Thinking about ‘Contemporary’ : a hesitant exploration

As with so many useful terms, there is no simple single understanding of ‘contemporary’. It is still being explored and in some ways may never be fully settled on. At the same time, there are some clear lines of sight that help people see a way through.

Contemporary, by its roots, is about time and belonging together. That apparent clarity is immediately one source of difficulty. Its common-sense understanding has contemporary relating to particular things coexisting within this current time period (Contemporary = of the present) but (a) there is a different sense in which anything in the past was contemporary with other things in that same past period. (Everything is contemporary in its own time – so there is nothing especially contemporary about today); and (b) not everything that exists together in the here and now might be judged to be contemporary in its values.

Maybe one answer is to declare that the currently contemporary relates to the now of today and simply ‘is’, as something that cannot be generalised beyond its very fragmented existence. This sees the contemporary as being a highly diverse set of outlooks (more so than things have been in the past with diversity in cultural production, exchange, consumption, materials, meanings. and with little expectation of being able to neatly draw boundaries to contain it. That, in turn, leads back to contemporary being able to encompass everything and anything, so long as it is thought of as contemporary.

This contemporary-as-diversity arises from an understanding that we currently live in a very different kind of world, and that any socially-constructed activity will reflect things that are shaped by a unique set of stronger, broader, different forces. This brings some paradoxes and puzzles: The world (physically and socially) is more connected than ever before but, at the same time, feels more fragmented. There are widespread, almost universal, influences but these play out differently everywhere: Think global; Think local.

This was also true, in its own way, of past eras of expanding trade and industrialisation. There is something particularly new and different in the nature of those same influences, making the contemporary what it is today. What is so specific about the shaping forces of now? What is it within anything contemporary that clearly marks it out as such: as being characteristic of twenty-first century existence rather than of any previous age?

We inhabit a current world that is socially created through variegated influences. Since the 1970s the ones that have been salient have formed an overlapping and interconnecting mix of:

  • an increasing economic/financial globalisation
  • a flattening and homogenisation of cultures
  • the ending of large-scale political colonialism
  • the almost instantaneous exchange of ideas via networked new technologies and global media
  • an emphasis on individual/civil rights and personal/communal identities
  • the collapse of larger-scale power blocs and grand-scale narratives
  • a recognition of finite resources and the end of growth
  • a focus on the importance of experiences
  • a growth in self-awareness and self-consciousness
  • a questioning of growing inequalities
  • the intermingling and confrontation of beliefs and cultures
  • an increasingly plural role for imagery and story-formation
  • an intense awareness of differences
  • the large-scale movements of people

Not all of these are unique to the past forty years. What is unique is the range and acceleration in the scale and pace of these changes – all driving things, but in non-determined ways. These changes are evident, and often partially-welcomed, but develop at such a rate as to be almost alarming.

This uncertainty of change, coupled with an uncertainty about what really matters, creates views of the contemporary as being tentative, hesitant, ambiguous, transient, and difficult to comprehend.

The positive side of this uncertainty is that anything contemporary can be viewed as more open; more transparent; able to be designed in different ways; potentially engaging of a wider range of people; able to challenge categorisations and to cross boundaries; and able to open up new relationships.

The notion of contemporaneity is bound up with notions of time. It is only to be expected that contemporary thinkers, artists and writers explore questions that examine the nature of time. There is a sense in which any thinking or creativity is built on the past – continuing past themes in contemporary ways, or critiquing outmoded approaches, researching histories and borrowing past techniques, or imagining potential ways forward in time. None of this is unique to the contemporary, but time is strongly a key component of it and it has its own (contemporary) ways of thinking about the past, the present and the future.

There is also a vagueness about when contemporaneity began, if it can be regarded as a timeslot at all. Taking contemporary art as one example: Does the ‘contemporary’ label refer to activities within the last few years? Or stretching over the previous ten or twenty years (since the start of the Millennium)? Or since the end of some other labelled period eg since the 1970s/80s? Different timescales may be put on it by different commentators eg purchasers of art may look on a short, recent timescale, whereas art historians may want to take the longer view, back to the 1960s or so. Is ‘contemporary’ an adjective for the art produced and distributed today; or art about the events of today; or art shaped within today’s driving concerns? There seem, at this stage, to be more questions than answers – but maybe that is simply the nature of the contemporary.

A further consideration is the role of place within the contemporary. Part of the drivers of contemporaneity include the recognition, in the early twenty-first century, of a multiplicity of centres for the contemporary – China, Africa, Middle East, Brazil, India – more than the traditional centres of Europe and Northern America. With the ease of global transport and the relocations of superdiverse sets of people, place matters less – but with the increased focus on the specificity of small-area outcomes, place is seen as a key determinant in thinking about people’s lives.

The contemporary becomes so partly because of the ways it approaches, and questions, ideas of time and place within broader flows of change. This enables the emergence of a diverse and exciting range of activities, which work their way as part of the overall system.

Once contemporary practices become established they increasingly feature as the focus of study. Fresh-faced newcomers might be expected to question: but the answer has always to be Contemporary. Established patterns are to be followed; established thoughts to be repeated and adopted. (Maybe this article is itself part of that flow?) Things start to appear somewhat historical: Something that has gone by and can be reflected on using traditional tools and approaches. If there is to be a contemporary study of the contemporary then this would surely demand some contemporary methodology. I am far from sure what this implies – but may be a bit clearer by the end of this short exploration.

Despite any contradictions and confusions, the contemporary appears to be alive and flourishing. There are courses, events, articles, TV programmes, and books on contemporary design, contemporary craft, contemporary baking, contemporary theatre, contemporary ceramics, contemporary dance, contemporary art, contemporary architecture, contemporary printmaking, contemporary philosophy, contemporary literature, contemporary music, contemporary history (unless that is rejected as an oxymoron), and much more.. People have written about the contemporary complaint and the dilemma of the contemporary. There are Institutes, Societies and Departments all focused on the contemporary. The commonality is that these are put forward in opposition to any notion of ‘the traditional’. Contemporary is in danger of being sprayed onto things in the way that Community was in the 1960s/70s: weighted with meaning but applied meaninglessly.

The more there are contemporary art galleries, or courses on contemporary poetry, or articles on the contemporary novel, or books on contemporary leadership, the more the defining boundaries get settled upon. The contemporary starts to become a fixed categorisation (rather than some fluid and flexible framework). The more things get generalised as contemporary by collectors, galleries, editors, critics, and academics the more there are implications to be struggled with: What are the parameters that come with it? What limits are being self-imposed? Or can all that simply be ignored, and ‘contemporary’ happily be taken as an attractive marketing label?

It may be that progressive practitioners (another slippery notion, I know) – artists, curators, writers, thinkers – show a reluctance to identify with the term contemporary, judging themselves to always being beyond-contemporary, post-contemporary (as if one can step outside the shaping influences of one’s time) – a reconstituted avant-garde?

A multi-channel, multi-time, multi-centred complex and contested world brings more demands for understanding, for meaning. If there are few, or no, fixed intrinsic meanings then the contemporary way of making sense of itself and its world is to construct meanings, to layer meaning into things, to create narratives and tell stories. Much of contemporary activity can be taken as the search for meaning, the productions of meanings, the re-establishment of forgotten meanings, and so on, within differing sets of relational configurations, and – if there is a finite supply of things – reusing forms and meanings from the stock in hand. Appropriation thus becomes an important aspect of contemporary culture, with originals being copied, transformed, and repurposed. With all of this comes an acknowledgement of the authenticity of proliferated versions of reality. The jostling of fragments and spaces allows for multiple, shifting interpretations within an increased awareness of the inappropriateness of grand narratives. This is more than a simple acceptance of multiplicity – as in multiculturalism. Things have gone beyond any -isms.

Searching for meaning and understanding takes us away from asking whether any particular fragment is good, or valuable, or pleasing, or useful and forces other questions: Is it interesting? Is it engaging? Is it challenging? This steps into the area where contemporary can be equated with difficult, obscure, and meaningless in itself: relying on the participant to bring their own meanings along with them and repeatedly wrestle with the ideas of a contemporary existence.

The contemporary can be seen as nothing more than a kaleidoscopic framework, with new elements being added and other fragments falling out of use, giving it all a dynamic feeling. Within the shiftings and shufflings, fragments of meaning can be strung together in interconnected chains of meaning – allowing different people, at different times, in different places to see things from varying perspectives; or allowing contemporaries, with differently constructed understandings, to come together in dialogues based on partially-shared misunderstandings.

A response to this complexity can be an urge for modesty, cautiousness, small changes, flexibilities, hesitancies; or it can be a felt as liberation in which freedoms can be explored and expanded- or it can propel a reactionary falling back on a desire for fundamentals and stronger senses of tradition and identity.

As long as the contemporary can maintain some sense of openness, co-construction of meaning, negotiation of understanding, engaging the audience, then it has a justifiable claim of inclusiveness, of being anything to anyone – and yet contemporary so often acts as a pejorative adjective: an accusation of elitism, rarefication, meaninglessness and impenetrability. Certainly, the contemporary has had its share of accusations of being all manner of things: equivocal, timid, self-serving, idiosyncratic, obscure, boring, painfully self-questioning.

The ambiguous nature of contemporary practice can, however, be part of its attractiveness. It may be that practices which emblazon themselves as contemporary come with a high degree of self-awareness because of needing to address the above concerns. It may be that some people in tune with their contemporariness can see the opportunity and seize the day. Or it may be that some practitioners of the contemporary simply do not care about these things to the degree that others might, because fundamental agreements on ideas are to be evaded. The only requirement of anyone acting contemporarily is the need for time and space to demonstrate those actions, along with an adoption of the notion of contemporaneity.

If ‘contemporary’ is simply a notion, then maybe the answer can be found in the ponderings of philosophers; the interpreters of the world. One leading light could be the work of Giorgio Agamban when, in 2009, he asked ‘Of whom and of what are we contemporaries? What does it mean to be contemporary?’

Agamben interprets contemporary as an experience of profound dissonance: ‘a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it.’ He perceives a disjunction, an anachronism, a being out of time. To be contemporary is to feel this. It is an existential condition. It is not a period of history. It is ahistorical. It is an ability – the ability to hold one’s own time in a gaze able to see the darkness of the time and not be distracted by its light. This is not meant as negatively only seeing the unjust, unpleasant part of society but is more about seeing society in ways that most others are unable to.

For anyone who is contemporary, who experience contemporariness, their own present is obscure but they have the means to see that obscurity (to perceive that darkness). This requires a certain type of person, a certain set of qualities and abilities – one who does not perfectly coincide with their own time, able to be constantly concerned and fascinated by the obscurities of the age, able to see the potentials that escape others, able to access the present through some kind of archaeology (stripping away layers?).

It puts the contemporary into every age but only as something able to be recognised by someone out of phase, out of synch with their own time. Does this take ‘contemporary’ close to an illness, a symptom, a defect from the perspective of mainstream society? Or does it put the contemporary as aligned with an alienation, an outsiderness? Or does it mean that the contemporary is the enhanced condition of the few most creative activists of the time?

Certainly it moves well beyond contemporariness (or contemporaneity, or contemporaneousness, or any substitute term) as being a fashion, a fad, a style, a label, something easily slipped into. It leads to there being little chance of anything really being Contemporary.

As an alternative piece of philosophy we have Alain Badiou, with his approach in which culture produces its own kind of truth, different from the truths produced in science or in politics or economics. Contemporary culture will then produce contemporary truths. Or we could dip into the work of Nicolas Bourriaud and his ideas of relational art as an attempt to consider contemporary art practices as activities being shaped from the unique social, relational contexts of today rather than as independent, detached, private undertakings. People come into relations with the contemporary as shared activity, as community encounters in which meaning is collectively generated. Or we could take a brief diversion into the work of Peter Osborne as he writes on the philosophy of contemporary art; or dive deeply into the thoughts of a number of others. But I think we have maybe already had enough philosophy. When we choose to delve into contemporary philosophies of the contemporary we soon find that it is not easy stuff, and that I may well have got it all wrong.

At the more non-philosophical level, there is a prosaic view that ‘contemporary’ is a historical category, still ongoing and still being developed, encompassing the culture of today that does not simply replicate the culture of former times. Beyond that it does not describe any one approach, one set of materials, one form of presentation – it simply is, posing questions, inviting engagement, standing in the particularity of its own existence.

An even more practical way of approaching the nature of the contemporary is to take part in a range of focused, close observations of activities that describe themselves as contemporary. This is partially done in the previous article Mastering contemporary art: If these were the answers, what were the questions? This highlighted the way that ideas of acceptable contemporary activity can be shaped by academic expectations.

This broad exploration has skated over a variety of aspects of the contemporary, within which some strands recur. The contemporary, as applied to ways of thinking and acting that are specific to recent years (say mid-1970s to now), is shaped by a shifting framework of semi-determining influences. This leaves us, today, struggling as observers and experiencers of the intensity and flow of these influences – unable to be free of them; trying to work out our place within them. We are entangled in tensions, attachments and relationships. We are not, however, pinned down. We are open to find ways of taking bearings, making sense of it all through a mix of the sensual and the intellectual, the philosophical and the practical. We are free to find the tools with which to confront and deal with the world: trusting that our senses, our logic, our memories and our emotions are up to the job.

It is time to start to draw out some endings.

We have already noted the diverse, fragmentary, repetitive, adaptive nature of the contemporary. We have also noted that it is not a fixed, settled thing; and that it demands interpretation, engagement, meaning making. It mashes together broad homogenising social forces and plays these out differentially in particular contexts.

It is concerned with the relationship of one thing to another, in open and transformative ways, so that there is a sense of being on some uncertain kind of exploration. It takes multiple views on time and place, noting what is there and what is missing. It is concerned with experiences, traces of incidents, hopes, sequences and histories. It acknowledges an unreliability of images and memories – that things can be real or simulated, that there are patterns and ambiguities, that things can be fixed or moving.

It repeatedly revisits topics such as technology and innovation; sustainability and threat; flows of goods and services; authenticity and representation; self and identity; realities and fictions; design and failure; placemaking and the nature of spaces; celebrity and popular culture; surveillance and freedoms; public and private; body and environment.

The contemporary is woven into everyday life, blurring boundaries between representation and reality – and stands apart from it all, as a form of gazing and probing. It is everything and something specific. At the end of the day we might simply conclude where we started: that contemporary just ‘is’ – as something and nothing – and accept that as good enough for now.

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