Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art and conceptual art conducted as ethnography. The goal of this special issue is to introduce it as a concept and a method and to contextualize it in art and anthropology. Article contributions to this special issue do so by focusing on the following questions: What is gained by anthropology by explicitly bringing conceptualism into it? And, the other way around, what is gained by conceptualism when it is qualified as “ethnographic”? What is “ethnographic” about this kind of conceptualism? What is “conceptualist” about this kind of ethnography? This new way to bridge art and anthropology was developed during research and curatorial work on the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006) and later discussed at the panel on ethnographic conceptualism at the meeting of the American Anthropological Association (Montréal, November 2011) and workshops on this theme at the Courtauld Institute for Art (London, January 2012) and the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge (May 2012).
In order to examine the methodological potential of a more experimental form of fieldwork, I present three examples of conceptual interventions in my fieldsite, Hoyerswerda, Germany’s fastest shrinking city. My deployment of weekly anthropological columns in the local newspaper, an anthropological research camp for local youth, and a communal art project in a soon to be demolished socialist apartment house as ethnographic tools might be criticized for changing the field. However, my informants are themselves continuously adjusting their concepts and narratives in order to make sense of current rapid alterations.
Michał MurawskiThis article describes experiments with fieldwork methodology, carried out while researching the relationship between a Stalinist skyscraper (the Palace of Culture and Science) and the social life of contemporary Warsaw. Making use of three concepts of totality taken from social and art theory (the Maussian “total social fact,” the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, and anthropological holism), I show how the provocative style and public scale of “Palaceological” “ethnographic conceptualism”—which triangulates participant observation, artlike ethnographic interventions, and a quantitative survey—mirrors the bombastic manner and pervasive scope of the Palace’s presence in the social life of the city.
Olga SosninaIn 2012, a major exhibition entitled Dictionary of the Caucasus: The Land and the People took place at the Tsaritsyno Museum. It brought together exhibits from 17 state cultural institutions and modern art workshops of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Makhachkala. An illustrated catalog was published, featuring 26 authors—foreign and Russian anthropologists, archaeologists, philologists, and art critics. In this article, the museum’s curator reflects on the linkages between ambitious scientific concepts and the reality of exhibition practice in the space of a modern Russian museum.
Khadija von Zinnenburg CarrollThrough a history of performances in public spaces, this article develops a theory of “performing viewers.” It theorizes a conceptual art that gives viewers the opportunity to participate using the example of how drawing graffiti on monuments or on their pedestals redefines the monument, author, and artist. Performing viewers are considered in the article as vital constituents of ethnographic conceptualism—the artist’s version of informants. Taking the situation and history of pedestals (such as one, in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, without the Bruce Lee monument it was built to support) as an artifact of ethnographic conceptualism, the pedestal is turned into a document for urban ethnographers studying the Balkans. Structured as an experiment in conceptual writing, this piece is a continuation of the author’s art practice, which explores the history and politics of multiple kinds of authorship in the Balkans.
Sergio Jarillo de la Torre
This paper takes its cue from two art objects that can be considered in themselves as nontextual experiments in ethnographic research. The series Museum Photographs by Thomas Struth, as Guggenheim Museum curators put it, “captures anonymous individuals and crowds looking at iconic works of Western art in the world’s most popular museums.” More than the aesthetic value of the artwork and its meaning, Struth’s reflection emphasizes the audience’s reaction to the art object, evidencing his concern with the social potential of artworks in the art world. In a similar way, Christoph Büchel puts the public at the center of his installation Simply Botiful by soliciting affective responses to hyperrealistic and emotionally loaded issues. This paper purports to look at Büchel’s installation with Struth’s conceptual lens as a methodological tool to disentangle the complex web of relations between people and things that gravitate around the art world.
James Oliver, Marnie Badham
Using as a starting point a community-based art project that the authors collaborated on as artists-researchers, this article is a methodological discussion on the development of “situational practice.” This is an art practice-as-research approach, positioned as conceptual, ethnographic, and reflexive, therefore resonating with this special issue’s theme of ethnographic conceptualism. Our aim is to foster and develop a methodological debate that encourages cross-disciplinary work enhancing practice-as-research development in art—with our particular interest being the creative convergence between everyday life and forms of social practice in the arts: art practices broadly defined as socially engaged, participatory, and activating.
This is a study of audience reactions to the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006) that ranges from comments in the viewers’ response book to the decision of the Kremlin Museum to gift a copy of the exhibition catalogue to President Vladimir Putin for his fifty-fifth birthday in 2007. My goal is to demonstrate how relations of knowledge, which configure this complex post-Soviet audience in the form of social memory, perform the gift and, vice versa, how gift giving performs these relations of knowledge and power. In doing so, this article contributes from a new angle to the gift theory and also to anthropological understandings of performativity. It is a study in “ethnographic conceptualism” that refers to anthropological themes and concepts as they can be used in conceptual art and also, conversely, to anthropology conducted as conceptual art.