Location, Location, Location

On the wishful marginality of contemporary art

By Tirdad Zolghadr
  • Tirdad Zolghadr

    Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer and curator. The working title of his third novel is Headbanger.

At the risk of sounding like a travel agent, there are at least three surprises in store for a visitor to Palestine. The first of which is how rarely Israel comes up in conversation. Not as a scapegoat, nor even as an elephant in the room. It is simply, and somewhat weirdly, not there. A second surprise, I would say, lies in the realization of just how vile the flavor of colonialism really is. We all know oppression is unsavory. But nothing prepares you for the distinct taste of apartheid, and, indeed, nothing really could. Which is why there’s little point in putting it into words.

The combination of these two surprises might lead you to assume that the absence of Israel in conversation is quite simply a matter of escapism. And yet, the third surprise lies in the very fact that this assumption is false. Escapism isn’t quite the point. The point, rather, is to focus on what you can do and build, not what is preventing you from doing so—in a mode of confrontation, negotiation, or even acknowledgement. If you only have so much time to spare, you spend it where it matters. What looks like escapism is actually linked to a particular evaluation of dialogue as an inherent virtue.

The presumption that you need to engage with your colonizers somehow—so as to defeat, persuade, or at least understand them—is perfectly plausible, but it relies on a list of presuppositions that do not hold universally. All of which is bewildering to a contemporary art type like myself. In no other habitus is the ethos of open-ended interchange—of meanings, cultures, positions, audiences, and disciplines—quite as prized as in art today. This essay attempts to identify and describe this ethos, and to speculate on possibilities beyond it.


I’ll begin by drawing a comparison to the field of human rights, the presence of which is rather pervasive in Palestine, to say the least. From the international press coverage, to the flood of NGOs, to the syllabi covered in college seminar rooms, the influence of human rights as both discourse and industry is unmistakable; whether for better or for worse.

In his 2006 essay “Translation, or: Can Things Get Any Worse?”, human rights scholar Thomas Keenan describes languages of unilateralism on various sides of various conflicts in the Mideast 1“Translation, or: Can Things Get Any Worse?” was a contribution to the Munich edition of the roaming Dictionary of War project. See: http://dictionaryofwar.org/node/513 (accessed 9 February 2014).. From Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Hezbollah and beyond, Keenan notes a growing refusal of dialogue, and an embrace of totalizing silence, not to mention total war. Livni for instance is quoted as saying that Israel responds with “reckless” violence to anything it deems a provocation, and shall continue to do so, because that’s the common sense thing to do. Dialogue is thus replaced by the pedagogy of incremental annihilation.

Keenan traces the ways in which these languages of unilateralism make politics-as-usual—the grinding bureaucracy of negotiation, the tedious cultures of diplomacy—look rational by comparison. Far more rational, of course, than it really is. Keenan himself makes no distinctions in terms of any claim to reason. Instead, he proceeds to insist on the existing chaos, the unavoidable inconsistencies, the endless mistranslations, de- and refigurations, of Realpolitik as we know it. All of which Keenan embraces—not as a lesser evil but as a best-case scenario. In a fiery spirit of poststructuralism (Keenan is an authority on Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man), he upholds the foreclosure of closure as a telos in itself. Translation toujours.

Having enjoyed the privilege of working closely with Keenan, I appreciate his position within a field that is always perched precariously on the verge of becoming an instrument of governance. In other words, it is not only Hezbollah, but human rights itself that runs the risk of becoming self-serving, unilateral, and totalizing. To a writer-curator like myself, however, Keenan is helpful as a point of contrast. In my own field, I see a culture of open-ended translation that is already entrenched, not to mention hegemonic. 2I owe many points in this essay to theorist Suhail Malik, whose research on these issues was discussed during a series of lectures at Artists Space, New York in spring 2013, all available online. See the first lecture in the series here (accessed 9 February 2014).


For every artist who subscribes to some boycott or embargo, I can quote dozens, including close friends and allies, who tell me, “Silence isn’t the answer,” “The way out is the way in,” “I say yes to everything,” or who refer to tempting metaphors of contraband and Deleuzeian becoming. One cliché explanation for this code of conduct is art world apathy. But chalking it up to laziness or indifference doesn’t cut it. My colleagues are obsessively hardworking, and their ethical concerns are debated more loudly than in many other fields (sometimes cynically, but often with sincerity and idealism). Instead, I would venture that the dialogical appetite is linked to, among other things, the idea of the margin in contemporary art. To the view of art as a peripheral creature in and of itself. Contemporary art as one big refugee camp of the mind.

Only a few weeks ago, a Ramallah student referenced the following, from an editorial of e-flux journal: Artworks, it states, are “historical counter-narratives. They are exceptions. One piece wants to join with other pieces to heal the scars of breaking off. Another little Promethean piece wants to explode again and again to make infinitely more of itself. Yet another wants to retire with a good pension on a plinth. These little worlds come in editions you can buy, but their volatility makes them impossible to possess. And that keeps them somewhat market friendly, but a really horrible challenge to historians who at this point can only watch as historical narratives multiply faster than they can ever hope to keep track.” 3Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle, “Editorial—‘Pieces of the Planet’ Issue,” e-flux journal, no. 48 (October 2013), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/editorial%E2%80%94pieces-of-the-planet/ (accessed 9 February 2014). To translate the subtlety of the above into the brute instincts of my milieu and myself: our agency is ethereal, our movements uncontained. Even when historians, politicians, and the market succeed in reifying art, they will forever be missing the point.

I’m not quoting e-flux because it’s wrong, nor because it’s exceptional. If anything, the above passage is as compelling as it is deeply representative. Nearly every art writer I respect—and there are many—engages in comparable figures of a-topia. But the journal’s transcontinental clout makes it a more helpful metonym than others. e-flux offers its creators a degree of agency few artworks ever have. Which is something I find both commendable and pretty brilliant. It is symptomatic, however, that when opportunities arise to discuss this clout, and add a new twist to the conversation, e-flux will cast itself as one of the exceptional volatilities in its editorials. Powerless in the wake of the working conditions, language codes, and social hegemonies of the field. Rarely co-responsible for them. Why blame the breeze?


It’s telling that among the reactions to David Levine and Alix Rule’s infamous “International Art English” study, 4David Levine and Alix Rule, “International Art English,” Triple Canopy, no. 16 (2012), http://canopycanopycanopy.com/issues/16/contents/international_art_english (accessed 9 February 2014). the principal critical argument was that IAE is an exclusivist construct. Instead, the critics valorized “slipping through cracks” and “smuggling across boundaries”— precisely by using the ambivalence of art world English. In other words, even an elite art idiom needs to be framed as a passport to marginality. As it happens, some are speaking of an emerging International Art Arabic that follows identical premises to its Anglophone cousin: polymorphous and mobile.

It’s equally fascinating to see that beyond a handful of neighborhoods in NYC and Europe, the claim to peripheral status is ubiquitous. In Oslo as well as Jerusalem, LA as well as Tel Aviv, it’s some faraway city that is referred to as an art world epicenter to be envied or rejected. “Oh this ain’t Soho or Mitte my friend! Welcome to Stockholm/Munich/Taipei/Dubai.”

Needless to say, it wouldn’t be hard to empirically pin down the existing distribution of means of production. Whether in terms of class backgrounds, visa issues, or metropolitan institutions: the hierarchies are not as mysterious or decentered as that. But these stoppages are not my point. Because the narrative I’m attempting to analyze can explain them all away, as regrettable matters extrinsic to art. According to which the hierarchies are due to an encroachment from the outside. It’s the immigration officers, the admissions committees, the glossy magazines, the Sheikhs, the art fairs, and the self-serving curators who are to blame for the VIP thing. Art per se remains Other to such matters. The logic of this premise remains as unfalsifiable as it is tautological. Art is peripheral because it is other to the international powers it decries, and it is other to the international powers it decries because it is peripheral. Thus the idea of art-as-institution can forever be quarantined to occasional homages to Andrea Fraser.

Importantly, artists who believe in direct action will all the more impatiently dismiss any discussion of how and why they subscribe to art as a category. What a boring, technical, hairsplitting question to ask! As if the query itself were a moral failure. Arguably, occasional examples such as Laurie Jo Reynolds make a point of frontally challenging what art can constitute. But a crushing majority of her peers, not to mention the curators who promote her, will harrumph at detailed explorations of art as a premise. The irony being that the impatient, intuitive identification of art with the marginal is the art world code of conduct par excellence.

To return to the Palestinian surprises at the outset of this essay, with any luck, it might be clear by now that the comparison I’m drawing does not pertain to cultures of complaint (“Stop nagging and get to work!”). The West Bank isn’t some noble example for the whiny Art Forum to follow. Instead, I am interested in two dynamics of marginalization, which happen to be perfectly inversed. On the one hand, you have Palestinians moving beyond a dialogue that only serves to cement their peripheral status. On the other, you have contemporary art upholding a peripheral and porous self-image, even as it enjoys a stable and institutionalized standing.


Anyone who has seen the Netflix series House of Cards will remember the opening shot of the pilot episode. Congressman Frank Underwood addresses the camera and purrs, “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location.” Underwood’s motto is useful whenever tropes of placelessness and powerlessness go hand in hand. Since location helps indicate the power you wield, you’re well advised to be both airy and everywhere. In other words, you could argue that this essay is about “Corresponding from Jerusalem” without forsaking location, location, location—even without digging much deeper than your standard art writer.

In recent years, the most helpful articulations pertaining to ‘location’ have not been fetishizations of depth (‘occupation testimony’), nor even refusals of the global. The most helpful efforts are those that simply define the location of contemporary art as a recognizable field, with recognizable physical footings, without exonerating some ontology of art from these structures. The common denominators they trace, from Ramallah to Rotterdam, do not stand in contrast to an essence that defies the structures as it travels, but that travels precisely because it is part of them.

I’m thinking of definitions of art’s class bias (Hans Abbing), its capitalist reformism (Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello), its emancipatory assertions (Andrea Phillips), its techno-eschatologies (Amanda Beech), etc. Definitions that may eventually amount to a belletristics of lines in the sand. Theory aside, I’m also thinking of writers who use the carte blanche of art with circumspection, and a healthy dose of paranoia. Editors who avoid mission statements that are comfortably galactic in scope. Artists who sporadically refuse invitations and explain why they do so. Activists who do not use art as a catch-all trickster category, but patiently redefine the apparatus itself as they move along. Curators who explicitly address a specific audience above all others. Educators who admit that contemporary art requires effort and time, and is not inherently understandable to everyone.

For now, however, the orthodox view is that contemporary art, flighty and frail, is a thing too heterogeneous to define. Any tighter circumscription has been delegated to the bigots of the Daily Mail, and the additional bigots mentioned above. Ultimately, as we encourage each other to think outside the box, we partake in a grand tradition of ignoring it. To the point of instinctively assuming that the box no longer exists.