Techniques of the Participant-Observer: Alex Monteith’s Visual Fieldwork

[To appear in the book Alex Monteith: Accelerated Geographies, edited by Rhana Devenport. New Plymouth: Govett Brewster Art Gallery, 2012. Preprint, please do not quote or cite this version.]

Alex Monteith’s practice is best captured by the Antipodean colloquialism “getting amongst it,” or in more technical terms, “fieldwork.” There are the death-defying pieces that involve hanging out of helicopters, chasing wild boar or splitting lanes on her motorbike; and more reflective studies, tracking farming or surfing bodies in motion. The forces that Monteith seeks to make visible in her “participant-observation” are not only visual but cultural—an ongoing series relating to Māori protest and ritual, a sibling of her film study Chapter and Verse on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Monteith’s video works are not simply art about the gallery experience, as she takes up Bourdieu’s early comments on photographic documentation: “The most banal tasks always include actions which owe nothing to the pure and simple quest for efficiency, and the actions most directly geared towards practical ends may elicit aesthetic judgements”[1]. Art is everywhere, even outside the institutions of art, as the ethnographer Geertz pointed out: “certain activities everywhere seem specifically designed to demonstrate that ideas are visible, audible, and one needs to make a word up here—tactible, that they can be cast in forms where the sense, and through the senses the emotions, can reflectively address them”[2]. These non-verbal practices seem to show culture on the move, they become indices to the emergence or decline of verbal language. From the ethnographic perspective, as Boas explained,“all cultural forms… appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental modifications”[3].

Art and anthropology have much in common—like art, anthropology was for much of its life an “avocation of amateurs” undertaken by “gentlemen of independent means” rather than a formal academic discipline [4]. It was a discipline founded during the beginnings of modern art, and has similarly moved from the appropriation of colonised peoples termed ‘primitive’, to a zone of contact where some of the most significant questions are asked about cultural power. Both disciplines are holistic and reliant on tacit knowledge and interpretation. E. R. Wolf summarises the attitudes of key anthropological figures: Malinowski saw the discipline as less about theory than about attitude: “think of culture as having functions; look at institutions as driven by impulses towards life and not as heaps of custom left over from some conjectural past” [5]. Levi-Strauss saw the social whole as not directly observable, but “a manifold in which structures of signs held together ‘a network of functional interrelations’ among many ‘distinct and joined planes’” [6].

The model of ethnographic fieldwork has now become broadly adopted across the social sciences: Donna Haraway described ethnography as “not so much a specific procedure in anthropology as it is a method of being at risk in the face of the practices and discourses into which one inquires… an ethnographic attitude is a mode of practical and theoretical attention, a way of remaining mindful and accountable” [7]. Few would be prepared to take on performances with the armed forces or indigenous cultural expressions that don’t set out to make a ‘statement’ about those groups’ ‘representational meaning’, yet Monteith suspends advance judgement in order to work out what is going on in a specific situation, asking us to suspend judgement as well. She brings to mind how Marcel Mauss famously described ethnographic truths through a visual metaphor: lunes mortes, pale moons in the “firmament of reason” [8]. Framed in this way Monteith is an ethnographer par excellence, finding disruptive truth and beauty in the movements and currents underneath surface images and overdetermined signification.

However, to merely read Monteith as a classical anthropologist is to neglect her visual training, which is not only the essence of her artistic practice, but perhaps also grounds for a critique of the standard anthropological enterprise. For all anthropology’s discussion of “participant- observation”, the technical visual detail of ethnographic observational methods have until recently been treated quite instrumentally, as if observed phenomena pass through the eyes and into the interpreting brain in a straightforward manner. However, the artist knows that observation, rather than being the origin of our explanation, must itself be explained [9]. As Mieke Bal puts it, looking is “inherently framed, framing, interpreting, affect-laden, cognitive and intellectual” [10]. Discussing the illusion of historical realism, DeCerteau noted that credibility of the observer is taken in the name of the reality they represent, “but this authorised appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organises it”[11]. To attempt to discover the structuring forces of behaviour, ideological perspectives that present themselves as “natural” must be overturned. And it is Monteith’s technical eye that is the apparatus that points to the fissures in our ways of seeing.

The formal multiplication of points of view is central to the surrealist sensibility underlying what appear to be quasi-realist documentary strategies in Monteith’s work [12]. As Rosalind Krauss explained, the mechanism via which the surrealists created the experience of fission within the moment was doubling and spacing, where a copy is added to an original [13]. Jean Goudal recognised the relation between Surrealism and cinematic scale in 1925, noting that in the cinema “our body itself undergoes a sort of temporary depersonalization which robs it of the sense of its own existence. We are nothing more than two eyes riveted to ten meters of white screen” [14]. In Monteith’s massive works, our documentary imagination seems returned to this displacement of the natural experience.

Yet the question of perspective is not merely spatial. As the philosopher Schelling noted in 1815, rather than any direct capture of an event, the eye is returned to time in front of the image:

We do not live in vision; our knowledge is piecework, that is, it must be produced piece by piece in a fragmentary way, with divisions and gradations… In the external world everyone sees more or less the same thing, and yet not everyone can express it.

In order to complete itself, each thing runs through certain moments—a series of processes following one another, in which the later always involves the earlier, brings each thing to maturity [15].

For the video artist, it is these temporal-spatial dynamics of observation that are the material that undergoes formal transformation. Monteith’s handling of temporality often disrupts our conscious anticipation of an event. Through her use of long, uncut shots with diegetic sound, we are held in the duration of particular formal aspects of the activity itself, which only heighten the reflective tension between performance activity and the representation in the gallery. While the viewer of the commercial surf video expects highly edited, fast-paced action, Red Sessions’ single-take panorama reveals the peaceful waiting that actually comprises most of the average surfing session. The works seem to hold not an individual actor or participant’s sense-making perspective, but a slower, more diffuse vision that could be a composite of visuals from multiple viewers. Similarly, Composition for farmer, three dogs and 120 sheep for four-channel video installation steps back from the intensity of the muster, revealing a bucolic landscape structured by the technical activities of human and animal.

At some level, Monteith’s discerning of the technical structure (‘form’) in an activity seems to point toward the way technology dissipates subjective experience. Her works highlight the irreality of visual perception and presentation, leaving us to reflect on the torque exerted by practices upon bodies. Monteith pays homage to the intensity of regulation and attention to detail in the manoeuvres of her collaborators through her own highly structured framing, grading and synchronisation of channels, as if rebuilding the exercises in video form. Her formal eye performs the scientific function of the laboratory “assay”: an analysis of the composition of elements in her sites of investigation. In one of his first texts on photography, Pierre Bourdieu said that what he called a “total anthropology” would have to “culminate in an analysis of the process by which objectivity becomes rooted in subjective experience: it must overcome it by encompassing the moment of objectivism and base it in a theory of the externalization of interiority and the internalization of exteriority”[16]. This process could perhaps take the name “machine,” in Deleuzian language. To investigate these machines is to understand that the technological changes affecting our visual experience are radical. As Walter Benjamin described the impact of the war in Europe on the cultural imagination: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body”[17]. Monteith’s work seems to argue that contemporary subjective viewpoints are dwarfed by the forces of automobility and the technical conditions of video spectatorship.

In that respect, Monteith’s work evokes the Futurist legacy that preceded the development of Surrealism, reflecting a more skeptical approach to our ability to transcend the disciplining of the machine—this discipline is recoded as something exacting and exciting. Passing Manoeuvre with two motorcycles and 584 vehicles for two-channel video installation perhaps best exemplifies the undecidable forces of automobilic discipline, evoking how members of the motorcycle subculture are prepared to risk both the law and their own personal safety as they perform subtle bodily adjustments to split the lanes. The bike similarly takes on the role of the free agent in Ascents and Descents in Realtime, as Monteith’s perspective sets the sand dunes as a canvas for the motorcross rider’s action painting. The social formations of this discipline and control are more in focus in the works with the formation aircraft Red Checkers and the Air Force’s Iroquois helicopters—the technical investigation of driver-discipline is expanded to the forms of discipline that constitute military culture, and here the early anthropological echoes return as we are confronted by the incongruity of the artist at work in a command and control setting.

From the discussion above, we could see Monteith as giving the two dominant uses of the term “structuralism”, firstly as used in the social sciences and secondly in avant- garde film, into each other [18]. Peter Gidal famously describes the “Structural/Materialist” film genre as attempting “a non- hierarchical, cool, separate unfolding of a perceptual activity”, a quasi-scientific activity designed to break illusionistic conventions in the spheres of “ideology, the image, plastic representation, narrative mimesis”[19]. The material structure of the film apparatus itself that must be presented to the viewer, who should create their own theory in the moment, from a clean slate.

However, the inability to fully escape the cultural nature of visual representations is by now well established [20], and all that may be left under the condition of postmodernity is to attempt to find and produce a genuine relation of symbolic indetermination or escape. The escape springs from a desire whose cultural grammar remains inaccessible, except through practices of writing or inscription that can be found in the field: Monteith’s recording practices seem to reflect Derrida’s arche-writing, a generalised structure of significance. The overcoded “meanings” associated with Monteith’s various contexts—military, motorcycling, surfing, farming, Māori protest—perhaps become what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls “epistemological constraints” that are seductive as much as they must be escaped. For Spivak, this dialectic has the structure of the sexual encounter— being drawn toward a constraint at the same time as one seeks to escape it is the “secret” of hybridisation [21]. Therefore, the compulsive researcher’s curiosity is also part of the field being explored here—any simple signification in Monteith’s subjects is rendered complex through her own investigation. As Clifford’s writing has made clear, ethnography is not engaged in the “reduction of incongruities” but actually produces them in order to do its job of re-describing a reality:

“Ethnography, the science of cultural jeopardy, presupposes a constant willingness to be surprised, to unmake interpretive syntheses, and to value—when it comes—the unclassified, unsought Other.” [22]

In 2009, Monteith and I were fortunate to be at Parihaka Pā for a discussion between the late Taranaki leader Te Miringa Hohaia and artist Natalie Robertson on the role of photography in Te Ao Māori. Hohaia noted the karakia which would be recited before a photograph is moved into or from the wharenui, describing it as having the form of a spiritual practice but with a fundamentally technical effect: reciting the karakia made the speaker mindful of what they were about to do. Ironically, it is the appeal to higher forces, an appeal to the “surreal” that returns one who recites a prayer to a more fully present sensory relationship with their body and their surroundings. Monteith’s works seem to have a similar function, despite their different conceptual and cultural basis. The paradoxical truth of fieldwork remains:
it is by going somewhere different that one is returned most completely to oneself.


1. Bourdieu, Pierre. “Towards a Sociology of Photography.” Visual Anthropology Review 7, No 1 (1991 [1965]): 132

2. Geertz, Clifford. “Art as a Cultural System.” MLN 91, No 6 (1976): 1499. 3. Boas, Franz. “The methods of ethnology.” American Anthropologist 22, no. 4 (1920): 315.

4. Wolf, Eric R. “Anthropology among the powers.” Social Anthropology 7, no. 2 (1999): 122

5. Ibid., p126

6. Ibid., p128

7. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_ OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 190-191.

8. Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Surrealism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 4 (1981): 548.

9. For an extensive discussion on this point see Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 779.

10. Mieke Bal. “Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (2003): 9

11. quoted in Scott, “The Evidence of Experience”, 777.

12. Some of Monteith’s early short films prior to Chapter and Verse inhabit a more self-consciously surrealist mode. See for example Pause the Rising Tide (2001) prizewinner of the 2004 International Surrealist Film Festival.

13. Rosalind Krauss. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October 19 (1981): 25. For a detailed discussion of this point in relation to binocular disparity, see Crary, Jonathan. “Techniques of the Observer.” October 45 (1988): 3-35.

14. quoted in Martin Jay. “The disenchantment of the eye: Surrealism and the crisis of ocularcentrism.” Visual Anthropology Review 7, no. 1 (1991): 28

15. quoted in Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”, 99

16. Bourdieu, “Towards a Sociology of Photography”, 131

17. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Rooks, 1969), 84. 18. I am grateful to Jon Bywater for the conversation that suggested this link.

See, for example, his interview with the artist in this publication.

19. Peter Gidal. “Theory And Definition Of Structural/ Materialist Film.” Luxonline (originally published by the BFi), 1976. 20. Even central structuralist figures such as Malcom Le Grice have more recently begun discussing the symbolic devices that generate affect in structuralist works – see for example his notes on a group of works 2004-6 titled “Portraits and Particulars” < personalparticular/index.html> , where the “sentimental attachment” of the material in “Little Dog for Roger” is acceded to. Of course, feminist psychoanalytically-inclined film scholars had already made this extremely clear on empirical and theoretical grounds – see, for example, Constance Penley, “The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 1, no. 2 (1977): 2-33. Gidal and others vociferously resisted these readings at the time. In the above article Penley makes a point about the cinematic imaginary that is pertinent to Monteith’s work: the cinematic signifier is “more ‘there’ than almost any other medium (because of its density of perceptual registers) and less ‘there’ at the same time (because it is always only a replica of what is no longer there)”. Monteith’s “filling” of the entire Govett Brewster also has a material lightness—when the projectors go off, there is nothing to be found.

21. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Geert Lovink. “Interview with Gayatri Spivak.” nettime-l, 1997. nettime-l-9707/msg00093.html. Accessed 2 September 2010.

22. Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, 564