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Huang Du: New Events and Cultural Space

The following text is from a paper presented at the Zooming into Focus symposium  “Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art from Different Glocal Positions”, China Art Academy, Hangzhou, China, March 2004

The theme of the symposium Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art from Different Glocal Positions, proposed by Hou Hanru and Pi Li, is quite culturally practical. It inspired us to reconsider the status and position of contemporary art from a new angle. “Different glocal positions” also implies the positive response of local artist towards politics, society, economics, and culture under a global condition. In other words, the overlapping of the two worlds (“glocalization”) not only extends the critical discussion of hybridity in globalization and post-colonialism, but also foresees those challenging questions about cultural we are now facing. Thus I would prefer to discuss issues about modernity, the re-evaluation of cultural space, new events and media art, and the attitude of glocalization under the title of “New Events and Cultural Space.”

THE QUESTION OF MODERNITY

Obviously, modernity is a complicated concept that is hard to define. Modernity is a religious term that originated at the end of the 10th century in Europe and later extended to encompass a broad area in culture. As Hal Foster argued in his book The Anti-Aesthetic, modernity as a broad concept indicates progress and development in the intellectually endeavor of human beings. It is a legally cultural project that originated in the infant era that included the ideal construction of science, morals, and art.

Baudelaire described in The Painter of Modern Life in 1863, “modernity is fleeting, instant and accidental, and its permanence comes from its impermanency.” Apparently, the modernity expressed by Baudelaire has only mutable traits with no clear attitude. In fact, modernity includes a critical position. It suspects identity and objectivity, the concept of progress and liberation, the unitary system, metanarrative and final proof of explanation. It sees the world as accidental, fickle, uncertain, varied and groundless, like a cluster of detached cultural paraphrases. Obviously, modernity includes the complicated, interactive liaison among the political, economic, social and cultural – the four historical loci of progress. Concretely, this entails: formation of political power, establishment of a modern nation-state, evolution of a free-market economy, decline in traditional social rule, polarization of society, decline of religion, and the rise of vernacular culture. In other words, modernity is not a single process or a result; it is filled with conflict and contradiction. Furthermore, sharp contrasts and conflict always exist between reality and culture.  Based on practical experience, modernity in aesthetics and culture has been opposed to the modernity of social meanings, while cultural activities always act out a rebellious role in history.

Some think that modality is an unimplemented project; some think there exists a historical difference between modern and postmodern periods; others think that postmodernity is another form of modernity. All cannot escape the topic of modernity. But modernity surpasses the limits of countries and becomes a phenomenon. Let’s talk about the modernity of China. Although it originated in the West, modernity has great influence on today’s China. Yet China still retains a distinguished uniqueness that could hardly be explained under the Western theoretical mode.  It is not a complete single issue reflected in China modernizing process, but instead all kinds of complicated issues, such as the financial gap between rural country and urban city, the huge difference between coastal cities and inland cities, the difference between big cities and other small or medium cities, or even the difference between different parts of one city. In China, the moving population also reflects the living mode of different social groups. The moving of uncertain rural populations among the cities results in the unexpected liaison of different social groups that had no connections before. Naturally, the situation in China is similar to other developing countries. The three factors that perplex the urbanizing process of developing countries are: the imbalances between the urban city and the rural country, the control of most capital and resources by the big cities, and the financial difference between a small percentage of new rich and many ordinary people. These are the basic characteristics of China’s modernity.

REEVALUATION OF CULTURAL SPACE

As modernity transcends the borders among nation-states, it relates more closely with space. “Glocalization” is such a new space. The former single and closed space is now replaced by the melting or mixed multivalent spaces. Thus, the theory of the end of history is substituted by the end of space. Why do I speak like this? If we take a retrospective view toward history, we will find Marx absorbed many concepts of Hegel, especially his end of history. Marx’s historical philosophy emphasized that communism is the end of human development. History always has an end. Such an understanding of history, time and progress prevailed through the 19th century and into the 20th century. This concept also involves the market. For example, Francis Fukuyama proposed an end of history that entails the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, or in other words, the American model. The following development is merely some small adjustments inside the democratic system. But Fukuyama’s view came immediately under attack by many. There are various reasons and angles. Today, human beings are facing a particular backdrop of transition in time and space, and this must be one of the reasons. Thus, we could feel easier accepting that Fukuyama’s “end of history” is replaced by Paul Virilio’s “end of geography.”

In fact, the concepts of linear time in Darwinism have come under suspicion since the 1960s. In a broad context, the focus and infatuation towards space by human beings replaced Darwinism. The altering of space was initiated by colonial activities. The emergence of nation-states changed our strong focus on time, history, the future, and Darwinism. For nation-states, border and local politics are most important, and in particular, the continual reproduction of developing space through other conflicts in space, instead of developing speed or an unlimited developmental goal. Samuel Huntington stated in The Clash of Civilizations that the clash of civilizations is, in fact, the conflict of political space. Under the rapid development globalization, the focus on the civilized and localized space replaced concern about the internal single history, while concern for zoological space also replaced the concern about developmental speed. Zoological space becomes a political, cultural and economic issue under such a backdrop of large-scale spatial alteration.

On the question space Henri Lefebvre stated in his book, The Production of Space, “What we face is not a single, but many social spaces.” Truly, what we are facing is infinitely varied and numbered space. In the process of forming and developing, not a single space disappears. Thus, I think space is not merely a silent “container” in the developing of social liaisons. On the contrary, contemporary social space often contradictorily overlaps and pervades. Lefebvre concisely categorizes space into three sections: global space, local space and natural space. Although he didn’t clearly state the concept of glocalization, his categorization of space is quite critical in defining the ubiquity of states, its differences and it linkages. In my view, space is always under motion, alteration, construction and overlapping liaisons, which become even more complicated and varied. For example, the space of glocalization involves not only issue of globalization, but the uniqueness of localization as well. I think Saskia Sassen’s Global City is quite inspirational. She treats the phenomenon of three typical global cities, Paris, New York and Tokyo, as global and local. In fact, Foucault predicted the coming of the space of the 20th century early in 1976. He stated “We are in the epoch of simultaneity, we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time and that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skin.” Thus the melting and permeating of the glocalized space bring today’s artists to a new area via a new angle.

Today’s spaces are overlapped by two worlds: a world centered around countries, in which the nation-state plays the main role; and a world filled with multiple centers. The multi-ethnic countries, international organizations and races are main actors. The relationship among them is either independent or dependent. Among them, we also interstices cultural spaces composed of immigrants, refugees and moving people. The interactive activities among people from different cultural backgrounds through different languages result in concepts such as racial and linguistic hybridity. Arjun Appaduri emphasized that the interactive activities in the cultural global wave could be categorized into five sections: race, media, technology, finance, and philosophy. These are very inspirational towards the world we know and interpret.

NEW EVENTS AND MEDIA ART

In today’s cultural space, David Harvey’s gloss on Lyotard’s notion of postmodernism centers on how, after a new event occurs, the concepts and understandings of people change. New events actually include the meaning of politics. The positions and attitudes of people are influenced or changed by a series of accidental, uncertain and discontinuous events. It is even more obvious in today’s cultural condition, for example, how the 9/11 attacks directly or indirectly changed people in the world. Then what is the liaison between artists and changed events? New events are included in individual discussions of social reality politics, and they are still viewed as part of culture. Culture is rather a process or series of detailed practice than a cluster of things. This “media art, new events” involve concept, emotions and attachment.

Stuart Hall said, “Language is a privileged media. We interpret things to language that generates communication. Only by understanding a common language are we able to share meanings. Thus language is crucial to culture and meaning, carrying the main media of all kinds of cultural value and meaning.” Paul Virilio pointed out, “We are entering a world where there won’t be one, but two realities: the actual factual. There is no simulation, but substitution.”

Today, postmodernism reflects social traits of complexity and variety. The introduction and expansion of new technologies not only changes the content and format of visual culture in television, fashion, advertising, theater and visual art, but also develop the way people recognize and understand. Media means information and a way to bridge social difference. Thus, media art not only reflects the true world, but is substituted into another real world as well.

Jean Baudrillard points to the “communicability of the beautiful and the ugly in fashion, of the left and the right in politics, of the true and the false in every media message, of the useful and the useless at the level of objects, and of nature and culture at every level of signification.” The emulation of images surpasses reality, and most important of all, brings art to a higher level of politics and ideology. It’s non-substantial trait is based on concepts and attitudes from different social languages and political awareness, so it can be questioned, imitated and repeated.

Today media is viewed as neutral, something that conveys and adjusts human relationships. Media art is more easily able to reconstruct the changing world under a floating sphere of culture.

Cyberspace enables us to “rebuild” our lost world of romantic idealism and unexpected mystery. It changes not only our daily space, but our pondering of history and imagination as well. The aggregative language of media is a code that can be interpreted as both visual language and a symbolic system. It is also a technical metaphor in the daily language of social relationships.

From repeating reality to generating space, media art not only provides evidence of fleeting incidents or people, but also offers new ways into people’s emotions. For example, digital media melts with ordinary life, indicating its real openness and democratic meaning, allowing for the possibility of humanistic concern. The nonlinear editing mode meets collage and interactive activities, shortening the distance between the work and the public. Technology strengthens emotional feelings through juxtaposition and its concentration on space. The modern artistic mode enriches interpretation of emotions with more possibility and continuity. Digital photography or video changes the traditional photographic concept of “truth” as virtual reality has been practiced and popularized by artists.  It redefines the contents of photography. The historical memory has been reduced and utilized. At the same time, collage, deconstruction and copying using the fruits of technology can be fully implemented in artistic practice. A new scene is created through judgment, distillation, and layout.

Virtual and real can be described through these vivid and conclusive liaisons. In a networked moment, the space for dialogue breaks the traditional three-dimensional concept. Different languages, space, and time, even self-contradictory topics and images can be melded into interactive relationships. Artists are able to create unlimited possibilities. Language has been re-created, and a new relationship is formed. Unreal is treated as real, and a whole set of meaningless meaning is spread all over. Baudrillard said that illusion of communication is spread and becomes more real. New media fully responds to these concepts. Electronic space blurs the bondage created before. A new principal body is formed in the cluster of codes. Thus, we live in the aesthetic illusion of reality.

As one of the curators for the 2002 Seoul International Media Biennial, I was invited to curate the Chinese section. I chose three new media artists to discuss the liaison between new media and culture, between society and new media, in different ways. For example, in Miao Xiaochun’s Spring Festival, he used chromogenic prints to juxtapose nostalgic utopian realism with the classical culture imagined in China’s modernization process. Such juxtaposition is not exalted but ironic. It mocks the conflict in cultural transformation and misunderstanding of modernity. Cao Fei’s View on the Move restages the complicated moving and changing world by conforming time and space, history, symbols and elements in Eastern traditional culture and Western popular culture. It recaptures the sublime of visual culture with humor and relaxation. In Wang Guofeng’s Chinese Utopia the artist analyzes the living status of ordinary people in their daily lives through diaries and documentary shooting skills. It reflects similarities across different spaces and the related social context, mirroring issues in society, economics and politics.

Apart from that, we can also find expression of media politics through other artworks. For example, Qiu Zhijie’s latest video furthers archaeological research on the culture and society of Iran, India and Turkey. To a glocalized angle, he analyzes and interprets the conditions of contradictory and conflict between acceptance and refusal, colonial and hybrid, tradition and modernity, religion and common customs. At the Shanghai Biennial in 2000, the huge video installation created by Zhang Peili expresses his concern on the space of glocalization and relativism on culture. Strictly speaking, new media includes ideology. Though new media art is the result of global technology, this doesn’t mean that the power of technology could dissolve the bondages of nation and country. Instead it emphasizes pondering cultural difference and the importance of cultural identity. The concept of “difference” actually reveals doubts about otherwise prescribed and regulated discursive systems. This new media art based on new technologies should retain its individuality and critical thrust.

ATTITUDE TOWARDS GLOCALIZATION

Today, China’s modernizing process is closely linked with globalization, where modernity plays a crucial function, while globalization is treated as the inevitable outcome of modernization. On closer inspection, the power of globalization driven by flowing capital and the advance of technology enables a unified and isolated society switch to global multilateralism. It doesn’t indicate conformity in culture, but instead the social relationship around the world strengthens individual position, attitude and opinion in art.

Glocalization is also the outcome of the interactivity among localization, which is expressed as a new form. Such a phenomenon undoubtedly bespeaks the close relationship of people to the world and indicates the overwhelming power of globalization. Globalization is an inevitable topic in cultural theory and art practice. It is one of the traits of contemporary culture. Based on the links between economics and culture, globalization has already showed it trait of “globalization as hybridization.” In other words, globalization can be regarded as strengthening social relationships in a global world. Events that happen far away can affect what is happening now here. Globalization not only strengthens the mixing and integrating different regions, but also expresses the trade of glocalization. The activities in localization undoubtedly enable us to analyze and judge the complicated world with a broad view, focusing alternatively on the multinational, the national, the regional, and the metropolitan.

Certainly, the concept of globalization is multidimensional instead of individual. At the same time, globalization inevitably results in both the positive merging of power as well as divisions of power. It exists in the awareness of political difference and develops our ability for collective recognition. During the international cultural exchange, globalization not only enhances communication and avoids misunderstanding, but also mirrors the advantage and disadvantage in culture, the important prerequisites of leveling up and developing it. Thus we ponder the re-positioning of culture between spaces.

In fact, the position of globalization demands or suggests that we see the realistic chaotic space through a moving and multicultural angle, which involves the topic of production in space. It behaves through a rapid expansion of a city in certain historical periods, the urbanization of the society and spatial organization. According to Lefebvre “The switch of production of space from production in space is originated from the growing of productivity and direct involvement of knowledge.” Then how artists introduce their knowledge and experience into their creations? Artistic practice is very crucial, because it gives meaning to human beings, objects and events. Things never have a one fixed unchanging meaning. I think that the contradiction between globalization and nation-state, the conflict between globalization and anti-globalization, will recur in the conflict in space and the struggle for political space. The expansion of globalization also results in glocalized space where hybridized and deterritoralized forms of culture and art are created.

Hybridization entails the mixing of multicultural elements under different cultural backgrounds via certain contexts. It is used to express the active and creative involvement of different groups in various processes related to the reception of the concept of globalization. In cultural format, hybridization is defined as separating reality from existing practice, reuniting new practices and new formats.

Deterritoralization on the contrary, doesn’t rely on the interactive expansion of one region, resulting in a loose liaison among regions and weakening the recognized relationship of the neighboring countries.

But we still can’t avoid the topic of cultural identity in hybridized space. Identity is both a cultural and political issue that directly involves national cultural problems. Hall says in Cultural Identity and Diaspora: “Identity is not something we thought as transparent or out of question. Perhaps, we might not treat identity as something finished by new cultural practice, but has a kind of production that never ends, always in the process.” In other words, cultural identity is both a common historical experience and a shared cultural symbol as well, actually self-hiding in the historical and cultural experience. The uniqueness of identity is only meaningful through those breaking points and discontinuity.

The huge economic influence of globalization and the melting or resisting of culture in localization forms the overarching cultural trait of our era. Glocalization makes manifest certain formatting processes or systems surpassing society and concepts acquired in certain regions. This approach will certainly enrich contemporary artistic language. Thus in the context of glocalization, Foucault is quite critical in analyzing today’s culture reality. He thinks outside of discourse language, nothing has any meaning. Language doesn’t discuss the problem of existing things, but is keen on where the meaning comes from. In other words, the meaning of practice id formed in language. Thus, we ought to be more concerned with Foucault pointed out, that power relations ultimately structure and determine semantic relationships. With no doubt, artistic practice reveals the relevant questions of controlling artistic discourse, power and knowledge, and subjectivity.