Conference Review “Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices”




by Saima Akhtar (Irmgard Coninx Prize Fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien 2015/16)

Annual Conference of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland. Convened by Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices. Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 5-7 November 2015

Atreyee Gupta (Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Fellow 2015/2016)
Hannah Baader (Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices/Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz/Max-Planck-Institut)
Patrick Flores (University of the Philippines and the Vargas Museum, Manila)

In Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire poetically laments the redevelopment of mid-nineteenth century Paris. In his well-known “The Eyes of the Poor,” he describes a fraught meeting between two lovers who sit in front of a café at the corner of a newly formed boulevard. The streets are still strewn with debris, yet they hint at the promise of a glorious city. A few moments pass and a family in rags walks by; they pause and stare in admiration at the scene in front of them. The man turns towards his lover with shame in his eyes and, to his dismay, she returns his look with disgust and asks if the waiter can send the family away. Reflecting on this scene, the late Marshall Berman asked: “what makes this encounter distinctively modern?” To him, the difference between this moment and earlier scenes of Parisian love and class struggle was the urban. It was the invention of the Haussmannian boulevard and all that it represented: streets that breathed movement, light, and air into the city, crisscrossing with no regard, displacing thousands of residents and replacing them with thousands of newly made forms that glittered and glistened in the backdrop of the lovers’ story. More pointedly, the refashioned streets made new encounters possible, including the uneasy collision of imaginations, politics, and people in their everyday lives.

Encounters such as these have prompted deep examinations of the modern idea: What are modernities points of origin and/or demise? Did modernisation efforts ever yield modernity? How have multiple or alternative modernities risen and taken shape across national borders and time, and what similarities or differences have they generated? These questions bring the major themes of the conference on “Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices” into focus, which convened a number of social science and humanities scholars for two days to think about concepts of “global modernisms” between the years 1905 and 1965 from a transregional perspective. The scholars and discussants came from a wide range of disciplines and focused largely on the visual dimensions of modernisms, including art, architecture, film, photography, textiles, and the city; the commonalities of which largely rested on the importance of place and politics in conceiving how modernisms are staged. Yet, despite the broad geographic range of the talks and the examples that were presented, the discussions ran up against the inevitable limits of the “global”.

Arjun Appadurai. Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY SA 4.0

Arjun Appadurai. Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY SA 4.0

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, for example, has touched upon the convoluted nature of modernity in his work on globalization, media, and migration. Appadurai, who gave the opening keynote for the conference, elaborated on the making of a type of modernism through the example of Bollywood film in India. He described it as a device through which Indian filmgoers draw pleasure through repeat viewing, or repetition – a common practice among Indian commercial film fans. Film, in other words, could act as a medium where first-time and repeat filmgoers enjoy the newness or familiarity of songs and dialogue as a network of viewers that span distances, in effect, creating a wider sensory environment that ties the pleasures of the film experience to recognition, recall, and return. This, as Benedict Anderson noted in relation to print capitalism, enables viewers to imagine themselves as part of a broader community that go beyond the bounds of territory or nation through commonalities such as kinship, politics, and identity. In this sense, the anxiety of film repetition among these viewers not only signals a preoccupation with the kind of commodity culture that characterises consumer capitalism, but, as Appadurai claimed, can also be considered a key feature in the supposed onset of modernisation.

This connection, between the material and immaterial through repetition, marked a spot for a broader conversation on the vocabularies of modernism and their comparative political, colonial, and social contexts. In the following two days, speakers presented a number of rich case studies to think through these issues. Among them was art historian Thomas Kirchner, who compared the way European modernisms incorporated politics through representationalism and non-representationalism in art between East and West Berlin in post-1945. In the context of Brazil, Elena Shtromberg examined various media (newspapers, currency, film, photographs) and the role they played in constructing nationalism through a systems perspective. Through the example of the Zero Cruzeiro, she revealed the fluctuating relationship between speculative value in the art market and cultural currency, and the interconnected web of relationships within which narratives of “progress” and “modernity” emerged in Brazilian art history. Patrick Flores spoke about the topography of the South China Sea as a region structured by Cold War configurations and connected through utopian possibilities of art practice. He described mid-twentieth century Philippine art as aberrations against normativity, although mastery of the “Western” art form continued to be an underlying modern anxiety in the region. In 1968 Mumbai, Nancy Adajania argued that the Indian Triennale offered a way forward for “indigenously achieved modernities,” particularly as compared to the São Paolo Biennale which was funded by the Rockefeller organization and served as the southern most outpost of Euro-American art world. In the world of modern Arab art, Nada Shabout posited that Arabic letters can be viewed as a series of dynamic images that convey meaning and difference, and are connected in their use as a cultural signifiers. These examples, alongside a range of others, spanned multiple disciplines and reached across Western and Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, West Africa, and Latin America.

Subtle “contiguities” of scale emerged among papers having to do with material and aesthetic considerations, but it is also within these contiguities that the narrow temporal and spatial frame of the discussions ran its course. This point was partially highlighted in the latter half of the conference, beginning with comparative literature scholar Harsha Ram’s talk on the efficacy of the core/periphery model as it applies to the scale of global modernisms – a model that he suggested made world systems derived art and literature vulnerable to the charge of Euro-centrism. Through his example of a Nicaraguan poet and his counterparts in the Caucuses of the Soviet Union, he showed that the syncretic mix of cultural and urban practices that developed in Tbilisi, Georgia exceeded the binarism of nation and empire. A more dynamic, polycentric way of looking (that shifts from the global to the local), he noted, revealed the contours of a city that registered the European culture of the elite and the vernacular Near Eastern culture of the urban masses, such as unified tastes for wine, preferences for a certain kind of social ambiance, etc. While the potential was there, a push to more closely consider these types of complex examples, where robust populist culture can exist alongside high cultural forms, would allow us to more fully think about how material processes follow particular landscapes at an uneven pace. This is a feature of urban modernity that geographer David Harvey would say was spurred by the compression of space-time ushered in by industrialism in cities across the world. On the other hand, freeing ourselves from a temporal frame allows us to also consider moments that pre-date industrial modernisation – where pre-existing traditions of communications (such as languages, art, and text) and social interactions can allow us to think about the historicity of markers of modernism that don’t fit so easily within a core/periphery model, including the colonial dimensions of concepts of modernism, their shared legacies and forms.

Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY SA 4.0

Photo: Forum Transregionale Studien under CC BY SA 4.0

Nevertheless, modernity is, as Appadurai noted at the end of his keynote, an endless game of catch-up. This, taken together with Latour’s proclamation that ‘we have never been modern,’ point to the idea that time and temporality are much-needed tools to inquire into the modern idea – but that an excessive focus on time also poses a risk that rests too much on belatedness or linearity. The conference’s thematic focus on aesthetic practices, then, was a conscious exercise in opening up a vocabulary of “modernisms” to global, regional, and local scales that attempted to sit in relation to one other as well as to time, without falling prey to Western universalism. Moreover, the talks served to highlight practical and aesthetic considerations that emerged in everyday examples – which perhaps could be an important take-away in a room full of scholars and practitioners. In the final roundtable discussion, for example, Berlin-based curator Clémentine Deliss spoke about the importance of creating individual biographies of art objects so museums can emphasize temporal and relational connections between objects instead of simply relying on exhibition and display. This method would allow for more flexible groupings of art objects from disparate geographies rather than narrow, regional ones. These institutional applications are key, as they force us to rethink practices related to conceptions of the modern and the forms, languages, and contexts that have given rise to them. To return to Appadurai and the story of Baudelaire’s lovers, these conversations also encourage us to examine how the visual and aesthetic contribute to “the work of the imagination” at the scale of the individual, the city, or the nation, and the ways in which they work together to produce varying discourses on the global modern.

Conference Program

5 November 2015
Venue: Haus der Kulturen der Welt


Bernd M. Scherer (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
Hans van Ess (Max Weber Stiftung – Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland)
Barbara Mittler (Forum Transregionale Studien)

Keynote Lecture
Arjun Appadurai (New York University): Indian Popular Cinema in the Making of a Decolonized Modernity

6  November 2015
Hannah Baader and Atreyee Gupta (Berlin/Florence): Welcome and Introduction
Dhruv Raina (New Delhi): The Castle of Crossed Conversations during the Inter war years: The Encounter between Scientific Internationalism and Modernism
Ming Tiampo (Ottawa): infra/structure/paris
Chair: Barbara Wittmann (Berlin)

Thomas Kirchner (Paris): Competing Modernisms. The Case of Berlin after 1945
Elena Shtromberg (Salt Lake City):  A Systems Perspective of Brazilian Art
Chair: Kerstin Schankweiler (Berlin)

Patrick Flores (Manila): “Asiatic Complications” and the Implications of Irredenta
Nancy Adajania (Mumbai): The Funambular Modernists: Experiments with Precarious Infrastructure (1950s-1980s)
Chair: Zaal Andronikashvili (Berlin)

Nada Shabout (Denton): Proclaiming the Modern Moment through Cultural Arabism
Harsha Ram (Berkeley): The Scale of Global Modernisms: Imperial, Regional, National, Local
Chair: Saleem Al-Bahooly (Berlin)

Roundtable Discussion
Curating Global Modernisms in the 21st Century

Catherine David (Centre Pompidou Paris),
Clémentine Deliss (Independent Curator/Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin),
Patrick Flores (University of the Philippines and the Vargas Museum, Manila),
Nicola Müllerschön (KfW Stiftung, Berlin)
Moderation: Atreyee Gupta and Hannah Baader

7 November 2015
Rakhee Balaram (Berlin/Albany): Black Madonna of Modernism: Situating Amrita Sher-Gil’s Two Girls
Merel van Tilburg (Paris): From “aesthetic colonialism” to a creolized aesthetic: negotiating universalism, francité and Negritude in Senegalese and French modernist tapestries
Chair: Monica Juneja (Heidelberg)

Romuald Tchibozo (Abomey-Calavi): Global Modernism, a study of the concept in African intricate and plural context
Combiz Moussavi-Aghdam (Tehran/Berlin): Modern trends in Pre-Revolutionary Iranian Art and the Question of Alternative Modernism
Chair: Sérgio Costa (Berlin)

Final Discussion
Moderation: Hannah Baader, Patrick Flores and Atreyee Gupta

The following interviews and contributions have emerged from the conference:


Citation: Saima Akhtar, Conference Review »Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices«, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.05.2016

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2016, 8. April). Conference Review “Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices”. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 30. Mai 2016

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