Art (and anthropology) beyond materiality and representation
Location British Museum - Studio
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 3


  • Roger Sansi (Universitat de Barcelona) email

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Short abstract

A great deal of contemporary art has taken the form of events, performances and situations designed to provoke, experiment, speculate, intervene and query social forms and relations. What does it mean for anthropology to follow these developments and think art beyond materiality and representation?

Long abstract

A great deal of contemporary anthropological thinking about art and museums has gravitated around notions of materiality and representation. Much of the anthropological study of art has taken the form of an exploration of objects and their "material agency", while the study of museums has focused on "the politics of display", that is, on how those objects are represented as part of larger cultural categories, such as the nation, the other, gender, etc.

And yet, a great deal of contemporary art since the 1960s has not been thought of or practiced in terms of material objects and cultural representations, but as events, performances and situations, ways of provoking, experimenting, speculating, intervening and querying social forms and relations. In this panel, we would like to ask what does it mean for anthropology to follow these developments and think art beyond materiality and representation. What can anthropology learn from these practices? What kinds of exchanges, collaborations or conflicts can emerge between anthropology and art? How can those exchanges, collaborations or conflicts move ethnographic thinking and practice beyond materiality and representation? How, for example, would an ethnographic museum would look like beyond materiality and representation?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Commoning Anthropologically and Ethnographic Conceptualism: Intervention, Experimentation, Uncertainty

Author: Toby Austin Locke (Goldsmiths College) email

Short abstract

Social practice art opens new relationships between art and anthropology. Through notions of ethnographic conceptualism this paper will look at the commoning of an abandoned building in London as such a merging, and an experimental intersection between art and anthropology.

Long abstract

It has been proposed that developments in art practice towards dematerialisation were partly paralleled in ethnographic practice through textualisations of culture by the writing culture perspective (Ssorin-Chaikov 2013). Alongside this proposal the approach of 'ethnographic conceptualism' has been put forward as a means of moving beyond these tendencies to open new forms of relationships between anthropological and art practices. Such methods would engage in active participation in the construction of the realities that they study.

This paper draws on participatory fieldwork conducted in London, based in an attempt to construct a common social centre in an abandoned building, to examine components of the proposal of ethnographic conceptualism. The anthropological and commoning practices of the research emerged as inextricably entangled, revealing them as possible forms of such ethnographic conceptualism. Paralleling proposals for situational art practice (Oliver and Badham 2013), the ethnographic method of this project had no commons to be studied; but the study was the common(ing).

Such 'commoning anthropologically' engages in experimental and interventionist practices which focus on the encounter of difference and uncertainty in an effort to explore new possible social aggregates and common worlds. Understanding the commons as sites for the experimental encounter of difference allows us to see its overlaps with anthropology, as well as proposing forms of praxis decoupled from models of politics which function through friend-enemy distinctions and idioms of war.

Action speaks louder.... Towards a creative ethnography combining perspectives from "action research" and contemporary art projects.

Author: Ewa Rossal (Ethnographic Museum in Krakow) email

Short abstract

In this article, I present types of artistic-ethnographic projects that discuss traditional methods of producing ethnographic knowledge and its presentation, and at the same time provoke reflection on the creation of experimental ethnographic realities and seek new languages ​​to describe them.

Long abstract

What will happen if we invite artists to the open-air museum and let them act?How do an anthropologist, filmmaker and artistic photographer interact when working on a joint project?And finally what kind of controversy may be associated with experimental artistic-ethnographic project ?

The first project is the performance of Julita Wójcik, which took place during the exhibition "Masters of peasants peasants" in the open-air museum (Sądecki Ethnographic Park in Southern Poland). The exhibition tested the possibilities of confronting contemporary artistic language with collections of ethnographic museums and the ways in which institutions produce a certain image of ethnographic representation.

Through the "Filo conduttore" project, realized as the outcome of anthropological-artistic residence in Chiaromonte (southern Italy), I would like to show how artistic experiments with visual and audiovisual methods affect ethnographic perception and course of events, and create new areas of cooperation on the border between art and ethnography, between different languages, media and representations.

Finally, in "Outpatient clinic" in Poznań artist Łukasz Surowiec created a situation, where alcoholics, anthropologists, artists and random passers-by could meet. The action, which is quite controversial in terms of ethics, was more based on experimental collaboration between ethnographers and artists, and a large part of the project happened in an unpredictable and unexpected way.

My main goal is to interpret projects using the concept of experimental collaboration (Sanchez Criado, Estaella 2018), through which one can go towards new, actionable forms of ethnography.

The Dinner of Desires: artists, anthropologists and homeless people at Expo Milan 2015

Author: Ivan Bargna (University of Milan-Bicocca) email

Short abstract

The author reflects on an artistic-ethnographic project about food, wishes, and social exclusion, he carried out in a soup kitchen. The times of field and artistic action are related to those of people, big media event, and charitable institutions, to show gaps and mutual implications .

Long abstract

The Dinner of Desires (2014) was an artistic-ethnographic project, ideated in the frame of Expo Milan 2015. It involved a hundred homeless people attending a soup kitchen in Milan, the artist Emilio Fantin, and a team composed of a contemporary art curator, some anthropologists, a sommelier, a pastry chef, social workers, educators, cooks, waiters, videomakers, and an architect. The project was intended to promote a participatory reflection about the social and biographical dynamics of desire, by the means of a situation triggered by an artistic action.

The Dinner of desires was not a performance, but a long term relationships-building process focusing on the links between biographies and food (sharing and exclusion practices, tastes, memories, wishes) explored through the collaborative writing of a "menu of desires".

As a complex device involving different institutional and disciplinary agencies, the Dinner did not happen only in a face to face relationship around the table, but at the intersection of several social mediation systems: on the one hand it was an open experience, with a strong degree of indetermination (as it is characteristic, in varying degrees, of art practice, ethnographic research, and people biographies) and on the other, it was an "organized experience", which had to correspond (or disregard) to the times and constraints of the sponsors, to the Expo media framework, and to the charitable institution in which the dinner took place.

This field of tensions and divergences is the one in which, both the artist and the anthropologist worked.

Waiting for the Monument: imminence and performativity in Eduardo Chillida's Monument to Tolerance (Tindaya, Fuerteventura)

Author: Isaac Marrero-Guillamon (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

Short abstract

Eduardo Chillida's unbuilt 'Monument to Tolerance' is here analysed as a performative quasi-object. Its entanglement with multiple controversies, and its continually protracted imminence, have turned it into an in/material artwork that is good to think with.

Long abstract

This paper interrogates the multiple modes of existence of an unbuilt artwork, Eduardo Chillida's Monument to Tolerance in Tindaya (Fuerteventura, Spain). Consisting in digging a vast cube inside a mountain, Chillida's project has been trapped in a controversy ever since it was unveiled in 1994. Environmental activists have denounced the Monument's incompatibility with the protection of the mountain's listed cultural and natural heritage, including over 300 indigenous engravings. Despite of multiple legal cases and crisis-related budgetary constraints, the project has not been abandoned, or postponed, but rather regularly announced as imminent. This continually protracted imminence translated Chillida's oversized sculpture into a distributed, in/material artwork that exists in the (speculative) form of budget allocations, public events, promotional films, architectural and engineering models, promises of modernity, and activist actions, among others. In this paper I analyse the performativity of this unbuilt Monument, a quasi-object (Serres) whose circulation and multiple enactments reveals important aspects of the Canary Islands' peripheric modernity - not least the effacement of its indigenous history from public policy. Chillida's Monument offers too an opportunity to reflect on the role attributed to modern art by the state in a period that spans from Spain's accelerated developmentalism of the 1990s to post-2008 austerity.

When the sensitive performs reality Public art projects in Mexico rooted in the social fabric.

Author: Francesca Cozzolino (Ecoles nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs (EnsAD)) email

Short abstract

This presentation aims to explore the postulate of a social performativity of art and the role of aesthetic phenomena (wall painting, performative project of public art) in the production of social relations.

Long abstract

This presentation explores the idea of a social performativity of art, that we developed in the context of an investigation on a phenomenon of wall paintings in Sardinia (Cozzolino, 2017) : how can the way artists work generate elements that can bring out new forms of sociability?

We will use data from a recent ethnographic inquiry in Mexico to study artistic projects that, through their public and political dimensions, involve complex lines of cooperation between various actors in civil society and that develop critical reflections on the future of Mexican society.

This is the case of the installation entitled Hasta el último aliento ("Until the last breath") made by Betsabeé Romero and produced in October 2017 in front of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in memory of the victims of the earthquake that had affected Mexico on September 19th. Caesar Cortes Vega, artist and poet, started from this same event and the subjective ways to face it, to create his own plastic archive of the disaster.

The collective of graphic designers, the "Buena Estrella", is engaged in the realization of "mapa del ricuerdos" with the intention of putting in relation the individual and collective memories of the inhabitants of deprived areas of Mexico.

These projects, involving different forms of "doing together", situations of exchange and confrontations of individuals in their experience, yield concrete elements that can help us reflect on the active role of aesthetic phenomena in the production of social relations.

Public Expectations: Mexican feminist art from the streets to the museum

Author: Tania Islas (University of Chicago) email

Short abstract

This paper engages with the work of Mexican artist Lorena Wolffer to analyze how logics of representation, political meanings, and power relations change when socially-engaged, ephemeral art that tackles issues of gender violence is transported into the institutionalized space of the museum.

Long abstract

This paper analyzes how logics of representation, political meanings, and power relations change when socially-engaged, ephemeral art intended for the streets and public plazas is transported into the institutionalized space of the museum. To do so, I focus on contemporary Mexican art that tackles issues of gender violence and sexual stereotypes, and specifically on the case of a retrospective of the works of Lorena Wolffer - a performance artist and queer, feminist activist known for tackling issues of sexual harassment - which took place in 2015 in the Modern Art Museum (MAM) in Mexico City. While the exhibit was being set up, a female museum employee was harassed by a male co-worker and them promptly fired. The victim published an open letter in which she denounced the attack, her firing, and the museum's lack of accountability, but also directly criticized Wolffer for her lack of support. Many members of the Mexican artistic community also accused Wolffer of politically incoherent by denouncing gendered violence while showing her work at the MAM. In this paper, I study the innovative strategies that both Wolffer and the curator adopted to keep her work "alive" inside the institution, while also examining the reactions and critiques sparked by the exhibit and accompanying scandal. In doing so, I reflect on the mounting pressures faced by feminist artists in Mexico to address gender violence and the tensions that arise when they do so in the museum, a place from which they have been historically excluded.

Tierra Y Libertad: Autonomous Flag Aesthetics and Pens/Hacer Politics

Authors: Grant Leuning (University of California San Diego) email
Pepe Rojo (UCSD) email

Short abstract

Tierra Y Libertad is the repetition of a revolutionary object on the US/Mexico edgelands, and a method of pens/hacer (thinkdo), following that object as it provokes into being an complex autonomous form of artwork, political labor and collective being.

Long abstract

Tierra y Libertad is a series of installations, performances, and publications that are thinking-through-production. The project is the repetition of an historical event. In 1911, the peak of Mexico's revolutionary moment, an army formed in Los Angeles: a collection of trade unionists, anarcho-communists, immigrant dock workers and indigenous fighters organized by the revolutionary Mexican exile Ricardo Flores Magón. These "Magonistas" crossed the border, capturing Mexicali and Tijuana. There, they raised a flag, white text on red background, it said Tierra y Libertad. A month later, the Magonistas were massacred by the Mexican federal army and the flag was destroyed by the officials of the new post-revolutionary Mexican state.

The Comité Magonista has been conducting a new iteration of the flag's trajectory, pursuing "pens/hacer", an aesthetic and political method, a post-signifying intensification of artwork as a complex without origins, and an autonomously-generated repetition of (art)works not created, but provoked and converged into existence, reintroducing the flag to the 21st century borderzone. With a community of hundreds of artists, activists, and academics, the Comité has produced several thousand flags, has paraded, marched, distributed blankets and food, seed-bombed the land, burnt the flag into the beach and produced festivals in Tijuana, Mexico City and Mexicali. Through these provocations, the flag has circumscribed a world, distributing the labor of its enactment as a way of defining the modes of relation between flags, marches, events, and the Comité Magonista itself, that entity tasked with the human work of the flag's instantiation and spread.

Short-circuit me! Reflections on viewing and sensing in the context of VR/AR/MR installations

Authors: Paolo S. H. Favero (University of Antwerp) email
Eva Theunissen (University of Antwerp) email

Short abstract

The paper explores the short-circuit between mind and body in the context of contemporary Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) projects.

Long abstract

Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) are today taking the world of arts and filmmaking with a storm. Promising the entrance into a world of immersion, such practices are conventionally addressed through notions of embodiment and presence. With this paper, and through the focus on the MR installation Draw Me Close and the VR documentary Notes on Blindness, we wish to critically explore the possible engagements taking place in such worlds, suggesting that it is actually the transcendence of the physical dimension of our bodies that make VR/AR/MR into meaningful experiences. Foregrounding the viewer's/senser's sense of (dis)embodied awareness, such works tend to offer a short circuit between the physical and the virtual. Draw Me Close inserts a live actor touching and interacting with the viewer within an algorithmic virtual space, and portrays the director's childhood memories of his deceased mother. Notes on Blindness establishes a similarly disconcerting dialectic between the physical and virtual by deliberately disintegrating the viewers' body and by having them sense a world without sight. Challenging the separation between two bodies (the physical and the virtual), this piece foregrounds the potential of such technologies and techniques to offer an experience of simultaneous co-existence in two separate regimes of truth. The presentation further addresses the methodological challenges that the ethnographic study of such worlds entail.

Curation as curare: thoughts on curing materials

Author: Judith Winter (University of Aberdeen) email

Short abstract

This paper explores the relationship between curator and materiality. The word curate has its root in the word 'curare' and here I will follow the terms meaning and consider the contemporary relevance of the medieval Latin 'curatus' that translates in our present time with the act of caring.

Long abstract

One way of understanding curating is as a process of nurturing things so that they are able to grow, transform and live. Another quite different understanding is one that fixes things at a particular moment in time. It takes life at its most vibrant and vital and attempts to preserve this or pause its movement. This stasis or inertia can also come out of an act of caring. However, this motionless state very often stultifies; "it sucks out the life of thing" by flattening and smoothing-out the wilding of life. In the first definition there is an impulse to open up the world, whilst in the latter one that seeks to protect through an act of fossilization or petrification. By definition individual curators will have their own perspectives and dispositions; sometimes solicitous and attentive or often over-protective and controlling. Tradition, inheritance or acquired characteristics are important here, but our malleability and willingness to re-cast knowledge through our experiences in the world are also part of the process. With reference to my own curatorial experiences over the last 20 plus years, the paper will attempt to open up a conversation about how we move beyond the materiality of representation and ask how artists, curators and writers across disciplinary divides might use this definition of 'curating as curare' as a way to continually reimagine experiences that are responsive to the material world as it is shaped and formed through changing events.

Reenactment and Realist Representation as Ethnographic Approaches

Author: Michaela Schaeuble (University of Bern, Switzerland) email

Short abstract

In the 1950s, Ernesto De Martino and his research team made use of reenactments, staged encounters and reconstructed performances (i.e. of funerary lament or choreographies of ecstatic behaviour). The paper reflects on the production of "living documents" as effective ethnological research method.

Long abstract

In the course of his ethnographic "expeditions" to the South of Italy, anthropologist and historian of religion Ernesto De Martino and his research team made extensive use of reenactments, staged encounters and reconstructed performances (i.e. of funerary lament or choreographies of ecstatic behaviour). He considered these as "living documents" and effective ethnological research methods, continually emphasising that reenactments and reconstructions were scientifically as valuable as 'authentic' data.

In my presentation I argue that for De Martino, the woman who vocalises a lament, recurrently hallucinates, falls into trances or who publicly dramatises a spider possession, echoes and perpetuates a formulaic pattern that is neither singular nor collective and goes far beyond individual suffering. This understanding poses a number of challenges - not only with regards to research ethics, but also concerning the explanation, transmission and representation of these patterns. Focusing on a set of audio-visual recordings and photographs that were produced in the course of De Martino's "expeditions", I will scrutinise the coherences and contradictions that arise from an approach that uses the ethnographic present as a key to studying and understanding the Mediterranean world of the distant past.

Performing Public Poetry: Enchantment for the Future in Russia

Author: Petra Rethmann (McMaster University) email

Short abstract

I build on public poetry readings in Moscow to think about the meaning of aesthetic attunements for a self-identified political and activist anthropology. I argue that it behooves such an anthropology to pay heed to the sensual dimensions of art to produce positive political orientations.

Long abstract

In the last few years in Moscow I've participated in a number of public poetry readings, many of which were performed by those who identify with Russia's "new left." In building on a reading of revolutionary Victor Serge's poetry by Kirill Medvedev, an experimental and political poet who identifies with Russia's "new sincerity" movement, I am interested in the ways in which public poetry readings produce enchantment, by which I mean art's capacity to create particular atmospheres and moods. In Russian public poetry readings, enchantment emerges not solely as an aesthetic affect immanent to a given poetic text, but also through the sensory appreciation of Serge's poetry and words: for example, through the rhythmic flow and cadences of Medvedev's reading.

What does this mean for anthropology, especially for an anthropology that conceives of itself as a form of public and critical intervention? For anthropologists schooled in methods of critique (problematizing, revealing, subverting, and unmasking), positing public poetry readings as a form of meaningful politics can seem strange. The practice appears easily as too aesthetic, as too toothless than to be imbued with real political power. In drawing on Russian artistic traditions, especially as they were developed in the mid-1920s by artists Arvatov and Rodchenko, as well as multispecies approaches suggested by Latour and others, I argue that it would behoove a self-identified political anthropology to pay heed to the sensual dimensions of art to produce "affectively [constructive] attunements."

Making Scenes: The return of Interaction in anthropology and art

Author: Susan Ossman (University of California, Riverside) email

Short abstract

I address the (re)turn to interactivity in art and anthropology with reference to my work as a "site designer" for "The Moving Matters Traveling Workshop", a collective of serial migrant artist scholars I direct that develops exhibitions, performances and interventions in changing locations.

Long abstract

While the possibilities opened by making ethnography a meeting ground for artists and anthropologists has been widely debated and put into practice, the current (re)turn toward interactive approaches in art and what it means for materiality and representation bears further discussion. I addresses this topic with reference to my work as a "site designer" for the "The Moving Matters Traveling Workshop" (MMTW), a collective of serial migrant artists that develops exhibitions, performances, participatory interventions in changing locations. I contrast this fieldwork design and its results with other art/anthropology projects I have designed, showing the overlap of art/anthropological approaches to shaping sites and the ones I've adopted for the MMTW and other art/anthropology projects. I then examine the way that objects, materials and notions of site specificity are reworked by the interventions of the collective, particularly with regard to how art objects and performative sequences connect the changing countries and venues the MMTW serially inhabits. I follow how "materiality" and "representation" are altered by this movement, how these changes feeds into the multi-modal work of the collective and the broader project of studying of social and political life as choreographic

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.