Ethnography of the “post”-
avant-garde

Researching a community of cultural innovators.

 

Project

From 2004 to 2010, I conducted research within a community of cultural innovators — the generation of performing artists coming of age in the 2000s and pushing aesthetic boundaries beyond where the American Avant Garde had taken them. I had set out to discover how these artists lived and worked in at rapidly growing, changing, and gentrifying New York City.

In classic anthropological fashion, I wanted to understand the economic practices they employed, their genealogical and social structures, their real estate and space use activities, the ways they engaged audiences and other outsiders, and their relationships to their bodies as both tools of their trade and as humans.

I was particularly interested in how moments of frustration, distraction, and delay catalyzed creative, alternative approaches not just to their art-making, but to life in general.

Activities

Ethnographic research
Interviews
Focus groups
Conference & panel organization
Social-network & Geographic mapping
Press & archive review
Documentation & transcription
Research analysis & write-up

Approach

In order to develop the relationships and experience necessary to garner trust and access to work processes, I spent a number of years working alongside the members of this creative community as a master electrician, lighting designer, producer, and curator.

As part of this participant-observation strategy, I worked in spaces where artists of multiple generations and various disciplines came to create, produce, socialize, and network.

I conducted both informal and formal interviews with individual community members and groups. I curated, moderated, and participated in public panel discussions on issues relevant to the community. I also worked with some community members to generate network and geographic maps to understand the social and physical landscapes from their perspectives.

Because these artists were public figures, there was also a wealth of archival materials and press that I could dig into from places like The New York Times, Village Voice, other serial publications, and books.

 

Learning

Since completing this project, three key insights have continued to impact my own work: ethical implications of ethnographic research, the strategic ways in which real estate developers can radically transform neighborhoods with the help of cultural innovators, and contemporary society’s changing relationship to “history” and the multi-generational memory that it represents.

The findings also critically influenced the ways in which I then went on to work closely with cultural organizations, to grow and develop resources for them, as well as cultivate partnerships and programming strategies.

Result

Tendrils of Lost Time and The Self

An Aesthetic Anthropology of New York City’s
“Post”-Avant-Garde

Table of Contents:

0. Preface
an impossible object

three failures at anthropology

1. Anomic Naming:
the violence of the name, the comfort of the misnomer (the fitness of the sign)

2. Lost Boxes:
landscape plays and right angled parallelepipeds

3. Bricolage Economies:
spit, tape and the mirage of sustainability

intermezzo

4. Anarchic Time:
banal events and the recollection of small details

three failures in aesthetic ethnography

5. Genealogic Webs:
human networks look like cancerous tumors

6. Disciplined Chaos:
ontological anarchy and zen beginners minds

7. Fleshular Presence:
material knowing and the dance of death

8. Postface:
an original failure