#Hashtags: The Global in the Local

#globalization #museums #access #representation #decolonization #history

A recent conference at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, “Collecting Geographies—Global Programming and Museums of Modern Art,” invited participants to question the responsibilities accrued to arts institutions when they present works of global cultural production as a response to market interest. Each of the topics raised by these questions—globalization, colonial collections, and the critical history of the museum among them—could easily justify its own conference. Holland Cotter writes of museums’ difficulties in shedding a utopian take on globalization even in the face of globalization’s more sinister implications in this week’s New York Times. That tendency was also in evidence at “Collecting Geographies,” which was hosted by the Stedelijk in partnership with Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh. La Javanaise, 2012. Film production still. Photo by Bárbara Wagner.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh. La Javanaise, 2012; film production still. Photo by Bárbara Wagner.

Among the keynote speakers, there was dissent between those who saw the conference as an occasion to reckon with Imperialist histories and those who viewed the global as something of an undocumented space, ripe for discovery. The post-1989 “global contemporary,” a paradigm established with the fall of the Berlin Wall, was repeatedly invoked as shorthand for a partial decentering of the European position of cultural superiority. Armed with this egalitarian vision, some leading academics and museum professionals spoke with more interest than experience on the subject of cross-cultural discourse. Only one featured panel, which included curators Wayne Modest of the Tropenmuseum and Jette Sandahl of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Museum of World Culture, and artists Kader Attia and Wendelien van Oldenborgh, addressed the shadow cast by history over contemporary global art activities. For the most part, the “global turn” was addressed broadly, optimistically, and fairly apolitically as a new and vital scholarly direction.

Tirzo Martha. Monument to Danger: Future Under the Protection of Captain Caribbean, 2013. From the exhibition "Black and White" at Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Tirzo Martha. Monument to Danger: Future Under the Protection of Captain Caribbean, 2013. From the exhibition “Black and White” at Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Individual conference papers told a somewhat different story. Numerous scholars working on global exhibitions spoke of artists’ dissatisfaction with the context established by the host museum for their work. At a session titled “Global Programming and its Discontents,” Beccy Kennedy spoke of Asian contemporary artists at the Asia Triennial Manchester objecting to a host museum’s association of their art practices with traditional Indian dance. Leon Wainwright spoke of artists from Suriname whose work, grounded in the material expression of their surroundings, was significantly altered for presentation when their exhibition Paramaribo SPAN traveled to the Netherlands. Both of these examples spoke to the ways in which cultural products are alienated from their makers and communities by the systems of commodification and display that circumscribe the museum as a cultural repository and a site of knowledge production. On a different panel and from the opposite perspective, Leah Gordon spoke of the challenges faced by the organizers of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, whose increased visibility in the global art world comes with imposed expectations of authenticity and idealized poverty. In each case, the artists were grateful for the opportunity to present their work but frustrated with external limitations put on their ability to represent their own perspectives unfiltered.

Yayoi Kusama. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963. Sculptural installation. Collection of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands [BA 1534(1-4)].

Yayoi Kusama. Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show, 1963. Sculptural installation. Collection of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands (BA 1534[1-4]).

My presence at the conference was due to a panel consisting of myself and San Francisco-based artists Stephanie Syjuco, Scott Tsuchitani, Imin Yeh, and Valerie Soe, all Asian Americans and all practitioners at what was largely a scholarly gathering. Our panel addressed the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as a case study in the challenges for museums in reconciling abstract ideas of the global with a local, multicultural reality. Our context was both global and doubly local: Asian-specific and San Francisco-specific, yet engaged with all the issues under consideration in a far-ranging way. We struggled with visibility at the conference, a challenge that reiterated the difficulty of equitably representing all voices in a global conversation where certain participants remain ensconced in a centralized position of authority. Even so, we won a small but vocal following of attendees who felt that the specificity of our examples and the targeted nature of our interventions represented a useful way forward from an overwhelmingly broad conversation to one framed more strategically.

Local geography factored into my experience of “Collecting Geographies” in another, unexpected way. I was pleased to see artists I’ve shown at home represented in conference presentations eight time zones away. I was able to meet and bond with colleagues based in my home cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles with whom I had never connected before. These personal aspects of my experience further underscore the need to be mindful of specificity and locality when considering our large and interconnected world. There is no way to articulate a universal vision of the global without incorporating the multitude of specificities that contains.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.