What Forms The Present? – Sandra Man and Marita Tatari, Talk at Flutgraben Performances #4, 9 Feb 2020


At the fourth event of Flutgraben Performances on February 9th 2020 Sandra Man invited philosopher Marita Tatari for a lecture. The text that was read at this occasion is an excerpt of an ongoing talk between the two, initiated by Sandra Man in late 2019 and to be continued all over 2020.

SM: In a recent talk that you gave at the conference in Munich in November 2019 you spoke about the becoming irrelevant of tradition, of history as a frame and source for the new in contemporary art. You said something like: Not that today’s art forms would not refer at all to their history but – in contrast to strategies of breaking up, overcoming, deconstructing etc. – the progressive relation to the past is no longer the reference or the source for the new.
The contemporary change in the relation between art forms and a certain understanding of history, between art and its past, actually has been the core of your thinking for some years now. Let’s start from here: Could you describe today’s shift in relating to the past? Why and how is it no longer out of a “post” to the past that art forms emerge? What is it that is changing so radically today that you even headline it in your talk as “the change of change” itself?

MT: If we take the term „contemporary art” beyond the restrained meaning of the art-period coming after modern art, the idea that artforms respond in a very particular way to their present time, was shaped in modernity: the idea that they respond to their present time by giving to it a form, opening it up as such, all by opening up in it something new, a possible (or impossible) future. The change of artforms has been related to historical change both as a result and as anticipation. Modernity projected this idea of art retrospectively into the past as well as into other, non-western cultures. In the core of this idea lies a precise understanding of relationality at stake in all artforms.
We could even say that the word and the thing of “art” were invented in modernity to designate a relationality that on the one hand is concrete and singular, let’s say, a touching, an affective relation in the present moment (affecting not only for instance visually or acoustically, but also a sensuous feeling even of ideas or thoughts). But at the same time “art” designates this relationality as bringing at play or opening up in each one of its addressees, in each one that is affected by it a non-defined relation: this is its public, its addressees is a non-defined “we” – the common, namely when the common is not conceived as a given order, when it is not defined or definable in a hierarchy. It is from this non-given common, this universal activated in the public addressed by art, that comes all the trouble with art.

SM: Let me interrupt you shortly, I would like to insert a question: How does the public, relate to what we usually call an “audience”? I am asking because I think there is a relation to it but however what you mean by public is not simply spectators as opposed to performers, makers, authors etc. (they are also affected and addressed by the work). Is and how is the public you are talking about an audience?

MT: Well it is first of all a change of perspective, a way to think of an artform/artpiece/artwork/artprocess I mean, it concerns everyone implied in it. But if we think of it in these terms, then we can’t take audience as a ready-made concept, applied to each artform. We have to think of the audience out of the way this special kind of relation takes place (it is actually an emanation of relation). So, if the central question concerning the arts is where lies the extreme limit, that enables relation under different cultural conditions not to be relation between given things, but emanation, then we have to think of the audience and its transformations out of this question too. There is a whole field of artistic research that can be opened up by this change of perspective.

By common as non-given order I mean here the extreme limit that allows for anything to come to the foreground and relate, to appear not as defined by something else (as in an order). The common in this sense is mortality and natality together, the extreme limit on the one hand, and the emanation of relation on the other, the extreme limit as emanation of relation. This emanation of relation has also been called techne and technique, because it does not belong in a pregiven natural order. If art has been touching to these extremities, if it has been touching to the common as non-given, that is to say to relation as emanation, it has been opening up a non-given, an excess of the given, in the punctuality of its form, or of its taking place.
This non-given, this emanation may be felt as intensity, and intensity is an emanation of a “more”, a surplus. But at the same time art opens up in us, in each one touched, a distance – the limit or nothingness, that allows to address all “me” as other than “me”, namely „we” as emanation of relation. This emanation exposed as such in a form interrupts the flow of time and opens up a non-time into historical time, an infinite. Christianity understood this infinite as a moment or a pretaste of eternity.
In contrast to this understanding, the modern designation of art in singular, the modern invention of art, distinguishes art from cult and ritual. While the latter addresses the “we” in its distinction from gods (as in non-western or pre-western cult-practices) or, in Christianity, in its relation to God opening up an eternity as an outside of the historical time, art in singular – this modern invention – deals with the surplus interrupting and exceeding the given, the surplus exposed as such, as newness arriving into historical time.
That is to say as change projected into historical time. “We” as exceeding any given, is then being translated in terms of the demand for equality, for inclusion of alterity, inclusion in a non-given order, inclusion of everybody in a non-given and non-hierarchical “we”, a demand opening up a future. The new in art, the change of artforms has been related to this demand and has been interpreted as progress.
All forms of “post”-art: postmodern, postdramatic, posthuman, some tried even to speak recently of postcontemporary art, they all neither just designate a new artform, nor just an artform that gives form to their present time, but also they relate overcoming the older forms to a better realization of the demand for equality into historical time. In other words, emanating relationality was still until the beginning of the 21st century perceived as in modernity, perceived as a non-hierachical and all inclusive “we” to come – be it in Derrida and Agamben’ terms as always to come, suspended in the present, never given, open to its non-giveness; be it as disillusionment from and denouncement of the utopias in which the 20th century still hoped (as in Lyotard’s “sublime”, vertiginous, postmodern art); be it by permanently subverting given orders and hierarchies – for instance between spectators and actors, beholders and art objects, keeping open the non-given common (as in many positions ranging from Ranciere to Judith Butler and theories of performativity); or be it as non-anthropocentric, subverting the established hierarchies between humans and non-humans (as in new materialisms, in technoecologies and OOO)… The variations of the modern scheme conceiving art, history and the evolution of artforms in their relation to history as progress, history as a project of a better realization of the demand for equality and art as progressively contributing to this goal – even as a goal impossible to achieve, or as an open horizon – all these variations are still inscribed into the modern understanding of relationality at stake in artforms. The address exceeding any given as common or universal is being translated into the demand for equality exceeding the present into historical time.

Despite all kind of critique of the concept of art, of its singular, despite the critique of the bourgeois beauty, the bourgeois ideal of state, later on the critique of the political utopias, the emergence of participating artistic forms, etc., etc., the progressive understanding of the evolution of artforms remained untouched until the beginning of the 21st century. Anthropocentric criticism, non-anthropocentric art-forms, as well as postcolonial-art, colonial-criticism are in this sense extensions of western enlightenment: they serve an always greater demand for equality. From a posterior point of view (im Nachhinein), the public each time at play in an artform, is restricted. Forms to come have to address otherness again and as progress, better, more, they have to bring at play a greater openness to otherness.

Today it is said that the oneness implied in the modern invention of “art”, its public (the conception of public upon which the concept of art was based) and the universality implied in it have been founded on racist and anthropocentric presuppositions. We are thus seemingly confronted with the paradox on the one hand to stand for the western demand for equality (which cannot and did not exist in societies not dealing with the non-giveness of the common, that is to say in societies not dealing with the autonomy of the common), and on the other hand to denounce this same western demand for not being enough at its own height. I say seemingly because actually this paradox obeys the scheme of western logic itself, it is projecting into historical future an improvement of the previous conceptions of the common and of the public implied in art, so to include non-western realities or non-humans.

Saying that all these critiques of the enlightenment’s conception of art are still inscribed in it, sounds today almost as an insult; yet this is not how I mean it. Why does art have to be new, why do forms have to be new? Newness was not a request for “artistic” practices in ritual communities. Art, this modern invention projected, I repeat, retrospectively into other cultures, has to be each time new because it addresses a non-determinable “we”. Hence this can only be addressed each time under the conditions of its time. It has to bring at play a „we” escaping the given.

Nevertheless, there is currently in my view a shift of this same western scheme. While the demand for equality, enabled by the autonomy or the non-giveness of a “we” persists, as well as the need to address “us” (in other words the need to address the absolute in us, extreme limitation as emanation of relating), oneness has lost its hold over the contemporary world. Under current technological (and actually techoeoconomic) conditions there is no one horizon to project change, and no one history to understand the present. Maybe this is why currently the new in arts, “contemporary” art does not appear in the form of a “post”: not a new artform defined by overcoming the older. The demand for equality, the denouncement of colonial or anthropocentric blindness do not help us understand what is happening currently in terms of art, because they are inscribed in the scheme they denounce as its improvement and continuation. Hence it is this very scheme that shifts: it is not in terms of a new artform, it is not in form of a “post”, that the demand for equality in art persists. So how can we grasp what is happening in terms of art, in terms of form, of artmaking?

When we say that the new in art is not conceived in terms of form as an overcoming of older forms, we say that the surplus of relationality at stake in it, the excess of the given in it is not projected into a horizon. But also, that the given is not the oneness of a history. We could then say that it is rather the framing of what is a form that shifts and with it the very notion of public, the space of appearance, the space in which relation accesses an extreme limit able to address its free course, its emanation. For instance, I find interesting in the case of the so called decolonialization of aesthetics or of postcolonial art, that the demand for equality – the confrontation with the pain and violence caused by colonial blindness in western-global culture, is paired with an experience of limit that is completely strange to western culture: an experience that cannot project the excess of the given into future, an experience of alterity that cannot be motor for historical change.