Artists Unite Issue

August 13, 2007

Translocal Expeditions

Filed under: Articles — Peter Ferko @ 10:34 pm

by Katherine Carl

Is New York City as translocal as ever? In the past decade the importance of New York has changed significantly from its status as the only place to be, or the pre-eminent place for art, and is now one of a growing number of hubs for the increasingly international art world. In light of massive growth in contemporary art, as well as a diverse range of exchange, there are now many different art worlds cross-cutting through cities around the world, such that circumstances and opportunities are continually changing for New York and its many artists and art institutions. Has New York’s model of the translocal city been exported? No, of course cities have always been places of movement and exchange, but today the perception of this activity has shifted. It is possible only recently to form a vision of those processes of relay that build cities, since we have some slight distance from the twentieth century that was so preoccupied with nation-building in recovery from colonialism and world wars.

A recent seminar at the Art and Design school in Zurich brought together artists who research and portray these processes through analysis, as well as with a dimension of human emotion (see Translocal Practices’ site). At issue are translocal actions, which are systems of economic, cultural exchanges or translations that produce spaces and movement. Artists have been reflecting upon these acts, creating work in and about these spaces, and in turn creating their own translocal artistic practice. Questions still up for debate include whether this is a practice that provokes new criteria for the position of the artist as an individual subject enmeshed in human networks, for formal visual outcomes that aim at visibility as well as representation, and for the role of criticism from a position of participation.

The practices that produce translocal spaces have perhaps only one feature in common: they are meaningful because of their contingency on the specific spatial-temporal situation. Organizers of the seminar, Felix Stalder and Fabian Voegeli, have pointed out that these processes “are barely visible or accessible to outsiders. Therefore, they are not related to traditional forms of the public, rather they define themselves through a specific configuration of visibility and invisibility.” (translocal practices brochure) As art historian Jean-Francois Chevrier notes, public space is a space of representation, in the visual as well as political sense. (seminar at Solitude, Stuttgart, May 2007) Translocal practice complicates representation, as it involves its own invisibility as well as its visibility, and therefore representation of translocal practice often incurs a doubling effect that can have political repercussions.

Examples of this artwork reveal a number of distinct types of art practices in which artists have positioned themselves within networks to engage in research, create art, and then transmit it to a public. Most interesting to me in this article is how artists are specifically choosing to present their translocal artworks in different settings, only some of which engage public spaces.

A brief look at the examples from the Zurich seminar show very different strategies for the presentation of art of translocal practice. Ursula Biemann’s most recent work, Agadez Chronicle (2006-2007), comprises four videos, presented as an installation, that document the substantial human migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe (see here). Biemann provides imagery of the various players in the human transport network that crosses the desert from Agadez to the Maghreb. By creating tightly edited imagery culled from multiple views, she compiles the web of relations between this human traversal and the entwined issues of the international takeover of local natural uranium resources; the transnational identity of the Tuareg people, who, being dispossessed and now finding themselves scattered across five nations after colonial occupation, have put their skills of geographical literacy to use in operating the human transport business; and last, the thicket of digital surveillance techniques canvassing the desert targeting the migrants.

For the presentation of her artwork, Biemann aims specifically to transport stories from the Sahara to the West in order to increase visibility about the West’s post-colonial connection to sub-Saharan African migration. Making the point that the West is implicated in this human transit because of past colonial interests that are now playing out on the ground for the Tuareg people and the migrants crossing the Sahara is a valuable goal of the work. The fact that the artwork will not be shown in Agadez or anywhere nearby in order to protect the identity of the migrant transporters, but that the work will be shown in the West in an effort to raise awareness (and has already been shown in Egypt), interrupts the case for the connection that Biemann is forging, through the content of the work, that the West and the sub-Saharan territory are so entwined. This raises interesting problematics. Are some borders protective? Does art adhere to borders that are porous in real-life migration? The ways that the content and the presentation of translocal artwork are effected (and may be at odds within the same artwork) opens questions treading on serious issues of responsibility.

In his film By Way of Display, Austrian artist Karl-Heinrich Klopf documents the roadside shops in Taiwan where scantily clad young women sell betel nuts (see here). This economy is based not only on the exchange of goods, but also on the spectacle of the transaction. The betel nut beauties, as they are called, sit in the large glass shop windows and hop out to the street when a customer drives up. They externalize and perform the desire of consumption, yet the women certainly gain no power in this economic cycle—just a decent paycheck. The artwork resulting from Klopf’s investigation can be presented in Taiwan as well as abroad. This spectacle has no boundaries and is truly fluidly translocal. The betel nut selling business is legal. However, the ad-hoc roadside structures they occupy are usually illegal or semi-legal.

Perhaps one definition of translocal practice, which was raised at the seminar, might be exchange performed in a situation of transition. Precisely whether it is illegal, informal, temporary, or migratory is not so easily determined or stable as a definition. The research and artmaking around the practices are the visual output of the situation: visualization, representations, documentations, manipulations, fabrications… By its nature, translocal artmaking practice involves research because the topic is generally a phenomenon that exists in a specific locale that in turn engages multiple locations and has emerged specifically because of the changing dynamics of these places.

Is there a necessity for research to be translated into artmaking, or can research stand on its own in visual terms? Or might these things be one and the same? This is a wide topic for a separate investigation, but for the moment it is important to mark that translocal practice provides an especially informative locus for that inquiry. I would also propose that there need not be a rigid boundary between research and artmaking, because research is always and has always been an aspect of the creative process of art. Both research and artmaking spring from curiosity and inquiry to be further pursued, tested, prodded, turned inside out by the maker’s processes and proposals. Translocal practice offers new ways of thinking about research and art that do not adhere to the usual oppositional categorization and delimitations of both areas.

Research is often thought of as something that happens out of sight in a library or in a controlled test situation, but in the case of Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss’s work and the collaborative project Lost Highway Expedition (LHE), research is a shared experience with strong visual outcomes. Research can be relational and cumulative, and at its base opens new ways of looking. The method of research can be linked to decision-making. This ultimately leads to the question of responsibility, which opens another large point of inquiry.

As part of the seminar, Jovanovic Weiss and John Palmesino discussed undecidable architecture. Jovanovic Weiss described this as the future project that has become an archive because it has always been deferred and remains unfinished. Palmesino dealt with the problem of the undecidability of witnessing today. Because of the lack of delay in processing images and overflow of images, it is impossible to witness decisively, i.e., to produce testimony. This undecidability of witnessing and unfinished state of building reveal an inadequation of vision and creating that is linked to and opens a space for the poetic of artmaking.

Jovanovic Weiss examines local architecture as the solidification of local and international political processes and creates architecture that facilitates citizens’ next steps in shaping those processes for a better future. LHE, undertaken through the Western Balkans in August 2006, showed the shape of borders today that have become a thickening coagulation of identities as, after the 1990s, a homogeneity of ethnicities was gathered. This was a dramatic and violent shift away from the ethnic diversity of Yugoslavia after WWII.

An expedition is an apt vehicle for translocal practice. In August 2006, three hundred people participated in a month-long expedition to nine cities in the Western Balkans. LHE was self-organized and initiated by a group interested in roving research into transition in this region. Jovanovic Weiss and I were part of the group of initiators who set up programs with partner non-profit organizations and individuals in each city, where expeditioners could take part and contribute as they wished. This was a self-generated research and artmaking experience in which everyone had their own pace and dynamic, and artwork is still being generated from the undertaking. Its goals can certainly be said to be undecidable—posing a real possibility—and like the highway itself will become an unfinished archive for the future, as a source pool of concepts and information is now being gathered for future research on the region.

Ute Meta Bauer’s recent curatorial project Mobile_Transborder Archive, on the US/Mexico border, was to create an archive on the history of Tijuana that was openly accessible in public space (see here). This archive provides visibility to a wide public for materials that otherwise would remain invisible. The archive was fully researched, gathered, and then housed in a trailer that migrated back and forth across the border during the run of the overall in_Site 05 exhibition. It contained films, books, weblinks, and oral histories. Meta Bauer is interested to create future archives on border regions in other parts of the world.

An element of translocal practice is gaining access to local networks, whether the highly secret migrant transfer point at Agadez or the location of the newest family houses being built off the grid in the outskirts of Tirana. An ideal goal for a work of art could be to gain access to one network and create an artwork that sparks another network for the further investigation of this gathered knowledge. This practice thus merges art and research.

These may be fabricated networks, meaning groups that did not exist previously that are brought together in an artmaking and research experience, as in Lost Highway Expedition or in the theater piece Call Cutta by the group Rimini Protokoll (see here). Partnering with workers from Indian call centers, the group scripted a theater piece in which each individual member of the “audience” is equipped with a mobile phone and, starting at a specific location in Berlin, is connected to the call center phone operator who “guides” the caller through the city to uncanny effect. The operators know small, overlooked, very precise details of the place, even though they are thousands of kilometers away and have never actually been to the location before. Rimini Protokoll pushes the Artaudian method of immersing the spectator inside the theater to the point where it opens beyond being idealistic or didactic. As Jacques Ranciere pointed out in The Emancipated Spectator, the attempt to suppress distance constitutes the distance itself. Rimini Protokoll play with the ways that the fiction is highlighted in real life commerce, where the small details of the domestic are strangely conflated with far off places.

Architect John Palmesino offers a redefinition of place that productively unhinges the notion of static territory. Elaborating on Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms, he states that place can be defined as being together and sharing experiences. This shift in attitude acknowledges living processes instead of endless searching for timeless common values, agreement on local history, or demarcation of belonging. Place can also be virtual, or more likely a combination of digital communication and actual presence. The distinction could be said to occur in time instead of space. A place that is inhabited by relay between people resonates with Walter Benjamin’s notion of the storyteller as the one who shares experiences. Sam Weber relates this to the importance that telling holds because political power is dependent on narrative. However, in allegory, Benjamin states, that which surrounds the figural center is in constant flux. There is a constant back and forth of dispersion and collection of the elements that make up the structure. A “certain spatial-temporal transformability is built into the structure of the network” itself. (Sam Weber, Networks and Netwar, p. 12)

Storytelling is rampant in artmaking. The inability to verify the truth of documentary images (often created in contemporary art) adding to the undecidability of this imagery and these structures means that they are never adequate to the thing they represent. Furthermore, even if the imagery or forms of translocal practices of art and research are culled from contemporary reality, all of the artists discussed in this text and many others do not aim to simply make a representation of reality. A further example is Azra Aksamija’s current artwork, Wearable Mosque, which takes the form of human-scale wearable architecture. Her art is clothing which is usable and fashionable, and, at the right time of day for prayer, no matter where the wearer is located, the material can be unzipped and reconfigured into a personal-sized prayer rug. Aksamija makes individually-sized art that hints at the shift in scale of the local, which would normally be expected to reside within the global, as now public spaces like corporate gardens are found inside the private sphere instead of vice versa (see here). The element of play or flexibility in this inadequation between representation and reality belongs to the realm of art and combats bureaucraticization. This can be viewed in terms of an idiosyncratic subjective creativity or in Derrida’s terms from his text Absolute Hostility, “the concrete is overtaken/haunted by abstraction of its spectre, a vain effort to find a concept adequate to the concrete.” Does this new type of place create a new kind of citizen, a relational citizenship that is not rooted in the history, politics, philosophy, and emotional investment of a place, but rather in the requirements of decision-making for the current situation along borders, instead of on one side or another of those borders?

Returning to projects like Lost Highway Expedition and Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta, the dilemma over whether to immerse the spectator in the drama, to break the boundary of art and life, as in the work of Antonin Artaud, vs. the Brechtian strategy of highlighting the “invisible four walls of the stage” and making the viewer always aware of the fiction of the artwork, that dilemma is surpassed. Returning to the notion of undecidability caught at the midpoint of delay—there is no delay in which there is time to be a witness, to follow Palmesino’s concept and the perpetual delay of projects left unfulfilled for the future in Jovanovic Weiss’s configuration. This inadequation of representation in time can fruitfully open the option of relay in space, a network of interaction, which calls for multiple players, actors, and locales but forgoes the simplistic passive spectator vs. active artwork dichotomy and also, very importantly, operates differently from the popular rhetoric of participation and emancipation of the viewer. It must be assumed that the viewer is not a passive receptacle, and that there is a relationship of equality of viewer and artwork. (see Ranciere, The Ignorant Schoolmaster) Attentiveness to perception has an important role to play since it is a determinant in both art and equality, and furthermore spectatorship brings its own responsibilities. Therefore, it is especially the ways in which artists present translocal practices and make them visible that so carefully reconfigures locales, perceptions, and processes that we in New York, and in other places, thought we knew so well, or in fact never knew at all.

One Response to “Translocal Expeditions”

  1. Peter Ferko Says:

    From Peter Walsh:
    Many Thanks to Kathy Carl for bringing all of these artworks to light. Even though New York City is awash in art, it?s obvious that there are so many blind spots here. I also like this term ?undecidability,? which I haven?t seen before. Although it?s a little clumsy, it does get at the heart of certain kinds of phenomena that many people are experiencing. For example, even after Kathy?s overview and looking at the linked websites of documentation and photos, I only sort of have a handle on these artworks. They are indeed hard to interpret and evaluate, even as they seem to be moving in the right direction.