Looking at how people do things: a conversation with folklorist Gabrielle A. Berlinger

Folklorists view all forms of creative expression as performative, as modes of communication that must be interpreted in context. Can their methods towards understanding and documenting intangible things inspire us in our approach to performance conservation?

Folklore, still a too little known discipline often only associated with fairy tales, is indeed a vast and captivating field of study, which our guest Gabrielle Berlinger, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, described to us with a contagious passion during our online conversation last week. Fostering collaboration with local communities, folklorists study what people believe, do, know, make and say as the creative expression of everyday life, be it by building houses, cooking meals, telling stories or doing laundry. They look at how people do things as a manifestation of their own personal stories, and of their social, cultural and spiritual practices. Following a “performance turn” in the folklore studies in the 1960s, folklore is to be conceived as a process that can teach us about how the specific choices one makes in the performance of everyday tasks are responding to current individual and social situations.

Still from Clotheslines, 1981, directed by Roberta Cantow. This film depicts poetically the experiences and feelings shared by different women when doing laundry.

Gabrielle Berlinger told us about her postdoctoral research at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Located on 97 Orchard Street, the Tenement Museum is a former apartment building where more than 7,000 immigrants lived between 1863 and 1935, before it was shuttered for over fifty years and then rediscovered by two social activists who turned it into a museum in 1988. The museum focuses on America’s immigrant social history and allows the public to explore six restored or reconstructed apartments, encapsulating the domestic life of immigrants who occupied these rooms. Faced with a continuously growing flow of visitors, the building requires constant maintenance in order to preserve its historic physical fabric, which is the very medium through which its past inhabitants’ stories are told.

Her role was to observe and document the ongoing preservation process and the development of future strategies. She witnessed how different people from the museum’s Preservation Advisory committee (composed of architects, historians, engineers, conservators, museum staff…) had different visions of how to preserve the tangible and intangible values carried by the building. While some would prioritize the intangible aspects, thinking of the museum as a place for telling stories, others thought that it was through the tangible materiality of the building (the cold, the smells, the old linoleum, the peeling wallpapers…) that visitors were affected and could empathize with the people who once lived there.

Tenement Museum Kitchen, 3rd Floor. Photograph by Shawn Hoke (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.).

Balancing the preservation of material and immaterial aspects, understanding how intangible characteristics are transmitted through material traces and documents are some of the many aspects of folklore studies that join our own questioning about the preservation of performance art, what Gabrielle Berlinger refers to as the paradox of having to materialize intangible heritage in order to preserve it. Thinking about the many layers of history that are overlying each other between the walls of the Tenement Museum, Julia points out that deciding what is worthy of preserving is always a matter of choosing one specific story to prevail over the other possible narratives. For Gabrielle Berlinger, her role as a folklorist and ethnologist is therefore to document conservation decisions as a process, to understand the reasons that each person has to preserve a different thing, in order to get the larger picture. As Hanna remarked, contemporary art conservators have a similar line of thinking about the preservation of installed or performative artworks as not freezing the work to a specific moment in time but understanding its evolution over time as an active process.

Our research group in conversation with folklorist and ethnologist Gabrielle Berlinger (bottom right).

Our discussion unveiled many similarities in our approaches towards thinking about notions of intangible heritage, authenticity and performance, and particular aspects of folklore studies can surely inspire us in developing our own methodology, such as understanding the intricate relationship between the things and their particular context, and the concept of “the thing as a slow event” (a phrase that folklore specialist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett borrowed from philosopher Stanley Eveling) to emphasize that every object registers within itself the trace of the performance at its origin.

Yet if every form of daily creative expression or traditional practice such as doing laundry can be examined through the lens of performance – as a form of communication that illuminates the relationship between the individual and the broader social and cultural circumstances – it made us wonder: where to draw the line when the field of study potentially embraces everything? How to decide where the research begins or ends? One of the few human activities that does not necessarily fit within folklore’s definition of “performative” is sleep, and yet from our perspective in performance art, it certainly does! – as Julia remarked. In the end, what matters most for Gabrielle Berlinger is that her actions are helpful to the communities that she works with, a goal that conservators and folklorists certainly have in common.

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