Notes towards a Lexicon of Urgencies


Notes towards a Lexicon of Urgencies

By Nancy Adajania & Ranjit Hoskote
Published October 1, 2010

[6]                                                                      [7] 

I. Working across the Nth Fields

To our generation of cultural producers, location has long ago liberated itself from geography. We map our location on a transregional lattice of shifting nodes representing intense occasions of collegiality, temporary platforms of convocation, and transcultural collaborations. As we move along the shifting nodes of this lattice, we produce outcomes along a scale of forms ranging across informal conversations, formal symposia, self-renewing caucuses, periodic publications, anthologies, travelling exhibitions, film festivals, biennials, residencies, and research projects. This global system of cultural production takes its cue from the laboratory: as in all laboratories, the emphasis is on experiment and its precipitates. However, to the extent that this system is relayed across a structure of global circulations, it also possesses a dimension of theatre: a rather large proportion of its activity is in the nature of rehearsal and restaging.

In this DISPATCH, we would like to address the dilemmas as well as the potentialities of a mode of cultural production that is based on global circulations yet is not merely circulatory; and a mode of life that is based on transnational mobility but is not without anchorage in regional predicaments.

Everywhere and increasingly—whether we are teaching at a para-academic platform in Bombay, engaging in curatorial discussions or conducting research in Berlin, co-curating a biennial in Gwangju, contributing to an international exhibition in Karlsruhe, responding with critical empathy to a triennial in Brisbane, or developing a research project in Utrecht—we find ourselves working with interlocutors and collaborators in what we think of as nth fields. All nth fields have similar structural, spatial and temporal characteristics. In structural terms, these are receptive and internally flexible institutions, rhizomatic and self-sustaining associations, or periodic platforms. In spatial terms, these are either programmatically nomadic in the way they manifest themselves, or extend themselves through often unpredictable transregional initiatives, or are geographically situated in sites to which none (or few) of their participants are affiliated by citizenship or residence. Temporally, the rhythm of these engagements is varied: it traverses a range of untested encounters, from face-to-face meetings and discussions through email and Skype, and can integrate multiple time lines for conception and production.

These nth fields certainly throw into high relief the vexed questions that haunt the global system of cultural production: Who is the audience for contemporary global art? How may we construe a local that hosts, or is held hostage by, the global? Can we evolve a contemporary discussion that does not merely revisit the exhausted Euro-American debates of the late 20th century by oblique means? Is it possible to translate the intellectual sources of a regional modernity into globally comprehensible terms? What forms of critical engagement should artistic labour improvise, as it chooses to become complicit with aspirational and developmentalist capital and its managers across the world?

At the same time, these nth fields are optimal nodes for the staging of what the art theorist and curator Sarat Maharaj has described as ‘entanglements’ [1], the braided destinies that knot together selves accustomed to regard one another as binary opposites: colonising aggressor and colonised victim; Euro-American citizen and denizen of the global South; Occidental and Oriental; and so forth. A history delineated under the sign of entanglement lays bare the ideological basis of all fixed identities, conjoins them in sometimes discomfiting but always epiphanic mutuality. When such identities are thus unmasked, de-naturalised and dissolved, we are free to work out new forms of dialogue and interaction across difference, a new and redeeming solidarity.

In these complex circumstances, the architecture of belonging can never be static. In our own practice as theorists and curators, we have drafted different versions of it in different places. We have drawn on various models of emotionally and intellectually enriching locality, including the mohalla (an Urdu/Hindi word meaning a web of relationships inscribed within a grid of lanes, streets and houses), the kiez (a Germano-Slavic, specifically Berlin word, meaning much the same thing, and conferring on the resident the privilege of non-anxious belonging), the adda (a Hindi/Bengali term meaning a venue for friendly conversation and animated debate), and the symposium (not the academic format but its original, a Greek word signifying a drinking party that was also a venue for philosophical discussion).

1. Sarat Maharaj, ‘Small Change of the Universal’ (unpublished keynote paper, delivered at the 1st Former West Congress, BAK/ basis voor actuele kunst on 5 November 2009). A video recording of Maharaj’s address may be viewed here.

II. Institutional Repetition, Participatory Recursion

There are two contending logics at work in the global system of cultural production. On the one hand is the institutional logic of repetition, associated with the venues of cultural production; on the other, the participatory logic of recursion, expressed by the agents of cultural production. The former generates a momentum of iterative continuity and a centripetal accumulation of authority (for example, the sheer editionality of Documenta, the Venice Biennale or the Whitney Biennale; and the continuous translation of alumni from various curatorial studies programs into the personnel in the cultural economy). The latter can produce self-critical disruption and a centrifugal diffusion of dissidence (for example, the successive curatorial ruptures and renewals of a biennial or other large-scale periodic exhibition; and the artistic, theoretical and curatorial radicalisations, although eventually absorbed within the system, of anti-aesthetic art, institutional critique, the anthropological turn, the pedagogical turn, the relational turn, and the emphasis on the archive).

The war of the logics is waged throughout the system: in successive editions of biennials, time-bound publication programmes, inter-disciplinary academic adventures, and grant cycles for research. As emphases shift and priorities change, the instrument of cultural policy reveals its hidden aspect as a punitive weapon. The result: orphan bodies of research, an archipelago of abandoned archives, and island universes of knowledge drifting in a discursive outer space. And all the while, the friction of practical politics—in the form of mass mobilisations, populist ideologies and mediatic manipulation—abrades the cultural domain. All this builds into an unfolding sequence of urgencies; to deal with this in a manner that is more than tactical and reactive, we have found it useful to assemble a provisional lexicon of urgencies.

III. Entries from a Lexicon of Urgencies

In a sense, we have already begun to unpack our lexicon while discussing the nth fields of contemporary global cultural production. In this section, we would like to share 11 selected keywords that help us articulate a response to the most pressing questions that impinge on our practice as theorists and curators, and serve as rubrics with which to manage our often unruly evidentiary material. We will move according to an internal logic or genealogy of concepts, rather than alphabetically, as we present these entries.

[9]                                                                          [13]                                                                           

1. Critical transregionality
The postcolonial subjectivity—shuttling constantly, instinctively and spectrally between Bombay and New York, Lagos and Paris, Manila and Heidelberg—is heir to a condition that the Philippine novelist and nationalist Jose Rizal evocatively termed the ‘spectre of comparisons’, el demonio des comparaciones. [2] Since the early 1970s, when scholars across disciplines began to question the authority of Euro-American master narratives, our discourse has been staged at a heightened level of this comparative mode. As the discourse produced by postcolonial theorists during the 1980s critiqued the perspectives and vocabularies of colonialism and imperialism, it dismantled the primacy of Euro-America. The global metropoles were turned into contested centres. The traditional and somewhat developmentalist centre-periphery model was gradually displaced by a model of the world where individuals, communities and nations are connected by surprising webs of information and unexpected alliances across borders. Today, we are all postcolonial.

In such a situation, the former periphery manifests itself as a garland of emergent off-centres. Various zones and regions across the world—situated largely in the global South but embracing dissident zones located in the global North—now assert what the cultural theorist and curator Okwui Enwezor has described as their “wills to globality”. [3] Equipped with this insight, our interest is to remap the domain of global cultural experience by setting aside what seem to us to be exhausted cartographies variously born out of the Cold War, area studies, late-colonial demarcations, the war on terror, or the supposed clash of civilisations. In place of these specious cartographies premised on the paradigm of the ‘West against the rest’, we propose a new cartography based on the mapping of continents of affinity, and a search for commonalties based on jointly faced crises and shared predicaments. [4] The crucial performative move here is an ethical, political, aesthetic willingness to demonstrate complicity in the crisis of the Other. We call this ‘critical transregionality’. [5] We would identify this tendency in the practice of artists like Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani [6] [7], Dolores Zinny & Juan Maidagan [8], Shaina Anand [9], Ashok Sukumaran [10], the CAMP platform [11] [12], and the PeriFerry translocal initiative [13], with whom we have collaborated or been engaged in dialogue.

References, Links & Images:
2. Cited in Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (London: Verso, 1998)
3. Okwui Enwezor, The Black Box, in exh. cat. Documenta 11_Platform 5/Kassel (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), p. 47.
4. Nancy Adajania, ‘Time to Restage the World’, in Springerin Issue 1/2010 (Vienna, January-March 2010)
5. Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Signposting the Indian Highway’, in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Julia Peyton Jones and Gunnar Kvaran eds., Indian Highway (Köln, London & Oslo: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Serpentine Gallery & Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2009)
6. Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani, ‘’
7. Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani, ‘’
8. Ranjit Hoskote, Zinny & Maidagan: Compartment/ Das Abteil (Frankfurt & Köln: Museum für Moderne Kunst & Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010)
Extracts here.
9. Nancy Adajania, ‘Probing the Khojness of Khoj’, in Pooja Sood ed., The Khoj Book: 1997-2007, Contemporary Art Practice in India (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2010)
10. Nancy Adajania, ‘Night Practice’ (in exh. cat. for Ashok Sukumaran’s exhibition, ‘Glow Positioning System and Other Forms of Address’; New York: Thomas Erben Gallery, 2008)
11. The CAMP platform
12. Wharfage.
13. The PeriFerry translocal initiative.

2. The Dividual Self
We construe the dividual self (the inflection owes much to Deleuze) as a locus of agency that reflects on the constituents of its consciousness, and on the contexts of its material and symbolic actions, while pursuing a trajectory through its lifeworld. Such a self asserts the power to re-imagine its trajectory, and to affect the ambient circumstances of its lifeworld. By a seeming paradox, such a self marks its specificity precisely by recognising itself as a dividual entity: one composed of multiple contending histories, ancestries and narratives, and choosing its identity by engaging with these – and not by asserting itself as an in-dividual singularity, which can achieve an identity only by denying, constricting or abolishing the multiplicities of which it is made.

A larger theme, for us, is that of the performative commitment by which such figures stake out a transitive space between cultural extremes and political binaries, untainted by essentialism or romanticisation. The dividual self appreciates, even if it cannot always reconcile, the paradoxes, ambivalences, ironies and indeterminacies attending its choices. The dividual self is not an individual in the procedural sense of secular modernism, but rather, is an agency that can imagine itself out of its restrictions. Various figures, retrospectively identifiable as dividual selves, have played stellar roles in mounting critiques of the deficits of modernity (Gandhi, Freud), the pathologies of instrumental reason (Jung, J Krishnamurti, Wittgenstein), and the colonial-imperialist or industrial-military world system (Tagore). [14]

References, Links & Images:
14. Ranjit Hoskote, ‘Walking Through Mirrors? Reflections on the Spiritual Traffic between India and Europe’, in Angelika Fitz, Merle Kröger, Alexandra Schneider and Dorothee Wenner eds., Import Export: Cultural Transfer, India, Germany, Austria (Berlin: Parthas Verlag, 2005)

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DISPATCH is ICI’s new bi-monthly online journal that features a different curator’s points of view on current developments in art. Practitioners based in different cities around the world are invited to use DISPATCH as their virtual base, building their research over time through text, image, and video. Taking advantage of the interactive platform, DISPATCH will also allow for comments and feedback from readers around the world, allowing for the development of a dynamic curatorial network.

Continuing the Conversation

This DISPATCH will be updated each Friday in October and November with the following terms from the Lexicon of Urgencies:

1. Critical Transregionality
2. The Dividual Self
3. Emplacement
4. Heaviness
5. Convocation
6. Transient Pedagogy
7. Geniza
8. Detour
9. Jujitsu
10. The Agoratic Condition
11. A Contributory Ethic

About The Authors

Nancy Adajania

Nancy Adajania is an independent curator and cultural theorist based in Mumbai. She was educated in political science, social communications media, and film. Adajania has written and lectured extensively on contemporary Indian art, especially new media art and its political and cultural contexts, at venues such as Documenta 11, Kassel; the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), Karlsruhe; the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and the Transmediale, Berlin; the Danish Contemporary Art Foundation, Copenhagen; Lottringer 13, München; Württembergische Kunstverein, Stuttgart; Kunsthalle Wien and MuMoK, Vienna; the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, among others. As Editor-in-Chief of Art India (2000-2002), Adajania developed a discursive space for emergent new-media and interactive public art practices and social projects on a global level.

Adajania has contributed essays and reviews to Springerin (Vienna), Metamute (London), Art 21 (Paris), Public Art (Minneapolis), Art Asia Pacific (New York), X-Tra (Los Angeles), and Broadsheet (Adelaide). Her essays have appeared in numerous books and anthologies, including ‘The Sand of the Coliseum, The Glare of Television, and the Hope of Emancipation’ in Documenta Magazine No. 2/ Life! (Kassel & Köln: Documenta & Taschen, 2007); ‘The Logic of Birds: Points of Departure for Indian Women Artists’ in Shulamit Reinharz ed., Tiger by the Tail: Women Artists of India, Transforming Culture (Waltham, Mass.: Women’s Studies Research Centre, Brandeis University, 2007); and ‘New Media Overtures before New Media Practice in India’ in Gayatri Sinha ed., Art and Visual Culture in India: 1857-2007 (Bombay: Marg, 2009). Adajania is the editor of Shilpa Gupta (München/ New York: Prestel, 2010).

Adajania co-curated ‘Zoom! Art in Contemporary India’ (Culturgest Museum, Lisbon, 2004) and has curated ‘Avatars of the Object: Sculptural Projections (The Guild/ NCPA, Bombay, 2006) and ‘The Landscapes of Where’ (Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Bombay, 2009).

Adajania is currently a research scholar at BAK/Basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht.


Ranjit Hoskote

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and independent curator. He is the author of 19 books. These include five collections of poetry, most recently Vanishing Acts: New & Selected Poems 1985-2005 (New Delhi: Penguin, 2006) and Die Ankunft der Vögel (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2006). Hoskote has authored nine monographs on art and artists; most recently, Zinny & Maidagan: Compartment/ Das Abteil (Frankfurt: Museum für Moderne Kunst/ Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010). Hoskote has co-authored, with the German novelist and essayist Ilija Trojanow, a critical history of cultural confluence, Kampfabsage (München: Random House/ Blessing Verlag, 2007).

Hoskote’s essays have appeared in numerous books and anthologies; most recently: ‘Biennials of Resistance’, in Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebo eds., The Biennial Reader (Bergen & Ostfildern-Ruit: Bergen Kunsthall & Hatje Cantz, 2010); ‘Preliminaries towards a Manifesto: The Future of the Museum in India’, in Hans Ulrich Obrist ed., Art Basel Miami Transcripts (Basel & Ostfildern-Ruit: Art Basel & Hatje Cantz, 2008); and ‘Versions of a Postcolonial Metropolis: Competing Discourses on Bombay’s Image’, in Klaus Segbers ed., The Making of Global City Regions (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

Hoskote has curated 21 exhibitions of contemporary Indian and international art, including a mid-career survey of Atul Dodiya (Japan Foundation, Tokyo, 2001) and a lifetime retrospective of Jehangir Sabavala (National Gallery of Modern Art, Bombay and New Delhi, 2005-2006). He was co-curator of the trans-Asian collaborative curatorial project, ‘Under Construction’ (Japan Foundation, Tokyo and other Asian venues, 2001-2002). Hoskote and Hyunjin Kim co-curated, with Artistic Director Okwui Enwezor, the 7th Gwangju Biennial (Korea, 2008). He has just been appointed as Commissioner for India’s first-ever national pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale (2011).

Hoskote is currently a research scholar at BAK/Basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht.