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Curating: stereotyping the Other or Risking ones own Subjectivity
Contemporary visual artists, curators and critics are showing a renewed interest in relational aspects traceable within the cultural and social sphere. The art in question is referred to as context-art, relational art, art that does not want to be separated from reality.
The renewed attention for the ethical within the field of aesthetics is linked to a critical reflection on the institution of Art, the relationship between artist and public, and the discourse on the centre and its periphery. One of the most important points is that the discourse on rapidly changing, pluriform, multicultural societies takes place within the consumer society of the late 1990s which is based on homogeneity and information. Whether they are relevant or not, many debates are organized around the problems of multiculturalism and its repercussions in art. Since curators represent what is made by others, it goes without saying that exhibition-makers are questioned about the way they position themselves in relation to these issues. For me this enquiry is reason enough to reflect upon strategies in presentation that reach beyond stereotyping the Other or indicating Difference. Multicultural discourse and the myth of the pure subject
What disturbs me about multicultural discourse and discussions about the cultural centre, its margins and how the status quo may be changed? Why can I not refrain from asking who will eventually benefit from the academic discourse on the Self and the Other? Are we really concerned with today, with the fact that we are many cultures (not one), all equally valuable, or is the whole multicultural debate nothing more than a smoke screen behind which lies nothing but the same old Western arrogance. That we are now suddenly - especially since exhibitions like Primitivism in 20th-century Art and Les Magiciens de la Terre - engaged in a discourse that has its roots in the radical and rapid changes taking place in our societies, as if we are only now moving away from being a so-called 'pure', homogeneous culture to becoming a pluriform, multicultural society, makes me suspicious. It simultaneously shows how much we still are in debt to the myth of the unified and 'pure' culture we now are forced to leave behind. I do not have to remind any one that European culture has always been far from homogeneous. We encounter many problems when trying to construct a cultural identity that is authentic, pure, or of a single lineage. We are not autonomous, self-sufficient beings who cannot be touched or influenced by anything or any one. (1) Any attempt to constitute ourselves as being autonomous, singular and authentic seems to be rooted in a self-esteem fed by the necessity of proving its own racial purity, if not superiority. We need not look as far as the United States to become aware of the dangerous forms of racism that, despite all the political correctness of official policies, are still prevalent. In her book Passing for White, Passing for Black, the American artist Adrian Piper writes about her experience of being brought up in a black family but being seen as white in the outside world. The text is, however, far from biographical: she constantly mingles her personal experiences with data, facts and quotations from others writing about racial difference and xenophobia. When asked why she persistently brings up this subject, she says:
'It is to bring ourselves face to face with our obliterated collective past, and to confront the continuities of responsibility that link the criminal acts of extermination and enslavement committed by our forefathers with our own personal crimes of avoidance, neglect, disengagement, passive complicity, and active exploitation of the inherited injustices from which we have profited' (2).
In Europe we are guilty of the same crimes. We continuously construct singular and 'pure' cultural and personal identities. All differences that might obstruct the idea of unity and homogeneity are to be erased or concealed. Perhaps it is because we have no choice. We appear unable to escape from the myth of racial purity and cultural unity that seems to be so crucial to the preservation of the assumption of the autonomous, transcendent and self-possessed subject. Doing so would probably damage our dominant position in the world, a position we cannot afford to loose. The `information society' allows differences only in so far as they can be represented as clearly defined. As singular signs they help our economic system to flourish and our consumer market expand.
Difference can either exist as (state) controlled entities or systems, such as nationalities or languages, or be represented as stereotypes, reduced to a spectacle of essentialist racial or ethnic signs. In other words: either difference is brought under the realm of the singular sign, or difference does not exist. By representing difference along the canon of this monolithic system of representation, the Other is kept at safe distance. As such alterity is negated and pluriformity becomes increasingly less desirable. Although this kind of objectification, categorization and classification of the Other has become politically incorrect in anthropology and ethnography, there still seems to be no other method available to us to deal with these issues. Even when we try, as curators, to end cultural marginality by presenting work by non-Western artists in exhibitions, we seem to rather easily surrender to this anthropological attitude. Perhaps because this method of objectifying the Other, representing the Other as a kind of abstract difference, is perfectly compatible with productionist attitudes within the late capitalist, global, information world order.
What is at stake is the myth of the self-enclosed, the self-present and, to a certain extent, self-sufficient subject. As long as things are reduced to the level of abstract signs and singular meanings, and as such are structured and kept at a distance, the self-image of the autonomous and free subject remains unthreatened. I would like to compare this method of survival with how state power or social rituals operate. Paradoxically these systems exist to protect our 'freedom'. As long as we consider certain customs and rules as empirical givens which should be obeyed unconditionally, we can maintain a distance from 'free thinking' and act as autonomous beings. Such mechanisms of tolerance and prohibition, of acceptance and exclusion, help to keep our common self-image and self-esteem intact. (3) Although many of us still believe that these mechanisms of control and surveillance only operate in totalitarian states, they are equally valid in the democracies of the West. The recent history of Yugoslavia shows us how easy the balance Slavoj Zizec once called organized racism - different ethnic groups living together under state surveillance - can be disturbed. One of Zizek's most confrontational observations in this respect was:
'The ridiculous mistake of Western intellectuals was, first, to mock Eastern European nationalism as something primitive, something out of the 19th century. Exactly the opposite is true: we in the former Yugoslavia can proudly say that we are the 21st century, we are literally - with all the cynical irony the statement implies - the most progressive country in the world. We are your future'. (4)
Examples like these may illustrate why I am so reluctant to engage with contemporary multicultural discourse. It too easily becomes stuck in an academic meta-language that, as such, keeps its 'objects' at safe distance >from our daily lives. If we want to engage we must be prepared to take risks. The multicultural discourse threatens to become a new hype, a discussion to which anybody may contribute without too much sacrifice or pain. It is easy to make politically correct statements, curate exhibitions on other cultures or present non-European artists. In fact they do nothing more than `other' the Other through stereotyping; turn difference into consumable signs that are already fixed in meaning and as such negate alterity. The danger lies in the ease with which we, in so doing, still keep the issue far removed from our lived experience. The problem is the luxurious safety of the distance; the result disengagement and indifference. The role of the curator
In order to rethink the issues that are addressed here and in order to integrate them in our work in any ethical/responsible way, curators must take risks. What is at stake is our own, so carefully constructed identity. The notion of the self-possessing subject that we all have inherited, not only culturally but on an individual level too, has to be pushed aside. We must dare to let the Other come so close to us that he/she will inevitably challenge our concepts, our perception, and as such, form and become part of our subjectivity. Of course we should start by at least acknowledging that this process of mutual influence is inherent in the development of becoming a human being in the world. (5) We only need to learn to endure the consequences and behave accordingly. This could be done by diminishing the distance between the Self and the Other, by reaching beyond otherness and difference. To me this seems to be almost a prerequisite of being able to take part in any discourse on difference and alterity. I think that, as curators, being so closely linked to the artistic practice, we have even more reason to stay away from this practice of the objectification of others because of the ease with which stereotyping finds its place in the official politics of representation -- and this is exactly what artists have challenged throughout history.
I have seen more than one organized exhibition that inscribed itself, without effort, in an order that 'produces' clear, abstract, singular and fully interchangeable meanings. In an information culture, where almost all our perceptions, interpretations and strategies for acquiring knowledge are preconceived, it is more than likely that any item, no matter how real and concrete it might be, will immediately be packaged and distributed according to the rules. Clear-cut meanings and singular, self-contained identities are what count. In Heideggerian terms one could characterize such a culture as one whose images have been flattened out and robbed of their multi-layered meaning by an industrial, capitalist society whose ratio is purely normative and instrumental. The information order can, in this negative scenario, be sketched as a condition in which difference and pluriformity will be levelled out even further, even if, technologically, it holds the promise of doing exactly the opposite.
What can we do to counteract this? How can one produce works of art, create images and link them, present contexts for cultural artefacts, and yet escape this fate? How can we reintegrate lived experience in a reality where daily life has so little value except perhaps at the level of the sign as its immediate and direct representation? Because, even if this sign, in today's era of simulated, material and indexical representation in computerized cyber-space, is linked directly to its referent (or is even identical to it), it is still a form of representation. Meanings are still produced for us by others and are, therefore, one-dimensional and singular, silently affirming the ideology of the autonomous, self-enclosed subject.
Shared experience as condition for an active process of signification
It may be -- and now I am using one of English sociologist Scott Lash's main arguments -- that we can find an escape route through focusing on non-representative forms. (6) By actively creating meaning through dialogue and intersubjective communication, we may be able to find a way out of this productivist system which makes us passive receivers rather than active producers of meaning. The first step is to place our own subjectivity at risk. Or, to paraphrase Lash, to cease striving for the transcendent, reflexive and self-present subject (still the ideological message of the late-capitalist system), and return to and accept the limits of our selves in relation to our environment; not by focusing on difference by assuming a fixed subject-position and as such positing the 'unknowability' of the Other, but by rejecting the infinity of the transcendent subject. (7) Lash pleas for a more 'natural' attitude, which he calls sociality. We should return to point zero, the moment where the 'I' ends and 'the Other' begins. Perhaps it is here that meaning can be formed: through the interaction of constantly changing practices and activities. If such a point is actually reached, it goes without saying that experience can never be direct and singular. Experience emerges because of the colouring of different, intersubjective, aesthetic -- sense-oriented -- systems. It is this shared experience, within which we come into being and become aware of being, that will lead to a much more pluriform world of meaning. Through stressing sociability instead of difference we might find a way that is not a dead end. By no longer accepting images and meanings fabricated by the media, we may start to imagine ourselves. Contemplation as deliberate choice: alienation
This might seem a rather romanticized utopia, valid and sought after in the presence of art and philosophy, but not one available to the world at large. (8) As early as 1950 Hannah Arendt discussed the slow fading away of exactly those conditions that could guarantee a pluriform humanity which would be actively involved in negotiating ever-new meanings through action and speech. I am not going to discuss her book, The Human Condition, at length but will refer to her main conclusions. The human condition, consisting of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, has almost completely vanished from the earth because of the way in which humanity has been defined -- first by the homo faber and later by the animal laborans -- as being identical to working and surviving. (9) Arendt describes the shrinkage of the human condition as the result of a double alienation: alienation from the earth due to science and technology, and alienation >from the world, that is, the withdrawal from the world into the self. Unlike Heidegger, who commented on his surroundings in a similar way, Arendt was still optimistic about finding a way through which the vita activa and vita contemplativa could become significant again, guaranteeing a pluriform human life. The answer was contemplation, the problem was were to find a place/space for it.
In his updated version of The Human Condition, ironically called The Inhuman Condition, Keith Tester at first provides us with even more food for pessimism. (10) In contemporary society where, because of the continuous over-stimulation of our senses no quiet can be found, where our produced reality has become first nature to the extent that everything is the same, and where quietness is only to be found by those who can afford it thanks to their status and money, the whole notion of contemplation becomes rather untrustworthy. (11) In an unusual way, Tester almost makes a 180° shift when claiming that contemplation now has become a wilfully chosen attitude that can no longer be found in 'quietness', but which rather comes forth out of a setting of the 'unquiet'. It is not so much distance from the world but a sense of alienation in the world, that becomes the place and avenue of engagement. Contemplation becomes a practice rooted in this awareness of alienation, or rather, the state of mind of alienation turns contemplation into an active choice. A choice to no longer accept (and be content with) the world as it is, but to interpret the world one experiences and participates in as problems to be confronted. A choice that can never occur if the possible agents of such contemplation (artists, curators etc.) are incapable of experiencing alienation themselves. Any act of contemplation, be it art or theory, will be no more than an intellectual accommodation with the culture of contentment if it is not preconditioned by this state of mind of alienation.
Tester's understanding of alienation lacks the negative charge it has had since Marxism, and to which Arendt's views also testify. Tester's notion of alienation is the state of mind that brings the subject into closer contact with the surrounding world. Distancing oneself from it is no longer possible. The price is the image of the self as an autonomous and transcendent subject. The self-enclosed, self-content and self-sufficient subject is now out of control. Singular signs and meanings can no longer be accepted: the world is not simply the way it is or the way it should be. Meanings become negotiable when fixed norms, framed actions and prohibitions in language are no longer accepted without consideration, where pluriformity becomes once again the precondition for human existence. I + The Other
In the summer of 1994 Ine Gevers and Jeanne van Heeswijk organized the exhibition I + the Other. Art and the Human Condition in the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam. The starting point was a context that was not strictly defined by the institution of Art. The exhibition was to be the result of a cooperation between two institutions which, in a manner of speaking, were unaware of each others' existence: the institution of art -- the artists, the exhibition-makers, the Artimo Foundation -- and the Red Cross. (12) Even in the early stages of developing the idea it was clear to us that this exhibition should not be used as an instrument of power to define certain conditions or ideas. The voice of authority, be it the art institution or any other institution, had to be avoided. We wanted to intervene, not didactically by questioning predispositions, but by deconstructing certain representations of 'the Real', thereby opening up a space within which people could once again be able to create meaning.
We decided to make an exhibition that was not only concerned with art and its aesthetics. Our attention was drawn to a much broader territory: that of the area, or the possible space, where ethics and aesthetics might meet. We were looking for the possibility of realizing a context within which different positions and discourses would come into dialogue with one another, sometimes effortlessly, almost obviously, and at other moments hesitatingly and clearly forced. Contradictions were inevitable in such a setting and we planned in advance not to avoid incoherence, confrontations, unease etc. All of this had to be done critically, though we knew we did not have an independent position in relation to either the art institution or the Red Cross. We knew the project could only succeed if we were able to intervene and question the constructed identities of both institutions. How does art function within and without its own white walls and what is the meaning of the term 'autonomy' when notions like the intrinsic meaning of the art object and the universality of subjective aesthetic experiences are no longer self-evident? And what can the notion of 'neutrality' (still) mean when applied to an institution like the Red Cross in a society where one becomes even more an accessory (to power) if one 'neglects' making choices -- particularly in situations of war and conflict? Furthermore, how should one interpret terms like 'humanness' and 'human dignity' when these historically and ideologically defined concepts are to be held responsible for, at the very least, a severe limitation of what being human could mean? Any attempt to define or represent 'humanity' according to these traditional, monolithic principles (since the Enlightenment reason, conscience and reflection have been seen as basic human qualities), is bound to exclude 'others' from this category, whatever the intentions. Once deconstructed, it becomes clear that these principles are far from objective or without self-interest -- the ideal 'man' of the Enlightenment was chiefly a representation of an ideal self-image of Western capitalist and patriarchal culture. (13) In the exhibition the way both institutions (the institution of art and the Red Cross) represented themselves could be used as tools to confront one another in a way that would inevitably show how their identities had been constructed. Both so-called autonomous and neutral positions, which we referred to in terms of ethics and aesthetics, seemed historically and ideologically determined and rather fictitious when it came down to actual experience of contemporary life. As an historical construct both ethics and aesthetics run the risk of being nothing more than theoretical justifications that, when used in such a narrow way, seem to limit and obstruct intersubjective acts and experiences rather than enrich them.
Alienation was the hidden strategy of the exhibition. The implication of this notion of alienation came as a consequence of our continuous dialogue with representatives from the Red Cross, the artists, scientists, and writers. Although a theoretical concept was the foundation of the exhibition, the crucial state of mind of alienation emerged only during the process of making, the moment of performing the act. Not that the state of mind of alienation was unknown to us. In fact we both had experienced a sense of uneasiness with the art world that most of the time is nothing more than an institutionalized circus with trained artists, curators, critics and public. All of whom are willing to perform their tricks along aesthetic lines, evoking experience that is more a fixed given than an intersubjective experience which is constantly coloured and shifted by negotiations between different people.
We felt alienated in our dialogue with the Red Cross institution as well. Arising out of and supported by a basically Western-oriented establishment, this organization has gone through all kinds of contortions to try to maintain shreds of its traditional neutrality and prove its credibility as an organization that primarily exists for all human needs. As we proceeded to work on the exhibition, in discussions with the artists involved, it became clear that in general, we felt alienated in a society which denied plurality rather than celebrated it, for the sake of production and consumption. A society where difference is accepted only in terms of 'othering' the Other and where alterity is negated. Alterity is not only limited to difference in race and culture. Difference in terms of gender, class, health, mental ability, intelligence and so on, are dealt with in quite the same way. They are either denied or exaggerated in order to decide what can be tolerated and what is shut out, who is included and who is excluded.
We shared this state of alienation and the choice to critically engage with the world instead of accepting it as it is with the artists we invited. Adrian Piper, Christine Borland, Roy Villevoye, Marina Griznic, David Wojnarowicz, Derek Jarman, Marlene Dumas, Nancy Spero, Andrea Fisher and Martin Lucas, to mention but a few, were interested in subverting the traditional way 'the human being' was identified, classified or represented, an attitude they share with many other artists throughout the centuries. The selection of artists was not based on how 'politically correct' their work was or that is was 'art with a message'. However, what was relevant was the presence of the work, the way it could generate a multiple layering of aesthetic, ethic and cognitive experiences merely by being present. Or, to paraphrase Michael Bakhtin, works that ultimately reach their consummation by actually realizing the complex process of interactions between object, maker and viewer, all with their specific background, presuppositions and prejudices. (14)
The task within the exhibition was how these works could be presented not only in relation to each other but also in being confronted with various types of documents. Through this confrontation between document and art we tried to cut through fixed patterns and structures that were concerned with preconceived interpretations of documentation (Red Cross material, advertizing, press photography, television programmes, computer games) and the production of aesthetic meanings when works of art become involved. 'If', and I quote Oscar van Alphen's comment on this exhibition, 'documents so far offered too many possibilities for suppression, then this confrontation with what CvW calls "the monstrous forces in contemporary art" is capacious enough to let us see the cracks in the mirror, about which the chairman of the Red Cross, M. Sommaruga, speaks in the catalogue'. (15)
It was a double-edged sword. All representations of 'reality' were mixed together: art, documentary and so forth, until identification was no longer possible. The oppositions were nevertheless sharp. Where documentary images presented a much too singular meaning, the works of art embodied irony, subversiveness, multiple layering and a pluriformity of meanings. But the confrontation sometimes went the other way. Documents were able to provide a counterbalance in areas where works of art tended to depend too much on a notion of a universal, subjective, aesthetic experience, completely isolated from other parts of life which occupy an important position in the constitution of shared experience. The exhibition was structured as a narrative. The first part of the show presented notions such as otherness, difference, distance, intimacy and alienation which were connected with each other, while subverting notions like unity and universality by using works that showed the complex division between power and powerlessness upon which politics, economics and ideologies are based. In the second section the possibility and impossibility of representing the Other in a language that, in anticipation, excludes alterity, was dealt with by artists like Christine Borland, Cindy Sherman and Adrian Piper. Notions such as closeness and intimacy, which were to be experienced in the work, were investigated by artists like Michel Francois and Frank Mandersloot, and questioned by Mona Hatoum and Sadie Benning. The exhibition ended by triggering the notion of alienation at the complex level of the image, the sign and the recipient. The work of Andreas Serrano, certainly in combination with the Nintendo games, or that of Marina Griznic, Andrea Fisher and Martin Lucas placed in physical opposition to the large billboards posters advertizing Benneton and the Dutch daily Trouw, brought to the forefront the omnipresent confusion that results from the contemporary manipulation/contextualization of any image and/or sign for one's own benefit, whether we speak of corporations, politics, the media, or individuals. The production of signs, the exchange of pure signs, combined with their growing abstract, complex but singular messages, has made it extremely difficult for anyone to engage with the world through producing meanings instead of merely consuming them.
During the process of curating it became clear to us that the only option left to us was to try and share our confusion with the viewer. By alienating the viewers from the things they experience, and by not presenting them with an easy explanation of the human condition today; by capturing their attention, showing them that it is precisely our contentment with and distance from the world that makes us so inhuman, we hoped to find an opening. The cultural world around us has become first nature. Through this it gains its meaning but remains what it is and cannot be questioned, a world that ceases to be something which human beings can actually engage with and shape. By presenting examples of this world through documents, art works and other artefacts we tried to create a context that would confront the viewer to such an extent that there would be no other option than to return to point zero. Our statement, together with those of the artists involved, was to emphasize how we categorically could not agree to 'being' if 'being' is continuously defined and produced by external powers. The only way to communicate this critical engagement with the world was by actually creating a multi-layered context that offered no escape. Only by questioning what being human might be, even going so far as to risk our own subjectivity, might the visitor capture this state of mind of alienation and share this experience. By alienating the audience from what they see, we could try to urge the visitor to pay attention to what it feels like to be human, and perhaps, on a modest scale, to begin to act like one. Ine Gevers
Museum of Modern Art, New York 1984 (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989)
The notion of the modern subject, where experience and knowledge merge into one consciousness, is, according to Giorgio Agamben, rooted in mythical thinking. In his opinion modern science and the constitution of the modern subject under its guidance, are based on the effectuation of the connection between human and Divine knowledge (experience and intelligence). Traces of this connection can be found in the ancient Mysteries and in their pre-scientific expression of astrology, alchemy and in neo-Platonic speculations. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy & History, London 1993 (1978), pp. 13-63.
Adrian Piper, Passing for White, Passing for Black, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 22.
Michael Foucault, 'Madness, the Absence of Work', Critical Inquiry, 21, winter 1995, pp. 290-295.
Interview with Slavoj Zizek, 'The Sublime Theorist of Slovenia', Artforum, March 1993, pp. 84-89.
For instance Jacques Lacan has described fully how we have come to consciousness through the appropriation of the language of others.
Scott Lash, 'Difference or Sociality', Towards a Theory of the Image, Jan van Eyck Academy Maastricht, 1996, pp. 112-129.
Idem. According to Lash, even Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas are practising this strategy of pointing to difference.
Giorgio Agamben states experience as being something you can undergo as well as possess, as was the case in the traditional meaning of the word. Since the 17th century, and the moment modern science emerged, this has no longer been possible. According to his theory it is this lack of experience that 19th- and 20th-century artists and writers refer to op.cit. 1.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Keith Tester, The Inhuman Condition, Routledge London, 1995.
George Simmel, 'Sociology of the sense', in Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess (ed), Introduction to the Science of Sociology, University of Chicago Press, 1969, and Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London, Merlin Press, 1971. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment, London 1992.
The Artimo Foundation was responsible for the organisation and financial support of the exhibition and the magazine I + the Other.
Ine Gevers, 'Artists Who Choose Life', I + the Other (magazine), Artimo Foundation Zeist, 1994.
Michael Bakhtin, Art and Answerability, Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, University of Texas Press, 1990.
Oscar van Alphen, 'Art and Document: A Confrontation', a review of the exhibition I + the Other, Perspectief no. 49, 1995, pp. 51-53. The quotation 'the monstrous forces in contemporary art' came from another review of I + the Other, written by Camiel van Winkel for the magazine Archis, no. 8, 1994.