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ABCDE: Arts-Based Collaborative Digital Ethnography

by | Jul 13, 2020

Using Creative Participatory Methods

“We moved our lives here seeking safety and now under lockdown our lives moved online.”

With the pandemic, our lives as well as our research methods have had to move online. Digital methods proved to be both a challenge and an opportunity as we set about designing a project about the impact of Covid-19. Of course, we did not know where this project would take us but, to our pleasure and surprise, it has been growing and flourishing since mid-March. That’s when a bunch of friends and colleagues, asylum seekers, refugees, researchers, artists, activists and volunteers, most of us living in Swansea, South Wales, got together to try to do something useful with our time during lockdown.

The use of digital tools for artistic and creative expression can allow for the observation, analysis, and interpretation of the experiences of Covid 19 in an interactive space. In the process we are also creating interactive digital spaces. For example, a fun Kid’s Saturday Art Club that was set up locally in Swansea as part of this project. Children and their mothers gather together on Zoom to participate in drawing, calligraphy, painting and craft work.

This club nestles within the larger support networks of Swansea Asylum-Seekers Support (SASS) and the Women’s Group. We operate very much at a local level but at a distance – as is evident from many of the blogs you can read on this website that recount volunteering experiences. The overlapping and interacting networks of support in Swansea that moved online during lock down have forged an unexpected strengthening of digital solidarities that are translating into active, practical local benefits. Volunteers are shopping for those shielding, helping at food banks, delivering toiletries, checking vulnerable people are OK. Thanuja Hettiarachchi’s, Saba Humayan’s and Sandy Ibrahim’s blogs recounting their experiences underscore their vital contributions to local life that transcend social or ethnic boundaries.

We have worked closely with and relied very much on SASS and The Women’s Group in particular to access contributors. SASS used to provide weekly meals for some 250 asylum seekers on a weekly basis at community gatherings. With lockdown the fear was that some people who relied on these meals might go hungry. They set up a telephone tree – a scheme where multilingual language ambassadors call people to check they were ok. Several of the language ambassadors (Faris, Dari, Pashto and Arabic speakers) also became contributors to our project. They invited people who felt isolated to participate in the project and this has provided some distraction and community engagement for some.

We are also working very much translocally and transnationally. Migrant diaspora and transnational communities have long been enabled by as well as used digital technologies for a variety of purposes. We are continuing our work with Syrian refugee women in Za’atari and Azraq camps in Jordan. We are interviewing women as to how WhatsApp groups forged during lockdown are enabling new forms of civic engagement and community participation. Digital communities are mushrooming everywhere under lockdown. They often grow out of existing migrant social networks that have already established social norms, practices, traditions, migration histories, stories, conflicts, uses of language and metaphor.  See for example, Carlos Ibarra Rivadeneira’s blog about the myths and metaphors used among his “Latino” friends when talking about the virus.

In some respects, the features of digital communities are comparable to those of geographically defined communities, but in other ways they are definitely not. A constant upset that is stressed among our participants is the physical distancing – not being able to hug those we love. Nevertheless, during lockdown, we have been able activate strong translocal network connections. Friends and family from, for example, the very vibrant Syrian and Iranian digital diasporas have made compelling contributions to this project. For example, Shahsavar Rahmani, a language ambassador at SASS, has digital connections that span three continents. Together, we have documented the experiences of over a dozen Iranian Kurds around the globe affording important comparative analyses. Ahmad al-Rashid, another researcher, has far-reaching digital connections in the global Syrian diaspora. A good example of the cultural vibrancy of these connections is the beautiful, enigmatic video sent to Ahmad by a Syrian friend and refugee in Malaysia, ‘Lonely Streets’ in the gallery. A common thread in Ahmad’s writing is how for him and many other Syrian refugees the frontlines keep changing.

Arts-Based Collaborative Digital Ethnography – ABCDE! This is a new method, an experiment in experimenting with new ways of working across academia and communities, locally to globally. It’s a way of reinventing ethnography – always rooted in place and time and face to face conversations – for a world where so much of life has had to go online. Ethnography is a valuable method because it privileges the perspectives of participants in what is being studied and gives full attention to the intimate, affective, social aspects and implicit understandings. This ethnographic project shows that art of all kinds is a valuable prism through which experiences of Covid19 can be communicated across all kinds of borders. As one of our participants exclaimed: “if you think you can survive lockdown without books, films, TV, radio and without making art and culture of all sorts, then think again”.