FROM BEYOND THE FORMER WEST
3rd Former West Research Congress
Academy of Fine Arts and Secession
April 19–20, 2012
Initiated and organized by Maria Hlavajova, FORMER WEST is a long-term (2008–14) international research, education, publishing, conference, and exhibition initiative. With a focus on contemporary art and theory, it aims to create a platform for reflection on the cultural, artistic, and economic changes that have affected the world since the end of the Cold War in 1989. The project reexamines this period “in dialogue with post- communist and postcolonial thought; and speculates about a ‘post-bloc’ future that recognizes differences yet evolves through the political imperative of equality and the notion of ‘one world.’”1 The first two FORMER WEST conferences took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and Istanbul, Turkey, respectively; this third conference, co-curated by Marion von Osten and titled Beyond What Was Contemporary Art, Part One, took place in Vienna in April.
Hlavajova set the tone of the Vienna conference as one of genuine inquiry. With levelheaded, sensitive intelligence, Hlavajova shaped a forum through which to probe both the “disorientation and [the] possibility” of unprecedented global change,2 and thus situated the conference as a “critical, emancipatory, and aspirational proposal to rethink our global histories and to speculate upon our global futures through artistic and cultural practice.”3 Asking how to move beyond the confines of contemporary art’s normalizing practices, Hlavajova and the contributors—a diverse group of international artists, theorists, and cultural practitioners—articulated various positions about what might emerge from contemporary art’s “formerness.”4 The Vienna gathering featured over a dozen speakers from countries as varied as India, France, Austria, Germany, Romania, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, only a small number of whom can be covered here.
The discussions were underscored by the issue of whether the West is, in fact, waning or resurgent in reaction to threats to its dominance, prompting the recurring question: who has the discursive power in this rethinking of global cultural histories? Nancy Adajania, cultural theorist, independent curator, and co- artistic director of the ninth Gwangju (South Korea) Biennale (2012) propelled the conference into the heart of questions about shifting agency and access with her talk “An (Un)timely Meditation: Pointing to a Future Ecumene of Art.” Focusing on the concerns of postcolonialism and transcultural art practices, Adajania alluded to Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopic space, which privileges “otherness.” In the face of hegemonic forces, she argued, “art as heterotopia needs to be recuperated”—a recuperation that can be achieved in part through a kind of “tactical quietism”; that is, “the production of a pause.” Much in the same vein as the conference itself, Adajania posited a future ecumene of art, wherein a notion of cultural production shifts from a system structured by a Western art-historical understanding to one in which global artists and cultural workers become the producers themselves. Adajania closed with comments on artists’ capacity to make the world a “habitable” place—a leitmotif that would serve as subtext in the following two days of lectures and discussions.
In the context of a search beyond the confines of traditionally conceived contemporary art, how does difference actually unfold? Positing the tacit entanglement of artistic, intellectual, and activist practices, the second day of the conference addressed new possibilities within and beyond the field of contemporary art. Ashok Sukumaran (cofounder with Shaina Anand and Sanjay Bhangar of CAMP, a studio for critical transdisciplinary practice, in Mumbai) and Ranjit Hoskote addressed a shift in network culture. While neither argued against the network’s capacity for organizing and mobilizing, they both conceded that, given its presence in everyday life, network culture is increasingly implicated in the conventions and constructs of cultural hegemony.
CAMP comprises a group of artists and software programmers who focus on “systems and their contradictions,” examining the ways networks can render their agendas, purposes, and members invisible—thus abrogating the responsibility of the individual. CAMP’s work confronts this risk by investigating the “interior spaces” of normalized conditions, intervening to make the invisible visible. Networks, stated Sukumaran, often fail to connect us. Citing a CAMP project that conceptualizes the role of neighbors, Sukumaran points out that neighbors are not “removed enough” to be considered part of a network precisely because they are already connected.
Hoskote, a cultural theorist, curator, and poet, added that the network creates a false idea of universal communication, whereas genuine discourse takes place between people in “moments of transformative encounter.” Further examining the nature of interaction and participation, Hoskote spoke of curating the Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, where he attempted to dismantle the requisite concept of national representation and shift the emphasis to discursivity, conflict negotiation, and the artist as citizen—emphasizing the need to retain the polyphonic view within the collective, and thus honor the invisible. Significant connections, stressed Hoskote, are to be found in the in-between spaces of life, the “interstitial reserves and archives.”
One might say that such interstitial reserves are the working site of h.arta, a Romanian artist collective led by Anca Gyemant, Maria Crista, and Rodica Tache. With their lucid and insightful presentation, “The Everyday Ruptures in the Dominant Order,” the women of h.arta spoke about their focus on knowledge production and alternative educational models within a feminist frame. Seeking a position beyond reactionary tactics, they create and foster new spaces for political expression and action based on the model of friendship, which they define as an ongoing negotiation of difference and a statement of solidarity. Rather than asking, What is art? they ask, What is art for? And they respond as activist-artists by confronting control and censorship in Timisoara, Romania, with strategies of resistance aimed at making visible the ongoing “gestures of micro-fascism.”
Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, an urban research collective cofounded in Paris by architects Constantin Petcou and Doina Petrescu, develops and implements strategies of“urban resilience” with resident-focused adaptive re-use projects such as R-Urban. The projects honor local needs and knowledge, while aiming to balance production and consumption through initiatives such as urban micro-farms, community gardens, extensive recycling systems, and residential cooperatives.
The final part of the conference sought to tackle both the challenges for contemporary art and the propositions emerging in response to them. The evening centered around Irit Rogoff’s engaging lecture “The Expanded Field: Actors, Agents, Platforms.” A writer, curator, and professor, Rogoff assessed the current “evacuation of terms in the West.” Posing a question much larger than redefining art, she asked if we are facing a major epistemological crisis. A positive crisis, that is, an opening that allows us to consider the “absent knowledges” previously excluded under the dominant hegemony.
Rogoff critiqued the current discourse around multiplicity, stressing the need to go beyond the pluralist model. Proliferation, expansion, and inclusion do not inherently change the system, according to Rogoff, primarily because they do not allow us to comprehend and “practice the loss” of our traditions. Thus, we must learn to practice loss and embrace the uncertainty of shifting paradigms that, while perhaps unsettling, represent an astonishing chance to change the terms of the discourse. To wit, emergent modes of thinking and acting are no longer reactive but generative. Adding radical art pedagogy to the list of evolving practices, Rogoff cited the growing number of self- education platforms and free schools. Knowledge, she asserted, left the university and took a long walk. Now it is returning in a new way—and, in Rogoff’s hopeful assessment, can never be captive again.
Most politically engaged artists and cultural workers active in the last two decades practice strategic interventions in the hegemonic order. They subvert, interlope, reinterpret, displace; they understand the liberating quality of the deconstructive move. The result is often that we can better see what is going on behind the curtain. Known as tactical media, participatory practice, relational aesthetics, and social engagement, these practices, in addition to the self-reflexive changes within art institutions, evidence the ways the field is significantly evolving. This conference addressed many of the currently relevant practices, including artists’ ways of rendering the invisible visible; developing strategies of displacement (vis-à-vis hegemonic oppression); and reinventing community in the face of the unprecedented hypermediation within the communal environment. As such, Rogoff reminds us, “art has actually contributed to the political, not just reflected on it.”
However, for projects such as FORMER WEST, one challenge is to avoid participation in the hierarchies and polarities it seeks to investigate—institution vs. artist, theorist vs. activist, presenter vs. audience, etc. It is laudable, for instance, that the programming manifested a clear and conscious commitment to diverse representation of gender, culture, artist, theorist, etc. At the same time, artists’ voices were notably absent from the open discussions. To the organizers’ credit, this issue was raised and openly discussed.
Still, one has to question the choice of the main venue: the grand assembly hall of Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, a space defined by towering marble columns, pronounced neoclassical artwork, tribute panels to the former Emperors, and an acoustically impossible echo—in short, its “excessive imperial grandeur and patriarchal swank.”5 This, in addition to a controversial history, is admirably raised in an article by Eduard Freudmann, a former student who argued for a public accounting of the Academy’s past participation in colonialism, Austro-fascism, and Nazism.6 Is this conscious intervention or unexamined participation? Nevertheless, anyone who has ever attempted to create an 3 authentic space of open discussion knows it is a mighty task. FORMER WEST succeeds in courageously and thoughtfully putting forth many essential questions. Now the ongoing question is: How can the many promising suggestions that emerged be transformed into action?
On a final note, to return to the venue, a telling manifestation appeared. If one looked closely at the aforementioned memorial panels in the grand hall, an intervention was revealed. Along with the official panels that read “Emperor Leopold I, founder of the Academy” and “Emperor Franz Joseph I, erector of this edifice,” two additional panels were covered with facsimiles that read “Emperor Leopold I, expeller of the Jews from Vienna” and “Emperor Franz Joseph I, provoker of the first World War.” It would seem that the activist-artists were intervening in the setting—and the hegemonic order—all the while.
Victoria Hindley is an American artist, writer, and educator living in Vienna. For more information see www.victoriahindley.com.
NOTES 1. See the FORMER WEST website: www.formerwest.org. 2. Maria Hlavajova, “To Undo Contemporary Art: Some Interim Speculations from ‘Former West,’” Global Art and the Museum, ZKM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, www.globalartmuseum.de/site/guest_author/321. 3. FORMER WEST website. 4. Ibid. 5. Eduard Freudmann, “‘Swastikas? Ornaments!’ as a Continuity of Repression: History-Political Conditions of a Public Art and Educational Institution,” trans. Lina Dokuzović, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1210/freudmann/en. 6. Ibid.