I. Working across the Nth Fields

Posted on September 16, 2011

To our generation of cultural producers, location has long ago liberated itself from geography. We map our location on a transregional lattice of shifting nodes representing intense occasions of collegiality, temporary platforms of convocation, and transcultural collaborations. As we move along the shifting nodes of this lattice, we produce outcomes along a scale of forms ranging across informal conversations, formal symposia, self-renewing caucuses, periodic publications, anthologies, travelling exhibitions, film festivals, biennials, residencies, and research projects. This global system of cultural production takes its cue from the laboratory: as in all laboratories, the emphasis is on experiment and its precipitates. However, to the extent that this system is relayed across a structure of global circulations, it also possesses a dimension of theatre: a rather large proportion of its activity is in the nature of rehearsal and restaging.

In this DISPATCH, we would like to address the dilemmas as well as the potentialities of a mode of cultural production that is based on global circulations yet is not merely circulatory; and a mode of life that is based on transnational mobility but is not without anchorage in regional predicaments.

Everywhere and increasingly—whether we are teaching at a para-academic platform in Bombay, engaging in curatorial discussions or conducting research in Berlin, co-curating a biennial in Gwangju, contributing to an international exhibition in Karlsruhe, responding with critical empathy to a triennial in Brisbane, or developing a research project in Utrecht—we find ourselves working with interlocutors and collaborators in what we think of as nth fields. All nth fields have similar structural, spatial and temporal characteristics. In structural terms, these are receptive and internally flexible institutions, rhizomatic and self-sustaining associations, or periodic platforms. In spatial terms, these are either programmatically nomadic in the way they manifest themselves, or extend themselves through often unpredictable transregional initiatives, or are geographically situated in sites to which none (or few) of their participants are affiliated by citizenship or residence. Temporally, the rhythm of these engagements is varied: it traverses a range of untested encounters, from face-to-face meetings and discussions through email and Skype, and can integrate multiple time lines for conception and production.

These nth fields certainly throw into high relief the vexed questions that haunt the global system of cultural production: Who is the audience for contemporary global art? How may we construe a local that hosts, or is held hostage by, the global? Can we evolve a contemporary discussion that does not merely revisit the exhausted Euro-American debates of the late 20th century by oblique means? Is it possible to translate the intellectual sources of a regional modernity into globally comprehensible terms? What forms of critical engagement should artistic labour improvise, as it chooses to become complicit with aspirational and developmentalist capital and its managers across the world?

At the same time, these nth fields are optimal nodes for the staging of what the art theorist and curator Sarat Maharaj has described as ‘entanglements’ [1], the braided destinies that knot together selves accustomed to regard one another as binary opposites: colonising aggressor and colonised victim; Euro-American citizen and denizen of the global South; Occidental and Oriental; and so forth. A history delineated under the sign of entanglement lays bare the ideological basis of all fixed identities, conjoins them in sometimes discomfiting but always epiphanic mutuality. When such identities are thus unmasked, de-naturalised and dissolved, we are free to work out new forms of dialogue and interaction across difference, a new and redeeming solidarity.

In these complex circumstances, the architecture of belonging can never be static. In our own practice as theorists and curators, we have drafted different versions of it in different places. We have drawn on various models of emotionally and intellectually enriching locality, including the mohalla (an Urdu/Hindi word meaning a web of relationships inscribed within a grid of lanes, streets and houses), the kiez (a Germano-Slavic, specifically Berlin word, meaning much the same thing, and conferring on the resident the privilege of non-anxious belonging), the adda (a Hindi/Bengali term meaning a venue for friendly conversation and animated debate), and the symposium (not the academic format but its original, a Greek word signifying a drinking party that was also a venue for philosophical discussion).

1. Sarat Maharaj, ‘Small Change of the Universal’ (unpublished keynote paper, delivered at the 1st Former West Congress, BAK/ basis voor actuele kunst on 5 November 2009). A video recording of Maharaj’s address may be viewed here.

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