March 06, 2009


In responding to the Tate Triennial exhibition, Altermodern, you are forced to approach it within the framing logic laid out by its French curator Nicolas Bourriaud.
“Altermodern is an in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and mediums”. A mighty claim – re-defining modernity – which adding “in-progress” doesn’t release the exhibition from the responsibility to deliver. Of course it can’t and doesn’t. So you have to wonder why Bourriaud made the claim for the show. To answer this you have to turn to the catalogue essay (or the video clips on the website if you like). It is reasonable given the context of curating in one of the international institutional galleries and of the implied portentous status of a Triennial for Bourriaud set out to consider the historic moment of globalisation, liberal uncertainty, fundamentalisms, etc, we are in and where contemporary art can and is going. To an extent one should expect that these contexts invite, even demand a vision-driven manifesto as the appropriate response to the situation – but Bourriaud doesn’t have the insight to do it – hence “in-progress” and an essay so lacking in rigour or even simple logical flow that it leaves the reader in disbelief.

So what is Bourriaud’s Altermodern? “Altermodern 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 for 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.” I find this problematic. Although globalisation is clearly epochal, I don’t see how that or the artists featured in the show posit a vision of history constituted as multiple temporalities – partially because none of the artists convincingly present work up to the moment’s challenge and partially because ‘multiple temporalities’ doesn’t mean anything outside a Star Trek (Next Generation) episode. Trying to unpick the idea, I guess it relates to the Glass Bead Game phenomenon of the web’s universal knowledge offer – that artists can reference and respond to any other culture or time via the net. This hardly constitutes a vision of human history unless you use a definition of history which isn’t historical. I also question whether this is the moment when it has become possible to do it, as I can think of many artists and writers who have had a vision of human history constituted in multiple temporalities – the first that jumps to mind is Claude Simon, specifically Triptych, written in 1973 – so this would be a long moment we are in. Then we have the disdain for the nostalgia for the avant-garde. I am not sure whether this means that altermodernism re-embraces the avant-garde or whether it is only the nostalgia it turns its nose up at. It is probably to be read that to be (alter)modern you should disdain the avant-garde and the nostalgia – interesting that ‘multiple temporalities’ doesn’t take into account past pain (Greek nostos, a return home; algia – pain). Bourriaud is probably right to disconnect altermodern from the notion of an avant-garde because there is no sign of any dramatic leap or direction in any of the work in the show. Does one contradict or collude with the altermodern by favouring a multiple temporality which valorises ‘Make it new’, I wonder? And speaking of nostalgia, his "positive experience of disorientation" sounds remarkably like Keatsian negative capability.

Altermodern is also characterised as “trajectories have become forms: contemporary art gives the impression of being uplifted by an immense wave of displacements, voyages, translations, migrations of objects and beings, …displacement has become a method of depiction …artistic styles and formats must henceforth be regarded from the viewpoint of diaspora, migration and exodus.” While travel in the modern world is easier than anytime in history, surely historically modernism can lay claim to the effect of displacements and voyages with the more convincing imperative of wars. I think displacement as depiction is nonsensical and it is annoying when theorists who don’t actually make works use ‘must’ and limit the field of creative action. Why must artistic production be regarded from these viewpoints? This is as arbitrary as saying that the only legitimate subject for poetry is climate change.

This is a moment of history, but “this synthesis ‘altermodernism’” does not address the spirit or needs of the time because it is an argument without sense or substance.

At the end, Bourriaud’s essay closes the door to the field in which the break will come: Out of the blue J.M.G. Le Clézio is quoted: “When they created cities, when they invented concrete, tar and glass, men created a new jungle – but have yet to become its inhabitants. Maybe they will die out before recognising it for what it is. The [Amazonian] Indians have thousands of year’s experience of it, which is why their knowledge is so perfect. Their world is not different from ours, they simply live in it, while we are still in exile”. This passage is jaw-dropping nonsense: who are ‘they’ who created these cities? How far back in history is he locating this? Concrete inventors? Is that the Romans he means? Tar wasn’t invented; it occurs naturally and has been used since the Iron Age. Glass, another ancient product. How can ‘men’ not yet be inhabitants of the city when more than half of the world’s population lives in cities? The city is actually a human and productive focus, just the interconnected node in a network that Bourriaud’s theory needs to have anything to say about the future, but he goes for the nonsensical metaphor of the archipelago. Le Clézio simply updates the Romantic, the picturesque jungle, the noble savage. Let’s see how perfect the Amazonian Indian’s knowledge is when the loggers have chopped down the forest! I don’t know this writer but the footnote indicates publication in Paris. Having just returned from Paris, I can report that it is not a new jungle. Maybe this is an example of what Bourriaud meant when he talked about an assumed heterochrony, i.e. a Glass Bead Game of historical reference that is so jumbled as to be without logic. So with this irrational pejorative characterisation of the City, Bourriaud misses the aspect of globalisation with which artists can and are engaging with the spatial and temporal dilemmas and challenges of 21st Century capitalism. This is staring Bourriaud in the face actually – of the 28 artists listed in the catalogue all but one live and work in cities (not jungles).

And the exhibition? The only work that really held its own was Tacita Dean’s Russian Endings, which coincidently I showed in Bury Art Gallery in 2007 (pictured).

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