Is performance that which disappears, or that which persists, transmitted through a non – archival system of transfer that I came to call the repertoire?
Alan Lomax, back in early 1960s, developed an archival system for what Diana Taylor defines as repertoire. According to Taylor, dance, movement and performance in general transmit knowledge that can’t be recognized in archived texts and documents. Lomax tried to fill this gap by collecting more than 3000 dance films from all over the world. He tried to capture and preserve the disappearing ephemeral (εφήμερο = something that lasts for only a day) in order to build a Global Jukebox so that musical, dance and speech styles of whole cultures or regions of the world would be called up by the user.
Ethnography (the practice and discipline of writing – γραφή about a group of people = έθνος) studies everyday life as lived “here and now” by a group of people. Although the video recordings that are part of the Choreometrics collection can no longer reproduce the fleeting aspect of the once performed dance, they can be a complementary research tool for the anthropologist who wants to revisit the field and understand in real time the social and cultural interactions he is interested in. Fieldwork needs to be continuously open and flexible but it also requires a lot of pre – research. If Lomax’s collection would be digitized, anthropologists will have direct access to a massive movement archive that in many cases reveals more about their field of research than a written text or document. Therefore researchers will understand better what is being reenacted now by knowing more about what was performed once.
Beyond the value of the content of the collection in terms of future ethnographies, the process itself of digitization of Lomax’s archive raises challenging methodological questions. First of all, it brings to the surface any potential connections between qualitative and quantitative research. The qualities of human movement can be systematically observed and analyzed quantitatively through movement analysis. If Lomax’s videos are digitized, these quantitative coordinates will make the qualitative content indexable and searchable. As a result, ethnographers could make clear connections between the movement that has been recorded and the movement that is observed and documented in real time.
Secondly, the digitization of Lomax’s archive reveals how video recordings as a methodological tool can be valuable when applied to the actual fieldwork. Although some might argue that the content of those videos is gone and therefore it no longer matters, it bridges the past with the present in ways that are widening the field of observation instead of narrowing it down to merely what is happening now.
The more than 3000 films collected by Lomax contain movement vocabulary that may no longer exist. Beyond the fact that if this content is not preserved it will be lost, the collection and its digitization itself reflects how classic anthropological ethnography can morph into an integrated form of study that does not choose to leave technology and multimedia untapped. It is a bet that ethnographers should be willing to take.