Empire/State: Artists Engaging Globalizationby Mariana Lefas-Tetenes
Art Gallery of the Graduate Center, The City University of New York
Installed opposite the Empire State Building in the midst of 34th Street’s commercial mayhem, this exhibition presents a group of 16 artists responding to the contradictions of globalization. Divided into two separate rooms, the first part of the exhibition consists of photographs, some with text, two web projects, a banner, a drawing, a DVD, a tent, and a project space installed with drawings, text, and a tape recording. The second, darkened room contains two CD-ROM videos, a slide series, a cable and wire installation, and a live webcast video. While some of the artists’ pieces are more familiar—Martha Rosler’s airport series, for example—it is invigorating to see other work on this subject. The four co-curators of the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program bring together older, more established artists and a range of younger practitioners, allowing us to mull over differences in approach and attitude on this issue, even if incompletely.
Fleshing out ways the global penetrates our experience is a key strength of this show, as are the questions it asks, “from whose vantage point do we see the global?” and “what is art’s position on this?” Not all the works address these issues after September 11th, but several tackle topical concerns: the status of foreign workers in the U.S.; the collusion of politicians and the financial world to support Iraq; the worldwide system of inequitable labor. Simultaneously, the strongest work ties these concerns to explorations of each media’s possibilities, whether it is the Internet, video, photography, a banner or site-specific installation.
Alex Rivera and Fatimah Tuggar tap into the recycling of information and images—on formal, social, and political grounds—that is central to globalization. Rivera’s biting online project Cybracero.com uses humor and a collage approach to historic material from the 1940s bracero program (which brought Mexican farm workers to the U.S.) to promote the fake business venture of cybraceros, robotic workers who telecommute from Mexico to perform work in America. Foregrounding issues of racism, and discrimination towards immigrants and foreigners that predate 9/11, Rivera produces a site which turns the ‘alien’ worker into a virtual being, a more total alien. Rivera’s interactive piece tunes in to the Internet’s powerful global appeal and foregrounds the dangers of global commerce: as user, we are the client tempted to hire a worker for whom we can have minimal social and political responsibility. However, Rivera’s satire contains within itself another aspect of globalization: the possibility of appropriation by the viewpoint you are criticizing—several online users are convinced cybraceros are real products. Even as Rivera handles this in stride—his fake CEO engages in dialogue with such users—the darker side of the web is always present, even in an activist project such as this.
Fatimah Tuggar’s computer-manipulated montages show women and children from rural Africa among skyscrapers, railroad tracks, computers, and telephones. Clashing rural domesticity with urban technology, these works bring to mind Hannah Hoch’s gendered collages. Their formal disjunction foregrounds our own blind spot about women’s lives in African countries, their place in the so-called technological revolution and its civic dimension. Working Woman might refer to the job of recycling of computer parts outside the U.S. and hereby upending stereotypes of African “working” women. The “African” fabrics worn by Tuggar’s women were originally industrial products, examples of earlier global trade between Indonesia, Holland, England and West Africa which challenges facile notions of indigenousness. In these ways, Tuggar’s images suggest that dense layers of meaning at the heart of globalization can be co-opted, redistributed, suppressed, or articulated.
Mark Lombardi’s long pencil drawing, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq c. 1979-1990, 3rd Version, obsessively plots data into a conceptual map. A system of marks traces incriminating financial and political connections, pieced together from the artist’s copious research. Lombardi uses a documentary method delivered with a cool touch which results in an urgent and convincing narrative structure. Linked to Conceptualist approaches, it also recalls older visual traditions of recording social and historical events which play out chronologically in a longitudinal format.
With similar intent but a completely different look, Marisa Yiu’s computer-based Brandspider also uses mapping techniques to visually elucidate connections between clothing brand, store of purchase, manufacture locations, and average hourly wage based on surveys. Running at a speed which makes it difficult to absorb the information, never mind reflect on it, you still get the gist, and filling out information on a form nearby about a piece of your own clothing, certainly helps make the point. But this work raises the question of whether this abundance of information is empowering or merely overwhelming? Like several other pieces in the show, this one depends on context and use, and its impact is diluted in a gallery setting.
Allan Sekula, Patricia Thornley, Emily Jacir and Peter Fend present different kinds of responses to globalization.
Situated next to Yiu’s Brandspider and Laura Kurgan’s high-paced intertextual Global Clock, Sekula’s slide show Waiting for Tear Gas[white globe to black] uses an “old-fashioned” slide projector to slow down our pace. His 1999 images of Seattle demonstrators against the WTO focus on gathering, waiting, concentrating, bonding—crucial aspects of politicized resistance which are difficult to visualize. Sekula confronts this crisis of globalization by tuning in to marginalized activities to represent what seeps out of mainstream media—a woman holding out towels and lemons for demonstrators. By recording chaotic configurations of people and illegible gestures, he aims to resist a totalized view. Several images—a demonstrator painting an abstract picture, a marching woman with a reflective sheet held up to presumably police—directly refer to crises of visual as well as political representation.
Thornley and Jacir’s works constitute interesting foils to each other. Both use atypical media for this show and required extensive physical handiwork. Thornley’s red cable and fine wire construction Former Yugoslavia hung in the dark on the ceiling is deliberately understated. A dim light source illuminates a small area of wires. Delineated in black insulation material, it forms a roughly bonded area suggesting an outline of Yugoslavia. Lit up, the outline produces an even dimmer shadow on the ceiling. In her subtle choice of materials and shaping of effects, Thornley evokes our dulled response to media representations of the recent war in Yugoslavia. The work characterizes the dissolution of this nation-state as a marginal phenomenon, which, despite information overload, failed to stimulate sustained concern. The melancholic tone of the piece is striking as is its implied ambivalence towards ethical, social, and political responsibility. This site-specific anti-memorial will be dismantled when the show closes.
Jacir’s Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 is full-scale Palestinian refugee tent stitched with the names of the aforementioned villages. Unlike Thornley’s Former Yugoslavia, its address is insistent and unambiguous. It confronts displacement by encouraging us to enter into the tent’s interior where we find straggling threads.
Peter Fend’s United States Global (Energy) Policy is made up of drawings of alternative energy sources and maps, text, and a recording of the artist describing his radical environmental plan. Intended as a practical strategy room for the U.S. government, it is the only work which tackles globalization and environmental issues head-on. While it is certainly linked to earth art and Russian Constructivism in the aesthetic sphere, its radicality lies in Fend’s re-envisionment of the world’s topography from global, rather than national perspectives. Ironically, the very daring which makes Fend’s piece utopian, raises concerns about the implications of his proposals to local ecologies and populations—an issue not addressed by this installation.
Empire/State turns up some thoughtful conclusions: in a global era, where knowledge is never merely information, activist of politicized art-making must work extra hard to be heard by both broader society and the art world—most of these artists have no illusions about their audiences, instead addressing a range of people using ingenious means. Their work shows us that critical responses are possible by engaging the forms of globalization. The show could have benefited from an explicit look at earlier artistic encounters with the contradictions of globalization. That said, within the terms it sets for itself, Empire/State is a suggestive exhibition whose strongest moments, like Wolfgang Staehle’s live web-cast projection Empire 24/7 which closes the show, nuance globalization through complex local filters.