The Altermodern

I haven’t taught in a while, so I don’t hear the term Postmodernism much anymore, which has led me, perhaps erroneously, to conclude that cultural epoch has ended. Nicolas Bourriaud certainly thinks so. Bourriaud, the curator of contemporary art at the Tate Britain in London, assembled the fourth Triennial exhibition, which was dedicated to the notion that artists are fumbling their way to a new vision of contemporary culture Bourriaud calls the Altermodern.

Although the exhibition ended last month, Bourriaud intends the term Altermodern to be a starting point for discussion about contemporary culture. In the video interview above (see a larger screen version here and another interview on the same topic here), Bourriaud doesn’t offer a fixed definition of the term Altermodern, nor does he yet propose a firm set of principles to define it. Rather, he says the term is a “dreamcatcher” gathering the characteristics of the modernity for the twenty-first century, the modernity to come.

One of Bourriaud’s objections to the concept of postmodernity is that the term simply describes whatever happened after modernity. He says we should give up a linear concept of history because history is now a “maze.” History, he claims, is a “new continent,” the last frontier of exploration since the earth itself can be explored in Google Earth. Consequently, he’s interested in artists who traverse history as if it were a “jungle” or a “desert.”

One of Bourriaud’s more provocative claims about Altermodernism is that the post-colonial is no longer an operative concept, at least in the sense of artists who are rooted to a particular place. Nowadays artists across the globe have the same set of tools, so it’s inaccurate to speak about a distinctly Ghanaian or Burmese artistic practice.

But if we can no longer easily separate the Ghanaian from the British, Bourriaud’s metaphors still retain connotations of the old, imperialist forms of travel. He proposes, for instance, that our discussions about the modernity to come should focus around these four topics:

  1. The term “Altermodern”
  2. Exile
  3. Traveling
  4. Borders

Is he referring to the rootless cosmopolitan masses? Globalized migrant labor? The increasing virtuality of culture experiences?

Or is he talking about an older form of alienation, a sense of being out of touch with one’s own time? A feeling of being an exile in time is a prominent theme in Modernism, if not necessarily modernity itself. Baudelaire, arguably the first truly Modernist poet, frequently conflated history and space. His poem “The Swan” (1852) has a peculiar opening. The speaker gazes upon the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and sees not the triumph of Napoleon followed by an era of peace, but a resumption of the ancient, disruptive violence represented by the destruction of Troy. “I turn my thoughts to you, Andromache,” the speaker declares, and he mulls over the changes the city has recently undergone:

Yes, Paris changes! But my wistful woe
Remains! For me, all becomes allegory:
Faubourg and palace—old, new—come and go;
While my dear memories are heavier than rocks.

Walter Benjamin commented in the Arcades Project that Baudelaire treated Paris as a “desert” upon which the poet wandered, discovering remnants of pre-modernity behind the glittering façade of Second Empire Paris.  The entire Arcades Project is based on the metaphor of history as a lost continent. The Paris arcades were the point of disembarkment for explorations of history as a labyrinth of accreted desires.

I think Bourriaud’s term Alternodern is a promising means to describe twenty-first-century modernity, but only if we take a Benjaminian approach and consider how modernity and postmodernity are embedded within the Altermodern, just as Benjamin argued the pre-modern, the ur-historical, was embedded within modernity. We may eventually come to realize that the Arcades Project was the first Altermodern work, our first glimpse into the modernity to come.

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