Interventions, Volume 02, Issue 01: Borders and the Global Contemporary

Widely recognized as the moment that ushered in the era of globalization, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 emblematized freedom and unity. The current global reality, however, is a far cry from the neoliberal promises of a globalized future marked by progress and prosperity. Technological advancement has radically transformed spatiotemporal boundaries, enabling unprecedented circulation of people, information, and capital. In an age of mass tourism, mass media, and mass markets, the world is united but under the subsumptive logic of neoliberal capitalism. Alongside paradigmatic shifts in identity and consciousness engendered by this increased permeability and fluidity, international security measures escalate, violent geopolitical strife persists, and rampant socioeconomic inequality proliferates.

This issue of Interventions takes the border as a means through which to investigate such contradictions of our global contemporary. As the structures and mechanisms of the capitalist system evolve to become ever more pervasive and ever less discernible, “Borders and the Global Contemporary” explores the ways in which contemporary artistic production engages the militarization, mediation, and commercialization of everyday life. The projects comprised herein examine art’s subversive capacity to destabilize dominant discourse and posit counter-narratives as well as its compliance with hegemonic forces. They also address the challenges of artistic production, dissemination, and exhibition in the face of current geopolitical conditions. The projects offer multiple ways to conceptually take on the border: to forge borders and to forget them, to elude borders and to elucidate them. With this issue, we hope to complicate the border and to contribute to an ongoing critical investigation and re-imagination of the global contemporary.

Carmen Falcioni, Carmen Ferreyra, and Cecelia Thornton-Alson

New York, January 2013


In conjunction with this issue of Interventions, the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University held a symposium entitled Homeland Security: Borders and the Global Contemporary on September 27, 2012. Part of an annual discussion series organized by graduate students in the Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program, this event was developed by Cecelia Thornton-Alson, Carmen Ferreyra, and Carmen Falcioni. Guests Joaquín Barriendos, Tania Bruguera, and Coco Fusco were invited to present their current research and artistic production in regard to the notion of borderlessness within the contemporary art world. These presentations were followed by a round-table discussion moderated by Deborah Cullen. Specifically, the speakers were asked to address the question of what global contemporary practice might mean from artistic, scholarly, and curatorial standpoints–in a globalized world, where and how do our critical discourses take shape? Below, we have posted audio excerpts from the presentations and the round-table discussion.

*Joaquín Barriendos is an instructor in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, specializing in visual culture and contemporary art.  He has taught at the University of Barcelona, and was a visiting scholar in the Museum Studies Program at NYU and a research fellow at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. He has published extensively on the globalization of contemporary Latin American art as well as on the economic, aesthetic, racial, and epistemic asymmetries that give shape to the so-called global art world. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Global Studies and Contemporary Art and the director of Culturas Visuales Globales, an open forum that addresses visuality as a global-scale intercultural phenomenon and promotes theory-based reflection and problem-oriented research.

*Tania Bruguera is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in performance, installation, video, and behavior art. She trained at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, where she founded Arte de Conducta, the first performance studies program in Latin America; and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bruguera has exhibited internationally and her work is part of collections in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. She has participated in Documenta 11 as well as biennials in Venice, Johannesburg, São Paulo, Shanghai, Havana, and Santa Fe. In 2010, Bruguera launched Immigrant Movement International, a five-year project that posits the immigrant as a unique, new global citizen in a post-national world.

*Deborah Cullen joined Columbia University this summer as Director & Chief Curator of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. Previously, she served at El Museo del Barrio in New York for over 15 years. As Director of Curatorial Programs, her exhibitions include Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis and Arte (no es) Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000, for which she received an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. Cullen was Chief Curator of the 3rd Trienal Poligráfica de San Juan, which ran from April to August of this year; and she has recently been appointed Curator of the 30th Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Art, which will open next September. Cullen’s work on graphics stems from her long-standing affiliation with legendary Jamaican-American printmaker Robert Blackburn and The Printmaking Workshop.

*Coco Fusco is a New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer and the current Director of Intermedia Initiatives at Parsons The New School for Design. She has performed, lectured, exhibited, and curated around the world for over two decades. Fusco’s performances and videos have been presented at numerous prominent events worldwide, including biennials in New York, Sydney, Johannesburg, Gwangju, Mercosul, and Shanghai. She has published five books: English Is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas; Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas; The Bodies that Were Not Ours and Other Writings; Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self; and most recently, A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, which along with a series of videos and performances, addresses the role of women in the War on Terror and the military’s use of female sexuality as an interrogation tactic against suspected terrorists.

We would like to thank Professor Kaira Cabañas, Deborah Cullen, and Professor Kellie Jones for their guidance and support in putting together this event; the staffs of the Visual Media Center and the Art History Department for their assistance; and guests Joaquín Barriendos, Tania Bruguera, and Coco Fusco for their engaging discussions.


by Kaira M. Cabañas*

                                            We can probably say that moral questions have always arisen when moral norms of behavior have ceased to be self-evident and unquestioned in the life of a community.

–Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, 1963

The question today is how … to articulate intelligence and love.

–Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Letter to a Friend,” 2011


The main floor of the Fridericianum was a curatorial tour de force. The two ground floor-wings were basically empty (filled with Ryan Gander’s “gentle breeze”). As a result, when one arrived at the building’s rotunda the exhibited work emerged with an almost mysterious intensity. First in a viewer’s line of sight were Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. For me, Morandi’s work responds to curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s desire for “a slower form of time—the time of materials”[1]. Morandi’s work allegorizes a phenomenological perspective, one in which the body informs perception but the object also acts upon the subject. His paintings perform this phenomenological constitution of worlds, while such a painterly conceit is simultaneously laid bare through the actual display of Morandi’s painted objects. The “Bactrian Princesses” (2500–1500BC) were equally compelling, bespeaking an ethics of care by virtue of their survival and the evocation of the body’s vulnerability through their precarious construction (the figures are made from stone elements loosely slotted in place). Other works and objects on display included several editions of Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed and the remains of objects from the National Museum in Beirut. The curator called the space of the rotunda the “brain” of the exhibition, and indeed it offered a network of various conceptual and material genealogies and histories (often related to armed struggle) through which to think the other work on display and the exhibition as a whole.

dOCUMENTA (13), Fridericianum rotunda, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

dOCUMENTA (13), Fridericianum rotunda, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.


The question of the body was addressed both obliquely and head-on in various works, often through the lens of traumatic history. Kader Attia’s Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures presented a maze of repaired African artifacts, colonial texts, busts of disfigured faces, all juxtaposed to a slide show of World War I soldiers’ injured faces and mended African masks. The installation was a disquieting display of the body’s materiality and multiple significations: from art to scarification, from war to ornament. Other works, rather than refer back to historical trauma from the vantage of the present, were created in conditions of oppression and war. In this vein, the accumulation of apples painted by the Bavarian priest and gardener Korbinian Aigner are exemplary. Between 1912 and the 1960s, he created postcard-sized apple paintings; approximately 400 were included in the exhibition. Interned at Dachau due to his anti-Nazi beliefs, Aigner developed a new apple sort for each consecutive year of his four-year imprisonment. The work speaks to private commitment and resilience in the face of trauma, and it does so through formal and scientific means.  

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, ca. 1912–60. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

Korbinian Aigner, Apples, ca. 1912–60. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.


What I found particularly recurrent in the work included in the exhibition was the question of the subject of ethics as a subject for art. Many works in dOCUMENTA (13) approached how a subject is instituted, what norms operate and inform behavior but also how certain norms define who is and who is not a subject. I am thinking here, in particular, of Javier Tellez’s Artaud’s Cave and Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater, a choreographed performance in which he worked with mentally disabled actors from the Theater Hora in Zurich. Such works were also framed historically in relation to the history of an institution in Kassel: the nearby 12th century monastery, Breitenau, became a concentration camp, a girls’ reformatory, and now functions as a World War II memorial site and psychiatric clinic.


The question of what constitutes a subject brings me, albeit indirectly, to the performance titled Testimonio (Testimony) by Aníbal López. If the other works in the exhibition drew attention to frameworks of recognition about who qualifies as a subject, López’s work seemed at odds with such an ethical stance. For those readers who might not have heard about the performance (and, indeed, many colleagues that I spoke to were unaware of the performance), in it López interviews a contract killer from his home country, Guatemala, and then opens the performance to questions from the audience. The killer was veiled behind a screen and thus seen only in silhouette, while the audience was recorded in video and ultimately represented fully in view. (The video was subsequently installed in the Neue Galerie.) For me, the work (which I refused to see) raises challenging ethical questions. The performance constitutes a spectacle of confession in which the audience might condemn the killer’s actions, but due to the performance’s structure, at the same time displaces any recognition of his victims, who remain abstract. Moreover, one “lesson” contemporary viewers might take away is: “ah yes, contract killers are just par for the course in a place like Guatemala.” In the worst case, someone could actually be killed[2]. Testimonio’s inclusion in the exhibition evinces a failure on the part of the dOCUMENTA (13) organizers to think through how lives might be at risk. That is, there was a public, albeit small, from Guatemala who attended dOCUMENTA (13); each individual felt both appalled and threatened that the killer might identify them upon their return home.

Aníbal López, Testimonio (Testimony), 2012. Screen shot of performance available on YouTube.

Aníbal López, Testimonio (Testimony), 2012. Screen shot of performance available on YouTube.

It follows that the performance forgoes the demands of cultural translation and forecloses the recognition of common vulnerability through which we might—along the lines of a thinker like Judith Butler—begin to productively think forms of recognition and visibility in the age of globalization and within the frames of war. In the face of such a performance, perhaps we need to give an account of ourselves (to evoke Butler again) in order to question the self-evidence with which we accept as artistic practice what is introduced within its framework[3]. With Testimonio, it seems that a juridical framework would have been in order, rather than an artistic one, on whose private and public funding the success of the contract killer’s performance depended.

Anna Maria Maiolino, Here & There (Aqui & Lá), 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

Anna Maria Maiolino, Here & There (Aqui & Lá), 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.


And then there were the works by artists that I love to love: Hannah Ryggen’s anti-fascist tapestries, Anna Maria Maiolino’s serial repetition of objects and use of sound, Pierre Huyghe’s exploration of the natural and man-made, Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s The End of Summer installation, Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings, and Tino Sehgal’s variations in the dark.

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

Pierre Huyghe, Untilled, 2012. Installation view. Photo: Cabañas.

*Kaira M. Cabañas is Director of the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.


[1] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Press Release dOCUMENTA (13), 2012.
[2] In relation to such work, a shift has occurred from the performance art of the 1970s. At that time, artists from Gina Pane to Chris Burden would use their body as material to probe questions relating to what it means to witness, using their own body as a synecdoche for (or in metonymic relation to) the social body. Today, such performances (and I include here, too, some works by Santiago Sierra) reinscribe violence on others, participating in and extending its normalization. In speaking with a noted art historian and critic about such work, his response to my ethical discomfort was along the lines of: “you know if we were to express our disagreement with some people in the art world, we would be deemed the least ‘fashionable’ critics at the table.”
[3] See Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009); Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).