On the Cosmopolitan Imagination & Contemporary Art Practices

Isaac Julien’s latest work Ten Thousand Waves (2010) is a 9-screen installation that was made in response to the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in an incoming tide off the coasts of Northwest England. All the victims were undocumented immigrants, working a high-risk job for little money in order to pay off debts incurred to migration traffickers or to send money back to families in their homeland. Julien, moved by this incident, began his research for the work, first enlisting the poet Wang Ping to compose Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the installation. Julien travelled to China from 2006-2009, working in the Guangxi province and Shanghai to research and produce Ten Thousand Waves. The press release for the installation states that the work “combines fact, fiction and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend and landscape to create a meditation on global human migrations.” The piece also features an array of Chinese performers (most notably film actress Maggie Cheung), artists, and calligraphers.

I have chosen to look at this work as an articulation of what scholar and art historian Marsha Meskimmon has termed the cosmopolitan imagination, and as such, I am interested in how it operates within the realm of affect and the symbolic, providing a sensory and experiential interface between the audience and the represented other. I wonder what potential such an interface has for invoking the viewer’s imagination toward an empathic, ethical, and felt response? Furthermore, in thinking about the power of the imagination and the affective within this artwork, and within artistic practices in general, I also ask: What is art’s agency? What is its potential to make the world? I have found that Meskimmon’s book Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination provides a number of discursive insights from which to begin, and that lend themselves well to the productive interrogation of art and its potential to make new subjects and relations in an ever-increasingly globalized world. Julien’s body of work, along with the artworks examined in Meskimmon’s book, address this globalized world and the issues that rise in its wake, such as human migrations due to economic labor, human trafficking, or refugeeism, new encounters between the ‘native’ self and other, ethical or moral responsibility toward this other, and who we mark as citizen, guest, or alien.

The reality of migration in a globalized world has already created the need for significant shifts in practices concerning human rights, citizenship, and ethical directives at the local and global levels, just as it has also altered our shared material and imaginary worlds. This is what sociologist Saskia Sassen describes as the “bridging effects of globalization” which “produce both material conditions and novel types of imaginaries that make emigration an option where not too long ago it was not” (132). Sassen also describes patterns of international migration that are based in ethnic networks and that “operate within the broader transnational spaces constituted by neocolonial processes and/or economic internationalization” (146). I highlight these points as they provide further context for Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, and in understanding China’s position as a rising economic force in the globalized market that is still bound by traces of colonial history, particularly to England. Further, beyond the specific example of China, Sassen’s insights provide a much-needed expansion of how we understand the many registers of globalization across social, economic, technological and cultural landscapes. I would argue that Julien’s installation, as it operates in the realm of the aesthetic, also creates a novel type of imaginary – the cosmopolitan imaginary – that creates a space for encounter with difference – of the other and also of place.

Meskimmon describes cosmopolitan imagination as an emergent concept that “generates conversations in a field of flesh, fully sensory, embodied processes of interrogation, critique, and dialogue that can enable us to think of our homes and ourselves as open to change and alterity” (8). She also locates the cosmopolitan imagination in the space of the relational and dialogic: “Understanding ourselves as wholly embedded within the world, we can imagine people and things beyond our immediate experience and develop our ability to respond to different spaces, meanings, others” (8). She argues that art is one of the most significant sites for this imagination to come forth and manifest in the material world. I would also argue because it operates at the level of affect through the symbolic and the poetic it has the potential to call forth the pragmatic; it can serve to engender new relationships, subjectivities, and agencies in the world. To make this argument, it is important to understand affect as the foundation for “the production and transformation of the corporeal self through others … of intellectual rigor and exigent thought” (8); it is through affect as a felt and sensory knowing that we make ourselves with/in relation to others, as well as demystify the strangeness of the other.

Meskimmon further states that art can enable us to “encounter difference, imagine change that is yet to come, and make possible the new” (8). In this way, art as an articulation of the cosmopolitan imagination creates a transitional space, platform and an interface for the exploration or emergence of subjectivities and new kinds of ethical relationships. I greatly appreciate Meskimmon’s argument for the power of the imagination and of affect to be registers of experience that can effect change at the level of the subject, something she argues is “at the core of ethical and political agency in the most profound sense” (8). If art is to find its own agency, one that is not reliant on explicit activism or political actions, but rather upon its own devices of affect and imagination, then how and where can we locate it and ourselves through it? I am a believer in both art that operates purely at the level of the material and the symbolic, as well as art that is explicitly a social practice, i.e. – applied directly to a social situation and context – and do not believe them to be mutually exclusive nor binary opposites. I would argue that we should not limit ourselves to investigating one genre or form over another, but seek to find the many, hybrid, and varied ways in which this emergent form of artistic practice makes its way into the world of relations and the material. In the investigation of art and the cosmopolitan imagination, if the means by which we measure art’s agency is partially attributed to the making of relations in the world, then we should also consider the ways in which the subject’s ‘response-ability’ and ethical responsibility to the other is invoked. I wonder: How does aesthetic response make ethical response? Meskimmon states, “Connecting the universal with the concrete in and through imagination as a socially-transformative force, aesthetics becomes a primary site for the materialization of a cosmopolitan ethics” (43).


The making of an artwork such as Ten Thousand Waves was possible only through the artist’s own moral and ethical response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy and the deaths of 23 foreigners in the waters of England. As someone who had been working with ideas relating to migration, diaspora, and difference for virtually the entirety of his career, Julien was in many ways already deeply invested in the narratives of the victims. The tragedy brought to light the great challenges and dangers immigrants face in their journeys to lands of perceived greater opportunity as well as the pressing ethical dilemmas within the UK regarding the treatment of and (lack of) basic protections for the foreigner and the alien. It is difficult to accurately assess the efficacy of this work in terms of making ethical response without having the in-person, sensory experience of it. Even so, the power of its visual poetics, the placement of the screens in creating a dynamic and immersive media space within the gallery, and the editing of image and sound that vacillates between narratives of journeying through ancient myth and contemporary urban cityscapes all work to create a kind of experiential space through which the audience moves. An excerpt from Wang Ping’s poem Small Boats, which is used in the Ten Thousand Waves installation reads as follows:

Tossed on the Communist road
We chose Capitalism through great perils
All we want is a life like others
TVs, cars, a house bigger than our neighbors’
Now the tide is rising to our necks
Ice forming in our throats
No moon shining on our path
No exit from the wrath of the North Wales Sea

The tensions between Asia and the West, Communism and Capitalism, traditional and modern play out here, laying out a multilayered leitmotif for the installation. Julien himself is very much the cosmopolitan artist, able to claim a hybrid identity between his Caribbean ancestry, British upbringing, sexual identity, and whose scholarly and artistic practices are informed by postcolonial theory as well as an intercultural dialog. In an interview Julien describes his research process in China as being transformative, a kind of process that created an intersubjective conversation between himself, his Chinese collaborators, and the place and time of China in both contemporary and historical terms.

My researcher at that point, the artist Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, found these illustrated prints related to fables of the protector goddess Mazu, who, like the Morecambe Bay workers, originates from Fujian province. We read many fables but it was the “Tale of Yishan Island,” in which Mazu saves a group of fishermen at sea, that in a way allegorized the tragic events in northern England and related them to the story in China.[1]

Again, it is through placing dual elements into tension and dialog: fable and real life tragedy, the historical and the contemporary, the local and the global, that Julien crafts a work that resonates simultaneously within different registers of time and place, connecting the events of one location to another, and bridging experience across borders of nation and culture into a shared realm of affect, experience, and imagination. It is in this shared space that conversation across difference or an ethical response-ability engendered within the viewer can be made possible.


I use Julien’s work here as an example of how art in practice and in final form can articulate the very essence of the cosmopolitan imagination that Meskimmon began to elucidate. Juien’s work operates at the level of the symbolic and affective, and I would argue that other artists working in very different ways also contribute to this conversation. Further investigation into their work and their practices could help to flesh out and complicate the scholarly project of contemporary art and the cosmopolitan imagination. A few who come to mind are Brazilian born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, see – Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green (2010), The Land (1998), and Untitled (Free) (1992), whose work explores concepts of home, hospitality, and generosity; Allora and Caldazilla’s Chalk (2002) or Under Discussion (2005) which are works that investigate the limitations and boundaries of civic space and ideology across different national contexts, or Cuban born artist Tania Bruguera’s treatise on “Useful Art,” and her current participatory project with immigrant communities in Queens, New York, Immigrant Movement International.

I mention these works as a kind of note to self as possible routes to investigate within this project. I believe it is in many forms of cultural production that we will find new platforms and interfaces for art as it can serve the aesthetic, social, and practical needs of a globalized world and the nomadic experience. Meskimmon’s book provides an important foundation in this investigation, which needs to be further expanded and investigated across artistic practices and platforms of cultural, social, and economic exchange at the (pluri)local and global scales.

[1] http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_feature_e/VlK8YMepd0F4zgavDtIq


Works cited

Meskimmon, Marsha. Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.

Sassen, Saskia. A Sociology of Globalization. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Special thanks to Soraya Murray for editorial supervision and insight.

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05 2011

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