FAR-OFF AND NEARBY
ON TRANSLOCALITY IN THE ARTS
1. The world (Los Angeles)
In the spring of 2018, I spent a day and a half in downtown Los Angeles. A mix of curiosity and European naivety had me explore the museums in the area on foot. But moving around walking, even in the centre (if you can call downtown LA a centre, if LA has a centre at all) is highly unusual. Everything is done by car. Except for a single lost tourist and an awful lot of homeless people in the wings of parks and tower blocks, I ran into no one.
Within an area of one or two square kilometres I found seven museums and I visited them all, which seems more than it was. On Olivera Street, an isolated tourist spot with stalls, where, by exception, people were actually walking, I saw the oldest house in the city: the Avila Adobe (1818), which in the eyes of a European is little impressive. Around the corner from there was the United Methodist Museum of Social Justice, comprised of only one small room hosting a number of artworks full of social indignation, like one cartoonish picture in which a capitalist in an enormous red sleigh runs over a group of peasants, the wretched of the earth. At the other end of the spectrum we found the famous Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) with their second venue the Geffen Contemporary in the opposite direction. And of course there was The Broad, the museum founded by billionaire couple Eli and Edythe Broad to house their impressive collection, dedicated to increasing public access to art, with works by superstars like Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
There was a short line there for a Jasper Johns show. But in the tiny Chinese American Museum, which aimed to demonstrate that the Chinese were good Americans too who had fought on the right side in World War II, I was the only visitor. I was also the only visitor in the equally tiny Japanese American Museum, which suggestively brought forward that although the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor out of the blue, they could still be honourable heroes.
It was a curious hotchpotch. The latter two, like the Avila Adobe, had barely anything to do with art. But each of these museums embodied an idea, not necessarily wanting to show beautiful things (except probably the museum for modern art) but all having a story to tell. Each had a mission. A locally anchored mission.
The Avila Adobe as historical location tried to add a sense of the past to the otherwise somewhat soulless LA identity; the Museum of Social Justice, as part of a small local community, tried with a few artworks and in a bit of a simple manner to draw attention to inequality; the Broads wanted to share their wealth with the world by opening up their collection to ‘the widest possible audience’. I do not know whether they have specific ideas about who exactly make up that audience, but the institute does have occasional 2
family programs that presumably attract people from around. And then there were those two tiny museums trying to raise empathy for the Chinese and Japanese minorities in the city. Only the Museum of Contemporary Art and its annex did not seem to be especially interested in their surroundings, as far as I could tell, although some of the artists there did show other forms of engagement.
Sometimes we tend to see museums or other art spaces simply as showcases, and we forget that such institutions have always originated from a wish to express, through the objects they exhibit, an idea or a desire. This was also the case for the major museums in Europe; be it the Prado in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London or the slightly older Louvre in Paris, they were once built to show off the splendour of the nation and to shape national identity through romantic cultural politics. Thus, the Netherlands became the land of Rembrandt, the Louvre exhibited the grandeur of French Republic imperialism and the clouds above England were thence John Constable’s. Something similar happened in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when countless smaller museums started to collect and exhibit art treasures and other objects, operating from the unspoken desire to record and shape not only national but often also regional or urban culture.
There was always the link to a specific location: a country, a region, a city or even a village, not as something solely geographical, but always engaging with the community residing there. The funny thing, I realised while strolling the streets in downtown LA, is that this still counts for all of the museums and half museums I saw there except for the MOCA and its annex, and perhaps The Broad Collection. For the latter are firmly rooted in the one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old cosmopolitan tradition of modernism and the international avant-garde. And in that tradition the local is not regarded as something of much interest. The American artists I saw in these museums can just as well be found in Europe: Koons, Warhol, Rothko, Elsworth Kelly.
Those artists are part of the global world of art and the fact that they are from the United States is not why they are exhibited. The very first line in the MOCA’s mission statement is: ‘We are contemporary’, followed with little restraint by the claim that the museum owns ‘one of the most compelling collections of contemporary art in the world’. And although Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70), the carved out trench which stretches half a kilometre in the Nevada Desert and is only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle, is mentioned towards the end of the text, the MOCA’s collection is not about locality at all. It is about art in a global perspective that needs to be replenished yearly and is organised in a global hierarchy dictated by prominent museums like the MoMa, the MOCA itself, Centre Pompidou, MOCA Shanghai and Tate Modern, and by the international art market in cities like London, New York, Hongkong, Bazel, Miami, Dubai, Mexico City and New Delhi.
More and more artists and art lovers alike are repelled by this approach to the visual arts, this pursuit of some sort of universal Champions League where the auction prices driven up by the superrich ultimately determine the value of things. Not only for the romantic belief that the value of art and the value of money are opposing forces, which is a naïve belief perhaps but it is also inescapable as it is ingrained in art’s romantic DNA. This conception of art is repulsive to so many because although it may be contemporary, it is also deprived of any social context, it is without any convincing cultural background, and without any sense of engagement to a concrete audience. It is an art that no longer speaks to people, but instead dissolves into the empty world of celebrities, speculative investment capital and media hypes.3
2. Places (Amsterdam North)
A similar kind of scepticism towards such processes was already articulated by artists in the 1980s. It started with punk’s anti-establishment and anti-corporate activism, with the birth of the do-it-yourself generation, and also outside of the arts, with the squatters’ movement, with rebellious youngsters trying to live a life outside of existing social structures. Because there was no place for them - or because they did not want to take their place in that kind of society and they refused to take part in bourgeois consumerism. It was during these years that artist initiatives started popping up, not only in the Netherlands but also elsewhere.
Artists started occupying abandoned, often industrial buildings as a form of self-organisation in order to make and show work with the least possible inference from the market and from established institutions and official networks. These initiatives joined forces with bars, legal or not, alternative restaurants, nightclubs and businesses which unlike most present-day start-ups typically had an ideological character, varying from affordable legal services and yoga schools to second-hand clothes shops. Some artists outgrew the scene and were embraced by the more traditional art circuits and the market after all; others did not make it that far or did not aspire to.
Artist initiatives emerged across many different countries and there was occasional contact between them. But the Internet was a baby and social media were non-existent. The international art world existed because of the market, while few of those locally active artists participated in that world. All of this changed by the end of the 1990s, when globalisation gained momentum and digital data traffic as well as human traffic increased rapidly thanks to the blooming Internet, cheap kerosene and a booming travel industry.
It’s not easy to get a grip on the heterogeneous, ever-changing and by now worldwide art world. But looking back on such developments we can distinguish two poles: at one end there is the majority of artists, who would have never been able to connect to the universal, hierarchical, global art perspective and for whom it would have been ultimately frustrating to be forced to position themselves within this international art world, no matter how good their work was. This includes the local artist initiatives, the self-organised and self-supporting groups, who hardly had any impact on the world outside their own communities. At the other end of the spectrum is global art, where art was the support act in the spectacle of a world-wide economy of art fairs, major galleries, prominent museums, exorbitantly rich collectors and renowned auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. This type of art was hierarchically categorised: the costlier the better.
The tension between these two opposites has begun to change with the emergence of the Internet and with the increasing movement of people across the globe, with migration. Now that everything is entangled, with social networks spreading out over the entire world and immigration, study and business traveling, tourism and refugee flows causing cultures to intermix, the dynamics between local and global art have shifted. On a global scale, like locally, the idea that there is one centre is on the wane. According to art historian and curator Jamila Adeli new ‘central hubs’ are formed in the so-called MENASA countries (Middle East, North Africa and South America) away from the existing Euro-American art centres. She speaks about an era of contemporary art that transcends not only territories and forms new central hubs but initiates a paradigm shift towards a post-hegemonial, post-ethnic and post-Western notion of global art.1
1 Adeli, Jamila (2011), 2584
What that paradigm shift is going to look like is impossible to foretell as we cannot predict the future, but the perception of art from this global perspective will not remain unaffected, so much is clear. The undisputed Western view on art will vanish, just like the idea that there is a hierarchical defining structure whose influence is exerted by one or two predominant centres over the rest of the world.
Simultaneously, from the 1990s onwards, new local small-scale art spots arise all over the world, eventually also forming new networks. The question is how we should define these within the shifting paradigm. One newly drawn up concept, or buzzword, for this phenomenon is ‘translocality’. Let’s take up this concept to look at a concrete example: the Nieuw Dakota art space at the former NDSM Wharf in Amsterdam North.
Nieuw Dakota was founded in 2010 by two Amsterdam North residents, one a councillor and the other a lawyer, both with an interest in contemporary art. Initially, they wanted to bring high-quality art to their part of the city by establishing a self-sustaining institution as a meeting place for collectors, galleries and other parties involved in the visual arts. They were not necessarily concerned, then, with the way the former working class neighbourhood was changing, how the construction of a metro line was opening up the area originally inhabited chiefly by former dockworkers and migrants to ‘young urban professionals’ and creative entrepreneurs. At that time they simply wanted to make a grand gesture setting up something of beauty in a neighbourhood known as socially and economically disadvantaged: jokingly, they called their endeavour “MoMa by the IJ”.
The name ‘Nieuw Dakota’ expressed, I think, a dream: not referring literally to either North or South Dakota - and why would it - but rather and possibly unconsciously to something new, like the ideal of the Midwest where the ‘frontier’ of ‘the brave and the free’ expanded endlessly into an uncertain future (be it in their case in blatant disregard of the lives of the indigenous people). The mission’s outline wasn’t all too clear-cut on the onset, but when a new director was appointed, someone who had long and enthusiastically been active in what is called ‘art in public space’, the initiative started taking off, with its roots firmly in the Amsterdam North ground on the edge of the NDSM Wharf. More often from then on, Nieuw Dakota started asking artists to work with the location, socially or physically; with the wharf, its history, the streets, the neighbourhoods and the residents in the area called ‘North’. Because quite a few immigrants were among the residents, this locality automatically also touched upon the global, on migration flows, and the view on art was not limited by an urban, regional, national or exclusively western position.
Nieuw Dakota in its own words organises exhibitions, projects and public programmes and reaches out to ‘local and (inter)national institutions, artists and curators’, forming ‘an innovative, diverse and stimulating contribution to the cultural climate of Amsterdam and beyond.’ The art space is one of the very first in the Netherlands to present itself as ‘translocal’:
With translocality we are trying to describe the connection between the local and the global. Nieuw Dakota is curiously exploring this concept and trying to describe the mirrored relations between the global and the local and vice versa. […] With our exploration we try to offer a counterweight to the uniform and shapeless consequences of globalization whose effects we see around us. From a translocal perspective, the western hegemony should not exist anymore.2
2 https://nieuwdakota.com/en/about-nieuw-dakota/ (11-3-2019)5
The art space still operates as a platform for contemporary art, but that platform is now more explicitly tuned into both the local and the global. In that respect Nieuw Dakota is not unique: there are a lot of other places in the Netherlands expressing similar ambitions. To name a few: I see it in Kolderveen, in Drenthe, where KIK (Kunst in Kolderveen, Kolderveen being a small village near the city of Meppel) engages through art projects with issues at stake in the countryside, like rural shrinkage, sustainable energy, water and food supply, refurnishing). According to the website, there is an increasing focus on the physical and social environment. This way, KiK aims to put into effect its own unique location in the rural area of Drenthe.3
3 Website Kunst in Kolderveen, https://www.kik-site.nl/ (3-7-2018, website now ‘under construction’)
We can recognise Nieuw Dakota’s double engagement (with the former wharf and the Amsterdam North residents) here: the physical and the social environment. In other words: the landscape and the community. But KiK seems to be less concerned with the global dynamics of art markets, migration, networks, new centralities, cultural differences and major museums.
A former public bathhouse in the Spangen neighbourhood in the city of Rotterdam is now home to A Tale of A Tub; although this art space aims for a local programme, its ambition so far appears to be rather international. For the VHDG in Leeuwarden it is the other way around: they include international artists, but their main focus is local. VHDG is more related to traditional artist initiatives like De Cacaofabriek in Helmond or Kunstvereniging Diepenheim. These places have a preference for the local (“Diepenheim is situated in the bocage landscape amidst Twente’s centuries-old estates”) without the feeling of embarrassment linked to the pejorative connotations provincialism used to carry.4
4 Website Kunstvereniging Diepenheim, https://www.kunstvereniging.nl/over-ons/algemene-informatie/ (9-3-2019)But they are not what we call translocal: they don’t seem to be aware of the dynamics as we have formulated them earlier, and they don’t express the desire to articulate and bridge those oppositions. Perhaps the Eindhoven based Onomatopee aims to do so in its art publications, but with them the local aspect is again less evident.
In that same city though, there is the Van Abbemuseum which is fully invested in thinking the translocal.
The museum takes part in L’Internationale, a confederation of six European museums for modern and contemporary art which “proposes a space for art within a non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism, based on the values of difference and horizontal exchange among a constellation of cultural agents, locally rooted and globally connected.” In a wider perspective we can see how a lot of museums over the past years have started to link the locally rooted to an international and global art discourse in order to gain the approval and thus funding from local governments.5
5 https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/about-the-museum/support-and-partners/linternationale/ (11-3-2019)Although most large-scale institutions are not yet capable of effectively implementing it, in the age of globalisation, increasing migration, diversity, and a more and more heterogeneous perception of culture a translocal approach will be inevitable.6
3. Translocal: far-off and nearby
These are examples nearby, but what about further off, beyond the (national) borders? Asking this question is like diving into an infinite ocean impossible to map within the scope of these few pages, and which demands a more in-depth exploration than a handful of interviews and some quick Google surfing. For even though their collaboration with European universities and art spaces is evident, it is not immediately clear how local the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art in Budapest really is when it comes down to their research into the identity of Eastern European art and ‘ecological thought’.
And while the Hamburg Kunstverein is undoubtedly rooted in a respectable two-hundred-year-old history (a lot has happened there, locally, and not only in the latest war), the local is not a theme for them to work with, and although the institution does work with artists from outside of Hamburg I would not call its focus translocal, since it does not thematise its own locality, according to the website. Perhaps German Kunstvereine are too traditional for such a progressive approach, although the Neue Aachener Kunstverein, one of the most prominent among them, does come closer. This Kunstverein likes to emphasise how it is situated in the city park and near the historical thermal baths, the Carolus Thermae, how it is ‘a core institution of the local art scene, but way beyond this, it is also internationally recognised as an innovative platform for contemporary art’.
The French Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers have a similar way of presenting themselves, adding to it the ambition to bring together ‘a diversity of communities’. In Tokyo the art space 3331 wants to be open to a local audience, also outside the usual artistic scene, while simultaneously attributing internationally to new art forms. And A4 in Chengdu, China, is an art space with residency that combines, with a lot of private financial support, international art projects with local educative and cultural practices, collaborating with communities in the city to develop a ‘new urban artistic lifestyle’.
In order not to lose ourselves in the multiplicity of global initiatives or to get stuck in website and art policy language, it is perhaps more useful to elaborate on the concept of ‘translocality’ itself, which has been popping up in art discourse in recent years. The term surfaced already before, around the turn of the century, in media studies for analysing nodes in the World Wide Web, which was still new then. It described, for instance, how NGOs (non-governmental organisations) could be of increasing influence because they no longer needed to actually cross national borders to operate internationally. In order to communicate no more border-crossing of telephone signals, letters or persons was required as border-crossing had become virtual. As such, this wasn’t described as something international, nor transnational, but as translocal, although that local node of, say, a human rights organisation wasn’t necessarily locally rooted and a place like Genève for that matter could just as well have been The Hague, Jakarta or Buenos Aires.
However, more often the term was employed in geographical and economic research on globalisation and in migration studies, to describe, for example, the relation between the specific location where a migrant is situated, and the place of origin which, thanks to mobile telephone services and the internet, remains increasingly present in the lives of those migrants or refugees while they reside elsewhere. In that context, it is not so much the crossing of national borders itself (once crossed) that is at issue, but the connection between two places or between a specific location and a culture elsewhere. This is closer to how the concept is understood within art, as discussed above.7
This shift is associated with what cultural sociologist Stuart Hall first observed more than twenty years ago, namely that the emergence of a new form of nationalism that wishes to reinforce national identity at the expense of cultural diversity is not the only effect the decline of the nation state has brought about. For with the decreasing importance of the nation, local identities of communities within a globalised world became more and more relevant. This observation recurs with Zygmunt Bauman, the sociologist and philosopher who regarded globalisation as it was intensified by the internet as inevitable, an irreversible and uncontrollable process, which demands for the local to manifest itself in new ways, in a new kind of connectedness and solidarity.
Translocality is no longer localised within traditional cultural contexts of policy making or standard subsidy structures; it is indeed no longer understood as something regional, provincial, municipal, national or urban. While the artist initiatives from the 1980s and 1990s, with their activities in squatted or run-down industrial buildings, also often already practiced art as firmly anchored in neighbourhoods, communities or other areas, current translocal initiatives further distinguish themselves from these by focussing less on the autonomy of groups of artists.
In their approach, the ‘local’ is in the physical and social connection to a specific environment - to the natural or urban surroundings (such as rivers, parks, harbours or industrial sites, residential areas) on the one hand and its people on the other. The people who have lived there forever or those who have recently come to live there, the people who work there or those who used to work there, the history of the place. In short, the connection to its landscape and to its community. Translocality here, however, is a node of activities; it is not a centre and it does not refer to a centre anywhere, and neither does it refer to nationality. This is one of the reasons why the local character of translocal art spaces is no longer seen as marginal or pathetic, like the metropolitan connotation of the word ‘provincial’ still at times pejoratively suggests, not even peripheral. The translocal has successfully emancipated the local, it has subverted the idea of a prominent centre – or a number of all-mighty centres towering over the periphery.
The translocal is global, and it operates in our entirely mediatised world without the homogenisation we see in clothing (ripped jeans), food (the hamburger), or the iPhone. In a global context, the translocal is aware of a worldwide mobility, which is visible in mass migration, and the diversity that comes with it. This diversity is a starting point, a source of inspiration and material for the translocal in the arts. In the translocal approach the many-voiced colonial past, local history, and the stories of new migrants from all over the world serve as wonderful points of departure for artists.
The lost tourist in downtown LA was as global as the homeless people there were local. The first is everywhere, the latter are nowhere. Just like the art in the MOCA and the Broad Collection is everywhere, and the art in the Museum of Social Justice is nowhere, as the latter goes entirely unnoticed, is neither seen nor heard. From a translocal perspective, can art bridge that chasm? Is there a world imaginable where migration, global change and local roots coincide, untroubled by old borders and obsolete hierarchies? That is, I think, exactly what a translocal art is after. 8
Adeli, Jamila; ‘Translocal Art Worlds in Times of Medialization. Some Observations of India’s Contemporary Art World in Transition’ In: Internationales Asienforum, Vol. 42 (2011), No. 3–4, p. 257–277. crossasia-journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/iaf/article/download/154/149
Casaliggi, Carmen & Fermanis, Porscha; ‘National, regional and local Romanticism.’ In: Carmen Casaliggi, Porscha Fermanis, Romanticism. A Literary and Cultural History, London, New York 2016, p.92-112.
Greiner, Clemens & Sakdapolrak, Patrick; ‘Translocality: Concepts, Applications and Emerging Research Perspectives.’ In: Geograpy Compass, Vol. VII, Issue 5 (May 2013), p.373-384.
Hall, Stuart; ‘The Local and the Global. Globalization and Ethnicity. In: Anthony D. King (ed.), Culture, Globalization and the World-System. Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, Minneapolis 1997. http://depthome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/aod/Text/Hall.pdf
Lovink, Geert; ‘Van transnationaal naar translokaal. Interview met Saskia Sassen.’ In: Ravage, #279 May 5, 1999. http://www.ravagedigitaal.org/archief_1999/7999ar07.htm
Ogone, James Odhiambo: ‘Intra-national Ethnic Diasporas: Popular Culture and Mediated Translocal Spaces in Kenya.’ In: Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien, No. 29, Vol. 15 (2015), p.69-89. https://stichproben.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/p_stichproben/Artikel/Nummer29/Stichproben_29_03_Ogone.pdf
Peth, Simon Alexander; ‘What is translocality? A refined understanding of place and space in a globalized world.’ http://www.transre.org/en/blog/what-translocality/
Reijnders, Tineke; ‘Efemeer én consistent. Het kunstenaarsinitiatief in Amsterdam.’ In: Jan van Adrichem e.a., Positioning the Art Gallery. Het Amsterdamse galeriewezen in een internationale context, Amsterdam (2012), p.150-169.
Smith, Laura; DeMeo, Brieahn & Widmann, Sunny; ’Identity, Migration, and the Arts: Three Case Studies of Translocal Communities.’ In: The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, Vol.41 (2011), p. 186-197.
Steenhuizen, Julia; ‘Het mensenmuseum. De radicale agenda van het mima.’ In: Metropolis M Nr. 4 (2017), p.94-98.
Velthuis, Olav; ‘De Amsterdamse galerie in een mondiale markt.’ In: Jan van Adrichem e.a., Positioning the Art Gallery. Het Amsterdamse galeriewezen in een internationale context, Amsterdam (2012), p.173-198.
Verlaek, Jolien, ‘Het plekloze initiatief.’ Feature in: Metropolis M 11-11-2011. http://www.metropolism.com/nl/features/22750_het_plekloze_initiatief
Wojtowicz, Ewa; ‘Global vs. Local? The Art of Translocality.’ In: Art Inquiry. Recherches sur les arts, Vol. IV (XIII) Globalization and Art, Lodz (2002). http://www.hz-journal.org/n8/wojtowicz.html
The author would like to thank thank Tanja Karreman and Steven ten Thije for their stimulating comments.