Personal profile

Biography

Drawing on a background that combines the Humanities and Social Sciences (M.A. Classical Languages and Cultures, Leiden University, the Netherlands; Ph.D. Cultural Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal, 2006), I spent a year teaching as Faculty Lecturer in McGill's interdisciplinary Arts Legacy Freshman Program (2006 - 2007) before taking up a two-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen, in September 2007. Following my postdoc, I moved to Manchester to take up a lectureship in September 2009.

Research interests

Research themes
My research focuses on skilled manifestations of human curiosity, simulation, play, and rhetoric, as these find expression in practices ranging from reenactment to taxidermy, hunting, and nuclear decommissioning. Modelling and mimesis are recurring themes in my work: I conceive of human life as a series of repetitions and rehearsals for things that never quite come to pass.

Current project
I currently lead a four-year multisited project funded by the ESRC, 'Mimesis in action: nuclear decommissioning as conceptual playground for societal and ecological future making' (May 2022 - May 2026), involving ethnographic fieldwork and experimental workshops on 'futuring' in areas of nuclear waste management, viz. West Cumbria (England), Caithness (Scotland), Normandy (France), and Zeeland (the Netherlands). With its larger-than-human impacts playing out on geologic time scales, nuclear decommissioning provides a conceptually and experientially rich setting for exploring different temporalities, landscapes, and scales of experience. The project team investigates tacit and explicit root metaphors and assumptions that drive human hopes and fears in planning and caring for future lives and habitats in the four research settings, and asks which models, which previous, extant, or imagined exemplars, may play a role in shaping or expressing potential futures, and by whom. Drawing on insights from ecological anthropology, I am particularly interested in the relationships that manifest themselves between anthropocentric (positing humans as central focus) and ecocentric (positing the ecosystem as central focus) concerns in such practices of futuring.

Research background
My general interest is in the social and cognitive dynamics of knowledge production, and how these are mediated by, on the one hand, practical skills involving manipulation of things, and, on the other, rhetoric and other forms of 'play'. My doctoral research concerned the social and performative dynamics of a contemporary amateur practice called 'Indianism', which involves crafting replicas of clothing and artefacts as well as re-enactment of slices of Native American eighteenth- and nineteenth-century life by Europeans dressed in home-made Plains or Woodland Indian outfits. Drawing on fieldwork among Indianist groups in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Czech Republic (2003 - 2004), I argued that Indianist mimesis may be understood as a heuristic process in which Indianists employ imagination, creativity, and skill to reach out to an elusive past.  In Aberdeen, I elaborated on my Ph.D. research by investigating how replicas used in historical re-enactment, as artefacts situated between 'real things' and forgeries, can become powerful tools in creating social landscapes that are both virtual and real, but always imagined. My research on Indianism has resulted in a monograph, Crafting 'the Indian': Knowledge, Desire, and Play in Indianist Reenactment (Berghahn Books 2012), that uses insights from museum studies, performance studies, art history, phenomenology, and from modern art practices to show how Indianism, as a hobby turned towards the past, constitutes a creative practice in the present (reviewed in American Ethnologist). 

My interest in imitative skill led to a project that focused on taxidermised animals as controversial but fashionable presences in contemporary European private and public contexts in a bid to shed new light on shifting human-animal relations and conceptions of nature versus culture. Drawing on material culture studies and new ethnographic approaches to ‘things’, I explored how mounted skins (both as material and as symbolic artefacts) enable hunters, taxidermists, and artists to represent and re-experience hunting lore, rituals, and skills, and serve to express landscape aesthetics and environmental concerns.
 
Building on my engagement with ecological anthropology and the anthropology of moralities, and on contacts with taxidermists, I work on an on-going ethnography of shooting and stalking, focusing on the Scottish Highlands and West Cumbria. From a comparative perspective, I have engaged with hunting contacts on the continent (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany), where different historical, legal, and ritual frameworks apply. The emphasis in this project is on a political and ecological economy that relates to environmental politics in sometimes surprising ways. 
 
In 2017, pursuing my interest in human expertise and more-than-human ecologies, I moved to Whitehaven to carry out a five-year long ethnography of the nuclear facilities at Sellafield in its West Cumbrian context, 'Holistic Decommissioning in the Nuclear Industry'. One outcome of this project was a series of experimental workshops on potential end states for the Sellafield site, accompanied by an exhibition featuring sculptures by Cumbria-based artist Wallace Heim. Building on this experience, I was successful in obtaining a four-year ESRC grant for my current project on 'futuring' in contexts of nuclear waste management, 'Mimesis in Action' (please see Current project above).

Education/Academic qualification

Doctor of Philosophy, ‘Plays on “the Indian”: Representations of knowledge and authenticity in Indianist mimetic practice’, McGill University

Award Date: 1 Aug 2006

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Dalton Nuclear Institute

My gallery

View of Sellafield from Ponsonby Church, January 2022. Photo by Evan Wright.
Borssele EPZ nuclear plant, Zeeland September 2023. Photo PT Kalshoven
Dounreay from Sandside Harbour March 2024. Photo PT Kalshoven
COVRA HABOG building, Dutch nuclear waste facilities. Zeeland, October 2023. Photo PT Kalshoven

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