Internationalism: Imagined Communities
MATT PACKER CONSIDERS THE DISTRIBUTIVE POWERS OF ART WORLD COMMUNICATION.
In his landmark and often-cited book, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson describes the links between the development of the printing press and the birth of public national consciousness. He describes how the facility of printing text in vernacular languages became instrumental in identifying, conceptualising and shaping an audience of readers. The strategies of producing and distributing books and newspapers from the 16th century onward became a way of qualifying the reach and bounds of that language-community, in the logical evolution towards a self-conscious form of nationalism that would find its full expressions years later. Anderson describes the ceremony of the reader being aware that their reading is “replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he [sic] has the slightest notion”.1 He goes on to suggest that this kind of readership became a model of community itself.
In our own time, the development of the internet as a space of shared discourse has done something similar to shape the imaginary locus of a transnational community. Extending Anderson’s logic to the specific context of the ‘art world’, it is easy to understand how art’s increasingly-online and monoglot communication media has accelerated the possibility of thinking about the art world as a world, with a reinforced sense of global plurality and synchronicity of artistic practices and discourses wherever they seem to be occurring (provided that it’s communicable in English, typically). As Alix Rule and David Levine have noted for the writers, commentators and PR people that input into this system, “the distributive capacities of the internet now allows them to believe – or to hope – that their writing will reach an international audience”, despite the full awareness that English is not the primary language in most countries, nor is there anything globally universal about internet access.2
At the receiving end of these communications – whether it’s a critical appraisal of a new biennial in Turku, or the promotion of a seminar series in Skopje – this saturation of international art communication rarely corresponds to the possibility of our attendance or direct participation, regardless of where we’re based or the opportunities at our disposal. A lot of what is trafficked through our inboxes and social media feeds can often feel designed to adhere to recognitions of value, relevance and discourse that is both suggestively within our own interests, and yet calculated beyond our reach.
It is difficult to measure the impact that e-flux has had in shaping these conditions and worldly self-perceptions, since it was established by Anton Vidokle in a Holiday Inn in New York’s Chinatown in 1998. Describing itself as “a publishing platform and archive, artist project, curatorial platform, and enterprise” its outputs include a news digest, events, exhibitions, schools, journal and books, with a mission to produce and disseminate “strains of critical discourse surrounding contemporary art, culture, and theory internationally”.3 It is best known for its email announcements that arrive three times a day, each of which are paid-for by selected public arts institutions and larger-scale arts initiatives, whose exhibitions and projects are promoted to over 90,000 subscribers across the world.4
The significance of e-flux goes further, if we consider that many colleges encourage undergraduate students to subscribe to e-flux, to help build professional awareness, while the announcements themselves have become a communication culture of their own – somewhere between a press release, a reputational bulwark, and a proto-generator of artistic discourse itself. It was enough to warrant the publication of The Best Surprise is No Surprise in 2006, a printed selection of previous email announcements, selected by curators, writers and artists including Nancy Spector, Molly Nesbit and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Daniel Birnbaum’s essay for the book describes the ‘e-flux effect’ as a mixture of enchantment, curiosity and hope that now feels dated with the political ethics of peak neo-liberalism: “Since many of these things seem to take place in distant locations where I have never set foot … those punctuations, which seem to hint at new possibilities for art (at least in my fantasy), make me curious and full of hope: strange and radically new things are going on out there in the world”.5
Here in Ireland, there is a general sense that the distributive powers of art world communication are located elsewhere. There are only a few visual arts organisations based in Ireland that have the capacity to circulate their work internationally, whether promotionally or otherwise. There are no art magazines or journals (print or online), blogs, listserv, information portals, or specialist communication agencies based in Ireland that have comprehensive international distribution and reach. The print edition of CIRCA Art Magazine – still cited and memorialised as an important discursive vehicle for contemporary art in Ireland – during its highpoint in 2005, had only 52 international subscribers beyond Ireland and the UK, taking into account both individual and institutional subscriptions.6 When we imagine the possible international publics for our work and the remote community of discourse that we see ourselves being part of, we should also be aware of how these imaginings are both constructed and administered into reality.
Matt Packer is the Director of EVA International.
1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1983).
2 Alix Rule and David Levine, International Art English (Triple Canopy, 2012).
3 e-flux website
4 Ibid. 47% in Europe, 42% in North America and 11% Other (South America, Australia, Japan, etc) with a demographic breakdown of 18% writers/critics, 16% galleries, 16% curators, 15% museum affiliated, 12% artists, 10% consultants, 8% collectors, and 5% general audiences.
5 Daniel Birnbaum, ‘Temporal Spasms or, See You Tomorrow in Kiribati!’ in The Best Surprise is No Surprise (Zürich: e-flux and JRP Ringier Kunstverlag AG, 2006).
6 Email conversation with Peter Fitzgerald, former editor of CIRCA Art Magazine.