Ethnography, Socially Engaged Art and a Preponderance of Dogs

A researcher’s attempt to get a new perspective

Dog is one of the most used words in field notes I recorded during the two months I spent studying a collaborative, socially engaged art project in the winter of 2018. The project that the artists worked on was not about dogs but rather about technology, somatics, and fostering embodied connections between people. It was a beautiful, complex work that helped me learn new and unexpected things about museum-supported socially engaged art, community, and generosity. The dogs who pepper my notes largely just walked by me through the space where the artwork was taking place. As an artist turned art education “ethnographer”, I diligently took note of these dogs, what they wore, how they moved, and the people who walked them. Though my mentions of dogs are brief and lack the depth of my writings about the collaborative processes of the artists and the institution I was trying to learn about, the dogs are still interwoven throughout my notes, like pinecones amongst the dense dark green branches of a fir tree. While I did not realize it then, my accidental fixation on dogs illustrates just how much one’s own life can color individual perceptions of socially engaged art, even if, like me, you are attempting to look at things in a new way.

At the time of my canine preoccupation, I was a doctoral student studying gallery and museum supported socially engaged art. I began my research project because a decade of making, talking, and reading about socially engaged art had attuned me to a gap between my lived experiences within the field and ways that others (particularly academics and museums) seemed to describe projects. I observed that much writing on socially engaged art articulated or analyzed the final outcomes of a project, never getting to what most interested me as an artist—the slow, sometimes uncomfortable, mundane ways that a collaborative, institutionally-supported work unfolds. Bishop (2012) identified how the logistics of art critical and academic research don’t always align with the structure of socially engaged art which she explained is, “an art dependent on first-hand experience, preferably over a long duration (days, months or even years). Few observers are in a position to take such an overview of long-term participatory projects” (p. 6). As a socially engaged artist I agreed with Bishop and decided to structure my research so that I could gain a long-term and social perspective of the ways artists and museums work together.

In late 2017 I developed an ethnographic case study research design with the guidance of my dissertation advisors. Unlike art critical methodologies, ethnography prioritizes the in-situ grasp of a culture or community over time, largely through observational and discursive methods. As Marcus and Myers (1995) assert, unlike most artistic discourse, ethnography is not concerned with defining or critiquing what art is, because it is focused on “understanding how these practices are put to work in producing culture” (p. 10). I postulated that ethnography would allow me to follow the full lifecycle of socially engaged art projects from preliminary discussions, through to post-project debriefing, thereby offering the potential for new insights into gallery and artist collaborative processes. I was drawn to the ethnographic emphasis on remaining open as possible during research so that unexpected themes, unspoken participant beliefs, and/or non-obvious factors influencing a particular social situation might become visible. For example, at my first research site I realized that the backdoor to the gallery (which led into the staff offices) was commonly used by the public because the organization was open to their community stopping in any time to make use of the institution’s resources—something I may not have realized unless I jotted down how everyone entered the space. Part of what I hoped this type of ethnographic observation might offer me was a more objective perspective on socially engaged art. Like many people who work in participatory art, I get deeply invested in my projects and the people I work with, making it hard for me to separate my emotional, critical, and personal perspectives when describing my artworks to others. I theorized that taking on the role of an ethnographer might create some productive distance between me and the socially engaged art projects I was learning about so that I could get a fresh perspective on institutional and artist collaborations.

My ethnographic research design required me to temporarily relocate to the cities where the projects I was studying took place. When I arrived at my second site in January 2018, I brought with me my nine-month old rescue dog Sprout who my partner and I had acquired three months prior. Though adorable, Sprout was a high energy puppy who had learned a multitude of bad dog behaviors in the few months she lived in an overcrowded Ohio animal shelter.

Each day, before I arrived at the museum to work with the artists on their project, I took Sprout out for at least a one hour walk, during which I tried to teach her how to not pull on a leash, chase squirrels, bark at people, or eat garbage. I could then leave her for a maximum of five hours before I needed to return home and take her out for another hour or hour and a half, often in the pouring winter rains of the Pacific Northwest. Sprout frolicked around me licking my feet and trying to jump onto forbidden surfaces as I typed up my field notes each day. She sat beside me on the couch as I used one hand to edit images for the project, the other to pet her head. Sprout ripped up toys and fancy treats in the bathroom while I conducted Skype interviews. Occasionally, she would sleep beside me while I read over my notes. Other than my research, the only thing I accomplished in that two-month period was to teach Sprout how to play fetch in order to more effectively tire her out. To say dogs were on my mind during my research is an understatement; my puppy training brain was liking a weather vane, oscillating towards any canine who crossed my path, likely with the subconscious hope that I might discover how to better control my dog.

For all intents and purposes, Sprout, like the dogs in my field notes, has nothing to do with my research. She will not be mentioned in my dissertation, nor are any other canines discussed analytically in my work. And yet, their presence in my notes offers perhaps the best window into the limitations of both ethnography as a method for studying socially engaged art and of socially engaged art storytelling. Ethnographic case study, like socially engaged art, is something which unfolds over time via the mutual participation of people in a specific context. Both are fields made up of lots of participants who come to a project for different reasons, with different intentions, aims, and feelings. Any or all of someone’s life situation may be expressed or not, in action or words, at any point during a project. The challenge to articulate a socially engaged art work, be it by artists, the institutions who support them, or a researcher, will always reflect the plentitude of perspectives that the author inhabits.

Though I entered this project with the belief that ethnographic case study might provide me a more judicial viewpoint of socially engaged art, instead it reminded me of the impossibility of crafting a singular ‘accurate’ story of any socially engaged art project by highlighting how my dog/life balance was shaping my research. While ethnography offered me an innovative toolkit for approaching socially engaged art, it was not a magical periscope that stopped my life or feelings from shaping my encounter with the project. Rather than viewing the impacts that social, emotional, political, and personal experiences have on socially engaged art as a potential limitation to how we tell the stories of projects, I believe artists, galleries, and researchers simply need to be more transparent about these factors, both during the execution of a work and in its dissemination. This honesty and vulnerability, whether it is about a poorly conceived timeline, a longstanding friendship between a curator and artist, or a fixation on dogs, will help foster more inclusive dialogues about socially engaged art and will support our field in continuing to grow in new and exciting directions.


Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso Books.

Delamont, S. (2008). For lust of knowing: Observation in educational ethnography. In G. Walford (Ed.), How to do Educational Ethnography (Ethnography and Education) (pp. 39–56). London: Tufnell Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, G. E., & Myers, F. (1995). The traffic in culture: Refiguring art and anthropology. (G. E. Marcus & F. Myers, Eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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