Seminario tenuto il 7 novembre 2020 presso la Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Jesi, all’interno del ciclo dal titolo Interventi attorno Chiari
Nicolas Bourriaud, Radicant: pour une esthétique de la globalisation , 2009
In 2011, the Victoria and Albert Museum held a retrospective exhibition on postmodernism entitled Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990, curated by Glenn Adamson (1972) and Jane Pavitt, which declared the conclusion of postmodernism itself according to the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud (1965), who introduced the term Altermodernism in his essay Il Radicante (2009). Before explaining the term Altermodern, I would like to point out the date within the title of the exhibition, which logically suggests that this new era, which followed postmodernism, cannot be located in 2011 (the date of the exhibition itself), but rather from around the mid-1990s. If the postmodern cycle, as the title of the exhibition states, ends in the 1990s, it must necessarily be followed by the next epoch and, precisely in the mid-1990s, a series of other phenomena that occurred at that time refer to it, such as the birth of the so-called Post-Rock or new literary experiences, such as that of the Wuming collective, of Giuseppe Genna (Giuseppe Genna 1969), Niccolò Ammaniti (1966), Aldo Nove (1967), Tiziano Scarpa (1963) and with them others, as well as new experiences in the visual arts that we will see shortly.
As Bourriaud writes, the prefix ‘alter’ puts an end to the culture of the ‘post’, bringing together the notions of alternative and multiplicity and specifying that “it indicates another relationship with time: no longer the aftermath of a historical moment but the infinite unfolding of the game of temporal circuits, at the service of a spiral vision of History, which advances while returning to itself. The altermodernity, which consists in a change of position with respect to the modern fact, does not consider the latter as an event whose aftermath is to be painted, but as a fact among others, to be studied and considered in an ultimately de-hierarchical space, that of a globalised culture concerned with new syntheses”.
The altermodernist, in contrast to postmodern logic, wants to regain possession of the temporal consecutiveness of the modern, and is therefore an alter (other) modern that recalls it in its definition. At the same time it abandons the temporal linearity of modernism to enter the space-time of the artist’s journey, which in its simultaneity gathers signs that connect past-present-future, contracting or expanding it. Bourriaud entitled his text The Rooting Tree, a plant metaphor that tends to highlight an equally important aspect of this alternative modernity. Rootlings, unlike the more common plants with fixed roots, propagate by putting down roots as they progress, as in the case of the ivy. This aspect becomes a metaphor for a society marked by multi-ethnicity due to geographical migrations and which necessarily also includes cultural migrations and hybridisations. Moreover, the French critic wants with it to renounce the aspect of the preservation of national roots typical of colonialist and Eurocentric modernism. Bourriaud argues that the rejection of this renunciation is necessarily synonymous with conservatism and an expression of sovereignty. This equation is all too automatic and to which he attaches further equally mechanical conditions. For example, he considers it indispensable that the new art forms necessarily constitute themselves as multidisciplinary, otherwise they too would express conservatism and nationalism. For Baurriaud, the subject and object of rooting art do not have a stable identity, the uni-disciplinary thus becomes stanziality. The true subject and object of the rooting artwork is the path within which the artist applies himself in an effort of translation from his own language-culture of origin into the languages-cultures he crosses, an encounter that necessarily leads to a multidisciplinarity that denies the supremacy of the visible (image) or of the abstract immateriality of the word. The identity of the work is constituted by the movement, by the translating path made by the artist, creator of paths in a landscape of signs, within which he moves like a semi-naut. Rooting is a relativistic way of thinking: while not being able to renounce or forget his own cultural affiliations and origins, the rooting artist decides on a non-belonging that emancipates him from the single cultural scheme. It is this encounter, this friction between different cultural seeds, that produces new and different meanings, but only by excluding the ‘I’, that ‘I’ typical of the Western and colonial perspective inherent in modernism, which presupposes superiority. In essence, the rooting artist chooses cultural multidisciplinarity and spatial precariousness, rejecting the singularities of belonging, in an attempt to oppose the standardising globalisation typical of colonialist modernism.
“Globalisation”, writes Bourriaud, referring to globalisation, “first and foremost questions our modes of interpretation. More precisely, it is the site of a total upheaval in the relations between figuration and abstraction. Because modernism is linked to the capitalist machine precisely at the level of representation of the world; where the general image we have of it is manufactured, then the multiple images produced by artists, which can echo, confirm or refute it. As the propagator of an abstract virus (‘deterritorialising’, to use a Deleuzian term), globalisation replaces local singularities with its logos, organisation charts, formulas and recodifications. Coca-Cola is a logo without a place; on the contrary, each bottle of Château Yquem contains a history based on a specific territory. However, this history is actually mobile. It is imported with the bottle, a portable sample of the terroir. The moment in which human groups lose all living contact with representation is the abstract moment through which capitalism unifies its properties: globalisation thus carries within itself an implicit iconographic project, that of replacing the figuration of lived space-time with a whole apparatus of abstractions, whose function is twofold. On the one hand, these ‘abstractions’ camouflage the forced standardisation of the world with generic images, in the manner of a construction site fence. On the other hand, they legitimise this process by imposing, against indigenous imaginaries, an abstract imaginary register that puts the historical repertoire of modernist abstraction at the service of an ersatz universalism with a veneer of ‘respect for cultures’.
But isn’t freeing oneself from the territory, freeing oneself from the weight of national traditions, the way to fight against these ‘house arrests’ that I criticised earlier? Here we must distinguish between the movement of identities in a nomadic project and the constitution of an elastic citizenship based on the needs of capital, immersed in a culture divorced from the soil. On the one hand, the creation of relations between the subject and the singular territories he or she crosses; on the other, the industrial production of screen-images that allow individuals and groups to be detached from their environment and prevent any vital relationship with a specific place. When the Colombian or Russian minors employed by a Swiss multinational, Glencore, are dismissed in the name of new, more profitable relocations, what image of power are they confronted with? An abstract image. Interchangeable employees, an unrepresentable power, the administration of an unlocatable power. The new powers do not take place: they unfold over time. Coca-Cola bases its on the repetition of its name in advertising, a new architecture of power. How can we take the Bastille if it is invisible and protean? The political role of contemporary art lies in this confrontation with a real that defiles itself to appear in the form of logos and non-figurable entities: flows, movements of capital, repetition and distribution of information, so many generic images that aim to escape any visualisation not controlled by communication. The role of art is to become the radar screen on which these stealthy forms, identified and embodied, can finally appear and be named or depicted.
[…] Non si combatte l’astrazione-irrealizzante se non con un’altra astrazione, che dà a vedere ciò che le cartografie ufficiali e le rappresentazioni autorizzate dissimulano».
Thus Bourriaud perpetuates the process of abstraction that has characterised all of contemporaneity, finding no alternative solutions. In order to escape the globalising and homogenising uniformity and rediscover singularity, “many artists”, writes Bourieaud referring to radical artists, “extract an anodyne form from everyday reality or an anecdote from the past”, thus practising that act of abstraction described by Worringer in 1907 in Abstraction and Empathy, implemented through the isolation of an element from its original context. We have to discover, Bourriaud argues, the ripples of a globalising reality that standardises even spaces by insinuating them like grains of sand in the machine that manufactures the global. The exhibition of rooting works can therefore take place in spaces such as airports, shopping centres, or in the Chinese quarter of New York, places of passage and movement of people and cultures, but also of goods and capital.
“These hyper-capitalist practices [of radical artists] rest on the idea of an art without raw material, which is based on the already-produced, on ‘already socialised objects’, to borrow Frank Scurti’s expression.
[…] It also means participating in the defiticization of the work of art: the deliberately transitory character of the work of art is not affirmed in its form, since the latter is sometimes durable and solid, nor is it a question of claiming any immateriality of the work of art forty years after conceptual art. The “defiticization” of art is not at all about its status as an object: on the other hand, the famous commodities of our time are not, as Jeremy Rifkin points out. No, this transitory and unstable character is represented in contemporary works by the status they claim in the cultural chain: a status of event, or of replicas of past events”.
Bourriaud’s mistake is in believing, along with the Critical Art Ensemble, that “if industry is unable to differentiate its products through the spectacle of originality and uniqueness, its profitability collapses”.
Bourrieaud’s theoretical complex thus becomes bankrupt, precisely because it reveals itself to be an abstraction that, like the cold currents, as Corrado Maltese had already revealed in the mid-1970s, would like to oppose a system with inadequate and captious instruments. A theoretical abstraction that cannot be matched in reality: then because it entrenched itself behind the illusion that the use of one’s own body or idea would be opposed to the system, making it unmarketable, and today, the same illusion of inserting into the ripples of the system grains that jam the capitalist machine, persevering in the same mode of abstraction and reproducing it in the places of flux of globalisation. At the time, they did not take into account how the capitalist machine would have made even the immateriality of those forms profitable, marking their defeat; today represented precisely by those grains provided for the economic feeding of the art market, one of the many faces of the capitalist and globalising flow. An economic alimentation able to contain within it all cultures, now expressed in the univocal vocabulary-monet that we all utter daily in social practice within the information gathering systems, the true face of the intangible economy, which like a noose tightens around the strangled existence of any form of life. Perpetuating itself precisely thanks to the migration imposed by the capitalist flow, which like a black hole swallows up every form of existence, dragging every culture into it, incinerating and pulverising it, attracting to itself even the most distant geographical resistance. By placing itself at the centre of the existential universe of the entire planet, it has dissolved the distant. The rooting is its expression, its manifestation, not a possible exit hole, because the mesh of the system has no ripples. Precariousness is not the enemy of culture because it destroys history, the longevity of testimony, because it crumbles the meaning of things and cultures, but because it is the economic food par excellence of capital. The more perishable a subject is – be it human, objective or immaterial – the sooner its substitute can be put on the market. It is precisely this unstoppable and frenetic replacement of every form that allows capital to swallow up every existing manifestation that fattens its economic body. Aesthetic precariousness, as Maltese had already shown, does not prevent its economic expendability. Since this is the knot Bourriaud’s reflection does not want to reach. All the aesthetic forms he lists are economic food, whether stable or precarious, cultural production is. Every act of ours dragged into the capitalist black hole turns into economic food. Even when they are not thought of as economic subjects, they become so by changing into information, as in his book, which is also an economic subject.
The greatest abstraction is the non-recognition of this irreversible fact.
For Bourriaud, the journey, the central theme of altermodern thought, is not necessarily physical, it is a path of collecting information of various kinds which, he assumes, will hybridise in multiplicity to create new beings and objects. A journey that can also be conducted in the Internet, the reality and metaphor of the altermodern itself and, I would add, the immaterial black hole that swallows up the data entered, transforming them into the material wealth of the multinationals of Google, Facebook, etc., which have now become interactive media. These media, which have now become interactive, are much more powerful and penetrating than the previous media that were used passively, such as television. They are able to virtually permeate the lives of users, leading them to a double existence, where the physical-geographical one is accompanied by the immaterial and digital one. And within which the continuity between the time of the subject-worker, therefore subject-producer, and the time of the subject-consumer is sharpened, where free time and entertainment introduce him into an uninterrupted economic dynamic. It is precisely through interaction that the user becomes a product of the new media, to which, through their use, he freely provides his personal information. This information enables communication to be targeted and effective in terms of offering content and arousing needs. These aspects do not only concern advertising communication, but also include journalistic, political, social, cultural and economic forms of communication. In short, what we generally call information tends to shape the imagination of a society.
It is no coincidence that the last part of Bourriaud’s text concentrates on dissolving the various criticisms made, from time to time, of the thought behind Duchamp’s artistic actions, having to rehabilitate that act of abstraction so that his theory does not crumble.
“When in 1913 he produced a work entitled Roue de bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), consisting of a bicycle wheel on a stool, he did no more than bring the capitalist production process back into the sphere of art. First of all, he abandoned the traditional tools of art (the paintbrush, the canvas), which in artistic production represented the equivalent of pre-industrial working conditions. With Duchamp, art validates the general principle of modern capitalism: it no longer works by manually transforming an inert material. The artist becomes the first consumer of collective production, a labour force that connects to this or that reservoir of forms: yes, he is subject to the general regime, but nevertheless he is free to dispose of his own space and time, unlike the worker, who is forced to ‘connect’ his labour force to a production device that exists outside of him and over which he has no power”.
This, then, is what the entire theoretical complex that Buorriaud assigns to the rooted artist reveals itself to be: an elitist attitude of disposition of one’s own space and time, an assumption that is, moreover, absolutely illusory given that this space and time necessarily produce information.
That artistic journey, whether physical or immaterial, produces information, it matters little for or against the capitalist system, since each piece of data feeds it, increasing its economic volume and power of control.
The answer to capital could only be to interrupt the flow of information, consumption and production.
Otherwise we proceed by means of abstract hypotheses, which risk the risk of an intellectualistic affectation as an end in itself. As mine and Bourriaud’s hypotheses evidently are.
Knowledge about images – a prominent aspect of today’s information – and their linguistic aspects should therefore be widely disseminated and belong to the common school curriculum.
All the more so in a media system, such as the contemporary one, which is constituted as eminently visual: both with respect to the nature of the media themselves and of the messages they disseminate, despite the presence of widespread illiteracy on the subject. The risk we run today is that the illusion exercised by images will damage the possibility of democratic choice for individuals. In the absence of tools to decode the message, the user can only be subjected to its transmission; indeed, it is all the more powerful because it acts at an unconscious level, appealing to cognitive, physiological and cultural aspects that belong to each of us.
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