ESR 8 Blog October/November 2023: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

I have been in the habit of using the last blog of the year to say my thanks to colleagues, and now should be no different. It is the last blog for all us, as our contracts are slowly coming to an end. The last three years have been an immense experience and learning curve for me, and I am deeply grateful for having been granted the opportunity to develop my research within the FEINART network and at Zeppelin University. Furthermore, for my secondments at Edinburgh University and the University of Wolverhampton, and as I recently wrote to all those who generously shared their time and work with me as I worked to develop my understanding of the field of socially engaged art. Last but not least, to my partner and my family, and to all of my friends who have been amazing in their support over the last few years.

I thought that I might conclude my FEINART blogging by offering a brief insight into my contribution to the last FEINART colloquia, conducted in November. As I was preparing for the colloquium my mind went back to a conference on decoloniality at the University of Wolverhampton in December 2021. There, I used Massmiliano Tomba‘s notion of the chronotonic to problematise periodisations of socially engaged art. In his 2019 Insurgent Universality Tomba insists that history is not singular. Instead, it has a variety of different temporalties that he suggests we might approach chronotonically, “chronos” being one of the ancient Greek designations for time, and “tonos” meaning tension. By exploring the “friction generated by the sliding of different temporal layers” (p. 10) Tomba interrogates the French revolution, in tension with other revolutions, for instance the uprisings of the slaves of Santo Domingo in 1791 and 1793, that radicalised, “the French Revolution by realising its universality and postulating the full emancipation and citizenship of the African American slaves.” (18) Furthermore, the uprising of women and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen of 1791, (18) as well as the insurgencies of the Sans-culottes, radical urban labourers who demanded non- parliamentary direct democracy, and the anarchist Enragés, all of whom have been excluded from canonical histories of the French revolution.

In the brief abstract I shared before the colloquium, I asked whether the present moment and the future could be thought chronotonically and what this would mean in the specific context of our research project of which this blog spells a certain terminal horizon (no more FEINART blogs), although the broader conversation will continue to take place informally and more formally, for instance at the final conference in Edinburgh in March 2024, and in the publication being prepared from material presented by ESRs, the supervision teams and guest speakers for the project, as well as our respective PhD dissertations and future trajectories. I guess my questioning was in part a playful problematisation of the singular future, and the singular period, enacted in the title of our research network, leading me to wonder whether we should pluralise and ask about the futures of European independent art spaces in periods of socially engaged art.

In my abstract, somewhat cryptically titled Chronotonic FEINART?, I also posed three questions that I now address to you as the reader of my blog. First whether, and how, you might have experienced the rubbing of different temporal layers of the past, present and future in the last three years; secondly, what might your hopes, fears, ambitions, thoughts, intuitions, and designs for a possibly plural future be predicated on. And in the third instance, what are the potential pitfalls of thinking chronotonically.

If I begin with the potential pitfalls of thinking chronotonically, I am aware of how it communicates a certain utopian, totalizing, universalising and popularising ethos, that will always need qualification as to what and where and whose time. Another question I have is what counts as a temporal layer, is it a collective horizon of social experience, or can it be much more specifically and even individually predicated? The idea of the chronotonic is by no means new, and when thought historically it certainly invokes Walter Benjamin‘s famous critique of historicism. Applied to the present moment, Peter Osborne‘s definition of the contemporary comes to mind, which is an attempt to come to terms with the totalising condition of the global under capitalism, where different temporal horizons of social experience coincide and collide. In this sense, the chronotonic may function as a site of false totalisations, much like the biennial form which Osborne sees as definitive culturally for what he understands as the contemporary in contemporary or post-conceptual art. On the other hand, I find that the notion of the chronotonic expresses an important critique of Eurocentricity, if we understand it in terms of Tomba’s decolonial appeal to decentralise a foundational event such as the French revolution. Whether Tomba’s critique is sufficiently radical, given that it still assumes Paris as a counterpoint, is something of which I am less certain.

But on a much more personal level, I think the term, defined most simply as the “friction generated by the sliding of different temporal layers” can perhaps prompt a conversation about the experiences that I and my colleagues have all been having in the past three years. These include the sliding of different time zones across one another, a chronotonicity that was especially difficult for me during the first two-month period I spent away from my family back in 2021, as my partner and I were struggling for the first – but certainly not the last time – with syncing our lives across time zones, when my younger son turned three years old. In addition to the sliding of time zones, I think about the less ephemeral sliding of different periods of secondments and placements during our respective research trajectories.

I think our EU mobility scheme has introduced some level of chronotonicity in all our lives, in different ways. I am especially mindful of those of my colleagues who depend on drawn-out VISA processes, long-distance travel to their loved ones, or even complete restrictions on seeing family and friends. Here, Maria’s and Bilge’s colloquium earlier this year where they shared their experiences of mobility in relation to a set of compelling case studies is especially memorable. One was Chto Delat’s School of Emergencies, made urgent by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the waves of political refugees from Russia, the other was Artists in Iceland Visa Action Group, an advocacy group of which Bilge is a member, that works towards the accessibility of residency permits for artists and freelancers in Iceland. All of this amidst the pressures of the program, which brings its own internal temporal horizons, divisions, and tensions within it, including that ultimate horizon of submitting and defending the PhD. These involve temporal layers in tension within institutional and infrastructural strictures, as Claude put it so succinctly, when he, Jenny, Bilge, Sophie and I were preparing a panel for the annual research conference Hugarflug for the Iceland University of the Arts earlier this year. But chronotonicity also reigns, I believe in fluctuations with our respective local entanglements, as Gabor highlighted in a recent conversation that I had the pleasure of sharing with him, along with Fabiola, Jenny, Anna, Noa, Sophie and Maria that was published by FIELD in October 2023 under the title of ‘Meanings, Meaning-Making and the Ideal/Ideas of Socially Engaged Art’. There Gabor addresses the privilege granted to us as researchers, not least, the privilege of time to devote to our research, that at the same time dislocates many of us from the struggles with which we find ourselves committed to.

More broadly, I wonder if the chronotonic also captures something of the social and political upheavals in a world reeling from the Covid pandemic amidst the continuing outbreaks of murderous conflict, where seemingly incompatible historical trajectories, and present constellations and visions of the future violently collide. I am in this sense reminded of Angela Dimitrakaki’s sobering input when most of us met for the first time in Iceland in spring 2022, where I felt as if Angela was asking if art had any relevance at all in a period of war, military invasion, and violent conflict. I am afraid, that the question has not lost any of its pertinence almost two years later.

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