aren’t anthropologists taking a more central and pro-active role in international presentation and use of new media technologies?

I know an anthropologist (folklorist, actually) who’s tried, and his story is relevant.

Alan Lomax is an 85-year-old ethnomusicologist who has lived mostly in New York and is now a stroke victim. In the 1930’s, he and his father, ethnomusicologist John Lomax, made the first audio recordings in the field (using a 500 pound audio recorder given to them by Thomas Edison’s widow). By the 1960s, Alan Lomax had amassed the largest collection of recorded song and dance from around the world. By the late 1970’s, Alan became convinced that the emerging multimedia technologies could be used to make this material easily accessible to everyone, and called his dream the "Global Jukebox." He believed that it would enable everyone to discover their own cultural roots and to learn how they fit into the world picture.

By the early 1990s, Alan and his team had built a first-pass version of the Global Jukebox. The system was complex and its interface a bit clunky, but almost everyone who experienced a demo was utterly astounded. It seemed clear that the Global Jukebox would have popular and commercial appeal. His fans have included George Bush (Sr.), Brian Eno, Jerome Wiesner, and Mick Jagger. He has received numerous foundation grants, the US Presidential Medal for the Arts, and was named one of the 1998 "Wired 25." As an anthropologist, Alan Lomax has been as media-savvy and pro-active as any.

But Alan has been struggling for funding for years, and the Global Jukebox remains under-funded and unfinished. It seems to have fallen in an abyss between content and technology, between the academy and pop culture, and between world-saving and money-making. With all the rhetoric in the media industry around internationalism and "content," where are the anthropologists?

So where are the anthropologists? I found 5,000 of them last month at the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, held this year in San Francisco. The AAA has 33 different sub-fields (e.g., I’m a longtime member of the Society for Visual Anthropology section of the AAA), with many diverse, parallel sessions.

The big news in anthropology is around a scandal "unparalleled in the history of anthropology." A new book, Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney, accuses several notable anthropologists, biologists, and filmmakers studying the Yanomami people in the remote rainforests of Northern Brazil. These accusations include human rights violations, deadly genetic experimentation, doctoring data, and staging film sequences. It’s ugly, and passions run deep on both sides. A high-visibility excerpt of the book appeared in New Yorker magazine, and the tweedy, scholarly community of anthropologists freaked.

The last big scandal in anthropology remains unresolved. Remember the Tasaday, the isolated stone-age, cave-dwelling, "gentle people" discovered in the early 1970s in the remote southern Philippines? National Geographic magazine did a feature (August 1972). NBC news made a documentary (1972). But over the next two decades details accumulated suggesting that the Tasaday were local farmers paid to act stone-age, as part of a property scam masterminded by a Marcos crony. Today most everyone living in the Philippines takes for granted that the Tasaday was a cruel hoax. And most of the anthropology community agrees. But the rest of the world continues to have fond memories of these "gentle people" with no reason to doubt their authenticity.

Far-off cultures and indigenousness are no longer marginalized areas of study, confined to a small community of academics. "The Others" now have websites, and you will get email from them someday soon. Their art and culture have value, while the international media industry spends billions of dollars missing the mark. The anthropological community can play a major role here, and I for one would heartily welcome them.