‘Then and Now: the changing context of debate?’ – notes on Contemporary Art and Archives [2011]

Documenting some old talks on the blog – this one seems still very relevant now.

Notes for a talk on archives, cultural institutions, art and ‘new internationalism’ for an Iniva event that I spoke at on 9 Nov 2011 (Organised by Roshini Kempadoo)

[Roshini Kempadoo discusses key debates around identity politics as seen through Iniva’s Archives with Karen Alexander, Nina Mangalanayagam and Ashwani Sharma]

See http://www.iniva.org/events/2011/then_and_now

I would like to begin my contribution to this debate by playing a short extract from a recording of a dialogue between the American academic Henry Louis Gates and the British art theorist Sarat Mahraj in 1997(?) that Roshini [Kempadoo] found as she was rummaging in the Iniva archives. One of the contexts for this transatlantic conversation was an examination of the idea of ‘New Internationalism and Black British art’. It provides an historical snapshot of the critical concerns of the time.

<Play extract Gates/Mahraj video> 5mins max>[In Stuart Hall Library at Rivington Place]

It is interesting how the notion of ‘new internationalism’ looks so different from either side of the Atlantic.  This in itself signals how even in a globalised context, the nation, and the local, remains a key dimension in the politics of cultural institutions, in which artists, curators and organisations have to operate within. Something I will return to.

As Geeta Kapur commented in the edited collected Global Visions in 1994 the category of ‘new internationalism’ is a contested idea and needs to remain so. At that time there was little agreement of what it might mean. Its positing was a way of attempting to think beyond an eurocentric international modernism. One where differences in art and cultural practices across the world are recognised as part of art history.

To speak of, to return to a ‘new internationalism’ now raises immediately the question of why now, for what purpose? Does the re-conjoining of the new and international offer something more than a western dominated globalization that was hoped for?

Here in a very highly condensed way, I want to argue that in this contemporary global conjuncture there is an urgent need to formulate a set of conceptual frameworks and practices that interrogate and contest the stark realities of a world, more and more in crisis; in which there are great risks that progressive forms of art practices are liable to be marginalised for art as fetishised commodities within the turmoil of the present unraveling.

The present moment is one of deep structural crisis with long-term implications – in the neoliberal economy, geo-politics but also for the arts, media and culture. The wars of the 21st century, the Arab uprisings, the transnational protests and the UK riots, as well as the crisis in capitalism, an imploding political establishment, and a corrupt media, point to a situation in which we are confounded by wholesale instability and uncertainty of the future that crosses different aspects of the social order. The financial crisis has become the point of the numerous reforms in the governmentality of public art, cultural and academic institutions.

As Gramsci famously argued ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. Its these morbid symptoms and the possibility again of another internationalism that I want say something about.

In this moment, what we have taken as granted in terms of progressive social change for instance – developments in anti-racism and everyday multiculture in the UK are now openly being contested and leading to regression. The changes in the politics of race and culture that have been struggled over in the last 25-30 years can and are being rolled back. There are clear signs of this, for instance in the reduction of public funds for arts and culture, disproportionately for Black and Asian art projects that were established and developed in the 80s and 90s. This with the context of the apparent ‘death/or killing’ of multiculturalism, fortress Europe and state Islamophoia and anti-migrant discourses, we can very quickly build up a picture of a new hegemonic operation in which a certain image of Britain and Britishness is being constructed, where the rhetoric of equal opportunities and cultural diversity is at best a PR operation for a nation turning or returning to its racialised hierarchies in globalised world.

What is particularly dangerous now is how two somewhat different discourses of race and nation are being articulated:

  1. That we have entered a ‘post-racial’ period, in the sense the problems of racism are largely seen to be over (and only remains a problem of extremism ) – this is an old story but reappears now to mark out the difference of the present to the past. In that the (liberal) presumption is that we are all multiculture and cosmopolitan – even look at how an elite commercial sport like Premier League football will not stand for racist speech – the rhetoric is that racism and cultural marginalisation is a thing of the past. Colonialism as an imperial project for some has been overcome, and now even a celebrated period of history. A ‘post-ideological’ context where the past is regulated to the dustbins of history, which only returns as melancholia.
  2. The second is that in this present crisis moment issues of racism, also sexism etc are not priorities the rhetoric goes, we need to focus on the more important issues of the economy and nation unity. In moments of economic crisis, as history teaches us, issues of racism and nationalism return with a vengeance, with the scapegoating of outsiders, of difference, where critical dissident voices and ideas are not tolerated. A new post-political authoritarianism is emerging which is restoring the values of an imperial Britain equipped for a neoliberal world.

‘Post-race’ and new nationalism in a globalised moment of economic crisis are a potent mix, which mean that the limited gains made in UK in particular are under serious threat.

In the arts the progress that is evidenced by Iniva and initiatives such as Karen [Alexander] is leading for example [http://inspire.rca.ac.uk/inspire-cca/inspire-pathway/] is a testament to what was struggled over and won historically. What was key and what is important to recognise that they emerged through political and social conflicts of the 80s and 90s over representation – political and aesthetic. They were a result of self-organisation and political and cultural autonomy demanding access to institutions of the state and power, but crucially also creating autonomous spaces for experimentation and critique. To do things differently, and change the rules of the game.

The present moment is different – in rather simple terms, some of us have entered the institutions and gallery spaces and have tenuous footholds in decision making albeit in the main remaining at low and contingent levels. We have seen greater diversity in some art sectors, resulting from the demands of artists and organisations of colour, and also with the changing dynamics of globalization and flows of culture.

But this entry into the mainstream has also led to the loss of self-organisation and political autonomy. What is different about positing the idea of a new internationalism now is that while at the earlier moment there were clear political agendas and structures of organisation, these are largely not present now. Instead what we have is the market and dominance of the market to determine what is possible or not, even in the public sector. As Paul Gilroy recently commented in relation to the riots,

‘When you look at the layer of political leaders from our communities, the generation who came of age during that time thirty years ago, many of those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They’ve privatized that movement, and they’ve sold their services as consultants and managers and diversity trainers.’ (Gilroy 2011)

In this arena of course some artists of colour have done well and become symbolic of the new globalised shift, but they hide a more structural imbalance and importantly the lack of infrastructure and change that is open to anything like a new internationalism. The transnational art world is business as usual – the difference being now that cosmopolitan spaces like London are better integrated into the circuits of transnational cultural production and capitalism; where particular noted artists from around the world can exhibit work for metropolitan audiences; in which issues of identity and culture can be dis-embedded from their immediate local and national contexts and presented as offering a ‘universalism’ where the west remains the invisible centre. ‘Look aren’t these folks like us’.

The internationalism of the 90s has lead to the globalised art market of contemporary neoliberalism. A market that blurs the distinctions of corporate celebration of other cultures, with critical insights. For example, issues of identity is a site of artistic and conceptual contestation, a symptom of other struggles, as well as the normative syntax of neoliberalism globalization – capitalism can sell this with little problem. As Hardt and Negri have said of the contemporary global Empire as “…a decentred and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command.”

What gets lost in this globalization is the local and national contexts and the situations in which artists from the south and the north are operating in. This is the case here where a way of bypassing the issues of racism and nationalism in the UK is to privilege the work of artists from outside the west, with little connection to the UK, over say Black or Asian British artists rooted in the country for decades.

This is not a picture of a new internationalism but a neoliberal agenda of the market elevating certain works for western and global consumption.

What is needed now I would argue is progressive institutions, and progressive understanding of what are institutions, and what they can do –  organising and planning are key here, to provide much needed infrastructural opposition to these tendencies, to create space for critical and aesthetic opposition, to challenge and create new frontiers in the war against the new emergent globalized nationalisms. As Fanon said

‘”It is national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture.”

It is maybe to a reworked Fanon, with his ‘new international humanism’ that we need to return to? The situation in the west in terms of race and class could be best understood as a form a ‘settler colonialism’. A model of decolonialisation as the deconstruction of the nation – that is not a nationalism – is perhaps needed. A new internationalism can only be possible if the violence of racism in the west is challenged.

As the extract demonstrated in this moment as ‘business as usual’ what we need is more opposition, a more aggressive fight for resources and demands but also space and time to think, to critique to posit different ideas, especially when those spaces are closing down. An alternative globalization, a new internationalism that is open to multiple dialogues and connections on different fronts without collapsing all into one universal (western) project, where ‘whiteness’ remains at the centre. Lines in the sand need to be drawn where art is committed to change in and across, invisible to, escaping the nation.

The politics of the archive, the notion of an international archive, a postcolonial archive, decolonial archive is one such site of conflict – not in terms of a nostalgia that it was good then and lets do it again, but that this is now and that those very struggles in art and politics that we fought over need to return. We need to ask the right questions again. To contest the collective memory of the nation as we enter a phase of the neo-colonial empire. Institutions are part of mediating process between art, curators, policy and the market. They are part of the politics of institutionalization, with all what is at stake in these processes.

This requires us also to question what institutions, such as an archive are, can do, and should do in the context of struggle for political freedom. It is maybe that the fate of some institutions will be like the furniture shop in Croydon – burnt to the ground – symbolically if not materially – and we need to do is rebuild again different forms of institutions, and organisations with new assemblages of artists, curators and critics that renew the relationship between art, culture and the political in the crisis of the nation.

This entry was posted in Black Art, Event, Postcolonial, Race, Uncategorized, Visual arts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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