Previous criticism of artists acting as ethnographers in art discourse has become less relevant as art education increasingly encourages collaborative and social practice, as culture is understood as inherently relational, and as anthropologists are looking to art for new ways to open methodology to the embodiment of research (Schneider and Wright 2006). In the mid-1990s Hal Foster argued that ignorance of social science principles and short contact periods with communities had the effect of limiting artists’ critical engagement, resulting in stereotypical representations of their subjects (Foster 1996: 171-204). A decade later, artists engaged in long-term social practices, such as van Heeswijk, have developed self-reflexive and critical practices based on experience with ethical and cultural issues. Projects such as The Blue House are stimuli to rethink the relationships between art and anthropology (Desai 2002; Schneider and Wright 2010).
As a result of employing processes from anthropology to facilitate participation by IJburg residents in social art or research, The Blue House involved residents with its members in complex networks of mainly informal social relationships which enhance the local innovative capability through synergetic and collective learning processes’ and promote communication, understanding and knowledge transfer (Hospers 2008: 385-86). At different moments, members and residents found themselves in the roles of participants, subjects and observers. Members’ projects problematized and blurred the lines between control and agency and, at times, the divides between public and private interests. Being uninvited guests on IJburg, The Blue House members were in tune with Patricia Reed’s concept of being simultaneously host and un-host’ (Goldenberg and Reed 2008), gaining an awareness of the ethics of hospitality through the giving and receiving of the experience. This understanding resonates with that of the participant-observer of anthropology and the everyday strategies for bridging cultural difference, or processes of ordinary cosmopolitanism’ (Lamont and Aksartova 2002), that the membership found lacking in culturally-diverse Amsterdam.
As well as producing information and cultural understanding, The Blue House members’ research led to active interventions in the urban and cultural fabric of IJburg. Tangible examples were the generation of new libraries, a youth programme and acceleration of community facilities, surveys, workshops, tours, social activities, public and media discussions, teaching, films, web-based documents and forums for information exchange. More conventional art outcomes were the exception, such as the drawings produced in art workshops organized by artist member Silvia Rusel at the instigation of local mothers (She-power in 2005-6) or posters collaboratively created by the residents of each block organized by member Tere Recarens. However, residents were able to participate and overlook the fact that The Blue House failed to fulfil commonly-held understandings of art. The exclusion of conventional forms of art from van Heeswijk’s definition of research was apparent in her rejection of a resident’s proposal to hold an art exhibition in the house.
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