On my knees, in an art gallery in a bohemian district of Lima, with my head inside a large rock, I thought: “How did I get here?”
I was being shown around an exhibition by an artist whom I wanted to interview. I had the impression at the time, and still do, that this preliminary meeting was a sort of test. I was being judged on how open I was to the artist’s ideas, how I would talk about their work and what the benefits to them would be.
Placing my head in the rock was an extension of this test; it was about my willingness to embrace certain elements of spirituality and of the artist’s vision (which I had quite possibly shown some scepticism towards). However, it was also a demonstration to me that the methods for introducing myself, gaining a person’s trust and setting up an interview in the UK, simply did not apply in Lima.
The purpose of me placing my head inside the cavern at the back of the stone was to feel the energy passing through it, the hum of modernity permeating this ancient stone, whilst closing myself off from the same outside influences.
In a roundabout way, I see parallels between that act and my experiences of conducting fieldwork in Peru, during which time it was regularly necessary to alter my approaches, and adapt my digital self, in order to get things done. As a historian who works closely with ideas from spatial theory and critical geography, it is perhaps no surprise that I claim to see the shadow-work of spatial structures influencing my research at every stage.
However, as students who conduct research abroad will be aware, many common habits and methods of research which are assumed to be, and taught as “good practice” in the UK sometimes don’t apply elsewhere. Whilst some of these problems occur due to different cultural protocols and practices, others arise from differing levels of access to, and differing applications of, technology. In this sense, as researchers our digital selves are constructed on a certain level of geographical contingency.
For a start, it was not uncommon to wait up to two weeks for a reply to an email, if I was lucky enough to get one at all. This meant devising new strategies to harass people; usually it involved a quick phone call, but at other times it meant attending a seminar, book reading or theatre performance in which my potential interviewees were involved and introducing myself afterwards.
At times it was frustrating to be travelling all over the city, reassuring academics that I had read and understood their work and shared their perspectives, all in order to set up an hour long conversation. It took days, weeks, sometimes even months to set up interviews when in the UK I would have usually set up the same meeting over a handful of emails in a day or two.
In a world where it is almost assumed that digital technology has made us all interconnected, I found that those superficial connections were not enough.
This process was less about getting in touch with people and more about reassurance, creating a comfortable environment in which to conduct the interview, and demonstrating a willingness to jump through a certain number of hoops to get it done. At times, it felt like I was being deliberately delayed. At others, reading an additional article, or attending a theatre performance, dramatically altered my approach to the interview. Afterwards, I understood that I wasn’t simply being fed the answers in my interviews; I was also being taught how to ask the right questions.
Outside of library campuses and cafes in tourist areas, very few places in Lima had WiFi (certainly not the archives which I visited daily). One interviewee was highly suspicious of my wish to record our conversation with an iPad, as his previous experiences suggested that this meant I was probably an undercover policeman.
Working in archives was even more complex; a Cerberus-like gatekeeper guarding the shelves in each one. It seems incredibly naïve of me (afterwards, that is) to have turned up to several archives expecting to be allowed to browse through everything they had. Quite often this was without a catalogue, and without an internet connection to look up what I needed. In this scenario, technological skills are useless and it is vital that you are able to communicate what it is you’re there to look for without being too squeamish about asking. Instead of negotiating a catalogue or database, you have to negotiate Cerberus, and work out how to work together to further your research.
Sat at home in London, I am endlessly swiping right. My archival research has left me with almost 1000 photographs of documents, many of which I have no idea what they are referring to because I have not mentally processed them in the same way as if I was taking handwritten notes. On the other hand, the old newspapers, leaflets, posters and exhibition guides I have collected which are not online feel hugely valuable for my research. These items refer to events, artists and organisations that I didn’t know existed; it is difficult to Google things of which you haven’t heard. Beyond the information they provided, the materiality of these objects is evidence of moments in time that will never be digitised.
I can attribute each of these to an experience: an event programme from an exhibition I was asked to attend; books bought whilst waiting to meet people; documents from a clandestine Communist bookshop recommended to me by one of my most demanding interviewees.
With each one I know that I have a source I wouldn’t have been able to find sitting at my desk in Gordon’s Square. Each one a reminder that it is not enough to be connected; you must be immersed.
Put your head inside the stone. Feel the vibrations.
Daniel Willis is a second year PhD student at UCL Institute of the Americas. His research utilises approaches from history and critical geography to explore memory and political violence in Peru’s internal armed conflict in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Daniel is studying for his PhD with support from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.