Zones of Contamination
— Some Random Notes on the Current State of Contemporary Art Events

History never repeats itself. But sometimes, there are exceptions: after 15 years, again, we are now back to facing a new SARS, named COVID-19 this time, in a much more global scale. And we are confined at home… One of the few things that are “good” for us in this lockdown is to have the time to open old files on our computers. And I have “rediscovered” this old text, published in the catalog of Sydney Biennale 2006 (“Zone of Contact”). And I feel it still relevant… because it reminds us of some unsolved problems; and this time, they appear to be more urgent, but also more difficult to solve… So I propose to share it (in a slightly reduced and edited version) with the readers of Heichi (whose name I love: Black Teeth!).

–Hou Hanru, Rome, 12 November 2020

For the last couple of years, the Asia-Pacific region has seen a series of unprecedented crises in terms of public health and social life. Two epidemics with a high risk of contamination, SARS and bird flu, seem to have appeared rapidly across the continent and threatened to spread across the globe… All medical and political authorities have launched campaigns of prevention and protection, and populations are mobilized.

These biological phenomena have immediately been transformed into a social crisis. They have become one of the most urgent and intense focuses in public opinion and the media. In turn, they have moved beyond the territory of public health to become a metaphor for social crisis. In fact, they have revealed profound malfunctions in political, social and economic systems all around the world, and incited some radical and occasionally excessive responses that end up imposing a total security policy on reality.

In the name of prevention of epidemics and their contamination, we have to accept omnipresent inspections and controls. Accordingly, a great idea of our privacy and freedoms are violated. All this is creating completely sterile environments, and imposing total control over all public and even private spaces.

Interestingly, ‘by destiny‘, such bio-environmental events also echo the current geopolitical transformation. They imply, in both physical and psychological terms, an illusive belief that human beings can be detached from the natural world and become entirely protected from any natural ‘defaults’ and dangers. This is clearly the ideological basis for an increasing, and overwhelming, ‘politics of total security’.

This obsession with total security has developed along with modernity itself. As Michel Foucault and others pointed out, modern social order has been constructed on a social system of surveillance. The oppressive political power over all kinds of ‘non-official’, ‘alternative’ and ‘marginal’ ways of being, thinking, acting and organising has been enforced to become a bio-politics that conditions our biological existence. In contemporary times, this society of surveillance, as scholars like Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt reveal, has been turned into a much higher degree of social structuring to become a society of control.1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2000​ Today, after 9/11, in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’, the issues of safety and protection have been further emphasized in all domains, from politics to everyday life. They are so dominant that privacy, freedom of expression and individual ways of living that have previously undergone surveillance and policing by the established authorities are now systematically subjected to further safety scrutiny and control. We are increasingly imprisoned in a sphere of panic and paranoia. Of course, it’s totally natural that one has to go through X-ray inspection at all airports all around the world — but what is even more amazingly imposed nowadays, is having to go through the same inspection processes at your office, your residency and even at museum entrances! In the meantime, living in a gated community has become a globally embraced sign of privilege. Do we see terrorists everywhere and at every moment?

Obviously, this new trend of social control makes all human contacts and exchanges more vulnerable to surveillance, control and censorship. If we share the argument of Negri and Hardt - that we are living in an age of a global empire of transnational capitalism and imperial hegemony — then this obsession with security incarnates also as the ultimate ideology of the current imperialism. Going through the safety control gates is actually the same as crossing the empire's last frontier. Naturally, all these intrusive practices of surveillance and control are supposed to provide a reassuring and comfortable condition for the new global, transnational capitalist market economy, and guarantee that the dominant social class derives the maximum benefit.

This reality is exerting a huge impact on every affair in daily life and social organization, including on cultural institutions. In turn, artistic and other creative activities are deeply constrained and affected by such conditions. Freedom of expression is therefore essentially limited, and artistic products are systematically led to serve the established institutions and the market system.

Interestingly enough, contemporary art is also falling into a similar total contradiction: on the one hand, contemporary art is being globally promoted via numerous events like biennales and art fairs etc., and being rapidly integrated into the mainstream media and market system to become a new lifestyle. On the other hand, contemporary art's innovative and social critical vocations are equally rapidly reduced and neutralized by this integration into the mainstream system that, again, is dominated by the ideology of total security. Contemporary artworks are appearing to be more and more clean, ‘fresh’, playful, and in total harmony with the new designed environments. This makes them, in turn, able to be more smoothly incorporated into the global market system. Describing the Dutch architecture scene of the 1990s, the Dutch architecture critic Roemer Van Toorn called it a ‘post-Koolhaas’, which had managed to create a globally famous ‘super modernism’ that looks highly fantastic, but is essentially formalist and conformist. He called this ‘Fresh Conservatism’. This term, revealing the very contradictory nature of many contemporary ‘creative products’ including architecture, design and music, can certainly be applied to the visual arts. Contemporary art today, to a great extent, appears to be original, slightly uneasy and provocative, but also ultimately suitable for installation in both private saloons and museum exhibition halls without any harm. In the end, it has to meet all kinds of security norms, which are becoming more and more restrictive and normalized. Social critique, utopian idealism and class struggle are now turned into beautifully decorated maxims that can upgrade the good taste of club lounges and gallery spaces.

They are totally safe!

Yet, the world does not have to be safe, but dynamic and diverse, in which everyone can realize his or her dreams. This suggests a similar project to that promoted by Negri and Hardt to enforce the global multitude.2Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin Press, New York, 2004​ Inevitably, this process implies confrontation, coexistence and a blending of highly diverse and different cultural and artistic elements, that are often alien to each other. An art event, therefore, should be understood as a zone of confrontation, negotiation and exchange with the alien, or biologically speaking, the virus. It implies, naturally, a mingling with cultural differences ... namely, contamination. And it forms a truly innovative and exciting bio-sphere, or biological condition, which encourages contamination amongst all kinds of ideas and languages, especially those alternative to the mainstream 'styles'. In this ongoing process, new understandings and definitions of artistic activities, informed by the cultural hybridity resulting from the contamination, are bred and presented; and a new cultural multitude, global but non-monopolized, local but open to difference, is being invented.

Obviously, this process primarily proposes alternatives: art opens up new spaces and perspectives to the world, beyond conventional points of view and ways of living. It’s a space in which all unsecured and free imaginations, projects and strategies of living, expressing and creating are encouraged, and is fundamentally against the ideology of total security. It also opposes the logic of the capitalist market and consumption of the spectacle, while it utilizes the market’s conditions and strategies, consumption and need for the spectacular to serve its cause of criticism, resistance and innovation.

This kind of contamination is not only negative and dangerous for the established system, it can also encourage mutation and the formation of a new biological environment, which may generate new hope for the freedom of the imagination and expression beyond the constraints of the established system.

Continuous self-organization is the principle behind the survival and continuum of a virus. Contamination of the virus by other biological creatures can generate unexpected mutations of genres and species, and further, restructure our living environment. It can provide alternative solutions to resisting the homogenization of our bio-sphere. This is not only a significant physical fact, but also a valuable metaphor for us to re-conceptualize our current cultural context. Referring to such a model, we can better understand and propose solutions as to how contemporary art should develop through the constant reinventions of its infrastructure and organization, and the making of its communication network. This includes globally operating collaborations, exchanges and mutual support for alternative forces, based on the principle of the multitude. By definition, this force is multicultural and multidisciplinary and able to generate continuously new definitions of artistic activities.

The current exciting situation in the Asia-Pacific region, which is rapidly becoming a new focus of the global art world, has, to a great extent, been the result of the force of such a continuous self-organization. Mutual contaminations among different self-organizational practices have proven highly fruitful, and become central to the exciting scene today. A major event like a biennale or triennial should take this advantage, and turn itself into such a ‘zone of contamination’.

Art events are, actually, as the current Biennale of Sydney’s title attests, ‘zones of contact,’ and making them real ‘zones of contamination’ can bring forth a truly significant content to make it even greater. As Manuel De Landa pointed out, it’s in the very concrete movement and interplays of matter and energy, including the force of biological self-organization, through human populations that history has been formed and has developed. Interactions and contaminations in economics, biology and linguistics are the real driving force for social and cultural developments.3Manual De Landa, A Thousand Years of Non-linear History, Zone Books, New York, 1997

Migrant birds are flying across the globe, and we should learn how to co-exist and take advantage with of all kinds of ‘bird flu’.

Hou Hanru is an international art curator and critic. He is the Artistic Director of the MAXXI in Rome and the Consulting Curator for The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He has taught and lectured at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, worked as a consultant and advisor at Walker Art Center, and at San Francisco Art Institute as Director of Exhibitions and Public Program and Chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies.

Ai Weiwei, World Map, 2006. Installation view of the 15th Biennale of Sydney (2006) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Link.

Anthony Gormley, Asian Field, 2003. Installation view of the 15th Biennale of Sydney (2006) at Pier 2/3. Courtesy of the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London. Photograph: Greg Weight. Link.

Mona Hatoum, Mobile Home II, 2006. Installation view, 15th Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), 2006. Image courtesy and © the artist. Link.

Hou Hanru, Zones of Contamination, in the exhibition catalog of the 15th Biennale of Sydney, p.137—140, 2006.

Published: 2020.12.03