Thursday, August 30, 2012


The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley will present the symposium Location/Translation: Art and Engagement from the Local to the Global on September 19, 2012. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, the speakers have been invited to respond to the questions "What does 'local' mean to you? How does it get utilized in your work, if at all?" This posting is by Sanjit Sethi,  Director of the Center for Art and Public Life and Chair of the Community Arts Program at the California College of the Arts.

Sanjit Sethi

A few years ago the Center for Art and Public Life facilitated a collaboration between a ceramics course and the design group Rebar to create nesting modules for a species of concern on an island off the coast of Santa Cruz, California. The project was very specific in nature. The birds: Rhinoceros Auklet. The concern: nests being crushed by large elephant seals and sea lions. The material of choice: the pliant and durable medium of ceramics. The location: Ana Neuvo Island. This project emphasizes the local - a specific animal, a specific geography, a specific threat, a specific medium, and a specific solution. And yet through its specificity it had universal implications. It demonstrated that craft mediums have an important role to play in socially responsive projects, and provided a model for solutions around habitat restoration and strategies to address problems for other species of concern. The local had the potential to reach a wider, even global, audience.

What interests me most about working with diverse communities and individuals, such as those involved in the Ana Neuvo Island project, are the questions that arise at the start of these endeavors. These collaborations and interactions often require a great deal of research to discover unseen, hidden, or overlooked components of a story, an issue, or a history. Through this forensic methodology and the subsequent exchanges of information and values the project starts to achieve depth and relevance. Establishing what matters, why it matters, and how it matters is essential to the success of the collaboration and the end product. One of the many things that matters is the local in as much as we need to ask ourselves “why here and not there?” and “how can we ascribe a geography around a project that is based in a specific locality and region?” But, the local is meaningless without considering other things that matter. History matters. Community matters. Socio-economic identity matters. Ethnicity matters. Language matters. Context matters.

Four years ago I completed a olfactory-based memorial in Memphis, Tennessee, the Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance. This project was the result of research I had done involving the shutting down of a local bakery following the start of World War II. The burst of xenophobic rage that caused a specific community to take specific action on a specific bakery at a specific location had unintended consequences well beyond its specificity. In creating this memorial I interviewed numerous elderly members of the Memphis community who remembered the bakery and spoke of it longingly. Through those conversations it became apparent that in particular these individuals missed the donuts and cinnamon buns that the bakery made. It wasn’t enough for me to create a memorial that pumped out the smell of a generic bakery, but rather I needed to come as close as possible to honoring the specific smells associated with this bakery. In this project it was impossible for me to separate the idea of the local from memory, from history, from nationalism. In the end, the concept of the local offers only one set of variables, which without other factors (community, language, etc.) would be akin to trying to establish location by only providing longitude without latitude.


The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley will present the symposium Location/Translation: Art and Engagement from the Local to the Global on September 19, 2012. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, the speakers have been invited to respond to the questions "What does 'local' mean to you? How does it get utilized in your work, if at all?" This posting is by Mihnea Mircan, Artistic Director of Extra City Kunsthal, Antwerp.

Mihnea Mircan; photo by Raimar Lutz

In 2004, a small wing of the House of the People in Bucharest was rudimentarily converted into a National Museum of Contemporary Art, and I began work as a curator under circumstances that were an apotheosis of the local. Built during the ‘80s, the edifice was to converge the archaic strata of the collective psyche and the political destiny of the Romanian nation, in other words to bring a propagandistically deformed past into an unlikely future of anonymous collectivism and amputated souls. The House of the People was (is? – unless another, dictatorial or neo-liberal or mixed folly has demoted it) the second largest building in the world, erected with costs so colossal that it was less a political metaphor for a depleted future, but rather its oversized metonym. As it was – and is – perpetually undecided whether it wished to be a citadel to daunt absent adversaries, the product of the ‘constructive genius of the Romanian people’, or an impossibly onerous mausoleum for both. When, after the nebulous and brutal events of 1989, the edifice lost its commissioner and prospective occupant, a symbolic rebranding was effected, instead of the work of mending, interrogative suspension and expiation that could have been expected. Renamed Palace of the Parliament, the House was recuperated from that uncomfortable terrain where built megalomania defies understanding, and simply exists with a kind of geological indifference, and transformed into the bastion of Romania’s democratic powers, entitled to it by the very democratic transubstantiation that had them elected. A formidably large and ugly building became the site where the national variant of post-communism would be rehearsed, where Romanian post-communism’s anti-communism could evince all the symptoms of its ambivalence. My understanding of the museum located there as a window to engage, from the center of the margin, what was amiss in the country’s transition to democracy and to polemicize, from within, with an architectural Gordian knot of confusion, anxiety and primitive political reflexes, merits only irony. The first manifestation of that irony was that each exhibition or intervention made there became awkwardly site-specific, and finally fueled the same spirit, sacrificial and operatic, that continued to govern the building. 

Rather than via programmatic oblivion, I extracted myself from this scenario and its toxic levels of localism via a study of the totalitarian logic of monuments in general, or by mistaking the size and frenzied symbolic gesticulation of the House of the People as a belated manifestation of the sublime. A sublime object, grotesquely defiant, but partially comprehensible as an endgame in a longer story – a local climax in the ideological cooptation of the sublime. A monument, perhaps, embodying the same collective Freudian slips that monuments always materialize, on the scale of a tectonic event. The comparison between local idiosyncrasies and the histories they derive from or contort, and whose atavistic strength they testify to, has been one model for my practice so far. A monster, I learned rather late, is nothing more than a presence for whose description we lack the words, words to be either painfully remembered or speculatively articulated.

As a recent immigrant to Belgium (another place of quirky exoticism, where the fundamentals of both country and the European Union, on whose institution this country has had a decisive impact, are continuously subjected to the bipolar disorders of two nationalisms), I have neither a home (although I crave for one), nor a cosmopolitan perspective (although my profession presupposes one). I suspect I belong to a generation that does not belong – one of existential freelancers –, and that has not yet devised the instruments that would allow it to imagine and carve out a collective destination, to cut between belonging and potential futures. ‘Local’ and ‘international’ figure among the tropes used to make sense of this tempest-tossed condition, but with the same precautions required by speaking of a ‘here’ or a ‘now’. Parts of a set of mutable definitions, these sonar signals of a temporary position sometimes encounter hard surfaces and register. A large part of today’s art elaborates the Zenon paradox of a progressively globalized world and its vertiginously localized places, while a smaller number of artists create life-size versions of this entanglement. Works that reconcile ‘here’ and ‘there’, so that, bound with each other, they indicate a shadowy antonym beyond them: a sudden sense of orientation, slightly outside the GPS grid, where elucidation is always accompanied by anxiety.

Making Time Now Viewable Online

In April 2012, the Arts Research Center presented Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage, a three-day symposium that featured keynotes by curators Sabine Breitwieser (MOMA) and Jens Hoffmann (CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art) and choreographer Ralph Lemon, and conversations with the artists Daniel Joseph Martinez and Allan de Souza. Many other distinguished artists, curators, and scholars spoke on Performance and the Art World; Screening Time: Film & Video in Cinemas, on Stages, and in Galleries; Dancing in the Museum; and Curators Re-skilling/Critics Re-thinking.  Thanks to generous support for documentation from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, all sessions of Making Time are now available to be viewed online.  ARC is pleased to share this valuable resource, which we hope will support continued research and reflection on time-based and hybrid art practices and the infrastructures that support them.