by Jan Verwoert

frieze, UK
May 1 2006

In these days of cultural complexity it's important to ask 'what is
local' and 'what does it need'?

The other day I had lunch in the new restaurant da Karlo near where I
live on Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin. They serve Italian food and play
Brazilian music, and the waiters speak Spanish. With a good view of
the Stalinist architecture of the Allee, I read an essay by a French
filmmaker who recounted how, when he first saw a Jonas Mekas film, he
didn't understand a word of the American voice-over, which was spoken
with a Lithuanian accent, but still loved every minute of the movie.

As my pizza Napoli arrived, to the strains of a melancholy samba
tune, it struck me that it is precisely these moments of cultural
interference that I look for in art.

By 'interference' I don't mean to evoke the notion of 'diversity'
that the advertisers and ideologues of the 1990s seized on as
a way to brand urban consumer culture as the earthly paradise
of capitalist liberalism. I'm thinking more of those accidental
moments when different voices and languages overlap at the opening
of an exhibition or during a break at a conference, or when different
meanings clash in an art work or a text, or in your mind when you try
to piece together memories of a show, discussion or journey. No doubt,
simulating such moments of cultural complexity has today become a
routine affair for art professionals. Yet what routines cannot procure
are interferences. They have to occur of their own volition, and when
they do, they don't necessarily make sense. Take the constellation
of a defunct Soviet Modernism, a sad samba, a book about American
underground cinema and a pizza Napoli. This could be a perfect or a
meaningless moment (or both). It could be a typical Berlin moment,
but then it could also occur in any place with a socialist past where
they serve pizza.

This is also why I believe that the genius loci of a particular
city can be an important factor but never the sole reason for the
occurrence of magical moments. Who knows, special things could also
happen when in some out-of-the-way place a motley crew of characters
from various countries meet at an exhibition, conference, art school
or residency. In fact, even when they take place in a metropolis,
gatherings of international artists and intellectuals can feel
distinctively marginal in exactly the same way as they would if
they had happened somewhere 'provincial'. I remember, for instance,
the experience of a panel discussion in the Guggenheim New York as
being not substantially different from that of a seminar in a disused
convent in Cork. With about 20 people listening on both occasions,
the discussion was marked by a similar amount of interference, some
of it white noise with people talking at cross purposes, but some
of it very inspiring when the improvised discourse suddenly threw up
terms that made it possible to agree or disagree in a meaningful way.

I have had this experience in many places, and it makes me think about
the close relationship between internationality and marginality. It
seems to me that internationalism in art today is primarily about
mediating eccentric positions from different cultural contexts in
front of a small local audience. The common ground for this new
internationalism could in fact be a feeling of marginality shared by
artists and intellectuals from various countries. What I appreciate
about this international discourse is that through its fickleness it
is a counterpoint to what happens if a local or national art scene
is left to focus on itself for too long. The outcome is usually that
the members of such scenes feel forced to defend the position they
took up years ago in a never-ending trench warfare. To keep on the
margins of such pointless local quarrels and instead look for a more
open exchange with like-minded people in an international discourse
has always seemed preferable to me.

Discussing such ideas of internationalism and marginality with a
small group of artists and writers in the garden of an art school
in a suburb of Yerevan, Armenia, the sociologist Hraech Bayadyan
made a good point. He described how the post-Soviet condition had
changed the social status of the intellectual from being that of a
dissident to that of a marginal figure. While the political regime
still occupied itself with dissidents (and both censored and sponsored
them), new capitalism simply marginalizes intellectual labour as
economically unprofitable and thus pushes it into oblivion. I argued
that if this marginal position is not recognized inside the country,
it would be in an international discourse. Bayadyan countered this by
saying that such recognition only make a difference when it affects
local struggles. He saw his task therefore as being to translate
international discourse into Armenian and thereby try to bring up to
date a language that had suffered a time-lag through being displaced
by modern Russian. This position made me wonder about how, on my part,
a flirtation with the international may also always imply an escape
from a commitment to the local. Still, I have difficulty figuring
out what the local could want from me. Writing this in Umeň, Sweden,
with everything outside covered in deep snow, while back in Berlin
spring and another biennial have just arrived, I come to no conclusion.

Jan Verwoert is contributing editor of frieze. Although based in
Berlin he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts Umeň and the Piet Zwart
Institute Rotterdam. p?c=315