Living in Partitioned Times

“To think through Partition, we shall have to invent a language that will not stop at the past but will take into account our present that has made Partition’s past irrevocable.”
Ranabir Samaddar


We live in partitioned times. The sundering of common territories and histories in the name of imaginary ethnic imperatives – and nothing feels more real than the imaginary – has been one of the most traumatic and yet paradigmatic experiences of the century recently past; so widespread, indeed, that our age seems better served, as Indian philosopher Ranabir Samaddar has argued, by the phrase “partitioned times” than the more prevalent “post-colonial times”. From India to Ireland to Palestine to Cyprus, the vivisected regions that colour the world map have been shaped in a substantive way by great-power strategies of partition, exerted as the institutionalised form of the universally dominant geopolitical will.

Partitioning, however, is by no means confined to geopolitics; rather, it spans virtually every field and discipline of contemporary human activity. Art in particular lives partitioned from the real that it seeks to represent. Which is why many well-meaning artists, in seeking to draw attention to the tragedy, the inanity, of partition in those lands where its effects are most devastating, have inadvertently ended up reproducing partition’s deadening logic, producing images of partition without adequately attending to how our partitioned times encompass all walks of contemporary human endeavour, including artistic representation.

Given than anything can be art, it may at first seem quite counterintuitive to assert that art of all things is also prone to perpetuating the logic of partition. But it is precisely because anything can be art – and above all because whatever it is becomes art not by changing its objective or physical qualities but rather by changing its ontological status – that the powerful logic of partitioning plays itself out in the field of art. In and of itself, an object is invariably reluctant to change its ontological status, which tends to remain rigidly stable: it is what it is. When Minimalist artists like Dan Flavin took up that formula as their watchword, they were of course perfectly aware that it was not and could not be so: to be art, an object is not what it is. The performative framework of the artworld enables those actors known as artists to transform the ontological status of objects by implicitly and performatively declaring them to be art – and not the “mere real thing,” as analytical philosophers rather flippantly put it. As soon as something becomes art, not only does its status in the ontological order get upgraded, so too does its rank in the symbolic order: partitioning is very much to art’s advantage, a fact which goes some way to explaining its prevalence within the artworld.

Art, of course, cannot simply wish partitioning away: its symbolic privileges and market value are upheld by an economy of scarcity, which admittedly ensures that art remains the object of particularly attentive scrutiny. Yet such artificially sustained scarcity, by protecting the highly valuable, commodified art object from the realm of mass-production and distribution (thus ensuring its exchange value), also deprive it of its use-value – that is, of its capacity to do much damage to the dominant order of signs. All which allows partitioning to pursue its work unhindered.

Let us illustrate these somewhat speculative, perhaps even arid, remarks by considering a work done recently by Didier Courbot, one of the artists participating in the Crossings exhibition. However, the logic of partitioning makes it necessary to approach the work in a rather roundabout manner.

Several years ago, directly across the street from my apartment on the Rue de Belleville in Paris, where the road rises sharply between lower Belleville and the Rue Simon Bolivar, on the sidewalk in front of the greengrocer’s where I would buy vegetables every day, I observed a small anomaly. “Observed” is perhaps an overstatement and though I am tempted to say “stumbled upon” to emphasise the fortuitous nature of my perception, the experience was anything but earth-shattering: indeed, almost no verb of perception is sufficiently modest to describe the experience of this utterly unassuming yet anomalous feature of the sidewalk. Because one day, someone had repaired a crack in the sidewalk – a place where the pavement had for some reason fissured and split – tiling over the gap with an improvised, triangular arrangement of bathroom tiles and mortar. It was not a particularly refined tiling job. Actually it was – and is, inasmuch as I and countless others walk on and over and past it everyday – pretty much a schoolbook instance of that sort of slap-dash handy work that popular French parlance and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss refer to as bricolage: using what had previously been ends-in-themselves (bathroom tiles) as means to solve a contingent problem (the fractured sidewalk). As with all bricolage and most street-repair work, the job was artless, unsigned and entirely unostentatious. It was in other words practical and unintended for looking at. Why, I wondered, had the grocer spent time and energy on such a task, when street repairs are the responsibility of the municipality, not shopkeepers, who are only required to sweep up in front of their businesses? At the same time, however, insofar as I noticed this public-private tiling job at all, and inasmuch as I gave it any thought, I was rather touched by the shopkeeper’s gesture. Here was someone who took initiative, in his or her own humble domain, to improve the public sphere in this working-class neighbourhood, rather than merely waiting cynically for the city workers to repair the infrastructure; here was someone with an eye for detail, his downcast eye attentive to the pedestrian space before his shop – a space of crossings. Indeed, the more I thought about it – admittedly, not a great deal, though it came up in several conversations at the brasserie down the street – the more it seemed to better correspond to my aesthetic expectations art often does, though absolutely nothing would or could have led any passer-by to the conclusion that it was art. Because of course in the absence of the performative framework that makes symbolic activities and configurations into art, they simply remain what they are: the mere real thing. Their ontological status remains stable and no partition line separates them from what they merely are. To put it differently, the coefficient of artistic visibility of the tiling job was so low as to render impossible any questions as to its ontological status. Of course, its coefficient of visibility in general was fairly low, too, in one sense, which is paradoxically precisely what boosted its coefficient of visibility at the same time, making it an object of passing conversation in the local bar.

Some time later, I had something of an epiphanic experience. I was visiting an exhibition of the work of Didier Courbot at the Kerghenec art centre in Brittany. In one room, the artist was exhibiting amongst other things a series of large photographs, documenting a series of interventions where we see him engaged in futile repair jobs in the streets of Paris. On a ladder, on the pavement, we see the artist engaged in the overwhelming task of trying to improve the world. And to my wonderment, there was an image of him, trowel in hand and a pail of mortar at his side, in the throes of tiling over the cracked sidewalk on Rue de Belleville. It was a moment of both exhilaration and sublime disappointment, for it cast things in an entirely unexpected light. Suddenly, the job became a work. At any event, I now knew that this ultra-unassuming tile job across the street from my home was art: it had been performed. Conversely, I also knew that it was just art. Not the real thing. That is the corollary from which art inevitably suffers: the double ontological status for which it strives (to be at once what it is and the idea of what it is) eludes it. Suddenly I sensed partition lines where I had never anticipated to find them – but when I returned to the Rue de Belleville in possession of my newly revealed knowledge, I also sensed that the partition lines themselves had been made visible, inasmuch as the repair job continued to function as it always had. Art had been injected into the real and though its idea had been repatriated into the framework of art, its materiality retained whatever modest use-value it had always possessed.

This, it seemed to me, was very different than is the case, say, with relational aesthetics, where everything takes place explicitly within the framework of art right from the outset. The photograph in Didier Courbot’s exhibition raised the double question as to its own status and the status of the intervention which it documented. Typically, artistic documentation provides visual access to an artistic intervention or performance which took place at some earlier time; that is, it is essentially representational in that it re-presents what had already been presented. But it does not affect the ontological status of an action that was presented, understood and perceived as art to begin with. It documents an artistic genre known as performance. In Didier Courbot’s case something entirely different seemed to be at stake, for the initial intervention had not been presented as art: the document territorialized the intervention within the performative framework of art – meaning that the document, rather than any property of the intervention, was what made it art. The photograph was a performative document – and as such, an example of a largely under-theorised genre of contemporary art production, where one finds more and more artists working along the lines of Courbot, deliberately sacrificing their coefficient of artistic visibility. One reason why this genre is under-theorised, and why both its performative and its documentary status tends to go unnoticed, is that the photograph itself, rather than the gesture it depicted, looked in every respect like an artwork: beautifully mounted, on a gallery wall, etc. Yet it clearly eschewed the iconic status of an artwork, foregrounding its documentary status, which is precisely what enabled it to render the tiling job visible as art. Yet at the same time, it was an artwork. The partition line could only be made to disappear by initially being made visible. And it did so in a particularly convincing way, that is, by patching over the fissure in the ground, making it visible even as it mended it.

The work of Didier Courbot strikes me as a singularly appropriate choice in an exhibition dealing with crossings travelling to a land like Cyprus living not merely with the scars but with the open wound of partition; for it explicitly grapples with art’s own ability to address partitioning by attending to its own internal partitioning. Above and beyond the squabbling that led to the failure of Manifesta 6 in Cyprus in the summer of 2006, was it not absurdly naïve on the part of the curators to imagine that art was somehow above the geopolitics of partition that had brought so much suffering and destruction of property, and that art could in some utopian way transcend partition lines? The failure of the project merely underscores the extent to which art – as it is conventionally understood – aids and abets the logic of partition which it likes to boast about being able to overcome. In its dramatically downscaled way, in its deliberately ridiculous humility, Didier Courbot’s tiling job was all about partition – about the futility of art being able to change the world, to repair the damage to the public sphere, to patch over the partition lines that geological forces had brought to bear on the cultural surface. It did so because its coefficient of artistic visibility was so deliberately impaired and because it tackled head-on the paradox of performative documentation as a means of overcoming the tension between invisibility (as art) and visibility (as document).

Like all partition lines, the border between visibility and invisibility is subject to “police” controls. Here, too, art must consider its own paradoxical regime of visibility: for if it is highly visible as art, it will be scarcely visible – that is, only within a certain circuit of visibility. However, in sacrificing its visibility, art eludes control, prescription and regulation – in short, it eludes the “police”. As Jacques Rancière put it in his now classic definition,

“the police is thus above all a bodily order that defines the partition between means of doing, means of being and means of saying, which means that certain bodies are assigned, by their very name, to such and such a place, such and such a task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable, which determines that some activities are visible and that some are not, that some speech is heard as discourse while other speech is heard as noise.”

Seen in this way, partitioning is not merely a profoundly political issue; challenging it is the very essence of democratic political struggle, both in the realm of geopolitics and the realm of art.

Stephen Wright