At a press conference organized at UN headquarters in 1984, the artist Robert Rauschenberg announced the formation of an ambitious new program: the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, known as ROCI. The initiative would take the artist to so-called “sensitive” countries, including totalitarian states behind the Iron Curtain, where he would create new work in collaboration with local artists. He hoped to use his art to cultivate “understanding.” He imagined ROCI as a virtuous peace-making enterprise. For Rauschenberg, art became geopolitics.
Using new archival documents recently opened by the Rauschenberg Foundation, this lecture compares ROCI to two dominant paradigms that have previously explained the geopolitics of American art: first, the use of American art as propaganda during the Cold War; and second, the promotion of American art through the spread of biennial culture after the Cold War. This talk establishes Rauschenberg’s project as a unique transitional model that reflects the shifting status of the art world as it came into being during the 1980s.
ROCI was critically flawed. It reflected blatant forms of cultural imperialism and appropriation. It was also completely consistent with the US-backed expansion of neoliberal capitalism in this period. And yet, it offered a vision of the world as a united whole, free from global strife. This talk questions but also takes seriously ROCI’s utopianism. In a moment of resurgent nationalism—the age of Brexit and Trump’s dangerous “America First” ideology—Rauschenberg’s imagined world community might hold new power as a compelling model for thinking beyond political borders and cultural barriers.
John R. Blakinger is the 2018-2019 Terra Foundation Visiting Professor of American Art at the University of Oxford. He completed his PhD at Stanford University in 2016. His book Gyorgy Kepes: Undreaming the Bauhaus is forthcoming from the MIT Press in June 2019.