on the human value of globalization
by Peter Ferko, May 2007
Globalization is hailed as a key progressive element of the 2000’s and a great boon to the nations of the globe. The nature of the benefit is typically described in economic terms. I propose that this description is inadequate; that the true value of globalization is in interchange between members of various cultures. This kind of interchange has been occuring in the arts for centuries, and has been a thrust of numerous organizations in the past decades.
This essay elaborates on this concept, and describes a means of bringing to light the non-economic value of such interactions. Like most manifestos, it speaks the language of idealism. It borrows other vocabulary from the world of business. It postulates a non-economic “trans-action” — an exchange of value between members of different nations in the “global” world.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nations of the former Soviet Union have been engaged in an evolution of economic systems from Soviet-style communism to capitalism. At the same time, Western European countries have moved more and more under the influence of the multi-national corporate mindset. Latin American nations have been in a continuous cycle of favor/out of favor with the U.S. as the U.S. values not the culture and people but the economic benefit of these nations as trade or strategic partners. China has ended its isolation through snowballing trade. As this evolution progresses, the economic model of capitalism more and more strongly posits one version of value: economic value as determined by the marketplace.
This model, while virtually undisputed in the United States, is of dubious rational evidence. For instance, does our civilization really consider school teachers of less importance than fashion models, or Presidents of less importance than basketball players — as the compensation provided by the marketplace does? Is the top-priority reason for interacting with members of another culture selling a carbonated beverage, sneakers, or blue jeans?
This project considers the alternative: that there is another reason for interaction; another value to globalization beyond that of product sales and the homogenization that globalization is currently tending toward. The challenge considered by the project is that there is no structure for setting the value of such an interaction, nor is there likely to be one given the dominant mindset among nations. Nonetheless, using the arts as an arena to explore an alternative, there is significant evidence that the interaction among members of different countries carries other, non-economic, value. Cultural tourism provides a well-established example of valuing interaction (beyond simple curiosity). The internet provides numerous examples specific to the arts. Blogs receive uncompensated comments from international readers, and online projects attract international participants. Web sites like YouTube receive participation without regard to location or compensation. In the non-virtual world, residencies attract artists who establish lifelong connections with artists, dealers, and collectors internationally.
Sadly, while one of the most exciting aspects of an international artistic exchange is the interaction between the artists about art per se, the only measurable outcome of the exchanges to date is economic, i.e. is the visitor offered an exhibition by a dealer, does work sell, are there grants available to allow further travel, etc.
Unlike the former Soviet nations, where cultural policy was decided by the government and art received some due as having a value to society, in the new economy, art must fend for itself in the same marketplace as everything else, where transactions are based on market value. I pose the following question: What would a different kind of transaction look like? What would be a trans-action — or action across borders — between artists?
Who Cares? So What?
The answer to the question, “So What?” or perhaps more precisely, “Who would care about what I call a TransAction?” can only be answered hypothetically — but it is my hope that this project will serve as a model for consideration, and even implementation, among other art theorists and practitioners. Hypothetically, then, the project provides a theoretical means of establishing a value that is non-economic but still worthwhile. One could argue that this kind of thinking happens often, when a city decides to rehabilitate an area for a new arts district or a composer is commissioned to commemorate an event in song, or a nation designates a Poet Laureate. It could be argued that an enlightened society would enthusiastically use some of its wealth for creating the things it values; and while our society seems to want to act in an enlightened way, its existing models, reality checks, growth expectations and the like often require policymakers to couch their enlightened desires in terms of economic development and return on investment.
Drawing on Previous Work
As I stated above, this notion is not new, nor is the struggle to find a way to address it solely my brainchild. The group ®TMark (pronounced ‘art mark’) has taken the idea down an explicit path by creating a unit of measurement — an alternative currency they call “cultural capital.” While this idea is intriguing, I think the application will prove problematic; more of a novelty than a reality. And in fact, the point is not to be a market, but to state that there needn’t be a market for this kind of activity for it to be of value.
An event that could serve as a comparison for the TransAction would be the Dogme ’95 Manifesto created by filmmaker Lars von Trier. Von Trier was attempting to create a revised sense of value in film, away from Hollywood standards (and budgets) and toward more art-serving approaches. 153 films to date have both taken the manifesto’s challenge and applied to be listed on the Dogme 95’s web site, including Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman; and numerous others have been made by directors more or less in conformance with the Dogme 95 valuation. To call a work a Dogme 95 film now expresses a great deal about the artistic values of the filmmaker.
Another comparison is available from the environmental policy arena: emissions credits. Here, something of immense value, clean air — which does not trade via the marketplace — was brought into an alternate market when U.S. policymakers allowed polluters to trade SO2 emissions. The establishment of a way to talk about the value of clean air drove decisions that make it possible to talk about realistically getting more of it.
The idea of the value of interaction relates to considerations of “artist community.” I have explored the notion of artist community in previous projects. The most recent, Now:Here:This creates a virtual community in which artists come together, not in space, but in time. The community joins in purpose to create their work at the same moment. The participants in this project (more than 30 artists to date from 5 countries) value the novel idea of interacting strictly for the purpose of creating a joint art exhibition. The interaction generates themes of itself — an almost telepathic connection to some artistic thread that is born of the decision to interact, i.e. something of value is created by participation: the artistic thread that makes participation satisfying.
Does the TransAction Require Travel/Physical Meeting? What about the Internet?
Using the existing valuations of global interaction as an example, the market has created two classes of interaction: business and, perhaps we could call it “coach class” or that of no value to business. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has flirted with this model at the level of Internet use itself. There is clearly a distinction between kinds of communication: physical and Internet. This is because there is a power in the way we physically interact. People are social creatures. One could say people are tribal. To be accepted into a tribe, an outsider typically must be part of a ritual joining (e.g., mingling blood, smoking a pipe, or being party to a feast). This is why business partners continue to travel to launch their ventures: the meeting is the business ritual that joins the partners at the cultural level. In fact, business is a typical human endeavor and, because it is well funded, tends toward realization of its participants’ purpose. On the plus side, that is personal relationships, self-fulfillment, high craft, meeting needs; on the negative side, it realizes greed and protectionism.
Again using Now:Here:This as an example, while the virtual relationships I have made are interesting, there is a qualitative difference in magnitude of “relationship” with those artists whom I have subsequently met in person. In fact one of the greatest pleasures of participants is to come together physically via either an event or a chance to meet individually.
So while there is an undeniable value to the Internet interaction among artists, I want to highlight the “business class” interactions of artists who have face-to-face TransActions.
Defining a TransAction
The natural next questions is, “What makes this other kind of transaction?” Using some labels from business, without using the model, definitions, or conclusions of business, I propose the following:
1. The circumstance (or perhaps, service) to be transacted is interaction regarding art, hereafter called, the Interaction. The conditions of the Interaction are that two or more artists must interact artistically (as distinct from an academic meeting, business meeting, or purely social meeting). These conditions are clarified in point 3.
2. The parties to the TransAction, hereafter called the TransAction Artists are self-identified, or may be brought together by a broker, e.g., an arts nonprofit with opportunities for identifying and making feasible connections between potential TransAction Artists.
3. The TransAction Artists propose terms of the TransAction suited to providing each with maximum artistic and personal value, irrespective of economics. For example, an artist may wish to learn a technique or process from another; to experiment with collaboration; to see how an artist from another country looks at that country’s art history or contemporary work; to work in a studio with another artist; to trade critiques; to set the stage for possible future collaborations; to be introduced by one artist to that artist’s circle of colleagues; to pose for mutual portraits — the list goes on and on, filled with experiences that artists value.
The terms are defined with enough precision to enable interested parties to determine whether they have been met, but may be flexible enough to conform with the TransAction Artists’ sensibilities.
4. A record of the TransAction Artists, terms, timeframes, and location(s) are made in the registry on the Artists Unite TransAction ledger.
While this sounds formal, I expect that if it is to be effective, it must be completely informal, as the TransActions themselves are likely to be. For instance, to inaugurate the Artists Unite TransAction ledger, I proposed to an artist friend in St. Petersburg, Russia that we get together when I am there next week to make a portrait of each other, which he said was an especially nice thing for artists to do, during our last conversation. When we are done, if I enter the story in the registry, all the criteria will have been satisfied.
The Value of the Invaluable
Clive James’ book, Cultural Amnesia describes the status quo:
“The arts and their attendant scholarship are everywhere — imperishable consumer goods which a self-selecting elite can possess while priding itself as being beyond materialism… Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its use for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measurable on a market, like a commodity. The idea that humanism has no immediately ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word “invaluable,” simply by the way it looks is begging to be construed as “valueless,” even by the sophisticated.”
In the 2006 Annual Report of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Richard Lanier affirms the value of the intangible:
“No one needs to be reminded of the scope and seriousness of the critical problems plaguing the world today… [The Trust’s] program… supports smaller scale cultural [exchanges] out of the conviction that such grants have value in and of themselves, despite the fact that whatever wider social, economic, or political implications and influence they may have are very often difficult to identify, much less assess… [The Trust makes] the kind of grants it does in the belief that helping [artists] collaborate on cross-border projects can lead to relationships and insights that have the potential to build a more tolerant and enlightened world.”
In Wim Wenders classic film, Wings of Desire, he (and Peter Handke) recognizes the value of the simple human experience by making it noteworthy to angels. In a scene in which two angels have met up again, they read from their observations:
Today on the Lilienthaler Chaussee, a man walks slowly and looks over his shoulder into space.At the Zoo U-Bahn station, the guard, instead of the station’s name suddenly shouted “Tierra del Fuego!”In the hills, an old man was reading The Odyssey to a child, and the young listener stopped blinking his eyes.A passer-by, in the rain, folded her umbrella…and was drenched.A schoolboy described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and astounded the teacher.
On the surface, a TransAction may look very much like other collaborative ventures, but by naming and preserving it through the ritual of writing it down in a ledger on a web site, it is my hope that it will be more than its surface, in the way that Now:Here:This participants create more than their individual pieces by creating the “thread” of the exhibition. And that unlike collaborations in which the designated outcome is a piece of work, here any artwork generated will merely be a memento of the part of the event whose value is: artists from different cultures creating a new way of interacting globally, i.e, creating a new value of globalization beyond the economic. It is my intention to record an example of enlightened cultural thinking. The TransAction will be an event whose value is beyond economic: artists from different cultures sharing that which they find of greatest value, regardless of market considerations. The TransAction is the interchange among artists for its own sake.
A registry containing TransActions will be posted on this web site. If you have
- a TransAction of your own to record or
- writing about TransActions or the theoretical or art historical analysis or background,
please send me a query at email@example.com
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