Uneven Geographies: Art & Globalisation (Nottingham Contemporary, 2010)
One advantage of waiting until a few weeks into an exhibition’s run before writing a review of it is that you’ll get to hear a range of opinions about its contents before having to commit your views to print: in the case of Nottingham Contemporary’s ‘difficult third’ exhibition, looking at responses to issues around Globalisation, Neo-Liberalism and unequal development in the world today, the received wisdom was that this would be a much harder sell to the public than the relatively well-known West Coast pop sensibilities of Frances Stark and David Hockney, or the previously unknown world of the 1960s Space Race behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps it had to be accepted that this one would bring in a smaller, more specialist audience than its predecessors.
I’m not sure how the attendance figures have panned out, but it’s evident from talking to people who’ve been that the expected opinions are not as anticipated. Broadly, people with no particular involvement in art or the debates around it have been more positive about Uneven Geographies than many within the local art scene, though why that has been the case is debatable. If much here is in non-traditional mediums, with a high proportion of video, installation and research-based work, it seems the strength of the content has defused some of the usual objections about what is or isn’t art, while many practising artists have questioned how far the often journalistic and documentary content is prioritised at the expense of art itself. So it’s an exhibition that is unquestionably about something, and about something important – but, to use the old chestnut, is it art?
Interestingly, one of those included, the Nigerian photographer George Osodi, was asked this very question at a conference held at the gallery on the day the show opened, and his response was broadly pragmatic. He accepted that in many respects he was a documentary photographer rather than an artist, but suggested that the gallery offered an opportunity to show images that did not fit the restrictive templates demanded by current news media. Instead of the war, the big protest or the disaster, he explained, here he could show photographs of people doing everyday things in their everyday context: precisely the images that will never be in demand among 24 hour rolling news channels, or newspapers looking for instant impact.
Behind his remarks lies an unspoken suggestion that the gallery has become a kind of last resort system of distribution for material ignored elsewhere. Yes, Osodi’s images could have far greater impact in, say, a colour supplement or book than on the walls of an art gallery, but as the magazine doesn’t think these pictures will help it sell copies and advertising, and the book would remain very expensive, the preserve of a few affluent connoisseurs of photography, then putting the images into frames or showing them on a high-resolution video screen in an art gallery means they can reach an audience they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Much of the work in Uneven Geographies could cite the same ‘Osodi justification’, whether Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler’s documentary films on the worker-controlled factories of Venezuela, Bruno Serralongue’s photographs of trade fairs and protests in India and Tunisia, Ursula Biemann’s investigations of people-trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa or Goldin + Senneby’s picaresque multimedia documentary, Headless, in which the artists and a range of collaborators contrive an absurd narrative from their journeys within the endlessly recessive labyrinth of offshore corporations, money trails and businesses engaged in activities that seem beyond the reach of any human control or responsibility.
Each could easily be recast for a different context, as reportage, TV documentary or, in the case of Goldin + Senneby, a Michael Moore or Yes Men style book and film project. Yet each is also aware that such contexts would either be closed (as uncommercial or insufficiently newsworthy) or compromising. More than that, it’s clear that – like Osodi’s contribution, drawing on dozens of related images rather than a single shot – the gallery offers an opportunity to work in extended forms, and while some focus or polemical impact might be gained by editing the footage within Ursula Biemann’s or Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler’s contributions down to discrete hour or 30 minute TV slots, such edits would also simplify and perhaps caricature the stories they tell here.
For this reason, then, the ambivalent status of much of the work included is perhaps part of the larger story that Uneven Geographies tells: the very presence of works like these reflects on the narrow range of outlets for non-commercial journalism and film in the West. It’s hardly a new insight – back in 1998 Isaac Julien was making the same point about his decision to show experimental short films in galleries rather than cinemas, and Steve McQueen’s impressively cinematic Gravesend suggests that that point still stands, too. A widescreen video study in wordless contrasts, between the futuristic automated machinery of a high tech Coltan processing plant in Derby and the markedly low tech conditions in which Coltan is mined from the Congo’s forests – with rudimentary tools, no safety checks and often bare hands – the film is full of bitter ironies about the disconnections on which the ‘weightless’ world of mobile phones and broadband has laid its precarious foundations.
Where Gravesend follows the thread of a single connection in detail, Bureau d’Etudes and Mark Lombardi create entire worlds from multiple strands of information, striving to make visible the unacknowledged structures that create the world we inhabit. Bureau d’Etudes’ wall-sized map of the internet puts the user at the outer limits of a galaxy whose centre swirls like a giant pink nebula of unknown and unacknowledged systems: operating software, junk, component manufacturing and an ‘ocean of fetishes’, all suggestive of a vast machine-unconscious. In Lombardi’s elaborate diagrams, spiders’ webs of connections between businesses, advisors, criminal cases and government panels are spun into being. They might be seen as the world-view of a paranoid obsessive were it not that Lombardi leaves the ultimate meaning of his intricate maps open.
The inclusion here of the anonymous Fool’s Cap World Map, dating from around 1580, implies that even at the dawn of the early modern age, someone was prepared to mock the knowledge professed to have been discovered by cartographers: the contemporary world-views proposed by Lombardi and Bureau d’Etudes might, like that early modern map, be designed to fit inside the head of a fool. This play on unreliability surfaces again in Eduardo Abaroa’s two globes, one constructed from multiple globes bundled with old clothes, the other pinned together at random from cut-up and reshuffled maps, as though the mapping of this world or any other is little more than a game. The works surrounding both show the serious implications of these games on real lives, but the knowledge itself may not be as secure in its claims to truth as it appears.
These games are countered or supported by other games: in Cildo Meireles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits of 1970, the artist etched messages onto used Coke bottles that only became visible when the bottles were refilled, or stamped bank notes with political slogans and snippets of forbidden information. In the varyingly repressive dictatorships of Brazil at the time, this slightly whimsical gesture took on the significance of an underground communication and is a model still used by anti-globalisation activists today – perhaps Meireles is one of the early progenitors of contemporary ‘ad-busting’.
The late Öyvind Fahlström takes a similarly activist approach in his Garden, A World Model of 1973, a seductively verdant interior where the leaves of what at first resemble exotic potted plants outline statistics on inequality, government policy and other political matters in accessible cartoon form. It’s a work that in some ways anticipates the very successful 1980s publishing format of the For Beginners series, which offered cartoon digests of works by thinkers like Freud, Marx and Foucault, or movements like Poststructuralism and Feminism, to a ready audience of students and the curious, and as with those books, Fahlström’s details are surprisingly enlightening for all the quirks of his presentation.
Ultimately, though, Fahlström’s greatest contribution to Uneven Geographies is his least obviously, but most profoundly, political. Where works like Garden, A World Model tackle the politics on their usual terms of statistics, exploitation and protest, his related Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1), of 1974, addresses the fall of Salvador Allende’s regime in powerfully oblique terms, using only an undergrowth of strange images and words taken from poems by Federico Garcia Lorca and Sylvia Plath. What is implied here is perhaps crucial to the wider meaning of Uneven Geographies, and that is a sense that what is lost in a focus on politics in the narrow sense defined for us by our political allies and opponents is the very thing that all political activism might claim to be defending.
That frequently unacknowledged thing is the potential of human beings to create and contemplate the world around them openly, without the limits placed on their imaginations and energies by deadening economic necessity, the theft of their time and the pessimism that these forces inevitably combine to instil. By seeing Allende’s fall in poetic rather than explicitly activist terms, Fahlström ultimately shows precisely why such events are important, and why the profession of activist realism that informs much of the work around this particular piece might offer a trap as readily as a solution to the problems they document so conscientiously. Like the Fool’s Cap World Map of 1580, Packing the Hard Potatoes (Chile 1) feels like a judiciously-placed joker in the pack of Uneven Geographies, and maybe it’s all the more potent for being just that.