The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley will present the symposium Location/Translation: Art and Engagement from the Local to the Global on September 19, 2012. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, the speakers have been invited to respond to the questions “What does ‘local’ mean to you? How does it get utilized in your work, if at all?” This posting is by Apsara DiQuinzio,  Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA.

Apsara DiQuinzio

When I first moved to San Francisco, over six years ago, for a job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the recurring refrain I often heard from people living here and working in the field of contemporary art was that the region’s art scene tended to be rather “provincial.” I found this pejorative qualifier highly problematic, and in many ways it remains a perception artists living in the Bay Area struggle to overcome.  For example, an artist I know recently appeared in a major national exhibition, and on his wall label in the exhibition he had been described as a “San Francisco-based artist.” Upon seeing this descriptor, he insisted that they remove it from the label. This artist didn’t want to be defined by his location; he wanted to just be a (good) artist. But his desire to shed his San Francisco roots in print, mostly likely had something to do with this problematic perception of “the provincial.”

But what makes San Francisco more or less “provincial” than New York?  Having moved to San Francisco from New York, where I had lived for over five years, I often found that the New York art scene could be just as provincial (if not more!) as any other region, it’s just that its scale masks it. But in reality, no place is immune from provincialism; it is everywhere and anywhere. Solipsism and narrow-mindedness undergird the problem of the provincial. In this day and age, when a place is provincial, the local is all that matters, and there is a reluctance, or inability, to look beyond. You become too comfortable or satisfied in the local that you forget that there is a larger world out there that also informs your own domain.

Yet, the local and the international are not separate spheres; they are connected and contingent upon one another. We are all local and international simultaneously. An insistence on their separation is dangerous, and when unchecked gives rise to problematic notions of isolationism and nationalism. This is largely what happened in Romania, which Mihnea Mircan discusses below, where nationalism grew to obscene levels under a brutal totalitarian regime. Its grandiosity became untenable for a people who were starving and dying as their dictator used all the country’s money, not to feed and protect them, but to build a monstrous monument to himself that now stands in a ruinous half-life.

I think some of the most vital encounters in art and life arise from a tracing of these points of contact—where the local and the international converge.  Kwame Anthony Appiah has written eloquently about this in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, where he makes the case for “contamination.” In our 21st century world, purity no longer exists; everything is hybrid, networked, co-inhabited, and shared. I tried to explore some of our interconnected terrains in an exhibition called Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art, which opens at SFMOMA on September 15th. It features inspirational artists from six cities around the world who, often working against a backdrop of war, have created both local and international platforms for artistic activity, collective engagement, and critical awareness.