Six Lines of Flight

A new exhibition at SFMOMA surveys the work of artists from six cities around the world that have become burgeoning artistic centres, exploring the changing nature of today’s international artistic landscape.

The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari coined the expression “line of flight” in their seminal 1987 text A Thousand Plateaus. The term, for Deleuze and Guattari, referred to the rhizome, with its connective elements and multiplicity of start and end points: “The rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight.” This concept has become increasingly relevant when applied to the contemporary and visual art world as communities are no longer definable by their geographical location, but rather by their international presence, and thus the “map” has become superfluous as a directional device. Apsara DiQuinzio, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA, takes this idea and expands upon it as the basis for an exhibition at the museum this autumn.

The exhibition, which features over 60 works by 19 artists and collectives, evolved initially out of a curatorial fellowship DiQuinzio was doing in New York City, where she became interested in countries that were experiencing a cultural renaissance, specifically as related to art organisations founded by artists themselves. The importance of these organisations became glaringly obvious to DiQuinzio in terms of financial and intellectual support as well as artistic production, and was evidence of the growing artistic community existent worldwide. The selected artists, who come from six different cities (Beirut, Lebanon; Cali, Colombia; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; San Francisco, USA and Tangier, Morocco), exhibit qualities and interests directly related to their place of birth, heritage and/or upbringing. Some of the artists have led migratory existences: Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen of the Propeller Group in Vietnam, for example, were born in Vietnam, only to move to the United States at a young age, and then move back to Vietnam. It is Vietnam where they, along with Phunam, have their base, with headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City (as well as Los Angeles, California). Other exhibiting artists have trained or studied at various international institutions or educational facilities, moving where their careers and families have taken them, whilst still maintaining a strong base and interest in their local communities. The Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who live between Paris and Beirut, and come from refugee families, are tapping into two separate but distinctive artistic and social communities which they weave together to create a new social and artistic framework. The networks created as a result of these various interstices and threads are integral to each exhibiting artist’s practice, and it is this practice, and the combination of local/international that DiQuinzio emphasises throughout the exhibition.

The six cities are each characterised by grassroots development within their artistic communities and, though San Francisco could be considered by some an odd choice for its relatively “safe” status as a city in a first world country, it does have a history rich with immigration, art and revolution. DiQuinzio argues that “[San Francisco] might seem like a funny choice amongst the six cities, but again, as I was doing research, it became apparent how important the consideration of ‘local’ was for these organisations. [Being] not so committed to their own locality in creating a thriving environment within their own cities, they were also taking the next step and becoming an international platform by inviting curators and artists from abroad to come to their organisation and give lectures, performances and conferences to create relationships among the network of organisations.” It is important to remember that none of these cities are international art centres in their own right, like Berlin or London, and thus they have to work that much harder to create a solid creative base of funding and support within their local community. Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City, which was created as an international platform for contemporary Vietnamese art, has had to negotiate a difficult position as there is very little non-commercial funding in Vietnam because the government supports the artistic community in terms of its monetary value (with regard to tourism and export). Very little support is given to more experimental, media-driven art practice as the Cultural Ministry in Vietnam controls all cultural content for public events and publications, and, as such, Sàn Art has become an integral piece of the urban artistic framework.

Beirut, which has been dogged by political, economic and cultural instability, especially over the past century, is a prime example of the importance of art as a binding agent for local communities in the re-building of their culture and relationships. Sarah Rogers writes, in Culture ’45 and the Rise of Beirut’s Contemporary Art Scene (an essay published in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue), that many artists fled from Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, only to return in the early 1990s after the signing of the Ta’if Accords (which ushered in a period of tentative peace). The country to which they returned was scarred both physically and culturally, and Rogers cites the organisations and festivals that sprang up as vital to the healing of these scars: “although certain projects, such as the Ayloul festival, were short-lived, the dedication to experimental practices, building art audiences, the reintegration of art within the urban environment, and the manifestation of the relationship between art and politics continue to play an important role.” The camaraderie amongst artists was vital in the redevelopment and formation of a new contemporary art scene, and it led to vital international support, with foundations such as the Arab Image Foundation (established in Beirut in 1997) dependent on funding and institutional support from, amongst others, Banque Libano-Française, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Arab Cultural Fund.

Several concurrent themes run through the exhibition, but one that seems to be dominant throughout is that of the importance of the physical landscape to the formation of an individual and community’s identity. The Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung is, along with the Moroccan artist Yto Barrada, specifically concerned with the geographical landscape as it is constantly being transformed by its inhabitants and visitors. Chung’s map series (for example, The Growth of Cali—city boundaries: 1780, 1880, 1921, 1930, 1937, 1951, 2012), investigate the urban development of cities through natural disasters, war, and social expansion. The cartographic works are evocative of the erroneous history of early cartographers who presumed to know the geographical boundaries of the world before they had fully explored and mapped the land physically. Chung’s work begs the question, “will we ever have a definite world map?”, when each country and city’s boundaries are constantly being changed, shifted and erased.

Barrada, who lives and works in Tangier, Morocco, is as interested in the physical geographical boundaries as she is in the social landscape formed by the inhabitants and visitors of a city or country. DiQuinzio says of her work: “She has been documenting her own changing landscape for over a decade, taking pictures of the shifts that are occurring in the city … the changing nature of the city.” What divides countries and continents physically – the Strait of Gibraltar for example, which divides Morocco from Europe – also joins countries, as the Strait entices thousands of immigrants every year into attempting to cross the body of water into mainland Europe illegally. The Morocco of glossy tourist brochures is not the Morocco of its inhabitants, many of whom are beset by poverty, and it is this reality which Barrada attempts to capture in her images. Barrada, who has achieved international fame and critical recognition, has maintained a strong presence in Tangier, establishing (in 2005) the Cinémathèque de Tanger (CdT). The CdT, North Africa’s first cinema / cultural centre, is an important venue for independent cinema, and hosts and supports an international programme of visiting curators, artists and filmmakers, as well as housing a film archive. Barrada, who cites the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut as an inspiration in creating the CdT, states in a 2012 interview with the British Film Institute that: “Grassroots non-profit [organisations] like ours are popping up across the region because the state has left culture orphaned, and artists are among the people who feel a responsibility there.”

The idea that individuals and artists are left “orphaned” has been a motivating factor for many of the organisations and collectives that have formed in recent years. The development of the artist-run gallery Plan B in Cluj, Romania, in 2005, is a prime example of this idea of the “orphaned” artist taking control of their career and life. Romania, a state which suffered under a communism, has struggled, since the disintegration of it, to find a footing in contemporary “Western” culture. Adrian Ghenie and Mihai Pop, practising artists in Cluj, began the gallery as a result of their frustration with a local art scene that they felt offered no regional support or international network from which to garner backing. The gallery has achieved international recognition, not just as an exhibition space, but also as a collaborative platform for artists, critics and audiences, and continues to expand with the conversion of an old paintbrush factory, La Fabrica de Pensule, into artists’ studios and performance and exhibition spaces.

The establishing of galleries and exhibition spaces is as important as that of biennials and festivals; the biennial performance festival organised by the artists collective Helena Producciones (formed by Wilson Díaz and Juan Mejía) in Cali, Colombia, has given a precise structure to the artistic and cultural calendar, a vital aspect of the maintenance of communities. Having concrete dates around which to organise and arrange events lends an air of stability to what are quite often variegated, unsystematic communities in various states of upheaval and reconstruction. Helena Producciones works not with just local artists but also operates on an international level, gaining support from, amongst others, the Triangle Network, a UK-based network of artists and organisations originally founded in 1982 by Sir Anthony Caro and Robert Loder.

Futurefarmers, a collective formed in 1995 by Amy Francheschini in San Francisco, includes architects, teachers, designers and artists among its members, and operates in a similar vein to the Triangle Network. Utilising commercial funds and resources to fund independent art projects and artists, the “networks” are able to reach entirely different demographics and social strata, including corporate funding, which, as crass as it may sound, tends to have deeper pockets. Francheschini, who grew up on a farm in California, is interested in the protection and development of communities – she does not necessarily limit her interests to the art world, but has an all-encompassing view that is the future.

DiQuinzio argues that even with all of these international collectives and artist-run spaces, there are still many communities lacking a framework for artistic and cultural production, but that the aspiration and motivation are there, waiting to be tapped into: “There exists a desire to create a certain visibility and awareness about artwork in those areas, but it’s almost something of a precarious infrastructure as now there are so many different agendas to consider, all travelling along those same networks.” It can be difficult to negotiate the economic and political intricacies inherent in a country’s history, but it is learning to harness these intricacies long-term that will enable those communities to thrive. The art world has become (in the words of Marshall McLuhan) a “global village”, with each city and community establishing long-term ties and relationships to other national and international communities and organisations. The result can only be positive.

Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art ran from 15 September – 31 December 2012. Please visit the website of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for further information and details.

Niamh Coghlan