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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- Photoreport and storify of the symposium "When Does an Exhibition Begin and End?", National Library of Singapore, 14 May 2014 25 June 2014
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- Lead Facilitators, Curating Lab 2014–Curatorial Intensive, National University of Singapore (11–14 June), symposium (14 June, 15–17h) and field trip to Hong Kong (16–20 June) 30 May 2014
garcía galería, Madrid
January 16–March 5, 2016
by Mariana Cánepa Luna
Francesc Ruiz’s second solo show at Madrid’s garcía galería delves into the visual communication of one of Spain’s most iconic institutions, the Sociedad Estatal Correos y Telégrafos—the national postal service, commonly known as Correos—whose graphic identity was created in 1977 by Spanish designer and artist José María Cruz Novillo (b. 1936). Ruiz’s interest is not limited to Cruz Novillo’s pervasive design, but more broadly includes Correos as an agent of distribution as well as the various commercial guises that come into play in this public service. Ruiz’s choice to focus this exhibition on the postal system, the pre-eminent pre-internet network, is not casual: through his characteristic strategy of “expanded comics” he has long been concerned with the potential of distribution and official versus alternative forms of circulation.
Originally published on art-agenda.com on 25 February 2016.
- Writing archive on Latitudes' website
- Latitudes hosts the MA Curating Contemporary Art students of the Royal College of Art in Barcelona, 7 October 2014
- art-agenda review of Andrea Büttner exhibition at NoguerasBlanchard, Barcelona, by Latitudes, 21 July 2014.
- 'THE LAST REGISTER' AVAILABLE NOW! #3 issue of the 10 Latitudes-edited newspapers for 'The Last Newspaper' exhibition, New Museum 20 October 2010
- ‘Sequelism Part 3: Possible, Probable, or Preferable Futures’, Arnolfini, Bristol, United Kingdom, 18 July–20 September 2009.
The March 2016 cover story marks the twelve of the series. This section published monthly on our home page, focuses on an artwork or moment related to our past, current or future practice – "close ups" of what we do, see and are thinking about. (When the next Cover Story is published, the March one will be archived here.)
'José Antonio Hernández-Díez. I will fear no evil' opens at MACBA’s Convent dels Àngels on 18 March 2016 (and runs until 26 June). Guest curated by Latitudes, the exhibition focuses on the Barcelona-based Venezuelan artist’s first experimental works from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The presence of ghosts and bodily organs in this phase of José Antonio’s out-of-joint art – videographic spectres, disembodied voices, preserved creatures, hearts and skin – is only enhanced by the somewhat necromantic aspect of the fact that several of his works are being reconstructed. Dealing with the symbology and spiritual practices of Catholicism, 'Sagrado Corazón Activo' (Active Sacred Heart, 1991) is one of the pieces which will be brought back to life. In a workshop in Barcelona’s Gràcia, sculptor Fernando Romeo is making its heart. Continue reading...