Menene Gras Balaguer
Menene Gras Balaguer
Writing the earth and reframing maps are symbolic practices that respond to the need to understand space and spatial concerns and the way in which these are expressed through people’s lived experience of territory and the violence of inscription. These cartographic and linguistic practices of writing and reading space belong to a new kind of geography, or a new way of considering geography that encompasses and describes the rise of both spatial practitioners – architects, artists, film-makers, curators and others whose activities have to do with spaces of all kinds in real time – and migration specialists. Since 1989 globalization has changed the way in which we understand art worlds or worlds of art. From that point on, we speak about remapping successful art practices and events to see them as part of a vast network within which art itself has experienced a great transformation. The conditions of production and opportunities for the diffusion of art have expanded in a way never previously known. Speed of communication and transmission has facilitated changes that have embedded transitional experiences in the contemporaneous and the contemporary. Art is no longer a local activity that represents a nation state or a specific way of doing things within a geographic space and according to its boundaries, although sometimes we want art to be representative of a nation or an identity. The biggest impact of globalization is the fact that the centre (West) and the periphery (made of many peripheries) are no longer two dimensions of a bi-polar world, and this means the emergence of new agents that are influencing the art world in a way never before anticipated. Ethnocentric paradigms have been eroded by the same forces that created them. Asia is leading this new process which, as a result of globalization, is creating a network within which Western countries do not dominate as they did before. What has happened? In less than twenty years, increasing precariousness in Europe and the US has deeply changed the concept of the spatial ‘other’; for ‘them’, the other has come to be embodied by ‘us’ since the outbreak of the economic crisis in which we are immersed.
Notions of horizontality and transversality might be applied in a new discourse that positions territoriality in a vast space that belongs to people of different ethnic identities. In many respects, the Silk Road is one of the most prominent paradigms of the importance of the economic and political geography of the regions through which products, commodities and people, as well as information and ideas, circulated in the past. Although they were also the cause of conflict and wars, the routes stemming from the main axes of the road became bridges between locations on both sides, while the world seemed to be crossed from East to West and back, arriving at the same place of origin. In a way the Silk Road had multiple routes, like a rhizome expanding horizontally in many directions above the ground, both dividing the land and nation states, and allowing traffic across them. Horizontality can be represented as a large screen or endless surface across which other cultures can be accessed and identities constructed that flow from one place to another in search of labour. We have entered the Asian Century and this is why we talk about the power of the region, notwithstanding different economies and emerging developments in its various countries. The new Silk Road is no longer a road but an assembly of many roads and paths via which people travel from one place to another in all directions, in the real or the virtual world. Why is horizontality a useful principle in understanding the free flow of people and goods across landscapes and borders drawn by the nation states, a flow also set in motion by individuals and communities who move from one place to another? What practical uses can we gather from the construction of a discourse that intends to dislocate the simple architecture of maps that have such a long history, and which have been changing, since their creation, according to the density of economic, political and social flows across their surfaces? How does this affect the present world? Can we speak about new ruptures in the imagination of a divided world that is challenging the ethnocentric topics that only have meaning in relation to the past?
The new Silk Roads and their Northern or Southern routes have increased the exchanges and connections among cultures and influenced our understanding of otherness. The other is everywhere and our perceptions stem from both the Eastern and Western worlds, although neither of the two vast confronted territories are homogeneous spaces themselves and nor do they think or behave in the same ways. Over the centuries, trading activities along the routes facilitated the transmission, not just of goods, but of cultures and religions, as well as languages and influences derived from cross-cultural contacts. The Silk Road was a junction of many pathways through which peoples from different communities and countries transited; it was a privileged space of transitional gathering and encounters, as well as transmission. It would be possible to reframe this road as the Rice Road, the Bamboo Road or, most recently, the Nylon Road, referring to it in terms of the other products for trade along its main axes of communication and transmission. However, the Silk Road challenged distances and borders beyond which a huge variety of products for trade reached other peoples and cultures.
Nowadays, this spatial question is no longer a matter of physical distance, but of proximity through the internet. It is as if it were possible to move over the planet without travelling anywhere, journeying only with the eye, which becomes part of the screen. The internet has changed the way in which we look at the world and how too it looks at us. Geography has raised questions for other social sciences that they had never thought to pose, as well as being adopted by specialists in issues of space and time – we are living in the epoch of space, immediacy, simultaneity and juxtaposition: maps can be superimposed upon many fields and political, economic and cultural spatial experiences, with all their attendant implications. Does horizontality sit in opposition to globalization or within globalization as a kind of replica of the same order of things? Does some of our knowledge of these roads become imaginary and replace real confrontation through war? Horizontality is a term also known for its association with various radical protest movements which have sprung up since the beginning of the twenty-first century, advocating the creation of social structures involving public participation and seeking to dissolve centralized power. The theme of horizontality as a spatial alignment has been seen as the field or terrain of art practices that are symbolically against verticality, the latter being the expression of social dominance and control, both of the political and economic system, involving a concept of vertical society in all realms from the public to private spheres. The fights and games of alliance between the different powers and countries vying to open new Silk Roads across land and sea revive ancient trade routes and the old aims of prosperity. New agents have entered the frame, including Central Asia, and at the same time new logistics and new policy-makers are transforming the impact of trade and transportation. They are also transforming the key strategies brought into play in the regions crossed by the different commercial routes, as well as the economies in the area. For instance, the economic growth of China and the shifting of US foreign policy towards Asia are paradigmatic of the new situation, as is the way in which countries like Kazakhstan or Thailand are positioning themselves to enhance regional connectivity and strengthen links throughout Asia. The latter constitutes a kind of regional resistance, opposed to any external form of new colonialism.
Korean architect, artist, curator, theorist and co-founder of the International Center for Urban Ecology (iCUE) Kyong Park (1955) graduated from the University of Michigan in 1978 and is currently Associate Professor of Public Culture at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He is the author of the New Silk Roads Project based on multi-faceted urban research through art practices that explore ‘the urban conditions emerging in the rapidly expanding and transforming Asian cities and regions’, as his project programme explains. On the one hand, the project envisages various nomadic expeditions to Asian regions and cities, from Istanbul to Tokyo, in order to map the new Asian landscapes and their interconnected systems. On the other, it documents experiences of places and their inhabitants in different sequences recorded through photography and video. As described by the team,
Our work embraces informal and emergent structures of the city to show that the multiplicity of urban processes and actors exceeds single-minded domination of city construction by architects or planners. Some of the key investigations are: transnational migrations; the rise of supranational economic and legal institutions; the evolution of extraterritorial zones and the social and spatial effects of globalization.
All of these are aspects of the complex systems that keep together or isolate different parts of the region. Kyong Park considers that maybe the old Silk Road was the first step towards globalization, and this is why he wanted to go back to it to investigate what it means today to undo orientalist understandings of these roads and try to remap the land, locating the main geographies – human, political and economic – stage by stage in order to reshape perceptions of contemporary Asia, from the last ten years up to now. It seems clear that, although the continuity of the project may be preserved and the itineraries followed by dynamics of urban transformation, Kyong’s team works mostly on case studies to make it easier to communicate. In 2009, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC, Castilla and León Museum of Contemporary Art) made an exhibition of his project and during the same year he participated at the ‘Madrid Abierto’ Conversations Program, showing the work that had been carried out by them in this field until that point.
When dealing with critical issues around Asian art practices and the art market in this part of the world, many questions arise. The biennial system has changed the art world, reflecting a move away from the ethnocentric approach that used to impose criteria from the West on artworks from the East. This is certainly the case with biennials in the new Eastern format, such as the Gwangju, Singapore, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Sydney events, and triennials, such as Brisbane or Tianjin, to mention only a few. It is also the case with art fairs in the region, which have increased the numbers of participants over the last few years. The recent acquisition by Art Basel of the Hong Kong art fair will transform the city into a hub for the art market, as was already evident in May 2013, through the transactions and sales carried out through the main art auctions and gallery market. Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses have set up offices in Hong Kong, where they are working mainly in a new market with Asian art and new clients and collectors from the region. These displacements from West to East have opened new routes that require us to rethink the world of art and the world at large, in which we live. It is no longer possible for Western national museums of contemporary art, curators, artists or the art market in general to ignore the fact that, art is growing in an unprecedented way in India, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Australia as well as emerging in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan or Bangladesh, and that the future of art lies there. The lessons we can learn from this are that these countries can no longer be excluded from history, given their clear contribution to contemporary life, and that the hypermodernity that contemporary art practices have adopted for their production within the international art system also maintains the dialogue between the local and the global through regional networking.
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