Welcome back to Altermodern Week here on Click Opera. I very much liked how yesterday's conversations went -- in the wee small hours people were exchanging recommendations for Chinese pop videos. Today I want to round up definitions of the Altermodern, from its inventor, curator Nicolas Bourriaud, but also via the Chinese Whispers about the idea that have percolated through the press and the web since the Altermodern show opened at Tate Britain last month. In a way I'm just as interested in the misconceptions as the official version, and I think Bourriaud -- eager not to overdetermine the idea in advance -- has kept things tactically vague.
Walter Benjamin defined "the art of the critic in a nutshell: to coin slogans without betraying ideas". I think Bourriaud has coined a slogan which at this point is a placeholder, but he has the ideas too. In the video above he spells a few of them out, but also says that he thinks of the Altermodern exhibition as a way to pose questions (I find the Altermodern manifesto too vague). When he has answers, Bourriaud says, they'll come in the form of a book. That book will be The Radicant, due next month from Sternberg Press, based here in Berlin and also the publisher of my Book of Scotlands.
The blurb for the Radicant gives some support to the statement on MootBlog that the altermodern is "modernism re-loaded". But this is a post-colonial modernism. Modernism has edged back in many recent art shows; at Documenta (with its slogan "modernity is our antiquity") and the recent Berlin Biennial, for instance. Regional modernisms became the theme of the rooms at the end of the V&A's big Modernism exhibition a couple of years ago, and various shows we've had here in Berlin about modernism's impact in Africa, in Brazil, in India, in Egypt.
First time around, though, modernism was very hub-and-spoke. "We" owned modernity, Africa, Brazil, India and Egypt could only borrow and adapt its pure Western essence to local conditions. This time around, things are different. "In ordinary language," says Bourriaud, "‘modernizing’ has come to mean reducing cultural and social reality to Western formats. And today, modernism amounts to a form of complicity with colonialism and Eurocentrism. Let us bet on a modernity which, far from absurdly duplicating that of the last century, would be specific to our epoch and would echo its own problematics: an altermodernity whose issues and features this book seeks to sketch out.”
Modernism, says the blurb for The Radicant, made a purified essence of modernity and rooted it in a Western context. The altermodern, in contrast, will defy the idea of roots, both the re-assertion of roots endemic in identity politics and culturalism and the rooting which is the result of the global monoculture which asserts itself as "the universal" around which are grouped a series of "others" and "differences". Instead, the altermodern proposes an alternative model for which the key metaphors are the constellation, the archipelago, the wanderer successively rooting and uprooting himself via exile and the crossing of borders, and understanding things via the key activity of translation.
"Altermodern contains two words," explains Bourriaud in the Tate video. "Alter refers to multiplicity and otherness. Modern, we're supposed to know what it is. The big issue is that postmodern times are over. Postmodernism is over. And we don't know exactly what is going on after that. Altermodern is a kind of dream catcher, to capture the characteristics of the modernity which is to come, this modernity which will be specific to the 21st century. Postmodern meant that we were after modernism. It's really linked to history, and history is an arrow, in a way. Today we are more living in a maze, and we have to get meanings out of this maze, and this is the big stakes around the altermodern. What is our modernity? Altermodernity should be global. Modernism in the 20th century was actually quite Western-based, even if a few countries gathered into the debate in the 20th century, India, Brazil, many others, it was still based on very occidental ideas. The new modernity to come has to be global from scratch." This is, in other words, a Rise of the Rest sort of modernity.
In another video, Bourriaud admits: "Altermodern is a term I invented to designate the field of what's next after postmodernism... Actually it's more of a debate, of a negotiation, and the exhibition is the conclusive process. Altermodern is the cultural answer to what alterglobalisation is, which is a cluster of singular and local answers to globalisation in the political field. Modernity-to-come, which I really believe is emerging, won't be continental, won't be something to totalize, but more of an archipelago of different answers, with the artists addressing many different issues, and I believe in this form of the cluster, the constellation, points are connected one to another, rather than a continental or totalising form."
Now let's come to the Chinese Whispers part, the fun part. This is where we look at what this complex and nebulous idea of the altermodern has become in gossip, in the press, in conversation. My own first exposure to the idea of the altermodern came when I went to London last year to give a talk at the Architectural Association subtitled The Rise and Fall of Postmodernism. Shumon Basar of the AA interviewed me, possibly for Tank magazine, and told me about his interview with Bourriaud, from which this is an extract:
Shumon Basar: Why did you, as an art curator and critic, feel the need to engage with globalisation and shifting identities?
Nicolas Bourriaud: Because these mutations recalibrate how art is made and how we understand it. Art is an alternative editing table for reality and its major political task consists in showing how precarious our so-called “natural” context is. Art can convey doubts about the dominant social and cultural spheres we live in. It illuminates that there are always alternatives.
I didn't quite grasp what the altermodern was at first, but it seemed to be about translation, non-commerciality, and postcolonial multipolarity. I soon found myself explaining the idea to the editor of Art World magazine at the Frieze art fair -- my old friend Vici Macdonald. We were partners back in the 80s, when Vici worked for Smash Hits, and taught me the Smash Hits writing policy -- that you could mention just about anything as long as you explained it afterwards in a brief, amusing phrase. For instance, if you mentioned Cubism in Smash Hits, you'd add "the moment when some snoot artists in Paris decided that it was terribly interesting to make a human face look like a piece of flattened origami".
Later, I'd slip references to the altermodern into Click Opera. It became a useful weapon against shows and artists I didn't like, like Elizabeth Peyton at the New Museum. "I welcome the altermodern if it leads to fewer shows like Live Forever and more like Cairoscape," I said in Peyton Place or the altermodern? I also related the idea of the altermodern to the point-to-point model in my application of airline route models to cultural flow, opposing it to the hub-and-spoke model. This seems particularly relevant, since that piece was about translation.
We'll look more tomorrow at how the UK press has received Bourriaud and the concept of the altermodern (with shocking hostility, for the most part), but today I want to extract from British newspapers just the bits where they tried -- if they tried -- to put the concept of the altermodern in a nutshell.
"Altermodernism, if I understand it," wrote Laura Cumming in The Guardian, "is international art that never quite touches down but keeps on moving through places and ideas, made by artists connected across the globe rather than grouped around any central hub such as New York or London. You might take the worldwide web as a model and think in terms of hyperlinks, continuous updates and cultural hybrids. It is most definitely postcolonial, transitional and to some extent provisional, but what it is not, I don’t think, is anything as grand, or significant, as a movement."
Here's Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph: "The term was invented by Nicholas Bourriaud [sic], Gulbenkian curator of contemporary art. It "suggests that the period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end", Mr Bourriaud explains. "Altermodernity arises out of negotiations between agents from different cultures and geographical locations. Stripped of a centre, it can only be polyglot… The archipelago and its kindred forms… function here as models representing the ALTERMODERN."
And here's The Times' Rachel Campbell-Johnston: "The good news is that Post-Modernism is dead - which must surely come as quite a relief to all those who were never sure in the first place precisely what Post-Modernism was. Now they no longer need even try to get their heads round the problem. The Post-Modern has been outmoded, apparently, like pre-decimal money. But by what? That's where the bad news comes in, for according to Nicholas Bourriard [sic], the French cultural theorist and the curator of the fourth Tate Triennial, the new era of the Altermodern has dawned. His introductory essay, under such headings as “Rails and Networks: The ‘Viatorisation of Forms'”, offers sentences such as this: “Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities, disdaining the nostalgia for the avant-garde and indeed for any kind of era - a positive vision of chaos and complexity.” The Altermodern, it would seem, is essentially about global culture. The starting point of Post-Modernism, curators suggest, is the question “where am I from?” But now, thanks to such innovations as the internet, we need no longer define ourselves within traditional boundaries. The artist is a wanderer, drifting about in space and time, drawing from a vast, fluid fund of collective ideas. And his or her work is far less about a single finished object than about continuing processes of development and connection in which one thing always seems to be leading to the next."
Finally, to get us in the mood for tomorrow's cleaver-wielding, a couple of flip, reductive one-liners.
Ben Lewis in the Evening Standard: "The theory is complex and this is an incredibly uneven exhibition that, like the mind of any French theorist, contains flashes of genius, passages of stomach-churning political correctness, a bit of bean-bag art (art that you enjoy while lying on the bean-bags placed in front of it)... The whole mélange is served up with the thick buttery sauce of French art theory, and the catalogue essays will give anyone except a curatorial studies MA student a crise de foie."
Finally, Stewart Home in his blog Mister Trippy: "The art itself doesn’t really matter, it is there to illustrate a thesis. The thesis doesn’t matter either since it exists to facilitate Bourriaud’s career; and Bourriaud certainly doesn’t matter because he is simply yet another dim-witted cultural bureaucrat thrown up by the institution of art."
Who needs an archipelago of differences when you have something that simple, which cancels itself out that neatly?
I love hearing Bourriad talk. It makes sense and it is good to hear someone speaking intelligently about big themes in art and society.
If post-modernism had a fault as a critical mode, it was (is?) that it equated all thought as equal, allowing for cynical feedback loops to nullify discussion.
The two problems for 'Altermodnism' becoming the definition of a new era of artistic production are
1. Post-art market art won't be able to afford to pay for big 'theme shows' like the Tate Triennial (I think the National Gallery's director said something to that effect recently?)
2. If Altermodernism is what Altermoderism says, then Altermodernism will be defined by someone other than the king of post-modernism, the man who defined the ultimate affectation of a culture based on art market expansion, relational aesthetics. We don't know who it will be, either someone not based in London or New York, or it could be no-single person, with no defining term.
As an aside, I employ relational ideas in my own work, but it is hard to deny that their flourishing as a funded art-form was based on an economy that has been somewhat deflated.
Also, Altermodernism seems to me to be more like a post-critical post-modernism, i.e. a forward thinking post-modernism, rather than a recent history obsessed post modernism.
Thanks for that, I enjoyed your points and tone. The only thing I disagree with is the idea that Relational Aesthetics is a result of the expansion of art markets. I think that it's the opposite -- something which reflects and produces a contraction of art markets.
Like you, I do some work that could broadly be described as Relational Aesthetics. I haven't been able to monetize it outside of public sector events budgets, which tend to pay travel, accommodation and perhaps a small fee. The current economic downturn is, I think, partly responsible for the offer from a New York gallery to fill their space in May with a performance installation we aren't even thinking of trying to sell. In a climate where goods aren't really changing hands any more, you might as well fill your gallery with an interesting happening.
OK, I'm feeling nasty and devilish today, so I'm going to play the Devil's court-appointed advocate:
Just people trying to make a career, a buck, a buzz. Sell books, sell tickets, sell themselves out. Of course, people have to live--can't blame them for that, but should artists really care (not just visual artists)? The most interesting artists are more often those who can't be easily categorized or limited by any convenient terminology, useful as it might be to both history and the semi-ignorant museum-goer.
Artists don't and can't work in a complete vacuum, of course, even if they try to, but isn't it better to try to create without worrying about "isms"? Isms, jisms--a mess in the end...
How is Momus any different from Knut Hamsun, aligning himself with the invaders--or state-sanctioned establishment--to defend himself from his enemies?
All that said, the Devil finds it astonishing how much the Brits still begrudge the French for being themselves, for, well... just being anything but British--reminds him of that old joke about how after the last world war was over the British and the French could finally get back to doing to what they much preferred--not hating the Germans, but each other.
I'm not obe of those anarchist libertarians who thinks nothing good can come out of the state. I'm a socialist, and I think progressive states with progressive policies can be globally positive. I'm pro-EU, for instance. And I don't have an instinctual loathing (we'll see a lot of this tomorrow) for state arts bureaucrats, especially if I think they know the way the wind is blowing. Bourriaud -- co-founder of the world's best museum, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris -- does.
Knut Hamsun is a red herring. Despite valiant attempts by Stewart Home, we cannot turn Bourriaud into Hitler or Mussolini. Try harder, devil's advocate -- Godwin's Law applies even in hell!
Modernism and postmodernism describe such huge periods, aesthetics and ideologies, and I don't think - from what I've seen or read of it - that altermodernism is able to have that sort of scope. In other words, it doesn't look like an overarching thing, but perhaps it could become one small element of that overarching thing, whatever it turns out to be.
I do agree that postmodernism is 'over', though, and has been for some time. In fact, as soon as someone nails a cultural moment, and people in general agree with that nailing of a cultural moment, then that moment is in fact over. So we can really date postmodernism's decline with the theorists who nailed it in the mid-seventies. There followed a "self-conscious" phase in the eighties, then dissipation and death in the nineties/noughties.
"Postmodernism will disappear by becoming so accepted that it's invisible and omnipresent. Whereas all reactions against postmodernism only serve to make postmodernism more visible, more important, something distinct from us, ahead of us, rather than written all through us. Personally, I think Japan will be the country which first embraces whatever comes after postmodernism, because Japan is the society currently most at ease with postmodernism."
No, and this is something I'm starting with tomorrow. I think London should be as proud of being the place where the altermodern was unveiled (albeit by a Parisian) as it was when it was chosen to be the site of the 2012 Olympics. But was it? Was it fuck! In fact, what we'll see tomorrow is the equivalent of the British daily press rounding on the Olympic games, during the opening ceremony, and declaring that they mean nothing, are a total waste of time, and hate freedom.
As for Japan, I think it will become a museum dedicated to the postmodernism of the year 1985, combined with the world's pioneering Slow Life nation. It won't dominate the art world, but it will dominate sustainability and quality-of-life issues. With exports down 45%, what else awaits it? But I think it will do the post-materialist thing with absolutely exemplary elegance, and teach us all how to live. And by "us" I mean the Chinese as much as the Europeans and Americans.
I think Bourriaud is the most overrated "thinker" writing today. I find his "ideas" almost wholly vapid, even when (esp. when) I agree with him. I have no idea why he's so famous. He tells the art world what they want to hear, and we eat it up.
wait a minute, all this talk of otherness, moving away from a monolithic trad grand narrative, acknowledging cultures outside of the west as important and vibrant in their own right...
haven't these themes already been covered inside postmodernism already?
seems like pomo has never really been defined accurately enough in the first place, making moving onto "the next thing" difficult when we can't agree how it would be different anyway.
maybe if i could recognise a piece of altermodern art as ushering in a new era in the same way warhol or roxy music ushered in pomo... is this going to be as much of a damp squib as "pseudo-modernism"?
can't say i'm all that excited, but i'd like to be proved wrong, and anything that allows those traditionally excluded into the fray can't be all that bad, obvs.
I think that there is a point to be made that people should be recognising some actual art or cultural manifestation as an important radical shift before we start theorising about it. It's not enough just to say we're tired of postmodernism. Where is altermodernism's equivalent of Warhol's soup cans, ushering in postmodernism, or Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon, ushering in modernism? Perhaps it's at the Tate right now, but I wouldn't bank on it...
I mean this honestly and not snarkily: how does this differ essentially from what we already have? I think it's encouraging that we want to start re-naming ourselves--a fertile exercise--but let's be honest about it. Bourriaud's central metaphor--the constellation--is actually Walter Benjamin's (from Origin of German Tragic Drama). I'm not sure how the underlying concept is different from Deleuze's rhizome, or any of the other fracturing, decentering models of identity and culture we've gotten over the past 30 years.
The problem for me is the positing of the new, the radically different. I think we need to get past this as a model for thought and practice--not to something like recycling (we've been there already), because recycling presupposes that the concept has already outlived itself, and become useless in its previous iteration. Rather, I'd like to see something like a concept built for continuous use--as, for example, Benjamin's thought has proven to be. I believe that we can develop a non-reactionary sense of continuity.
Postmodernism was the perfect trapping, a converging-but-never-converged map of the world. It is not quite clear if one gave it any credit, how we would escape from it.
Now though is worth to consider some tactics and residual aspects of postmodernism outside the perfection of the hermeneutic circle:
- Postmodern texts are as much filled with vertigo inducing constructions as they are full of disclaimers about what the texts are not about, about questions that were considered without answers, about point of views for which there was no space, about genuine doubt, about other omissions, about details that will be covered or not somewhere else. This was a paradoxical but effective (on the plane of texts) way to quasi-achieve totality.
- Confronted with the defeating idea that the linkages of signs, symbols, and signals lead to nowhere unless some anchoring is provided, postmodern thought often tried to let speak, conjure or witness a pre- or post-semiotic ground: be it the a quasi-religious thought on being, the idea that "I'm" not but "we are", the event of listening, the notion that the deepest recesses of our consciousness are not baggage but machines of purpose, ...
- The interest in neglected point of views - in the name of the weak, though their possible textual realisation was a sufficient textual motive.
- Any philosophy is accessible, if at all, from inside/starting from common language and sense. Indeed philosophies fail because they exhaust their common-sense fuel before they reach their or any target, or late collapse because what was common isn't really. There are many interpretations (ah, the irony) for what this means for the relationship of common sense and philosophy or art. The point that is being made here is that there is a bootstrapping process to which common sense/language are fundamental. Some aspects of postmodernism are well aware of this, indeed they are a sort of exercise in how little common sense one can get away with (the pun was too alluring, by I mean in the literal sense, mostly) or how to invoke communality.
I hope or fear that we can escape postmodernism only by a renovated belief (that seems the right word) in shared common sense. Would that be the product of globalisation or of new global shared fears/issues? This sounds rather too hopeful and ill-fated.
What is happening seems more that with globalisation comes a new kind of stratification such that each stratum always believed or start again to believe in a common sense (local to the stratum) (cause?). Rather an illusion, but when there is friction between the strata there is failure of communication and/or violence.
Postmodernism simply a pas de deux with some/our limits.
also common sense is not the way out of postmodernism (a stupid metaphor, anyway) because postmodernism still thinks (yeah it told me) that common sense is either a myth or many generations of accumulated ideology, prejudice, or an excuse for not thinking.
I pretty much agree with you about Caius ... I left just over a year ago and would say it's certainly in thrall to something late/high modern - maybe it's because most of the fellows were born in high modern times. That said, Jeremy Prynne (whose poetry bears the legacy of l/h modernism) was one of the first to play me what I'd now identify as matsuri-kei...
Why is Charles Avery an altermodernist artist? I have seen his work in Edinburgh 2 weeks ago and I think it looks like a 3D illustrated detective novel+mythology+travelogue. It doesn't really involve translation or the point to point thing. Although he is from Mull and works in London, London doesn't play much role in his work. So how altermodern is he actually?
the problem with a what's next after postmodernity is that it's bound to fall into a species ofmodernism - the something new. perhaps if we can view altermodernity as a form of modernity, as a transformation not a transcendence, then we can interrogate the spokes of a centre that does not and shouldnot hold
i think it's worth noting that the dimmest, most-uninterested professional commentator is also the one who reaches for the world wide web as a metaphor. I don't particularly care that I'm writing this on the internet.