‘A unique epochal knot’ : negotiations of community in contemporary art
Weeks, Harry Jasper James
This research identifies the negotiation of inherited understandings of the term ‘community’ as an increasingly widespread concern within the field of contemporary art since 1989, particularly in the wake of art’s communitarian turn during the 1990s. The thesis examines these artistic investigations in connection with the work of philosophers such as Maurice Blanchot, Roberto Esposito and Jean-Luc Nancy during the 1980s and 1990s, where we find the most thorough interrogation of the term ‘community’ since the nineteenth century. Contending that art has significantly contributed to a discourse long established in philosophy, the thesis reflects on what precipitated the widespread shift from an artistic interest in ‘this or that community’ to ‘community as such’ during the 1990s, and on what art has offered to the negotiation of community that philosophy has not. These dual concerns have been developed in the two sections that comprise the thesis, entitled ‘Untying the “Unique Epochal Knot”’ and ‘Collaboration, Participation, Performance and the Negotiation of Community’. An important issue the thesis broaches is whether art can (despite concerns about its co-optation within neoliberal institutions) constitute a potent site for the negotiation of community. The affirmative, if critical, answer given considers the unorthodox forms, logics and strategies that art is permitted to employ, art’s ability to enact material interventions into social relations and, overall, art’s operation as an alternative/complementary mode of articulation to that offered by philosophy. Through the analysis of pertinent case studies, the thesis examines how collaborative, participatory and performance practices have been particularly employed by artists including Tania Bruguera, Kristina Norman and Artur Żmijewski, seeking to scrutinise factors crucial to the rethinking of community. These factors include singularity, commonality, temporality and ethics. Springing from interviews, research trips to key case studies, and a thorough literature review, as well as implicating a range of work from diverse geographies and spread over the past two decades, the thesis situates the move towards the negotiation of community in art both historically and theoretically. In doing so, the analysis develops an important reconsideration of contemporary art’s widely noted attendance to the social. In privileging a conceptual framework for the discussion of this tendency in art, as opposed to the more prevalent formalist model, greater critical purchase may be gained on this urgent development in contemporary art history.