Anton Nikolotov

Participation, involvement and collaboration can be seen at once as ordinary practices that are constitutive of human and animal sociality (Kropotkin 2015) or even as an ontological principle of material existence (Barad 2007) as well as the key elements of professional and institutionalized domains circumscribed as “art” and “anthropology”. They are therefore both simultaneously the resources and tools or objects and methods of knowing and experiencing in these two domains. There are therefore several entry points into talking about collaboration and participation in relation to art and anthropology and the following is attempt at thinking the various discussions and offer to continue the conversation.

Collaboration as object and method

In anthropology, participation in the “participant-observation”, or prolonged, collaborative involvement in (other) cultures or social milieus has been the defining element of ethnographic method from anthropology’s early foundations and has involved continuing mainstream debates on just how much researcher’s “participation” is actually necessary, ethical or possible. As a topic of investigation in its own right, collaboration and participation have been studies under the rubrics of “ethnomethodology” or “para-ethnography” i.e. the ordinary research methods people use to get to know each other, their environments and get by. We will come back to these shortly, for the moment, it is worth noting that the field of discussion that “collaboration” and is “participation” can be connected to is broad; it involves such vast and traditional areas of inquiry like the discussions of gift, exchange and kinship constituting different kinds of societies. Additionally, agency and the emergence of new subjectivities and cultural forms have been drawing attention of urban and political anthropologists for a long time in their works on the nature of solidarity and self-organisation in: social movements, political practices of democratic participation or heterocultural convivialities and care of people living in diverse neighbourhoods. Similarly, we can take aesthetics and art as properties of the social and natural worlds that allow for different kinds of cooperative relations and senses to emerge and get distributed, or we can follow theories within art criticism and theory about the practices of those considered artists. Both are intertwined, but I will concentrate largely on the discussions in the professionalized domain at this point.

Refunctioning of ethnography

Explicitly collaborative and participatory forms of research have been emerging in the social sciences at least since the 1960s, but such forms become more complex and acquire new significance, now, largely as effects of the widespread neoliberal, precarious flexibility regimes and intensifying global flows of cultures, commodities and information, which Marcus and Holmes (2008; Marcus and Holmes in Konrad 2012) call an “imperative to collaborate”. The imperative, arguably, also gives rise to potentially novel forms of ethnography that demand from anthropology to practice a form of public criticism and collective work with techniques directly imported from curating, museology and fine art alongside its traditional production of texts. This current process of “refunctioning” of fieldwork seems to boil down to the following points:

1) The dissolution of the unitary site of traditional ethnography through the increased global interconnectedness and the emergence of multi-sitedness as the fundamental space of fieldwork.

2) The replacement of the traditional ethnographic “individualistic model” and its classical mise-en-scène, such as the traditional face to face interactions and narratives of the encounter of individual anthropologist vis-a-vis the exotic people in exotic places (Geerz and Malinowski), with various forms of collaborations.

3) Since the ethnographic method itself has been assimilated into the everyday (by corporation, marketing agencies, media and so on) it has also become simply a mundane “intellectual modality of our time”; where ethnographic subjects do ethnography themselves “within their own idioms” (2008, 84). So, if ethnography is not the privileged tool of anthropologists than, Holmes and Marcus argue, we have to explore the methods of the way people do their everyday life ethnography, what they term “para-ethnography”. Now, this not about the design of an anthropologist who imposes it on others, they claim, but about integrating the everyday research methods of the researched subjects with those of the researcher.

4) The ethnographic collaborations that result from this refunctioned fieldwork begin to be much more about setting up experimental spaces, new connections between different things and actors as well as interventions, rather than solely a monograph trying to represent cultural logics and differences.

Taking on board these schematic sketch, art practices have been argued to be models for anthropology’s new “refunctioned state” or ways of producing new kinds of “imaginary scenes” of ethnographic encounter. Recently, Ssorin-Chaikov’s (2013) has also valorised conceptual art as a method of doing ethnography in his project of “ethnographic conceptualism” and several others have outlined more thoroughly the interrelations between the two fields (Ingold 2013; Marcus 1995; Sansi 2014; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010, 2013).

Varieties and Entanglements of Experimental systems

Particularly, interesting seems to be an approach that draws the relations between artistic practice or practice lead research and science as sharing similar sets of presuppositions and organizing principles that characterise, what Rheinberger calls, “experimental systems” (Rheinberger 2001, 2006). While facts are produced and stabilized in laboratories and reproducible across time and space, artistic experiments set up relations and assemblages that generate their own research objects, the “epistemic things”, that often remain unrepeatable and singular events, objects, networks and atmospheres. Art as it operates within a contemporary art context has therefore been conceptualized as a practice of setting up speculative and open ended anti-systems, where the pursuit of the “epistemic thing” remains on the level of noumenal, “graphematic space” that does not (usually) get translated into the “representational space” of scientific knowledge (Shwab 2013, 7-13). Being the machine generate speculations and questions about an “epistemic thing”, art also arguably comes close to the ideas of “new empiricism”, which harking back to Deleuze, asks what things could be rather than what they are (Clough 2009). This also connects to some fundamental experiences of doing fieldwork. The history of twentieth century art and contemporary art has been variously linked to the history of the discussions on ethnography (Marcus 2007, 2010). Since ethnography by definition cannot be taught and since every site is different, fieldwork has been largely about allowing oneself to be affected by its environments and people, which seems to parallel the way artists sought to withdraw their own agency from the processes, situations and objects they create be it: relational events, installations or ready mades (see Kester 2011; Sansi 2014). However, one can argue that this experimental convergence of art and anthropology in its supposed withdrawal of agency is premised on a capitalist liberal democratic state and its postmodern modernity largely shaped by socio-technical arrangement of oil production and consumption (see Mitchell 2011). Colonial anthropology or anthropology in non-liberal societies like it was often in the USSR was frequently involved in collecting information about the different kinds of populations for the purposes of development, governance or state-territorial transformations (Hirsch 2014). It did not have to be so much about individual ethnographer’s letting go of oneself, but rather collecting information compatible with the preset agenda of the state or the party. As Groys (2014) provocatively and somewhat problematically argues, the avangardist and postmodernist attempt at turning art into life and to bring aesthetic utopia were defeated in the “West”, but in the Soviet Union the avant-garde actually triumphed: the artist becoming part of the machine constructing a new society with Stalin as its leading artist. The artist and the ethnographer here appear both not so much as individual figures giving up their agencies in a collaboration in order to be transfixed and absorb with their bodies the field work’s otherness, but rather as already collective subjects of a radical engineering of people, culture and space. In other words, doing an “anthropology of anthropology” in this regard would mean seeing multiple traditions of doing ethnography that are not confined to the modernity’s research traditions of the West (Restrepo & Escobar 2005; also Kuper 1994; Nadjimabadi 2012). This perspective should also enable thinking how experimentation is configured in various ways and how the “aesthetics” of fieldwork and the “refunctioning” of ethnography into a collaborative endeavour can happen in a variety of ways. Even in the academic tradition of mainstream, westernized anthropology, however, there are still tensions and debates about ethical conduct and consent, that define fieldwork and the writing up phase in quite important fashion.

Ethics of experimentation

Although, anthropologists have for a long time been initiated into indigenous religions, made friends and lovers in the field these all still remain contentious issues that can be simplistically coined as “going native” or as “unprofessional conduct” aimed at deception and instrumental extraction of information from the researcher’s interlocutors without giving anything back in return. Becoming an apprentice in another religion– often problematically termed “conversion”– is usually seen as going “too far” and anthropologists choice has more often been to opt for the position of somewhere “in between” (Stoller 2009) without often questioning the discipline’s own secular presuppositions (but see for example Cantrell 2015; Scott 2013). Surely, the normative ethical codes, which can be summed up as reciprocity, consent and reflexivity, get challenged by the complexities of relations and require a “situation ethics” in the field, but they still exert a great degree influence over how ethnographies are done and written. Artists are usually not implicated in such ethical constraints, which is a truism, and often even seek to transgress various forms cultural identities and boundaries on purpose. Self- transformation and participation in alterity, such as the bodily prosthetic or biological manipulations by the likes of stelar or Harbisson, is often a sought after value in itself that increases one’s fame and prestige. What are than the ways exactly artists tend to collaborate with other people that seeks to produce a social intervention?

Collaboration in art

The equal mainstreaming of participation and collaboration in the art world as well as in social sciences now come under many labels, such as: “community”, “dialogical”, “new genre”, “social action”, “situational” or “relational” art (Bourriaud 2002, 2009; Kester 1998, 2004, 2011; Thomson and Shollete 2004; Thomson 2012). Some theorists have proposed to think about these models of participation in tandem with anthropology via the concepts of exchange, giving and the gift (Purves 2004; Sansi 2014). As Sansi (ibid.) points out, artistic concepts of participation often end up revolving either around the romantic image of a free gift of sociality within a liberal community of already predefined, autonomous individuals, although in this case, the production as well as the products of production are not necessarily separated from the producers. In many cases unequal and hierarchical relations are reproduced in so far as the nominally utopian projects contribute to the building up of gallery based “inalienable possessions”, which continue to be the property of the museum (like Gonzales-Torres scripts for artworks that still belong to the museum) or perpetuate the reproduction of the non-sharable fame of the artist (87-113). Fame operates here, arguably, analogously to Strathern distributed personhood, rather than Bourdieu’s symbolic capital, since artists, arguably, “do not expect a return or counter-gifts from participants” (ibid.101), except, perhaps, there is still the expectation of the counter-gift of participant’s very participation in project and the trust given to the artist, which as fame in the end translatable into grants, internships, sponsorships and general opportunities for career growth. This kind of art that has often been associated with Bourriad’s (2002) relational aesthetics in the 1990s and early 2000s came strongly under fire for supposedly promoting complacent “consensus”, while masking continuing power relations it involves. It does not seem to me, however, that an alternative to these ideologies of “consensus” in relational art (Tiravanja’s cooking) is “antagonism” or “dissensus” (Sierra’s exploitation art) based on Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas of “agonistic democracy” advocated by Bishop (2006, 2012) or political kind of theory of aesthetics formulated by Rancier (2006). Following Kester (2011) one can argue that artistic social projects are ‘multivalent” and contradictory, temporal creations containing cycles of consensual participation and generosity as well as possible crises and failures (210-11). To what extent the social artists actually represent these frictions of collaborations or their outright failures instead of attempting to construct romantic visions of “community” and utopian gifts needs to be looked in every individual case.

Psychoanalysis of participatory forms

In my fieldwork I tried to replicate the method of the conceptual activist art-collective Ultra-red, by asking people to record sounds and than have a discussion around them. In their methodological Workbooks (2011 2014), which act as pieces of conceptual art themselves, Ultra-red proposes to think of participation through an interpretation of Lacanian categories of the imaginary, symbolic and the real and formulate an emancipatory concept of participation that essentially comes down to the ethics of knowing oneself and becoming an agent (see note in Ultra-Red 2011). The “tyrannical” discourse of participation (Cooke and Kothari 2001) as governmentality operates in the imaginary sphere, they argue, that is ultimately linked to the commodification of affects and relations; the transformation of “hopes and fears” into exchange value (Ultra-Red 2011, 5). This imaginary participation, what they call “participation in its value form”, produces identification with the terms of the universal master discourse i.e. master’s desire for knowledge, rather than with the subversive, hysterical subject position that refuses interpellation and constantly ask: “am I who you say I am?”(6). Although, schematic, I found their approach useful. However, in the process of trying to organize the listening sessions in my own fieldwork I became implicated in most intense relations with the people I worked with not through the development of a collaborative project, but rather when such endeavors at organizing and finding commonalities collapsed.

Instead of becoming involved in talking about their experiences or our shared experiences, my interlocutors were often much more interested in persuading me to revert me to Islam, use as a “cash-cow” or take for a ride for a common laught; at one other point I had my sound recording equipment appropriated for spying on one of my participant’s wife and other members of the family that could have had resulted in very complicated and problematic situations. Although, frustrating to me, many similar instances, paradoxically, constituted the undoing of the collaborations fantasmatic, planned coherence of ritualized participation and, I would argue, reflected my interlocutor’s own para-ethnography. Such para-ethnographic practices of knowing can break down an anthropologist or artist led collaboration and, while being attuned to these parallel research worlds is unlikely to provide any sort of redemptive models for collective doings in themselves, they may allow to see how people creatively draw connection between many different things and what really is of value. Rather than trying to see “successful” collaborations, it is important to see the situations when collaborations go into unanticipated and uncollaborative directions or even fail, because even when things break down, things have have already been connected and “lines drawn” between different unlikely elements (Simone 2015).

Failure as undercommons

I think, I will end here with a suggestion that a way to think about collaborations with non-elite subjects is to link the discussions with the recent literature on the commons, or rather– undercommons. Following Moten and Harney (2013), undercommons is an unstable place of disagreements and contestations; the space of refusal to be interpellated, recognized by the state, university, potential patron or a master-signifier of any kind. Unlike Ahmeds (2010) “happy objects” of the nation, family or community, being in the undercommons is being permanently fugitive:

“The undercommons is not the common. It is what emerges from the enclosure of the common, within and against enclosure. The undercommons is what always escapes settlement, but to nowhere. The fugitivity of the undercommons is a matter of deception, misrecognition, faking, mocking, playing. […] The undercommons is not the common, though you can see it from there.” (Harney and Desideri in Martinon 2013, 128)

It is possible that anthropology and art in their “mutual envy” for each other (see Foster in Marcus 1995) could actually become attuned to para-ethnography and para-art, when they focus, precisely, on the instances when such collaborations fail. Like the eruptions of the Lacanian real, undercommons can be thought as ruptures in the “imaginary” collaborations of the mainstream, developmental social work and the “symbolic” collaborations of the left-wing, activist organizers. The different kinds of archives of the collaborative failures as undercommons are yet to be built and properly conceptualised, but such endeavour seems to be pertinent and also offer an important engle on the way different experimental systems are actually made in a variety of settings.


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