Local Communities and Nomad Artists

by Martí Peran

These notes are nothing more than some preliminary remarks aiming at approaching a series of complex problems that, from our point of view, need to be recognized within the new, fashionable, artistic practices, which are dedicated to the exploration of their public dimension through the direct contact with local communities, and they operate in specific socio-cultural contexts. In fact, each one of these points forms a sort of index of subjects that should be delineated and expounded with the utmost tenacity but, for the time being, these points may serve as a guide for some subsequent analysis. Therefore, like a disorderly collection of ideas, we are going to throw the dice without distinction.

A recognized aesthetic tradition, of positivist character, concedes to the artist the special capacity to circulate, through his work, an efficient expression of the “genius loci”, of the specific character of the place or, even better, of the hypothetical “essential spirit” of the place in question. From this perspective, the artist, even the “genius”, doesn’t construct an extravagant and alien to the majority imaginary but, on the contrary, he converts himself to the most legitimized voice to express and represent several essential attributes of a community, even though this community may not be initially capable of recognizing them in the aforesaid representation. This pretension, which is full of conceit, now hardly can be supported. Nevertheless, even if this happens by unexpected and barely conscious ruptures, something from this tradition may still be surviving.
In the world of globalized art and, above all, of art like a felicitous instrument for the aggrandizement of the spectacles of consumption, we are witnessing an explosion of biennials and disparate events that, in many cases, are planned with the view of “normalizing” the locations in which they take place. Cities that hardly exist on the map, either on national, continental or global scale, aspire to appear in it with the impetus of the artistic event. Similarly, places that are extremely well-known, because of their “problematic” nature though (the case of Tijuana or, mutatis mutandis, of the Basque Country in Spain) also resort to art, aiming at a regeneration –or a make-up– of the aforesaid problems, regardless of how honest are their initial intentions. In both cases –either in the “inexistent” places or the “problematic” places– the artists are invited to intervene with their equipment of the best intentions, but at the same time they are compelled to move from place to place like savior nomads. “Save the place” could be a good slogan for the legitimization of the figure of a new errant artist who, pressed by the following commission, hardly can recognize a situation, a reality or a community in order to apply to it his own strategies, before moving to an other area of the planet. Clearly, the artist “engaged” with the place and its people, doesn’t arrive in principle with a desire of manipulation or Messianism; on the contrary, he is supposed to have a sufficient humility and honesty, so as to respect the idiosyncrasy of the place of operations; but this very respect, along with his capacity as an occasional agent, he facilitates this automatic adoption of his habitual “modes of action”, to the extent that already relies on his already proven efficacy. After all, the “artistic” nature of the intervention appears once more as crucial, even though now its ingenuity isn’t found in its supposed capacity to reveal an essential background but, quite the opposite, in its capacity to contribute to the construction of a new image that, in fact, has little to do with real tensions. Moreover, the supposed “genius loci”, we shouldn’t forget that, is nothing more than the narration that aspires to impose itself as hegemonic on behalf of better established ideological sectors.

In the first idea that we have outlined, contemporary art appears like a kind of a “sanitation protocol”. And this holds good, for in order to by-pass this danger we have stressed some corrective strategies: action in concert with other social agents of the place, which are alien to the world of art, accentuating a type of action that should be directed from the local users themselves, or development of some projects in co-ordination with the axes of the so-called “network aesthetics” (facilitating thus the horizontality in the construction of signifiés, multiplying the crossings of subjects and information and substituting every desire for stability, in favor of some “products” that are subject to constant change), even if we don’t need the literal mediation of the Internet. All these, as we were saying, can effectively make up for the dangers of what in the name of art ends up designing a distorted image of the place and its real demands and expectations. Because this is precisely the real problem: the clarification of the order of things. In other words, what comes first? Could it be the engagement through an effective insertion in a territory, or the necessity to guide this insertion in order to become more “legitimate”? Over the last few years the notion of “agency” has been imposed, with huge success, as a possible response to this disjunction. Indeed, the displacement of artistic action towards agency allows the elimination of every spark of the artistic and, consequently, annihilates any temptation to emancipation with the assistance of art. Agency, in principle, is nothing more than the offer of a possibility, the activation of instruments with which the community can channel in an effective way its imaginary or its real demands; in this manner, the art of “agency” is converted to an authentic production of services that always appears “behind” reality or, even better, appears only in connection with some real and pre-existing demands that, at best, use the “artistic” in order to empower and amplify themselves. Having reached this point, the conclusion is obvious: an agency cannot be articulated in any territory, but has to be articulated where this agency is demanded by real life. Consequently, the nomad artist of the global circuit will not be able to operate as an “agent” in the context of any biennial or event to which he is invited, but only where, behind the institutional invitation, exists a living world that, probably, is about to be eliminated behind the curtain of this very “resort to culture”.

The last note that we would like to offer to this debate belongs to a level distinct from the one on which we were allowed to focus by previous problems. We may now put forward a reflection excessively abstract, but we have already recognized the preliminary character of these notes, and thus we can allow it to ourselves, at least, as an annex of sorts.
What we are interested in now is the recognition a possible paradox that is hard to be solved: the one that derives from the encounter between the action that is concerted with a specific territory or community and the necessarily “distorting” profile of authentic nomadism. In fact, we can suppose in principle that the artistic practices that are directed to the real conditions of a place/community aspire to cure with efficacy the deficiencies that can be recognized (a lack of visibility, the demands that need new instruments for their channeling, the unraveling of a potentiality that is stifling in pre-established structures) and, lastly, a series of horizons that demand a peculiar state of attention and listening. Furthermore, we could summarize them by calling upon the notion of “genius loci”, even if now this is done with a heterodox manner, reinstating thus the original notion of expression. It could be formulated either way, but the artistic practices with which we are preoccupied now –the mode of agency included– require a kind of initial passivity, or even objectivity, in the approach of the place, which allows us to recognize the context of operations with the least possible distortion and with the greatest disposition to the initially less visible. The contemporary artist, however, because of his condition as a nomad agent, which either results from the expansion of the world of art or, at best, it is the consequence of the historic condition that compels us to construct daily our subjectivity and to maintain a an always vulnerable relationship with the territory, in every kind of work-related or emotional vicissitudes; because of this very nomadism, the artist in question is converted to distorting reflection of the image of any place from which he passes through. It is, in effect, the authentic “nomadology”; it is the one that converts subjects –just because it is in a perpetual state of transit– to perturbating elements, to apologists of the un-quiet, thwarting every temptation to lessen the realities below any solid narrative. The story constructed by the nomad always is a story that “infects” the place that writes it and, consequently, we can suspect that in this way it would be hard to “sanitize” territories, not even with the intervention of the strategies of agency. It is nothing more than a superficial doubt, a paradox that may not be propounded in the best of ways, but we believe that it has an adequate draught that compels us to always remain in a state of alertness when we aspire to redirect art to the heterogeneous space of the public. This disjunction compels us to take a position on whether we should prioritize the effort to contribute to the uncovering of this heterogeneous and volatile condition or, merely, the effort to exercise it in order to construct one more episode of this infinite story. In that case, the connection with any place/community becomes suspicious.