Edited by Gilane Tawadros
Artistic practice is one thing; subsequent interpretation and documentation are quite different matters. A wary acknowledgement of practices of inclusion and exclusion, based on often unexamined politics in art history and art criticism, is fundamental to the texts and artistic projects in the anthology Changing States. The book chronicles ten years of activities within the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA).
Trying to assess whether this impressive volume is successful or not, I stumble on the question of identifying the book’s genre more precisely. Is it best described as an introduction to the inIVA, a program catalogue, or a report targeting cultural policymakers? In the end, I have come to look upon it as a piece of cultural policymaking in its own right, a monumental documentary of texts and visuals, on individuals, deeds, and ideals pertaining to the inIVA project.
Under the heading “Archive,” there are a number of substantial texts coauthored by David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, Sonia Boyce, Richard Dyer, Kobena Mercer, Gerardo Mosquera, Niru Ratnam, Irit Rogoff, and Alia Syed. They locate the inIVA within the setting of 1980s Britain, and the significant national as well as the international impact of associated artists and theorists. The texts center on, as Niru Ratnam quotes Griselda Pollock putting it, “how we might go about writing art history and art criticism… in a way that ‘differences the canon.’” Dyer asserts that only the last two or three years brought a sea change, opening new forums for artists and criticism. Instead of midway through the collection, these texts could have been placed in the beginning; they would have turned the contributions to address which “states” are in fact changing, to indicate a timeframe for this change, finally allowing us to interpret the outcome. What may be reluctance to hardwiring the project within a thematic of identity, representation, and cultural canonization, can be mistaken for avoidance of these very issues.
Nevertheless, the problematic of representation permeates the publication. Chapter headers run like a charter of established key words within the discourse of alter-modernity: Global, Identity, Archive, Modern, Making, Metropolis, Site, Nation, Translation, and Performance. Several of the contributions could have fit just as well in several of these chapters. But, of course, it is only to be expected that categories are a bit random, more directed to a thematic organization of the material than contributing to its historical contextualization.
It seems neither just nor warranted to foreground individual texts from this collection. The point is the groundbreaking nature of the event-scene as a whole, its very plurality; highlights from exhibitions, panel talks, excerpts from larger publications, and so on are throughout. In terms of reader-address or theoretical clarity, the contributions are simply too heterogeneous to be compared to each other; rather, they have complementary roles. Nevertheless, it is the plain text-work that stands out as the most memorable contribution. The remarks on translation, including the untranslatable, and on the time-space of modernity, are highly relevant to the field of contemporary artistic practice and visual culture studies. In the aftermath of the linguistic turn in cultural studies, as Sarat Maharaj puts it, what happens with “the translation of image to image, image to sound, or image to word?” And, as Stuart Hall asks, “What is this ‘new’ discovery that all of a sudden there are more than one set of modernities?” This at least redirects me to the question of inIVA’s relation to the rest of the visual arts field during these ten years. Is it a precursor or parallel (unacknowledged) universe — now that its horizon seems to converge with the mainstream art scene?
Oddly enough, all of the essays are of the same modest length. This is as comfortable as it is worrying in terms of content. The reader goes speedily from the first page to the last via sometimes extremely compressed and dense texts. Nevertheless, the texts are well edited, the images are wonderful, and the layout is impeccable. All the references to representation in the Venice Biennial, touring exhibitions, publications by key contributors, and so on, suggest a happy end.
Actually, the book’s end is a happy invention. Two sections follow the thematically organized and illustrated “catalogue” main section: a timeline (compiled by Ariede Migliavacca) written in micro-script, as if to underline the density of the information, and an impressive glossary (by Melanie Keen). Since the reference material is taken from events in inIVA history, this timeline-cum-glossary in effect maps inIVA. This subtle analysis tracks, records, and also reformulates the meaning of words like “Britishness,” “Canon,” and “Democracy,” in their trajectories from everyday speech to cultural policy. The first catalogue section may be cross-read with the chronological timeline and the mock-encyclopedic glossary, thereby disassembling and reassembling the discourse of/on inIVA. One can’t help but wonder when “differencing of the canon” became a practice in self-monumentalism.