An Art of Institutions

Axel Straschnoy 9.12.2015

“Contra Bürger, the issue is thus not anti-art institutionalism as such, but socially alternative modes of the institutionalization of art,”
Peter Osborne, Theorem 4: Autonomy. Can it be true of art and politics at the same time?

“If a third wave of institutional critique is to succeed, it will have to make the modern truth of art, which lies buried within the art institution like a public secret, the motor of its critique. Paradoxically, this means that institutional critique must accept the institution as its ally. Not the institution in its present organisational, operations and sometimes opportunistic form, but the institution as a value regime, and keeper of an imagined ideal.”
Pascal Gielen, The Murmuring of the Artist Multitude. Global Art, Politics, and Post-fordism.

I have discussed previously how the Finnish exhibition and funding system prompts one to exhibit in non-traditional exhibition spaces. In Finland, funding is available directly to artists and even respectable venues cost money. Such a system forces one to reflect on the choice of location and consider alternative possibilities, which are specific to a project.

One is, however, often dealing with institutions when doing so. These institutions might have a mission which is not connected to exhibiting art and one is, in a way, intruding, with one’s work. Or they might be connected to art but then one’s work might not necessarily fit in the space normally allotted to it. Either way, the presence of the piece demands a change in the workings of the host institution.

Institutions as Material

Places carry meanings. A work presented within them will interact with those meanings: the location will influence the spectators’ state of mind and it will constrain what the work is or can be. Since one cannot opt out of this, however traditional the project might be, one needs to use it as a point of departure. One has to select the right location for the presentation of a project understanding that the location will influence it, and realising that the choice of place is part of the artistic choices one has to make when developing and presenting a work of art.

This is in particular the case of institutions. An institution is often a building or a set of buildings, but also a set of rules that control how it functions. It is not simply a place. It embodies ideas of being part of society, of respectable society, and of having a role in the community.

An institution is rarely under the complete command of a single person; there is a collegial character to it. The rules that govern the institution control what its members can and cannot do; they can only be changed by a collective agreement. An institution tends to behave in a certain way, depending on the perception of what it is and what it is not about. An institution has to follow its mission, the objective it was created for, which was defined at the time it was set up. In general, institutions are not open to changes.

An Art of Institutions aims to use institutions as a material in the way that canvas, paint or photographic paper are materials. Each institution will react to a project in a specific way, just as each paper or canvas will react to light or paint in a specific way. One might select a paper for a desired quality and, in turn, have to deal with other less desired qualities that come along with it. Each institution will modify the piece, regardless whether it accepts or not to participate in it. If it does, the way things happen within that specific institution will have a strong impact on the project. A collaborating institution will have its own requirements, ideas or suggestions that will modify the piece. A refusal to collaborate will also influence and leave a mark on a project. The reactions of the institutions are the formal bases for the work, meaning that not only positive reactions are sought for.

In the case of an exhibition, the production of objects for display within that institution might be the opening step in the construction of this relationship. But it is by no means the end. The formal properties of said objects will require a change in the ways the institution normally operates. The need to host these previously unfamiliar objects in a specific way puts pressure on the institution to change, to deviate from how it would normally operate.

An Art of Institutions implies not only to use institutions as envelopes, as surrounding spaces in which the work is to arrive; it requests the institutions to redefine their own way of working. Thus An Art of Institutions means working with what the institutions are and are not about, it means seeing how flexible they can be to new and different ideas, how their meanings and functions can change. In short, how an institution can become self-critical.

Axel Straschnoy is a visual artist based in Helsinki. He is currently in the midst of a multi-part traveling exhibition on the Neomylodon Listai Ameghino in collaboration with the museums of natural history that hold the remains of this fantastic animal: