Juan Downey’s Ethnographic Present

Recorded between 1976 and 77, Juan Downey’s video experiments with the Yanomami people have been widely celebrated as offering a critique of traditional anthropology through their use of feedback technology. This article argues, however, that close attention to the different feedback situations the artist constructs with the group reveal a more complex relationship between Downey and that discipline. In the enthusiasm he manifests for synchronous, closed-circuit video feedback in many of his statements about his Yanomami project, Downey in fact tacitly affirms some of the most problematic principles of traditional anthropology. In his emphasis on the real-time quality of this particular form of feedback, the artist puts forth a view of Yanomami society as itself synchronous, as a type of homeostatic, changeless system outside of historical time. As such he participates in a synchronic bias that anthropologists of his own time had begun to seriously critique. By focusing on one individual video from the Yanomami project, The Laughing Alligator of 1979, this essay argues that Downey’s critical contribution to anthropological debates of his time does not come in the form of synchronous feedback, but rather through a different procedure unique to video technology based on temporal lag, delay, and spacing.

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