In 1990, the Internet was still relatively removed from the public consciousness. The first commercial dial-up ISPs were just appearing in the US, and the World Wide Web had another year to go before its formal debut in 1991. Now, 20 years later and a full decade into the 21st century, the Internet pervades most industrialized societies and is rapidly making inroads into every corner of the globe. And yet it seems that it is at this very moment of instantaneous and almost universal connectivity that the notion of provinciality is more pressing than ever, or at least no less pressing than it ever has been. The Internet has not only changed the way we live, it will also change the way we write history.
The equidistance afforded by the Internet – whereby provinciality now becomes a self-imposed matter of choice on the part of users making decisions about what kind of information to access from which sources and at what timing – provides an opportunity to rethink the historical understanding of cultural exchange. Take a so-called cultural center such as New York, or even a broad international survey like the Venice Biennale, documenta or the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art’s own Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. If New Yorkers may think that the international art that is exhibited in their city is somehow destined for such a fate based on the art’s objective “quality,” the perspective afforded by the Internet allows us to see more clearly than ever that this destiny is shaped not so much by the work itself as the prevailing values (market or otherwise) of the art community in New York. In essence, the worldview constructed in New York is in large part a reflection of New York and its subjective needs – not the world – just as it is in any other locale. Similarly, the circulation of information on the Internet makes it easier than ever to see the biases behind the decisions that curators make when organizing their exhibitions, even when they delegate some of those decisions to networks of local collaborators. The exhibition itself is revealed as an act of representation at odds with the quasi-scientific tone of words and phrases such as “survey” or “seismograph of contemporary art.”
Yet, the prerogative of narrative is necessarily one of exclusion. The appropriate response to this condition is not necessarily to take “corrective” measures to produce more accurate representations of the world in each of its centers. As we head deeper into the 21st century, it may be more productive to abandon – or indeed, marginalize – the idea of an over-arching master narrative. What was once thought of as a “world” history can now be seen simply as the Enlightenment talking to itself, while for many of that history’s subjects, the relationship has been something analogous to the experience of walking down the street and tentatively waving back to an approaching person only to realize that that person was in fact signaling to someone else directly behind oneself. In the context of writing new histories from more diverse vantage points, the focus of analysis must shift from values of distance such as originality and derivativeness towards those of proximity, such as “timeliness.”
Acknowledging the provinciality inherent to the human condition suggests a way to address the complex and ever-evolving dynamics between audience, identity and geography. Provinciality should not be confused with parochialism, self-absorption or any other kind of chauvinism. Nor should it be used as an excuse to disregard historical precedents (temporal provincialism, the provincialism of the new). It still allows for the exchange of ideas from many different contexts, with the caveats that foreign material, to the extent it is “taken up,” is localized upon that exchange, and that the various migrations that occur across different cultural ecosystems should be understood as developing as much from processes of chance as the progress of destiny.
Andrew Maerkle is a writer and editor based in Tokyo. He is currently Deputy Editor of the Japanese-English online publication ART iT, International Edition, and served as Deputy Editor of ArtAsiaPacific magazine in New York from 2006 to 2008. He has contributed to numerous international periodicals including Art & Australia, Esquire Japan, Eyeline and frieze. He is one of the authors of the catalogue Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves (2010) and an editor and author of the forthcoming digital publication Architecture in Exhibition: Japan at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010.