A Little Piece
Written in June 2022 and presented at FEINART Summer School in Friedrichshafen in September 2022.
There is a strong call, in the domain of the theories of contemporary socially engaged art, to employ robust models of field research, due to the specific nature of socially engaged practice as locally situated, collaborative or participatory, process-oriented and with an ambition for change. In fact, in 2015 art theorist Grant Kester hints at what might be thought of as a recent ‘ethnographic turn’ in art theory and criticism, which is likely less recent than one might think.
Kester’s position prompted another art theorist Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen to respond in 2017 with a brief note, where he points out the affinities between ethnographic fieldwork and situated socially engaged practice and combines a familiar critique of ethnography’s dubious history with a Marxist eschatological dismissal of qualitative research methods based on the argument that engagement with particular situations risks repurposing the microtopias of Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics as well as blinding researchers and theorists to the dire effects of contemporary capitalism, to which we could add of course a range of other structural forces such as racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, ecocide and identarianism to name a few.
In a response to Rasmussen, Kester (2017) deals at length with the Marxist critique, identifying it as “exculpatory”. The critique of ethnography’s history, or the politics of field research, on the other hand is dealt with by Kester only in a brief footnote as being less “cogent” than “symptomatic”. He insists that contemporary anthropology, for instance “presents a range of useful paradigms,” none of which,
treat the site of research from the perspective of naïve empiricism and all … fully cognizant of the problematic colonialist histories of the discipline that Rasmussen seems to imagine as a kind of scandalous secret. … The skeptical response some art critics have to the disciplines of ethnography or anthropology, seems to be tied to an almost instinctual resistance to direct, observational or participatory engagement with practice.
Ultimately, it comes down to who’s observing who, when, why and how, whether a field research paradigm is suitable, and moreover emancipatory or justified. Art theorist Leila Hagighat (2020), relying on Spivak’s (1988, 277) Marxist critique of the dual function of representation, writes about how socially engaged artists often represent a constituency, both in the sense of vertreten, being a spokesperson for, and darstellen, of drawing up a particular picture. One could add, with Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) distinction between the production and representation of space in mind, that critics and theorists of socially engage art tend to operate on yet another level of representation.
In March this year, during a secondment at the University of Wolverhampton I participated in a workshop facilitated by designer and researcher Harun Morrison and commissioned by my colleague Sophie Mak-Schram under the notion unmaking place. In the workshop Sassia Sasken’s (2013) text about the multivocal speech of the city, and her question “Does the city have speech?,” oriented discussions about gentrification and placemaking practices as well as artistic explorations of the city of Leicester where the workshop took place. I would like to finish by simply highlighting the singular notion of the field so often invoked when we speak about socially engaged art and invite for a reflection inspired by Sassen’s essay ‘Does the City Have Speech?’ and the work of Sophie and Harun. Perhaps we could formulate it this way. Do fields have speech? Who can give speech to a field? What is made and unmade when giving speech to a field? And ultimately, what does it mean to make a field and what would unmaking a field look like?
Hagighat, L. (2020) ‘Hegemonic Struggles in the City: Artist-Run Spaces and Community Art in the Anti-Gentrification Movement.’ European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes 3 (1).
Kester, G.H. (2015) ‘Editorial.’ FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 1.
Kester, G.H. (2017) ‘The Limitations of the Exculpatory Critique: A Response to Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen.’ FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 6.
Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell.
Rasmussen, M.(2017) ‘A Note on Socially Engaged Art Criticism.’ The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 53, 60-72.
Sassen, S. (2013) ‘Does the City Have Speech?’ Public Culture 25, 209-221.