Michael Haerdter


Post-modern Nomadism


"In the beginning was the Word" - with this sentence Saint John opens his vision of the origin of the world.

The Word: in the greek translation of the gospel o logos should be understood in the idea's ancient sense of "mythos". In the beginning: the myth.

I will give you here a few observations and reflections on contemporary artmaking and the rise of residential arts centres for our ongoing discussions. I will speak about some aspects of the obvious changes in our present world and times.

We all are the actors and victims of those mutations. That's why I mentioned mythos or myth: I believe that we are all inhabitants of mythology. Or of our legends. Australia's aboriginal people call it their 'songs' connecting them with the walkabouts of their nomadic ancestors.

Or call it our illusions if you better like it. According to the historian Egon Friedell all present times are "an optical illusion".

Anyway, our 'mythological' constitution allows us to speak of the present of the past.

One of our legends, songs or illusions is that famous 'myth of the centre'. Yet, however dominant it still seems to be, we are becoming aware that it is rapidly eroding and that qualities previously called peripheral are, bit by bit, gaining importance. In the cultural field this becomes evident in identity problems and in continuing mutations of central or mainstream institutions - such as museums or official theatres - and by the rise and proliferation of alternative cultural forms and expressions such as non-institutional artistic creation, independent galleries, off-theatres, ad hoc cultural projects, multicultural institutes and, perhaps most importantly, artists residencies.

Back to our changing human condition. A word that recently struck my imagination is that of "hyphenated identities". Hyphenated: meaning that human existence has fallen between two (or several) stools. That, at the end of the millenium, many people are transitional beings, or, in a more positive reading, that their existence is being defined by more than one identity or culture their personalities are the crossing points or bridgeheads of. But: doesn't that apply to all of us?

Our entire 20th century might be seen as a 'hyphenated' period whose dramatic turning points and murderous climaxes reveal the dying of a bygone world and the pains of another world to be born. We might speak of this transitional period as creative borderlands. We are still living innumerable endgames - we owe the myth of to Sam Beckett - cleaning the stage for new dramas.

Indeed, we are witnesses of extraordinary changes. They have been labeled as the shifting of paradigms or as the rise of a new canon. Gradual changes, however, and to become aware of them our perception has to be sharpened and focused.

One of the names ongoing mutations have been given is globalism. Obviously, worldwide economic interchange and cooperation; rapidly growing communication of people by intercity rails, road and intercontinental flights, of information by telefax, internet and digital TV have made McLuhan's vision come true. Yet, the "global village" means mental changes in the first place.

Regarding art and art criticism, let me quote the american art critic Thomas McEvilley: "... the globalism of the 90's (he says) is based on the recognition that art history as hitherto promulgated no longer coincides with the world we live in. To correct the fit, a fundamental shift in western modes of cognition seems to be called for. ... Western culture ... was to be the universal Self: non-western culture was to be entirely Other". We have to learn, McEvilley is claiming, to perceive our own culture as we perceive other cultures, from outside. "The point of this exercise is the relativization of any one culture, the perception that it is not an absolute but just one approach among many to the shared human project of civilization". ("Art & Otherness - Crisis in Cultural Identity", New York 1992).

We are living the gradual erosion of so-called universal standards - be it religious beliefs, philosophical convictions or nationalisms. Fundamentalist movements in their defense around the world aren't but rearguard actions, most obviously. Power politics is one of their agents, but there are powerful emotions behind it as well: the 'angst' of losing existential certainties, horror vacui in face of an unknown future...

'Mythologising' beings that we are, we are strongly influenced and guided by our past, our imaginations and fictions, at the expense of our awareness of facts.

The facts in our steadily globalizing world seem to be the rapid increase in chaos and general derangement, indicating a profound crisis of the ideas of order, unity and limitation that have prevailed for a long time and whose legend we somehow are still addicted to. Linear systems of our sciences are slowly giving way to what has been labelled as 'chaos theory'; the alledgedly clear and calculable image of the world is fading; national integrity or coherence reveals itself more and more as an illusion if you think of the multiethnic realities of metropolitan areas even within the Fortress Europe, letting alone such multicultural agglomerations as New York, Sydney or Jerusalem (every fifth inhabitant of London is a non-white person); patriarchal rationalism is gradually eroding...

As early as 1927 Vassily Kandinsky has published an article with the simple title of "und" - "and". The artist explains that - while the 19th century had been dominated by the "either-or" - the 20th century shall work and elaborate the "and". Now, as Kandinsky predicted, we are gradually leaving behind the realm of the either-or - of opposed ideologies, of the dual order of the world, of a world clearly divided (to go back to that frequently evoked term we already mentioned) into centre and periphery or centres and peripheries.

The realm of the "and" is a world marked by openness and difference. Its prevailing code words are the global and the multiple, uncertainty, the experiment of exchange, of the included third, of synthesis and ambivalence. We are becoming aware of the diversity of cultures, of centres, of truths, of the relativity of values and value judgements.

The philosopher Wolfgang Welsch introduced the term "transculturality" to designate the constitution and impact of cultures today. Our traditional concept of separate cultures, as developed by Johann Gottfried Herder in the late 18th century, based on ethnical homogeneity and national singularity, has become untenable. Though our wishful thinking is still attached to that concept of single cultures (despite the fact that it may have been fictional from the start), it has - Wolfgang Welsch explains - become wrong "be it through the cultures' inner complexity or external networking". In fact, "cultures today are in general characterized by hybridization" and " we are cultural hybrids". (Wolfgang Welsch, "Transculturality - The Form of Cultures Today"). 

The future world of Kandinsky's "and" is inhabited by wanderers between cultures, by transcultural migrants, by post-modern nomads.

You may object that this has always been the case and point out to the historical figures of the explorer, discoverer, conqueror, colonist; to the fact that the striving for ethnical, national, cultural unity - as so many other catastrophes - has for an eternity and until the present day caused the tragedy of forced migration in which millions and millions of people become displaced persons. You may point out to the 19th century urban 'flaneur' and the fact that artists always migrated, scandinavian artists to Germany and France, german artists to Italy etc. You may remind us of the fact, that other cultures have always been perceived more clearly by outsiders and that we owe much of the world's cultural heritage, its maintenance and recognition, to travelers, collectors, missionaries, even colonists...

On an existential level we are, of course, all homines viatores travelling toward death.

Yes, you are right. But I would go down into history much further. "Settledness", states Hans Magnus Enzensberger, "does not belong to the geneticly rooted qualities of mankind... Our primary existence is that of hunters, collectors and shepherds". ("Die Große Wanderung").

There are 100 000 years - very roughly speaking - since homo sapiens began his 'great migration' (possibly starting in Africa) to explore the Earth as opposed to the roughly 10 000 years of settled life as farmer and cattle-breeder: one is tempted to believe that the age-old genetic memory of our erstwhile nomadic existence is responsible for a new powerful paradigm, for a fundamental shift in the world machinery. (On that subject Vilém Flusser, born in Prague in 1920 of german-jewish origin, a forced migrant himself, has given us some brilliantly intelligent essays). The nomadic writer on nomadism, Bruce Chatwin, believed that "nomads had been the crankhandle of history... if for no other reason than that the great monotheisms had, all of them, surfaced from the pastoral milieu..." ("The Songlines").

The french author Michel Tournier considers Robinson Crusoe to be "our great modern myth". Remarkably enough, in his rewriting the story of Robinson he chooses Friday, the good savage, as its central figure: guide and midwife in the birth of a new human being. Friday represents the Third World. "He is the man from Africa, India, Latin America, who comes to us knocking at our door". Different to his British predecessor and model, Tournier's Robinson does not return home. He stays on his Pacific island whose inhabitants transform it into a cité solaire...

There are, indeed, a good number of other renowned witnesses of those ongoing mutations.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his deconstructing the notion of the 'centre'.

The feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, born in Italy, raised in Australia, trained in Paris, working in Holland, whose definition of nomadic consciousness implies the denial to understand whatever identity as permanent.

Trin T. Minh-ha, filmmaker, essayist and musician, born in Vietnam, raised in the USA, trained in Paris, the Philippines, America, working in Africa, teaching in Berkeley - an exemplary transcultural woman's life.

There are, of course, many, many others, inheritors of an age-old tradition.

Leaving the global panorama, may I invite you now to a brief close-up of the post-modern situation in the arts. (Note that my focus here is on the visual arts).

The door of the western world had been kept closed for a long period of time, not least in the arts. Indeed, artistic modernism and particularly the deceptively so-called modernist internationalism has been a closed shop for quite some time. The opening of the gate is a post-modern phenomenon. Yet, the shifting of the canon has been apparent from early on. I am speaking of the alternative tradition of modernism, its critical and sceptical branch referring to Marcel Duchamp and including the revaluation of all values by the futurism of the early part of the century; the unity of life and art - the visions of De Stijl and DADA, followed by Fluxus, Performance Art and Happening, by arte povera, conceptual and situationist art, and by the space-oriented art of installations. It is within this tradition and its many aspects that the artist and hence the artwork have adopted a different identity.

Hermit or social worker? was the question posed by a Hamburg Art Association exhibition some years ago. The parochial district of solitary artists striving for transcendental purity has been deserted: post-modern artists have left their lonely studios and returned to the market places of the world. In this material sphere of the here and now, many have rediscovered the conditioning influence of social and political factors, of human interrelation and interaction on the making of art. Instead of creating eternal values on their way to the museum, post-modern art-making is an art of communicating ideas and emotions, often by provocative concepts or irritating objects and installations. For the time being, the formalist master perfecting his style in a lifetime is an exhausted model. The new one is the artist capable of formally mastering an existential message or situation at any moment of his or her life. That is why art today has mainly an interventionist and temporary character and why, indeed, it can happen anywhere. The studio of the post-modern artist is the world.

Migrating artists belong with the many transcultural messengers of a world whose keywords are nomadism and globalism. Thus it is natural that the codes of mobility and temporariness are responsible for the creation - beyond former central or mainstream institutions - of their own cultural instruments. The post-modern invention and worldwide spreading of residential arts centres is just such a secular instrument. It corresponds to the need of artists and intellectuals to experience the world and its many environments and cultures, to realize in situ research and projects, to be temporarily part of creative communities and to profit from the opportunity they offer for exchanging ideas and know-how. The networking of centres across national and cultural barriers is part of the post-modern game, facilitating, not least, the crossing of borders between art and technology. Yet there is another important function of residential arts centres: artists' nomadism is most naturally a concerted action of moving and settling in order to discover and to create, in order to renew one's awareness and one's formal responses. "The nomad", Gilles Deleuze states, "is not necessarily someone who moves: there are travels in which one does not move, travels in intensity, ... nomads (are) those who start nomadizing in order to stay in the same place and free themselves from codes".