In the text The Conditions of Contemporary Art (2013)Alan Badiou proposes that “contemporary art” be defined by its divergences from “modern art” and that we should ask ourselves if that divergence involves a substantive difference in regards to the idea of art itself, as well as to its strategies of constitution and appearance. In his conclusion, he affirms that “… contemporary art is going to combat the very notion of the work (…) Deep down, contemporary art is a critique of art itself, an artistic critique of art. And, that artistic critique of art, above all, critiques the finite notion of the work.” This divergence between “contemporary art” and “modern art” involves an essential transformation since both the place occupied by the “artwork” in the sociopolitical fabric, as well as the very definition of the “work of art” are modified.
The proposal of modern art is based on an idea of art dominated by epistemological and/or expressive paradigms in which the “work” materializes a free exercise of subjectivity that “opens the world” by operating critically. To the contrary, the proposal of contemporary art is based on an idea of art dominated by political and/or relational paradigms, in which the “critical function” is materialized by the incorporation of the “work” in a specific situation, producing distinctions, reaccommodations, and reconfigurations of the given that generate divergent narratives and tangential mechanisms of intervention. This modification has to do with large cultural changes and concerns that mark the contemporary world: technological advances (photography, film, information networks), the shortcomings afflicting civilizational models, cultural diversity, and the emergence of the question of what it means to be human.
...in contemporary art, the work is the "event" defined by the fissures that it can generate in cultural sectors and discourses...
While in modern art, the work is an autonomous “object,” defined by its formal and expressive qualities, in contemporary art, the work is an “event” defined by the fissures that it can generate in cultural sectors and discourses. This mutation is the result of the fact that contemporary art attempts to strengthen its inscription in the systems and discourses that constitute reality, and it does so in two senses: overcoming the problems that originate from the modern conception of art (especially that of “autonomy” on which it is founded), and, on the other hand, contributing symbolically through the establishment of “the common,” spaces of public participation based on compearance and not identity.
It would seem that this world of images, discourses, and networks, with its incessant changes, has given rise to a scene for artistic artifacts to operate as a web of arrangements and potentialities embedded in the public sphere—in the space of “the common”—thanks to the fact that the contexts acquire “other” meanings. It is this relational condition that makes performance and installations characteristic “works” of the contemporary period: temporary “works of art” that, based on the interconnection of multiple elements, act as “bodies” of questions and links. We are witnessing a reconfiguration of what artistic elaborations are—and propose to be—that seeks to strengthen the critical role and “opening to the world” of the artistic in the social body, in the cultural fabric, which it has had since modernity. In such a way that divergences occur so that “works” can continue being necessary in the cultural order, their transformation affirms an essentiality. One could understand this transformation as a “process of resilience” that enables artistic practice—while saying and doing sensibility—to form a reflexive and critical substrate for the processes of signification. Furthermore, one could venture that perhaps something similar happened with the appearance of “modern art” that reconfigured its own conception and aspirations to find its niche in the new perceptive and epistemological orders that emerged starting with the Industrial Revolution.
These processes of resilience take as their theme that capacity that people, societies, and cultures have for overcoming adverse situations, transforming them so that inconveniences not only strengthen them, but also allow them to recuperate their desires, dreams, and achievements. Namely, they allow them to “experience the wounds” turning them into “spaces of signification” without obliterating or denying them. They function to understand human plasticity without the need for reducing it to “ideological” processes— referring to ideal concepts or schematics—but rather understanding it as “ecological” processes alluding to organisms, bodies, and materialities, that gives an account of experiences.
Given the multiple and radical political, social, environmental, and technological changes that have altered the cultural and existential landscape of the present, processes of resilience are being addressed by diverse disciplines and fields of human activity. The majority of the approaches to resilience that are carried out by the arts are of a “therapeutic” nature, that is, they signal the capacity of artworks to name and represent individual or social wounds and traumas, enabling reflection about them. However, as I tried to show, these processes can be discovered within the space of artistic practice, recognizing them as mechanisms and strategies of constant reconstruction and restoration, of “re-creation.”
The "event" that is each work is established as a community that is always making itself...
However, it is valid to ask why this type of link between art and processes of resilience is being made, a connection that could seem arbitrary and forced. It is a relevant connection given that this political “vocation” of contemporary art that motivates it to effectively incorporate itself in the fabric of the world is the result of the fact that modern art, in its search for autonomy, radically separated itself from everyday spaces, from “the world of life.” Recognizing that wound—that of an art that is established as a “separate and autonomous sphere”—in the contemporary scene, artworks have taken up “the political” as an exercise from which to “imagine” and “experiment” with the “being-with,” the “being-among-others,” a type of human articulation that does not require a “common identity” or a “universalization of oneself.” This is the relational character of the works of contemporary art—their critical quality—because “experimenting” with “being-among-others” involves establishing multiple systems of connection with different discourses and artifacts, with diverse acts and ideas, in such a way that the “work” is embodied as a reconfiguration of those diverse elements. It needs the art history that it alludes to and is in dialogue with, and also the sociopolitical contexts in which it is exhibited and to which it refers, it requires cultural memory and interpretation, it demands that spectators be “participants” and authors. The “event” that is each work is established as a community that is always making itself, a community without univocal and homogenizing projects, following Jean-Luc Nancy we could say “a completely exposed, expropriated community, without substance, which is precisely its ‘existence,’ its constant action of being.” Based on the formal and expressive autonomy of modern art, contemporary art proposes itself as a “heteronomous” artifact, dependent on its contexts and participants, as an “enunciative event” that understands multiple discourses and recalls its own history.
I said that contemporary art is postulated as an “enunciative event,” a critical-theoretical body that is inscribed in specific situations leaving an incision that transforms that in which it occurs, that informs its displacing prior and/or authorized meanings. An enunciative event is a “language act” whose realization is defined by the system of links and connections that it manages to establish with other spaces of reality, with other images and discourses. The works of contemporary art are enunciative events that desire to “wound” and fissure the contexts in which they are inscribed, affecting them and being affected by them.
On the other hand, every enunciative event is a call to communication, it asks the other to open a space of interconnection and therefore functions as a model of a community that far from being a “social or ethnic or cultural institution” is simply the encounter and practice of “the common.” An “inoperative” community as Jean-Luc Nancy proposes, which gives rise to an “among-all,” and that for that very reason is increasingly, in every situation, an opening toward the Other, and is also a place where it is not possible to reconstruct the experience unless it is accompanied by the need to share it.
If we think, for example, about performance or installation, we understand that their force is inscribed in the fact that both proposed as something that should be “experienced” to be able to be understood, something essentially unfinished, which requires each participant or spectator in order for it to exist. It is elaborated, in the manner of a collage, based on fragments that come from diverse situations and contexts, thus building a work that is a “place”—a scene—for experiencing situations based on perspectives and realities that are different from one’s own. Both artistic forms involve, in each case, the creation of space for “the common,” the “among-all,” not as an exercise of identification (in which the spectators contemplate and make interpretations based on their own needs), but rather as a learning process in which the gaze of the Other encounters one’s own: an interconnection. Unlike modern art, the contemporary work does not display itself as an “object” that is enclosed in its immanence and possessions, but rather an “object” that is completed in its placement and the experience that is made of it, an event that is exceeded, that goes beyond itself. Therefore, it gives rise to an “overflowing” of meanings that are the product of the common space that it shares with all and from the circumstantial activity in which it is updated.
In this sense, contemporary art is resilient not only in regards to modern art and the modern world, with respect to its history that it openly references and thematizes, but also in relation to the reality that it seeks to influence, due to the fact that its political “vocation” is not the fulfillment of a regulatory idea or belonging, but rather the possibility of experimenting with an unforeseen opening to “the common.” These “enunciative events” make it possible to participate in a critical experience that not only understands the shadows of different areas of culture, but also recognizes the possibility of a different idea of “community,” without exclusions, that is always making itself and that is realized in and as the very desire to participate in it.