Brian Holmes on Sat, 1 Mar 2003 21:39:08 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Hou Hanru: Time for Alternatives

I was very interested to read Hou Hanru's text about alternative art 
institutions, especially because the middle parts of it began to talk 
about some of my favorite subjects: Empire, D.I.Y. projects, the TAZ, 
resistance to global capitalism, etc. Upon reading the text twice, 
though, I found myself with several questions. I don't have the 
answers, and it's maybe worth just asking Hou Hanru, because he has 
been one of the shapers of a major biennial - the one in Gwangju, 
Korea. Unfortunately I didn't go to it, so all I know about it is 
what I could read in the press. But if Hou's interested and has time 
I guess he'll answer the questions, and if not, maybe someone else 

Hou writes:

"What kind of institution should be created is now the crucial 
question. This is because the institution is the central element in 
the power system, or mechanism, that defines the notion and the 
boundary of art itself."

He understands the dominant institutional form today as being that of 
the modernist white cube:

"This "transcendent" physicality constitutes a hegemonic ideology and 
practice paradigm. This centralized power controls the definition, 
the boundary, of contemporary art and propagates it across the world 
as if it were the "universal truth," the only legitimated way, of 
"global" art."

For Hou that's an inadequate basis from which to address the 
conditions of globalization, which, as he explains, create a 
situation where national boundaries and sovereign states are being 
dissolved, even while NGOs and worldwide social movements are 
emerging to counter the dominant role of the transnational 
corporations and the WTO, IMF etc. So he has an Empire-type reading 
which sees globalization both as an extension of capitalist control, 
or in a more complex formula, of transnational state capitalst 
control, *and* as a constitutive process that gives rise to 
emancipatory subjects operating on a new scale. He also refers, quite 
interestingly, to Arjun Appadurai and says that:

"Discourse on cultural differences - especially those of 
non-Westerners - and their equal right to exist in and influence the 
global scene seems to be the commonly accepted new virtue. The 
production of new localities in order to make them significant in the 
modern world, or to generate different modernities, is the very root 
and aim of the actions of artists, from different parts of the world, 
participating in the 'global scene.'"

To achieve that, Huo refers to the model of Hakim Bey, the Temporary 
autonomous Zone, and he says, again very interestingly, that "DIY 
communities and self-organizations are the main source of 
sustainability, the main force in the revival and continued 
development of today's post-planning cities." One imagines make-do 
innovations on a local scale to survive and thrive in chaotic or 
difficult conditions, and Hou points, for example, to the "trueque" 
clubs where people trade second-hand things in cash-strapped 
Argentina. He also says that: "The creation and development of 
alternative art spaces is a perfect example" of this positive role of 
self-organization in urban renewal.

Now, my first reaction to all that is that it seems very uncertain 
whether the "white cube" is the dominant form of the art institution 
in the conditions of globalization. I would say it's rather the 
dominant form of art display in the modern nation state, which 
remains, in the case of the rich ones, a very powerful entity indeed. 
But if we look specifically at the forms and dynamics of 
globalization, is it not the biennial itself, generally sponsored by 
a major city, that is fast becoming the standard artistic expression 
of the globalizing process? It seems that staging a biennial is a 
gambit to ensure a city's place in the metropolitan competition for 
"attractiveness" in terms of tourism and location of corporate 
offices and industry. The form of the art biennial thus seems to 
inherit from a long tradition of World Expos, and other "Crystal 
Palace" type events, as a destination for sophisticated flanerie, in 
which various state and industrial actors compete for prestige in the 
eyes of the crowd. The difference being that these events are no 
longer restricted to a very small number of potential sponsors in 
Europe and America, but instead can be held all over the world - and 
they can be held entirely for art, whereas the World Expos were 
really trade fairs.

But that observation is not a condemnation, because one can 
reformulate the problem and say, In a situation where a new 
institutional form is emerging - namely, the art biennial on the 
global circuit - the thing to do is to ride the tiger, and try to 
contribute to defining what that new, potentially dominant 
institution is going to be. But if this is the case, then the problem 
is a little more difficult than what Hou describes. Because one must 
then expect to find some kind of potentially dominant agenda behind 
the biennial - an agenda corresponding to the needs of transnational 
corporations and to the desire of cities and states to enter the 
circuit of transnational economic exchanges. That means there will be 
a space of tension opening up between such agendas and any 
possibility to institute an alternative space for self-organized and 
contestatory practices. I am basically wondering about two things: 
What does that globalizing agenda actually consist of, and how does 
the tension play out between the artists, the curators and the people 
running and sponsoring the biennials?

Of course I am aware that the answers to these questions are never 
black and white, and that each event is different. One of the reasons 
the answers are never black and white has to do with the social 
function of art as a way of producing a society's legitimacy. Art 
shows that people in a society are free, and that they have goals and 
desires which are not just commercial or power-oriented. So that's 
good publicity for a city, a national government, or an industry. But 
that also potentially opens the door to people with very different 
goals and desires: and Hou has given us a list of problematics, 
basically around the counter-globalization movements, which are 
potentially quite radical. So the question becomes: How wide of an 
opening for substantial social critique does this search for 
legitimacy provide?

Another reason why things aren't black and white is that most all 
artists have to play tricky games to attain resources and 
distribution. The most interesting part of Hou's article, for me, is 
a long list of different artists' initiatives all around Asia. Hou 
notes that a strong drive to place art from these regions "on the 
map," both by developing local art infrastructure and by projecting 
artists outward to the established arenas of major museums and 
biennials, actually influences the strategy of the artists as they 
develop their initiatives. Again one sees the zone of tension, 
between the degree to which artists try to make autonomous use of the 
demand for their work, and the degree to which they simply strategize 
for entry into the global distribution systems. You don't have pure 
cases: someone who just strategizes will produce such uninteresting 
work that it's unlikely to be accepted, someone who doesn't 
strategize at all will probably not get in either. So the question 
then becomes: To what degree do the biennials actually function as 
"summits" for autonomous networking? What could increase their 
potential to do so? And on the other side of the coin: Are they 
deleterious, in some ways, to local, autonomous initiatives - those 
"new localities" that art events should produce? Do they tend to suck 
people up into a global circuit that weakens or destroys their 
original work, particularly in its cooperative dimensions? How can 
such negative effects be avoided?

It is clear that since Seattle and September 11, there is a new 
discourse within the artworld. Curators now want something political. 
At the same time, there has been a larger sea-change going back to 
the early 1990s: Cities everywhere now want internationally popular 
and prestigious artistic events. What happens when the political 
becomes popular, and the popular gets promoted? It's a complicated 
question. I think it's important in this new context, which does 
offer some interesting possibilities, to start up a critical exchange 
that helps explore the realities, so that with neither naivete nor 
ideology, the possibilities and traps of an emergent institutional 
form can be assessed by the people who are going to have to decide, 
each time, whether to participate or not.

best to all, Brian Holmes

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