Charles Perrault kicked off the battle of the Ancients and Moderns at the very moment when Europe was discovering the splendours of all but unknown civilisations: China, Japan, South-East Asia, the Indian subcontinent – and the Aztecs and Incas deep in the forests of Mexico and Peru. This was around 1689, and a totally new concept of modernity as the equal of antiquity was emerging at the very moment when Europe was no longer alone in the world and would soon be forced to seriously revise its theological universalism in the light of an indisputable human pluralism. It would be centuries before the last of the resultant forms of apartheid crumbled and the strivings for Robert Filliou’s "principles of equivalence" achieved some kind of balance.
But now there were a before and an after, together with an elsewhere and an other. To sum up, there were a history and a geography, with the utopian literature of the time – More, Bacon, Swift – describing these others and elsewheres as contemporary societies, and the Enlightenment soon endorsing them as models.
A branch of science gelled in the eighteenth century which Ampère christened ethnology: new worlds, fragmentation of Christianity, vernacular languages, large-scale migrations in Western Europe, formation of new communities. History obligingly lent itself to a new geography, as cultural areas, structured ethnic groups and indigenisation emerged as convenient categories – cartographies as heroic as they were lethal – to accompany the colonial period. The West, Edward Saïd has said, invented the Orientalism whose contemporary was the nation: the years 1775–1840 brought national consciousness and the nation-state. Also being invented was the new tradition of the national community. In the 20th century Benedict Anderson showed that the only communities are imagined ones. The nation is one such, and the art it produces is held to be perfectly superposable on it. A little later Arjun Appadurai – at the very moment when global interaction was offering an unprecedented opportunity for reformulating the local, abandoned the description of communities for that of imagined worlds, with "cultural forms… fundamentally fractal, that is…possessing no Euclidian boundaries, structures or regularities". These imagined worlds – our "everyday life" for Appadurai – are the outcome of a congruence of all kinds of fluxes (as in "Fluxus Internationale Festspiele"): diasporas, financial migrations, deterritorialisation of people, and images and ideas simultaneously reconstructed, redistributed and dispersed by the electronic media. And so, as Gertrude Stein put it, "There is no there there". Instead there are fluctuating "heres" – everywhere, possibly. If the twentieth century’s imagined community – the nation – was born out of fruitful cooperation between the language of print and, among other things, merchant capitalism, the twenty-first century’s imagined worlds, scattered everywhere and variable in extent, are the fruit of the media and the massively global migrations that go with computerised capitalism. Result: today’s genealogies, like the history that murmurs them, are reduced to a purely shifting geography of overlaps, dispersions, diffractions of cultural models and transmission processes, and complex movements of imaginative appropriation and reappropriation.
The loop closes with this brief history of the tension between cultural homogenisation and heterogenisation, for the global is plainly without externality. And so we are left with the choice of the construction and interplay of "heres" – more or less spontaneous, more or less ephemeral – that are shifting, deterritorialised and "inward".
But there exists an infinity of these "heres", of which the most relevant are testing out new, paradoxical, unmapped forms of proximity. Whence the ineluctable rack and ruin of the old path of the transmissions and kinships that so long shaped the cultural topology (and drift) of the continents, and its replacement by kairos (opportunity) and J.-P. Vernant’s science of the "propitious moment". This "opportunity" – not so much opportunism as a mode of action: a commitment, a resistance, a speaking out – shapes effective narratives which, responding quickly via the global media to "mass-scale interchange", usefully perforate, here and there and for a time, the world’s horizontality. This is why Clifford Geertz’s statement that "giving to art objects a cultural significance is always a ‘local matter’" remains true, despite the absence of a clearly defined history, solid memories and a panoptic geography. It remains true, I say, as long as the work of art is not just one more brand-name product, interchangeable sign or GPS point on a shifting web of symbolic trajectories. The art of "here" that befits us works through discontinuities, operates on all fields at once, at the risk of belonging to none; it is as much a way of doing things as an aesthetics.
There is no longer any outside and there are no longer any exoticisms except shared ones, as the title of the Biennale de Lyon 2000 indicated. As a result the art of imagined worlds is turning towards use, the everyday and the ordinary. It is testing out certain forms (of proximity) which are none other than Wittgenstein’s forms of life.
For Michel de Certeau’s practice of everyday life, the "polytheism of scattered practices" is the guarantee of an "everyday historicity". "The approach to culture", he writes, "begins when the ordinary man becomes the narrator" (my italics). From the same angle – in pretty much the same period, but for other purposes and from the other end of the spectrum – Erving Goffman makes the "presentation of self in everyday life" a jumble of strategies. And well before him – an eternity ago – Wittgenstein was hunting down the rules of language in everyday language; and as a result, trapped in an everyday language itself dependent on "forms of life", the philosopher no longer had a place for himself: a stranger within, with no outside.
Working via equivalence, Duchamp with the ready-made, Schwitters with his Merzbau and Halprin with her tasks changed the paradigms of inside and outside by deterritorialising both within a hermetic globalism. Fortunately, the ordinary and the everyday that could have become mere mannerism or style have transcended the norms of the historical ready-made and its contemporary academic avatars (forms of burlesque expanded cinema) and found a niche – as in "tax niche" – alongside the rituals and grammatical and behavioural rules of the social order. This everyday now manifests the poetry of all this: of the imagined, fluctuating, realityattached worlds that make (imagined?) life the last external recourse. (Is there any interiority left? What reality do we share? Of what conflicts are we the mirages? Where is imprescriptibility to be found? And so on.)
We have no choice, then, but to speculate about the present nature of Paul Ricoeur’s "time and narrative", which needs to be applied to what we still have left: the far from negligible spectacle of the everyday – the title of the 10th Biennale de Lyon.
During the 1950s everyday life in art spread between the East and West Coasts of the decelerating colonial West, with John Cage’s silence and George Brecht: "Now Duchamp thought mainly about ready-made objects. John Cage extended it to ready-made sound. George Brecht extended it further… into the realm of action… everyday actions, so for instance a piece of George Brecht where he turned a light on, and off… Now you do that every day… without even knowing you’re performing George Brecht"; with Allan Kaprow, who "set theatrical
involvement by the audience against involvement in everyday habits"; with Anna Halprin’s taskoriented movements; with Robert Rauschenberg and the Judson Dance Theater; and with, to stay in the same decade, Terry Reilly’s Composition for Ear, La Monte Young’s Poem for chairs, tables, benches, etc. , and George Maciunas. That was a long time ago.
Spectacle in the West was born with the Greeks and tragedy. The Renaissance turned it into perspective and the Situationists into an ideology. "The growth of the ‘cultural’", wrote Raoul Vaneigem in Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967), "indexes the movement that changes ‘the people’ into ‘the public’". That too was a very long time ago. Spectacle and Everyday have been orchestrating civil life since the beginning: conflicting poles, with on the one hand mise en scène and contemplation, and on the other anonymity and doing (to cut things short, let’s say art versus life, although the first version is only the tiniest bit less simple). Today they are major factors in, as we have seen, a globalised artistic practice whose signifiers are swapped, confronted, overlaid and reversed.
Paradoxically the dazzling, world-sweeping success of biennials in the 1990s, which had to do with those imagined worlds, contributed to the expression of particularisms – Edouard Glissant’s isthmuses and archipelagoes – and to the erosion of the processes of kinship and transmission, or rather to the immediate vanishing of differentiation. Today, before we start talking about electronic capital, trade, aesthetic issues, the syndromes of universality and relativism, the problematics of centre and periphery, conflicts between cultural zones, and power struggles of all genres (and genders), the question of the everyday remains crucial. Spectacle is its economic extension, its finery and its greatest fear. And, in a way, its underlying reality.
Hou Hanru has agreed to lead the 10th Biennale de Lyon. The man who gave us "Global Multitude", "Fabrique du monde", "Wherever We Go" and "Go Inside" is naturally the man of those imagined worlds which "negotiate with the non-outside".
10th Biennale de Lyon
16 September 2009 -
3 January 2010
>> Thierry Raspail