In Tristes Tropiques, a seminal work of ethnography and travel writing published to international acclaim in 1955, the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss begins the account of his legendary research trip into the interior of Brazil in a sceptical tone: “I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.”Despite its hybrid format – combining memoir, travel writing, and ethnography – Tristes Tropiques became a popular bestseller. Its readers went beyond the niche audience of experts and immediately established its author as a major figure in the fields of anthropology and structuralism. The book appeared at a historical turning point, not only in the way structuralism was transforming anthropology – based on the analysis of society through the structure of language and culture – but also because it was unveiled during the post-war period, when ethnography was being transformed by the great movements of decolonization. The changes occurring in the discipline required not just a rethinking of how anthropological methods (participant-observer fieldwork) and discourses (ethnographic writing) shape the understanding of colonized societies and ‘faraway’ cultures, but also a reassessment of the underlying system of colonial modernity that subtended the developmental dynamics at the centre of interaction between European and non-European cultures.
While not an avatar of the dramatic restructuring of the modern system, the book’s title, Sad Tropics, had a measure of the elegiac in its narration. Its essential point was that the incursions of modernity may have come at great cost to many fragile societies that had limited resources to resist its darker motives. Another telling aspect of the book’s title is the fact that the narrative hinges only on the sadness of the tropics and excludes Europe from such malaise. The subtlety of this difference emblematizes the principal dichotomy that has bedevilled the ethnographic craft for more than a century, namely that anthropology’s research is built on a spatial model that measures the distances between far and near. Tristes Tropiques excavates this dichotomy. Its fluid literary style is packed with stories that work on distinctions that are both personal and professional, self-conscious and unconscious. Its account includes different forms of self-ethnography by way of narratives of Lévi-Strauss’s family, the French educational system and its social hierarchies, left-wing politics in Paris, a brief dalliance with Surrealism, the arts, and so on. At centre stage, however, are the fascinating stories that made Tristes Tropiques so compelling and attractive, the rendering of which took the intricate intertextuality of memoir, travel-writing, and ethnography as its narrative format into a well-honed critique of the limits of ethnography. Lévi-Strauss detailed exhaustive accounts of his incursions into the Brazilian interior; long journeys across the Atlantic that included stops at exotic tropical ports and passed through strange, paradise-like landscapes; his desperate escape from the advancing German army on a cramped boat that set sail from Marseille packed with refugees (including the Surrealist poet and writer André Breton and the Afro-Chinese Cuban painter Wifredo Lam); his arrival in New York, filled cheek-by-jowl with European intellectuals, writers, and artists sitting out the war in cafés, jazz clubs, and ethnographic curio shops; long hours in the special collections room of the New York Public Library, where he completed his first book, Elementary Structures of Kinship; and finally his return to liberated France to resume a career which, though interrupted by six years of exile, was nevertheless surprisingly productive.
These stories, among many others, form the scintillating travelogue of Tristes Tropiques. But the fundamental innovation of this unclassifiable book is the unveiling of a new approach to ethnographic writing whose telling interpellated rigorous analysis and philosophical reflection on the fate of small-scale societies on the edge of extinction during late colonialism, as well as the role of anthropology in framing a better understanding of non-European cultures. The book offered a cool, rational intellectual model for constructing a certain kind of post-war anthropology and ethnographic exegesis poised between the near and the far. But in Lévi-Strauss’s case such exegesis is written not on the basis of fieldwork, but almost exclusively through leaps of mental travel, in the prodigious theoretical discipline of structural anthropology, which he formulated.
Traveling and exploration, the near and the far, the savage and the civilized: these dichotomies underline irresolvable questions that haunt the modern ethnographic imagination. As much as Lévi-Strauss might have tried to place himself at a cool, rational, and philosophical distance from ethnographic voyeurism, Tristes Tropiques was nevertheless subsumed by it. The photographs and drawings he produced during his trip reveal the degree of interest he had in recording and visualizing the rituals, the arts, the architecture, and the numbing lassitude that overtook members of the communities that hosted his visits. Thus, in its telling the book raises further questions on the relationship of power between the explorer and the explored. Following this, we may therefore rightfully ask: By what right does one travel? And by what authority does one explore? For at the heart of both activities lies a powerful conflict between science and conquest. Traveling and exploring form the bookends of colonial modernity’s relationship to the world of the outside, those spots on earth conceived by the ethnographic imagination as sitting on the edge of the known world, spaces outside rational time and in need of redemption by the civilized mind. But whatever that outside may be, the search for it encapsulates an idea: the utopian zeal to discover in so-called primitive man a specific essence of human culture separate from that of so-called civilized societies.
In a review essay of Tristes Tropiques, The Anthropologist as Hero, Susan Sontag addresses a certain kind of wanderlust peculiar to the Western anthropologist. She identifies it as a form of “homelessness ... brought about by the inhuman acceleration of historical change [which] has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea, of intellectual vertigo.” The cure for such nausea and vertigo, it appears, is a type of extreme tourism, undertaken as a rite of passage, in which the sensitive modern mind strikes out into the unknown world and seeks out the company and kinship of societies lost somewhere in the mists of time. Of course, in the opening of Tristes Tropiques Lévi-Strauss begins with a disavowal of being possessed of such nausea or intellectual vertigo that sets ethnographic travel in motion.
He further dissociates himself from the kind of travel imagined by Sontag as something entirely different from his own scholarly interests, one that is less about nausea than ethnography as a rigorous scientific project. But whether occasioned by Sartrean nausea or intellectual vertigo, every ethnographic trip has a destination. For Lévi-Strauss, the destination in 1938 was Mato Grosso, in the interior of Northern Brazil where the last remaining “Indian tribes” could be found. Reaching several of these groups (Nambikwara, Bororo, Caduveo, Tupi-Kawahib) required traveling great distances under less than pleasant conditions to make contact with the magical world of the savage mind. Scientific knowledge as the chief reason for Lévi-Strauss’s incursion with his band of explorers who set out into the Brazilian forests and plains on the eve of the Second World War in Europe (a war that would irreversibly alter the anthropologist’s fortune) became an attempt to record the transient and to document and transcribe the unstable knowledge of primitive societies. Tristes Tropiques, then, is a book about both travel and contact. The theme of contact pervades the whole information-gathering mission of its ethnographic fieldwork. Gathering and analysing this information presupposed the establishment of proximity and distance between the researcher and the cultures being observed.
In his own hunt for art, might the travels of the curator – in which he scours the global scenes of contemporary art in search of artistic forms and signs through their various embodiments in objects, systems, structures, images, and concepts – be propelled by a similar sense of intellectual vertigo that afflicts the ethnographer? Is the curator a co-traveller with the ethnographer in the same procedures of contact and exploration? What distinguishes the practices of curatorial fieldwork from those of ethnography? In the course of this process it seems even clearer that the path of curatorial fieldwork, while lacking the certainties of the ethnographic discipline, nevertheless shares in some measure a fascination for the tenuous and speculative; the psychic and the spiritual; the cognitive and the symbolic. Like the ethnographer, the contemporary curator is a creature of wanderlust, except in the present instant, the path begins from a series of detours, disorientations, and disarticulations of cultural geographies that are being remapped in the face of rapid global reconfigurations. How does the work of contemporary curating engage with this process of cartographic disorientation? In the last half-century increased mobility and migration have forced the revision of the rules of proximity, eroding cultural borders, exacerbating the relationship between guests and hosts. Rather than practices of neighbourliness and shared space, greater proximity – that is to say active, unceasing contact between different cultural communities – has instead led to spatial and temporal disjunctions. This means that contemporary societies need to define how to manage conflict, live with cultural dissensus within conditions of hostility and non-recognition. To conceive an exhibition in this darkened mood, in the space of this disjunction, is to ask the following questions: what the role of the artist and the work of art can be; the role of the curator in organizing access to complex and non-reductive relationships between art and its publics; and the position of artistic and cultural institutions in the critical sphere of culture.
Thus, in this contemporary moment, rapid encroachment of outsiders has become a cause célèbre, raising alarm and anxiety for those who perceive themselves as natives. This perhaps, creates the anxiety of disturbing nearness, the intimacy of being under siege by outsiders whose values (including their symbolic and historical identities) are viewed to be at odds with the values of indigenes (including their symbolic and historical identities). It appears that our time is emblematized, and equally traumatized by the collapse of distance. And with this collapse, difference becomes visible. It leaps out of the abyss where it had long been confined and is placed under the dissecting spotlight of political jingoism. Here we enter the zone of intense proximity, a form of disturbing nearness that unsettles as much as it exhilarates, and transforms as much as it disquiets the coordinates of national cultural vectors.
It is a common fact that proximity today is situated at the juncture between two social facts of contact: hostility and hospitality. This concept can also be related to the various ways that different global communities share space. But as distances shrink, and the border between the near and far increasingly dissolves, so does the potential for conflict and contestation become heightened in power relations that define the contact zone of cultures. Contact can be contagious. Yet the intimacy it provokes can be unsettling. Here the nausea of homelessness and restlessness which in earlier times set explorers on their journeys of discovery around the world, is replaced by the enervation of contact under which curating operates today, as the spatial distortion of distance draws cultures nearer to one another. The challenge for the curator today is how to resist essentialist constructs of artistic otherness without succumbing to the temptation to withdraw into the self-protection of a prejudicial and false universalism. And as diverse cultural systems jostle for space and recognition in the process of migration and globalization, post-colonialism and multiculturalism, so do the intensities of their differing self-awareness enhance the inevitable crisis of confidence in the benefits of a common associational life in the contact zones. This requires that the cognitive frame of curatorial fieldwork remains alive to these intensities.
In his analysis of the present global art scene, Hans Belting has adopted two incommensurable terms – post-ethnic contemporary art and post-historical contemporary art – to define how artistic subjectivity generates new conceptual relations to globality, qua universality. In his distinction there is no dialectical frame between post-ethnic and post-historical art. The former term refers specifically to how non-Western artists seek to challenge their confinement to a tribal/ethnic past, while the latter refers to Western artists who seek an escape from the false universalism of a classical European past. Each of these terms of contemporary art operates under the critical pressures of post-colonial, multicultural, and cosmopolitan globalism. However, it is not only post-ethnic and post-historical artists who are dealing with the consequences of shrinking cultural geography. Museums and the academy (more specifically curatorial and art-historical models), as well as collections and academic research programs, have each had to reassess their own forms of disciplinary boundary-making and reconsider approaches to fashioning the knowledge of art. It is for the same reasons that Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon coined the term “post-black art” as a way to insist that the work of black artists is diverse in methods, multiple in conceptual resources, and completely unbounded by racial categorization. In an age when forms of radical difference (such as religious fundamentalism) threaten to unsettle extremist tropes of indigeneity (for example, right-wing xenophobia), intense proximity can be defined as the degree of nearness in which cultural, social, and historical identities and experiences share and co-exist within the same space, while exposing the fault lines of cultural antagonism. This issue is not merely rhetorical, especially if we place it in the context of the cultural politics of Europe today, where indigenes of European countries cry out that their cultures are being invaded and transformed by outsiders. Intense proximity occurs at that moment when the distance between the near and the far is on the verge of eradication; when the other threatens to melt the ethnocentric particularism of indigeneity into the bubbling stew of multiculturalism. In fact, degrees of proximity shape all forms of contact, and make it possible to rediscover anew, not merely the essence of cultures but also their fragile cohesiveness.
In culture, this transformation emerged at the intersection of immigration and decolonization. Art historian Sarat Maharaj describes this pivotal moment in contemporary art as the point where the Congo is flooding the Acropolis. As Maharaj writes, “If the Congo evokes the swelling tide of ‘dark peoples,’ the Acropolis signals Europe’s domination which the colonized seek to shake off.” In this swelling tide wild, unruly nature breaches the levee of civility and stages an assault on the high promontory on which the edifice of ‘classical’ culture is perched in detached remoteness. This aggressivity mirrors contemporary art’s critical ambivalence towards modernist completeness. At the same time, contemporary art came to privilege the hybrid, the fragmentary, the incomplete, while interrogating the distinctions between the universal and particular, between grand narratives and small narratives, the homogeneous and the heterogeneous. Mary Louise Pratt elaborates the space of these modern antinomies in dialectical terms as “‘contact zones,’ social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination – like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths [my emphasis] as they are lived out across the globe today.” These asymmetrical relations, in an inverted sense, are today producing forms of violent ethnocentrism. Up until the period of late colonialism in the nineteenth century, contact might have presupposed an encounter of inquisitive interest between cultures. After that, it was turned into endless exploration, then into forms of active occupation that gave impetus to different anti-colonial movements. Resistance to colonialism was not only a matter of contesting its political institutions and extractive economic systems. It was also manifested as resistance to colonial authority’s mastery over local knowledge. Today, however, late colonialism exposes the degree to which the formerly occupied have become travellers, migrants moving from former colonial frontiers into metropolitan territories, re-enacting the loop of earlier travels of discovery in the streets, the arrondissement, the quartier, the banlieue, street markets, and sidewalks of European cities. Here, according to James Clifford, roots and routes meet. However, in the global and postcolonial moment routes and networks rather than one-way streets are more privileged, and within it the expansion of the idea of Diaspora. We are all travellers. We live in traveling times, in the unceasing, wayward flow of capital, commodities, technology, subjectivities, cultural expressions, people, images, objects, works of art. While each of these elements may travel and have no borders, it is the movement of people, particularly Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth,” who have experienced the increased contact that generates friction. This type of traveling accelerated during the twentieth century – between the post-war era and the periods of decolonization. Increasing travel, migration, and cosmopolitanism have broken open the seams of cultural bivouacs.
Traveling today partially reverses the earlier idea of contact as adventure and discovery. Instead of exotic sensations of ethnophilia, poetically inscribed and recorded in colour slides and motion pictures, today’s travellers are seekers of things more prosaic and basic, more material than aesthetic or philosophical. They want economic opportunity, political stability. They seek social mobility in the global world. Many also want nothing to do with assimilation. They are perfectly content with wearing their saris, kimonos, djellabas, chadors, and turbans on the streets of Paris, London, Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, New York, and Guangzhou. They want to visit and pray in their mosques, converse in their native tongues, listen to the music of their cultures, indulge in the cuisine of their places of origin. These travellers are not afraid to be different in the cosmopolitan bazaar of contemporary culture. Travellers of this sort are not settlers, but are permanently in transit, shuttling between different worlds and different temporal systems. The contingency of their situation, like our own sense of instability and insecurity in the face of their militant refusal to integrate or assimilate, can be unsettling. This is particularly the case when those, whom modern capitalism had once rendered invisible become visible, thus putting in balance the ruptured relations between the near and the far, traveller and indigene, guest and host.
The journey from the zone of the colonized into that of the colonizer represents a different dimension of contact. It carries with it a new dimension of visibility, but also a tension. How do the cultural signs of these travellers signify? In 1904, more than a century ago, the American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) alerted us to the explosive set of mutual antagonisms that defines the course of this journey today, where the exchange of signs also demands the translation of their signification, their meaning. The central problem of the twentieth century, Dubois wrote, is the “colour line.” Dubois’s view was, of course, formed by the peculiar aspect of the American experience based on asymmetrical contact between the enslaved and the free. Fanon further elaborated this in his psychoanalytic study of race and racism, Black Skin, White Masks, that also pertains to the lingering questions of multiculturalism. More recently, debates around multiculturalism have had a softer articulation in the discourses of cosmopolitanism.
The Ghanaian-British philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, articulates the importance of cosmopolitanism, particularly in the context of its manifestation within the ambit of globalization. Cosmopolitanism in its present form could be understood as more than a way of being in the world (citizenship and belonging unbounded by origin, status, or race), in the way the idea of contact has become an active measure of mutually enforced contact. Today, despite the promise of cosmopolitanism, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, contact is on trial. Increasingly, contact is becoming part of the program of a rising politics of negation, a xenophobic construct manifesting a rabid form of anti-difference. In this anti-difference, contact has become competition between mutually exclusive forms of nativism.
In early 2006, while I was sitting in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, a report in The New York Times about a public controversy that was convulsing Paris caught my attention. It concerned a soup kitchen that was set up in the middle of Paris during that year’s winter. The report described a tense scene in which right-wing political activists fought the prohibitions of Paris’s socialist mayor, who demanded that the soup kitchen be dismantled, and for the organizers to refrain from cooking and serving to homeless (or any hungry persons) a certain warm meal in the dreary cold of that year. According to the mayor, the particular soup being offered by the soup kitchen defied the rules of social generosity. The mayor and the police prefect saw the cooking and serving of the soup as a political ploy of intolerance; an instrument of xenophobic exclusion that tarnishes the image of civility and sophistication cultivated by the city as a place of hospitality and tolerance.
The soup in question that aroused the controversy was a supposedly traditional French soup: soupe au cochon, or pork soup. But why would a basic meal of soup create social destabilization when it is offered to feed the hungry? The answer is partly contained in the soup’s political and cultural message. It was clear that the organizers of the soup kitchen were not at all interested in serving a meal to the hungry. Instead, they were more intent in highlighting the cultural differences between their conception of French identity against those who, for both cultural and religious reasons, abhor pork. In making this political theatre of identitarian agitation at the expense of “foreigners,” the activists more than succeeded in underlining the ineradicable tension between hostility and hospitality that marks the liberal ideals of contact. The culinary concoction, ladled out with a dash of the ethnocentric slogan: “Help Our Own Before Others,” by the erstwhile secretary and far-right firebrand Odile Bonnivard and her group Identity Bloc, forms part of a basic political tactic that has been variously labelled soupe identitaire and soupe Gauloise. From the various representations the activists deployed, it was clear that they were intent on more than cooking and serving soup. Yet there was also an aesthetic dimension to their form of political theatre: a crude theatre of Frenchness. One poster in particular shows a cartoon of a pig in a pot, printed with the slogan, “Wanted. Cooked or Raw, Public Disturbance No. 1,” a strategy that mimics a trope of contemporary performance art. I wondered whether the use of “Cooked or Raw” which echoed one of Lévi-Strauss’s books: The Raw and the Cooked (1964) was intentional or merely happenstance. The strategies for serving la soup au cochon had a kind of carnival atmosphere to it. In one of several videos posted on YouTube, the revellers-cum-activists marched singing “Le cochon il est bon, le cochon il est bon.” The video then cuts to the protesters being interviewed:
First interviewee is asked why he is protesting. He answers: “I protest on behalf of the peoples of Europe and freedom.”
Second interviewee says she is not protesting, she is distributing soup au cochon to ‘their’ SDF (SDF refers to those sans domicile fixe: homeless people).
Third interviewee says: “Pork is very good, only a stupid government like ours forbids free men and women to eat pork and to give food to people who are struggling… is it a crime to enjoying eating pork?”
One person standing on top of a car and speaking with a megaphone: “We are here because of the persecutions of those who are governing on behalf of the foreigners in our land.”
Fourth interviewee, a man with a white beard, is asked why have pork in the soup, his response: “Because it is impossible to take into consideration everyone’s particularities, we would not be able to use any meat at all since the Hindus are vegetarian for instance.”
Another person standing on the car (voice over): “We were raised eating soupe au cochon.”
Fifth interviewee, with hat, says: “Soupe au cochon is the traditional meal of the people of Gaulle and of European people in general. It is a way for us to support our friends who are struggling and to say ‘Fuck You’ (shit) to the invaders who do not eat pork.”
What piqued my interest in this story was not necessarily the controversy generated by the debate, much of which was couched in the legalities of free expression, social order, niceties of cultural tolerance or the ugliness of racist intolerance, rather, I was intrigued by the novelty of the activists’ oppositional cultural tactic, which deployed a poetic carnivalesque performance to inject toxic speech into the cauldron of the French debates on immigration and Frenchness. The creation of the soup kitchen, to which the mayor objected, also raised the question of the nature of the gift, which I trace here, through the classic essay on the gift economy in ‘primitive’ societies by Marcel Mauss (1872–1950). The concept of the gift refers not only to the giver, but the obligation of the giver to be a receiver as well. And vice versa. In other words, for the mayor of Paris, hospitality and generosity cannot be preceded by the hostility of exclusion, or imply an attack on the cultural traditions of other communities. To do so, he reasoned, is to poison the well of reciprocity on which cultural exchange and social recognition of difference are based. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in discussing cosmopolitanism, puts the issue underlying the responsibility of the gift in this way:
There are two strands that intertwine the notion of cosmopolitanism. One idea is that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.
But why was soupe au cochon seen to be lacking the symbolic value of the gift and the obligations that attach to it? The answer lies partly in the social demography of France today, with its large Arab and Muslim population. The organizers of the soup kitchen very well knew that religious doctrine prohibits Muslims and Jews from consuming pork. Therefore it was clear that the choice of soupe au cochon was a Trojan horse designed chiefly to register opposition to the presence of unwanted foreigners in France. Even more crucial is the alleged refusal of those foreigners to fully assimilate into French culture (this would also entail conversion to the eating of soupe au cochon), in other words, to give up a part of their identity in return for becoming integrated or assimilated (namely absorbed) within French society. Debates on immigration, foreigners, assimilation, and citizenship are nothing new in the context of societies experiencing explosive immigration, which creates pressures on existing traditions. In France today, recent legal prohibitions by the national assembly on the hijab and burqa, in the name of laicité or secularism, creates an unsustainable cultural cordon sanitaire between allegedly proper secular garb and a restrictive, unsecular, religious garb. Regardless of the conceit, the law is nothing but legislative theatre created to give comfort to xenophobes, and thus exposes the fiction that contact manifests a form of free exchange among different cultures. What the law lays bare is the inherent contradiction of the defence of liberalism and secularism with illiberal laws. A French administrative court soon weighed in on the pork soup, siding with the activists. Such rulings have had serious consequences. Another example is the brutal slaughter of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who is, perhaps the first artist killed expressly in response to a work of art produced in the battle of identity politics. To see the desecrated corpse of Van Gogh lying on the streets of Amsterdam, his throat slashed, and the butchering knife pinned to his chest with a note by the assailant, is to view the frightening portents of contact. Earlier, before Van Gogh, another Dutch personality, this time the colourful populist, anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn was similarly killed in Rotterdam.
One can perhaps designate la soupe identitaire – by which the activists prepared a meal that was employed solely as a blunt political instrument targeting a cultural minority whose social existence had already been stigmatized by the law – as a flash point in the politics of contact. Thus la soupe identitaire advertised itself effectively as a failed form of political speech. Whatever its intended effect, it is the tactic of the activists’ action that illuminates its troubling and novel methodology. In seeking to attack the symbols of cultural diversity, the organizers managed to create an environment in which a visible fracture between cultural belief and its symbols could be exploited. La soupe identitaire thus exposed the fragile social contract that lies under the discourses and policies of tolerance, and acceptance of difference, in an obviously multicultural and cosmopolitan Paris. To describe France today as a multicultural society, one is perhaps not simply describing a context of cultural and racial mixtures that have historical origins dating back several centuries through processes of sustained contact, settling, assimilation, hybridization, and creolization. Multiculturalism also represents a theatre of exploitable dissensus by political opportunism and cultural nativism. To put this situation into spatial terms, multiculturalism could be defined as a reflection on the dimensions of the proximity it produces.
The very act of preparing la soupe identitaire emblematizes the fraught relationship between the shallow social distance and tense cultural proximity that define modes of co-existence in France’s putatively secular society. The act of the activists, for example, may strike some as either iconoclastic or brutal. Or as a type of classic agitprop that represents an attempt at extreme profanation of the gestures of hospitality. A second striking quality of the activists’ political ruse was the symbolic use of cultural tradition based on a culinary trick. If one were to inspect the spices and other ingredients that make up the soup, what might it reveal? But that is another matter. Yet, in blending the different ingredients according to a so-called traditional recipe, the preparation of pork soup seeks the exclusion of all that is foreign, and in so doing materializes the anti-difference position of these forms of right-wing politics. But, and this refers back to my setting up this argument through the work of Lévi-Strauss, it might be worthwhile to ask what role earlier French colonialism and imperialism played in this dispute. Was not French colonialism and imperialism initially predicated on contact?
In this text, as much as in my curatorial praxis, specifically in La Triennale staged at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris 2012, I attempt to lay out that while the general global culture today is enlivened by irresolvable conundrums of identitarian debates – exacerbated and manipulated by political posturing, exploited by the commodification of contemporary art, and instrumentalized by official cultural politics – given the global dimension of contemporary art the form of the exhibition might serve as an example, as it provides a complex speculative space and an exploratory public forum into post-identitarian discourse and debate. Yet, we need to be wary, as well, of the inverted ethnocentrism of the melting pot that proposes only generalities and no distinctions, no specificities, no particularities. Because the most complex art always proposes and foregrounds distinctions, specificities, and is often recalcitrant towards cultural prescription, we believe this is what makes the work of art so powerful: its ability to enlarge the horizon of the possible. What La Triennale offered to this public forum then, is the idea of an exhibition space that serves as a nerve of curatorial speculation in the historical moment where contact again refashions the interaction between cultural, aesthetic, and poetic norms. Rather than conceive an exhibition project that smoothes over differences, and, like pork soup, blends the inherent tensions between aesthetic and critical concepts in a melting pot of indistinguishable parts, between social diversity and cultural differences; or between national and secular identities on the one hand, and ethnic and religious identifications on the other; or between civic rights of indigenes and human rights of aliens. It is on this measure of the horizon of the possible that I propose the concept of Intense Proximity as a forum where the effects and affects of contact map out artistic systems of relation.
What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.