Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Field notes- an intense and involved manner

Field notes are used extensively by birders, naturalists and ethnographers and provide a subjective record of intense and prolonged involvement with a particular place or experience. In "Field Notebook Primer: How to Take Good Field Notes" by naturalist Robert B. Payne he says "Your field notebook is your entry to memory" and recommends sketching as "Sketches firm up your ideas of field marks, show the postures in behavior, the shape and location of a nest, maps of where you go, and so on."

Ethnographer Robert Emerson believes that the immersive experience of taking field notes and becoming actively engaged in the observed environment allows the ethnographer to reveal the mulitvariate "truths " that make up people's lives. Emerson's methods for taking ethnographic field notes can be used as a template for the field notes taken by artist. Emerson believes that rather than letting the experience wash over one or trying to observe without interaction the ethnographer should use the taking of field notes as an active process of "interpretation and sense-making" p 4. chapter 1.

Emmerson writes that field notes are a way of transforming first hand events into words on paper and this process involves selection, interpretation and sense making. In this way my notes, lines sketched, photographs when bush combing create a layered, intensely subjective composite which is then further refined in to an artwork through formal two and three dimensional conventions ie. line, composition, colour and form. Writing field notes or sketches means that there is a certain linear quality to the written reflection and many anthropologists and naturalists have developed a series of "notations" to record non-verbal things such as gestures, eye gaze, birdsong etc that are happening at the same time as the main observed event. The idea of notations lead me to calligraphy and mark making. Many times over the course of this project I've tried to draw bird calls and hops of wrens throughout the bush and the feeling of driving on a quiet country road, tree shadows flicking that I've driven over many times before. I like the idea of the main "narrative" (in the case of an anthropologist) , the main image in my case, being overlayed to the point where it disappears with notations breaking in with details of the world around me in the bush. In some ways this is how I see the gleanings I've been throwing into pots- the other stories breaking into the form.

The other issue that Emerson brings up is the importance of being fully engaged with the place you are observing. He proposes that the researcher who is constantly jotting notes actually changes and distorts the qualities of the interaction they are observing through the very act of being such an ostentatious recorder. Immersion in a long -term casual but intense way combined with close observation of the subject is the ideal way to collect field notes.

Robert M. Emerson,
"Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

Robert Emerson's first chapter can be read online here.

"Robert M. Emerson is professor emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations, now in its second edition." from University of Chicago Press website