Autonomy as beginning
Uit de keuken van de curator

Autonomy as beginning

some thoughts on contemporary global art

Last Sunday DAI-students met with Galit Eilat to discuss the exhibition ‘The Politics of Collecting, the Collecting of Politics’, which she curated for the third chapter of the four chapter program Play Van Abbe, and the work of Arthur Zmijewski. The session was organized and structured by Jeroen Marttin and Sander Uitdehaag, who aimed at a ‘real’ dialogue. And with ‘real’ they meant not an exchange of previously defined positions, but the precarious, fragmented and tentative act of thinking together out loud.

Within this open dialogical format especially two points struck me. First was Galit’s suggestion that artists in the former East or Middle East are often using methods of archiving in their work. To Galit these strategies used by artists like Akram Zaatari, Lia Perjovschi, Zofia Kulik or Michal Heimann, resonate with a life in a region in which institutions are either absent or dubious. The political instability as result of the ruptured past challenge artists to not just add to an existing narrative, or work to an already given space (the museum, gallery, etc.), but to take responsibility for the structure itself and produce not just ‘a’ work, but a system that can organize the tense reality of today and its past.

The second point was a sense of discomfort of the students to associate with a political side when Galit asked them to do so. Almost nobody, myself included, presented themselves as straight forward leftish or rightwing. The stability of the local social-political climate in the Netherlands and neighbouring countries seemed to lead to a kind of reluctance to embrace explicitly an already available group identity, in this case of a political side. It seemed as if the organized nature of this geographic region produces its own kind of hesitance to associate fully with the present, collective structuring mechanism by for instancing coming out as left or right. One could perhaps suggest that in this the art students working here share a similar position to those archiving artist from the East as both are sensitive for any system that might swallowthem up, but this feels like a false analogy.

At the moment it cannot be more than a speculation, but in a somewhat crude division it seems that within the conflicted region of the East there is a sense that there is or should be a ‘right-side’, but it is only extremely unclear who is actually representing that side and what kind of political activity belongs to it. Whereas in the old West there is suffocating confusion about any sense of side leaving people only with a highly personal and specific idea of doing ‘good’ things that would matter for ones own direct environment. In this both sides are comprised out of a mixture of macro-political assessment and micro-political activity, but only in a quite different composition.

The climate in the old West seems to stimulate artists to neither subscribe to or instigate a new movement, but invites a careful mapping of ones own life and how it is permeated by vast variety of politics, economics and technologies. Macropolitical assessments are not a horizon to pursue but are lifelines between diverse communities. These assessments are not valued as horizon to maybe one day realize, but are only of use to the extent that they produce an actual change in specific lives. In other words, there is no belief in nor wish for utopian dreams of communists or other making, but an attention for the ways in which certain theoretical or practical habits structure daily life. The endless chain of institutes and structures that organize life are asked to be made visible in the specific lives of individuals, be they the artists him- or herself or another subject.

In the unstable and charged climate of the current East this kind of personalized working arena is difficult to subscribe to and feels far too passive, since the wish for radical change might seem utopian, but is still the only option that makes any sense. Here macro-political forces are identified as creating the mess the region is in, but nevertheless need to be mobilized if any change is to occur. Only the vehicle for this change cannot be found in the present formal institutes. The institutes, who in the West so kindly and silently marinate the community in the political ideologies with which they were once erected, in the East seem hopelessly unfit to instigate change. Here one has to build up analysis and discourse oneself in the accidental empty sites left open by the squeaking political structures. Using an almost guerrilla tactic of flexibility, small scale and speed, invites one to operate on a micropolitical level, where one can work delicately with marco-political ideas in one of the few environments that do not seem utterly corrupted.

Returning to the central topic of this course – autonomy – one can note that in both domains traces of this almost antique notion of art in modernity are manifest. Both the archivers from the East and the geographers of intimate lives in the West use the openness of autonomy as strategic vehicle to create a space where one can either insert an idea or observation, or mark how certain ideas or observations are inserted without it being obvious. Here there also does seem to be a certain commonality in the two working methods, since both sides use autonomy as a type of wedge to wiggle open some space that is necessary to come to terms with the world in which one is immersed.

But this situation does mark a departure from an older notion of autonomy that has to perish – on both sides – to make place for this strategic autonomy. In their use of autonomy, the (old, but established) idea disappears that autonomy is the hallmark of some universal strand of life, impossible to express, only manifested in art. The consequences of this can be found most explicitly in the type of reception that makes sense around these new works. These works or projects do not seek a public that comes to assess the aesthetic ‘rightness’ of the work or gesture. The old metaphysical discourse and practice around art that makes it a privileged site to experience some extremely convoluted and difficult describe resolution of the ultimate modern contradiction between subject and object, no longer is appropriate here. Perhaps one could state that the new art doesn’t inspire anymore a deep sensation of aesthetic accuracy and tension that was the last umbilical cord to the ‘sublime’ or a spiritualized sense of the ‘Other’. That type of art that understood autonomy to be the end of a conversation, wheras today’s artists, working under the conditions described above, use autonomy in diametrically opposed way as a starting point for something else.

How this changes the ways in which especially people in the old West engage with art is difficult to apprehend in the full, but one thing does seem clear and worthy of mentioning. In the current situation, even if it is called ‘globalized’, leaves no space for a ‘universal’ art or art history – and the idea of the universal does linger in the previous understanding of autonomy. Art projects all over the globe perhaps use similar strategies to wedge open a space to question or change ones reality, but they do not aim to generate a universal experience. If there is a sense of universality present it is not as spiritual, or utopic domain in which we find some form of relief. The universal, or better the global, in these projects expresses the interconnected reality in which we are living that makes almost everybody acquainted with similar ideas or technologies. The universality of these ideas of technologies, however, does not express some ‘higher’ reality, but is the arbitrary result of modern history. It is this arbitrariness that destroys the possibility of the universal to function as an answer, even if does not exhaust the possibility of universality completely. Today’s art as described here is situated in a specific place and does not aspire to be relevant to the whole of mankind forever and ever. It is just one way of dealing with life to maintain some form of agency that is not abstract but concrete. It may be very difficult for this art to find a way to have an impact that exceeds the small networks of artists and their direct friends, but I do believe that at the moment it is this type of art that is worth making.