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Migratory Aesthetics: Art and Politics beyond Identity

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Abstract

This essay examines how “migratory aesthetics” expresses key dynamics in contemporary postcolonial culture and offers an alternative to identity politics. It demonstrates how migratory aesthetics is embodied in key international art exhibitions, from Kassel Documenta to the Contemporary Commonwealth show in Melbourne. Within the terms of identity politics, exhibitions function to represent specific groups, and also to constitute spaces in which disenfranchised or new “hybrid” identities might flourish. But the exhibiting of identity does not, in and of itself, enfranchise or facilitate participation. The institutional model of multiculturalism that simply promotes the representation of diverse identities as add-ons to mainstream culture is a static one, which does not address the issue of interaction; hence, “migrant” cultures may be acknowledged on their own terms, without any change to the “mainstream.” Migratory aesthetics, like other mobilisations of aesthetics that focus on connectivity and relationality, may be understood as a response to the limitations of identity politics in both institutional and aesthetic terms. An attempt to shift “identities” out of a static space into a dynamic set of relationships, it promotes new ways of understanding intercultural and transnational histories as well as new ways of imagining the future.
Migratory Aesthetics: art and
politics beyond identity
Jill Bennett
In the very moment when finally Britain convinced itself it
had to decolonize, it had to get rid of them, we all came back
home. As they hauled down the flag [in the colonies], we got
on the banana boat and sailed right into London…They had
ruled the world for 300 years and, at last, when they had made
up their minds to climb out of the role, at least the others
ought to have stayed out there in the rim, behaved themselves,
gone somewhere else, or found some other client state. But no,
they had always said that this [London] was really home, the
streets were paved with gold, and bloody hell, we just came to
check out whether that was so or not.
Stuart Hall (Hall, 1991, 24; Brown, 1995, 271)
There would be a sign; dreams end…Then there would be
paths and they would get jumbled, and bones, and they all get
jumbled, and all of them would combine and then there
would be a tall tree, that, according to the map was red.
Kathy Acker (Acker, 1997, 271)
Identity
A galleon on the high seas, captained by the Exquisite Pirate,
fashioned after Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates, the
quintessential outlaw living ‘free of authority’. And the
Reverend on Ice – a headless skater, fabricated – like the pirate –
from cloth fragments. She and her ship – along with the
skeletal figure draped across the bow – are rendered as a vast
felt collage, advancing across the walls surrounding the
Reverend’s frozen pond; his colonial dress is constructed from
African printed cloth (that turns out to be made in the
Netherlands).1 ‘They would all get jumbled’ as Acker puts it;
this is why the pirate, adorned with booty from other ships,
her authority not given by the state but taken by force, was an
emblematic figure for postmodern appropriation.
In a room in the National Gallery of Victoria
(Melbourne), these two action figures come together in an
exuberant and somewhat macabre dance in the midst of what
is, in essence, a show about migration. Specifically, the
exhibition Contemporary CommonwealthCC06 for short –
1 This quintessentially ‘African’ fabric was produced in the nineteenth-century
by the Dutch and English – often using Indonesian batik traditions – and
subsequently exported to West Africa, the region with which it is
characteristically associated. Shonibare has utilized this fabric precisely to
undermine the concept of authenticity in cultural production.
focuses on the territories of the British Commonwealth – a
union with little local significance or purchase on its notional
membership, other than by association with the
Commonwealth Games that are the occasion for this cultural
celebration. Given the uncomfortable spectre of Empire,
however, the exhibition eschews the notion of a given or
shared Commonwealth identity, focusing instead on an array
of journeys within or between Commonwealth nations. Many
of these embody the playful debunking of postcolonial
separation evoked by Stuart Hall in the above anecdote, which
points to the fact that immigration presents a profound
challenge to the privileged sense of identity at the heart of the
imperial nation.
In fact, in the terms of this event, migration displaces
identity. If postcolonial exhibitions have in recent history
provided occasions for the articulation of new or previously
suppressed identities, CC06 aligns more readily with a post-
identity politics that focuses on relations and connections –
and hence, potentially, on the emergence of contingent
communities that are not grounded in any clearly defined
sense of identity. Rather than predefining the collective, CC06
implicitly locates the ties that bind with aesthetic process, so
that relations emerge within the exhibition; politics do not
simply inform the exhibition, but are enacted through it at the
level of material and sensate processes, and community is
posited as something fluid, not yet named, potentially existing
outside inscribed identity. In other words, community –
collective enunciation—is an event realised through aesthetics.
Conceived within the terms of identity politics,
exhibitions function to represent specific groups, and also to
constitute spaces or conditions in which disenfranchised or
new ‘hybrid’ identities might flourish. But the exhibiting of
identity does not, in and of itself, enfranchise, or facilitate
democratic participation. The institutional model of
multiculturalism that simply promotes the representation of
diverse identities as add-ons to mainstream culture is in fact a
fairly static one, which does not address the issue of
interaction; hence, ‘migrant’ cultures might be acknowledged
in their own terms, if not understood as impacting upon,
participating within and radically changing the ’mainstream’.
In other words, the ‘migrant art’ exhibition may exist within
the institution in relative separation. In this regard, the recent
turn to the dynamics of interconnection (an issue that is
fundamental to both politics and aesthetics) might be
understood as a response to the limitations of identity politics
in both institutional and aesthetic terms – an attempt to move
beyond and around identity; to literally shift ‘identities’ out of
a static space into a dynamic set of relationships, whether
through ‘relational aesthetics’, ‘dialogical aesthetics’ or other
mobilisations of the concept of participation and democracy in
art.
Curatorial practice is always a barometer of cultural
theory, which it assimilates and turns over with the rapidity
that new event design requires, but this trend should not
simply be dismissed as the translation of theory into practice.
In an important sense, the turn away from identity politics in
art and exhibition practice allows a turn toward aesthetics in
politics and marks a decisive break with the logic of art as
representative of group identity. To some extent, the notion of
national representation is now divorced from any concept of
aesthetic expression (work in the national pavilions of the
Venice Biennale, for example, rarely embodies national
identity in any straightforward sense). The issue here is not
one of content, however. Art may express a felt experience of
community or belonging (even of a flag or national symbol2),
2 For example, Jun Yang’s video HERO – this is WE, exhibited in the 2005
Venice Biennale, draws parallels between the biennale and the Olympics as a
show of national strength, tracing the appeal of the flag in nations like China
and the US.
but aesthetic operations do not by nature proceed from pre-
formed identity categories, nor coextend with the bounds of
such categories. As Brian Massumi argues, expression is not an
attribute of groups of persons, but a process-based inquiry that
operates in its own terms (Massumi, 2002, 253).
It can be argued, of course, that the instrumental use
of art – or its institutional cooption – need not compromise its
aesthetic ambition. Exhibition titles, after all, often simply
comprise generic descriptors of regions or countries, pointing
to the diversity within, and I am reading CC06 in this light.
Giorgio Agamben, however, alerts us to the slippery slope of
identity politics, which he suggests colludes unwittingly with
the politics of state institutions. The state, he argues, is
comfortable with an expression of identity in as much as
coherently defined identities can be annexed or contained:
[T]he State can recognize any claim for identity – even that of
a State identity within the State…What the State cannot
tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a
community without affirming an identity, that humans co-
belong without any representable condition of belonging
(Agamben, 1993, 86).
In this way, multicultural policy is easily espoused by liberal
democracies as a celebration of diverse cultural, ethnic and
religious identities, united – and regulated – under one
umbrella. Yet the rejection of identity as an organising trope
makes for interesting post-colonial politics. It stands in
opposition to the notion that decolonisation occasions an
expression of pre-existing – or previously suppressed – bonds.
Instead, as Jean-Luc Nancy has indicated, the emergence of
decolonised communities necessitates a new way of thinking
about community formation. Formation in this sense is the
operative term, emphasising dynamic process (being-in-
common at any given moment) rather than foundation. And it
is this that contemporary aesthetic practice embodies –
particularly in the curatorial domain where the nature of a
project is to work across and between artworks.
My argument, then, is this: that the shift from identity
to relationality, and toward an exploration of communality as
a process, is a key development in terms of political aesthetics.
It is fundamentally a more aesthetic project than is identity
politics insofar as it allows that a politics may be derived
directly from aesthetic process and description—that
aesthetics is a particular modality of the political rather than a
form of mediation. The aesthetic ‘entity’ in question is the
exhibition—the coming together of multiple artworks in a
given event. To understand the politics of such an event in
their full aesthetic terms we must look beyond the naming of
the collective (the Commonwealth is a case in point) and start
to conceive of connectivity in present and forward-looking
terms. How do exhibitions occasion new collective
enunications with their own political effectivity?
An exhibition at the Witte de With (Rotterdam) in
2005 pursued this question by focussing on the interstices
between works on display, and by implicitly proposing this
space as one in which the coercive aspects of identity politics,
fixed terms and injunctions might be circumvented. That
exhibition’s aphoristic title, Be What You Want But Stay Where
You Are, gestures on the one hand to Agamben’s theory of the
state’s interest in identity (be what you want but stay within
the boundaries of the state) and, on the other hand, to Hall’s
characterisation of the colonial fantasy of separation (be what
you want but stay outside). It thereby renders explicit the tacit
understanding of many other contemporary exhibitions:
communities are neither structured nor contained by
governmental process. To this end, the question of what art
emerges from any particular nation – or, for that matter, from
a political aggregation like the Commonwealth – is
meaningless. Not just because art (that might be social,
cultural, political) is not an expression of nation, but because
its function within the relational space of an exhibition is
greater than the representative one implied in such a model.
Art is as much about what Agamben calls the ‘coming
community’ as one that pre-exists or can cohere within the
boundaries of nation. It doesn’t offer up a representable
condition of belonging so much as an account of process and
movement: new sets of conjunctions, a surprise event.
Hence CC06 inevitably became a show grounded in
the expression of processes of migration, both as subjective
experience and critical intervention – a far cry from the
traditional showcase of national cultures that a
‘Commonwealth exhibition’ would once have implied. There
are works in adjacent rooms that describe – with greater
precision -- particular journeys in their subjective, historical or
political dimensions (Isaac Julien’s Paradise Omeros or Berni
Searle’s Home and Away) or works that explicitly trace
migratory routes (Leon Cmielewski’s and Josephine Starr’s
Seeker tracks the movement of people around the globe with
animated data visuals), but no juxtaposition that is quite as
exhilarating as that of Sally Smart’s Pirate and Yinka
Shonibare’s Reverend. Both figures are routinely read as
embodiments of postcoloniality, incorporating evidence of
past encounters, yet they are not so much representations as
interventions. They burst incongruously into a contemporary
space – witty fantasies of postcolonial reappropriation; an
instance of migratory aesthetics in action.
The pirate and the reverend embody migration as an
animating force: a dynamic that activates relationships, cuts a
swathe across history and reorients the works in the exhibition
(energised by resonances at all levels: formal, material,
political, sexual, rhetorical…). Smart’s pirate generates a motif
for seafaring exploration (colonial or migratory) that in the
current context evokes the paranoia of a settler culture
obsessed with border control and the spectre of boat people;
threat is mockingly embodied in the exuberantly lawless
pirate and the skeletal bodies aboard her ship, playing off
Shonibare’s elegant headless torso, as well as Ex de Medici’s
resplendent watercolours of camouflaged weapons and skulls
on the opposite wall.
The capture and transformation within this dynamic
conjunction of a pervasive contemporary political sentiment
generates a current of affect that runs through the exhibition.
Fear, anxiety and suspicion – the negative affects, frequently
mobilized in contemporary politics, are literally toyed with in
these works. Yet these are not expressive works in any
conventional sense; ‘characters’ are suggested purely by the
animation of fabric, these affects are not sensations or
emotions belonging to them or describing a response to a past
event. Both the pirate and the Reverend are transient figures,
seeming to emerge in the present space from their respective
costume dramas; the skater gliding onto the ice, and the ship
arriving at the shoreline provide the quintessential ‘big
entrance’—an overture to the spectacle. They both evince
particular cultural histories and migratory routes, yet if their
function here were merely to represent those histories, this
would have made CC06 a far less adventurous, overly
museological endeavour. Instead, by the select inclusion of
these dramatic costume pieces, CC06 commences with a
moment of pantomine splendour, creating an event out of
bizarre constructions, not really representative of any
particular place or people, summoned to this place from a
divergent and fragmentary Commonwealth.
The affect generated and circulated through these
works does not arise from historical narrative in this sense. It
is largely a function of the exhibition’s imbrication in the
contemporary. How can we think about migration, arrival by
sea, here in contemporary Australia without confronting the
reality of the refugee situation, and a politics tempered by
“terror”? Hence, the orchestration of work by Shonibare,
Smart, De Medici, constitutes vectors for emotion that is
generated around borders and migration. Rather than any
claim to document the real, it is this capacity to activate and
channel affect that gives the exhibition its political edge.
Collective enunciation and surprise
The question of how we deal with the fear, anxiety and
paranoia at large in contemporary politics is a pressing one for
artists and theorists. It is not enough to mock and deride, or to
substitute rationality for affect, since paranoia is an operative
politics—a way of reading with strategic implications, as Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick has demonstrated. It is marked, she notes,
by “a distinctively rigid relation to temporality, at once
anticipatory and retroactive, averse to all surprise”;
characterised by an extreme faith in knowing as exposure, and
hence, in rigid historiographic principles (Kosofsky Sedgwick,
2003, 146). Insofar as it looks forward, it identifies only
threat—the bad surprise. Everything must be foreseen, traced
to its antecedent causes or predicted and prevented (hence the
political ascendency of the ‘precautionary’ principle as a
rationale for the pre-emptive strike) (Bennett, forthcoming).
Hope, Sedgwick argues, emerges from relinquishing the
paranoid anxiety that no horror shall ever come “as new”, and
from the energies of organising the fragments and part objects
one encounters and creates. These are the very energies that
are engaged by the material structure of an exhibition.
Curatorial practice, in this sense, might be understood as the
organization of fragments into new assemblages—structures
that create space to realise not only that the future can be
different from the present, but that the past might have
unfolded differently (Kosofsky Sedgwick, 2003, 146).
Aesthetics—and particularly migratory aesthetics—thus has a
more complex relationship to temporality and to the impetus
for truth. An expression of movement within the faultlines of
inhospitable territories, migratory aesthetics is not foreboding
like the paranoid imaginary. By nature, it embodies a process
of remaking, flux and mutation that recognises the lineaments
of other possibilities. Exhibitions like CC06 or 2Move exhibit
the knowledge that surprise may be either bad (traumatic) or
good. As much as the paranoid imagination is relentlessly
bleak, migratory aesthetics seeks out the new, even as it relates
the darkest stories of colonization, division and exclusion. In
other words, although “it” is not a singular movement, its
inherent qualities of movement and transition are at odds with
the paranoid structural aversion to surprise—to a future
unknown.
I am discussing migratory aesthetics here as
something that is realised as an event—a collective
enunciation—within a given exhibition. Hence, the curatorial
process entails orchestrating a formal dynamic in order for
assemblages and their multiple relationalities to cohere.
Meaning emerges from aesthetic or formal resonance
operating across works and in the interplay with the politics of
the moment. The works under discussion do not seek to
“represent” the contemporary political scene, but in a
particular configuration absorb and channel a politics
overshadowed by the refugee crisis, which then finds affective
resonance in other pieces: poetic allegories of migration and
settlement, such as John Gillies’ Divide (a black and white
video evoking colonial Australia and the biblical journey into
Canaan), operating in a more subdued register to describe the
upheaval and turmoil, flowing inexorably – and exponentially
– from displacement. Such work grounds the exuberant affect
of the Shonibare/Smart room so that the high point of
theatricality does not simply exhilarate but intensifies and
subsides as it resonates with events staged elsewhere.
Real migratory stories, real histories of invasion,
trauma, and the violence of separation are invoked at different
points in the exhibition. What place is there, ultimately, for
fantasy characters, or for the theatricality of Shonibare’s
masked ball in this scenario? When does the politics of
aestheticisation diminish by comparison with the
documentary style with its self-evident relation to the real?
The answer might be—paradoxically—when it masquerades
as realism and representation—or lays claim to truth. More
specifically, in this context, when it stands a part from the
larger collectivity as an end in itself. Here the pirate and the
reverend are themselves part objects in an assemblage that
allows us to imagine that the colonial past might have been
otherwise. The fanfare they engender immediately debunks
any claim to serious history writing, displacing our
engagement onto a more complex interplay of affect that
generates transversal links with other works. They are all
about surprise.
The success of this curatorial juxtaposition lies in the
fact that meaning arises from aesthetic process, as opposed to
simply content or form. Unifying work at the level of content
leads inevitably toward didacticism—an insistence on
meaning and a privileging of interpretation over aesthetic
experience. On the other hand, formalist curating is apt to void
work of particular and operative meaning (politics) too
readily, promoting pan cultural visual resonance at the
expense of cultural specificity. This has been a tension in play
ever since the arena of contemporary art became ‘global’
rather than merely ‘western’. The landmark exhibition
Magiciens de la terre (Paris, 1989) was a watershed in this
regard, combining contemporary practice from diverse
cultural traditions. Yet its curator Jean Hubert Martin was
widely criticised for certain juxtapositions: the sand drawings
performed by Yuendumu Aboriginal people in a space
dominated by Richard Long’s mud drawing, for example.
Quite a part from the implied hierarchy of the ‘hang’, such
works were imbued with a monumental (and representative)
status, ‘talking to each other’ across a cultural divide. Almost
two decades later, progressive curators readily play upon such
material connections. Documenta 12 (Kassel, 2007) works
precisely in these terms: a Russian fountain made from salt,
installed alongside a Chinese wax waterfall or porcelain wave;
a Japanese bondage video in sight of the rope frame of a dance
troop—formal ensembles, each embedded with multiple
political and cultural significations, prompting different
interpretative possibilities as they are evoked in various
constellations. Here there is no longer any suggestion of a
universal symbolism—a pan-culturalism reduced to its formal
components so that it is voided of cultural meaning.
I would argue that in an exhibition like Documenta 12,
relationality is thought through not just at the level of theme
but in terms of a dynamic flow that works on something
immanent in the artwork itself but that is activated by
connection. In describing this connection we should avoid
replacing form and content designations with an account of
relationality that simply privileges audience encounter at the
level of individual interactivity. The key issue is how works
are activated in such a way as to produce a collective
enunciation—a politics of the contemporary. The difference, I
think, between Magiciens de la terre and either Documenta 12 or
CC06, for example, is the extent to which relationality in
aesthetics is understood as a political expression in the
moment. By this I mean as a temporal unfolding or
coextension of diverse works that envelops and conduct a
politics of the present.
There is a fine line here that reflects Deleuze and
Guattari’s distinction between major and minor literature.
“Living and writing, art and life, are opposed only from the
point of view of major literature” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1986,
41), because major work is, within the terms of its
institutionalisation, profoundly individuated. However social
or personal, it is configured as an exceptional expression and
thereby removed from the sphere of the collective. This is
what happens when ‘great’ works in their own right are
juxtaposed; they affirm their own authority and allow viewers
to make only visual or interpretative connections. A new
mode of curatorial practice—of which Documenta 12 is a prime
example—might recast work as minoritarian by locating it in a
less competitive environment where it can function as part of a
collective enunciation. The key dimension to this process is not
simply to allow in ‘life’ as either documentary representation
or spectator interaction. It is to understand contemporary art
as existing and operating within the contemporary—so that
the exhibiting space is always an extension of the outside: the
local politics, the world. Politics comes from the configuration
of art in this unbounded contemporary space, rather than from
institutional designation: making the exhibition contemporary,
rather than institutionalising contemporary art.
In this sense the politics of art is always contingent
rather than predetermined or foreclosed. In response to the
question of how art propounds a politics, Ranciere has argued
that, “It is necessary to reverse the way in which the problem
is generally formulated. It is up to the various forms of politics
to appropriate for their proper use, the modes of presentation
or the means of establishing explanatory sequences produced
by artistic practices rather than the other way around”
(Ranciere, 2004). As I have argued elsewhere, this entails that
the event in art is constituted as a kind of virtual event,
amenable to different actualities (Bennett, 2005). In other
words, rather than merely giving account of an event that has
already happened (and which may have informed the work’s
production and form), it serves to generate a set of
possibilities, which may in turn inform political thinking in
regard to particular circumstances. This level of political
operativity may be activated (or conversely, deadened) when
work is staged in different configurations in different
locations.
Perhaps in some sense the ‘test’ of contemporary art –
of its contemporaneity – is its capacity to be invested in this
sense; to constitute vectors that link events in a new
configuration. ‘Migratory’ art is exemplary in this regard
insofar as it embodies movement and transition, making
aesthetics political, by shifting it—literally mobilizing it—into
new sets of relations. This politics of possibility rests on a
dynamic conception of relationality in art as something more
than the closed circuits of interactivity: relationality as always
contemporary, as enfolding ‘life’ in the sense that minor
literature is part of a collective fabric rather than separable art
sphere. Works in an exhibition are, in this way, not simply
juxtaposed and rendered subject to comparative analysis, but
simultaneously mobilised. CC06 encompasses the history of
global migration: movement across a vast area, spanning five
continents, and the decades since former colonies achieved
independence. Within this, it comprises an orchestration of
simultaneous movement, of a collective that has no existence,
no visibility. The question is not what this is, what political
entity gave rise to this coming together, but what this does,
collectively in the present. Politics is not written into these
works but arises from aesthetic dynamics: from a collective
enunciation unbound to a collective. To this end, art
theoretical analysis needs to offer precise account of the nature
of aesthetic perception, of the substance of connection and the
flow of affect.
Aesthetics
Here, I am extending the title concept of Mieke Bal and Miguel
Hernandez-Navarro’s exhibition Migratory Aesthetics to
describe another show, CC06, reading that title as indicative of
a wider phenomenon in contemporary art. Migratory Aesthetics
announces itself as an operative concept rather than a generic
descriptor – a value-added concept that arises from the
collected artworks and the connections between them. This
tracing of a concept in aesthetic practice reprises one of Bal’s
recurrent quests to derive thought from art; to treat art, not as
an object of cultural studies, but as a mode of doing cultural
studies, and crucially, of setting the terms of a cultural inquiry
(Bal, 2000). More than the sum of artworks about migration,
Migratory Aesthetics invokes aesthetics in the strong sense, as
an epistemic project, rather than simply in the weaker sense,
implying the aesthetic treatment of objects.
To qualify aesthetics as migratory is to evoke an
aesthetics conditioned by migration. Yet within contemporary
art discourse, there is a surprising reticence to conceive of
aesthetics – the theory of aesthetic form, dynamics, behaviour
and perception – as tempered by cultural shifts. Art itself has a
well-defined relationship to contemporaneity (modernism,
after all, implies its embodiment). Hence, the overlapping
themes of migration, globalization and postcoloniality are
predominant in many biennales and major international art
exhibitions of the past decade and a half. Yet aesthetics – the
discourse that could/should make general claims (based on the
specifics of art’s engagement) for what the aesthetic
contributes to an understanding of contemporary culture – has
been curtailed by an art theoretical tendency to entrench a
form-content distinction that construes social and political
issues as content matters, antithetical to the formal concerns of
aesthetics. To the extent that this view prevails, art theory has
failed to elaborate an aesthetics that would locate politics in
the very particularity of art’s mode of expression.
As Isobel Armstrong has shown, however, the purist
conception of aesthetics that underpins this distinction is the
unfortunate legacy of a more widespread ‘anti-aesthetic’ turn
in theoretical writing (Armstrong, 2000). In art history, the so-
called ‘anti-aesthetic’ period of postmodernism has prompted
a ‘return’ to aesthetics, often narrowly conceived as a return to
‘beauty’ in art and art discourse. There is reason to be
suspicious of the anti-aesthetic tag insofar as the diversity
sanctioned by postmodernism simply allowed for a
proliferation of aesthetics. Judgements of taste became
relative; aesthetics, a crowded space that embraced the market,
popular culture, diversity. Hence, the idea that art theory
might, after a period of social mixing, return to a purified
aesthetics, itself somehow untouched by cultural change is
untenable. If aesthetics is to be more than a nostalgic refuge for
conservative art theory, it has to function with greater
impurity and within what Deleuze and Guattari term the
“cramped space” of contemporary culture; that is, not the
space made available within the institution for major art but
the lived space, in which we encounter exclusion,
confinement, marginalisation, difference and change (Deleuze
& Guattari, 1986). A project that conceives of aesthetics as
migratory – as adaptive and mutable – is an important
challenge, necessitating a turn to an expanded conception of
aesthetics as an epistemic inquiry.
Aesthetics is, by definition, concerned with what
Baumgarten termed ‘sensitive’ or ‘sensuous knowledge’ – a
faculty of perception and thus a means of apprehending the
world (Baumgarten, 1970 [1758]).3 As a primary encounter,
unconstrained by the categories, methods and demarcations of
other disciplines and practices, aesthetic perception is a unique
non-scientific basis for inquiry. It does not take up the terms of
current institutionalised analysis or align its expressions with
pre-existing categories; it excavates often underlying
perceptions and affects, direct engagements with the world in
its uncategorized ‘whateverness’, to use Agamben’s term
(Agamben, 1993, 86). At this level of sensory encounter,
ascriptions of national or group identity are apt to fall away,
even as they produce ‘wounded attachments’ (in Wendy
Brown’s phrase) and residual or unconscious emotional
effects. The point of pursuing the epistemic possibilities of
aesthetic perception is not, then, to illustrate the propositions
of science and sociology – to underwrite divisions of nations,
3 Baumgarten gave the discipline its name, deriving it from the Greek
aisthanomai, meaning perception by means of the senses.
people or identities (positive or negative) – but to establish
another way of knowing, and hence another ‘distribution of
the sensible’ (Ranciere, 2004). It is at this level that aesthetics is
political intervention, reorganising affects to redetermine a
perceptual landscape.
If the art of identity politics was pursued as a self-
legitimating practice, aesthetics is at variance with this insofar
as it cuts through identity in the process of tracing the
operations of perception. For this reason, migratory aesthetics
cannot be synonymous with art about migration, or art by
migrants (though it may of course encapsulate both). This is
not to say that it disregards the latter in any sense; rather that
aesthetics must serve art more effectively by making the
general case and configuring the political through the aesthetic
by describing the particularity of what art does.
What then, can migratory aesthetics – an exploration
of sensory perception conditioned by migration – deliver in
addition to accounts of particular migrations or indeed of
identities?
This is, in a sense, why I choose to focus on CC06, an
exhibition that enacts migratory aesthetics, but does not label
itself as such nor even claim to ‘represent’ accounts of
migration. In this instance, the cumulative effect of the
aesthetic engagement with migration is to engender a politics
of contemporary culture as ‘migrant’; that is, a culture
transformed by migration but emphatically not a separable
minority culture. In this arena, pressing concerns (the refugee
issue, ‘multicultural’ politics and contemporary divisions, as
well as fundamental issues of democratic participation)
emerge through the aesthetic analysis, as it were.
One of the interesting things about CC06 was how
work that might be corralled under the ‘topic’ of war and
terror – the politics of the moment – emerges readily from
‘migratory’ art as a natural outgrowth. By not naming art as
‘migrant’ or as ‘about war and terror’ the exhibition avoided
the kind of thematization that overdetermines the content of
work, instead allowing us to see how an aesthetic method
gives rise to a broad-based politics of the contemporary. This
is an important way to think about the epistemic possibilities
of exhibition practice.
More specifically, if there is a paranoid style in
contemporary global politics, we might see the aesthetic as
structurally suited to a systematic refusal of this strategy. Can
aesthetic experimentation generate models by which we can
understand cultural movements that do not allow themselves
to be predicted on identity politics? This is an urgent political
project in a context where clashes sparked by ethnic and racial
divisions are often deemed as ‘unforeseen’, or as inexplicable
irruptions – actually blind-spots – in a ‘multicultural’ state,
which cannot adequately conceptualise contingent relations. If
‘paranoid politics’ reacts to the experience of the unforeseen in
ways that seek to reduce the event—and the behaviour of
those involved—to a predictable formula, a more aesthetically
inclined politics might develop more complex understandings
of cultural movements and relations, based on a direct
engagement with unpredictability.
The ‘event’ status of an exhibition very often militates
against the notion of art as ‘inquiry’ or contribution to
knowledge insofar as institutions like galleries and biennales
are driven always to look for the next new theme. Hence there
is a rapid turnover of topics and tropes, none of which are
subjected to the sustained and cumulative development that
characterises academic research (although rapid filtration
sometimes has its own advantages). But aesthetic inquiry
properly conceived (and unconstrained by an imposed theme
or topic) does enable the constitution of an enduring thread of
knowledge. Without needing to ‘claim’ the subject of terror,
migratory aesthetics (as a concept grounded in critical art and
exhibition practice) provides something akin to a
methodological foundation – a cultural genealogy that leads
from the analysis of past migrations into a present politics
where the perceptual and affective relations surrounding
migration flow directly into realpolik and lived experience.
This is how aesthetic resonance works (as I have argued
elsewhere, regarding the question of how work on conflict and
trauma may translate into different contexts) -- not through
similarities in semantic content or even form but through a
depth engagement at the level of the political aesthetic as a
true method of inquiry (Bennett, 2005; 2006, 67–81). In this
sense, it is important to acknowledge relational aesthetics as
more than a thematic interlude.
Shared exposure: being-in-common
CC06 – the appellation referencing a shared identity that isn’t
one – serves as a case study revealing what might remain once
the notional bonds of shared identity are discarded. The
tagline of the 2006 Commonwealth Games was, as it
happened, ‘united by the moment’ – an uplifting marketing
slogan that unwittingly alluded to the lack of any enduring
Commonwealth community. This image of a fleeting
togetherness – ‘a relation without a relation’ (Nancy) – is
echoed in contemporary theory where it emerges – in Nancy’s
work, in particular – as a sign of ethical possibility. The
ineffability of abeing in common that does not cohere as a
representable identity may, however, require aesthetics or art
to realize it as an ethical or political concept. Something banal
and unnoticed in daily life becomes conceivable in the domain
of the aesthetic, which can modulate the tenor of an encounter
to examine affective relations. Nancy conjures the utterly
mundane image of ‘passengers in the same train
compartment’ who are simply seated next to each other:
together but not linked: ‘They are between the disintegration of
the “crowd” and the aggregation of the group…exposed
simultaneously to a relationship and an absence of
relationship’ (Nancy, 1991, 7). This evocation of a communal
experience beyond the realm of the named community points
to a quintessential modern, predominantly urban condition,
constituted by stranger-encounters as much as by familiar
relations; a dislocated experience, rather than a sedentary one,
where one is in transit as much as at home. But unlike the
conspicuous isolation of the modernist subject, embodied in
the figure of the flâneur, strolling alone within a crowd, here
the emphasis is on the condition of community that subsists
within this state of affairs. In the train compartment there is an
unavoidable encounter with the strangeness and difference of
others, however temporary this encounter may be. The sense
of ‘being with’ entailed in this mass transit experience is
literally poised between, in that zone beyond the affiliations of
work, home and various destinations, but it is nonetheless an
interface: a place in which we negotiate being with others in a
physical, emotional and ethical sense.
Terror attacks in London and Madrid have recently
invested the image of the mass transit train as a site of shared
or common exposure with more solidity than Nancy’s
metaphor originally contained. The extraordinary traumatic
event is often the occasion for community expression. But the
train is, in a very real sense, the site where a politics of
migration—and of paranoia—play out, both in fleeting
perceptions and in the sense of retributory violence and
violation. In the name of security and vigilance, we are
enjoined to regard the passengers in our train compartment
with suspicion. This has led Shilpa Gupta, a participant in
CC06, to stage interactive performances in trains (Blame, 2002–
03). She wanders through train carriages, selling to passengers
her Blame bottles, full of simulated blood, with a label reading
‘Blame® BLAMING YOU MAKES ME FEEL SO GOOD’. This
discursive engagement is neither didactic not sentimental; it is
not about inducing an idealised feeling of togetherness.
Rather, Gupta acknowledges the degree to which the politics
of ressentiment – the extreme of identity politics – urgently
requires both analysis and intervention at the level of affect.
Ressentiment (vengefulness) is defined by Nietzsche in terms of
a desire to deaden pain by means of affect – through the
production of a more violent emotion, directed outward:
Every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering,
more exactly, an agent; still more specifically a guilty agent
who is susceptible to suffering – in short, some living thing
upon which he can on some pretext or other, vent his affects,
actually or in effigy (Nietzsche, 1989; Brown, 1995, 214).
After the London Tube bombings thousands of people posted
‘we’re not afraid’ messages (pictures – often of themselves in
various public locations – with versions of that slogan added)
on a website www.werenotafraid.com. It wasn’t that people
really weren’t afraid; they were, of course, more anxious than
ever, but what is significant is how they took recourse in an
aesthetic strategy – aesthetic by virtue of operating directly on
affect. The We’re Not Afraid site can be read as a refusal of
ressentiment, a means of countering not just the threat of terror
but the manipulation of affect that has characterised the PR
component of the War on Terror.4 It elicits a defiance based
not in retribution or negative affect, but in the spontaneous
generation of a community united simply in exposure.
This is, in Kosofsky Sedgwick’s terminology, a
“reparative” rather than “paranoid” aesthetics. “Paranoid
knowing” insists on knowledge in the form of exposure. It is
based on a hermeneutics of suspicion that seeks always to
4 The project is described as follows: “We’re not afraid is an outlet for the global
community to speak out against the acts of terror that have struck London,
Madrid, New York, Baghdad, Basra, Tikrit, Gaza, Tel-Aviv, Afghanistan, Bali,
and against the atrocities occurring in cities around the world each and every
day. It is a worldwide action for people not willing to be cowed by terrorism
and fear mongering.” Internet, <http://werenotafraid.com/about.html>,
accessed January 19, 2007.
reveal underlying truth, placing its faith in the act of revelation
and unveiling. This is where aesthetics and the paranoid or
documentary endeavour part company methodologically.
Paranoid politics is anti-theatrical, relentlessly documentary
and narrative. As I have previously argued, however, the
documentary as exposé has limited aesthetic appeal and
potency, since it relies (paradoxically) on the inherent drama
of revelation and on the ready identification of a lie (Bennett,
forthcoming). Evil is generally more complex than this; it
rarely reduces to the monumental lie, the singular deceitful
act, amenable to subsequent representation. Thus, exposure as
a tactic—a way of reading—is to be used sparingly. And then
only when the pros and cons of its paranoid determination are
recognized. The politics of aesthetics redirects us away from
an obsession with access to the truth of what really happened
(as the only basis for political action), toward the imaginative
development of other possibilities (past and future). Exposure,
in this regime, is not a truth condition but a collective shock.
This is the essence of werenotafraid.com—the being-in-
common that is the result of a being-in-shock; not a disavowal
but a response to the experience of being caught out, surprised
by the unimaginable.
The mobilisation of ‘effigies’ (the venting of vengeful
affects in Nietzsche’s terms) rests on some imagined
separation of home and beyond – and it is this bounded,
‘secured’ sense of community and of identity that a politicised
migratory aesthetics (as well as the spontaneous recognition of
shared exposure in an aesthetic domain) undermines on
various flanks. The contemporary community described by
Nancy collapses any such division; risk and exposure attach to
the very experience of being-in-common, and there is no home
away from all this to which we can retreat. Kim Beom’s witty
Hometown (shown in the Korean pavilion at the 2005 Venice
Biennale) is a timely intervention in this regard. An
installation, comprising artifacts from a mythical town in a
remote Korean mountain region, is accompanied by a
handbook, designed for those who feel the need for a
hometown narrative for use in social conversation. This comes
complete with images and information on geography and
population, and useful tips for foreigners who might find it
difficult to account for their Korean background. Such work
debunks the fetishization of the migrant story as something
that can be packaged and coveted from outside – and, in this
context, reminds us that we may need to face up to the
challenge of talking about social relations without the
representable trappings of identity.
This is perhaps one of the principal challenges of
contemporaneity – and of the politics of the event,
characterized by changing sets of relations (social, religious,
political allegiances that arise from particular political
conditions, for example) rather than fixed affiliations (Bennett,
2005). And in the absence of identity attributes that enable us
to firmly locate affiliations, we are forced to consider how
these are constituted through affects and perceptions, some
entrenched, some volatile, some malleable. If the question of
relations ‘beyond identity’ is an important dimension of
political inquiry, it is an area in which aesthetics may prove
itself indispensable.
This is not to say that migratory aesthetics is
unconcerned with the texture of migrant stories, nor that it is
characterized by a singular approach. Clearly there is
immense diversity in what might collectively constitute
migratory aesthetics – and some of the most influential
contemporary art of recent times has dealt with very specific
events of border control (Multiplicity’s work, for example), as
much as with imagined alternatives. At the same time, the
metaphor of ‘traffic’ has been widely evoked to describe more
fluid and tenuous forms of community engagement, as well as
a more free ranging approach to democratic participation (the
Asian Traffic exhibitions that have toured the Asia-Pacific
region exemplify this) (Bennett, 2006).5 Migratory aesthetics
encompasses such an engagement with the texture of
movement at a micro (sensory) level and at a macro
(transnational) level. It embodies ‘exodus’, in Virno’s sense of
a creative flight from the state toward alternative community
formations (Virno, 2004), but combines the image of exit or
departure with an elaboration of movement across new
territory—of an arrival, however provisional.
Migratory Aesthetics is less a style than a strategy: a
transitional politics. To this end, it is essentially hybrid. The
affective potency of CC06 (as with recent Documentas) lay in
the recasting of documentary work alongside other aesthetic
practice in a creative curatorial politics that functions as a
‘shock to thought’—the surprise engendered through
unexpected collision. To this end, works like the pirate ship
and Shonibare’s costume pieces vaunt their theatricality and
their capacity to upset and invert tradition. Yet they are
effective in this context only to the extent that they are part of
a collective assemblage, extracting a new politics out of the
shards of an old defunct collectivity. This is what migratory
aesthetics can do at its best—what aesthetics can become
under the impact of migration. If it can open up new lines of
inquiry into contemporary culture, and carve out a dynamic
alternative to the stultified, institutionalised forms of
multiculturalism that seem often to serve only institutional
agendas, we have the essence of a genuinely practical, radical
aesthetics.
References
5 Asian Traffic originated at the Asia Australia Arts Centre in Sydney, an
organization with an explicit commitment to the ‘representation’ of migrant
groups. Asian Traffic, and the subsequent Open Letter project, reconfigured this
agenda in more explicitly relational terms.
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... For Rancière (2004), in particular, art is political not just because it might represent political issues, but because it tries to bring art and reach out to people who would normally access arts institutions such as a museum or a theatre. Art and aesthetics have the capacity to mobilise through processes of sensory affect and free play (Tello, 2016: 28) a critical engagement with the conditions of a more interconnected world, including injustices and global inequalities as well as experiences of displacement and migration (Bennett, 2007, Meskimmon, 2010, Tello, 2016, Serafini, 2018. As noted by Harvie (2013: 5), socially-engaged art audiences have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a shared environment where they are required to experience the artwork in relation not only to itself, but also in relation to each other. ...
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