What Frame for What Modernisation?

Anselm Franke on the 10th Shanghai Biennale

By Anselm Franke

Anselm Franke. Photo: Jakob Hoff

Part of the sensibility that should be trained by curators, I believe, is a sensitivity to frames – to the rules and scripts that are present in a given situation, to the ‘grammar’ that structures social interaction and aesthetic form. In social situations, these are cultural conventions and social hierarchies, ideological underpinnings and institutional scripts that often have deep-seated roots but are not always obvious and easy to negotiate. In part, they always just appear as a given, or as ‘natural’, but of course nothing ever is, not since the sources of authority were placed under question in modernity. It is important to understand these scripts and how they shape situations and people acting in them, and what the field of accepted and possible operations within them is. Each social space has its own scripts: just think of the rules of behaviour and speech that apply to a space like the court, or the university, or the museum. Most people in these places know how to behave in them. What interests me most about these rules and scripts is always the part of them that we understand without quite knowing why, the part that communicates itself not explicitly but implicitly – and hence implicates us by making us complicit – through gestures, the atmosphere, by common agreement, by an everyday aesthetics and signs of authority. This implicit zone of the social, where the boundary conditions of sense and behaviour are formed and permanently monitored, is the zone where ‘the social’ and aesthetics are always already one.

Aesthetic genres and formats obviously have scripts in this sense, too. One only needs to think of melodramas or war movies: every gesture in them is coded by the overall structure, which defines how we interpret a certain act by a character and how we feel about them. ‘Genres’ reflect the rules of representation of a given time and cultural context. They evolve with time, they differentiate or they wither away, lose their ability to capture and represent a social experience. When a work of art – whether film, literature or visual art – quotes genre conventions, it is often funny and sometimes uncanny, and it can inspire us to think about the role that certain scripts and ideas, but also forms in general, have in structuring our experience. Indeed it is largely impossible to say whether these experiences are written into existence by these forms or scripts, or whether form and life-form make up a symbiotic unity. Yet to be modern, I think, means that this unity is never ‘natural’, but subject to permanent contestation. In Beijing I learn from a friend about the debate instilled by party historian Wu Si, and the importance and problem of qian guize, the hidden rules.

I believe that the question today is not whether to drag things into the light: we cannot choose obscurantism if we are halfway responsible and educated beings (modern obscurantism is always obscurantism for the other in order to gain power, or it is simply madness or ignorance). The question is what we drag and how we drag it, what implicit things are made explicit and how this is done, and, in making something explicit, how it is transformed. The ‘hidden rules’ among the powerful are (always) an example: in order for modernisation to proceed and not fall victim to the regressive forces it mobilises, these hidden rules must be made explicit in order for them to be transformed. ‘Regression’ in modernity seeks to liberate power from the very real need to seek legitimisation, by embracing alleged higher sources of authority, identity, tradition or the auratic. In short, registers that lie beyond modern reason – and its chief faculty, doubt – but that are, like ‘tradition’, themselves outcomes or products of modernity.

Modern and contemporary art, especially the kind of art we refer to as avant-garde or experimental, has been to a large degree about breaking with genre conventions, or turning them onto themselves. It is often only possible to learn of the implicit scripts of a social situation by disruption. The very moment of modernisation in art could be identified with the process of making an implicit script explicit, turning what was previously a background into a foreground, to expose or exhibit, to turn tools and conditions into a subject matter. These scripts, tools and conditions can be rules of convention, ideological bias, deep historical structures or material or institutional conditions. Whenever we begin to work on them, we realise to what incredible degree they produce what we experience as subjective and collective reality. Moreover, the interesting thing is that breaking with certain conventions, such as in narrative form, does not only produce new forms, it produces new experiences, new possible forms of subjectivity and collectivity as well. In that sense, working on aesthetic genres is always, literally, a work on social invention and social engineering, too. The space of art is a social factory, a factory of figuration, in which new backgrounds and figures are permanently produced.

The very moment of modernisation in art could be identified with the process of making an implicit script explicit, turning what was previously a background into a foreground, to expose or exhibit, to turn tools and conditions into a subject matter

The history of modern avant-gardes has also shown that every such ‘transgression’ quickly becomes a genre itself. This dialectics produces new standards, new accepted forms of art, new conventions, which are often oblivious of their own origins. A case in point is ‘conceptual art’, which is today often associated with an art of ideas rather than objects, but which has an important root in a gesture of negation (not merely of the commodity-object), mimicking the negation of the ‘administered life’ of modern times through bureaucracy and technocracy. When genres become oblivious to their foundations and can no longer efficiently address and navigate beyond the semantic field that was brought into being by them, they lose their mobility and agency, they become static ‘systems’, in which all that is left is to play ‘by the rules’, and qian guize. This is what happens frequently at the transition from so-called underground to accepted mainstream and the market recognition that follows, capitalising on the semiotic surplus of artistic transgression, but separating a work or works from social invention, and from the modernist task of putting the implicit up for negotiation.

As I am asking myself what modernisation can mean in the current situation with regard to the Shanghai Biennale, it certainly is important to address how this task has been connected to great violence. Tearing the hidden into the light has all too often simply meant its destruction, especially when a politicised idea of scientific knowledge destroys so-called beliefs. To be sure, there are ‘beliefs’ or customs that ought better to be destroyed, but the modern obsession with uprooting has too easily ended in rationalist hybrids, and has neglected the logic of practice, its wisdom and resilience. Yet I am tempted to think that it was a general modern disregard and nonunderstanding of the ‘implicit’ in the social that resulted in this destruction. In other words, the modern attitude didn’t acknowledge that social life can never be fully ‘positivised’, that it can never be fully known, understood, scripted, controlled.

For the Shanghai Biennale, I think of what modernisation can mean in the current situation. In previous projects I have focused on the dialectics of modernity, and on its destructive fervour. For Shanghai, I think that we need an affirmative, positive definition of what modernisation can mean. The socially implicit should not be left to the nationalists or the religious obscurantists or the ideologues of technocracy.

Exhibitions invoke the common ‘map’ people have of reality, simply because every piece of art demands from us to make sense of it, or to question the very process of making sense, and our own frames of perception

I think that art can play a role in the modernisation of society’s implicit social scripts. Somehow it seems to me that the very subject matter of large-scale exhibitions in particular is the realm of implicit social scripts and their relation to aesthetics, to cognition, expectations, feelings. Exhibitions invoke the common ‘map’ people have of reality, simply because every piece of art demands from us to make sense of it, or to question the very process of making sense, and our own frames of perception. Art throws us always back onto the implicit assumptions we bring with us, individually and collectively. And art can make us travel unexpected routes on the map, or question the map altogether.

Modernisation in China is, or has been, a quasi-sacred task, against the backdrop of its historical victimisation by imperial powers and the resulting ‘wound’, but also against the backdrop of its own imperial authority. Today, as China aspires to surpass the other world powers in wealth and might, it must be hoped that this ‘sacred task’ is not channelled merely into the imperial scheme, into the restoration of ‘lost’ power, and the nationalist, heroic identity such an imaginary projects. Modernity, as a condition, demands the relativisation of collective identities, and embraces pluralism and its contradictions and antagonisms. And this demand can only be met if we are able to negotiate the realm of the ‘hidden’ or the implicit, as the realm where this relativisation and ambivalences are cultivated. Modernisation happens today where that which frames our fields of actions is questioned, but based on the knowledge that ‘the social’ never exhausts itself in any map, or for that matter in anything that can be named.

In the final pieces filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki completed before his untimely death, he explores how drastically our ‘maps’ of reality are changing through digital technologies. The map is becoming an ‘ideal-typical’ image of reality, a map that not only covers the territory as completely as possible, but that monitors it, and produces it through the governance of movements, as happens in urban and dynamic social engineering, and increasingly, through social media themselves. In the context of the military, complex, multilayered maps are employed that do not represent a territory but that surveil it, by measuring any unusual movements, any deviation from the ‘map’. In one of his very last pieces, shown for the first time at the Berlin Documentary Forum, he looks at the technology and iconography of digital animation and computer games, and how they produce what we perceive as ‘a world’. One chapter of this work, titl ed ‘Parallel’, is devoted to the limits of these worlds, to the end of the map, the scripted, programmed field: at such an ‘end of the world’, first-person shooters or other heroes either fall into the dark abyss of black nothingness or walk against invisible walls. It is the task of art exhibitions to show that there is more outside the map, outside the script of particular ‘genres’, whether fictional or real.

The Shanghai Biennale runs from 9 November through 31 March. This article was first published in September 2014 issue.