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Para-artistic Ethnography – or Becoming a Spy in Lapland

Lea Schick & Hannah Rogers

This conversation is a story of ‘becoming together’. Becoming ethnographers collectively and in relation to the informants we studied. This is what we have come to label ‘para-artistic ethnography’.


Act one / Dialogue


Lea: How do you spell spys?

Hannah: Like spices – like seasoning?

Lea: No!

Hannah: Like species?

Lea: No! Like Sherlock Holmes, a spy,  – but a collective of spys!

Hannah: Ahhh, SPIES!

Lea: YES, like us, in the Second Order Group. Like we have been labelled spies, by our informants, the artists. That is their best way to translate ethnographers into a language they understand. They have recast/transformed us from social scientists into fictive characters in a crime novel.

Hannah: Yes, but the real crime here is that we don’t even know what we are doing in the Second Order Group.



This little dialogue is a re-enactment, based on field notes from a conversation that took place in September 2015 at Kilpisjärvi Biological station in Lapland, Finland. 350 km north of the Arctic Circle 40 people, mainly artists of various kinds, but also researchers and curators were gathered on the bi-annual Field_Notes Trip organized by the Finnish Society for Bioarts.

Divided into four groups, (sonic) Wild Code, Seven Senses of the Land, Encounters in a Layered Landscape, and Postnatural, the participants ventured out into the field in order to “develop, test and evaluate specific interdisciplinary approaches in relation to the notion of Hybrid Ecology.”[1] A fifth group called Second Order was doing “research on the rest of the  groups, and … act[ed] as subversive agents to  introduce counter perspectives”[2]. What was this Second Order? A second order logic? A higher level of complexity? An interventionist ethnography?

The dialogue above captures the essence of confusion in the Second Order Group. The conversation below is an edited version of a subsequent email correspondence that we (two members of the Second Order Group) had trying comprehend/figure out we were actually doing in Kilpisjärvi. The conversation is a story of ‘becoming together’. Becoming ethnographers collectively in the second order group and in relation/adjacent to the informants we studied. This is what we have come to label ‘para-artistic ethnography’.


Act two / Subject: [Email correspondence]


Dear Hannah,

Thank you so much for a wonderful time at the Field_Notes trip in Kilpisjärvi last September! It was truly amazing to work with you. I have just received an email from Eric who says that they are looking for short experimental essays for the Changing Weathers publication. Now I am trying to think through what actually happened there and I’m hoping to get help from you!

It has been 1/2 year now and so many moments and encounters - encounters among others with many different people and disciplines and with reindeers, an owl and a fox[1] - are so very vivid in my memory and I have the sense that I can still tell you moment by moment what happened up there. However, making sense of what happened is quite another task! After all, as members of the Second Order Group, it was our job to observe and reflect upon the work of the other four groups of the Field_Notes Trip.

Starting to think through the trip I naturally looked for my notebook, but anxiously realized that I misplaced it at the last night at Kilpisjärvi as we made our presentation and let the others spy on us – it was such a stressful but fun night. Now I ‘only’ have our collaborative Google docs fieldnotes document to rely on. Being ‘the manager’ of the Second Order Group was quite an exciting and challenging experiment in doing collective ethnography with a heterogeneous group of people with very little or no training in ethnography. We had with us two curators, an artist, a philosopher, an environmental activist and the you ‘the real ethnographer’! It was quite amazing and quite challenging to see how these brilliant and creative people had each their way of doing ethnography, gathering material, writing field notes, and interesting ways of making sense of and intervening in the field. For such an experimental and collective endeavour, I believe that there is no other way to write about it than to use a collaborative tool – would you like to engage in an email dialogue with me trying to think through our adventures at the Arctic Circle?

Best wishes,




Dear Lea,

It has been too long! I would be excited to take a look at all we learned about how artists and other disciplines approached the environment and the institutional channels at the Kilpisjärvi Station. Figuring out what happened in the Second Order Group is, I believe, very much intertwined with the way the other groups conceptualized us (as spies) and how they build their own identity.  Actually as I write this I can already feel the performative aspect of trying to write this and it does what stages do: raises the stakes!

Luckily, I still have my little notebook but I can readily imagine how yours would be misplaced: being the leader for a group ethnography leaved you hardly any time to observe since you constantly had to organize where your group members should be at what times! I know the logistics were tremendously complex because our group set out to make observations of every group, every day. Our own meeting time was so diminished that it was up to you simply to hand out assignments! I like the way you managed the Second Order Group by assigning one ‘group ethnographer’ to each of the four groups and had Jens Hauser and I as "third order” observers moving between the groups. Therefore my fieldnotes are a true mix of observations. In the sense of being a linear narrative, your lost and thus imagined notebook may therefore be more linear than my actual time/date stamps in my field-notebook. To tell the truth, however, this is always my experience of fieldwork: that I am writing a novelistic account of my experience and that my notes and images may help to recall specific details but memory's impressions are just as much of a factor.

The benefit we both have in this task is one another and it seems to me that this difference between mass/collective an individual ethnography is not trivial. As I see it there were two methodologically interesting issues in play in the Second Order Group. Firstly, there was the challenge, as you write, of how to do ethnography with people with very little experience in ethnography. Secondly, there was the challenge of how to do a group ethnography of four moving groups in a way that allowed us to study both the specificity of groups and to see things across groups – how to share ethnographic experiences and find patterns across them. Do you remember the first meeting we had in the Second Order Group where we discussed how we could agree on looking at/for specific things when going out with the groups. We talked about how it would be good to have some coherence in our material in order to be able to compare. And we discussed whether there would be specific things we should look for in order to give rigor to our ethnographic work. This picture from the end of the week gives and interesting insight into our messy method for knowledge exchange of ethnographic observations.

In fact, we were just thrown into the work without really knowing how to study and what to study – I guess you could call this a flash ethnography because we not only did not know our subject but had very little time to find out what it was. We had to invent ourselves as a group. Simultaneously with the groups we also had to invent themselves. This created a rather unsettled field ground. Is this what they call an ethnographic challenge?





Dear Hannah,

You are so right about the wobbling field. We were situated in an amazing and very stable arctic landscape of short birch trees and yellow-red [what is the name of the small berry bushes vegetation?]. Our study objects were the other four groups: (sonic) Wild Code, Seven Senses of the Land, Encounters in a Layered Landscape, and Postnatural. Though the groups had predefined themes they were also very much in-the-making.

I just found some of my notes from when I prepared for the trip (another notebook which did not get lost in the wilderness), where I write:


How are realities, or worlds, being done and undone in the various groups?

How can we  as the Second Order Group intervene in these worlds?


In Science and Technology Studies (STS) there is a long tradition of making ethnographic studies of the onto-epistemic realities/worlds existing and emerging within scientific communities e.g. in laboratories and other kinds of knowledge practices. The production of knowledge and reality is happening through socio-material practices involving scientists, their instruments; the technological and ‘natural’ environments. Going to the biological station, including labs and eco-systems environments to study, with a group of practitioners within ‘art and science’ I wanted the Second Order Group to study the identity and the shared knowledge-practices of the four groups.

However, compared to more classical labs where the social researcher go to study an ‘already existing’ reality where scientists are working on somewhat more defined problems, the assignment in Kilpisjärvi was very open:

“Field_Notes – HYBRID MATTERs is in search of artistic and scientific responses to converging ecologies. The local sub-Arctic ecology and environment, as well as the scientific research and infrastructure of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station will act as fields and catalyst for the work carried out.”

We were studying groups of people who did themselves study a yet ‘undefined’ and ‘unbounded’ field. Also, the people in the groups did not know each other beforehand (except from most of the people in the Postnatural group) and I quickly realized that a challenge (compared to more classic lab studied) was that there was no ‘reality’ to study. The field we studied was only in the midst of figuring out its own existence. The groups were (including our group) in a constant practice of ‘inventing’ themselves, which made it very difficult to figure out what we were studying – not least how to intervene into something yet entirely unstable…

In STS there has recently been an emerging interest in how we as (social)  researchers can intervene in the realities they study – how they can show how things ‘could be otherwise’ (ref). In the description for the Second Order Group it was written that the group should act as subversive agents to introduce counter perspectives.” and I had prepared various inventive methods for intervening such as ‘sami yoiking’. However, we quickly realized that this this kind of intervention did not work. How to introduce ‘counter perspectives’ when there was nothing established and taken-for-granted to intervene in? This, however, was not the same as we did not intervene! Quite the opposite, I had the feeling that the group ethnographers’ very presence in the groups was parts of constituting the groups and of building their identity. Thus, studying, field and intervening was co-constitutive to one another.

What we studied, how we studied, and on which grounds we studied it, was never really stable. To sum up this situation I will quote cultural anthropologist Kim Fortune: “figure and ground continually oscillated”, (2009, p. 172). Fortune is describing a feeling familiar to many ethnographers, however I believe that this was brought to another level as we had to do with a group of people not used to do ethnography studying and intervening in a field in-the-making.

I will end this long email leaving you with this ethnographic complexity, but I also want to ask, what it did to the other groups that they were observed by the Second Order Group – what they labelled ‘the spies’?

Best wishes,




Dear Lea,

Thank you for your email. I think you are on to something here. Let me start with your last question.

It was really funny that we had only been at the biological station for a couple of hours before the Second Order Group were proclaimed ‘the spies’! I don’t remember who said it, but it was in the dining hall at the very first Field_Notes gathering, and the label stock with us the whole week. Though this was a joke, I believe that it did something very important, both for the making of the identity of the other groups and for the identity of our group.  The way that the artists turned our magnifying lens into a mirror through their labeling is surely interesting, especially given that it was hardly neutral: "spy" is by definition not neutral.

Labeling us as spies is naturally a way of ‘othering’ us (not in in the post-colonial inferior sense, but rather in the act of making a difference between us and them) ­– making us into an imaginary enemy that one should be vary of. But along with the ‘enemy status’ came also a ‘family status.’ It was interesting to see how the groups included the ‘group spies’ into their new-born community. And there is the matter of how the group spies identified and took part in the groups. At several occasions you even had to remind them that they were not part of the groups, but they were there to study them. We were spies who did not know what we were looking for and more importantly as you say, did not know how to look for it.

As one of the so-called migrating ethnographers it was my impression that being observed and the observations that the second order people shared was part of making the groups’ identities. Talking in a general way about patterns across informant groups is interesting, but the whole reason we do ethnography is to capture the particulars and the context of lifeworld so it is worth nuancing who our informants are and who they think we are when we think about how to analyze our data.

In the (sonic) Wild Code Miguel’s observation that “the sonic group is silent” seemed to become a label for them. For Miguel, who is trained as a photographer and researcher, working with sound artists who were moving silently through the landscape recording sounds and listening through earphones was challenging his sensory apparatus. Coming from the talkative south (Portugal) being quiet was quite a challenge for Miguel. I was with him and the sonic group forone day and it was a really interesting ethnographic experience to observe people listening to things you cannot hear. The sonic group played music on all kinds of things they found in the landscape like rocks and reindeer fences. Besides being an ethnographer and a spy Miguel also came to function as the group’s traveling audience.

In the PostNatural group Anna Katharina ‘went native’ and her participation in the group went way beyond intervention. With her social personality and her philosophical sensitivity she was included as a member of the group. The subject of the PostNatural group – human effects on ‘natural’ environments – was indeed a rather philosophical topic and it was my sense that her study of the group was through personal and philosophical conversations with the group members as they hiked over the sub-arctic landscape. Making distinctions between ethnographic observations and participatory interventions and between group and spy/ethnographer seems impossible here. I wonder if this is always the case when you send a philosopher out to do ethnography – she ends up in conversations?

In the group Seven Senses of the Land (SSOTL) Tiina was much more of a modest and distant observer. Compared to the sonic groups the SSOTL group was much more centered around the group leaders who inhabited the space as ‘experts’ and authorities. The local Sami reindeer herder and the drone experts (the group explored augmented senses of the land through drone technology and local, traditional knowledges) called for a more centralized group dynamics and thus made way for a more traditional ethnography. However, Tiina is an activist and she intervened in the group dynamics – not with a planned intervention but as a reaction to some social conflicts in the group. This ‘intervention’ turned out to be pivotal to the further work of the SSOTL group.

For example, if we take Maren and her group Encounters in a Layered Landscape, I really sense how Maren’s profession as a curator mattered for her engagement with the group.  From the beginning she was very eager to intervene in her group, and I loved the way she made the group create small exhibitions of the objects they had gathered. It is my impression that Maren’s curatorial practices was indeed part of co-constituting the group’s identity.

From these four ethnographic observations two important points emerge. Firstly, the fact that the ‘spies’ were neither trained as spies nor as ethnographers mattered for the kind of studies and interventions they made. Due to their different professions and of course their personality they approached the job with methods and sensibilities very different from a more classical ethnographer and very different from one another. Secondly, it was my impression that the groups were not left untouched, but they were partly co-constituted/transformed by their spies.

I will end this email with a question for you: what may we call such odd studies of artist made by people who are maybe more looking more like their informants than like ethnographers?

Best wishes,




Dear Hannah,

What a great question – it somehow resembles a question raised in ethnography/anthropology and STS: what do we do when our informants are similar to ethnographers. Thinking about how to frame and write about our ‘experimental ethnography’ in Kilpisjärvi I came across the text Practitioners as Theorists: Para-ethnography and the Collaborative Study of Contemporary Organizations (Islam, 2015). Here Gazi Islam presents a review of newer experimental developments in ethnographic methods. I find the concept of para-ethnography very interesting to think with.  It refers to the move among anthropologists and ethnographer to study environments such as organizations and work places where the informants they study are oftentimes educated as sociologists, anthropologists and even ethnographers.

A lot of the work that the informants such places are doing is very similar to that of the researcher, namely to analyze and reflect upon people-organization interactions. Oftentimes the informants are using same theories and methods as the people who study them and they are often partaking in doing the reflexive and analytical work. It therefore becomes difficult to distinguish between informants and researchers, and to distinguish between field and analysis. It creates more fluid temporal and spatial
researcher-participant boundaries; "para-ethnography decenters the ethnographic authority from researcher to the interface of researchers and informants.” (Page 238).

Involved in the para-ethnography lies a question about what it means for ethnographers to loosen their hold on ethnographic authority. This is not only interesting to the way in which we had to let go of our ethnographic authority as this was distributed out among our group members, but I also see an interesting issues around the way the groups/ artists turned our magnifying lens into a mirror, as you wrote in an earlier email, and labeled us spies. I have the feeling that the field and the ‘observers’ could not be kept apart in Kilpisjärvi and that groups were partly co-constituted by the presence of the ‘spies’, just like the Second Order Group was co-constituted by the fields we studied.

In Kilpisjärvi the case was not that the informants looked like the ‘ethnographers’ but vice versa. Instead I believe that because the members of the Second Order Group were not ethnographers but instead held jobs/backgrounds/practices somewhat similar to the people they studies they had entirely different possibilities for engaging and intervening in generative ways.

So, thinking about what it did to the artist at the Field_notes trip to be observed and thinking about what kind of experimental ethnography we were doing, I will propose the concept ‘para-artistic ethnography.’ By this term I suggest that the artistic practice and the ethnographic work was co-constitutive of one another. How does that sound to you? I know you have done ethnography on artists before. Do you think this concept can do any good?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Best wishes,




Dear Lea,

I am excited to see your quick response in my inbox, and am immediately captivated the Islam text.

My first thoughts about this concern participant-observers. I think this classical idea bears both on the kinds of interventions (you describe as possible personal or possibly professional in nature but certainly the two are un-sortable for us and probably for anyone) since generally participant-observers stop thinking of their roles as being interventionist and begin thinking of them as contributory and also on the issue of reflecting on reflectors, as Islam does.

Alongside the concept of para-ethnography we could also think about the ‘parasite’ as figure. Miguel circulated the parasite text by Michel Serres (2007), which we also talked quite a bit about on the trip. Could we rework the idea of para-ethnography as one where the ethnographers are becoming ethnographers in a parasitic relationship with its informants? 

In a strange way the parasite text and your suggestion of the Kitchen Stories film, which struck my imagination – and I think Jens too – given his later interest in recreating the kitchen for our final presentation as a way to think about what we had done and display it for our informants. Both point to stereotypes of ethnographers.

There are so many other issues I’d like to cover here. When is this piece due again?






This discussion is a reflection on Field_Notes - HYBRID MATTERs that took place on 14.-20. September 2015. It followed a blog post The Owls are not what they seem – second, third and fourth order observations.

Field_Notes – HYBRID MATTERs is an art&science field laboratory organized by the Finnish Society of Bioart at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in Lapland, Finland. The project is in search of artistic and scientific responses to converging ecologies. The local sub-Arctic ecology and environment, as well as the scientific research and infrastructure of the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station will act as fields and catalyst for the work carried out.

Acknowledgements: This essay owes a deep thanks to the other five group members: Miguel Santos, Jens Hauser, Tiina Prittinen, Anna-Katharina Laboissière, and Maren Richter, and to our wonderful informants from every group.


[1] For more on these human and nonhuman encounters please see a blogpost written by the Second Order Group: The Owls are not what they seem – second, third and fourth order observations


Islam, G. (2015). Practitioners as Theorists: Para-ethnography and the Collaborative Study of Contemporary Organizations. Organizational Research Methods, 18(2), 231–251.
Serres, M. (2007). The Parasite. University of Minnesota Press.




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