Notions of Failure in Art and Anthropology 
Alana Jelinek (University of Hertfordshire)
Jennifer Clarke
Jennifer Clarke (Gray's School of Art, Robert Gordon University)
Anthony Schrag (Queen Margaret University )
SOAS Senate House - S113
Sunday 3 June, 13:30-15:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

Inter-disciplinary work is fraught misunderstandings. Assumptions are made about common values and common language, that each shares a vocabulary, or goal. This panel examines discipline-specific notions of failure and reflect on failure as one of the outcomes of inter-disciplinary work.

Long Abstract

Contemporary artists engage with ethnography as method and anthropology as theory in a variety of ways: Some short and superficial, others in-depth and critically engaged. Sometimes, projects fail in artistic terms. Inter-disciplinary work is fraught with misunderstandings. Assumptions are often made about common values and language, that each shares a vocabulary. This panel examines discipline-specific notions of failure and reflects on failure as one of the outcomes of inter-disciplinary work between art and anthropology.

In 1976, Historian of Science, Hugh G. Petrie argued of inter-disciplinary work in science, that because so much of it fails to recognise the significant differences in cognitive maps between the disciplines, much of it is relatively naïve. To pursue excellence in inter-disciplinary work, he argues for minimal constituents: 'First one must learn the observational categories of the other discipline, and second, one must learn the meanings of the key terms in the other discipline.'

This panel addresses specifically the differences in ideas of failure across art and anthropology. Framed through practice, this panel invites both practitioners of any discipline and anthropologists working with practitioners to reflect on notions of failure, either in the abstract, or to reflect on instances of failure of specific projects between art and anthropology.

What is failure to the artist, and to the anthropologist? What value does failure have, and how is this value manifested in the two disciplines? Are there instances of inter- or multi-disciplinary work across art and anthropology that instantiate differences in understanding, failures to recognise the different 'cognitive maps', including differences in the understanding of failure?

Accepted papers:


Alicja Khatchikian (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing from my research in the field of performance art, this paper attempts to unveil the idiosyncrasies between fieldwork and creative process by tackling the relationship between artist and anthropologist.

Paper long abstract:

Notwithstanding experimental efforts to do fieldwork differently and the increasing desire to engage in interdisciplinary collaborations, the necessity to reimagine the political space of fieldwork as both a space of empirical fact-finding and imagination (Marcus 2007) is still needed.

If experimentation in anthropology already shifted from textual outcomes to fieldwork practices, fewer guidelines are provided on what these practices are and how they can be carried out. In fact, beyond apparent methodological and thematic affinities, the aesthetics of fieldwork and those of artistic processes differ fundamentally (Schneider 2015).

As a result, while theorists are primarily presented with the task of observing art practitioners and following them throughout the creative processes (Mock 2002), the lack of shared practice engagement beyond theoretical speculation can drag collaborations into a state of creative paralysis and result in producing any tangible result.

Starting from a reflection upon a failed attempt at collaboration between an artist and an anthropologist, this paper looks with hindsight at the experience and attempts to unveil its points of encounter and resistance from the ethnographer's standpoint. It therefore poses a critical question: why should artists be interested in collaborating with anthropologists?


Natalie Morningstar (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the ways in which artistic and anthropological concepts of failure converge in the collapse of putatively neoliberal ideology. It suggests that art and anthropology share notions of paradigmatic ruination but diverge in their understanding of political temporalities and efficacy.

Paper long abstract:

This paper presents the artistic practices of two political activists and one anarcho-communist collective in Dublin and their conceptually resonant approaches to situationist art. I argue that they locate the failure of aspirational neoliberal ideologies to achieve actually existing effects as their object, mirroring anthropological approaches to conceptual ruination and the failure of paradigm shifts (Navaro-Yashin 2009, Ferguson 2010).

Each produces interventionist art that deliberately fails under 'conditions of neoliberalism' precisely to spotlight its disingenuous politics, or the fact that neoliberalism the conceptual category is often deployed to occlude its everyday limitations (Kipnis 2007). The way these artists locate failure in their practice thus bears resemblance to the ways in which the anthropological literature has confronted the failure of neoliberal doxa to speak to the realities of late capitalism (Eriksen et al. 2015). Yet just as anthropologists have been unable to jettison neoliberalism as ethnographic object, so too has it remained ethnographically salient in the rubric by which these artists arbitrate success. They at once reject the spectral dominance of neoliberal ideology, and argue that failed situationist interruption at the political margins is the only tenable response to the tragico-absurdism of neoliberalism's impossibly aspirational discourses (Yurchak 2013).

I conclude by suggesting it is through the similarities between anthropological and artistic perceptions of failed conceptual categories that anthropologists can trace another ethnographically significant category: political efficacy. I argue that failure and success in art and academia are adjudicated along distinct political temporalities, with corollary implications for understandings of efficacious creative production.


Raymond Lucas (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

Whilst a term with negative connotations, dissatisfaction is in need of rehabilitation, a feeling that the accepted wisdom or orthodoxy has something fundamentally wrong: being dissatisfied is essential to creative practice.

Paper long abstract:

This paper builds upon a remark made during a discussion between anthropologist Jen Clarke, designer Neil McGuire and illustrator Mitch Miller in 2016 (Lucas, R. Miller, M. Clarke, J. & McGuire, N.  2017.  "All Drawings are Failures" Illustrated interview transcript in Clarke, J. (Ed.), Koryu.  Aberdeen: Knowing from the Inside. Open access PDF available at: https://knowingfromtheinside.org/files/#about) when discussing our respective drawing practices. To me, my drawings continually fail to convey my full intentions, to describe everything about a context, to get things just right.

My work positions itself as a 'graphic anthropology' investigating architecture from an anthropological perspective. This is by means of drawing, diagramming and notation as well as academic writing. Each of these pursuits is plagued by a kind of creative dissatisfaction.

John Ruskin writes that drawing can be learned by anyone, but 'not without some hard and disagreeable labour'. Indeed, whilst a common perception can be that drawing is relaxing or meditative; for practitioners with a clear intention, it is often characterised by struggle and crisis.

Whilst a term with negative connotations, dissatisfaction is in need of rehabilitation. Dissatisfaction often forms the kernel of a research project, a feeling that the accepted wisdom or orthodoxy has something fundamentally wrong: being dissatisfied is essential to creative practice.

This paper discusses the process of making drawings, with an honest description of how fraught the practice can be, and how exposing it is to show drawings and other works publicly.


Toma Peiu (University of Colorado Boulder)

Paper short abstract:

A paper and talk discussing the ramifications and complications of a collaborative research-creation project juxtaposing re-appropriated broadcast performances of admissions of failure, concession, guilt or shame in public mediated space.

Paper long abstract:

Failure is Human. Human is Failure. is an archival-based audiovisual creative project I started developing in the Fall of 2017, in collaboration with filmmaker Luiza Parvu. It consists of a video installation titled Redemption Room; a 10-minute short film called "The Decision" and a collection of short clips titled "Gestures".

In this presentation of a companion paper, I propose a critical look at the ritual surrounding failure in the public virtual space of broadcast television.

These rituals are enacted using performance, or decorum tropes - the tone of voice, the gaze, the costume; tropes of language including references to the myth of the nation state, dominant religion and democracy; and tropes of staging - the Presidential Hall, the podium / desk, the slow zoom-in / zoom-out between the medium close shot and the close-up of the speaker. This mixture is evidence of the permeability between the embodiment of political power, redemptive memory and the methods of performing arts.

Turning the mirror around, we will be considering what may be learned from looking at failure creatively? What are the pitfalls of working with archival material, in anthropology and visual art? What are some difficulties that we need to overcome in order to get behind the smokescreen of broadcast language; and, in our methods, behind the concepts and notions that inform our initial research?

I will be discussing the theoretical challenges of articulating an archive of failure, by comparing examples ranging from Plato's Socratic Dialogues to Laura Mulvey's visual pleasure, Walter Benjamin's aura, Roland Barthes' punktum, Nietzsche's will to power and Alexander Galloway's interface.