July 1, 2013
By Peter Dobey
In the past decade or so, the art world has worked hard to portray itself as a community without borders. International biennales and art fairs have become ubiquitous, seemingly sprouting up in every city that wants to secure itself as a destination of cultural relevance. This obsession is not a phenomenon particular to the art world. It coincides with the emergence of genuine geopolitical transformations of global relevance. The shifting of world powers, economic catastrophes, booms and the free trade agreements that facilitate international mutation are concrete matters. The pervasiveness of corporate chains and the near absolute hegemony of Capitalism for better or worse have given the international landscape a common currency. The dissolution of geographic distance via communication technologies such as Skype and Facebook have indeed made us more connected and keep us up to date on events that were until recently outside of our scope of perception. Popular books such as Thomas Friedman’s’ “The World is Flat” have prompted “globalization” to be the catchword of our time. The implications of the word itself denote a dispersion of diverse influences upon our collective positioning in the world and how we conduct our individual being and actuality towards others, but it also implies a multiplicity of knowledge that carries a dubiously speculative ring along with it. The conception of globalization may diverge radically from the actualities its convictions are applied on top of. If you have ever read an awful, pretentious artist statement or catalogue essay, (and in my opinion most of these texts are just that) then you are well aware of the disparity between the concept and convictions on paper, and the work of art in front of you.
The well-intentioned project of mutual understanding and communication runs the risk of being based on conjecture rather than direct knowledge. Opening up “international dialogues” and offering “solidarity” between distinct and particular situations may be a loving gesture, as when attendees at the Venice Biennale and various other groups of educated western youths in far off locales staged mini protests in solidarity with the Taksim square protests in Istanbul, but these proclamations of mutual understanding can rarely be more than mere gestures of support for that which may or may not bear familiar resemblance to experiences of those who stand in solidarity with a fundamentally unfamiliar event, as when Taksim square is compared with the “Occupy” movements. Like the particular and subjective inner lives of the individuals who take part in such protests, one cannot be compared to the other. Lest we risk closing down understandings of events which we have only perceived from afar, taken a glance at, but not directly lived in the flesh of or know in our hearts.
That is all to say that it is a matter of contextualization in how we arrive at interpretations of situations that are not our own. In the end, proximity to other people, outside events, in short- the news, has to be taken with a grain of salt. Scanning tweets may allow us a sensation of taking part of something that is bigger than ourselves, but are we really? Do we really have an understanding of international events or do we merely find comfort in knowing other people around the globe share our interests and cause our own desire to stir? Are we truly interested in knowing about others, or do we seek to find others who authenticate a semblance of ourselves?
“Multiculturalism” is considered a contemporary virtue that democratic societies should strive to embrace, but the underlying characteristic that deems this aspiration a success is often one of assimilation and mutual understanding rather than a cognizance of pluralities. Commonalities are easier to appreciate than true differences, and too easy to find confirmation of everywhere you look. It may be that one must accept absolute alterity, acknowledge that one does not know ones neighbor, in order to truly stand in solidarity with another. It is sometimes better to acknowledge and recognize contextualization gaps for what they are in order to gleam distinct truths from the cracks of airtight seals of extrapolations and assumptions. Sustaining an uncertainty of what lies between the cracks of how a given event, culture, or art piece is portrayed in contrast to how it actually exists is far more enlightening than to maintain a pretense of absolute certainty, it leaves room for engagement with the grit of the real. Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is never certain.
San Francisco Art Quarterly’s new column, “SFO – San Francisco/International” seeks not to mend the gaps between the context and reality of international art events and communities but to pry open these gaps in order to get a look at the insides. SFO will keep up with international news and events in the art world and it’s vastly numerous pockets, while readily admitting that fundamentally, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” will always escape the scope of description.
The world is not flat, in fact it has more layers, pockets, mounds, tears, bumps and gaping holes than we can ever know. But what is a community, a society, an event, if not specific and utterly unique to itself? San Francisco is consistently ignored, dismissed as “provincial” precisely because it is a community and not an art “scene” proper. Herein lie both our cities strengths and weaknesses as a place for art making. It is made of individuals, not scenes; it is still largely unhinged from the pervasive influence of global art making trends. Those readers who attended the San Francisco Art Institute during the administration of Okwui Enwezor will recall the scenario of art trends being imposed, a gift and a burden offered up to those who never wanted it bestowed upon them. Whatever your opinion was of the general ethos, curatorial ideals, the faculty overhaul and subsequent debacle, can surely ideate how one, this author included, could find Enwezor’s conceptual ideas intellectually stimulating, and how logically, SFAI could see him as someone who could fit the bill of “multiculturalism” that the city of San Francisco consumes itself with and takes pride in. However, it did not work. The administrations agenda concerned itself with a global perspective that was predicated on the (neo?) liberal notion of global multiculturalism in accordance with a “post-colonial” art world. He and others brought in many global artists and collectives whose presence and art would have never been able to be seen by students attending during the prior administration. The audacious plan was meant to bring disparate communities of artists together in order to speak of the strengths of communities, but it failed. Why? It didn’t speak to the particularly deep-rooted and long standing community of SFAI and its subjective desires.
The San Francisco arts community gets off on both pain and pleasure from being an underdog, but it this frustration that often fosters creativity. Such in-between cities form the true essence of what it is to be “Inter-”. Small communities are where “international art” ACTAULLY resides, in the destinations off the beaten track. The importance of small, undefined and “provincial” art communities cannot be underestimated. If idiosyncratic and unwonted artistic communities are ignored then internationalism ceases to be. The multifarious sutures of the true miscellany of internationalism would unravel the patchwork quilt that binds otherness and preserves it from the homogeneity and platitude of larger commercial art markets like New York and London caught enmeshed in the flattening of neoliberal globalization.
Globalization is intrinsically bound up with Capitalism, but ironically and erroneously denotes an ethos of global values that clearly have no relation to the globe it speaks of. The art world and its markets accommodate no exception to this rule, even if their various communities sometimes front a socially concerned pretense that suggests otherwise. For the most part, the globalized art world is a closed circuit of eventuality and blatant solipsism; it can comprehend nothing but itself and its fantasies of engagement with the outside world and its currents.
But comprehension of global tendencies is not the same thing as international familiarity. That is something that by its very nature is impossible to grasp.
Internationalism in its current context exists as a double connotation of both diversity and homogeneity. It extends its hand in mutual understanding, but has a vested interest in eradicating difference. The knife of neoliberalism cuts both ways. Art galleries today from all corners of the world feel an obligation to bring their most distinctive artists to a new audience of potential buyers at art fairs, but the audience at these fairs is almost never new. Major art fairs tend not to bring an International audience per-se, but a proportionally small, global jet set elite. Consequentially artist’s work has responded accordingly. Art that channels international political affairs and community interaction is the medium du jour. But the work is usually not seen by a wide audience and is increasingly un-populist in its approachability.
Ostentatious international art exhibits that preach “cultural diversity”, “globalism” and “relational aesthetics” as their motifs run the risk of being inconsistent, as investigations of cultural diversity is inherently a contradiction in so far as it attempts to comprehend multifarious societies, peoples and core values under a common referential umbrella. No more so is this apparent than at many art biennales, and especially art fairs. Every two years the Venice Biennale makes an effort to showcase the world. But what the world gets in return is of minimal value. Although the artwork is often of a remarkable caliber, its pure saturation can be off putting. Any particularities to be found in unique artworks from unique countries evaporate into the sea of it’s flamboyant excess. To have everything is sometimes to have nothing. Venice’s all-inclusive context tends to situate art in a rigid and giftwrapped ontological package. There is no space to breath when nation states are buttressed together in a single contextualization.
SFO seeks to deflect the presumptuous assumptions and pretentious contextualization’s the curatorial elite tack onto the sole of the art worlds’ boot.
SFO seeks to interrogate the international art world’s obsession with “global art practices” and the markets that arise from them and reveal them for what they are, trivial conceptual tropes. It is all too common for the international art world pundits and self-proclaimed “culture producers” to construct edifices of flimsy “global” theory that does not take the actual people of the globe into consideration. Many international biennales and glitzy, heavily publicized exhibits take global events and political conflicts as their pretext in order to legitimize the proliferation of predictable, hygienic mega-exhibits that draw in massive amounts of corporate funds but give nothing back to the world’s citizens that experience those events and conflicts in the flesh. SFO will dissect these campaigns of art posturing that seek to maintain their place in the trendy limelight they so enjoy. SFO will question the gobbledygook jargon of “cultural production”, “globalism”, “post-colonialism”, “relational aesthetics and “provincialism” and will actively seek out, travel to and investigate the world affairs and art events and cross-examine the gaps that lie in-between naïve contextualization and reality. SFO will concern itself with the affairs and communities that make up the authentic “inter-“ lacunae of international art and related foreign affairs.
SFO aims NOT to take a “global” stance that would relegate the myriad of the world’s events to one sphere. The column will seek to listen to the subjective languages of the world’s art communities and the innumerable dialects and tongues that compose its distinct realities. Only when the beauty and necessity of difference is recognized and acknowledged is there a possibility for better understanding and an opportunity for reaching out.
What better place for SFO to start its voyage than Istanbul to cover the aftermath and continually unfolding situation, a prime example where the narratives that have been wrapped around the reality of the situation have been poorly understood from Western eyes and ears. To Taksim square where groups of individuals inextricably alien from one another are now in one room together for the first time. Women in hijabs rally with cross dressers, anti-capitalist Muslims with former Erdoğan supporters, artists whose silence is heard louder than the bullhorns of the police. All of these people in support of something they know not what, but their desire is in unassailable accord for something that had been a long time coming, the demolition of an edifice.
The context will be presented as understood by local artists, activists and civilians. SFAQ will be on the ground, observing, interviewing, and most importantly, listening to the words of the voices which continue to be silenced, both by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the faulty contextualization of the media abroad.