Thanks so much for your email, it's a pleasure hearing back from you. Jess has actually just returned from London where she was participating in the London Design Festival. Her project with Tim Parsons received some nice coverage in Domus, which you can view here:
The material on tribal India is really interesting, I recently finished reading Sudhir Kakar's Shamans, Mystics, & Doctors, which included a chapter on Oraon shamanism, so I'm very curious to dive into your material. I've been researching a possible project on the confluence of Modern dance, yoga, and esoteric societies in the early nationalist movement, particularly the role that Theosophy played in various nationalist cultural revival movements. I've been having an interesting dialogue with Jack Green from the Ashmolean, now at the Oriental Institute, about the difficulties in approaching certain colonial historical moments which involve a high degree of irrationality. Jack has pointed out, for example, that most original members of the Palestinian Exploration Fund belonged to a high level Masonic research lodge in London devoted to study of Solomon's temple, so their archaeological activities, as well as their fundraising, probably came from a doubly coded place. It's very hard, apparently, to discuss this directly in academic archaeology circles.
The travel company that we've been dealing with was apparently founded by Skip Voorhees, who I know very little about. Here's the link to their existing tour, which we've been using as a template:
It stays pretty far south and heads east towards Oymyakon, as it stands. We could possibly reorganize the itinery, if that makes Tolya's involvement more likely. I would completely rely on your knowledge of the area. Most of the reinvented ritual that we've come across, so far, has been Sakha, with Moscow trained actors, for example, heavily involved in new cultural schools and the preservation of Olonkho, or branching out into world music venues. This activity seems much more heavy handed than what your book suggests is current amongst the Eveny. I think Tolya's 2001 staging of the seance is the closest to any of this. What we had in mind was a kind of experiment where any event would be equally owned as meaningful by the Eveny, and also by the tourist/consumers who would populate the trips.
I've actually been wondering how novel this would be, given the high number of ethnic Russians who seem to be attracted to Shamanism, etc.. Voinu, the group that gave birth to Pussy Riot, was notorious for their live sex performance in front of a stuffed bear representing Medvedev, Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear, and I've wondered how to define this sort of modern primitive complex that's obviously been playing out in Russian culture for quite some time.
There's someone local thinking very hard about penetrating world media markets with highly produced narrative films. I've been wondering about the producers of this trailer:
Regarding money: Yes, one of our major goals would be to develop a sort of tourist economy that would directly benefit the locals. The idea is that this could become a platform for promoting the area in several ways. I'm curious if you have any contacts in the regional government responsible for tourism and regional marketing that we could approach, since we're now looking for sponsors and funding for the initial research. My initial thought is to approach The Trust for Mutual Understanding, which I've had success with in the past.
Let me know your thoughts, especially about the existing itinerary. I'd need to negotiate with the folks at Arctic Odysseys or design another trip altogether if the itinerary seems incompatible with what we're doing.
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This sounds really interesting and original. In principle, I would be very happy to be involved. Stuff to do with the Wellcome and the art scene is one thing - my daughter is a sculptor who trained at Chelsea and has a special interest in the anti-monument (the idea that mega-death cannot be monumentalised), and I would turn to her for advice. Concerning Siberia, I expect to be visiting nomadic friends in that area in the second half of October and can put the idea to them. I would be concerned that locals should be well-paid for their involvement since everyone there is hard up, but from your message it seems you've thought of that too. So yes, I shall start with Tolya (he's a main character in my book), who is wacky and entrepreneurial. Please let me know any further thoughts from your end about specifics that might be useful in my discussions with my Eveny friends.
PS For a long time I've been writing about death on the basis of my other fieldwork site in tribal India, and attach some info about that too.
On 4 Sep 2012, at 19:49, michael graham wrote:
I hope this finds you well. I'm a curator working in Chicago in the middle of reading your wonderful book, The Reindeer People. I've just finished working on a project anchored around a private collection focused on traditional representations of death at the Chicago Cultural Center, Morbid Curiosity, which now travels to London for exhibit at the Wellcome Institute. I've worked with the collection previously in Philadelphia, but the Chicago iteration gave me the opportunity to collaborate with speculative designers out of the Royal College of Art who were tasked with imagining contemporary and future practices centered around death and finality. This led to the creation of the MeMo Organization, a semi-fictional research group investigating and designing customized experiences and objects that facilitate contemporary mourning. You can look at the project here:
Oddly, because one of the designers, Jessica Charlesworth, was so specific in her research and the scenarios surrounding her objects, we've been approached by an Arctic travel company who would like to help us realize one of the scenarios as part of an existing tour along the Elena river which centers around a trek north via reindeer sleds. We're intrigued by this possibility, but we're also trying to vet the realities of the situation as it exists in Siberia.
As part of the MeMo project, we imagined a number of possible stances and responses to the reality of death. Jessica's work as a designer is usually engaged in some sense with science or technology and in this scenario, which we call Nuptial Mask, she was interested in the denial of death filtered through a sort of environmentalism. She was intrigued by the permafrost's ability to preserve microorganisms and biological material for tens of thousands of years in a sort of cryogenic state. Projecting forward and assuming the permafrost survives, she imagined a desire for the indefinite preservation of genetic material in the permafrost as a sort of immortality and imagined a ritualistic tourism to Siberia that would enable this. In a kind of honeymoon fantasy scenario, she imagined a newly wed couple traveling to Siberia and using a double faced ritual tool, a Nuptial Mask, to bore into the permafrost and deposit their intermingled genetic material that might be retrieved by one's progeny several millennia later. As with the other scenarios, she actually produced a functional Nuptial Mask as a supposed relic of MeMo's activities and this formed part of the exhibit.
We've actually found ourselves and our audience fascinated with this preposterous scenario. The MeMo collaborators have realized that it might be a vehicle to explore other topics that interest us including Post-Soviet Russian political formations, the Soviet secularization of traditional societies, the reinvention and recovery of ritual traditions, the history and reception of Shamanism in the west and it's relation to the role of the artist, cultural tourism and art consumption in a globalized market, interconnections caused by environmental crises, etc.. The opportunity to fold the scenario into an existing arctic tourist trip is interesting, but it seems much more interesting to us to generate in a less opportunistic way an event that engages the local population, its culture, and the issues that I've mentioned. For example, could we activate symbolic meaning by having a Nuptial Mask forged by a local Siberian smith in an invented ritual that actually relies on actual cultural belief systems? Could we promote permanent engagement with the region through a tourist class that has an extended identification with its cultural and environmental survival and create a micro-economy, or at least a focus, that benefits the local population?
I'm interested in your thoughts about any of this. If you find it interesting or viable at all, we'd love to engage you as a potential collaborator. This would be a repeatable tour event but might generate material for possible exhibits that would connect audiences to the region, as well.