Posts Tagged ‘art as social practice’
I sat down with a group of students and an alumnus of Flushing International High School to think of ways that people can be more welcoming to the immigrant and aware of the challenges a foreigner faces in everyday situations. This card was made for today, International Migrants Day.
“My Future Is Here” is a site-specific project that brings to light the most pressing issues immigrant youth face when making a new life in the global city. Produced with collaborating students from Flushing International High School in Queens, New York, this multimedia project utilizes immigrant narratives and social intervention to encourage public participation and exchange. Collaborating students will act as experts and consultants on critical immigration issues from the youth perspective, informing the project’s content and conceptual framework.
A primary component of this project will be a multimedia installation designed to integrate with the physical infrastructure of Flushing International High School. Video, audio, and text created with the students will be strategically installed in specific exterior and interior locations throughout the building, creating experiential media spaces for guests to move through. The main themes of the installation will center on issues of identity, representation, interpersonal ethics, and claiming one’s civic and political presence as an immigrant and social actor.
Ongoing workshops with students will inform the second element of the project, which will be an ad hoc public service organization operating under the name Hospitality Services. This element will address various issues that arise in the process of immigration and encourage hospitality toward the stranger. Through socially engaged art practices and interventions, we seek to aid the newcomer in navigating the foreign social, cultural, and geographic landscapes of the city. Projects will include creating information cards for the public that encourage convivial encounters with a foreigner, as well as a specially designed, youth-authored “Immigrant’s Guide to New York City” that will contain information on important and useful places, tips on utilizing public services, hand drawn neighborhood maps, as well as advice on how to foster a healthy quality of living. Through these services, we envision and manifest new forms of belonging and sociality in an increasingly globalized world.
The culmination of the project will be an installation-event held at the school in June 2012 when the work will be installed and the invited public, which will include FIHS families and friends, city council members, activists, artists, and immigrant youth leadership groups, will have the opportunity to speak with the students about the issues they are most deeply invested in. Youth-facilitated conversations will create a platform for productive exchange that deepens public understanding and awareness of immigrant youth issues, and furthers the discussion on what we can do to foster more inclusive societies, as well as social and political change for the immigrant.
This project is founded upon the perspective that the languages and practices of immigration rights are critically indicative of a society’s notion of itself, and that public discourses and interactions through facilitated situations of encounter and mediated spaces of affective experience can foster productive collective investigations, imaginaries, and intersubjective exchange concerning the treatment of the (perceived) foreigner in our midst. By placing oneself within the public sphere whether through physical face-to-face interaction with another, or through the mediated spaces of an installation, the immigrant youth asserts her own subjectivity into the public imaginary, shifting the terms of engagement to make space for new voices to be heard.
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.
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.
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.
Though global migrations have existed throughout history, the nature of their occurrences in the contemporary moment exposes several issues of increasing complexity pertaining to notions of citizenship, territory, and rights. The influx of refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, and others across territorial and hemispheric borders has greatly impacted discourses and practices in law on global and national scales, as well as exposed our own understandings of ourselves: our moral and ethical boundaries, our assumptions of the other, and how we incorporate the foreigner into our communities and polities. In her book The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (2004), Seyla Benhabib addresses the philosophical, juridical, and theoretical dilemmas and possibilities of citizenship, political membership, and rights claims in an age of increasing global migrations and the disaggregation of citizenship. Her work is a critical examination of the limits and tensions that exist between universal human rights claims and the self-determination of the sovereign nation-state concerning the rights of the foreigner, and offers new frameworks for juridical and rights discourse and democratic practices in an attempt to move beyond historical and contemporary fissures between notions of universal human rights, global justice, and the sovereign self-determination of the nation-state.
In a time of ever-increasing movements of people across borders, of increasing encounters between “nous et les autres,” and when cultures and societies across the globe are continuing to become increasingly hybrid and interdependent, it is arguably of utmost concern to rethink what is necessary and plausible in terms of protecting the rights of the foreigner, guest, or alien. In terms of realizing a cosmopolitical justice, I argue that we have been in a crisis of imagination. Benhabib brings to our attention that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “silent on states’ obligations to grant entry to immigrants, to uphold the right of asylum, and to permit citizenship to alien residents and denizens. Despite the crossborder character of these rights, the Declaration upholds the sovereignty of individual states. Thus a series of internal contradictions between universal human rights and territorial sovereignty are built into the logic of the most comprehensive international law documents in our world” (2004, 11). Furthermore, not only have we been faced with these internal contradictions between the distribution and protection of rights at the levels of the universal and the nation-state, questions of and tensions between moral obligation and ethical directives must be carefully distinguished and openly brought to the table of rights discourse. Yet, in the envisioning of a cosmopolitical justice, what language and frameworks do we have to work from, where are the limits and borders of these frameworks, and what is necessary to begin to expand our discourses and practices concerning a normative theory of global justice? Benhabib, in a most thorough approach, addresses these questions. From critical readings of Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitan right and Hannah Arendt’s critique of the nation-state, to her discussions concerning disaggregated citizenship and deliberative democracy, Benhabib’s writings offer important groundwork from which we may begin to consider what is possible as new modalities of citizenship and membership emerge. I agree with her argument that subnational and supranational democratic attachments and agencies that are not bounded by the nation-state “ought to be advanced with, rather than in lieu of, existing polities” (2004, 2-3). The questions remain: how, under what conditions, and by what protections?
Beginning with one of the earliest and significant documents in Western philosophy to address these issues, we are asked to consider Kant on hospitality and cosmopolitan right. I found this rereading of Kant especially provocative in that it illuminated elements of the document which may be useful for contemporary discourses, and also where it falls short of its intended aims, hence pointing us to where we may develop and amend a critical and visionary philosophical approach to the concepts of a cosmopolitan federation, the “right” of hospitality, and distinctions between the right of temporary sojourn and the privilege of the permanent visitor. The former being something one can demand, the latter being something that is earned or that must be agreed upon and granted as a special privilege with attendant obligations and duties. Kant states that “hospitality is not a question of philanthropy but of right” (2004, 26), and this particular regulating of interactions is situated at the borders of polity, and within the context of encounter between individuals belonging to different civic entities. Also within the right of hospitality the temporary sojourner cannot be turned away if doing so would cause his destruction. In contemporary practices, I find it significant to note that this article has been incorporated into the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees (2004, 35). Signatory countries cannot turn the refugee or asylum seeker away should returning them to their home countries cause them danger, but what happens to them (granted a country does not refuse them entry) in the duration of first entry? Rights, protections, access to resources and other forms of civic, social, and political rights are left to the discretion of the sovereign state. Benhabib states:
The right of hospitality entails a moral claim with potential legal consequences in that the obligation of receiving states to grant temporary residency to foreigners is anchored in a republican cosmopolitical order. Such an order does not have a supreme executive law governing it…The right of hospitality expresses all the dilemmas of a republican cosmopolitical order in a nutshell: namely how to create quasi-legally binding obligations through voluntary commitments and in the absence of an overwhelming sovereign power with the ultimate right of enforcement” (2004, 29).
Again we have the collision between universal rights claims on behalf of the refugee and asylum seeker and the right to discretion of a sovereign nation-state in determining its own conditions of entry, access, political membership, and citizenship. To begin to find some kind of resolution in response to these tensions so that discourses may be conducive toward the production of actual change in civic and juridical practices, Benhabib proposes multiple routes and alternatives – though none perfect as separate mechanisms, yet each potentially flexible enough to accommodate particular contexts, and potentially more effective when considered as a collective set of possibilities. Elements of these proposed routes entail concepts of deliberative democratic practices, democratic iterations, citizenship as social practice, as well as the potentials of disaggregated citizenship and democratic attachments at the subnational and supranational levels.
To begin to delineate a few of the key points of her proposals, I will first highlight a few concepts and statements introduced in Benhabib’s The Claims of Culture (2002). First, she is clear in stating borders are necessary in maintaining the conditions for democracy (i.e. -democratic sovereignty principles), but that the porousness of borders is “necessary, while not sufficient, condition of liberal democracies” (2002, 153). She distinguishes the conditions of entry into a country from those of temporary residency, and each of these in turn from permanent residency and civil incorporation, and then to what she considers the final stage of political membership. She states, “At each of these stages the rights and claims of foreigners, residents, and aliens will be regulated by sovereign polities; but these regulations can be subject to scrutiny, debate, and contestation as well as to protest by those to whom they apply, their advocates, and national and international human rights groups” (2002, 154). This is part of Benhabib’s vision of a deliberative democracy, in which all those who produce or are affected by law openly debate, contest, and participate in what she terms as democratic iterations. In this vision, legal deliberations are transparent and applicable to legislatives, the judiciary, and the executive as well as to civil society associations and the media (2004, 179). It is also significant to note that the sociological components of citizenship which are defined in terms of collective identity, privileges of membership, and social rights and benefits, are “being pulled apart” in what Benhabib terms the disaggregation effect. Examples of this can be seen more concretely within the European Union, and in Southeast Asia and Latin America where ‘flexible citizenship’ is emerging as the norm (2002, 178-179). Under these conditions, is a legally binding standard for universal human rights becoming more plausible?
I would argue that the evidence of disaggregated and other forms of citizenship that are emerging within the twenty-first century, and as a result of contemporary globalization, give us compelling examples of what potentials, however problematic or ambivalent, are beginning to emerge. Benhabib poses the question: is disaggregated citizenship democratic citizenship?
The nation-state is waning; the line between human rights and citizens’ rights is being corroded…. Disaggregated citizenship permits individuals to develop and sustain multiple allegiances and networks across nation-state boundaries, in inter- as well as transnational contexts. Cosmopolitanism, the concern for the world as if it were one’s polis, is furthered by such multiple, overlapping allegiances which are sustained across communities of language, ethnicity, religion, and nationality (174-175).
Still, this does not guarantee a democratic citizenship – not without the accompaniment and attachment to representative institutions in which there exists an accountability, transparency, and responsibility toward a given constituency. Even given the inherent tensions between democratic legitimacy and the realities of disaggregated citizenship, I think it is crucial to observe these emerging forms of citizenship closely, and begin to actively create new capacities for understanding and advancing new modalities of political membership. Perhaps this will entail creating spaces and conditions under which democratic iterations of public argument, deliberation and exchange through which “universalist rights claims and principles are contested and contextualized” can occur, but more so I would also argue that within an ever-increasingly interdependent world, it is essential for discourses of moral obligation and new ethical directives and structures be placed at the center of these deliberations.
Benhabib, Seyla. The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
– The Rights of Others. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
[This is a recent research paper & is a foundational exploration in issues, theories, & history of art as social practice.]
In his 1998 essay, Relational Aesthetics Nicolas Bourriaud wrote about the theoretical concerns of a new form of contemporary art that addresses issues of the relational, that is, art that directly takes into its praxis particular socio-cultural concerns, and that situates itself out of the privatized spaces of the gallery and into the public sphere. Such a movement toward art as social practice shifts the understanding of art as object into one of encounter. In introducing the term relational aesthetics, Bourriaud wrote:
The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural, and political goals introduced by modern art. To sketch a sociology of this, this evolution stems essentially from the birth of a world-wide urban culture and from the extension of this city model to more or less all cultural phenomenon (14).
Bourriaud frames his treatise on this new possibility of art within a political and historical context, broadly tracing the origins of the modern political era to the Enlightenment period and then into the rise of modernity and the twentieth century avant-garde, specifically pointing to Dada, Surrealism, and the Situationists. Already within this brief passage, Bourriaud alludes to key factors, which not only organize and contextualize the world in which we in the capitalist West experience, but also the practices, production, and consumption of contemporary art – namely, economies, geographies, and socio-cultural divisions, specifically within an urban context. To trace this historical trajectory, we understand modern and contemporary artistic practices within a geopolitical context of conquest and power relations, wherein which the Enlightenment project of the 18th century and the anti-authoritarian avant-garde movements of the 20th century ultimately fell short of their emancipatory aims. Bourriaud writes, “Instead of culminating in a hoped-for emancipation, the advances of technologies and ‘Reason’ made it that much easier to exploit the South of planet earth, blindly replace human labor by machines, and set up more and more sophisticated subjugation techniques […]” (12). Read the rest of this entry →