Interpreting Visual Representations of Tibetan Ritual

Two monks from Eastern Tibet watch and comment on the video of a wedding in Western Tibet.

Funded by a SSHRC Image, Text, Sound and Technology Grant (2009-2011), we  have worked on developing a cross-cultural collaborative model for the interpretation of visual media. With case-studies focused on video footage of a Gesar festival, a Western Tibetan wedding, and the making of “ritual cakes” (gtor ma), the project is examining how new technologies may facilitate the application of theoretical models in visual studies to video archives. MA students Barbara Hazelton and Andrew Erlich, PhD student Matt King, and Garrett have worked with Tibetans in regions of China and in Toronto throughout the project.

In the creation of most academic ethnographic footage, the videographer’s perspective is held dominant, with little or no input given by cultural agents themselves on issues of content, framing, artistry, or other representational concerns. This project’s analytical model addresses this imbalance by soliciting multiple Tibetan perspectives on existing footage of Tibetan cultural practices, creating a space for collaborative and cross-cultural interpretation and articulation of ethnographic knowledge using visual media, and reconsidering ethical issues involved in the representation of others. How do Canadian academics see the role of visual and symbolic content in representing Tibetan culture? How does this differ from or compare to the way Tibetans assess the same footage? A discussion of this “second-level” comparative analysis – and the ways that innovative technologies enable this analysis – is the project’s focus. The research team aims to investigate how diverse groups may use digital media to converse critically about how images are made and how aspects of culture are represented visually.

This ongoing project has sponsored the development of Plateau Culture, a platform for sharing digital resources about the Tibetan plateau, mapping geocoded images, articles, place summaries and bibliographic sources to illustrate culture, life and history of the area. (This project is no longer active.) Plateau Culture was a partnership between University of Toronto faculty and students, Eastern Tibetan photographers, writers, musicians and ethnographers, and independent scholars living in Qinghai Province. The also site featured work by University of Toronto Buddhist Studies students Matt Zito and Nick Field, sponsored by Project Open Access | Open Source.

In July 2010, in the Western Chinese city of Xining, the project sponsored a participatory video festival featuring the work of Tibetan university students who had been trained in a series of participatory media courses co-sponsored by the Tibetan and Himalayan Library. Two young film students from Xining traveled to Toronto in February 2011 to show their work at the project’s weekend series, New Voices, New Visions: Documentary Filmmaking in Tibet and Myanmar.

Funded by a SSHRC Image, Text, Sound and Technology Grant (2009-2010)

Principal Investigator: Frances Garrett

Student Collaborators: Matt King, Barbara Hazelton, Andrew Erlich