by Maria Lind
Editor's Note: What follows is a transcript of a presentation Lind made recently at a symposium on curating in Zurich. What interests us is not the fact that she discusses the relationship of curating to institutional critique, but rather that she speaks specifically to projects -- such as the Christine Borland retrospective -- that she organized at the Kunstverein Munich and elsewhere that were attempting to rethink the formal and methodological aspects of exhibition-making. This is a topic we are thinking about a lot these days. More information about the symposium can be found in the current issue of On Curating, from which this text was taken.
The joint venture between curatorial practice and institutional critique is volatile. Desires to question the dominant culture and its modes of representation and methods of working sometimes facilitate art and its operations, sometimes it complicates them. I will discuss case studies in which I have myself been involved. For instance the Christine Borland retrospective at Kunstverein München; the series Moderna Museet Projekt (MMP) at Moderna Museet in Stockholm; Who Makes and Owns Your Work? at Iaspis in Stockholm and The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art at CCS Bard. The case studies are brought up more as discussion points than as 'successful examples' of institutional critique. So I am looking forward to discussing them with you afterwards. I am drawing from various texts which I have written, but also adding sections, and together the old and the new offer a 'smorgasbord' reflecting contemporary art and its institutional dilemmas.
But let me start with some reflections on what critique can be and how 'institution' can be thought of. Critique is an instrument, says Michel Foucault in reply to his own question in the 1978 lecture What is critique?. An instrument which is akin to virtue. Critique is a certain way of thinking and acting, a particular relationship to everything around us. It means to doubt and to challenge the politics of truth. Rather than locating the birth of modern critique in the high critical enterprise of Kant, Foucault traces the genealogy of the concept of critique back to medieval mysticism and the religious struggles and spiritual attitudes of the reformation. To the 'little polemical professional activities' of that period, through which individuals established a hotline to celestial powers for doubts and concerns about their emotions, conscience, and beliefs. Their queries did not halt at the spiritual but logically also brought them to the church’s representatives on earth and how the land lied there. How to govern was, according to Foucault, a fundamental question during the 15th and 16th centuries. Many subjects came to the conclusion that they did not want to be governed 'just like that' or 'quite as much.' They did not downright refuse to be goverened but they wanted government to function otherwise.
The notions of not wanting to be goverened 'just like that' and how to 'function otherwise' are to a certain degree embedded in the case studies which I will bring up today. Some people claim that taking artists on board an institution disarms their critical potential. That they get contaminated and end up as accomplices when they interact too closely and intensely with the commissioner. Following the principle that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, they end up not using their teeth anymore. There is definitely a risk of 'disarming'. However, the situation is more complex than a strict dichotomy between the institutions and the artists. Although proximity can certainly be compromising it can just as well stimulate a kind of exchange which allows for the system to be challenged. When this is the case the challenge is carried out from a position which is simultaneously outside and inside, both implicated and distant. Or as Carey Young, one of the 'sputniks', or fellow-travellers, whom we invited to join us on the journey with Kunstverein München 2002-2004, has formulated it in relation to her own practice: "If a resistant ethos becomes hip, it will be marketed back to us as style: a sort of win-win proposition for those consumers who want to associate themselves with bettering the state of the world, but who don’t want to think too hard. Right/wrong or inside/outside binaries seem ever more outmoded. To me, it is a question of credibility: a singular stance does not seem credible anymore. This is not to say that moral slippage is acceptable, but I don’t make work which moralises, and my reference to my own identity as a business person within my works is intended to say this most clearly, in that whatever commercial process or system I expose or make projects within, I still reveal myself at the same time to be included within that mechanism. It is not oppositional in a traditional sense."
This is a kind of practice which, as Irit Rogoff states, means that we are all implicated in what we are criticising. Dichotomies between inside – outside, institutions – artists, good - bad are difficult. There is no outside and yet we must go on being critical of status quo. I believe in radical context-sensitivity in terms of what and how you do something at a given time and place. Today I also gravitate towards understanding my curatorial work as partaking in the production of a public, or semi-public, sphere rather than think of 'the audience' or even 'audiences'. Participation is a key term and I have drawn a lot from Irit Rogoff’s ideas about art institutions, and curating, being sites within largely malfunctioning representative democracies, where precisely representation is the stumble stone. She claims that there is a widespread sense within representative democracies of feeling detached and that contemporary art and its institutions offer interesting models for participation and engagement. Chantal Mouffe’s term 'agonistic space' has been helpful for me thinking through how curatorial projects can be part of a debate, without either subsuming to a generalized third way or foreclosing exchange due to irreconcilable differences. Basically how we can have a discussion with different opinions, which may even be radically opposed, without searching for consensus. Already in 1993 the art critic Douglas Crimp stated that the creative subject of modern aesthetics had been replaced by the institution as a theme and as object of deconstruction. But what is an institution? The speech act philosopher John Searle wisely cautions us against searches for the ontology of institutions. Instead we should be attentive to 'institutional facts,' evidence of what the institution is and does. In order for that to happen, some form of collective assignment of function from a person or group has to take place. In turn, these people need collective assignment of a certain status to be able to perform the first collective assignment. Furthermore, institutions then typically obey 'constitutive rules,' the kind which say that "X counts as Y in context C." Searle argues that education, religion, and science do not follow this equation and therefore cannot be called institutions. However, money, property, and marriage do adhere to such constitutive rules, as does language, the fundamental social institution. Furthermore, Searle proposes that the purpose of human institutions is to create new forms of power relationships. Which in fact brings us back to Foucault and what critique is, to what happens when institutions and critique are attached to each other.
The first phase of institutional critique, famously described by Benjamin Buchloh as moving from the aesthetics of administration of conceptual art to the administration of aesthetics, included work by Hans Haacke and Michael Asher among others. Fault-finding in institutions was the favored method, from an outside position. Thereby the dichotomy between the subject and object of critique could be kept intact. The following phase took subjectivity and identity into consideration in more elaborate ways, still pointing fingers at institutions but now from within. Works from the late 80s and early 90s by Andrea Fraser and Fred Wilson are often evoked as examples. In the late 90s yet another phase could be discerned, for instance in the work of Bikvanderpol and Apolonija Sustersic, where the artists entered a more constructive dialogue with the institutions. Based on institutional problems or dilemmas, they proposed changes which sometimes operated with the institution, at other times against it but always dialogically and avoiding condemnation. The institution then became part of the solution and not only the problem. More recently artists such as Marion von Osten and Carey Young have formulated a critique which could be framed as a fourth phase. Now it is the whole 'institution of art,' the apparatus itself, which is being scrutinised and challenged, not least its economic side. Again from a position inside.
Thinking about the operations of an institution in relation to contemporary art and artists was at the core of the work of the curatorial team at Kunstverein München in Munich when I was the director there from 2002 until 2004. The third and fourth phases of institutional critique were influential in some of the projects which took place there during this period. The curatorial team, which at different times consisted of the curators and assistant curators Sören Grammel, Katharina Schlieben, Judith Schwarzbart, Ana Paula Cohen, Tessa Praun and Julienne Lorz explored four different formats, each with a different rhythm. They came out of questions such as How can you be sensitive to the logic of contemporary art and avoid letting the institution dominate? How can you combine this particular institutional situation with the surprise, the questioning, the contemplation, the problematisation that we call contemporary art? One of these formats was the 'retrospective' or 'survey' and the first artist we invited for this was Christine Borland.
In challenging and inventive ways Borland has for the last 20 years addressed questions of how identity and knowledge are constructed and how psychology plays a role in these processes. Fact and fiction are mixed as she plays with notions of life and death, the organic and the inorganic, horror and beauty. She borrows methods from a wide range of disciplines: archaeology, ethnology, criminology, medicine and science, involving people directly from these disciplines. The resulting works take the form of installations, sculptures, objects, drawings, photographs and videos. Her projects, which often deal with issues of life and death, the passing of time, are unusually laborious and slow as well as accumulative and intensely collaborative. Her art reveals itself slowly, possessing a quiet intensity; it is also very dense and is therefore difficult to consume quickly.
The survey exhibition at the Kunstverein München from April 2002 to May 2003 was the first large scale presentation of Christine Borland’s work in Germany. Moreover, it was the first time her work was presented to one and the same audience over a longer period of time. In order to pay respect to, and simultaneously use, the exact, slow and accumulative quality of her work, we presented her works one at a time over a period of a year. Most of the eight pieces were shown in a different space within the KM, or in a public space when appropriate, depending on the character of the piece. This also enabled us to offer the local art audience a unique opportunity to slowly forge a long-term relationship with a contemporary oeuvre which is outstanding in its care, precision and thoughtfulness. The first station in this survey extended in time rather than in space and was shown in the back room of the KM. It was The Dead Teach the Living, made for the Skulptur.Projekte in Münster in 1997. The second station took place in the same space and consisted of objects submitted by almost eighty of the members of the KM. Small Objects That Save Lives is an instruction piece based on the collaboration of people on the mailing list of the institution in question, responding to Christine Borland’s request for such 'small objects that save lives'. It was originally presented at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which is housed in a former hospital for retired soldiers.
Eight coats, both from her private wardrobe and from boot sales, originally exhibited in a gallery of shop windows in Prague and now in the shop windows of the Kunstverein. Here and there a baggy pocket, something shimmering looking out of the one or the other, a gun? Are they really weapons or is the eye deceived? Printed letters on a wall behind the shop windows, where the coats are hanging, form brief bits of 'information': 9 mm Beretta Pistol. This here is about believing or non-believing. How do we behave when passing by? Are we being provoked, do our own fantasies scare us? Which reactions do these so seemingly harmless coats trigger? Will the window get smashed or not? 'Inside Pocket'.
In this way it can be argued that the consumerist logic of many institutions, i.e. that it is possible to 'get', to behold, an exhibition during one visit, was sidestepped and a different way of encountering art was offered. As you can imagine a format like this one demands different communication strategies, with preparations, special mailouts etc for every station. Here I think we failed. We had not thought through the implications of the new format in relation to the visitors. Yet, I think it was important to break out of some of the routines of institutional work.
When I started working at Moderna Museet at the end of 1997, my question was basically: how can you work with contemporary art in this context? I drew up the lines for the completely new activity MMP, with the blessing of the director David Elliott without whom this adventure would not have been possible. It was but one of several ways we worked with contemporary art. It was quite simple: a museum is most commonly functioning as an archive and a showroom, and at least in Sweden at the time less often a place of production and distribution. With MMP Moderna Museet could be all of these. This was both a literal activity and a symbolic act: MM is the national museum for modern and contemporary art in Sweden, one with a well-known history and respected legacy. The function that such a museum has, being 'an example'. It is 100% state funded, with some sponsorship and donations serving as icing on the cake.
MMP became a satellite which sometimes was close to the museum, if not inside, and at other times was far away. The first artist to use the temporary, slightly domestic, project space, an assembly room in a former vicarage, was Koo Jeong-a. Her materials are very mundane; everything from bits of wood and plastic beads to wrapping paper and sand. Like an archaeologist of everyday life she finds her materials in and around the venues in which she exhibits and constructs small landscapes and imaginary worlds in which the smallest details are full of significance. She took up residence in the vicarage for a few weeks and the resulting installation consisted of among other things small ‘houses’ made of pencil lead which fell apart from the slightest touch and perforated plastic covering the windows. A closed world with minute outlets where time and scale were nevertheless distorted and transformed. Here the idea was to privilege art rather than institutional protocols, to shift some of the institutional constraints and to approach the interface between art and the institution from a slightly different angle. It was an attempt to perform institutional critique from the inside.
Now to yet another kind of institution and a different form of critique. The project Who Makes and Owns Your Work? was an ongoing discussion about the means of producing, distributing and thinking about artistic and knowledge production today. The project was initiated in the autumn of 2006 by Iaspis together with London based artist Marysia Lewandowska currently a professor at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design and Stockholm based artists Goldin+Senneby. We wanted to address issues such as Who owns the rights to artistic work in today's information-based economy? How can one as an artist or producer of culture position oneself in relation to the existing regimes of copyright and the distribution of material and non-material products? The project Who Makes and Owns Your Work? grew out of a year-long discussion held during a series of Open Content meetings which centred on ownership, distribution and forms of sharing within contemporary cultural and knowledge production. Through these monthly meetings hosted by different organisations in Stockholm and a dedicated Wiki site the project evolved to test conceptual and political implications of openness foregrounding specific proposals made by a loose network of artists and other cultural producers.
A one-day public event in the fall of 2007 pulled together various people who presented art projects and debated the issues at hand. The day was co-curated by about a dozen people who had been active during the monthly meetings, including the budget which decided on collectively, involved a discussion of the current copyright debate . . . . [a] new edition of Jan Lööf's children's book, The Tale of the Red Apple . . . upgraded by artist Dorinel Marc . . . a new thematic issue of the Geist, Swedish based art magazine, addressing the concept of openness in relation to the Swedish law concerning statutory right of access to private land . . . a live electronic set including performances by Per Åhlund and Mathias Josefson(Fylkingen). . . plus release of new CD Clips, Blips and Loops featuring out-of-copyright sound recordings and new copyleft remixes. . . a dialogue with different organisations working to encourage participation and sharing of knowledge online, a collection of recommendation and advices was put together. . . [and more].
Who Makes and Owns Your Work? turned out to have many more repercussions than we had imagined. It can be argued that it even was much more effective as institutional critique than we had anticipated, or aimed at. Questions concerning whether Iaspis, as part of the national agency The Arts Grants Committee, which sorts under the Ministry of Culture, was allowed to collaborate with people from the Pirate Bureau arose. This was at a time when copyright was debated in media and the Swedish state has a firm stance following conventional lines. The catalyst for this conflict were questions regarding how the project should be represented in press material etc. The Pirate Bureau, which is a think tank for subjects around licensing of intellectual material, decided to donate money to the project when they realized that contributing to the budget allowed for visible logos. The Arts Grants Committee did not want Iaspis to allow the Pirate Bureau to have their logos there – it could reflect badly on them – and they demanded that if they appeared in public, at the event, they must be counteracted by the Anti-Pirate Bureau, a lobby organization defending existing copyright laws. In addition to this debate, which raged on local blogs for a few weeks, panic broke loose in the office of the Arts Grants Committee when the director found out that one of the Pirate Bureau people, the artist Palle Torsson, had used one of Iaspis computers.
The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College offers an entirely different set up: a center which is part of a private liberal arts college in upstate New York. With an MA program in curatorial studies, a library and archive, an exhibition space, a private collection on permanent loan and, since 2006, a museum building attached to the old one (from 1992). I was brought in to revamp the program which since its start in the 90s, set up by a philosopher who did a great job but with very limited experience of contemporary art and none of curating, had lost some of its original relevance. The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art was an attempt to bring together the two parts of the center, on the one hand the MA program and on the other the collection and the museum. At the same time I was interested in stimulating research within the framework of the center, something which had been lacking up until then, and to offer somewhat different pedagogical models. The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art is a long-term research project on 'the documentary' that aims to investigate the heritage of documentary practices in contemporary art in relation to the history of film, documentary photography, and television, as well as video art. Although such innovative documentary art forms abound, and a large number of exhibitions and other projects dealing with documentary practices and contemporary art have been organised in different parts of the world, the phenomenon remains both under-discussed and under-theorised.
The project wants to situate these contemporary documentary practices within current cultural production and to explore their role within mainstream media and activism. The research project is a collaboration between CCS Bard and the artist and theoretician Hito Steyerl. A reference group, consisting of artists Petra Bauer, Matthew Buckingham, Carles Guerra, Walid Raad, and Hito Steyerl, has been invited to contribute to the project, including the exhibition which was the project’s first public manifestation (in fall 2008), in various ways. The research project will run for approximately three years, having started in March 2008.
Documentary practices today, whether lens-based or not, are profoundly ambivalent about rhetorics of truth and strategies of authenticity. In a culture of reality TV, embedded journalists, and YouTube, the uncertain states of images and other recordings have been normalised. Faithful rendering of reality in a classical documentary sense is considered impossible, and yet it is necessary to try and articulate real conditions. Documentary practices are not only one of the most significant developments within art of the last two decades, but also among the most complex tendencies, which — like older documentary work — has continuously challenged and reinvented itself. These documentary practices employ a variety of media and do not share a formal style. Neither do they comprise a genre. They range from found footage, video reportage, and essayistic mixed-media installations to filmed reenactments of real events and text-based printed matter. They also include sculpture, performance, and even computer animations. Many of them search for suitable forms and methods with which to discuss social content, whether historical material or effects of recent political and economic upheaval. Their rethorical strategies vary, borrowing from the orator and the historian alike. And yet, we can think of them as having a critical sensibility in common.
Works by more than 70 artists were brought together for this first part of The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art. It was already existing work, and the selection can be described as a subjective inventory that seeks to explore where the land lies for documentary practices within contemporary art. The selection was distinguished by the fact that a number of non-lens-based projects were included. The works literally permeate the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, occupying the Hessel Museum of Art and parts of the CCS Bard Galleries, but also appearing in the lobby and the library, in classrooms and corridors. An important part of The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art is the salon-style display of lens-based documentary works from the Marieluise Hessel Collection.
This was both an exhibition based on the paradigm of display and a 'project-in progress,' i.e. something that developed in parts of the exhibition space during the exhibition period. In the middle of the exhibition space, Olivia Plender created an installation that functioned as a discursive space in which lectures, screenings, seminars, performances, and panel discussions take place. With its sunken sitting pit and many curtains it resembled a 1970s TV studio. This is where the elective course Documentation and Its Discontents took place, taught by the members of the reference group, a course format rarely used at CCS.
Thus the exhibition space was activated as a space of reflection and debate, and the format of the exhibition was taken closely into consideration. This included an intimate black box cinema space in which a number of works were screened, and the CCS Bard Library, which was used as a reading room with a reference list of more than 90 titles. An anthology of already existing texts written over the last 10 years, assembled from many different contexts, was co-published with Sternberg Press and released at the opening of the exhibition.
The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art is a 'greenroom for documentary practices', not unlike a greenroom at a television station, where staff and guests meet before and after filming and engage in discussions that often differ from those in the limelight. Thereby, the 'just before' and the 'right after' moments of less scripted performances and unexpected encounters are taken seriously. Greenrooms are also used in theaters as a space where actors can prepare for and relax from what happens on stage, a space where they can gear up toward and recover from the production of both fact and fiction. At CCS Bard it was coupled with practices that are not necessarily waiting for events to happen, which should then be documented, but produces their own events. Since the show came down the members of the reference group have all conducted their individual research. Carles Guerra has for instance co-taught a course on 'Anti-photojournalism' at CCS, which has led to an exhibition on the same topic at La Vereina in Barcelona where Guerra since has become the director. Petra Bauer is exploring the potential of collective film making, in the vein of the 60s and 70s, with some of CCS’s students and students and faculty from the film department. Matthew Buckingham researches various notions of historical time in the history of film, conducting some of the research in 'public', in seminars with our students. All of them being examples of research which is not classically academic but certainly rigorous.
Gerald Raunig, philosopher and co-founder of eipcp, has rightly pointed out that the discourse around institutional critique within art has remained strangely insular, not contextualizing the critique within a larger cultural or even societal and political critique. His suggestion to move to 'instituent practices,' to the active making of new modes of working and coming together in various ways, including transversal ones, echoes what the 'institution builders' are up to, a fifth phase of institutional critique. I find this an interesting proposal. It is important not to place your bet on only one strategy, only one method. Context-sensitivity often seems more productive to me. Small steps and measures are valuable too. I would also argue for moderate trust in one single project, or even one line of programming, being able to turn the ship around – there is an exaggerated belief in how much can be achieved in and with art. Nevertheless, we have to keep on trying. Although we have a fundamental dilemma right under our noses, namely whether and how critique can be performed. My case studies are only partially enveloped with a rhetoric of 'being critical'. At best they offer structures and procedures which allow for something which differs from most of what the dominant discourses and mainstream activities are doing. This may end up being a wise choice, or not: critique – like love and humour – suffer from the dilemma of enunciation. As soon as we say that we are going to be critical, or that we want to fall in love, or that a joke will be funny – the risk of it failing is immanent.
Image: Christine Borland, The Dead Teach the Living, 1997