Artistic and curatorial practices can be seen as the prime testimonies of transformative movements—on the one hand situated in a specific site and region, and on the other, transgressing disciplines, classes, norms—proposing new forms and relations of living and establishing these practices (building centres along the way) but at the same time always changing their positions, never staying at the centre, but instead unfolding on the periphery of social life.
In this OnCurating Issue, we searched for and researched projects and institutions that hold at their core something between the lines of centres–peripheries with their transversal practices and modus operandi.
For many of our interview partners, the question of oppositionality is less important than the equal networking of their own artistic and curatorial practices in an international exchange, which is informed by the historical and local references of the particular place. These projects do not establish a distinction—aesthetically and personally; they open up to a broader public (and not only the “art insider”), and they relate to an embracing mode of encounters with “other” cultures, identities, and ideas, and present an inclusive gesture.
Instead of voicing one view on the complex constellations of centres–peripheries in the arts, we have decided to propose different introductory statements to show the multifaceted approaches to this topic.
If one still is able to speak about Centres and Peripheries today, it must clearly unfold through more complex constellations of power relations, situated knowledges, economic dependencies, expanded spatial dimensions that have long overcome regional and national borders, and states of thought and practice, of solidification and ephemerality.
Referring to the Centre–Periphery (or the Core–Periphery) model, one must be aware of its origins in economics: Centre–Periphery basically describes an (unequal) relationship between places. It is used as a spatial description of a relation between a so-called “advanced“ (or dominating) place and its allegedly “lesser developed“ (or serving) periphery. In this model, the centre is the place of power (of law, of trade, of military force) and is a door to the rest of the world. The periphery is a remote, rural place, and it delivers raw materials, food, and other resources to the centre under the condition of exploitation. The centre provides goods and ”superior“ products. This relation is described as exploitative in the Marxist tradition: from a global point of view, so-called underdeveloped countries (the periphery) have to be kept in dependency to Wealthy States (the Core or the Centre). “According to the centre–periphery model, underdevelopment is not the result of tradition, but is produced as part of the process necessary for the function of accelerated capitalism in the central capitalist countries—and its continued reproduction on a world scale.”
However, conveyed within an art discourse, this relationship has already been thoroughly scrutinized, questioned, and turned upside down.
The publication Im Zentrum der Peripherie (In the Centre of the Periphery), published by Marius Babias in 1995, described the art discourse of the 1990s. The preface addresses the historical political context—the consequences of the end of the Cold War, and the dissolution of the binary world order in West and East and the associated delay in the complexification of geopolitical and cultural relations worldwide—but at that time understandably it did this only from the point of view of the European (decidedly German) and US American perspectives. Centre–Periphery is understood here as the relationship between the "autonomous artistic proposition" ("künstlerische autonome Behauptung“) as the centre and an oppositional theory-based practice of discourse and mediation as the periphery.
A postcolonial exhibition practice and theory conscious of geopolitical contexts came to light much later. Catherine David's documenta X (1997) introduced an explicit political stance in art and exhibition practice on a big stage, placing the “100 Days - 100 Guests” talk format literally in the middle of the documenta hall. And with Documenta11 (2002) by the late Okwui Enwezor, art established itself beyond Western connoted genealogy and found its way into the larger art canon. documenta 14 (2017) lastly related to Nikos Papastergiadis’ concept of the “South,” which was outlined in the essay “What Is the South?” The “South” is not to be understood as a place, but as a “little public sphere” where dialogue and collaboration are still possible, absent from fragmentation and commercialisation. This concept shifts away from place and emphasises a mode of thinking and sharing. Papastergiadis conceives this “spherical concept” within a global network like this:
“In the recent past it [the South] has been revived as a possible frame for representing the cultural context of not just regions that are geographically located in the South, but also those that share a common post-colonial heritage. […] In geopolitical terms the South is not confined to the southern hemisphere as it captures elements that are located on both sides of the equatorial divide. The only constant for those who identify with the concept of the South is a dual awareness that the Euro-American hegemony in global affairs has concentrated power in the North, and that survival requires a coordinated transnational response.”
Following this line of thought, it may be no surprise that the next documenta is being directed by the community-based Indonesian collective Ruan Grupa with a decisively discursive practice. Their first statement addressed a globally oriented art and culture platform declared an aim to “focus documenta 15 on today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, or patriarchal structures, and contrast them with partnership-based models that enable people to have a different view of the world.”
All these efforts of complex entanglements must still be considered against the backdrop of a hegemonically structured art market with its need for commodification.
To come back to the dichotomy of Centre–Periphery seems to be a bit outdated after the discussion on South as a State of Mind, proposed by Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk. I will try to explain, in the following argument, why we used it nonetheless as a framework for this issue of OnCurating. In the introduction to the fourth issue, Latimer and Szymczyk remark: “Over the past year, we have repeatedly found ourselves reaching for books and texts about violence. Perhaps with the urge to understand that which swells like waves around us, threatening to take us under in all its manifold, rising forms: economic violence, linguistic violence, nationalistic violence, environmental violence, gender and racial violence. In this fourth and final issue of the documenta 14 journal South as a State of Mind, it seemed necessary to name it, finally, as one of the structuring devices of our world.” In our approach about the complicated relations between peripheries and centres, we started to think about the structural violence that is embedded in this connection. “Structural violence” is a term coined by Norwegian sociologist, mathematician, and founder of peace and conflict studies Johan Galtung to describe the difference in access to all kinds of possibilities and goods like unpolluted air, clean water, medical service, education, nourishment, transport, etc. for different parts of a population. With this analytical method, the violence that is embedded in structural relations is easily uncovered. So, it becomes obvious that violent relations are manifold and that they cover globally different societies and the relations between them. I must interject here that, from a Marxist standpoint, the economic relations are fundamental to any cultural manifestation, which are in many ways related to the economic basis. What Marx has called superstructure was later discussed as Ideological Superstructures by Louis Althusser or as hegemony by Antonio Gramsci. For Adorno, mass media and cultural industry were considered a mass deception, as Gerald Raunig puts it: “The first component of the concept of culture industry, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, is that it totalizes its audience, exposing this audience to a permanently repeated, yet ever unfulfilled promise: ‘The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.’” But culture also has the power to show the truth, which means in this sense always also the truth about production, relations of production processes, and economics. Or, in other words, the concept of hegemony makes it thinkable that counter-hegemony is also possible.
At the present moment, centres and peripheries have multiplied and with them oppressive and productive relations. Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein’s discussion on Race, Nation, Class, Ambigious Identities is still extremely relevant for understanding these constellations, especially the renewed racism that threatens to undermine and overcome (more or less) democratic systems. The concept developed by Wallerstein, the world-eco system, argues with the centre, the half periphery, and the periphery. Of course, I cannot summarize Wallerstein’s extensive work over decades and his series of substantial publications here, but it is necessary to start to think in this direction. Liberalism and a globally acting capitalism have developed historically in concentric circles including more and more regions (developing and destroying nations along the way). Instead of leading to more equal rights and resources worldwide, it developed in complex systems of suppression. Only through the over-exploitation of the global South can some of the wage earners of the “Global North” achieve relative prosperity. But even in the “North,” only a few profit from the improvements, while at the same time in the “South” some parts of the population may also benefit. And historically there were different centres, which acted for longer periods independently, see, for example, China.
As the economic circle in a capitalist system is developing in phases of expansion, boom, recession, and depression, the system sometimes needs a large workforce, but it also has to get rid of paid workforces all of a sudden—not to mention whole areas of societal production that are not supposed to be paid at all in capitalism like care work, (reproductive work), work for the commons, work for NGOs/associations, and so forth. So, on the one hand different groups of the subalterns of the periphery, the poorly paid workers in the capitalist centres and the well-paid workers are differently pronounced and pursue different focuses, plus the system of ideological racist and sexist and national divisions helps to keep them in check, always being afraid of other groups that could supposedly threaten their income and make their living conditions (even) worse. Explaining why universalism and racism go so well together, Wallerstein describes the situation as follows: “A capitalist system that is expanding (which is half the time) needs all the labour-power it can find, since this labour is producing the goods through which more capital is produced, realized and accumulated. Ejection out of the system is pointless. But if one wants to maximize the accumulation of capital, it is necessary simultaneously to minimize the costs of production (hence the costs of labour-power) and minimize the costs of political disruption (hence minimize—not eliminate, because one cannot eliminate—the protest of the labour force.) Racism is the magic formula that reconciles these objectives.”
The systems of racism, sexism, class division, and nationalism establish and enforce these conditions. One obvious state of the neoliberal situation of today is that all working conditions (in the centres, the half periphery, and the periphery) became more and more unstable and insecure, a situation I am sure every reader of these lines is sharply aware of. (With that, I do not mean to indicate that the situations are the same, of course, they are very different, but this neoliberal insecurity affects most.) Having said that, one could of course not claim that art as such would be the means to overcome racism, sexism, class division, and nationalism. Nevertheless, art and culture have the possibility to produce “truth,” to reveal and to comment, and they are able to act to a certain extent as a counter-hegemony or, as Adorno and Horkheimer have unmasked so-called cultural industry, art and culture are able to confuse and affectively involve people in false ideas about their conditions. As there are artists and curators worldwide who are thinking about these complex situations in times of the rise of right-wing propaganda, we wanted to show and discuss some of these artistic and curatorial projects here and make readers aware of shared interests. Art and culture provide the possibility of influencing ideological perspectives, so we should use this space of representation in a thoughtful way.
How to understand the complex dichotomy between centre and periphery when looking at the way the art world is mapped and distributed around the globe? Isn’t it like asking oneself to reflect on the spatial relationship between inclusion and exclusion, or more conceptually between the mainstream and the margins? From the assumption that the centre represents the sphere of consensus and socio-political and cultural authority, the periphery would therefore refer to what stands outside that sphere. In a vivid way, it is like a washing machine: not only do elements of an economic and ideological nature rotate around the centre, but they are also attracted by it. Artists and intellectuals move to big cities, the so-called creative and cultural clusters where there is greater economic stability, wealth, more movements of people, monuments, established institutions, and cultural manifestations that influence and give the watchword for market trends.
The research undertaken in Art in the Periphery of the Centre (2015) by Christoph Behnke, Cornelia Kastelan, Valérie Knoll, and Ulf Wuggenig draws the hypothesis that cultural centres have organically attracted, over the years, groups of artists and intellectuals who have built the cities’ cultural profiles, despite the economic situation. The rise and fall, but also the geographical shift, of cultural centres are observed by large samples of data, which state that some regions are culturally more fertile than others, and that there is an apparent correlation between the places where artists and intellectuals were born and where they died. For centuries, the centre has thus represented the nest of social, collective, and economic life, subordinating the peripheries by means of higher productivity and exchanges among individuals. Being able to demonstrate such outcomes is very telling in the way Western cities work in attracting capital of all kinds.
This insatiable appetite for the centre to remain the centre has led it to auto-regulate itself and to establish an overarching culture towards the rural. In this sense, the peripheries have become profoundly ambiguous regions: while trying to build relationships with the centre, they still find themselves heavily excluded, both on the structural and intellectual level. Karl Marx approaches this antagonism (or antithesis) between the city and the countryside by seeking the abolition of the capitalist production of labour that is imposed by cities. According to Marxist theorists, the cities aspire to economic growth and therefore are able to position ideals and exploit mechanisms that are beneficial to establish power and status. The movement and changes in spatial realities in terms of labor, commodities, capital, and class are dependent on the state’s decisions and market exigencies. To add to this argument, some decades later American economist and sociologist Richard Florida claimed in his much debated contemporary book, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), that the rise of a creative class in today’s post-industrial cities has had driving forces. In other words, he sustains that in a fast-paced society and growing globalisation, modern creative societies steadily contribute to economic functions. Even if this might be considerable for ‘leading’ European cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, or American regions such as New York and San Francisco—which are built on common moral, social, and cultural values—what about regions that still feel repressed or even exploited by the West (in both ideological and economic terms) and underrepresented areas that don’t flourish from social and economic stability? Could these peripheries use the power of art to sustain their local communities and economies as well as shed light on diversity and inclusion?
The urgency to shift our point of view but also to sustain activities, practices, and ideas in the margins could contribute to diversifying the offer currently available in the arts. It would create more visibility for alternative cultures, communities, and traditions; generate more economic strength; and essentially shake the hegemonic structures that hover over our heads. This idea was already expressed in the ‘70s and ‘80s by avant-garde theorists, such as Peter Bürger in The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), in which he extensively refutes the idea of ”art as an institution,” claiming that art’s production and distribution in institutional structures are conditioned by ideas that are determined by the higher societal class—which essentially biases our perception and reception of art. For Bürger, joining Marx’s ideas, the institution gets away from the “praxis of life” and is fundamentally detrimental to the meaning of art. Therefore, they say it needs to be closer to the people and to collective craft. To some extent, the discourse could still be valid nowadays, as it frames significant questions on how consensus is shaped and what is accepted and rejected in terms of art creation and exhibition but also in terms of meaning and intention: art should exist to raise awareness and open up conversations for everyone, no matter its geographical location.
By softly tackling different critical arguments from various fields (from contemporary research to economic sociology, Marxism and the avant-garde), this foreword aims to embrace the complexity of the issue and to look at it from various perspectives.
Through interviews and interventions with academics, curators, artists, collectives, and initiators, this OnCurating issue further reflects and discusses the importance of giving space and voice to unsual and surprising places in the art world.
This Issue of OnCurating came together over a period of two years, from 2018 to 2019. Students of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating (www.curating.rog) researched (de)centralised artistic and curatorial practice. These essays are published in the first part of this issue. Most of these contributions were advised by art and cultural scientist Aoife Rosenmeyer in 2018.
In a second input in 2019, students (and lecturers) of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating conducted interviews with curators, artists, and projects close to this topic, expanding on the notion of the (de)centralised, shifting to the precarious dichotomy of Centre–Periphery and its complex constellations within art, culture, politics, and economics.
The contribution “Urban Villages within the Megalopolis of Shenzhen: A (De)centralised Driver for Urban Change?” by Christine Kaiser takes the Shenzhen BI-CITY BIENNALE OF URBANISM/ARCHITECTURE (UABB) from 2018 as an example for thinking of urban development and what long-standing impact biennials can have on a city and its city life, especially in the fast-growing urban mega-area of Shenzhen.
Kristina Grigorjeva’s essay, “Far Away, So Close: Between Congiunta and Piz Linard,” engages in the move of contemporary art establishments to the periphery of the centre. She interviews Hans Schmid, initiator and director of Piz Linard, a cultural centre in Tessin, Lower Engadin, and architect Peter Märkli with his Museum Giornico in Tessin.
In her contribution, “The Zuoz Case,” Heike Biechteler reports on the clash between a picturesque and very remote mountainside landscape and the meeting of a prestigious line-up of contemporary art directors in the 7th Engadin Art Talks, held in January 2018, in which central figures of the art discourse assemble in the countryside.
Marco Meuli discusses the problematics of exhibiting “otherness.” His essay, “Curating Otherness: A Selective Reading of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale,” concentrates on installations and artworks on display at the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Franziska Herren’s interview piece, “National Tourist Routes Project in Norway: Architecture and Artworks for Resting, Recollecting, and Reflecting,” asked the curator of the Directorate of Public Roads artist and curator Knut Wold about the project that established artistic interventions of art and architecture alongside Norwegian hiking paths.
In her article, “The Repatriation of the White Cube: How Should the Rural Capitalise on Art?,” Camille Regli has a discussion with artistic director Renzo Martens about the complicated relationship between the former exploitation of the plantation territory in Lusanga and what impact critical art could also have in social, economic, and cultural dimensions for the locals.
Ella Krivanek interviewed Gabi Ngcobo, the artistic director of the Berlin Biennale 2018, about ongoing decolonial processes in art and culture.
Giovanna Bragaglia talked with Hong Kong-based artist Kacey Wong, whose works are often interventions in and with social movements. In her contribution, “Kacey Wong: Art and Resistance,” they talk about his practice and definitions of Protest Art, Activist Art, and Resistance Art.
Miwa Negoro’s interview, “Poetics of Topological Secrecy,” with scenographer Lukas Sander reviews his site-specific work Deus in Machina, which transformed a gas tank in an industrial site into an immersive sound installation. The work, while theatrical in nature, introduced the audience to a metaphorical remoteness outside of an institutional framework.
In his interview with artist Olaf Kühnemann, Oliver Rico touches on the “nomadic” lifestyle of an artist, and Kühnemann’s own life history between Tel Aviv, New York, Berlin, and Basel.
Yan Su’s email conversation with Gregory Sholette, “From an Imaginary Interview with Gregory Sholette,” took unexpected turns through misunderstandings and schedule restrictions. The outcome is a semi-fictionalised interview (with questions added in retrospect) about the key questions in Sholette’s book, Dark Matter.
In the interview “Anxiety Now Prevails” conducted by Anastasia Chaguidouline, Dmitry Vilensky from Chto Delat speaks about their politically infused artistic practice and how it has developed as a gesture of dissidence within the context of Russia since 2000. Although a lot of new art institutions have opened up in Moscow, the collective made St. Petersburg their home base and connected internationally through their activist network.
Raqs Media Collective was asked by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi about their artistic-turned-curatorial practice. They point out that the Centre–Periphery Model—as a model of separation after the Second World War—is no longer in charge, with the so-called “old centre” overtaken by new museums and the founding of biennials in Asia. Letting these old dichotomies go, they concentrate instead on an “emergent polyphony—a polyphony that is poly-axial and generous in how it sees the world.”
Pongpan Suriyapat interviewed artist, activist, and poetess Jittima “Len” Pholsawek from Thailand. They discussed her work Boat of Hope for the Bangkok Art Biennale 2019, and her community-based and education-driven artistic practice.
Carolina Sanchez talked with POST-MUSEUM (Jennifer Teo and Tien Wei Woon) about their (nomadic) practice—with a stance of independent—working “with the city” (Singapore) and in different constellations with artists, neighbours, and scholars. They are interested in “practicing the city” in more meaningful ways.
Anuradha Vikram, the artistic director of the 18th Street Arts Center—a residency and exhibition center—, lays out the institution’s position geographically—situated in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, after moving from the greater San Francisco Bay Area due to gentrification—and socio-economically—by supporting marginalised artists and raising visibility in this interview by Eveline Mathis and Domenico Roberti.
In the conversation between Lisa Biedlingmaier and Beatrice Fontana, Biedlingmaier explains the history of the self-organized, artist-run Kunstverein Wagenhalle/Container City in Stuttgart and the relationship of the remoteness of an “alternative art scene” to a commercialised (art) world. In light of political decision-making and the struggles of gentrification and professionalization, Wagenhalle managed to establish a space for art and music.
The Lab’s director Dena Beard spoke with Paola Granati and Ronny Koren about her “transition” from being in a traditional art institution to running a non-profit experimental art and performance space in San Francisco, and how the conventions of perceiving art are ultimately dependent on its institutional framework. On the other hand, with the Lab, Beard focusses on artists who deal with “unnameable, irrecuperable parts of our existence,” which in return does not easily find access to the market.
Domenico Roberti’s interview with Enrico Piras and Alessandro Sau, the founders of Montecristo Project, deals with the specific setting of an exhibition space in an undisclosed and deserted island along the Sardinian coast. The exhibition can only be accessed through documentation—remoteness in this case is not only spatial, but also mediated in its receptibility.
In the interview with Stacy Hardy (Chimurenga Magazine) by Gozde Filinta titled “’Who No Know, Go Know’: How to Shift Knowledge about/of Africa,” Hardy explains Chimurenga’s curatorial and artistic practice and how it was formed in a Pan-African Market location with a high level of tourist traffic on the one hand, while thriving for “border zones between informal and formal, licit and illicit, or chaotic and ordered.”
In his conversation, “Encounter with Finnish Artist and Curator Ritva Kovalainen,” Jan Sandberg got to know the story of the multi-art Festival Norpas based in Kimito, Finland. Kovalainen speaks about the struggles to cater to communities despite being considered an odd bird.
Maya Bamberger asked Damian Christinger about his project Assembleia MotherTree and the risks and opportunities of inviting people from the Amazon to Zurich. The installation in the main station of Zurich invited passers-by to come in, meditate, and contemplate, while Christinger organized an Assembleia, together with scholars, artists, students, and activists from many parts of the world to sit together in the tent and talk, dance, and sing on the future of our planet.
Marta Rodriguez Maleck talks with Dorothee Richter about her projects engaging in personal and collective trauma in New Orleans: “This approach allows me to honour multiple truths at once, dismantle assumptions based on perceived identity, and encourage communication between groups of people who come from different backgrounds with their own set of expectations.”
Camille Regli speaks with Maria-Cristina Donati in her contribution, “La Quadreria di Anita Spinelli: A Place Where Silence and Dynamism Prevail,” about being in charge of Anita Spinelli’s legacy and the importance of the spatial situatedness of art collections while at the same time being exhibited to be seen outside.