Interview by Sabah Haider
In this interview for the graduate seminar HUMA 888: Mess and Method [Fall 2015, “What is a Media Lab?” edition], Sabah Haider, PhD Student at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University interviews Dr. Erica Lehrer, Director of CEREV and Associate Professor, History and Sociology and Anthropology (joint-appointment), and Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory and Ethnography & Museology, at Concordia University. In this interview, Haider seeks to gain insight from Lehrer on how interdisciplinary research engages with technology and the fast evolving Digital Humanities.
EL: First of all, I should begin by saying that CEREV is in the process of separating itself from our lab space, which itself is being renamed the Centre for Curating and Public Scholarship. I didn’t want my own preoccupations with difficult, contested histories and cultural issues to dominate a lab space that could be accessible to many more users who share my concerns with using exhibition or curatorial work as a form of public scholarship. So in the future CEREV will be one of a number of units and groups of people using the CCPS lab platform. It was also a question of stability. There is no lab work without lab funding supporting lab staff, and the model we had was too narrow to be financially sustainable.
SH: The Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence (CEREV) is a media lab that fosters the intersection of many disciplines/disciplinary approaches to produce broader understandings and to challenge existing understandings around ideas of the exhibition of trauma and violence. On the CEREV it states the centre was established “to create a community of researchers and curators and produce new knowledge around issues of culture and identity in the aftermath of violence.” In relation to the practical side of this — how can you describe or explain how knowledge is produced at CEREV?
EL: Different kinds of knowledge are produced at different nodes in the network of sites and people that make up CEREV. We have an incubator room with computers, and more importantly a round table, where postdocs and students (and sometimes me) meet and talk; we have our exhibition lab, where curatorial experiments and public presentations take place; periodically we have large-scale public exhibitions at various local or international sites; we meet in homes or cafes or my office for more casual mentoring chats; and then we have our website and Facebook page. These are all parts of “the lab,” and the spatial aspect is centrally important to what kind of knowledge is produced, and who participates in its production. I would say that knowledge is produced individually in reading, looking, and thinking; it is produced socially in interdisciplinary, multi-level, and inter-subjective dialogue, negotiation, constructive mutual challenging (sometimes uncomfortable), and in shared experience among differently positioned people; it is produced in a process of making, building, and experimenting with various media; and (for those who only come into contact with things we produce) I hope knowledge is produced in inspiration and the generation of new ways of thinking and seeing. For me the key to “lab-ness” is the special process of collaborative creation – we all help each other to think through and envision a product even if it ultimately is put out into the world under a sole author. I’ve always liked (and used) Gina Hiatt’s manifesto, “We Need Humanities Labs.”
SH: How does CEREV engage with digital technologies to stimulate this? Since the lab’s creation in 2010, has there been an increasing interest in also exploring relevant digital forms and practices, in parallel with the growth or expansion of the digital humanities (DH), particularly as the DH has spawned a seemingly infinite number of digital tools that facilitate new types of exploration?
EL: Playing with new technologies can generate ideas, and that’s why we have our indispensible Director of Technology, Lex Milton, who crucially has a background in educational technologies. He’s an excellent muse, who can listen to logo-centric humanities scholars and help them think about how they might expand and “curate” their projects in productive ways by imagining what technology can do. But I’m not so compelled by projects that use technology as a starting point – or perhaps I mean humanists are not best-positioned to start from everything that “can be done” and then try to figure out how to use XYZ bells and whistles in their own work. Rather I think we do best when we have a particular problem we want to solve – like getting multiple voices or perspectives visible/audible around an object, or getting people who are far away from each other into dialogue, or creating options for accessing and exploring massive archives of information in a single space, or moving people emotionally – and then thinking about what might help us do that. This is when dialogues between humanists (or social scientists) and people with technical and creative skills are most productive. We dream aloud, we share our challenges, and they suggest possible solutions using the technologies that exist. And we humanists push the tech people by asking them “do you think you could make it do XYZ?” It’s a really exciting dialogue, and the final products are always something neither party could have envisioned on their own. We stretch each other.
SH: What are some of the emergent media forms that the lab has incorporated/is incorporating? How can you describe the materiality of the CEREV space? (i.e. mobile, virtual, etc.) What kinds of material forms (i.e. forms of output) does the knowledge produced at CEREV take? What types of ethnographic experimentation has/does CEREV facilitated/facilitate?
EL: I alluded to the various materialities linked to the CEREV lab above. We do have a couple of dedicated physical spaces, and the exhibition lab in particular has a lot of technical tools – projectors, mobile screens (some of them touchscreens), iPads, surround sound capability, etc. – as well as analog ones like pedestals and screens and curtains. And then lots of recording equipment for still image, video, and sound. We facilitate whatever kinds of technology-enhanced fieldwork people want to do, which includes documentation as well as bringing various pre-produced media to field sites, or to co-produce media with various research interlocutors. The forms of output range from ideas to lectures, blog posts, scholarly publications, videos, and exhibitions.
SH: Most of the work of CEREV affiliates appears focused on themes of meaning, affiliation, curation and exhibition. Trauma and suffering, as you have identified, encompasses victims, perpetrators and bystanders or observers. Has/does research at CEREV explored/explore all three of these perspectives/positions — or relationships between them?
EL: I would say yes, we’ve created work looking at these positions and their interrelations. PhD student Florencia Marchetti has been creating field-research-based videos made at a site of a former detention and torture centre in Argentina, which she then uses to seed discussions among the people who today live nearby – some of them were bystanders at the time the centre was operational and they are bystanders to memory today. Students re-curated the video testimony of a Montreal Holocaust survivor to explore victim narratives and their forms and uses. And my own work has dealt with how to raise difficult questions that implicate audiences in their own collective “perpetrator-hood” regarding historical violence and its contemporary legacies or ongoing prejudices. These are just a few projects but they cover all the positions you mention.
SH: What does it mean to have this kind of space as an interdisciplinary scholar — a ethnographer/historian/anthropologist?
EL: It’s mostly challenging. It makes one realize how comfortable text is – both in terms of the limitations of creating it and its relatively limited reception. When you have to deal with capturing and transmitting so many more dimensions of experience, and when such a large public audience can respond (and challenge) what you create, one is confronted with the limitations of one’s own view.
SH: Has anyone outside of your research community (i.e. from the wider “at large” community taken interest in your space, and if so why and how?
EL: Yes, people from various communities, like the Black community in Little Burgundy, or members of the Armenian, Palestinian, and Jewish communities, as well as AIDS activists are just some of the groups that have seen in the lab a space to gather to create and debate representations of history and culture relevant to their own groups. You can read a bit more about the projects we’ve done in the lab, and my own trajectory, at: http://cerev.cohds.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Abell-interview-with-EL.pdf
 Hiatt, Gina, “We Need Humanities Labs”, Site URL: <https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2005/10/26/we-need-humanities-labs>
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HUMA 888 Interview_CEREV_Erica Lehrer_by Sabah Haider