Article: "Revisiting the ethnographic turn in contemporary art", Introductory article for Critical Arts — November 2013

authorsKris Rutten, An van. Dienderen and Ronald Soetaert
Published byRoutledge
Pages627 – 640


An increasing wave of art events has occurred since the 1990s that have displayed significant similarities with anthropology and ethnography in their theorisations of cultural difference and representational practices. In this theme issue the authors aim to revisit the ethnographic turn in contemporary art by focusing on practice-led research. Contributions were collected from theorists, artists and critics, to engage critically with the ethnographic perspective in their work. Next to full research papers the authors also invited short statements and reflections by artists about their practice. In this introductory article, the issues at stake in the ethnographic turn in contemporary art are explored in greater detail. 

Keywords: contemporary art, ethnography, practice-led research, representation Introduction 


With his seminal essay ‘The artist as ethnographer?’, Hal Foster (1995) put the ‘ethnographic turn’ in contemporary art high on the agenda of cultural studies. Since the 1990s there has been a wave of art practices, productions and events that show signi cant similarities with anthropology and ethnographic research in their theorisations of cultural difference and representational practices. ‘Documenta XI’ in 2002, curated by Okwui Enwezor, focused on how contemporary art could develop 

in a dialectical relationship with an increasingly ‘global’ culture. Artists such as Lan Tuazon, Nikki S. Lee, Bill Viola, Francesco Clemente, Jimmy Durham and Susan Hiller share with anthropologists a concern for the ‘politics of representation’ (Schneider & Wright 2006: 19). In 2003, the conference ‘Fieldworks’, held at the Tate Modern, aimed to bring together artists and anthropologists to re ect on their respective uses of eldwork and to explore possible convergences. More recently, in 2012, two concurring exhibitions in Paris focused on ethnographic perspectives. On the one hand there was the ‘Masters of Chaos’ exhibition that confronted ‘anthropological artefacts’ with new artworks. ‘La Triennale’, on the other hand, focused on the theme ‘intense proximity’. The aim of the latter exhibition – curated by Enwezor – was to ‘unlearn the notion that ethnography is necessarily “bad”’ (Enwezor 2012: §11). Also in 2012, a conference was organised with the title ‘The artist as ethnographer’ in Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, by the curatorial platform ‘le peuple qui manque’. The aim of the conference was to 

ambitiously raise the epistemological issues at stake […], from multiple locations and practices: artistic inquiries through colonial knowledge and archives, and also through the history of scienti c museology; the documentary eld and its recomposition through various apparatus of collaborative form; authority regimes, enunciation modes, experimentation with writing and ction throughout the narratives of the ‘Other’.1 

In 2013, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco organised an exposition titled ‘Migrating Identities’ featuring the work of artists currently based in the United States, while having connections to such diverse countries as Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Iran, Japan, Kenya, Peru and the Philippines. As the curators announced: ‘Their art is evidence of the ever-changing experience of immigration, which eschews conventional narratives focused on socio-economic status, cultural negotiation, and assimilation.’2 This is, of course, a non-exhaustive list but these examples make clear that, as George Marcus and Fred Myers (1995: 1) predicted: ‘Art has come to occupy a space long associated with anthropology, becoming one of the main sites for tracking, representing, and performing the effects of difference in contemporary life.’ 

At the same time, there has been growing interest in anthropology for contemporary art that started from a problematisation of the different possible ways to communicate ethnographic ndings and insights. This interest has been referred to as the ‘sensory turn’ in anthropology and ethnographic research (Pink 2009). 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’. This implies that the ethnographic turn in contemporary art can be related to – and runs parallel with – a sensory turn in anthropology and ethnographic research. This is exempli ed by anthropologists who are collaborating with artists, by artists who are creating projects generating anthropological insights, and by art projects that are produced as outcomes of ethnographic research. From this perspective, art projects are presented as (a kind of) ethnographic research and ethnographic research is presented as (a kind of) art. 

In this theme issue the aim is to revisit the ethnographic turn in contemporary art. Papers were collected from theorists, artists and critics, to engage critically with the ethnographic perspective in their work. In addition to full research papers short statements and re ections by artists about their own practice were also incorporated. Here, ethnography is approached from a thematic and/or methodological perspective, rather than by looking for xed categories to de ne ‘ethnographic art’. The aim is to further the critical work on ethnography in relation to contemporary art by speci cally looking at art practices and processes, thereby offering a bottom-up perspective from artists, critics and theorists addressing the questions if, why and how an ethnographic perspective is indeed at work. In these practices the focus is on the extent to which contextualisation is relevant when dealing with the display of alterity and outsiderness. A large number of the contributions deal with southern- based art practices and/or representations of self and other in relation to the north– south nexus. 

The focus is on a critical engagement with the ethnographic perspective, since there has indeed been a broad range of criticism with regard to the underlying assumptions of these projects about the culturally and geographically ‘other’ (see Geertz 1988). Several authors (e.g., Foster 1995; Irving 2006) criticise the underlying neo-colonial or Eurocentric assumptions of certain projects and critically assess the power relations at work (based on previous colonial, political or socio-economic relations). Critics accuse artists of exoticising and presenting their subjects in a pre-modern context. This special issue takes this criticism as a point of departure. It revisits the ‘ethnographic turn’ in contemporary art by exploring the assumptions underlying the display of ‘alterity’ and ‘outsiderness’ – with related concepts such as ‘authenticity’, ‘marginalisation’ and so forth – thereby exploring the reciprocal relations behind these art projects. Of course, the discussion of representing the ‘other’ in art and culture has already been explored extensively (e.g. Schneider 2008; Schneider & Wright 2006, 2010). In a previous special issue of Critical Arts (24[3]), Leora Farber (2010: 303) aptly questioned: 

What can be said to, about, and with the categories of self and other in relation to visual art that has not already been said? Given the discursive contexts in which the explorations of and debates about the status of the self and other must be undertaken, where can these go? 

It might be better, Farber argues, to explore the question ‘as to whether there may be “new” ways of conceptualising selfhood and otherness emerging in visual representation is posed, and if so, what forms might these take’ (ibid.). 

This special issue will consist of two volumes (October and December 2013). In this volume, the focus falls speci cally on practice-led research. In contrast to existing theoretical discourse and criticism that mainly focus on nished art products, most of the articles in this issue start from the bottom up, by comparing art and anthropological processes. The aim is thus to offer a forum for artists and anthropologists to explore and counter this criticism with regard to their own practices. In this introductory article, the issues at stake in the ethnographic turn in contemporary art are explored in greater detail. 

The artist as ethnographer? 

In his essay ‘The artist as ethnographer?’ Foster (1995) develops a strong critique of what he calls the quasi-anthropological paradigm in contemporary art. He argues that there has been a series of misrecognitions between art and anthropology, since both sides have not only displayed envy of the other’s enterprises, but also ignorance of how methods, paradigms and traditions were established within each eld. Foster problematises what it implies to create ‘in the name’ or ‘for the sake’ of a cultural and/or ethnic other. In his view, several artists who turned to the ethnographic have presupposed that the site of artistic transformation is elsewhere, more speci cally out there in the eld of the other: the oppressed postcolonial, the subaltern or the sub- cultural. He cautions these artists for assuming that this ‘other’ is always outside, and that this ‘alterity’ is the primary point of subversion of dominant culture (ibid: 302). Foster argues that it has become problematic to situate the ‘other’ in an ‘outside world’, since ‘in our global economy the assumption of a pure outside is almost impossible’. He argues that postcolonial artists and critics increasingly ‘pushed practice and theory from binary structures of otherness to relational modes of difference, from discrete space-times to mixed border zones’ (ibid: 178) and pleads for the artist as ethnographer to explore precisely these mixed border zones. 

More fundamentally, Foster states that this focus on alterity always overlaps with our own unconscious, with the effect that to ‘other’ the ‘self’ becomes more important than to ‘selve’ the ‘other’. Such ‘self-othering’ easily passes into self- absorption, with the danger that the project of ‘ethnographic self-fashioning’ becomes a practice of philosophical narcissism (ibid: 304). Foster furthermore warns that ‘pseudo ethnographic reports in art are sometimes disguised travelogues from the world art market. Who in the academy or the art world has not witnessed these new forms of ‘ ânerie’? (ibid.). Foster concludes with scepticism towards this turn to the ethnographic: 

The other is admired as one who plays with representation, subverts gender and so on. In all these ways the artist, critic, or historian projects his or her practice onto the eld of the other, where it is read not only as authentically indigenous but as innovatively political! (ibid: 307)

He thus questions the assumption that a site of artistic transformation is also a site of political transformation. 

This critical perspective on the artist as ethnographer can be related to Clifford Geertz’s earlier entitlement of ethnographers as authors of their texts. According to Geertz (1988: 102), written ethnographies are grounded on pseudo-claims such as text-positivism, ethnographic ventriloquism (‘the claim to speak not just about another form of life but to speak from within it’), dispersed authorship (‘the hope that discourse can somehow be made “heteroglossial”’), and so on. An van. Dienderen (2006, 2007, 2008) compares these pretensions to similar claims in documentaries and visual ethnography. Are the projects that t within the ethnographic turn in contemporary art based on comparable claims or pretensions? Do they conceal ‘displaced authoritarian or naturalistic connotations’? (Geertz 1988: 104). Could one accuse these artists of ‘ethnographic ventriloquism’ or ‘dispersed authorship’? (ibid.). Similarly, Andrew Irving (2006: 14) warns against underlying assumptions of misplaced temporalisation, ‘whereby non-western practices, be they artistic or otherwise, are seen as some throwback to earlier, more primitive forms of humanity’. The criticisms of Foster, Irving and others indeed raise a number of questions that continue to guide contemporary debate on the relationship between art and anthropology as well as the assessment of practices, processes and products that can be situated at its intersection. 

Based on Hal Foster (1995): 

• Does this artist consider his/her site of artistic transformation as a site of political transformation?

• Does this artist locate the site of artistic transformation elsewhere, in the eld of the other (with the cultural other, the oppressed postcolonial, subaltern or subcultural)?

• Does this artist use ‘alterity’ as a primary point of subversion of dominant culture?

• 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 culture?

• 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 temporalisation 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: 32). 

In this special issue the aim is to engage critically with these questions not by presenting them as an exhaustive list to be checked and answered point by point, but by offering a forum to artists and ethnographers to explore and counter this criticism with regard to their own practices. 

Practice-based art projects 

Questioning and assessing the ethnographic turn in the contemporary art scene is generally discussed through the analysis of nished art objects and their relation to the contexts in which they are created. Most authors discussing the ethnographic turn in contemporary art focus on the artistic product to criticise the ethnographic relevance, rather than the artistic process. By contrast, the aim here is to further this theoretical and critical discourse by looking ethnographically at art practices. 

The analytical importance of this approach was developed earlier by An van. Dienderen (2008), who conducted eldwork as part of the production process of three different lm projects. By adopting eldwork techniques such as participant observation, feedback and negotiation during the artistic process, the aim was to understand these processes as the mediated and variable relationships between ‘author’ and ‘other’ in which the ‘viewer’ is pre gured. This creates a complex set of interactions during the production, reception and interpretation of an artwork. 

The crisis of representation 

The criticisms Hal Foster and others have developed on the ethnographic turn in art have, of course, been at the centre of ethnography’s self-questioning for a long time (Kwon 2000; Pinxten 1997). 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 signi cance 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). 

This continuous self-questioning within anthropology and ethnographic research has caused a problematisation of the different possible ways of communicating ethnographic ndings and insights. This interest has been referred to as the ‘sensory turn’ in anthropology and ethnographic research. Indeed, as Tim Ingold (2011: 15) argues: 

Anthropology’s dilemma is that it remains yoked to an academic model of knowledge production, according to which observation is not so much a way of knowing what is going on in the world as a source of raw material for subsequent processing into authorative accounts that claim to reveal the truth behind the illusion of appearances. The truth, it is claimed, is to be found on the library shelf, groaning under the weight of scholarly books and periodicals, rather than ‘out there’ in the world of lived experience. 

This implies that the anthropologist is a ‘producer’ in the original sense of the term. From this perspective, Ingold (ibid: 10) proposes to shift anthropology and the study of culture in particular ‘away from the xation with objects and images, and towards a better appreciation of the material ows and currents of sensory awareness within which both ideas and things reciprocally take shape’. 

This discussion can be related to the ‘crisis of representation’ that has always been a major focus of cultural studies (see the work of Stuart Hall and others). Ronald Soetaert, André Mottart and Ive Verdoodt (2004) aptly posed the question: What did we learn from the ‘crisis of representation’? Probably that cultural memory is always mediated in representation as either delegation or description. On the one hand there is the question of ‘who has the right to represent whom in instances in which it is considered necessary to delegate to a reduced number of “representers” the voice and power of decision of an entire group’ (Da Silva 1999: 9). On the other hand there is the question of ‘how different cultural and social groups are portrayed in the different forms of cultural inscription: in the discourse and images through which a culture represents the social world’ (ibid.). Both questions are necessarily related: those who are delegated to speak and act in the name of another (representation as delegation) govern, in a way, the process of presentation and description of the other (representation as description). S/he who speaks for the other controls the forms of speaking about the other (Da Silva 1999). 

The contributions in this volume deal with both the criticism raised with regard to the ethnographic perspective in contemporary art (representation as delegation) and with issues in overcoming the restriction to text-based models by turning to more material and sensual practices that can be found in the arts (representation as description). In what follows, the different contributions in this issue are introduced, starting from both these perspectives.


– Bhabha, H. 1994. The location of culture. New York: Routledge.

– Campbell, C. 2011. Terminus: ethnographic terminalia. Visual Anthropology Review 27(1): 52–56. 

– Clifford, J. and G. Marcus. 1986. Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

– Da Silva, T.T. 1999. The poetics and politics of curriculum as representation. Pedagogy, Culture & Society 7(1): 7–33. 

– Enwezor, E. 2012. (Interview.) Reformulating the landscape of quick judgments. Le Journal de La Triennale #1. landscape-quick-judgments (accessed 9 October 2013). 

– Farber, L. 2010. The address of the other: the body and the senses in contemporary South African visual art. Critical Arts 24(1): 303–320. 

– Forero Angel, A.M. and L. Simeone, eds. 2010. Beyond ethnographic writing. Rome: Armando Editore. 

– Foster, H. 1995. The artist as ethnographer? In The traf c in culture. Re guring art and anthropology, ed. G. Marcus and F. Myers, 302–309. Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press. 

– Geertz, C. 1988. Works and lives: the anthropologist as author. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

– Ingold, T. 2011. Being alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge. 

– Irving, A. 2006. Review of contemporary art and anthropology. Anthropology Matters 8(1). (accessed 9 October 2013). 

– Kristeva, J. 1991. Strangers to ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press.

– Kwon, M. 2000. Experience vs. interpretation: traces of ethnography in the works of Lan Tuazon and Nikki S. Lee. In Site-speci city: the ethnographic turn, ed. A. Coles, 74 – 91. London: Black Dog Publishing.

– Lippard, L. 2010. Farther a eld. In Between art and anthropology, contemporary ethnographic practice, ed. A. Schneider and C. Wright, 23–34. Oxford and New York: Berg.

– Marcus, G. and F. Myers, eds. 1995. The traf c in culture: re guring art and anthropology

– Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press.

– Pink, S. 2009. Doing sensory ethnography. London: Sage.

– Pinxten, R. 1997. When the day breaks: essays in anthropology and philosophy. Hamburg: Peter Lang Verlag.

– Rutten, K. and A. van. Dienderen. 2013. ‘What is the meaning of a safety pin?’ Critical literacies and the ethnographic turn in contemporary art. International Journal of Cultural Studies 16(5): 507–520.

– Schneider, A. 2008. Three modes of experimentation with art and ethnography. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14(1): 171–194.

– Schneider, A. and C. Wright. 2006. Contemporary art and anthropology. Oxford and New York: Berg.

– Schneider, A. and C. Wright. 2010. Between art and anthropology: contemporary ethnographic practice. Oxford and New York: Berg.

– Soetaert R., A. Mottart and I. Verdoodt. 2004. Culture and pedagogy in teacher education. 

– The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 26(2/3): 155–174. Trinh Minh-ha. 1990. ‘Documentary is/not a name.’ October 52(Spring): 76–100. 

– van. Dienderen, A. 2006. Afkicken van representatie – met rijlaarzen door documentaire processen. Etcetera 24(101): 43–47. 

– van. Dienderen, A. 2007. Performing urban collectivity: ethnography of the production process of a community-based project in Brussels. In Visual interventions: studies in applied anthropology series, ed. S. Pink, 345–380. Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books. 

– van. Dienderen, A. 2008. Film process as a site of critique: ethnographic research into the mediated interactions during (documentary) lm production. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag.