In this watershed essay, Foster both names the artist-as-ethnographer model and questions its latent assumption(s): a “real” other, necessarily situated on the margin / “outside.” Though the essay was first printed in 1995, one finds that Foster's name has stuck—if only because the ideology he describes has, too.
Foster's first insight is to compare this politics with Benjamin’s artist-as-producer, a model which might be described as class-forward (proletarian solidarity), but which I would liken to the artist-as-vanguard conceit discussed in a number of prior essays (e.g. Grant Kesters’ “The Sound of Breaking Glass). This suggests a simple progression (class politics –> identity politics) and thereby lays the foundation for a strawman-simple Marxist critique of the neoliberal (“here postcolonial, there proletarian,” pg. 303).
Were the essay not moving at a breakneck pace, Foster's paraphrase would be grounds for criticism. But Foster, to his credit, immediately proceeds to his own (deeply compelling, alternately poststructuralist and pragmatic) critique of the artist-as-ethnographer. In presuming the “other” is a real—and not ideological—category, what are we reifying? And how might a “politics of other and outside [detract] from a politics of here and now?” (304)
I find the framing of the site-specific work as institutional “inoculation” remarkably clear, remarkably cutting, and remarkably correct (as seen in prior UofC BA studio exhibitions). But its corollary—that “a strategic sense of complex imbrication is more pertinent to our postcolonial situation than a romantic proposal of simple opposition” (304)—is, to me, this essay's real call to action.
To exemplify the failure of such “romantic proposals,” if I might lapse into a personal object-study: post-Trump, a number of butcher-paper prints (a la Bansky) appeared around Hyde Park. Later, while studying in London, I found that the anti-gentrification art of Hackney also took the form of wheatpaste prints and stenciled spray-paint spatter. Why romanticize a fascist aesthetics for “resistance?” (The appropriation of pseudo-socialist realistic stylization in such “political” art is another question). Are they not aware that U.S. Army propaganda instead approaches CGI blockbuster hyperrealism; that it is narrowcasted and focus-grouped? Have they even heard of Palantir?
As evinced by the prior paragraph, the applicability of Foster's essay is obvious, immersed as we are in an aesthetics of authenticity (the ahistorical non-place mélange of exposed brick and exposed lightbulbs; the millennial fetish of exposed machinery or periphery as critique).
But it is one of the Foster's more oblique implications—projection—that is useful for thinking through Juan Downey's work. If “the cultural other, [reflects] an ideal image of the anthropologist, artist, critic, or historian,” (304-305), what work are Downey's subjects doing? Though Downey's Video Trans Americas has been considered a disassembly of the conventional ethnographic project, does it simply shift the burden of proof within the frame? (See: “the other is admired as one who plays with representation, subverts gender, and so on. In all these ways the artist, critic, or historian projects his or her practice onto the field of the other, where it is read not only as authentically indigenous but as innovatively political,” pg. 307).