The Altermodern failure

In Radicant, published in 2009, the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud tries to construct an essayistic path aimed at identifying the new cultural routes that characterize the new millennium, putting it as a response to the current practices of globalizing capital and finding a possible solution in the practices implemented by some contemporary artists. In it he introduces the term Altermodern, indicating the current historical period, whose assumptions date back to the nineties of the previous century.

As Bourriaud writes, the prefix ‘alter’ puts an end to the culture of the ‘post’ by collecting the notions of alternative and multiplicity and specifying that «it indicates another relationship with time: no longer the after of a historical moment but the infinite unfolding of the game of temporal circuits, at the service of a spiral vision of History that advances while returning to itself. Altermodernity, which consists in a change of position with respect to the modern fact, does not consider the latter as an event to be painted afterwards, but as a fact among others, to be deepened and considered in a space finally de-gerarchised, that of a globalised culture concerned by new syntheses».

The altermodern, in opposition to postmodern logic, wants to regain possession of the temporal consecutivity of the modern, and is therefore a modern alter (other) that in its definition recalls it. Abandoning at the same time the temporal linearity of modernism to enter the space-time of the artist’s path, which in its simultaneity collects signs that connect past-present-future, contracting or dilating it. Bourriaud has titled his text Radicant, a plant metaphor that tends to highlight an equally important aspect of this alternative modernity. Radicals, unlike the more common plants with a fixed root, propagate by taking root as they progress, as in the case of ivy. This aspect is a metaphor for a society marked by multi-ethnicity due to geographical migration and which necessarily also includes migrations and cultural hybridizations. Moreover, the French critic wants to renounce with it that 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 expression of sovereignty. An equation that is all too automatic and to which he links further equally mechanical conditions. He believes, for example, that it is essential that the new forms of art necessarily constitute themselves as multidisciplinary, otherwise also expressive of conservatism and nationalism. For Baurriaud, the subject and the object of radicant art do not have a stable identity, the uni-disciplinary becomes residing. The true subject and object of the radicant work is the path within which the artist applies himself in an effort of translation from his own language-culture to the languages-cultures he crosses, an encounter that necessarily leads to a multidisciplinarity that denies the supremacy of the visible (image) or 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 semionauta. The Radicant one is a relativistic thought: even if he cannot renounce his own cultural affiliations and origins, the Radicant artist decides for 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 excluding the “I”, that “I” typical of the Western and colonial perspective inherent in modernism, which presupposes superiority. In essence, the radicant artist chooses cultural multidisciplinarity and spatial precariousness by rejecting the singularities of belonging, in an attempt to oppose the standardizing globalization typical of colonialist modernism.


“The latter”, writes Bourriaud understanding globalisation, “first of all questions our modes of interpretation. More precisely, it is the place 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 made, then the multiple images produced by artists, which can echo, confirm or refute it. The propagating agent of an abstract virus (‘deterritorialising’, to use a Deleutian term), globalisation replaces local singularities with its logos, organisation charts, formulas and recodings. Coca-Cola is a logo without a place; on the contrary, each bottle of Château Yquem contains a history founded on a specific territory. However, this history is actually mobile. You import it with the bottle, 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 an 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 building site fence. On the other hand, they legitimise this process by imposing, against indigenous imagery, an abstract imaginary register that places the historical repertoire of modernist abstraction at the service of an ersatz of universalism endowed with a patina of ‘respect for cultures’.

But to un-glue from the territory in this way, to free oneself from the weight of national traditions is not the means to fight against these ‘house arrests’ that I criticized before? Here we have to distinguish between the movement of identities in a nomadic project and the constitution of an elastic citizenship based on the needs of the capital, immersed in a culture detached from the ground. On the one hand, the creation of relations between the subject and the singular territories it crosses; on the other hand, the industrial production of screen-images that make it possible to detach individuals and groups from their environment and prevent any vital relationship with a specific place. When Colombian or Russian minors employed by a Swiss multinational company, Glencore, are dismissed in the name of new, more profitable relocations, what image of power do they face? With an abstract image. Interchangeable employees, an unrepresentable power, the administration of a non-localizable power. New powers do not take place: they unfold over time. Coca-Cola bases its own on the repetition of its name in advertising, a new architecture of power. How to take the Bastille if it is invisible and protean? The political role of contemporary art lies in this confrontation with a reality that defiles itself to appear in the form of non-figurable logos and entities: flows, capital movements, repetition and distribution of information, as many generic images that intend to escape any visualization 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 represented.

[…] One does not fight the abstraction-irrealizing if not with another abstraction, which gives to see what the official cartographies and the authorized representations conceal”.


Thus Bourriaud perpetuates that process of abstraction that has characterised the whole of the contemporary world by not finding alternative solutions. In order to escape the globalizing and homogenizing uniformity and rediscover the singularity “numerous artists”, Bourieaud writes again referring to the radicant artists, “extract an anodyne form from everyday reality or an anecdote from the past”, thus practicing 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 must discover, Bourriaud maintains, the ripples of a globalising reality that also unifies spaces by creeping like a grain of sand into the machine for making the global. The exhibition of the rooted works can therefore take place in spaces such as airports, shopping malls, or in the Chinese district of New York, places of passage and movement of people, cultures, but at the same time goods and capital.


“These hyper-capitalist practices [of radicant artists] rest on the idea of art without raw material, which is based on the already-produced, on ‘already socialized objects’, to take up the expression of Frank Scurti.

[…] It also means participating in the defiticization of the work of art: the deliberately transitory nature of the work is not affirmed in its form, since the latter is sometimes durable and solid, and it is not even a question of supporting 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 goods of our time are not, as Jeremy Rifkin recalls. 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”.


The mistake made by Bourriaud is in believing, together with the Critical Art Ensemble, that “if the industry is unable to differentiate its products through the spectacle of originality and uniqueness, its profitability collapses”.

Bourrieaud’s theoretical complex thus becomes a failure, precisely because it reveals itself to be an abstraction which, 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 found in reality: at the time, because he was entrenched behind the illusion that the use of his own body or idea would be opposed to the system, resulting untradeable and, today, deluding himself to insert in the ripples of the system grains that jam the capitalist machine by persevering in the same abstraction mode and reproducing it in the places of flow of globalization. At that time, no account was taken of how the capitalist machine would also make the immateriality of those forms profitable, marking their defeat; today represented by those very grains foreseen for the economic nourishment of the art market, one of the many faces of the capitalist and globalizing flow, an economic nourishment able to contain within it all cultures, now expressed in the univocal word-money that we all profess daily in social practice within the systems of gathering information, the true face of the intangible economy, which like a noose tightens around the strangled existence of any form of life. Perpetuating thanks to the migration imposed by the capitalist flow, which like a black hole swallows every form of existence, dragging every culture into it by incinerating and pulverizing it, attracting even the most distant geographical resistances. By placing itself at the centre of the existential universe of the entire planet, it has dissolved the distant. The radicant is its expression, its manifestation not possible exit hole, because the mesh of the system does not present ripples. Precariousness is not the enemy of culture because it destroys history, the longevity of witness, because it crumbles the sense 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 placed on the market. It is precisely this unstoppable and frenetic substitution of every form that allows capital to swallow up every existing manifestation that fattens the economic body. The aesthetic precariousness, as Maltese had already demonstrated, does not prevent its economic expendability. Since this is the knot that Bourriaud’s reflection does not want to reach. All the aesthetic forms he lists are economic food, stable or precarious as they may be, cultural production is. Every act of ours dragged into the capitalist black hole changes into economic food. Even when they are not thought of as an economic subject, 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 undisputable fact.

For Bourriaud, the journey, the central theme of altermodern thought, is not necessarily physical, it is a path of gathering information of various kinds which, he supposes, by hybridizing in the multiplicity will create new beings and objects. A journey that can also be conducted in the internet, reality and metaphor of the altermodern itself and, I add, the immaterial black hole that swallows up the data entered by changing them into the material wealth of the multinationals of Google, Facebook, etc.. These media, which have become interactive today, are much more powerful and penetrating than previous media that were used passively like television. They are able to virtually permeate users’ lives, leading them to a dual existence, where physical-geographic existence is accompanied by immaterial and digital existence. And within which that continuity between the time of the subject-worker, therefore subject-producer, and the time of subject-consumer, where free time and entertainments introduce it into an uninterrupted economic dynamic, is exacerbated. It is precisely through interaction that the user becomes a product of the new media, to which, through their use, he provides his personal information free of charge. Information that allows communication to be targeted and effective in proposing content and arousing needs. Aspects which do not only concern advertising communication, but which include journalistic, political, social, cultural and economic forms of communication. In short, what we generically define as information and which tends to form the imagination of a society.

It is no coincidence that the last part of Bourriaud’s text concentrates on the dissolution of the various criticisms directed, from time to time, at the thought behind Duchamp’s artistic actions, having to rehabilitate that act of abstraction so that his theory does not crumble.


“When the latter elaborated a work entitled Roue de bicyclette in 1913, consisting of a bicycle wheel on a stool, he only brought the capitalist production process back into the sphere of art. First of all he abandoned the traditional tools of art (the brush, the canvas), which in artistic production represent the equivalent of pre-industrial working conditions. With Duchamp art validates the general principle of modern capitalism: it no longer works by transforming inert matter manually. The artist becomes the first consumer of collective production, a workforce that connects to this or that deposit of forms: of course, he is subject to the general regime, but nonetheless he is free to dispose of his own space and time, unlike the worker, forced to ‘connect’ his workforce to a production device that exists outside him and over which he has no power”.


Here, then, is what the whole theoretical complex that Buorriaud assigns to the radicant artist reveals: an elitist attitude of disposition of one’s own space and time. Absolutely illusory, since that space and time necessarily produce information.

That artistic journey, physical or immaterial, produces information. It makes little difference whether for or against the capitalist system, since every data feeds it by increasing its economic volume and power of control.

The answer to capital could only be the interruption of the flow: of information, of consumption, of production; but is it feasible?

Otherwise, we proceed by abstract hypotheses, which risk the intellectualistic affectation for its own sake, as evidently mine and Bourriaud’s are.

The only way of defence lies only in school education, in the creation of new consciousness and new imagery, given the pre-eminent role of transmission assumed by the image since the dawn of the contemporary era to the present day, a transmission that through the communication media has multiplied, becoming more and more pervasive, covering every aspect of today’s life (information, politics, economy, culture, etc.) and acting as a battering ram of conscience. If only it were not already too late, given the economic and business logic now adopted by educational institutions, corrupting society from its roots, so that the plant can only grow in the same direction. Knowledge about images and their linguistic aspects should therefore be widely disseminated and belong to common school curricula. All the more so in a media system, such as the contemporary one, which constitutes itself as eminently visual: both the nature of the media themselves and the messages they disseminate, despite the presence of widespread illiteracy on the subject. The risk that we run today is that the illusionism exercised by images damages the possibility of democratic choice of individuals. In the absence of the tools to decode the message, the user can only suffer its transmission; indeed, it is all the more powerful precisely because it acts on an unconscious level, leveraging cognitive, physiological and cultural aspects that belong to each of us.



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