On Creative Appropriation

Adam Kaul, Tamara Kohn and Hazel Tucker

Adam Kaul

Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, USA
Email: adamkaul@augustana.edu

Tamara Kohn

Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Email: tkohn@unimelb.edu.au

Hazel Tucker

Associate Professor, Department of Tourism, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
Email: hazel.tucker@otago.ac.nz

This is an age of attention to global change and the mixing and movement of peoples, resources and ideas. The processes involved in such mobility, particularly with regard to the continual re-forging of individual and group identities, are infinitely complex as they encompass everything from the embodiment of new movements and styles in dance and art, to changes in the way communities represent their (contested) history, to alterations in how a particular landscape or neighbourhood is viewed, negotiated, and consumed. Such mobility entails infinite encounters of ideas that shift and slide across one another – the process of movement is therefore intrinsically dialogic.

In this issue we explore ways in which changing ideas of self, community and nation may be formulated out of appropriations of leisure/tourism spaces and /or creative practices. Initial drafts of all but one of these papers were grouped together as a part of the session Appropriating Spaces of Leisure and Creative Practice at the joint conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists, the Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Australian Anthropological Society (2008) in Auckland. Since the overall theme of the conference was ‘Ownership and Appropriation’, the purpose of this session was to explore the relationships between creativity, identity, agency and appropriation. The result was a collection of papers that were all grounded in ethnography and focused in a variety of ways on appropriations of cultural, artistic and leisure practices and spaces.

To be creative is to be productive, talented, innovative, smart and consequently alluring. Creative people and the creative novel things that they produce are highly valued in the world. To study creativity as an anthropologist is to study our subjects’ products and desires in social and cultural worlds that permit and often demand such production and desire. It is also to extend beyond the creative object and the individual to look at social, religious and political innovations as Hallam and Ingold’s recent edited collection, Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, demonstrates. In a world “where every aspect of life and art is convertible into an object of fascination or desire to be appropriated and consumed, creativity has come to be seen as a major driver of economic prosperity and social well-being” (2007:1).

In certain instances, artistic creativity might be considered a kind of insanity, something beyond the normal rules of social behavior, a pre-rational psychological state that drives the individual to act before thinking. This might stem from the kind of autotelic ‘flow’ experiences that Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes (1991) in which one ‘lets go’ of oneself, and normal temporal rules cease to apply. Time flies. Self-consciousness fades into the background. A sense of ‘communitas’ is achieved in the company of one’s fellows. At the other extreme, instead of liberation, creative practice can require total submission to a traditional art-form. The practitioner must work to silence consciousness as much as possible in order to obey the disciplinary rules of the tradition. The artist in these cases (whether she is a musician, a martial artist, or a craftsperson) is simultaneously an instrument of the tradition, a vehicle for it, and its steward and caregiver. For example, in a musical tradition, the musician steps into the river of sound, relenting to its currents and buoyed by its natural flow. Control and ownership become fluid ideas for practitioners of traditional art-forms. In some instances, the actor controls the creative process, while in other contexts the creative process controls the actor. Whether one is ‘letting go’ in the ‘flow’, or ‘submitting to’ disciplinary rules, if one is successful at reaching the height of this state of liminality, the artist is appropriated by the act of artistic creation. On one level, engaging in creative practices inevitably causes a change or shift in one’s identity to one degree or another. Through the action of writing, a person becomes a writer; by dancing one becomes a dancer. This shift in identity is incorporated into the self whether the person is engaging in the activity or not. But on another level, during the existential ‘flow’ of creativity, there is the potential, though typically fleeting, for a much deeper transformation of the self. The subject becomes the object, the process becomes the product, and individuality momentarily dissolves into action.

Furthermore, thinking beyond individual acts of creation to the social relations that result, creative practices also commonly create or appropriate social spaces. Groups who engage in leisure and creative endeavors together—sports fans, tourists, spectators and the like—appropriate leisure spaces and creative practices simply by way of engaging in these activities, but they also do so to enforce, maintain or resist hierarchies of power. Indeed, it is one of our central contentions that leisure and creativity are key means by which individuals and groups exert or lose control over spaces, social domains, identities and meanings.

In the articles that follow, a number of interrelated themes are brought to the fore, including issues of power, the relationship between work and leisure, and the relationship between time and space. Below, we briefly touch upon these points of resonance.

The Power to Create / Creating Power

It was noted in the organisers’ summation of the theme of Ownership and Appropriation for the Auckland conference that appropriation can refer to ‘a spectrum of activities, some of which can be framed positively in terms of agency and creativity, some (such as corruption) which are perceived more negatively, and some which are unequivocally nefarious, such as theft, enslavement, and appropriation through violence’ (http://www.theasa.org/conferences/asa08/ASA08book.pdf). The focus on creativity and leisure practice in the present papers allows the blurring of positives and negatives in this regard because they allow us to see the blurring of ‘appropriator’ and ‘appropriatee’. Simplistically, appropriation might be seen as a powerful act in which one exerts power over something else in the act of taking, or stealing or borrowing it. However, we need to be careful in our assumptions about the relationship between acts of appropriation on the one hand and hierarchies of power on the other. In other words, we need to problematise assumptions that are too often made about processes of appropriation being unidirectional. As becomes clear in the papers in this volume, artists, writers, sports fans, tourists, and others who pursue leisure experiences and creative endeavors appropriate spaces and practices and yet seem simultaneously to be appropriated themselves by those spaces and practices.

What exactly, then, are the processes by which hierarchies of power are created in relation to appropriation? Some acts of appropriation certainly place people in the position of being subjected to power (see the articles in the present volume by Tucker, Pires, McAllister, and Gallinat for example), while for others, appropriative acts are in fact empowering (see the pieces by Mewett and Toffoletti, Demelius, and McAllister). The issue of power—whether it is manifest politically by struggles between local communities and the state, economically in relation to the commodification of tourist sites and practices, or by gender, embodiment, sociality, or any number of things—is inherently related to the issue of control.

By focusing in-depth on the processes of appropriation the papers in this collection raise our awareness of multi-directionality in creative appropriations and thus allow for a more nuanced understanding of control. In Mewett and Toffoletti’s paper on footy fandom, for example, it seems that the person is appropriating the practice, but also that the practice is appropriating the person. Likewise, the tourist in Cappadocia is appropriating new space through ballooning, whilst the ballooning industry also seems to appropriate the tourist. Is this because appropriation can equal consumption (as in visual consumption), but it can also equal production (as in enskillment and improvisation)? This, again, implies a collapsing of the binary between appropriator and appropriatee, seen clearly in the blurring of the binary between choreographer and dancer in Demelius’ analysis of dance. As Demelius points out, ‘a choreographic creation is fundamentally a product of a collaborative process, and the hierarchies of ‘authenticity’ and ‘ownership’ often become blurred in practice’.

Creating Work and Creating Workable Spaces

There is an interesting interplay between the process of work and the process of creativity. Often, we envision the pairing of creative practices and leisure in opposition to work, and yet this is not the case. For example, tourism confuses what is work and what is leisure. It is an industry that employs workers and entertains holiday-makers simultaneously. Not only does tourism extend employment opportunity in locales, but its changing demands create new forms of work in the spaces of leisure. Tucker, in her description of the ballooning of the ‘ballooning’ industry in Turkey, provides us with a classic example of the expansion of tourism work into new areas. Mewett and Toffoletti discuss the ways in which women must work to create leisure spaces that work for their families, in one sense ‘appropriating appropriateness’.

Some actors, like the journalists that Gallinat describes or the dancers that Demelius writes about, turn creative practices into work activities. In both contributions, the creative activities that journalists and ballet-dancers work on seem like egalitarian, collective enterprises at first, but when the authors take us beneath the surface, what emerges is a much more complex picture in which hierarchies of power and control are played out. These papers also show what Rapport (2007) has referred to as ‘slippage’ and ‘flexibility’ concerning the status of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ for the people engaged in them, demonstrating again that creative and leisure practices should not be positioned as separate and opposite to work.

Time and Space

The notion of time has been interwoven into all of the papers in one fashion or another, either through the anticipation of future experience (e.g., Tucker, Demelius) or in the way that people understand, embody, and sometimes even reshape the past to fit some negotiation of identity in the present (e.g., McAllister, Pires). Mewett and Toffoletti perhaps makes the notion of time more explicit than others in their discussion of the importance of ‘time-management’ in the creation of a gendered “field within a field”, and they very usefully remind us that Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is shaped not only by the interaction of the body with socialized spaces, but also by socialized time.

The processes by which one creates and appropriates spaces are themselves a matter of timing. As several of the chapters in this volume illustrate, there is often a temporal tension in the creative appropriation of spaces, a tension between planning and nostalgia, between ‘thinking with the future’ and ‘thinking with the past’. For example, in Pires’ contribution, a strong sense of (whitewashed) nostalgia for a Portuguese colonial past runs headlong into a planned reclamation of the shoreline to satisfy future urban growth. And as her article illustrates, time and space are inextricably interwoven. This tension between past, present and future is also clearly evident in McAllister’s piece on Waitangi Day and the negotiations over the ownership of New Zealand’s national commemoration. McAllister also makes clear that the contest is not simply about timing—history, modern identity, and the future of New Zealand’s nationhood—but it is also about the spaces in which these negotiations occur.

Creativity and leisure are often dismissed1 as dispensable aspects of culture, features of the social landscape that might be interesting symbols for, or lenses onto, other more fundamental concerns. We disagree. This collection of articles brings creativity and leisure together into sharp relief to highlight the fact that they are processes that in fact situate power dynamics, gender roles and identities, and therefore deserve examination in their own right. The sites of creativity and leisure are where the ‘non-events’ of the everyday work world become creative, sites where communities’ relationships to one another and to the state are played out, places where one owns, appropriates, or is owned by creativity and leisure. These are not issues that are peripheral to anthropology; they are central.


1. With notable exceptions like Lavie et al 1993 and Hallam and Ingold 2007 on creativity, and Coleman and Kohn 2007 on leisure.


Coleman, S. and T. Kohn (eds), (2007)The Discipline of Leisure: Embodying Cultures of ‘Recreation’, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial

Hallam, E. and T. Ingold (eds), (2007) Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, Cornell University Press.

Lavie, S. , K. Narayan and R. Rosaldo (eds) (1993) Creativity/Anthropology, Cornell University Press.

Rapport, N. (2007) Bob, Hospital Bodybuilder: The Integrity of the Body, the Transitiveness of ‘Work’ and ‘Leisure’ in Coleman and Kohn (eds.) The Discipline of Leisure, Oxford: Berghahn.