05 10 06

Beyond the Global 1000

Brian Holmes

The following text was presented in Sao Paulo at the annual CIMAM conference (International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art), on the theme of “Museums: Intersections in a Global Scene”. That was on November 21, 2005 – just after the banlieue riots in France. Sao Paulo being what it is, there were more millionaire collectors at that event than I have ever seen. Six months later, they would be treated to an uprising of a powerful drug gang, the PCC or "Primary Command of the Capital," whose leaders operate out of the prisons with their cellphones. The PCC's "street pilots" were able to attack a hundred police stations, burn some 75 buses, and bring the entire city of eighteen millions to a halt, including the airports. Some people called it a "subjective occupation" – a way of affectively commanding the entire city. This outburst of violence from below forms part of what I was trying to discuss in this paper, and also part of the unspoken background to the prestigious Sao Paulo Biennial unfolding right now. As you can well imagine, the millionaires and most of the museum directors just thought I was crazy. –  BH



I am going to try to formulate one of the questions that a certain kind of politically oriented art poses to the transnational art museum. A question not to the art museum as a purely aesthetic or cognitive institution, but to the art museum as an economic and social institution: an institution dealing not only with cultural capital, but also with capital tout court.

The speakers before me dealt with two broad groups of ideas. The first of these, as presented by Walter Grasskamp, challenges the twentieth-century claim that the museum can be the institutional frame of a universal aesthetic language, and points instead to the impressive globalisation of what is essentially a Western or North-Atlantic set of cultural codes, including the all-absorbing code of exoticism, a kind of cannibal aspect that takes any sort of curiosity and makes it into something that is admired just because it is different. This, for Grasskamp, makes the contemporary art museum comparable to the Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet.

The second set of ideas, presented by Maurizio Lazzarato and embodied by the work of Ursula Biemann and Angela Melitopoulos, posits the museum as support base and relay point for an engagement with the outside, in this case the very infrastructure of globalisation, approached through critical studies and experimental devices for the production of artistic representations, whose co-operative process of elaboration is supposed to help re-qualify or perhaps even transform the infrastructures depicted. For instance, the Trans-Asian highway system depicted by Angela Melitopoulos, whom Maurizio mentioned, and the oil pipeline that Ursula showed us, which become a quite different experience when approached through the experimental devices of these two different artworks: Timescapes and the Black Sea Files. There has also been a further suggestion from Suely Rolnik that these kinds of devices can ultimately transform even the universalising structure of the West itself: the structure of the ego, which, as Suely says, negates the Other. Something like the infrastructure of our very selves can be at play in the kind of risky and troubling works that are being discussed here.

The amusing thing about this particular panel is that we all know each other – we’re friends and colleagues. I write for the same journal as Maurizio, I’ve just finished working on the catalogue for Angela and Ursula’s projects, I have the honour of translating Suely’s texts into English, and so on. We are definitely not part of the 100 major artists which, in Walter Grasskamp's presentation, were said to form the basis of the contemporary transnational art institution; but maybe we are part of a more modest Global 1000 who attempt, when we can, to make the transnational art museum into a crossroads between art, the social sciences and politics. Our work is transversal with respect to the traditional art world and the factor of the outside is essential to us. We try to constitute critical laboratories, mobile theatres, virtual editing tables, and even experimental clinics for the exploration of possible alternatives to the world as it is.

Because of the basic decay in the political, economic, and psychological conditions of human coexistence, our star has risen a little bit, to the point where it is now actually visible on the museological horizon, which was not the case up until the late 1990s. In this context, I would like to take upon myself to describe from my own personal perspective some of the difficulties I see ahead for the type of work that is being proposed by the Global 1000. And then I’d like to offer a few ideas about what can be done to overcome those difficulties.

The first difficulty of the context, to go further to what Walter Grasskamp has said, is that the contemporary art museum as a kind of worldwide Wunderkammer has only become so successful because it functions within a massive economy of tourism, which itself is inserted into a dynamics of metropolitan rivalry. That phrase, metropolitan rivalry, describes the competition between major cities for the visibility and connectivity of human, semiotic and financial flows. The basic formula that contemporary urbanists have found for success within this rivalry has been to develop what is called the ‘creative city’, which is the overall product of the so-called creative class. See The Creative City by the urbanist Charles Landry and Cities and the Creative Class by sociologist Richard Florida, for more about these concepts. The basic idea is that cities must use cultural facilities and amenities to attract the most talented stockbrokers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and of course artists, all of whom together are estimated by Richard Florida to make up a little less than 2% of the world’s population. So, that’s 100-150 million people who constitute what he calls the "super-creative" class: people who are making innovations in what I call the semiotic economy (which is also a financialised economy, of course).

Thus, there’s competition to attract talented people, and behind this you have the idea that a city can be successful if it can attract the most human capital. This competition between cities merely intensifies the age-old concern of the most powerful economic elites for the accumulation of cultural capital and for the acquisition of that superior kind of mental and sentimental agility that is stimulated by the objects in the Wunderkammer. In a more general way, art has always been inseparable from upward mobility. Reflect for a moment on historian Immanuel Wallerstein’s idea that the very definition of the bourgeoisie has historically been the desire to become an aristocrat: that is, to live off invested capital and thereby acquire the leisure time to partake in cultural life. Some modified version of this historical dream of the bourgeoisie is still an underlying motive for many creative class people, even those who just do graphic design or interior decorating.

The important thing for us is that the power elites and the cultural prosumers of the creative class form the social base of the contemporary art museum. And because of the contribution that artistic activity makes to the overall project of economic growth and upward mobility in the creative city, even the most experimental or risky museums are able to draw on the sponsorship of the elite; and they can also gain at least some allegiance from the broader creative-class public. All of this provides the legitimacy, financial support and interest for the decidedly minority critical and alternative practices of what I am jokingly calling the Global 1000.

Nonetheless, a contradiction invariably develops between the interests of the elites (the passion for metropolitan rivalry) and the appearance in the museum of a kind of art that is situated between aesthetics, the social sciences and politics. Let’s face it: the kind of art that Maurizio Lazzarato, Ursula Biemann and Suely Rolnik were discussing is not about upward mobility, and you can only hide that fact for so long. If we want the star of these transversal practices to rise a little higher above the horizon, and if we want to enlarge the very small number of people participating in them, then sources of support, legitimacy and interest for this kind of work must be found outside of the financial elites themselves and outside the creative-class subjectivity they foster. And this, precisely at a time when the national states are abdicating most of their institutional control to those same elites. I am referring, of course, to the characteristic pattern of neo-liberalism, where the government withdraws and leaves to private initiative what was formerly done by the supposedly public state.

I’ll return to the problem of where to find support, legitimacy and interest in just a moment. But first I want to update the picture I have just presented, because today we must understand the fact that global tourism, along with the broader economy of financial flows into which it is inserted, is coming under a state of siege – no doubt because of the huge inequalities that made it possible, or at least, that have accompanied its development at every step. Richard Florida, whose first book contained absolutely nothing political, is now talking about what he calls "creative class war," by which he means the revolt of the poor against the rich. It is significant that tourists, in a few cases, been directly attacked: in Luxor, Egypt; in Bali, Indonesia; in Sharm el-Sheikh, again in Egypt. It is also interesting to note that during the recent race and class riots in France at least one prestigious theatre, in Cergy-Pontoise in the western suburbs of Paris, was attacked by some twenty youths. They used a Twingo, which at one time was considered a kind of chic creative-class car, as a battering ram to break down the theater's doors, according to the newspapers. Now, one of the widely expressed fears during these riots in Paris was that levels of tourism would be negatively affected. However, they were not. The economy rolled smoothly on. Tourists are apparently getting used to this. A similar phenomenon was observed after the recent Bali bombing. I quote from a news article: ‘Song Sen Wun, a regional economist with G.K. Goh-CIMB Securities in Singapore, says that even though Bali will probably suffer, the fact that world is getting used to terrorism may limit the overall economic impact.’

I stress this gruesome point because I have recently become concerned about the role that the so-called creative city can play in what might be called "the urbanisation of blindness." This idea came to me in Almeria in the South of Spain, near the town of El Ejido, where I was able to observe how fantastic tourist complexes are being built on the coast right next to zones of industrial greenhouse agriculture, where undocumented African labourers are employed under conditions of extreme exploitation, rivaling those of the 19th century. How is it that people can vacation in conditions of such severe inequality without being deeply troubled? What kinds of dark glasses do they put around their subjectivity so that they only see each other, within the narrow confines of their pacified environment?

The recent conditions in Paris, where dramatic social conflict on the peripheries left life in the centre of the city almost completely undisturbed, have underscored the need to look further into this concept of the urbanisation of blindness. My hypothesis is that growing sentiments of fear, lassitude and powerlessness experienced by the so-called creative class tend to stimulate the desire for ever more fascinating aesthetic diversions. These (which of course can include contemporary art) provide a balm of stimulating oblivion that the true "creative" apparently needs to pursue his or her labors. It seems likely that even as globalisation is coming under siege, this flight before the storm, or this intensification of the basic drives of neo-liberal subjectivity, will also tend to work against the legitimacy of, and even the interest in, the forms of transversal art that we have been talking about on this panel. I was told, for instance, that the basic message received from the Berlin arts establishment by those who had organized the Klartext! conference on the status of the political in contemporary art and culture, was this: ‘Okay, you’ve done all that, now we want to have our fun again.’

So what are we going to do if all these trends continue and if the pressures of increasingly conservative and nationalist governments are also applied to the art museums? Everyone has noticed that since the late 1990s, activist artists and social theorists have come to play an increasing but still minority role within the contemporary art institutions of Europe, and to a lesser extent, of North America. There has also been a very interesting opening to the former East, which makes possible an intense questioning of Western capitalist values. In Latin America, the rise of leftist movements has brought some very strong political practices into the art world, particularly in Argentina, Columbia and Mexico. And now that race and class issue are coming so clearly on the table, I think we can also expect the resurgence in Europe of the kinds of post-colonial practices and discourses that first emerged in England after the Brixton riots of 1980, which were very similar to what just happened in France. After those riots you had a very strong emergence and presence for about fifteen years of very interesting post-colonial aesthetic practices and discourses.

All these different trends have been building up since the late 1990s, and to my mind they are very positive and necessary. But whenever any of these experimental political practices are developed to their fullest consequences, there is going to be a tendency for actual ideological conflict to develop and, even more likely, for support to be withdrawn from the non-traditional practices. In the face of this high likelihood of conflict, I think maybe some collective preparation has to be done, on at least two levels.

If people want to develop further these kinds of risky, troubling, exploratory practices, the first thing that could be worked on is criticism. A concerted effort needs to be made to stimulate a sophisticated and also contradictory debate about what the new practices actually are, how to define them, and how they transform the old definitions of art. If you think about Boris Groys, he has made some interesting moves towards renewing our understanding of the relations between the inside and the outside of the museum, between art and life, participation and representation. I’m thinking of the same text that Walter Grasskamp cited, concerning the 'logic of the collection'. Groys has a very interesting way of showing that the outside and the inside are related. Newness, in his theory, appears inside the museum; but it appears by bringing inside that which is outside. And Groys thinks that we can only see the new in the outside because of this movement of bringing it inside: a very subtle thought. However, I would say that it is necessary to go one step further and add to those two poles of inside and outside a third pole, which is social theory. Only in this way do we begin dealing with the complex circulation between participation (the outside, documentation, work with others, activism, etc.), representation (the visibility of these new things in the museum) and analysis and evaluation (the work of social theory). So this means dealing with the hybridisation of political engagement, art and social science.

Curiously, it is social theory that adds a truly utopian dimension to art today, because it asks if it is possible to go beyond small, one-off experiments and imagine something that would change society. The kinds of processes that link political engagement, aesthetic experimentation and social theory should be deliberately defined as one of the legitimate objects or fields of art. A more concerted effort needs to be made to show that these processes are vital, not to economic growth and upward mobility, but to peaceful coexistence, social justice and the sustainability of our lives in the gigantic cities in which we now live. I think we also need to theorise the kinds of society in which these experiments would really fit, because only then would you have a criticism and a public perception that is adequate to the experimentation. If such an effort is not made I’m afraid it will be impossible to defend the kind of art that is drifting further and further away from its modernist definitions, and also from its status as an exciting or titillating exoticism.

The second and final point, where we could all gain from some kind of concerted reflection, has to do with the actual programme of the transnational art museum and the way it opens up the experience of the outside to its visitors. The problem is that over the past ten years there has been a very deep transformation of what certain kinds of artists do, but this has not really affected the formats of public representation very much at all. The multiplication of social sites and social actors for lectures, screenings, performances, and even exhibitions is something that should really be pursued. The museum should find ways to project its activity outside its walls and to involve people who are not necessarily among the creative-class consumers. Only in this way can a real taste be developed for the complex human texture of activities that traverse aesthetics, politics and social theory. If this effort is not made, and if there is not some coherent, institutional support for the kind of art that we are talking about here, I’m afraid that the Global 1000 will basically remain in the position that has been sketched out by the theorists of so-called relational art, who are really something like the organic intellectuals of the creative class. That is the position where a relatively narrow transnational network of participants take each other as objects of exotic fascination within the contemporary Wunderkammer, while remaining more-or-less blind to the increasing decay of the world outside. I can assure you that this self-satisfied position felt very uncomfortable during the last couple of weeks in Paris.


For the other papers presented at this conference, see:

Brian Holmes