Imagine Otherwise: Elizabeth Chin on Wearable Tech and Dancing Beyond Whiteness

Imagine Otherwise: Elizabeth Chin on Wearable Tech and Dancing Beyond Whiteness

January 31, 2018 Podcast

 

How can we imagine and create speculative futures beyond whiteness? What can anthropology teach us about design and technology? And how might autoethnography and dance allow us to imagine otherwise?

In episode 56 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with dancer and ethnographer Elizabeth Chin about the simultaneous freedom, fun, and vulnerability inherent in writing about oneself, how dance is fantastic preparation for academic work, how she makes space for her whole self amidst a busy academic career, and how teaching kids how to make stuff is how she imagines otherwise.

Guest: Elizabeth Chin

  • Elizabeth is a professor of Media Design Practices at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Her work spans an impressive range of topics—from race and consumption to ethnography and Barbie—but nearly always engages marginalized youth in collaboratively taking on the complexities of the world around them. She is the author of three books including Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographic Ethnographic Futures; Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture; and most recently, the provocative and unique autoethnography My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries, about Elizabeth’s relationship with consumer goods and anthropological methods. Elizabeth has current projects in Los Angeles, Uganda, and Haiti and has engaged nonprofits, public schools, and other partners across these diverse locations. A specialist in Haitian Folkloric dance, Elizabeth has performed professionally and still occasionally teaches dance. Taking writing very, very seriously, her work increasingly investigates the ethnographic voice with an eye toward decolonizing anthropological knowledge as it appears on the page.

We chatted about:

  • Elizabeth’s newest book My Life with Things (02:07)
  • The fun, freedom, and vulnerability of personal writing (07:21)
  • What Haitian folkloric dance taught her about learning to learn (09:28)
  • How dance informs her academic work (11:50)
  • On choosing to intellectualize ourselves or not (14:28)
  • Elizabeth’s current projects on wearable tech in Haiti and Black Lives Matter (16:23)
  • Imagining Otherwise (25:42)

Takeaways:

  • On the unique form Elizabeth took in her new book My Life with Things, an autoethnography of consumption practices: “I just wanted to be more writerly about it—that was one motivation. The other one was just to have fun with it. I just let myself go down a real range of rabbit holes. I started with diary entries, in which I would just sit down and think about something and just write it as free-flowy as possible. Marx serves as the touchstone for most thinking about consumerism, commodities, and capitalism….But I really wanted to think about him and his family as consumers in his moment that was as striking as this moment, or extended moment, that we’re in at the turn of the 21st century.”
  • On personal writing: “It’s okay to be scared. And of course you don’t have put everything into public that you write. So letting yourself be free in the writing lets you at least get it out. Then you can decide whether it should go out into the world. Worrying too much at the outset about what people are going to think is just a recipe for disaster. At the same time, I think it’s not a tell-all confessional kind of writing. That mix of rigor, criticality, and being personal is really challenging. It might take some experimentation to find how you as a writer want to explore that for yourself—allow yourself to take that time.”
  • On how Haitian folkloric dance informs her work: “The discipline of dance and the discipline of performance that one has in preparation and training have shaped the way I work and teach quite a bit. Haitian dance has also taught me so much about improvisation. [This kind of dance] is similar to jazz where there’s structure but you improvise within the structure. When I first started taking Haitian dance, I would be in class and Jean-Leon Destiné would be showing us something and I would ask ‘What count does that start on? What foot is that?’ He would just say ‘I don’t know, just do it.’ Learning to learn that way and learning to move that way, learning to have that conversation that defines all forms of African diasporic dance…has been incredibly important. It’s about being responsive to what you’re faced with and to what’s in front of you, rather than following a straight line.”
  • On design and technology beyond whiteness: “My project called the Laboratory of Speculative Ethnology started because design is a really white field and art school is a very white institutional space. As someone who studies race and institutional inequality, at a very basic level I said ‘I wanna get some color up in here!’…Through the lab, I’m trying to provoke questions: Why does technology look the way it does? Why can’t technology be covered with beads? Why can’t you wear your GoPro on your head on a church hat that says Black Lives Matter?”
  • Imagining Otherwise: “That question always takes me back to Margaret Mead, who said that people always used to ask her “what’s the best society?” And she would say that the best society is the one that values every human gift. That’s what I wish for…a world where the diversity of what people can do and think and be excited about is  invested in at every level.”

More from Elizabeth:

Projects and people discussed:

About Imagine Otherwise:

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/episodes. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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About the author

Christopher Persaud: Christopher is a Digital Media Associate at Ideas on Fire, as well as a writer and scholar whose work touches on new media studies, queer and feminist theory, and science and technology studies.