[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
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.
Arles is located in the former railway yards of Arles and includes a
new building designed by Frank Gehry and the renovation of the
industrial buildings on the Parc des Ateliers by Selldorf Architects.
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
Céline Condorelli's 'All our tomorrows'
(2015) hanging curtain.
‘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.
Question from Mick Wilson, artist, educator and Head of the Valand
Academy of Arts, University of Gothernburg, Sweden, and moderatior of
one of the sessions.
Attendees gather outside the symposium venue at the Parc des Ateliers.
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
Céline Condorelli, Artist, Professor at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Milan, and Founding Co-Director Eastside Projects, in conversation with Helena Reckitt, Senior Lecturer in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Clémentine Deliss, Independent Curator and Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg).
Turning more specifically to art’s institutions, independent curator
and editor Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez argued that they are so often so
deeply implicated in an economy of precarity that they spawn new
toothless art forms of ‘safe participation’ and ‘soft interactivity’.
‘Stubborn’ institutions thus appeared to be both the problem and the
solution. Accordingly, Clémentine Deliss – recently dismissed as the
Director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt – delivered a scorching
critique of the racism and intransigence persisting in ethnographic
museums founded in the 19th century, particularly in Germany and France.
She characterised how the hundreds of thousands of objects ‘salvaged’
from the frontline of the colonial project are now trapped in a
legislative embargo, reduced to little more than dormant entries on
databases. Access to these hoards of material culture and their
restitution is critical she asserted, yet young curators are too afraid
to deal with them – contemporary art offers an easier ride.
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.
Gehry’s LUMA building will comprise
presentation and exhibition spaces, archive, library, offices, seminar
rooms, artist-in-residence facilities, café-restaurant and hotel and is
due to open in summer 2018.
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.
Ljublijanan philosopher, theoretician and artist Marina Gržinić; writer and professor Dave Beech and curator and theorist Simon Sheikh.
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
Max Andrews is a contributing editor of frieze and, with Mariana Cánepa Luna, runs Latitudes, an independent curatorial office based in Barcelona, Spain.
LUMA Foundation spaces under construction.