Risa Puleo and I first began talking about this issue over a year ago. She had just returned from a cross-country trip, and I from a series of work-related stints both within the country and abroad. At the time, the idea of the “road trip” seemed to us a distinctly American—and particularly Texan—response to discussions of travel and tourism being generated by exhibitions like Francesco Bonami’s Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye.1 On the road, everything is in present tense. The world can appear cinematic, existence rendered dreamlike when one removes oneself, however temporarily, from the drudgery of the everyday.
The troubadour, flâneur, nomad, beatnik. The immigrant, exile, refugee—various definitions of the body in motion have taken center stage in an art historical context at one moment or another in time. Consensus as to what each classification now signifies, however, is politically, philosophically and temporally transitory. Baudelaire once wrote of his flâneur, the “perfect idler…the passionate observer,” in The Painter of Modern Life (1863):
To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very center of the world, and yet be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definition.2
While I’d love to read this on my next fortune cookie, what Baudelaire fails to mention is that for the aesthete, privilege and unfettered mobility—as unfocused as a given journey may be—have always traveled in concert. And in today’s geopolitical context, nineteenth-century-inspired romanticism and the notion of the flâneur are hyperbolic if not fatally naďve. In retrospect, Bonami’s Universal Experience promotes this archaic dictum. Despite a formidable list of participants, including Vito Acconci, Doug Aitken, Chris Burden, Maurizio Cattelan, Gabriel Orozco and Rirkrit Tiravanija, such exhibitions reflect anything but the universal in terms of the human experience or contemporary artistic production; rather, they are an epidemiological study of rank and dispensation in the art market—a fickle terrain that, much like the didactic, culturally specific truisms the market propagates, has the curious tendency to arbitrarily expand and/or collapse in on itself without warning.
Additionally, over the last decade, location—by definition—has lost much of its connotative stability. It no longer defines only a physical site but an artist’s position as well, which may have very little to do with geography, or nationality for that matter. In a contemporary context, even the efforts of land artists working in the seventies seem culturally dislocated. So in essence—and in confirmation of one aspect of Baudelaire’s notion of the idler—today, nomadism and ambulation as artistic practice, site specificity and location all form a linguistic interface, not a genre classification denoting particular artists, works or actions in which place is central to context.
Place, in the textbook sense of the term, is also growing harder and harder to locate. The physical map (another rather questionable construction) upon which we attempt to pinpoint the relationship between artistic production, nationality, culture and location has become geologically unstable. With this in mind, we must be ever vigilant in order to prevent our own artifacts from drowning in artifice, like Jeff Koons’ aesthetically repellant and conceptually redundant statue of a flâneur that greeted visitors to the Universal Experience in Chicago.
And so, since Risa and I first discussed the theme of this issue, our editorial trajectory has mutated considerably. No longer a celebration of the modern flâneur or, specifically, explorations of the American road (or an American on the road), this issue is a general consideration of how people, ideas and objects move across place and time in the current geopolitical milieu and how artists, in particular, negotiate and manipulate this terrain to serve their own proclivities. We looked for and commissioned texts, interviews and artist projects that dismiss sweeping generalities, unchecked romanticism and a literal interpretation of location and site specificity. As a result, none of the works in the following pages deal in totalities because totalities disregard the angle of repose—the slippage inherent to the cultural landscape of our time. Nor does this issue take one particular path; rather, it presents the highly personal routes of individual artists, curators and writers—paths that probe geographies, both real and imagined, and our place within them—constructed as much by individuality and intimacy as by history and culture. Mobility may now be irrevocably politicized, but the circumvention of such obstacles lies, as it always has, in the trafficking—the traveling and dissemination—of the abstract.
On a completely different note, as of the beginning of 2007, ARTL!ES has new leadership: Tim Staley has taken the helm as Executive Director. Staley served as Editor, Development Officer and Publisher at the University of Texas Press since 2000. There he established a charter series of books and monographs on contemporary art. We are confident he will bring the same pioneering spirit to ARTL!ES. Welcome aboard, Tim.
1 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2005).
2 Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) from Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated by P. E. Charvet (Viking 1972).