”Spooling the Ethnographic” was a group exhibition by a group of Central Saint Martins 2nd year Fine Art students including myself. Ethnography is defined ”The scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences”. To begin our research we read Hal Fosters ‘Artist as Ethnographer’, in which Foster claims that anthropology, the science of the state of being other or different , has become the common language between those whose native languages are different within artistic practice. This fitted our location well, we were given a room within Iniva Gallery in which to exhibit our group work. Iniva was established in 1994 to address an imbalance in the representation of culturally diverse artists.
A great inspiration to this series of work for me was photographer Shizuka Yokomizo. For this 1998-2000 series of portraits, photographer, Yokomizo left anonymous letters on the doorsteps of random ground floor apartments with the message:
“Dear Stranger, I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know…. I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening.”
These letters gave simple instructions for when the artist would come and take the photograph. The only contact she had with the subjects of these voyeur portraits was when Shizuka sent the subjects a print of the image and her contact info in case they didn’t want the photograph exhibited.
My interests and areas to explore around this subject were very similar to another member of the groups so we decided to collaborate. I wanted to explore social relationships and interactions enhanced by online platforms. How and why people use social media, and the authenticity of the friendships formed there.
To begin our investigations we decided to organise and film a series of individual interviews with the rest of the group. We asked them their opinion on social media, if they like facebook, why they use facebook and if they also used any other social media platforms. We also printed out the first couple of posts and photos the interview subject ever posted on their profile, some being 6 or 7 years ago to present to them unexpectedly.
The majority of the people we spoke to did not care about facebook at first, many deleted their accounts a re-joined later. As most had either been travelling or have lived in different countries they use facebook to keep in contact easily or find people they could not find otherwise. One person even said how while she was travelling she lost her phone and did not have any phone numbers of the people she was meeting to find her hotel and luggage, the only option was to find somewhere with internet as facebook can be accessed so easily from virtually anywhere, she does not know what she would’ve done without it!
Some described facebook as self-indulgent, a guilty pleasure to gain photo and status ‘likes’ and constant comparisons to everyone else uploading the exact same potential ‘like’-provoking content. A negative side that was expressed several times was that even if you delete your profile, you can re-activate it, all of your information is stored infinitely whether you want it to or not.
When we handed the subjects the first status’s and photos they posted the reactions were varied, some were embarrassed at the things they used to share, or the way they shared it, some were emotional at the memories the posts brought back and some could not even recall posting it, or why they would’ve done.
To bring the whole groups ideas together we arranged improvisation workshops to experiment with our themes, for example writing and swapping artist statements, asking and answering questions as another group member, first impressions experiments, matching descriptions to each group member. This gave us the idea of using the group concept ‘Becoming the Other’, as it fitted in perfectly with the ideas and research we were doing on anthropology and ethnography, as well as the gallery space within Iniva.
The Iniva Website promoting our exhibition
improvisation workshops and private view
the gallery space at Iniva
My collaboration partner and I wanted to continue with using Facebook as a base to our investigations but we didn’t want to use the interview footage in a public gallery space as it’s only really effective if you know the subjects personally. We decided to create a fake facebook profile, ”Mary Ann Smith”.
For the weeks building up to the exhibition we worked on making the profile seem as real as possible, adding as many friends as we could, giving it a vaguely common name, adding photographs, ‘liking’ pages, writing generic status’s and interacting with the newsfeed of other peoples posts. As the exhibition time drew nearer we thought the best option was to set out a laptop with Mary Ann’s facebook page logged in. Instead of just letting people view it, we set out a series of instructions so to encourage the audience to participate and let Mary Ann become, in a way, the profile of the exhibition, each viewer allowed to add, like and say what they like to Mary Ann’s ‘friends’, the majority of whom did not know she was an art project.
While deciding how to curate the ‘Becoming the other’ exhibition we came to a decision that the room should have a domestic feel. All the pieces fitted well in this theme, for example there was a rail of clothes to try and fit into next to a mirror, a book to read through, a documentary style video of cooking in a kitchen, a giant cushion-y pizza in the centre of the room that acted as a meeting point to sit on and relax, and others. I put the laptop on a desk in front of a window as to imitate a homely setting. In front of it was a comfy chair with a cushion and on the floor was a rug. Around the laptop on the desk there was a pot of flowers, photo frames and a few random ornaments and the instructions were placed next to the laptop.
I’m really pleased with the outcome, there were so many interactions and posts, even private messages exchanging details with unknowing facebook recipients although some worked it out eventually! Here’s a few examples…
visit or add Mary Ann at https://www.facebook.com/inivaethnography