Nicholas Gamso reviews Marcus Verhagen, Flows and Counterflows: Globalisation in Contemporary Art (2017)
Globalisation in Too Many Inadequate Descriptive Systems
At the heart of Marcus Verhagen’s new book Flows and Counterflows: Globalisation in Contemporary Art lies a deceptively simple question: how do we give form to the outsize concept of the global? Verhagen, a professor at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, addresses the issue by discussing contemporary artists’ concern for an array of ‘global’ problems. These include migration and transcultural contact, tourism and the production of authenticity, translation and untranslatability, and spatial formations like the global city, the border, and the private global art network. Verhagen surveys dozens of works that give material dimension to these problems, usually providing some insight into their social context. The objects and their artists become surrogates to attendant debates around ethics, representation, and the politics of space. Such debates appeared in social theory over a period marked by the collapse of Cold War polarities and the emergence of financialised neoliberal free trade. While some of the critical approaches to this period will seem conventional today, characterized in many cases by a distant, not to say disembodied, analytical approach, many are coming under renewed scrutiny as the world appears on the precipice of change.
As an overview of these debates, the book is indeed very helpful. Often the artworks Verhagen reviews lend clarity to the problems of global transculturation and its mediating forms. He describes, for example, Patricia Reed’s Pan-National Flag (2009), which overlays black outlines of all the world’s flags and thus gives graphic dimension to the new relations between distinct national bodies, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Visible World (1997), a collection of three thousand tourist photographs displayed in transparency on light boxes – ‘we see shots of canyons and glaciers, Japanese gardens and palm-fringed swimming pools, desert oases and metropolitan skylines.’1 With dozens of these examples, the book will prove a strong if idiosyncratic introductory text in a course on contemporary art or globalisation theory and its critical applications.
What makes the book most intriguing, however, are its thematic preoccupations, to which Verhagen alludes at the start when he describes the kind of vacuous aesthetics associated with digitalisation, logo-centrism, postmodern architecture, and so on. He identifies as examples Jules de Balincourt’s Big Globe Painting (2012), a mess of trails across an abstracted planet, and prismatic light installations like To Breathe (2013) by Korean artist Kimsooja. Verhagen dismisses these works, which seem to defer to allegories of infrastructure and thus perform cliché understandings of globalisation. The global is either ‘unknowable’ or ‘already-known’ in such works, as Verhagen says. He prefers works committed to ‘opening processes of globalisation to artistic inquiry, to de-familiarising them, to making them visible, analysable, and contestable’.2
Many scholars have of course advanced these aims for decades, as I will discuss shortly. Talk of ‘flows’ has itself become passé since the macro-scalar interventions of Saskia Sassen and Arjun Appadurai in the 1990s.[3 It is thus the banality of such theoretical efforts, and related artistic inquiries, that concerns Verhagen throughout this study. And why not? The problems of the ‘unknowable’ and ‘already-known’ seem rich, and not purely reductive, conceits for artistic inquiry and thus afford more scrutiny. They imply a whole epistemological formation, as Verhagen’s book itself demonstrates: its organisation allows little sustained analysis of any specific artist, art practice, or geography; and while it draws thematic connections across space, the objects under consideration remain anchored in the private art market and, in most cases, the genre of conceptuality. The book’s broad but consistent analytic framework exhibits the understanding of global space suggested by theorist Peter Sloterdijk, who describes the world vast ‘interior’ of referential attachments – a richly evocative concept that could benefit, I think, from more thorough and explicit exploration. 4
Employing such a framework does not mean neglecting issues of identity, relationality, or territorial experience. Indeed, some of the most interesting works surveyed are those which give some shape to the interface between life and its mediating infrastructures. One example is the artist and philosopher Hito Steyerl’s marvellous 2007 filmic work Lovely Andrea: the piece chronicles the artist’s search for a 1987 Japanese BDSM magazine in which a photograph of her appears. The quest takes her and her collaborator, the filmmaker (and BDSM model) Asagi Ageha, through the pornography’s global production networks, which are excavated over the course of the thirty-minute video. The piece is characteristic of global aesthetics not because of the geography it traces, nor even, as Steyerl wrote at the time, because it serves as a thingly allegory of translation. What matters here is its form. It is a roughed-up collage, shot after shot showing the spaces of pornography and documentation – editing bays, magazine offices, and photography studios. The video reflects an interest among the era’s critical theorists with mobile personal video technologies (the ‘ecology of images,’ the ‘ecstasy of communication’) and the living archives they generate.5 Yet the piece also serves as an opening into the questions of exposure, the racialised body, pain and pleasure, labour and sexuality, even national politics (‘Andrea’ is the name of the artist’s friend, a murdered activist in Turkey), as well as the issues of mis-translation and interpretative failure. These dimensions clearly characterise the piece’s historical and theoretical situation as acutely as its global associations have.
Such experiments at the limit of social life and object materiality are fascinating artifacts, to be sure, but are particularly useful to theorists, helping to bridge a substantial divide in critical literature. Over the last few decades, a rift has appeared between studies of transnationalism that emphasise an interest in the moral dilemmas of culture and those which emphasise the problems of space, infrastructure, and ecology. Much of this shift has traced another – from literature to the image as the primary medium for engaging the social world – and has thus challenged interpretive tools forged in the crucible of bourgeois nationalism and its literary cultures. (Frederic Jameson’s wryly enigmatic claim that globalisation constitutes an ‘untotalizable totality’ expresses the conundrum succinctly). 6 At moments, such as the US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq or the current crisis of migrancy in Africa and the Middle East, the connections between these fields of inquiry seem rather explicit. Yet most of the time – and with the glut of information and images we suffer daily – the concerns of humans and objects remain disconnected. Cultural politics is on one side, iterations of the ‘new’ ontology are on the other.
In this vacuum, contemporary art has engaged in a strong pretense to solutionism, finding its logic in design and accommodation, rather than direct refusal or withdrawal. Globalisation, from this point of view, is less a complex of ethical uncertainty than a practical challenge for creative intellectuals. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work, which begins Verhagen’s chapter on the trope of the ‘nomadic’ global art star, was among the first to test this notion in a public context; in his groundbreaking work pad thai (1990), which has been installed periodically in the contemporary gallery at New York’s MoMA in the years since, Tiravanija served curry to guests who dined at folding tables, evoking what was then the new genre of participation and staging the very processes of cultural contact and commodification in a relatively depthless, politically inoffensive, and (most importantly) highly and visibly practical way. Perhaps this is what Verhagen should have meant when he described the “already known” – known but not yet actualized in a space of validation.
This logic seems on the verge of giving out, however, as incredulity takes the place of creativity as the principal conceit of liberal identification. It was difficult, undoubtedly, for Verhagen to foresee the emergence of right-wing nativism as a dominant force in geopolitics. Indeed, its surprise among intellectuals seems to reflect a failure in liberal analyses of globalisation, which have tended to ignore the politics of space. Many scholars have neglected the instability produced by the intensification of racial and economic inequality at the national and global scales. This alone is cause for more reflection. But when the problem appears in the growing image-world – and becomes a niche in the global art market, as in LD50’s recent white supremacist show in London – it commands serious attention from art theorists. The following years seem likely to turn the consensual acceptance of liberal cosmopolitanism on its head so that all kinds of new inquiry into experience, scale, identity, and the object might take shape.
As I suggested, Hito Steyerl’s piece bridges the gap between ethical and geospatial questions rather boldly. It is just what we need, following the ‘flows’ of large scale scalar forms to their conclusions in the disorder of social reality. And, precisely because Steyerl’s piece does this, it provides a compelling opening to a host of other critical discourses. Thinking about the ways globalisation has augmented and transformed various categories of knowledge is central, the work shows, to recognising the significance of artistic interventions. Indeed, the intersections of globalist theory with feminist, queer, race-critical, and postcolonial critique are more substantial than they seem in the most authoritative writings on globalisation, as Verhagen’s book passingly acknowledges.
The point is that in the uneven field of global exchange, art functions as an infrastructure for both transculturation and its failures. Such stops and starts are akin to what the anthropologist Anna Tsing has termed ‘friction,’ the logic of obstruction that characterises routed political movements and trans-local conflicts. Friction shows a key feature of globalisation, and indeed of art practice: ‘the necessity of bringing capitalist universals into action through worldly encounters’. Some of this is thematised in Verhagen’s smart chapter on ‘slow’ art.7 Especially in video work, slowness appears as a somewhat galling gesture against the accelerations of global space-time that characterise information flow and financialisation. Here, Verhagen says, appear two different approaches to contesting, or to problematising, the pace of contemporary globality. The first is a naïve production of life ‘before’, exemplified by Wolfgang Staehle’s piece Comburg (2001–2008), a live video feed of a Benedictine monastery in Germany that refreshes every four seconds. The piece, as Verhagen observes, is stymied by Staehle’s intention to create a Heideggerian ‘awareness’ out of protracted encounters with the site. Its salience with regard to time has more to do with the instantaneous transmission of the image: while the aim, Verhagen concludes, was ‘recapturing a lost relation to time’, the effect was to ‘to elide the systemic pressures that condition our contemporary experience of time’. 8 The second mode is richer, making no gestures of nostalgia but emphasising the role of objects in mediating expansive temporalities. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla video Amphibious (Login-Logout) (2005) exhibits this approach: turtles sit on a log in Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province in Southern China, witnessing the area’s rapid development. From the turtles’ point of view, the city appears ‘an anarchic patchwork of sweatshops and factories, slums and condominiums’. The juxtaposition may seem rather too clever, but the work’s slow pace lends it some elegance. 9 In its site-specificity and engagement with amphibious life, moreover, the piece adopts ecology as a prism for understanding the effects of globalisation.
There are many other methods of contesting the logics of globalisation ‘as we know it’. These include the refusal to translate (and paradoxically, efforts to translate this refusal) and the production of a trans-local art landscape. Verhagen is quick to note that these gestures can of course be absorbed into an otherwise seamless system of production and circulation. The purchase of superficial localism in globally-financed and bureaucratised art fairs and biennials is an exemplary instance. But friction is a feature of real resistance movements and their cultural forms as well. One must indeed look further than the privatised global art market to find more durable expressions of such a politics, going to contested sites of exclusion and suppression (as some art historians have) such as the Sonoran Desert, the Balkans, East Africa, and other specific localities where what one might call the form and content of globalisation are both conspicuously on view. The situated subject-position of critics in such places is, of course, one of the reasons these kinds of work have not attained purchase in the art world. Yet their observations about decolonisation, globalised neoliberal free trade, and new kinds of gendered and racialised labour (all in some relation to longstanding global formations) can only be ascertained with insight from the periphery.
Interdisciplinary scholarship on these topics includes work from art historians, literary critics, and interdisciplinary practitioners. Recent projects from scholars like Okwui Enwezor, Eyal Weizman, and Bishnupriya Ghosh, varied as they are, share something like an outsider’s approach – sometimes from a ‘decolonial’ perspective – to the topics of aesthetics and of transnational politics.10 Treatises by figures such as Susan Buck-Morss, Paul Gilroy, and Katherine McKittrick significant, for they emphasise that the formation of global culture occurred in the crucible of imperialism and not just in blueprints of neoliberalisation.11 The framework they provide for apprehending the contemporary aesthetics, and at times for apprehending contemporary conceptual art specifically, corresponds not only to novel adjustments in space-time, but to the grounding epistemologies of the modern.
In short: artistic inquiries into the banality of the global need not themselves be banal. They can lend texture and nuance to the over-capitalisation and systematisation of art, design, and language while at the same time acknowledging how intimately bound these systems are to the production and experience of the global scale. They may engage in a critique of epistemology, in other words, doing so from within and without sanctioned arenas for social commentary. Verhaegen’s book provides some refreshingly unstable parameters for these inquiries, but in the end one is left with still more questions. Provoking these questions is, I think, the secret strength of the book. For it calls to mind the great uncertainty of the world now.
Marcus Verhagen, Flows and Counterflows: Globalisation in Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2017
Nicholas Gamso teaches in the department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His writing can be found in Afterimage, Cultural Politics, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and the literary magazines Berfrois and Hotel Amerika. He is currently writing a monograph on aesthetics and globalism in New York.
1 Verhagen, 67
2 ibid, 16.
3 See Stuart Alexander Rockefeller ‘Flow,’ Current Anthropology, 52 4 (August 2011), p. 558: “"The Term has an aura and can appear to say a great deal, yet it can be emptied in a nearly unaware fashion, as if its meaning were entirely uncomplicated and its use so innocuous as to call for no special mention. The word is suggestive of something radically new, yet it maintains the innocence of common English." See also Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory, Culture, & Society 7, 1990; and Saskia Sassen’s seminal The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton UP, Princeton, 1992.
4 Sloterdijk, The World Interior of Capital, Wieland Hoban, trans, Polity, Cambridge, 2013, p. 140: “No point on the Earth's surface, once money had stopped off there, could escape the fate of becoming a location – and a location is not a blind spot in a field, but rather a place in which one sees that one is seen.”
5 See Andrew Ross “Ecology of Images,” Chicago Gangster Theory of Life, Verso, London & New York, 1994; See Baudrillard, the “Ecstasy of Communication,” Los Angeles, Bernard Schütze and Carloline Schütze, trans, Semiotext(e), 1987.
6 Jameson, Preface, The Cultures of Globalization, Jameson and Masao Miyoshi, Duke University Press, Durham, 1992, p. xii.
7 Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton UP, Princeton, 2004, p. 4.
8 Verhagen, 122.
9 ibid, 127.
10 See Ghosh, Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular, Duke UP, Durham, 2010; Weizman, Hollow Land, Verso, 2013; “The Unhomeley,” Enwezor, ed, The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes of Global Society, Biacs, Bom, Barcelona, 2006.
11 See for example Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror, Verso, London and New York, 2003; McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006; and Gilroy, Darker Than Blue, Belknap Press of Harvard UP, Cambridge, 2011.