Expedition Content


Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati
2020, DCP, 78 minutes

CCA Cinema, 7pm, Wednesday 23rd August

Tickets: Pay what you can from the CCA Box Office
All proceeds go to West Papua to support non-profit organisations in West Papua, Teach for Papua or the video collective West Papua Updates.  


In 1961, filmmaker Robert Gardner organized the Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea (current day West Papua). Funded by the Dutch colonial government and private donations, and consisting of several of the wealthiest members of American society wielding 16mm film cameras, still photographic cameras, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and a microphone, the expedition settled for five months in the Baliem Valley, among the Hubula (also known as Dani) people. It resulted in Gardner’s highly influential film Dead Birds, two books of photographs, Peter Matthiessen’s book Under the Mountain Wall, and two ethnographic monographs. Michael Rockefeller, a fourth-generation member of the Rockefeller (Standard Oil) family, was tasked with taking pictures and recording sound in and around the Hubula world. 

Expedition Content is an augmented sound work for cinema, composed from the archive’s 37 hours of tape which document the strange encounter between the expedition and the Hubula people. The piece reflects on intertwined and complex historical moments in the development of approaches to multimodal anthropology, in the lives of the Hubula and of Michael, and in the ongoing history of colonialism in West Papua. It upends the power dynamics between anthropologist and subject, between image and sound, and turns the whole ethnographic project on its head.


Ernst KAREL works with sound, including electroacoustic music, experimental nonfiction sound  works for multichannel installation and performance, image-sound collaboration, and  post-production sound for nonfiction film. Lately, he works around the practice of  actuality/location recording and composing with those recordings, with recent projects also  taking up archival audio. At the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, he collaborated  on sound for a number of films and developed and taught a practice-based course in ‘sonic  ethnography.’ 


Veronika KUSUMARYATI is a political  and media anthropologist working in  West Papua, a self-identifying term  referring to Papua and West Papua  provinces of Indonesia. Her scholarship  engages with the theories and  historiography of colonialism,  decolonization, and postcoloniality. She  holds a doctoral degree from the  department of anthropology at Harvard  with a secondary field in Film and Visual  Studies. She is an affiliate of the  Sensory Ethnography Lab and currently  a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown  University.


Further notes:

On the Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea, 1961 The Harvard Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea was a large-scale anthropological expedition carried out by American anthropologists and artists in 1961. It was a three-year undertaking that was largely funded by private donations, including the Rockefeller family, with the support of the Dutch colonial government, and took place among the Hubula (also well-known as the Dani) of the Baliem Valley in Netherlands New Guinea from April to August 1961, two years before the territory was transferred from the Netherlands to Indonesia. The Harvard Peabody Expedition is exemplary not only because it was influential in shaping the direction of American anthropology, but also because, to a large extent, it shaped the American understanding of Papuans and American foreign policy toward the region until today—through their influence on American academics and American publics. This is due to two factors. First, while using a mode of scientific knowledge production that was popular in the first half of the 20th century, the Harvard Peabody Expedition embarked on a new direction of anthropological research in the 1960s through the intensive use of audiovisual technology. As a result, the Harvard Peabody Expedition became one of the most well-documented studies of a single area in the world and its influence reached a wider audience, outside the confines of academia. The expedition produced Robert Gardner’s feature-length film Dead Birds (1964), Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction book Under the Mountain Wall (1962), two doctoral dissertations by Karl G. Heider and Jan Broekhuijse, and two books of photographs, Gardens of War (1968) edited by Robert Gardner and Karl G. Heider, and Michael Rockefeller’s New Guinea Photographs, 1961 (2006), as well as an archive of 37 hours of Michael Rockefeller’s audio recordings of the Hubula world. 

Secondly, the controversial disappearance of Michael Clark Rockefeller (1938-1961) in New Guinea, three months after this expedition took place. Michael Rockefeller was the youngest child of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller and a fourth-generation member of the Rockefeller family. The young Rockefeller joined the expedition as a sound recordist and still photographer. After the Baliem Valley, he went to study and gather artifacts from the Asmat in the southern part of New Guinea where he disappeared in 1961. His disappearance has been subject to many popular accounts (Machlin 2001, Hoffman 2014, and Morgan 2014), embedded in anthropological myths about fieldwork, and countless accounts about Papuan cannibalism. Was he, as one story has it, killed and eaten by the Asmat? 

Both the Harvard Peabody Expedition and the disappearance of the young Rockefeller took place when the territory was entangled in a monumental political dispute that would determine the fate and history of New Guinea. An international negotiation on the political status of New Guinea had taken place since 1949. In 1962, the United States underwrote the New York agreement, in which the Dutch were forced to transfer the Netherlands New Guinea to the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA). UNTEA transferred its administrative functions to Indonesia on May 1, 1963, as part of the larger wave of postwar decolonization occurring across the crumbling European empires of this period. As part of the agreement, the Indonesian government conducted the Act of Free Choice in 1969, in which all Papuan adults would be given the chance to cast their vote and decide their political future; as a part of Indonesia, or as an independent state. But instead of holding a free and fair referendum, the Indonesian government handpicked approximately 1,025 tribal leaders, in violation of the requirements set out in the agreement, and intimidated them to vote for Indonesia (Lagerberg 1979, Osbourne 1985, Drooglever 2009, Kirksey 2012). Despite its controversial process, international communities recognized the status of the region as part of Indonesia. From then on, the indigenous Papuans have been fighting against what they perceive as an Indonesian occupation of their territory. 

The Beginnings of Expedition Content 

The Rockefeller family recently donated the archive of Michael Rockefeller’s audio recordings in West Papua to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which have since been digitized at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music. Presumably intended mainly to be of use in the making of what became Robert Gardner’s film Dead Birds, which constituted a landmark work of ethnographic cinema, the recordings represent an astonishing variety of aspects of Hubula culture, including quotidian activities, ceremonies, warfare, and music and other performances of historical and aesthetic importance. The materials themselves consist of 123 tapes, or about 37 hours of recordings made by Michael Rockefeller from April to August 1961. Expedition Content is created as part of a larger project to revisit the archives. We are devising ways to share the access of the archive with the Hubula people of West Papua. 

Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati