Transnational London

Michelle Lim reports on Transnational London, the second day of Transnational Cities: Tokyo and London, which looked at the various incarnations and possibilities of London as a transnational city, from the political awakenings during the swinging 1960s to the city’s place in the colonial imaginary of post-partition Indian cinema. The symposium took place on 29 and 30 September 2017 at Tate Britain.

Elena Crippa moderating a Q&A session with Sonia Boyce at Transnational Cities: Tokyo and London, Tate Britain, 29 September 2017

Elena Crippa moderating a Q&A session with Sonia Boyce at Transnational Cities: Tokyo and London, Tate Britain, 29 September 2017
© Jasper Llewellyn

The proceedings of Transnational London comprised two panels, ‘The Intersection of Parallel Networks’ and ‘Multi-Centred Communities’; a conversation between critic and curator Geeta Kapur and artist and curator Gavin Jantjes, chaired by Nada Raza, Research Curator, Tate Research Centre: Asia; and a keynote presentation by artist Sonia Boyce. The day explored the various incarnations and possibilities of London as a transnational city, from the political awakenings during the swinging 1960s to the city’s place in the colonial imaginary of post-partition Indian cinema.

The first panel, ‘The Intersection of Parallel Networks’, was moderated by Karin Zitzewitz, Associate Professor of Art History, Michigan State University, and included papers from Ming Tiampo, Professor of Art History at Carleton University and Co-Director of the Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis (CTCA); Michael Asbury, Reader in the History and Theory of Art, at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL; Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Alessio Antoniolli, Director of Gasworks, London. Zitzewitz prefaced the panel by suggesting that the audience’s understanding of networks could be informed by the ideas of simultaneity (‘things that are happening in different presents’) and the diachronic (‘change over time’).

In Tiampo’s paper, ‘Worlding the Global: Transnational London’, which began the proceedings, she asked if re-imagining the city as transnational could allow decolonisation and reconciliation to take place. The paper opened with a description of Yinka Shonibare’s installation The British Library, which Tiampo argued operates at ‘the intersection of the global and the diasporic’. For Tiampo, current research methodologies in urban studies and art history have a tendency to reduce the study of cities down to the relationship between center and periphery, often overlooking the complex dynamics of diasporic communities. This results, Tiampo argued, in unifying narratives that lack historical, cultural or economic specificity. Tiampo identified the emergence of the field of ‘global urban history’ as an important step towards seeing cities as ‘nodes of inquiry’ for understanding cultural, historical, economic, political and social intersections. According to Tiampo, such methodologies allow comparisons and connections to be made across time and space, between cities as diverse as the ancient imperial capitals of Chang’an in China and Lahore in Pakistan to Hong Kong and London today. Tiampo also described how London’s cultural position as a global city has been reinforced by Tate Modern exhibitions such as Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (2001) and Global Cities (2007); both exhibitions simultaneously held up London and Tate Modern as key sites for ‘the global’. Tiampo credited the work of Pakistan-born London-based artist and curator Rasheed Araeen as making a particularly significant contribution to the mapping of London’s global turn. Araeen’s work has functioned as an important Afro-Asian artistic ‘node’, from the curating of exhibitions like Third World Within (Brixton Art Gallery, London, 1986) and The Other Story (Hayward Gallery, London, 1989) to the founding of journals like Black Phoenix and Third Text that aimed to ‘world’ London from the periphery.

In Asbury’s paper ‘The Global Within’, he explored how sexuality has been addressed within a national context, using two 2017 exhibitions as primary case studies: Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain and Queer Museu at Santander Bank Cultural Center, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Queer Museu closed early due to political pressure from Free Brazil Movement, a libertarian activist group. Drawing on sources from social media, Asbury discussed the rise of the Bancada BBB (Boi, Bala e Bíblia) – or the ‘Bullets, Beef and Bible’ caucus – charting a trend in the far-right’s mobilisation of populist attacks on contemporary art, and how it has served an agenda beyond economic interests.

In a paper titled ‘Seeking Refuge: Merchant-Ivory’s “Autobiography of a Princess”’, Shanay Jhaveri embarked on an intimate study of James Ivory’s 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess. According to Jhaveri, the film provided a nuanced portrait of London’s nascent 1970s postcolonial self-consciousness. In the film, which is set in the aftermath of partition, an Indian princess reminisces about the days of the British Raj over tea with her late father’s old British tutor. The film is a chamber piece, with the action taking place almost entirely in the princess’s South Kensington flat. The princess and the tutor’s complicated ties to colonial India are unpacked over the course of an afternoon, revealing the historical ties and tensions between Britain and its colonial past. Jhaveri argued that London, in the film, stood as a refuge for these two characters and that the film’s apparent ‘uncritical sense of nostalgia’ for colonial India belied the cinematic subtexts in its ‘moments of profound ambivalence, guilt and pain.’

In Alessio Antoniolli’s paper ‘Gasworks: A Work in Progress’, he discussed the history of the non-profit London arts organisation Gasworks, which was founded in 1994. Antoniolli described Gasworks not only as a ‘work in progress’, but also as an institution indebted to the historical moment of its formation. Britain (and London in particular) in the early 1990s saw an increased government investment and interest in ‘diversity programmes’ within the arts. Gasworks forms an important node in this picture, in particular through its residencies and involvement with the Triangle Network – which was founded in upstate New York in 1982 and links over thirty grassroots organisations in the UK, Canada and the United States. In discussing the context of London’s art scene today, Antoniolli warned that the resilience of the city’s institutions, organisations and artists were being severely tested. Citing a March 2017 Greater London Authority (GLA) report, Antoniolli said that more than 30 per cent of London’s artists – around 3,500 – could expect to lose their place of work as studio providers closed down due to rising rents or to make way for commercial development. Despite this gloomy outlook, however, he believed that there was greater international presence and diversity in the London art scene today, pointing to the content of recent exhibitions and events, the number of visiting artists and curators from different countries, and an increased audience appetite for niche programming in visual arts and film.

The discussion that followed the morning panel dealt with the differences between cosmopolitanism and transnationalism, the relationship(s) between the 1990s and earlier histories in London’s art scene, and the ramification of colonial encounters on transnational affinities. Zitzewitz, in moderating the discussion, identified friendship and hospitality – or conversely, the ‘inhospital’ city – as shared frameworks for the wide-ranging morning papers.

An animated conversation between Geeta Kapur and Gavin Jantjes, moderated by Nada Raza, took place before lunch. Their dialogue, titled ‘Global Visions: Internationalism, New and Old’, took place twenty-three years after their involvement with the first Institute of International Visual Arts (INIVA) conference on New Internationalism at the Tate Gallery in April 1994. Kapur spoke about her time as a graduate student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in the mid-1960s. She also discussed how her experiences and encounters in London continued to shape her subsequent scholarship on post-colonialism and Indian modernism after she returned to Delhi, highlighting the debates about national identity and other identity issues as being particularly stimulating. Jantjes had moved to London from Hamburg so as to access new opportunities that were then unavailable in Germany. He recounted his participation in debates surrounding New Internationalism, the energy from his relationships with other cultural activists like Araeen and Kapur, and their exposure through exhibitions like The Other Story. He described the London discourse of the 1960s as a kind of ‘dynamic protest’ that was taking shape organically. According to Jantjes, it was more about being ‘anti’ than being ‘post’ – anti-apartheid, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism. In discussing his motivation for organising exhibitions and conferences and for putting together publications, Janthes noted that he and Araeen believed that ‘you made no impact until you produced a body of text’, if one wished to counter the dominant hegemony.

The afternoon’s panel, ‘Multi-Centred Communities’, was moderated by Hammad Nasar and the speakers were Isobel Whitelegg, Carmen Julia and Vivan Sundaram, in that order. The afternoon presentations drew a historical trajectory back to London’s art scene of the 1960s, making a case for that period as the origin for its transnationalism today.

With reference to the 1994 INIVA conference at Tate Gallery, Nasar began by suggesting the audience ruminate on the word ‘imagined’ – as extrapolated from Benedict Anderson’s work on imagined communities – when navigating through London’s transnational histories. He pointed out that Tokyo and London were both imperial cities/empires that had been constituted through the colonial project, and their histories were formed not just through exchange, but through entanglements and enmeshments. Nasar also proposed the consideration of Britain and modern as sites of inquiry – how to complicate one and expand the other – to be followed up in the discussion after the panel presentations.

In Whitelegg’s presentation, ‘Everything was Connected: The Internationalism of Signals London (1964–1966)’, she argued that the short-lived Signals Gallery’s engagement with Latin American art could be seen as a prehistory to the internationalism found in London’s art scene today, in relation to recent displays such as Oiticica in London (Tate Britain, 2008). Whitelegg described the historical context of Signals Gallery in the mid-1960s as a time when its founders held the belief that everything, from art to science, was somehow ‘unproblematically connected’. Although the gallery’s existence was brief, it stood as a witness to an important period in which the attitudes of its founding artists (such as David Medalla, Gustave Metzger and Paul Keeler, among others) towards the international and the political evolved profoundly, from naïve to antagonistic. Whitelegg also noted a difference between the internationalism of Signals Gallery, whose founders were mostly not born in Britain, and that of a more institutional Britain-centered internationalism espoused by national institutions such as the Tate.

In ‘Gallery One’, Carmen Julia explained how Victor Musgrave’s gallery played a key role in establishing London as an important artistic center for the post-war artistic vanguard from 1953 to 1963. Gallery One, together with other institutions like Signals Gallery and New Vision Centre, showed art that the establishment and mainstream market institutions found difficult to assimilate and disseminate, such as Fluxus, Optical Art and Kinetic Art. In the 1950s and 1960s, the British art scene was mostly looking towards the United States, and Gallery One’s programming connected with art from Europe and beyond. Such diversity helped to break down binary categorisations such as Western versus non-Western or vanguard versus tradition. Artists who showed in these spaces resisted these categorisations by employing strategies such as cross-cultural appropriation in their practices, influenced by mobility and migration in their personal experiences. Gallery One’s exhibition contents would also presage other aspects of London’s transnationalism; the ‘South Asian wave’, in which painters from the Indian subcontinent came and settled in London during the 1950s and 1960s following the opening of the Commonwealth Institute in 1962, is an example. The diversity of Gallery One’s programming marked a generational shift in what would later come to be described as Postcolonial Internationalism.

Vivan Sundaram introduced his lively presentation, ‘Outside the Cubicle: The Artist as Student, London 1966–1970’, as part of a larger film or book project that he hoped to develop. Sundaram’s presentation took the form of a self-described ‘non-linear collage’, comprising personal and historical images and anecdotes with the student rallies and protests of 1968 as an active background. Sundaram was a student at the Slade School of Art during this period. He painted a picture of London in the late 1960s as an inspiring and invigorating environment for a young artist who, between attending lectures by Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen, found time to travel to Paris and Berlin, where he became involved with and inspired by the experimental film scenes.

Nasar began the afternoon panel discussion by observing the themes of solidarity and cosmopolitanism as common threads that ran through the three presentations. The panel discussants weighed the influence of geography versus history on their projects, which had in common the task of historicising London’s art scene during the 1960s. There was a general consensus that the artists working during that period were more concerned about their individual practices than with geographical or historical frameworks per se. Whitelegg and Julia both noted how their work of art historicisation was also limited by the lack of archives, organised or otherwise, for Signals Gallery and Gallery One. Sundaram felt that traces of a ‘certain utopian aura’ from the way trade unions organised still remained today. In the 1960s, there was a desire across the arts to create new audiences and a growing political awareness shaped by the critique of American imperialism during the Vietnam war. According to Sundaram, in 1960s London, there was a fluid relationship between life, work and culture which made it possible for a young person like himself to move freely through the city’s various artistic networks.

In Sonia Boyce’s keynote lecture, ‘This Much is True: A Potted History of Afro-Asian Artists in London throughout the Twentieth Century’, she highlighted historical moments and alliances between African and Asian artists in the London arts scene from the 1950s to the present. She spoke about the Transnational Slade Project, which traced the representation of African and Asian students at Slade during the 1950s, the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966–72) and The Other Story exhibition in which she participated. Boyce observed how the earlier conference presentations had already shown how local institutions like Signals Gallery, Gallery One and the RCA had contributed to making the avant-garde art scene in London ‘cosmopolitan, experimental and interdisciplinary’. She was very critical of the reception of The Other Story and of critics’ treatment of participating artists in their reviews. Boyce argued that exhibitions like The Other Story manifested the transnational dialogue in the British art scene through its historicisation of Afro-Asian presence. She ended her lecture by proposing the idea of ‘entanglement’ as a solution to what she saw as a binary impasse between the terms ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’, cautioning the audience against falling back on received tropes shaped by identity or crude colonial formations.

Elena Crippa, in moderating the final Q&A session with Boyce, was interested in how histories outside the dominant narratives could be recuperated through different relationships, whether in friendship or in response to antagonism. In taking questions from the floor, Boyce also touched on how terms like ‘black’ were not easily transferable across geographic borders, for example, to the specific cultural contexts of Spain or Germany, and reflected on recent developments such as Brexit.

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