What do we talk about when we talk about decolonisation? PART 1

#Interview: Rachel O'Reilly

Vivian Ziherl: 'Decolonisation' is a term that is increasingly in use within discourses of contemporary art and art institutions. L'Internationale is an example of a confederacy of museums that ask, among other questions, what 'decolonising practices' are available to art institutions.

The recent conflicts between Greece and the institutions of the European Union have done much to reveal the present dimensions of a specifically intra-european question of decolonisation. Commentary on the crisis gives notably scarce consideration of prior African and Latin American experiences of structural adjustment and debt (non)forgiveness, for example. Many figures of the political/critical left also persistently re-iterate Greece as 'worthy' of debt exception due to its status as a 'cradle' of Western democracy.

In any case, 'decolonisation' can be seen to have a particular anti-European history as a concept. In the first instance it most often refers to a political agenda arising from the 'South' that claimed self-determination from colonial rule, using especially Europe's own rights discourses of the post-war period against the legitimacy of Empire. In a post-89 period it takes on a different register again.

This all begs the question; what is at stake when a historically and specifically determined concept such as 'decolonisation' is mobilised in the present tense by a 'transeuropean' group of museum such as L'Internationale?

Rachel O'Reilly: I read the L'Internationale's own agenda in its 'transeuropean' framing as including - I assume - central consciousness of Western European as well as German and Russian colonial legacies, 'decolonisations' of Eastern bloc, alongside the 'East''s own relation to and reading of Western colonisation, and all of that more than any North/South consciousness really (which tends to get read mostly, and persistently, in terms of "how to deal with the collection"). That is a very crass roping but it helps us to begin - clarifying at least both of our own Antipodean trajectories and conversations through culture and practice as 'differently framed' and placed from the L'Internationale starting point. I also wonder if 'transeuropean decolonisation' (not completely sure what this concept is) leaves out much of the specificity of non-European modernisms, modalities, art histories and knowledges of anything much from the 'South' except vis-à-vis a kind of indebtedness program. There is aesthetic idealism operative in the political geography before we even start to talk about Art, perhaps.

It is important to keep clear the workings of capital, states, and cultural institutions in the post-89 curation and administration of the aesthetic, in any case, before nominalisations (like 'decolonial') start to really point to actual modes of production of practices. Bearing in mind that cultural activism, innovative practices and theoretical work inevitably institutionalise as policy, in 'turns', or become behaviourally individuated as 'best practice' (this concept inherited from corporate culture) it is of course the material aspect of what such practices aim to achieve and work through, that is the point. Especially if we consider that Contemporary Art today tends to be a space where metapolitical questions are increasingly interdisciplinarily mediated and affectively and conceptually processed, but rarely so often1 'worked through'.

As a political project, decolonisation has never been separated from questions of organisation and the materiality of justice. Tarrying with the administration of aesthetics in so-called global2, or European or meta-regionally (usually economically) framed art spaces and discourse networks is different organisational terrain, but inseparably. We can note that 'decolonial' efforts and agendas in some form or other (including very much non-actualised ones) - whether through pressures of activism or soft Euro-metropole diplomacy and co-exposure3 - are evident or buried in European archives and also biennale projects from the beginnings of the post-war era, and for some, much earlier than this. Regarding the legacies of colonial institutions themselves, all contemporary steering and performance remains contested[footnote: See https://theconversation.com/indigenous-australia-exhibition-at-the-british-museum-is-insider-activism-at-its-best-39098 and http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/09/indigenous-australians-enduring-civilisation-british-museum-repatriation ]; of course the British institutional histories are going to be different from the Netherlands' institutional workings through Empire, and different again to labours associated with the French or German colonial situations, and so on (as should be expected). And this is not me speaking on behalf of 'decolonisation' movements4 at all, that should be a different interviewee, let's emphasise, but addressing your questions in terms of the changing spacings - institutional and non - of irreconcilable gaps and limits in the cultural sector that are built precisely on historical and ongoing dispossessions5. Around these gaps the supposed privilege of neutrality is not, actually, an option for 'cultural' work and workers negotiating the inter-generational overdetermination of inequality in life's disposability, which sees some cultures managed and patronised by the state at the continuing expense of others.

I would say we are observing a kind of convergence in the way the liberal civilisational ideality of the 'European post-war cultural project' (a place-holder for aesthetic idealist philosophy in programming also, perhaps especially for certain remaining colonial and globalising institutions in the South) has married with processes of Contemporary Art's own industrial globalisation and financialisation in ways that have made legible, and complex, a certain delayed crisis for liberal museologies. Some of my research on installation and neoliberalisation, but also aesthetic autonomy in settler colonial space (with Danny Butt), addresses this. I think what is also interesting and contradictory about the present moment is a certain schizoid two-hand over-identification and de-naturalisation of remaining colonial art institutional power and authority by 'autonomous' and independent practitioners for the purpose of the defense of infrastructures.

In so far as Contemporary Art has been this space of absolute overlap of processes of 'democratisation' on the display side, with post-Fordist mobility circulating 'difference' via near-full market liberalisation6, including more recently of cultural institutions themselves, it is interesting that it is only now that the 'colonising' forces of capital are felt on the material-symbolic inside of the euro-humanitarian border that certain continuities (of European modernism and colonialism) are being processed more publicly. 'Human rights' over 'class conflict' was the framing politicising wager of Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11; skip forward to this year's Venice Biennale and Capital is remediated (this is not to deflate the integrity of the curation of the former or overstate the salience of the latter, but to point to the stealth of neoliberal transition in its period of trafficking in 'unrealised' democracy). The European Union is legally colonising the state of Greece through the same process of "accumulation by dispossession" captured in the7 David Harvey's piece of your curatorial armature. The art institution is as good a site as any to interrogate the entrenchment of contemporary (neo)colonial styled vectors and forces impacting culture in these broadest senses - in so far as art's own changed, global, financialised, conditions are acknowledged, and intractably 'moving' problems of political and economic power discrepancies are all there.

So the question about decolonisation 'here' is not whether 'European' institutions are or are not problematising a colonial (or Imperial) past and 'withdrawing' from such, which is somehow a fantastically cartesian conception of production and history (constantively somehow granting an entity some default 'prior' imperial neutrality until a better effort is prioritised soon?), but how, actually, do spaces and agents of art and culture socially perform, place-hold or redistribute internationalism and perform and enact some version of 'just' exchange, with political and aesthetic specificity, discriminatory value, while negotiating wide-scale agendas of privation and neocolonial or endo-colonial (Paul Virillio) dominations. This is an organisational question, not a merely discursive or propositional or presentationalist one.