Dislocate, renegotiate and flow: globalisation’s impact on art practice


This is Part 1 of a three-part investigation by Regina Gleeson into globalisation's impact on art practice. This work was commissioned by The Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon in association with Critical Voices 2003.

Cultural categorisation of artists and their production by nationality - classifying an artist as being from Ireland or Slovenia, for example - is ubiquitous. It can afford us a way of tapping into developments in the realignment of social, political, economic and cultural trends in Europe and around the globe. Such categorisation allows a nation to assert itself in terms of its delineation of cultural terrain, however organically amorphous the loosely bound identity of a nation might be.

Marc Bjil: United States of Persia , 2003, installation shot, Prague Biennale; photo/courtesy the author

Art can be a peaceful, democratic, political platform from which to make public the difficulties of dissolving nations and the ensuing disorientation caused by dislocation - a dislocation often brought about by an imposed identity change or even by nonidentity. Global resettlement of peoples, who have their own ideas, culture and spiritual homes, has understandably given rise to huge unrest. Such unrest can be recounted and expressed through art in a way that is accessible to a foreign audience or to one at least that is unfamiliar with the complexity of the national background of the artist.
In addition to this cultural relocation is the emergence of the global nomads, not so much a fall-out from dispossessed humanity, but more a reaction to and repercussion of the global economy and the global village 1 . But does global-nomadism necessitate a rejection of the validity of national categorisation in visual culture and creative endeavours? Surely not! We carry our cultural background with us as subconsciously as we speak in the accent of our mother tongue. The more pertinent question appears to be: why does the validity of national representation in the sphere of international culture have to defend itself as being other than a relic of the past? Is the answer as simple as this: fashion has moved on?
Patriotism is passé in these global times. Nationalism is naff. If identity is, as Patrick Wright has suggested, a set of relationships instead of a set of rules torn out of a chapter in history, then we must choose our fragmentary identities. 2 More often than not, the attributes of a national identity are only explored when their foundations have been severely shaken. Our current times - of post-utopia 3 and the digital extension to postmodernism - are too exhausted, after decades of cynical deconstruction and scepticism, for us to be naïve enough to be open to the ideas of either cultural or general utopias, considering the unbalanced economies of first and third worlds, the devastation of genocide, the euphemistic 'ethnic cleansing' we have experienced in recent decades and the globalised, branded lifestyle that infiltrates every fibre of our society. However, what is emerging at international exhibitions of visual art is that the dream, or even the idea of a utopia, has found a place, specifically in the freedom to express hopelessness in our collective disorientation and/or reorientation. We are bound by a human need to contextualise our experiences. Where economies collapse, politics explode, societies implode and geographies dissolve, our cultures are the voices of the instinct to survive, but they are also the price which has had to be paid in order to tell the tale of survival.

... Art doesn't defeat the war...but it contributes by having faith in life...We see it [art] surfacing strongly right there where life seems to die away and only brutal instincts survive.

Giancarlo Politi 4

It is enormously difficult to know how to represent one's country when, for example, what were Yugoslav citizens from Belgrade on Monday are Serbian citizens from Belgrade on Tuesday. But this difficulty is not reason enough to reject a mode of categorisation, representation and questioning of identity, on the grounds that it is difficult and painful to do so. In fact, it can be argued, it is all the more necessary to continue with cultural, national representation. Yes, there are numerous other valid ways to unite and divide visual culture other than by geo-political boundaries. But surely, because of the very extent of dissolution and re-formation of nation-states, subsequent global migration and the threatening potential of homogenisation by globalisation, it is vital that we continue to engage in national representation.
In addition, digital communication, particularly cyberspace, lays down a new geography existing outside of the dimensions of nationality. Even the wave of well-intentioned multiculturalism can have an atrophic affect on ethnic cultures in its effort to be all-inclusive. Semi-homogenised versions of mixed cultures can produce a multi-cultural blanc-mange rather than the intended recognition of individual cultures.

Last summer, the Venice Biennale curator Francesco Bonami tried to instate a Palestinian pavilion at the exhibition. This reportedly caused consternation because the Biennale is funded by the Italian government, and it only supports the work of recognised states. 5 The Serbian representative, Milica Tomek, struggled with having to exhibit her work in the pavilion of "Jugoslavia" - a place that no longer exists. In a way, she was representing the non-place of a negative space in a reliquary of her former home. This non-place is the reality at the centre of the conflict referred to in the Venice Biennale title, Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer . The hope of creating a sense of Place, with a capital P, is the dream and the utopia that can never be addressed, I believe, by avoiding the difficulties of national identity and representation.

Throughout the Utopia Station section of the Venice Biennale, perhaps because of the weight of the sense of crisis in our time, there was little evidence of artists engaging in a design or stylistic aesthetic for its own end. Anri Sala's video, Dammi i colori , 2003, articulated the fact that the banality of everyday living is the utopia of the dislocated, disenfranchised, lost citizen of the non-place. This work speaks of the liberation and rebuilding of a city and its people after the fall of the communist regime in Tirana. Its conceptual undercurrent speaks of a place on the periphery of Europe defining its own parameters.

Kadir Attia: La machine à rêves (detail), 2003, installation shot, Venice Biennale; photo/courtesy the author

It is a very complicated business for a peripheral location to assert itself as its own centre and point of reference, while being able to engage in a global discourse of culture. On the one hand is the difficulty in being received as equals as opposed to ethnic curiosities. On the other lies the danger of cultural prostitution if the periphery takes on the cultural code of the 'centre' in order to gain recognition; it may lose respect as a result of its abandonment of its own cultural tones and semantics. It would seem more valuable for the periphery, whether it's Tuam or Tirana, to embrace its status and affirm its own identity, rather than the tragic relocation into the bosom of the 'center'.
This raises the questions of whether the periphery is a phenomenon only visible from the privileged vantage-point of the centre, and of whether or not a peripheral artist exists only in the minds of those cosseted in the centre. It is a case of "do you feel peripheral today?" Stefan Bruggemann from Mexico engaged with this concept in his wall-text installation, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE , which drew the viewer to its location from a distance and then left one to wonder what made that particular area the place and to question its relegation of every other place to an abyss or even the periphery. This very same idea was expressed at the 2003 ev+a exhibition in Limerick by Paul Dowling and his collaborators; their work alludes to the efforts to locate one's sense of Place. Where is our Place? was the title of Ilia and Emilia Kabakovs' work in Venice this summer. Its questioning of 'place' was from a critical and ethical viewpoint which expanded the domain of the periphery and centre. These works are only a quick sample of the many that speak of the search for reference points in identifying one's cultural place.

John Paul Dowling with Clare Gilmour, Ernest Bishop, Simeon Babo Tresor, Annette Young and Babatunde Longe: Where are you coming from? , 2003, mixed-media installation, Limerick train station, ev+a 2003 ; courtesy Limerick City Gallery of Art

2003 saw the very first Prague Biennale, which sought to rezone its own cultural centrifugal force by making its central theme The Periphery Becomes Center . Prague, as the capital of the Czech Republic, has undergone huge changes over the last decade, as Czechoslovakia dissolved and two separate republics - the other being Slovakia - were formed. The Prague Biennale employed a similar mode to that of Venice in that there was a panel of subcurators, but in this show the categorisation by nationality was more subtle. The work of a specific geographical location responded to a theme, so instead of the focus being on the country it was on the social and cultural issues faced within the country. For example, instead of there being a Russian section, there was a section, Overcoming Alienation , made by Russian artists; instead of a Czech section, there was a Mission Possible section by Czech artists; Leaving Glasvegas by Scottish artists and so on. It was an interesting and successful model, as the viewer could compare the perspectives of artists from different geographical locations to an issue that can be of global interest as well as local, but a large part of what made the interrelationships among works interesting was the reading of the work within at least a vague geo-political context.

It is possible that globalisation is the new colonialism, because its forces have the potential to be all-encompassing. This being so, it is vital that we are sensitive to every single shift it creates and not slip unquestioningly into a new internationalism, where we all share the same global catalogue of history and our individual cultural accent is neither evident nor important. Global exchange is enormously enriching but vigilance must be exercised to prevent a neutering of our deep-rooted cultural accents.

Part 2 of this series (to be published in CIRCA 108, summer 2004), will investigate how the global renegotiation of identity, and the effects of dislocation and re-orientation, have affected art practice. This discussion will lead on to Part 3 (issue 109) that examines how this shift in art practice has reverberations in the practice of curation, which has undergone its own adjustments in response to a world in flux.

Regina Gleeson is a writer on art and technology.

1 Marshall McLuhan coined this phrase when referring to the networked connectivity of the global community as a result of the electronic age. Understanding Media , 1964, New York: Mentor

2 Patrick Wright in conversation at the National Identity conference, Tate Modern, March 2003

3 Liam Gillick's term to describe the dynamic of our time at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Liam Gillick, Le futur doit-il aider le passé? , in the catalogue to the exhibition by Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1998.

4 www2.ronchiato.it/AlbaniaToday/Eng/arte.htm

5 Cairo Times , www.cairotimes.com/content/archiv07/biennale0717.html

Article reproduced from CIRCA 107, Spring 2004, pp. 67-70.