Ethnography on Art Culture

North Seattle Community College student Marilou Carlson visited the common S E N S E to fulfill a requirement for her Cultural Anthropology class. In this guest blog post, she discusses her experience and how it allowed her to transition from an “outsider” to an “insider.”

I have an assignment. I need to find an activity with which I am unfamiliar. I check out the options on The Stranger’s website. What does The Stranger Suggest? Ah, there is an art exhibition. There’s a lot of buzz about it. I know little about art, and don’t often go to exhibitions. They say it has mystery, singing, and animals. The title is ‘the common S E N S E’ by Ann Hamilton. I check it out. There is singing. Singing, at an art exhibition! I go.

I arrive the day after the exhibition opens. The staff people are weary from the 1,000 people who were there on opening day, but they are welcoming and warm. I am given a folder with the title, “A Commonplace: A book for the common S E N S E.” This is for me to collect a newsprint copy of an animal scan from the exhibit if I so choose, and newsprint copies of fragments of texts which have meaning for me. They are distributed around the exhibition on shelves. The texts have come from published literature, and were submitted on Tumblr by visitors and chosen by the artist. This is a culture that has a high level of online communication. All the text fragments relate to the topic of touch as conceived as a sense shared by all the animals (including humans). They may also relate to touch as understood as a form of emotional or intellectual connection. Ah, the common sense, touch, this exhibit addresses ways of understanding touch. I’m starting to get it.

Ann Hamilton Opening Day. Photo Credit: Chona Kasinger
Ann Hamilton Opening Day. Photo Credit: Chona Kasinger

In the university subculture, there tends to be division and lack of communication between departments, museums, and specialties. Ann Hamilton is attempting to bridge this, as the volunteer artist said, “Like fungi growing underground and breaking down walls.” In the exhibition, there are animal specimens, pelts, and clothing, even children’s books about animals. There are reader/scribes and singers serenading the exhibits. In a large, light room opened up on a lower floor, there are over 20 spinning contraptions mounted on poles; bullroarers calling individuals to gather. There are also the scans.

I ask if I can observe for a while, for my anthropology class, and then return to participate more next week. Yes! I am a student? Yes! Come in for free! Have a seat on this stool, observe all you want! I start in the Test Site space. Several people enter the Test Site, sign a release form, and get scanned in a photo booth with translucent walls. I hear a dad say to his daughter, as they are getting scanned together, “You’ll be part of the show.” They come out of the booth and peek at the shot of them in the camera. “Look. That’s me and you,” says the dad. There are newsprint copies of many, many scans of animals from the UW Collections posted in the galleries below, of which visitors may choose one for their own collection. As the animal scans are depleted over the six months of the exhibit, they will be replaced by human scans, from the visitors to the exhibition. It’s eerie. “It’s the horror and sadness of how animals disappear while human populations grow,” is how the volunteer artist described it.

Ann Hamilton Opening Day. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit.
Ann Hamilton Opening Day. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit.

I later return to be a reader/scribe, in the role of going out into the exhibition to read for an hour in the prescribed book, while writing down what I am reading in a notebook. The Peregrine by J.A. Baker is a gorgeously written book about a man who becomes obsessed with following a pair of peregrine falcons over the course of one fall through spring in the English countryside. The complicated relationship humans have to other animals in this culture is definitely reflected in the exhibition. Ann Hamilton has the sense that the words of the author echo, and they touch the readers and the animals in the exhibit, through soundwaves and through the pages, in this place and outside it. Indeed, as I am reading the book and transcribing it, I come upon a description of a similar feeling I am having about the exhibition, written down by the author some 40 years ago on another continent. After walking through the galleries, I am mostly thinking, “Soft, dead animals. We are a killing culture.” In his words, of the hawks themselves, which were beginning to decline at the time because of farm pesticides, he says, “We are the killers. We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.”  I see that there can indeed be connections between human beings, through words on a page, across time and space.

I actually think that the question of insiders and outsiders in relation to art is a major point of this particular exhibition. Without the contributions of visitors/viewers, the exhibition would have been radically diminished in its richness. We would have stayed separate in our respective roles, artist and viewers/visitors, and a sense of the connection of a gathering of humans thinking about a topic such as our relationship to animals would not happen. By encouraging many levels of participation, the artist broke down the walls between outsider and insider. She invited everyone to come inside and be part of the show.

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