hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks
The Relative Obscurity Of The Writings Of Édouard Glissant

Although he is not widely known, Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) is one of the most important twentieth-century writers, whose thinking remains fundamental for the twenty-first century. I believe we should be worried about his relative obscurity, since he discusses with great insight what seem to me to be the most important issues surrounding globalisation: homogenisation and extinction. His theory of the 'creolization of the world' pertains to questions of national identity in view of the colonial past that characterises his Antillean identity. He broaches the urgent question of how best to escape the threat of cultural homogenisation, and how we can work to sustain the positive force of creolisation— a plurality of cultures— within the terms of an ongoing global exchange.

Global homogenisation is a tendency that Stefan Zweig had already observed in 1925, when he wrote in Die Monotonisierung der Welt (The Equalization of the World) that:

Everything concerning the outer life form becomes homogeneous; everything is evened to a consistent cultural scheme. More and more countries seem to be congruent, people acting and living within one scheme, more and more cities becoming similar in their outer appearance … More and more the aroma of the specific seems to evaporate.

The forces of globalisation are impacting on the world of art at large, and on exhibition curating specifically. There has been great potential in the new global dialogues of the last couple of decades, some of it realised, but there has also been the persistent danger that the homogenising influences of globalisation will make differences disappear. I worry about this, and so I read Glissant every morning when I wake up. He anchors my thoughts regarding producing shows internationally—encouraging me to listen to and learn from whatever culture I may be working within. Since time is losing its local variety to a global speed that leaves no room for individual pace, to curate time, and to locate forms of resistance to the homogenisation of time, has become as important as to curate and resist the homogenisation of space.

Cultural homogenisation is nothing less than cultural extinction. As the art historian Horst Bredekamp writes in his book Theorie des Bildakts (Theory of Picture Acts), in today's globalised war iconoclastic acts have become a prominent strategy—the public extinction of monuments and cultural symbols, such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Through the mass media, war thus becomes a globalised image war that crosses the borders of territories, and persists after the event, functioning as legitimation for military action and diplomatic policy.

Scientists today are increasingly debating the possibility of the extinction of human civilisation, and even of the species itself. The astronomer Martin Rees talks about 'Our Final Hour' and questions whether civilisation will survive beyond the next century. The spectre of extinction is felt across the humanities, too. For philosopher Ray Brassier, the inevitable fact of our eventual extinction grounds the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence, and thus for him the only proper response for philosophy is to embrace and pursue the radically nihilistic implications of this most basic insight. As he writes in his book Nihil Unbound (2007): 'nihilism is … the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which … is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the "values" and "meanings" which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable'.

Most would stop short of this absolute nihilism, and there are of course other places to look —sources of hope and meaning. The artist Gustav Metzger, for instance, has made extinction a central theme of his practice. In works that make use of his enormous archive of newspapers, he stresses the point that the prospect of human extinction is continually raised in the innumerable little extinctions that continuously occur in the world. By re-presenting newspaper stories on the subject of extinction, Metzger highlights the problem of our collective attitude of resignation in the face of the sheer regularity of this disappearance, and our apparent powerlessness to halt it.

Marguerite Humeau is a young artist whose work reaches back to before the dawn of human history itself. In what the historian Eric Hobsbawm might have called 'a protest against forgetting', she is engaged in a project to reconstruct the vocal cords of extinct animals from prehistory—mammoths, dinosaurs and others – as a way to bring the sounds of the past back to life. Like Metzger's works, her acts of remembrance contain a warning of a future potentially lying in wait. Humeau's work also makes plain the complex technology that enables her research, a strategy that points to our collective dilemma: that it has required immense scientific and technological advances for us to become aware of our plight, technologies that are very often also at the heart of the problem.

Gerhard Richter says that art is the highest form of hope. I would add that art is the primary form of resistance to homogenisation and extinction. To quote Zweig again: 'art still exists to give shape to multiple ways of being'.