Nosotros nos institucionalizamos

Text: Axel Straschnoy 21.2.2017 (1)

“… institutional critique cannot change art institutions and, at the same time, the practice of institutional critique puts the artist in a position that is, to be honest, less than sovereign […] the next step, after the long period of the institutional critique, seems to be for artists to regain their sovereignty and autonomy—in short, to institutionalize themselves.”
— Boris Groys, An Autonomous Artist

One of the classic complaints of Finnish artists is that they spend more time doing paperwork than proper artistic work. This is due, in part, to the availability of a wide array of grants and granting bodies which support both artistic productions and artists’ livelihood and, in part, to the responsibilities Finnish institutions heap on the artists they present. Even when exhibiting within an institution, it is often the artist who has to raise the funding, it is the artist who creates a mailing list and posts the invitations, it is the artist who watches over the exhibition, it is the artist who is responsible for the installation and uninstallation of his/her exhibition, it is the artist who is responsible for contacting the press, and it is the artist who is responsible for selling his/her own work. In short, while being an artist seems to happen in a sea of different institutions (some exhibition oriented, some funding oriented), it is often the artist who is the most institutional of all the actors involved in an exhibition.

Money talks, one saying goes. The customer is always right, goes the other. If artists are paying for the gallery space and doing most of the work themselves, not only is the gallery unable to run a curated agenda but also it has little leeway to have an opinion on what is being shown within its walls. Like a tenant, the artist can arrange his/her exhibition as s/he wishes. The gallery’s policy, the gallery’s line is actually being created by the artists who choose to present their work within its walls. The institution becomes a sort of hotel.

In this way, exhibition spaces cease framing artists and can only frame artworks in the most banal form: as the physical architecture that surrounds the works. The lack of curated group exhibitions or theoretical texts reflecting on the current production only makes this matter worse. The few artists working with commercial galleries will be framed by them even though there are very few galleries that are actually able to do the task properly. As a result, artists and their production remain unframed.

The only solution for this is for artists themselves to go one step further and acknowledge their own institutional role, in short, to form institutions. Not in the form of an artist association—which seems to be part of the problem—but as a structural part of their work. As I have argued elsewhere, this move is supported (in theory, at least) by a funding system which makes funding available directly to artists. Furthermore, by freeing works from the need to attach themselves to forms suitable to the current nominal institutions, becoming an institution opens up a world of ways in which art can be produced and presented to its audiences.

If an artist were to develop a kind of practice requiring a new institutional configuration in order to manifest itself, it would seem pointless to try to reform existing structures through critique or infiltration—to change the system from within—simply because these approaches only lead to a relationship of dependency. An artist today aspires to a certain sovereignty, which implies that in addition to producing art, one also has to produce the conditions that enable such production and its channels of circulation. Consequently, the production of these conditions can become so critical to the production of work that it assumes the shape of the work itself.
— Anton Vidokle

The need to construct the framing of one work is not an exclusively Finnish phenomenon. Artists worldwide are more and more concerned with constructing the conditions in which their work is to be seen, and there is a recent stream of publications reflecting on the history of the phenomenon, such as The artist as curator, edited by Elena Filipovic.(2) However, because artists are already working institutionally, because artists are funded directly and because funding decisions are being made by fellow artists, Finland offers opportunities to take advantage of this and to explore possibilities that are not available anywhere else.(3)

Becoming an institution implies not only creating your work but a framing agency for it. It makes clear that it is the artwork that creates both its public and the way in which this public can access it. And it opens an infinite realm of possibilities…

“Contra Burger, the issue is thus not anti-art institutionalized 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?


(1) The title – “We institutionalize ourselves” – paraphrases the title of the conference “Después del pop nosotros desmaterializamos” given by Oscar Masotta at the Instituto Di Tella, Buenos Aires, in 1967, where the now common concept of the dematerialization of art originally comes from. See MASOTTA, Oscar. “After pop, we dematerialize” in KATZENSTEIN, Ines (ed.): Listen Here Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s: Writings of the Avant-Garde. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004. Pages 208-215.
(3) See my previous text “Exhibiting Elsewhere” in Mustekala, 11.08.2014m URL: