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I had been surfing anonymously; now I decided to enter into the system. I would e- mail some of the pueblo pottery sites I had visited, establish contact, declare my interest, strike up a conversation and elicit responses about their use of the Internet. If possible I would follow up on these contacts during a 'real time' visit to New Mexico in August 2001. My thinking was informed by feminist approaches to science and the new technologies, in particular Donna Haraway's writing. She offers a compelling argument for the notion of 'situated knowledges'.
It follows that conceptualising web-based research entails 'situating' oneself vis à vis web-based structures. I am not one of those who frequent chat rooms; however, I do make considerable use of electronic media. I send and receive e-mail on a daily basis, and regularly search the web. I also helped found, and am on the editorial committee of, Interpreting Ceramics. By far my greatest use of the Internet relates to my work as an academic. I encourage students to use the web, and often give e-mail tutorials. In discussion with post-graduate students the topic of 'Cyberfeminism' regularly arises. In cyberspace there is no guarantee of a solid, definitively gendered body that lies behind (or beyond) its electronic trace, and the question of identity is thrown into confusion.
Capable of manifesting in more than one location, the cyborg is not constrained by fixed notions of identity, but is free to adopt a succession of 'positions'. This concept of - let us call it 'positionality' - is well suited to thinking about the fluid interfaces negotiated by individuals as they traverse the hyper-terrain of the Internet, where 'E-mail is one of the passage points.... through which identities ebb and flow....'15
It was with considerations such as these in mind that I launched (perhaps lurched is a better word) into cyberspace. I composed a 'form' e-mail that I sent to the 'contact us' facility of some thirty or so pueblo pottery web sites.
Projecting oneself to unknown others via e-mail makes one super-aware of the signals one is transmitting. As Haraway notes, 'Hypertext actively produces consciousness of the objects it constitutes.... hypertext "realizes" its subjects and objects.'16 Initiating this e-mail communication involved envisaging co-communicators whom I had never met in 'real time'. How would I be manifest to them in the swirling, relational universe of pueblo pottery web sites? An e-mail address that ends - as mine does - with ac.uk (.edu is the American equivalent) marks me as a member of an academic institution, and bestows a particular cyber-persona, as does my use of the prefix 'Dr.' Such apparently mundane details are not without significance.
As I clicked 'send' on that first e-mail, I had a sense of venturing from my academic safe-haven. Replies began to arrive on my desktop more swiftly than I had anticipated. Without exception, all those who responded welcomed my contact ('I will be more than happy to help you out. Anyone interested in pueblo pottery is someone I will talk to.'18) and agreed in principal to meet with me. One respondent made a shrewd assessment of my identity and reacted accordingly:
Although it shares some of the characteristics of letter writing, e-mail is typically more spontaneous, less guarded and more fragmented. More conversational in fact. A certain e-mail etiquette has evolved; capitals are like shouting: they should be used sparingly; spelling and punctuation are allowed to be slapdash - up to a point.19 The styles of the e-mails I received varied. Some (like the one cited above) were formal, others more relaxed.
The reservation? This voice evoked familiar stereotypes of Native American ethnicity; such assumptions were extremely unsafe however. At times I felt like Haraway's 'modest witness': 'suspicious, implicated, knowing, ignorant, worried and hopeful.'21 And slightly guilty. As the friendly e-mails began to pile up I felt like a voyeur. These strangers would contribute to my ongoing project; I would analyse their apparently unguarded conversation; what could they hope to gain from contact with me?
I found myself warming to some voices more than others. But who was I communicating with? Were they gallery owners, dealers, makers...? What was their connection with the web site via which I had originally contacted them? I devised a questionnaire to collect some basic information. It was divided into three sections: 'Your identity; Your web site; Your work displayed on a web site organised by someone else', and I envisaged it being answered by gallery/museum owners/managers/workers and/or makers. Ultimately I hoped to establish who was responsible for the style and content of selected pueblo pottery web sites, and investigate the circumstances of their production. At the end of what were - with hindsight - far too many questions, I reiterated that I would be visiting New Mexico from 14th - 24th August 2001, and asked again if I might make contact. I had timed my visit to coincide with the annual Indian Market at Santa Fe, as this would give me a once-only opportunity to view a huge range of pueblo pots, including some that I had seen on web sites. Almost all my earliest respondents were connected to private galleries, and they were quick to point out that it would be their busiest time of the year. This provided some useful insight into their terrestrial business operations, and for most of them, their web site was an extension of these commercial activities. I asked: 'What were your aspirations for the web site when you started it?' and got back variations on a theme: 'To provide an additional venue for the sale of items from our gallery.' (www.cristofs.com); 'customers who don't have a chance to visit the area are still able to view and purchase our pottery.' (www.agapesw.com). This is not an essay on marketing, but it is worth noting that all my respondents reported increased sales via their web sites, especially of contemporary, rather than historic pueblo pottery. In one case, 90% of contemporary pottery sales were generated by the web site. (See www.pueblopottery.com).
With one or two notable exceptions, there was little in the way of imaginative flight in the answers I received. Respondents did not 'run' with questions like 'What type of image is important to you?' as I had fondly imagined they might. They were far more prosaic, with comments like: 'detailed and accurate' (www.nativepots.com); 'good detail' (www.agapesw.com); 'clarity and speed of loading' (www.cristofs.com). When asked: 'What type of textual content is important to you?', the most frequent answers were along similar lines: 'good general descriptions of the works and their makers' (www.pueblopottery.com); 'concise and factual information that provides the "surfer" with what is needed without boring and thus losing them.' (www.cristofs.com). There were some 'glitches'. When I first sent the questionnaire out I used the word 'ceramics' to refer to pueblo pottery. Misguidedly as it turned out, for one respondent did not get further than the opening section.
To address what had clearly been a semantic misunderstanding, I attempted to discuss the differing cultural significance of the terms 'ceramics' and 'pottery' in Britain and America. I also, rather clumsily, mentioned that at Acoma Pueblo (Sky City) 'the makers I spoke with ... used 'ceramic' to refer to mould made pots, and 'pottery' for one-off pieces.' I touched a nerve.
This conversation revealed more of the thinking behind pueblo pottery web sites than many of the questionnaire results proper. Only an hour later I received an e-mail from Judith Bennet, the assistant director of Wright's Indian Art in Albuquerque.
I deleted the word 'ceramics' and thenceforth used the amended version. In fact there are web sites that offer less-than-authentic mould-made work under the aegis of 'Decorative Southwestern Style Pottery' (my italics), of which pueblo pottery is presented as a sub-division. At the somewhat bizarrely titled www.rebelrick.com for example, I found a mix of objects, several of them slip-cast or moulded, all accessed via a button labelled 'Authentic Native American Pueblo Pottery.'27 In America there are regulations about the use of phrases like 'authentic Native American'. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 states that,
While the Act does deal with issues of quality, its central concern is to establish the 'Indian-ness' of objects: 'the term 'Indian' means any individual who is a member of an Indian tribe; or.... is certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian tribe...' At www.rebelrick.com the use of language is careful. Despite the button labelled 'Authentic Native American Pueblo Pottery', the words 'Indian' and 'Native American' are applied sparingly in descriptions of particular pots. And while some are described as 'hand-decorated, signed original', far fewer are called 'hand-coiled.' The word 'moulded' (in America 'molded') is conspicuous by its absence, and in several cases the method of construction is simply omitted. Sizes are rarely given. 'Rebel Rick' also sells his 'pueblo pottery' on the Internet auction site, 'ebay'.
Though described as from Acoma Pueblo the pot is signed by a potter in Laguna. Laguna is within the Acoma reservation boundary, but it is not part of Acoma pueblo itself. To disregard the difference could be misleading, but it is desirable from the vendor's point of view. In the language of pueblo pottery web sites, 'from Acoma Pueblo' as opposed to 'from Acoma reservation' elevates an object and suggests something far more prestigious.
Sometimes the questionnaire results and concomitant e-conversation confirmed my previous reading of a web site. One of the more imaginative responses came from Denver based dealer Jill Giller of www.nativepots.com. As previously discussed, I had thought the 'voice' of her web site lively, and suggestive of close contact with potters. At first she balked at the number of questions:
Less than forty minutes later she asked again:
I assured her that there was plenty of interest and gave a short account of my research aims.
She was true to her word, and her responses make interesting reading. It is clear that for Giller commercial and personal motivations are bound up together. Her web site operates like a gallery display and enables her to work from home while still maintaining a public profile. In answer to the question, 'What were your aspirations for the web site when you started it?' she stated that as well as expanding her business activities, she wanted to 'expose Native American Art to a broad segment of the population.' In terms of design, she wanted her web site to be 'VERY REALISTIC in terms of WHAT people saw - and then add personal touches - stories -artists backgrounds - I wanted people to Know that I was PERSONALLY involved with these artists.' Her research for the site involved 'LOTS of discussions with the artists.' Under 'any other comments', she wrote: 'I work on this ALL DAY every day!'33 Giller's close involvement with pueblo potters, to the extent that she discusses the look of her web site with them, was in sharp contrast to another of the answers I received. When Mathew Chase of www.pueblopottery.com told me that his web site had 'been a way for me to connect with folks trying to sell material,' I jumped to the conclusion that 'folks' meant potters. I was wrong.
His comments are not borne out by other evidence. Many individual makers may not have their own web sites, but so far as I can tell, pueblo communities are comparatively well represented on the Internet.35
13. Haraway, Donna J Simians, Cyborgs and Women, The Reinvention of Nature Routledge New York 1991, p.198. back to article
14. Haraway, Donna J Simians, Cyborgs and Women, The Reinvention of Nature Routledge New York 1991, p.150. For an example of a cyberfeminist web site, see www.obn.org. I am grateful to Jackie Puzey for this web site reference. back to article
16. Haraway, Donna J Simians, Cyborgs and Women, The Reinvention of Nature Routledge New York 1991, p.125. back to article
19. For further discussion, see Baym, Nancy K. The Emergence of Community in Computer Mediated Communication in Jones, Steven G. (editor) Cybersociety Sage, California 1995. back to article
29. http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=1003109801 This does not appear to be a vastly effective way of selling pots. Of 253 items listed in Rebel Rick's e bay catalogue, only one had accrued a bid when I visited on 9/9/01. back to article
35. 'Religious and ethnic community sites have flourished on the Internet.' Shamash, Jack 'Working the web: Minorities on the net' in the Guardian newspaper, 'online' section (13/9/01). back to article
|PuebloPotteryDotCom Issue 4|