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Toward an extraterritorial reciprocity: beyond worldart and vernacular culture

One of the leitmotivs of n.e.w.s., I take it, is precisely the idea of shifting, displacing, moving with an eye to all the cardinal points of the compass. Though real “geographic diversity” is mentioned in the project presentation, geography - like the sort of conceptual mobility also foregrounded in the write-up - provides a metaphor for understanding the condition of art today and its blithe refusals to acknowledge its disorientation and recalibrate its sextant.

I tend to hold artists responsible for the failure of art. I realize this is an assailable position, both because it may seem to accord artists a monopoly on artistic agency (which I am loathe to do) and because there is a strong argument to the effect that art has not so much failed as succeeded to a perversely unexpected extent, the avant-garde having pointed the way forward for the economic system in which it is now so seamlessly integrated. Yet failure in art is a relative notion and no less interesting than success inasmuch as failing reveals the implicit conditions of succeeding – against a horizon geared toward transformation. One way to open this question of art's success and failure, at least with regard to geography, is to consider it from the metaphor of mobility.

To an unprecedented extent, the condition of many artists and artworlders today is one of mobility. If ever you stop to think about it, you cannot but be baffled at how much artworlders travel (though of course if you’re an artworlder you won’t have time to think too long). This underscores a genuine disparity between the realities of the artworld and the rest of the planet and, by extension, the extraordinary privilege enjoyed by art in the global economy. But what sort of “privilege” is it to be obliged to accept, indeed to be obliged to desire a condition of perpetual exile? The attendant globalisation of artistic subjectivity, which is of course quite in keeping with the sort of biennialitis that seems to have infected so many large cities around the planet, has had a significant impact on the sort of art being produced.

It is scarcely necessary to point out that while art’s role in the commercial economy may be growing, it remains negligible. This raises a paradox: for if the permanent mobility characteristic of the artworld is not, strictly speaking, driven by commercial necessity (artists are not part of the global capitalist class), then what actually is the underlying function of all this moving about? Certainly there is an ideological component, by which the apparent gratuitousness of moving art around becomes, for state funding agencies and corporate benefactors, evidence of their altruistic and humanistic values. But that alone scarcely explains the extent of the mobility of that rising class now ambivalently referred to as the “cognitariat”, and of which artists and their ilk are a key component.

If one looks at the proliferation of residency programmes, workshops, biennalia and international exchanges that characterise the institutional artworld – which, because they are invariably underwritten by public institutions or benevolent foundations, enjoy a semblance of usefulness and, at the same time, because they take place elsewhere, give off an aura of adventurousness and audacity – one is tempted to conclude that art itself is highly mobile. However, the fact remains that while the artworld enjoys exceptional mobility, art itself rarely moves out of the seraglio of the artworld – and when it does so, it is with such fanfare that it in effect takes the artworld framing devices with it. In other words, in its forays beyond the borders of the artworld, art actually colonises new territories of the lifeworld, and then proceeds to bring the artefacts it has gleaned back into the referenced spaces of art. Because when art strays beyond the confines of its artworld framing devices, something truly strange happens: it is no longer seen as art; it is stripped of its artistic self-evidence. And that invisibility is not something the artworld can easily forebear. However some art-related practices are doing just that, and accepting the consequences. Stealth operations based on what I shall call extraterritorial reciprocity – that one might well describe as “spy art” – are cropping up here and there, and accepting to trade off their coefficient of artistic visibility for a higher degree of efficacy in the real. At first this appears a strange strategy: why should art not assert itself for what it is? Part of the answer, I think, is that art constantly faces the debilitating charge that that’s all it is, that it’s just art – not the potentially dangerous real thing. But to understand how we got to this critical point, we need to examine the different self-understandings that current art practices have with regard to territory.

In our era characterised by the dematerialised flux of information and imagery, a previously unheard-of (though, as I suggested, scandalously one-sided) degree of individual mobility, diffuse and plural forms of creativity – all key components of the neo-capitalist economy – the link between artists and territory has lost whatever self-evidence it may have had. It is in this thoroughly new context, which may sometimes feel more like the disappearance of context altogether, that it becomes possible, and indeed necessary, to clarify how artistic activity stands with regard to territory.

In a metaphorical sense too, has the notion of “territory” itself – as in the “territory of art” – not become eminently problematic? To take but one example, the radical deskilling that has characterised so much of the art production over the past century has landed us in a paradoxical situation: art criticism has so thoroughly lost its bearings that it has become difficult not only to evaluate the relative merits of what artists are doing, but to even situate it as art. Though not necessarily undisciplined, art seems to have become an extra-disciplinary practice, sprawling far beyond the circumscribed borders of any given “territory.” It is in this expanded sense of the term that I want to consider the various relationships between territorial attachment and contemporary artistic expression.

To this end, we might define three basic postures, which very roughly correspond to three historical moments as well as three kinds of artmaking, all three of which coexist within contemporary artistic production. In each of these three “families,” one finds more or less the same number of eminent artists, and though I do favour the latter, I do not wish to imply any strict hierarchy between them. For territorial artists, activity is territorialised, the context being an integral part of the productive framework; world artists, on the other hand, seek to wrest art free from any territorial rootedness, concerned with pitting origins against subsequent development; artists of extraterritorial reciprocity deliberately expatriate themselves not only from their geographical territory but from all the usual symbolic terrain that is customarily reserved for art: by refusing both territorialisation and deterritorialisation, their propositions are animated by a constitutive mobility and what I would call, following an expression of the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, “elusive implication” (which is very different from traditional engagement). In practice, of course, one finds a good deal of overlap and interpenetration between these three aesthetic (and profoundly ethical) attitudes – just as one does amongst territories themselves. But that need not inhibit us from delineating them a bit more closely.

Territorial artists perpetuate age-old traditions which they invigorate and enrich with formal innovations taken from other cultures, thanks to the intermingling made possible – indeed inevitable – by modernity. Many artists today live their historical moment with deep intensity even while using the visual vernacular specific to their origins. Their work – whether installation or painting or whatever – integrates and reflects in one way or another the symbols of a consciously accepted heritage and identity. For them, art depends upon its inscription in a context that is at once more extensive and more intensive than what art alone can provide.

Drawing upon a modernist paradigm, world-artists are immersed in the present of rapidly changing societies. They see their work as reflecting the confusion of a world which has lost its bearings. Generally speaking, however, this loss is experienced without anguish or despair. On the contrary, these artists – in keeping with the modern insistence upon individual freedom – seek to free themselves from any geographical or social determinism. Their aspiration is to produce work that is autonomous with regard to context, emphatically breaking ties with their formal and cultural heritage – without necessarily renouncing it per se – thereby giving free rein to autonomous expression.

Breaking with the modernist paradigm, artists of extraterritorial reciprocity undermine the whole issue of topography inasmuch as they refuse not only geographical borders but borders of all kinds, including those separating art from what is not art, from other and sundry social undertakings. Like territorial artists, they are suspicious of any talk of autonomy; like world artists, they decline any inheritance. Their artistic practice does not necessarily culminate in the production of works, but nor is it exclusively process based. Rather, these artists see art as a system for producing meaning, which is most effective when engaged in overstepping borders and setting up interdisciplinary “work sites.” By displacing the creative centre of gravity toward artistic activity – originating in an artistic attitude or idea, before spreading amongst the public – these artists seek to challenge the specificity of art as work on a unique object (painting, sculpture), by activating other domains and inviting other currents of knowledge to irrigate the field of art. As they see it, art has now integrated literally everything – other disciplines, other materials of all orders – and no longer needs to retrench itself behind borders of any kind. Nothing whatsoever links art with a specific geography, and all that links it to its own history is a certain aesthetics of decision-making, specific to each artist.

Typically, vernacular or territorial artists accuse world artists of encouraging the emergence of a sort of consumerist multiculturalism: world music and world fiction are not seen as the expression of universalisation but as symptoms of a planet-wide standardisation, which barely tolerates, here and there, like unavoidable ripples on an otherwise seamless surface, the odd flash of regional identity. As territorial artists see it, the meaning of an artwork is intrinsically bound up with the time and place of its production: the artist is – at most – but the co-author of his or her work, which, like the artist, bears the indelible stamp of a particular time and place.

Conversely, world artists adopt a normative and aggressively hostile position toward any notion of territorial rootedness. They have nothing but cutting sarcasm for those whom they see as snugly at home in the quiet mass of a particular culture, clinging to the visual idiom typical of a particular region; they rail against those who take no account of the boundless labyrinth of cultures and languages, through which the French West-Indian poet Édouard Glissant invites us to wander indiscriminately and blaze new trails. They explain the proliferation of identity politics over the past two decades as ultimately due to a universal depletion of the resources of collective hope. And as they are quick to point out, it is often toward regional or national origin that identity turns when suffering from a lack of confidence, creativity and singularity.

It would be abusive, however – and by no means my intention – to portray territorial artists as the fundamentalists of the art world (and it would be no less abusive to depict world artists as the jet set of the art world); on the contrary, territorial artists stress the need for cultural relativism in the face of the massive homogenisation which they see occurring on a planetary scale. And this attitude is by no means confined to art. “In order to progress,” wrote the justly celebrated anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, “people have to work together; and in the course of their collaboration, they gradually see an identification in their relationships whose initial diversity was precisely what made their collaboration fruitful and necessary.”

I quote Lévi-Strauss because he really cannot be accused of territorial chauvinism or narrow-mindedness (no one in the domain of anthropology went further in the deconstruction of institutionalised racism) and because he somehow manages in a single sentence to sum up the whole question of how and why and under what circumstances we collaborate – which is course linked to the very raison d’être of n.e.w.s. But underlying Lévi-Strauss’ point is a somewhat contorted Hegelian logic of synthesis whereby collaboration is fruitful because there is an initial difference, and the very fact of collaborating, instead of pushing that difference to a higher level, is liable to reduce it to its lowest common denominator.

For the world artist, the territorial artist’s obsession with constantly bringing art back to its context of origin is tantamount to saying that it is impossible for art to function outside this context. In fact, maintains the world artist, it is precisely its ability to affect us through a combination of emotion and knowledge – and to do so independently of any context – that is the defining quality of autonomous art. However important the conditions of its emergence may be, the effects it produces here and now are infinitely more so. With staunch allegiance to the precepts of modernity, world artists may even go so far as to argue – following the phenomenological tradition in general and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular – that an artwork is meaningful only outside its original context, leaving the initiative to the constitutive gaze. The white cubes that characterise the architecture of our galleries and museums, devised for the neutral exhibition of artworks, seem to enjoy a hand-in-glove fit with the purposes of world artists.

Like territorial artists, artists of reciprocal extraterritoriality situate art in a bigger picture. But for them, this broader context is not given: it has to be created. Their practice consists of implanting certain aspects of the general economy into the symbolic economy of art, encouraging the creation of a broader, interdisciplinary context. These artists have become managers of the semiotic contingencies which arise in the course of their various undertakings. Their point is not merely to do away with an alleged autonomy of the artwork, but to confront the know-how specific to the field of art with competencies stemming from other fields of knowledge, thereby establishing a reciprocity between art and the sciences, or between art and political activism, and in so doing, dislocating borders, interests, conventions and habits they were set up to protect, and prompting innovative collaborations. I use the somewhat clumsy term “extraterritorial reciprocity” because it names the logic I have in mind: like nature, art abhors a vacuum and rushes to fill it. But in doing so, it creates its own vacuum that can be filled by an activity from a different field of human endeavour. In other words, art vacates its convention-bestowed territory in the artworld for other activities in a gesture of reciprocity as it sets up shop in a different domain. This is an art without a territory, which operates in the intersubjective space of collaboration. Yet that “space” is really no space at all, or only in the metaphorical sense of the term; it is probably more accurate to speak of a “time” of collaboration and intervention – the time of common yet heterogeneous purpose. But the geographical model, with its cartography of partially overlapping territories, has the advantage of providing a tangible picture of what artists of reciprocal extraterritoriality are really after. “Always implicated, and yet elusive,” as Maurice Blanchot once put it. Constitutive mobility. Elusive implication. There are worse exit strategies.

Stephen Wright