The Global Need for Collaboration
In 1996 Nicolas Bourriaud (1996) proposed the concept of â€˜relational aestheticsâ€™ in order to identify the common artistic practices that were evident in the exhibition Traffic. He subsequently claimed that the â€˜interhuman sphere: relationships between people, communities, individuals, groups, social networks, interactivityâ€™ that existed in the work of artists such as Pierre Huyghe, Maurizio Cattelan, Gabriel Orozco, Dominique Gonzalez-Forester, Rikrit Tiravanija, Vanessa Beecroft and Liam Gillick, was expressive of an emerging and compelling trajectory within the international scene (Bourriaud, 2002b).Â The following year curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru launched an open-ended exhibition called Cities on the Move.Â They proposed a model in which the exhibition would be reinvented in each location. Their aim was to face the dramatic changes in urban development by combining architectural methods for the exhibition design and collaborations between artists and architects.Â In a subsequent partnership with Charles Esche, who had already suggested that a distinctive feature of contemporary art was the redefinition of utopian thinking in the form of what he called a â€˜modest proposalâ€™ (Esche, 2001), Hou Hanru described the exhibition space of the 2002 Gwanju Biennale as a platform for initiating new ideas and developing critical social relations. By inviting artists and artist run alternative spaces to create their own spaces within the framework of the biennale they proposed to shift the focus of an international biennale from the display of artworks that were selected on purely aesthetic terms, to the facilitation of the making of â€˜pertinent worksâ€™ that address issues that arise from the specific cultural realities in their own everyday life. Hou Hanru and Charles Esche placed faith in the self-organizational and networking skills of the small-scale collectives and were thus willing to devolve power away from the central role of the artistic director (Esche, 2002). In this small step the biennale project opened itself to the challenge of creating a dialogue amongst a diverse range of independent collectives, many of whom were meeting for the first time, but also the opportunity to engender ongoing and unpredictable encounters. Hence, the exhibition space was not conceived as a once-and-for-all event, but more â€˜like a Pandoraâ€™s boxâ€™ (Hanru, 2002b: 31).
Reflecting on the intensified patterns of global circulation of artists and the hybridization of cultures associated with globalization, the Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera (2003) proposed that there was a need for a paradigm shift in the understanding of the circulation of artists working in the South. Mosquera stressed that in the absence of new South-South and North-South axial routes the cultural contours of globalization would continue to reproduce prevailing imperialist inequalities and primitivist stereotypes. Despite the dominance of the Euro-American institutional networks, Mosquera suggested that collaborative projects which were initiated in the South might had potential to pluralize both the vernacular and the contemporary meaning of art and culture. Similarly, the former director of Documenta XI, Okwui Enwezor (2005: 14), claimed that the emergence of new artistic collectives in Africa and in other parts of the world was not just a symptom of the crisis in the modernist aesthetic ideology but also representative of a new â€˜social aestheticâ€™. The Long March collective in China, dissatisfied with the populist hype of becoming global, developed an alternative model of cultural exchange that they defined as â€˜inter-localâ€™ (Jie, 2005: 125). Reflecting on the emergence of socially engaged artistic practices, the British critic Suzi Gablik (1995) argued against the conventional modes of aesthetic appreciation and outlined a new concept of â€˜connective aestheticsâ€™. A decade later the American academic Grant Kester (2004) continued the examination into the artistic experiments with empathic modes of communication and proposed that this emergent approach could be understood as a form of â€˜dialogical artâ€™. Finally, the Swedish curator Maria Lind (2007) marked this period, in which she saw an upsurge in the interest in interdisciplinary practice, a willing immersion into popular culture, as well as an extension of the affinities with political activist and minority groups, as the beginning of a â€˜collaborative turnâ€™ in contemporary art.
These few examples of artistic practices, curatorial strategies and critical commentary suggest that in this period we not only witnessed a spontaneous shift in practice but also the first truly global movement in art. There can be little doubt that these figures were mutually aware of each otherâ€™s work and ideas. For even though they live far apart from each other they participate in a new global public sphere that is comprised of interconnected art schools, cultural events and media networks. However, my concern is not to untangle the anxious web of influence that links each of these nodes to a central artistic pool of references. My interest lies more in the way each of these critical observations and curatorial strategies is engaged with the critical transformations of neo-liberalism. Political theorists and sociologists have argued that in the context of neo-liberalism capital has extended its own terrain by colonising the lifeworld of consumers. It is my contention that the shift in artistic practice from image production to the initiation of scenes for the replaying of social relations provides a critical perspective on this broader social transformation. For instance, when Bourriaud (2002a: 23) invokes Duchampâ€™s declaration that in his use of the mass object he discovered a â€˜kinship with the merchantâ€™, this is not simply a commercial boast but a critique of the relation to commodities in the context of capital. It also reignites the hope that art, even as it relies on the material objects and social relations of everyday life, can also provide either a sudden moment of insight or a slow cumulative process of understanding of â€˜what it means for something to mean somethingâ€™ (Verwoert, 2008: 226).
While the prominence of collaborative artistic practices is now unmistakeable, the status of its aesthetic value and its social effects is very much in dispute. In particular, there is considerable unease over the similarity between collaborative methodologies in art and the new corporatist ideology that promotes networking. For instance, in the journal October, Claire Bishop (2004) attacked the aesthetic merits of relational aesthetics while in the same issue Hal Foster (2004) extended his political critique of its fetishization of the encounter and emptying out of sustainable communal relations that was raised in his review of Bourriaud in the LRB (2003). In the journal Third Text, Stewart Martin (2007: 371) described relational aesthetics as the â€˜aestheticization of novel forms of capitalist exploitationâ€™, while in the same issue, Rustom Bharucha went so far as to describe it as a â€˜pseudo-democraticâ€™ neo-liberal appropriation of the creative industries rhetoric of vitality and autonomous performance (2007: 398). It is the combination of humanist ideals of sharing and the market logic of outsourcing that has been a source of considerable critical irritation. The idealism is quickly dismissed as evidence of naivety, whereas the mercantile spirit is considered as proof that the sole aim of the artist is to exploit others. What is more difficult to register is the possibility that this conjunction does not necessarily lead towards either the absolute elevation of one part over the other. Surely the task of the critic is to go beyond either a dismissal of every principle because of the whiff of artistic opportunism, or participate in a premature celebration of the promised utopia, but rather it to evaluate the capacity for collaborative art to redefine its aesthetic materiality in the way it â€˜traversesâ€™ the subjectivity of diverse groups of people.
In this chapter I will examine artistic practices that have occurred since the 1990s to argue that the turn towards collaborative and â€˜community basedâ€™ forms of artistic practice, is one of the means by which artists participate in the mediation of new social meanings. I will examine whether the shift from the position of the artist as producer, to the artist as a collaborator in the construction of social knowledge, not only leads towards consensual representations of other peopleâ€™s reality, but also redistributes agency in the production of social meaning. Drawing from Jacques RanciÃ¨reâ€™s concept of â€˜the equality of intelligencesâ€™, and George E. Marcusâ€™s recasting of the relationship between the anthropologist and the native as â€˜epistemic partnersâ€™, I will propose that as artists redefine their function as â€˜context shifters rather than as content providersâ€™ (Kester, 2004:1), they become more intimately involved in the production and mediation of new social knowledge.
Genealogies of Collaboration
At first glance much of the art that focused on social relations, political activism and urban interventions in the late 1990s appears to be on a continuum with earlier artistic experiments in community building, protest actions and street life. Collectives and collaborative art production were a feature of Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism in the early parts of the twentieth century, and then revived in the 1960s in Fluxus, Conceptual, community based, muralist and feminists art movements. Lucy Lippard (2007: 408) has recently declared that â€˜the greatest legacy of the 1960s (which took place in the ensuing decades) is the community based artsâ€™. At that time, artists like the Brazilians Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clarke had already devised techniques for reaching out to new audiences and including them as part of the construction and experience of the work. Oiticica and Clarke used the slogan â€˜individuality within collectivityâ€™ to redefine both their affiliation with communities and the process of co-production. They argued against the modernist tradition of art as an autonomous object and promoted the idea that the work of art finds its affirmation in both the active experience of the public and the reclamation of the networks by which objects and knowledge circulate.Â These generous tendencies, which influenced pioneers of Conceptual art such as Cildo Meireles, and subsequently found expression in the European and American contexts, lead to what Lippard called a â€˜retreatâ€™ from the institutional contexts of art. Community art and public art projects were often motivated by a disavowal of the artwork as a commodity and a rejection of the art institutionâ€™s separation from everyday life.
In the introduction to the first art historical edited collection of essays on collectivism, Blake Stimsom and Gregory Sholette (2007:13) claim that the distinctive feature of the art collectives that emerged across the world in the post war period was neither the religious promise of redemption, nor the economic redistribution of surplus capital, but rather a social agenda: â€˜taking charge of social being here and now â€¦ engaging with social life as production, engaging with social life as the medium of expressionâ€™.Â Stimson and Sholette acknowledge that throughout the twentieth century, internationalist ideals were a prominent feature in the manifestoes produced by artists and collective structures were a recurring element in artistic movements. (2007: xi) However, they also argue that these precursors to contemporary forms of collaboration were incomplete or partial manifestations insofar as they failed to develop the organisational potential and articulate a radical voice that would define â€˜collectivisation as a vital and primary artistic solutionâ€™. They concluded that greater emphasis on collaborative and collective practice was precipitated by the socio-political transformations associated with neo-liberalism.
Will Bradley (2007: 20) has also argued that the origins of the shift in artistic practice lies in the ruins of the â€˜relative defeat of the 68 uprisingsâ€™. Bradley claimed that the failure of the left to make a decisive social transformation in this period prompted a loss of faith in vanguardist forms of social organization. However, it also spawned the emergence of social movements that sought to create a vision of society based on non-hierarchical relations. The aim of these new social movements was no longer to be a spearhead formation that led the way for the liberation of all in the future, but rather the embodiment and realization of emancipatory forms that exist in the here and now. The critical approach of the new movements stand in contrast, in fact Bradley (2007: 22) calls it a â€˜reversalâ€™ of the positionality of the earlier vanguardist movement.
Anja Kangiesser (2008) illustrates the difference between modern and contemporary collectives by citing the recurring assumptions in both the Dadaist and Situationist International movements that mainstream art was so complacent and corrupt that it deserved a good â€˜thrashingâ€™. For most of the twentieth century artists also presumed that it was their duty to grab the citizen and â€˜shake him into lifeâ€™. Through artistic strategies that relied on scandalous provocation, sensory disorientation or moral outrage they assumed that they could â€˜coerce the Publicâ€™ into new forms of social action. Underlying this violent reaction to bourgeios art and the contemptuous attitude to the common citizen was the assumption that ordinary concepts and habitual knowledge systems were complicit with processes of mystification, subjugation and alienation. The artistâ€™s ability to â€˜awaken the citizen within usâ€™ (Blanchot, 1989), implied that they were either already in possession of both a clear-sighted perspective, or, like the Situationists, that they believed that they could invent techniques that would â€˜teachâ€™ citizens how to stop being passive consumers and become self-governing. Similar strategies could be found in the work of Conceptual artists like Hans Haacke who sought to debunk the piety and propriety of not just cultural institutions but also to unzip the dignity of the elites that sought prestige by their association with the arts. As Lucy Lippard (1973) has noted, the â€˜escape strategiesâ€™ employed by Conceptual artists were premised on the need to bypass the dependencies upon the mainstream gallery-museum-market system and to relocate art in the midst of the more prosaic sectors of everyday life.Â However, while Conceptual artists in the US and Europe saw themselves as exercising a form or revolt against the fetishization of the art object, the manner in which they initiated a democratisation of aesthetic practice still left many questions hanging. First, if the aim is to change society, is the periphery the best place to start? Second, what kind of insight comes after shock? Third, can there be an open dialogue when members of the public are constructed as ignorant dupes? And finally, did the dematerialization of the art object encourage the rematerialization art in the social process?
Neo-Liberalism as Social Context
By the end of the 1980s, there was a substantial shift in the social context and the cultural conditions in which art operates. With the final collapse of Soviet hegemony and the triumph of neo-liberalism, the spaces of civic life in Western Liberal states were also dramatically transformed. The primary institutions of socializationâ€”education, welfare and cultureâ€”were all systematically subjected to the logic of economic rationalism and increasingly fragmented as a series of private â€˜service providersâ€™ entered the sector. Transnational companies were also utilizing the principles of flexibility as they began downsizing, outsourcing and restructuring their labour force into flat cellular organisational modalities and placing greater emphasis on local innovations and autonomous individualism. While these transformations are now commonplace features of discussions on globalization, as is the understanding of attendant shifts in emphasis on consumerism, lifestyle and mediated interactivity for the â€˜global selfâ€™, what is less familiar is the connection between these emergent social conditions and the new social practices in contemporary art. As Brian Holmes (2007b) has noted, the slogan used by anti-globalization protestors in London, â€˜Our resistance is as transnational as capitalâ€™, was also expressive of the aesthetic practices which relied on the same digital technologies and information networks as global corporations, but also extended the context and form of social relations.
Mobility and transgression were, for most of the twentieth century, considered to be the critical features of the avant-garde. However, in the neo-liberal context the aim of â€˜going beyondâ€™ the boundaries of convention, is no longer seen as a radical gesture but as part of a managerial brief, it is increasingly defined as an expected task for negotiating the opportunities of global world. Hence, the cultural critic Susan Buck-Morss (2003) is quick to suggest that the celebration of mobility and transgression in contemporary art is just a camouflage against the insecurity and displacement that is heightened by neo-liberal principles. The sociologists Zygmunt Bauman (2000) and John Urry (2006) have a more nuanced vision as they evoked the ambivalence in the contemporary manifestation of power by claiming that it does not tend towards new points of consolidation but a perpetual fluidity that involves a process of â€˜unmooringâ€™ from any social base. Writing against the grain of both the fatalistic pronouncements on the end of modernity and the triumphalist paens to neo-liberalism, Jacques RanciÃ¨re offers a refreshing account of the capacity of art to modify the realm of the â€˜visible, sayable and possibleâ€™, or what he calls the â€˜fabric of the sensibleâ€™ (2007a: 259). Artists, he claims, constantly renew the interface with the political as they alter the tempo, redirect the circulation, juxtapose different elements, or separate units that are normally kept together in everyday life. However, given the transformation of the conditions for the dissemination and reception of art by the complex dynamics of mobility, RanciÃ¨re also stresses that it is part of the function of art to address the scene in which the public effects of art operate, and the extent to which these effects will inevitably remain uncertain. The emancipatory function of art is thus linked to its paradoxical location: it is both alienated from the hegemonic structures of power, but also constituted in the flux and interstices of everyday life.
Ranciereâ€™s perspective on art and politics places greater emphasis on agency and expresses confidence in the emancipatory potential of social interactions. I will adopt Ranciereâ€™s approach in order to question the extent to which the bio-politics of neo-liberalism has monopolised the structures and forms of everyday life. The new work paradigm which valourizes creativity, self-motivated individuality, and the transformation of dedication to the work ethic form a social duty to a personal lifestyle choice, is central to the Janus-faced condition of flexibility / precariousness in contemporary society. There is now a greater expectation that change, insecurity and innovation is the dominant feature of working life. In this context, the transgressive and dynamic aspirations of art have been appropriated by the rhetoric of â€˜thinking outside of the boxâ€™ that is now at the forefront of corporate ideology. The idealised horizons of creative practice have thus partially merged with the normative expectations in the burgeoning sector of immaterial labour that encompasses creative design, marketing, public communication and cultural industries. This corporatist mimicry of artistic styles, and the correlative means by which artists have adopted the tools developed by corporations has inspired new forms of political resistance. For instance, Holmes argues that during the anti-globalization movements that emerged in the 1990s, artists were engaged in the critique of neo-liberalism, not as members of a mass block of unified opponents, but as affiliates that adopted and adapted many of the emergent modes of agency, techniques of practice and codes of communication. In order to clarify the critical role that artists might play in contemporary society, I will now outline four emergent characteristics of collaborative practice.
Four characteristics of collaborative practice
1. The Space of Art
3. Collective Authorship
Okwui Enwezor (2005: 19) has noted that while the earlier historical art collectives tended to be â€˜based on permanent, fixed groupings of practitioners working over a sustained periodâ€™, the current collectives are comprised of flexible membership with â€˜non-permanent course of affiliation, privileging collaboration on a project basis rather than a permanent allianceâ€™.. In his analysis of the African collectives Le Groupe Amos and Huit Facettes Enwezor (2007) emphasises that their â€˜direct actionsâ€™, which range from creating a network for the transfer of existing skills as well as utilising new media techniques for self governance, are redefining the terms of a public sphere and extending the western conception of the sovereign subject. He optimistically claims that these â€˜direct interventionsâ€™ into specific issues by non-violent means not only creates a new space in which the subject is empowered to recognise their ownership of public rights, but also forms a â€˜new politics of the subjectâ€™ which is not bound by the anxieties of authenticity and originality that constrained and ultimately undermined the collectivist spirit in western modernism.
4. Vernacular Cosmopolitanism and Global Mobility
In a project called Liminal Spaces, artists were invited to address the historical traffic artery that connects Jerusalem and Ramallah, known as Road 60. The curators described the condition of this road as: â€˜prototypical of the alienation, segregation and fragmentation that characterise the Israeli methods of occupationâ€™.Â They noted the plethora of laws, checkpoints and barriers that have been introduced to restrict the mobility of the Palestinians. The central section of Road 60, which is located within Jerusalem, was relocated and widened in the 1980s to follow the strip of no-manâ€™s land that previously divided the city. What was once planned as a â€˜boulevard for a united cityâ€™ became, in reality, a wide buffer zone in the shape of an urban highway. Henceforth the road was transformed into the frontline for detaining and diverting Palestinian traffic. During the course of this project the curators claimed that they needed to repeat that their aim was not â€˜meant to offer a model for peaceful co-existenceâ€™ but to provide a â€˜platform of resistanceâ€™.
Superflexâ€™s participation in the Liminal Spaces project involved a collaboration with the Palestinian Broadcasting Commission to develop an application for Palestine to gain entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Yael Bartana undertook a photographic documentation of the efforts made by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition to rebuild Palestinian houses. While Bartana sought to document the small gestures of cross-cultural co-operation, Superflexâ€™s proposal was premised on the hope that the Palestinians would win and thereby automatically qualify to host the subsequent contest.
These examples from the Liminal Spaces project outline the diverse role played by artists within transnational cultural events. They represent a departure from the internationalist exhibitions that either promoted universal commonalities or celebrated cultural differences. These artistic practices and curatorial strategies simultaneously pose the need to identify local civic needs alongside cross-cultural, regional and even global conceptions of human rights, in a way that functions more according to Mouffeâ€™s logic of interested agonistic pluralism than the Habermasian notion of deliberative democracy, which is premised on the mutuality of necessarily disinterested subjects. This dual perspective on the interface between the need to have an attachment to specific place, but also to participate in the broader debates on what it means to be human, is influenced by the formation of new transnational social spaces (Kleinschmidt, 2006; Doherty, 2006: 34). At one level artists have explored the vernacular means by which local communities can bridge seemingly intractable political divides, and at another level they also give voice to a fundamental human needs: the right to freedom, to security and to find work that can give dignity to their existence. The slogan â€˜Our goal is mobilityâ€™ has provided the banner to many of the collaborative works developed by Schleuser.net (Heuck et al., 2007). This group describe themselves as an artistic enterprise that works as a lobby organization to affirm the rights of human mobility. Their main concern is to shift the perspective of undocumented migrants from the state-centric view that casts them as a threat to social order and to develop an alternative symbolic order for representing the process of border crossing. For instance, at the inaugural International People Smugglerâ€™s Convention held in Graz, they organised an interdisciplinary team to create a working platform that could question the public and professional knowledge on human trafficking. Their aim to achieve a deregulation of border management is perhaps the most idealist end of the global transformations that the German sociologist Ulrich Beck (2006) describes as the cosmopolitanization of cultural and social systems.
Throughout this section I have drawn on a select number of artworks from all corners of the world. This selection gives an indication of the extent to which common characteristics in artistic practice have emerged in different places. Focusing on specific features of their practice has helped sharpen my argument concerning the emergence of distinctive qualities. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge the overlap of many of these characteristics in these artworks. Before concluding this section I would like to discuss Nine (2003), a project by the Panamanian artist Brooke Alfaro that encapsulates many of the features of collaborative practice that I have identified. Alfaro approached and, in time, gained the trust of two rival gangs from Panama City. The two gangs had been locked in street battles that had resulted in the death of numerous members. For almost a year Alfaro talked with members of the gangs and their families and friends. He then proposed that each gang be videotaped interpreting the same song by El Roockie, a popular rap artist whose lyrics had already bridged the worlds of different parts of the city. After each gang performed their own version Alfaro arranged for the two videos to be simultaneously screened, side-by-side, in the contested suburb of Barazza. A street was closed off for the screening and makeshift stands were installed for the projectors. With its internal lights turned off and windows covered by bed sheets, an old apartment block was converted into a giant public screen. Spectators from within and outside of the neighbourhood gathered.
In one sense the event consisted of a spectacle where gang members were elevated into heroic rap stars. But to confine attention to the visual outcome on the screens would be to miss the point. Brooke Alfaroâ€™s stated aim in the project was to unify the rival gangs in the brief and temporary moment of the video. In the final image the two gangs appear to march towards each other on the adjacent screens. One guy tosses a basketball in the direction of the oncoming gang. The ball momentarily disappears just as it crosses the gap between the screens and is then caught by a member of the rival gang. The projection ends in darkness. As the contours of the windows and the building begin to reappear in focus, I wondered whether this gesture would provoke or diffuse the tension between the gangs. On the street there is a sudden outburst and the crowd shouted: â€˜more!â€™
Watching the video documentation of this event I could see that the art was not the just the content on the screen, but also the experience on the street that culminated with the uproar of spontaneous pleasure. At the end of the screening the crowd kept shouting â€˜more!â€™. This euphoric demand for â€˜moreâ€™ was not just a sign of ecstatic emotion, but also a declaration that the video had migrated from being an artwork made and owned by Alfaro, and headed towards becoming an anonymous and purely temporal public experience that was co-produced by all the participants.
To return to the question of the issue of the status of Alfaroâ€™s work as either a recording of the narcissistic self-images of the gang, or an intervention into the violent conflict of Panama City, I will now situate this particular event within the broader curatorial philosophy of the festival ciudadMULTIPLEcity. The curators, Gerardo Mosquera and Adrienne Samos sought to offer a new appreciation of the city and art by initiating a series of collaborations between artists and the people of the city in which everyone would be an â€˜active protagonistâ€™, and the city would not be treated as a fixed site within which they could engage in deep historical or sustained sociological investigation but be seen as a force field of dynamic energy. The artists were issued with the challenge of conceiving â€˜simple, direct works that could reach the peopleâ€™ (Mosquera & Samos, 2004: 31). If the artists could overcome the usual boundaries that channelled the experience of contemporary art into an elite sphere, the curators believed that this would also break the conventional â€˜linearâ€™ relationship and develop a new kind of â€˜circularâ€™ loop that travelled from â€˜the city toward art and from art toward the cityâ€™ (Mosquera & Samos, 2004: 34). To intensify the process of interchange between art and the public the curators adopted a decentralized methodology. There was no predetermined or over-arching methodology. All the foreign artists commissioned to produce an artwork for the festival were â€˜adoptedâ€™ by a local community. They were also encouraged to conduct their research practice by means of informal workshops with the members of these communities. The effectiveness of this strategy was measured against the extent to which artists and local members of the city could transfer their respective knowledge and information in order to realise the specific project. However, the curators also made the broader claim that:
most of the worksâ€”seen in their interweaving with the context and their impact on itâ€”formulated plausible answers to the intricate problems of urban art being discussed in the world today. The interest that was awakened goes beyond the local aspects of the project although it cannot be detached from them (Mosquera & Samos, 2004: 38).
Set against this standard we can see that Alfaroâ€™s project does not exist within the confines of the artistâ€™s authorial capacity to either record an event or intervene in territorial conflicts. Alfaroâ€™s initial proposition of gaining the cooperation of rival gangs and his subsequent success in projecting the two videos are quickly overtaken by the unruly and spontaneous elements that emerged in the makeshift city square. The total ambience of art emerged from the refashioning of the dilapidated buildings as screens, and the performance of the crowd as it gathered, cheered, sung and called out for â€˜more!â€™ There is no civic law that can compel this response, and the visual documentation that remains of this event, which is its only tangible and durable object, is also paradoxically a trace reminder of something that is ineffable. As the event occurred on the street it slipped out of the province of the artistâ€™s control and merged with the urban dynamics of buildings and people. The inhabitants of Barazza, as well as the outsiders who gathered in the street, not only witnessed the projection of two videos of rival gangs performing a rap song, but were also engaged in the creation of an ephemeral space with unexpected urban meanings. This did not present a radical new utopian space, but it did provide the glimpse of an alternative view on the relation between local issues of gang rivalry and global questions on art and the city.
Mediation and the Emergence of the New
The shifts in artistic practice and curatorial strategies have occurred in parallel with a radical critique of the methods for textual representation of the social impact of globalisation. In particular, George E. Marcusâ€™s (2006) account of the change in anthropological discourse from its original role of documenting the form of traditional cultures, to its adoption of a new function that he defines in terms of the mediation of the new, can provide a valuable conceptual framework for understanding the relationship between participant observation with the complex process of global mobility.
The founding assumption in the ethnographic approach was that all traditional societies possessed a unique cultural system for comprehending the interplay between social and cosmic forces. Anthropologists dedicated themselves to the task of elucidating and representing the specific cultural system that had been formed by a distinct people over a long period of time in a given place. The novel approach that anthropologists pioneered was the double perspective that emerged from recognising their own position as an outsider, and the need to learn social rules and structures from the insiderâ€™s point of view. However, the limitation of ethnography was, according to Marcus, that its prevailing mode of representation was archival. At best it could describe the experience of â€˜being thereâ€™, and at worst it could objectify the subjects of their study into â€˜exotic othersâ€™.
Marcusâ€™s reflections on the limitations of ethnography were stimulated by the social impact of mobility in Tonga, the island where he did his own fieldwork. Tongan culture, he noted, was being re-shaped by the ongoing effects of migration patterns. Almost all Tongan migrants either maintained contact with, or eventually re-settled on, their home island. Marcus also observed that not only were the Tongans in more regular contact with relatives who had migrated to the USA or Australia, but also experienced routine encounters with tourists, commodities and media from distant parts of the worlds. These changes led Marcus to argue that the central task of anthropology shifted from recording the structures that conferred a unique cultural identity, to a more complex method of investigating how a culture is reshaped through its encounter with these complex forms of mobility. At the forefront of this critique was a re-examination of the role of collaboration, which he acknowledged previously â€˜led a shadowy existence in formal discussions on methodâ€™ (2006: 4). He became sceptical of the way anthropologists would seek to establish a â€˜rapportâ€™ with their subjects in order to facilitate the data collection that would be subsequently processed and incorporated within the â€˜authoritative frameworkâ€™ of the final report.
Lu Jie, director of the Long March Project in Beijing, has posed a similar reappraisal of the impact of global mobilities and the interaction between insiders and outsiders. At a time when Chinese art was enjoying a meteoric rise in the global art world, but Chinese artists were still complaining of â€˜floatingâ€™ along surfaces that did not connect with the specific meaning and context of their work, Lu Jie drew inspiration from the legend of Maoâ€™s long march. Maoâ€™s long march was at first a military retreat into remote provinces. This immersion also enabled him to extend the ideological message of communism by becoming a â€˜sower of seedsâ€™. Lu Jie retraced Maoâ€™s steps in reverse. He departed from Beijing and headed towards the provinces. Like Mao, he claimed that when he hit the road, â€œit was the road that led us alongâ€ (Long March, 2003: 1). However, while adopting the Maoist principles of interaction with local communities, he disavowed any claim of centralised power and stressed that the project was not a â€˜top downâ€™ exercise in bringing artists to the people. Unlike the benevolent gestures of artists who sought to work within and for communities in the 1960s and 1970s, he stressed that his project was always a â€˜bidirectional relationshipâ€™:Â â€˜We are not looking to take things to people, and taking things to people is not to say that they are good things which we provide for their entertainment (sic). We take them there to be tested, and we bring things from wherever we go back with usâ€™ (Long March, 2003: 9). He also stressed that the project was different to the site-specific practices that were common in the 1980s and 1990s. The aim was not to â€˜parachuteâ€™ the global artists into exotic sites, nor was it a â€˜bottom upâ€™ exercise that sought to â€˜catapultâ€™ the local people into the global scene. Rather, he claims that the purpose was to create situations in which different people would co-produce ideas in the context of the â€˜current momentâ€™ and thereby adopt a lateral perspective on the global and local. Lu Jie describes this perspective as one that is taken from the â€˜outside towards the insideâ€™.
Marcus was also critical of the tendency for an unethical appropriation of the knowledge provided by ethnographic subjects, and the presumed distinction between the data donated by insiders and the authoritative report generated by the anthropologist. He argued that this hierarchy was based on an untenable illusion that only the outsider possessed the necessary apparatus for the knowledge-making process. What Marcus observed was that in the age of global mobility, with all its attendant complex interactions, there is also a radical transformation in the agency and reflexive capacities of insiders. The insiders see outsiders coming through a jagged prism of interruption, opportunity, invasion and hospitality. He argued that members of a community no longer see themselves as stewards of a specific worldview that is rooted in a fixed territory, but as agents that are capable of upholding and modifying the residual forms of their cultural identity as it interacts with forces from remote and unknown parts of the world. The critical task of evaluating an idea in a field of rival concepts is no longer the provenance of the outsider. Marcus argues that the consequence of recognizing the insiderâ€™s agency in the critical knowledge making process, is that it has elevated the function of collaboration from being a mere step in establishing a â€˜rapportâ€™ for the purpose of a primary data gathering task, to a more complex feedback process in which both insiders and outsiders are tethered as â€˜epistemic partnersâ€™ (2006: 6).
According to Lu Jie the ambition of the Long March project was to create â€˜incidentsâ€™ through which people meet, â€˜set asideâ€™ that which is â€˜already insideâ€™, and through the co-incidence of their encounter, â€˜change their own current attitudesâ€™. Lu Jie was cognisant that such interactions would exponentially widen the range of desires, topics and issues, and that this multitude could not be contained or resolved within the context of an artistic project, and therefore the project was, from the outset, destined to fail at anything other than involving people in the â€˜problems of our timeâ€™ (Long March, 2003: 14). In the absence of a cultural code that has a predetermined mode of assimilating the effects of radical mobility, everyone is engaged in what Marcus calls â€˜speculative investigationâ€™ on the â€˜breaking up, and morphing of things that are more anticipated or emergent, than present and explicitly conceivedâ€™ (2006: 3). When the meaning of things is unstable and unpredictable then the status of documentation will always remain incomplete. Finding answers to the â€˜problems of our timeâ€™ is not as simple as excavating and validating pre-existing forms of cultural knowledge. Marcus is pointing to a challenge in the formation of the cultural meanings that emerge from the interaction with global forces, and whose identity is yet to come. Like Lu Jie, he is claiming that the anthropologist/artist can assume a collaborative role in the gestation of new social meanings. If ethnography and collaborative art projects have recognised the need to move on from documenting culture, then this shift not only heightens the ethical obligations of partnership, but also brings them closer to what RanciÃ¨re called the emancipatory potential in the associational modalities of learning.
RanciÃ¨re and Marcus share a belief that ordinary people possess the inherent capacities to create meaning from the context of their everyday life. By entering into this partnership the artist is no longer in an observational position of exteriority that is somehow detached from the event, but is inserted as a co-partner whose presence will be one of the forces that shapes the process. RanciÃ¨reâ€™s analysis of art as an emancipatory practice is based on the recognition that both the artist and the public assume an active role in constructing the creative meaning. He stresses that the act of perception is always an active engagement with the conditions of spectatorship. Seeing is not a disembodied intellectual exercise that alienates the body. Seeing is on a continuum with acting. This conjunction of the sensorial process with the manifestation of action suggests that the reception of art is always pregnant with political responses. The work of art becomes an intermediary object in the ongoing production of meaning. Just as the artist is not only transmitting an idea, but is also creating a field for the transmission of ideas, the spectator no longer â€˜looks atâ€™ or â€˜forâ€™ the meaning that is in the work. Rather than art being seen as a destination point for meaning, it is seen as a station that activates the spectatorâ€™s self-awareness.
RanciÃ¨reâ€™s confidence in the equality of intelligences has nothing to do with the elevation of prior learning or the delivery of a miraculous formula for instant enlightenment. It is drawn from his belief in the inherent capacity that everyone has for learning by means of association. Metaphorical thinkingâ€”seeing similarities amongst dissimilaritiesâ€”is the process by which he claims that everyone learns their mother tongue: â€˜by looking at and listening to the world around him, by figuring out the meaning of what he has seen and heard, by repeating what he has heardâ€™ (RanciÃ¨re, 2007b: 275). It is the activation of this capacity for perceiving, recognising, relating and discovering connections that provide for RanciÃ¨re the crucial link between aesthetic experience and political engagement. By showing a non-hierarchical relationship to knowledge, RanciÃ¨re moves the understanding of collaboration from a one-sided exercise in instruction, to a mutual process of problem solving.
Collaboration, of the order that Marcus and RanciÃ¨re were referring to in the process of collective knowledge making, can finally step out of the shadowy zone in which proprietorial claims were seemingly suspended but then redistributed to an individual. In art criticism the sceptical and derogatory approaches towards collaboration follow from a deeply ingrained mistrust of collective production. Critical appreciation of collaboration has tended to remain within an instrumentalist paradigmâ€”within which partners are recruited to complete specialized tasks, and the ethics of this relationship is confined to the process of attribution and the remuneration for their specific contribution. A more sceptical view of collaboration would stress that all collective actions carry the flaw of inauthenticity as they seek to conceal individualistic motivations and bypass prevailing social divisions. In this paradigm the humanist ideals of sharing and empathy are forever doomed by the fatal drive that delivers the benefits of collectivism to a cunning individual. Hence, Hal Foster doubts the value of collective collaboration because in his view the artists have never undone their privileged authorial status and more importantly have failed to acquire the capacity to have a genuine dialogue with the other. Hence, Fosterâ€™s (1996: 197) critique of participatory and site specific projects which presumed the centrality of the artistâ€™s adoption of the â€˜outsider positionâ€™ not only reinscribed the classic ethnographic division between participant and observer, but thereby reduced the â€˜desired exchange of dialogical fieldworkâ€™ (Foster, 1996: 197). As Marcus would argue, this is not the way to do fieldwork in a global world, and as RanciÃ¨re might say, such a low regard for others is not helpful in art. If the potential encounters and possible exchange between the insider and outsider are now bound as â€˜epistemic partnersâ€™, or to put it in RanciÃ¨reâ€™s terms, if participants proceed on the assumption that there is an â€˜equality of intelligencesâ€™ (RanciÃ¨re, 2007a: 271), then the status of collaboration is no longer poised on the purity of their idealist motivations, but rather succeeds or fails in relation to the mediation, rather than the description, of a better sense of â€˜who we areâ€™ and â€˜how we can live togetherâ€™ (Gillick, 2007).
My overriding aim in exploring the shifts in artistic practice, curatorial strategies and cultural theory on collaboration has been to reconceptualize the process of creative production through the prism of mediation. The function of mediation is not to catalogue existing facts, or extract meaning that is suppressed and thereby give aesthetic or intellectual saliency to ideas that are otherwise dispersed or hidden. Mediation requires more than just familiarization with and representation of known and knowable differences. The crucial link between the process of mediation and evaluation of difference in contemporary culture is that it seeks to go beyond the mere inventory and display of differences and seeks to develop new strategies for co-existence that are based on mutual understandings. In contemporary culture there is already a surplus of differences that are in competition with each other. The task of mediation is not to develop a criterion through which cultural differences can be ranked by some universal code, or discover a mode of address that can redeem historical damages. Rather, it seeks to create an understanding of new social possibilities by allowing each partner to go beyond their own certitudes and participate in collaborative knowledge making that is not just the sum of their previous experiences.
The discourse on the political significance of art is still trapped in a debate over whether or not it can make a distinctive difference in the overall social context. For instance, Brian Holmes, one of the most optimistic advocates of the affirmative role played by artists in social transformation, argues that the appropriation of the internet, and in general the hijacking of the new communication technology, has inspired the deployment of subversive performances, mobilised information through global networks, initiated new self-organised counter-globalization tactics, enabled collaborative research on emerging issues, encouraged activists to converge on common sites, prompted legal and medical experts to offer support to artists and protestors, provided the means to document and disseminate accounts of events that would otherwise be ignored or distorted by the mass media. In short, he claims that artists, like all the other participants in the movement of networked resistance, were motivated by the belief that personal involvement at a micro level would facilitate global change, and thereby realise the paradoxical social democratic and individualist axiom of â€˜do-it-yourself geopoliticsâ€™ (Holmes, 2007a: 275). Holmes (2007b: 362) describes the scope and effect of these projects as â€˜tremendousâ€™, and makes the further claim that artistic practice is â€˜one of the keysâ€™ to the emergence of a global public sphere because it is through the opening up of a theatrical space it simultaneously represents the prevailing social tensions, holds off the urge for group violence and reorders the â€˜meaning of abstractions that are no longer adequate to the needs and possibilities of lifeâ€™. While sharing the view that collective practices are more effective in having an impact on the general social fabric, Lucy Lippard (2007: 420) remains slightly more circumspect concerning the prospects for social transformation, and concludes that even the artists engaged in cyberactivism cannot do much more than â€˜reflectâ€™ larger socio-political shifts.
It is my contention that this level of critical attention has a tendency to miss the point of collaborative art practice. Here, the effects of art tend to be registered only to the extent that they appear outside of its own, apparently autonomous, field. Is art only of value when it transforms or reflects the social? This question presumes that art is external to the existing forms of the social and must do something to the social in order to have a viable function. The place and function of art, as always, operates within the social. However, the new collaborative movements have sought to take an active role in social change, not by means of radical intervention or critical reflection, but through the mediation of new forms of public knowledge.
I have argued that since the 1990s contemporary artists have become increasingly aware of the pitfalls of making universal claims, and the limitations of confining the meaning of their practice to local perspectives. Their attention is focused toward the promotion of a democratic dialogue between different people that can relate local experiences to global processes. Within this context the artists neither claim to possess a superior knowledge that they will deliver to the public, nor do they aim to extract the raw information from the local context and then develop this into an aesthetic form with global purchase. While the projects are usually documented, the status of the documentary text or image also blurs the conventional distinction between a purely aesthetic art object, and a factual document, as well as providing a fundamental challenge to art criticism. However, these collaborative social practices and even their attendant documentary forms provoke serious methodological questions for art criticism. How will art history acknowledge the status of the non-durable, site-specific work that passes through the experience of just a handful of people? Whose witness statement will be necessary to validate the artistâ€™s intentions and evaluate that projected outcomes of these aesthetic moments?
In general terms I have sought to characterize the function of contemporary art as a form mediation. The focus on mediation has helped me rethink both the process of creative production and the identity of the artist. Mediation usually refers to the alteration of an object as it is transferred from one context, or symbolic order to another. In the transition, meanings can accrue or fragment. By stressing the function of mediation I am not introducing the legal convention of mediation that usually involves the articulation of two rival viewpoints through a third person. There are some parallels to the exercise in which the externality of the third person can also serve as a screen upon which the different parties can project their own interests and thereby explore alternative possibilities for reconciliation. This conciliatory model of mediation does not pay sufficient attention towards the active role that mediators take in the construction of the â€˜way outâ€™ of any given crisis. I am proposing that we need a more robust and rigorous understanding of the affirmative role that occurs in mediation. In the 1960s, there was a tendency to assume that mediation was another step towards the alienation of the art object. Even more conspicuous was the association of the mediating function of critics and curators as mere parasites and conformists. As Joseph Kosuth declared, the radical function of conceptual art was to cut out the role of the art critic.Â Gilles Deleuze (1990: 125) promoted an alternative view. For him the primary aim of mediators is to keep things in flow and to encourage others to get past conventional blockages and find new routes. Following on from Deleuze, we can conclude that the work of artistic mediation occurs in the indeterminate space through which people pass and construct their own narratives. By highlighting the role of mediators in the field of cultural production, I have also sought to relocate the â€˜idealisedâ€™ position of the artist at the forefront of the engine of social change, and move it inside the processes of social production, so that artists see themselves as mediators in the global and local networks of communication. This shift in position also corresponds with a switch in the ambition that many contemporary artists express: a desire to be in the contemporary, rather than producers of belated or elevated responses.
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