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Foreword Afterall Journal issue 37

This issue of Afterall is perched, quite literally, between two forms. On the one hand it is a classic Afterall issue, with contributions from many of our favourite and time-honoured writers (Tom McDonough, Dieter Roelstraete, Monika Szewczyk, Catherine Wood) as well as from the editors, and on the other it was put together while a number of the editorial team were in Brazil (Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente and the former editor Nuria Enguita Mayo) working on the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, which will be on view until early December 2014. The thinking behind the Bienal fed into the journal — as did some of the artists — but as the curatorial process was intended to be organic and responsive, especially to the substantial changes affecting Brazil throughout the Bienal’s preparation, this issue of the journal and the Bienal itself led off into two different directions: the former towards patterns of connectivity and the role of the museum in the contemporary age, and the latter towards discursive and social relations among people.

In many ways the two are interlinked: both shadow the move in contemporary art over the past two decades away from an engagement with the object itself and towards publics, relations and communities. For its part, the Bienal has opted for the nomenclature of ‘participants’ over ‘artists’ and ‘curators’, allowing for the inclusion of other disciplines within the exhibition, and giving a sense of the way the curators work alongside the artists, and of the role that the public, who are also participants, plays in activating and responding to the works on show during the Bienal. The project, in this respect, represents the culmination of thinking at Afterall, particularly by Esche, around the contemporary roles of the museum and the biennial, which sees the museum not as a site for preserving objects but as one that seeks to allow for discourse as a mode of plurality and participation.

This re-thinking of the museum has also been accomplished by the Museum of American Art, included here editorially in the artists’ section of the journal, although the project disputes the definitions of both art and authorship. The Museum reprises key exhibitions that have created the dominant narrative of modern and contemporary art, showing the paintings and sculptures in these exhibitions often as slapdash copies, to further undermine the idea of uniqueness upon which autonomous art is built. As Steven ten Thije and Our Literal Speed suggest, the Museum of American Art points not to the works themselves but to the narratives they create: a recognition of the way in which the context of display influences, if not determines, art’s relationship to its public. Anders Kreuger discusses a real instance of this effect in his essay on the Museum of African Art in Belgrade, which he sees as standing for foreign policy and national aspirations, as much as a space for the exhibition of artistic forms. If the 31st Bienal de São Paulo is questioning existing forms of social organisation and invoking art’s political imagination to conjure new ones, these essays look at the way institutional structures can confine art and make it conservative: se figer, become deliberately stuck. Releasing art’s potentiality is also the project of Otobong Nkanga, who shows the histories that inhere in objects and materials — as well as the performative possibilities that emerge when one takes them off their pedestals or out of their vitrines. From one-to-one conversations between the artist and exhibition visitors to the production of posters distributed in the streets of Lagos, Nkanga has devised forms of communication with her audience that, as Szewczyk and Yvette Mutumba argue, displace the dominant narratives implicit in conventional modes of museological display, as well as the neocolonial assumptions implicit therein.

The interest in alternative forms of communication also dovetails with anti-colonial concerns in Juan Downey’s experiments with technology of the late 1960s and 70s. Julieta González discusses his relation to second-order cybernetics, an approach to communication systems that understands observers as participants, and considers how his project Video Trans Americas(1973–76) sited these abstract enquiries within the indigenous cultures of South America, using video technology to reveal social patterns that the disparate peoples there share — and, more importantly, to reveal them to one another. Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Helena Vilalta, on the other hand, discuss Downey’s subsequent work with the indigenous Yanomami peoples from the Amazonian rainforest in relation to concurrent anthropological debates and the artist’s career-long preoccupation with invisible energies. Indeed, the networking possibilities glimpsed in cybernetics, at the dawn of the computer age in the 1970s, have reached full force in today’s wired life. In a discussion of the impact of the internet on contemporary representations of identity, I consider the resurgence of dialogic forms in recent moving image work as a counterpoint to Rosalind Krauss’s insistence on the monologue in 1970s video art, tying the impetus to converse to the internet’s exigency to be always public.

The elusive, imagination-fuelled practice of Janice Kerbel, here discussed by Tom McDonough and Anna Lovatt, goes against the grain of such anxiety to constantly perform one’s identity publicly. Instead, Kerbel takes problems and unfolds them into their barest constituents: a play starring theatre lights, a baseball game made solely of probabilities, narrative anticipation funnelled into the declamatory style of circus posters. Kerbel’s deconstructive impulse is shadowed in Boris Charmatz’s dissection of what dance and choreography can be — how movement, as Wood writes, structures not only our bodies but also our social relations. Roelstraete, meanwhile, revisits a time of social foment — the 1960s in the US — to look at the music and art collectives that arose among the African- American community in Chicago.

Afterall has enjoyed a reputation of examining political practice and critical theory — on the more socially engaged side of the art world, which is also code for the non- commercial, publicly funded side. Throughout the preparation for this issue we have had to confront the results of the new Arts Council England budget, which for us resulted in standstill funding, but in which other institutions, such as the London-based commissioning agency Electra, were cut. In this context we have had to think about the shift from largely public to more private funding — a debate we are actively pursuing in a conference on public value this autumn, organised as part of the network Common Practice,01 and internally in thinking through where the private money that reaches us via advertising or donations comes from. There have been cases where we individually disagree with working with certain funders and foundations — whose politics, especially in the light of recent world events, differ from ours — and it is has been difficult to reconcile individual voices with the shared voice of the journal, especially when the collectivevoice of consensus often leads towards the status quo and away from action. This, indeed, is one of the problems taken up by the 31st Bienal de São Paulo, expressed in visual form in the image used in the poster, which pictures solidarity but also suggests how many people thinking as one can become blind or wrong-headed. Commonality is not always the answer, and the São Paulo team has attempted to encourage conflict and dissent as a working method. I am curious to see how this will become legible in or impact on the final exhibition, but as a mode of practice it strikes me as the best response to the impasse where privately expressed dismay becomes publicly communicated forbearance.


  • The conference ‘Public Assets: Small-scale Arts Organisations and the Production of Value’, co-organised by Common Practice and Andrea Phillips of Goldsmiths, University of London, will be held in November 2014 in London. For more information, see (last accessed on 16 August 2014).