The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other…What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved…but the fact the world between them has lost its power to gather them together.
Hanna Arendt, The Human Condition 1
How to return to the world? If we see the world at large as a public realm that keeps society together—as Hanna Arendt asserted—but at the same time has lost its power to do so, the main challenge will be to find the common world again, and eventually return to it—particularly, if this era has drastically transformed social paradigms and mobilized society like never before.
When the subject for this second issue of the INSITE Journal was first suggested last year, there was an interest in how social beings responded to what Hanna Arendt defined since the late 1950s as initiative. That is, how speech and action empower our appearance in the world to constitute reality, at the same time that appearance is considered to be our existence in the public sphere—as seen and heard by others. Despite what both distant societies (late mid-twentieth century and our current era) could understand about the public realm, the reflection seemed all the more relevant. It would be useful to recognize that as social beings, our existence goes beyond sociability, and an innate condition to interact with other people. As social beings, we belong, in the first place, to the social realm—a political space of action. This means that interaction with others is not only defined by a semantic/physical exchange, but also by reciprocity and engagement, in which initiatives bring us closer to act collectively and reiteratively in the social realm, as social beings. In recent decades, we witnessed how global collective initiatives increasingly gained visibility through presence and speech. Most of these initiatives for social change took the form of massive protests, collective actions or civilian strikes, and involved large groups of people united by solidarity and trust—terms that today are all the more complex at a moment of disjointed truths, and the paradoxes of proximity and affection. Moreover, these initiatives magnified the power of interaction in the public domain, and thus influenced our sociological imagination to belong in the world, together as a multitude, in what we could still consider a “global” community.
In terms of art, which has always orbited around speech and action, there has also been an emergence of a different social art being, one who has a multidimensional body, corporeal and political, (un)gendered, multi-ethical and transhuman. In other words, a biological, technological and public social being who also acts and exists beyond interaction. This individual has rediscovered how bodily experiences empower affection, sensibility, and proximity, but above all, a new dimension of language. In this reappearance of the body, which is not performative (even when dramatized), but rather intimate and ordinary, there is a recognition of the human condition through minor gestures, motions, and gesticulations. This means that its power to insert itself in the public realm, and thus act as a social art being, is through mirroring the other, through emulation and echoing—a different kind of reciprocity where we see ourselves reflected in the world at large.
Remarkably, at the same time that we speak of proximity, multitude, and reciprocity, the current international crisis transforms the world, society, and the public realm in every possible way—and in many respects permanently. Temporary seclusion has transformed our family units into our public realms, while the world outside appears to us more cryptic and perplexing than ever before. While our initiatives are suspended, we have been reduced to a network of recycled language and two-dimensional bodies that struggle in between the private and the nonexistent virtual public sphere. And as much as we are aware that this seclusion will be short-lived, and the crisis most certainly overcome, there is a general sense that something has disappeared. To illustrate how the world has lost its power to gather society together, in the epigraph of her text, Hanna Arendt used the metaphor of a “spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst.” If the table is our public realm, and thus has vanished, indeed we do not only need to ask ourselves the questions about how to return to the world, but also, first, we need to find a common world. And perhaps this common world is no longer global, universal, and grandiloquent, but precisely more intimate, ordinary, and even domestic. Perhaps, the table might have disappeared, but as social beings with initiative, we are still capable of beginning the conversation about how to build another one.
In this issue, for the IN FOCUS section, curator Tobias Ostrander analyzes the work of artist Paul Ramírez Jonas, Mi Casa, Su Casa (inSite_05), from a “Derridean perspective,” in which the notion of hospitality functions as a basis to interweave symbols, ethics, and immigration. Also, art historian and critic Elvan Zabunyan discusses two works by artist Lorna Simpson: Call Waiting (INSITE97) and Duet/Dueto (inSITE2000) in relation to abstraction, language, and memory. The projects featured in the DOCUMENTS section are Car Park (INSITE94), a social experiment of collaborative activity by artists Steven Matheson, Nina Katchadourian, and Mark Tribe, and Cross the Razor (INSITE94), a work by artist Terry Allen that opened up an engaging interlocutory space at the site of the recently constructed US-Mexico border fence for strangers to communicate. For INSITE Papers we are republishing a revised version of a text by psychoanalyst and cultural critic Suely Rolnik, Life for Sale (Farsites catalogue, inSite_05), in which she addresses subjectivity in relation to human sensibility, power, and control. Finally, in ESSAYS, the art historian and critic Grant Kester analyzes the shift from “aesthetic autonomy” to “cognitive autonomy” through notions of tactical knowledge, critique, and praxial education; while the critical theorist and filmmaker Elizabeth Povinelli delves into notions of inheritance, colonialism, and belonging from both official and personal accounts.