The Archaeological Lens
Anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy (University of Chiago) and filmmaker Daniel Zox embark on a project whose subject matter concerns rapidly changing death practices in the US, particularly as regards disposition of the body and the creation of memorial objects. The aesthetic challenge is to use the moving picture medium with an archaeological eye as they explore how film might be used as a means to excavate the contemporary – creating visual field notes of material practices.
Our project straddles a line between anthropology and art. The subject matter concerns rapidly changing death practices in the U.S., particularly as regards disposition of the body and the creation of memorial objects. The aesthetic challenge is to use the moving picture medium with an archaeological eye. To our knowledge, this has never explicitly been attempted. Another question regards the ways that film might be used as a means to excavate the contemporary – creating visual field notes of material practices.
We will visit cemeteries and makeshift memorials to document recent ephemera and practices, talk to death care professionals, product designers, and families who want to share the choices made for and with a recently deceased relative. We may also talk to those planning their own unusual memorials. The outcomes are expected to be multiple and open-ended. Although we embrace the productive constraints of an experimental documentary film format, we also expect to produce moving images that could be used with archaeological artifacts (redefined) to produce gallery installations and to inform written work (books, articles, poems – see, for example, artist and poet Kate Ingold’s work based on Dawdy’s archaeological practice).
In the United States today, death practices are changing rapidly, and creatively. Memorials can include a designer coffin featuring the loved one’s favorite hobby or sports team. In others, it is now possible to visit with the embalmed body propped up in a life-like setting, like a kitchen table. Other families are opting for green burials. Tattoos can be removed and preserved as mementos. And the growing popularity of cremation has led to a proliferation of new things to do with ashes – incorporating them into artificial reefs, making them into diamonds, mixing them into paintings, or blending them into a vinyl record.
We are particularly interested in materiality. This means the physicality of the human body that becomes more starkly objectified upon death, but also the ways in which remains and the memory of a person are transformed into non-human objects, and what becomes of these objects (archiving, use, industrial processes, decay). Some of these objects might be classified as relics or mementos. Others are curiously similar to commodity forms. There is perhaps no realm of cultural behavior that exposes the shifting ground of populist ontologies in such a bald-faced manner. What do these new styles of death tell us about what sort of beings we are when we are alive, and what we think happens to us after we die? What is the status of the subject/object divide in actual practice? What is a ‘person’ before and after death? What persists of them? What is lost? What is a secular afterlife? Is a (new) type of spirit ontology being expressed through these practices? How can we contemplate the temporality of life, the fact of death, and the possibilities of afterlife through artful film, without the crutch of voiceover narration? How can the archaeological eye be transferred to a moving camera lens -- through its focus on fragments, decay, and time? How can we get the viewer to reflect on the question: what will become of me when I die?
Trailer for My Star My Dust: An experimental documentary that examines what changes in funeral practices tell us about the beliefs and values of the living. This film is being produced by Dawdy and Zox as part of the research and production they initiated during their Gray Center Mellon Fellowship.