When asked how he processed his fieldwork experiences and data, Claude Lévi-Strauss replied that he always took a lot of notes and collected file cards, “a bit of everything, fleeting ideas, summaries of readings, references, quotes.” If he wanted to understand something, he took a stack of cards from the box and laid them out like a game of Solitaire. The random combinations helped him reconstruct his memory and always gave him a new angle on the matter. At first glance, it might appear astonishing to produce knowledge by means of random combinations. But, taking a closer look into the processes of knowledge production, it is not that astounding at all. Tools to collect data, and the ways materials are categorized to produce meaning, are often based on experiments rather than on purely systematic practices.
In the transdisciplinary project Global Prayers, questions concerning the process of knowledge production played a key role from the outset. We worked with a variety of contexts and settings—individual case studies, collective workshops, book publications, public debates, and events—to reflect on and apply different research processes, approaches, and procedures. One of the basic ideas was that the participating artists, musicians, activists, and social and cultural scientists should collaborate in order to exchange views on the various research settings and to reflect on their procedures.
This encouragement to collaborate connects to debates within the current field of critical urban studies, where there is a growing awareness that urban configurations, collective imaginations, and complex relationships of networks and power cannot be analyzed, using the classical methods of the social sciences. Therefore, it is necessary to reflect on methodological approaches in order to open up the urban sphere for new research practices and to see it in light of other critical perspectives. Much of the same can be applied to the highly politicized and conflict-laden topic of religion.
Beyond recent debates concerning new methods of artistic research, I would like to point out some ideas on different kinds of research and their respective potentials in knowledge production. The research concept behind Global Prayers treats practices of knowledge production as methodic experiments, critical self-reflection, and, above all, as a process of experience. There is a focus on the unknown, the still unasked. In this sense, “research” is to be understood as a search for a new view of things and phenomena. A large number of the projects are based on ethnographic or documentary approaches that are informed by exploratory and inductive procedures (case studies, multi-sited ethnography, sound-recordings, enactments, and interventions). They focus on everyday practices at a micro level, as well as on practices and discourses of governance, which are involved in the constitution of the urban. Research, in this sense, includes dissemination—the public presentation, display, and enactment of results. Processes of analysis, abstraction, and translation into publicly accessible formats (like the Global Prayers Congress) are seen as fundamental aspects of knowledge production.
To strengthen these thoughts, I would like to present two examples of research approaches within the Global Prayers project:
The sound artist and composer Gilles Aubry has examined the significance of sound in religious ceremonies and evangelization campaigns in Lagos and Kinshasa. “Pluie de Feu,” his installation for Global Prayers, focuses on Congolese Revival churches in Kinshasa. Aubry composes several layers of soundscapes to form a dense texture; the superimposition of the sounds creates a dramatic structure condensed into discrete acoustic arenas. In Aubry’s project, sound is an element of religious practice that channels individual emotions, communicates religious dogmas, and manifests communitas. He uses sound “as a hinge” that links the physical with the social, the community, and the surrounding space. Aubry describes the aim of his research as the possibility of recording and organizing sound to provide a different perspective on an event, reflecting his personal experience in the field and providing insights into the significance of sound in religious ceremonies.
Filmmaker Sandra Schäfer’s project, “on the set of 1978ff,” explores the question of why the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79 turned into an “Islamic” revolution, following the perspectives of various protagonists. On the basis of historical photographs, film footage, television and radio programs, the protagonists reflect on the events from a present-day point of view. Schäfer and the photographer Hengameh Golestan discuss Golestan’s pictures taken at the time of the revolution, and Schäfer documents the re-reading of the pictures—the experience of seeing them again and describing them. Schäfer’s work shows how artistic techniques are used to produce specific knowledge by revealing the rules and procedures of the representational context. The practical logic of the media is not denied but exhibited and exposed. Research is therefore data-collection, enactment, and public display.
These brief examples show how the ethnographic and artistic Global Prayers research projects reflect new methodological approaches. They experiment with schemes, settings, and systems of order, in the spirit of “inventive methods.” If we understand research in this sense as different forms of enactment, it becomes clear that the situations of data-collection and of presentation demand positioning, require intervention, and make one vulnerable. In the Global Prayers Project, research is understood as a social, spatial, and political practice that not only describes social reality, but also enacts it in all its phases. The aim is to use an experimental approach and thus to set off, in the words of Jennifer Robinson, “unsettled and hopefully unsettling conversations.”