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Is there (still) an ethnographic turn in contemporary art?

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Hal Foster introduced the concept "Ethnographic turn of contemporary art" in a seminar article entitled: "The Artist as Ethnographer?" (Foster, 1995). Since the 90s a challenging wave of art events did occur, which shows significant similarities with anthropology in its theorizations of cultural difference and representational practices. Artists share with anthropologists a concern for the "politics of representation". Focusing on literature, Janet Tallman (2002) describes the difference between the ethnographer and the artist as "somewhat artificial" because in many ways "they are similar": "Both tend to stand apart, consciously marginalized vis-à-vis the cultures they describe, self-alienated, disciplining themselves to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar" (22).

However, several writers critique the underlying neo-colonial or Eurocentric assumptions of these projects and assess the power relations at work (based on previous colonial, political or socio-economical relations). Critics accuse artists of exoticizing "the other", of presenting "the other" in a pre-modern context, of ideologically patronizing the other etc.? From the perspective of critical literacies, we will discuss how the "ethnographic turn in contemporary art" helps to "denaturalize and make strange what (we) have learned and mastered" (New London Group 1996: 86), but at the same time we will focus on the power and politics of these representational practices.

During this participatory seminar we discuss this wave of art events from three different perspectives:

1. We will present (and critically assess) theoretical concepts pivotal for the discourse on the relation between art and anthropology.
2. We then confront these theoretical insights with artistic research by looking into specific art practices, such as Nikki S. Lee, Kara Walker, Jimmy Durham, Lothar Baumgarten, Kutlug Ataman, Francis Alÿs, George Nuku, or Juan Echevarria and we relate this to a video installation by An van Dienderen based on fieldwork on Otaku-girls in Harajuku, Tokyo.
3. We end by discussing how the perspective of critical literacies urges us to focus on the artistic practices of others, while at the same time developing a meta-awareness of our own dominant artistic practices.
Original languageEnglish
StatePublished - 12-Jul-2011

ID: 8679771