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
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 5programme, 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 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. …