Chantal PontbriandThe idea of Community Rather Than the Coimmunity to Come
Chantal Pontbriand, “The Contemporary, the Common. Art in a Globalizing World”, Sternberg Press 2013, p. 18-40
Present within contemporary art since the mid-‘80s: the subject of community touches all aspects of artistic practice. It manifests itself in various forms: the search for identity or the relationship to the other, methods of work or modalities of exhibition, taking reality into account or elaborating fictions. At the heart of the most influential practices are the ideas of community, self, and the world in which we live. This developement is brought about by a number of changes, in the values and lifestyles of our time, which are influenced by globalization, the resulting increase in cultural cross-fertilizations, and technological evolution.
Globalization, media saturation, population growth, the critical state of the natural enviorement – all these phenomena bring about important changes on the human and social level. Consequently, many arists today, at the beginning of a new millennium, are concerned with the relations between the individual and the community. The future will be played out in this conjuction. The media of the image (photography, film, video, eletronic images), as well as the networks that form its support, even its fabric, are privileged vehicles of new approaches. Does the critical attitude perceived within art allow us to glimpse a new world that is more apt at generating a new life, a new being- with? Is there new ethics already at work? What do the artitic practices have to say about it? More simply, perhaps: what do contemporary artistic practices tell us about the relation between the individual and the world?
These issues particularly concern the artists who push the idea of community in often unusual directions. Whether in museums, galleries, and institutions- or outside of tchem- numerous artists are currently engaging in the world through various practices that create links with other artists, friends or strangers, near or distant communities. The social and political boundaries of reality are explored and the aesthetics at stake are turned upside down in this laboratory of the present, an aesthetic of the “everyday”. Hybrid forms and means and heterogenous exhibition modes are taking over our daily environment- the internet among them- and characterize today’s approaches.
In the 1990s I paricularly identified community as being primeval idea within counless work of contemporary art. It all started with a research on a certain number of artists working in photography. Studying the works of Jeff Wall, Nan Goldin, Craigie Horsfield, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth, for example , I noticed a recurring interest in all sorts of communities- friends, family, communities formed at work. The range appeared to me vast and diversified: community linked to meeting people through the work on the city, carried out by Horsfield in Barcelona; communities of marginal people or friendships, as in Goldin; human communities and what’s at stake with tchem, as in Wall; and family as a community establishing emotional relations and intensity, as in Geneviève Cadieux. After that the list of artists grew longer, taking inti account those who use video, performance, or installation. Seeing that the one houndredth issue of PARACHUTE was going to coincide with the year 2000, I decided to investigate the notion of the common even more1.
In the correspondence with Jean- Luc Nancy, I followed his proposition to call the project “The idea of Community to Come”, a title that guided me initially. I agreed with the idea that that work on the common depended not so much on the seatch for utopia, such as it was to be pursued eventually by the Utopia Station during the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, than on questioning the idea of community itself.
How to differentiate those two ways of seeing things? Utopia refers to a world to come, a better world where an ideal socjety would be established, a society in which humans would finally live as happy and fulfilled beings in a community where individuality and collectivity would be reconciled ina blissful totality. The “community to come” reasembles that. The “idea of community” is a search for another order. First, rather that situating itself on the horizon, as a future, it is based on present times. The idea of community is based on the temporal and spatial continuum in which we live. Philosophers have taken up this question again since the early 1980s- beyond the interest shown earlier by Georges Bataille, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt- as seen in Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community , Jacques Derrida’s several texts on friendship, cosmopolitanism, and hospitality, Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, Roberto Esposito’s Communitas, Richard Rorty, and Jürgen Habermas, to cite but a few2. These developments coincided with those that took place in the arts and that question the idea of community. Unable to sum up the totality of those propositions here, I will refer to Nancy: ‘’ Still one cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen. There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other. Community is at last the clinamen of the ‘individual’3.
A balance between the individual, or his or her singularity, and the collective is at the heart of what is at stake “communally”. Therefore by focusing on the being- with one can better deal with the theme of community traversing many works today. Questioning identity and the relation to the other, methods of working and exhibiting, the approach to reality and the elaboration of fiction, forms of being-in-the- world: here is the expression of the idea of community, including its polisemy and its openings, and the priorities for a world whose points of reference and values are in a constant state of flux. Widespread cultural cross- fertilization and the increase of systems of exchange and information characterize our societes, which, today, are all developing (an expression that no longer characterizes only certain societies seen as marginal or undeveloped). Isi s therefore not surprising that Nancy wrote: ‘’Community therefire occupies a singular place: it assumes the impossibility of its own immanence, the impossibility of communitarian being in the form of a subject. In a certain sence, the community acknowledges and inscribes- this is its peculiar gesture- the impossibility of community. […] A community is the presentation to its members of their mortal truth (which amounts to saying there is no community of immortal beings). […] It is the presentation of the finitude and the irredeemable excess that make up finite being.”4
Today we need to think about something other than the commubity as tortality. The community is born, exists in its articulation from person to person, from being to being, in all that constitutes the living world. We need to think of what is (or could be) this community in the proces of becoming or to come. Art., in this sense, is a way of thinking that is inscribed within the community, between the singular and the plural, a way of sharing that proves to be a way of thinking. Nancy writes: “Community is given to us with being and as being, well in advance of all our projects, desires, and undertakings. At bottom, it is impossible for us to lose community. […] What is offered to us is that community is coming about, or rather, that something is happenig to us in common. Neither an origin nor an end: something in common. Only speech, a writing-shared, sharing us”5.
This approach of what the common is about helps us to make the link with contemporary art: a practice positioned ‘’between”- between the individual and the collective, between the self and the experience of the world, between the self and the other. This experience could be the experience of art today , an art positioned ‘’between”, an art that shows what is in common, an art sharing and inverting the world, infinite in a finite world. Art is an exemplary place for questioning the comminity or communities of the future. It is often situated on the very edge of reality, exploring its interstices, its margins and its limits. It is a transgressing tool that gives us access (in all humility, one must say, since it’s not at all a question of idealizing the role of art.) to what the philosophers call the open,the place, the place of the unknown and endless discoveries. Blanchot discussed Bataille’s concept of ‘’the community of those who don’t have a community”. Art today establishes itself as a community without a community. It is a place of a transition, a place of passage, a place for research and expression in a fluctuating world that offers more and more unknowns, at a time marked by the end, at times tortuous, of History, Religion, and the Nation-State. The three issues that PARACHUTE devoted to the idea of community gather artists from various worlds: Rosemarie Trockel, Shrin Neshat, Steve Reinke, Grennan & Sperandio, Guillaume Paris, Liam gillick, Zhuang Hui, Luo Yongjin, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Erik van Lieshout, Aernout Mik, Rineke Dijkstra, Valerie Jouve, Phillipe Parreno, Gillian Wearing, Jocelyn Robert, Jordan Crandall, etoy, filmmakers Lars von Trier and Bruno Dumont, and choreographers Alain Platel and Lynda Gaudreau, to name a few. All are concerned with articulating the being-with that Nancy discusses, in keeping with the opening that Agamben talks about- a preoccupation with maintaining a constant dialogue around the interrelation of the beings, while still making possible a certain individuality.
The Gift and the Gesture
Each artist questions in his or her own way the relations between the individual and the collective, and the role of art within this relation- it’s about seeing the “community of those who don’t have a community „ inwested by contemporary art. Some of the wwriters in issue 101, like Elisabeth Wetterwald, insist on the necessity to first explore the weight of things, the properties of existence itself, and to experience one’s territory. Exploring the art of falling, the contemporary artist is seen as the figure of the antihero, a sine qua non conditio to discover what Nancy considers to be the real representation and not the representation of the real- to experience through one’s body and the body of others the conditions of existence and what links one being to another.
In Natalie Delbard’s contribution to the issue, contemporary art retraces the outlines of the community within a made-to-measure community. The latter is aplace where singularities are shared, and in fact, where individual singularity is restored. This happens, a bit like in Watterwald, in exploring the energy that resides in everyday existence. Yvane Chapuis, in her piece on Tiravanija’s work, confers upon the artist the role of producing events that explote what is the ‘’common” within the artistic context. The artist is no longer at the center; art has meaning only in the presence of the others. Trockel’s work tackles the question metaphorically. In her work, sleep is a fiction that helps to understand and explore the psychic and real mechanisms of the encounter,and also of the gift.
The idea of community is closely linked to the notion of the gift, which, in t he current context, has to be addressed as soon as one questions the modalities of various emerging communities.The gift functions beyond current economic models. Contemporary art coincides with sociologist Jacques T. Godbout’s view concerning the importace of the homo donator versus the homo oeconomicus, which has dominated in recent centuries: “The gift is the emergence of something, a talent, anything at all. The gift is a birth. The gift is what appears and was not forseen in any act, any law, not even that of the gift itself. It is all that is paradoxical in disinterestedness. Isi s the grace that manifests itself at something extra”6. The gift is the essence of common- the being-in-common. Devora Neumark, Mathieu Beauséjour, and Sylvie Cotton all explore the gesture of giving in their respective work, which Patrice Laubier comments on his contribution. Often, giving leads to the discovery of its incongrous or even unknown nature, its unpredicable and disturbing aspect. The gift resembles art in that it makes what is unknown appear in everyday life. Gesture, which photography can capture in detail (mentioned by Delbard and Dominic Pettman in their contributions) reveals the singularity of the individual in the community. The micro- gesture, captured- exposed-in the photographic act, transmits the energy of ordinary life, which is offered to be shared without a prescribed direction or meaning within this relationship with the other. Gesture proceeds from the profound individuality of each and everyone. It carries the individuality into the world and consists, at all times, in new modalities of community. In this sense, the gesture represents a political act. On this subject, Marie Fraser’s contribution evokes Hannah Arendt on the common and the otherness that developes from intoducing individual values into the public sphere. The potential of the individual and the world is expressed through the gesture that signals the political act. It is also what Mik’s work (discussed in Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher’s contribution), based on paradoxically placing the individual in the collective, presents in a way both puzzling and convincing.
Gesture has the capacity to express the world’s potentiality through individuality, as Agamben also demonstartes in the Coming Community. Agamben thus describes the “Whatever”:
The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but also in its being as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal. […] Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility. […] The being that is engendered on this line [the passage from potentiality to act] is whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage- or rather,ethos7.
Gesture exposes the whatever singularity, as it is, without referring to a predefined community, but rather expressing what relates to ineffability in a human being- what characterizes it, what constitutes its freedom and its ethos.
Jose Luis Brea, in his contribution, explores the implications of online communities. He addresses the Internet as a territory of presence and participation where communities are constituad without being communities- a forum where communities are improssible because they exist only in time and not in space. These communities activate a micropolitics: they allow for a concert of individual voices to rise and for actions to materialize outside of existing social, political,and cultural systems. For Brea, online communities resist art as an institution: they function from individual to individual and exists solely in and by sharing. Here too, made-to-measure communities emerge from the meeting of individuals, of ordinary singularities.
In this context, Michael Hirsch (whose essay closes issue 101) readdressea the question of the relations between art and politics. The political dimensionof art or, even mores o, the politicization of art, could be the approach today to what troubles the community and causes it to be questioned. What exactly is the dabete? Hirsch questions the appropriation of the real that seems to characterize what some call ‘’relational” art, as if one could already simply classify new approaches in contemporary art. despite their complexity and diversity. He forces us (the public and specialized critics) to take into account the fictive or contingent character of this reality. The meaning of the political domain is not the meaning itself, we are told, but is in fact plural and heterogenous. A community is always a community of strangers, of individual beings, a community without a community. It is expressed in sharing a common space. Contemporary art reveals this common space, as real as it is transitory, and offers it to be shared. In this sense, as the author tells us, contemporary art allows us to be Zeitgenossen, comapnions in our times. That is what we propose with the three PARACHUTE issues on the idea of community: to accompany our contemporaneity via art and cosider not to representation of the real but the real of representation, in the pertinent words of Nancy.
The Form and the Line
One of the solitary figures found in Dijkstra’s photographs appears on the cover of the third issue in the series. The body’s sinuous line represents what is unique about it and underlines the person’s individuality. In other photographs, other bodies present themselves similarly, all against the background of the sea. These photographs, when they appeared a few years ago , were striking in their understanding of today’s world, as they revealed the vulnerability and strength of singular body within a community of bodies. As Thérèse St-Gelais comments in her essay on Dijkstra, these bodies are nomadic and transitory. They are adolescents’ bodies, in transit, in movement. Their world is a community in transformation, a world that expresses itself in its becoming and that of each individual within it. The photographs give us the bodies to share, exhibiting their potential and actualizing it in the interaction between the images and each and every spectator.
The concepts of vulnerability and strength traverse the idea of community and the works of the artists already mentioned. For example, Wearing’s staged photography and video work explore the vulnerability of the concept of the identity, as shown in Michael Newman’s contribution . This work fits within a problematic that oscillates between demos and idiom- what is common and what is particular in each of us, what unites us and what isolates us. These preoccupations are also found in the pessimistic work of von Trier: obsessed with a community that seems to be one of loss and desolation, he show sus helpless beings at , at times idiots, at times not. He shows the weavering of the beings, their resistance to homogenization, which often passes as a kind of alienation. They are faced with an enviorement, a “community”, that often remains impermeable and insensitive to the suffering of the alienated, the other. The characters, explains Jerry White in his contribution, end up in a “community of emotions”, in sharing an empathy, rather than in the rationality of the political, economic, or social world as it present itself today. It would certainly be the option of Alain Platel, whose theater and dance pieces feature professionals and nonprofessionals to show that behind human misery is life and singularity. This is precisely what Guy Cools demonstrates when he evokes the notion of moiroloi, a Greek musical rite aimed at exorcising suffering through collective catharsis. With Platel, individual suffering becomes the place for rich and complex interactions, filled with imagination and creativity.
Also in issue 102, Patricia van Ulzen explains that the half –utopian, half- concrete work (with one finger on the pulse of reality) of Atelier Van Lieshout comes from an admittance of the fear that inhabits our contemporaries, an invasive and primitive fear. The ‘’functional” objects and installations offered by Van Lieshout allow us yo explore our mental quirkiness; they are offered as shelters, while unleashing an analitical proces that favors appeasement. Parreno suggests that we become as Wetterwald notes, “active lookers”. He stages various strategies of exhibition and participation that aim of making all of us rediscover our possibilities. The strategies fuel processes that infiltrate social time and breaking the impermability of reality. In this contribution, Bertrand Couguet discusses the work of etoy, a group of artists active on the internet who develope strategies adapted on this new reality. The group addresses channels of information in an attempt to free the imaginary from the influence of the media and corporations through “shared individual action”.
Finally choreographer Gaudreau and multimedia artist Robert discuss with me how their new approach to work has influenced their realtionship to the public, performers, and the various media that transmit the work into new directions and models. For them, it is also a matter of exploring new ideas expressed into the freedom to watch, choose, direct- what Gaudreau calls “the construction of the self through others”.
During the conversation, Robert evokes the question simultaneous translation and the obligation, when people with different linguistic backgrounds meet, to popen up to the other in order to understand them. Linguist Antoine Berman talks about ‘’the experience of the foreign”8. For him , it is out of the question to deny the strangeness in the phenomenon of translation or to negate or erase the quality of unfamiliarity of the other. He sees it as a question of ethics.
The figure of the stranger appears ina a number of essays in issue 102. “Let us not seek to solidify,to turn the otherness of the foreigner into a thing. Let us merely touch it, brush it, without giving it a permanent structure”9, Julia Kristeva convicingly writes in Strangers to Ourselves. To touch that figure, to show the multiple forms it can take, to extirpate its creative potential,- that’s what drives numerous artists today. The paradigm of the stranger is very strong in a world in a state of transition, Marked by nomadism and grappling with constant sociological, ethical, biotechnical, environmental, and political shifting. The stranger is the figure not of the consensus or the common, but of the individual and the self in the world. Revealing its strangeness and freeing its potential is the task awaiting us in our community without a community.
The figure of the stranger concludes the series of three editorials I wrote on the idea of community. For some, it may seem paradoxical, since it pounts to isolation, but it is nevertheless one of the most important elements of contemporaneity. Being a stranger and feeling like a stranger- this condition touches an increasing number of individuals. High numbers of immigration in Western metropolises, for instance, lead to more cultural diversity, on top of securing inevitable transformations in the way we are together. Culture ends up in constant state of flux, fed by voices of diverse origins, which doesn’t prevent the local from being where these changes occur and evolve.
In the field of art, formal means refer to , if not embody, that new element. To interpret the art of the Italian Renaissance- Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1482), for example – Aby Warburg used the concept of Pathosformel (pathos formula), seeing an image in the line and form, a figure of present times. Dijkstra, whose adolescent beachgoer ended up on the cover of issue 102, is emblematic of a Pathosformel of our contemporaneity. In front of the sea, alone, she looks atu s, a stare that projects a combination of freshness, authenticity, and melancholy. The emptiness and immensity around her fragile silhouette demands: where are we (alone or all together) going? The question is fundamental still today.
1 See the statement of the magazine’s new programmatic axis in my editorial of PARACHUTE, no. 100 (October- December 2000)
2 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press 1991) Blanchot, The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988); Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London Verso, 1997); Giorgio Agamben , The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1993); Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community, trans. Timothy Campbell (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989).
3 Nancy, The Inoperative Community,3. This text appeared initially as a series of articles In 1983, and was published In book form as La communaute desoeuvree in 1986. An interview I conducted with Nancy, Found on pages 41-59 od this publication, was subsequently reproduced in various magazines and catalogues
4Nancy, The Inoperative Community, 15.
5Nancy, The Inoperative Community, 35, 69.
6Jacques T. Godbout in collaboration with Alain Caillé, The World of The Gift, trans. Donald Winkler (Montreal: McGIll-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 219.
7 Agamben, The Coming Community, 1, 2, 20.
8Anteine Berman, The Experience of The Foreign: Coulture and Translation in Romantic Germany, trans. S.Heyvaert ( Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).
9 Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 3.