Twenty years is a useful length of time. It is long enough to obtain some distance and the possibility of an overview, but short enough to remain part of living memory. Twenty years of Afterall is also twenty years of living and working in the ‘art world’ and watching it morph and fracture. It is that process of change that I would like to reflect on in this foreword, as a way to chart where Afterall journal came from and where it is going now.
The origins of Afterall lay in a dissatisfaction, shared with my co-founder Mark Lewis, in the way art was being written about late last century. We wanted our new journal to be something that would analyse the social and political ambitions of some contemporary artists, what we called their context and fields of inquiry, while celebrating and arguing for the possibilities of visuality and artistic expression as something unique and valuable in itself. Ethics and aesthetics, or politics and poetics to take the rubric of documenta X in 1997, were what we wanted to bring into relation via the combination of an artistic and a curatorial approach that Mark and I each represented. The journal started in London, a city where the art market was expanding rapidly and where the media phenomenon of the YBAs (young British artists) was still felt, both in terms of making art more widely accessible and also less critically or socially engaged, or so we felt at the time. Mark had come to London from Vancouver, whilst I was based in Edinburgh and later Malmö, so both of us looked at the media hype around the mainstream London scene with some suspicion. At the same time, being based in an art school – Central Saint Martins, a constituent college of the University of the Arts London – we wanted to uphold the values of academic discourse around art and the notion of criticality as the most useful tool to analyse art, its production and its reception.
What we could term neoliberalism or the managed decline of the public interest was happening all around us in the early 2000s. The year of our launch coincided with the publication of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, where the instrumentalisation of creativity, innovation and the artistic lifestyle for the benefit of the wider capitalist economy was definitively exposed. Our approach in those early days was certainly influenced by such analyses but was more specifically built on the experience and observable impact of artworks and exhibitions. We tried to avoid a generic leftist critique, and that is why we focussed on artists as meaningful actors within the art system, as well as the contexts surrounding them and their work. Our editorial discussions always included an awareness of the effect of neoliberal policies on the staff, students and curricula at Central Saint Martins. We could see what was happening around us, in the college and far beyond, and we wanted to see how art would respond. Admittedly, we had little to offer as a constructive alternative and the promises of neoliberalism seemed to offer new openings towards experimentation and individual success within the arts – even the promise of a new kind of unregulated avant-garde. At the same time, neoliberal logic demanded that artists and curators increase their output, internationalise themselves and brand their activities. Afterall, at its origins, tried to navigate this terrain.
In the first years, we did so mostly from a Anglospheric point of view, using European philosophy and art theory to question neoliberal values – or to balance a degree of empathy with a consciousness of what alternatives were being lost or left undeveloped. Our horizons began to widen through our institutional partnerships, based on personal connections and affinities – initially CalArts through Tom Lawson; M HKA, Antwerp through Bart de Baere and Dieter Roelstraete, and subsequently Anders Kreuger; the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía (UNIA) arteypensamiento, Seville through Nuria Enguita Mayo; and the University of Chicago through Stephanie Smith – all of whom broadened our understanding of the United States and Western Europe, while also highlighting practices from Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe. Yet we largely remained within the Western geography of our beginnings. It was through the research and publishing partnerships with the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (led by Charles Stankievech, Stephanie Smith and Ute Meta Bauer, respectively) that a new expansion in our thinking was set. Discussions with First Nations artists and curators in Canada – including guest editors Wanda Nanibush and Candice Hopkins – and an increasing focus on the cultural geography of Southeast Asia and the Pacific enriched the editorial team’s growing awareness and familiarity with decolonial theory. Decolonial thought has proved transformative for the ideas and the artists that we have covered in the last five years of the journal. Our research and publishing partnerships have allowed us to escape from criticality as a default response to the crisis of possibility in the West and to build another axis in terms of both politics and poetics. This in turn has allowed a wider variety of aesthetic and artistic forms to be seen and discussed in the journal.
Afterall’s trajectory over the last years has also taken us further away from the mainstream art world, at least as represented by the hegemonic galleries, art fairs and international museums. These have expanded their role while remaining true to the neoliberalism that spawned them. Whereas twenty years ago we saw our role as critiquing these institutions, many of them now overlap with their own in-house critical journals and platforms (Frieze, Tate Etc., Ursula). Through a focus learnt from decolonial studies, Afterall has increasingly sought a place apart from such publications, with their tolerant but clearly commercial agendas. Being supported by an arts and design college and by our various partners means that we can offer a wider perspective. At its best, the journal is a means to discuss what art can mean in a world begging for transformation, and how artists can create images and environments that help us imagine a way out of current impasses and apparently immovable power structures. Art, as something subject to the ubiquitous tension between local conditions and global exchanges today, can see beyond the immediate impossibilities towards a bigger transformation. Such a horizon is crucial if it is to be seen by its publics as more than just a rarified, luxury product and it is this task that will keep us energised and engaged through the next decade.
The issue before you is our attempt to reflect on these last twenty years of Afterall journal. Seven texts from previous journals, introduced by current reflections from their respective authors, are complemented by seven newly commissioned essays. There was a very animated discussion in the editorial group about which seven texts from our archive would be most relevant to reread in 2019. We felt spoilt for choice in many ways, but what emerged was a consensus around some significant texts from the past that defined our shift away from criticality and towards more propositional qualities connected to the decolonial and demodern. We also made the selection on the basis of understanding how such discourses not only include new geographies and histories but also shift the art historical understanding of Western practices, elevating some that were previously in the shadows. In the following pages, artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Inji Efflatoun and Trinh T. Minh-ha are brought together anew; 1970s video collectives in France appear alongside Juan Downey’s video collaborations with the Yanomami; and Southeast Asian modes of social realism coexist with Latin American conceptualisms. The seven new commissions bring artists and ideas to Afterall that seek to find ways of doing and thinking alongside the colonial matrix of power that determines so much of our global exchanges. Tony Chakar finds that possibility in the abandonment of hope and Peter D. Sipeli offers a perspective based on the simultaneity of past wisdom and new knowledge; elsewhere readers are encouraged to understand our contemporary condition through artists’ engagements with extractivism, in the strange affiliations that are produced by the post-Soviet condition in Central Asia or by Babi Badalov’s nomadic artistic practice. There are also discoveries in the work of Karrabing Film Collective and Dineo Seshee Bopape, both transformative artistic practices that are in touch with the lived experiences of people in, respectively, North Australia and South Africa. The afterword, by my long-term colleague Mark Lewis, is also a text about lived experience and the condition of Western modernity in the process of decline.
I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to Afterall over the past twenty years, especially our funders, editorial colleagues and all the artists and writers who have together shaped the character and purpose of the journal. In addition thanks are due to Central Saint Martins, namely Jeremy Till and the late Chris Wainwright, both of whom have stood by Afterall and supported it as a space where art and all its consequences have pride of place.
I would also like to express our gratitude to Caroline Woodley, publishing director of Afterall Research Centre, who, after seventeen years of essential and dedicated work, is soon to leave the organisation. Her contribution to Afterall has been significant in every way. She will be sorely missed.