Essay: New Localism
In crisis, norms are suspended, especially in terms of time. The notion of past and future is replaced by a permanent and catastrophic present, hunkering down in one’s community to survive today, tomorrow, this week. At the time of writing, most art capitals sit behind national travel bans, and producers and audiences alike are forced to turn their attention to the offerings of their immediate environment, foregoing their once-itinerant lifestyles for a New Localism. The pandemic is exposing exactly how internationalism creates alienation from local milieus. Is this the future – and if so, how are we to deal with it?
Without the visa I needed to spend my summer in the US, I embarked on a pilgrimage across the continent. Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Vienna, Milan, and Zürich each seemed stuck in their own respective time loops, with drastically differing rules regarding quarantine, restaurant opening hours, and public gatherings, making them seem worlds apart. Moving between them felt like time travel; gone was the EasyJetsetting that has made Europe shrink season by season for the last fifteen years. As an art fair was called off in one city, book launches and local cultural festivals were reinstated in others. Flight tickets were cancelled, un-cancelled, and cancelled again – everyone had plenty of time on their hands, either due to the lack of travel plans or unemployment (or both).
“It’s just like in the 1990s,” spurred a prominent Berlin gallerist as she poured me a glass of champagne to mark the opening of a new exhibition back in September, “which is maybe not so bad after all.” It was Berlin Art Week, the few weeks of late summer when we caught a glimpse of what a return to normality might look like. A new energy was indeed palpable while navigating the citywide festival, which in the past has often proved incapable of competing with other international art events taking place in the same month. “It’s great to have collectors back in the galleries – even the museum directors from Paris and London came by!” the Berlin gallerist exclaimed, hinting to the slow exodus of (purchasing) visitors from physical galleries in recent years. Gallerists are painstakingly aware that their international merit is still largely procured through developing relationships in local milieus, leaving them suspended between global and local self-branding. “Glocal,” if you will: an old term from business sociology that has been embraced by art historians of late in their diagnoses of the art system’s uniquely distorted version of global identity.
The week before, in Vienna, the city opened its exhibition festival, curated by, where the normally internationally-oriented event was now lifted not by migratory art audiences but by a homebased local network of collectors and students. Covid has thrown a serious wrench in the idea of the “global art world”, a social fantasy developed alongside the “real” economic globalisation of the planet in the last forty years. While art has always operated in transnational networks, its modern formation as a predominantly international system first took shape in the late 1960s. The first contemporary art fair, the Kölner Kunstmarkt of 1967, brought American Pop and Conceptual Art to a broad West German audience for the first time by way of its savvy gallerist founders Hein Stünke and Rudolf Zwirner, anticipating both Arnold Bode’s Documenta 4 the following year and Harald Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form” in 1969. Kunstmarkt, Documenta, and Szeemann’s pioneering embrace of independent curating, became blueprints for the “fairism” and “biennalisation”, as these event-based exhibition models were adapted and applied to cities in Asia, the Americas, Africa, and the Middle East. The format accelerated in the 90s in particular: in the fifteen years between 1990 and 2005, the number of fairs and biennials around the world multiplied, from seven to sixty-eight (fairs) and ten to seventy-five (biennials), respectively. As a result, post-industrial cities around the world now compete fiercely for spots as stopovers on the never-ending art tour.
We, the art workers, are both the perpetrators and pawns of this complex, as we’re forced to internationalise ourselves in order to “stay in the loop”. “It’s a new privilege to work without any travel expectations,” a mid-career artist admitted to me as I prompted her in late October. Already in the 1990s, artists addressed the fatigue of internationalism, emblematised in Andrea Fraser’s Services project (1993), where a number of artists then branded as “site-specific” highlighted the deeply precarious nature of permanent art touring in a series of museum debates. As Fraser’s title suggests, the practices of art joined hands with the gig-economy the moment it internationalised, with artists and its intermediaries rendered as critical service providers to museums, biennales, and increasingly, fairs (or as an American artist locked down in Texas DMed me: “My value is that you can throw me into any situation and I can perform.”) As Fraser then diagnosed, a seasonal of type of labour mostly led to artists finding themselves “exhausted and in debt”.
So why do we still participate, season after season, biennial after biennial, fair after fair? Because we have to, of course – how else to survive? Since the 90s, the professional dependency on events has only increased, and the current halt to art’s global supply chain has left its workforce brutally exposed – just ask the many performers, speakers, and event staff who are currently unemployed. “Travel is a luxury, but before the pandemic it was taken for granted,” a New York magazine editor e-mailed me. I was surprised; couldn’t the same be said of not travelling? In our internationalised gig-economy where “showing up” somewhere is often the only way to get paid (even as a future investment), isn’t the ultimate luxury to be able to refuse to do so?
“I dislike the new regionalism, seeing shows with local friends & family only, having a short chat, and a few drinks (if you are lucky), and then going home,” another editor opined. Even if placed centrally in one of Europe’s so-called “art cities”, he was missing the internationals. “For me, our magazine is a place of refuge for the ‘good’ aspects of the art world, namely, its heterogeneity and cosmopolitanism, even if this term seems old-fashioned.” The editor reminded me why many of us seek to work and participate in art – namely, to be a part of something bigger, a community beyond the small-minded villages we happened to have been raised in. The somewhat grizzled concept of “cosmopolitanism” serves as a critical counterpoint to the rhetoric of globalisation, which is undoubtedly why it has inspired countless curators in recent decades, from Okwui Enwezor’s multi-country exhibition “platforms” for Documenta 11 to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s recouping of philosopher Édouard Glissant’s “archipelagic thinking”. “Before Covid, mobility was the means through which we would feed each other intellectually,” an independent curator echoed from Copenhagen. “I was used to travelling every two weeks for work, attending talks, teaching courses, planning shows, and doing studio visits, going to art fairs and biennials. Now that none of these activities is pursuable, I feel the void of living lives that are only possible by moving your body from place to place and meeting people you wouldn’t meet otherwise.” Many of us want globalisation to have critical potential – to spawn solidarity and connectedness beyond borders – even if we know that it is always enmeshed in neoliberal economics. But as several critics have recently pointed out, the utopian aesthetic of cosmopolitanism – where we celebrate localisms as long as we can hop between them as tourists of the “art tribe” – has become stifled and hollow because it speaks to an elite of mobile internationals, and leaves the locals as nothing more than ethnographic curiosities.
As we abandon the global, or better the global abandons us, what should we remember to hold on to?
And then, of course, there’s the crumbling planet we’re living on – a concern so urgent and yet so antithetical to art’s global system of production that we’re barely able to critically discuss it – save for a talk at Art Basel, perhaps, where thousands of art workers fly in annually to present, sell, consume, and live the cosmopolitan fantasy of art in the otherwise sleepy Swiss city. “I believe the pandemic to be a symptom of a much bigger issue we are facing: climate change,” a Vienna gallerist offered soberly in writing. “I certainly think that long term we cannot go back to the exact way things were: it simply wasn’t sustainable.”
But now that all of this is cancelled anyway – is a return to the local the new frontier, a new sustainable normal? Could we not simply move our cosmopolitanism online? In March, in what now seems another world, there was a glimpse of hope, then, about digital sociality and a net.art-esque embrace of cyberspace as a venue for art. But on one thing all prompted sources agreed: eight months in, no more screens, no more Zooms, no more virtual viewing rooms. The internet, more or less, sucks. Or as artist Hito Steyerl predicted in an essay almost a decade ago: the art world runs on an economy of presence – unmediated presence, the being “there” in-person – much like the logic of the artwork itself.
Will the pandemic be the end of art as an elitist global activity – and the renaissance of a thousand idiosyncratic local art worlds championing the idea of “community” in the good old-fashioned sense? What will happen to the art, to our practices? “I am concerned this will make us ‘lazy’, and cut the desire to see, experience, and try to live out of our comfort zone,” the previously mentioned curator in Copenhagen ended with a surprising bluntness. “Nothing bad in turning ‘local’, but in a place like Denmark, the risk is to become mediocre – namely, curating your circle of friends because private foundations grant money to support the local art scene.” As we abandon the global, or better the global abandons us, what should we remember to hold on to? How to ensure that a return to the local does not lead to new idolisations or regional hegemonies, a new sense of cultural or even national supremacy? Wherever I’ll be in the coming year, I refuse to return to an art world dictated by the ongoings of Manhattan and the Rhineland.
JEPPE UGELVIG is a curator and critic currently based Copenhagen. His most recent book, Fashion Work 1993–2018: 25 Years of Art in Fashion, was published this year by Damiani.