Rationale and Research Context
Zones of Conflict: Rethinking Contemporary Art During Global Crisis will consider how recent geopolitical crises have impacted visual culture and artistic practice. Comprising four research workshops, the series will assemble an international grouping of interdisciplinary participants—including artists, architects, curators, art historians and cultural theorists—in order to consider pressing questions concerning the intersections between contemporary art and war, statelessness, uneven geographies, and transnational communities. Organized by TJ Demos of UCL’s History of Art Department, the four events will be held in London at four partner institutions: the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), Tate Modern, Tate Britain, and UCL’s History of Art Department (in cooperation with its recently inaugurated Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art). The series is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and will run between October 2008 and February 2009.
Zones of Conflict takes as its point of departure the concept of “permanent war,” which designates a new condition of conflict without geographical or temporal limit (Hardt and Negri, 2004). For the last six years, the US has claimed to wage a battle against terrorism worldwide, and military conflict has expanded beyond the historical boundaries of localizable national geographies; meanwhile, terrorist agents of transnational organizations threaten to strike at any time, anywhere. Beyond the immediate effects of fear, violence, and the destruction of human life, the result has included the creation of multitudes of refugees, driven away from both warfare and the economic poverty increasingly concentrated in urban areas of the developing world (Davis, 2006). For Giorgio Agamben, these conditions have inaugurated a new era of state power, against which stateless subjects have no recourse to legal protections—whether national or transnational—because human rights have proven unenforceable outside of citizenship (Agamben, 1998). Ironically, military occupation has initiated a cycle of displacement, economic hardship, and cultural alienation that creates the conditions for new waves of extremism and repressive regimes (Balibar, 2003). Globalisation has entered into crisis, in sharp contrast to its earlier celebrations as an era of democratization and technological connectivity facilitated by the liberalization of markets worldwide.
The representation of war, refugees, uneven geographies, and diasporic social conditions has become an urgent subject of interdisciplinary examination in recent years—from art history, cultural geography, cultural studies, and architectural theory (Henry and Love, 2000; Rogoff, 2000; Biesenbach, 2003; Franke, 2005; Retort, 2005; Demos, 2006). It is equally a matter of urgent concern within contemporary artistic practice, as evidenced by several recent large-scale exhibitions, such as Documenta 11 (2002), the 9th Istanbul Biennial (2005), and the 2nd Seville Biennial (2006). Moreover, the question of bare life has formed a point of investigation for Documenta 12 (2007), which has initiated a major research project carried out by an international selection of participating magazines. This workshop series intends to consider and critically build on these recent achievements.
Of particular interest is how military, social, political, and economic conflicts relate to rifts within representation, which operates in four interrelated ways. First, whereas modernist artists frequently processed violent conflict through the shocking tactics of montage, today representational disjunctions tend to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, reflecting and creatively reinventing the media-processed reality of war (Enwezor, 2005; Retort, 2005). Second, as artists increasingly turn their attention to the representation of “bare life,” they have reinvented documentary techniques by avoiding the problematic assumptions of neutrality, objectivity, and the transmission of fact, which have discredited photojournalism in the past (Demos, 2006). Third, for artists who investigate transnational spaces, digitization and internet-based distribution have facilitated the creation of new heterogeneous and uprooted representational structures. And fourth, artists have taken up socially-engaged collaborative practices in order to form communities that challenge the alienation of diaspora, but that also attempt to create social forms that enable democracy’s antagonistic basis (Bishop, 2004).
In summary, these four subjects—image wars, bare life, uneven geographies, and transnational social space—intersect in three distinct ways: first, these concepts offer opportunities to develop a more nuanced cultural understanding of globalisation’s crisis via its critical and interdisciplinary artistic negotiations; second, these subjects form alternative ways to comprehend the contemporary trauma of representation in the face of conflict and social displacement, offering potential insight into the modes by which art differs from the sensationalism and propaganda of mass media and governmental publicity; and third, these topics provoke questions about the status of the subject in the current era of global war, ranging from the representation of its traumatic experience to its social conditions across boundaries of nation, class, and race.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. D. Heller-Roazen, trans. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Balibar, Étienne. 2003. We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship. J. Swenson, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Biesenbach, Klaus, ed. 2003. Territories: Islands, Camps and Other States of Utopia. Berlin: KW-Institute for Contemporary Art and Buchhandlung Walther König.
Bishop, Claire, 2004. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004).
Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.
Demos, T.J. 2006. “Life Full of Holes,” Grey Room, no. 24 (Fall 2006), pp. 72-88.
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Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude. New York: Penguin.
Henry and Love, ed. 2000. War Zones. North Vancouver, B.C.: Presentation House Gallery.
Retort, 2005. Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. New York: Verso.
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*Image: Sam Durant, detail of Proposal for Iraq War Memorial (Symbolic Transposition of effects of war in Iraq to the U.S. and England - 10 Downing St - Parliament - U.S. Capitol and the White House), 2007 (courtesy: the artist)