Although preparation and research began nearly four years ago, it is nonetheless permissible to say that the discursive drive of Documenta11 will never see its conclusion in the spectacular spaces filled with art projects that the exhibition offers to visitors to Kassel. The exhibition, despite its ambition, scale, and complexity, and the sheer heterogeneity of the forms, images, and position that encompass its far-reaching vision, is not to be understood as a terminus for understanding the wide-ranging disciplinary models spelled out in the first four Platforms of conferences, debates, and workshops that preceded it in five locations: in Europe (Vienna and Berlin), Asia (New Delhi), the Americas (St. Lucia), and Africa (Lagos). Built into interlocking constellations of discursive domains, circuits of artistic and knowledge production, and research modules, the parameters that have shaped the organization of this project are to be found in the complex predicaments of contemporary art in a time of profound historical change and global transformation.
The careful examination and analysis of contemporary art, visual culture, and its spectatorial regimes, as well as other material orders of representation, should also be understood in relation to those other changes taking place across disciplinary and cultural boundaries that inform today’s artistic procedures. The horizon of Documenta11’s project and the full scope that its five Platforms occupy are twofold: first, there is the spatial and temporal dimension; the second is historical and cultural in nature. The full measure of Documenta11’s critical procedure, then, is to be sought not only within the optics and visual logic of contemporary art. Thus the entire scope to the project inverts the logic that the exhibition’s centrality is what defines the proper meaning of the artistic and intellectual possibilities of its procedures.
To construct an exhibition, the curator is always confronted with the double displacement of space and time. If the function of the artwork and the story it tells in an exhibition is to be understood primarily through the nature of its presentation, or by calling upon the context of the exhibition system to restore the temporal displacement that a work is often pressed into through the empirical logic of one thing standing next to another, this would also mean to establish the artwork’s limits as such. Another observation is to see an exhibition as a kind of meta-language of mediation that constructs a tautological system in which the artwork is bound up in its own self-referentiality through the relationships established between mediums, objects, and systems. This would be particularly true when calling upon the work of art to present for scrutiny all its constitutive formal, conceptual, and analytical relations to the language of the exhibition’s ideology. Under such a condition there is no life for the artwork outside the system of art, no autonomy outside the framework of an art exhibition. The artwork—which, in any case, is understood a priori to be extraterritorial to an exhibition’s logic—functions as time spatialized, but only inside the space in which it is corseted, which does not refer to an external world. However, there is another less formal route to penetrate the logic of the exhibition’s viewpoint; this is through methods that are manifested in a range of social, political, and cultural networks that have incessantly marked the limit and horizon of global discourse today and that present a different context for working on a project such as Domenta11. As such, this exhibition could be read as an accumulation of passages, a collection of moments, temporal lapses that emerge into spaces that reanimate for a viewing public the endless concatenation of worlds, perspectives, models, counter-models, and thinking that constitute the artistic subject. The description offered above, however, proves inadequate to fully capture the interrogations to which Documenta11 has subjected current contexts of artistic production and reception. As an exhibition project, Documenta11 from the sheer side of extraterritoriality: firstly, by displacing its historical context in Kassel; secondly, by moving outside the domain of the gallery space to that of the discursive; and thirdly, by expanding the locus of the disciplinary models that constitute and define the project’s intellectual and cultural interest.
In fact, if the larger intellectual and curatorial scope of Documenta11 is to be placed in proper perspective it is in the idea that there are no overarching conclusions to be reached, no forms of closure, and that no prognosis can be derived from the critical task it set out to examine and question, namely the idea that the means and approach taken by an exhibition is necessarily fully encrypted into the result of what it displays and the forms if recuperates for artistic posterity. What, then, is the task of this exhibition project if it is not the tacit assumption that it will show the critical orientation of all engaged contemporary forms of visual production (images, objects, architecture, non-images, etc.) as they are arrayed before us today? In the use of institutional forms of exhibition practice such as Documenta to form a narrative, and from thence to posit a unified vision of art or to draw conclusions about its formal distinctiveness from all other kinds of practice, was central to the understanding of the institutional parameters of modern and contemporary art. In other cases, a different kind of conclusion was sought through critical departures from such a unified vision: this strategy of disarticulating critical art from its institutional support for the most part resides in the history of the avant-garde.
Yet, in a sense, the avant-garde and formalist art share a common assumption in the completeness of their vision, which is to say: to secure the past and maintain tradition, or to depart vigorously from the past and renovate tradition. According to Guy Debord, institutional formalism in the name of tradition and the avant-garde through its lofty invocation of innovation are locked in “[t]he struggle between tradition and innovation, which is the basic principle of the internal development of the culture of historical societies, [and] is predicated entirely on the permanent victory of innovation. Cultural [artistic] innovation is impelled solely, however, by that total historical movement which, by becoming conscious of its totality, tends toward the transcendence of its own cultural presuppositions—and hence towards the suppression of all separations.”
The five Platforms that form the project of Documenta11 share in no such presupposition. If the animating intellectual and artistic quests of past Documentas have been to prove such conclusions were possible, Documenta11 places its quest within the epistemological difficulty that marks all attempts to forge one common, universal conception and interpretation of artistic and cultural modernity. We begin with a rather direct questioning of the efficacy of the institutionalized discourses that have attended the dissemination and reception of so-called radical art; especially one that insists upon and promulgates the notion that art, especially radical art, in its conflictual relationship to bourgeois society (in spite of all attempts to bring its full measure into the ethical-political space of culture), remains autonomous from all political and social demands. But this is hardly the case today. We are today confronted with a singular predicament; one in which we would ask: What could be Documenta11’s “spectacular difference” if viewed from the refractory shards thrown up by the multiple artistic spaces and knowledge circuits that are the critical hallmarks of today’s artistic subjectivity and cultural climate?
At the turn of an already less than promising century, Documenta is confronted by and placed in the challenging situation of declaring what its spectacular difference will be, without shielding its past triumphs and successes from the transhistorical processes that shake the ground of every ontological pronouncement about artistic uniqueness. That spectacular difference proceeds not simply from the difficult-to-sustain notion of art’s eternal autonomy from all domains of socio-political life, but from the view that art’s proliferating forms and methods, histories and departures, conditions of production and canons of institutionalization call strongly for a forum from which to announce its critical independence from the conservative academic thinking that has taken possession of art’s place in life and thought. Therefore, one claim that can be made for Documenta11’s spectacular difference is that its critical spaces are not places for the normalization or uniformization of all artistic visions on their way to institutional beatification. Rather, through the continuity and circularity of the nodes of discursivity and debate, location and translation, cultural situations and their localities that are transmitted and perceived through the five Platforms, Documenta11’s spaces are to be seen as forums of committed ethical and intellectual reflection on the possibilities of rethinking the historical procedures that are part of its contradictory heritage of grand conclusions.
What is an Avant-Garde Today?
The Postcolonial Aftermath of Globalization and the Terrible Nearness of Distant Places
One feature of most definitions of globalization is the degree to which the term is constantly brought into the phenomenological orbits of spatiality and temporality in order to be disciplined inside the cold logic of the mathematical analysis of capital production and accumulation, and economic rationalization (a point made so deftly by Maria Eichhorn’s project in the exhibition.) Another point about globalization gives rise to the thought that its cumulative effects and processes are to be understood as mediations and representations of spatiality and temporality: globalization is said to abolish great distances, while temporality is at best experienced as uneven.
In his essay “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa,” Achille Mbembe makes the case clear by evoking Fernand Braudel’s monumental study of capitalism and the world system. Mbembe writes:
If at the center of the discussion on globalization we place three problems of spatiality, calculability, and temporality in their relations with representation, we find ourselves brought back to two points usually ignored in contemporary discourses, even through Fernand Braudel had called attention to them. The first of these has to do with temporal pluralities, and we might add, with the subjectivity that makes these temporalities possible and meaningful.
Such temporal plurality could be understood, according to Mbembe, by the distinction Braudel drew between “temporalities of long duration, slowly evolving and less slowly evolving situations, rapid and virtually instantaneous deviations, the quickest being the easiest to detect.”
Whatever definition or character we invest it with, it is in the postcolonial order that we find the most critical enunciation and radicalization of spatiality and temporality. From the moment the postcolonial enters into the space/time of global calculations and the effects they impose on modern subjectivity, we are confronted not only with the asymmetry and limitations of globalism’s materialist assumptions but also with the terrible nearness of distant places that global logic sought to abolish and bring into one domain of deterritorialized rule. Rather than vast distances and unfamiliar places, strange peoples and cultures, postcoloniality embodies the spectacular mediation and representation of nearness as the dominant mode of understanding the present condition of globalization. Postcoloniality, in its demand for full inclusion within the global system and by contesting existing epistemological structures, shatters the narrow focus of Western global optics and fixes its gaze on the wider sphere of the new political, social, and cultural relations that emerged after World War II. The postcolonial today is a world of proximities. It is world of nearness, not an elsewhere. Neither is it a vulgar state of endless contestations and anomie, chaos and unsustainability, but rather the very space where the tensions that govern all ethical relationships between citizen and subject converge. The postcolonial space is the site where experimental cultures emerge to articulate modalities that define the new meaning- and memory-making systems of late modernity.
In the analysis of postcoloniality we witness a double move: first through the liberatory strategy of decolonization. Decolonization—that is to say liberation from within—as the political order of the postcolonial is not only counter-normative and counter-hegemonic but also tends toward the reproduction of the universal as the sign of the rupture from imperial governance. Decolonization is also understood here by what Mbembe and Janet Roitman call a “regime of subjectivity,” which they describe as:
...a shared ensemble of imaginary configurations of “everyday life,” imaginaries which have a material basis and systems of intelligibility to which people refer in order to construct a more or less clear of the causes of phenomena and effects, to determine the domain of what is possible and feasible, as well as the logics of efficacious action. More generally a regime of subjectivity is an ensemble of ways of living, representing, and experiencing contemporaneousness, while at the same time, inscribing this experience in the mentality, understanding, and language of historical time.
Postcoloniality’s second lesson is that it exceeds the borders of the former colonized world to lay claim to the modernized, metropolitan world of empire by making empire’s former “other” visible and present at all times, either through the media or through mediatory, spectatorial, and carnivalesque relations of language, communication, images, contact, and resistance within the everyday. Two decades ago, a number of theorists would have called this double move postmodernism’s saving grace. Bur postcoloniality must at all times be distinguished from postmodernism. While postmodernism was preoccupied with relativizing historical transformations and contesting the lapses and prejudices of epistemological grand narratives, postcoloniality does the obverse, seeking instead to sublate and replace all grand narratives through new ethical demands on modes of historical interpretation.
In this regard, it could be said that the history of the avant-garde falls within the epistemological scheme of grand narratives. What, then, is the fate of the avant-garde in this climate of incessant assault upon its former conclusions? Seen from this purview, all economic, social, cultural, and political questions that emerged in the last half century, and the vital relations of power that attend their negotiations, have had the distinctive historical impact of abolishing all the claims that the former European avant-gardes made for themselves. Nowhere is this historical termination more visible than in the recent drive by global capitalism to frame a new optics of spatial and temporal totality that forms the project of neo-liberalism after the demise of the crudely managed and regulated Soviet Communist systems. To understand what constitutes the avant-garde today, one must begin not in the field of contemporary art but in the field of culture and politics, as well as in the economic field governing all relations that have come under the overwhelming hegemony of capital. If the avant-gardes of the past (Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, let’s say) anticipated a changing order, that of today is to make impermanence, and what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls aterritoriality, the principal order of today’s uncertainties, instability, and insecurity. With this order in place, all notions of autonomy which radical art had formery claimed for itself are abrogated.
Calculating the effects of these uncertainties within the new imperial scheme of “Empire”, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri inform us of the features of a new type of global sovereignty which, in its deterritorialized form, is no longer defined by the conservative borders of the old nation state scheme. If this Empire is materializing, hegemonizing, and attempting to regulate all forms of social relations and cultural exchanges, strong, critical responses to this materialization are contemporary art’s weakest point. In their thesis, Empire is that domain of actions and activities that have come to replace imperialism; whose scope also harbors the ambition to rule not just territories, markets, populations, but most fundamentally, social life in its entirety. Today’s avant-garde is so thoroughly disciplined and domesticated within the scheme of Empire that a whole different set of regulatory and resistance models has to be found to counterbalance Empire’s attempt at tolalization. Hardt and Negri call this resistance force, opposed to the power of Empire, “the multitude.” If Empire’s counter-model is to be found in the pressing, anarchic demands of the multitude, to understand what sustains it historically returns us yet again to the move by postcoloniality to define new models of subjectivity. In postcoloniality we are incessantly offered counter-models through which the displaced—those placed on the margins of the enjoyment of full global participation—fashion new worlds by producing experimental cultures. By experimental cultures I wish to define a set of practices whereby cultures evolving out of imperialism and colonialism, slavery and indenture, compose a collage of reality from the fragments of collapsing space.
Ground Zero or Tabula Rasa: From Margin to Center
But we have precisely chosen to speak of that kind of tabula rasa which characterizes at the outset all decolonization. Its unusual importance is that it constitutes, from the very first day, the minimum demands of the colonized. To tell the truth, the proof of success lies in a whole social structure being changed from the bottom up. The extraordinary importance of this change is that it is willed, called for, demanded. The need for this change exists in its crude state, impetuous and compelling, in the consciousness and in the lives of the men and woman who are colonized. But the possibility of this change is equally experienced in the form of a terrifying future in the consciousness of another “species” of men and women: the colonizers.
As in the early years of decolonization and the liberation struggles of the twentieth century, radical Islam has today come to define (for now) the terms of radical politics in the twenty-first century. Also, following the strategies of the liberation struggles of the last century, the program of political Islam today is based on an agonistic struggle with Westernism; that is, that sphere of global totality that manifests itself through the political, social, economic, cultural, juridical, and spiritual integration achieved via institutions devised and mainatined solely to perpetuate the influence of European and North American modes of being. Two chief attributes of this integration are to be seen in the constitution of the first and second phases of modernity: firstly, in the far-reaching effects of the world system of capitalism and the state form; and secondly, in the perpetual interpretation of what a just society ought to be, pursed through the secular vision of democracy as the dominant principle of political participation. The main political rupture of today is properly caught in the resistance struggles being initialled by a host of forces (whether Islamic or secular) in order to prevent their societies from total integration into these two phase of the Western system.
If we are to have a proper analysis by which to interpret the fundamental rationale for such resistance, we must try to understand that processes of integration proper to the idea of Westernism rest somewhat on what Jurgen Habermas calls “boundary-maintaining systems,” which are also systems of conceptual appropriation of socio-cultural processes schematized in his distinction between society and lifeworld. One way of touching on this distinction is communicated by a view that sees non-Western societies in evolutionary stages of movement towards integration: from tribal to modern society; feudal to technological economy; underdeveloped to developed: theocratic and authoritarian to secular democratic systems of governance. In his classic study on the colonial discourse around Africa, V. Y. Mudimbe writes about the colonial system “as a dichotomizing system [with which] a great number of current paradigmatic oppositions have developed: traditional versus modern; oral versus written and printed; agrarian and customary communities versus urban and industrialized; subsistence economies versus highly productive economies.” This evolutionary principle of integration returns us to Braudel’s notion of “temporalities of long and very long duration, slowly evolving and less slowly evolving situations.” In every stage of its evolutionary scheme, Westernism’s insistence on the total adoption and observation of its norms and concepts comes to constitute the only viable idea of social, political, and cultural legitimacy from which all modern subjectivities are seen to emerge. As I shall argue later, the social and political struggles of today have their roots in the flaws inherent in the two concepts on which Westernism is based.
Within the field of art, the concepts of the museum and art history rest on a similar unyielding theology that founds the legitimacy of artistic autonomy, canons, and connoisseurship upon the same interpretive pursuit of modernity, which would also formulate the historical and formal understanding of all artistic production for all time. In the specific instance of large-scale international exhibitions, Gerardo Mosquera has proposed the view that Western modernism’s theology of values turns into a moment from which to gauge the asymmetry in the relationship between those he calls “curating cultures” and those others who are “curated cultures.” In hindsight, the top-down view of curating contemporary art operates similarly within the frame of artistic and canonical integration and totalization that ground the principle of Westernism as such. The horizon of artistic discourses of the last century, regardless of claims made for the affinities between the tribal and modern, is neatly described by the cleavage that defines the separation between Western artistic universalism and tribal object particularities and peculiarities which also define their marginality. While strong revolutionary claims have been made for the avant-garde within Westernism, its vision of modernity remains surprisingly conservative and formal. On the other hand, the political and historical vision of the Western avant–garde has remained narrow. The propagators of the avant-garde have done little to constitute a space of self-reflexivity that can understand new relations of artistic modernity not founded on Westernism. The foregoing makes tendentious the claims of radicality often imputed to exhibitions such as Documenta or similar manifestations within the exhibitionary complex of artistic practice today. What one sees, then, in Documenta’s historical alliance with institutions of modernism is how immediately it is caught in a double bind in its attempt to negotiate both its radicality and normativity.
The events of September 11, 2001, in the United States have provided us with a metaphor for articulating what is at stake in the radical politics and experimental cultures of today, while opening a space from which culture, qua contemporary art, could theorize an epistemology of non-integrative discourse. The metaphor of September 11 is to be found in the stark notion of Ground Zero. But what does Ground Zero mean at that moment it is uttered? Where do we now locate the space of Ground Zero? What constitutes its effects on the nature of radical politics and cultural articulations today? Is Ground Zero the space of the kind of antagonistic politics in which the enemy always appears the same, undifferentiated, making his annihilation all the more justifiable? Or is it to be found in the terrible pile of molten steel, soot, broken lives, and scarred, ashen ground of the former World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan? In Gaza, Ramallah, or Jerusalem? In the ruins of Afghan cities? Or is Ground Zero the founding instant of the reckoning to come with Westernism after colonialism?
Let’s begin again. It may be said—in the sense of the insecurity, instability, and uncertainties it inspires—that the kind of political violence we are experiencing today may well come to define what we mean when we invoke the notion of Ground Zero. Beyond the symbolic dimension of its funerary representation, the notion of Ground Zero resembles most closely Fanon’s powerful evocation of the ground–clearing gesture of tabula rasa, as a beginning in the ethics and politics of constituting a new order of global society moving beyond colonialism as a set of dichotomizing oppositions, and beyond Westernism as the force of modern integration. No contemporary thinker comes closer than Fanon to articulating with such radical accuracy and propinquity the chaos that now proliferates inside the former dead certainties of the imperial project of colonialism and Westernism. These dead certainties are still to be found in the discourses that have equally proliferated to describe the radical spatial and temporal violence of the actions of September 11. Some call it the clash of civilizations, others the axis of evil, or the battle between good and evil, between the civilized and uncivilized world; others call it jihad, intifada, liberation, etc. In all the jingoistic language that mediates this state of affairs, cultural and artistic responses could, however, posit a radical departure from the system of hegemony that fuels the present struggle. In fact, it was the Iranian president, Mohammed Khatami, who called for a dialogue between civilizations. Even if the void in downtown Manhattan constitutes a sort of apocalyptic vision of destruction, we must do well not to see its destruction as an apotheosis and the final chapter in the confrontation between the West and Islam; or in fact, the West and the rest of the world that is not doing its share in George Bush the Younger’s war on terrorism. September 11, therefore, far from positing a logical end in the long series of oppositions to Westernism, should perhaps be framed as the instance of the full emergence of the margin to the center.
When Fanon was writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Islamic and Arab world in Algeria had risen up in bloody resistance against the brutal force and terror of French colonialism. The Algerian war of liberation, along with other decolonization processes across the southern hemisphere from the 1940s onwards, should have taught us a lesson on how to read the history of all future political struggles. Ground Zero as such is not the lacuna in downtown Manhattan out of which the symbolic pillar of blue light that illuminates its empty center is the suture that will restore it to its past. Ground Zero, as the tabula rasa defining global politics and culture differentiation, points toward that space where the dead certainties of colonialism’s dichotomizing oppositions, and Westernism’s epistemological concepts for managing and maintaining modernity, have come to a crisis. The emptiness at the center is not a ground but a founding moment for articulating the demands of the multitude that have emerged in the wake of Empire. In the later stage of the Algerian liberation war, Fanon articulated this tension between the multitude and Empire so clearly, a view that completely prefigures fundamentalist Islam’s radical transnational enterprise. In terms of strategy, program, and the direction of their assault on the West, the fundamentalist Islamic challenge to the global order is clearly Fanonian. Let us listen to Fanon, writing towards the end of the French/Algerian war:
The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first [my emphasis], this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence.
You do not turn any society, however primitive it may be, upside down with such a program if you have not decided from the very beginning, that is to say from the actual formulation of that program, to overcome all the obstacles that you will come across in so doing. The native who decides to put the program into practice, and to become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.
Absolute violence seen from Fanon’s perspective is not an end in itself but a means for the confrontation to come with the forces of Westernism, today defined by the hegemony of industrial capitalism. In the Islamic world, the Iranian revolution led by Imam Khomeini clearly marked the opening of this confrontation. The defeat of the occupying Soviet forces by a broad coalition of Islmaic mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1989 marks another point in the continuous Islamic battle with Westernism. Similarly the sanction placed on Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses was clearly a contestation of the Western epistemological avant-gardism out of which the novel emerged. From the foregoing, it seems quite clear that the West had completely underestimated the ferocity of fundamentalist Islam’s hostility toward Western hegemony. On the other hand, there is also a clear recognition by forces within Islam (enlightened and fundamentalist alike) that the only fporce capable of challenging the global political and culutral power of the West is that of Islam as a viable world culture. As such, radical Islam must therefore be properly understood as a serious counter-hegemonic opposition, at least on the global political stage. Because radical Islam has often drawn from theories of jihad—which it narrowly interprets from a binary oppositional standpoint of believers and non-believers, infidels and good Muslims—it underwrites, through the deployment of excessive violence, a view of Islam as belligerent, warmongering, and violent. By objectifying violence as a means through which to bring about social and cultural transformation in regions where it is a majority culture, and by proposing very little innovative political model for its interaction with the rest of global society, radical Islam risks alienating other blocks of the disaffected global polity if it does not confront a longstanding perception of it as intolerant of difference and coercive and unjust in its juridical procedures. The place of women and religious minorities, the lack of transparency and corruption in its elite, and the political rights and participation of a large segment of its societies further undermine Islam’s claim to universalism.
As the battle with the forces of “terrorist" elements continues apace in Afghanistan and elsewhere—as Palestinians fight Israeli hegemony in the Occupied Territories; as antiglobalization groups battle the police in Genoa, Seattle, Montreal, and other cities in Europe and North America; as protesters in Argentina, Turkey, Nigeria, and all across the developing world engage the pernicious policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—there is a view today that Ground Zero represents the clear ground from which the margin has moved to the center in order to reconceptualize the key ideological differences of the present global transition.
 Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism: The Fifteenth Century to the Eighteenth Century, vol. 3, The Perspective of the World, trans. Siân Reynolds, New York: Harper and Row, 1984; quoted in Mbembe, “At the Edge of the World,” p. 259.
 See Akbar S. Ahmed, Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise, London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Ahmed has argued the point that within the “new world order” only two categories of societies exist, those that are imploding and those that are exploding. Imploding societies represent those caught up in underdevelopment, economic helotry, cultural insecurity, social malaise, political fragmentation and collapse of the state form, and are marked by crises: while exploding cultures are those segments of the industrialized world which he identifies as bubbling with optimism, and have the technological achievements which allow them to continuously expand economically, culturally, and politically. With such asymmetry in place, those societies seen to be imploding offer no alternatives to Western global hegemony, and are condemned to be ruled by the West. In the case of Islam, Ahmed makes the case that Islamic modernity is caught in the tension in which ideas of both implosion and explosion define the basis of what its societies are undergoing, but also provides it with the tools and adequately respond to Western hegemony.