Henrik Ernstson: Humanities 'spotlight on'

30 January 2019

Henrik joined The University of Manchester in 2018, as Lecturer in Geography having previously held positions at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University. This 'spotlight on...' piece was recently published by the Faculty of Humanities.

You’ve recently joined the Geography Department as a lecturer. What’s been a key highlight for you in your first months at the University?

The support I’ve received from the Department as a new member of staff has been great. Senior and younger colleagues have showed a lot of understanding in what it means to move to a new country, especially with kids of high school age and the work required to find schools and so on. There is a very sensitive and helpful supportive collegiality from staff and administration here at the department and the wider University.

Not long after you joined the University, your documentary film, part of a longer research project dealing with race, nature and knowledge politics in Cape Town, premiered in Copenhagen. Please can you tell us a little about your research, and how the film has been received?

The film, ‘One Table Two Elephants’, is an 84 minute long documentary film, or what I call with my co-director Dr Jacob von Heland at KTH in Stockholm, a ‘cinematic ethnography’. This means that it is not simply about research communication, or a normal documentary film, but it is part of an effort to use the camera as part of a wider research practice to understand environments and cities. We have a three-year research grant to make films and explore what it means to organise practical research around a camera and, so to speak, complement but also move beyond ‘pen and paper’ in producing academic knowledge. For Jacob and I this meant to build further on some of my long-term ethnographic work in Cape Town around environmental politics and ways of knowing urban nature. We collaborated with various groups, from biologists and ecologists, to hip-hoppers, dancers and local activists, where everyone's experiences and skills are given the same importance.

If you watch the film, you enter this postcolonial city through very mundane objects—plants and a wetland—and by following these different groups, and using cinematic techniques of editing, you will receive a very rich and sometimes troubling understanding of what it means to live in the post-colony depending on class, race and location. The plants and the wetland are our ‘rabbit hole’ into a textured understanding of the many stories and histories that are silenced in rendering Cape Town legible in particular ways. In the many test-screenings we did of the film, from Windhoek, Durban to Munich and New York, we received a lot of feedback that went into the final editing of the film.  

Since the World Premiere in Copenhagen, the film has had its African premiere in Cape Town in October where it competed as Best Documentary Feature. It was also nominated as Best International Documentary at Tirana International Film Festival (TIFF), screened at InScience International Science Film Festival in Nijmegen and had its Swedish premiere just recently at CrossCuts Film Festival for the Environmental Humanities in Stockholm. 

What are you most looking forward to in your role over the next few months?

Teaching! I have been a self-funded Principal Investigator and researcher for about ten years with all the joy and freedom that provides. I have done some teaching during these years of course, but this has mainly been in PhD courses, for instance my Winter School in Cape Town with Dr Andrés Henao Castro that combines postcolonial urbanism with radical democratic theory. But for a long time I have not had the opportunity to organise a whole semester of teaching and I am looking forward to the sweat and sweetness of teaching two courses on environmental politics here at the Department of Geography, both with Professor Erik Swyngedouw.

I am also looking forward to the reception of my new edited book with Erik that comes out on the 18 December from Routledge, like a Christmas present! The book is called Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-Obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities. With chapters written by some of the most exciting thinkers from anthropology, geography and political theory, the book focuses on how the environment is always political. We hope it can invite many to think of our present environmental crisis in political terms.  

What’s the most recent book you read – did you enjoy it and would you recommend it? 

The last book I read was Ondjaki’s ‘Transparent City’ from 2012. I have just started a research project with co-workers that focuses on Luanda’s people and environments and its connections to oil, Brazil, and China. When I start new projects, I try to read the fiction writers, because as somebody said, the fiction writers are the best social theorists we have. And they theorise through the thick-of-things, through richness and detail. Ondjaki is an Angolan author with a remarkable language and way of telling a story. He also presents the kind of book I like, a book that lets the city itself become one of the main characters in the narrative. Here you get to know Luanda in all its glory and through its shadows.

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