A New Kind of Laboratory: Researching Song and Identity in the Judaica Project

It is not easy to explain the project “Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork.” Funded by a Leadership Fellow award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2016-2018), the core of this project was six months of full-time embodied practice research involving three skilled practitioners working closely together, first in a studio and later in a variety of other places.

The aim was to test a new kind of research design that would realise contemporary theories of embodiment, identity, and knowledge through experimental practice. The three core researchers brought training and expertise from theatre, dance, music, somatics, and other forms of physical culture and embodied practice into the studio. Drawing on ethnomusicology and Jewish studies as well as performance studies, speculative materialism, and critical identity work, we approached the studio as a laboratory in which songs, bodies, and identities interact in unexpected ways.

Gradually we invited guests to join us in the lab and eventually we took the research to other sites and locations including theatres, universities, and Jewish cultural centres in the United Kingdom, United States, and Poland.

As the project was officially coming to an end this summer, I asked guest photographer and videographer Garry Cook to create a short documentary that might help introduce our research to a wider audience. I am happy to officially release Garry’s video here:

As Garry suggests, these audio and video fragments are only the tip of an iceberg. Together the three core researchers recorded hundreds of hours of recording across the laboratory period. (You can see a narrow diachronic slice of these videos across several months in the online Songwork Catalogue.)

This material is currently being edited into a series of “illuminated” video essays, the first of which has just been published in Global Performance Studies. On the project webpage you can find more videos and photo galleries, as well as information about the project team and the series of public presentations we made during the lab period.

Here are a few photographs from the project archive:

Written publications coming out of the Judaica project include From-ness: The Identity of the Practitioner in the Laboratory” by Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, forthcoming in Theatre, Dance and Performance Training; “Molecular Identities: Digital Archives and Decolonial Judaism in a Laboratory of Song” by myself, forthcoming in Performance Research; and a short book called Making a Laboratory that describes in detail the audiovisual research method we developed, which will be published in the new Advanced Methods imprint from Punctum Books.

For any artist-scholars and practitioner-researchers who are also using audiovisual methods to explore and articulate embodied knowledge and practice: Please take a look at the new videographic Journal of Embodied Research, published by Open Library of Humanities, and consider submitting your work.

7 thoughts on “A New Kind of Laboratory: Researching Song and Identity in the Judaica Project

  1. Wow – I find this both intriguing and perplexing. In terms of the laboratory as research space, I’m curious about whether you identified research questions/problems beforehand, and how these changed over the course of the project. How did you determine when enough “data” had been gathered? When writing up the research, did you depend more on your memory of the experience or on the recordings produced; what is the relation between these two? What about lab safety – what kind of discussions were had about potential risks in spaces for embodied research? (These may well be questions you answer in the book, but I’ll ask them here nonetheless).

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    1. Thanks for your stimulating questions, writingverbaboutwritingnoun!

      There were certainly research questions identified in the project proposal. Basically there were two sets of questions: questions about the method itself and how the studio could be configured as a laboratory in a rigorous and not just metaphorical sense, including with new uses of audiovisual recording; and questions about the meaning of contemporary jewish identity, what it is and what can be done with it, across culturally diverse songs and bodies.

      There wasn’t a moment when we had “enough” data. At a certain point a new understanding of audiovisual laboratory research appeared and this led to an explosion of new insights and discoveries, a classic positive feedback loop. After that I sensed the huge potential in this area, but the laboratory period was limited by its funding to only six months. I am still in the process of working through what happened, writing about it, creating video essays from the recorded material, and will eventually apply for more funding to scale it up.

      Regarding safety, I’m not sure what kind of risks you are thinking of. In terms of physical risk and the risk of the experimental interactions themselves, what we did was similar to what any contemporary theatre or dance ensemble does today. The extra risks associated with the research process had to do with the presence of audiovisual recording and the questions this raised about who owns and controls these recordings. Within the lab team we discussed the ethics of this at length and eventually developed an approach in which the person who is recorded is considered to have priority when it comes to what is done with the material (the reverse of what usually happens in commercial and even experimental filmmaking). I am now thinking about how to make these methods, including their ethical context, available to performance companies:

      http://urbanresearchtheater.com/2018/11/08/cfp-performance-video-labs/

      And yes, these ethical and political questions about the power of the camera in relation to spaces of embodied practice are exactly what I try to explore in the publications mentioned above.

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      1. There are also risks, on the “content” side having to do with cultural authenticity, cultural ownership, and the politics of identity. I don’t feel I’m an expert on the politics of contemporary jewish identity, but I do feel that the approach we used brings something new to conversations about identity and the meaning of jewishness today. Specifically it tries to bridge critical and artistic approaches — so I plunged myself into jewish studies in a scholarly way, but I also worked from my own embodied cultural perspective. In the lab we were exploring the edges between autoethnography, artistic research, and critical identity politics.

        I tried to design the project from a decolonial perspective, understanding jewishness intersectionally and in a broader global context in relation to whiteness, blackness, and indigeneity. Also, to avoid some of the specific risks associated with ethnographic research, I made the choice to work from publicly available digital song archives. This is discussed in my forthcoming article on “Molecular Identities.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you. I hadn’t thought about a decolonization aspect at all, and it’s really interesting. I also like the idea that the “content” belongs more to performer/practitioner than the person capturing it – in my mind this could be linked to the decolonizing aspect; the two facets give ownership to the individual and to the culture being explored through the embodied research, rather than prioritising our contemporary technological setting which has its own aesthetic priorities and conventions.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That is exactly what we are working on. The heart of it is developing new videographic techniques that reflect the ethics of collaboration within experimental performance ensembles. Scaling this up is a decolonial challenge with potentially significant implications for knowledge hierarchies.

    I have an open call out right now for theatre, dance, and other companies to explore this with me in the coming year:

    Like

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