March 2nd, 2009


Altermodern Week 2: What's it all about, Nicolas?

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?