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Artistic research in a globalized world


On the request of Lee Weng Choy to all of us to have shorter blog entries, I've cut an earlier entry in two.

My first intuitive response to the discussion about artistic positions in a global art world, issues like geography, territory and mobility, (i.e. the definition of 'territorial, extra-territorial and world artists') is to throw in some practice and maybe discuss some recent exhibition models (7th Gwangju Biennial by Okwui Enwezor, Shanghai Biennial 2008 by Zhang Qing, Julian Heyn and Henk Slager), that respond to this issues.

I also had to think of an interview that I held with the Chinese artist Cao Fei some two years ago (see entry Hard Politics With a Sugar Sweet Coating) because it's an intriguing case study to me. See for an impression of her work: www.caofei.com.

I met Cao Fei for the first time in 2003 at her home and studio in Guangzhou, doing an interview with her, which i never published. (Two years later i did an interview with again which was published in Metropolis M) It was an interview with a young artist just starting up her carrier, locally and nationally known to some extent, who had not traveled a lot before and didn't speak English. She was eager to know more about me and my background, how i managed to get to China and i how much i was able to travel. If you visit her website now, some four years later you witness a complete and utter transformation. You may encounter her, talking casually in English with world famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in her studio. Not so long ago i could update my conversation with her in the Netherlands at her first local solo-exhibition in a regional museum for contemporary art called Het Domein. This is just to indicate how fast the pace of globalization of art (in this cast contemproary Chinese art) is going. Apart from this solo-expo, Cao Fei was invited to do an artistic research project responding to the local context of the town of the museum. She choose to make a connection to a local Dutch factory and brand of food and chemicals called DSM, which she found intriguing for its dually local and global identity. I don't know how this project turned out. But if this is an example of the so-called 'extraterriorial reciprocity artist' (see article by Stephen Wright), then i really don't know what to think of it. I'm quite sceptic about it, to be honest. Her work is strong and interesting because of the way she is able to connect to larger political and societal issues through her own personal history and experience (bound to a region, geography). It can loose its strength all too easily when transposed to another context. In this case her reflection of DSM was immediately politically dismantled, you could say. The company DSM could add some international flavour to their corporal identity with a project by a young Chinese artist in their midst and of course it wouldn't harm their trading ties with China either. The company was also one of the sponsors of the project Cao Fei was taking part in. So indirectly she was used as an PR-tool, the museum gave something back in return for the company's financial support, it was clearly a case of mutual benefit (of course all unspoken of). How can artists protect themselves against such complex economical and ideological entanglement of interests?

I have serious doubts about whether one is able to transpose artistic activities from one context to another, and ignore all geographic and historical ties, as an ideal of the most free stance for an artist. I think this is an idee fixe. It has resulted in a lot stereotypical biennial-like work of artists. They respond to a local context or make site specific work which is bound to be superficial in most of the cases because, before they even begin to know the place or context, they have to leave it for another project. (see also Miwon Kwon, 'One place after another') This also connects to the idea of leaving all boundaries of art which in turn has lead to the upheaval of the artist as researcher. Artistic research among young artists has never been so popular as it is now.

One of the Dutch advocates of this trend is Henk Slager who is one of the curators of the Shanghai Biennial 2008, which got the theme: 'Translocalmotion'. The People Square in Shanghai is selected as one of the exhibition locations, in this case for site specific projects. One artist, Hito Steyerl, is going to stress 'the interesting micro-economical activities that she found on the square', as result of her local 'research'. That is to say the kind of local dealing and selling illegal dvd's et cetera that you can find in all mayor cities in China. I find this painfully naive.

This doesn't mean however that Henk Slager is not able to make interesting exhibitions, on the contrary, or that all artistic research based projects are bad, i'm just wondering what this general shift implies. And i'm very curious what the other contributors think of it, perhaps it's a typical European discussion? For the Shanghai Biennial 2008 see:



"worldart" "research" "projects"

I entirely share your misgivings about "artistic" "research" "projects". Cao Fei's "project" is just one more caricatural instance of everything that's bankrupt about worldart. It is entirely at odds with what I have described as extraterritorial reciprocity, because the territory I have in mind in using that notion is the territory of art itself. Not geographic territory. Cao Fei may travel to and fro, "researching," but my guess is that she never quits the artworld.

Worldart and its champions have an astonishing capacity for self-congratulatory rhetoric and taking their own fictions for fact -- and this nonsense about doing "research" really takes the cake -- and if ever one dares call them on it, one is invariably met with a salvo of holier-than-Thou rhetoric about art's alleged world-transformatory function.

If art is to have that function, it will have to get away from itself; expatriate itself from its territory. My feeling is that world artists simply lack the knowledge to do serious research and have every interest in collaborating with people from other fields and disciplines (which is what I call extradisciplinary collaboration -- outside the confines of any discipline). Unfortunately, their unacknowledged but very palpable Romantic penchant allows them to think they can do it all on their own.


"worldart" "research" "projects"

I find your usage of the term "worldart" quite problematic. How would you define "worldart"?


the world worldart worlds in

In an earlier post, I penned a few thoughts on the subject of worldart -- a sort of rough taxonomy of contemporary artistic practice, in which I distinguish worldart from vernacular art and from what I call extraterritorial reciprocity. Here's the link

In one way, worldart - like its nieces and nephews world music and world fiction - is that increasingly homogenised result of globalisation in the artworld. But it is not just a byproduct; it is more profoundly a self-reflexive outlook, stemming from the modernist insistence on autonomy, that breaks with the idea that art is rooted in a strong tradition -- with the idea that art is determined by one's community belonging; with the idea that it is context specific. So while worldartists invariably use one context or another in what they fashionably call their "research projects," this context is not intrinsic to the meaning of their art per se (merely of the project). Ironically though - and this is my real point - their art actually is context specific, but the context is the artworld, upon which it depends ontologically. For outside of the performative framework of the artworld, worldart is not art at all, and certainly not "research" in any substantive sense of that term.
Of course it is very difficult to define this fuzzy notion without also defining the alternatives -- what it is not. It is not vernacular art (which worldart perceives as snuggly ensconced in tradition); but it is as I say bogged down in the artworld environment because it can't imagine being able to breathe outside that art-sustaining system. I make this point to emphasise that my usage of the term has less to do with the "world" in the geographical sense than in the ontological sense -- in the sense of overlapping ontological landscapes.
Worldart has produced some great work, no doubt about that, but it may have exhausted its potential -- which may explain why hundreds of worldartists are quitting the artworld every day, or devising exit strategies to do so, in a gesture of extraterritorial reciprocity.