Seizing Intangible Heritage

Project for the post-doc research grant 2009-2010 of the Ville de Paris.

The modern concern for ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (i.e. the oral manifestations of traditional cultures) arose in the second half of the last century. While witnessing the achievement of modernity, western intellectuals realised the importance of folk traditions and encountered a problem that is still troubling them: how to preserve oral cultures when the communities that created them are rapidly disappearing?

That is, in the end, a problem of translation: are modern recording instruments suitable for transcribing oral cultures? Can modern preservation tools transpose contents that were orally transmitted and stored in individual and collective memories? No doubt, this is a problematic operation. Not only do cultural symbols have to be re-contextualized in a different frameset, but they also have to be translated in a new language capable of being materialized. Can the manifestation of an oral culture be transmitted through written means? Many interesting results came from answering this question: the historiography of popular classes, the valorisation of material culture (as a ‘precipitate’ of oral practices, see J.M. Pesez, R. Bucaille, 1978), the interest for ethno-sciences, the creation of ethno-anthropological museums, the contamination between performing arts and traditional dancing, singing and narrating.

In the last few years, the problem of transcribing living cultures has been radically transformed by the proliferation of digital tools for recording, archiving and broadcasting cultural phenomena. It is not just the optimisation of the instruments for recording and reproducing, but also first and foremost:

(1)  the possibility of gathering the different translations in a single technical space;

(2)  the possibility of leaving transcriptions open for further transformation (respecting the ‘living’ nature of oral culture).

Thanks to multimedia interactivity it may be possible to overcome two major problems of traditional preservation: the simplification and fossilisation that comes with transcription. Exploring this possibility is the aim of this research, the goal of which is to answer the questions raised by the digital transposition of oral cultures. Can we transcribe intangible heritage without losing its richness and vitality? Can we use multimedia tools to respect the complexity of traditional cultures? Can we employ interactive technologies to digitalize cultural practices without devitalizing them?