Identity, being-together, destiny… contingent

Grisha Dolgopolov

In a short burst we witnessed unfathomable horror. And yet we have been denied witnessing others’ horror for years. There is compassion for some and not for others. In a brief instant all the gains of dynamic multiculturalism have been decimated. We are witnessing the lie of justice for all and the surge of globally manufactured racism with the invocation of crusader vengeance and the politicisation of difference.

Synergy no longer surprises me although populist ignorance, and talkback’s propensity for connecting the asylum seekers and terrorists, is astounding. Recent actions have made it acceptable to demonise difference. There has been deplorable lack of leadership in the face of cowardly racist attacks. Perverse government policies are sanctioning these actions while contradicting the basic principles of mainstream multicultural society and the ethics of hospitality. Communities are increasingly fragmenting and segregating and the possibilities for reconciliation seem further away than ever. Critical multiculturalism has become a burning issue—the pervading spectre of our time. As John Rajchman asked, “how can we be ‘at home’ in a world where our identity is not given, our being-together in question, our destiny contingent or uncertain?” Responding to this challenge of dealing with cultural and racial difference in the face of the escalating politics of prejudice will be our greatest test of maintaining a just, hospitable and creative society.

At a time that now seems so much lighter, the July Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference Conference addressed the renegotiation of multicultural discourses for the arts. Providing a multidisciplinary platform of theory, activism, policy, art and ethics, this was a vital colloquium that investigated the current debates in an international context seeking to come up with global solutions. It combined industrial-strength talk with a serious commitment to providing new models of cross-cultural collaboration in workshopping solutions for future action and understanding. This was the first conference I had been to where there was a healthy, non-hierarchical mix of artists, theorists, activists and policy makers.

Convened by Nikos Papastergiadis, Nicholas Tsoutas and sponsored by the Arts in a Multicultural Australia Policy of the Australia Council, the conference attracted a full-house from around Australia to hear 16 excellent papers and celebrate the launch of Jennifer Rutherford’s terrific book, The Gauche Intruder (Melbourne University Press, 2001), that traces the pressures on Australian morality. There was a large contingent of international guests and inspirational Australian speakers: a wonderfully productive cacophony of accents, positions, backgrounds and colours that denied the need to pin down identity.

Papastergiadis set the tone for the weekend by declaring his boredom with cultural identity and theory. In privileging slapstick theory and a dis-ease with identities he called for a proactive engagement with multiculturalism in private relationships and outside official discourses. A number of speakers reminisced about their search for a way to feel at home when confronted by the ambivalence of the hyphenated-experience that inspired both shame and later empowerment in the possibility of escape from the dominant culture. Ien Ang called this routine, so integral to everyday life, “living in translation.” This is a constant process of negotiation between cultures and communication that denies a notion of ethnic homogeneity since the transformations are never uniform, but are oppositional and always localised. Although I used to think that the evolution into hybridity was a positive thing, Ang among others offered a critique of its redemptive powers, noting that hybridity is based on the destruction of optimistic reclamations of difference since they are always bound by power relations.

This floating existence with its de-centred whiteness and identity-in-process shaped for many a general comfort with being outside obvious belonging. Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee explained that despite being told from an early age who she was by how she was viewed, she found it liberating not feeling or being all that Chinese but coming to discover it later. By reinventing things through the ‘bad copy’ her work is a continuing assessment of issues of authenticity. She explained that she was looking at that which is not reproducible while questioning the self as an interweaving of myriad experiences. This is a search for living through a constant dismantling and recreation of new configurations. For artists and theorists, becoming-other of themselves and of the social milieu that they inhabit is essential for sketching alternative modes of belonging and possibilities for multiple translations.

Rasheed Arena, a theorist and artist, spoke about the parallels between modernism and multiculturalism and repercussions on art and social agency. He argued for the positive advancement of society through artists thinking collectively not individually, emphasising the critical role of cultural difference in community-based regeneration projects. Gerardo Mosquera, a curator from Cuba working through Caribbean poetry, spoke of the globetrotting installation artist as an allegory of globalisation—more global for some than for others. Jean Fisher, a writer on contemporary art from England, presented an engaging paper and slide show on the metaphysics of shit and the ethics and agency of the trickster. She argued that globalisation is empowering and that artists should make use of its effects—its excesses and waste in deploying an ethical responsibility. Ghassan Hage discussed transcultural migration and the Lebanese diaspora with a special focus on Venezuela. He identified hope as the greatest inspiration for immigration—the bargaining on increased possibilities of difference, greater security and opportunity away from home.

Marcia Langton and Hetti Perkins spoke in very different ways about Aboriginal art, ownership, innovation, authenticity and discursive marketing restrictions. They challenged a variety of preconceptions about Aboriginal art and its institutionalisation in the Western context that all too often just doesn’t get it, missing the playful and the sexy, living, social processes. Langton addressed the issue of authenticity and the suspicion of innovation in Aboriginal art and culture that, in the service of Western value and values, exploits the marketable yet unreconstructed trope of Stone Age primitivism. She argued that this construction of culture as a highly nostalgic post-imperial souvenired commodity denies Aboriginal responses to innovation, globalisation and most importantly secret-humour business. This reproduces the accusations of nostalgic traditionalism often levelled at multicultural art that denies the possibility of innovation through amalgamation. She argued for the dynamism and multiplicity of Aboriginal art that has an importance outside of the postcolonial white world that only gets the spiritual bongo-bongo and commercial value. Telling a story about the Rover Thomas paintings at the police station at Argyle Diamond mine and their community functions, she emphasised that the real audiences of Aboriginal art see the jokes and the dirty bits in an open-ended engagement. The ‘dirty bits’ are often edited out, but reappear in invented translations or place names. It was heartening to learn that the Australian sacred is covered in faeces, urine and sperm.

Similarly, new technologies have unleashed possibilities for new forms of communities and connections for cultural activism. Ricardo Dominguez, concealed in a black balaclava, presented a stunning autobiographical performance of his coming to digital consciousness through his involvement in the Zapatista networked activism. It was exciting to observe the history of hacktervism and its re-emerging connections with the new activists who have reclaimed the streets as sites of resistance. His comments on the ethics of international digital zapatismo tied in with the questioning of the limits of performance art in Coco Fusco’s reading of her as yet unperformed play, The Incredible Disappearing Woman, about the ‘disappearance’ of assembly line workers on the US-Mexican border. The play was not so much about the excesses of a performance artist recording having sex with the corpse of an unknown woman in a Mexican bordertown (and then attending a retrospective of his ‘censored’ work many years later) but, as Fusco explained, an imaginative investigation into the inequitable modes of cultural exchange and their institutionalisation. The decision to use the body of a Mexican woman to carry out a necrophilic sex act as performance, the actual transactions that enabled the artist to acquire the corpse in Mexico, and the ability to ‘make her disappear’ when she was no longer needed, demonstrated the economic and cultural intricacies of US-Mexican relations. The excellent reading was a potent allegory of the spectacle of inequality and the skewed ethical discourses that emerge in art practice. It emphasised the micro struggles by the gallery attendants to intervene in these processes, challenging us to consider how we as artists intervene with language, relations, practice and policy to achieve greater social and cultural equity.

Multiculturalism was seen as contentious with continuously shifting definitions and without a major all-encompassing theory. Although identified as no longer a minority issue, it appears to be meeting increasing resistance from populist voices claiming that it is an assault on Anglo-Australian culture. Fazal Rizvi argued for working pragmatically within prevailing state ideology and language while keeping the notion of multiculturalism unstable to provide active and radical possibilities.

Strategies for destabilising multiculturalism created 2 opinions for defining the way forward. Some argued for mainstreaming multiculturalism and taking it out of the ghetto while others saw benefits in maintaining its ghettoisation as a pragmatic form for artists working with cultural difference to obtain institutional support. Fusco stressed that theory can and should move beyond segregation of multicultural arts whilst funding arrangements continue to foster and support this area. The realities of Australian society and arts practice were identified as no longer fitting the prevailing policy and funding models. The policy of managerial multiculturalism with its benevolent ‘access and equity’ logic that tolerates but manages difference was dismissed. There was a lack of accord on how to ensure that multicultural and Indigenous cultures—the source of Australia’s greatest vibrancy and creativity, far more so than the nostalgic, antiquated ‘white high arts’—receive appropriate support. Yet this inspired a productive range of strategies for engaging with cultural difference and resisting dominance that included a focus on individual artists and issues, greater community engagement, reforming education and the unrealistic financial support of the western canon, battling cultural ignorance and de-categorising cultural difference to make it our central concern. The practical outcomes of this conference will define and influence the conceptualisation of future policy since artists working with cultural difference will continue to struggle with issues ranging between social equality and outlandish creative projects in the hope of negotiating new forms of an ethical, dynamic, multicultural Australia.

The conference was the best talkfest I have been to in terms of the quality and range of the papers, the high level of engagement from the audience and the inspiration for future engagements.

Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference: on the edge of change Conference, Artspace, Sydney, July 27-29.

Papers from the conference will be published later this year by Artspace.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 8

© Grisha Dolgopolov; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001