Former West.Reversibility and Post-History


6.11. Utrecht, 1st Former West Congress

– Former-ness is connected to irreversibility. Something appears truly as former, if there is no return.

– The West has become something “former” in a very different way than the East. Here a change, there a break. Breaks always create lots of obvious irreversibilities. A change makes it much more difficult to uncover what has ceased to exist. In the midst of a change, we can never be sure, which facts are still reversible, and which can be labelled as “former”.

– What has become irreversible in the West during the last two decades? One could name two main points:
1. the rise of the internet, with the digital copy and filesharing causing the end of 150 years of a cultural economy based on reproduction.
2. the changing role of the state with respect to culture and more recently also finance.

– One of these transitions affects the art world directly, the other not.
1. Art seems to be quite independent from the cultural economy of reproduction, as it never ceased to operate on a pre-modern standard of production. 95% of art objects are unique, handmade things, no reproduction allowed.
2. The change of the state affects the art world, as it disrupts the delicate balance between state-run institutions and the market.

– In handling the current crisis the states unveiled their function and condition of existence. Nowadays states operate merely as entities with the task of guaranteeing an economically operable environment. During the recent crisis the states have served this task so well, that they basically lost their financial sovereignty to the world of the big banks.

– The romantic idea of a nation-state identity and state-sponsored culture lost its power. Citizens turned to consumers who create their identity through consumption. Thus, the old romantic state-run institutions, amongst them the museum, lose their initial mission.

– In the same time, a new elite of the financial class is born, replacing the old ruling class of entrepreneurs. Amongst these we also find many major collectors of art who propel their speculative attitude to the art market.

– The dominance of the art market coincided with the weakness of the state-run institutions. The current crisis will not change this situation, after the finance industry won the struggle for power, the assets of their wealthy clients were saved at the costs of a government, whose financial condition becomes more and more precarious.

– One of the signs of this weakness is a breakdown of the modern structure of linear time. Symptoms of this breakdown show up in all kinds of temporary activities and events, whose most visible sign are the rise of the profession of the curator, the rise of the biennale as ubiquitous mode of exhibition and the art fair as a capitalist version of the pre-modern salons. Cyclical events and their agents replace the linear time of modernism.

– The form and use of time does not simply appear on its own. A certain form of time, let’s call it temporality, always needs to be created and maintained. It can be historical and linear, or rotate in cycles, secular or cyclical as the economists call it. Without a given timeframe, objects disappear into a timeless void of indifferent “formerness”. As an example consider the results we encounter, when searching the web with google. Google operates as a time-destruction machine.

– When the institution of the museum was founded around 1800 it was based on the academic concept of a historical time. As the scientists and academics followed the turn towards history, the institutions of the new found nation-state also subjected their collections to the principle of a historical time.

– This pre-sett temporality served as the basis for the rise of modernism, and enabled the idea of progress and the avant-gardes which fulfilled it. As we all know, this dynamic has been over since quite a while, but we do not yet know which other form of time has replaced it. Terms like post- or alter-modern only signal that something has past, but at the same time they operate in the old logic of linear time. In arguing that something would come “after” modernism or alter it, they basically perpetuate the modernist principle of historical time.

– Our present situation can be characterised on three levels.
Practically we have to answer the question how to handle the recent developments in art.
Theoretically we encounter some difficulties at the transition from the modern times to something else (not something subsequent or new!).
Strategically our present situation offers some a blurry pattern of options.

1. One of the urgent questions seems to be what sort of value or significance or duration we should assign to all the stuff, that has been sold on the market within the last two decades? Can we lift it from the sphere of the cyclical to the historical time? We assign value to these objects by including them in a discourse but is our discourse stable , or is it bound to fall under same the cyclical form of time? In other words: are we still able to create and maintain the kind of temporality needed?
2. The theoretical difficulties concern the very topic of this conference. The question, what is former and what not, touches upon the crucial question of temporality. In defining what is former, we escape the cyclical form of time and create a linear form. As such the very topic of our conference reads like an attempt to keep or reinstate the modern type of temporality.
On the other hand, the topic sounds like an echo from a time, when we were still operating in the historical mode. If the modern temporality is already lost, asking for the “former” would constitute a performative self-contradiction, because the very question of our conference has already become part of what it is asking for: something “former”.

3. The answer on the strategic level is more tricky, and in fact very speculative. I believe, a form of time is crucial for the existence of something like art. Usually a new temporality can only be established with the help of a second, external power and its institutions. Once religion served that purpose, then the state.
Our primary source of linear time in these days is the connection of technology and communication. Art has successfully decoupled from that field. And precisely that decoupling opens a possibility. The new culture, which emerges in a technology-based environment, has no proper form of time yet. And art as an independent, generalized meta-culture, could be able to help creating a new temporality.