Every artistic excursion and theoretical venture requires that boundaries be ceaselessly called to question, undermined, modified, and reinscribed. By its politics of transformation, critical inquiry is ever compelled to look for different approaches to the aesthetic experience, different ways of relating to it without categorizing it.
—Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Other Censorship,” in When the Moon Waxes Red
I would add that even if there is the will to categorize for the purposes of clarification or for the purpose of examining previous forms of categorization, the realization of how the constructed category can always slip is necessary. This brings me to my title.
At the time in which I was invited to participate in this series I was embroiled in a variety of discussions which seemed to share as a theme shifts that are occurring and which are contested and debated.1 Some of the shifts I noted in my immediate surroundings, those having been the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York, had to do with discussions about cultural studies, and visual culture as a sort of petulant offspring of the former, and the conflicts between these areas and the disciplines, in this instance that of art history. Questions of how money was being allotted to departments arose, and a mini territorial struggle seemed to be under way. In the larger political realm the continuing issue of diasporas and border guarding was and is prevalent. Economic downsizing, also related to the border tensions surrounding NAFTA as well as to the academic institutional fights between departments and by junior adjunct professors, continues to affect where and how people can live. Amid these changes circulate questions such as “Is Europe’s Currency Coming Apart?,” which appears on the current cover of the The Economist (June 7–13, 1997). Meanwhile a cultural show of force is staged at Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and the Münster Sculpture Project, as biennales in Kwangju, Korea, and Johannesburg, South Africa, emerge for the second time. Global/local emerges as a recurring theme related to a back-and-forth movement which I associate with what I’m calling slippages, and which thematizes both Kwangju and Johannesburg biennales as well as other events and discussions. Global/Local is the title of a book of collected essays with the subtitle Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary.2 The book seems very timely and is described on its jacket this way:
Positioned at the crossroads of an altered global terrain, this volume, the first of its kind, analyzes the evolving transnational imaginary—the full scope of contemporary cultural production by which national identities of political allegiance and economic regulation are being undone, and in which imagined communities are being reshaped at both the global and local levels of everyday existence.
I intend to return to some of the issues raised when thinking about this “altered global terrain,” ways in which this can be interpreted and how this has affected practices I and my colleagues have been engaged with, as well as ways in which discussions which go across disciplines are being shaped and are necessary.
I’d like to begin by suggesting the continued relevance of the term genealogy for my thinking. In his book Intellectuals in Power: A Genealogy of Critical Humanism,3 Paul Bové offers ways in which to perceive of the notion of genealogy as invoked by Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said. I will quote some of the key points which I found useful in his analysis of critical humanism and which are applicable to the discussion I am embarking on in this essay.
By way of a definition this reference to Foucault provides a point of entry:
As Foucault puts it, “Genealogy is history in the form of a concerted carnival.” In other words, genealogy does not just produce “new knowledge”; rather it repositions the role of knowledge production in our culture, and it does this by casting doubt on the value and desirability of “knowledge” as it functions under the sign of “will to truth” within the humanistic project, that is, as it is presumed to “assure” liberty, progress, and human fulfillment.4
In terms of the following discussion the distinctions Bové makes between the practices of Said and Foucault are significant because these are recurring differences which, as Bové notes, “define the problem facing humanistic intellectuals today”:
Said insists on the political necessity of critical consciousness as the ground for justice in the world; Foucault hopes to challenge the very priority of the subject precisely because its continuation as the ground of critical opposition inscribes too much of the genealogy of ascetic humanism and so, doubling back upon the critical intellectual, blunts his or her activity. As I see it, these two very strong positions bring critics to a difficult set of judgments: they both require not only that we see practice and theory as specific and situated—discursively and culturally—but also that we find precise and definite ways to evaluate the relative political efficacy of various forms of opposition as these exist in humanism and as they either signal the need to escape it or try, as in Foucault’s case, to destroy and go beyond it.5
The divisions that Bové goes on to describe are those of “ascetic” or “anthropological” humanism, particularly as they are configured in literary criticism. He points out how the “different configuration of political and cultural forces in the U.S.” make it necessary to avoid an uncritical adoption of Foucault’s “broad condemnation of all humanistic rhetorics and practices.” He suggests that “Some effort must be made to make more precise judgments that will permit us, as we must, to acknowledge and support those forms of skeptical, oppositional humanism directed toward political self-determination.”6
Examining some of the genealogies from which my thinking has emerged, which include those stated by Bové, brings me back to a project begun several years ago and which is ongoing.
When I was last in Vienna, giving a talk in this same location four years ago, I spoke a bit about a symposium I was then in the process of organizing called Negotiations in the Contact Zone,7 which occurred in April 1994 in New York. The symposium was divided into two parts, Spatial Predicaments and Narrative Twists. The participants of the Spatial Predicaments panel were Sowon Kwon, Miwon Kwon, Simon Leung, Diedrich Diederichsen, and Judith Barry. The participants of the Narrative Twists panel were Lynne Tillman, Joe Wood, Manthia Diawara, Karim Aïnouz, and James Clifford. I’d like to reexamine some of the ideas which were raised at that time and consider some of the shifts in thinking which have occurred between then and now. At the time of the symposium I suggested that it is sometimes necessary to move outside of the world one seems designated to inhabit in order to gain another perspective about what one is doing and that a “second language,” or possibly even more, would be needed to enable a rethinking of established notions.
The art historian Yve-Alain Bois provided an example, which I used, of such skewing in reference to a relationship between sculpture and architecture. The exchange he describes is between the sculptor Richard Serra and the architect Peter Eisenman:
Serra, therefore, does not wish to be mistaken for an architect. Which does not keep his sculpture from being a lesson in architecture, or a criticism of architecture—something that he ended by admitting when an architect, to be exact, put him on the defensive:
When sculpture … leaves the gallery or museum to occupy the same space and place as architecture, when it redefines the space and place in terms of sculptural necessities, architects become annoyed. Not only is their concept of space being changed, but for the most part it is being criticized. The criticism can come into effect only when architectural scale, methods, materials and procedures are being used. Comparisons are provoked. Every language has a structure about which nothing critical in that language can be said. To criticize a language, there must be a second language available dealing with the structure of the first but possessing a new structure.8
An example from another register, which I referred to, was that of fiction, in its written and filmic forms. I’ve often found that fiction provides a way to gain access to thinking about complex histories, and political, economic, and social dynamics, which might seem difficult to grasp when reading an academic history, which purports to state the facts, or a more straight economic or sociological analysis. These fictional forms allow other ways of thinking about events and how events are described. I’m recalling my study of the histories of Latin America, partly through the writings, for example, of Gabriel García Márquez or Carlos Fuentes; or of the Caribbean through the words of V.S. Naipaul or Jamaica Kincaid; Senegal and a diasporic trajectory to France, with the help of the films and books of Ousmane Sembène. In the U.S. reading Faulkner, Hurston, Ellison, Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, and scores of others has helped me move between historical representations, statistical data from sociological studies, words passed down to me orally, and experiences I’ve had or witnessed in different parts of the United States.
I raised these examples to point out what I imagined could be the possibility for a provocative and fruitful dialogue which I hoped would ensue between the invited cultural producers and cultural critics, and which I think upon rereading the papers and the discussion did occur. At this moment though the designation “cultural critic” might possibly be challenged, and a grounding in a specific field of expertise might be asked for. This is where the designations get sticky. Why these designations might be called for now is one of the questions I’d like to pose in this essay. Thinking about the visual arts I reiterated questions which continue to circulate: What happens when art seems to be taking on the face of theoretical critique, in addition to traveling outside of the gallery? These questions are reminiscent of those asked in previous times of work which has become known as conceptual art, and even earlier of some dadaistic practices. From this example I think it’s possible to make comparisons to ways in which cultural products employing theoretical notions are questioned, and this occurs across the categories from which the panelists located their work.
The cultural producers (visual artists, video producers, filmmakers, writers) I’d invited make work which involves critical thinking about the history and production of art (visual art, film, video, and literature) as well as history in its broader sense, and in turn they negotiate their relationships to the theories utilized and created by cultural critics, including the ones who were invited, while also developing their own theoretical frameworks. The methodology of the invited cultural producers—which involves all manner of research, textual representations, analyses of textual and visual representations, an engagement with psychoanalytic, feminist, semiotic, post-structuralist, post-colonialist, and gender theories—at times resembles that used by cultural critics, and while what is produced by each group can contribute to perceptions of the world and our lives in ways we hadn’t imagined, the manner and intent in which these provocative tactics are conducted, as well as the audiences to whom they are addressed, can differ. The way in which critical thought informs what these cultural producers and what these cultural critics do and the importance for dialogue between them was one of the frameworks for the symposium. Both are engaged in exploring ways of envisioning the world and attempting to change it through their practices, but I believed that the work of both groups could be strengthened by better grasping the ways in which each functioned. In some cases the producers and the critic were the same person. The distinction I was making wasn’t meant to rigidify any binary opposition but was presented as a historical distinction, as well as a prevalent current distinction. Each of the panelists in their own way resisted the historically rigid categorizations of their fields, yet their work involves distinctions which differentiate their practices.
I borrowed the term “contact zone” from the comparative literature professor Mary Louise Pratt, who had borrowed it from linguistics. Viewing how she defines her use of the term “contact zone” added a historical resonance, which I hoped to recuperate for contemporary encounters as well and to use as a tool to focus a discussion about concerns which I’d observed to be prevalent.
All of the invited panelists had done work which on various levels had addressed the notion of what I was interpreting as the “contact zone,” and the work of each moves between spatial and narrative references within this realm.
As Pratt describes it in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, from which I’ll quote at length, the term contact zone refers to
the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict. I borrow the term “contact” here from its use in linguistics, where the term contact language refers to improvised languages that develop among speakers of different native languages who need to communicate with each other consistently, usually in the context of trade. Such languages begin as pidgins, and are called creoles when they come to have native speakers of their own. Like the societies of the contact zone, such languages are commonly regarded as chaotic, barbarous, lacking in structure… “Contact zone” in my discussion is often synonymous with “colonial frontier.” But while the latter term is grounded within a European expansionist perspective (the frontier is a frontier only with respect to Europe), “contact zone” is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect. By using the term “contact,” I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist accounts of conquest and domination.9
I interpreted the term not only in reference to a past colonial contact but in relation to the manifestations which have ensued from that contact, as well as the various moments when negotiations between different cultures have to be made. The negotiations I referred to can be considered in a broad sense as ranging from literal spatial instances to psychological ways of coping with what appears to be foreign, by using creative and enabling approaches. I considered the work of each of the invited participants to be negotiations of that terrain. What John Rajchman said about identity as a topic also applies to ways in which to perceive of the “contact zone,” not solely as a political problem but also as a problem for thinking and for creating. The topic seemed especially pressing in the light of various boundary disputes and border clashes which continue to occur in U.S. cities—at that time Crown Heights and the L.A. Rebellion were some of the more publicized examples—as well as those which occur in Germany, Eastern Europe, France, South Africa, the list goes on and on.
In relation to issues of genealogy it is important to remember what previous discussions and claims were being raised relationally. For example, it was my hope to follow up on certain discussions which intersected the proposed one and to address important discussions that had been begun but that were then and are now, as the recent writings on “critical race theory” attest,10 in no way finished. In a symposium held in November 1991 on “The Question of Identity” John Rajchman stated: “Our inherited procedures and ways of thinking seem to be unable to confront or address, or therefore deal with, the questions of identity that confront us today,” and “Critical thought thus has an important role to play in reexamining assumptions and in formulating what the questions are, what their implications and dangers are, and what it would mean to resolve them. Such critical thought is especially important in order that identity politics and multiculturalist discourse not themselves assume objectionable forms.”11
Pratt’s emphasis on “copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power” is still important to keep in mind amid questions regarding what some describe as “paradigmatic shifts.”12 This is an idea to which I’ll return.
Hal Foster in a chapter entitled “The Artist as Ethnographer” in his recent book The Return of the Real, which coincidentally had the same title as an Ice T CD which was released around the same time, suggests that “a new paradigm structurally similar to the old ‘Author as Producer’ model has emerged in advanced art on the left, the artist as ethnographer.”13 Foster outlines Walter Benjamin’s lecture “The Author as Producer,” which was given in April 1934 at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. He refers to how Benjamin privileged “productivism” over proletkult. Productivism is described by Foster as an effort “to develop a new proletarian culture through an extension constructivist formal experiments into actual industrial production” and which “in this way sought to overthrow bourgeois art and culture altogether.” This is contrasted with proletkult, which in Foster’s words “worked to develop a proletarian culture in the more traditional sense of the word; it sought to surpass bourgeois art and culture.” The problem which Foster describes with this formulation is that within the proletkult ideology the worker was positioned as a “passive other.” Foster emphasizes this point by stating, “However difficult, the solidarity with producers that counted for Benjamin was solidarity in material practice, not in artistic theme or political attitude alone.” He goes on to describe a continual opposition which still hovers over the reception of art, that being the divisions between “aesthetic quality versus political relevance, form versus content,” and he suggests that these divisions were as “familiar and unfruitful” for Benjamin way back in 1934 as they are now. The way out of this bind was suggested to be a third term, production, also mentioned by Foster, and meant to be resolved via representation, yet he acknowledges that these oppositions remain. Foster then indirectly refers to his own past by invoking some work of the early 1980s, although the work is not named and there is instead a footnoted mention of Benjamin Buchloh’s essay “Since Realism There Was… (On the Current Conditions of Factographic Art)” in which he mentions Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier. A distinction is made between Benjamin’s reception in the late 1970s (I assume he means in the U.S., and what characterizes the difference isn’t specified). At this point a shift to the near present occurs in which Foster mentions (unnamed) artists and critics in analogy to Benjamin’s response “to the aestheticization of politics under fascism,” and he describes their “interventions”:
So these artists and critics responded to the capitalization of culture and privatization of society under Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, and company—even as these transformations made such intervention more difficult. Indeed, when this intervention was not restricted to the art apparatus alone, its strategies were more situationist than productivist—that is, more concerned with reinscriptions of given representations.14
Foster emphasizes that his focus is not whether “symbolic actions” were effective (he mentions Barbara Kruger and Krzysztof Wodiczko here), as these are not his topic. He then leaps into his main concern, at which point he designates that a “new paradigm structurally similar to the ‘Author as Producer’ model has emerged in advanced art on the left: the artist as ethnographer.”15
Foster replaces the proletariat with the “cultural and/or ethnic other” as that for whom the “committed artist most often struggles.” This is where the thesis begins to crumble. Foster presumes quite a bit to hold it together. He presumes that the artists he situates in this imagined position are “committed” and “struggling” for something. He then proceeds to list a series of assumptions which he projects onto this fictional artist. The first is that “the site of political transformation is the site of artistic transformation as well, and that political vanguards locate artistic vanguards and, under some circumstances, substitute for them.”16
The second is that “the assumption [of this imaginary artist is] that this site is always elsewhere, in the field of the other”; he specifies the cultural other, whom he describes as the “oppressed postcolonial, subaltern, or subcultural” and that from this outside “dominant culture will be transformed or at least subverted.” The third assumption he makes for the fictional art being, which doubles back on the previous statement, is “that if the invoked artist is not perceived as socially and/or culturally other, he or she has but limited access to this transformative alterity, and that if he or she is perceived as other, he or she has automatic access to it.” Who exactly is he describing? Could this possibly be a projection? Then the alarms go off and danger is announced; the dreaded danger is that of “ideological patronage.”
It is fascinating that at this point Foster invokes Craig Owens’s 1983 “imaginary interview,” “The Indignity of Speaking for Others.”17 Unlike Owens’s text, which positions a presumptuous self which can be questioned and critiqued, this position of self-reflection is not posited here. It doesn’t seem from Foster’s description so far that anyone who might be designated as or who designates themselves as “other” is able to speak without falling into danger, and those who attempt to speak for these others are merely deluding themselves. No possibility seems to be allowed for a Levinasian awareness of otherness and the relativity and relationality of this concept.
What is being advocated, or is anything being advocated in which slippage of power positions might occur? What if elsewhere is the space which one inhabits especially if elsewhere is defined as somewhere which is not central, somewhere else? One can ask who is being disturbed and for whom exist the dangers of which Foster speaks? What perspective is being presumed of the reader on the part of the author?
He goes on to note that “this danger (of ideological patronage)” could arise from the “assumed split in identity between the author and the worker or the artist and the other,” but then he immediately continues by stating that identification with the other may be a problem. It can even be a problem for “others.” The term other becomes very confusing here. He stresses that an identity and an identification must not be confused; this point is comprehensible, but what is left out of this formulation are the instances in which someone occupies multiple positions. This doesn’t deny the fact that someone designated or self-designated as “other” can identify with a position of alterity which becomes mistaken for one’s self. This could lead to what Kobena Mercer has described, along with Stuart Hall, as a “burden of representation.” But it does have to be acknowledged that power relations are not equal and that legitimate claims regarding marginal positions must be realized rather than quickly elided. What appears to be occurring here though is a closing down of possibilities as well as a reduced view of genealogies and of potential for change. Fear of “danger” seems to be taking over.
At this point I wondered how ethnography was being used and how this designation was being asked to perform.
The construction of the Ethnographic, however, was always ambivalent, for the Ethnographic was not only viewed as Savage but also was seen as alternatively authentic, macho, pure, spiritual, and an antidote to the ills of modern, industrialized capitalism, a myth embodied in the image of the Noble Savage.18
In The Predicament of Culture James Clifford discusses surrealism in relation to ethnography in his essay “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” in which he views the two areas as having affected each other via particular writers.
The ethnographic label suggests a characteristic attitude of participant observation among the artifacts of a defamiliarized cultural reality. The surrealists were intensely interested in exotic worlds, among which they included a certain Paris. Their attitude, while comparable to that of the fieldworker who strives to render the unfamiliar comprehensible, tended to work in the reverse sense, making the familiar strange.19
In particular Clifford examines his thesis through an investigation of the work of Michel Leiris, who was a poet, an anthropologist, and an art critic and who was for years a curator of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The questions raised by Leiris continue to resonate especially in the context of rethinking a practice of ethnography in post-colonial times, which is self-reflexive and in some cases references what Leiris called a practice of autoethnography:
In L’Afrique fantôme (1934) Leiris sharply questioned certain scientific distinctions between “subjective” and “objective” practices. Why, he wondered, are my own reactions (my dreams, bodily responses, and so on) not important parts of the “data” produced by fieldwork? In the Collège de Sociologie he glimpsed the possibility of a kind of ethnography, analytically rigorous and poetic, focused not on the other but on the self, its peculiar system of symbols, rituals, and social topographies. The exception would be made to illuminate the rule without confirming it.20
It is crucial to note, as Clifford does, that “ethnographic surrealism and surrealist ethnography are utopian constructs; they mock and remix institutional definitions of art and science.”21
This utopian aspect is a crucial one to consider in this analysis of these artistic practices, and not acknowledging it creates a prudish and reduced impression of these, yet in “The Artist as Ethnographer” it is exactly this utopian impulse which is elided. Foster winds up reinforcing that which he criticizes—the aesthetic vs. political binary mentioned in reference to Benjamin’s observation. This is done in several ways. In part this is done by not actually engaging in any depth with the aesthetic concerns and the interrelationship between these and the conceptual aspects of the works he lists, thereby limiting their function to superficial illustrations of his thesis. If the work were engaged by acknowledging its different and intricate genealogies the complexities which would arise might confound the supposed paradigm being presented. Foster also posits a reading of art practice along axes, the vertical and the horizontal, and this mapping will be mentioned in more depth later. By trying to make such a close analogy to Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” lecture the genealogies which inform some of the practices he skims over are ignored and it becomes impossible to recover these based on this framework.
Foster also makes a point of negatively figuring what’s referred to throughout his essay as “the ethnographer paradigm.” In his version of the conjunction of ethnography and surrealism, what is described as a “primitivist fantasy” (this being “that the other, usually assumed to be of color, has special access to primary psychic and social processes from which the white subject is somehow blocked”) is assigned to George Bataille and Michel Leiris and also to the “ethnic others” Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, who are said to employ this via the négritude movement. Foster’s problem with these authors employing surrealism and négritude combined with surrealism is that “both movements connected the transgressive potential of the unconscious with the radical alterity of the cultural other.”22 These alliances are never imagined in reference to terms of co-presence and transculturation, which I noted earlier when describing the notion of “contact zone,” nor are the pleasurable and productive aspects of these configurations ever mentioned, as they are in Clifford’s work.
The concepts of co-presence, transculturation, and aspects of interactivity and improvisation are all elements mentioned in relation to the notion of the “contact zone” and are key terms for interpreting various encounters of the aforementioned authors. These are terms which refer to a relational perception of what is other and what is myself, of course keeping in mind the tensions extant in identifications and “eating the other.” Notions of mimicry, as were noted by Homi Bhabha, don’t enter into this discussion either. The lens used by which to examine this “paradigm”/symptom is of limited magnification.
The impression I had while reading “The Artist as Ethnographer” was of an author who is desperately trying to rein in his territory, while dropping tidbits of information so that the reader is aware that the author is familiar with all aspects. What is presented is an erasure of desire, which is also evident in the reference to Lacan, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari, who are said to “idealize the other as the negation of the same—with deleterious effects on cultural politics. This work often assumes dominant definitions of the negative and/or the deviant even as it moves to revalue them.”23
It seems significant that he ends this paragraph with this remark: “The result is a politics that may consume its historical subjects before they become historically effective.”24 This seemed an apt description of the process being performed in this essay. Of course it is possible to see the point of worrying about “rhetorical reversals of dominant definitions to stand for politics as such.” But is anything else being offered here? Might there be a possibility of critically probing our fascinations? It is possible to view the above-stated authors within a discourse of French exoticism—this is not such a shocking revelation—but it might be more interesting to view this as a curious and contradictory phenomenon, yet this possibility isn’t entertained in the essay. It does seem though that too much gets collapsed amid the following such worries: “self-othering can flip into self-absorption”; “ethnographic refurbishing” can become “the practice of a narcissistic self-refurbishing.”25
Rather than seeing slippages what is seen are “misrecognitions.” Might the term misrecognition itself imply a truth claim? Slippages would probably now be figured negatively by Foster, who seems to be distancing himself from his own earlier endorsement of “recodings.” All the alarms are set off in the section of the essay entitled “Art and Theory in the Age of Anthropological Studies.” Is this meant to be the present? When did this so-called “age” begin? Again the attempt to fix categories according to his rules emerges. In asking the question “What misrecognitions have passed between anthropology and art and other discourses?” Foster follows up by negatively describing this process, which could be interpreted quite differently depending on one’s position. As was demonstrated by previous references to the Contact Zone symposium, of which James Clifford was a participant, this occurrence could be described in ways other than as
a virtual theater of projections and reflections over the last two decades at least. First some critics of anthropology developed a kind of artist envy (the enthusiasm of James Clifford for the intercultural collages of “ethnographic surrealism” is an influential instance). In this envy the artist became a paragon of formal reflexivity, a self-aware reader of culture understood as text.26
Foster goes on to deride the projection process where artist and anthropologist are getting each other mixed up. He states:
Might this artist envy be a self-idealization in which the anthropologist is remade as an artistic interpreter of the cultural text? Rarely does this projection stop there in the new anthropology or, for that matter, in cultural studies or in new historicism. Often it extends to the object of these studies, the cultural other, who is also reconfigured to reflect an ideal image of the anthropologist, critic, or historian.27
He goes on to point out earlier examples in anthropology in which entire cultures were referred to as collective artists, but he thinks that at least that was honest and didn’t pretend to be critical or deconstructive.
This tirade converges with an earlier description regarding “a vogue for pseudo-ethnographic reports in art that are sometimes disguised travelogues from the world art market. Who in the academy or the art world has not witnessed these testimonies of the new empathetic intellectual or these flâneries of the new nomadic artist?”28
The issue of envy seems to loom large:
Recently the old artist envy among anthropologists has turned the other way: a new ethnographer envy consumes many artists and critics. If anthropologists wanted to exploit the textual model in cultural interpretation, these artists and critics aspire to fieldwork in which theory and practice seem to be reconciled. … Yet these borrowings are only signs of the ethnographic turn in contemporary art and criticism.29
“What drives it?” he asks.
By focusing so fixedly on what he’s designated to be a paradigm Foster has made answering his question quite difficult given the reduced framework within which he is operating. Distinctions are not made between practices, and one gets the impression of a blanket plague which has fallen upon the art world. But what about the rest of the world? What about the discipline he perpetually invokes? What about examining the genealogy of ethnography? What about imagining other discourses which rely on relational situations such as sociology or even fictional narratives? What about considering the influences of growing up during the rise of public TV on which there were many documentaries? Or what about previous art practices such as Fluxus even?
Foster asks how the “present turn” is distinguished from art in the 1960s and 1970s, which alluded to “prehistoric art in some earthworks, the art world as anthropological site in some conceptual and institution-critical art.”30 He mentions Anne and Patrick Poirer, Charles Simonds, Joseph Kosuth, and the unnamed many others. He notes five ways in which the “present turn” distinguishes itself, which I’ll paraphrase. In addition to its “self-consciousness about ethnographic method” he lists the following distinctions: (1) anthropology is prized as a science of alterity; (2) it is the discipline that takes culture as its object; (3) ethnography is considered contextual; fieldwork in the everyday is possible; (4) anthropology is thought to arbitrate the interdisciplinary; (5) the self-critique of anthropology makes it attractive; it promises a reflexivity of the ethnographer who is at the center while it preserves a romanticism of the other at the margins. He then compares “rogue investigations of anthropology” in what he calls its vanguard status to queer critiques of psychoanalysis.31
What amazed me while reading though this essay was the elision of political reasons for how cultural studies, traced from its British genealogy in which very significant stakes were at hand, has come into existence, rather than as a mere fashionable academic accessory. No other stakes seem to be imagined. He does throw an obligatory bone to post-colonial theory and at different times he summarizes it, in a way which might be intended to stand in for a political reference, but then the reference is immediately disempowered. In a sweeping historical narrative segue to his discussion of “The Siting of Contemporary Art” Foster states, after describing a “minimalist genealogy of art over the last thirty-five years”:
Soon the institution of art could no longer be described only in spatial terms (studio, gallery, museum, and so on); it was also a discursive network of different practices and institutions, other subjectivities and communities. Nor could the observer of art be delimited only in phenomenological terms; he or she was also a social subject defined in language and marked by difference (economic, ethnic, sexual, and so on). Of course the breakdown of restrictive definitions of art and artist, identity and community, was also pressured by social movements (civil rights, various feminisms, queer politics, multiculturalism) as well as theoretical developments (the convergence of feminism, psychoanalysis, and film theory; the recovery of Antonio Gramsci and the development of cultural studies in Britain; the applications of Louis Althusser, Lacan, and Foucault, especially in the British journal Screen; the development of postcolonial discourse with Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and others; and so on). Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture that anthropology is thought to survey.32
The work done by those who have been working through theoretical ideas within and across disciplines is referenced, as in a catechism, and then it seems is let go. The primary interpretation allowed for the current shifts is compromise. Foster states: “In our current state of artistic-theoretical ambivalences and cultural-political impasses, anthropology is the compromise discourse of choice.”33 Even though criticisms abound in this essay regarding “the dangers of site-specific work inside the institution” and the dangers of “self-fashioning” or of the “myth of the redemptive artist” no examples are offered in any depth to present what else could be possible, despite the mentions of “parallactic work that attempts to frame the framer as he or she frames the other.” Even this is not sufficient, the reader is told, and more dangers, “hermeticism, narcissism,” are announced as well as “a refusal of engagement altogether.” My question throughout the reading of this essay repeatedly was “Engagement for whom?,” but also, how might particular practices which use methods adopted from disciplines such as ethnography, sociology, history, or literature—especially in terms of the research component—be viewed in ways not defined along the lines of “redemptive” practices but in ways which would at least enable one to imagine or speculate upon conditions other than those we now face?
How is it that envy becomes the key way of describing this process rather than relations which have a more complex history and more complex present? This reduced analysis dovetails with the essay by Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” in which some of the shifts noted in conceptually based art practice are described in relation to the artist’s CV as being a fifth “site.”34 A resistance exists in both essays to the notion that artists are also able to interpret situations critically and may have perhaps even informed these authors’ critical perspective. The conditions for practicing art, of the kind being described of the “relevant artists,” entails circuitous maneuvers which are not easily reduced to “envy” or “CVs” but relate more to what I previously referred to as “an altered global terrain.”
A distinction which Foster makes in the last section of his essay, entitled “Disciplinary Memory and Critical Distance,” is between what he describes as work which is horizontally situated and that which is vertically situated. This horizontal axis is used to refer to “a synchronic movement from social issue to issue, from political debate to debate,” and the vertical axis is used to refer to “a diachronic engagement with the disciplinary forms of a given genre or medium.” Foster claims that a shift has occurred, which can perhaps be located around 1968, and perhaps earlier with the introduction of pop art, from the vertical to the horizontal.35 The horizontal axis is associated with “quasi-anthropological art and culture studies alike.”36 The emphasis now, Foster asserts, is on this horizontal movement in the present moment, and a loss of what he calls the vertical lines seems to be bemoaned. This proposition seemed to be in some way relating to mourning at the end of the millennium. It was different, the reader is told, in the recent past. Then artists and critics didn’t merely do what those supposedly following the horizontal access are claimed to do: “One selects a site, enters its culture and learns its language, conceives and presents a project, only to move to the next site where the cycle is repeated. … [Also] one not only maps a site but also works in terms of topics, frames, and so on.”37
This differs from the “historical avant-garde” who worked both horizontal and vertical axes:
In order to extend aesthetic space, artists delved into historical time, and returned past models to the present in a way that opened new sites for work. The two axes were in tension, but it was a productive tension; ideally coordinated, the two moved forward together, with past and present in parallax. Today, as artists follow horizontal lines of working, the vertical lines sometimes appear to be lost.38
This claim regarding the past somehow seems utopian. This would have existed in a moment before “others” were producers and making claims which drew attention to the social conditions of working. Yet any aesthetic claims for work of this sort is denied. While I can understand and even share some of the criticisms put forth, since there are no in-depth examples of work analyzed, the range for imagining what work is being referred to negatively is very open. Foster goes on to mention the extreme amount of work which would be necessary for artists working horizontally and the difficulties of such an engagement: “Thus if one wishes to work on AIDS, one must understand not only the discursive breadth but the historical depth of AIDS representation. To coordinate both axes of several such discourses is an enormous burden.”39
Never does Foster inquire into why some may have taken on this burden. Might it be for reasons beyond ethnography envy? Might other stakes be involved? He acknowledges the “traditionalist caution about the horizontal way of working—that new discursive connections may blur old disciplinary memories,” and he suggests that this argument must be considered even if it will later be dismissed. He suggests that the traditionalist charge that “contemporary art [is] dangerously political is one to address,” yet since he no longer claims a position really, his suggestion of countering these arguments rings hollow, and no examples of how things could be thought differently is posited. Thus the credibility he might have is threatened since he doesn’t seem engaged in any political stakes beyond the rhetorical. This is not to suggest that he physically be on the front lines of some sort of protest, but it does relate back to what John Rajchman referred to in his statement about identity, mentioned earlier, where it was stated that critical thought has an important role to play in not only “reexamining assumptions and in formulating what the questions are” or what implications and dangers lurk within these assumptions, but very importantly to examine “what it would mean to resolve them.” And he goes on to emphasize that “such critical thought is necessary in order that identity politics and multiculturalist discourse not themselves assume objectionable forms.”40 Unfortunately Foster’s essay comes up short in terms of these aspirations. One of the reasons to even measure his work in relation to what Rajchman advocates is because of the claims it seems to make.
Foster concludes by raising a series of questions: “And what does critical distance guarantee? Has this notion become somewhat mythical, acritical, a form of magical protection, a purity ritual of its own? Is such distance still desirable, let alone possible?” He answers in the negative, but immediately mentions the danger of “over-identification with the other” as not an option, while disidentification is “murderous.” What he describes is an impasse, and then quizzically opts for critical distance.
Yet in the last chapter of the book, “Whatever Happened to Postmodernism?,” Foster returns to this sore point and resorts to a referencing of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals. In defining the role of the critic he calls upon the distinction made between the “noble” and the “base” and presents these in a stalemate with “the useful.”
Etymologically, to criticize is to judge or to decide, and I doubt if any artist, critic, theorist, or historian can ever escape value judgments. We can, however, make value judgments that, in Nietzschean terms, are not only reactive but active—and, in non-Nietzschean terms, not only distinctive but useful. Otherwise critical theory may come to deserve the bad name with which it is often branded today.41
The precarious balancing act as well as an awareness of weight in relation to the activity of criticality is what the reader is left with.
In 1993 I met with George Lipsitz at the Getty Center in Santa Monica. My interview with him was included in the work with which I was then engaged, Import/Export Funk Office (1992). L.A. was the last site for the physical making of the piece. George Lipsitz later agreed to participate in the Negotiations in the Contact Zone symposium, but was unfortunately unable to be present. I continued this work in the form of a cd-rom, and there it is possible to read the transcript of our conversation. In this case I would consider the CD-ROM as a site (to hammer that word into the ground), as is a book, and a website.42 I’d like to present a portion of his response to my question about culture as a force because I think it differently inflects questions raised in Foster’s essay. Lipsitz addresses concerns which overlap with Foster’s yet posits a different view of Walter Benjamin’s concepts which are informed by tracing other genealogies.
George Lipsitz: And so through music and through video, through dancing, through car customizing, through hightop fade haircuts, through style leadership of wearing clothing, a whole variety of things constituting the body as a site of expression, many people who were erased or demonized by the mass media found a way to have their art go places where they couldn’t go. YO MTV Raps is the most popular show on cable television. Cable is disproportionately skewered toward white middle-class or upper middle-class audiences. YO MTV Raps obviously goes a lot of places the rappers would not be welcomed if they showed up, but they got a part of their reality out, whether people understand what it is they’re saying or not, and obviously there’s a certain performance that goes on. It’s not as if you just set up a camera and get Dead Homiez, I mean you know it’s a construct. Somebody creates it and it’s a statement somebody wants to make, but it feels true, it rings true for people in part because the people making it know what they’re talking about, but also in part because the people who get the happy talk news on channel 2, 4 and 7 and in the little blurbs in the L.A. Times, know there’s another reality out there, know that the official picture they’re getting makes no sense. And when you hear Ice Cube or Ice T talking about South Central, or when you hear N.W.A., there’s a way in which it rings true, the way in which some things at least are being addressed that aren’t talked about any place else.
Renée Green: So what do you think that that force can do? I was actually thinking about the question that was raised after the Getty Center panel which had something to do with the aestheticization of politics and I liked your response. I wondered if you could elaborate on it.
GL: Well, you know there’s both a great hope and a great danger in cultural politics. The great hope is that you could create a coalition or mobilize around things that aren’t yet here politically, that aren’t yet possible politically, that could call out to people who are looking for something, that this could create a space for a pan-ethnic anti-racist coalition, that people of different races and classes and backgrounds might decide that power has got to be redistributed in this society. The great hope is that it creates a speaking space for the imagination that politics seems to have no room for. The great danger is that we live in a society that sells pictures and stories to us endlessly, gives us pictures of everything we can’t have and then keeps us coming back for more. So there’s a way in which this can be just one more diversion, one more consumer trip to keep us separated, but imagine we’re making contact. We’ll get pictures of interracial unity, but we won’t get the conditions and the material benefits that give people an equal chance at life. We’ll get stories about people working together, but we’ll get them in our videos in our segregated neighborhoods with their very different tax rates and very different schools and very different health conditions. The quote that you mentioned is the end of Walter Benjamin’s terrific essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He goes through a long discussion about all the great things that could be done with commercial culture and electronic media and you can blow things up and see them from different perspectives and you can make a lot of copies and everybody can have them and there’s something very alluring about this, something very democratic about it, something emancipatory that might help us realize some things that we’d never have been able to achieve without them. But, the danger is—in the last sentence he seems to come full circle and he’s writing in the midst of the Nazi ascendancy in Europe, the popularity of Hitler, the way in which the nation-state in its spectacles is able to mobilize citizens to die for interests that are not theirs—and he says that the final result of the aestheticization of politics is war. That war is always the big, the biggest show of all, that the nation-state and the patriarchal figure on TV can always give you a better show if what you want is a show. So the question is how do we translate these images and signs and symbols into a better life, not just into better images of life.
It’s hard for me to imagine how that would happen without some kind of political mobilization, some kind of alliance, some kind of direct talking about power. I’m more optimistic about culture as a site for that, than say my friend Mike Davis is, because I’ve seen movements that have changed people. In other words, if we were to go to the American south when John Brown was executed in 1859 and we’d say is this going to change?, and you’d say never because most slaves are on plantations of less than ten people, it’s illegal for them to read and write, it’s illegal for them to communicate with one another. John Brown, who told America that slavery was a violent system that needed to be overturned violently, is captured and executed by a great patriot named Robert E. Lee, who a few years later is a traitor, but when he gets caught he gets given his sword back and his horse and he gets an honorific position. But, John Brown was killed for being a traitor. So from that vantage point of October and November and December of 1859 you say it’s always been this way and it’s never going to change, but three years later in the summer of 1862 the Emancipation was proclaimed. In 1863 when it went into effect 200,000 slaves ran away to join the Union army, a million left behind staged a general strike in the fields. How did they do this? Well, they had been waiting, they had been waiting for an opportunity and what kept alive their willingness to act was reading the master’s Book and singing songs about meet-me-on-the-other-side-of-the-river-Jordan.
In conclusion I’d like to suggest the necessity of continued “negotiations in the ‘contact zone(s),’” amid entropy and dystopias. In terms of dialogic utopian imaginings I can imagine the science fiction writers Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler “rapping” with Robert Smithson, Yvonne Rainer, Ornette Coleman, and LTJ Bukem about sites, motion, and time. This would be one of numerous follow-ups to the writer James Baldwin and the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s 1971 dialogue, A Rap on Race.43
–Renée Green, 2002
Originally published in German as “Gleitende Verschiebungen,” in Agenda: Perspektiven kritischer Kunst, edited by Christian Kravagna (Vienna: Folio, 2000). Published in French in Radiotemporaire (Grenoble: Magasin, 2002), 143–55. A brief excerpt in German appeared as “Der Künstler als Ethnograph?,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 27 (September 1997): 152–61. The English version, “Slippages,” was first published in Radiotemporaire (Grenoble: Magasin, 2002). This version is from Renée Green, Other Planes of There: Selected Writings (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).