Ten years into Alter Modernity

by Doron Beuns

“Out with the old and in with the new” as they say during every start of the New Year. However before we do that, we should first distinguish between ideas of the past that are still relevant and those that are obsolete and compromise the development of our current cultural landscape. This is what art critic and curator Nicholas Bourriaud has attempted in his essay titled “The Radicant” from 2009. In this essay he conceptualised a new globalised form of modernism named “alter-modernism”. In contrast to its 20th century predecessor, “alter-modernism” is imagined to be cross-cultural and therefore not dominantly rooted in Western culture. On the other hand, it challenges post-modern ideas about cross-cultural exchanges between dominant and marginalised cultures. This challenge is still relevant today, considering that post-modern ideas about cross-cultural exchange are still dominating cultural institutions across Northern Europe. This however does provide a perfect reason for re-discussing Bourriaud’s “alter-modernity” in light of its ten-year anniversary. 

Alter Modernity

Sterling Ruby

The first question that arises is how we arrived at “alter-modernity” in the first place. According to Bourriaud, “alter-modernity” is fuelled by the flow of bodies between cultural domains. This is furthermore linked to the technological advances and globalised state of the world. Mass-tourism, transnational careers and the most recent flood of refugees are all symptoms of that world. This alternation of cultural domains defines the cultural landscape that is inhabited by the “radicant” artist.  To be “radicant” means setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them the power to completely define one’s identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing. This pro-active experimentation with multiple roots and the inherent challenge it poses to respective cultural traditions should align “radicant” or “alter modern” art with the modern art of the 20th century. However, according to Bourriaud, “alter-modernity promises to be a translation-oriented modernity, unlike the modern story of the twentieth century, whose progressivism spoke the abstract language of the colonial West”.

Mark Bradford

Walead Beshty

The alter-modern abstract language is thus predicated on transcoding the visual languages of multiple cultures. Additionally, two other differences between “alter-modern” and modern artworks should be noted. “Alter-modern” artwork is not as medium specific and more precarious in its setup. This is in line with how the alter-modern artist adopts the archetype of the traveller. This archetype is characterized by a constant re-rooting of its existence in service of new possibilities. According to Bourriaud, this is also how the “alter-modern” artist escapes capitalist standardisation. The paradox here is that capitalist standardisation enables the alter-modern artist to be “radicant” in the first place. Commodification after all is one of the elements that fuels cross cultural exchange. Critiquing capitalist standardisation through the artistic appropriation of commodities does not necessarily oppose the post-modern condition that Bourriaud intends to overcome in his essay. However, the continual transplantation of roots in “alter-modernism” does seem to challenge the rumination of categorical identities in post-modern dogma. Within this dogma we constantly find two opposing categories. Those who are in power of culture and those who have been marginalised and excluded from it. 

Mike Kelley

To rectify this inequality, the post-modern art world has proposed the following solution; all artists that belong to marginalised cultures are encouraged to foreground a pseudo-authentic version of their cultural origins with every artistic endeavour, as an indisputable added value to dominant Western norms. On the other hand, Western institutions and critics are considered unfit to judge or criticize artworks rooted in other cultures as their critical lenses are expected to privilege Western artworks. This may sound like common sense. But if cultures are only encouraged to respectfully talk past each other, then how do we establish a productive dialogue?  “Alter-modernism” provides a plausible answer.

Rashid Johnson

According to Bourriaud “it is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination”. Knowing where the artist is coming from can be vital but not imperative to the success of an artist. Other roots can develop throughout the journey of making, interpreting and translating an artwork. This means that art practice but also art criticism is liberated from the post-modern isolation and preservation of cultural roots. The misinterpretation of another culture has creative merit for the alter-modern artist and art-critic. On the other hand, this includes the risk of causing more cross-cultural friction and polarisation. This is something that is more often feared than desired within our multicultural societies. But according to Bourriaud, it is up to the “alter-modern” art world to set an example. A Healthy friction could namely be beneficial for all cultures involved. Nearly ten years after his publication it is time to prove him right.

Doron Beuns