Issue #43, 2013
Scene

FORMER WEST: RUPTURES IN INFRASTRUCTURE
Andrey Shental

Dokumente, Konstellationen, Ausblicke[Documents, Constellations, Prospects], Berlin, 18–24 March 2013

 

Former West,a seemingly never-ending project that has been slowly unfolding since 2008 has reached its final point of intensity in the form of a seven day gathering under the title Documents, Constellations, Prospects. The location of the fourth edition of the congress coincided both spatially and temporally with its main historical reference point – the end of the Cold War. The German institution Haus der Kulturen der Weltthat accommodated the project in March 2013 originally opened when the Berlin Wall fell and was located a walking distance from it. Thus this performative, discursive, and exhibitionary Odyssey has come full circle terminating in its imaginary place of departure.

The title of the Former West conference emphasises the end of the hegemony of one abstractly and vaguely defined hemisphere over another: the East is no longer subordinated to the West and thus we all can speculate upon our global “post-bloc“ futures. However, notwithstanding its aim to decentralise and dehegemonise “the West“, to redress the balance of power and to celebrate the “political imperative of equality and the notion of ’one world’“, its very title is rooted in the dualism that is intrinsic to the millennial tradition of western thought as opposed to non-western philosophies. Instead of seeing the world in its heterogeneity the conference encloses itself within the binary logic and thus prescribes markedness of one signifier over another, which subsequently leads to precedence, propriety and hierarchical relations within its semantic paradigm.

The actual relationships between certain parts of the world are much more intricate and interconnected than a dichotomy. One could imagine a Greimas semiotic square (the popular motif of the “former western“ art theory) in order to illustrate them in all its complexity. However, even a fourfold system would not be enough to map multiple easts and wests, numerous norths and souths, centers and margins; peripheries and relative peripheries, overlapping and intersecting locations, contested territories, liminal zones as well as imaginary and cognitive geographies. Moreover, the argument made by Boris Groys during his lecture Art Production has also undermined its temporal relations based on former – latter axis. According to him, today we are much-much former than the former West itself: we are moving backwards straight to the 19th century. Thus not only the geographical certainty of this project could be ruptured, but also its temporal consistency could be put into question elsewhere.

In fact the geography of Former West is limited to Europe and to its main capitals with an exception of half-Asian Istanbul. So the presence of correlated “West“ within its provocative title – though with a pejorative attribute “former“ that has detached and migrated from its counterpart “East“ – indicates both epistemological and merely geographical limitations of its amplitude. Utrecht, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin or Istanbul with their “properly air-conditioned auditoria with good acoustics“ (using Irit Rogoff’s favourite trope) could be easily full to the brim with proud owners of EU passports capable of floating freely through borderless Schengen zone.1 That is why the Former West project is not-that-former-western.

This controversy provokes a series of questions. If one aspires to dehegemonise and decentralise the West, why does one invite the rest of the world to gather in this particular continent, investing and concentrating here its intellectual and creative capital? Why if the West is proclaimed former does it take the right to decide who in the former East is worth of attention and who is not? Does this delivery and accumulation of knowledge serve just to enrich Europe’s philosophising upon itself or is it also beneficial for other cultures?2

These unresolved questions and contradictions were visualised on the sixth day of the congress when those who seemed to be attendees from the former “third world“ countries, wearing black suits but still dissolving among other more casually dressed participants, suddenly stood up after Piotr Piotrowski’s talk and started making inarticulate noises, screaming, and expressively gesticulating: the visitors turned out to be performers hired by Dutch artist Aernout Mik for his impressive piece Untitled – a brilliant act of institutional critique that problematised notion of “formerness“ and exhaustion of dominant critical discourse.

The “stuffiness“ of this discourse leads me to another problematic aspect of the project: relations between Former West participants tend to get institutionalized (paraphrasing Victor Misiano, it could be called “institutionalisation of friendship“3) or which in this case would mean consolidation of art elites. For example, the so-called “key lecturers“ played their role of doorkeepers who invited their colleagues, friends, or compatriots to participate in the congress via their own blocs. This gradual development of networking has resulted in a kind of nepotism or monopoly merger (for instance, one could think of direct affiliation of Former West with other intellectual platforms such as Afterall or indirect with E-flux journal), in circulation of the same people, and, finally, in exclusion of aliens and strangers. Maybe if there were more structural counterpoints or cognitive ruptures, dissonances or incongruities, such as those made by Aernout Mik, Former West would sacrifice its perfectly balanced programme of events and participants for the sake of a more contested and dissentual state of coexistence.

Arguably, the more productive relationships could be established through an interplay of agonism and what Ranjit Hoskote in his lecture Thinking Beyond Network: Notes Towards Cosmopolitics (2012) calls “tropism“. The Indian poet and curator describes these relations as “attraction and curiosity that takes place despite your will, despite your volition“ which can help to “reach alterity, to appreciate it and to amplify oneself through it“. This non-harmonious agonistic-tropistic co-inhabitation of the space could undermine consensual relationships or what is well agreed on and is manifested through academic rituals and routine: applauds, compliments, gratitude and always-correct questions. For instance, at least two conflictual positions were elaborated in the span of the congress. On the one hand, the notion of “insurgent cosmopolitanism“ was articulated by Ranjit Hoskote and then carried further by curator Rasha Salti who appealed for peaceful non-violent ways of resistance and broadening of our political imaginary. On the other hand, participants to the play Where Has Communism Gone? organised by Chto Delat? have claimed that communism is violent by its nature, seeing it as an unavoidable characteristic that one has to accept. Unfortunately, these worldviews have not been confronted with each other, a situation that could have potentially enriched both sides.

An attempt to establish conflictual engagement with the public was also made by Irit Rogoff on a relatively formal level – through the spatial rearrangement of an accustomed format of a discursive event. Being a “key lecturer“ that, of course, implies perfect attendance, in spite of the inconvenience she decided to conduct her bloc Infrastructure in a small hermetic auditorium. Those people who were unable to fit or did not have reserved places, had to settle in different lacunas of HKW and listen to her live broadcast. This schism of public into two groups, that mimicked an auction house sale with its segregation of collectors and “the curious“, seemed to be an attempt to create incoherence within the seamless flow of well-organised events. It was not just a whim, but a very symptomatic gesture telling how critical knowledge and discourse on art have become overproduced and mass-consumed rendering constructive discussions impossible.

According to Hito Steyerl’s performative lecture I Dreamed a Dream, the age of mass art production goes hand in hand with the invention of firearms that made possible democratisation of violence. While one could say that democratisation itself is violent, Irit used permissible doze of “violence“ as a reaction to these processes. The tendency to de-popularise and de-democratise art might have been driven by a certain nostalgia to those times when we had art community instead of art world, physical proximity instead of alienation, kinship instead of partnership as well as the ability to have meaningful conversations instead of endless passages of a microphone through immense air-conditioned auditoria. The time when we had art intuitions, but yet did not have art infrastructures.

While institutions are characterised by hierarchies, vertical power relations, authority of elites, separation of art production from consumption, bureaucratisation of its operations; infrastructures are formed through complex entanglements of institutions (such as galleries, museums, media), logistical and managerial operations, transnational intellectual lattices, networks of sponsors, funders and trustees, transportation of participants and online live broadcasting – all rubbing against each other. Its role is not to impose certain views, values, ideologies, but rather to deliver knowledge and to enable its production and reproduction. From this perspective, Former West seems to be at the same time institution, an entity with its own protocols, and infrastructure, a tissue of procedures that make possible seamless distribution and consumption of criticality.

One could say that Former West, despite its ability to de-territorialise and re-territorialise itself in different locations or to narrow down and open up in time (Ranjit could call it “accordion temporality“) has come to the point when the knowledge starts functioning merely for self-maintenance and self-sustenance, for its self-legitimisation. For instance, theorist Stefano Harney in his lecture Logistical Infrastructure and Algorithmic Institutions called himself, Franco Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato accountants of this conference who were invited from outside into art context to introduce new productivity of risk and make its operation more effective. One could guess that these seismic movements – a tendency to imitate finance capitalism logic – were consciously or unconsciously felt by the participants and thus confronted through minor insurgencies that I tried to grope above. By paying attention to its contradictory dynamics they empowered these paradoxical elements in order to rupture, a-signify the uninterrupted process of delivery for the sake of delivery.

Maybe these ruptures were a sort of signals for the intellectuals, talking about political and cultural problems more or less related to the events that took place a couple of decades ago, that the real politics are happening at the very moment outside the air-conditioned auditoria. One could hope that Former West as a propositional project that is going to continue its life in the form of online documentation and publication would become an archive for inspiration or a reservoir of tactics for real time actions.

Notes:

1. �At the same time the very idea of mobility was reflected by scholars Ethel Brooks and Daniel Baker in their performative talk A Roma Model dedicated to how Roma people could inform us.

2. �Former West takes as a reference point the fall of Berlin Wall, but not, say, Tiananmen square, or Iranian revolution, or wars of national liberation from colonial power. Of course, the project could be more global, inclusive and mobile, but certainly it had one achievement: it gave voice curators, critics and artists from the former Warsaw Pact and non-alignment countries that kept silent or were made silent for many decades.

3. �Victor Misiano, Institutionalization of Friendship, http://irwin.si/texts/institualisation/.