Conclusions of the doctoral seminar (6-7 March)

  Conclusions of the doctoral Seminar
Questioning the great divide(s) during the Cold War: a tool box for a transnational history of art (6-7 March 2018, Barcelona)

by Kate Domin


Following the program outline designed by Paula Barreiro López and Juliane Debeusscher, the seminar began with a welcome from Paula Barreiro (Universitat de Barcelona). She stressed the importance of these types of conversations by quoting the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ reflection in “Conversations of the World.” The seminar aspired to de-monumentalize written knowledge and open up avenues of conversation between people of different backgrounds and experiences through the study of methodological tools and resources with regard to the task of creating a transnational history of art.

Keynote speaker Mathilde Arnoux began by presenting the “OwnReality” project. The work of Arnoux and her team questions the notion of “the real” and “reality” across France, West Germany, East Germany, and Poland between 1960-1989 through studying circulations and journals and conducting interviews with artists, curators, and art historians. After a thorough presentation of her methodology, the challenges it represents and the 3 major issues raised by the project, the conversation was opened to the room. In addition to identifying possible extensions of the project, for example to other geographies, and to examining the unique methodological approach, participants noted similarities with their own research in terms of methodological challenges. Notable difficulties included: inequities between available resources from the former East and West; resisting projecting a Western perspective onto former Eastern territories; asymmetrical relations of networks and circulations; acknowledging limits and definitions explicitly; and the large variety of corpuses of literature providing the basis of bibliographies in different disciplinary and geographical areas.

The seminar continued with Juliane Debeusscher’s presentation of her research, which interrogates conditions and visibility of art from Eastern Europe between 1971 and 1981. She focuses on circulations, publications, and collaborative practices (such as mail art, mailing lists, collaborative magazines, etc.) to investigate relationships between artists from socialist countries and Western European agents and platforms during this period when travel was difficult. These art forms constituted a basis for professional and personal exchange as well as expressions of solidarity across country lines. Debeusscher addressed the limitations of this methodology—notably points of fixation, exclusion and inclusion within circulations, as well as problematic Cold War binarisms. She also introduced the concepts of visibility, specifically in exhibitions that remove works from their context of production; and autonomy as a possible means to reject peripheral categorization.

The following researcher, Abdiel Segarra, presented his study into Puerto Rican abstraction in front of the “national” art history and its narratives. He uses Puerto Rican abstraction as a case study to demonstrate the existence of an aesthetic and ideological battle within Puerto Rican art historiography —that is to say that abstract art was not as valued as printmaking since it did not ideologically support the creation of a political and national identity. Segarra addressed the role of museums and public collections as promoters of an art that is considered “historical.” His methodological approach includes interviews with artists, art historians, and critics as well as lists from public and private collections, in an attempt to measure abstraction visibility. Segarra reiterated some shared concerns when he noted the difficulty of working with archives and the difficulty of resisting certain chronological, colonial, and westernized frameworks.

The first day of the seminar concluded with a brief discussion of the shared texts that were presented as the literary basis of the workshop (reading workshop). By allowing all participants to propose texts that formed this corpus, the seminar attempted to create a foundational bibliography for PhD students coming from different backgrounds. Looking at the interaction between texts, the prevalence of the gaps in bibliography initially mentioned by Arnoux became clear. Seminars of this style clearly serve as one effective solution to the problem, though they still separate certain geographical areas from the discourse and it is important to continue working toward a more complete solution. Furthermore, the texts and discussion provided clarity into using various theories simultaneously to frame thinking and approach archives, research, and physical evidence.

The group reassembled for day 2. Pablo Santa Olalla began the conversation with his presentation of the “South Atlantic Space of Conceptualism”, an imagined or representational space of conceptual art circulations between Spain and some South American countries. Santa Olalla relies heavily on methodology and conceptual framework to introduce this concept, especially on Edward Soja’s concept of “Thirdspace.” He focuses on the process of circulation across time and space together. Santa Olalla shares a problem with Segarra —proximity to one perspective. As a Spanish researcher attempting to detach his research from questions of colonialism, he acknowledges the difficulty of approaching the subject neutrally from Barcelona. Furthermore, the discussion problematized the treatment of Latin America as a homogenous entity as Santa Olalla attempts to find transnational commonalities across boundaries in order to approach the subject matter from a new angle. A rich discussion followed this presentation with many suggested readings, methodological tools, and complex questions around this kind of conceptualizations.

The final presentation of the seminar, from Anita Orzes, traced the path of biennials from Venice to Havana. Orzes introduced the Havana Biennial of 1984 as an alternative to the hegemonic cultural center of Venice, arguing it served as the culmination of new kinds of exhibitions in the Global South. Furthermore, she presented a genealogy of Latin Amercan biennials that anticipated the innovative practices launched in the Havana Biennial, putting into discussion the history of mutual influence between Havana and Venice. Orzes, like many of the previous presenters, drew attention to the difficulty of accessing archived information. Additionally, she addressed the reoccurring topic of the problematic use of the term “influence”—for the often problematic tendency to conceptualize it as a unilateral process.

After further discussions on the literary corpus, the seminar concluded with a brainstorming aiming at identifying the central points that had emerged through these two sessions. Among them, the tension between circulation and the fixation of identities and representations through dominant discourses, frames and curatorial practices; the necessity to combine approaches paying attention to micro- and macro-scales; the specificity of the Cold War both as a field of study and a terrain from which several theories and ways of thinking emerged; how to write a horizontal art history as Piotr Piotrowski conceptualized it, acknowledging the place where we are standing.

The seminar served as a successful platform to bring together voices from different geographies and backgrounds to address the difficult question of creating a transnational art history.

See the seminar’s full program


Consult the full list of texts that circulated before the seminar:

Mathilde Arnoux

ARNOUX, Mathilde, “Introduction/Introduction,” on the website of the project OwnReality, Arnoux, Mathilde and Layet, Clément (eds.), 2017.

BOLTANSKI, Luc, “Le degré de réalité de la réalité,” in id., De la critique. Précis de sociologie de l’émancipation, Paris, Gallimard, 2009, pp. 39-82.

GUPTA, Suman, “Conceptualising   the   Art   of   Communist   Times,” in Third Text, 24, 2010.

PIOTROWSKI, Piotr, “The Geography and History of Art in Eastern Europe,” in id., In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, Londres, Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 11-30.

WERNER, Michael and ZIMMERMANN, Bénédicte, “Penser l’histoire croisée : entre empirie et réflexivité,” in id. (éd.), De la comparaison à l’histoire croisée, Paris, Seuil, 2004, pp. 15-49.

ZABEL, Igor, “N’en avons-nous pas eu assez?,” in Stipancic, Branka (ed.), Personal Cuts. Art à Zagreb de 1950 à nos jours, Nîmes: Carré dart, Musée d’Art Contemporain, 2014, pp.57-67.

Paula Barreiro López

BARREIRO LÓPEZ, Paula. “Art History and the Global Challenge: A Critical Perspective,” Artl@s Bulletin, 6, no. 1, 2017, Article 8.

ELKINS, James, “Afterword”, in DaCosta Kaufmann, Thomas, Dossin, Catherine, and Joyeux-Prunel, Béatrice (eds.), Circulations in the Global History of Art, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015. 

Juliane Debeusscher

DEBEUSSCHER, Juliane, “Sitting Together. Parallel Chronologies of Coincidences in Eastern Europe,” exhibition review, in ArtMargins online, published online 1 June 2017.

JOHNSTON, Gordon, “Revisiting the Cultural Cold War,” in Social History, 35 (3), 2010, pp. 290-307.

Additional text : BAZIN, Jérôme, “The Geography of Art in Communist Europe: Other Centralities, Other Universalities,” in Artl@s Bulletin, 3, no. 1, 2014, Article 5.

Anita Orzes

GARDNER Anthony, and GREEN Charles, “South as Method? Biennials Past and Present,” in Making Biennials in Contemporary TimesEssays from the World Biennial Forum no2, São Paulo, 2014, pp. 28-36.

ORZES Anita, “La Bienal de Venecia y sus ciudades,” in Anales de Historia del Arte, Vol. 14, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid, 2014, pp. 201-220.

Pablo Santa Olalla

GROYS, Boris, “The Topology of Contemporary Art”. In: Condee, Enwezor, Smith, Terry (eds.). Antinomies of Art and CultureDurham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, pp. 72-73.

SANTA OLALLA, Pablo, “Travel and Archive as Artistic Research Methodologies in the Early Works of Muntadas”, unpublished paper, 2017.

Additional text: FOUCAULT, Michel. “Introducción,” in La arqueología del saber, México: Siglo XXI editores, 1979 (1969), pp. 3-29.

Abdiel Segarra

PIOTROWSKI, Piotr, “On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History,” in Umeni/Art, n°5, 2008, pp. 378-383.

SEGARRA, Abdiel, “Trabaje duro. Los Escenarios de una republica propia en la obra de Quintín Rivera-Toro” and “Hechos, acciones y escenarios ; Todas juntas,” in Trabaje Duro, exh. cat., 2017.

Additional text : PABÓN, Carlos, “De Albizu a Madonna: Para armar y desarmar la nacionalidad,” bordes 2, 1995, 22–40.