Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Digressions from the Memory of a Minor Encounter
Jeebesh Bagchi on Thu, 6 Jul 2006 13:59:15 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Digressions from the Memory of a Minor Encounter

Digressions from the Memory of a Minor Encounter
(Raqs Media Collective)

Published in : The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art
Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, Edited by Barbara
Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic / Published by Roomade and The MIT
Press, 2006

(The essay in the book is accompanied by commentary by other authors)

Once, not so long ago, on a damp, rainy afternoon in Paris, a stroll
took us across the Avenue d?Iéna, from contemporary art to ancient
and medieval Asian art, from the Palais de Tokyo to the Musée Guimet.
There, standing at the far end of the ground-floor section of the
Guimet?s permanent collection in front of a frieze from the Banteay
Srei temple in Cambodia?s Siem Reap province, we felt the sharp edge
of estrangement in something that also felt downright familiar.

The Banteay Srei frieze narrates a story from the Mahabharata, a
Sanskrit epic. The story is of two brothers, the demons Sunda and
Upasunda, whose tussle over the attentions of Tilottama, an Apsara?a
heavenly courtesan sent by the gods to destroy them with jealousy?was
the cause of their downfall. Like most others who grew up listening
to stories in India, we knew it well, even if only as an annotation
to the main body of the epic. But it wasn?t the details of the story
that intrigued us that afternoon, nor the carved contours of Sunda and
Upasunda?s rage, not even the delicacy of the depiction of Tilottama?s
divisive seduction. Instead, standing before these stone images, made
in a region roughly 3,500 miles to the east of where we live, in
Delhi, and exhibited in a museum roughly 6,500 miles to the west, we
felt compelled to think again about distance and proximity, and about
how stories, images, and ideas travel.

The story of Sunda, Upasunda, and Tilottama was probably first
told around 200 B.C. in the northwestern part of the South Asian
subcontinent. Between the first telling of the story and the carving
of the frieze in a clearing in the forests of Seam Riep in circa 967
lay a little more than a thousand years and an eastward journey of a
few thousand miles. Between its carving and our sudden encounter with
it in Paris, there lay a little more than another millennium and a
westward journey halfway across the world. These intervals in time and
space were overlaid by an elaborate circuit that encompassed travel,
conquest, migration and settlement, wars and violence, the clearing
of forests, the quarrying of stone, slavery and indenture, skilled
artisans, the faces and indiscretions of the men and women who would
become the inspiration for jealous demons and divine courtesans, a
few thousand years of history, the crossing of oceans, the rise and
fall of several empires across different continents, and the repeated
telling and forgetting of a minor story.

Contemporaneity, the sensation of being in a time together is an
ancient, enigma of a feeling. It is the tug we feel when our times
pull at us. But sometimes one has the sense of a paradoxically
asynchronous contemporaneity?the strange tug of more than one time
and place. As if an accumulation or thickening of our attachments to
different times and spaces was manifesting itself in the form of some
unique geological oddity, a richly striated cross section of a rock,
sometimes sharp, sometimes blurred, marked by the passage of many

Standing before Sunda, Upasunda, and Tillottama in the Musée Guimet,
we were in Siem Reap, in Indraprastha (an ancient name for Delhi,
in whose vicinity much of the Mahabharata story is located), in New
Delhi, in nineteenth-century Paris, and in the Paris of today. We were
in many places and in many times. Sometimes art, the presence of an
image, moves you. And you find yourself scattered all over the place,
as a consequence.

How can we begin to think about being scattered?

Collections of objects from different parts of the world are indices
of different instances of scattering. The minor encounter that we
experienced in the Musée Guimet is one kind of scattering. It taught
us that sometimes we encounter familiarity in the guise of strangeness
and then suggested that we learn to question the easy binary shorthand
of the familiar and the strange, as ways of thinking about ourselves,
others, and the world. It suggested the possibility of other less
polarized and more layered relationships between cultural processes.
But this is not the only possible kind of scattering that the presence
of images and stories echoing the familiar in uncanny ways provoke.

An increased intensity of communication creates a new kind of
experiential contagion. It leads to all kind of illegitimate liaisons
between things meant to be unfamiliar. The first thing that dissolves
under the pressure of this promiscuous density of contact across space
is the assumption that different degrees of ?now? obtain in different
places, that Delhi or Dar es Salaam are somehow less ?now? than
Detroit. The ?nows? of different places leach into each other with
increasing force. The realities of different contemporaneities infect
each other. This condition generates active estrangement, a kind of
nervous expulsion, a gladiatorial of repulsion scripted either through
an orientation of contempt or of homage. Why contempt and homage? They
permit the automatic assumption of a chasm between the beholder and
the object of contemplation. The tropes of contempt and homage are an
optic through which some perennially survey others and then evaluate
them along an axis where the production of estrangement has to be
resolved in terms of either positive or negative regard. The ?survey?
mode of understanding the world presumes a stable cyclopean and
panoptic center of surveillance to which the gaze can never adequately
be returned, ensuring that a meeting of visions will never take place
on equal footing.

Like Sunda and Upasunda fighting over Tilottama, the more that
different parts of the world come to be aware of each other?s desires,
the more disputes there are over who has the greatest access to the
contemporaneity both desire?the part of the world that has more
confidence in itself or the one that has more of the élan of the
?Other.? Key to this conflict of perceptions is a refusal to recognize
that, like the sudden appearance of a Sanskrit story in a Khmer frieze
in a Parisian museum to a collective of practitioners from Delhi, the
relationships between familiarity and estrangement are compromised
of many folds and cracks in space and time. Estrangement is only
familiarity deferred or held in abeyance.

Rather than recognize the fact that familiarity and estrangement
are only two non-distinct and contiguous instances of cognitive and
affective transfer, this tendency to resolve the unfamiliar into
the binary of the ?like? and the ?alien? needs constant mechanisms
of reinforcement. The duality of contempt and homage is one such
mechanism. In the first instance (contempt), the object of the survey
is pinned down in taxonomic terms, explained away to require no
further engagement, making impossible the blurring of the distinction
between the surveyor and the surveyed. In the second (homage),
the object is exalted beyond the possibility of an engagement. In
either case, a difference, once identified, becomes a factor of
cognitive and affective excision. This forecloses the possibility
of recognizing that what is identified and estranged may in fact
be disturbingly similar to what is familiar, even though it may be
located in realities that are difficult to translate with coherence or
consistency. It is the inability to recognize the face of a stranger
when you look at your own reflection.

The amalgam of the sensations of familiarity and estrangement
evokes a new register of a tense accommodation, a hospitality to
the presence of the ?strange? that is not without attendant unease
to the ?familiar.? In the end, this may guarantee the disavowal of
mutual antipathy and the cultivation of some sort of cohabitation.
We can change the framework of the story on the Banteay Srei frieze.
Sunda and Upasunda can both survive by agreeing to stay within the
framework of a generous but awkward polyandry. They can do this by
learning to negotiate with Tilottama?s claims on both their desires,
and displaying a little more effort at being open to unpredictable

What does a little more by way of encounter attain in the domain of
contemporary art? An assessment of the amplitude of signals and the
intensity of contact that marks our world today is still waiting to
be made. One of the ways in which this could be undertaken would
be for us to try and account for the implications of the growth in
Internet-based connectivity on a global scale. The Internet, as we
know it today, is barely a decade and a half old, and its expansion
can be dated to as late as the mid-1990s. Curiously, the expansion of
the Internet and the recent expansion in the number of biennials have
been co-incident with each other.

Today, it is estimated that 13.9 percent of the world?s population,
or 888,681,131 people, have some kind of regular Internet access. The
majority of Internet users live in North America, Europe, Australia,
New Zealand, and parts of East Asia (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan,
Japan, and Singapore). World Internet usage grew by an estimated
146.2 percent from 2000 to early 2005, and the highest growth rates
were in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Chinese
is the second most used language on the Internet, and a country
like India experienced a growth of 684 percent in Internet usage,
from five million people in 2000 to 39.2 million in early 2005. It
means that some thirty-nine million people in India (through labor,
education, correspondence, and entertainment) employ, use, rely on
a medium that enables an exceptional level of global reach. Actual
figures are probably significantly higher, as most people in India
and other similar societies tend to go online not from the computers
that they own (since not that many people 'own' computers) or even
computers that they might access at work, but from street-corner
cybercafés. No other platform of communication in world history can
claim that it has attracted the attention of 13.9 percent of the
world?s population in the span of ten years. Ten years is a very
short time in the history of culture. It is the span between three
Documentas or the time between the founding of the European biennial,
Manifesta, and its fifth edition. If Internet usage continues to
grow, at least at this rate, for the next twenty years, approximately
seventy-five percent of the world?s population will have initiated a
deeply networked existence in the time it takes to produce the next
four Documentas. Nothing has prepared us for the consequences of this
depth and density of communicative engagement on a global scale. And
unlike previous expansions in communicative capacity (print, radio,
cinema, television), this time, with the Internet and new digital
devices, we see readers, who are also writers and editors, users,
who are also producers, viewers, who are also, at least potentially,
creators, entering a global space of cultural production.

While it would be simplistic to argue for a cause-and-effect
relationship between the expansion of the constituencies served by the
Internet and the growth in number of biennials and other international
art events, it would be equally facile to dismiss the implications of
the emergence of this vast augmentation in global communication for
the contemporary art scene.

What are these implications? Firstly, the discursive communities
around contemporary art, like the discursive communities in science
or politics, are poised to undergo a significant transformation.
Secondly, an increasing diversity of positions vis-à-vis the role of
authorship, creativity, and intellectual property in the actual domain
of global cultural practice are challenging the notions of bounded
authorship that have dominated the concept of art production in the
recent past. Both of these formulations need some elaboration.

The discursive framework of contemporary art, like any other domain
of thought and practice today, can no longer be viewed as something
that occurs only between an exclusive cognoscenti of curators,
practitioners, theorists, and critics, residing in Europe and North
America. Discursive networks can afford to practice an exclusionary
mode of existence only at the risk of their own obsolescence.
Every node in such a network survives only if it is able to affect
a critical mass of new connectivities and be a conduit for new
information about a very rapidly changing world.

In politics, it is impossible to conceive of a discursive framework
that does not include an active interest in what is going on in
the majority of the world. The realities of the Middle East, South
America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central, South, and
East Asia affect profoundly what happens in Europe and North America.
The networks of global finance and trade or even of distributed
production that characterize the world economy today would not exist
as they do without the Internet. Similarly, the global production and
dissemination of news is deeply tied into the substance of everyday
politics. It is impossible to separate domestic politics in any
major Asian or European country from, say, what is happening in Iraq
today. To say this is to state the obvious. But what is obvious in a
discussion of the economy, the media, or politics is somehow seen as
novel or esoteric in the realm of culture. This prevailing surprise
about the fact that the ?contemporary? is also ?trans-territorial,?
that ?now? is ?elsewhere? as much as it is ?here,? as ?strange? as
it is ?familiar,? is one of the symptoms of the lag in the levels of
informed discussion between the domains of culture and of political
economy. However, while it may still be possible for some to argue,
from a perspective that privileges the present state of affairs,
that a globalization of contemporary culture may imply an attempt to
impose a specifically Western modernist agenda on a global scale due
to the inequalities in articulative capacity, it would be impossible
to sustain this argument in the long term. The momentum generated
by different processes of cultural articulation set in motion in
various local contexts all over the world indicate a reality of
densely networked yet autonomous tendencies, movements, genres,
styles, and affinities that are far more complex than those for which
the discourse of westernization allows. Even a cursory glance at
the crosscurrents of influence in global popular culture, in music,
film, cuisine, fashion, literature, gaming, and comics, reveals the
inner workings of this web. We are in a world where cinema from
Mumbai, manga from Tokyo, music from Dakar, literature from Bogotá,
cuisine from Guangzhou, fashion from Rio de Janeiro, and games from
Seoul act as significant global presences, rivaling, occasionally
overshadowing, the spread and influence of their European and North
American analogues. The trends in contemporary art practice and
exhibition can, in the end, only be an echo of this banal generality
of the everyday life of global cultural traffic and transaction.

The growing presence of art practitioners and works from outside
Europe and North America within major European and North American
exhibitions, and the realization that there are non-Western histories
of modernity have had two ancillary effects. They have demonstrated
that these practices, practitioners, and their histories have a
significant global perspective, speaking to the world from their own
vantage points, as they have done for a while. These two realities
also have created pressure within non-Western spaces and by non-
Western practitioners, curators, and theorists to lay claim to a
global cultural space through the founding of contemporary art
institutions, networks of practitioners, and exhibition circuits.
One implication of this has been the proliferation of biennials and
other international exhibitions of contemporary art in spaces outside
Europe and North America and a corresponding increase in the discourse
generated through and around contemporary art in these areas.

Another implication of this has been the nascent presence of the
curator and the critic of contemporary art in Asia, Africa, and Latin
America or who finds him- or herself located within or at a tangent
to new Asian, African, and Latin American diasporas in Europe and
North America. At first, this new curator may be someone who seems
to speak only to and for his or her place of origin. He or she then
may be perceived as working with other curators and artists within
specific regional (but transnational) settings or with peers in
similar contexts elsewhere in the world. Eventually, he or she will
be seen as laying a claim to working with artists from everywhere,
including Europe and North America. These claims, as and when they
occur (and some are indeed occurring even now), will be based not on
the operation of affiliations based on geo-politics, geography, and
location, but on elective affinities of interest, taste, curiosities,
methodologies, and concerns. This will coincide with the rise of
institutional and non-institutional structures, spaces, and networks
in contemporary art that have significant presences outside Europe
and North America. These entities will become forums for discussion
and exhibition as well as fulcrums that enable the leveraging of
transregional contexts for collaboration and curating. The idea
that contemporary art has to have a central location, privileging a
particular history or cultural framework, will erode and give way
to the idea that contemporaneity is best expressed within the logic
of a flexible and agile network that responds to emergences and
tendencies on a global scale. This means that the logic of spatial
and cultural distance that operated as a perennial handicap for
the non-Western curator, practitioner, or theorist is unlikely to
remain of much significance. Likewise, the European or North American
artistic practitioner or curator increasingly will be called upon to
demonstrate his or her relevance in a multipolar world where European
or North American origins or location will no longer operate as an
automatic set of credentials. In a world that grows more used to
being networked, curators and artists from different spaces will work
together and in each other?s spaces, as a matter of course. In their
everyday practices, they will question, challenge, and subvert stable
identifications of spatiality and cultural affiliation. This will not
necessarily mean better or worse art or discourse; what it will mean
is that the terms ?global? and ?contemporary? will resonate in a host
of different ways, so as to indicate the active presences of hitherto
absent, silent, or muted voices and expressions.

The formulation regarding the challenge to the notion of bounded
authorship as a result of the expansion of a global platform like
the Internet is perhaps of deeper significance for contemporary
art, even if it is at the moment less visible. The Internet has
set in motion peer-to-peer networks and online communities that
do more than share cultural intelligence: They also occasionally
collaborate on the making of things and of meaning, often on a global
scale, in a way that is at variance with mainstream protocols of
intellectual property. This is most clearly visible in the global
open-source communities, but the influence of the ?open-source? idea
has ramifications beyond software. This tendency is increasingly
audible in the domain of a new global musical sensibility based on
file sharing, remixing, and recycling of extant musical material,
with scant regard to the admonitions either of the protectors of
intellectual property or cultural purity. It is also present in
peer- to-peer networks founded by scientists, legal scholars,
philosophers, historians, and other social scientists who have used
the internet to establish a new intellectual common that gains
strength through regular usage, participation, and contribution, often
in direct opposition to the hierarchies prevalent in institutionalized
academic and intellectual life. These new communities of research
and reflection are rapidly establishing today?s bridgeheads of
inquiry, freed from the inherent conservatism founded on concerns for
proprietary or commodifiable utility that ties production in academic
institutions and research spaces to ?safe? areas of inquiry through
the instruments of intellectual property. Increasingly, these ?open?
spaces are the ones where science, philosophy, social theory are
?hot,? more responsive to the world around them.

By foregrounding an emphasis on the commons and other forms of
collaboration or non-property or anti-property arrangements, open-
source practitioners and theorists (be they in software, music,
science, or the humanities) have initiated a profound turbulence in
cultural economy. The domain of contemporary art cannot remain immune
to this turbulence, which exists all around it. It is perhaps only
a matter of time before the ethic of sharing, collaboration, and
?commoning? becomes commonplace within contemporary art, just as it
has in other domains of culture. It is already visible, in a nascent
sense, in numerous curatorial collaborations and artist-practitioner-
technician-curator-theorist networks that transcend borders and
disciplinary boundaries, that give new twists to the ?publicness? of
public art projects, and that raise vexing questions concerning the
?ownership? of the ephemeral and networked creations and processes
that they generate. The increasingly dense cross-referential nature of
practices within contemporary art are also pointers in this direction,
leading us to think of the space of contemporary art not as a terrain
marked by distinct objects, but as one striated by works that flow
in and out of each other or cohabit a semantic territory in layers
of varying opacity. Crucially, a liberality of interpretation about
what constitutes intellectual property and what devolves to the public
domain will be central to defending the freedom of expression in
art. Art grows in dialogue, and if intellectual property acts as a
barrier to the dialogue between works, then it will meet with serious
challenges that arise from the practice of artists and curators.

All this cannot happen without conflict and disruption. The domain
of the sign is the playing field of a new cultural economy where
the generation of value hinges on an adherence to the principles
of intellectual property. Practices that are at variance with the
principles of property in culture for a variety of ethical, social,
intellectual, aesthetic, and pragmatic reasons increasingly, however,
have perforated this domain. The likely consequence of all this is
that the tasteful tranquility that marked the enterprise of aesthetic
contemplation will find itself besieged by disputations, legal suits,
accusations of copyright infringement, and intense, invasive scrutiny
by owners of intellectual property. Making art will increasingly
be about forging new legal concepts and creating new economies of
usage, ownership, and participation. Making and exhibiting art will
be fashioning politics, practicing a new economics, and setting
precedents or challenges in law.

The existence of contemporary art is ultimately predicated on the
conditions of life of its practitioners. The myriad daily acts of
practicing, reading, inscribing, interpreting, and repurposing the
substance of culture, across cultures, constitute these conditions
of life. These acts, in millions of incremental ways, transpose the
?work? of art to a register where boundedness, location, and property
rest uneasily. The work of art, the practitioner, the curator, the
viewer, and the acts of making, exhibiting, and viewing all stand to
be transformed. All that is familiar becomes strange; all that is
strange becomes familiar.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net