I can talk about many important issues
But all they care is my ornamental tissues
Omid Djalili, in Omid Djalili Show as Iranian Taxi driver
In “One Place after Another”, Miwon Kwon gives an account of the development of site-specificity in art, the trajectory that leads to its phenomenological concerns to be displaced by new agendas in the new perception of place, of site. A more physical understanding of minimalist site-specificity that is concerned with “actual physical attributes of a particular location (the size, scale, texture, and dimension of walls, ceilings, rooms; existing lightning conditions, topographical features, traffic patterns,seasonal characteristics of climate etc.)” has give way to place with its social, political agendas (Kwon, 2004, p.3).
Site:"place or position occupied by something," c.1391, from Anglo-Fr. site, from L. situs "place, position," from si-, root of sinere "let, leave alone, permit."
The physical context of site extended towards its social-political disposition, its codification, thus its synchronic dimension, the horizontality as Hall Foster suggests (2009, p.244). In Kwon’s words, “the site can now be as various as bilboard, an artistic genre, a disenfranchised community, an institutional framework, a magazine page, a social cause, or a political debate. It can be literal, like a street corner, or virtual, like a theoretical concept” (Kwon, 2004, 3).
The redefinition of site beyond a physical entity resulted in the other methodologies to be introduced in the art practice like ethnography, which is the concern of this paper. The relation between art, especially site-specific art and ethnography and the underlying motives behind this rapprochment, the questions it raises are my concerns throughout the paper.
Alex Coles, in his interview with James Clifford underscores the tendency of the artist to conceive the site in ethnographic terms and draws attention to the site-specificity of ethnographic field-work referring to Clifford’s emphasis on the ethnographic activity’s compulsory setting within “specific cultural and historical circumstances”(Coles, 2000, p.59). Working within those circumstances means, Kwon suggests, “retrieve lost differences or to curtail their waning, become heavily invested in reconnecting to uniqueness of place- or more precisely, in establishing authenticity of meaning, memory, histories, and identities as a differential function of places” (2004, p.157).
Foster argues in his seminal article “Artist as Ethnographer” that the artist works more on the synchronic horizontal level that has to do with social issues and political discussions than on the vertical level that has diachronical relations with the site , which coincides with the ethnographic turn in art(Foster, 2009, p.244). This turn is deeply related with the postmodern interest in other stories, in the voice of the other. Ethnography as the study of other supplied a perfectly tailored approach for this interest.
The modern subject, Foster tells, looks for the truth within the other, within the unthinkable and unconcious, which yields to the privileging of disciplines anthropology and psychoanalysis (Foster, 2009, p. 223). The identity is constituted in the “other”, through a disidentification-identification process.
However, there is a difference in the favoring of ethnography after 1980s James Clifford argues:
I would like to think that, at its best, the ‘ethnography’ which emerged across many fields in the 1980s rejects quick and dirty symptomatic analyses. It reflects a willingness to look common sense, everyday practices –which extended, critical and self-critical attention, with a curiosity about particularity and willingness to be centred in the acts of translation (2000, p.56).
In other words, it implies decentring of the modern subject at the centre of meaning production, at the centre of the world. However, Clifford warns the possibility of falling to consider culture as solely a text, that might reduce the “new anthropology to textualism and hyperreflexivity. This freezes a particular moment of what has been a complex, ongoing critique and decentring of cultural representations and relations of power”(2000, p.57). He refers the danger of perceiving his text “The Predicament of Culture” as merely be suggesting culture as a text, and anthropology as a field of textualisation of the culture. What is at issues here is the recrowning the informant, the subject of the ethnographer, as the writer of the text. Clifford suggests that this turn in the conception of ethnography has revealed that there is more going on in the field, “more negotiation, translation and appropriation” (2000, p. 58).Art of our age, seeking for multiplicity in its language favors ethnography as a science of multiplicity because of the reasons outlined above (Foster, 2009, p.227).
Another important development in the scene of art that made it come closer to ethnography is, for Foster, the changing definition of art institution, that can no longer be defined in spatial terms and becomes a discursive web made of different actions and institutions, other subjectivities and societies (2009, p. 230). A paralel can be seen here between the situation of the discipline of ethnography and art, they both extend their meaning and scope, push the boundaries of western canons of art and culture. Foster further tells, art shifts towards the realm of culture, and what Clifford calls “new anthropology” begins to be its ally.
In “The Predicament of Culture” James Clifford finds another ally for ethnography in art, that of surrealism. Arguing that ethnographic activity consists of mainly of collecting, noting, interpreting and writing, thus textualising the field it has a similarity with “modernist collage, as imperial power, as subversive critique” (Clifford, 2002, p.13). Defining surrealism as “an aesthetic that values fragments, curious collections, unexpected juxtapositions-that works to provoke the manifestation of extraordinary realities drawn from the domains of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious” Clifford underlines the proximity of surrealism of twenties and thirties and ethnography (Clifford, 2002, p.118). The surrealist interest in the “extraordinary realities” was for him, “ a result of new take towards reality as an unfamiliar, insecure, instable environment”(2002, p.13).
The time we are in is a time where the exotic, the strange appears in every corner of our daily life. In the words of Clifford, “This century has seen a drastic expansion of mobility, including tourism, migrant labor, immigration, urban sprawl...The ‘exotic’ is uncannily close”(2002, p.13). The “extraordinary realities” are close than ever, that cause an anxiety,an estrangement.
1590s, "belonging to another country," from L. exoticus, from Gk. exotikos "foreign," lit. "from the outside," from exo- "outside," from ex "out of." Sense of "unusual, strange" first recorded in English 1620s, from notion of "alien, outlandish." In reference to strip-teasers and dancing girls, it is first attested 1954, Amer.Eng.
egzotik (tr) ~ Fr exotique foreign, weird ~ Gr eksōtikós εξωτικός foreign < EGreek eksō εξω exterior
This symptom of the century has been widely discussed by scholars as Miwon Kwon points out. She suggests that “The intensifiying conditions of spatial differentiation and departicularization –that is, the increasing instances of locational unspecificity- are seen to exacerbate the sense of alienation and fragmentation in contemporary life” (Kwon, 2004, p.8). In that sense, Clifford’s argument that ethnography’s first and foremost function is orientation gains a crucial role. It becomes an everyday task to do ethnographic work, to come across with the “exotic”, to reorient our realities.
In a world, that has been cartographically unified since sixteenth century (Clifford, 2002, p.13) with the Age of Discovery, that orientation played a key role. (That urge to orientate in the world might have patronizing tone, which has proven once by colonialism). Hal Foster’s main criticism of artists as ethnographer comes from this line, he sees a risk of “colonisation of the difference” that might lead to a reductionist, egzoticist view of the subjects(qtd in Kwon, 2004, p.139). The “marginalized community groups...serving as Third Worlds found in the First World leads to their becoming both subject and coproducer of their own self-appropriation in the name of self-affirmation” (Kwon, 2004, p.139). Artist as ethnographer as long as he/she fetishizes the difference, runs the risk of taking identity, culture in essentialist terms, thus digging the gap further. Artist as ethnographer fits into this place; digging the “’Cultural’ difference, that is no longer stable, exotic otherness; self-other relations are matters of power and rhetoric rather than of essence” (Clifford, 2002, p. 14). Referring to Pierre Bourdieu, Foster expresses his suspicions about traditional ethnography running the risk of sustaining “Cartesian opposition that lead the observer to abstract the culture of study. Such mapping may thus confirm rather than contest the authority of mapper over site in a way that reduces the desired exchange of dialogical fieldwork” (qtd. in Kwon, 2004, p.138).
Foster is concerned that the idealisation of difference of a group that places that group as the subject of the history and its displacement by another marginal group is a dangerous chronology. It leads to reducing the historical subjects to a commodity for consumption, that weakens the different positions (Foster, 2009, p.222). The first and foremost problem in artist using ethnographic methods is, thus, falling into behaving as the authority, as a representative of the “object” of the study, thus exploiting the object and leaning on the contentious binary divide. On the us and them, familiar and exotic.
This authority might be used to sustain the traditional “artist hero” and thus artists’s ego for Foster. Though the artist might be critical about the social construct he/she is questioning, ethnographer artists hardly questions the failures and weak points of ethnography he suggests. Foster warns that “ the quasi-anthropological role set up for the artist can promote a presuming as much as questioning of ethnographic authority, an evasion as often as extension of institutional critique” (qtd in Kwon, 2004, p.138).
Despite all the risks, Clifford’s argument that expanding the range of ethnographic activities might yield to the decentring of Western canons, gives us an insight on the possibilities of an art with an accent on ethnography, an art that takes “site” as a phenomenon beyond pysical attributes. This is not an easy task though. The problem of artistic and ethnographic authority, the contentious nature of culture that might end up easily in essentialist formulations are some of the preliminary problems to be encountered. I find it crucial to keep in mind the questions Clifford raises in “The Predicament of Culture” to avoid those failures, and I am concluding my paper with those questions:
Who has an authority to speak for a group`s identity or authenticity? What are the essential elements and boundaries of a culture? How do self and other clash and converse in the encounters of ethnography, travel, modern interethnic relations?
(Clifford, 2002, p.8).
Clifford, J. (2002). The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
Kwon, M. (2004).One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. New Ed London, The Mit Press.
Foster, H. (2009). Gerçeğin Geri Dönüşü (The Return of the Real). Istanbul, Ayrıntı Yayınları.
(2000). Site-Specificity -The Ethnographic Turn: De-, Dis-, Ex-, Volume 4 (Analyses the history of correspondences betwween art and ethnographic practice). Vancouver: Black Dog Publishing.