Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2007

Contemporary Art and Anthropology: Challenges of Theory and Practice

Lecturer: Associate Professor Arnd Schneider,
Department of Social Anthropology,
University of Oslo

Main disciplines: Anthropology, Fine Arts, Media Studies
Secondary disciplines: Art History/Criticism, Cultural Studies

Dates: 30 July - 3 August 2007
Course Credits: 10 pts (ECTS)
Limitation: 30 participants

This course will look at recent border crossings between art and anthropology, and explore the epistemological challenges arising from it. Following the so-called ‘ethnographic turn’, contemporary artists have adopted an ‘anthropological’ gaze, including methodologies, such as fieldwork, in their appropriation of other cultures. Anthropologists, on the other hand, in the wake of the ‘writing culture’ critique of the 1980s, are starting to explore new forms of visual research and representation beyond written texts.

This course will explore the potential for future collaborations between art and anthropology. The curriculum will be based on an examination of key texts, and review of a number of paradigmatic artists and issues (such as, fieldwork/ site-specific ethnography, appropriation, research in and representation of different sensual domains/’synaesthesia’).

In its workshops and assessment options the course encourages presentation and submission of practice-based visual work.

The course format is lectures and workshops, in which students are encouraged to present their work in progress.

The course is interdisciplinary and directed at doctoral students and researchers in the social sciences, humanities, and in the visual arts (including anthropology/visual anthropology, sociology, art criticism, art history, fine arts, film practice and studies, design, media practice and cultural studies).


Essential readings
(we strongly encourage students to obtain and read the following books in advance)

Assessment is either

Visual work can be submitted in the following formats (DVD, CD-Rom, PAL VHS, photographic portfolio/essay as bound copy A4 format). Work will not be returned. Students who want to select this option should discuss and agree this with the course director before the end of the course week.


Lectures 1 & 2: Anthropologies of Art

A number of disciplines make interpretive claims on a broader field of ‘art’: among them art history, art criticism, archaeology and anthropology. Anthropology, in particular, has discussed the validity of a universal concept of art (or aesthetics) vs. culturally specific art norms, in short, the potentials and limitations of cross-cultural comparisons. Some anthropologists, consider culturally and historically contingent, western concepts of aesthetics redundant, and instead have emphasized art as a product of social relations. Conversely, the contemporary arts have deconstructed western art worlds and its institutions, interrogating issues of legitimacy, power and authority.


Lectures 3 & 4: Fieldwork: Art and Ethnography

One of the defining moments of modern anthropology has been the introduction of systematic fieldwork practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which in various reincarnations still define the discipline. The more recent “Writing Culture” critique in anthropology, and the ethnographic turn in the contemporary arts open up new possibilities of collaboration, beyond earlier positivist paradigms. A number of paradigmatic artists and their projects will be reviewed (such as, Lothar Baumgarten, Nikolaus Lang, Gillian Wearing, Rainer Wittenborn).


Lectures 5 & 6: Appropriations: Techniques of Difference

Both art and anthropology appropriate from cultural others, with important political and ethical implications. Historical antecedents include 20th century “Primitivism” in modernist art, as well as its reappraisal and representation in later exhibitions. Going beyond earlier critiques, appropriation here is developed as a hermeneutic practice, with a critical emancipatory potential in cross-cultural representational practices and collaborative projects.


Lectures 7 & 8: The Senses, Art and Anthropology

For some time, in anthropology the varieties of sensuous experience have been of concern to anthropologists, investigating the senses cross-culturally. More recently this has been expanded to discuss new strategies of research and representation. Contemporary artists have long been interested in the senses beyond vision and text, as recent exhibtions and curatorial projects testify (e.g. Sensorium at MIT, 2003). The new interest in sensuous experience beyond text is discussed in relation to what implications can be drawn for future collaborative projects.


Lectures 9 & 10: Transcending Text: Visual Anthropologies, Experimental Film, Photography and Digital Media

If one conclusion from an occupation with border crossings in art and anthropology is a required change in future research and representational strategies, then ‘text’ must be redefined and loose its preponderant status. This will demand not only a critique of text (in its academic varieties), but also of the text-based visual media. For too long, in anthropology (including its sub-discipline of visual anthropology), photography, film, video, and even new hypermedia, have served illustrative and linear narrative purposes. This is where a critical reappraisal of the work of experimental film- and video artists (such as Robert Ascher, Maya Deren, Juan Downey, and Sharon Lockhart) can provide new perspectives.


The Lecturer

Arnd Schneider writes on contemporary art and anthropology, migration and ethnographic film. His main publications include Appropriation as Practice: Art and Identity in Argentina (Palgrave, 2006) Futures Lost: Nostalgia and Identity among Italian Immigrants in Argentina (Peter Lang, 2000), and as co-editor with Christopher Wright, Contemporary Art and Anthropology (Berg, 2006). His essays “The Art Diviners” Anthropology Today (1993, 4) “Uneasy Relationships: Contemporary Artists and Anthropology” Journal for Material Culture (1996, 2), “On appropriation” Social Anthropology (2003, 2), explore a new emerging field of art practices and anthropology.

Arnd Schneider co-organised Fieldworks: Dialogues between Art and Anthropology, an international conference at Tate Modern, London, September 2003. Arnd Schneider has also been a Reader in Anthropology, University of East London and a Senior Research Fellow, University of Hamburg.