International Biennial of Contemporary Art Ljubljana,
23 June - 24 September 2000
News Archive
Micro Talks
Cankarjev Dom
M1 & M2

Don't save art, spend it!
Ole Bouman

Without borders nothing can exist, or at least we can not know of it. At the border, something ends and something else begins. Or can begin. A difference thus exists the moment we become aware of a border. Border creates order. There are numerous shades of meaning in the 'border' concept. In its unmarked sense the term 'border' indicates a more or less humdrum, barely emphasised dividing line – something we can merely step over. We know there are differences between the domains on either side, but take no exception to this fact. Border controls have been abolished. The 'frontier' on the other hand is an evasive, mobile border, one we are forever about to reach but never quite reaching, something we still have to work towards. An unconstrained ambition pushes this frontier ever further even as we strain towards it. Frontiers are there to be advanced. Finally, there is the 'limit', an almost metaphysical boundary beyond which lies the eternally unknown. The limit is absolute, an impenetrable shell. Beyond the limit all is either sacrosanct or taboo.
These are the three variants of the concept that figure large in the current discourse on the border. This discourse has now become omnipresent. Wherever we raise our lantern, be it in culture, economy, biology or psychology, we stumble on not just the vocabulary but the symptoms of the borderline syndrome. Sometimes it seems as though an entire new branch of science has been created to tidy up the boundaries of identity and meaning. It is pretty difficult to find any serious field of cultural research nowadays, not being infected by the basic idiom of self relativity. Its idiom swarms with terms like 'dismantling', 'disjunction', 'transgression', 'mutation', 'hybridisation', 'hyper-reality', 'semantic instability', 'virtually', 'de-centring', 'fragmentation', 'excess', 'deconstruction', 'juxtaposition', 'interdisciplinarism', 'fuzzy logic', 'deterritorialization', 'multiculturalism', 'cyborgization' and so on. Were there no intrinsic coherence to be detected in this post-humanistic paradigm, we should think ourselves dissolving in some final entropy in which communication had become an a priori impossibility. Taking into account developments in transport, telematics, genetics is due to the fathomless crisis of the border itself (assuming the term "crisis" is still appropriate in this new paradigm).
The border is not only to be understood as the final station of the visible but also as the framework within which institutions and disciplines operate. Practice, training and even much criticism hamper discussion on that framework or moralise it into something dubious. It is acceptable to dress up the border or even discuss it in depth – but keep your hands off the social and economic actuality! In a world in which everything has become in-between, where there appear to be no borders, there are in fact certain vanishing points beyond which silence reigns. It is in the area past these vanishing points that micro-politics, macro-politics and possibilities of change have their domain. My concern here is with the dominant mechanisms of repression, the invisible limits. By enthroning the border as the primordial subject of culture, we run the risk of losing sight of the differences that really matter; whereas our aim should be to throw some light on them. This aim at least is my energy of defence. The classical world view respected the border. The modernist world view ignored it. The post-modern world view has made it problematic. We no longer face a border that surrounds us but carry the problem of the border within us. Our present culture is a borderline one, in which the border is simultaneously a problem everywhere and a philosophical imperative nowhere. The only border that receives collective support seems to be the one that is supposed to shield Western prosperity from interested parties elsewhere. Meanwhile, value judgements are becoming increasingly interchangeable. In the schizophrenic border traffic between the true, the beautiful and the good and their respective counterparts, antinomies between irreconcilable extremes turn into related modalities. Standpoints vary effortlessly from hyper-futurism to eco-activism, from virtual reality to the limits to growth. It is hardly surprising, in this situation, that the grotesque has become the most popular literary and visual device. He who is not grotesque is nothing, he simply no longer counts.
Our consciousness of border is supposed to have given us an eye for differences. But in as far as differences actually exist, they are chiefly prized for their form. United Colors of Benetton, for instance, glorifies purely outward diversity. Differences in mentality, calling or social class are smothered with a dense cosmetic layer. The tension between the actual and the possible is fudged into the superficial cliché of formal conciliation, a "promesse de bonheur" attenuated into a form which can conveniently be assimilated by production. At the same time, a homogenising ideology is propagated: consume and behave like us, or else... The result towards which this works is a pasteurised plurality in which people cease to take an interest in one another – the United Colors of Indifference. It thus becomes clear how form, as a critical intervention, allows itself to be sidelined and is forced to retreat behind the borders of its own domain. Form is emasculated as a means of creating and revealing boundaries. The borders are thereby reinstated with redoubled force. Material borders are growing indistinct, it is true: the Berlin Wall has fallen. But electronic, administrative and economic borders are continually being strengthened – borders that hinder unification, channel movement and help preserve countless forms of dependency. Borders tend to fade within the privileged cultural disciplines; here, distinction ceases to matter. Yet at the same time we disregard the borders that form the hidden preconditions for our privileged position.
One of the recurring features of Borderline Syndrome is a chronic feeling of emptiness as a result of an excessive concentration on the self. Becoming over-conscious can lead to a paralysis of all productive capacities. The result is a fatal state of mental inertia, a navel-gazing on ones own conditions, a creator's block. Although one has to be very careful when using psychiatric metaphors for cultural phenomena, this feature can easily be transposed to culture in general, and visual arts in particular. The last quarter of the last century we have experienced what some people have called the 'theoretical turn', in which there is no escape from the tendency to contextualise one's work to a meta level of thought. Some uprisings of 'engagement' could not avoid culture becoming extremely self reflexive. What started as a new wave of emancipation from the shackles of self evidence, become a new shackle of the locked up identity: acknowledged as identity, neglected as a social force with serious consequences. Finally, everything could and should be thought on its own terms. The ideology of difference led to a practice of indifference. In short, culture became obsessed with 'the other' in some sort or another. The search for a legitimacy from without ended up with culture being correct but interchangeable. The invasion of self reflexive theory spoiled the capacity for surprise. Curiosity gave way to endless processes of justification.
The aforementioned tendency is by no means restricted to the level of the individual. The same could be said of entire fields of culture, such as science, politics and economics. Today it is all about trans-disciplinary research, team-working, strategic coalitions, company mergers, synergy and so on. In a globalized network society, there is no reason to stick to one's identity, except for reasons of 'branding' and 'profiling'. Which means identity without a substance. More and more identity has become a form of economic value and strategy, less and less it is the core of self-acknowledgement. The ultimate value of the corroded character is to be flexible, flexible and again: flexible.
However: if the highest achievement is to be flexible and to be able to cope with anything, to adopt any role and to incorporate any value, where do you draw the line? If the energy of defence is focused on the protection of one interests these questions are frequently answered by dangerous responses. People fall back upon some kind of tribalisation and xenophobia in which racism and ethnocentrism may become paramount. Spatially one sees a world-wide tendency to re-territorialize ones personal domain through the erection of walls and gates, armed with guns and cameras. The most explicit energy of defence today is the culture of enclaves, a capsule civilisation in which people withdraw upon their isolated position that they can control. Wired or not, they are cut off from a social reality that only seems to be threatening.
The big issue is whether this reality can be matched by more positive energies of defence. These are focused on the reconstruction of self esteem and self respect, without risking vulnerability and curiosity. The question remains whether we can hold a personal and professional quality that makes the difference. For art this means an exploration of new mandates. Protecting the old borders of the discipline is useless; inventing new ones to regain relevance as visual creativity plus talent to communicate will be extremely important. Don't save art, spend it!


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