Friday, November 20, 2009

Nikos Papastergiadis
The Cosmopolitan Imaginary of Art: Terror, Fear, Curiosity and Hope

Extracts from the lecture of professor Nikos Papastergiadis at ΕΜSΤ, 19/11/2009

The Cosmopolitan Imaginary of Art: Terror, Fear, Curiosity and Hope

1. Waiting for the Barbarians

Just over a hundred years ago Constantin Cavafy wrote the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”[1]. Cavafy spent most of his life in the cosmopolitan merchant quarters of the Egyptian port city Alexandria. At various stages his family, like many other foreigners, had been expelled from the city. He kept returning. In this poem we could infer the irony with which Cavafy experienced being a stranger in the city of his birth. The poem begins with a description of the foreboding that precedes an invasion. There is the suggestion that insecurity begins from the absence of a common language. The Greek city is preparing itself for a siege by foreigners who mutter incomprehensible bar-bar-bar-sounds. How will the Greeks know what the barbarians really want? Cavafy then turns to the fears that are spread by rumour. There is a dread and hint of panic that the barbarian’s real aim is the devastation of civilization. In readiness for the final battle the city braces itself for the worst. However, Cavafy does not end his poem with either victory or disaster.

Night is here but the barbarians

Have not come

And some people arrived from the borders,

And said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

Those people were some kind of solution.

After all the waiting, nothing happens: neither conquest nor defeat. Cavafy does not follow this realization with the exhalation of relief: he intimates that something else has occurred. The city had become dependent on the barbarians – if not addicted to the fear they inspire, at least affirmed by the desperate stance of defensive hostility. Three times Cavafy underlined the disappearance of the barbarians: “And some… And said… And now…” The barbarians had served a purpose. They helped bring a focus into the city. By closing up the city, needs could be simplified, loyalties resolved and identities separated. ‘Those people’ were indeed ‘a kind of solution’. The barbarian could be seen as a mirror of the internal fears. We need them to see ourselves. However, this narcissism is also a form of self-seduction that deflects a deeper encounter with the hate in our self. In this state of defensive preparedness, there is already a justification of violence towards the other. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, there were repeated calls that the barbarians were closing in, and as Arundati Roy observed, “ordinary people in the US had been manipulated into imagining that they are a people under siege”, and in this state of anxiety they were “bonded to the state by fear.”[2]

2. Finding Fear: Its Meaning and Dynamics

The politics of fear suggests that there are enemies everywhere. Obviously this has left many people feeling either scared or cynical. Of course there are people in this world that are capable of inspiring fear. It would be naïve to assume that they do not exist. However, there are further dimensions to this politics of fear. There is also the fear of fear itself. This is a book that starts from the violence of Sept 11th but then examines the dispersal of fear to other aspects of our everyday life, and argues that fear has become so widespread that its sources appear to be both unlocatable and ubiquitous. I refer to this experience of dread as ambient fear.[3] It is a force that is experienced viscerally, framing our suspicious glances at our neighbours, and extending into the gleeful approval of the state’s use of violence. My concern with the affect of fear is not directed towards the excavation of its psychic origin, but rather it is focussed towards the way it spreads and shapes the public imaginary. In this book I will note the way that the specific threats of terrorism were instrumental in the dissemination of ambient fear. However, the main subject of this book lies in the cultural and artistic responses to this new landscape of ambient fear. I will track a wide range of artistic reactions to the politics of fear, and reflect on how these reactions offer an insight into the social dynamics of fear, and also provide a platform for representing an alternative political landscape.

There is an aversion to thinking through the broader dynamics of fear in contemporary society. Cultural critics are quick to debunk the hysteria and prick the balloons of hyperbole, but in the process they overlook the way fear is entangled in a complex web of associations. When they do admit that fear has a social reality, the focus tends to be confined to its instrumental functions, or related to specific struggles for power.[4] A similar mode of explanation is also evident in political philosophy: from Plato to Nato, we are told that fear is merely an emotion that can be manipulated in the political arena. Fear is interpreted as if it were a mechanism for sharpening loyalties and galvanising collective bonds. Hence, Machiavelli and Hobbes are routinely cited as the philosophers who elevated fear into an instrument that the sovereign could wield in order to both preserve the social contract and preserve power.[5] By contrast, when attention is turned to the more diffuse ways in which fear can shape the political environment, then there is a tendency to adopt explanations that intertwine a subjective experience of doom with a collective wish for salvation by an external agent.[6] For instance, the appeal of both Bush’s and Bin Laden’s rhetoric resembles Tocqueville’s conception of anxiety. Tocqueville saw anxiety as a formless state of nervousness that gripped the mass psyche, producing a state of paralysis that left people feeling vulnerable, while also stimulating an unspoken desire for salvation from an authoritarian figure. More nuanced conceptions of the relationship between fear and anxiety can be traced throughout the writings of Kant, Kierkegaard and Heidegger. The problem with fear and anxiety, states Heidegger, is that it not just “radiates harmfulness”, but that the person who is immersed in it “loses his head”.[7]

Paolo Virno was among the first of the social theorists to grasp the centrality of fear and the ‘ambivalence of disenchantment’ in the transformation of contemporary culture and society. Fear, he argues, is not just the negative effect of experiencing threat, but also the motivating force that now drives contemporary politics and shapes the administrative criteria of everyday regulations. The restructuring of home and work is no longer simply defined by a break with the solidity of tradition but an activation of the already fragmented state of traditions and an engagement – a process of putting to work – sentiments, inclinations and states of mind that have been severed from any form of traditional foundation.[8] The mobilisation of fear is therefore not just a response but part of the precondition or mechanism for the advancement of specific socio-economic practices. The mutability of economic relations and the fragmentation of cultural values combine to create a mood of collective uncertainty, rather than simply a personal sense of insecurity. Or, put the other way – when the instances of a person experiencing insecurity are now commonplace, and the sources that stimulate this response are so widespread, then it is no longer sufficient to speak of fear as if it were a single entity that belonged within a person’s subjectivity. As Virno argues:

Fears of particular dangers, if only virtual ones, haunt the workday like a mood that cannot be escaped. This fear, however, is transformed into an operational requirement, a special tool for the trade. Insecurity about one’s place during periodic innovation, fear of losing recently gained privileges, and anxiety over being ‘left behind’ translate into flexibility, adaptability, and a readiness to reconfigure oneself…fear is no longer what drives us into submission before work, but the active component of that stable instability that marks the internal articulations of the productive process itself.[9]

The distinction between fear and anxiety can help sharpen our focus. Fears are, as Freud noted, usually linked to specific objects of dread, whereas anxiety is an uncomfortable state in which the origin or the object of threat cannot be specified. Fear usually emanates from an external source. It hovers above, like a tyrant, or approaches as an enemy from the outside. When we speak of our fears, we usually refer to our fear of something. The object of our fear has a defineable outline. By contrast anxiety is diffuse, without precise boundaries, and it appears to emerge from a twilight state – neither in full light or total darkness. Therefore when we articulate this kind of mood we say that we are anxious about the possibility of something happening. Anxiety may lack a clear source of threat but it is related to what Freud calls an “expected situation of helplessness”.[10] It lurks in the heart, it exists in rumour, and it spreads from below. Anxiety can provoke insecurity without sensory apprehension. It produces a far less certain sense of where danger lies, what is risky, and who is threatening. In Zygmunt Bauman’s extensive survey of the role of fear in contemporary life, he asserts that “fear is at its most fearsome” when it remains an implicit menace that “can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen”.[11]

3. The Affects of War

Fear of terrorism, like the fear of the ‘flood’ of refugees, is part of deeper social transformations, that I have termed kinetophobia. The inability to identify the origins, or predict the consequences of our everyday fears has, according to Ulrich Beck made people feel that fear is so widespread that it threatens to disrupt the crucial task of calculating risk. In a rather pessimistic response to the tension between difference and certainty, Beck goes so far as to suggest that the collapse of a risk regime, that is, the ability to measure and control threat signals the end of modernity.[12]

With the mass production of digital communication devices, and the popularization of practices such as sampling, montage and blogging, the possibility of creating an immersive environment with interactive feedback became a mundane part of everyday reality. Sociologists have now noticed that these immersive environments and new modes of interactive feedback have also affected the forms of attention and apprehension. People who are constantly ping-ponging text messages to each other claim to feel ‘ambient intimacy’. Members of on-line chat groups out source problems to each other and by observing the micro-details of their respective daily lives they establish weak ties and form ‘parasocial’ relationships. However, underpinning these looser and pragmatic forms of sociality there is also a new mode of comprehension. Without being physically side-by-side people become adept to picking up a mood. They may not know the source, recognize the total configuration, or even pick the precise turning point in a specific sequence of events, but by stitching together numerous micro-details they form an over all impression. Each piece of information may be insignificant on its own, but collectively they coalesce into a complex but fluid portrait of a situation. This form of social knowledge is referred to as ambient awareness.[13] Promoters of websites celebrate it as a positive tool for keeping abreast of the fast moving changes in the world. However, critics like Peter Sloterdijk see a more insidious trajectory. Alongside the shift in warfare from an assault on the adversary’s primary organ to the infiltration of the imaginary, he claims that we have also witnessed parallel forms of “atmo-terrorism” that have sought to capture and reconfigure the totality of everyday consciousness.[14] Everything from aesthetic experience to inter-personal communication is now seen as a battleground that is under assault.

It is the shifting terrain of affect - the ambient awareness of both intimacy and fear - that Lacan argued operated “between perception and consciousness”, and which Massumi claims was stimulated by security practices such as the color-coded alert system that was “used to activate direct bodily responsiveness rather than reproduce a form or transmit definite content”,[15] as well as the introduction of new policies and laws that could capture ‘aspirational’ terrorists by blurring the legal distinction between violation and intent. Being alert to stranger danger was elevated into a crucial civic duty. New border control regulations extended the stigmatic association towards migrants and terrorists. Patriotism was unfurled as the answer to the failed experiments of multiculturalism and ridiculous cosmopolitan fantasies. New stealth surveillance technologies were introduced to track suspect movements and the movement of suspects. This discourse and security practices not only drew upon visual images to depict the state of fear, but also relied on a highly reflexive communication system. People were assured that their safety was now dependent on the almost imperceptible information processing strategies. However, this also spread the sources of fear into every atom of everyday life. Fear became invisible and unpredictable. As the experience of fear was projected into the realm of anticipation of the unimaginable it also left the boundaries of ordinary reason and comprehension.

4. Imagining Fear and Hospitality

Looking at the images of the suicide bombers Gayatri Spivak observed that they “looked like ordinary graduate students”. For Spivak these banal mugshots are not taken as the first sign of an unfathomable enigma, but as a prompt to ask the question: how can I imagine the suicide bomber as a person who shares the same human consciousness as me? [16] Taking her cues from Kant’s instruction that the aesthetic enables representation to proceed without objective concepts, she argues that the story of the suicide bomber can only enter the field of intelligibility after “the imagination is trained” to comprehend the other as an agent that is also a knowledge producer. The method for “accessing” such an understanding is not confined to contextualizing the agency of the suicide bomber within his or her socio-political history. Spivak stresses that figurative representations can supplement the realm of reasoned debate and scholarly investigation. The most difficult part of this task is in the surrender to the other as an equal, and from this imaginative outreach and assumed equality, or what she calls “the uncoercive rearrangement of desire”, one can then learn from both a coercive belief system that already succeeded in persuading the young to want to die, and “what in us can respond so bestially”. Through this method Spivak proffers a warning that echoes Derrida’s philosophy of hospitality: suicidal bombing is a message inscribed in a body “if we cannot hear the message, then we will not be able to alter the hospitality”.

It is worth remembering that Derrida’s conception of hospitality is not grounded on a strict code which can determine in advance who is worthy of sheltering and who is to be banished. The answer to the stranger’s request for entry into the host’s house is never determined in advance of the encounter. By keeping open the space of encounter Derrida stresses that every culture has the capacity to be both hospitable to the other (to receive them without question), and also to colonize the other by receiving them as a guest (to confine their admission to ways which confirms the authority of the host). This tension cannot be resolved in an absolute way, and Derrida recognizes that “unconditional hospitality” is impossible. However, he also insists that to lose sight of the principle of hospitality is to risk losing the marker of justice.[17]

Hospitality, unlike charity or other forms of investment, is made without any expectation of return. The ‘gift of hospitality’ is not offered with any expectation of gaining economic security or social status. ‘Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification.’[18] However, such an open-ended ‘gift’ can never find a place within legal or political structures. As Derrida argues, the gift is also held together with strings. An unconditional welcome, a concept that he concedes is practically inaccessible, is also posed against its opposite, the imperative of sovereignty. The right to mobility must be positioned alongside the host’s right to authority over their own home. ‘No hospitality, in the classic sense, without sovereignty of oneself over one’s home, but since there is also no hospitality without finitude, sovereignty can only be exercised by filtering, choosing, and thus by excluding and doing violence.’[19]

Carlos Capelan’s sculpture My House is Your House (2005) is a stark reminder that hospitality is not unlimited hotel service. Capelan’s installations have repeatedly used the chair and a glass of water as a symbol of the minimum offering we can make to strangers. As part of his exhibition Only You, at the National Gallery of Uruguay, he tied two stakes to the legs and back of an old fold-up chair. These prosthetic legs transform the chair so it resembles a tent frame, but the sculpture also carries the more sinister echo of a body thrust rigid by shock treatment. The invitation to share a house is a precarious gesture, for it splices the guest’s acceptance onto the host’s tensions. When two rights are posed as both legitimate and incommensurable, the task of negotiation becomes urgent. The competing rights are unrankable. You cannot decide by putting one above the other. To betray hospitality in order to secure sovereignty is a moral loss. To denounce sovereignty for total hospitality is a political catastrophe. In this conundrum, relativism is no help. Decisions must made, and as curators Maria Hlavajova and Gerardo Mosquera argued, by virtue of its ‘dialogic concept’, art can play a vital role in participating in, rather than merely observing, the conduct and content of these debates.[20]

This is by no means an easy task. In one of the most thoughtful meditations on the explanations of the motivations of terrorists, Talal Asad exposed the traps that leading philosophers, anthropologists, theologians and political scientists fell into as they tried to “endow the dead terrorist with the motives of the living”.[21] Throughout his analysis of these different accounts that stress notions of religious sacrifice, escape from political oppression, a death wish, or even the pursuit of personal morality Asad finds the scholarly approaches to be at fault for either being too partisan to acknowledge that violence is inherent in all forms of political subjectivity, or failing to see that such intense motivations are rarely lucid and one dimensional, but more likely to reside in a myriad of contingent circumstances. Asad does not correct these shortcomings by taking us closer into the murky ideological and emotional accounts left by suicide bombers, nor does he evaluate any artistic representations of these actions. However, having shown that the experts in the mainstream political debates have offered inadequate responses to the most dreaded question of our time, it does leave us wondering, who else can address this issue?

5. Aesthetics and Politics in the Age of Ambient Spectacles

Baudrillard’s much-misunderstood claim that the Gulf War only happened on television was not a ridiculous denial of its reality, but an astute observation that the ‘real’ terrain that was being contested was the public imaginary.[22] It is worth recalling that in the weeks after 9/11 most US and many Western TV channels were fixated on the image of the planes crashing into the twin tours. In the absence of a hard explanation of the causes, and amidst endless speculation over its consequences, the media kept replaying the scenes of the terrible collisions. The documentary representation of 9/11 was perhaps the first to underscore what the Retort collective called the contradictory ‘struggle for mastery in the realm of the image’.[23] The images of war not only dominated the banners of newspapers and television broadcasts, but also passed from mobile phones to internet sites. Okwui Enwezor has gone so far as to argue that, after 9/11 the relationship between the image as a representation of an event and a signifier of a historical epoch collapsed.[24] He noted that as the image of planes crashing went ‘live’ from New York it was met with a global response that was summed up by the Le Monde headline “we are all New Yorkers now”. However, the feedback from these spectacular images soon thickened to such an extent, that Enwezor claimed that they blurred the function of the image as a signifier of an event. Boris Groys, another astute commentator on the function and power of the image in contemporary society, has noted: “the act of war coincides with its documentation, with its representation.”[25]

Now no act of war seems to be complete until the warrior also acts like an artist who can document and disseminate the act of destruction. This conjunction, and the ongoing interplay between the event and the image disrupted the visual order that previously underpinned the analysis of the image in the time of war. For instance, writing in the aftermath of the images of the Vietnam war, Susan Sontag insisted that while the photographer was often entangled in a moral dilemma between wanting to stop the acts of violence that occurred before his eyes, he was nevertheless committed, if not actually desirous, that the event continues so that he can capture the image of the horror.[26] This hunt for the ‘decisive image’ is now overwhelmed by the endless flow of digital images. On the internet the war is covered from every angle. With cameras strapped to their helmuts soldiers record and then disseminate both their shameless exploits and their heartfelt messages. This provided a low-to-the-ground version of the army’s practice of releasing video aerial footage of the moments before the destruction of a target captured by missiles armed with a camera. In this context, the veteran anti-war filmmaker Brian de Palma decided that the only way tell the story of this war was through a montage of images that were produced by mobile phones and amateur video cameras.[27] In one of her last published essays Sontag noted that “the pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib reflect a shift in the use made of pictures – less objects to be saved than messages to be circulated”.[28] Does the blurring of the boundary of the combat solder and the war photographer marks, not only transform the role of the witness but also herald the emergence of a new aesthetic realm, one that also blurs the boundary between the act of representation from political intervention?[29]

6. Discursive Turn in Art

The ‘war on terror’ prompted Liam Gillick to proclaim that it marked the need for new aesthetic and political models.

Much postmodern theory was based on how to understand a globalised environment of relativism, subjectivity and simulation. We are now facing a situation of specificity and desperate rationalisation in Iraq and elsewhere. Art became more and more diverse throughout the 20th Century. The Iraq war is an example of one of the many clarifications that may appear to render art more and more irrelevant. The US army has reconvened and prays to its God for strength. The factions in Iraq pray to theirs. Everywhere we see the routine obscenity. For artists, the combination of piety and pragmatism from politicians on all sides is not worth showing back to them. Documenting the increasing piles of body parts is pointless pornography. What artists can do is occasionally step outside of their normal practice and stand as citizens against the delusions of their leaders. This is an exceptional moment, where it is necessary for some to suspend their normal work in order to make a direct statement. In this context, the ICA exhibition is not an answer, it is a melancholic and sullen response. The idea of creating a memorial to something that is still taking place is an honest concession. It is no good looking back to some earlier moment of apparent cultural consensus. We have to look instead towards art as a carrier of differences and a perfect form for the revelation of paradox.[30]

In the description of his recent project for the New Museum in New York, It Is What It Is, (2009), Jeremy Deller stressed that “it is not an anti-war piece, it is already too late for that, it is about the war”. In one sense this may sound like a clever ruse to escape the dismissive label of mere protest art. However, it also echoes Gillick’s comment on the problematic function of the place of the artist during a time of war. How can an artist respond after it has already begun? The war itself is a hideous limit point of human violence that beggars explanations and justifications. If you cannot stop it, does this mean that you are forced into either, silent submission, or reportage of the horror? Deller’s project takes a different approach. It was an installation that included the banner with the title in English and Arabic, a map of both the United States and Iraq in which various cities had been twinned with each other[31], photographs from Iraq, the remnant of a car that was destroyed by an explosion in Baghad, and a comfortable and open space in which visitors to the Museum could, at different times of the day, speak to either a soldier who had served in the war, an academic, refugee or a UN representative. After its first installment at the New Museum in New York it toured throughout the United States. This project was not offering an answer to the war, on the contrary, it presented the opportunity to discuss the event with someone who had direct experience or knowledge. The banner makes a strong declaration, the photographs have a disturbing documentary function, and the car has enormous metonymic associations to the bodies of war. However, Deller adds that, the purpose of displaying these objects is to use them as ‘prompts’ for new discussions and he stresses the “project is about people meeting each other… my role is as a facilitator.”[32] Hence, we could surmise that the point of the project was not confined to the symbolic meaning or formal properties of the installation, but developed in the interplay between the objects and the creation of a small public sphere.

The function of art in the mediation of public dialogue, that was made explicit in Deller’s project, was not purely the result of a revolt against the ‘war on terror’. It also drew on an emergent set of aesthetic practices. Since the mid 1990s artists were increasingly using the form and materiality of social encounters rather objects as the basis of their practice, and a commitment towards collaborative practices that develop through the feedback between an initial proposition and the public response.[33] For instance, artistic collectives like Stalker were primarily concerned with the construction of events and even though they document their activities, these durable records were not given any superior representative status. Similarly, Rirkrit Tiravanija often turned a gallery into a temporary soup kitchen. He used the experience of preparing and serving food as instruments for ‘sculpting’ hospitality. But after the meal is over, what remains? Tino Sehgal, an artist who invites performers to improvise from his “constructed situations”, is also insistent that the experience of the ‘here and now’ should be the pre-eminent effect of his work.[34] Francis Alys project Bridge 2006, in which he organised scores of local fishermen in Florida and Cuba to link their boats to two chains that head towards each other’s horizon, furnished a poignant image of the yearning for connection and the perils of the crossing. However, it also provoked further questions: what did the fishermen say to each other? When the critic is in no position to answer such questions, what is left for them to do? The critical attention that is directed towards Superflex, a Danish collective that tackles the unequal power relations between centre and periphery by developing innovative links between local organizations with global technology experts, tends to stumble when it tries to evaluate the social effects, and hence falls back into an assessment of the formal qualities of the proposition.[35] In Mike Parr’s performance Close the Concentration Camps (2002), the artist sewed his lips and eyelids together, as a gesture of solidarity with the refugees and an attempt to expose the inhumanity of a system the Australian government was shielding from public view. Before the performance, art critic David Bromfield dismissed the idea as ‘false realism’ and questioned the vicarious motivation. Writing to Parr, he remarked: ‘We both know that it is no good simply becoming a glorified stand-in for a camp inmate’. Parr replied that doing something ‘bad’ might have a greater social effect.[36] Or finally, on the invention of an optic that captures the contradictory flows of urban life consider Lim Minouk’s video New Town Ghost (2005). Minouk offers a split perspective of a performance by a slam poet as she tours the perimeter of a contested urban site in Seoul on the back of an open truck. The repeated use of the cross-cutting perspectives, overlapping frames and blank screens is not only suggestive of the multiplicity of embedded stories, but it highlights the unpredictable consequences of the camera as its function alternates between active participation and passive witnessing. This is most evident in the contrast between the blasé gaze of the passersby and the insistent gesture of the rapper. In Minouk’s project, like all the others I have just mentioned, the narrative that emerges from the artwork exists in the ambiguous space – a kind of foreboding sense of precarity that comes from the tension between different forms of representation and the documentary content.

7. A Cosmopolitan Imaginary

We can define statements like that made by Liam Gillick and the project by Jeremy Deller in terms of a cosmopolitan imaginary. Political philosophers usually define cosmopolitanism as a necessary but impossible form of universalist agency – a sense of belonging to the world as a whole and not any place in particular. For Marcel Duchamp leaving home was a positive act of disentangling himself from the feeling of being rooted in one place. He enjoyed being away from Europe because, as he said towards the end of his life, it allowed him to ‘swim freely’.[37] From this perspective cosmopolitanism starts from a process of subtraction – it begins in de-nationalizing subjectivity and develops an angular worldview that is constantly challenging the familiar codes. It exists at subjective level as a “kind of inner exile”, that in turn, has been identified as “the core of the high cultures of the twentieth century”.[38]

These characterizations of artistic subjectivity and culture have been framed by a defensive and reactive vision of the self and creativity. However, it is my contention that subjectivity and creativity are more profoundly connected to both real and imaginary social forms. And in particular, by tracing an alternative perspective on the relationship between the self and the other, we can also modify our understanding of cosmopolitanism. For instance, Daniel Birnbaum has argued that an acknowledgement of the dynamic interplay with alterity will shift the basis of subjectivity towards the “principle of hospitality.”[39] From this perspective, Birnbaum and other curators like Hans-Ulrich Obrist, claim that the shift in artistic practice which highlights a reflexive mode of relating to others and things, is not just a way of stimulating the subject’s responsibility in the production of the artwork, but also an important step towards understanding the role of the artwork in the transformation of consciousness. This intersubjective turn in artistic and curatorial practice now needs to be complimented with a rethinking of the role of flow and mixture in the social. Hence, I will argue that cosmopolitanism proceeds in a more affirmative mode of hybrid subjectivity and the social aspiration for moral interconnectedness. Cosmopolitanism is not just an antidote to the politics of fear, but is a constitutive feature of artistic consciousness and social praxis. The artist Dan Graham expressed it well when he stated that all artists have the common dream of making work that is more social, more collaborative and more real than art.

One of the shortcomings of the responses by public intellectuals to the ‘war on terror and refugees’ is that they had no answer to the question: why do ‘decent’ people find the politics of fear so compelling. They lost sight of the creative force that accumulates in the associative dynamic of fear, and they failed to articulate a vision of hope that was already embodied in the ‘gut’ of their own everyday practices. To confront this conundrum it was necessary to take a different approach. Rather than speaking out with equally stern voices, furrowed brows and upturned chins, artists have found vitality through their experience of collective agency and imaginative critique. They have refused to lock the meaning of things within safe and pre-determined categories. They allow their subjectivity to be shaped but not overwhelmed by the antinomies of language and silence, multiplicity and coherence.[40] They have confidence that both individual acts of creativity and the general processes of culture – as a collective system for giving form to consciousness – will always require some level of permeability at its borders, a constant interplay between opposing elements.

By acknowledging that fear also includes wonder, or that desire contains violence, art can explore the interplay between similitude and difference in a manner that takes the imagination to places where logic, taste and ‘common sense’ would prohibit. The creative power of human imagination operates through the interplay of attraction and resistance. The associative dynamic that drives the imagination is common for both fear and hope. The process by which we realize one is the same for the other. All creative representations rely on metaphoric modes of association and disassociation. In this sense we could begin by acknowledging that the politics of fear and the artistic reactions share common tools for representation, classification and identification.

And it is for this reason, that some of the most astute commentators, such as Boris Groys and Okwui Enwezor have noticed that the recent wars have used the realm of the spectacle as part of a struggle for mastery over the imaginary. However, while both Groys and Enwezor applaud the capacity of art to exert “an autonomous power of resistance”[41], they also hold diametrically opposed views on the interconnection between art and the discourse on cultural diversity. For Enwezor, the visual practices that emerged in the context of the debates on multiculturalism and postcolonialism were not only instrumental in radically revising the parameters of modernist subjectivity, but he also acknowledged that they played a key role in the reconfiguration of the museum as a platform for cross-cultural exchange.[42] Groys is not so generous. He argues that the emergence of the “postmodern taste for cultural diversity” was “formed by the contemporary market, and it is the taste for the market.”[43] This is a bad case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The presumption that the discourse on cultural diversity only ‘emerged’ in order to fulfil the cannibalistic hunger of capital, is to reduce the agency of critics and artists that articulate their creativity through the prism of cultural difference to mere puppets of the marketplace. It is also typical of the more general unease to connect the critical power of art to some form of social practice, and this anxiety is compounded by the need to re-think the social as a space of cultural difference.[44]

Hence, we need a broader conception of artistic consciousness, creative practice and social context. One that can combine an appreciation of both an inherent scepticism and curiosity toward the different range of meanings that circulate, and the cultivated willingness to put forward new connections that are expressive of an abiding political aspiration to establish a common ground where people can meet. Without an imaginative reach towards the other, there would be no basis for grasping the democratic notion of equality, or the qualities of cultural difference with others, and it is through our imaginative explorations with the other that we also determine ethical paths of conduct. When this happens, the practice of art is no longer confined to the production of an object of esteemed value, but more like an ongoing medium that brings forth the understanding of moral connectedness. Kant’s conception of cosmopolitanism takes as a given the co-existence of the human instinct for destruction and the collective capacity to share common feelings. Kant was also painfully aware that the presupposition that humans have common sentiments and can communicate this sentiment of commonality was never grounded in historical fact. He could never point to a community that was founded on the principle of ‘sensus communus’. Within this context a cosmopolitan state may remain as a perpetual aspiration. However, if we re-think the articulation of cultural difference beyond the terms of either an Enlightenment transformation of the particular into the universal, or the neo-liberal demand for differentiation as the mechanism for self-identity, and begin to see the hybrid as a form for the perpetuation of a cosmopolitan aspiration, then it is possible to gain a glimpse of the cosmopolitan imaginary inside the hybridity that coils through every subjective, institutional and collective practice.

The cosmopolitan imaginary is therefore not just a zone of pure fantasy and aloof speculation. It is part of the realm of representation that is constantly criss-crossing both the real conditions of existence and future-present forms of possibility. Through a complex interplay that involves both reactions against the dominant forces and a submission to emergent modes of exchange, art contributes to the perpetual transformation of the realm of the imaginary. It leads to a new perspective on the concrete facts as well as extending the ways of seeing the world. Aesthetic experience thus shares the same presuppositions as cosmopolitanism. It proceeds from the position that some if not all my feelings, are shareable with others. The point of overlap is the point of creative exchange in any social encounter. It may not lead toward the consolidation of a position of universal agreement, but in each instance, there is the specific attempt to reach out toward a shared ground. We fail and so we seek again. The aesthetic experience may invoke a deeper sense of wonder and provoke wider sets of possible action than a common social transaction, but it nevertheless draws energy from the same process of translating its own singularity into the form of a universal. Even if there are a host of contingencies that withhold this achievement, there is still proof that the aesthetic representation of contemporary reality is, to some extent, an articulation of our inherent cosmopolitan imaginary.

[1] Cavafy, C.P., ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, Collected Poems, transl. E. Keeley and P. Sherrard, ed. George Savidis (London: The Hogarth Press, 1984).

[2] Arundhati Roy, Public Power In the Age of Empire, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004, p 7.

[3] For an early rendition of this concept as a metaphor for the figure of the stranger and the irreconcilable tension between certainty and difference in modernity, Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991 and also for a more resonant extrapolation of the role of fear in society see also his most recent writings: Liquid Fears, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006. See also Ambient Fears, edited by Pavel Buchler and Nikos Papastergiadis, Rivers Oram Press, London, 1996.

[4] Bourke, Joanna (2006). Fear: A Cultural History, Virago, London. Furedi, Frank (2005). The Politics of Fear, Continuum, London. Glassner, Barry (1999). The Culture of Fear, Basic Books, New York.

[5] Robin, Corey (2004). Fear: The History of a Political Idea, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[6] John Carroll, Terror: a meditation on the meaning of September 11, Melbourne, Scribe, 2002.

[7] See Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Fear, Reaktion Books, London, 2007, pp 42-3.

[8] Paolo Virno, ‘The Ambivalence of Disenchantment’, in Radial Thought in Italy, eds P Virno & M Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p.15.

[9] Virno p.17

[10] Freud, Sigmund (1948). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Alix Strachey (transl.), Hogarth Press, London.

[11] Zymunt Bauman, Liquid Fears, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006, p 2.

[12] Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1999, p 5

[13] Clive Thompson, “Web ushers in age of ambient intimacy”, 8 September 2008,

[14]Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, translated by Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009.

[15] Brian Massumi, “Fear the Spectrum Said”, 5 Codes: Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror, edited by Igmade, Birkhauser Publishers, Basel, 2006, p 287.

[16] These observations and comments were formed in a number of essays by Gayatri Spivak see, “Terror: A Speech After 9-11”, Boundary 2, 31. 2, 2004, pp 81-111, “Globalicities: Terror and its Consequences”, The New Centennial Review, 4. 1, 2004, pp 73-94. The last quotation is taken from Spivak, Gayatri. Keynote Lecture. Congress CATH on Translating Class, Altering Hospitality. Leeds. 23 June 2002.

[17] Derrida, Jacques and Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality. Trans. R. Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

[18] Derrida, Jacques, Of Hospitality, p 77.

[19] Derrida, p 55.

[20] Maria Hlavajova and Gerardo Mosquera, Cordially Invited, cat. BAK, Utrecht, 2004.

[21] Asad, op cit., p 45.

[22] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, translated by Paul Patton, Power Publications, Sydney, 2004.

[23] Retort, (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, Verso, London, 2006, p 15.

[24] Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the document in Contemporary Art, Steidl/ICP, New York, 2008.

[25] Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2008, p122.

[26] Sontag, Susan, On Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986, p 12.

[27] Brian de Palma’s aptly named film Redacted (2007), was in his words a sequel to his earlier film Casualties of War (1989). However, the key difference between the two films is that the story of abuse in the Vietnam war is told through the flashback memories of a central character, were as the Iraq War is represented through a myriad of stories that were found on the internet.

[28] Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others”, New York Times, 24 May 2004.

[29] This was the theme of the 2008 Brighton Photography Biennial, Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War, curated by Julian Stallabrass.


[31] It is worth comparing this use of the banner to the more disjunctive use of this form by Thomas Hirschhorn. Thomas Hirschhorn created an 18-meter long banner that was composed of images of dead bodies from the Iraq War. The images were all drawn from the most proximate of sources – the internet – and yet his title of this work, The Incommensurable Banner 2008, suggests that by putting these images together, he has not necessarily helped make sense of the event.

[32] The research that was involved in the preparation for this project, interviews with the participants, maps of the journey and video from the different points of the journey are all available on a website. I would argue that the exhibition comprises the totality of this process. See Dellar’s practice involves collaborations with individuals and groups. His attention is directed towards the ordinary and habitual systems of belief and his aim is to bring together groups who would not otherwise connect but may find value from being in dialogue with each other.

[33] Erkia Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, translated by Saskya Iris Jain, Routledge, London, 2008, p 18.

[34] “There are no photographs, no videos of his works – they are saved exclusively in the memory of the participants. It is possible to buy a “Sehgal” – but only in the presence of a notary, with whom one negotiates how and where the piece is to be executed.” Sebastian Friezel, “Ceci n’est pas le vide”,

[35] For instance in relation to the development of Biogas, a recyling and energy generating project in Africa, the critic Lars Bang Larsen concludes: “It is rather a matter of simulating some social structure to the point of the simulation becoming reality, aiming to stretch the concept of art and explode the objet d’art so that overall, cultural discussions may be involved and reflected in the sphere of art.” Lars Bang Larsen, Superflex: Art and Biogas, 1997,

[36] Adam Geczy, “Focussing the Mind through the Body: an interview with Mike Parr”, Artlink. Vol 23, No 1, 2003, p 45.

[37]For a detailed discussion of the thematic of exile in Duchamp’s life and practice see TJ Demos, The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2007.

[38] Amit Chaudhuri, “Cosmopolitanism’s Alien Face”, New Left Review, 55, Jan-Feb, 2008, p 96.

[39] Daniel Birnbaum, The Hospitality of Presence: Problems of Otherness in Husserl’s Phenomenology, Sternberg Press, New York, 2008, p 180.

[40] Kurt H. Wolff, Surrender and Catch, D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, 1976, p 10.

[41] Boris Groys, Art Power, p 13.

[42] O. Enwezor, “Mega-Exhibitions and the Antinomies of a Transnational Global Forum”, MJ-Manifesta Journal, Winter 2003–Spring 2004, p. 102.

[43] Groys, p 151.

[44] Groys is not alone in this reflex form of economic determinism in the face of cultural difference. The most influential essay in this field is still Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism, or the cultural logic of Multinational Capitalism, New Left Review, no 225, Sept – Oct 1997.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Νέο website
New website

To site του ΕΜΣΤ άλλαξε!
Μπείτε στο για να επισκεφθείτε το νέο ανανεωμένο site του Μουσείου.

EMST's website has changed!
Go to to visit the museum's new and updated website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Θα θέλαμε να σας ενημερώσουμε ότι λόγω αναβάθμισης, το website του ΕΜΣΤ δεν θα είναι διαθέσιμο μέχρι την ανανέωση του από τον πάροχο.
Σας ζητούμε συγγνώμη για την ενόχληση.

We would like to inform you that due to an update, the EMST website will not be available until the provisioner refreshes it.
We are sorry for any inconvenience.