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Thinking 'Former West' Print

Cosmin Costinas, Maria Hlavajova Share

Published 27.07.2010

Hito Steyerl, Universal Embassy, 2004, mini-DV, sound, 4:00 min., video still

FORMER WEST is a long-term international research, education, publishing, and exhibition


project (2008-2013), which from within the field of contemporary art and theory aims to
reflect upon the changes introduced to the world (and thus to the so-called West) by the
political, cultural, artistic and economic events of 1989; reconsider the global histories of the
last two decades in dialogue with post-communist and postcolonial thought; and, finally, to
speculate about a 'post-bloc' future that recognises differences yet evolves through the
political imperative of equality and the notion of 'one world'.

This series of texts, commissioned by Afterall's editors, will develop lines of investigation and
areas of interest that emerge throughout the project, and, published in Afterall journal and
Afterall Online, foster public discussion on the project's findings and possibilities.

For more information about FORMER WEST and its partners, please follow this link or scroll
to the bottom of this essay.1

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When asked during a research interview what she thought of the notion of 'former West', artist
Hito Steyerl replied, 'it would be a good idea' - echoing what is said of Mahatma Gandhi's reply
to the question of what he thought of Western civilisation, and Stuart Hall's application of that
response onto the problematics of democracy today.2 Indeed 'former West' is neither a

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Afterall • Online • Thinking 'Former West' http://www.afterall.org/online/thinking-former-west

description of the status quo nor a declaration of something claimed to be already evident, but
rather (or only) an articulation of what might be imagined in the future, of what is aspired to. It
is a proposition for how to rethink critically our recent past and for how we might, upon
dislodging the hegemonic self-narration of the so-called West, speculate artistically and
intellectually, poetically and politically, about our future.

Although the term 'former West' has immediate rhetorical power that seems to communicate
radical content, we are reminded of its vast complexity with each attempt to tackle the very
question of just what the 'former West' might be. Thus within these notes, written amidst our
work on the FORMER WEST project, which we are currently undertaking with a remarkable
group of artists, thinkers and art institutions, it would be premature, if not irresponsible, to
attempt to draw any firm conclusions. Rather, what follows is a sketch of some dilemmas and
propositions, necessarily fragmentary and partial if not schematic and generalising, of our way
of thinking 'former West' at this stage.

FORMER WEST proposes the


year 1989 as the defining
moment of recent history. The
fall of the Berlin Wall is
undoubtedly that year's most
headline-grabbing event, but it
by no means encapsulates the
full breadth of the global
paradigmatic shifts that
ushered in another future. It
did, however, give birth to
what we so unproblematically
call the 'former East', a term
used to refer to the post-1989
political geography of what
used to be known as the Soviet
or Communist bloc in the Cold
War period. Coming into
existence in the wake of the
1989 changes (such 'cohesion' inside the 'bloc' was unheard of before), the notion of 'former
East' as used from within its own territory indicated a move that was partially emancipatory
(marking a break from the totalitarian past), partially self-colonising (in the sense that it
contained a subtext of an understandable yet problematic desire to be seen as 'normal' from a
Western perspective) and in part also strategic (seeking advantage in its marketing value,
especially in the field of art). Having, in its own interests, widely used 'former East' as
commonplace in its own rhetoric, the West, on the other hand, did not undertake a comparable
move from within itself: the 'former West' was never articulated as a counterpart to its Eastern
double. Not questioning the ascendancy of its capitalist orthodoxy and failing to recognise the
impact of the massive shifts put in motion by the end of the Cold War, the West remained -
thinking and acting, both internally and while on its global mission - as the first among the
worlds.

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Afterall • Online • Thinking 'Former West' http://www.afterall.org/online/thinking-former-west

Yet to see the 'former West' as a mirror image of the European 'East' would be inaccurate,
despite the seductive rhyme the comparison evokes. This is because the collapse of the Eastern
bloc's socialist regimes is intimately linked with pivotal shifts on a global scale. A complex
chain of causes and effects links the end of the Cold War with events as geographically remote
as the Tiananmen Square massacre in China (which shored up the general architecture of the
Chinese Communist Party's political power but rapidly accelerated the country's capitalist
transformation); the collapse of US-backed military dictatorships in South America, as well as
of other dictatorial regimes around those years (from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines to
General Suharto in Indonesia or Mobutu in Zaire), which were left to their own devices by their
former Western sponsor and the end of the apartheid regime, devoid of its justification in the
Cold War logic as an unsavoury yet indispensable defence against the advance of communism
in Africa (with the painful irony that the new ANC-led South Africa became an exemplar of
rapid neoliberal transformation and integration into the world economy). Further coincidental
occurrences of the year 1989 - from the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran to the fatwa issued
against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, published the previous year - set the tone for
what would become, in the second decade of the post-1989 era, the main narrative of the new
world order, namely a clash between an ideologically riven Islamic world and a so-called West,
unsure of its positioning towards it. Other events are more directly connected to the shifting
fault lines of geopolitics at the end of the Cold War, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops
from Afghanistan (and the subsequent changes that this move had in the Middle East and
Central Asia); the growth of Hamas (founded in 1987), which infused a clear Islamist
component into the Israel-Palestinian conflict and signalled the demise of Arab socialist
nationalism that had prevailed for the previous decades as one of the key narratives in the
region; and, of course, the founding of Al Qaeda in 1988. Last but not least, these events were
accompanied by the revolutionising potential of advances in the field of technology. Recall that
the World Wide Web was launched in early 1989 at CERN (the European Organization for
Nuclear Research) in Geneva, and with the subsequent introduction of 'http' and 'html' code it
became available for individual use and world expansion, thus enhancing the previously
unimaginable reach of globalisation.

This complex set of transformations alludes to the multiple dimensions of the term 'West', each
stemming from different aspects and moments of the prolonged world hegemony associated
with the North Atlantic shores, from political to religious to colonial to economic to military
narratives, each of them now with a certain degree of 'formerness' attached. However, the West
we are examining is the one that was configured out of the post-World War II world order, the
West that was synonymous with the 'first world' in the Cold War's three-world partition.3
Against the backdrop of the collapse of communism - the only competing ideological system at
the time - this West has emerged as an ideological victor arguably by default. Francis
Fukuyama tapped into the growing momentum already in summer 1989 with his famous essay
in the US journal The National Interest, 'The End of History?' (later expanded to book form in
The End of History and the Last Man from 1992). Fukuyama announced, among other things,
that democracy and the market would remain tied together forever - a truism that soon became
a central tenet of post-Cold War doctrine, which still rules over our political imagination. And
so no viable alternatives to liberal democracy seemed possible - no other ideological, political
system could compete precisely because we had arrived, in a remarkable conservative
appropriation of Hegelian thinking, at the 'end of history', the 'end point of mankind's

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ideological evolution'.4 In other words, there are no longer any great new conceptions of
freedom and equality to come, no remaining political work to be done and no horizon to strive
towards. The amalgamation of democracy and the free market has become 'the only coherent
political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe'.5

Despite the dominance of the contemporary


‘Despite the dominance of the
liberal-democratic consensus, is there not a
contemporary liberal-democratic
way to imagine the world in an alternative
consensus, is there not a way to
constellation? To suggest the 'formerness' of
imagine the world in an alternative
the so-called West might be a move in this
constellation? To suggest the direction. The 'former' condition seems
'formerness' of the so-called West meaningful because it still has some power
might be a move in this direction.’ over the imagination in the present, and,
though it seems to have passed into history, it carries the possibility for understanding what is
going on now and beyond. 'Former' is to an extent cognate with the prefix post-, the use of
which does not represent an end to a condition, but rather a radical yet still disputed
transformation in status. Yet, and this is not an insignificant complication, a (mechanical)
application of the label 'former West' onto the defined territory (the political geography of the
so-called West) and the definite historical period (from 1989 to our present moment) alone
does not help us to articulate a new understanding of our contemporaneity. This is because it
still plays with the old oppositions: to declare a 'former West' against the 'former East' and a
'global South' means not more and not less than to continue thinking in 'blocs'. This
prolongation, if not fortification, of the divisions of the world would be counter to the original
critical, emancipatory intentions that ground this discussion. The same goes for the field of art:
such a retrospective application of the notion of the 'former West' onto the post-1989 artistic
developments in the 'first world' is inadequate. Certainly, it could offer us different
'art-historical extracts' and another set of 'priorities' (as Walter Grasskamp has proposed) in
comparison to the dominant art-historical point of view, which is deeply influenced by the
forces of the art market - an alternative perspective evolving around significant social and
political changes and away from the spectacular and the populist, and one that is entangled
with post-communist and postcolonial thought. But such a focus would rather perpetuate a
narcissistic - albeit self-critical and iconoclastic - focus on the same geography of symbolic
power, the 'West'. And in such a case, it would retain its hegemonic position in spite of any
number of adjectives we might attach to it, joining a long list of critical exercises appropriated
by a system of dominance in order to enhance its reigning power under a disingenuous
ideology of diversity and tolerance for dissent.

To break out of the bloc mentality, we propose 'former West' as an instrument for studying our
condition from a renewed global perspective, to do so through thinking in entanglements (as
Sarat Maharaj put it in the 1st FORMER WEST Research Congress, which took place in Utrecht
in November 20096) rather than by perpetuating existent binaries. For the 'former West' this
means changing the tables and, in parallel to an attempt to critically rearticulate our recent
past, looking towards the future possibilities in the link between art and the political imaginary.
For couldn't it be said of art - of a work of art, or an exhibition - that it presents a horizon of
possibility despite the consensus of its impossibility elsewhere in society?7 Doesn't art, in many
instances, propose that it is possible to imagine the world as other than how we know it? This

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requires us to introduce a speculative element of what 'could be'; to resuscitate the notion of a
horizon, proclaimed lost in current monolithic orthodoxy, and think through the notion of 'one
world' as what Alain Badiou calls a 'political imperative', imbued with difference yet structured
by equality. In this sense, 'former West' is a future horizon, off in the distance, from which the
ideal of a single world could be thought. The contemporary art we speak about is more than 'the
thing itself' of the artwork - at least in the part of the field that has adopted political struggle
and maintained the impulse to strive towards a new possibility. Encompassing means of
intellectual production that have developed in several disciplines, in-between disciplines and in
many cases outside of the formalised spheres of knowledge production, contemporary art has
certainly described, reflected on and even instigated certain internal social and cultural
dynamics in or about the territories of the 'former West' that would point to a condition of
'becoming' former. Seeing art as a systemic form of imagining from out of the conditions at
hand towards something that is not yet formed, the concrete task before us is how to move in
the gap between the reality (of the West) and the ideal (of the 'former West') in the global
context, in order for the poetic-political challenge that contemporary art presents before us -
that which 'would be a good idea' - to find its place in the world.

Footnotes
1. FORMER WEST is currently in the initial research phase of the project, which has been
realised through the partnership of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht with the
following co-organisers: Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte
Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; and with the further associate
partners of the Centre for the Humanities, Utrecht University, Utrecht; the International
Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), Amsterdam; and Afterall Journal and Books, London.
This phase ends on 31 July 2010.↑
The main part of the project, which will result in a publication and exhibition in 2013, is to
be realised in an extended partnership, consisting of BAK, Afterall, Akademie der Bildende
Künste Vienna, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina
Sofía, Madrid, Museum of Modern Art Warsaw, with additional associate partners.↑
2. See Stuart Hall, 'Democracy, Globalization, and Difference', in Okwui Enwezor (ed.),
Documenta 11_Platform 1: Democracy Unrealized, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002,
p.21.↑
3. It is important not to forget that membership in this club of the West was determined by a
mix of economics, ideology, and Realpolitik, all of which were at times superseded by
cultural-historic factors.↑
4. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Harper Perennials,
1993.↑
5. Ibid.↑
6. Unpublished keynote paper, 'Small Change of the Universal', delivered 5 November 2009.A
video recording of Maharah's presenation can be viewed at www.formerwest.org.↑

7. The theoretical notion of the 'horizon' in relation to contemporary artistic production and
political imaginaries, as has been articulated by FORMER WEST researcher Simon Sheikh,

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will be explored during the 2nd FORMER WEST Research Congress taking place in
Istanbul from 4 to 6 November 2010. . The 2nd FORMER WEST Research Congress is
developed by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht and SKOR, Foundation Art and Public
Space, Amsterdam, and realized in collaboration with IKSV Istanbul Foundation for Culture
and Arts, Istanbul. The Research Congress is hosted by Istanbul Technical University and
co-curated by Simon Sheikh, FORMER WEST Researcher. For more information see:
www.formerwest.org.↑

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