The difference between the nomadic elite and the disenfranchised poor who have no choice
In 1997 Johannesburg hosted a spectacular biennial that attracted artists and cultural workers from around the world. The second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes: History and Geography, raised important issues about the many artists and curators who now function as global citizens, and about the travelers like me who have become part of their mobile audience. It was meant to be a monument to this new era of nomadism—a tribute to a longed-for time when national boundaries will be dissolved. We had gathered in this city on Africa’s southern tip to reflect on a possible transformation out of the past, even outside history, driven by images and art. But because of where and when the Biennale took place, the inquiry inevitably turned on itself.
The exhibition was held in downtown Johannesburg, surrounded by burnt-out buildings and crime-ridden streets. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in session, and the weight of the past sat heavy on a country trying to move beyond apartheid. The Biennale, meanwhile, was looking forward to a future that would lie beyond the concept of nationhood. This created a fascinating discussion but a total disconnect with the prevailing local debate. The Biennale had not been designed to leap over these issues; its intent was to position South Africa as an international player in the art world. But the timing was perhaps unfortunate, given the country’s pressing need to reconstitute itself after more than 30 years of betrayal and sadism.
This situation crystallized certain questions about the new nomadism, both among artists and in the world at large. Many artists now migrate to the Western metropolises and position themselves as transnational or postnational, only to be selected by curators to represent their lands of origin. Truly local art, rooted in local concerns, often gets ignored. What might be called postnational art exists in relationship not to an actual place but rather to a series of global ideas. To whom are these artists, writers, and curators responsible when they attempt to exist in relation to no one society? If their concerns are social, where is their imagined point of impact? And if the political issues are global, to whom are they expressed?
In a wider sense, as the romantic concept of the global citizen takes hold, who deserves such a title? How does one achieve global citizenship? And where does it exist, in what time, in whose history?
Returning from Johannesburg, several artists, curators, and I were en route to New York when our South African Airlines flight announced that it would stop for fuel at Ihla do Sal (Island of Salt), off the African coast. It was dark when the plane landed. None of us knew the date or time. We weren’t sure if the island belonged to Cape Verde or South Africa, what language the people spoke, or what commerce they engaged in. Those of us who disembarked were ushered into an airport waiting room and told not to leave because we had not gone through customs. Surprisingly, we found groups of Russians smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Why were they here? Had they been working in Angola? Trapped in a room filled with smokers and unable to step outside, those of us who did not smoke were getting sick and angry.
Having just engaged in so much postnational theory, we might have felt liberated by this out-of-nation experience had we been better able to imagine where we were. We were in a postmodern, postnational moment, unable to locate ourselves in either cultural or geopolitical space. But however attuned we were to these uncertainties in the abstract, our physical response was disorientation.
The world now seems divided between what French economist Jacques Attali calls the rich and poor nomads: the nomadic elite who travel at will, expanding their world, and the disenfranchised poor who travel because they are desperate. However indigent artists may sometimes be, we are distinct from migratory laborers who cross borders illegally, forced to negotiate cultures because they have no other way to earn a living. These people move at constant risk to their lives and without the romance of travel or the delirium of adventure.
Their experience differs greatly from that of my students, who come to the United States for an art education they cannot get in their own countries. They ultimately do very well in this global art world, living on the boundaries of culture, versed in several languages, constructing and deconstructing their identities at every turn. They are the future. But they are more and more formed and informed by the West. These are often the artists and writers who are chosen to be in international exhibitions, because their work talks about the process of crossing over. But as their work becomes more and more about their complex, multiple realities, they find it harder to connect to those at “home” who never left.
Romance surrounds this theoretical transmigration. Idealizing transnationality as the social order of the future is convenient, now that we’ve seen the end of the hope of Marxism and the rampant acceptance of global capitalism. Isn’t it easier to think of yourself as a citizen of the world than as a citizen of a neighborhood where gang violence, unemployment, pollution, racism, a defunct educational system may prevail? Global ideas are just abstract enough to counter the need for real social action. They also fit nicely into the future already chartered by global capitalism. If there is resistance to these ideas in the international exhibitions, where is it?
Too often, it seems, these exhibits have become places of origin themselves, imagined into being by their curators. The ethnologist Marc Auge refers to space where no social life is possible as “non-place.” Shopping malls, suburbs, and airports may be non-places, but so are white-walled galleries and museums designed to hold art without interfering with it. In fact, this apparent emptiness has increasingly become ideological. Take airports, where we are bombarded by the CNN news loop, packaged for its universal, delocalized audience. We’re never left alone with our thoughts, our books, our work anymore. No private space is allowed in the public arena, where everything is sold, even the possibility of silence.
Nomads traditionally are preurban or unurban, but the new nomad is posturban. Dwelling largely in the non-space of airports, posturban nomads are almost always able to bypass the local realm, yet remain connected to it through the nomad’s special tools—cell phones, laptops. What aspects of this itinerant life are progressive? Which are not?
When we landed in Kennedy Airport after the 16-hour journey, we found ourselves in a state of dislocation. At the baggage claim I felt uneasy, as I often do when I am about to leave my simulated nomadic tribe and enter the world of domesticated locality. We all seemed stunned to be back in the United States, but in true nomadic fashion, even at 6 a.m. and with only minutes to spare between flights, the tribe began to put down its virtual tents and get to the business of rhizomic, global connection. Many of us were making calls, surfing the Net, checking e-mail and voice mail. All, it seemed, were on the move again in virtual space. As traveling intellectuals and artists, we could not let grass grow under our feet. Even if we had a piece of land on which to grow some grass, and could admit to retro-domestic desires for organic cultivation, anything we planted would certainly die. We’d never be there, anywhere, long enough to water it. And anyway, nomads are grazers, not planters. Restless, they take the best from each location and move on.
Carol Becker is dean of faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author and editor of several books. Adapted from Art Journal (Summer 1999). Subscriptions: $36/yr. (4 issues) from College Art Association, 275 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10001.