I forgot that I had pulled Miwon Kwon’s article/essay out of the “Books” category, and was looking for it under “Essays” to make my post. Of course then to my amusement, here it is, “The Wrong Place” located in “the wrong place” in the Applications Readings! Very witty.
Kwon’s article ends in a kind of surprising way, and I really hope someone else reads and responds to this so we can chat about that. She starts by saying that there’s a sense in academia and the arts (she is an art professor at UCLA) that the more you travel, the more important you are. Or at least, that the more you travel, the more you get a sense of your own self-worth. “Whether we enjoy it or not, we are culturally and economically regarded for enduring the ‘wrong’ place. It seems we’re out of place all too often.”
This idea really intrigued me because I think it’s so true of what many young people today view as a symbol of success. If you travel widely and especially for work, that means you are “wanted, needed, validated, and relevant”. After paragraph one, I thought the essay was going to discuss how this perception of travel=validation should be dismissed.
But then through the rest of her essay, she explores the definition of what is a ‘wrong’ place, what is a ‘right’ place; how are these the symptoms of disassociation and loss of identity caused by the modern era; what are some cultural examples of artwork that is about a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ place (Frederic James’ essay on the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and Don DeLillo’s play Valparaiso).
At first it sounds like Kwon is trying to say that the disorienting affects of modern life are what is wrong. But then she turns a corner to say “it is we who are wrong for this kind of ‘new’ space”. In so many words, I understand her to be saying that the disorientation is a challenge for us to conquer, to be forced to define our identities and our sense of self.
And so, to bring the point back to art, this means that the avant-garde is not dead and should not be considered dead: “Once heroic improprieties are now seen as pathetic improprieties. But critical artistic practice is neither heroic nor pathetic.” She extolls the virtue of being an artist in ‘the wrong place’. Which, in this case to point to paragraph one, means being an artist who travels widely and lives in foreign places.
I definitely think there is much to be learned and gained from cross-cultural exchanges, feeling out of place, etc, but I think it also creates a kind of monotonism across a certain cultural class. People of a certain nomadic type kind of all tend to have the same sensibilities, the same exposures. Kwon doesn’t talk about what it means to represent a place that is your ‘right’ place, your feeling of home. Why isn’t that as legitimate for an artist? What about the actual variety that comes from singularly deep cultural roots? The notion of an artist who travels in order to consume other cultures, who travels for the purpose of feeling ‘out of place’, seems really exploitative and ethically shallow. This is very different from an avant-garde ethos of being in a wrong place culturally, not actually geographically in the wrong place.
Anyway I think her metaphor about travel, if that’s what it was, is kind of jumbled up.