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The Ground*


A continent is a name for immensity without reserve: a mass of land so large you can never imagine the end of it, the ground of everything. Yet the questions we want to raise are intimate ones, which over the course of recent decades have crept their way into the thoughts and feelings of individuals, associations, cultural groups, professional or political formations and even nations, when they are faced with the emergence of a society beyond all borders, a non-place where the continents themselves begin to loose their moorings.

How to conceive of a world society? When and why do people begin to speak of it? Where to locate it, how to perceive it? For whom does it appear, whose interests does it serve or threaten? What are its origins, its laws and regularities, its chances of lasting till next year? Does it have a taste or a color, a wavelength or a rhythm? Above all, should I be part of it? Should we be part of it? How to take that decision – or assert that refusal?

In 1997, Ulrich Beck published a book in the form of a question: What is globalization? His answer: it is a world society without a world government, where outdated national institutions tend to dissolve between the twin extremes of transnational capital and hyperindividualism. Yet Beck is not a fatalist. Rejecting the belief in globalism as a fait accompli whose only agents are giant corporations, he suggested an examination of the transformational processes affecting communications, culture, economics, labor organization, civil associations and the ecology. He conceived world society as a “multiplicity without unity,” and believed its emergence could be measured by the degree to which distinct social groups become aware of and debate these transformations: their origins, causes, spatial distributions, effects and susceptibility to change and redirection. The political question would be this: “how, and to what extent, people and cultures around the world relate to one another in their differences, and to what extent this self-perception of world society is relevant to how they behave.”

So far, so good. Become aware of social change, and find the languages that can express it! But Beck still refers to self-perception “as staged by the national media.” We’re looking for something different: the consciousness of the present as expressed by artistic inventions, on “stages” ranging from museums, universities and theaters to social centers, hacklabs and cabarets, the Internet and the streets. Rather than relying on studies and scientific procedures, let’s see how these expressions of the present are debated in the forums, circuits, institutions, self-organized meetings and counter-public spheres that have proliferated across the planet in recent years. What’s elusive are ways to sound out multiplicity, solidarity and resistance, all of which don’t only arise in words. Form, image, concept, rhythm, experiment, intervention, rupture: these are aesthetic devices for touching the world, and taking part in a world conversation.

Throughout the twentieth century the visual languages of modernism offered a means of communication, culminating more recently in a massive overflow of biennials, traveling shows, exchange programs and markets – contested from below by an explosion of autonomous interventions, self-organized circuits and alternative modes of production. Since the end of hegemonic modernism in the 1960s the definition and value of art has been a subject of intense dispute, resulting in a focus on process rather than object, a shift towards activism and group experimentation. This questioning of frames and contexts has led to the inclusion of sociological, philosophical, economic, political and psychological concepts within the very contours of the works. But this whole development is deeply ambiguous. Even as artistic circles have extended their geographic and discursive reach and tended to morph into sites of generalized experimentation, public consciousness has retained the twentieth-century definition of art as the signifier of individualism, legitimating an endless range of formal innovations, of cultural and individual eccentricities. This proliferation of choices is exactly what allows for the increasingly deep integration of art to the market, not only as a luxury object or attribute of personal distinction, but also as the prime example of innovative, value-adding production processes in the risky environment of the information economy. The upshot being that art seems to mirror and internalize the global transformations, in their mix of multifarious complexity and one-dimensional standardization.

What to do? This project began in the USA in 2005, with a still-ongoing series of self-organized seminars held at 16 Beaver Streen in New York. The idea was to look at artworks and activist projects through a geopolitical and geocultural lens, in order to find some clues for future practices. We had to start with the sweeping transformations since 1989: the triumph of Anglo-American capitalism and the extension across the planet of a single technological, financial and organizational toolkit, permitting the unrestricted flow of goods, money and labor. Existing ideas could not help us much here. Postmodern theorists had been analyzing the globalization of capital since the early 1980s. They focused on the universalization of the commodity-form as an alienation from any traditional identity, yet also on the market’s capacity to mediate individual and cultural differences through the play of reception. For them, commodity and cultural aspiration are one and the same. But for people working in the wake of the financial crisis of 1997-98, the counter-globalization movement of 1999-2003, the second Intifada in Palestine and the unfinished wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the postmodern analytic is arrogant and unbelievably shallow. Beyond the surface agitation of the commodity-form and its endless variations, there are necessary revolts and radical contestations of the world order, underwritten by more ambiguous, long-term reactions to the unbearable pressures of hypercapitalism.

Already since the 1980s, but more intensely right now, we see large-scale political attempts to supplement or replace the violently deterritorializing dynamic of globalization by the installation of new territorial and cultural norms, which are often conservative or regressive, but which also point to the forgotten and unavoidable questions of solidarity, redistribution of the wealth, care for the natural and human ecology and respect for the others who share the common space of existence. Because of the ruptures of scale brought by the world-girding processes of globalization, the new territorial norms are conceived and manifested not only at a national but also at a regional or continental level, in the search for a new unit of social and economic organization that can stand up to the tremendous forces unleashed by contemporary capitalism. These regional blocs can be seen at varying stages of emergence in Europe, East Asia, Latin America, the Russian Federation and North America itself, or in more incomplete and tragic forms, in Africa and the Middle East. Their ambivalent relations to the Anglo-American imperial structures is the first aspect of the “continental drift” that we are investigating.

But what can the geopolitical lens reveal, when it’s a matter of artistic invention? As cultural producers caught up in transnational exchanges, we’re not going to deny the cultural realities of globalization; but we can’t find much interest in the claims of a total break with the past or a seamless integration to the market. What needs to be understood are the linguistic communities and complex regimes of translation within which the formation of cultural value is asserted and contested. At every scale (intimate, urban, national, continental) specific debates unfold, in relation to a field or continuum of gesture, but also to the ruptures that traverse it, renew it or render it obsolete. Although no one could keep up with developments all around the world, or even desire to do so, it has become obvious that much more attention needs to be paid to the circuits and scales in which an invention or a debate gains consistency. To believe that New York is still the hegemonic center of an “art world” in the singular, or that all the values that matter can be hammered on the block at a Sothebys auction, is both stupid and dangerous, as cultural clashes everywhere are proving. But the same holds for people who believe that critical formulas can simply be “applied,” without having to be put to the test each time: that is, dissolved and transformed through contact with speaking subjects. Across the planet, the renegotiation of the scales at which our societies are organized brings with it an intense debate about what art is, how it can be interpreted, what its places and uses should be and even who are its practitioners. And the same debates usually spill over into larger ones, about the forms, functions and possible uses of social institutions. To be part of a multiple but not integrated world society is to engage in these debates – or at least to have an inkling of their existence.

On one hand, we want to identify some of the places and channels in which significant discussions are unfolding, and to become more familiar with their vocabularies and protocols, their controversies, heresies and temporary resolutions, so as to help restore part of the complexity and depth that has been lost to the mesmerizing force of the commodity regime and its insistent visuality. The hypothesis is that by seeking articulations on a regional or continental scale, we might find circuits of translation and interchange that are able to address the global dynamics without falling back on preconceived national reflexes. On the other hand, we do not exactly dream of a world-in-blocs, whose last expression was the Cold War and whose historical forerunners in the twentieth century are the rival monetary and military blocs that formed in the crisis-years of the 1930s. The new discussions of solidarity and redistribution will never get anywhere except into unbearably suffocating fantasies of the national, ethnic or religious past, if they don’t find room for the most diverse forms of dissent, free play and hybridity, or cultural and continental bridging. What interests us above all are particular groups, who come to grips with their societies’ attempts at responding to the overall processes of transformation. Those who propose parallel paths, new openings, deeper and slower or, on the contrary, swifter and more incisive resolutions to the impasses where conflicts form and violence erupts without reason.

It’s clear that this kind of work cannot only be carried out theoretically. Nor can it be done on isolated stages. What we’re looking for, in New York and Zagreb for the moment, are places of encounter and exchange, of multiple expression and collective analysis, where specialized discourses can expose themselves to the disruptive or enigmatic complexities of art – but also of society and its intractable realities. The forms, rhythms, concepts and images that confront us on the international circuits and in the global markets do not seem adequate to world society. The definitions, values and uses of art still have to be created, at whatever scales you can touch with your senses.

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*ground as the contradiction and tragic failure of capitalism right now:
--ground rent, for everything that concerns housing
--ground to the bone, for flexible labor
--ground as the earth itself, overheating and poisoned
--ground zero wherever a bomb goes off and people die