Postmodernism is dead.
… at least, according to Nicolas Bourriaud.
This position makes way for an influx of questions, one more prominent than the rest: if postmodernism is over, what comes next?
While I, as a student born around the time of the supposed-end of postmodernism, am certainly in no position to answer such a question, curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud has no such qualms. In fact, Bourriaud has not only theorized about the new era of which we find ourselves a part, but has also given it a title: Altermodernism. Yes, another -ism to add to the growing list of terms attempting to explain the state of current society.
Altermodernism, literally translated, means ‘other-modernism’ or ‘different-modernism’. What does Bourriaud mean by this? Essentially, modernism can be seen as a linear, teleological progression of cultural representation which jolts us out of tradition; the twentieth century modernist is someone who is constantly looking for new ways to express ideas. John Cage, for example, can be considered a twentieth century modern composer with his piece 4’33, which reinvents the idea of sound in concert by forcing the audience to acknowledge the melodies created by the everyday sounds around them.
In contrast, Bourriaud describes postmodernism as “a petrified kind of time advancing in loops”. The postmodern era, which Bourriaud believes to have begun immediately following the 1973 Oil Crisis, is characterized by the negation of what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard calls “the metanarrative” (overarching societal ideas such as Christianity, Democracy, and Progress). The dissolution of metanarratives lead to a society composed of individual micro-narratives in which history was called upon in order to reconcile a sense of truth.
Altermodernism, then, can be defined as a kind of synthesis between modernism and postmodernism: a new type of modernism that has evolved in order to meet the needs of twenty-first century culture. Modernism, Bourriaud feels, was very much societally contained and restricted to continents. In present society there is no such thing as separate continents. With the feverish globalization of technology, we are no longer restricted by physical barriers: the only continent left to be explored, Bourriaud believes, is that of time.
The Altermodern artist moves not in a linear fashion, nor in a loop, but rather through an interconnected web of global culture. This nomadic artist attempts to create art on a trans-global scale, art which “traverses a cultural landscape saturated with signs and formats and creates new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.” This type of art focuses on the journey rather than the destination, is very concerned with its progression through space and time, and explores the bonds that text and image weave between themselves. This style, as Bourriaud describes it, “expresses a course, a wandering, rather than a fixed space-time”.
Bourriaud’s proposal has been met with mixed reviews and a healthy dose of skepticism. Is altermodernism truly a new societal era, or simply a rebranding of modern and postmodern ideas? Is postmodernism truly dead? Does altermodernism truly encompass all that has come to be known as post-postmodernity, or is it merely a facet of the contemporary art scene we strive to categorize? And, in the end, does it matter?
While these are all questions that I ask myself, questions that, as of yet, have no clear answer, there is one thing of which I am certain:
Doubtlessly, there will be many more -isms in our future before we manage to construct a cohesive definition of contemporary society, and whichever -ism we pick will, unquestionably, be debated until we reach the next artistic era, wherein the process will start anew, ad infinitum.