Entitlements and Entanglements

Sarah Dornhof, Nanne Buurman, Birgit Hopfener, and Barbara Lutz( eds.), Situating Global Art: Topologies, Temporalities, Trajectories, (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2018), 333 pages, b&w and color illustrations. 

Situating Global Art is a richly conceived contribution to contemporary global art studies with an extensive bibliography, useful summaries of the main issues and events, and case studies by curators, art historians, and artists. It developed out of an international conference by the same name organized in 2015 by the International Research Training Group, Interart Studies, at the Freie Universität, Berlin. The volume aims to continue the work of the conference by presenting a “discursive arena” for addressing the many ways that institutional structures can be reinvented for different critical purposes (Introduction, p. 21). The four contributing editors describe their collaborative effort of coming to terms with the concept of global art from different angles and disciplinary backgrounds as “decolonizing art historical knowledge and replacing binary epistemological models…with more relational approaches focusing on contacts, flows, and circulations, as well as global relations of production” (p. 12). Sixteen chapters and a substantive introduction make a timely contribution that goes beyond the dominant Euro-American discussion by including numerous case studies of curatorial projects rooted in specific historical circumstances in other parts of the world, including Morocco, Haiti, Seoul, and Singapore. There are also critical discussions of Documenta and other international biennials around which the contemporary global art discourse has been shaped since the late 1980s.

The editors conceive their brief as a critical intervention into the “emancipatory project …[of] revising the canon” by shifting attention to the “systemic discriminations” caused by “structural conditions of exclusion” (p. 11). Chief among the problems they perceive to be plaguing the discipline is the exclusionary logic of national and regional canons that constitute art history’s “colonial unconscious.”(The term was coined by Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff, “Das koloniale Unbewusste in der Kunstgeschichte,” in Globalisierun/Hierrchisierung: Kulturelle Dominanzen in Kunst und Kunstgeschichte (Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 2005), pp. 19-38.) The two main remedies offered here are to shift attention to systemic problems and to interrogate the “totalizing presentism” of contemporary art. But [how] can either of these happen without falling back on problematic essentializing categories?

Exhibitions are the focus of the volume. Diverse case studies document a wide range of transformative curatorial practices. The authors demonstrate awareness of many different social conditions of art production, distribution, and reception. Significantly, they avoid the false alternative between the global and the local by studying their “entanglements,” recognizing that the flow of agency moves both ways (see p. 16 for discussion of the term in the context of global history). In keeping with current trends elsewhere, the authors embracethe idea that networks mitigate the problems inherent in bounded categories such as nation, region, and city. When transcultural topologies frame research initiatives, the editors write in their Introduction, the circulation of goods, people, and ideas cannot be entirely captured by global capitalism because they generate a “surplus” (p. 17) that does not correspond to the geographical, ethnic, and cultural identities that still dominate global art discussions both historical and contemporary. These “surpluses” involve economic conditions of inequality that need to be taken into account by applying the analytic categories of gender and class, which in turn means acknowledging the position from which one speaks (p. 19).

So how does “situating one’s voice” unfold, discursively speaking? The authors agree that the next step in establishing an unbiased and non-reductive account of contemporary art involves articulating the position(s) from which knowledge is constructed “transculturally” as a dynamic process. In 1988, in a widely influential feminist critique of science and technology studies, Donna Haraway introduced the concept of “situated knowledge”. One of the editors briefly notes her contribution (p. 322), but individual chapters interpret “situating” in a variety of other ways. First, I will review how the individual chapter authors who frame their studies theoretically “situate” contemporary art, before I turn to Haraway’s founding argument in order to suggest how this forty-year-old text dealing with objectivity in science might in fact be even more relevant to transcultural practices in contemporary art than the authors of the present acknowledge or realize.

Situating Global Art means acknowledging and defining the position from which one speaks in order to invoke a transdisciplinary dialogue that identifies the blind spots of historical disciplinary formations in an effort totransform past assumptions and methodological habits into “objects of scientific reflexivity” (Introduction, p. 19). In the opening chapter of the first section, entitled “Epistemological Frameworks,” Jacob Birken cites literary historian David Simpson’s definition of “situatedness” as the condition of being embedded in “impersonal systems” while allowing for individual performances of identity. Birken concludes that “the logic of inclusion” can be understood as the most abstract and refined form of situatedness, yet paradoxically, pluralism is tolerated by neoliberals only if it doesn’t question actual power relations (p. 47). For Birken, artists who are meant to be included in the expansive view of art history for artistic reasons are still being systematically excluded for political reasons (he cites the example of Lebanese-born, New York-based media artist Walid Raad’s expulsion from the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim in 2015 for “security reasons”).

In the next essay, Andrew Stefan Weiner mounts a similar argument against the “cultural logic of neoliberalism” by “de-situating” the relationship between contemporary art and the market. Weiner takes exception to the widely cited questionnaire on the state of global art published by Hal Foster in the journal October (2009), because it uncritically conflates the “simultaneity of the present” with the “totality of the globe” (Weiner calls this a “false universal”). Weiner also objects that Foster reserves “criticality” in judging art to seven respondents based in the US or Europe, all of whom are academics or curators, yet none of whom are actually artists (p. 57). Attributing epistemological privilege to subjugated knowers (in this case intellectuals and artists), Weiner provides three examples of how to think strategically about politics and aesthetics tied to the complex history of pan-Arab socialism in the Middle East. In question in both of these essays (Birken and Weiner) is the status of art that engages with political questions, the dominant theme of the volume. The next two chapters in this opening section deal directly with the tensions between two types of contemporary practice, here defined as art made for aestheticconsumption/contemplation and art that engages with socio-political issues.

Voon Pow Bartlett uses Michel de Certeau’s concept of “tactics available to ordinary citizens” to argue that Chinese artist Zhang Peili’s “Harmonious Society, 天下無事,” is predicated on a dissimulated “aesthetics of irony” that depends on insider knowledge of the Chinese government’s poor treatment of workers. In this context, Zhang’s “empty” flags of different colors, devoid of iconography (i.e., devoid of branding), foreground the traces of laboring hands and technologies in their fabrication, handling, and display in a museum setting.

Rounding out “Epistemological Frameworks,” Antigoni Memou also deals with issues of telling truth to institutional power. She analyzes the photojournalistic images in the opening pages of Documenta 11’s Platform 5 (Kassel) exhibition catalogue (2002). The multi-platform exhibition was itself an unprecedented performance of diversely situated knowledges curated by Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), the first non-European artistic director of Documenta, and five co-curators, taking place over eighteen months (March 2001 – September 2002) in five world cities – Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, Santa Lucia, and Lagos – with the final exhibition in Kassel, home of Documenta since its inception in 1955. At each venue, community-based public discussion, workshops, film and video programs involved contributors (80 in all) across many subdisciplines devoted to the “challenges of contemporary democracy, issues of truth, reconciliation, and justice” (p. 75). Enwezor’s commitment to radical art and politics, and especially to art in documentary form, caused considerable controversy. In her microstudy, Memou argues that the widely criticized photos in the opening pages of the Kassel catalogue address issues taken up in the following essays and artworks. In Memou’s view, the [montage] technique of juxtaposing different political events urges viewers to look for relationships that could present an alternative portrait of globalization (p. 76). Specifically, their groupings make visible what is usually excluded from public view such as the marginalization of peaceful protestors that could shape public opinion, in favor of the “spectacularism of violence” in news reporting.

The remaining three sections of the book, entitled “Institutional Politics,” “Museological Narratives,” and “Practices of Self-Cultivation,” develop arguments about tensions between, and confluences of, aesthetics and politics in specific contemporary art projects with an emphasis on viewer participation.  Birgit Mersmann examines “situationist practices” in two urban art projects in Seoul, South Korea, which she describes as “drifting strategies” (her translation of derivé) with reference to Guy Debord and the Situationist International urban art movement. Annette Bhagwati emphasizes that any curatorial approach must be understood as a position within a network of other positions, never as a universalizing narrative (p. 191). In her case study of the 2013 Singapore Biennale, which focused on the Mekong region, the curators decided to exclude international celebrity artists as a way that regional art practices could access the global art circuit. Bhagwati compares this curatorial position to other exhibition strategies that apply “post-narrative” concepts to develop complex, non-hierarchical modes of viewing and interpretation (including a mention of the Haiti Biennale, discussed below). Citing the successful exhibition strategies of the Vancouver Museum of Anthropology, Bhagwati recommends that museums with large inventories view their collections as “dynamic archives” for exhibiting objects that can be continually re-interpreted (p. 207). Still another interpretation of “situatedness” is offered by volume co-editor Birgit Hopfener, whose case study of Qui Zhije’s Map of Total Art, 2012, interprets the artist’s monumental drawing as a practice for examining the frameworks through which truth claims are made (p. 282). Hopfener argues that the artist positions himself and contemporary art history as constituted through networks of multiple, reciprocal, and transcultural interrelationships.

With this context of discussion in mind, I’d like to turn to the ways in which Haraway’s notion of situated knowledges problematizes both subject and object.(Charis M. Thompson, “Situated Knowledge, Feminist and Science and Technology Studies Perspectives,” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences 2nd ed.(Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015), doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.85031-XThe following synopsis of Haraway’s work is indebted to this essay and to Haraway’s original publication, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, n. 3 (Autumn 1988): pp. 575-599.) Her foundational argument about what constitutes situated knowledge in science and technology studies from a feminist perspective asks how objectivity is possible, given the irreducible differences and radical multiplicity of local knowledges. Objectivity has to derive from particular and specific embodiments. In contrast to totalizing master narratives and unlocatable relativism (both of which are “god tricks” because they promise “vision from everywhere and nowhere equally and fully”), Haraway’s concept of ”situated knowledges” assumes that knowledge is always partial, locatable, and critical. Standpoint theories attribute epistemological privilege to a person or group in an inferior position. Haraway does not disagree (“There is good reason to believe that vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful”), but she insists that there is no perfectly subjugated position that confers epistemological privilege. Subjugation is not grounds for an ontology, though it might offer clues, so the positionings of the subjugated also require critical reexamination. For this reason, Haraway privileges “partiality” and “mobile positioning.” Objectivity is only possible through the joining of partial views into a collective subject position that creates communities based on concrete circumstances.

But what about “mobility”? As queer theorists and writers from other subaltern positions have also insisted in the three decades since Haraway’s initial intervention into debates about the status of knowledge, the world cannot be reduced to a mere resource if subject and object are deeply interconnected. Such an approach to epistemology requires that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and an agent, not a passive screen, ground, or resource: the world encountered in knowledge projects is an active entity whose boundaries are not fixed. It follows that feminist embodiment is not about identifying a fixed location in a reified body, but about “nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for difference in material-semiotic fields of meaning.” Bodies should be thought of as “material-semiotic generative nodes” whose “boundaries materialize in social interaction.”(Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 201.)

The move to grant agency to material objects has placed the epistemology of situated knowledges at the center of science and technology studies since the late 1980s (defined in this volume as the beginning of the global contemporary for political reasons, especially the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the massacre in Tiananmen Square). According to Haraway, a commitment to mobile positioning privileges contestation and “webbed connections” because the split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable. Splitting, not being, is the privileged image for feminist epistemologies of scientific knowledge. Positioning our heterogeneous multiplicities is key to grounding knowledge. It follows that politics and ethics ground struggles for, and contests over, what counts as rational knowledge. Subjectivity is performed in and through the materiality of knowledge and practices of many kinds.

I wish there were space in this review to discuss each chapter individually with reference to Haraway’s account of agency. I will refer to two more case studies to whet the appetite of readers. Leah Gordon’s “You Can’t Always Curate Your Way Out! Reflections on the Ghetto Biennale,” is an exemplary study of “mobile positioning.” Speaking as both author and leading participant, Gordon recounts the history of the subaltern artist group, Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists)—comprised of experienced as well as younger artists, curators, writers, and performers, working in the Grand Re (slum) neighborhood of downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti—who organized a series of “Ghetto Biennales” arising out of issues of mobility and exclusion for Haitian artists. The Haitian “ghetto biennales” are noteworthy for attracting a wide range of international artists while maintaining local control of the exhibition framework. Faced with problems of visa refusal, the group decided that the biennale format offered the possibility of providing Haitian artists with contacts in the wider art world by bringing the biennial to them. In queering the established tradition of appropriating the formats of Western art institutions, the Haitian artists repositioned their association with contemporary international artists by refusing the position of outsider. Artists opened their ateliers, used local found materials, and invented neighborhood venues for displaying their work. Initially, the tension was between Haitian artists who made objects for the market and visiting artists who critiqued authorship and privileged immaterial relational practices (p. 137). In subsequent iterations of the biennial, the curators prohibited lens-based work and the visiting artists were encouraged to delve into Haitian culture and history. Despite the lack of financial resources and institutional support, since the first “Ghetto Biennale” in 2009, Atis Rezistans has organized three more international exhibitions with an “increasing tendency to privilege projects that engage with Haitian history and culture” (p. 138). Gordon acknowledges that the challenge is to find a balance between disorder and chaos, on the one hand, and the risk of celebrating the slum on the other. Remarkably, the organizers have raised money to publish a four-part catalogue that will disseminate and document all four past biennales to a much broader audience, including discussion of the ethics and contradictions of the event moving forward. What impressed me about the history of the Haitian biennial is the nimble way in which the Haitian artists rose to the occasion time and again, re-positioning themselves in relation to shifting institutional authority, creating dialogue with the international artists, aware that the enduring effectiveness of their combined partial views depend on a community effort to respond to circumstances.

One last example. Janna-Miri Redmann, “Gulf Labor: The Boycott as Political Activism and Institutional Critique,” discusses the agency of the international artists’ initiative, Gulf Labor, in critiquing the market tourism practiced by the Guggenheim Foundation, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and other institutions who have built museums on the United Arab Emirate’s manmade Island of Happiness, Saadiyat Island. Expanding the analysis of institutional critique from the entanglements of museums with capitalism to the broader network of agents making up the art world, Gulf Labordeveloped a project entitled 52 Weeks, focusing on socially engaged art and collectivist issues. Each week from October 2013 – October 2014, a different artist, curator, or collective contributed work relevant to the issues. Redmann argues that Gulf Labor’s mobile positioning over time to combat the institution’s evolving blind spots, leading to a boycott by major artists, forced the Guggenheim to abandon its claim to the hegemonic representation of “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” art that had excluded regional artists (p. 122). (This was the context in which Walid Raad was deported in 2015.)

Labdellah Karroum, “Generation 00: The Artist as Citizen,” and co-editor Sarah Dornhof, “Exhibiting Contemporary Moroccan Art: Situated Curatorial Narratives and Institutional Frames of Reference,” offer eye-opening accounts of the Moroccan art scene; Jelle Bouwhuis, “How Far How Near: A Global Assemblage in the Modern Art Museum,” analyses the recent history of efforts to explore what a contemporary global narrative looks like for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; co-editor Barbara Lutz, “”Curating as Transcultural Practice: documenta 12 and the ‘Migration of Form,’” addresses the problem of universalizing criteria that do an injustice to the diversity of interrelated stories about people and things; while three more chapters offer monographic studies of individual artists and curatorial practices: Isabel Seliger, “The Art of Globalization/The Globalization of Art: Creating Transnational, Interethnic and Cross-Gender Identities in the 3D Work of Miao Xiaochun”; Ronit Milano, ”Globalization as an Artistic Strategy: The Case of Takashi Murakami”; and last but not least, co-editor Nanne Buurman, “The Blind Spot of Global Art? Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating,” analyzes Obrist’s nomadic life and breezy fascination with concepts of mobility, migration, and nomadism inspired by anthropologist James Clifford’s application of Mary Louise Pratt’s “contact zones” to ethnographic museums, but Obrist does not seriously engage with the project of decolonization (p. 308).

As Okwui Enwezor has observed, the structure of Western modernity, which is essentially dualist and relative, continues well into the age of global capitalism through the practice of othering. What Situating Global Art does. then, is to refuse this state of affairs by offering a rich array of counterexamples, many of which are authored by those who participated directly in the events they describe or analyze. At the current juncture of debate about what constitutes global art and how to best practice it, we don’t need anyone to sum things up for the rest of us. We need to throw the doors open by injecting new voices that study concrete circumstances from new positions, and this book does all that admirably.

Claire Farago
Claire Farago taught Early Modern art, theory, and criticism until her retirement in 2017 as Professor Emerita. She has published widely on the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, Early Modern art theory, cultural exchange, the materiality of the sacred, the history of style, museums and collecting practices. She currently lives in Los Angeles.