“The way you interact with structure is always relative”: An Interview with Tracy Brannstrom
Lee Jasperse: Can you start by describing your dissertation research?
Tracy Brannstrom: My dissertation project is about how different communities in the rural Northeastern US are responding to what we term the “opiate crisis.” I work ethnographically, and I started out by following a network of amateur acupuncturists as they received training and set up free clinics as an offering for those struggling through addiction and mental health conditions. Lately, I’ve become interested in the many lawsuits that have been filed against pharmaceutical companies and distributors for their perceived role in the crisis, and in conversations around implementing “alternative” methods of treating pain in our healthcare system. So, it could be that the broader subject of my project is something along the lines of, movements away from a reliance on pharmaceutical products and logics. I like to work in a pretty open-ended way, moving across different sites and scales.
LJ: Your work deals with topics that require you to grapple with the entanglements of science and culture, medical knowledge, and folk practice. What draws you to these interdisciplinary themes?
TB: I love finding myself in the spaces where different therapeutic practices overlap or influence one another, or more generally where different traditions of knowledge meet. And I love tracing objects as they move across the boundaries of seemingly disconnected worlds. I don’t know why I love this!
My original research question was, how are people caring for each other in the context of addiction, in ways that we don’t typically hear about? We hear about pharmaceuticals, counseling, clinical programs. But living in rural Vermont and working as a newspaper reporter several years ago, I saw that there were a handful of more unofficial programs that were not quite like these more conventional ways of approaching addiction. So, I got really interested in these different therapeutic projects—creative writing, mindfulness meditation, and others. That’s what led me to the ear acupuncture community, which is very much this hybridized practice that draws on not just Chinese medicine, but European folk medicine, mid-20th-century developments in neuroscience, etc. The fusion of these different knowledge traditions really surprised me in a fun way.
LJ: I want to turn to Transplanting—the project you did with artist Jenny Rafalson through the ASCI Collaboration Grant—which also deals with re-centering folk knowledges and practices. How did you come to this project?
TB: I wanted to apply to the ASCI Collaboration Grant because, while I’m doing my PhD in the social sciences, I’m also very much a humanities/art person. I love academia for many reasons, but I do often feel constrained in terms of what I’m “allowed” to do as a social scientist—from research methodologies to writing styles, to using (or not using) images. I wanted to explore different and more unstructured ways of working.
Jenny and I bonded over our fascination with plant-life. I wanted to witness a photographer’s process, and I think she wanted to have the experience of interviewing and centering the experiences of others who she didn’t know beforehand. I saw through her website that she had previously photographed plants in a way that struck me as portraiture, and seemed very much in line with traditions of anthropology that take non-human beings to be subjects in and for themselves. So, I think what we converged on while writing up the proposal was that we’d feature plants as subjects with complex "social lives," rather than just objects that are used by people. And then, we also wanted to see how people would talk about plants—their stories, memories, experiences, recipes—which is the desire to document that "folk knowledge," and to start thinking about how some kinds of knowledge are valued more than others.
LJ: Describe Transplanting to us.
TB: We did unstructured, ethnographic-style interviews with people, visiting them in their homes or workplaces – people who have immigrated to the US at some point in their lives, and who are now living in Chicago, and who have a strong relationship with plants. This last part could mean a lot of things, which was intentional. People approach plants for cooking, medicine, decoration, play, a lot of reasons. It was really the open-endedness of the process that I wanted to experience, instead of coming up with a specific research question, or knowing what the end goal would be. People talked about all kinds of things—childhood memories of plants, how knowledge was passed down orally or acquired through mediums like television, the kinds of rituals they engaged plants in, even explaining how certain plants became popular commodities in their home countries. The variety of content was exciting.
Jenny was grappling with questions around immigration, identity, social belonging—as she’d moved from the USSR to Israel as a child, and then to Chicago to work on her MFA—so the focus on people who came to Chicago from elsewhere, in the same way that plants tend to move across geographical and cultural borders, was a strong element for her. We’d usually begin the interviews by asking people to talk about this, almost in the form of an immigration narrative. Why’d they come to the US? What was the process? Etc.
For about five months, we went around the city and talked to people, recording the interviews and taking photographs of them, their plants, and the environments we met them in. Then we sorted through these materials, drawing out major themes, finding that we were both drawn to different aspects of the "data." When we scheduled a show at 062 Gallery in Bridgeport, I decided I wanted to put my field notes on the gallery walls in order to show the evolution and process of the project and to create mp3 clips from the interview audio that would be played on a speaker in the gallery space. Jenny collected “weeds” in her Logan Square neighborhood and took portraits of them, and these functioned as the main images in the show. All of these materials are hosted on the gallery website.
LJ: Can you talk about what it was like to work with an artist? What different perspectives did you each bring to the project, as a social scientist and photographer?
TB: Going back to structure—this collaboration made me realize that the way you approach and interact with structure is always relative. When I’m with scientific researchers, even with my peers in the social sciences, I think I’ve often been seen as too unstructured in my approach. But collaborating with Jenny, I actually felt too structured. Working with an artist, it opened up other possibilities, and I had to learn how to let go of a very schematic way of working.
Early on we had a bit of a debate over whether to prepare interview questions in advance. The way I’m used to working involves pouring over the content of the questions, and even the way they’re ordered. Jenny’s inclination was to talk to people in a more free-form way, without a pre-determined list. In the end, we kind of did both—we tried different things because we both had distinct inclinations. Not having questions prepared can be great in that it allows people to feel welcome to branch off into topics that you as the interviewer hadn’t even conceived of—but, the danger of it is that it can leave them without guidance and unable to articulate very much. Later, we had a similar tension around transcribing the interviews. Whereas I thought it was absolutely necessary to get it all down, Jenny did not—she relies on her memory to amplify what’s important in an encounter. Working with her made me ask myself, “what is this need to capture everything?”
We also had different approaches to photographic images. I tend toward ethnographic and documentary-style photography, but Jenny was working on her MFA in photography and is more invested in a highly curated image that is likely edited many times over. There were moments when we’d get our film developed or upload digital shots, and I would become infatuated with an image that she hated! Whereas I loved what some images documented, even if they were unbalanced in composition or out of focus, she has more of an eye for what constitutes a "good" photo. Our vision(s) and our preferences had been trained quite differently.
LJ: Given your different approaches to structure, photography, and embeddedness, what was your reaction to the photographs Jenny composed for your joint project?
TB: I really love the images that Jenny produced. The weeds she photographed are juxtaposed against images that she had taken previously at the Garfield Park Conservatory—a kind of iconic plant museum in Chicago. Again, these were the plant-portraits. The idea, to me, is that the “weed” is foregrounded against this space of exclusivity—both in terms of who gets access to the conservatory, and what kind of plants would be showcased there. You would never find an exhibit that features dandelion or chicory—two of the plants that Jenny photographed, having found them growing through sidewalk cracks and along alleyways in Logan Square. If you go to the conservatory, you’ll see species that have been deemed special, highly valued, rare. I see Jenny doing a visual commentary on not just the power dynamics of that space, but the ways that plants are valued (or not). We often found ourselves asking: what counts as a “weed” and who gets to decide? And how do we treat them? Do we eradicate them with chemical herbicides, or do we make salad from them? Our interviewees talked about plants like dandelion as edible, nutritious, medicinally useful. So, the images, in my mind, are saying that “weed” is a designation that actually implies so much violence, and she is calling into question these power dynamics around plant-life.
Her images also got me to reflect on what I pay attention to in my environment, and how this changes over time. I never noticed chicory (Cichorium intybus) until Jenny photographed it, and I’m saying that even as a plant lover, as someone who goes out to look at plants. And now, back in rural Vermont as I work on my dissertation, chicory is blooming—these tall stems and blue flowers, and I see it everywhere, growing along roadsides for miles and miles. So the portraits, I think, can shift one’s attention to certain plants that were always around but overlooked, to re-direct attention in new ways.
LJ: It reminds me of what you were saying about your own project: there are all these grassroots projects happening in the shadows of bigger clinical/institutional projects.
TB: Right—it’s not unrelated. What makes a certain therapeutic practice valuable, the object of attention?
LJ: Part of the Transplanting exhibition is all the notes, clippings, articles, and photographs you accrued while working on the project, scattered across the gallery wall. As you say in the description of the exhibition, “these highlight the messiness and excess of the research process itself.” Can you talk about what it was like to work through messiness?
TB: Process is so important to me. Highlighting that can be much more interesting than the final product—which is never necessarily final, in terms of one’s learning. It’s the puzzling through, branching off into different directions, having encounters along the way that change the course of things, even getting confused, lost. For me, there’s a joy in getting to work in this meandering, spontaneous way. I was listening back to the interviews, doing background reading on the histories of certain plants, watching youtube videos, printing advertisements, scribbling in notepads, compiling lists and concept maps, taping these to the walls, and laying them out on the floor. And at times, reflecting back with Jenny, even recording those conversations and doing more creative writing on the experience of the collaboration itself, which was a new dimension. Usually, I work alone and my mess is my own.
Around the time of planning the gallery show, I was also on a deadline to write a dissertation chapter, and I think my desire to show the messy process of Transplanting was a bit of a reaction to the expectations I felt around producing an academic piece of writing. It has to be clear, the argument has to be strong, there has to be good evidence, etc. All the twists and turns along the way are cast aside because the goal is to make something of a cohesive narrative that hangs together. Showing the process, then, is just a very different way of displaying my work. It takes any sense of finality out of the question.
LJ: What fresh perspectives did you take away from this collaborative experience?
TB: I have a new inclination toward playing around with audio footage. In creating the mp3 clips, it took about two weeks to sort through all the audio, and it was meticulous. I had never done this before and was surprised by how much I loved it. So, I would say that now I have this amplified perspective that images and audio are hugely important, both in capturing interviews and fieldwork and in sharing the results. They can really function as texts in their own right.
I also have a bit more confidence in experimenting with my methods. There are always going to be new ways of doing research, of doing ethnography. The goal, I think, is not to just keep doing it as it’s been done, but to build on what’s been established, and not be afraid to deconstruct the frameworks in which we work.