Breaking through the doors of art and, at the same time, staying inside it, in 1921 the Dadaists armed with broadsheets invited people on a visit to the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, one of the unknown places of Paris at that time. The name comes from Julian the Hospitaller and reminds us that, during the medieval period, this church welcomed travellers and pilgrims when they needed shelter.
This first walk, to which the wanderings of the flâneur Charles Baudelaire could form a backdrop, is a good starting point for a culture committed to the benefits of mobility. After the Dadaist walks came the Situationist dérives (Débord, 1957), sound or listening walks (Neuhaus, 1966), nomad thought (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980) and finally the classification of our era as liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000) Getting moving was the attitude that would let people encounter aspects of the world and of themselves that hitherto had gone unnoticed in their sedentary existence. This commitment to mobility, to flow, particularly from the mid-20th century, would organise and reorganise the ways of inhabiting the domestic space, and the space of cities, which would become places where mobility is managed.
In this wandering of words and deeds, the notion of a border was slowly becoming diluted, as is clear in the multicultural studies of the 1980s, and would be presented in art less as a geographical limit and more as a place for negotiation and action. Performance art, action art, and visual and sound maps attest to another way to create geographical space, through art and sensibility. To these flows in art and thought we can add, particularly since the economic recession of the 1970s, the mobility of capital, always accompanied by the mobility of human capital, otherwise known as labour. This in turn leads to the transformation of cities, where both types of capital – human flows and capital flows – join together, inventing unprecedented forms of inequality.
Human flows circulate responding to many needs: from the most basic such as food and shelter, to the desire to see other cultures that brings floods of tourist flows into the leading cities, where the economic and artistic or heritage capital is concentrated. The disappearance of public benches in cities, hostile design and preventing people from staying in a public place are indicators of how this movement culture is fostered. Flow becomes one of the main characteristics of economic neo-liberalism, and is essential for its creation and spread.
Crossing the threshold and blurring borders not only contributed to showing how art, life and the economy are all interconnected, but also to the reinvention of other artistic and economic practices. Flow through maps considered to be real or imaginary is now an accepted paradigm, integrated in how we construct cities and subjectivity. For this reason, stopping, remaining, and staying still are suspicious practices that are out of sync with the times we are living in, but which could actually be highly advisable.
Now and then, a work of art acts as a milestone, a landmark that invites us to come to a stop. Works such as the Concerto Grosso Balcanico (1993) by the Serbian artist Arsenije Jovanovic, made using sound recordings from the Third Balkan War, and Salam Europe (2006) by the Algerian Adel Abdessemed, which shows a large circle of barbed wire that unrolled would stretch from Punta de Oliveros (Spain) to Punta Cires (Morocco) are examples of the wish to stop what is happening and those who pass by. Both works, even in their dissimilarity, question the representational mode of a collective imaginary built mainly through the sounds and images that reach us through media driven by the urgency of information in real time. These two works urge us to re-examine the notion of hospitality and remind us of the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre where, a very long time ago, travellers and pilgrims found shelter.
These works can be analysed in relation to their context, to the sounds of the Balkan War and the human migrations that strike out for Europe from the African continent. They might be notable for their powerful protest, but what we take from them above all is how they call our attention to a way of looking and listening. The works are presented as an invitation to reconstruct how we look and listen, to promote another type of internal flow which can cross the threshold of feelings and thoughts which are often based on an agreement which flows along a previously committed channel: the reasons of effectiveness. These works invite us to stop, to listen and see things in a different way and perhaps, as proposed by the English artist James Bridle with his Dronestagram (2012-2014), to show that, despite the plethora of images on the internet, what is essential continues to be invisible.
However, we could also suggest that the problem does not now stem from this invisibility that is considered to be essential. If that were the case, art would have the power to modify, at the deepest levels, this collective imaginary attached to the chrematistic economy that puts the individual before the community. Certainly, artworks can show that the invisible is essential, display the barbed wire in its simplicity blocking our way, or let us listen to a concerto where the sounds of sheep and wolf mingle with the gunfire of war. Art can be used to help us to pass the threshold of this liquid culture fed by the solid values of profit.
Artworks, artistic practices, have the power to stop, even if just for a few moments, this majority flow that dilutes any other movement or position as it passes. We can remember other examples, such as the gesture of the Turkish artist Erdem Gündüz, who stood for hours looking at the statue of the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Taksim Square in Istanbul (2013) Many other men joined him in silence. These men, also called spectators in the world of art, were necessary for his work. But Gündüz reminds us of an implacable association, the memory of the famous anonymous man with his shopping bags near Tiananmen Square (which means ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’) in 1989, stopping and standing in front of a column of tanks.
As Tristan Tzara wrote in the Dada Manifesto (1918): ‘A painting is the art of making two lines, which have been geometrically observed to be parallel, meet on a canvas, before our eyes, in the reality of a world that has been transposed according to new conditions and possibilities. This world is neither specified nor defined in the work, it belongs, in its innumerable variations, to the spectator.’
Based on these presuppositions, we cannot try to explain the role of art in society with grandiose words, nor discard it in one fell swoop, establishing a certain relativism in which everything has the same value. The power of contemporary art in relation to the possibility of analysing and, particularly, pointing out other ways of being in society, is like the door that Marcel Duchamp invented for his studio in Rue Larrey, Paris (1927) The artist had to work out how to connect and at the same time separate his bedroom, studio and bathroom. To do this, he designed two frames with one swing door that enabled two connections: the studio with the bathroom and the bedroom with the studio. Thus, the door was always open and closed at the same time. The door served to create two thresholds. Like this door, art swings between two thresholds: its inclusion in the so-called world of art and its complex relationships with the possibility of political and social impact.
Duchamp’s door is now in a museum. It is up to us to decide where we want to and can place everything else.
Carmen Pardo Salgado (Barcelona, Spain, 1950). Lecturer in History of Music at the University of Girona. She is the author of En el silencio de la cultura (Sexto Piso, 2016/Eterotopia France, 2018) and La escucha oblicua: una invitación a John Cage (Sexto Piso, 2014/L’Harmattan, 2007, awarded the Coup de Cœur 2008 by the Académie Charles Cross).
Art is not as important as we, mercenaries of the spirit, have been proclaiming for centuries. (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918)