The second day of the 1st FORMER WEST
Congress concentrated on “Art, its Discourses and the World at Large (1989/2001/2008),” as the title of the day’s sessions announced. Pretty much about everything one could assume—if it weren’t for the additional years in between parentheses. In the first session with Tom Holert
and Pablo Lafuente
, the latter concentrated precisely on these years, articulating a categorization of the contemporary exhibition in order to define the specific practices of the 1990s. With his presentation, Lafuente laid out a kind of framework for the second day’s sessions—a welcome approach since the keynote lecture by Georg Schöllhammer
and Cosmin Costinaş
Before getting to the year 1989, a point of focus in the congress, a short history of preceding exhibitions was sketched by Lafuente. Based on Peter Osborne
’s notion of “the contemporary,” 1945 was suggested as a moment in time where the contemporary started. Avant-garde history ends here due to the post-war definition of exhibition-making as developed in Documenta 1 (1955). Subsequently, 1968 could be considered a moment where “the contemporary starts,” as it is at this point that art is freed from the museum and brought into the world. From the 1980s on Lafuente distinguishes a tendency towards a “universal” presentation of art. Examples are Kasper König’s Westkunst (Cologne, 1981) and Harald Szeemann’s Art=Fragile
(Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1988).
In the “universal exhibition” the museum is considered an autonomous place that needs to be protected and that offers an alternative to everything in our society that is geared to consumption and reproduction. A classification in terms of style is no longer relevant (Fuchs, Documenta 7, 1982); works of art can be re-arranged constantly and neutralized in their differences, thus questioning historical notions that were at play before. An important and much-discussed case through the whole congress, in which the universal style is manifest, was Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la terre (Centre Pompidou, 1989). Works by western and non-western artists and non-artists were put together in that exhibition, meant to be experienced equally (from a western point of view that is).
Lafuente defined the main difference between the art of the 1990s and the art of the 1980s in their relation to the public and the subject of the exhibition form. Following Theodor Adorno, the exhibition can be considered a form of essay: a production of organizing knowledge (at the site). A topology of exhibitions in the 1990s can be distinguished into three categories, he suggested: 1. the thematic exhibition (such as Thelma Golden’s Black Male, Whitney Museum, 1995); 2. the meta-exhibition (such as Bart De Baere’s This is the Show, 1994, SMAK, or Roger Beurgel’s Documenta 12, 2007); 3. the activist exhibition (such as Martha Rossler’s If you lived here, 1989 or Group Material’s Democracy, 1988 (both at Dia Center)). Concluding, Lafuente underlined the potential or value of art as a social force; the mechanisms art has access to (its social networks) and political independence can create a discourse with a symbolic presence or function.
Lafuente’s categorizing approach was highly criticized by Okwui Enwezor
. He considered the outlined genealogy a false one: the history of contemporary art exhibitions a rehearsal of the myths of contemporary art. According to Enwezor periodization as a definition of the contemporary cannot be regarded universalizing. There are conflicting stories, such as the examples of the Havana Biennale of 1989; a South African exhibition in 1986 from which the artists in Magiciens de la terre
were “borrowed”; a genealogy of exhibitions in the US that gave rise to the studio Museum in Harlem; and exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But we should start somewhere, as Lafuente replied. The limited amount of resources and academic studies makes it necessary to start with specific cases, and examine if they are the right ones to be considered seminal, he argued.
Specific cases were indeed numerous in this second day, especially coming from the German context. Tom Holert
, who spoke before Lafuente, discussed artists’ activist practices and their political connotations in German cities like Hamburg, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, and Berlin throughout the 1990s. Holert described independent initiatives—operating outside of the art market—as emerging, for example, as reactions against racist riots in German cities in the wake of reunification. These examples were both current—his discussion of an artists’ manifesto recently released protesting gentrification processes in an old neighborhood in the center of Hamburg—and historical, as in the case of Holert’s discussion of the Messe 2oK in Cologne in 1995, a counter art fair in an abandoned former postal railway station organized by Andreas Siekmann
, Klaus Weber, and other, now well-known, artists. These different modes of operating established, according to Holert, the role of the artist as a cultural producer, post-artist, and activist, and it created an expansion of artists’ competencies.
Audience member Sarah Wilson
’s critique of the elitist and privileged character of the German private initiatives, particularly the Messe 2OK, which was sponsored by Siemens, is probably also applicable to the cases that Helmut Draxler
and Christian Hoeller referred to in their talks on institutional critique. Draxler’s question of how institutional critique can be used as a praxis within the Former West concept was in fact an essential one. Hoeller defined institutional critique as a paradoxical post-Fordist, neoliberal construction that remained blind towards its ideological basis. Its critical position is self-entangled in the institution. Since the artist and institution are on the same side, Hoeller questions whether a critical attitude towards institutional structures is still necessary, especially considering that new disciplinary modes have developed within the institution in which the artist, curator, and spectator are entangled in a full-circle development of question and attack. Given the proliferation of conflict zones today, however, Hoeller sees a legitimization of the institution again. Draxler regarded institutional critique as an art of transforming based on Marxism. His presentation merely emphasized on the historical positioning of the phenomena. According to him the ideas of the first generation of “true activists” (like Adrian Piper and Louise Lawler) were adapted by a second generation of artists (like Renée Green and Andrea Fraser) that has grounded it into the post-Fordist economies. More than the first generation, which was according to Draxler reproducing the deepest bourgeois clichés (i.e. Robert Smithson), the second generation made oppositional idealism into an internal one, more situated within the logic of post-western thinking. Draxler’s initial question, though, remained unanswered.
In the following session Kerstin Stakemeier
defined the collective voluntarism of today as a “new institutionalism.” Recollecting feminist, anti-fascist, and leftist radical anti-capitalist practices of the 1990s, she claimed that the self-organized attitude of these practices is related to today’s funding structures (for example the German Kulturstiftung des Bundes). The institutionalization of self-organized or self-engaged attitudes creates an obligation to individual artists to perform as cultural producers. Stakemeier pointed out that now, in times of financial crisis, galleries are increasingly turning themselves into spaces that do more than sell work, organizing special programs, artist’s talks, book launches, etc., for example, but she questioned how far the politicizing of art can be worked out outside the art world. An anti-capitalist positioning is in fact one with boundaries. Stakemeier’s presentation was followed by Marion von Osten
, who stressed the self-institutionalizing and self-organizing attitude, as carried out in the Shedhalle, Zurich in the 1990s, as a specific ideology of working. The political art from a leftist, anti-racist perspective that von Osten established collectively was not discussed in the art magazines at that time. Now the figure of the artist as an activist has become a sort of role model, and von Osten gets invited by institutions to curate exhibitions on a notion of “political art.” But there is a new method of exhibition-making handled by art institutions that she pointed out: if an artist doesn’t want to collaborate or be involved in a specific project or exhibition, her/his work is often simply loaned from a collection, circumventing the artist entirely.
In the session with Jorinde Seijdel
and Stefan Heidenreich
, this effect of the art market was critically overlooked. Seijdel was in this respect going back to the democratized ideal of public art and the rise of the amateur within the web 2.0 world, through which she questioned the existing “commons.” Heidenreich examined the possibilities of web 2.0 within the professional structures of the classical museum. He ascribed art the privileged position to reflect; the Internet alternatively affects an “other” culture. Some things have an effect on the art world while others have not, video, for example, didn’t change a thing, he claimed; it didn’t put an end to the economy of reproduction. Heidenreich went so far as to speculate that 95 percent of artworks are still unique objects. But he thinks that changes in state of institutions do change the art (market). Heidenreich further asserted that the dominance of the art market in the last decade has caused a breakdown of our understanding of linear structures of time. The historical archiving of objects: to display them, give them a place in time—as developed by Winkelmann and executed in the Louvre—is a rationalization in temporality. This pre-set temporality was also the historical basis for the idea of modernism. Heidenreich argued that we are no longer able to perform the discourse of historical time. This is in fact a self-contradictory situation—the continuous change we desire is a denial of continuity. Next to that there is the denial of the conceptualization of art: we expect western contemporary institutions to maintain what is created forever. He also sees art in relation to technology as communication decoupled from domains or spheres. The state of the institution will not serve the function of temporality anymore, hence the question of the archive and how it is handled is of big importance within the new technology structures. Client server service and web 2.0 are facilitating forms of communication that introduce the concept of cyclical time.
In the final session, David Riff
analyzed Jean-Hubert Martin’s 2009 Moscow Biennale, which he called a kind of “remake” of Magiciens de la terre
, thus illustrating the post-Wall exhibition practices in the former (and present) East. Riff considered this exhibition an image that could start a post-colonial discussion: reactions to it, Riff suggested, illustrate how a fundamentally conservative Russian society deals with art from elsewhere, with “other” cultures. Presented as a kind of zoo, using an exoticist definition of art, the Biennale offered an image of the former West transplanted in the present East, representing a new, “wild” East. He distinguished a turn to Clement Greenberg more than to Guy Debord or Theodor Adorno—autonomy and kitsch suddenly heralded a new time in the post-Soviet context. The 2000s in Moscow, Riff argued, introduced a sea change—a conceptualization of normalization that is in fact a continuation
of normalization. These circumstances ask for the constitution of self-organizing practices, Riff said. He called for a professional revolution and considers critical theory and the re-reading of Marx fundamental in this.
, whose presentation followed Riff’s, provided a metaphorical closure of the day’s sessions with a lecture on his concept of “surpassing disaster” and the symptom of withdrawal. Toufic seemed to propose an “activist” positioning of the artist. As the task of the artist may be to surpass the disaster, the “syndrome” of resurrection (bringing something back from the dead) cannot be done. According to Toufic the psychic trauma, which is partly the result of the destruction of buildings, museums, libraries, etc. in times of war, causes a withdrawal from tradition. He defined withdrawal as the immaterial, that remainder which seemed to have survived disaster. Toufic suggested that one such example of the surpassing of disaster could be the failure of communism.
In the concluding plenary session moderated by Charles Esche
and Maria Hlavajova
, a lot of attention was given to the topic of institutional critique. Probably this institutional focus occurred because the keynote lecture was missing, and, correspondingly, a solid framework for reflection on the different sessions. Overall, many interesting thoughts about exhibition-making or curating in general were brought to the fore, either coming from a “former West” perspective or not. In the end the individual talks of the speakers, rather than the format of “conversations” as had been announced, were well articulated, specialist claims on art, its discourses, and the world at large, but it was a pity that an actual exchange of ideas was not really happening. However, as the first congress can focus on the collecting of thoughts, the second could bring these together and elaborate on a more reflective or operative discourse.