There are three questions or ideas that somehow form the coordinates which for me need to be grouped together in response to the last day of the 1st Former West Congress. One is the statement from a hostile colleague recounted by Simon Sheikh
: “I hate discursive exhibitions.” The second is the point of precision—precision in research and posing the question—briefly referred to by Okwui Enwezor
and central to a discussion I had during lunch that day. And third, the notion of “provinciality,” that surfaced in both the talks of Enwezor and Piotr Piotrowski
. These seem to be quite diverse points and notions, but somehow they form the field of tension that appears to me the most productive, if we wish to draw the fruits of this last day of discussion and presentations.
Let’s work through them in a random order and start with point two. If the last congress day can be criticized for something, it presumably will be for the lack of serious academic research done to try and give a more diverse and factual representation of the events preceding and following 1989. The prominence that the 1989 Paris exhibition Magiciens de la Terre had in the discussions and the lack of rigorous, bluntly factual engagement with what it was, is perhaps exemplary of a general tendency within the type of theoretical production that comprised this conference day, with perhaps Sheikh and Piotrowski as exceptions. Questions like: How did it look?, What kind of display strategies were used?, In what context did the event take place?, How was it perceived at its time and in what discursive climate?, were not answered in a the systematic way an academic might prefer. However, in the end it did somehow come together, but more out of a collaborative effort of recollection than out of coherently prepared research. It even created a short moment of discomfort during the day when members of the audience spoke out to refuse the representations given of the show and its significance. In one way or another this lack of thorough historical inquiry into what had happened was countered by precise insight into particular situations or perspectives that resulted out of accounts of distinct geographies: Argentina, Spain, Scotland, Poland, Africa. A detailed representation of the complex situation that marked 1989 was therefore not given in one rigorous presentation, but was composed out of a dispersed conglomerate of fragments that were slowly grouped together during the day. (For me, an intelligent question posed on the web by two Dutch artists, questioning the progressive blindness within which Dutch society fails to be aware of its own history—as exemplified by the problematic celebration of the VOC-mentality invoked by Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende—in its prismatic nature added Holland to the list of specific geographic contexts in which we got an insight during the day.)
Instead of being an academic conference, the congress day had more the character of a gathering of curators and artists who were discussing how the end of the classical “East-West” division marked their careers. The “theory” delivered was therefore of a particular brand that is sometimes more difficult to digest, but has a vital taste to it. For it is not the result of the presumed “disengaged” reflection of academia, but results out of a direct participation in the events themselves. The theoretical claims made would perhaps prove limited and even faulty at some point if the criteria would be coherence and adequacy, however, when read as portals through which a particular problem or situation can become visible, they prove to be quite imaginative. The presentations therefore may have seemed overly based on a project executed by the speaker, sometimes even a legitimization of it, but often offered an original insight into the problematics that resulted from living in a distinct situation and trying to come to terms with it. In general this does pose the question of if we should not be more explicit in the type of theoretical production in which we are involved, both in order to be more varied in the type of voice that is uttered and to avoid judging one voice by criteria that are more suited to another. After today it seems more clear to me than ever that curators produce their own type of rich and valuable theory that is sometimes frustrated by its wish to be recognized as academic. This manifests itself in the way some arguments are posed in a manner that is overly complex, made so more in order to satisfy a standard of theoretical complexity rather than genuinely necessary for the argument made.
A good example of an inspiring point that is a curatorially produced theory is the third in my list of points: provinciality. A notion that proves its viability if considered as replacing the pre-1989 central notion of ideology. It seems that the provincialization of Europe coincides with the demise of ideological thinking. In ideological thinking the world is understood as a battle between ideologies that seek to claim dominance and impose the logic of their “idea” on the whole. However, when capitalism “won,” it didn’t find a new adversary in another ideology, but was confronted with a completely different event, which Enwezor poetically described as “the Congo flooding the Acropolis.” With this Enwezor meant that what happened simultaneously with the collapse of the Soviet Union was the becoming visible of immigrant communities in the West. This is a process that he described again in poetic metaphor as the materialization of ghosts—ghostly communities of immigrants living in the West. This resulted according to Enwezor in the creation of a new economy of power, in which the vital question was no longer “whose side are you on?,” but the more private and differentiating question “who are you?.” Enwezor posed this question as directed primarily to the immigrant, but considering recent political events in the Netherlands and Belgium, one can see that the question dramatically backfires at this moment and asks everyone: who are you? So, in a sense, everyone is caught up in web of private, ethnic, geographic, economic, and gender-related differentiation, resulting in a situation that we can no longer describe as based on an economy of ideologies, but is constituted in a complex economy of provincialization. In this economy we confront each other no longer on the basis of ideological conviction, but as representatives of a distinct community, a province.
A province in this situation is understood as a type of discursive community, or maybe even more a type of cultural practice. What defines a province is a particular way of speaking, of doing things. It’s a behavioral mode that allows one to deal with a certain reality, which comprises its own series of metaphors, examples, and questions. In another term that resounded during the day, it was a type neocolonization, a self-colonization, which separates one community from another. What also is clear in this economy of provincialization is that it is not just a geographic structure, based on physical space, but more relational in that it groups together people on the basis of participation in a distinct cultural practice. In this also “the art world” itself can be one province among other provinces. Or, even more abstract, one could suggest that the proclaimed “cosmopolitanism” that was heralded by Piotrowksi, is also just one province, for even if the central issue for this province is the globe, the entire globe can’t participate in the discussion and so also here specialization and differentiation occurs. What is also important to point out is that a province is not just “discursive” in a rational sense. The logic of a province seems to be based on shared experience. One translates certain events—blunt, non-discursive facts—into a discourse and it is the exchange between the discourse and the facts that constitutes the province. In other words, for some provinces some facts are simply invisible or meaningless, while for others they are at the core of their experience. Finally, it is relevant to note that we as individuals are not limited to one province, but in a sense are members of a selection. For instance, one can be informed in the Dutch province, in the art world, and perhaps in others. What is interesting is that your behavior when acting according to the information and customs in each of these provinces might be different.
This brings us to the last point, the statement made by Sheikh’s hostile colleague: “I hate discursive exhibitions.” This statement can now be recognized for its true nostalgia and perhaps even its complex visionary qualities. On the one hand, if we revisit this position from the perspective of provincialization, the remark can sound like a longing for a time when art was simply universal on the basis of its phenomenological qualities. The value of art was that it could resist discourse, without being meaningless at the same time. In its complex interplay of form and signification, a philosophical euphoria was to be reached in which finally the two eternal adversaries form and content (or even subject and object) could merge. During the last Congress day it became clear that this romantic vision is completely out-dated and must be considered the result of regressive sentiment. But, in an unexpected way, at the end of the day, a discussion occurred that reintroduced the category of “art” as aesthetic event in a disguised and interesting way.
In response to the presentation of Anna Longoni, which gave insight into the activist art in Argentina, a member from the audience remarked that an Israeli group once tried to copy the working method of the Argentinean artists and that this didn’t work. Somehow it proved impossible to “translate” one artistic language into the other. This almost pragmatic remark that was just directed at getting the translation right, somehow contained the spark of an idea about what role art can play within this new economy of provincialization. For what the comment proved is that aesthetic practices are provincial as well and their immediate effect cannot be randomly displaced without losing traction. However, the situation of the congress showed that there is one domain in which this translation can take place and that is within the province of the art world itself. One could as it were pass from one province—Argentina—into another—the art world—to arrive at yet another—Israel—where one could make a statement in a formal language that is no longer universal in the sense that it is the same everywhere, but can be transnational, or even better “transprovincial,” if embedded in the proper system of provincial exchange.
The hatred for “discursive” exhibitions can therefore be understood in two ways, and schematically framed one seems to me progressive, while the other regressive. On the regressive side one could understand the hatred as the result of losing the romantic perspective as described above. The idea that we can recapture a space of universalism from which all artistic languages of the world can be organized as based on the same grammar seems delusional. On the progressive side this hatred could also be understood as pointing out that an exhibition represents one province that is inaccessible to a certain segment of the visitors. It is like the Argentinean method deployed in Israel. The risk of focusing solely on “production of discourse” without specifying who is able to participate in that discourse can result in a consolidation of the separation between provinces, which marks one of the biggest problems for the desired construction of, what was suggested during the day, a form a “global politics.” However, as the Argentinean-Israel example also showed, the art world (in exhibitions and perhaps even congresses), can function as a system of translation in which forms and contents are exchanged, investigated, and reorganized between provinces. If the distinct characteristic of the province of the art world could be to mediate between transprovincial problems and provincial experience, its contribution to building a system of exchange between provinces where we can engage in a discussion about something as necessary and difficult as a global politics could be invaluable. In the end the non-discursive experience as embedded in different provincial discourses remains the central point of artistic practice, but no longer because it is universal in that it is universally understood by everyone, but exactly in opposition to this, by being universally provincial it can only be made transprovincial on the basis of one extraordinarily provincial practice: art.