Thinking through Collaboration
What is Ethnographic Terminalia?
Since 2009, the Ethnographic Terminalia Curatorial Collective has produced exhibitions at the creative intersection of art and anthropology. In conjunction with the annual American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting in Philadelphia (Figure 1), New Orleans, Montréal (Figure 2) and San Francisco, the collective has engaged with the potential of collaborative methodologies through the practice of co-curation in the realization of collaborative art projects. In this article, we highlight some of the work we have exhibited that define collaborative explorations, and that suggest new possibilities for ethnographic representation and research-based artwork. We conclude this discussion with a brief description of our upcoming exhibition in November 18–22, 2013 at Chicago’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park entitled, Exhibition as Residency: Art, Anthropology, Collaboration.
Curating and Collaboration
Much has been written about the challenges of disciplinary border crossing that artists and scholars face when working in one another’s domain. Grant Kester, for example, in Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (University of California Press, 2004) critiques community based-art practice by arguing that many artists simply drop into communities without considering the “unique constellation of social and economic faces, personalities and forces” (Kester, 95). In his often cited chapter “The Artist as Ethnographer” in The Return of the Real, Hal Foster points out that the “quasi-anthropological role set up for the artist can promote a presuming as much as a questioning of ethnographic authority” (Foster, MIT Press 1996: 196). Foster demands discursive breadth as well as historical depth in working with a community. For example, while questioning whether the anthropologist can do anything but envy the artist as the paradigm of self-reflection, is it the anthropologist who wishes to be remade as an artistic interpreter of cultural text (Foster, 180). More recently, Arnd Schneider and Chris Wright in Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice (Berg: 2010. See also their most recent publication Anthropology and Art Practice, Bloomsbury: 2013) have also explored productive frictions and articulations of collaborations between anthropologists and artists, providing a foundation for our curatorial experimentations.
Ethnographic Terminalia began exhibiting art and anthropology in response to limitations posed by scholarly forms of disseminating research. Many of the exhibitors in Ethnographic Terminalia work successfully in both registers of art and anthropology, and have education and training in multiple fields. For example, Stephanie Spray’s Untitled (bed) (2009) [exhibited in Philadelphia, 2009] is an ethnographically informed video focusing on how the seemingly mundane act of household chores draws attention to the physicality of the videographer. Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie (2007) [exhibited in New Orleans, 2010] is a provocative composition of the recorded voices of speakers of endangered and extinct languages, produced for gallery contemplation. Roderick Coover’s atmospheric video installation Det siste utbruddet/The Last Volcano (2010) [exhibited in New Orleans, 2010], juxtaposes folk histories and contemporary events to evoke particular cultural anxieties and collective memories. Coover’s project is one of many examples of works exhibited by Ethnographic Terminalia that is not necessarily readable as a discrete anthropological text; but rather engages with a distinct artistic form for legibility within various audiences. By highlighting the limitations of traditional forms of exposition that undermine reflexive engagements, Ethnographic Terminalia creates experimental exhibition spaces for the cultivation of discursive cultural phenomena and modes of expression beyond the textual. This sort of experimental curatorial approach to each exhibition includes the strategic inclusion of multiple forms of media and materials from across both disciplines.
Collaboration is central to our collective curatorial process and features prominently in the content and aesthetic of the works we exhibit. Anthropologist Mike Evans and artist Stephen Foster’s collaboration on the multimedia work The Prince George Métis Elder’s Documentary Project (2007) includes a series of interviews and film journeys that depict and document the Métis community of Prince George, British Columbia [exhibited in Philadelphia, 2009]. Video documentation of Humberto Vélez’s performative collaboration The Fight (2009) shows community boxing associations from south London staging matches in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern [exhibited in Montréal, 2011] (Figure 2). These matches are the culmination of Vélez’s long-term engagement; the resulting documentation stands as a work of art for exhibition (see a recent 2013 publication, Humberto Vélez: The Aesthetics of Collaboration, edited by Emelie Chhangur for more on his distinct practice). Artist John Wynne collaborated with linguistic anthropologist Tyler Peterson, photographer Denise Hawrysio, and members of the Gitxsan community in northern British Columbia to produce Anspayaxw (2011), an immersive 12-channel sound and photographic installation that evokes complex issues at the heart of language revitalization and colonial histories [exhibited in San Francisco, 2012] (Figure 3). The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) (2011)—a group of scientists that develop and apply open-source tools to environmental investigation––brought a hacked Roomba vacuum into the gallery space to assess toxins in the room, thereby highlighting the role of collaborative knowledge and community activism in research [exhibited in Montréal, 2011] (Figure 4). In diverse locations and communities, using a range of documentary mediums and research methods, these projects have foregrounded collaboration in the process of knowledge making and aesthetic production.
Exhibition as Residency: Art, Anthropology, Collaboration
Our 2013 Chicago project Exhibition as Residency: Art, Anthropology, Collaboration will be installed at the Arts Incubator in Washington Park—a public gallery and project space that emerges from the Arts + Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago (Figure 5). This iteration of Ethnographic Terminalia will bring contemporary artists and anthropologists together in the form of a residency where collaborating groups will work in the gallery over the course of the exhibition (five days) to both perform and produce their ethnographic and/or artistic research. Local visitors as well as AAA attendees are invited to visit the gallery and to experience each group’s respective process. The exhibition draws on process and collaboration in art and anthropology as central activities and sites of engagement, where research and production that are visibly in progress challenge notions of the finished artwork or research publication as the only legitimate space of encounter or knowledge production.
Rather than focusing on the submission of an object for exhibition (a photograph, video, painting, or ethnographic text), the artists’ and anthropologists’ collaborative process and production are on display. We anticipate momentum to be produced by working side-by-side, engaging in conversation, sharing techniques of production, both informally and in organized workshops (eg, knitting forums, artist talks, and hands-on participation open to the public). This performative mode of exhibition has precedent in recent projects such as the 4 Days performance series at the Arnolfini Gallery (UK), or the actively installed Spirits of Utopia exhibition the Whitechapel Gallery (UK) where visitors are invited to watch master potters and their apprentices throw bowls for Theaster Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation (2011-present), or participate in an imaginary Sanatorium (by artist Pedro Reyes, 2013), or watch plants grow in incubators installed by the London collective Wayward Plants (2013-onward) as they think about urban food production.
The 2013 residency in Chicago responds to the energy of contemporary collaborative engagements between artists, anthropologists, and new publics. It will offer a passing opportunity for visitors to observe or to participate in the activities of the gallery. The Arts Incubator in Washington Park will be a site for watching, socializing, hanging-out, and for experiencing the production, circulation, and consumption of art and anthropology. This year the Ethnographic Terminalia collective will also be in-residence, using the space to reflect upon their five-year engagement with anthropology and art, and the collective’s future projects. In this role, the curators will contemplate ways to develop generative spaces for artists, anthropologists, and others who are actively engaged with experiments in cultural critique. We hope that you will visit and join us in thinking of ways to bring new modes of ethnographic and artistic production––with collaboration as a defining characteristic––to the American Anthropological Association community and the world that it inhabits.
Ethnographic Terminalia is a curatorial collective that explores anthropological exhibition—in some of its less traditional forms—in proximity to and in conversation with contemporary art practices. For more on this work by Craig Campbell (U Texas at Austin,)Kate Hennessy (Simon Fraser U), Fiona P McDonald (U C London), Trudi Lynn Smith (York U) and Stephanie Takaragawa (Chapman U), visit www.ethnographicterminalia.org.