Zdenka Badovinac

The Need to Modernize the Art System

The exhibition Interrupted Histories does more than simply present as separate entities the art projects of the twenty-seven artists I invited to participate; it also offers these works as instruments for new processes in historicizing art. It is this newly acquired function, demonstrated by the works on view, that allows us now to speak of a new relationship between art and its history. We see this new function of art in the deliberate and systematic way it involves itself in searching for answers to the urgent questions that face cultural spaces outside the canonized history. Such places we can call spaces of interrupted histories. And while the present exhibition focuses primarily on the eastern half of Europe and, to some degree, on the Middle East, one might easily extend its concerns to the whole of the non-Western world - a world that, for political and economic reasons, has not been able to integrate fully the processes of modernity, among which processes we can certainly include the modern system of creating histories - historicization.

Nations that have undergone long periods of colonial despotism, ideological oppression, dictatorship, genocide, and mass migration have time and again had to contend with more or less violent interruptions in their artistic traditions no less than in their political freedoms. Although the Western Christian world has also, throughout its history, known poverty, plague, the horrors of war, Nazism, Fascism, Francoism, etc., it has always managed to retain its economic dominance, which underwent a real expansion with the emergence of capitalism. The West's economic dominance provided a certain continuity in art, expressed especially through the linear succession of historical styles. Meanwhile, the Western capitalist system, which dominated the world, succeeded in establishing its art history as the only internationally valid canon able to bestow the legitimacy of art on a given form of creative expression.

The exhibition Interrupted Histories asks, on the one hand, what are the implications of the absence of systematized historicization in spaces outside the Western world or on its margins, and, on the other hand, what sort of methods are needed to accelerate the processes of such historicization.

The most urgent questions in these spaces are today connected, first and foremost, with the processes of integrating into the global exchange of ideas, that is to say, with the total modernization of various fields of activity in these spaces of interrupted histories. Along with the accelerated processes of globalization that occurred in the 1990s, the processes of musealization and art evaluation also began to develop in these spaces. With the globalization of capital, the Western art system completed its modernizing process, and now, after more than a decade and a half, we are asking ourselves, just what sort of modernization is this?

The artists in the Interrupted Histories exhibition come from places that do not yet have their own collective narrative, which is one of the key elements in the modern system of history. At present it seems that that only way to foster awareness of the contemporary cultural identity of these places is through a system that is able to link artists in internationally analogous networks. Such a system seems to be a prerequisite for their sovereign and equal entry into the international arena and the only tool for preventing ideological game-playing or manipulation by capital, both of which view as easy prey anything that is not already labeled and systematized. Curators and artists from these spaces of interrupted histories are today asking how they can become the subject - the agent - in their own development.

Interrupted Histories, then, presents the art spaces of Europe's postcommunist countries and, to some extent as well, of the Middle East - spaces that are already at present intensely engaged in the processes of modernization, especially in regard to such issues as identity, the development of infrastructure, and their own discursive system. The first stage of modernization (read: globalization) in most of these spaces occurred at the beginning of the 1990s. One could say that it brought to the fore, more than anything else, questions of identity. In Eastern Europe, for example, it wasn't until the collapse of the communist regimes that we seriously began for the first time to ask ourselves whether such a thing as a common Eastern European identity actually exists. That was also the time when the Western art system started behaving in ways that were "politically correct": there emerged an interest in the art of Eastern Europe; not only Israeli, but now also Palestinian artists were taken into consideration; not only Turkish, but also Kurdish art was of interest, and so on. Integration with the modern art system began, then, with recognition of diverse identities. The modern Western art system, which had developed within the context of a free international flow of ideas and capital, now suddenly, after decades of allegiance to international styles, took an interest in art that possessed a distinctly ethnic, national, racial, sexual, religious, or political identity. At this time, which was distinguished by a kaleidoscopic atmosphere and a multiplicity of identities, it became, paradoxically, more important than ever to have a particular fixed identity. What the Western system really wanted to see was not so much the conflicted identities of the present age, which are continually being constructed and falling apart, but rather something bound to the past. Traditional identities became of interest both for Western capital, which set about marketing them as exotic commodities, and as points of identification around which an explosive militant charge began building up of various nationalist and fundamentalist groups. This increased interest in the art produced by spaces of interrupted histories was most often linked, on the one hand, to stereotypical critiques of the failed communist regime or, on the other, to anything that in any way designated the traditional world of the Balkan peoples, the Arabs, the Jews, etc. The following situation emerged: whenever you talked about collective identity, you were actually talking about the past. But there is an essential difference between the way the concept of collective identity is applied in Western art and the way it is applied in non-Western art. While in relation to Western art we can speak of a certain collective narrative in which various nations are able recognize themselves, we cannot apply this term, at least not in the same sense, to the non-Western world. It is in the light of this difference that we must try to understand, too, the need for defining the Eastern European identity, a need that essentially appeared only after the whole thing was, as it were, over and done with.

It is, of course, true that every non-Western space already possesses its own unique identity and its own history. We are not, however, speaking here about whether or not a past and a tradition in fact exist, but rather about the absence of history as a relatively homogeneous international system, such as has been developed by Western modernity. It would seem that in the non-Western world the concept of a collective identity, so defined, is a matter not of the past but of the future.

Fifteen years after the more intense process of modernization began in spaces outside canonized history, we see considerable differences between individual places, both in their degree of integration in the processes of the international market and in the extent to which they have already contributed to the global exchange of ideas. Modernizing the spaces of the Other entails, in essence, a reshaping of the supply and demand, which became possible in the early 1990s as a result of the changes in the political geography of Europe and the ever-expanding globalization of the world. On the one hand, artists from these spaces began to be more intensively included in important Western exhibitions, while, on the other hand, the model of Western exhibitions, galleries and discursive methods began to spread quickly across the entire globe.

The greatest expectations (and at the same time, the greatest reservations) appeared with the expansion of the model for such large-scale exhibitions as, for instance, the various biennials. Even as curators and artists took part in an ever-increasing number of such shows, they began to wonder what the real purpose was behind these exhibitions and whether they were not in fact a kind of art supermarket whose offerings were being determined by the curators who flew from one end of the world to the other. But despite much criticism and many misgivings, the big international shows nevertheless proved, at least in the best instances, that they could be very successful in connecting local art spaces with the wider world and, at the same time, could be instrumental in addressing some of the issues their participants perceived in the given local context.

Today we find that, throughout the world, new biennials seem to appear on an almost daily basis and in places that, until recently, were never drawn on any art map. But we too rarely ask whether these projects have any reciprocal influence on the system that produced them, and if they do, then how. Or is it possible, perhaps, to go so far as to consider that the spread of the Western system into other spaces could so influence change in the system itself as to trigger a substantial transformation in the hitherto established function of the museum and even of art itself?

All these modernizing processes also entail an ever-growing migration of images, ideas, and people, which is slowly transforming the established relationship between the center and the periphery. But is this really true? The globalizing of the Western art-system model could also be called the musealization of the world. This shows itself more and more as a project of standardization and homogenization, both of which enable global capital to operate with as little hindrance as possible. By digitalizing their collections, museums across the world are reducing themselves to databases, which in turn allows symbolic capital to be ever more easily changed into a commodity that can circulate without difficulty through global networks of decentralized positions of power. It seems that things have not essentially changed, then, since capital is still what dominates the world. Modernization appears to be merely its tool, creating the false picture that the peripheral spaces are part of the same system as the center - that is to say, that they have similar conditions of production, presentation, and distribution as well as compatible methods of historicization.

The established system of history does not essentially change; it merely expands. The spaces of the Other, meanwhile, are through the processes of modernization being gradually included in the Western system, but more through individual representatives than through their own collective experiences.

Parallel Histories

When we speak of the official history of the West, we are aware that in the Western world there has always existed, in parallel, much that has been marginalized or afterwards erased and forgotten. We are aware that today, even in the West, the number of subordinate histories is multiplying and that fewer and fewer people can identify with the unified collective narrative, which, as we increasingly discover, is linked to an imaginary community. As Homi Bhabha points out, in a period of time-space compression, hybridity replaces feelings of national and personal identity. In his view, today's archetypal figure is the migrant, who lives between different cultural spaces. Despite the elusiveness of the identity of the migrant, this nevertheless appears as a universally recognizable category.

Earlier, when discussing the expression "collective identity," I said that its meaning essentially depends on the individual social and political context. I could say something similar about the term "parallel histories": it is used differently in different contexts. It varies substantially depending on which official history the little histories are parallel to. There exists, indeed, enormous differences between the dominant systems and their relations with subordinate systems. In regard to the dominant Western system of art we can say with certainty that it has always been much more flexible toward its marginal histories, which it has even been able to graft fairly quickly into the big history. The unofficial art that existed under the more rigid forms of communism, however, represents a different story; it attained legitimacy, for the most part, only after the collapse of the regime. One of the essential features of art in spaces dominated by ideological art was its inherent parallelism. If, then, we today wish to develop in these spaces an art history that would be at all relevant, we must take into consideration the fact that there were always two entirely separate parallel currents - official and unofficial. The unofficial art was the only truly parallel art, in that it never intersected with the official art. If we consider the full meaning of the word "parallel," then we must distinguish between parallel histories and subordinate histories. Of the latter we can say that they are historical lines that synchronously form the networks of a system in which they continuously appear and disappear, interrupting and transforming each other. Subordinate histories are characteristic of all spaces and - at least in those with which our exhibition is concerned - also imply an art that is subordinate to the art of the dominant political, ethnic, or religious communities and, in some places, subordinate also to the art of a diaspora or the art of the West. In short, we can speak of a system of interrupted histories, which would seem to be, for now, something negative that should be brought to an end. But despite such desires, interruption is in fact the only constant we can find in various times and places.

It would be a mistake to think that, with the collapse of the political regimes and the rapid acceleration of the processes of global integration, things would somehow automatically normalize, that interrupted histories would be done away with and art would organize itself as part of a system of continuities. On the contrary, after the fall of the communist regime, just when we expected a great wave of normalization, new interruptions appeared. Today we are witnessing, for example, amnesia about the communist past - but this is not amnesia about the degeneration of communism, but rather about the progressive humanist idea, which suddenly found itself erased from the public space. This contemporary interruption was possible, among other reasons, because of the existing tradition of the truly radical interruptions that had resulted also in the creation of parallel systems.

Mapping Interrupted Histories

We have stated that art history, in the sense of a unified collective narrative, exists only in the West and that other spaces are, by and large, spaces of interrupted histories. In this regard, interrupted histories are in fact individual stories that live separate lives from one another and that cannot be joined together, on the basis of unified standards, into a larger meaningful whole. These are smaller, fragmented systems that map the national histories outside of any broader international connections - or they map the little histories of individuals and groups that shape the unofficial mythologies of the given spaces.

One such system is the self-historicizing of artists who, lacking a suitable collective history, were themselves forced to search for their own historical and interpretive contexts. Because the local institutions that should have been systematizing neo-avant-garde art and its tradition either did not exist or were disdainful of such art, the artists themselves were forced to be their own art historians and archivists, a situation that still exists in some places today. Such self-historicization includes the collecting and archiving of documents, whether of one's own art actions or, in certain spaces, of broader movements, ones that were usually marginalized by local politics and invisible in the international art context.

Self-historicization was only one of the systems that existed alongside the activities of institutions, which themselves have always been extremely diverse in the spaces of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They range from thoroughly provincial museums to museums with enviable collections in Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Israel, and Iran. In some places - Palestine and Lebanon, for instance - they did not exist at all; only recently have smaller nonprofit art organizations begun to compensate for this absence. Nevertheless, despite all these differences in institutions, we can say that they were what, for the most part, provided local artists with a national or ideological frame, even if had no informed relationship with either the narrower local art scene or the broader international context.

Artists today find themselves in a situation where, on the one hand, they are still to a large degree left to do their own historicizing while, on the other hand, the newly interested West has already started to include them in its museum collections - where they find themselves estranged from their own original context. Thus begins the musealization of the East, a process that Boris Groys, when speaking of the art of communism, describes as "a consequence of the West's victory in the Cold War: we know from history that the victors always, in one way or another, appropriate the art of the vanquished." We have already stated that the musealization of the non-Western world essentially means classifying it and making it more manageable. The greater visibility of the Other, then, does not automatically imply greater power. Why, therefore, should we be at all interested in modernizing our art and its system of operations if it is clear that this does not enhance our sovereignty but instead takes it away?

In modernization we see a double process. It is, simultaneously, both a possible means of achieving independence and a key method for new forms of colonialism. It is, indeed, a stimulant that, on the one hand, strengthens and, on the other, destroys. And as with any medicine, in these processes, too, dosage and combination with anything of a different "chemical makeup" are essential issues.

Today's split between tradition and modernity, which, especially in the Arab world, is becoming ever more acute, is based precisely on the understanding that these two entities are fundamentally incompatible. We have already found that today traditional identity essentially implies a reiteration of something that supposedly cannot change over time. If we want today to historicize a certain artistic space - without abandoning it to the jaws of such dichotomies - our only recourse is to recognize both the contemporary plurality of identities and the social, political, and historical specificities of individual localities. Only by taking account of both these things can we avoid both the traditional and modern reproductions of identity that are stimulated by the contemporary world of the media. We are speaking, then, of new possibilities that reside in a historicizing that no longer views identities as finalized facts but instead always allows for the discovery of yet-unlabeled subjectivities. If we want to talk about any sort of power that peripheral spaces might have for transforming the existing state of affairs, then we must look for it in this quality of being actively unlabeled.

We spoke earlier of parallel and subordinate histories - in other words, the informal histories that continue to be an especially characteristic feature of the non-Western world. In these environments, we could, indeed, speak of a whole range of informal systems, which people were compelled to develop alongside official political and military dictatorships so as to survive more easily. From the perspective of the modern world, these informal systems look like huge obstacles on the road to economic progress and the development of mature political democracy. For this reason they are usually presented as features of the Other that need to be dispensed with as soon as possible for the good of modernization. In its critical stance toward the world of modernity, art today often turns to what are essentially premodern systems in which it sees a certain subjective creativity that has almost disappeared form the standardized capitalist world. In this way it views informal systems as a positive; the Other is no longer merely the object of modernization but has become an active Other. Here we are dealing not with any romantic nostalgia, but rather with a recognition of the modes of operation that, together with artifacts, compose the history of the Other. The process of historicizing spaces external to the big history should not resemble a selection process in which we pick and choose that which comes closest to our ideas about modernity. Now, of course, we must ask ourselves, how can modern history in any way legitimize procedures that exist in conflict with it? How can history, as a science, take seriously, for instance, the informal manner of historicization such as it is presented in the exhibition Interrupted Histories?

The exhibition Interrupted Histories does indeed concern itself with informal historicizing methods, but at the same time it also deals with "real" historical materials - "documents" - the kind that should please even professional historians. The object of the artists' research ranges from genuine archival materials linked to local histories - materials that in some cases the artists have been collecting over several decades - to the documentation of various phenomena in contemporary anthropology. What all these works have in common is that they deal with real-life stories, not fictions, and that they can, therefore, have an effect on the processes of historicizing art. Thus, such art becomes a genuine instrument of history - not history as a science, but a history that lies outside the traditional hierarchical classifications of thought. This manner of historicizing we can no longer call simply "informal" - that is not enough - rather, we should call it a mapping of heterogeneous realities that are mutually both supplementary and interruptive.

The artists are here displaying museums of a sort, the purpose of which, however, is not to establish yet another collective narrative such as the Western world is familiar with. These artists are not interested in creating a new big history, but are rather interested in the conditions that sustain the tension between small and temporary histories and what is defined as big history. We might say that they are advocating the modernization of the art system, but without the creation of new canons that would formalize the still-permissible degree of informal procedures. Our artists' museums do not advocate some completely unsystematic form of popular historicization; what is important to them are not only precise procedures and data, but also the subject who does the historicizing. This question of who is actually doing the historicizing becomes all the more important within the contemporary conditions of power and global game-playing.

The exhibition Interrupted Histories presents itself as a kind of tool for creating history. This is not a case in which the curator/art historian claims an exclusive right to the historicizing process simply because he or she is the only one with professional qualifications in such matters; instead, others have been invited to participate - the artists and, indeed, anyone who is interested in contributing to the historicizing process.

It has long been known that, in the framework of the museum, art is stripped of its original function, whether this is religious or ideological. The museum is the "scene of the crime" - the place where art began to serve nothing but itself. When today we speak about new art spaces and their right to be included in international art collections and to help redefine art history, are we not also speaking about the need for a new model of the museum? We often mention the crucial connection that evolved in the twentieth century between art and the museum, but less often do we ask ourselves just how fateful that connection has really been: to what degree has art become the museum and to what degree has the museum become art itself?

Interrupted Histories presents work in which artists act as:
- archivists of their own and other artists' projects or of various phenomena in the national history;
- curators who research their own historical context and establish a comparable framework for various big and little histories;
- historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, who record current and pertinent phenomena in the interaction between tradition and modernity as well as rapid change in the local landscape.

In his essay, "The Logic of the Collection," Boris Groys has written: "The museum in modernism, despite everything, had a definite function: it represented universal history. But in recent times, the museum exposition has been losing this function, too: the most interesting curators, in compiling artworks and establishing their mutual reference, no longer behave in accordance with historical logic but rather in accordance with entirely aesthetic questions." From all that has been said, it might seem that artists and curators have exchanged roles. But the fact of the matter is simply that today we can no longer separate different professional roles inasmuch as we are dealing more and more with interdisciplinary phenomena.

In considering the possibilities of a new historicization, we keep returning to something that once seemed inconceivable: the interweaving of two different systems of thought - science and art. Victor Burgin once made fun of Picasso's famous boast, "I do not seek; I find." And indeed, art has never been about great moments of intuition; artists have always proceeded from investigations based on the achievements of the natural and social sciences.

And if, in traditional art, the investigation of a certain issue yielded a final result in the medium of painting or sculpture, then for the artists in Interrupted Histories the research process, along with the research material, is exhibited as an element of the work itself, an element of its open structure. For today, the historicizing process is no longer bound strictly to scientific methodology; it is closer to Derrida's notion of "writing," which erases oppositions between logic, rhetoric, witticism, and scientific discourse.

In the works in our exhibition, different histories live side by side: big histories transpire alongside personal histories; the history of an anonymous street corner is no less worthy than the history of a certain monument; obscure local histories and canonized history are equal elements in a myriad of differences.

Both the individual works presented in Interrupted Histories and the exhibition as a whole are themselves objects of history and, at the same time, its instruments. The exhibition still examines artists who deal with a particular theme, in this case, with history. It exhibits these artists in a physical space, but at the same time, it transcends its own spatial and temporal limitations. The individual artworks and the exhibition as a whole are both characterized by an open structure that allows new elements to be added, even beyond the space and time of the exhibition. Elements may be added to the exhibition through both the Internet project and the catalogue, which is a kind of archival folder in which new material may be placed. Interrupted Histories is, then, both a final product and an open process of creation. What is essential in all this, however, is that the exhibition respond to a real need; in this way, both the exhibition itself and the art it presents acquire new real-life functions.

When art becomes a tool, it regains the function it lost when it moved into the museum. The absence of historicization in the spaces this exhibition examines is, perhaps, more than just an obstacle to the integration of their art in the international context. As we all know, shortcomings can also be advantages - unique experiences that help us form a new perspective on the very concept of history. The need for historicization is, undoubtedly, also a need for greater visibility, which serves to benefit various positions of power. This exhibition compels us to think about how we can protect ourselves now from various forms of manipulation in the future, how we can set up advance mechanisms that will be continually interrupting themselves. As far back as 1969, Michel Foucault discussed his Archeology of Knowledge not as a science but as a knowledge that through its own actuality was continually interrupting itself. In this context, we can understand history as a history of interruptions, as a presence that is continually redefining itself. In the context of our exhibition, interrupted histories lose their negative status and draw our attention to something that is inherent to history in general.