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The parts and the whole: policies of national representation


16 September 2013
This month's topic: How to explain Catalonia

The parts and the whole: policies of national representation

The difficulty with a dispassionate debate about different nationalisms depends upon the position from where one wants to speak. When the economy enters into play, the discussion about identity seems to ease: money puts everything in order, it is the agency that manages the lives and the misery of many people in precarious situations. When the principle of profitability enters into play, the identity politics of nationalisms regroup towards new strategic positions. From there derives one of the most conflictive questions in tune with the economic crisis in Spain and its constant loss of credibility in the so-called “markets”: is it still viable to be associated with the “brand” of Spain? From there arises this other question. What is out there? In the late-capitalist financial economy, where the value of nations is valued as in Monopoly, feelings about national identities end up relegated to the speculative bazaar of “market brands”. The sphere of contemporary art ought to be a place for this dispassionate debate; a space for the protected discussion of the ups and downs of politics, but with a view to interacting with public policies in the matter of art. Or at least with those administrations that have them. The concepts of nation state, cultural difference and hybrid identities have become sellable. “Selling nations” or “selling authenticity” forms part of commercial activity. On the one hand, cultural products that are particularly well known, recognised as pertaining to a specific place, are candidates for the market of the exotic. On the other, any form of cultural specificity is inescapably valued in an increasingly globalised world. The large contemporary art museums and biennales are showcases for this commercial exchange. The transformation of museums into corporations has conferred upon them the character of being capital instruments at the service of governments. One of the consequences of this transformation of the contemporary museum into an entertainment complex is the hugely successful exhibition, the gala event, laced with flamboyant publicity and marketing campaigns. The defenders of these events affirm that such programmes aim to improve understanding among different cultures. According to Brian Wallis, mass exhibitions like “Turkey: The Continuing Magnificence” (1987-88) and “Mexico: A Work of Art” (1990) travel round the United States with the aim of selling the image and products of developing countries to the American markets [1]. Museums, converted into receptacles for spectacle and tourism, serve as containers for the branding of national identities. In the decade that followed, museums and curating simply inherited this transaction of national “packaging”. One doesn’t have to go to any newspaper library to recall the rivers of ink that the exhibition of Spanish art, “The Real Royal Trip” generated, now almost a decade ago, when it landed in 2004 at the PS1 in New York at the hands of Harald Szeemann. That intervention participated in the traditional (that is still in vogue) promotion of national pavilions in international exhibitions but in the era of curating.

What is truly interesting about these forms of representation is the very idea of nation-state, which is both the solution to the problem and the problem itself. It’s known that this concept is currently going through a manifest crisis. On the one hand, the dissolution of nation-states in a supra-nation called Europe is the object of Euro-scepticism, the epigone of which is the distrusting posture of David Cameron (the heir of Thatcherism) in the United Kingdom. But on the other hand, the European Union can only maintain itself with a strict headcount and ordering of its members, the nation-states that integrate it. The dialectic between the parts and the whole, the fragment and the totality, has only a few times reached such complexity if one thinks about the territorial borders and frontiers and if one adds, to the symbolic and political discontinuity, its geographic and spatial continuity. The omnipresent flag of the European Union can serve as a metaphor for the aporia of the nation-state. It proudly displays twelve stars because traditionally this number is the symbol of perfection and harmony, plenitude and unity. Contrary to popular belief, the number of stars has nothing to do with the number of member states (of which there are many more). The circle shows an order, a sense of measurable rationality. Quite the opposite of what is formed by a constellation of stars, that is, the ordering of an apparent chaos between diametrically distant points. Points, that appear disconnected from each other that can generate a form, a meaning, through an exercise of collective imagination. In a European constellation, which would the stars be? In the flag of the European Union each star signifies the judicial figure of the nation-state. Where has the idea of articulating a Europe based on its regions gone? Is there an alternative to the nation-state? Is a return to the closed and self-absorbed nation-state not perhaps what the anti-European populist movements are trying to enforce, in the current situation of collapse? The Spanish state offers a paradigmatic case in this sense, with two rising nationalisms such as the Basque and Catalan, continually pushing on the sensitive vertices of the integrity of the Form. Logically, but paradoxically, the only way to achieve a new status comes from this very figure that has been diagnosed as being in crisis: the nation-state. A Europe forced to manage the stars therefore appears on the horizon, as an alternative and solution but also as the problem besetting its realization.

One of the theories of postmodernism that in its day established a new relation between the particular and the universal was regionalism. The terms of “particular” and “universal” now seem more appropriate than the exhausted binary relation of local and global. In the debate surrounding architecture, critical regionalism emerged at the end of the 1970s and beginning of 1980 as a critical trend that used the contextual strengths of a place (geography, climate and local cultures) to grant meaning to new constructions. First Alex Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre, and then later Kenneth Frampton, established a theory where sensitivity towards the surrounding environment had a decisive influence on the ways architecture was made. But regionalism was more than this: it was also a political tool of postmodernism, critical of the homogeneity of modernity, the supreme form of political organisation of which was the modern nation-state. The regionalist theories proclaimed the liberation of localisms, the cult of the vernacular, difference and exoticism, without necessarily having to fan the fires of the multiple nationalisms within a nation-state [2]. This call for distinction could even be seen as a Europeanizing variation of the multiculturalism that was then so much in vogue. But who today would even dare to employ the word “regionalism”? Lamentably it has passed to a better life as a cultural category that is hard to translate in the arena of the political idiolect.

However, it wasn’t so long ago that the idea of a “Europe of Regions” was promoted on various different European levels. This “Europe of the Regions” hasn’t quite taken off as a supranational entity or realized utopia, in the form that the Basque country, Catalonia, Brittany, Saxony, Wallonia, Flanders, Tyrol or Wales (to give a few examples) could establish neighbourly relations within a new category: the Euro-region. Stars in a galaxy. Without a doubt, there exist timid experiments, for example when strictly sporadic cross-border agreements are reached. From the place where I write, the Euro-region extends from the Basque Country to Aquitaine, incorporating different territories that belong to the states of Spain and France. There exists a series of economic treaties to implement this Euro-region that has arisen out of the alliance of two regions, from two neighbouring countries. These cross-frontier relations are spurred on by autonomous and regional governments, as well as by the states themselves; regionalism, in any of its variants, always seems more tolerable than nationalism. But while the concept of the nation-state seem to be in decline in a globalised world, the current configuration of the map of Europe could call into effect the old neoliberal idea that the West has finally reached a point in its realization where (after the disintegration of ex-Yugoslavia) the map seems to be definitively complete, and in no mood to be modified again. The neoliberal credo, nevertheless, is constantly regenerated as a mutable substance, elaborating fresh material from its dregs. For in accord with the principle of profitability inherent in capitalism, that I indicated at the beginning, if maps have to be changed, they’re changed. What seems static to the eyes of the contemporary observer ends up being changeable over the course of history.

But in the global market, it’s hard to sell regionalism. Unlike cities, competing with one another to attract tourism and become commercial brands, regional identities maintain a certain resistance to being sold in the market of international culture. Sociologists like Richard Sennett have reflected on the surreptitious economic alliances between cities that belong to different countries, in a new actualization of the constellation as a latent form. It’s enough to pick up a commercial prospectus from any airline company to visualize these constellations. Large and medium sized cities are the places where the fluctuations of global capital are most firmly rooted. The countryside has been pushed aside from business for a long time now. All this leads to the displacement of citizens across frontiers. This is even more noticeable in the ambit of the immaterial and cognitive economy of creativity, to the extent that the internationalization of art contexts should no longer be seen exclusively as “exportable interior product”, but also as being the international hybridisation of urban foci that are cities. How many curators and international artists from other latitudes are there in our cities? The key is no longer in how artists are by force exported, so much as how they are involuntarily imported to urban nuclei. “Importation” and “exportation” differ completely from the concept of “immigration”, that is always compulsory, however much the unfortunate euphemism of “exterior mobility” is used, as occurred in the words of the Employment Minister in describing the current exodus of young Spaniards. The trends and migratory fluxes in contemporary art form a good measuring stick, with which to estimate the creative capital of a country; which countries export and which import, etc. The reciprocity of both movements is the proof of an upward trend. It’s not by chance that if we cast a glance at some countries right in the midst of a process of economic expansion, Brazil and Mexico in Latin America or Turkey, Poland in Europe, that one ascertains the emergence of artists, curators and institutions from these very countries. Does anyone know of a country with a greater number of young artists and curators moving continually across the globe than Turkey?

Any differential identity requires a process of transcoding or mediation directed at the consensus of the curatorial and discursive apparatus of the art institution. Nowadays, the form of the nation-state is what guarantees this translatability. The other great paradigm that has already been integrated, and is being exploited, is that of the ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe. The image of the artist from the Eastern block is totally locatable and imaginable within the imaginary of the art institution. But beyond this representation, the nation-state is the agency that executes the social and historical reality of this country, translatable as the regulated comprehension of identities. The pavilions of some nations without a state in the Venice Biennale, be it the joint case of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, start off with a handicap right from the beginning, and are destined in most occasions to be products of internal consumption even when presented in an international showcase. A true post-national position for the artists and productive agents involved, faced with the quandary of having to act in representation, would imply not ever picking a side from the two parties in the conflict, so much as being able to participate at the same time both in one and the other, but also, in a dialectical realization, in neither.

[1] Brian Wallis, “Selling Nations: International Exhibitions and Cultural Diplomacy”, en Daniel J. Sherman/Irit Rogoff, eds., Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles (Minneapolis, MI, 1994), pp. 265-81.

[2] See Peio Aguirre, “The State of Spain; Nationalism, Regionalism and Biennialization”, en e-flux Journal # 22, 2011.…

Peio Aguirre writes about art, film, music, theory, architecture and politics, amongst other subjects. The genres he works in are the essay and meta-commentary, a hybrid space that fuses disciplines on a higher level of interpretation. He also (occasionally) curates and performs other tasks. He writes on the blog “Crítica y metacomentario” (Criticism and metacommentary).

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