Recently a group of artists, academics, curators and activists gathered in the north of England at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) to discuss the possible futures of Arte Útil.1 A concept and set of working practices initiated by the artist Tania Bruguera, Arte Útil proposes that art can be directly useful as a tool for social and political change. One moment from this summit feels especially relevant to this issue of Afterall. It occurred during a discussion of the Arte Útil archive, itself an evolving compendium of global projects that fall within the concept’s rubric. To date, the archive has taken various forms, from an online database to physical presentations within museum exhibitions – fairly effective ways to convey the purpose and potential of Arte Útil to a dispersed audience, but nonetheless fraught. Unlike other forms of art, even other forms of socially engaged or political art, Arte Útil is always meant to move beyond the realm of the symbolic and into the space of action. This, of course, poses an explicit challenge to the inherited conventions of art institutions. Addressing this, at one point mima director Alistair Hudson noted that ‘whenever the Arte Útil archive becomes a display mechanism or orthodoxy it dies. We lose the argument.’
This tension, between art’s established modes of engagement and an impetus towards alternative forms of action, appears repeatedly across the coming pages. Walter Benjamin, in conversation with David Morris, goes so far as to claim that ‘art’, as we know it, is obsolete, which chimes with Bruguera’s emphasis on social transformation over more traditional artistic concerns. In a wide-ranging conversation with W.J.T. Mitchell, Bruguera discusses the development of Arte Útil; and John Byrne offers an astute analysis of the broader movement around it, from grass-roots community organising to international art museums, and the issues Arte Útil must grapple with as it continues to evolve.
Many texts in this issue address the possibilities and limits of cultural institutions – museums, libraries, archives – as imperfect stewards for conflicted objects and charged histories. They are places that preserve and dismantle, conceal and reveal. Structured in the form of an associational glossary, Charles Stankievech’s account of counterintelligence touches upon the agency of objects, the ways that they can hide and be hidden within various forms of camouflage, including the cover provided by institutional norms. Helena Vilalta’s nuanced assessment of the recent exhibition ‘Empty Fields' at SALT Galata, Istanbul addresses archival procedures as having the potential for a kind of heroism, where archival gestures offer a means to preserve vulnerable cultures during times of conflict. Sometimes conflict wins out, preservation is effaced. The task then becomes one of calling attention to absence, and to the implications of that absence – questions that Vilalta explores in relation to the political erasure of the Armenian genocide. Georgina Jackson’s text elaborates on the artist Abbas Akhavan’s profoundly beautiful project Study for a Monument (2013–15), which draws inspiration from a selection of plant pressings from Iraq, reimagining and reactivating those archival samples in relation to urgent contemporary questions about trauma, evidence and empathy. Anders Kreuger’s critique of a recent exhibition of Gely Korzhev addresses the recuperation of Socialist Realism within Russia, while Peter Osborne traces how the alternative art practice of Ilya Kabakov both shaped and was shaped by Western art categories. In different ways, then, all of these texts address how objects slip in and out of our ability to apprehend them. Meanings and details flex in relation to context, inflected in some cases by the capacity of the institution to hide away or preserve ideas and artefacts. Once revealed again, we can attend to their beauty and power – or even their banality – in ways that activate our critical imagination.
This is encapsulated in a different sense by the performances of the Indonesian artist Arahmaiani. She chooses to make the self, as body or as object, visible within her art. As Wulan Dirgantoro argues, Arahmaiani's choices function both by defying the categories imposed by Western critics and museums, and, as Angela Dimitrakaki points out, through her exposure of the biopolitical complex of capitalism, religion and patriarchy. Arahmaiani also participated in Chiang Mai Social Installation, a series of artist-led festivals in Thailand that attempted to bring art into the social fabric of its host city – introduced here in an essay by Simon Soon. The festival coincided with the rapid spread of globalisation during the 1990s. It was at this moment, when the festival was at the peak of its success, that the organisers chose to withdraw. Its activation of the local as a rejection of the then-emergent global art field resonates like a site-specific Arahmaiani performance writ large. Arahmaiani also represents a sustained practice of art-as-resistance. Her brief imprisonment by the Indonesian military government in the 1980s might make one think of Bruguera’s well-known antagonisms towards the Cuban state, and it is a point of commonality with the Egyptian artist Inji Efflatoun. Efflatoun too was imprisoned by authorities for her rebellious political stance. As essays by Anneka Lenssen and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie show, her practice suggests a lifelong ethics that plays itself out through personal and political life, as a celebrated artist and leader in the Egyptian women’s movement. Conversely, through an engagement with the final photographs of the British artist Jo Spence, Anne Boyer addresses such questions within a moment of vulnerability and sickness. What kind of activism, what kind of art is possible at the limits of life?
As with every edition of Afterall, this issue is a collective endeavour. It also reflects the journal’s evolving aim to connect ongoing research across dispersed constituencies. As well as its long-established partnership with M HKA in Antwerp, the journal is building new relationships in Toronto via its research partnership with the University of Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) – two institutions that, like those discussed on these pages, are full of contradictions and potentialities that we hope to activate. For a journal co-founded by Mark Lewis, a London-based but Canadian-born artist, it might be tempting to read this as a foreseeable kind of homecoming. But this grounding in Toronto goes deeper. It also feels generative because Canada is, as they say, having a moment. Despite its flaws, it is arguably one of the more stable and open democracies in the world right now. That’s precious at a time when so many long-standing civil societies are become less civil, more fraught. Canada is also a place where questions of decolonisation – another thread through this issue of Afterall – are very much a part of the cultural conversation. One key topic is the question of how to indigenise institutions – a discourse that raises questions about how we treat each other, how we might activate objects and ideas to generate new forms of creativity, critical thinking and active listening. Afterall’s editorial team began to address these matters this past spring in Toronto, in conversation with a group of scholars, artists and activists including indigenous leaders. Those conversations were shaped by Charles Stankievech and Wanda Nanibush. Nanibush has recently joined the AGO as Assistant Curator for Indigenous and Canadian Art, and will now join Stankievech as one of the journal’s two contributing editors from Toronto as we carry these discussions forward. They will be important as we continue to think about art’s many roles in the world right now, its many uses and our possible futures.