Tag Archives: Global South

Missionaries – the end of after

We had the last of the After the Missionaries discussions last night. The conversation first started at the beginning of a dark and stormy winter. It ended in what has proven to be Melbourne’s warmest winter on record. It seemed a fitting context for a discussion about art and the Kyoto Protocol at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.

The discussion was premised on the operation of the Kyoto Protocol as a means to address climate change through a global consensus, requiring agreement between the two halves of the world. Many of the artists discussed in After the Missionaries explored new paths that connect the global North and South.

The process of writers speaking to their articles proved quite fruitful. The four local writers were able to provide new layers to the articles they originally published in Artlink. In a way, it provided an immediate demonstration of value-adding.

Neil Fettling reflected on the dilemma of the Archibald Prize for David Griggs – how, if he had won, he would have to deal with the issue of co-authorship with the Philippine billboard artist Rene Oserin. Helen Vivian explored in more detail the way Jonathan Kimberley’s canvases engaged with Jim Everitt’s words. Kelly Fliedner spoke more broadly about how artists react defensively to writing which places their work in an ethical context. And Emily Potter reflected on the dilemma of symbolic acts at a time when immediate direct action seems called for.

A common theme was the technique of palimpsest. The layering of images provided a means of combining two very different points of view without assuming they could be merged into a single position.

The intense discussion that followed focused on the subject of global art involving traditional artisans. A position began to evolve that collaborations were possible as long as their was open negotiation between both commissioning artist and artisan. But the example of ‘sex tourism’, when it could be claimed that there is free negotiation between the Western client and a young local prostitute, prompted a need to consider the parameters of negotiation more closely. There was also a question about why this commissioning must always come from the rich countries. There were relatively few examples when artists or artisans from poor countries had initiated collaboration.

There was broad consensus that art had an important role to play in bridging the global divide and reflecting critically on the ways we inhabit the world. There seemed a feeling that there was still important work to do in responding critically to the new forms of global art that are beginning to emerge.

But alongside all that, there was a recognition that there would always be something about art that could not fit neatly into ethical or utilitarian frames. This very freedom of art helps propose new possibilities and alternative ways of seeing. How do we sustain the creative freedom of art while seeking ways of making a better world?

As we dispersed into the night, this seemed a particularly verdant question with which to greet the coming spring.

Art and artisans: the debate we had to have

I’ve recently taken up an honorary position as Adjunct Professor at RMIT University in the School of Art. On Wednesday night, I was asked to give a keynote in that capacity at a symposium entitled ‘Art & Globalization: Urban Futures and Aesthetic Relations’, organised in association with the Global Cities Research Institute. The lecture came at the end of a fascinating day—the breadth of papers showing the advantage of the college system at RMIT which enables dialogue between fields such as visual arts, architecture and landscape design. My paper followed a number that  reviewed the field of public art in response to growing democratisation. The very animated discussion at the end was particularly significant, and deserves reflection here.

My paper presented many of the cases featured in Craft Unbound within the context of visual arts. While product development is usually seen as a combination of craft and design, it is increasingly found now in symbolic spaces such as an art galleries.

In modernism, the boundaries that separate art from life are continually tested—from Duchamp’s readymade to more recent relational art that turns an art gallery into a restaurant. In recent times, such boundaries have been seen as increasingly political, particularly the divide between Global South and North that underpins the economic basis of the art world.

When we view such work, we not only judge it according to how it pleases us, but also the meaning it seems to have for those involved. Such work can forge new relationships that test our preconceptions about the possible relationships between North and South.

Danius Kesminas’ Punkasila project, for example, provides an alternative to the conventional path of Western artist who seeks to honour pre-modern traditions. Something as foreign as punk music may be seen to engage local Indonesians in a high-spirited collaboration. Whether we approve of that, or not, it gives us an alternative path to consider. Art gives us this space to experiment.

Some of the discussion that followed the paper expressed scepticism that an Australian artist working with a traditional artisan could ever be in the interests of both. An alternative strategy was raised in the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who exposes power relations through spectacles of humiliation where, for instance, he pays workers to move a heavy rock between A and B without reason. For some, such work is seen as more honest about the power relations—it calls a spade a spade.

This debate was important. It was a rare opportunity to air this scepticism in a public forum. My response was that we need to question our tendency to assume that art which involves the Global South must exclusively be a matter of revealing injustice. This is certainly not to deny that such injustice exists, but to allow for a point of view from the other side that does not want to play the role of victim. This is to assume that an artisan, or artist, might want the opportunity to create new works, get to know a foreigner and earn some money. This reflects the new confident voices from the Global South emerging around the Kyoto Protocol.

So how can we be sure that such collaborations have meaning for both parties? What stops such collaborations being used to gloss over real inequities? In the case of coffee, we have the Fair Trade label to give us confidence that our purchase does good. It would seem very important now to engage in research that found meaningful ways of reflecting the points of view of all involved. This is what’s currently in development with the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations.

The discussion revealed the very important role that an institution like RMIT can play as an academic forum in which to critically discuss trends emerging in cultural production. I am grateful to the audience who raised these issues, and hope we can find ways to inform this dialogue in the future.

As they say in Laos, ‘If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed’.