Unexpected happiness in virtual spaces.

Unexpected happiness in virtual spaces.

This piece was co-authored and experienced by the following (in alphabetical order): Zoe Crossland, Celine Gillot, Praveena Gullapalli, Sven Haakanson, Christina Halperin, Sarah Jackson, George Lau, Uzma Z. Rizvi, Kisha Supernant, Dawn Wambold, and Joshua Wright.

This essay is about ice cream, beading, trust, friendship, and finding happiness in unexpected spaces while being an anthropologist. Collaboratively envisioned and written, we offer these reflections on praxis for a screen-bound contemporary moment, as well as an equitable and critical way to conceive of intellectual work in our future that feels like it engenders a space of happiness.

Setting the Stage
When the organizers (Uzma Z. Rizvi and Sarah Jackson) began planning an academic workshop, with funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, they envisioned a space of concentrated engagement for a group of anthropologists working on topics related to crafting and worldmaking in ancient contexts. They imagined intense, productive conversations, planned excursions that engaged with local experts and the landscape.

On the first Friday in October 2020, instead of meeting on Tohono O’odham land, the eleven of us found ourselves in a virtual space, located in Zoom boxes from our homes around the globe. The pandemic had changed our world. Instead of canceling, we had decided to imaginatively rethink the possibilities. We built in ways by which the engagement with the workshop was not bound by space or time, but rather through materiality and intentional gestures of community building that we borrowed from participatory and community-based archaeology, and from adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy (2017).

Screenshot during our beading class. Image courtesy of Sven Haakanson. October 2020.

We met on the five Fridays in October, picking times that recognized our span of time zones. While we communicated a tentative plan for the meetings in advance, it evolved with group input over the month. The rhythm of the full-group meetings alternated between ones in which group members, their projects, and academic ideas took precedence, and two meetings in which we welcomed an honored guest, Krista Leddy, an expert Métis beader, who taught us beading techniques and told us stories to contextualize the significance of beading within Métis culture. This approach to crafting, learning, and being, fit beautifully within our concept of Crafting as Worldmaking. Between our weekly meetings, we hosted optional and agenda-less “coffee hours” — one per week — at various times. Alongside these synchronous, live contacts, we had a background infrastructure of multiple connections: group Dropbox folders to facilitate sharing of materials, and a Slack group with channels for both official and social exchanges.

At the end of October, we realized that none of us wanted to stop meeting, that we had made real, new friends, that our scholarly conversations had been some of the most productive and collaborative we had had. In the midst of unabashedly adverse circumstances, we had not only achieved success in carrying out our workshop, we had also found unexpected happiness. The larger context of the world was precarious, which made the connections we found particularly precious.

Flavor of the day! #random Slack post. Image courtesy of Sarah Jackson. October 2020.

Our intention in writing this piece is not to share logistical best practices for successful or effective online meetings; rather, we wish to share what happened — how we found happiness and connection in an unlikely space of separate Zoom boxes, physical distance, and considerable disappointment — in order to think about how this experience can impact the ways we come together, to form and sustain communities, not only in pandemic contexts, but also in other moments of literal or metaphorical separation.

Building Trust
To gain trust you have to take a risk and open yourself up to others you do not know. This is not an easy thing to do even when you are meeting people in person. Being online takes it to another level as we cannot see or react to body language or cues of those with whom we are in conversation. It makes us think differently about how we engage and create trust with each other in this new reality. You are putting yourself out there, into a vulnerable place, trusting process. Without taking this risk we will not learn how to trust others in this new world of online convening.

We came together without most of us knowing each other beyond professional ties. We engaged in intentional, meaningful, and community building processes so that we could make our gatherings more than just a meeting. One of the significant ways we did this was through sharing parts of ourselves that we do not usually share in professional settings. A moment we all hold as significant is our first introduction with Krista Leddy; she asked us who we were, what kind of ice cream we liked, and how we came to like this type of ice cream. This simple yet important way to engage with each other created a place where we all have common ground, even sharing that some of us may not like ice cream. This exercise, facilitated by Krista, made her an important part of our group. She not only taught us how to bead together; through her teaching, we learned an archaeology of beads, histories, stories…ways of knowing about Métis life, and each other. Her framing allowed us to be heard as we started our conversations and not feel dismissed as we were talking.

In our meetings with Krista, we were taught a new skill — beading. Our vulnerability was inevitable as we all had the space to make mistakes. Interestingly, Krista made us feel like no mistake was ever irreversible nor was it something that could not be adjusted. That generosity of the craft and of her teaching created an energy of equitable exchange, a feeling that we were all in it together. It was also during this time we all became comfortable with silence on Zoom; when someone was ready, they shared.

Each part of this process allowed us to feel comfortable in taking a risk to engage with each other. As we shared and visited every Friday we started building trust in each other to follow through with what we were engaged with, and we learned how to think together.

Progression of a beading project. Image courtesy of Christina Halperin, October 2020.

Making Space
There is no one way that a virtual space has to be; because our meetings were mediated by Zoom did not mean that our interactions had to follow an established template. As the context for this workshop was during a period when we were all envisioning new ways of working, teaching, and collaborating, meant that we were all more open, willing and thus able to experiment. What we created together was a place for making mistakes; a space of vulnerability.

This space emerged from the framework and tone that the organizers established from the beginning, but it came alive through what we all brought to the space, and subsequently, what the space engendered. It began with the intentionality of the organizers to create a space that encouraged listening and engagement; one that eschewed hierarchy. For example, rather than facilitating discussion by calling on people, as a way to hear all voices and provide each voice with the vested position of directing our collective thoughts, whomever spoke would choose the next person to speak. This dismantled the hierarchy of conducting a conversation in a particular form and fashion.

Loving the sun with these colors. #random, Slack post. Image courtesy of Uzma Z. Rizvi. October 2020.

As participants, we all found ourselves coming into a space that, therefore, was not strident or competitive; what we brought with us, and what was encouraged, was the ability and desire to be collaborative, open, and vulnerable. We found ourselves within our scholarship in new ways because we were in new spaces online, which in turn fostered a different engagement with texts, ideas, and our ways of sharing. We built together, adding bit by bit, and ensuring we did not tear things down. This became a clear ethos in the group – a generative, rather than destructive approach to knowledge sharing.

A view of Sven Haakanson’s desk/desktop during one of our sessions. October 2020.

Moving beyond the visual-centered nature of Zoom created a different kind of space. Communal crafting engaged us tactilely while still allowing for conversation; our vision was engaged elsewhere, at a different focus; unexpectedly, we found that this more closely evoked in-person, comfortable encounters. This multi-sensory experience where the screen was de-privileged allowed for insights that would not have otherwise arisen.

Ultimately, the space was fluid in ways that mimicked in-person engagements but also took advantage of not being in one physical space for a continuous week. The virtual workshop was temporally spread out, allowing time to process ideas in ways that would not have been possible in the more intensive atmosphere of an in-person experience. A part of each participant’s physical space contributed to the collective virtual space of the workshop, and the interplay between the individual and collective spaces added to the productive and generative dynamic of the workshop.

Visiting, Not Meeting
Many of the virtual spaces we enter in our work are formal meetings or structured presentations, where our participation is determined by agendas or schedules. These spaces require us to interact in ways that conform to expectations of our workplaces and to come with our minds rather than our hearts. From the outset, however, it was clear in our crafting workshop that we were doing a lot more than meeting. Instead of the focus being on achieving some particular goal, our focus was on building connection. This shifted us from being in a meeting space to being in a visiting space. Indigenous scholar Cindy Gaudet writes about a visiting methodology as a means of building connection in her work with Métis women in Saskatchewan, where the emphasis is on spending time with one another.

Visiting centers reciprocity, respect, and relationality, rather than emphasizing the accomplishment of a specific outcome or producing a product. The outcome of the visiting space is actually the relationships built between the participants. In our context, we began each gathering in conversation with one another, inviting into the space something we were engaged within our lives. The prompt in our first meeting of what we have each been crafting or making, opened up the space where we entered into the fullness of each other’s lives. Krista’s ice cream inquiry created a visiting space as she led us through the process of learning to bead. Part of the beadwork teachings she shared with us emphasized the visiting nature of doing beadwork. She shared a story with us of when she first was learning to bead with her Métis relatives where they kept asking her to thread their needles as they beaded, drank tea, and visited. This story demonstrated for all of us the importance of visiting during the process of crafting or making.

Visiting with tea and chocolate. Image courtesy of Dawn Wambold. October 2020.

We were not just visiting with each other, but we were also visiting with ideas. We would start with texts that we’d share with one another, readings that we found inspiring, or concepts that we wanted to discuss. In some of the small groups, we continued with our crafting work as we visited with ideas; in others, we shared our own writing as ‘crafted material.’ Out of these small groups came inspiration for work that we wanted to do, deep conversations about terms and concepts, and the forging of new relations between people as well as ideas.

 

 

Materializing Connections
In addition to the intentionality of building trust, creating space, and visiting, there were particular material connections we shared. This engagement came through boxes of materials that were mailed out by the organizers prior to the start of the workshop, which created and continue to create connections. Opening the box was like opening a delightful trove of presents on one’s birthday!

The stuff in the box! Image courtesy of Kisha Supernant. September 2020.

Archaeologically, it was an assembly of materials….but also a first step into the ethos of the meeting. The hosts had thought long and hard how to open the meeting and say, ‘trust us, these are places we are going to go’.

Some of the items were familiar residents of conferences: coffee, tea, a drip-coffee filter and mug, and to everyone’s glee, an assortment of gourmet, free-trade chocolate bars. Anthropologists have long recognized that commensality builds ties and makes communities. For us, the simple addition of a way to share in food and drink was one ingredient of intellectual sharing whereby taste and smell fed discussions, points of articulation between different research domains, and friendships between new colleagues.

The box included a suite of books on craft production, relationality, creativity and worldmaking from BIPOC, subaltern, queer, and feminist perspectives. The intent of the books was not to read each one cover to cover. Rather, participants dipped into different books before the meetings, read elements throughout at their leisure, and afterwards now have those books as points of reference – evoking other participants and recalling conversations.

Up in my study: postcards from us. Image courtesy of Zoe Crossland. January 2021.

Some of the other goodies in the box were meant to stimulate ideas through doing – a topic we as archaeologists are committed to in theory, but do not often engage with in practice. These included the bead-making kits, origami paper, watercolor markers and blank postcards. We might have been initially reticent, yet once everyone started, we realized that ‘doing’ opened up a creative outlet that had us ask new questions and allowed us to see craft production from new perspectives. The presence of these tools in our personal spaces throughout the month materialized the ongoing workshop. For some, the doing was therapeutic. For others, it was a way to share something with colleagues.  For all, it was good fun. We snail-mailed the watercolor postcards to each other with little hand-written notes at the end of the conference. These personalized notes and colored works are not just material mementos of the conference but are indeed gifts in the sense of the word by Marcel Mauss. They set up possibilities for reciprocity that so much of our participatory and community based archaeological work depends upon. They are points in a chain of reciprocal engagement that compel us to want to keep that conversation going.

Concluding thoughts

Now
make room in the mouth for
grassesgrassesgrasses

Layli Long Soldier begins Part 1 of her book of poetry, Whereas with these words. As one of the books in our box, we returned to her words in different ways during our sessions as we read her poems out loud to one another in our large group. These were emotional because we were reading out loud the violence of settler colonialism, not just citing it. These were not performative gestures or readings, rather, they became ways by which we were bringing each other closer; gentle and inclusive. We all shared the horror of the mass killing of the Dakota 38.  As we recognized parts of ourselves in each other through these feelings, there was an intimacy to scholarship and a focus on relationality among ourselves.

This relational aspect of togetherness as something we experienced, rather than just studied, shifts the ways by which we incorporate theory into our everyday research: we are not working on something but working with something. As we consider this experience, we feel it has pedagogical implications on how to teach and learn differently. Indeed, it has already shifted the ways by which we all engage in our academic spaces.

Beaded flower. Image courtesy of Dawn Wambold. October 2020.

Finally, it is important to recognize the rigor and criticality that we imbued in our spaces — that criticality could be generative and not about tearing down arguments was a revelation for some of us, and became part of our ethos. We had come together not only to think about crafting as worldmaking, but in some part, we also redefined our own praxis as anthropologists. And it was there that we found our happiness – the ability to read, think, learn, make mistakes, bead, and visit theory in a just and equitable framework; where we were not asking the past in extractive ways to fuel our own professional goals, but where we brought respect and a different way of knowing to inform our workshop. In some manner of speaking, we enacted crafting as worldmaking as our experience beading made a new and different world for all of us, leading us to unexpected happiness in virtual spaces.

One Reply to “Unexpected happiness in virtual spaces.”

  1. Inspiring to hear and see this, thank you for sharing… we all need hope, and ways of staying connected in complex times. A metaphor might be: a candle in snow, creating a warm bowl of light in the cold…

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