PRINT October 2009



Cyprien Gaillard, Cairns (131 Allan Street, Dalmarnock, Glasgow, 1965–2007), 2007, color photograph, 67 x 83".

INTRODUCING MICHAEL HARDT AND ANTONIO NEGRI’S newest publication, Commonwealth—two extended selections from which make their debut in this issue—curator Okwui Enwezor looks back at the cultural context surrounding the arrival of the theorists’ earlier philosophical disquisition Empire and recalls that volume’s (and the day’s) somewhat paradoxical quality. Published in 2000, the book ostensibly set out to describe a political and social logic emerging as the binary codes of the cold war finally gave way to decentralized networks forged by capital and marked by regional conflict—in short, a dawning paradigm of globalization. “And yet, appearing at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” Enwezor writes, “Empire was nonetheless imbued with a sense . . . of taking stock, of reflecting on the aftermath.” In other words: The future was indeed very much at hand, but could still be viewed only through the ruins of the past.

This disjunctive mood clearly resonates with our cultural experience today, but the task of sifting through the ashes of recent history is only more pressing now—and the implicit risks attending such an investigation only that much greater. If the end of the cold war offered a definitive break from the past, the schism introduced by events of the past year is more ambiguous, and more abstract—making it all the more tempting to suppose (or, for some, to pretend) that there has been little, if any, shift in the tectonic plates of society. This concern is a central one for Hardt and Negri and, intriguingly, may also explain why they chose Artforum as the venue for their text’s initial presentation. As the authors argue in these pages, “Even in times of crisis, when the flaws of the existing system have been completely revealed, there is strong pressure to continue with more of the same. . . . But what is most necessary in politics today are precisely those powers of creation and imagination that can break through the barriers of this purported realism and discover real alternatives to the present order of things.” Essential to grasp as well, however, is how Hardt and Negri’s claim, while made on the larger stage of politics, suggests why Artforum would be eager to publish their work: Their words serve as a reminder of what a contemporary art publication—whatever value it places on history and historical perspective—is supposed to do. As much as it might contextualize and report on the different avenues taken for artmaking or criticism, it must also try to envision and engender them in all their possibilities. On occasion, these aspects of an art journal’s mandate coincide; indeed, and if one believes in any meaningful correspondence between art and the society that cradles it, they are bound to.

In this issue, for instance, it is all too easy to consider artist Cyprien Gaillard’s project, titled “Relocating the Past,” in terms of some greater “aftermath”—premised as it is on the idea of monuments whose symbolic functions have been (or will be) distorted or lost, given the erosion of their foundational contexts (whether explicitly political or seemingly aesthetic). Yet in this regard, most pertinent is the quotidian character of an anecdote Gaillard recounts of viewing a modernist housing complex’s demolition last year in Glasgow: The artist’s interest in how monuments are inevitably subject to shifts in form and content—in how the present must sometimes be seen as ruins in advance—was prompted by the simple question, Where does all the rubble go? And this upshot—of underscoring the liminal dimension of the present—could be said to echo gently the words of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who contributes in this issue to a suite of essays considering the legacy of the recently deceased science-fiction writer J. G. Ballard: “Ballard identified and visualized our current landscapes and their complex distortions to come,” she writes, “mapping the resulting violent and psycho-aesthetic effects.”

Arguably, the very best works of science fiction are not futuristic at all but rather only seem so. Examining circumstances everywhere around us, the novelist merely gives words to them—teasing to the surface of consciousness what we already know to be the case but which we typically push away. These things belong to another place and time, the consumer of a science-fiction novel says to him or herself; and yet the frisson arises because the reader intuits that these alternative scenarios—these “intrusions” into our world—are in some sense very real. In this regard, and at its most powerful, the experience resembles nothing so much as that of opening the morning paper.

Our November issue will include a follow-up exchange between political philosopher David Harvey and Hardt and Negri about the assertions and implications of Commonwealth.