Concepts Have Teeth, And Teeth That Bite Through Time: digital imaging and Blackfoot material culture in UK museums.

Lead Research Organisation: University of the Arts London
Department Name: Central Saint Martin's College


Historical perceptibility is used, and is still used, to claim, to define capacities for self-rule, to apportion social and political possibilities, to, in effect, empower and disempower Indigenous peoples in the present. Such categorical forms of recognition and mis-recognition are indebted to deep philosophical histories of seeing and knowing [...]
And so it is that concepts have teeth and teeth that bite through time.
(Audra Simpson, 'Ethnographic Refusal', Junctures, 2007, p.69).

The Concepts Have Teeth network brings together artists, archaeologists, anthropologists, digital technologists, historians, museum professionals, Indigenous studies scholars and Knowledge Holders of the Blackfoot Confederacy of Canada/USA to reconsider artefacts held in UK museums. Led by an art school (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London), the network will investigate the potential of critical approaches and innovative practices of fine artists, in conversation with a transdisciplinary range of technical and theoretical practices and perspectives, to inform the future of digital imaging applied to cultural heritage collections, and to support cultural engagement and revitalisation.

The network builds on Blackfoot research projects in Canada and the UK (New Frontiers research project at University of Lethbridge, Canada, and Blackfoot Collections in UK Museums Network), but constitutes an expanded network, bringing new skill-sets together to break new ground by reconsidering recently developed digital technologies - including structure-from-motion photogrammetry (SFM), Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and virtual and augmented reality - from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Advances in imaging technology facilitate a novel investigation into issues around access, tangibility, materiality and self-representation, and the project will explore the potential for a new conjunction of art practices with digital technology developed in archaeology to open access to collections and develop new contexts and associations by re-reading or counter-mapping existing material.

Through the agency of Blackfoot Knowledge Holders, the network will access objects held in collection stores in museums across the UK, including the British Museum, the Wellcome Collection; University Museums, University of Aberdeen; and National Museums Scotland, where the collection has never before been visited by Blackfoot Knowledge Holders. Examination of examples within these collections will offer the network opportunities to explore how digital imaging of museum artefacts might offer the potential for approaching material culture in ways which can respond carefully to Blackfoot concerns relating to the endangered cultural knowledge immanent in their stranded objects, to investigate the possibilities for self-representation afforded by digital methods to mark lived experience, lived and re-lived memories and futurities, and to reveal endangered knowledges (of crafting techniques, for example). Network participants will experiment with alternate methods for creating 3D digital models harnessed to the Blackfoot worldview, modelling approaches for engaging with the Blackfoot objects in ways which embed their cultural context, layered histories and stories, sounds and metadata.

Existing knowledge structures, be they local to the Blackfoot, the skills of network members or established historical narratives, will be starting points for collective sharing and developing new knowledge over a series of four network events in the UK and Canada, culminating in an event-based public exhibition in London convened under First Nations protocols as a Circle: a model for interaction, co-creation and dialogue. Crossing boundaries between archaeological analytical approaches and artistic practices associated with digital image production, the network will embody unique perspectives on the capabilities of digital imaging for Indigenous artefact collections

Planned Impact

Initial consultation with Blackfoot Knowledge Holders indicates that this project would be a significant new development for learning about Blackfoot culture for Blackfoot artists, ceremonialists and historians as well as for participating UK institutions, academics, digital technologists, and the general public and project partner University of Lethbridge (UoL).

The network's participants and participating institutions will play a significant role in disseminating the project ideas, discussions and activities to a wide range of audiences in the UK and Canada, and significantly impacted communities will include:
- The Blackfoot community, in revitalising endangered material knowledge, in active self-representation.
- Cultural and political institutions, such as the British Museum (London), National Museums Scotland and University Museums, University of Aberdeen, will benefit from the discussion of digital technologies in relation to their collections.
- The network's academic enquiry into Blackfoot material culture in UK museums will give practice-based researchers, such as visual artists and digital imaging specialists, the opportunity to engage with the material culture of the archive.
- The network's final Circle event at the Lethaby Gallery in London (University of the Arts London) and Wellcome Collection will open up new transdisciplinary audiences.
- A broad public interested in the confluence between digital imaging technologies and Blackfoot material culture in UK museums.

How they might benefit:
- Through educational initiatives at University of Lethbridge enabled by the project's digital practices towards unlocking of traditional knowledge. Located on traditional Blackfoot territory in Alberta, Canada, UoL established a department of Native American Studies in 1975 and since that time has undertaken programs and initiatives to support Blackfoot and First Nations Metis and Inuit (FNMI) peoples, which project findings will feed into.
- Through transdisciplinary dialogue enabled by the network and made accessible via the network web presence and public-facing exhibition.
- The network will reach out to diverse audiences and academic communities enabling intellectual and cultural exchange through its events taking place in London, Southampton, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
- Examples of Blackfoot material culture in UK museums will be made more visible and accessible via the display (physical and online) of key materials documented and chosen during the lifespan (and digital afterlife) of the network.
- Through the collaboration and exchange of knowledge between network participants, the project will be well placed to suggest new potentials and possibilities for artistic digital practice and digital techniques of interest to digital imaging specialists and curators.
- Through the network's peer-reviewed publications, including an edited volume and two academic papers.
- By engaging with critical discourses on colonialism, post-colonialism and the role of digital imaging technologies in contemporary society that mediate academic expertise in mainstream media.
- Via the Circle event, which has the potential to inform a wide general public, raising awareness of Blackfoot heritage and digital innovation. This involves developing and showcasing creative methods for making museum collections accessible and interactive, including experimental augmented reality applications and virtual reality as a toolkit for production and reception.


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