The Throng — a heaving multitude without leader or directive — seems a fittingly nebulous model of collectivity at a time when the structures that once fortified ‘community’ have been swept aside by the deterritorialising processes of globalisation. Under this rubric, this issue of un Magazine examines how our connections with one another are evolving and what new narratives might be forged in relation to communal life. More specifically, it considers the role that art can play in representing and shaping these emergent social configurations. A number of contributions here reflect on contemporary forms of belonging within the dense mesh of global connections. Michelle James’ exchange with Clara Lobregat Balaguer and Kristian Henson from The Office of Culture and Design, a platform for social art practice and cultural research in the Philippines, focuses on the experience of the Filipino diaspora and the intermingling of different cultural traditions within the Philippines itself. Phuong Ngo’s photographic works explore the complex cultural history that precipitated the Vietnam War and the experience of the Vietnamese diaspora that resulted from it. Elise Routledge’s discussion of Emile Zile’s play with the corporeal dimensions of digital media and mass communication technologies examines how the artist elucidates the media’s capacity to facilitate both utterly banal and unexpectedly sublime encounters with ourselves and others across distance. Meanwhile, Nick Modrzewski’s absurdist account of a discussion with Félix Guattari’s ghost in a lawyer’s office as he contemplates converting to Islam undercuts the very notion of a coherent personal or collective identity.
Not content with simply ruminating on the changing nature of communal life, many contemporary practitioners work to produce alternate forms of collectivity and social connection. The social turn in recent art can be seen, in part, as a response to the dislocating effects of globalisation. Intersubjective encounters are both the means and objective of such works, where meaning is elaborated collectively rather than consumed privately. The relational practices addressed in this issue encompass a diverse range of subjects and strategies, but all produce a pointed tension between accord and antagonism. Laura Castagnini’s conversation with Rose Gibbs about recent projects by Alex Martinis Roe and Sharon Hayes — each of which performs a re-staging of collective practices developed in the 1960s and 1970s — explores the possibility of establishing powerful feminist movements through the accumulation of distinct personal narratives. Tiarney Miekus considers how the sonically-oriented event Polyphonic Social: Maydaymaydaymayday co-ops the musical concept of polyphony in its efforts to produce forms of intersubjectivity in which individuality and collectivity are equally weighted. While Ross Coulter’s series of staged photographs of audiences in various galleries across Melbourne captures a pull between individual and group identities, as the images seem to oscillate between studies in isolation and celebrations of shared experience. In the context of recent funding cuts to the Australia Council, the subsequent stripping of financial support to a multitude of small-to-medium sized arts organisations around the country, and the robust protest staged by the Australian arts sector in response, the series testifies to art’s role as a progenerator of vibrant and diverse communities. Likewise, Luke Letourneau’s discussion of Day for Night: 24 HRS argues that the event does not simply showcase elements of contemporary queer scenes but plays a vital role in their ‘(re)production’. Anusha Kenny’s interview with Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan provides a counter to many of the other ‘pro-social’ discussions, as the artists question the political virtues of sociability and instead champion antagonism and conflict as powerful artistic and political strategies.
It is wise to be suspicious of the rise of the social in contemporary art at a time when political and economic spheres are increasingly absconding from civic responsibility. A number of works discussed or presented here instead seek to directly engage with social or political issues — flouting distinctions between art and activism. Zanny Begg and Nathan Gray provide paralleling calls for action in response to Australia’s harsh boarder protection policies and the political climate that sustains them. Pedro de Almeida’s discussion of SquatSpace’s the Redfern–Waterloo: Tour of Beauty, run as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, examines social equity issues resulting from the gentrification of Redfern and surrounding neighbourhoods in Sydney. Sumugan Sivanesan considers the tactical use of media and aesthetics by the climate justice movement Ende Gelände. Tristen Harwood offers a penetrating account of Ua numi le fau, an exhibition which brings together artists who draw on First Nations and diasporic cultural traditions to destabilise dominant settler-colonial narratives and epistemologies. While Sam Wallman’s graphic artworks tackle the corrosive social effects of the decline of trade unionism in Australia. Whether reflecting on emergent social configurations, working to foster alternate forms of collectivity or advocating for social change, the array of works presented here evidence a steadfast commitment to probing and shaping the contours of our communal life.