SSW2 Session 07: Artist's Relations with Ethnography

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW2)

12.03.2012 13 - 15 : SSW2 Session 07: ARTIST'S RELATIONS WITH ETHNOGRAPHY


This session is a sample of the different ways artists (Fulton, Piper, Dean, Langlands & Bell) have used recording about own and others agencies, sometimes under the category 'Artists Writing'. Included also are a few art critic/historian voices on the subject (Foster, Kwon). Lastly the example of SERDE illustrates how folkloric ethnography & activism can become intertwined with cultural production.


Ethnography & Artists: Writing about situations of engaging/engagement

Hamish Fulton: 'Land Art' and 'Walking Art'

Hamish Fulton, English artist & photographer

Fulton engages in walks by himself, and is the only person to directly experience them; however he creates images, photographs and text which allow viewers to engage with the artist’s experiences, concerned with inviting them into the landscape.

Hamish Fulton: 21 Days in the Cairngorms

Article by By Susan Mansfield:
When is a walk a piece of art? When artist Hamish Fulton brings his transcendental approach to the pedestrian to town (The Scotsman, 23.4.2010)


“In the Spring of 1970 I visited the Isle of Arran off the west coast of Scotland. One day I decided to swim the half-mile stretch of sea between Kings Cross on Arran and the Lighthouse on Holy Island. I had never been to the Holy Island. As I was swimming close to the rocks by the lighthouse I a man and a women walking over the rocks towards me. They gave me a hand out onto the land. The man was my geography teacher from school whom I had not seen for six years. He is now the lighthouse keeper on the island.”

Hamish Fulton, Isle of Arran (1970), in Interfunktionen, no. 6 (1971).

(Extract from Docherty, Claire (2010), Situations, chapter 'Fieldwork', p.64)


Adrian Piper: Writing her own context & theory for participatory/interaction-based work**

Notes on Funk I-II (1983-1985)

Piper, Adrian (1983-1985). Notes on Funk I-II
[Extract from Bishop, Claire (2006), Participation, chapter 'Artist's Writing']

Adrian Piper: Funk Lessons

Piper, Adrian. (1999) Out of Order, Out of Sight - Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992, Cambridge: MIT Press.


Langlands & Bell, diary in the field accompanying the work

Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell

"explore the complex web of relationships linking people and architecture and the coded systems of circulation and exchange which surround us."

Afghan Diary (2002)

Langlands, B. and Bell, N. (2002) Afghan Diary
Extract from Docherty, Claire (2010), Situations, chapter 'Fieldwork', p.66-68


Tacita Dean: Artistic research & writing text

Tristian de Cunha (2005)

Extract from Docherty, Claire (2010), Situations, chapter 'Fieldwork', p.68-71

Further reading..

Tacita Dean: In Search Of Inspiration

“How do you make a work of art for a place that's new to you and for which you have no cultural references? It's a task often given to the celebrated artist Tacita Dean, yet it always presents a challenge.” Interview by Nick Coleman, March 2007.

“One place I've had a fantasy about going to for years is Tristan da Cunha. There's only one boat a year, and all that business about communication and being able to write an annual letter… sooo appealing. I used to fantasise about Tristanians and imagined they were a sexy bunch. But now they've got a postcode and satellite communication and generators… it's terrible, terrible. Hah! One day."



Hal Foster: The Artist as Ethnographer

“Recently the old artist envey among anthropologists has turned the other way: a new ethnographer envey 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.

Often they draw indirectly on basic principles of the participant-observer tradition, among which James Clifford notes a critical focus on a particular institution and a narrative tense that favours 'the ethnographic present'. Yet these borrowings are only signs of the ethnographic turn in contemporary art and criticism. What derives it?..

First.. anthropology is prized as the science of alterity; in this regard it is, along with psychoanalysis, the lingua franca of artistic practice and critical discourse alike.

Second, it is the discipline that takes culture as its object, and this expanded field of reference is the domain of post-modernist practice and theory (thus also the attraction to cultural studies and, to a lesser extent, new historicism.

Third, ethnography is considered contextual, the often automatic demand for which contemporary artists and critics share with other practitioners today, many of whom aspire to fieldwork in the everyday.

Forth, anthropology is thought to arbitrate the interdisciplinary, another often rote value in contemporary art and criticism.

Fifth, the recent self-critique of anthropology renders it attractive for it premised a reflexivity of the ethnographer at the centre even as it preserves a romanticism of the other at the margins.”

(Quote from extract in Docherty, Claire (2010), Situations, chapter 'Fieldwork', p.74-77)

Foster, Hal. (1996) The Artist as Ethnographer, in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century Cambridge: MIT Press.

Key points & summary of issues..

Download full scanned article:


Miwon Kwon: Itinerant Artists

“working in relation to call of interest (to site, community, institution..)
entering into a contractual, contextual agreement with host..
..repeated visits/extended stays in site
..research into particularities, consituency, audience
..consideration of the parameters of 'exhibition' - thematic, social relevance, other participants,
..meetings with curators, educators, administration support staff, who all end up 'collaborating' with the artist to produce the work.
..time consuming the end engaging with the "site" in multiple ways
..documentation highlight work on institutional framework, maybe generating other opportunities elsewhere..
..success=globetrotting a guest, tourist, adventurer, temporary inhouse critic, pseudo-ethnograpther..”

(Kwon, 2002: 46-56)


Example of SERDE Interdisciplinary Art Group, Latvia

Signe Pucena and her husband Ugis both had grandparents who came from the Aizpute in Kurzeme [Kurzeme is also know in German and Swedish as Kurland, and in English as Courland] and some time previous they inherited a family home in the town. Ugis's parents live about 5km away and Signe's family members live about 30km away in Skrunda. It may be said to be “their countryside” [Latvians, in my experience, often refer to speaking english to “their countryside” or “their countryside home”].. In the early 2000s, they were searching for a space for a ceramic and metal workshop space, Aizpute municipality offered an old historical, but dilapidated, building in the town centre of Aizpute. Rental of the space was on the condition of also renting the larger ajoining building which faced onto the main high street of the town. A historical monument, the building complex is unique example of wooden and red bricks architecture in Latvia built in the 18th century, and there was some obligation to look after the larger space also.

Interdisciplinary art group SERDE [Serde is the Latvian equivalent of the english core, as in apple core] was founded as a public association in 2002 by Signe, Ugis, and Maris Grosbahs whom he studied with in Latvia Art Academy in Riga. With the association's status, local and national cultural could be applied, and gradually a residency and workshop’ centre was founded in the same name. Over the years many renovations and construction developments have been made by Ugis himself and also contracted workers, extending and weather-proofing the larger building according to traditional methods in keep with the building's heritage status. At the time of writing in early 2012, they currently host a multiple of workshop spaces: Classical black & white photography studio, a ceramic workshop and kilns, a mixed material (wood, plastic, metal) workshop, a brewing workshop space, and also a small digital medialab. As a residency centre, they can also host in total 20 persons in residence, although it is usually much less, and for summer months, they have an outdoor covered terrace and courtyard for social gatherings. Although the centre is operational during the summer seasonal cycle of May to September, Signe and Ugis moved full-time to live in Aizpute from Riga in 2009. The renovation work and cultural productions have been supported over the years by City Council of Aizpute, nearby Liepaja, aswell as Latvian State Culture Capital Foundation, but it is still necessary to find other freelance work outside the summer months.

SERDE's work since 2005 has specialised interdisciplinary arts towards traditional and heritage-based activities and knowledge-sharing. They state that their main activities contribute “to the exchange between art, culture, science and educational fields, organizing residencies, workshops, seminars, lectures and presentations etc. SERDE offers a platform and infrastructure for cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary collaboration”. However, more specifically, it is their fieldworks and expeditions focusing on local knowledge and traditions “held by older generations and cultures in the past”which they have become well known.

SERDE (led by Signe and Ugis) have undertaken research in their own town of Aizpute, and Jūrkalne, Skrunda, Sieksāte, Kazdanga, Alsunga villages also in Kurzeme; to Sigulda and Krimulda in Vidzime region, central Latvia; and to Riebiņi in Latgale region of SE Latvia. Latvian collaborators have joined such activities, including Ieva Vītola, Una Smilgaine and Aigars Lielbardis, researchers of traditional culture and folklore at the Latvian Folkloric Archive; and also student expeditions have been arranged by SERDE, as part of folkloric pedagogy studies in higher education.

The topics undertaken, and published in their small booklet series Tradīciju Burnīcas [Exercise-Book of Traditions] until 2010 were as follows: Brandava gatavošana Viduskurzemē [Moonshine/vodka making in Central Kurzeme] (2007), Aizputnieku stāsti par ebrejiem [Stories about jews in Aizpute] (2008), Alus gatavošana [Beer brewing] (2009), Suitu stāsti [Suiti Stories] (2009), Baškīrijas siguldiešu stāsti [Bashkiri-Sigulda Stories] (2010) all published in Latvian; and Rībeņu nūvoda stuosti 1 & 2 (2010), in which the first part was published in Latvian and the second in Russian. Such activities, SERDE argues “re-awakens awareness and interest among the contemporary local audience in it's own area”; as well in the process, working “within contemporary art and technology processes, SERDE offer educational introductions and encounters with artists and cultural workers to reinvigorate local knowledge and understanding”. SERDES's creative and innovative approach to cultural heritage work was recognised with the Latvian Folklore Grand Prize in 2007.

(written by Andrew Paterson, 8.3.2012)

SERDE 'About' page, Website, URL:
SERDE, 'Expeditions' page, Website, URL:
SERDE's Alus gatavošana [Beer brewing] (2009) Fieldwork [in Latvian]:

SERDE+others Herbologies Kurzeme Expedition [in English & Latvian]:

Paterson, A. G. (2004), 'Mapping Narratives and Fieldwork', In M. Tuters and R. Smite (eds.), Acoustic Space issue #5: Trans Cultural Mapping, Riga: RIXC Centre for New Media Culture. Available online (retrieved 20.1.2010):


References shared in this session:

Bishop, Claire. (2006), Participation, Documents of Contemporary Art series, London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.

Docherty, Claire. (2010), Situations, Documents of Contemporary Art series, London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.

Frankel, Lois. (2009). 'Communicating Design Research Knowledge: A Role for Ethnographic Writing', In proceedings of IASDR (International Association of Societies of Design Research), Seoul, Korea, October 18-22.

Foster, Hal. (1996) The Artist as Ethnographer, in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kwon, Miwon. (2002) One Place After Another: site-specific art and locational identity, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Millen, D. R. (2000). Rapid ethnography: time deepening strategies for HCI field research. In Proceedings of the 3rd Conference on Designing interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques (New York City, New York, United States, August 17 - 19, 2000). D. Boyarski and W. A. Kellogg, Eds. DIS '00. ACM, New York, NY, 280-286.

Piper, Adrian. (1999) Out of Order, Out of Sight - Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Svenungsson, Jan. (2007). An Artist's Text Book. Helsinki: Finnish Academy of Fine Arts Press.

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