A report from the symposium 'How Institutions Think' organised by the LUMA Foundation and CCS Bard College, Arles, 24–27 February 2016
[The following text was originally published on Frieze Blog on 9 March 2016].
Co-presented by the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College with the LUMA Foundation, the four-day symposium ‘How Institutions Think’ [pdf of the programme] met to reconsider the habits and rhetorics of contemporary art institutions and curatorial practice. The event, held at the Parc des Ateliers, Arles, from 24–27 February, was developed in partnership with a long list of collaborators (Valand Academy of Arts, Gothenburg, Sweden; Afterall Books and the Exhibition Histories programme at Saint Martins, London, UK; Goldsmiths, London; the V-A-C Foundation, Moscow; and de Appel art centre, Amsterdam).
Taking its title from the 1986 book by British anthropologist Mary Douglas, the symposium played out on the site of the future LUMA Arles, a 20-acre former railway yard that includes a new building designed by Frank Gehry scheduled to open in summer 2018 as exhibitions spaces, archives, residency and study facilities, as well as a restaurant, hotel and park. Introduced by CCS Bard’s Paul O’Neill and LUMA founder Maja Hoffmann, the presentations were hosted in the recently-restored L’Atelier des Forges spaces in the middle of this construction site. O’Neill took the work-in-progress status outside as an invitation for the more than 30 speakers and around 150 delegates to debate not only what the future of art institutions in general might be, but more immediately, how new ways of operating could underpin this nascent institution in the south of France.
Yet what transpired was something far more pervasive. An amplification of the noun ‘institution’ and the verb ‘instituting’ soon engulfed not only a discussion of art and academic establishments, but law, governance, and the psyche of the French state, post-November 2015 Paris attacks. The grim predicament of a Europe in the depths of the refugee crisis – as the symposium took place, at the other end of the country, Calais’s ‘Jungle’ camp was being dismantled – became the lens for considering nothing less than the spectral institution that is Western European colonial imperialism. In the first evening’s fragmented keynote by Zahia Rahmani, the writer and historian gave an account of the ‘Made in Algeria’ exhibition of colonial cartography she has curated for the MuCEM museum in Marseilles. She argued that we cannot plausibly think about the future of any institution without confronting the terrible failures and opprobrious injustices of the past, most glaringly what she characterised as the ‘toxicity’ of Western Europe’s colonial system.
‘Is institution building still desirable?’ wondered artist Céline Condorelli in her presentation the following day as she evoked All our tomorrows (2015), her installation that humbly corralled the symposium’s setting, comprised a large hanging curtain inspired by the ‘poor architecture’ of Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia, the social and cultural centre established in São Paulo.
Reflecting on his own transformative experiences made while directing the 2014 edition of the São Paulo Biennial, Charles Esche – Director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands – astutely articulated both the decisiveness of Western Imperialism’s poisonous effect on the rest of the world, and the nervousness about whether anyone can even venture to be hopeful about the future. Esche persuasively argued that Western museums must make decolonialisation fundamental to their missions and no longer a marginal issue by analysing the entrails of neoliberalism’s ‘dogged persistence’ and, soothsayer-like, intuitively sensing the ‘weak signals’ of a more just politics.
Sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre spoke of France’s deep investment in what they termed the ‘economy of enrichment’ in observations that were particularly prickly given the art-destination place-making unfolding on the very site of the symposium. They submitted that the luxury brands that dominate the image of the country abroad enjoy a close but officially-unacknowledged complicity with heritage and culture. They argue that this compound myth of the French art de vivre accounts for the country consistently being the globe’s most visited tourist destination, yet also that, less innocuously, France’s defiance of normative economic rules about price and value make it both a haven for inequality as well as unusually susceptible to instability. Put candidly, the presence of refugee and terrorists is not conducive to tourism and handbag sales. Later, speaking about ‘turbo-fascism’ and a transition to ‘necropolitics’ (a term coined by philosopher Achille Mbembe regarding the politics of sovereignty over life and death), philosopher Marina Gržinić contended that we are living in a time of war in which our institutions battle to preserve this ‘good life’ at any cost.
In the context her work directing the SBG Gallery in Montréal, Canada, curator Pip Day discussed Canada’s settler-colonialist legacy, the evasions allowed by conceiving of decolonization as merely a metaphor, and her advocacy of the work of First Nation artists such as Maria Hupfield. Bassam El Baroni, an independent curator based in Alexandria, Egypt, later presented a paper that threaded a bewilderingly dense route through a tangle of cognitive philosophy and ‘prometheanism’. Yet Day’s case studies, as well as those discussed by Mélaine Bouteloup, curator of Paris’s Bétonsalon, regarding the recently opened Villa Vassilieff which is now the second site of that institution, helped to link such abstraction to more practical curatorial and artistic thinking-in-action that addresses the past while creating new knowledge.
Yet it was through the presentations by writer Dave Beech and especially architect Keller Easterling that the symposium actually approached something resembling a strategy to address what had been almost uniformly painted as the shameful, broken state of the contemporary institution. According to both Beech and Easterling, we should be paying keener attention to infrastructure rather than institution per se. Following her book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2014) Easterling’s bruising and exhilarating contention was that an enveloping urban medium (including preposterous towers, mall sprawl, special-trade-zone legal lacunae) defies consideration as a thing and is better thought of as a global operating system, a ‘disposition’ that thrives on saying one thing and doing quite another.
At the start of the symposium artist Liam Gillick – one of LUMA’s luminary consultants alongside Tom Eccles, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno and Beatrix Ruf – had asked somewhat rhetorically, ‘can an institution be thought collectively on this scale?’ It was clearly not only Charles Esche who looked out at the spine of what will be a 24,000 square metre Frank Gehry-designed tower and noticed that the institution’s die was cast already – and thanks to an architect long synonymous with the art museum as an importunate form of trophy. Following Keller’s strategic spatial repertoire of ‘counterbalances’, ‘interplays’, ‘toggles’, ‘incentives’ and ‘ratchets’, as well as her talk of heeding the dynamics of joke-telling or dough-tending, she implied that if we are going to formulate a resilient future for art institutions, we had better start feeling our way – and get a whole lot more canny.
Max Andrews is a contributing editor of frieze and, with Mariana Cánepa Luna, runs Latitudes, an independent curatorial office based in Barcelona, Spain.
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The New York Times' review by Robert Smith sets the tone: "Ms. Christov-Bakargiev has assembled an immense, unruly organism of a show. It is alternately inspiring — almost visionary — and insufferable, innovative and predictable, meticulous and sentimentally precious. I would not have missed this seething, shape-shifting extravaganza for the world, and I’d rather not see its like again, at least not on this dwarfing, imperious, self-canceling scale."
Filipa Ramos' review on Art Agenda "Postcard from Kassel", begins unraveling the Kunsthalle Fridericianum where we started our tour.
(...) the total bareness of the first rooms of the canonical core, the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, is broken by the display of Kai Althoff’s letter to Christov-Bakargiev explaining his decision not to take part in the exhibition (“life” was more important)—although a work of Althoff’s is, despite this, still featured in the Rotunda [not in the catalogue].
(...) "Before getting there, Ryan Gander’s breeze, I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorise (The Invisible Pull) (2012)—a light wind that caresses one’s skin and hair—and Ceal Floyer’s audio piece, a melodious promise, repeated to exhaustion, of “So I’ll just keep on… till I get it right” (‘Til I Get It Right, 2005), hail the most attentive spectators.
The Guardian's critic Adrian Searle, also highlighted one of wonderful treats in the Fridericianum, the "(...) 400 beautiful, modest postcard-sized paintings of different varieties of apple, by Bavarian pastor and artist Korbinian Aigner. Imprisoned for his anti-Nazi sermons, Aigner worked as a gardener in Dachau and Sachsenhausen, where he cultivated several new varieties, one for each year of his internment. There's pathos here, among these rows of painted apples." [3D view of the room here]
(...) In the Fridericianum’s cramped Rotunda space, the exhibition displayed the kinds of curatorial flourishes that often seem to accompany a certain kind of anthropological curating that capriciously mixes anthropological artefacts and found objects with artworks. This kind of museological, cabinet-of-curiosities approach, having already been a trope of contemporary artists for a while now, seems especially dated in the hands of a curator. In this darkened space crammed with spot-lit vitrines, I had trouble making the connections between Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, displayed along with actual objects from his studio, and the neighbouring vitrines containing ‘Bactrian Princesses’ – a series of small sculptures of seated women created in the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC in what is now modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. While these artworks and artefacts are no doubt fascinating, there is no apparent justification for their inclusion together, other than their need to be housed in vitrines, and the fact they probably couldn’t have been procured for any contemporary art exhibition other than this one.
Christy Lange continued to the Ottoneum, which in her opinion "(...) yielded some predictable ‘eco-related’ contributions scattered among the natural history museum displays of taxidermied animals and animal skeletons. (...) it’s worth the trip upstairs to see Mark Dion’s specially commissioned installation. Here he designed an elaborate wooden display case to house the Ottoneum’s unique ‘Schildbach Xylotheque’ – a ‘wood library’ made in 1771–79 of several hundred books carved out of different species of trees. The books are actually boxes that house dioramas inside. Dion’s installation and Schildbach’s library is a felicitous match made in nerd heaven." [360º panoramic view here]
"Nearby in the Neue Galerie, several visitors were fawning in unabashed awe and wonder over Geoffrey Farmer’s impressive installation, which evokes that same sort instantaneous reaction that Christian Marclay’s The Clock recently did, perhaps because of its sheer scale, meticulous detail and the obvious time and manual labour it took to create it." [See panoramic view here]
Rossella Biscotti, The Trial, 2010-12, in the Neue Gallerie. Concrete sculptures made from casts from the architectural features of the courtroom where members of the extra-parliamentary left-wing Autonomia Operaia (including Antonio Negri and other intellectuals), were accused of being ideologically and morally responsible for Italian terrorism in the 1970s.
Adrian Searle also favourited Sehgal's "(...) magnificent performance piece behind a decaying Huguenot house. Performers stamp and sing, whisper, holler and dance. They go through little routines as I stumble between them. Sehgal's exhilarating 'This Variation' is among the best things in Documenta, as is choreographer Jérôme Bel's Disabled Theatre, a confrontational performance made in collaboration with actors with learning difficulties. Both Bel's and Sehgal's work concern presence and presentness, what it means to be a spectator." [In depth text on Sehgal's 'This variation' art-dance-music piece also by Adrian Searle here].
Carol Bove's tableau of elements in the Flora garden of the Karlsaue Park.
Huyghe's piece photographed 100 days after during the last week of documenta (13).
Jerry Saltz wasn't at all convinced about their contribution, and labelled the work 'immoral': (...) "viewers ride in a helicopter to heights corresponding to their net worth. The work is supposedly about wealth accumulation and is an anti-market gesture. Surely it cost more to stage for a day than many museums and galleries can spend or generate in a year, or than most artists earn in a lifetime."
Additional images here by Contemporary Art Daily.
More detailed photos via Contemporary Art Daily.
And then concludes with a long description of his experience when seeing Jérome Bêl’s 'Disabled Theatre' (2012) performance piece which "carried all the way through 90 minutes of uneasy, preconception-probing estrangement and empathy."
When describing the effect of seeing this piece, New York Magazine Jerry Saltz wrote he "was shaken to the core by the formal and emotional pathos in Jérôme Bel’s “dance” involving people with Down syndrome who simply stood onstage, danced for two minutes, then spoke about their perceptions of us watching them. A fourth wall shattered here into a fifth dimension."
Michael Rakowitz, an artist who led a stone-carving seminar in Bamiyan near the site of the stone Buddhas destroyed in 2001, was equally frank. “To ask how art might be enlisted in the service of rebuilding the culture of a devastated land and people,” he said, is “an incredibly problematic gesture, and that is what makes it good and important.” He sourced his decision to participate in the program to the realization that not participating would be a submission to his own sense of guilt, “which is related to political correctness,” which he sees as a sort of reverse-racism. [3D tour of his contribution here]
More detailed images here via Contemporary Art Daily.
Detail of Rakowitz's installation.
Another Afghan artist involved with the “Archive Practicum” project (...) took the mic. (...)“It’s hard, if not impossible,” he said, “to stay out of the mess of politics and war when involved in the cultural realm; one is translated onto and into the other. But what I discovered through these seminars,” the artist said -- lapsing into the kind of vague academic jargon that is all too popular on the international art circuit -- “is that it’s not about finding the ‘appropriate’ translation for an idea or a context, but rather problematizing the translation process and making space for its contradictions and limitations.”
A great 360º panoramic view here.
A lot more detailed images here by Contemporary Art Daily.
Fully comprehensive website here (with videos, agenda, blog...).
One final observation from Quinn Latimer's review on Art Agenda:
"(...) despite the attention fostered by both Christov-Bakargiev herself and her critics on her vaunted interest in the nonhuman world, what I found most startling about Documenta 13 was how entirely human it was, and how engaged with the world that we (joyfully, sorrowfully, weirdly) inhabit. If that sounds lamely human-centric and passé, so be it. It’s a deeply intelligent, stringent, surprising, and entirely committed (yes, that word again) showing of the potentiality of private lives accorded the most public of stages."
And, more final statements by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev when interviewed by Rotterdam artists Bik Van der Pol: (...) "In order for democracy to move forward, we have to constitute the subject as a subject and give up any pretension of ownership and exclusivity that we might have about subjectivity. It is about empowering, and the right to determine the environment in which we all live."
More photo reports via Contemporary Art Daily and Flash Art online and Universes in Universe and preview videos via Vernissage TV and below our slideshow with over 200 pictures:
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