Artist as ethnographer

Hal Foster wrote something important about the artist as ethnographer.

  • the subject is othered, and the researcher still has the power
  • the ethnographer envies the artist’s reflexivity, while the artist envies the ethnographer’s access to an ‘other’ that has various properties attributed to it

“…this setup can promote a presumption of ethnographic authority as much as a questioning of it, an evasion of institutional critique as often as an elaboration of it.” p. 306

“…the artist, critic or historian projects his or her practice onto the field of another, where it is read not only as authentically indigenous but as innovatively political!” p. 307

As I’m a white western academic studying other white western academics, I suppose my subject is pretty close to where I am. I’m also endeavouring to de-other them, to dismantle this overly romanticised image that we have that takes mathematics to be so mysterious.

Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright (2006: 4) assert that ‘[a]nthropology’s iconophobia and self-imposed restriction of visual expression to text-based models needs to be overcome by a critical engagement with a range of material and sensual practices in the contemporary arts’. p. 460
Based on Hal Foster (1995):
Does this artist consider his/her site of artistic transformation as a site of political
Does this artist locate the site of artistic transformation elsewhere, in the field
of the other (with the cultural other, the oppressed postcolonial, subaltern or
Does this artist use ‘alterity’ as a primary point of subversion of dominant
Is this artist perceived as socially/culturally other and has s/he thus limited or
automatic access to transformative alterity?
Can we accuse the artist of ‘ideological patronage’?
Does this artist use ‘alterity’ as a primary point of subversion of dominant
Does the artist work with sited communities with the motives of political
engagement and institutional transgression, only in part to have this work recoded
by its sponsors as social outreach, economic development, public relations?
Is this artist constructing outsiderness, detracted from a politics of here and now?
Is this work a pseudo-ethnographic report, a disguised travelogue from the world
art market?
Is this artist othering the self or selving the other?
Based on Andrew Irving (2006: 14):
Can this artist be criticised for underlying assumptions of misplaced
whereby non-Western practices, be they artistic or otherwise,
are seen as some throwback to earlier, more primitive forms of humanity?
Based on Lucy Lippard:
Is the artist wanted there and by whom? Every artist (and anthropologist) should
be required to answer this question in depth before launching what threatens to
be intrusive or invasive projects (often called ‘interventions’) (Lippard 2010:

p. 463-4

Less concerned with the possibilities of
accurately representing the ‘other’ and his/her culture, the ethnographer nowadays
aims to comparatively relate his/her own cultural frame to that of the ‘other’, in
view of establishing an interactive relation. Ethnographers furthermore look at
cultural practices in which attention is paid to inter-subjectivity, where one relates
engagement with a particular situation (experience) and the assessment of its
meaning and significance to a broader context (interpretation) (Kwon 2000: 75). The
idea that one actually can ‘go native’ and ‘blend in’, so as to completely integrate and
participate in a particular culture, has been criticised as exoticism. Yet the stress on
ethnography as an interactive encounter is of crucial importance, as ‘the informant
and the ethnographer are producing some sort of common construct together, as a
result of painstaking conversation with continuous mutual control’ (Pinxten 1997:
31, see also Rutten and van. Dienderen 2013). p. 465
Ingold (ibid: 10) proposes to shift anthropology and the study
of culture in particular ‘away from the fixation with objects and images, and towards
a better appreciation of the material flows and currents of sensory awareness within
which both ideas and things reciprocally take shape’. p. 465

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