– Autumn/Winter 2002
Charles Esche, Thomas Lawson
From this issue onwards Afterall has a new joint editor, a new base in Los Angeles and a new set of ambitions to take the ideas of the journal forward. In broadening our editorial collaboration, we are seeking to secure the existing qualities of the journal as a critical voice steering a line between presenting artists and their work and providing theoretical contexts that add possibility and engagement to our encounters with art.
We also want to test the fashionable ideas of global sameness against the reality of a bi-polar publication that will have to take account of both an Anglo-Saxon and continental European view of art, and even of society as a whole. The extent to which these outlooks and expectations differ is arguably one of the most crucial cultural questions of the moment. At a time when the United States appears uneasy with its imperial role, and continental Europe seeks and repeatedly fails to define itself as a collective interest, the room for misunderstandings, creative and destructive, has rarely been larger since 1945. In the field of visual culture, this state of affairs might represent itself in mutually separate development, or in the rather piecemeal adoption of theories from 'the other side' that marked the appearance of post-1968 French theory in the United States or the understanding of the New York journal October's position in 1980s Germany. Neither process produced much in the way of stimulating art nor illuminating writing in their adopted homes, and there is no need to relive such histories. Nevertheless, the attempt to find ways in which the different trans-Atlantic positions can be expressed, critiqued and maybe even negotiated without seeking a banal synthesis is vitally important. Having been founded in the transit-lounge space of the United Kingdom gives us one perhaps ideal location to do so. Los Angeles is another, relating less to Europe than its Pacific Rim counterparts further west.
As well as this step into the United States, Afterall will be establishing a broader remit within Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. Afterall International will serve as a portal for research into institutional experimentation, combining with the California Institute of the Arts and a number of European museums and galleries to pursue a rigorous and responsive programme of new projects and publications. The initiative will feed into activities in our two home art colleges and the programmes of art institutions in continental Europe, as well as the journal itself. One of the key programmes within Afterall International will be to investigate recent history in relation to the production and presentation of art as a way of offering an academically based memory for current experiments and talk of art 'laboratories' and 'factories'. In particular, it will be to the variegated models of European social democracy that we will turn in order to hone our enquiries. We want to concentrate on questions of cultural practice as they relate to and affect civil society, its desires and discontents. Though apparently in terminal decline, social democracy still offers the best second guess to radical free-market capitalism that we have available, and questions about its cultural form, content and appeal to a broad intellectual base are inevitably going to preoccupy us until new formulations appear. Once up and running, we will be able to explain our approach and the development of Afterall International more specifically.
The significance of an historical memory in our discussions around Afterall International also has touched decisions around this new issue of our regular journal. With the presence of Helen Levitt as a keystone for the issue, we hope to stress the continuity of documentary narrative as an art practice despite the distrust of the high modernists. We have also chosen to foreground the question of narrative as a critical device within contemporary art. Rather than simply relying on film or storytelling to carry the weight of the argument, we have sought to look at artists who work with photography, painting and the intermediate zone of documentation/installation. This has resulted in an issue whose narrative core quickly explodes into a series of very individual practices and voices, with a strong presence of transcribed interviews and interpretations of one artist's work by another. These formats may point the way for future issues, though we are as committed as ever to serious contextual texts taking their lead from the work of an individual artist. The two longer essays are both in some ways autobiographical, offering Thomas Lawson the opportunity to introduce themes that will persist in the journal, and providing Nikos Papastergiadis with a means to speak about his own practice as an academic who wants to write (narratives) alongside artists, rather than simply provide copy for requisite catalogue essays. His ambition is both laudable and relevant to Afterall as we have always sought to create our own terms for defining writing about art, and to vary them according to the perceived needs of each individual artist.
Rather than making the usual pedestrian tour through the essays, texts and interviews in this issue, we once again would like to invite the reader to make his or her own connections and cross-references. Between the works of Chantal Akerman, Laylah Ali, Helen Levitt, Allen Ruppersberg and Sean Snyder there are clear links of affinity and subject, as well as sizeable differences in media and form. The question of socially or politically formed identity in relation to personal histories is a constant presence, as is the formal narrative device of avoiding a single set-piece work or viewpoint in favour of shattered images or complex juxtapositions. Despite this, the most interesting viewpoint for the reader is probably not to survey the links from on high but rather to find them in the warp of the texts and images themselves, where delightful and surprising connections arise in the descriptive and visual language used by the artists or their respective writers. We hope you enjoy this first transatlantic issue of the journal and we look forward ourselves to a new and long partnership from which we can learn much. Our hopeful ambition is to create a platform for precisely the kind of inter-regional discussion that might provide an antidote both to US cultural globalism, and the essentialism found in much opposition to it.