Has the Moment of the Contemporary Come and Gone?

Raqs Media Collective, Ravi Sundaram, Daniela Zyman



Jeebesh Bagchi:

Welcome everyone, to the last panel. We’ve named this panel, ‘Has the moment of the contemporary come and gone?’ When Parul invited us to do a panel at this fair we thought we could do a panel on something that we have been discussing with many of our friends from many parts of the world over the last two years, looking at many of the exhibitions; that the idea of the contemporary in contemporary art is under some kind of pressure. And given the last few years of turmoil and turbulences in the world, the idea of the contemporary is up for reevaluation. We thought it would be a good idea to revisit the idea of the contemporary in the construction of contemporary art and see where we go from there. I’m Jeebesh from Raqs, with me is Shuddha, and Monica is here amongst the audience. We have two panelists, Daniela Zyman, Chief Curator from Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Vienna, and Ravi Sundaram, our colleague at Sarai-CSDS. I’ll introduce them and the work they do soon. They will speak for 15-20 min. I’ll give a short introduction about why and how we would locate the problem and the way the three of us in Raqs have framed it, and they will respond from their own vantage points. Shuddha will give a brief comment on them, after which we’ll open it up for public discussion. It will be crisp do not worry. By five it will be over.

The idea of ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art, and we can mark it as the last 20 years, becomes the sign under which a lot of art—and art institutional practices—happens. We can mark certain trajectories within it. Lets borrow a soon to-be-published phrase from a friend and film historian Kaushik Bhowmik, ‘insurrection of capital’. Looking over the last 20 years, or just before that, we see some kind of insurrection of capital over life, and over art. There is a body of reading of contemporary art from many sites, from Hal Foster to all kinds of critical voices, where they see a certain complicity and suspicion around the contemporary as being a big part of this insurrection of capital to dominate art, and dominate life. This insurrection then marks the contemporary as a site of contamination in many such accounts. Contamination takes us away from our criticality regarding art, our ability to produce art as a site of conversation, discord, dissensus, and complicity, pushes us towards a discourse of mere innovation, spectatorship, publicity, and a performance of a certain kind which is supposed to scale up, be known, seen, and produced. This is, broadly, the prevalent discussion around the contemporary. So there is a body of thinking that goes: let us rescue art from the contemporary. The mission would be: let us rescue art from the insurrection of capital. So this is its own thing, but within it there is something else that happens, there is a series of other trajectories.

One trajectory is very clear and particularly grounded that Rem Koolhaas (OMA) has shown through his analysis. It is that in the last 20 years, until 2007, there has been a 90% increase in museum spaces in the world. So here you have, suddenly, an expansion that is unprecedented, unknown, and that is only until 2007—the four museums that we have in Delhi since then are not part of this calculation. Galleries are not part of this calculation. The biennales are not part of this calculation, and thousands of millions of temporary spaces where [art is] produced are not part of this calculation. So we have a sudden unprecedented proliferation, a proliferation that is almost like the mobile telephonic proliferation after the landline, over the last 10 years. We’re talking about this kind of proliferation, under the sign in which the contemporary is produced. So we have this proliferation, we have this insurrection of capital and then the third sign – here we’re borrowing from a just-published essay by Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, a beautiful essay called The Laughing Performer—where he argues on this question of the stage and the footlights. For a certain theatricality of life you produce—you need—the stage and the footlight, and around the carnival the footlight dissolves. But according to Sibaji’s argument, there is an overflow in life that actually dissolves the footlight. I think that with the proliferation around the last 20 years, and the multiple sites of claim to contemporary art, the idea of the contemporary produces an important question around time, in terms of what kind of a disjointed time is produced; the linear time of progress of capital gets kind of broken – fairly broken – now. So what we have is a fractured idea of time, which allows for a multiple entry points in this proliferating entropy.

So we have the footlights demarcating the performance or art or theatre or any politics from its spectator getting increasingly dissolved, and find that it gets more and more difficult to engage with the overflow that is produced. What we have is a certain sign under the last 20 years that is being produced and we have counter signs, which produce a different optic and a different kind of difficulty in reading this period. In the last 1 or 2 years we have had another form of insurrection, and the confidence of the last 20 years of capital-regulated life is over, in some form. So if we mark the last 20 years, the suspicion of the last 20 years, or the spectatorial celebration of the last 20 years within signs that it was an insurrection of capital, of life and of art, what we get is a very interesting situation to rethink that period. This decade will be a very interesting time, where we will not be able to take for granted the suspicions and anxieties and forms of the last two decades, and maybe even the way we produced art, as also a certain criticality around art. A critique of spectacle may not be sufficient, given that something else has emerged—another form of being in the world. And this is what we thought this panel could perhaps reflect on.

Our first speaker is Daniela Zyman. She has, over the last 15-20 years, seen most of the minor and major exhibitions in the world, and over the last 10 years she has tried to institutionally construct the Thyssen-Bornermisza Art Foundation, where one can visit the conceptions of what would constitute an art practice, how you give meaning to art and what are the goals of institutions. After Danto on Warhol, we have ideas of institutions as becoming very crucial to the production of meaning in art, but she has a different reading of the problematic of the institution. We’ll first have her talking about the meaning of the institution, and then we’ll have Ravi, who will talk about the formation of new publics and the production that we have been talking about here—proliferating subterranean structures of new life. After that Shuddha will make some commentary.

Daniela Zyman:

Thank you Jeebesh. That was a great introduction. We promised to have a lively panel, so I will maybe not use up all of my 10-15 min, and make a shorter statement so that we might have a bit of ping pong. I’d like to use 3-4 minutes, which might be sufficient to make my first point, to talk about two moments that I find important in thinking about the contemporary.

One is to maybe think about what is the contemporary, and what is the contemporary within the field of art? And to me, already, the field of art , the space of art, kind of gives a direction where I would like to posit the contemporary. I think it is a field—a generative field—that comprises works and practices, institutions, and their critiques and their embodiments, but is mainly a generative field. A field that kind of produces, and therefore produces the new, and in doing that obviously reviews the “all”, includes the “all”, critiques the “all”—but its generative potential, its ability and hunger for the new is obviously what I consider as being important in our discussion here. So in that sense I would say, obviously the contemporary is not gone. There is a mechanism within the field,  within the avant-gardistic model, which we’re still reproducing. So within the field the generative model of the space of art and the field of art is that which produces, and will continuously produce, the contemporary. So that is my first remark.

My second one is maybe to come back to the critique of the spectacle. How do we appreciate art, how do we think about art? I think one of the important optical devices and framing devices, in understanding our relationship to art, is obviously the frame. The frame has had an incredible history from being four planks of wood that you build together to differentiate the world of the aesthetic from its surrounding. But it has created an incredible apparatus of mechanisms and institutions of differentiation. What I mean by that is, if you think for a moment of lining up in front of a museum, buying a ticket, the entrance hall, the museum lighting, the colour of the walls, all these moments of framings have become the ways we today experience art, the production of art, the display of art, the location of art and it is obviously the same in the visual arts or the performing arts. These sorts of framing devices are extremely, extremely powerful. Even to the degree that the one institution or the one moment in which one would think the frame would lose its relevance—namely public art—has its own institutions and frames.

So what does that produce? The frame actually produces the fact that our encounters with art are always safe. They always have the framing apparatus that tells us whatever happens we’ll not be hurt, we won’t be damaged by our experience. We will always be within the safe moment of the contemporary, of the now. And so to me that is kind of the counter movement to the generative flow of the art field—the powers of framing, the power of the institution over the artistic control that defines our ways and our relationship to it. Obviously all these moments of framing create perhaps for me the feeling that we see things as being gone, as already known and domesticated, or stage-set. So all these expansionist moments that you have within artistic practice, that is, the blurring between art and life, art and its forms of manifestations, all are kind of put into its framing moments, and therefore our frustration with experiencing them and with possibly creating something that might be beyond these forms and tools of communication.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta:

I think Daniela you’ve introduced a very interesting provocation by saying that it’s a question of how we frame the moment that actually determines our stances vis-a-vis the problematic of the contemporary. In our thinking and work with the questions of time, which informs a lot of our practice, one of the ways in which we’ve thought about the question of lets say a word like samay, which is the Sanskrit and also other Indian language word for time, actually stands for the ability to perceive that someone is standing with you. So in a sense the frame that you are in is already filled with the presence of others and what they bring to life. So in that sense I don’t think that you can have a framing of the contemporary that is based on a monadic concept of some kind of solitary insertion into the contemporary, into culture, but more constant recognition of the fact that the time of the now is always the time of some other who shares your time and that is why they are contemporary with you. And that question of the sharing, the shared inhabitation of time, leads one to think of different registers of temporal existence because I think that part of the problem of why we all chafe at the edges of contemporaneity is because we assume that contemporaneity has a certain single direction and a certain single velocity. Whereas it may be possible for us to think of these inhabitations of shared moments of time leading to movements in very different directions and at different speeds. So much so that even within the body itself, within a single individual, exist different registers and different kinds of velocities. The velocity of waking up in the morning is different from the velocity of being exhausted after a day’s labour, and those are two different registers of contemporaneity that even occur within a single individual.

Now if that occurs within an individual then I suppose that if one generalises that to the art system, we are already faced with the fact that we are dealing with an ecology where various different kinds of practices produce their own rhythmical patterns, produce their own economies of attention. Such that some things demand a much longer, slower duration of attention, some things can be fleeting and ephemeral and that these ultimately face the same public which is asked to respond in various different ways to the shared moment of time. And part of the institutional crisis of the contemporary may be arising out of a willful selection of certain temporal patterns and a rejection of other temporal patterns. And perhaps a return to the contemporaneity of contemporaneity would be to suggest that the insurrection of capital that Jeebesh invoked, primarily erodes certain temporal registers.

I’ll close for now with one very brief remark of a news item that I read today, which is quite remarkable: The honourable minister of the interior of the union of India, Mr. P Chidambaram, made perhaps the most succinct comment on culture and cultural policy recently at a forum called the northeastern business support forum, where he talked about the fact that there is a product of building the modern state, which requires mines and mining and all those who resist mines and mining, lets say in the northeast of India, are instances of a counter culture. Then he goes on to say counter culture belongs in museums because counter culture is dead. So in a sense, he was saying two very interesting things. One he was saying that museums are repositories of dead culture, and second: that any movement to resist the certain velocity of let’s say a mining corporation’s take-over of an entire form of life is the instance of the modern state and therefore any voice that talks about it is counter culture. Its interesting that he implicates the fact that the project of the mining corporation backed modern state is actually culture. So now we know that the museums are in the state that they are in because the government clearly believes that this is dead culture and it doesn’t require anything. So this presumes a certain different valance of two different kinds of living with time, and which share the same moment so they therefore are contemporary with each other, one is culture, can belong to the mines and the other is counter culture and must belong to the museum.


Ravi Sundaram we've known and worked with now for twelve years. Ravi is primarily a theoretician of urbanism and media. His book Pirate Modernity is one of those rare instances where a very quirky media scholarship meets a very acute urbanist. So in a sense, now in an art context, Ravi may produce a little bit of provocative reading coming from a rereading of the media and the contemporary, and that may help us relook the highly intensive space of the art fair.

Ravi Sundaram:

What I’m going to do is open up the concept of the contemporary. Why are we discussing this? I think it’s a kind of pressure to name the present. We need a name for the present. And that is where most of these debates have historically emerged. In the 19th to early 20th century, it was the whole concept of modernity right to the Second World War was the idea of modernity. Since the 2nd World War and really post 1968, the whole debate on the contemporary has taken a new register. What I’m going to do is quickly go over some of the questions, because they are important questions. The debate of the contemporary has paralleled the shift in art. It takes a very interesting parallel all the way through the 19th century.

I want to start with something Adorno wrote in 1969, a year after the events of 1968. The year Adorno died. It is a very famous quote: ‘It is self-evident that there is nothing concerning art that is self-evident anymore. Not its inner life. Not its relationship to the world. Not even its right to exist. In short, nothing.’ Now, as the critic Hal Foster points out, this is an end that seems premature, because after this is really when you have the real take-off. After the Documenta, and the series of events that came. And actually it fitted so many of Adorno’s melancholic, really melancholic predictions of that time. However what I want to say is 30 years later Adorno’s intimation of a conceptual shift should be put in perspective. It’s been a long time since he wrote this. Many people criticised him in the 70s. Let’s get back to this.

Foster, himself once associated with Art in America, suggested today that there is nothing conceptual about contemporary art today, it has no privileged purchase on the present more than any other phenomenon. So what Foster is saying is that we are kind of living in a kind of perpetual aftermath. That is it’s a perpetual aftermath. And this aftermath includes the crisis of modernism, the decline of the historical avant-garde, the conceptual attack on the historical form of the museum. So the contemporary for him—and this captures a kind of melancholic take on the new shift—is really a kind of living-on. Time is that of just living-on, a present without history. And the main responses, because living on are trauma, spectrality. So Foster writes this, just before the boom, the big boom that Jeebesh has spoken about, the so called insurrection of capital in world capitalism. And for some years this is actually forgotten. Now, with the decisive global downturn and the crisis of Western capitalism, I think the modern of contemporaneity as living-on, may stage a comeback. But one other question for us, and it is an important question, is—Is living-on a conceptual reference for the new upstarts in world capitalism? What about us in Asia? Here we have a civic culture that was throttled and bureaucratised by the Indian and Chinese regimes. In place of melancholia and economic crisis we have the delirium of the Asian boom. The nervous excitement of the latecomer, these are kind of two force fields if you like.

So what of the contemporary? What is the report card of the idea of the contemporary after the western millennium? Which is clearly playing out, whose end is clearly playing out before it arrives. 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, the long phase is coming to an end. What does it mean to be contemporary after the great archive of modernity and the ideas of contemporary are slowly playing out? Now I want to quickly set up the 3 models of contemporaneity that come up in the 20th century, all of which I want to say make little sense today. The dominant model is a model that many artists are aware of in their art practice, which is the model of the untimely. This comes up first in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. So what Nietzsche says is, he postulates a kind of untimeliness, a kind of being out of joint with time, against what he calls the historical fever of modernity. So this fever is in accommodation with the present, and to be contemporary is to be out of joint with the present. And it is precisely this disconnection, anachronism, being out of time—you have to be out of time—and it is by being out of time and by being out of joint that you can actually perceive things that others cannot. So in short, those who are tied to the epoch, particularly to its historical fever, are not contemporaries. Precisely because they cannot manage this notion of being joined and yet not joined.

The second model of the contemporary has been proposed recently by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Agamben sets up this notion of the contemporary where really it’s not the present but it is an attitude towards the present. He says interestingly, those who can call themselves contemporary are those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century but who manage to get glimpse of the shadows of the century. So it’s a perception of darkness. It’s an attitude. It’s really not about the new. It’s not necessarily about being out of time, it’s a perception of darkness. So what Agamben does is take a very well known poem called Vek written by the poet Osip Mandelstam in the 1920s. So it is in Mandelstam’s absolutely brilliant dramatic poem where he says this century, this brutal century, is like a beast. He’s writing this around the Russian revolution, 1922 I think. It’s a long poem. Mandelstam says: This century is like a beast. It’s conjoined with the body of the artist and the poet and it immediately demands a response from the thinker and the artist.  And the century has a broken backbone. This is the shattered backbone which is the contemporary. Agamben takes this poem, and from here he proposes a model for the contemporary which is a notion of broken time. Broken time demands a specific response, which is our time, which is the present, is actually very distant. It cannot reach us, its backbone is broken, and we are – that is the thinker, the artist, the practitioner – at this point of the fracture of time. It’s really not about newness. To be contemporary is not to intimate the new, but a perception of this crisis. So it’s not a chronological time. You are urging. You are pressing. Untimeliness, and here he goes back to Nietzsche, is a perception of darkness. So what he is really doing is uniting three historical debates on the contemporary – after Agamben the debate on contemporary has been on hold. So he’s taking three elements, that of the untimely by Nietzsche, that of the Archaic which has been there through 20th century art, and his model of the inversion of darkness and light. It’s not a perception of light, its not an intimation of the new, it’s not about alterity as we always thought about. It’s an understanding of darkness. It is a model for the world where the archive, you can say the western millennium, the backbone has been shattered. It is a model of contemporary at the boundary of the end.

So what we need to do probably is to shift away from this. I think the idea of the contemporary needs a different debate from the melodrama of the western decline and the Asian arrival. If you take Asia, the great brutal legacy has been that of nationalism, where you have an independent cultural public which has been still-born for many decades after independence. So the state, this model, our model, sought to monopolise almost all institutions of cultural production, set up an elaborate patronage system, many of which continue to wreck our lives in many ways, even today. The worst legacy of this rhetoric of nationalism, expressed at all times by right and by left, has been a deep suspicion of the other and a brutal intolerance of all difference. And this continues even during the insurrection of capital—you have many times, you have insurrection of capital, you have events like this. This was our past, this is our present, and this will continue.

Here is the puzzle—and this is a real puzzle when you talk about the contemporary: The traditional Western references of cultural production do not exist in Asia; they have not existed and do not exist. And that is very useful and interesting. What you have are parallel potentialities in a vibrant cultural landscape. We don’t have the old theological references that Agamben talks about. We do not have the 19th century debates on modernity. What you have is a series of radical potentialities. Within this potentiality is the transformation of the old realm—and this is what I want to talk about in a little bit of detail—that used to be called the population, the so called mass of the people, who are enumerated, who are governed by the state. This realm has been radically transformed in the last decade by the transformation of what I call the media public. This population is a post-media population, which is no longer a mass to be governed, to be enumerated. So what you have is a radical expansion of the media infrastructure, along with the technological infrastructure which is the most substantial of our time, the majority of our population—this extremely unequal and poor population—has mobile phones; they have some access to technology. More people today in India access, circulate technological media than ever before. So in this post media present, the old zone of the people has mutated into archivists, archeologists, media producers, event instigators, producing event scenes, artists, destroyers of the old secrets of power. So if you have the old model of the media, you have the censorship regime, you have the import export system, controlling cultural production. You have representational formats, film studios, state radio, newspaper houses. So in this model the population simply receives media. There were institutions that managed culture and then there was a model of governance. I think this model has collapsed. So what you have is a large domain of the population that is a source of all kinds of new potentialities of technological culture. This is a productive, not a passive body, an archive of surprises, and deeply frustrating to power.

What you have is that the historical archive fever of modernity, which would be collectors, museums, has shifted to this large body that is the population itself. Here we are constant archivists and curators in our own lives. In 2000, Lev Manovich had suggested that digital culture was primarily cinematographic in appearance, and digitally and materially driven by software. Despite this, in South Asia if you see the cell phone, which is really an archival device, is in the number of hundreds of millions. If you look at the phone screen, it draws from running text display, photography, game design, video. The object itself carries links with the analog transmitter. But it is much more; it has become a transmitter and a media production device. Millions of people have become amateur photographers, videographers, and artists for the first time. So what you have is a vast archive of images, text, sounds etc produced by subordinate populations who had never had an entry into this world. What this means at a more theoretical level is that the political itself has been fundamentally transformed in the last decade, the so called insurrection of capital. If you take Tahrir Square, the Syrian protest, the radical movement intimated by the Occupy movement worldwide, I think the terms of the contemporary can no longer be in the old terms that started from the 19th century, the post 1968 debate on the contemporary, which is really the playing out of the Western century. We are moving well beyond the time after. The old artist-archivist, ethnographer, archeologist is now beyond reference to any particular body of work, or moment, or medium or movement. Rosalind Krauss in A Post Medium Condition infers precisely to the criticism of new installation art. We are well beyond those debates. For us this is also a way of stepping away from the dividing line between modernism and contemporary art to posit a standpoint that is indifferent to a before and after. There is no before and after. The untimely is not simply a posture or a being out of joint with history, or a created disjunction. We have to put to work a relationship between different times. It’s a work of creative intervention. So what for Foster was the time after modernity has become the now time, not a melancholic paralyzing present without the guarantees of histories, but I think a productive and fearful one, but ours to engage with.


Thank you Ravi, for a very interesting provocation about the untimely. We have been working for some time on this word atithi. We did some philological tracing of atithi with Sibaji, who I also mentioned earlier. One of the hunches we made is that it is ‘untimely’, atithi the word gestures to ‘off’, in the sense of off-date. So someone who comes uninvited is also untimely. The untimely, then, may be very close to you in daily life; it may not be a category that one has to discover by reading Nietzsche and Agamben, but simply by being attentive to words that surround us. The fear of atithi is the fear of the stranger is the fear of the urban life itself. So untimely may be something that is continuously there and continuously feared. And if you have to do away with the breakdown of the after and before, then maybe some interesting possibility opens up.

Ravi's reading of Agamben’s Darkness reminded me of Third Man by Carol Reed. There is this brilliant dialogue when he is under the rains in Vienna and he is asked—he is an evil person, he is a man of darkness—and he is asked what is his motivation, and he laughs and says, ‘Look at Italy: they had bloodshed, violence, turbulence and what did they produce? Michelangelo. And look at Switzerland: they had peace for 500 years, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.’ So maybe in our re-reading of Darkness and doing away with after and before time, we may come to a very interesting re-reading of the contemporary itself. I’ll just take one small response from Daniela on the act and difficulty of framing in the present volume and expansion of artistic production, and then take all your questions.


I want to comment on the untimely, which has inspired a lot of people. Especially in the context of art. Isn’t the difficulty of defining the contemporary, the moment of the present, the untimeliness of art itself? Its effect, which is way beyond its own moment and time of creation? We can go around the Art Fair looking at a number of works that deal with modernity, trying to understand or grasp, or put in frame or establish a relationship of timeliness between what in some ways can be considered a closed episode. You see that all the time. When does Nietzsche’s timeliness arrive? Or has it already arrived? And so on. I really like this essay by Jalal Toufic. Jalal speaks of untimely collaborations because so many artists are so much ahead of their time that other artists had to pick them up, piggy-back them to make them be heard in the present.

Another cursory remark is about the isolationary moment of the contemporary. In German the word for the contemporary is Zeitgenössische. But the Zeit in Zeitgenossenschaft is the community of the contemporary. That kind of community, camaraderie, of being in a time along with other cultural and non-cultural producers is something we should try to explore much further. Possibly the time has come where that will be much more possible as we see it today, as certain mental borders and frames are breaking down, finally. Geographies are opening up, the map of the world is changing and these communities can rearrange themselves along different time zones and geographic constellations. That is something we should look forward to.


To get back to this question of the discomfort with the contemporary, because the framing of the question ‘has the time of the contemporary come and gone?’ seems to indicate a certain anxiety about the presence of the contemporary in the world of artistic production. We know that in the past few spectacular exhibitions, we have witnessed this discomfort in a restoration of certainties. The last Venice Biennale and several other exhibitions have actually tried to attempt to restore the certainties that contemporality distracted us from. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that the production of value, and the production of an aura around legitimising subjects of artistic production, can be very nicely segued into a privileging of timelessness, that which is beyond an outside time. So timeless aesthetic values on the one hand, or an enslavement to timeliness, to topicality and relevance, on the other. Whereas the untimely seems to be some third order which continues to surprise us by its refusal, on the one hand, to be only topical, and on the other, to take for itself the position of being beyond time and space. In that sense the untimely is the stranger, the atithi or the sudden guest in our times and is the one that produces that disturbance and that sense of the untimely. So I think that the discomfort that the world that the artistic system sometimes feels with contemporary art is something like the discomfort that hosts sometimes feel with untimely guests. But untimely guests never go away, they keep returning. In that sense I don’t think that the discomfort will allow itself to woo over the untimely guest.


We have 15 minutes for questions.


By placing and producing, as spectacle or work that is a product of the time that he is witnessing, is this untimely guest that power which can catalyze change? What I am asking is, that by producing a work, does he have the ability to disturb the present in a way that can wake the public up? In a day with all the media and ways of communicating, people are out of touch with society, and there needs to be a certain element of grotesque in contemporary art to wake people up to realise the conditions that they have been put in.


Often the subjectivity that is associated with public—alineation, sleepiness, exhaustion—actually takes away from the idea of the public. Through a certain inversion, Ravi, you produce a different idea of a very wakeful public, maybe more wakeful the artistic practice would sometimes acknowledge. I would be curious about your response.


The way that I would look at the untimely is... firstly what I’m arguing is, you have a debate on the untimely that begins in the 19th century, that goes through the 20th century, and resurfaces periodically. It is reflected in this whole debate on modernity and newness of the 19th century right up to newly independent nations etc. What I think today what's most interesting is we have a situation… where we need to reflect. What does it mean to be untimely? Conceptually you have to think more about the untimely: untimely to what? If not to history—that is not very interesting anymore. I think there we are actually on the border of something else. This is a time that has no name. And that is the most exciting thing about it. It is terrifying and exciting at the same time. Which means: we may well be entering an era that the entire archive, not just of modernity, modernism, the avant-garde… We don’t know where we’re going to go 10 years later. If you see the Agamben essay, it is like the last essay, we can’t say anything more anymore. And that I think is the most interesting basis for thinking about the present. It’s not about newness anymore. I think there the intervention becomes very, very interesting. The notion of politics becomes very, very interesting. Because in the past politics needed to have a name. It needed to be referenced in terms of an archive of names. [gap] I think all these interventions will spring forth in a range of potentialities. We can call it the untimely, I’m okay with that. I think the terms of the untimely have to be opened up, and this opening up will carry on into the next decade and it’s a very good time to open it up.

I think capital will frame this historically, will always try to frame the contemporary as it does with politics. But I think today capital is weaker than it ever was before. What does criticality mean today? Can we open up the terms? These are all open questions. These are terms for art, these are terms of politics too. What does it mean to do politics today?


I think what is very interesting is the language of the act. That is a suggestion of the untimely. Protests and petitions are always timely. They beseech that which already exists to be something else. Whereas the act is not interested in protest or petition, it acts. There was an interesting situation at the recent Jaipur Literary festival: There was no protest and no petition; there was an act. And the untimeliness of the act is was what disturbed the scene.

Floor | Alistair Hicks:

Ravi, I’m fascinated by your language about your new concept of time because to me it sounds very theological.

Floor | Geeta Kapur:

I got the exact opposite from the proposal just made by the questioner. Ravi, I followed the trajectory of your argument with a kind of necessarily produced anxiety. And that is one of the intentions, that you go through your argument producing a certain anxiety about all categories that we’ve worked with—certainly history and most certainly progress, certainly nationalism and most certainly the state. So it produces a state of the untimely, obviously creating a state of uncertainty. I’m surprised at the end of it—I made a note, a kind of conclusive note on what you’d said—it seemed to be, unfortunately to the argument, simply a polemical point. That you actually pose or position Agamben’s notion of broken time brought forth so beautifully by Mandelstam’s poem... that melancholy is in some ways the melancholy of history itself, and what you do in relationship to it is a strict polemical refusal or refuting. What you do is speak of subaltern agency, you speak of a wakeful public, you speak of crowds and mobility, and you could just as well have spoken of the multitudes. And then therefore created a state of anarchy and that is not as interesting...


Thank you Geeta. I think what Agamben is trying to do, what is interesting about the essay, is that he is trying to assemble three elements. So the intervention is not chronological. There is no relationship with history. It is within the context of his argument that he says explicitly that this is not a chronological intervention and the whole idea of taking Mandelstam was to link the two centuries not chronologically but in terms of a kind of traumatic suture between the artist, the thinker, and this epoch, if you like. So it is not chronological. It is an urgency through which you are able to perceive not just darkness but elements of light that may emerge. It is linked, I think, to Benjamin’s last thesis. He doesn’t say it but Agamben reads Benjamin a lot, so that’s my sense.

Now it wasn’t polemical at all. My own sense of it is that the debate on the contemporary in the West has run its course. Where else do you go from here? What else do you flag? Nietzsche was critical of history. This whole debate on newness.  Agamben goes all the way to the end. Beyond this I don’t see the debate getting any more interesting. What is interesting for me is today for the first time in the last 10-15 years, with the deep capitalist crisis worldwide,  the so called rise of Asia you actually have the time for a new debate on what we are, what is politics. It is happening all over the world. I think the now-time is not really a time afterwards. What happens after modernism? I think we really need to think through the concepts and open up new concepts. And it is far more interesting than ever before because after Agamben I don’t see the debate going anywhere.

And [in response to Alistair] I absolutely didn't intend to be theological. Absolutely not. I think it is a series of radical potentialities that I see in the present. And these potentialities could be dark. I think the way Hardt-Negri put it, I wouldn’t go that way. But there are really dark radical potentialities in the present; we can’t get away from that. They are terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. And we need to find categories that can help us intervene conceptually, artistically, philosophically, and I think we are in that time. Gramsci once talked about that intermediate time that the past is not getting over the new, etc. I won’t use that phrase. That is theological: Eternal transition, after-time. I think we need to be on another plane today.

Floor | Parul Dave Mukherji:

I have a question about your naming of the session in terms of 'Has the moment of the contemporary come and gone'. In your own practice you try to dismantle the notion of that kind of temporality. But the way in which this phrase has been put together, it seems to still retain a certain notion of temporality. So I was wondering if it was meant to be a provocative phrasing, or is it something with you want to set us thinking?


When you had invited us to do this panel, we thought it may be worthwhile to bring into focus the question of the contemprary, as it is something that is completely unreflected and pushed aside. So we thought that maybe the contemporary has gone! So in a sense this phrase was just to examine the life of a concept, or to make an umbrella for a larger discussion, that is all.

Floor | Maya Kovskaya:

I’d like us to try to take these very abstract thoughts and try to ground them in a specific artwork, or a few specific lines from a specific artwork. And I’d like to read 2-3 lines from the Capital of Accumulation and ask a question about untimely guests in that context. So in this piece, there is a line that says, ‘We have looked too long to find the face of capital. We thought we could turn the mirror to Medusa’s head, but the mirror became a mask’. Further down in the piece, the question is, 'How do you stop being imprisoned by the mirror? So how do we stop analysis from turning into fatalism and then fatally wounding us?' And I think your elliptical and brilliant answer is, ‘You can allow yourself to be surprised at what the world might become.’ So I’d like to ask, is this surprise at what the world might become one of these untimely visitors, and is there a way in which art can help prepare us to welcome that surprise and untimely visitor?

Floor | Sabih Ahmad:

Now is talked about as a very interesting moment in time, with a lot of initiatives being taken that are not top down. People are coming together to do all kinds of things. And there is a sense of urgency about it, and a sense of urgency about addressing it as we speak right now. That sense of urgency has some kind of a relationship to time which might also be thought of as punctual, which I’ve heard of other people speak about, including Geeta on other occasions. A relationship with history in which something has to be done punctually, and something that has to be done with a sense of urgency because it has to be done now; if not, then when. I wonder how you would like to think about that.


How does someone who is an orphan do history? The question on the stabilisation of subjects through nationalism, through civilisational discourse, never took the orphan seriously, and maybe at this point of time if the orphan were to be taken seriously, one may arrive at a very different question about historical excavation. History becomes a very joyful act rather than an act that will determine me. This is just a polemical answer to your question, and we can talk about it later.

Floor | Rajesh Thind:

Slavoj Zizek says he has a picture of Stalin as soon as you enter his house. He gave a speech recently at the Occupy protests in New York. He started by saying that in China in the spring this year, where they’ve been looking at the Arab Spring and they’ve been cracking down a lot, they banned science fiction. The point he made was that at least in China they still have to do that. They still have to ban.

In the West we’re at the end of after but we can’t even begin to think about after the end of after. And I kind of wonder from that perspective whether you guys think there might be some schism opening up in the experience of the rise of Asia, or whatever you want to call it, and the experience of the decline of the West. I was wondering if there is some schism that you see emerging in a much more radical way, at the cultural and artistic level over the next coming decades.


In the last panel with Roselee Goldberg, Maya said to her, your book is read in China. It’s translated. Its very important and Roselee said I’ve never seen it. Its pirated. So in a sense, there is a life of books and science fiction in China in a way that exceeds the ways in which we produce the idea of censorship and ban. In that sense, the idea of the public and the state in confrontation, where the confrontation is visible and legible, is a kind of old Hegelism and liberalism of Europe. It doesn’t work. We don’t actually live through that stuff.

I was just talking to Johnson and he said that MOCA in Shanghai has been made a limited company so that nobody else can use the word. At least the state can’t use it. So there are many forms in which these things are produced which are not understood in those terms which Slavoj Zizek would like the world to be legible in. There is an afterlife of things, which is not legible. Shuddha, would you like to respond to Maya?


I’m responding both to Maya and Sabih because I think they’re questions are linked. How does one prepare for the untimely visitor and what does it mean to be punctual? I think it is important to be punctual but the question is punctual to what? We are fortunate that we live in a language universe where, as pointed out by the author who’s book is banned under section 11 [Salman Rushdie] of the Customs Act in India, that in Hindustani, Urdu, Bengali, the word for yesterday and tomorrow are the same, ‘kal’. So your orientation towards time is not necessarily a fixed point in some kind of utilitarian plane. You have more than one surface to consider when you have to think of which is the appointment that you’re keeping and with whom. And secondly—and I have no worries with invoking theological references, I enjoy them greatly—one of the greatest preparations of the untimely visitor comes from the Talmudic literature where there is always the idea that the messiah is always around here anyway. It’s just that no one is prepared to receive him. So he is the quintessential untimely guest, the one who will come and who will produce salvation by his presence, it’s just that no one is as yet prepared to receive him. For many people within that tradition, the work of making the world right is to create the conditions for preparation of the untimely guest. So the work of art then is actually just the preparation for receiving the untimely guest.

Image: "Has the Moment of the Contemporary Come and Gone?" discussion at Speakers' Forum at India Art Fair 2012 in Delhi.


Ravi Sundaram is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi and is co-founder of the Sarai program at the Centre. Sundaram’s work rests at the intersection of the postcolonial city and contemporary media experiences. As media technology and urban life have intermingled in the postcolonial world, new challenges have emerged for contemporary cultural theory. Sundaram’s work has looked at the phenomenon that he calls ‘pirate modernity’, an illicit form of urbanism that draws from media and technological infrastructures of the postcolonial city.

Daniela Zyman is Chief Curator of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna where she joined in 2003. Between 1995 and 2001, she acted as chief curator at the MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art in Vienna and was a founding member of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in Los Angeles. Between 2000 and 2003, she was artistic director of Künstlerhaus, Wien and A9-forum transeuropa.

Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) have been described as artists, media practitioners, curators, researchers and editors.

This discussion took place at Speakers' Forum at India Art Fair 2012 in Delhi.


Sun, 1 Apr 2012
Cite as
Has the Moment of the Contemporary Come and Gone?, Sun, 1 Apr 2012

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