As Professor Dina Ramadan of Bard College ascended the stage at the Brunei Gallery lecture Hall at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London to deliver her talk on the question of "authenticity" in art, at least half of her mind and heart was in Egypt, where the unfolding drama of the revolution was unfolding apace. Professor Ramadan, a recent PhD from Columbia University where I teach, was attending a major international conference on "Regional vis-a-vis Global Discourses: Contemporary Art from the Middle East," on July 5-6, 2013 - joining her were the leading scholars, curators, critiques, and artist from around the world convening to address the most urgent thematic issues facing a new generation of questions in their discipline.
The organizing theme of the conference, as conceived by its convener Dr. Hamid Keshmirshekan, of Oxford University, was the necessity of theorising "the unresolved questions about definitions and regional/local forms of logic in the contemporary global art discourses."
This was by far the most ambitious and far-reaching conference on contemporary "Middle East" art organized in recent memory. That it was convened at a time of seismic changes in the world this art represented had added political zest to the theoretical queries the conferees were raising.
Anxieties of origin and purpose
To inaugurate addressing those themes, Professor Irit Rogoff of Goldsmiths, University of London and I were invited to deliver two keynote addresses of the conference. Her address, Oblique Points of Entry , centred around what she called "the exhausted geographies" that require a radical reconsideration of where we place the location and politics of visuality; while in my talk, "Trauma, Memory, and History" I extended my ideas of fragmented archives into the interfaces between memorial registers of art and our contemporaneity of history. In both our talks palpable and evident was the momentous political occasion in which these theoretical concerns had been occasioned.
At various stages of their epistemic shifts all disciplines experience anxieties of origin, relevance, and purpose. Some disciplines like anthropology in fact thrive on these moments, others like comparative literature look like getting ready for a rectal intestinal examination when wondering what it is they are doing. But ultimately, these moments reveal the disciplinary disposition of relevance: what are they, what are they doing, how do they do what they do, what are the impediments on the path of doing what they are doing, what sort of knowledge they have inherited and what sort of knowledge are they to produce for the posterity. Underlying all these questions in this particular discipline is the anxiety of correspondence between art as text and art critic as the reader of those texts, and the public that is to look at that art and has incessantly thinned into irrelevance over the recent years.
On all the panels at this conference scholars and curators spoke with their nose to the grindstone, busy doing what they are supposed to do and yet with a downcast eye on the more enduring meaning of what they do.
Rendering 'the Machine'
In the course of a conversation with Catherine Franchlin, the eminent French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was told how quite a number of contemporary artists liked and cited his work and one had even suggested reading him was like looking at a painting by Andy Warhol. The remark prompts Baudrillard make an impromptu observation about Warhol: "What I liked about Warhol was...his irony, his decision to abolish art. I believe he was one of the only people at the time capable of rendering the 'machine'. With a personal elegance and great severity, he designed a playing field for logical anarchy that is quite remarkable."