1. Research Congresses
        2. 1st FORMER WEST Congress
        3. Text


        Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova

        5 November 2009

      1. 1989!

        So what is it that happened in 1989?

        However naive this question might sound—as one would assume it a commonplace to know that this year, full of both aspiration and anguish, transformed our world forever—the meaning of the year 1989 remains strikingly unacknowledged in most of what we intuitively refer to as the “West.” Germany and (to some extent) Austria might be, for obvious reasons, exceptions to this rule; but if we take the Netherlands as “the example” of the West (the notion of the example used here in Giorgio Agamben’s sense as “one singularity among others, which stands for each of them and holds for all”) we see that 1989 and its dramatic consequences for the planet are absolutely not part of the West’s consciousness. If recognized at all, then the 1989 events are seen as something that happened over there—behind the Iron Curtain in the East. Yet the Berlin Wall faced both the East and the West, and so one has to think of the impact of its fall on 9 November that year in (at least) those two directions.

        As much as this monumental political event represented the end of Communist rule in Europe’s East and was heralded as a global triumph for capitalist democracy, it also caused unimagined political, social, economic, and cultural changes in the so-called West. Yet what we know as the West has continued over the last twenty years to imagine its unchanged state and its unaltered hegemony, and to this day fails to recognize the extent of the transformations in the world order ushered in by 1989. It seems that despite the indisputable significance of the 1989 events, the western political and cultural imagination seems held hostage by another year: 1968, though more by May in Paris, of course, than what the Prague Spring came to symbolize. Yet even if the numbers ‘68 and ‘89 resemble one another visually as mirror images, in fact they are radically different; if 1968 by in large represents the struggle for individual liberties—sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and “socialism with a human face” as it were, 1989 represents the case of the unglamorous fight for everyday democracy and consumerism, which, although already available in the West, resulted in the end of a perverse Cold War stability and unleashed an avalanche of critical shifts on a planetary scale.

        The fall of the Berlin Wall (with the other revolutions that swept through the Communist countries in 1989–1990) is undoubtedly the most spectacular event of 1989 and stands here as a symbol of the dramatic breaking point that ushered in another future. It also gave birth to what we so unproblematically call the “former East,” identifying the political geography of what used to be the so-called “socialist states,” and thus it also gave an impetus to us in the construction of the category “former West,” which we work with in order to help us to rethink the West away from its own hegemonic self-narrative, to which it tirelessly clings despite the breaking point two decades ago that introduced to the world a radically new condition.

        Yet if the fall of the Berlin Wall is a useful anchor for our considerations, it certainly is not the only thing that we must consider. The true, history-making significance of 1989 for our time and age can only be understood by taking into account a massive patchwork of many other interrelated events that occurred all around the world that year and on every continent. The synthetic history of the year 1989 is yet to be written—admittedly something that the Former West project cannot single-handedly do, but consider only this partial and necessarily incomplete list: the Tiananmen Square massacre in China; the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the fatwa issued against writer Salman Rushdie for his controversial book, The Satanic Verses; the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan (and the subsequent changes that this move had in the Middle East and Central Asia); the end of a number of South American dictatorships; the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola; Namibia’s independence; and the first face-to-face meeting between Nelson Mandela and F.W de Klerk in South Africa that led to the end of apartheid. But also: the airing of the first reality TV show, for example, or the opening of Magiciens de la Terre in Paris, the first exhibition—however flawed—that set out to show on an equal footing artists from both western and non-western traditions, initiating a long-lasting wave of critical exhibition practices active up to our own day.

        But besides the abundance of the political, military, and ideological shifts that 1989 brought about, that year kicked off a cascade effect of new, transnational processes, the consequences of which we still struggle to come to terms with. Think of what we call globalization, its causes and its impact on literally every field of our activity and existence, not only in terms of economic interconnectedness, but also in the globe-spanning meshing of cultures and communities and the new questions around migration and citizenship that it raises; the notion of the return of religion and the rise of religious extremism, arguably a direct consequence of the end of the Communist rule in a large part of the world; or the impact of technology—the massive use of personal computers virtually non-existent twenty years ago, but perhaps even more importantly, the invention and availability of the WorldWideWeb launched in March 1989 in CERN, Geneva, which radically reshaped our way of communicating and being together in the world. Indeed, one could go on and on.

        Only when we recognize this larger picture of how the world has changed dramatically in that year can we see how 1989 was a decisive moment in the history of the twentieth century, and one with planetary consequences.

        But we need to ask ourselves now, what is it that we have in mind when we speak of the “West?”

        THE WEST

        The West is not a single monolith, nor has its definition stayed fixed historically. At times, the “West” has been used simply as a substitute for the term “civilization” describing self-consciously a concept of its own culture and its artifacts. This was the West of imperial dominion, one that is associated irretrievably for the rest of the world with conquest and plunder. This “imperial West” overwhelmed but didn’t eliminate another idea of the “Christian West” constituted out of the eastern and western Roman Empires and extending beyond the Renaissance. This Christian West saw itself in a competition for souls and military power with other perceptions of the world that, while intolerable, had to be addressed because they carried a genuine threat to its survival. These two definitions of the West still sit rather uneasily alongside the West to which we predominantly refer, the one that was reconfigured in the face of fascist defeat and communist advance after 1945 into a first, second, and third world, membership of which was determined in part by economics and in part by ideology, with two antagonistic CAMPs and a minority non-aligned movement for a few.

        These various Wests each have their own definitions of cultural authority exhibited through the production of certain representations that distinguished and clarified what western values were for both internal and external audiences—thus Christian art is followed by forms of imperial artistic production that profoundly shape the origins of modernism. In these developments, the complexity of the most interesting artworks always points to an ambivalent relationship between the West and the non-West, a fascinating entanglement with each other that plots the almost subconscious interdependencies while frequently asserting unique, ideal, and universal values.

        The latest, post-1945 West was bound in particular forms of political antagonism with its rivals. Officially it maintained a static balance of terror through the doctrine of mutually assured destruction while fighting proxy wars of influence far from home soil. This military logic was accompanied by active competition in terms of social policy and artistic creation. Defenders of western art, when discussing contemporary practices, praised the radical innovation of the artist’s choices and sought out forms of so-called autonomous production that demonstrated the extent to which aberrant forms were possible in democratic governmental regimes. In return, the post-1945 “East”, built on very similar imperial western foundations but with a different critique, also defined its distinction in aesthetic terms. Officially it controlled its art to ensure proletarian understanding and rejected formalist experimentation as bourgeois affectation, while still sharing most of the historic European narrative. This meant than when this new East became the former East, most of the shared cultural concepts on both sides of the European divide were awkwardly reunited in ways that are still not fully acknowledged.

        In the West meanwhile, the critiques of feminism, postcolonialism, and anti-racism among others, meant that a significant intellectual and artistic minority in the West had been in a necessarily self-critical mode. The horrors of colonialism and fascism had to be seen as products of the West’s wider cultural heritage, however mitigated they might be by its enlightened achievements. In attempting to convert these critiques into radical artistic practices, artists opened up new terrains, media, and conditions of authorship that expanded the field enormously. Equally conservative commentators, while remaining rigorous in their defense of free expression and autonomy, also criticized the West’s post-1945 cultural development. They complained about the loss of traditional values and even the commercialization of art. In this way, they parallel a progressive critique that observes a West in cultural decline—a sense that even survives the drama of 1989—and thus might misunderstand the concept of “former West” as suggesting the decay of a more glorious version in an imagined past.

        This longing for a lost world of certainty is not however the primary Former West that we wish to discuss and investigate here. Rather, we are informed by a desire for a more useful and accurate understanding of Western Europe’s place in the entangled global culture that has emerged post-1989. In this sense, it seems more appropriate to describe the perceived victory of the West as simply stepping into a vacuum created by an internal collapse. The West in 1989 was not, then, triumphalist in the way it later portrayed itself, and it was certainly not prepared for its new world role. This unconsciousness proved very significant in subsequent years because, rather than the West as a value system, it was economic globalization, world-integrated free trade, or simply profiteering that were the de facto winners of the Cold War. Thus, the rapid growth of globalization, following reforms in China as well as in the post-Soviet sphere, radically changed the map and identity of the West without the latter having a clear sense of how and why it had come about—or indeed even that the transition to “formerness” was taking place.


        To declare this West to be “former” is provocative. Clearly, “former West” is a citation of the “former East,” the term that is used to account for the events and political geography after 1989 of what used to be the Soviet or Communist bloc in the decades before. Yet it also rhymes with other “formers”: an incomplete list of which would include former empires, former colonies, former totalitarian, former fascist, former communist, and so forth. These are specters at the feast of the contemporary that shape its debates and still define its possible horizons. Equally, the use of former is cognate with the prefix post-, which has dominated recent debates in philosophy and cultural studies. From postmodernism onwards, the use of either former or post does not represent an end to a condition, but rather a radical and possibly still disputed transformation in status and identity. Thus, former and post do not mean exclusively “past.” As much as they suggest a chronological or temporal designation, equally importantly they mark the rupture between two epistemes, and delineate the point of a turn in intellectual history, while taking upon themselves a radically critical dimension. The former condition is meaningful because it still has some power over the imagination in the present, and, though it seems to have passed into history, it calls to mind a way of thinking that carries the possibility for understanding what is going on now. Formerness then reaches out from the past to haunt parts of the present, at times through a rhetoric of lost possibilities and unfulfilled events, at times as a brake on progressive change.

        It should be remembered that this was not “meant” to happen. After 1989, the now dominant neoconservatives tried to put ideological and social struggle into an archive box labeled the end of history, claiming, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “what we may be witnessing…is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The competition for ideas was to be replaced with the eternal victory of economic pragmatism, where free markets produce free men (significantly not framed the other way around) and, put simply, whatever sells in the market is good for society. While doubts in this absolutism soon emerged, the fundamentalist free market ideology casts a long shadow, which has radically affected the world at large, including of course the production and distribution of art.

        But if the West is declared former, what happens under the influence of this shadow and what kind of critical thinking emerges in this period of absolute capitalist hegemony? These questions are at the very core of our artistic and intellectual inquiry. Yet one answer seems to be a matter of consensus already at the onset of our work: that the condition of the world today is bereft of any horizon, of any perspective or radically new direction towards which to strive. The avant-garde prospect of a “better world” was written off overnight as an outmoded, laughable claim and replaced readily with the end-game of liberal democracy and practices of administration with the goal not to change the world but make it work pragmatically for one’s immediate needs.

        Yet, what is left to submit to this regime of management after twenty years of its application? If 1989, it could be argued, introduced in the West the feeling of victory over the only serious ideological and economic alternative, if only by default, on September 11th 2001 the West’s sense of itself shifted from one of benevolent conqueror to that of vulnerable target, subject to sudden and terrifying attacks on its symbolic institutions. It is therefore ironic that what could be called “the long decade” ended, as it had begun, to the sound of falling masonry. Yet this neat coincidence hides the fact that underlying changes were in evidence throughout the period, not the least of which was a growing awareness that the post-1945 West—Western Europe, the United States, and Japan—would not necessarily share the same interests forever. The world after 2001 witnessed the resurrection of the rhetoric of “us” versus “them” in the former West, strongly echoing the Cold War narrative of friend and foe. However, the identity of the “enemy” is now maddeningly complex, caught up in the intricacies of religious, national, and cultural divisions across borders and within the societies of the former West themselves. While these processes of constructing and reacting to a unstable global order are already underway, another symbolic date can be added to our recent chronology: 15 September 2008, the date when the New York headquarters of the global financial services firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, the largest ever such filing in U.S. history. As Renate Salecl has pointed out, this quick erosion of the concept of money—a close-to-sacred foundation of the free market—followed with breathtaking speed and is causing not only economic but also psychological trauma to citizens convinced of the absolute reliability of the capitalist system. Today most of the world finds itself amidst the most severe economic contraction, accelerating (one could hope) the awareness—and possibility—of the need for the West to rethink itself and its relations.

        To help ourselves in articulating the complexity of the processes we are looking at when we declare the West to be former, a brief detour into a concrete example of an artwork is instructive. In one of their most recent works (2009), the collective of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers Chto Delat?—echoing in their name the famous “What is to be done?” writings of Chernyshevsky and Lenin—incorporated a wall drawing reflecting on the potential of political projects for social emancipation in the case of Soviet perestroika. Included is a summary of “What Has Happened,” followed by a hypothetical, parallel chronology entitled, “What Might Have Happened.” The latter, the “what if” list, involves imaginaries such as: “The Soviet Union is transformed into a federative state based on broad autonomy of republics, districts, and cities,” and “Workers take full control of all factories and enterprises,” or “Governments fully disarm and unite to create a fund to ensure the future of the planet.” But also (!): “The West undergoes its own version of perestroika. Inspired by the processes underway in a renewed Soviet Union, western societies carry out a series of radical social-democratic reforms.”

        It might be that this work articulates something latent in the project Former West, which is a delayed and symbolic proposition to imagine and articulate the West’s own version of perestroika and even glasnost. It is here—in a concrete work framing or responding to an abstract concept—that the field of contemporary artistic production can find its critical position. By producing trenchant critique of the contemporary moment, that is at once disclosing the status quo and proposing how our political and social futures can be re-imagined, art actualizes a crucial part of its potential. It is precisely this—setting up a horizon in a horizon-less world, if you will, replacing the aimless wandering with a sense of a possibility of a new direction—that Former West wants to establish with and from the field of art, both poetically and politically.

        But let us have a closer look at the question of art itself.


        The research question that broadly defines our remit is how art has described, reflected on, and even instigated certain internal social and cultural dynamics in or about the territories of the former West. But why would we choose art as the means to view this territory? What is it about art that makes it crucial for this particular exercise? Does the application of such a filter not limit the field of free expression? What do the mostly individualist responses of artists to conditions around them have to tell us about these broader dynamics anyway?

        There are no elementary answers or certainties about art’s predisposition to be the form through which these issues can be explored. Yet, art remains a unique category of knowledge production (or non-knowledge production to cite Sarat Maharaj). Contemporary art is able to work in ways that we might term extra-disciplinary, in the sense that, over the last 20 years, it has successfully sloughed off at least a part of its own disciplinary burden and can encounter other fields with less need for self-justification than is the case for other divisions of knowledge. This advantage, though small, is significant when it comes to a study such as Former West, in which the general self-understanding of a specific society and its formation is at stake. An extra-disciplinary dimension in the form of art that speculates on the uncertainties generated by political and economic change allows for a space of thinking that might be up to the challenges of this task—or at least provide the means to represent what is at stake.

        We believe art is a useful device to measure a more general consciousness of the state of global relationships today and to help us collectively think beyond them. In this sense, art is more than “the thing itself” of the artwork but a systemic form of imagining from out of the conditions at hand towards something that is not yet formed. This imagining might be connected to what has already been imagined and failed, but it begins from the ground around it, in this case the global effect of the former West, rather than on the basis of nostalgia or secure ideology.

        We are aware that the core, universalizing narrative of the West has been transformed both internally and externally through new forms of physical migration, economic exploitation, and postcolonial theory among other post-1989 shifts. Yet, we are still constantly surprised by the adhesiveness of the older paradigms to aesthetic and cultural discourse. The extent to which the idea of a national canon has found new purchase in a number of smaller European nations is but one sad example. However, the ambivalence of meaning that is often inherent to a successful artwork, its ability to ask the viewer rather than answer the interrogator, is what can speak to us about the particular conditions of paradox and unawareness that are thrown up by the notion of Former West.

        The agreed definition and appropriate model of art has been itself subject to change throughout the last 20 years. The condition of autonomy, crucial to reviving forms of art that were independent of the state’s need for propaganda in the post-World War 2 period, became in the course of time a playpen for aesthetic action without consequence in the West, and one that has been transformed after 1989 with more and more expectations for social performativity placed on art in return for state sponsorship. Tracking the course of artistic autonomy and investigating how artworks have reformulated it for the condition of the former West can be one of the ways of establishing an artistic narrative over the past 20 years.

        Art is then proposed as the subject of this study, as well as the form through which contemporary history is approached. Looking at the history of art exhibitions and their framing devices since 1945 is then a way to understand the kinds of wider inclusions and exclusions that art makes apparent both historically and still today. The question of western geographic definition was certainly apparent from the 1950s onwards with the promotion of US abstract expressionism as seen in the touring exhibitions of American art that were sent to Europe and the Middle East by the Museum of Modern Art, New York under state sponsorship. Western European exhibitions that became defining for conceptualism such as When Attitudes Become Form in Bern, Op Losse Schroeven in Amsterdam (both 1969), or Documenta 5 (1972) only considered artists from western territories. Westkunst in Cologne (1981) at least acknowledged its partial agenda in the title but then followed it with a section entitled “Abstraction: a World Language” to confuse matters. The 1982 Documenta introduction by curator Rudi Fuchs talks of going to Vienna to “smell the East” but this world-exhibition didn’t venture farther into Europe and beyond.

        It is hard to know to what extent these decisions should be understood as in any way deliberate exclusions. Clearly, the American art exhibitions served a specific purpose but there was generally a blindness in the West to art from elsewhere except in ethnographic terms. Art beyond democracy’s gaze or from non-western cultures was often not understood as art at all but more as the product of certain broader cultural conditions. In fact, it was only in 1989 in Paris that the first, flawed but crucial attempt by the mainstream art world to register an idea of global contemporary art took place under the title Magiciens de la Terre at Centre Beaubourg and La Vilette. The year of Magiciens was coincidental—it was delayed two years to coincide with the 200th year anniversary of the revolution—but its presence in France was not. The Biennial de Paris had maintained some links with Eastern Europe and further afield throughout the 1970s and exhibitions of art from the Francophone colonies and later independent states were more common throughout the post-war period then in other European countries. In this sense, France was still a cultural leader and its demise as a key site of new artistic creation is a small part of the story of the emergence of the former West.

        These histories of exhibitions before 1989 need to be supplemented by analyses of the less settled history exhibition making over the last 20 years. This tells us much about how and in what ways the formerness of the West came to be manifested in art and its presentation. The list must include but go beyond the major set piece presentations such as the recent Documentas, especially those in 1997, which defined a more inclusive artistic trajectory back to 1968, and 2002 which measured the force of globalization since 1989 as it impacted on forms of artistic production. The reinventions of the traditional biennale that occurred largely outside the West in the last 15 years have also directed the art world’s attention away from the old centers of experimentation and even been imported back into European cities such as Berlin or Liverpool more recently. There have also been many other smaller scale initiatives that can be collaged together as experimental institutionalism occurring mostly in provincial cities and non-western centers. Together these form a broad front on which the shifts in the balance of political and economic power can be traced and the consequences for the territory of the former West made explicit.

        Key to the process of producing Former West as a project will be the attempt to transform the physical conditions of autonomous juxtaposition that defined so much of the pre-1989 period to one of entanglement and hybridity, in which origins and lineages are less significant than their immediate interconnections. In undertaking this research and ultimately making the exhibition, we want to bring the conditions of entanglement that the former West is dealing with on an everyday level to bear on the presentation and reception of contemporary art. We can observe this entanglement in the intimate exchanges of experiences between cultures on many former western streets. As Paul Gilroy has eloquently pointed out concerning the African diaspora, it is the condition of hybridity with which we have to come to terms, not the search for originary authenticity. In recognizing this, we are required to develop forms of exhibition display and staging that can match such developments of theory. It is in reflecting on these extended processes of the West’s coming to terms with both its historic role and its contemporary displacement from its assumed centrality, as well as constructing modes of address, that art and the exhibition-as-medium do still have a real relevance to thinking our condition today.


        Rethinking the West and its art out of their hegemonic self-narration means in fact to propose—not without a degree of uncertainty—another view on the history of art after 1989, one that evolves not around the market value of an object (as has become the customary measure), but around significant social and political changes and in dialogue with post-communist and postcolonial thought. While the West in its former state is our “subject matter”—an approach that to some extent marks it off from elsewhere—we do this in full recognition that the so-called West is a profoundly ambivalent place, always full with the non-West at the very core of its identity. Pursuing an overarching binary of “the West versus the rest” could not be further from our intent, as it is precisely such here/there oppositions that we want to, or rather must, complicate. What does interest us is how to, from within the so-called West, put limits on the claims that the West has made for its own universalism, having trumpeted its version of liberal capitalism as superior to any other political and cultural ideal. We recognize the necessity to destabilize such a self-depiction of the West, and to see how it contributes to narratives across the world from the position of its own provincialism, as well as how the exchanges of consciousness between this part of the world and its outside have changed the characteristics of both.

        If 1989 is, however symbolically, our starting point, then our inquiry necessarily overlaps with what Boris Groys has termed the “post-communist” condition, a condition that comes not only after communism but goes precisely beyond it, and is a condition that concerns not merely the former communist countries, but in fact the world in its entirety. We feel however, that it is of critical importance to avoid any misunderstanding or possible reduction of our scope of inquiry to the conflict between the communist and capitalist parts of the world. The former West is situated within the larger condition of the world in the post-Cold War structure, and thus between different “posts,” most prominently between the post-communist and the postcolonial. This space “between the posts” (Katherine Verdery) could perhaps be dubbed the “post-Cold-War condition,” the shift through which we believe it is possible to gain a larger view on how the notion of the “West” has been constructed. Such a synthetic tool could enable us to explore and reject the Cold War’s famous three-Worlds partitioning alongside the axes of free/communist and traditional/modern (Pletch, 1981) and its ongoing effects, and bid a symbolic “farewell” (as Sarat Maharaj did recently with his Guangzhou Triennial 2008) to both the post-communist and the postcolonial normative horizons. Perhaps this will allow us to better understand the inextricably intertwined global histories of colonialism, communism, capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism (among other isms), and open up a space for thinking the world otherwise. As with a leap of imagination it might be, after all, that some issues that cannot be resolved through political economy may get entangled in new ways through the space of art.