A Focus on Alterity in Contemporary Cultural Production.

Published: 2019/12/09 Number of words: 2194

By the late 1940s and 1950s, Western nation-states started to see their hegemonic and monolithic conceptions of culture and geographical spaces being threatened. With the end of the World War II in 1945 and Europe’s processes of decolonisation, there was a massive displacement of people from the poorest areas of the globe to the “developing” and “developed” nations[i]. As a consequence, the big metropolises saw their social fabric change with individuals from the most diverse cultural backgrounds occupying the same space[ii]. Partaking in this fluxus of people were artists from the former colonies who contributed to the creation of a new intellectual and social space in Europe[iii]. In the 1960s, the London-based Signals Gallery[iv] hosted experimental international art, thereby beginning to contradict the dominant Euro-American artistic position. However, there were profound inequalities[v] in the multi-cultural encounters in the West. There was no exception to this in the art world, where non-Western artists were often seen as producers of ethnic-minority art; any artistic expression was merely a sign of their cultural identity[vi]. Since then, within the intricate web of mobilities and interconnections that shape our world today, migration and displacement have continued.

Cultural dislocation and the conception of a hegemonic world are two of the knots that constitute the tread of globalisation. World interconnectedness, through the movement of people, capital, ideologies and commodities, has increased[vii]. An apparently borderless network of communication and mass consumption has gained terrain as the primary mediator between disparate cultures from all areas of the globe[viii]. From a Western cultural perspective, it was thought that the expansion of science and technology[ix] and the distribution of Western commodities would be absorbed by the peripheral cultures to the point that a singular, homogeneous world culture would emerge[x]. However, this position ignores the fact that subjects’ cultural disposition always plays a role in the reception and absorption of commodities and external influences[xi]. Therefore, the customisation that takes place at the moment of its reception sustains differences, whilst the simplistic aspiration of homogenisation is discredited by complex cultural convergences. To account for these complexities and the cultural transformations that were taking place in societies, the subject of Cultural Studies emerged[xii]. This theoretical approach had to consider the social, historical, and geographical dimensions of cultural formation if it was to operate in an international level.

An important contribution to this has been postcolonialism theory, precisely because it looks at the specificities of those functions involved in cultural formation. It helps to inform the understanding of globalisation, not as a contemporary phenomenon, but as a process[xiii]. An historical account of this process, in the light of postcolonial critique, describes the beginning of multi-cultural and multi-racial societies in those places that had been colonies[xiv]. This is an historical fact that has been largely ignored by Western historical accounts and which threatens any conception of globalisation as a peaceful and even process[xv]. In this context, there has been an increase in the debate about cultural identity and alterity that has led to a better understanding of the pluralisation of international political, economical and cultural relationships and an exploration of the conflicts and tensions of these processes[xvi]. In the visual arts it has also been the focus of artists, critics and historians[xvii], and it has thematized the conceptual framework of exhibitions and biennials[xviii]. It is with the theoretical explorations on the state-centric assumptions regarding culture and artistic production on one hand, and the counter-response of postcolonialism discourses on the other, that set the ground for the study presented in this thesis.

The artistic interest in the causes and consequences of conflict and asymmetrical social relationships has been gaining more visibility in Europe since the early 1990s[xix]. This has happened in the context of, what Claire Bishop argues, is a return in European artistic interest to addressing socio-political concerns[xx]. The aspiration to merge art and life can be traced back to the historical avant-garde movements that spread throughout the twentieth century; movements such as the Dada Cabaret, the Fluxus movement, Brecht Theatre, Russian constructivism, Happenings and the Situationists[xxi]. Therefore, the 1990s interest in the social sphere forms part of an ongoing desire to rethink the traditional relationship between the art object, the viewer and the role of the artist[xxii]. The art object became less objectified and commodified and more situational; the artist’s role shifted from that of a producer of objects to a producer of situations; the viewer became an active and participative co-producer.

In her recent book, Artificial Hells, Bishop makes an interesting triangulation between the rise of social concerns in art with particular historical socio-political moments of tension and change. She relates the avant-garde in Europe around 1917[xxiii] and the ‘neo’ avant-garde leading to 1968[xxiv] with the reappearance of participatory art in the 1990s, which she links with the collapse of communism in 1989. As she observes, these three dates were accompanied with a utopian desire to reconsider art’s relationship with the social and its political potential[xxv]. In fact, with the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, capitalism saw the triumph of its marketplace and the emergence of globalization contributed to the openness of markets and international free trade[xxvi] which came to shape the social and geopolitical space[xxvii]. This space was marked by social convulsions with increasing racial and class divisions alongside cuts in social welfare that led to protest movements and sharp critiques of the capitalist system. Given our present moment of socio-political upheaval, which gives context to the ‘90s return of the artistic interest in addressing socio-political issues, this study suggests that there is a point at which, despite the shared strategies, it differs completely from its predecessors.

This point was reached when Western art institutions started a dialogue with the non-Western art world[xxviii]. The once marginalised creative forces started to enter the mainstream art world whilst, internationally, an increased number of non-Western artists were being accepted in the Western art institutions. This acceptance and openness by the West was the result of the discussions around two moments that were decisive in breaking through the old idea of the West as the exclusive holder and producer of contemporary art. The first moment was the 1984 exhibition, Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art : Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at MoMA, New York, and the second, Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 1989[xxix]. The reactions and critiques they provoked had a seismic impact on the Western view of the ‘peripheral’ art production. The first was through the critiques of Thomas McEvilley who accused the exhibition of treating the non-Western objects as merely inspirational artefacts for the sophisticated modernism, by showing African masks alongside Picasso’s paintings. The African art forms were thus reduced to the role of a footnote, even ignoring their importance within their own specific context. The second, considered to be the first global show[xxx], although not without criticism, still marks the start of dialogue between artists from varied cultural backgrounds and where contemporary African art first attempted to be presented as such[xxxi]. Nonetheless, some precedents can be traced back to 1972 Documenta5, where some non-Western artists where already entering the mainstream art circuit[xxxii].

Since then, there has been a movement towards a more decentralised approach towards art production. The conceptual frameworks of Documenta10 (1997) and 11 (2002) focused on the often rejected discourses and representations, exploring ways to voice “the marginalized, the migrant, the homeless and the endlessly mobile”[xxxiii]. These topics have been shaping much of the contemporary art production within the framework of its socio-political interventions. Nonetheless, the exchange and interrelation amidst different cultures that characterize our epoch and the contemporary international art world do not occur in a symmetric and democratic environment. In fact, it is the prevailing asymmetries between the space of the West and ‘’the rest’’ which fuels the aspiration of art to address these issues.



[i] It was during this period that the centre invented a myriad of terms to designate its ‘other’ and define its global condition, often based on dichotomies such as ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ or ‘rest’, ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ world, ‘core’ or ‘centre’ and ‘peripheries’ or ‘margins’, ‘white’ and ‘non-white’, ‘North’ and ‘South’, ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘undeveloped’. See Anthony King, Introduction, Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. Anthony D. Kind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998) p.8. For practical reasons some of these terms will be employed throughout this study.

[ii] Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, Introduction: A world in motion p.11 in AAVV, The anthropology of Globalization: a Reader, ed. Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, (Oxford:Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002)

[iii] Rasheed Araeen, Internationalism of Afro-Asian Artists in Britain, pp. 6-8, Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, ed. Jean Fisher,( London: Kala Press in association with the Institute of International Visual Arts, 1994).

[iv] http://www.thecentreofattention.org/dgsignals.html accessed 13 Nov 2012

[v] Jonathan Inda and Renato Rosalto (2002), The Anthropology of Globalization, p.3

[vi] Everlyn Nicodemus, The Centre of Otherness, pp.90-104, Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, ed. Jean Fisher (London: Kala Press in association with the Institute of International Visual Arts, 1994).

[vii] Jonathan Inda and Renato Rosalto, The Anthropology of Globalization, p.3

[viii] ibidem

[ix] Immanuel Wallerstein, The National and the Universal: Can There be Such a Thing as World Culture?, Culture, Globalization and the World System, pp.91-105

[x] For an extensive discussion about commodities as globalisation’s instruments of homogenization see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation, (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

[xi] Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, A World in Motion pp. 2-31, op. cit. p.17

[xii] Stuart Hall cited by Anthony D.King in the Introduction for Culture, Globalization and the World System, p.3

[xiii] Anthony D. King, Culture, Globalization and the World System, p.5

[xiv] Ibid, p.6

[xv] See Gayatri Spivak Can the Subaltern Speak?, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Communications and Culture (University of Illinois Press, 1988)for a discussion about the western intellectual centrality and its invisible consideration regarding its colonial history.

[xvi] Hou Hanru Entropy, Chinese artists, Western Art Institutions, A New Internationalism, Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, pp. 80-88

[xvii] Liminalities: Discussions on the Global and the Local, Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter, 1998) pp.28-49

[xviii] The Istanbul Biennial conceptual frameworks have been conceptualized around issues of identity, the tensions between East and West and the complexities of the dynamics between globalisation and tradition, art and politics. The Documenta 10 and 11 had a particular focus on ‘thinking the other’, explore ‘issues of dislocation and migration’ exploring deterritorialization and a new geography, or topology of culture.

[xix] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, (Verso: London, 2012) p.3

[xx] ibidem

[xxi] Nato Thomson, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ( New York: Creative Time Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press, 2012), p. 8

[xxii] Claire Bishop, op. cit, p.2

[xxiii] 1917 was a tumultuous year of social and political tension, corresponding to World War I. In the same period, the Dada movement emerged with its anti-war, leftist and anti-bourgeois ideology that quickly spread to Germany.

[xxiv] 1968 was the year of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and student demonstrations in Warsaw and Paris.

[xxv] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.4

[xxvi] Anna Tsing, The Global Situation, The Anthropology of Globalization, pp. 453-477

[xxvii] Nato Thomson, Living as Form, p.29

[xxviii] Hou Hanru, Entropy; Chinese Artists, Western Art Institutions: A New Internationalism, Global Visions, p. 80

[xxix] Hou Hanru, op. cit p.80

[xxx] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.194

[xxxi] Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe , Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Market Place. ed. Olu Oguibe and Okwui Enwezor. (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999) pp. 8-14.

[xxxii] Thomas McEvilley, Documenta 11, Frieze Art Magazine, issue 69, September 2002 http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/documenta_112/ accessed 19 Jan 2013

[xxxiii] Stuart Hall, Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation, ed. Gilane Tawadros, (Michigan: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2004) p.163


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