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QOQQOON (cocoon) is a webzine for writing by artists. We also republish hard-to-find pdfs online. In our current issue (#5), we are thinking about practicing context. Submissions are welcome. Edited by Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham. Published on unceded, traditional, and ancestral Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories (Vancouver, Canada) since 2018. ISSN 2563-4364.

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QOQQOON//Return to Baluchistan: Nominalising the Bourgeois Aesthetics

Return to Baluchistan: Nominalising the Bourgeois Aesthetics

During the early 1980s, or maybe late 1970s, I was travelling in Southern Baluchistan, one of the most dry and arid areas of Pakistan. As I looked out of the window of the bus, I was overwhelmed by the landscape. As an aesthetic experience this was not a new thing for me, as I had always been attracted to the raw and crude beauty of this landscape. I had actually spent my childhood in Baluchistan; and later on when I came to live in Karachi I would go there to spend weekends or holidays with my parents who still lived there. During these travels, by a bus or car, I often found myself looking at and contemplating this landscape. In fact, the memory of this period has often haunted my imagination. But this time there was something profoundly different, as I was suddenly struck with an idea. I said to myself: ‘why can’t this be or become a work of art’?

I had in fact been preoccupied with this question for almost twenty years, but without a satisfactory answer. Painting or photography was out of question, not only that I had given them up a long time ago but also because they could not as specific genres—deal with the complexity of what I had in mind in a significant way.1 I could have turned to art history, as I had been aware of Land Art of the late Sixties (it was perhaps this awareness which also contributed to this experience), and produced something new that went beyond what had already been done. But there was a very difficult problem: how could I go beyond those who had been established as historical precedents without considering the ideology that had legitimised them as canons of art history?

If for Eurocentric ideology the canons of art history were and are enshrined only in the European subject, didn’t this subject also represent the bourgeois premise of modernity that seemed to have now reached the limits of its progressive vision? The problem for me, therefore, was not just how to confront this Eurocentric ideology but also the bourgeois premise within which everything became trapped and reified. If art could not function as a social process of transformation within this context, then art had to free itself from it in its attempt to find an alternative.

What I was actually confronted with was not a barren landscape or a wilderness. Wilderness had been—and still is a favourite subject of artists, particularly of some of the late 1960s conceptualists who saw the remote barren land as an escape from the problems of dehumanising commercialism of the urban space of the modern metropolis such as New York or London. But, if the metropolis had become a place where only consumer culture could breed and flourish, trapping human imagination in its un-ending seductive demands and rewards, capitalism had also been casting its gaze on what it considered to be the wilderness. With globalisation this gaze has now turned to the poverty stricken and deprived areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, in order to take possession of whatever land it can grab and exploit with total disregard of the peoples who live there.

For the Land Art conceptualists, landscape in fact offered a fantasy which they could manipulate conceptually and present it as a work of art to satisfy a self-centred discourse. If a land appeared, particularly through the camera eye, as a wilderness it was only because they did not want to see or allow their eyes to penetrate beyond what they wanted to see. Thus the people who inhabited the land either disappeared from their gaze or became objects.2

The aridness of the landscape we are now looking at is in fact deceptive. This land may look dry and barren, but it is not always so. During the monsoon, when it rains, the arid land is transformed, though briefly, into a lush green pasture. In this pasture we can see domestic animals, such as goats and camels, grazing. The land is also cultivated following a rain fall. But this cultivation is for a very limited period as the heat of the summer the temperature here is usually above 30 degree centigrade—dries up everything. However, whatever little is produced and saved from the land do somehow support and sustain the life of its inhabitants.

For some urban romantics this may appear as an unspoiled or ideal way of life, away from the problems of consumer culture, but in reality it is a different picture. If we could look beyond what appears to the camera eye, we would realise that what we are confronting is the poverty and deprivation of one of the poorest peoples in the world. Milk from goats and camels with some bread of sorghum which commonly grows there may provide them with something to survive, save them from extreme starvation, but most people there particularly women and children also often go hungry. This is not an unusual or unique picture, but can be seen globally. It is a well-recognised fact that about two billion people live in abject poverty today in what is called the Third World.

It is unnecessary for me here to go into the historical causes of this human predicament, but with globalisation the situation is getting worse. As for the ruling classes of the Third World, most of them have capitulated to the power of global capitalism and what they no wall want is to share some of its spoils—even when they know full well that this is causing unbearable misery for most people. The ambition of most artists, critics, historians and curators from the Third World is no different from the aspirations of these classes. Although many of these intellectuals are now part of the global art scene, performing as functionaries of the system in pursuit of their careers (in the West), it would be unfair to target only them with special criticism. With globalisation, and the collapse of the idea of the Third World offering an ideological opposition to (Western) imperialism, what remains is just hollow rhetoric of the westernised middle classes whose objective is only to embarrass the liberal conscience of the big bosses in order to extract some more benefits from them for their own vulgarly selfish life. However, it is important to point out that self-interest and opportunism are not the prerogatives of Third Word intellectuals only, but are universally endemic as part of the intellectual life of the globalised world today.

I shall therefore return to my own site. Witnessing the perpetually worsening socioeconomic and political conditions of most Third World countries since they achieved their independence after the War II, I had reached a point in my life when I could no longer justify my position as an artist or see any significance in art that did not take into account this change and responded to it critically. But would this be enough?

Having achieved its global ambition to reach and dominate every corner of the world, with its ideology of grabbing and exploiting anything it can put its hands on without benefiting the people whose resources it exploits, capitalism’s subjection of everything to the measurement of money has not only plunged the world into social, ethical and intellectual crises, but has also paralysed the ability of most people to think of an alternative. This has also made extremely difficult for art to function as a critical discourse. As it has become trapped in a self-serving decadent paradigm of the worst kind since its emergence as an enlightened consciousness, the bourgeois context can no longer offer a radical solution. Can we, then, pursue a meaningful alternative without attacking the roots of this problem? Is it enough to reflect upon this disturbing reality critically, but without suggesting a way to find a productive and affirmative alternative?

What is fundamental to my suggestion is the idea that it is possible to perceive or produce art in a radically different context, an art which locates itself away from the bourgeois institution and is not necessarily dependent on its mediation and legitimation. If we can recognise that there is now a growing resistance, at a global level, against the global power of capitalism, then this can provide us with an alternative context. I say this following Adorno’s pessimism resulting from his inability to find social agency in society.3 I would, instead, suggest that we do have a way out of what seems to be the paralysis of progressive thinking, or what to Adorno was a ‘hibernation’. If we can stop thinking about the West as the society or the centre of the world, then it is possible to wake up from this hibernation and think of and develop a discourse which posits or recognises a social agency capable of progress, both materially and philosophically, in the struggle of deprived peasants and exploited workers around the world.

When I look at the landscape I have invoked here, I cannot avoid thinking of those who inhabit the land. And I have often asked myself: is it possible to do something in terms of art which is meaningful to the people there and without being paternalistic to or patronising them? Can we do anything more beyond looking at the land through the romantic egocentric gaze of the artist? I have already and tentatively proposed a solution to this question elsewhere, but here I want to look at it in more detail and explore the practicality of this proposition with all its paradoxes and contradictions. There are enormous theoretical difficulties and logistic problems, which I do not pretend to resolve here. Being a practising artist and not a theorist, though I recognise fully the importance of theory, my main concern here is with creative imagination. The point I am emphasising here is that it is the perceptual experience that has always led me to conceptualise things, and I am therefore weary of things that predetermine the role of imagination. There are of course theoretical implications in what I propose, but they emerge from an artistic imagination rather than from an academic discourse. It is with the imaginative power of art that I want to move forward; with a proposition that may lead to a new kind of thinking and produce a new kind of critical practice, out of which may also emerge a revolutionary concept of art based on the nominalism of everyday work carried out by people themselves or their material production.

II

Why nominalism? And what is its importance? The presence of the nominal in art is not new. It can be traced back to the beginning of the avant-garde, particularly in the ready-mades of Duchamp or the use of the everyday in art. I find very useful the ideas of Russian productivists—particularly the work of Boris Arvatov—who wanted to abolish the division between the material and intellectual production.4 My own experience of the nominal goes back to 1965 when I conceived my first ‘Minimalist’ sculpture,5 but I was not then aware of the ideas of the ‘everyday’. Nor did it ever occur to me during all the last thirty five or so years that the word ‘nominal’ could be significant in describing the characteristics of some of the works I have since been pursuing. It was actually during a conversation with some friends last year, with whom I was discussing my new ideas about art, that I realised the significance of the nominal. As I was explaining my recent thinking about art, particularly how a land and what it produces could be considered a work of art, one of them exclaimed: ‘But where is art? What you are talking about is nominal?’ I paused briefly and said: ‘It is a good idea, the nominal’.

Although what underlies this work here precedes my awareness of the nominal, my recent contemplation of the nominal has helped me a great deal in my understanding of the radical potential of what has been known in art theory as the ‘everyday’. It has convinced me that if we could radicalise the idea of the everyday so that it is no longer removed from life processes and reified as an aestheticised object, then there is a way forward.

There already exists, in my view, considerable and profound conceptualisation of the nominal within the avant-garde; the work of some Land Art conceptualists of the late Sixties in particular offers a significant move towards the nominal. But, as their work was conceived and realised within the context of bourgeois individualism and expression, appropriating the nominal from the everyday life process or collective work, the radical potential of the nominal was contained and undermined. The question I then faced was how to locate an experience from a poor Third World country—considered to be outside the mainstream—within the history of the avant-garde but, at the same time, avoid its subjection to institutional legitimation. There are in fact two issues here. If agency of the artist is located in individualism legitimised by the bourgeois institution, how can an attempt to create a shift from the self-centred activity of the individual to the collective subject be legitimised? The answer seems to lie in the nature of the shift. If this shift could produce a collective agency capable of resisting individualism by its self-sustaining creative and productive labour, it would produce its own legitimation.

I also realised that it would be necessary to consider the shift of agency from the affluent society of the West, where the revolutionary potential of the industrial working class seems to have been assimilated and pacified by the bourgeois consumer culture, to the resistance of the super-exploited and deprived masses of the world; and consider the production of art as part of this resistance involving, for example, expropriation of land and its transformation as a creative/productive act by those who live and work on it.

The implication of this is not that the struggle of the industrial working class is over or that it is no longer important. Nor am I suggesting that the workers in the West no longer have a role in a revolutionary process. But it seems that they alone are no longer in a position historically to play a vanguard role. The workers of the advanced industrial nations, having more resources than those of the rest of the world, can though play a very productive role in the development of a global network of resistance and struggle. But their own aspirations must integrate, for the long term interest of all humanity, with the struggle led by those who are the most exploited and deprived. The scope of this work does not allow me to go further and explore the nature and the framework of such a worldwide alliance, but it is important here to recognise that without this alliance we cannot envisage a successful struggle.

III

I might have given an impression of apathy and passivity of the poor of the world. This was not my intention; indeed, it has never been so. There is now in fact emerging widespread resistance and protests against the attempt of multinationals to grab the remaining material resources of the world and use them in their own interest or profit. In Pakistan, as in the rest of the Indian subcontinent, for example, multinationals are now being invited to develop the land, among other things. They have been offered, in many cases, free access to the land and tax-free concession at least for the first ten years. The response to this globalisation has been a widespread debate for a local alternative, an alternative which allows land to remain in the hands of the people. There are now frequent discussions even on the government controlled television about the benefits of collective farming. The individual holdings which are often as little as three acres are unable to provide even a subsistence to a family, and the only solution is either to succumb to the power of multinationals or develop a modern system of collective farming by people themselves to increase the efficiency of the land.

This resistance does not always involve protest or confrontation, but people are instead using their creative imagination (fundamental to art) to adopt methods that empower them. One example is that of farmers in Central America. In Guatemala and Honduras farmers have discovered, with the help of NGOs working there, a ‘magic bean’ called mucuna. As a result of the use of mucuna beans to revitalise the land, ‘maize crops have been tripled, erosion [of the land] has been halted, destruction of the rain-forest curtailed, and migration to the cities reversed’.6 Many families who twenty years ago had left their land, because they could not feed themselves, and went to cities where they faced the wretchedness of urban poverty, have now returned to their land and are happy to till it. One of the properties of the mucuna bean is that it acts as a natural manure and enriches the land without the use of chemical fertiliser which has to be bought from multinationals. This example is extremely important because it goes beyond what Lyotard, while referring to the futility of protest movements, calls ‘reactional’,7 and produces an alternative discourse which is both resisting and self-empowering.

When I was overwhelmed by the landscape in Baluchistan, it was not only due to the scenic picturiality of the land or merely by the idea of land as a conceptual work of art. There was something more to it. Maybe it was the civil engineer in me who was suddenly awakened.8 What occurred to me then was actually the idea of building a dam across one of the ravines or dry small rivers, and storing the water during the rain to be used for the land cultivation throughout the year. This would not only help the people there, but would also be a conceptual work of art. My intention was to photograph the whole thing, from beginning to the end, and then to present it as a new work.

This idea of building a dam as a work of art has stayed with me unrealised for all these years because its realisation needed enormous resources. But as the idea grew in my head, it drastically changed as a concept. Because, even if I had found the money and built the dam, I began to realise that it would not go far enough as a significant work of art. It would not offer a radical alternative to the established order. The building of a dam for the benefit of people would have gone beyond the futile exercises of Land Art, but it would still be another example of bourgeois altruism which could help the poor but would never allow them to eradicate the cause of their predicament.

If altruism is a function of power derived from private property that produces narcissistic individualism, which is fundamental to the production of art in bourgeois society, then it is necessary that the idea of private property is confronted as part of a process of revolutionising the function of art. The main question really is about ownership. Who should own the whole thing when it is realised? How should it be recognised and legitimised as a work of art? Whose intellectual property should it be? If we cannot find a way of answering these questions outside and in confrontation with the prevailing order for which private property is fundamental, are we not back to square one? If the work is still a function of altruism, how am I proposing this as anything new or radically different from some already established art historical precedents and their status as an expression of enlightened bourgeois consciousness?

What are these historical precedents? While working on an earlier paper,9 and reflecting upon the nature of the failure of modern and avant-garde movements in the 20th century, I thought it would be a good idea to go through some literature on the late 1960s Conceptual Art. I grabbed the first book that had just come out, and it happened to comprise interviews with some American conceptual artists.10 What surprised me was a suggestion by Robert Morris, for which he proposed to grow a crop, with the help of a farmer, on a piece of land. And then the whole thing would, I presume, be photographed and presented as a Conceptual artwork. But he never did this work. As far as I know, he never mentioned this work again, and we know about this suggestion only after his interview of the late 1960s was recently published. Why did he ignore the significance of such an important concept? The problem, I think, was the farmer. How could he claim this to be his work, when it was the farmer and his farm workers who did the work as they would always do? There was no input from Robert Morris as far as both the Form and Production of the work were concerned, and yet he would still claim it solely as his own work merely on the basis of presenting it as an idea. Would Morris have shared the property rights of the artwork with the farmer and farm workers on equal basis and also transferred these rights to them so that they could afterward continue with the crop production as a continuous art process beyond his gaze and control?11

This is indeed an example of the nominal, by which an existing thing is turned into an idea. But this nominal is an appropriated nominal, as it is removed and alienated from its productive base. Because it is the nature of the bourgeois system which, while recognising and legitimising the nominal—or any other thing—as a work of art, must alienate it from social process in order to turn it into a reified commodity.

However, the most interesting example of the way the bourgeoisie appropriates things from life processes and freezes them into aestheticised objects that I found was not among the Land Art conceptualists, but in a work of Joseph Beuys.12 In 1982, during Documenta 7, Beuys launched a project for which he wanted to plant 7000 oak trees in Kassel. This work was explained as ‘the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to be extended throughout the world as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change’.13 Although this project was completed after his death in 1987, and subsequently some trees were planted—as ‘a symbolic’ act in New York City in 1988 and 1996, as well as in Oslo and Sydney, we have no evidence of any tree being planted as part of his ‘global mission’.

It would however be unwise to doubt Beuys’ genuine concern for the environment or his good intention. Beuys did have a vision to transform the world through the imaginative power of art; and the idea of planting trees all over the world was not only very beautiful but it was indeed laudable. And by this which was his last major work—he (re-)affirmed the transformational function of art:

I wish to go more and more outside [the gallery/museum space] to be among the problems of nature and problems of human beings in their working places. This will be a regenerative activity; it will be a therapy for all of the problems we are standing before… I wished to go completely outside and to make a symbolic start for my enterprise of regenerating the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare a positive future in this context.14

However, at the same time, he failed to ask the most important question. How would it be possible to achieve this objective within the system that had been persistently destroying environment and preventing social change? Although Beuys’ proposition does provide us with a radically new language that can be subjected to a radical deconstruction which is capable of confronting the system, the significance of his own actual work remains contained somewhere between the shamanistic act of a heroic modern artist and the institution which legitimates his status as a genius. The failure of the work lies in its altruistic and gestural nature, whose futility becomes evident in the most vulnerable rainforests of the world where thousands of trees are being felled every day by the very system which bestows power on this heroic bourgeois artist so that he can indulge in such ‘a symbolic’ gesture.

These historical precedents do though, despite their being reified and frozen within the institutional space, represent an inherited positive knowledge. The aim here is to salvage the progressive aspects of this knowledge and deconstruct them with a hope that they would realise their full radical potential. The critical understanding of this knowledge can thus help us go beyond their contextual limits and move forward. The significance of these works, for me, really lies in their ground breaking innovative language that provides us with a potential for its further development. While recognising the importance of these precedents (and there must be more), both in terms of their formal and conceptual significance, what has been most important for me however is my understating of the nature of their ultimate failure. Their failure was not a failure of human imagination, but of the imagination that was trapped in a context which had progressively become bankrupt and had no further potential for radical change. Consequently, this context no longer has any value system which would recognise human creativity unless it is subjected to commodification and reification. If I am now climbing over these precursors,15 it is to pay homage to creative imagination. It is also to recognise the importance of their contribution to the development of the language (of art) beyond its accepted traditions and conventions. This has enabled me to look into these historical precedents beyond the context of their failures and subject them to what may produce a radical transformation beyond the remit of bourgeois consciousness and its individualism.

What I now suggest is not merely a radical advancement on their work, but more importantly an exploration of the possibility of a conceptual or paradigm shift both in the content and context of art. The concept of Nominalism is different from the use of the everyday or nominal as an aestheticised object.16 If the past failure of the nominal in art is due to its being appropriated and contained by the idea of individualism, then the nominal must be liberated from this bourgeois prison house and returned to the life processes from which it has been alienated. In fact, only when the very idea of individual private property, on which the idea of individualism in art is based, is confronted, abolished and is dissolved into a collective process of creativity and ownership, can a new art of positive and affirmative nature emerge as part of the material production in which people are themselves involved.

IV

Dams have always been built and will continue to be built, and there are existing communities who live around hundreds of dams all over the world. So, what is new about my idea? Without restructuring the relationship of the community with the land and reorganising it so that it offers an egalitarian alternative, can the idea of merely building a dam, or whatever, go far enough to represent a paradigm shift? The point here is not about giving away something to others for their benefits, but how can they become involved in a creative/productive process leading to their own collective control of it, self-determination and self-sufficiency. The imperative, therefore, is to recognise an ideological framework in which people’s potential to reorganise themselves as a community on the basis of common ownership of land (or any other means of production) becomes a dynamic force of history.

But how can this be achieved practically, and as a practice? If giving up private property in favour of collective ownership is fundamental to my proposition, then it is not going to be an easy task. In fact private property is the main hurdle in the development of land, and/or other means of production, in the poor Third World countries, and which thus prevents the improvement of the living conditions of people there. The idea of private property, even when it is so small that it is unproductive, is so entrenched in the minds of even poorest sections of society that it is inconceivable that anyone would abandon the individual rights to property in favour of an idea of collective ownership unless the alternative is first proven to be more beneficial to them, in terms of both their material and cultural needs. No outside persuasion, on the basis of a promise for a better future would convince people to give up whatever they individually own.

I would therefore take a detour, which puts me back in the context of art. It is perhaps easy to conceive an idea, but to realise it one needs material resources—that is, money. Couldn’t one raise the money in the same way art receives money within the prevailing system? If money could be raised, say a modest sum of a million pounds it is a modest sum considering the prices paid for contemporary artworks nowadays or compared with the amount of public money spent on useless projects in the West it would purchase not only 2000 acres of barren land around a river or ravine but would also be enough to do the rest of the job such as building a small earthen dam, preparing the land for cultivation, and providing the people with proper housing.17

However, it is fundamental that the development and execution of the project is realised with the full participation of people living there. They may initially enter the project as wage workers, but during the whole period of development they must be part of the process that allows their engagement, through consultations and discussion, with the aims and objectives of the whole project. Once they have realised the benefits of what they are doing, one should not be surprised if their own enthusiasm draws them in with their full energy and with their own ideas.

A village with modern facilities but in the tradition of the area, including educational and medical provisions, among other things, is then built to accommodate a community of say two hundred families. The work then, needless to say, should be undertaken on a collective basis and its product distributed equally among the community on the basis of their basic needs. Initially, the management of the project can be undertaken by a committee or council representing the village, with some outside experts advising them about modern methods of production and marketing the surplus. However, once the community has understood the ideological basis of the work and is able to manage it efficiently by itself, the property rights of the whole thing—both of the land and of the artwork—must be transferred to the community. Once everything is turned into the collective property of the community, those ‘artists’ who have initiated the project and have helped in its realisation must renounce both their property and intellectual rights. The work shall then continue to be produced and developed by the community itself, not only as a material production but also as an art concept.

Once the project has become successful and its benefits to the community have become known, there is no reason why other communities would not wish to follow and use it as a model to reorganise and reconstruct themselves. The whole thing could spread endlessly, both within a specific area and worldwide. The fundamental aim of this project is in fact to use this project as a starting point for what should develop into a world-wide network of similar projects capable of resistance or struggle against the growing corporate power.

Although I began the whole thing with my personal experience, giving an example of the specific work which could be built as a result of it, it would be a mistake if this experience is attributed to or confused with individualism. An individual experience doesn’t have to be a result of individualism. It can easily be part of a collective experience or perception, depending how one relates and identifies with it. Without my consciousness of my being part of the collective struggle of millions of people across the world, I don’t I think I would have undergone this experience and produced this discourse. However, this meditation on the landscape from a poor Third World country is meant not only to offer a conceptual model, but also a Concept that must transcend this model. It should be applicable universally—even in the affluent countries of the West. This model can in fact adopt any form a farm, an industrial factory, a housing estate, a supermarket, etc, so long as it leads to a collective endeavour, owned and run collectively by a community of working people themselves.18 This may imply a withdrawal of labour from the system, but it is not a negative withdrawal that often produces unemployment and disempowerment. On the contrary, this creative act of withdrawal affirms the creative power of labour, both physical and intellectual. My proposition may not change the situation immediately or profoundly, but it is meant to suggest a process which has the potential to empower people to deal with their situation themselves, and materially prepare them in the long term to deal with the dominant system beyond just protesting against oppression.

V

What we face today are two failures: the failure of the class struggle, and of the avant-garde. Both had aimed at a radical change in society. These failures are not so much to do with the ideas of progress and human advancement as to the methodologies, strategies and the context in which the struggle towards an egalitarian world society took place. The strategy to confront the system in order to bring about a radical change within it to improve the condition of the working class or to overthrow it altogether failed because this strategy of confrontation with the system did not allow the development of alternative material resources that would have empowered the struggling classes and freed them from their dependence on wage-work. It is this failed strategy that is today crippling the whole discourse of class struggle, and with it the development of art as a critical and productive discourse with its own power of legitimation.

Radical art has so far functioned as a form of resistance that was isolated from the resistance of the working masses, and has thus failed. Art must now return to the masses as part of their resistance. Let their Resistance become Art; and artists (along with scientists, engineers, theorists, and so on) can facilitate this shift from art as resistance to resistance itself becoming art. Those who are concerned with the disturbing state of art today and are engaged in its critique, ought to realise that this is not enough. What we need is a collective effort towards new thinking, new theories, new strategies that will help us wake up from hibernation and show us a way forward. We need to join together to realise what has always been the aim of art, to achieve the universal emancipation and freedom of humanity.

I am aware that my argument for a radical shift which should lead to a revolutionary situation may not be very convincing. There are many unresolved theoretical issues and logistical problems. The relationship between the individual—who may conceive and initiate a project—and a collective body is highly problematic and can only be resolved as part of a continuous and long term revolutionary process. We as artists and theorists can from outside observe, perceive and conceptualise anything as a work of art. But how about those who are there inside, those who are the real producers? Can they also perceive what they do as a work of art? It is not an easy question, and I don’t have a definite answer. Maybe it does not need an answer.

Although the proposed work does not seek an institutional legitimation, as it produces its own legitimation, we shall not do anything to prevent the proposed concept entering into the institutional space of the art world. On the contrary, it would be extremely necessary for it to intervene in this space and initiate a debate within the art community as a whole.

It would in fact be naive—if not foolish to underestimate the power of the bourgeois art world, and dismiss or abandon its institutional space without engaging it critically in the process of finding an alternative. There can be no absolute escape from the bourgeois socioeconomic and political system and its art institution, and that leaves us no choice but to negotiate our position—even when it is becoming extremely frustrating to maintain one’s critical position—‘within’ it.19 But we don’t have to be the victims of the contradictions this relationship produces; and then to resort in the name of self-reflexivity or reflecting a human condition to pessimism, nihilism, cynicism, self-loathing and self-mutilation (common phenomena among the young generation of today), and so on. The function of one’s subjectivity is not to probe deep into itself, but to allow itself to grow beyond its body (ethnic. racial, sexual or national) so that it can comprehend the world at large. It is also now self-indulgence to continue producing a discourse which only negates what Adorno calls ‘ossified language and thought forms’,20 or turn to a so-called avant-garde strategy that only reflects upon the decadence of bourgeois culture (and how an individual is affected by it). Protests against society, without transforming the language and concepts into a weapon of resistance through a material and intellectual production that offers an affirmative alternative, is futile.

We may now in fact declare the end of art as we have known it, as Hegel did in the beginning of the 19th century. The 20th century began with ideas for positive and progressive developments for all humanity. But these ideas collapsed with the growing power of capitalism and its imperialist ambition to dominate the world, resulting in human plunder and millions of deaths in its wars; and also thus paralysing the progressive thinking of many radical intellectuals. But we can begin this century differently, without repeating past mistakes and failures.

Nominalism offers a positive way forward. Its aim is to open a new window on the world, a window that makes us realise that there does exist an alternative to the dehumanising world of the bourgeoisie. History tells us that this world can no longer be humanised through its neo-liberal reforms, as it refuses to confront its basic contradictions (It may in fact in the end produce total anarchy and chaos leading to a world catastrophe). This work aims to establish a dialogue with those who are concerned with the disturbing state of affairs in general today and particularly of art. Only through an exchange of ideas beyond the constraints of the institutional or academic space can we hope to see the light at the end of the bourgeois tunnel.

Finally, what is most important is not only the historicization of the concept of Nominalism as a particular work of art, but also its underlying vision. It is a vision of future in which working people themselves shall collectively and creatively build their own agricultural farms, industrial factories, distribution networks, super markets, eating houses, housing estates, transport and communication systems, art/educational institutions, entertainment/sports complexes, etc, scattered around the world but connected together through a global network of shared ideas and objectives that will not only empower them to resist the power of global capitalism but also make them self-sufficient. Art can facilitate and be part of this vision. This may be a daydream or the naïve fantasy of an artist, but it is better to daydream with a hope for a better future then allow oneself to be dehumanised and consumed by the greed for money and individual power. What is important is to realise that we can save our planet and its future by the power of free creative imagination, which by escaping the narcissism of bourgeois consciousness can transform itself into the collective power of the people whose resistance today has put them in a position of the new vanguard of revolution. When people become aware of their collective power, they themselves can and will change the world.

–Rasheed Araeen, 2001

Notes

The initial draft of this paper was delivered to an invited audience by Anwar Rummel at his premises in Karachi, Pakistan, in December 2001; and then a shorter version was delivered at the ‘Marxism and the Visual Arts Now’ conference, University College London, 8–10 April 2002. It was published as ‘The Art of Resistance: Towards a Concept of Nominalism’, Third Text, Volume 16, Issue 4, July 2002. This version is from Rasheed Araeen, Art Beyond Art: Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (London: Third Text Publications, 2010).

  1. I was actually a portrait and landscape painter until 1959 when I discovered my ability to go beyond this amateur activity and produce work that situated itself in the radical tradition of the avant-garde.
  2. The work of Richard Long, a highly celebrated English artist who walks around the world taking photographs of places that look un-inhabited or without people or animals, is worth mentioning here.
  3. Jochen Schulte-Sasse, ‘Theory of Modernism versus Theory of the Avant-Garde’, forward to Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Manchester University Press/University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, xviii–xix.
  4. See John Roberts, ‘Philosophizing the Everyday: The philosophy of praxis and the fate of cultural studies’, Radical Philosophy 98, November/December 1999, London.
  5. Having conceived this work, and some subsequent works, which was a shift from the hierarchic composition of then modernist sculpture to a symmetrical structure with an egalitarian potential, I realised that this formal strategy might freeze this potential by becoming an aestheticized object. In order to deal with this problem, I proposed in 1968 a work that would exist in its initial stage as a static, symmetrical structure comprising 100 cubes (10 x10); but then public would dismantle this structure and re-produce it in their own ways. Other group of participants would follow and dismantle the work of earlier constructions and re-make the whole thing again; and this way the whole thing will become an un-ending continual transformational process. mention this here because this work was the beginning of my interest in the self-creativity of the public domain.
  6. Julian Pettifer, “‘Magic Bean” transforms life for poor Jacks of Central America’, The Independent on Sunday, 10 June 2001.
  7. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, 1986.
  8. I am actually a graduate in civil engineering from NED Engineering College, University of Karachi, 1962. I was taught to draw flowers and make clay toys by my mother, a non-literate peasant woman, When I was seven or eight years old; and I suppose that was the beginning of my interest in art.
  9. As I realised the impossibility of physically realising this project in Baluchistan, I began to think, at the end of 1990s, of writing it down and develop it as a concept that would transcend its initial site. This concept was actually first explored and presented in the paper entitled ‘Come What May: Beyond the Emperor’s New Clothes’, delivered as the inaugural keynote Speech at the ‘Globalisation + Art + Cultural Difference on the edge of change’ conference, 27–29 July 2001, Sydney. In this paper I suggested that cultural difference was critical in the development of modernism at the beginning of 20th century, but this criticality was suppressed by attributing cultural difference ontologically to, and using it as the sign of, the postcolonial ‘other’ enunciated by its own cultural traditions. Cultural difference could again play acritical role by locating itself within the radical traditions of the avant-garde, and thus by liberating the avant-garde from its Eurocentric freeze it could give it a new dynamic in its march towards a radical social function.
  10. Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell (eds), Recording Conceptual Art; early interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell, The University of California Press, 2001.
  11. It is interesting that, instead of treating ‘a crop’ as a product of farmers, constituting human labour, Morris perceives the whole thing as a natural process: ‘I would use nature, really, or farmers—but basically nature—to have the things go’, ibid.
  12. Lynne Cooke thinks that the ‘works such as Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), James Turrell’s ongoing project at the Roden Crater, and both Robert Smithson’s and Robert involvements with land reclamation projects on abandon sites ravaged by strip mining have affinities with Beuys’ concurrent activities and interest’. See Lynne Cooke, 7000 Oaks, diacenterorg.
  13. From a statement, ‘7000 Oaks by Joseph Beuys’, by Dia Centre for the Arts, New York, which provided the initial financing of 7000 Oaks in Kassel, and carried out the planting of some trees in NewYork in 1988 and 1996. diacenter.org.
  14. Joseph Beuys quoted by Lynne Cooke, 7000 Oaks.
  15. Although these precedents have been extremely important for me to articulate this work, I have not been fully aware of their ideas until 2001 when I began to work on this project. I can say that the idea of the dam as a work of art predates the knowledge of both these works by Morris and Beuys. If there was any influence on my thinking, although it is continuation of the concepts I began to develop in 1968/69, it must be Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970.
  16. I have only recently became aware of the existence of Nominalism in philosophy. However, the historical roots and trajectory of the concept of Nominalism in art are different, and it should not be confused with ideas in philosophy, if there are any similarities, they are accidental.
  17. In return or exchange for this whatever is produced preliminarily and complementarily such as texts, sketches, drawings, photos, paintings, models, videos, films, etc.—as part of what should remain a continuous process, can and will be offered to any individual or institution willing to sponsor the project.
  18. I can also propose here, in addition to the collective farm, if I may as a practising sculptor, a cluster of modern wind-mills or solar-panels, not only as to generate electricity but also to represent new forms of sculpture. These works can be initiated and pursued by anyone, separately or integrated together into a larger project, but they should eventually be constructed, owned, run and managed by and for the interest of a collective body.
  19. I have been involved, for over forty years, in a kind of critical practice whose full socio-historical significance can only emerge when it is allowed to enter the institutional space and it finds a place in the official discourse. But, while struggling to find an alternative, it is also important that I continue to maintain the thrust of my other works at all levels.
  20. Op cit, see note 3.

Images

  1. This is not a barren land, but an abandoned farm. As there has been no rain for three or so years, men have gone to the city to work as labourers, One can see some houses among the trees where there are only women and children living and looking after some animals, such as goats.
  2. This photograph was taken from a bridge in Baluchistan which is about 30 feet high. But during the monsoon floodwater flows over the bridge.
  3. Discs in Jheel Park, Karachi, 1974, 16 painted wood discs, each 24 inch diameter.
  4. The dialectics of to-and-fro movement of the idea from the individual consciousness to the worldwide collective consciousness, so that the idea is not trapped within the narcissism of an individual.