Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013, 462 pp.
By Michael Frederick Rattray
Few art critics command respect. Chantal Pontbriand is one critic who, without question, should command respect. In my opinion, she deserves the position that she has earned in the contemporary art world. As a co-founder of Parachute, a publication that is sorely missed, her impact on art writing, art criticism, and art history is enormous and still difficult to measure. Parachute was a high-water mark, offering proof that a journal of contemporary art theory and criticism can exist in Canada. Parachute closed up shop in 2007, one year after the Conservative Party of Canada took over the PMO and one year before the financial collapse of 2008. In the democratically chosen Conservative™ era, our era, circumstances are different and, consequently, our reality is different. These differences expose both the strengths and the weaknesses of Pontbriand’s latest work, The Contemporary, the Common: Art in a Globalizing World.
The title is intriguing and situates the book among others that have addressed globalization of the “contemporary art” brand1 and contemporaneity in recent years. Recently, Peter Osbourne’s meditation on the contemporary designation in art and his claim that all contemporary art is post-conceptual2 have weighed on my thoughts, so I was interested to read Pontbriand’s take on the current issues driving the globalization of contemporary art. In typical fashion, she did not disappoint.
The book is a collection of essays on contemporary art history written by Pontbriand between 2000 and 2011 (other than the new writing undertaken to contextualize and draw together the at times disparate essays). It is a personal reflection upon and an example of an early-twenty-first-century sensibility that we experience collectively – the knowledge that we are caught in the past yet intrigued by an unknown future – as well as a meditation on a decade that will be recognized for both its triumphs and its failures. The book, published by Stenberg Press, is divided into three sections: “The Idea of Community”; “Globalization: The Common and Singular at Large”; and “Expanded Consciousness: Art without Borders.”
In the introduction, Pontbriand refers to the book as a “test-drive,” and I find this admission curious. She is reluctant to recognize, perhaps even pessimistic about, the possibility that her book will be considered authoritative. The essays explore various art practices yet stay theoretically consistent with significant and identifiable themes, such as utopia, enhanced-medium, the art of the everyday, and borderless expression. Each one of these themes owes a debt to theoretical anarchism. In this way, she remains within the trajectory of a theory of the avant-garde proposed by the Italian theorist Renato Poggioli during the 1960s.3 However, the globalization of contemporaneity occurred during the 1990s, “when contemporary art finally reached the most remote outposts and ‘contemporaneity’ was no longer the distinct domain of the Americas and Europe.”4 This is a tall order for art – to be the messenger of contemporaneity and to deliver it to the farthest regions of the world – and the comment reveals Pontbriand’s faith in the radical potentialities that are encountered when the liberation of expression is achieved and a globalized contemporary designation that neither defines nor lays claim to expression is established – to use contemporaneity, much like art, in name only so that the sign can fulfil a moral and political purpose. Whether this global contemporary, or borderless expression, is an example of the borderless neo-liberal global financialization exported from the Americas and Europe in the post-1989 era remains to be seen.
Pontbriand’s method for analyzing the contemporary is to analyze artwork. In exemplary fashion, she leads with the work and lets the work develop the theoretical concepts that she references and explores in her essays. She takes up many of the notable philosophers of our time who discuss the contemporary paradigm and, indeed, some protocontemporary art historians as well. Jean Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben are influential in these texts, as is the early-twentieth-century art historian Aby Warburg, who, Hans Belting observes, “sought to locate art within a vast repertoire of forms of cultural expression, as one of an entire array of symbolic languages within world culture.”5 Collectively, they explore and theorize the potential of a utopian future community, a global community with a one-world aesthetic vision. This global aesthetic, or art without borders, is positioned in the first section of the book and solidified in the second, and the third section relies upon this established foundation to facilitate a vision of the coming common and contemporary art. The question of the gift and the theorization of exchange among community members dominate Pontbriand’s reading of community. This theoretical being-with, exchanging with, and giving to the other is a major theme throughout. Of note is an interview with Pontbriand and Nancy, in which they discuss the possible ramifications of a new universalism, which I see as commensurate with the desire for a global aesthetic or world culture. Nancy calls this global aesthetic the coming universal language of communication, and Pontbriand theorizes the potential for radical direct actions to hack into and exploit the ubiquitous presence of the image in twenty-first-century culture.
For Pontbriand, the body being in time, or the body being-with movement, draws attention to the ephemeral nature of bodily action and its relationship with the commodity-form of the fixed image. Art is thus a mediator, an interlocutor, and intended to unfix the fixity of the human-world – and, moreover, capitalism in general. Any attack on capitalism is problematic because it begs questions such as how contemporary art, which is a luxury good and luxury experience by any other name, can manage to evade its own parasitic relationship with monopoly capitalism. I am thinking here about Claire Fontaine’s Capitalism Kills (Love) (2008) and Foreigners Everywhere (2005), which Pontbriand theorizes. Although it is certainly plausible to argue that Fontaine problematizes “the failure of utopias, the worldwide proliferation of homogenized lifestyles, the systematization of modes of functioning, and the objectives of growth that also mark the field of art” and are powerless to do anything about this situation, the theory reads as hollow in the post-2008 era.6 As such, any art theory, art criticism, or art history that claims to be global must account for and confront the luxury of contemporaneity, the luxury of criticism. If criticism does not address the social position of the artist – whether the artist fulfils a moral obligation – then criticism resists being-with much of the global population.
Are contemporary artists defined by the potential that they embody to produce and reflect upon betterment? Do globalized artists remain in the post-conceptual realm of permanent critical distance? Like Yves Klein, will they take your money and make you burn it too – but just your half? The purpose of avant-garde antagonism, which in theory produces an agonistic moment when art expands our consciousness and is elevated to the status of the mythic, will always posit that the artist reacts against, as opposed to with, a dominant hegemonic order. Yet, it is difficult to take this antagonism seriously when one of the longest essays is reserved for the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has made a career of exploring the gutters and the high-rises of the privileged and imagines a post-modern utopia that decries social engineering while simultaneously socially engineering the participant’s experience: this is the aporia of relational art.
We read about the coming community, the being-with that many of us are prone to discuss, the way an unbounded and free contemporary art claims inclusiveness; yet, these ideas are instigated by and popularized among a global avant-garde group that is distinctly privileged. These ideas continue to exist within a global economic system that ironically sells a vision of an idea of community that is enforced over the totality of the globe. How can contemporary art somehow remain at a critical distance from these phenomena? In the global art world and the global contemporary art economy, are we given a space for radicalism, a site that is designated for protest, an autonomous zone where direct actions and criticisms of globalization validate the dominant institutions of global capital?
As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, our time is different and we must develop different strategies, different methods, for confronting the issues of this contemporary era. Where is the common? Is it at the global limit of an unfixed and free expression? Or is the global limit on the ground, in the streets, and within the trajectory of a self-aware consumer who ethically engages a consumable world? What is the purpose of an institution? Is a globalized institution that manages control over its own position and the critical discourse written about it much different from the censorship exerted by a nation-state? Are we the cogs in a global machine of everyday living? As Wodiczko declared some time ago about any authoritarian control over art, including its globalization, “The beer is getting hot (warm).”7 Certainly for Pontbriand, who has the last word, this contemporary is beyond the corrupted centre of the institution: “In the consumerist and institutionalized society that defines postcapitalist culture, there are hordes of artists literally being produced by universities and art schools everywhere in the world. . . . From the museum to the university, the artists of today know what is expected of them and how to fulfill their tasks in order to please the system.”8 Art must break through borders to remain relevant.
2 See Osbourne, Anywhere or Not at All.
3 Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
4 Pontbriand, The Contemporary, p. 8.
5 Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 19.
6 Pontbriand, The Contemporary, p. 71.
7 Krzysztof Wodiczko, Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), p. 34.
8 Pontbriand, The Contemporary, p. 141.
Michael Frederick Rattray is an independent researcher and a practising artist. His recent PhD dissertation, Functional Anarchism(s) and the Theory of Global Contemporary Art (2014), theorizes that global contemporary art promotes a theoretical anarchism that can be traced to the aesthetic philosophy of modern art. He currently resides in British Columbia.