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Art meets academia: a field study

Eastern Bloc exhibition brings together the seemingly disparate disciplines of art and anthropology

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Even sceptics nursing a grudge against the art world for its supposed cultural elitism – its penchant for creations with meanings unfathomable to all but experts or the artists themselves – should have their hard feelings softened by the Ethnographic Terminalia exhibition currently running at Eastern Bloc studio and gallery. Upon entry they’ll find themselves confronted by a piece that is comfortingly functional: a large, cozy-seeming quilt that strikes you as vaguely American – “Piece #4, Pennsylvania Dutch Quilt,” according to my pamphlet.

Primed for “an initiative that brings artists and anthropologists together,” I thought “here is the extent of the disciplinary interaction: an anthropologist wanted to share the beauty of a culturally distinctive art form that she had studied – good.” Another level of complexity (and of interest) was added, however, in remarking that the work was coupled with a small display running Amish Country (the making of a quilt), a video revealing the quilt to be a product of a collaborative effort between artist Renee Ridgway and an Amish Pennsylvania Dutch family.

Intrigued by a dozen or so papers attached to a column, with a handful more in a box below, I approached Siraj Izhar’s Tent X: Democracy Village, Parliament Square, and, in so doing, left my reductive first impressions of the exhibition behind. Izhar’s creation was more ambiguous in and of itself: sketches of the tent village set up in London as part of the global Occupy movement had been crumpled up, and then re-flattened for viewing. Putting the piece’s individual meaning aside, I mused on the connection between it and the quilt – two works not only employing very different mediums and techniques but seemingly for very different goals had been brought together for a common purpose.

My next stop only served to increase my confusion. Drawn by a comment which seemed more appropriately directed to an employee of a science center than to an art gallery volunteer – “We need instruction” – I arrived at “Making Sense: Lab as Gallery as Field,” where two young men tried to figure out what they should be doing with a computer, petri dishes, some homespun gadgetry and circuitry work, and what turned out to be a spectrometer. I had already noted the participatory nature of some of the pieces, but this was a striking example: a two-part installation which, on the one hand demonstrates the power of collective participation (via open-source knowledge-sharing) to change the essential function of a “Roomba” robot, and, on the other hand, asks for guests’ participation in accumulating experimental data for some sort of spectrum analysis. Leaving the two to their devices, I approached one of the curators – Kate Hennessy, an Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts & Technology – to try to better understand what made this art, or anthropology, and what thread ties the whole package together.

Ethnographic Terminalia, Hennessy explained, actually refers to a curatorial collective of six anthropologists who mount one exhibition per year, timed to coincide with the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting. The collective shifts responsibilities for putting on each year’s show, and Hennessy, along with Fiona McDonald, (University College London, England) and Trudi Lynn Smith (York University), in cooperation with Erica Lehrer (Concordia University), were charged with selecting among artists’ proposals, finding a location, and putting the whole thing together here in Montreal.

The collective aims to provide a venue for forms of cultural expression and inquiry – and the voices contained within them – which the traditional academic conferences leave out. Additionally, local communities have a chance to not only encounter, but participate in, anthropological research. Anthropologists have a reason to get out of their conference and hotel rooms and experience the cities where the exhibitions are held.

Dialogue, it seems, is the current running through it all – what makes every piece selected a work of art and of anthropology: the voices emanating from the field, the studio, and the lab, are free to speak to one another and to the public in the unbounded imaginative space of the art gallery. Highlighting the project’s self-reflexivity, curators keep busy documenting the gallery’s goings-on with notes and photographs, ethnographic records which find their way into subsequent academic reflections on the project, and so the conversation continues. As for me, Hennessy photographed my unexpected interaction with “Piece #10,” a set of books belonging to the International Public Space Library – I took Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.