Radicality in art today?

Does radicality in art exist today? This was the question that was asked last Thursday at Litteraturhuset in Oslo. The French art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud was there to debate this question together with the Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and the Danish academic Michael Bolt, who has been an outspoken sceptic of Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics. Bourriaud’s perspective was that radicality is not possible today because it is impossible to back to the kind of environment of 20th century modernism in which the avant-garde movement could be radical. Bourriaud pointed out that if taking the etymolog of the radical seriously, understood as roots, or going to the origins, radicality today is not possible.

According to Bourriaud we have to give up two attitudes in order to move on. On the one hand we have to give up the attitude of nostalgia of modernism and get rid of the metal trap of post-modernism, or post-everything. The whole post prefix of the last 30 years, resulting in terms such as post structuralism, post colonial, post feminism, post humanism etc., has given us the impression that we are too late, that there really is nothing to be done but to look back and analyse how to handle the effects of the events upon which everything in the present grew out of. Bourriaud proposes instead the concept of the radicant, understood as an organism that grows its roots on the ground, a term better fit for describing where we should go with art from here. Whereas 20th century modernism was radical, our modernism will be radicant, growing roots while it evolves or grows.

The central goal for the art field then, is to break loose from postmodernism and the extreme preoccupation with identity, that in Bourriaud’s account acts as a “war machine”. Identity, according to Bourriaud, is an ideological virus that the political field has been structured around, reducing everything to the question: “Where do you come from?”

Jeanne van Heeswijk agreed with Bourriaud, that it is impossible to go back to the avant-garde in the sense that we are not naïve anymore. We are still amateurs, she says, but not naïve. We are learning while doing and being aware of the process as it goes, which comes close to the notion of the radicant, of growing roots while growing, as opposed to radical, as going back to some pre-existing root, or original.

The radicant should be understood as the central aspect of the specific cultural context we live in understood as globalization and concerned with multiculturalism, which Bourriaud calls the altermodern. Back in April I visited the fourth Tate Triennial at Tate Britain curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and also named the Altermodern. What Bourriaud seems to suggest is that we have to take our own specific being in time seriously and not fall back on postmodernism and its master narrative of identity. Identity isn’t about origins or history anymore, but about a kind of immediacy, a simultaneous presence, which ultimately is about the experience of time and space concurring into the same point. Or as Bourriaud explained in a recent interview: “The modernity that is coming is based on this globalized state of the imagination, on the individual’s ability to exist not in a form of being but in permanent becoming, on the artist’s capacity to invent forms that aren’t indexed on an identity but on displacement, on the permanent rotation of signs and on the formation of paths within a quasi-infinite landscape of signs and available forms, on a planetary scale”. Times have changed fundamentally and maybe most profoundly through the cultural and economic ramifications of globalization, including the Internet. What seems at stake is to establish an emergence of a state of mind situated in the here and now, rather than seeking roots or going back.

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