the art of ethnography: the aesthetics or ethics of participation?

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Monash University Library]On: 07 October 2014, At: 12:44Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: MortimerHouse, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    The art of ethnography: the aesthetics or ethics ofparticipation?Larissa Hjorth & Kristen SharpPublished online: 07 Apr 2014.

    To cite this article: Larissa Hjorth & Kristen Sharp (2014) The art of ethnography: the aesthetics or ethics ofparticipation?, Visual Studies, 29:2, 128-135, DOI: 10.1080/1472586X.2014.887261

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  • The art of ethnography: the aesthetics or ethics ofparticipation?


    When Hal Foster noted an ethnographic turn in the artworld in the 1990s, he was eluding to broader impulsesthat had haunted avant-garde movements throughoutmost of modernism, such as surrealism. However, theethnographic turn did not just have an impact in thevisual arts areas such as cultural studies felt a shift fromthe textual towards the ethnographic. Two and halfdecades on, the pervasive nature of ethnography can befelt across the disciplines as ethnographic approachesevolve, migrate and transform, especially through thegrowing ubiquity of the digital. In this context, variousentanglements need to be defined especially the drawingupon ethnographic aesthetics and ethics in art practice.But is this ethnographic compulsion just a stylistic trendor does it speak of deeper concerns in the arts aboutengaging with social and cultural practices and reflexiveparticipation? Drawing on case studies in contemporaryart, this article focuses upon the haunting of theethnographic turn in art through numerous guises fromrelational aesthetics onwards.


    Ethnography, as the writing up of cultural practice, has,much like culture itself, taken on various manifestations.Once a method used by sociologists and anthropologists,ethnography is now a widely deployed approach andconceptual framework in contemporary media cultures.Throughout this evolution, some concepts haveremained central to ethnographic practice the reflexivenegotiation of self, power, labour and participation.Given these key concerns, it is not surprising thatethnography as a way in which to frame culturalpractice has been embraced within the visual arts. Inparticular, the significant increase of socially engagedpractices in late twentieth-century art identified in the1990s by Hal Foster in The Artist as Ethnographer

    (1996) and Nicolas Bourriauds Relational Aesthetics([1998] 2002) foregrounds art as a social/culturalencounter.

    For more than a decade the legacy of relationalaesthetics has continued to take various guises in whatBourriaud defined as artists impulse to take human andsocial relations as the context and content for artproduction and consumption. According to Bourriaud,contemporary art needed to stop hiding behind 1960sphilosophies and strategies and instead engage withemergent Internet cultures and the focus on user co-creation, participation, collaboration and DIY (do-it-yourself). In relational aesthetics the audience is acommunity to be collaborated with to createintersubjective encounters.

    However for critics such as Clare Bishop (2004),relational aesthetics was more of a curatorial modusoperandi whereby the laboratory experience of thegallery encounter does not openly address theimbalances of power relations that in turn lead tovarious uneven forms of participation. For all its legacyand systemic problems relational aesthetic has identifieda key ongoing tendency in contemporary art thedeployment of the ethnographic. With reflexivity andparticipation being central tenors in relational aesthetics,it is no surprise that the haunting of the ethnographicand arts perpetual appropriation and misappropriationshould come to the forefront. Yet over a decade latersince relational aesthetics has the art world moved ontomore sophisticated understandings of ethnography? Insum, has ethnography moved beyond an aestheticgesture towards an ethical practice in art?

    Ethnographic probing specifically reflexivity andredefining participation has featured in the movementof the visual arts towards increasingly localised, social

    Larissa Hjorth is an artist, digital ethnographer and Professor in the Games Programs, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. She is co-directorof RMITs Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) with Heather Horst. Since 2000, Hjorth has been researching the gendered and socioculturaldimensions of mobile, social, locative and gaming cultures in the Asia-Pacific. Her books include Mobile Media in the Asia-Pacific (2009), Games andGaming (2010), Online@AsiaPacific: Mobile, Social and Locative in the AsiaPacific region (with Michael Arnold, 2013) and Understanding Digital Media inthe Age of Social Networking (with Sam Hinton, 2013).Kristen Sharp is Coordinator of Art History and Theory in the School of Art, RMIT University. Since 2002, Sharp has been researching and publishing oncontemporary art practices and their relationship to the cultural, political and economic dimensions of globalisation. Following completion of her doctoral thesisin 2007 Superflat Worlds: A Topography of Takashi Murakami and the Cultures of Superflat Art she has co-edited Outer Site: The Intercultural Projects ofRMIT Art in Public Space (2010) and Reimagining the City: Art, Globalization and Urban Space (2013). She has also published in ACCESS journal and has achapter in Cultures and/of Globalization (2011).

    Visual Studies, 2014Vol. 29, No. 2, 128135,

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  • and political encounters. With more artists travellingand participating in residencies elsewhere, art and theethnographic have increasingly become bedfellows. Herethe ethnographic in art should not be mistaken fordocumenting but rather it is a type of method andcriticality. It is about repositioning participation and itsrelationship between maker and the audience, arelationship that has increasingly been challenged withthe rise of the professional amateur (pro-am) and theproducing user (produser). If contemporary mediaculture is characterised by participation andcollaboration, then this challenges art to move beyond amere adoption of Internet terminology (as in the case ofrelational aesthetics). This shifting media scape hasgiven way to the need, if not compulsion, for art toevoke the ethnographic; this is particularly significantgiven the ways in which ethnography has become animportant approach in understanding digital and onlinespaces (Boellstorff et al. 2012). The ethnographic canhelp the artist/curator probe the cultural context,providing a nuanced space for the audience and artist toreflect. But is arts adaptation of the ethnographic abouta criticality and reflexivity or is it a mere aestheticisationof ethnographic? Is it a style or a politics?

    In this article we map the rise of ethnographicapproaches in contemporary art and the types ofchallenges it presents. The role of a critical reflexivity inart/ethnography as well as the changing practices of art/ethnography in relation to digital mediation isexamined, particularly the changing topography ofunderstanding place in the light of online/offlinerelationships which emphasise symbolic as well asgeographic ideas of place. The analysis of thisintersection is especially valuable in the light of theparticipatory assumptions often made around socialmedia (and earlier, the Internet itself).

    In order to do so we first explore the entanglementsbetween identity, ethnography and place. In this sectionwe reflect upon how ethnography has shaped, and beenshaped by, phenomenon such as digital media. We thenconsider the specific role ethnography occupies incontemporary art practice. We then move onto two ca