The work of W.G. Sebald continues to provide inspiration and intellectual underpinning for exhibitions of contemporary art. In 2007 there was Waterlog, in 2008 there was After Nature, and now in 2009 we have Altermodern, the recent Tate Triennial curator by Nicolas Bourriaud:
Usually an exhibition begins with a mental image with which we need to reconnect, and whose meanings constitute a basis for discussion with the artists. The research that has preceded the Triennial 2009, however, had its origins in two elements: the idea of the archipelago, and the writings of a German émigré to the UK, Winfred Georg Sebald. the archipelago (and its kindred forms, the constellation and the cluster) functions here as a model representing the multiplicity of global cultures…
As for Sebald’s writings – wanderings between ‘signs’, punctuated by black and white photographs – they appear to me as emblematic of a mutation in our perception of space and time, in which history and geography operate a cross-fertilisation, tracing out paths and weaving networks: a cultural evolution at the very heart of this exhibition. The two concepts – the archipelago and Sebald’s excursions – do not intertwine arbitrarily: they represent the paths I followed led by my initial intuition: that of the death of postmodernism as the starting point for reading the present.
Bourriaud’s thesis is dense and impossible to condense. It’s also supplanted with essays (or lectures) by Okwui Enwezor, T.J. Demos, and Carsten Höller, as well as an “Official Document” delivered by the International Necronautical Society (one of whose founders is the novelist Tom McCarthy). Suffice it to say that one of the central topics that Bourriaud and others are trying to define is what comes after post-modernism:
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 of the avant-garde and indeed for any era – a positive vision of chaos and complexity. It is neither a petrified kind of time advancing in loops (postmodernism) nor a linear vision of history (modernism), but a positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space.
Sebald comes into the picture as an obvious – and perhaps accessible – example of heterochrony and altermodernism. The other main themes of Bourriaud’s exhibition will also be familiar to any reader of Sebald: Exile, Travels, and Borders.
Altermodern – the book – has been designed by the cult design firm of M/M (Paris). Although I’m not consistently a fan of their work, which often appears more retro-hippie than post-Helvetica, they provide the perfect packaging for a project in which the curatorial concept dominates the art and the artists. On page after page the artwork disappears into or spreads across the gutter; in the end, Altermodern fails the test Bourriaud sets out in his opening sentence: “to establish a balance between the artworks and the narrative that acts as a form of sub-titling.” In the book, at least, the “sub-titling” dominates. Bourriaud likens the curator’s role to something on the order of an ethical Noah, determining which species will survive and which won’t. “The very act of picking out certain images and distinguishing them from the rest of the production by exposing them is an ethical responsibility. Keeping the ball in the air and the game alive: that is the function of the critic or the curator.”
A new modernity is emerging, reconfigured to an age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodern culture
Increased communication, travel and migration are affecting the way we live
Our daily lives consist of journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe
Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture
This new universalism is based on translations, subtitling and generalised dubbing
Today’s art explores the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves
Artists are responding to a new globalised perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.
The Tate Triennial 2009 at Tate Britain presents a collective discussion around this premise that postmodernism is coming to an end, and we are experiencing the emergence of a global altermodernity.
Travel, cultural exchanges and examination of history are not merely fashionable themes, but markers of a profound evolution in our vision of the world and our way of inhabiting it.
More generally, our globalised perception calls for new types of representation: our daily lives are played out against a more enormous backdrop than ever before, and depend now on trans-national entities, short or long-distance journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe.
Many signs suggest that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end: multiculturalism and the discourse of identity is being overtaken by a planetary movement of creolisation; cultural relativism and deconstruction, substituted for modernist universalism, give us no weapons against the twofold threat of uniformity and mass culture and traditionalist, far-right, withdrawal.
The times seem propitious for the recomposition of a modernity in the present, reconfigured according to the specific context within which we live – crucially in the age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodernity.
If twentieth-century modernism was above all a western cultural phenomenon, altermodernity arises out of planetary negotiations, discussions between agents from different cultures. Stripped of a centre, it can only be polyglot. Altermodernity is characterised by translation, unlike the modernism of the twentieth century which spoke the abstract language of the colonial west, and postmodernism, which encloses artistic phenomena in origins and identities.
We are entering the era of universal subtitling, of generalised dubbing. Today’s art explores the bonds that text and image weave between themselves. Artists traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs, creating new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.
The artist becomes ‘homo viator’, the prototype of the contemporary traveller whose passage through signs and formats refers to a contemporary experience of mobility, travel and transpassing. This evolution can be seen in the way works are made: a new type of form is appearing, the journey-form, made of lines drawn both in space and time, materialising trajectories rather than destinations. The form of the work expresses a course, a wandering, rather than a fixed space-time.
Altermodern art is thus read as a hypertext; artists translate and transcode information from one format to another, and wander in geography as well as in history. This gives rise to practices which might be referred to as ‘time-specific’, in response to the ‘site-specific’ work of the 1960s. Flight-lines, translation programmes and chains of heterogeneous elements articulate each other. Our universe becomes a territory all dimensions of which may be travelled both in time and space.
The Tate Triennial 2009 presents itself as a collective discussion around this hypothesis of the end of postmodernism, and the emergence of a global altermodernity.