Identities and Geographies in Motion: How Art Challenges its Boundaries | CRISTINA COLOMBO

September 27, 2013

.The drama of contemporaneity is that we don’t  identify any more in a single city, we are chameleonic nomads who become the city in which they live. We are no longer cives, but astronauts in a flexible space and stateless persons, uprooted from the places of birth, simulating different experiences of cities. Therefore, there are no more models, but variations of cities, which open the ethics, environmental and ethnic question of the future of the new communities. Everything has almost to be re-thought, while its transformation is already on.[1]

The themes of travel, transfer, a ceaseless pilgrimage of people against the backdrop of metropolitan or rural, urban or natural landscapes – whose complexity or might is so surprising to give them the traits of characters who share in the actions of the protagonists –, have always been adopted by literature as means to describe the most intimate sides of human life and the propensity of mankind to move towards the unknown and the “other-than-self.” Driven by necessity, commissions or by a desire for discovery and cultural growth, artists have, in turn, always played the role of travellers.

Ability or freedom to move or change quickly, variability, instability, fickleness, but also vibrancy and versatility – terms which can express the concept of mobility – have acquired a particular importance in current artistic practices and have contributed to transform what was identified as the “contemporary art system”[2] in an extremely changeable and fluctuating network of relationships. Mobility, in this sense, takes on the dual meaning of opportunity for interacting, put into effect through or regardless of a physical movement of the artist and the viewer, and mutability of the spaces in which art is revealed to the public, that is where it is produced and exhibited.

On one hand, advanced technologies and the ease of access to communication systems, capable of ensuring a continuous flow of information and real time contacts among persons who are physically and culturally distant from each other, questioned the social, spatial and temporal parameters that characterized the art world in the second half of the twentieth century. They made possible for people to travel in a virtual way without leaving their place of residence, to develop multiple parallel projects exercising a remote control, and sometimes overcome to the problem of political barriers between nations.

The phenomena that we are witnessing today have by now become part of the everyday life of the population of the most advanced nations, but their genesis had been much longer than what we usually think. Some authors began to use computers and networks to realize artworks at the dawn of the history of these resources. Initially they exploited them as support tools or for sharing ideas, later they investigated their expressive potential. Following an approach developed in the course of the 1950s and 1960s with kinetic experiments, multimedia environments, and video art[3], their researches focused on computer graphics and electronic music. The results remained, however, almost alien to the world of private and public collectors at least until the 1980s, when the number of exposures dedicated to these languages increased.

The publication of numerous writings and the interest of theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Derrick De Kerckhove and Lev Manovic and philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Jean-François Lyotard, among others, drew attention to the new forms of communication, while some events acted as precursors to a growing number of showcases. They were the Ars Electronica festival, hosted in Linz (Austria) in 1979, an exhibition titled Aaron at the Tate Gallery in 1983, presenting artworks created by Harold Cohen using a computer, and the great show Les Immatériaux curated by Lyotard at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985 [4].

The occurrence which radically revolutionized the world of communications and, consequently, digital art, however, was the facilitation of the access to the World Wide Web, reached in 1994. The immense potentiality of this instrument, in fact, gave way to the popularization of these forms of expression and initiated a general reappraisal of distances and borders among people and things.

The spread of digital languages raised also thorny matters regarding the conservation and transmission of works of art and intellectual production – a heritage sometimes made by intangible assets – and the identifiability of the authors. In the event of interactive projects with a processual development, the problems even extend to the possession of property rights. Consider, for instance, the questions highlighted by a project such as Cao Fei’s RMB City, born on the virtual platform of Second Life and followed by the Serpentine Gallery in London (from 2008 till 20 September 2013)[5]. In the introduction to the book New Media in the White Cube and Beyond Christiane Paul wrote:

Like other art forms before it, new media art has shifted the focus from object to process: as an inherently time-based, dynamic, interactive, collaborative, customizable, and variable art form, new media art resists “objectification” and challenges traditional notions of the art object [6].

The inclination of New Media Art to be participatory, simultaneous and open to the interaction with other users prevents its creators, its curators and even the institution where it is exhibited to control in full its development. Artists, thus, acquire the task of giving the initial impulse, provide the premises for the progression of the work of art, follow its parabola and finally decreed the end of its evolution.

Even more, New Media Art profoundly challenged the role of the public, that not only contemplates the work and participates in a collective action, but has a decisive influence on the outcome. Beyond conferring a sense to the work by means of its presence, the public leave a personal imprint which changes the meaning and conceptual content of the piece. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to contextualize an artistic project and define the cultural influences that have determined its evolution or shape. Artists must accept that it is the result of a world-wide context where all those who have access to computer networks or to the place where it is displayed are potentially co-authors.

The peculiarities of New Media Art have hindered its acceptance in the market and have relegated it for a long time to the margins of the channels for the dissemination of contemporary trends, whereas it took a prominent position in Internet. It had, in fact, visibility mainly in virtual platforms, which promoted its language and initiated a critical debate, with contributions from eminent intellectuals beside more popular, “impulsive,” and emotional comments. Its affinity with the current information technologies, however, gives it an essential testimonial value in a world that, thanks to the media, is moving towards a planetary interconnection and real-time exchanges.

The not clearly perceptible mobility of digital communications flows sets alongside the increasing transfer of people and organizations, facilitated by the moderate cost of transports, the rising number of agreements between nations to promote trade and the almost globalized size of the art market. The contemporary art system at the beginning of the twenty-first century seems to be, indeed, a swirling set of relationships, characterized by a new geo-cultural framework.

The United States and New York defended their leadership in the 1990s, but the rise of Eastern powers, determined not to undergo neo-colonial attitudes, ceased them to be the undisputed centre of the system. They have thus become one of the capitals of a polarized world in which information and contacts are even more important than the physical location. Nevertheless, it is still crucial for those who work in the field – artists, curators, museum directors, or gallerists – to be present in many places and have galleries and exhibition spaces in the core centres of the planet. The reasons are different depending on their purposes and the audience to whom their action is addressed.

Pioneer art galleries, dealing with new trends and focusing on innovation and emerging talents, need public exposure to succeed in their cultural endeavour, which is essential to support original researches. “Blue chip” galleries, on the other hand, have to overcome the competition of auction houses through the organisation of both popular and refined exhibitions and through mechanisms of spectacularization of the artwork. Their strategy includes sponsorships, collaboration with museums, planning of installations and performances in public spaces and private events. Among the firms that have based their policy on internationalization and have notably contributed to “branding” the art trade, the empire of Larry Gagosian doesn’t seem to wane and paved the way for other powerful rivals such as Jay Jopling’s White Cube or the Pace Gallery.

The leading galleries and the major museums have also opened branches in the capitals of the new markets – India, South Korea, People’s Republic of China, Russia and in some areas of the Middle-East –, resorting to their usual operating models and importing their artists. At the same time, they acted there as talent scouts. At first, Western culture has exerted a strong influence on the artistic production of the newly developed nations. In adopting techniques and ideas that were not necessarily close to their traditions, these countries, however, have produced soon works imbued with their own values, belying the fear that globalization and the increased frequency of exchanges and contacts would have ineluctably lead to homologation and a loss of local identities. What has emerged is a lexicon deriving from the Western knowledge that goes hybridizing with the cultures in which it sets [7].

Also no-profit and not-for-profit associations has assumed a fundamental importance in the patronage of cutting-edge, multi-cultural, collective and multi-disciplinary initiatives, particularly in nations where public funding and facilities to support the research in the fields of the arts are scarce. In a place like Italy, for instance, which devotes scarce resources to the patronage of culture, entities like the foundations Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin and Nicola Trussardi in Milan exert a capital action. What is interesting to note, among other things, is that they both make mobility a key point of their program. Besides attracting artists, professionals and spectators, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is devoted to the dissemination of knowledge of the most advanced trends in contemporary art through exhibitions, conferences, educational proposals, meetings with authors and other experts. It sponsors new talents, provides training opportunities and favours the emergence of original ideas in curatorial practices with the projects Curators’ Residencies Programme (YCR) and CAMPO. Nomadism, dynamism, alacrity and experimentation – concepts common to a large part of the cultural offer in the new century – clarify the approach of Fondazione Nicola Trussardi: “neither a museum nor a collection, the Trussardi Foundation acts as [a nomadic] agency for the production and diffusion of contemporary art in a wide variety of contexts and channels” [8]. This assumption is so rooted in the association’s philosophy to induce it to leave the premises of Palazzo Marino in 2003 to launch a program of expositions located in a place each time different, which can act as a catalyst for ideas and on which the foundation can draw the public attention:

The projects become not only sites for forecasting the future, but also provocations to rethink the past, and thereby opportunities to better come to terms with the present. Each project takes part in an ongoing process of what Israel Rosenfield has called “dynamic memory” (…). Dynamic memory is the process by which a coherent sense of self is continually constructed through incremental changes and underlying stabilities in one’s physical body image. This sense of coherence is a way of being open to the future (…).[9]

Museums, galleries, foundations and kunsthalle, however are not the only spaces which host contemporary art. The scenario, in fact, is much more changeable and inconstant, chameleonic and transient. In today’s urban environments, the lacerations and fragmentation left by the shift from the industrial society to the current reality are clearly visible. They have not yet metabolized and given an appropriate response to the tendency to dematerialized forms of communication and relationship, providing adequate services, nor they have acquired a recognisable and modern image, which don’t confuse flexibility with precariousness. As a result, culture has “sneaked” in unusual and rather anarchic spaces.

In the past, graffiti and street art used to intervene where emptiness, uncertainty and instability were most evident, acting on the margins and occupying them with signs indicating the passage of their authors. Those marks demanded attention for their graphic quality, for the messages they conveyed or even by virtue of their same presence. Artists moved from quarter to quarter, or from city to city, leaving traces and drawing unconventional maps through which one could reconstruct their world and investigate the way they “dwelt.”

Today traditional exhibition centres and city walls are flanked by less defined locations. Sometimes these are “mercenaries environments” that periodically enliven, whereas they become less noticeable, albeit pulsating, presences in the interval between a great event and another. Other times they take the form of invasions, sudden and ephemeral appropriations, destined to vanish but in the memory of those who took part in the event or in nostalgic shots to be allocated to museums, collectors, to the pages of books or some websites. Artists creep in undefined contexts and in places that are not designed to accommodate their work, affecting them only for a short period of time, with the result, however, to bring to light usually underestimated potentialities and questions concerning their habitual use.

Many are, even, the events that revolve around the world of art, cinema, music or literature, sponsored by city administrations and occasionally hosted in public places, without entailing any architectural change. This is the case of most of the installations presented at Skulptur Projekte Münster or the ones that animated Piazza del Plebiscito in Naples.

Somebody considers similar presences just like intrusions or destabilizing parasitic entities, nevertheless they can be regarded as(un)expected and desirable guests, capable of activating processes of cultural contamination, hybridization, melting pot that extend the function, appearance and even the shape of the buildings, spaces and interiors in which they occur.

The cities that are most exposed on the front of contemporary artistic research are characterised by a mobile and fluctuating landscape, crossing the system of cultural institutions, that is a widespread gallery transcending the need for physical spaces devoted to exhibit and where art breaks into “external” territories. A network of collaborations arises and it goes beyond the natural antagonism among competitors, however rivalry remains. This creates a symbiosis between analogous organizations, each preserving its autonomy and freedom of action while taking advantage of the sharing of some initiatives, like so happens in SoHo and in many other art districts.

Be art housed in a canonical space, in an unusual environment or on the screen of a technological device, what emerges is the mutually dependent link between today’s artistic and cultural practices and mobility, explorations, interactions, a willingness to re-examine every day customs, traditions and identities.
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Cristina F. Colombo_DSCN7547Street Art installation in Chelsea, New York (July 2012). Photo Cristina F. Colombo.
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Cristina F. Colombo is an architect and Ph.D. in Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design (Politecnico di Milano). She has been an assistant lecturer of Prof. Luca Basso Peressut in Interior Architecture and Museography courses at Politecnico di Milano since 2007, being involved into several didactic activities and national and international research projects.
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[1] Jacqueline Ceresoli, La nuova scena urbana: Cittàstrattismo e urban-art (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2005), 118. Eng. trans. by the author.

[2] Lawrence Alloway used this expression in 1972, to identify all the entities that deal with art, driven by a cultural or economic intent. His definition highlighted the complexity of the relationships among the different professionals involved and overcome the idealized vision of art as a purely intellectual act, a disinterested manifestation of the spirit of the artist. Achille Bonito Oliva drew on the same concept in Italy in 1975. See Lawrence Alloway, “Network: the Art World Described as a System,” Artforum 11 (September 1972): 28-32. Achille Bonito Oliva, Arte e sistema dell’arte (Rome: De Domizio, 1975).

[3] Think about the pioneering work of Nam June Paik, of the team E.A.T in the United States, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham, the experience of the Fernsehgalerie in Berlin (1969) or the Gerry Schum’s Videogalerie in Düsseldorf (1969-1972), the programs edited by Frans Haks in Holland or even, more recently, the artworks made by Bill Viola, Mariko Mori, Gary Hill. Further examples could be the early experiments with computers carried out, especially in the United States, by John Whitney, John Stehura, Thomas David DeWitt, Stan VanDerBeek, Charles Csuri, Lillian Schwartz, Peter Campus, etc.

[4] For a brief account on the history of digital art, see Charlie Gere, “New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age,” in New Media in the White Cube and beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art, edited by Christiane Paul (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 13-25. For further information see Christiane Paul, Digital Art (London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008). Bruce Wands, Art of the Digital Age (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006).

[5] Serpentine Gallery, “RMB City by Cao Fei,” accessed 14 July 2013, http://www.serpentinegallery.org/2008/05/live_online_interview_to_launc.html. See also the project official website: Cao Fei, “RMB City,” accessed 14 July 2013,  http://rmbcity.com.

[6] Christiane Paul, New Media in the White Cube and beyond, 1.

[7] Angela Vettese, Capire l’arte contemporanea: Dal 1945 ad oggi (Turin: Umberto Allemandi Editore, 1996. Ed. 2006), 321.

[8] The term “nomadic,” which is a key-word of the Italian presentation of the Foundation, is omitted in the official English translation. Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, “The Foundation,” accessed 14 July 2013, http://www.fondazionenicolatrussardi.it.

[9] Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Avere fame di vento,” in What Good Is the Moon: The Exhibitions of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, edited by Massimiliano Gioni (Milan & Ostfildern: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and Hatje Cantz, 2010), 7-10.

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