Generalisations about the globalisation of contemporary art abound, and it is sometimes assumed that the particularities of the local have everywhere been eroded by a bland internationalism. Many such discourses neglect the vast amount of contemporaneous art production worldwide being generated by remote-area artists, craft artisans and ‘non-professionals’, often working in traditional genres and artistic mediums, whose practice is often deeply situated – that is, connected to and inseparable from place and/or ‘country’. Sometimes such work is not made as art at all, and sometimes it is in the particular that we may discover the universal. It is paradoxical that art which self-consciously sets out to be ‘global’ frequently fails to live up to its aims.
Rather than ‘contemporary art’ in general, this essay refers to ‘The Contemporary’, by which we understand something slightly different – a kind of shorthand for an urban, artistic avant-garde (a term not much used these days) and its sites of production – studios, networks and exhibition spaces. Further, it is a metonym for an edifice of institutional, academic, government and private-sector cultural agencies, the public face of which has been termed ‘the exhibitionary complex’.[i] And of course an equally vast hidden infrastructure – the vectors of influence and patronage which play out behind the closed doors of international collectors, benefactors, über-gallerists and media players – are also part of what we might call the ‘Global Contemporary’.
Thinking of this imagined community as a microcosm of society, one of the characteristics of our time is the agonistic collision of two powerful urges – towards the global and towards the local. If we consider other areas of cultural production – theatre, dance, music, literature, independent cinema – the same forces are at work, and while performance, distribution and publishing rights for plays, books, songs and movies are traded on a global market, their surplus value is driven by mass demand and consumption of a reproducible product, across multiple platforms. Visual art markets (and I include performative and participatory/social practice) are somewhat differently commoditised, the ‘surplus’ driven by much less transparent factors.
SaVAge K’lub (2010–ongoing). Poroaki (farewell) of participants in Rosanna Raymond’s Brisbane SaVAge K’lub at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, QAGOMA, Brisbane, 2016: Precious Clark, Taiaaria Mackenzie, Numangatini Mackenzie, Jess Holly Bates, Lisa Fa’alafi, Angela Tiatia, Léuli Eshraghi, Horomono Horo, Yuki Kihara, Ani O’Neill, Salvador Brown, Aroha Rawson, Jo Walsh, Katrina Igglesden, Maryann Talia Pau, Charlotte Graham, Reina Sutton, Molana Sutton, Jimmie James Kouratoras, Siliga Setoga, Rameka Tamaki, Niwhai Tupaea, Rosanna Raymond, Suzanne Tamaki. Courtesy the artists and Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.
To appreciate a key difference, we only have to consider the proliferation of art ‘Freeports’ (in duty-free zones like Switzerland, Luxembourg, Delaware USA, and a growing number in Asia), where hundreds of billions-worth of art is stored,[ii] beyond the purview of nation-states, sometimes invisibly changing hands, away from the prying eyes of both the public and financial regulators (think of a Damien Hirst shark in formaldehyde being trundled up the corridor to an adjacent, climate-controlled lock-up). Arguably, only portable artworks can be owned and secreted away in this manner, however they might include the instructions for a conceptual piece by Tino Sehgal. The major art clearing-houses (international art fairs and auctioneers) also move in mysterious ways, and their ownership structures are often opaque – for example the hugely-influential, UK-based Frieze companies (Events and Publishing) are owned by an entity registered in the tax haven of Jersey, and its financial details are not in the public domain.[iii]
The de-territorialisation (or perhaps off-shoring) of transaction and profit is hardly new, however it’s worth remembering in any consideration of creative production, and the artists (largely un- or under-paid) who generate the surplus value for the ravening beast of the market. For artists too, de-territorialisation is underway big-time, in part driven by artist-run networks and independent curatorial initiatives, empowering a worldwide contemporary art scene which operates independently of institutional structures. The rise of the Global Contemporary has gestated a generation of artists and exhibition-makers whose practice is increasingly nomadic, manifesting across international studio residencies and exchanges, far-flung collaborations, global biennials and itinerant projects of many kinds. In addition to virtual spaces, new kinds of physical spaces – the borderlands and crossing zones, refugee camps and ‘no-places’ existing in the shadow of the wall – are sites for new kinds of practice, thought and exchange. Some examples (relevant works in brackets) include North American Indigenous collective Postcommodity (Repellent Fence, 2015); Australian Keg de Souza’s itinerant structures (We Built This City / Redfern School of Displacement, 2016); DAAR’s Campus in Camps (Decolonising Architecture Art Residency, Palestine), in collaboration with Brazilian Grupo Contrafilé (Mujawara da Árvore-Escola, 2014); Chicago-based Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation (12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, documenta 13, 2012); Bolivian collective Mujeres Creando (Creating Women); Palestinian Khaled Jarrar (No Man’s Land, 2016); Moroccan Bouchra Khalili (The Mapping Journey Project, 2016); Indonesia’s ruangrupa collective; pan-African collective Chimurenga; India’s Raqs Media Collective; UK-based Forensic Architecture; Slovenia’s NSK State in Time (NSK State Pavilion, 2017 Venice Biennale); and an almost unlimited number of others.
Keg de Souza, We Built This City, 2016, tents, tarps, hessian sacks, piping, plaid laundry bags, various found and recycled materials, dialogue, tour program, dimensions variable. Installation view (2016) at 16 Vine Street for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Created for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Photographer: Ben Symons. Courtesy the artist and Biennale of Sydney.
Simultaneously a wide range of organisations, and both online and physical spaces, have evolved to service and facilitate artistic mobility, along with many itinerant and ephemeral exhibition platforms. These have especially benefited artists from beyond the circuits of the global North, enabling them to gain visibility and opportunity in major metropolitan art centres, and consequent inclusion in international biennials and museum-based survey exhibitions. These enabling structures are mainly viewed as self-evidently positive, and to the extent that they remain under direct artist control they are. Curatorial projects such as Australia/Netherlands-based Vivian Ziherl’s Frontier Imaginaries[iv] foreground artist-led exhibition-making, working across borders in an autonomous way, and harnessing institutional resources where needed.
However, the art establishment is adept at assimilating such initiatives into its ambit, and while many organisations are benign – or at least well-intentioned and notionally artist-focussed – we should not be under any heterotopian illusions. Much facilitation and brokerage of artist mobility relies on the same hegemonic structures which dominate the commercial art market, and as such these developments can be viewed as new offshoots of the global exhibitionary complex. It is not news that there are downsides to globalisation, and the progressive/left communities of the developed and developing worlds have for some decades cast a wary eye over its excesses, imbricated with the neoliberal mantra of unfettered growth and free-market economics. It’s worth noting that this disaffection long pre-dates recent, right-wing anti-globalisation sentiments of the Trump/Brexit era.
In terms of cultural production, discourse around its de-territorialisation (and de-nationalisation) is well established across diverse fields, encompassing emerging and perhaps-imagined communities (such as the ‘global South’), which may transcend national boundaries and localised colonial histories. And, as noted earlier, transversally intersecting the powerful vectors of (North Atlantic-driven) globalisation, is an equally potent ‘demand for locality’[v] – a re-invigoration of socially and community-situated practice, entangled with various discourses around identity, place-making, cultural agency and centre vs. periphery debates. The zone where these two tendencies collide is what we might call ‘the space of the translocal’ – a space in which many artists operate.
The term translocal was introduced by Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in 1962, in his book Modernity at Large,[vi] and his thinking has been described thus by USA theorist Michael Peter Smith:
Appadurai depicts translocalities as ‘deterritorialized imaginings’ of ethno-national identity formation that implode into actual migrant ethnic enclaves, becoming agents in the production of a new sense of locality un-moored from the pull of the nation-state in which the real enclaves are located. Appadurai used terms such as ‘virtual neighbourhoods,’ ‘displaced public spheres,’ ‘delocalized transnations,’ ‘counter-hegemonic imagined worlds,’ and ‘translocal communities’ interchangeably, investing these imaginings with the capacity to generate new ‘postnational identities’ or ‘thoroughly diasporic collectivities’ freed from ‘the linguistic imaginary of the nation state.’[vii]
More recently, such ethno-diasporic framings of translocalism have evolved into more fluid picturings, such as Smith’s notion of ‘… a mode of multiple emplacement or situatedness both here and there’, perhaps best characterised as ‘grounded transnationalism’ by Katherine Brickell and Ayona Datta.[viii] Appadurai’s conception (following Habermas), of ‘the diasporic public sphere’ has been evoked by curators such as Okwui Enwezor – himself operating both within and beyond the North Atlantic arc – as a thoughtscape for art and curatorial practices which are simultaneously transnational yet gestated from within deeply situated cultural and place-contexts.[ix] e-flux journal’s Supercommunity project, coinciding with Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale, began with this statement:
Having no body and no name is a small price to pay for being wild, for being free to move across (some) countries, (some) political boundaries, (some) historical ideologies, and (some) economies. I am the supercommunity, and you are only starting to recognize me. I grew out of something that used to be humanity. Some have compared me to angry crowds in public squares; others compare me to wind and atmosphere, or to software. Some say they have seen me moving through jet-lagged artists and curators, or migrant laborers, or a lost cargo ship that left a trail of rubber ducks that will wash up on the shores of the planet over the next 200 years.[x]
Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti (DAAR – Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) and Grupo Contrafilé: Mujawara da Árvore-Escola, 2014 ongoing, various locations including 31st São Paulo Biennial 2014). Translation: Mujawara (in Arabic, ‘neighbourliness’) of the Tree-School. Courtesy the artists and Bienal de São Paulo.
So what might all this mean for artists and independent exhibition-makers? Certainly global mobility has many positives. However, while notionally participating in a supportive worldwide community, for many artists – especially for those emerging from the global South – the reality of transnational practice and exhibiting is sometimes precarious and alienating, occupying a kind of cultural nowhere-land. Writing for the Supercommunity, project, David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi have described this space as ‘… a dispersed network of competing individuals who never cohere into a historical subject with the capacity for collective resistance’.[xi] In this dystopian view, locality has been neoliberalised, and airport transit lounges are the habitat of what Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina calls the ‘jet-proletariat’.[xii] Witness the relatively new phenomenon of FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) artists, provided with airfares, accommodation and per diems for the install period and opening events, some of whom report a stressful and disembodied experience, culminating in wandering around a massive opening-night party, isolated by differences of language and art-circuit connectedness. Hodge and Yousefi also evoke the prospect of artists being ‘beamed up’ into the international circuit, ‘… mystically transubstantiated from local artists into international artists’ by FIFO curators who are themselves itinerant, albeit enjoying the amenities of business class.
These kinds of personal experiences are sometimes the corollary of more serious curatorial failings – the much-noted ‘biennale effect’, in which extremely diverse practices are de-contextualised and flattened into cultural equivalence by the prevailing rhetoric of museum display. The removal of art from the site of its gestation and creation is not new, and its pedestalisation (and frequent scaling-up) within the white cube is part of an established surplus value-creation system – the material equivalent of its creator(s) being ‘beamed up’ into artworld visibility. In this context, installation, siting and cultural framing are of crucial importance, and art – particularly the art of dissent and resistance – needs to ‘fight back’ against the diktats of the white cube. An important example is the Aboriginal Memorial (Ramingining Artists, 1987-8, working with curator Djon Mundine) at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Here the undeniable potency of the work (which was made in the knowledge that it would be installed elsewhere) transcends its transposition from Central Arnhem Land to a relatively constrained museum setting, which has been designed so that natural light falls upon the 200 hollow-log coffins. Whenever I see this mighty installation, I imagine the fierce Northern Territory sunlight, murmured ‘language’ (Djambarrpuyngu, Dhuwala & Dhay’yi), birdsong and pindan dust of its birthplace. The Aboriginal Memorial, in common with many other artists and projects cited above, responds to the hegemonic impulse of the exhibitionary complex with a form of cultural collectivism, insisting on exhibition methodologies which support translocal practice in a substantive way, by which I mean enabling genuine cultural connection and understanding, rather than othering and the exoticisation of difference.
Margarita Certeza Garcia in collaboration with Miguel Buenrostro and Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Re/flecting the Border, installation view, Tijuana 2017. Courtesy the artists.
Even more potent may be a more direct form of cultural embodiment – the collective presence of politicised bodies – who assert themselves within the ambiguous spaces of display and reception. I’ll conclude by evoking one important example of such practice – Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub, staged at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) in Brisbane in 2016. This was the Brisbane iteration of an episodic project, named after a London ‘gentleman’s club’ founded in 1857, which incidentally has several unrelated doppelgangers in New Zealand, and a prominent branch in Melbourne, Australia. While allocated a white cube space like any other at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), lead artist Rosanna Raymond, who is based in New Zealand, gathered about her a many-strong group of Maori, Pacific Islander and Melanesian artists working across many territories, and together they activated this ‘no-place’ as a powerful assertion of individual and collective cultural agency. Walls, surfaces and cabinets were adorned with an astonishing array of images, videos, artefacts and texts sourced from individual artists’ and museum collections. The echoes of the kind of indiscriminate and unattributed cultural plunder still seen in some European ethnographic museums was unmistakeable, although in this ironic setting it could be seen as thoughtfully-curated borrowing, and the provenance of all exhibits, whether pre-colonial, colonial or contemporary, was meticulously documented. The ‘actiVAtion’[xiii] was not just visual, but also performative and musical, giving the noisy space an easy-going vibe of inclusion, and providing a safe place of exchange where, rather than merely stand and gawk, visitors could hang out on the sofas and participate in conversations and forums with a rolling series of participants, for the durations of the exhibition. Capitalised within the project’s title (and Raymond’s use of ‘actiVAtion’ above) are the letters ‘VA’ – a central concept in Samoan culture, which alludes to the activation of space by living energy, and the invisible relationships within all creation, including the mutual dependencies between people and their environment.
Kaled Jarrar, No Man’s Land, 2016 > No Man’s Land is a project that explores the politics of border control and human mobility between North America and the Middle East. Against the backdrop of the US Presidential Election, and increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and the Republican Party, Palestinian artist, Khaled Jarrar, traveled to the US for the first time this February to explore the US / Mexican border from San Diego / Tijuana to El Paso / Juarez. Courtesy the artist and Culturerunners.
ruangrupa, RURU, 2014, installation view São Paulo Biennale 2014, Ciccilio Matarazzo Pavilion, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy Ruangrupa.
ARTIST / PROJECT LINKS
Postcommodity (USA/Canada): http://postcommodity.com
Keg de Souza (Australia): http://www.kegdesouza.com
DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) (Palestine): http://www.decolonizing.ps
Grupo Contrafilé (Brazil): https://www.facebook.com/grupocontrafile/
Campus in Camps: www.campusincamps.ps
Rebuild Foundation (USA): https://rebuild-foundation.org
Mujeres Creando (Bolivia): www.mujerescreando.org
Khaled Jarrar (Palestine): http://culturunners.com/projects/no-mans-land
Bouchra Khalili (Morrocco/France): http://www.bouchrakhalili.com
ruangrupa (Indonesia): http://ruangrupa.org/15/
Chimurenga (Pan Africa): http://www.chimurenga.co.za
RAQS Media Collective (India): http://www.raqsmediacollective.net
NSK State in Time / NSK State Pavilion(Slovenia/Global) http://nsk-state-pavilion.org
[i] See Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations (0950-2378) 4, no. Spring 1998 (1988).
[ii] See “Über-warehouses for the ultra-rich”, The Economist, Nov 23rd 2013|.
[iii] See: Morgan Quaintance, “The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression”, e-flux conversations, 24 October 2017 (online): https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/the-new-conservatism-complicity-and-the-uk-art-worlds-performance-of-progression/7200
[iv] Frontier Imaginaries (online): http://frontierimaginaries.org
[v] See Anthony Gardner “The demand for locality” in Natasha Bullock, Alexie Glass-Kantor, and Art Gallery of South Australia., Parallel Collisions : 2012 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide Festival (2015). p188-189.
[vi] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large : Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis ; London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
[vii] Michael Peter Smith “Translocality, a critical reflection” in Katherine Brickell and Ayona Datta, Translocal Geographies : Spaces, Places, Connections, (London: Routledge,, 2016). p.181
[viii] See Introduction, ibid.
[ix] See Okwui Enwezor, “Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of Transnational Global Form,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2004/2010).
[x] Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, “Supercommunity (Editorial)”, e-flux journal, no. #65 Supercommunity: May-August 2015 (2015).
[xi] David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi, “Provincialism Perfected: Global Contemporary and Uneven Development,” e-flux journal, no. #65 Supercommunity: May-August 2015 (2015).
[xii] Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Contemp(T)orary: Eleven Theses,” e-flux journal, New York #12, no. 01/2010 (2010).
[xiii] In Samoan philosophy the ‘VA’ refers to an understanding of space as ‘active’, not as empty and passive, but activated by people, relationships and reciprocal obligations. See APT8 artist notes on Rosanna Raymond, QAGOMA (online): https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/apt8/artists/rosanna-raymond
David Corbet is a freelance writer, curator and designer/artist, based in Sydney, working and travelling widely in Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America. He...