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Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media

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Doing Home Works: extended exhibitions,

ethnographic tools, and the role of the
Sidsel Nelund
Published online: 11 Dec 2013.

To cite this article: Sidsel Nelund (2013) Doing Home Works: extended exhibitions, ethnographic tools,
and the role of the researcher, Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies, 27:6, 753-767, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02560046.2013.867595


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Doing Home Works: extended
exhibitions, ethnographic tools, and the
role of the researcher
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Sidsel Nelund

Since Hal Foster introduced ‘the ethnographic turn of contemporary art’ in the mid-1990s,
the exchange between contemporary art and ethnography has continued to expand.
Much of the debate considers the artistic incorporations of ethnography, but little has been
discussed about the ethnographic practices of art researchers. The latter’s relevance derives
from current changes in the art world. Art objects and exhibition formats take new shapes
and circulate internationally, creating situations of translocality in contemporary art. This
inevitably raises a crucial ethnographic question: How can one engage thoroughly with
artworks and exhibitions from different cultural contexts, without losing the complexity of the
local discourses inherent in them? This article answers that question by drawing on three
ethnographic tools: 1) the multi-sited ethnographic approach (George Marcus); 2) the pairing
of aesthetic analysis of artworks and ethnographic fieldwork (Georgina Born); and 3) the use
of generative ethnographic stories as a writing tool (Helen Verran). The latter two, especially,
are then employed in analysing the Beirut-based extended exhibition, ‘Home Works: A Forum
on Cultural Practices’. The analysis shows that adding ethnographic tools to the aesthetic
analysis of international exhibitions allows for the complexity of local discourses, enhances
attentive art writing, and urges engaged art research.

Keywords: ethnographic method, exhibition studies, global contemporary art, knowledge

production, translocality

Sidsel Nelund is a PhD fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

ISSN 0256-0046/Online 1992-6049

pp. 753–767
27 (6) 2013 © Critical Arts Projects & Unisa Press
DOI: 10.1080/02560046.2013.867595


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Ethnographic story 1: Missing objects

Waiting in the bright sunlight on the stairs outside of the National Museum of Beirut, we
realised that the museum would remain closed for the day. The tour guides informed us
that the guided tour, Other than Someone, There Was No One, part of the Home Works
Forum 5 programme, would take place in the backyard of the museum. We went through
a small gate of the fence to the right and passed decaying marble sculptures and bushes
until we reached the back and sat down on blue plastic containers scattered around on
the grass. Some formed a circle, some sat leaning against the thick limestone wall of
the museum. The introduction and discussion began. Writer Ashkan Sepahvand was the
tour guide, together with a guide from the museum. Sepahvand talked about the objects
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of the museum that were the main topic of the tour – objects from different empires with
different cultural influences dating thousands of years back, like containers of history.
But what history and how? Lebanese history had always been influenced by passing
cultural streams, but sitting in the garden, shielded from the objects, the museum itself,
a result of a Western tradition of displaying culture, turned into an object – an object
marked by history in tangible ways. Situated on the green line that divided Beirut
during the civil war from 1975–1990, it suffered from severe gunfights, bombings and
flooding, and today is still not fully restored.

A situation of translocality
Beginning with this short ethnographic story about Ashkan Sepahvand’s Other than
Someone, There Was No One, I wish to emphasise three of the challenges I see art
researchers facing today when they work with global contemporary art: the character
of the artwork, the format of exhibitions, and how these form part of a broader
translocal dynamic of the circulation of objects, people, ideas and goods (Freitag and
von Oppen 2010: 1–21). First, Sepahvand’s artwork is a guided tour consisting of
different parts, such as the script of the tour, a booklet with fictional dialogue based
on research in Beirut, and the discussion with the audience. The art object is thus
a set of discursive relations that requires participation on behalf of the researcher.
Second, the event in which Sepahvand’s tour partakes, ‘Home Works Forum’, takes
place in several venues simultaneously, in different areas of Beirut. It consists of film
screenings, talks, panel discussions, a venue exhibition, open-air concerts and guided
tours. Third, Sepahvand is Iranian-born, grew up in the United States, and currently
lives in Berlin. His artwork about cultural objects and the history of Lebanon is thus
part of a translocal tendency of artists working in different cultural contexts and
engaging with local history.
In the context of revisiting Hal Foster’s ‘The artist as ethnographer?’, the focus
here is on how art research can gain insight from ethnographic methodologies when
faced with the three challenges just mentioned. How can one make an art-historical


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analysis of Sepahvand’s tour, or of the exhibition it takes part in? Foster (1995:
307) criticises ‘artists, critics, and historians alike’ who use ethnographic methods,
with an overriding emphasis on artists. Artists, when doing art projects in and with
communities, Foster contends, inevitably maintain a preoccupation with the self in
a misguided search for ‘the other’, enabled by the application of an ethnographic
Some of the main critiques Foster raises against artists incorporating ethnographic
methods in their practice are the following: the political belief in alterity, that the
truth resides in the margins, and that, in the transference of ethnography into the art
system, the marginalised – from whom the artist gets material for his/her artwork –
are forgotten in the promotion of the artist and the exhibition or cultural branding.
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The art system prioritises the artist and the economy of the exhibition over the
marginalised groups and over in-depth, long-term studies of and with them. After
all, it is the artist who features on posters and press releases. Foster (ibid: 305) lists
five reasons why ethnography is attractive to artistic practices: the belief in alterity,
culture as the object of study, the contextual approach, interdisciplinarity, and self-
critique. In that sense, Foster acknowledges that there are relevant ethnographic
tools that resonate with the arts, but he dismisses the marriage of art and ethnography
based around a generalisation of examples that superficially use ethnography within
an economic and social system – one in which the artist does not self-critically
see his/her own position and power. Are such situations not a symptom of a lack
of reflexivity and self-criticality on behalf of the artist, and thus not a fulfilment
of one of the ethnographic requirements? Could it be that it is the non-reflexive
employment of ethnography that Foster objects to, rather than using ethnography
in the arts? What I would like to think through is how the scenario looks if the art
researcher self-critically adds ethnography to the study of artworks and exhibitions
– not because artists and curators make up an alterity that gives access to truth, but
because what they produce is the object of study for an art researcher, and because
this object is changing shape, coming closer to what ethnographers study.
In the almost 20 years since Foster’s article was first published, many approaches
to ethnography and art have been developed (e.g., Coles 2000; Schneider and
Wright 2010), but his critique still resonates (Musée du Quai Branly 2012).
However, while learning from Foster’s critique of non-reflexive attempts at merging
art and ethnographic methods during the 1990s, it is nevertheless my belief that
contemporary art research can learn from ethnographic methodologies. My belief
originates in relation to that part of contemporary art which I call situations of
translocality in contemporary art, which, since the 1990s, have become increasingly
internationally and locally engaged. They are also characterised by taking the
shape of situations in the present, rather than being clearly limited objects and
exhibitions. More specifically, this article aims to find methodological tools for how


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to analyse and write about such ‘extended exhibitions’ (which Foster did not include
in his critique), and sets out to try specific ethnographic tools in this endeavour.
Ethnography is thus not to be understood as traditional, long-term ethnographic
fieldwork, but as a set of tools from which the contemporary art researcher can learn.
The article has three parts, the first of which describes the extended exhibition and
several relevant contributions to the discussion of ethnography and art. The second
part suggests a method for analysing the extended exhibition as an institution of
cultural production (Born 2010). It then discusses the use of ethnographic stories
(Verran 2001; Winthereik and Verran 2012) in the analysis and the possibilities of
transposing ethnographic methods into art research. The third part introduces the
case study of the extended exhibition event, ‘Home Works: A Forum on Cultural
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Practices’ that takes place in Beirut, Lebanon. It shows how the format of the forum
grows from and in dialogue with the social and geopolitical frame of a protracted
civil war, with almost no publicly or privately sustained art scene. Participants in
the forum, therefore, become producers of important cultural knowledge production
related to both art and history. In conclusion, it is argued that the methodological
tools of ethnographic observations, interviews and note-taking, in return, evoke an
art researcher who is engaged, neither inside nor outside, but rather a generator,
observer and creator of the field s/he is working in. This methodology openly
uses what a contemporary art researcher already does or has (but does not always
openly state and use): participation, note-taking and informal relations. Along with
an aesthetic analysis of artworks, it allows for a mapping of the circulations and
relations of artworks, artists, institutions and ideas which are apparent through Home
Works. This results in an analysis that simultaneously upholds the different layers of
art objects, exhibition formats and translocal dynamics. It moreover provides for an
attentive art researcher and writer.

The extended exhibition in current contemporary art

Situations of translocality in contemporary art have been composed of different
historical developments since the latter part of the 20th century. As regards the art
object, it is no longer limited to an object per se. Instead, artworks can take the shape
of concepts (Lippard 1973), a social relation (Bourriaud 2002), dialogues (Kester
2004), or theoretical discursive formats such as schools (Allen 2011), conferences,
books or research projects (Balkema and Slager 2004; Dombois, Bauer, Mareis et al.
2012; Sullivan 2010; Wesseling 2011). Simultaneously, contemporary art has been
influenced by object-oriented theory or actor network theory (Latour 1987), where
the artwork is read not as an autonomous entity, but instead through its connection
and relation with other things, humans and technologies.1
The exhibition format also expanded throughout the latter part of the 20th century.
Exhibitions have developed into multifaceted experiences beyond the exhibition


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room. This is especially the case with the increasing number of biennials since the
1980s, where specific topics are discussed in conferences, publications and fora,
making the biennial an accumulation of situations and artworks (Filipovic, Hal and
Øvsterbø 2010: 88–103, 124–207, 292–375).
The geographical context in which artists engage has likewise grown. Even though
artists in many cases work site-specifically (Kwon 2002), using and producing
knowledge related to a local history, place or building, artworks are simultaneously
part and product of a global network in which they are exhibited and produced.
Curators, artists and critics partake in this network, in which the contemporary art
researcher must inevitably work with different cultural traditions and art histories in
order to geopolitically frame the work.
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The three developments mentioned here go hand in hand with developments

in globalisation and migration patterns. A recent exhibition that verbalised this
situation within the arts, and merged ethnography and art, comes from the curator
of the latest Paris Triennial, Okwui Enwezor. He uses understandings of French
anthropology from the first part of the 20th century to ask questions about conditions
prevailing in current society: ‘How do contemporary social logics – in a time of
increasing proximity between incompatible communities, contending identities,
multiple cultural agents and artistic institutions – deal with spatial and temporal
disjunction when the distance between the Self and the Other, between us and them,
has collapsed?’ (Enwezor, Bouteloup and Karroum et al. 2012: 12).
The Paris Triennial, entitled ‘Intense Proximities’, exhibited cultural objects
and artworks that responded to the collapse of distance, which makes differences
visible in contemporary society (ibid: 22). The acknowledgement, on the one hand,
that we live under conditions of intense proximity and, on the other hand, that our
history thus exists as multiple histories, comes together in the art world with what
is characterised by the ‘postcolonial constellation’ of an emergence of, among other
things, ‘new forms of exhibitions’ (Enwezor 2003: 70). New forms of exhibitions –
or extended exhibitions – correspond to one of the three conditions of situations of
translocality in contemporary art, noted earlier. Foster, however, does not consider
the extended exhibition directly in his critique, but he does mention the change of the
art object into discursive situations (Foster 1995: 305) and the translocal character
of the ‘postcolonial situation of multinational capitalism’ (ibid: 303). Likewise,
in Enwezor’s impressive catalogue following ‘Intense Proximities’, there is little
discussion of how the extended exhibition changes the practice of the art researcher
when s/he does research and writing.


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Ethnography in the context of art object-oriented research

Considering both the translocal character of contemporary art production and the
emphasis on the interrelation between people in artworks and exhibitions, the
extended exhibition comes closer to the object of study of ethnographers. This is
specially the case within newer developments in anthropology, influenced by, for
instance, actor network theory, where conflicts and relations between people and
things are investigated. Also, postmodern anthropology, formed since the seminar
and book Writing culture in the 1980s (Clifford and Marcus 1986), is relevant because
both authors were invested in the field of art and anthropology, and it was in such a
context that Foster published the essay in question here. Postmodern anthropology
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challenged long-term anthropological dedication to one place and one culture, along
with the ways in which to write about one’s field of study. Both directions have been
criticised, but the aim here is not to reproduce them without consideration. Rather,
the move is to carefully select different strategies that, together, are useful when
analysing extended exhibitions. This has meant a discarding of the straight actor
network theory methodology, traditional ethnography with long-term fieldtrips,
and the idea of the exhibition as a ritual. The three chosen strategies are, instead,
the multi-sited ethnography of following the object or concept (Marcus 1995),
ethnographic analysis of institutions of cultural production in relation to a critical
analysis of the objects they produce (Born 2010), and ethnographic stories used as
generalisations that generate the analysis and the text (Verran 2001; Winthereik and
Verran 2012). They are chosen because they embrace the complexity of sites, the
institutional relevance for object production, and propose a writing technique that
emphasises both the situation and the aesthetic artwork analysis – all characteristics
that complement the extended exhibition.
The first approach, multi-sited ethnography, recognises that there are fields that
cannot be thoroughly researched through single-sited ethnographic observation. Such
research is ‘designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions
of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal, physical
presence’ (Marcus 1995: 105). In applying such a research design one can follow
people, objects, metaphors or conflicts which, in return, shape and limit one’s object of
study. In the case of the extended exhibition, one chooses what sites to move through
to follow the desired object or concept: the events of the programme; the exhibition;
the informal meetings, parties and café visits in-between; and the preparation and
practical realisation of the exhibition. This helps to garner information through
various layers of communication: on the level of 1) curatorial choices, 2) artworks,
and 3) discursive events and their reception by the public.
The multi-sited approach works as methodological scaffolding in that it practically
creates the structure of the object of study. In that way, it is the initiating tool that


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allows the researcher to limit the physical sites in which s/he wants to focus the
study. However, the multi-sited approach does not give specific instructions as to
the fieldwork itself. For the purpose of analysing the practical realisation and the art
objects of an extended exhibition, the three-step analysis of institutions of cultural
production by Georgina Born (2010: 188–189) is helpful. Born is a sociologist
applying ethnographic methodologies to her work in cultural institutions, such as
the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom and IRCAM2
at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Her methodology allows for both an understanding
of the institution in which cultural products are being produced and the manner in
which they are shaped by that institution, and vice versa. As regards the extended
exhibition, the three steps can help to combine institution, geopolitical frame and
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artwork. Applied to the exhibition, they become the following: 1) an ethnography in

the institution of the exhibition, analysed with respect to the broader field of cultural
production in the region; 2) a combination of ethnography and historical studies
that ‘probes the discursive, aesthetic, political and economic dynamics, broadly, that
inform the present’ to show how the exhibition is mediating these dynamics and
how they form the artworks and events taking place (ibid: 189); and 3) a critical
interpretation of the artworks and events produced during the exhibition. Such an
approach allows the researcher to see the institution as a site of emergence, where
formats and cultural objects are produced in relation to a geopolitical frame.
While Born’s ethnographic institutional analysis with a focus on the cultural object
provides a horizontal overview of the field, it does not give the tools with which to
write about it in an in-depth, vertical analysis. This is also lacking in contemporary
art writing, even though different developments of performative and creative writing
have explored how to write about art in a more timely way. Here, too, one can profit
from ethnographic writing tools because even though performative and creative
writing interrelate with the dynamics of the artwork, there is a resistance to defining
methodological tools for it. Instead, the focus is on the positioning and ‘situatedness’
(Haraway 1988) of the critic. Contemporary performance and performativity theorist,
Gavin Butt, defines exactly these newer practices by their coming about and not by
their already-established method: ‘They do not impose a model of criticism from
without, but discover or produce one out of engagement with – and a response to
– the contingencies encountered whilst undertaking the act of criticism itself’ (Butt
2005: 17).
The approach described here also applies to what scholar and curator Irit Rogoff
defines as criticality ‘through inhabiting a problem rather than by analyzing it’
(Nollert, Rogoff and Baere et al. 2006: 16); it could be by writing with the artwork
and not about the artwork (Hlavajova, Winder and Choi 2008: 104). Such approaches
are very valuable and much needed within contemporary art writing; however, the
contingencies one encounters while doing criticism and art research change according


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to the artwork, so how does one prepare oneself for the task of staying alert to the
artwork and transforming it into writing?
The writing technique of anthropologist Helen Verran provides a vertical and in-
depth analysis of specific situations that are useful in writing with the artwork. Verran
currently works within science and technology studies, where she investigates how
technology shapes people and ways of being together. Being technically aware of
how to transform ethnographic fieldwork into writing, Verran uses fieldnotes to create
ethnographic stories that represent either a part of the whole or one part out of many
that are alike: part/whole refers to an ethnographic story that embodies all aspects of
the whole field of study, a miniature of it; one-many refers to an ethnographic story
that is one among many similar ones in the field. These ethnographic stories are
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selected for their function within the analysis, and are developed and rewritten over
the course of fieldwork and/or in the process of writing. Pairing academic knowledge
with the development of the ethnographic stories is necessary in order to see their
relevance within the field.
Ethnographic storytelling is at the heart of Verran’s practice, explicitly unfolded
in Science and an African logic (Verran 2001), where she introduces short stories
from her nearly ten years of working as an educator of mathematics teachers in
Nigeria. The stories are created as the sum of several informants and situations,
and are thus not the equivalent of what actually happened. Instead, they have been
rewritten again and again in the process of Verran analysing her material, and finding
and emphasising a specific situation that can represent important aspects of the
fieldwork as a whole. She confirms, in collaboration with the Brit, Ross Winthereik,
that any ethnographic and crafted fieldnote is storytelling (Winthereik and Verran
2012: 39–40). Along with Winthereik, Verran argues for a fieldnote technique that
works as a generative force within the text itself, within the field one is studying, and
within the practices one studies (ibid: 37–38).
The writing approach which Verran proposes is relevant in this context, in
that it demands that the researcher remain attentive to the moment and to what is
happening. It allows the art researcher to formalise his/her note-taking and turn this
into a useful tool in the analysis, prolonging the moment of the fieldwork into writing
itself. It is also relevant in that it does not define deductively what the situation which
one is participating in is, but rather, how and to what it is becoming. The selection
of fieldnotes among many potentially interesting ones qualifies the focus on a few
situations within the broader extended exhibition. In the text, a fieldnote has an
anchoring function and ideally sheds new light on the exhibition in a generative way.
Applying these three methodological tools, however, limits the capacity of being
objective. A researcher is rather a participating ‘epistemic partner’ (Holmes and
Marcus 2008: 84) or even a collaborator (Strohm 2012) who produces knowledge
in the moment, together with participants and attendees of the event. This is not


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necessarily a disadvantage, as it gives qualified access to the field of study and

discloses important information. More critical is the impossibility of covering the
whole of the event and engaging everywhere. An excess of information has to be
carefully dealt with, together with the aesthetic analysis of the chosen artworks.
Such an approach acknowledges and sketches out how artworks and exhibitions are
being created in a responsive relationship with the surroundings and its conditions.
Along those lines, engaging with exhibitions worldwide implies having to choose a
few cities or regions in which to develop sustained relationships.3

Ethnographic Story 2: Missing Out

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Sepahvand’s guided tour was part of the last Home Works, the one in 2010 which
also had art education as its topic – all very relevant for my research. But it was not
until two years later that I realized that I had to work academically with Home Works.
Somehow, it all seemed too close, too intimate, too interrelated. I had known Christine,
the curator of Home Works, since 2006, when we studied together in London with
another Lebanese curator and writer, Mirene, and a Danish artist, Katrine, who had
just been on exchange in Beirut. They talked and talked about Lebanese art, and after
finishing the year, I went to Beirut to do research for a longer period at Ashkal Alwan,
the institution behind Home Works. I thought I should write about Lebanese artists in
my thesis in Copenhagen. But I was not capable. How could I contribute something
new? I kept going back to attend Home Works and to collaborate with Mirene and
her cousin Marwa. We even organized parallel events for the 2010 Home Works in a
critique of its capacity to create multi-voiced discussions. But then, wasn’t it exactly my
relatedness with the place and the people that could make me capable of contributing
something? Didn’t it give me access and a sense of the bigger picture?

Home Works: a case study of an extended exhibition4

Home Works is a cultural forum curated by Christine Tohme, that has been held
with varying frequency since 2002 in Beirut. Over seven to ten days, a series of
lectures, screenings, debates, publication launches and artistic interventions take
place; participants are writers, artists, intellectuals and performers, presenting
their thoughts and reflections on urgent topics in the region. The themes have been
dislocation (2002); the promise of globalisation (2003); presence (2005); disaster
and catastrophe, recomposing desire, and sex practices (2008); education, Saadiyat
Island, sound and citizenry, the odd years,5 and militarism (2010). The most recent
Home Works took place in May 2013 and had trial, exhibition re-enactment and
urban/private interventions as its themes.6
The first Home Works had a regional scope, but by the second, the perspective
had changed to ‘concentrate on kindred artistic and intellectual concerns that are


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operative all over the world’ (Tohme, Wilson-Goldie and Refka et al. 2005: 11).
The 25 participants of the first edition were almost all native to the region, whereas
the 100 participants in the 2010 Home Works came from various parts of the world,
such as Padma from Mumbai, Judi Werthein from Buenos Aires/New York, and
Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Bangkok.
The forum has expanded not only in scope and size, but also in its activities.
The first Home Works consisted of four types of activities: lectures, performances,
exhibitions and films, whereas the last consisted of 12 activities, featuring categories
such as publications, workshops, panels, artist talks, music and research projects.
Despite the change from being regionally focused to being internationally connected,
a local grounding remains. This grounding is based on the topics that the forum
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raises, which are connected to geopolitical events happening in and around Lebanon.
For example, in 2008, the topic was ‘disaster and catastrophe’ after the 2006 Lebanon
War (with Israel), and the topic of ‘Saadiyat Island’ was investigated in 2010, while
the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority was still constructing a Guggenheim, a Louvre and
a New York University on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, all of which are changing
cultural practices in the region. Both the Iraq War, beginning in 2003, and the 2006
Lebanon War interrupted the planning of the subsequent Home Works, and this is
one of the reasons why it has been held with irregular frequency.7
All the events of Home Works are free and often start in the afternoon, to encourage
local people to join in after work. Being a forum (and not only an exhibition) creates
a social environment where people are present and interact in social and intellectual
activities before and after the events of the forum. As Beirut does not have a museum
or art institution that can host the entirety of the event (this changed with the opening
of Beirut Art Center in 2009 and the Ashkal Alwan exhibition space in 2010), and as
performance, dance and theatre are important components, Home Works is hosted in
various theatres, cinemas, galleries and other locations throughout the city, creating
a dispersed event, yet one which requires participants and attendees to interact with
the city.
Another observation of relevance is the reappearance of regional artists on the
programme. For example, the actor, director and visual artist, Rabih Mroué, and the
philosopher and artist, Jalal Toufic, have presented works in all five Home Works. The
visual artist, curator and cofounder of the Arab Image Foundation, Akram Zaatari;
actor and visual artist, Lina Saneh; and filmmakers, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil
Joreige, have participated in four Home Works. Thus far, the forum has functioned as
a generator for artistic production and thinking, by commissioning artworks, books
and lectures in Lebanon.
The activities of Home Works are manifold. The following three examples
from 2002, 2005 and 2010 each give an idea of the character of Home Works and
simultaneously explain its conceptual and political groundings. The first example is a


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lecture by the French curator, Catherine David, ‘Learning from Beirut: Contemporary
Aesthetic Practices in Lebanon; Stakes and Conditions for Experimental, Cultural,
and Aesthetic Practices in Lebanon and Elsewhere’. In the lecture, David situates
Beirut as an art scene that is ‘privileged’ despite its tormented past and present,
with the civil war from 1975 to 1990 creating a vacuum in cultural production. The
art scene is privileged because practices have not been fully instrumentalised and
because there is an absence of institutions, i.e., the scene is still emerging. These
conditions allow for a critical, experimental contemporary aesthetic practice. David
defines, inspired by Jacques Rancière’s politics of aesthetics, the contemporary
aesthetic practice as a ‘contemporary project that can articulate the discursive and
the visual, at times, in a complex manner’ (David 2003: 36), which opens the door
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to practices in political and intellectual dialogue with the past, present and future.
David’s lecture, presented at the first Home Works (2002), defines both the
Lebanese art scene and the forum by articulating a vocabulary with which to speak
about them. The art scene is ‘privileged’, and art is ‘discursive and visual projects’
relating to society. This feature of Home Works is striking. Not all exhibitors have
a visual arts education; some are philosophers, filmmakers and architects who use
aesthetics as a means to comment on political and social matters. This allows for
a great deal of interdisciplinarity in the art scene and for artworks that are very
different in character, especially characteristic developments within performance and
video. David is an active curator in bringing forth contemporary aesthetic practices
from the Arab world, especially through the long-term project ‘Contemporary Arab
Representations’, founded in 1998. Bringing her to the first Home Works shows an
interest in verbalising and framing the Lebanese art scene by someone who was not
raised in it, but is embedded in it.
Almost as a continuation of her lecture, Jacques Rancière (2008: 55) presented
his ideas about aesthetics and politics at Home Works in 2005, calling for works
of fiction: ‘The work of politics as well as that of art is to introduce dissensus, to
burrow, to double up and to multiply the real’. This multiplication of the real is
something that, in particular, resonates with many Lebanese artists who use fiction
actively in their practice as a way to articulate some of the traumas of the civil war.
One well-known artist is Walid Raad, who was behind The Atlas Group archive
which consists of fictional documents from the period of the war.
The second example is Raad’s performance I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the
Masses Once Again (2005), which reflects on border crossings, interrogations and
the suspicion of artistic practice after 9/11 in 2001. The performance tells the story
of Raad’s exile from Lebanon to the United States, interwoven with descriptions of
an interrogation he experienced recently, when flying from Rochester to New York
City. It also tells the story of the case of Steve Kurtz, from Critical Art Ensemble,
who was imprisoned for cultivating chemicals.8 The chemicals were intended


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for an exhibition, but the CIA interpreted them as weapons of terrorism. Raad
tells the story from a first-person perspective of a character trustworthy in style,
story, appearance, photographic documentation and care for details and facts, yet
suspiciously fictitious. He begins by describing the day he fled Lebanon, and through
fragmentary descriptions, lays bare that his memory is fragile; he prompts us to
question whatever he tells us: Can we be sure he has got it right? Is artistic practice
similar to terrorism? However, the fiction enrols the audience in a line of thought that
treads on the edge of real events, and the blur of memory and perception. Treating
artists as terrorists is an ethical issue that is told in such a way that it becomes almost
surreal. Therefore, the performance conveys that, on the one hand, fiction is a way
in which to understand past realities, and that, by contrast, reality, while occurring,
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seems unreal.
A third example is Marwa Arsanios’ All about Acapulco (2010), an installation
consisting of video, animations, drawings, archive material and an architectural
model of a building from the Acapulco Beach Resort south of Beirut. The building
was built in 1950, in an age when beach resorts were popular, and today they
symbolise more liberal times before the civil war. Today, the building is a squat
for four poor families, and Arsanios’ video tells the story of a girl who visits, and
is a bit puzzled by its conflicting times and realities. The house is architecturally a
bastard with no clear style; however, it is inspired by the Brazilian architect, Oscar
Niemeyer, and embodies the seemingly incompatible thematic issues of the realities
of today, in contrast with the nostalgia for the past and its belief in the future. The
cross-continental lineage between the Arab world and Latin America is something
Arsanios has nurtured in other artworks through collaborations with Latin American
artists and curators, which suggests affinities across cultural contexts at the level of
both popular culture and intellectual knowledge production. Arsanios belongs to a
younger generation than Walid Raad – a generation that deals differently with the
civil war, perhaps due to being freer from the memories of it.
It is evident that Home Works is discourse-producing in many ways, especially
on the level of lectures, debates and artworks. The three examples mentioned here
interpret and map an art-historical analysis of the art scene (David), review living
conditions specific to the region (being an international Arab artist in the post-9/11
years), and revive a memory of the past’s cross-continental inspiration through
architectural sites and their lives (Arsanios). The regional political situation makes
the frequency of Home Works irregular and the exhibition format keeps taking new
shape. Simultaneously, it is urgent political situations that shape the themes of the
forum and thus also the content of the commissioned artworks. What remains is
to carefully think through how the immediate historical conditions and realities
influence the forum, and vice versa, how the artistic and theoretical discourses of the
forum feed back into the context.9


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Doing Home Works

In the beginning of this article, three conditions of situations of translocality in
contemporary art were sketched that, in one way or another, influence the methodology
of art research – what is the art object, how does the exhibition take shape, and
what is the relation with the geographical site? The extended exhibition was taken
as a specific embodiment of these three conditions. Tools to analyse the extended
exhibition were found in an ethnographic methodology influenced by postmodern
anthropology and actor network theory, more explicitly in George Marcus’ multi-
sited ethnography, Georgina Born’s analysis of institutions of cultural production,
and Helen Verran’s ethnographic stories. Through a case study of Home Works, this
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article showed that these methodological tools can productively be used to analyse
extended exhibitions in global contemporary art. Most importantly, the ethnographic
tools help to academically clarify the position of the art researcher, and allow the
complexities of the local culture to come through in the analysis and the writing.
Hal Foster argued that artistic appropriations of ethnographic methods were
rarely successful because the art system will always emphasise the artist, not the
community partaking in the ethnographic artwork. Without forgetting his critique,
it is still relevant to learn from ethnography, especially in relation to the analysis of
the extended exhibition. Through incorporation of the ethnographic stories ‘Missing
objects’ and ‘Missing out’ in this article, I brought about my own situatedness in
relation to the object of study, suggesting my openness to it. Sepahvand is a guide in
a museum with a foreign cultural history, and this is a role that can be applied to the
art researcher: to be a guide in an art scene that is not his/hers.10 The art researcher
becomes a guide in dialogue with people, an epistemic partner through interventions
such as interviews, informal social life and fieldwork. The focus shifts from the
insider and the outsider to comings and goings and mutual influences. The role of
the art researcher is that of an engaged creator, observer, analyst and generator, who
systematically uses what is already there – strategies from artworks and notes now in
a formalised and methodological shape. The pairing of a geopolitical, historical and
ethnographic analysis of Home Works and an in-depth aesthetic analysis of chosen
artworks is thus one way of bringing out the different complexities of the event, its
scale, controversies and impact.

1  This was especially apparent in the latest dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 in Kassel, one
of the most influential and important international exhibition events.
2  Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique.
3  Another aspect is the relationship between friend, informant, and researcher. Should
one fictionalise names, as is often done in ethnographic analysis? This problem is relevant to


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art research, where the fieldwork is about those who will also read the research and therefore
recognise people or events.
4  The analysis is based on a systematic use of participation, research stays, archive
research, interviews, artwork and text analysis, informal meetings, partying, coffee drinking,
collaborations and e-mail correspondences in the period from 2007 to 2013.
5  The odd years refer to the 1960s, pre-civil war.
6  As the article was authored before May 2013, a more detailed analysis of Home
Works VI was not possible.
7  This a distinct feature compared to most biennials that take place with a regular
two-year frequency. They are often funded and organised by the city in which they are held,
with city branding in mind (Filipa 2010: 13). Home Works is thus more of a bottom-up event
organised by the art community itself.
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8  Steve Kurtz also participated in Home Works III.

9  This is not the place to discuss the different criticisms of Home Works, but it is worth
mentioning that it is criticised for being a window for Western art scenes, without focusing on
the local Lebanese ones. This critique is reflected in the fact that the audience is international,
made up of an intellectual elite of formal and theoretical affinities that is well networked. A
second critique is in regard to the format, since many events take place in traditional learning
situations. This format faced a paradoxical moment at the 2010 Home Works, when three
panels on how to develop new art education took place via the traditional learning format,
thus missing the potential of the moment and other strategies that the speakers advocated.
10  I am indebted to sociologist, Nikos Papastergiadis, for suggesting this move to me.

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