How Institutions Think – Thinking like a Parahost

WASTED performance, PUBLICS, 2018
WASTED performance
(PUBLICS 2018, photo: Liina Aalto-Setälä)

How Institutions Think is an issue of fundamental contemporary importance — and one that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives, and with a new sense of urgency as appears apparent here today and elsewhere.

Culture, and its Publics, is always plural, as a concept, as a contested site, as a space of production and critique, and as a vast array of discourses and institutions in different parts of the world. In this sense then, public cultures have many times and many places. It is local and global, here and there, then and now. The teaching and learning of culture as much as the studying of its disciplines such as dance, visual art, design, theatre, literature, performance, music, architecture (all in their multiple forms) more widely needs to continually question the dynamics between politics, education, research, artistic practices and their institutions. A rethinking of these relations is necessary both within and beyond the academy and art institutional walls if we are to expand our comprehension of this ‘present’ situation in time, so that we can re-imagine relations between the local, and the global, regional and national ‘presents’ during a moment of increased inequality, and political fragility for human rights across Europe and the world. This is a time of increased discrimination, structural violence, and civic uncertainty. There is a desperate anxiety for those of us who actually believe in the values and merits of art, its education, its institutional forms, and the agency and ability of art (in its many diverse forms) to critique, transform and impact the world in which we live.

One of the biggest institutional challenges is to make contemporary artistic practices more relevant to society so they can play a significant role in challenging the many prejudices associated with difference and otherness (race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality), and to make our contemporary ‘present’ more vital to the future.

In recent decades (certainly within cultural discourses), we have seen much debate over institutional critique, new institutionalism, instituent practices, and self-organization. Most often these issues of institution have been apprehended through the categories of power, hegemony, hierarchy, control, value, and discipline. Typically in these debates, we seem to reach an impasse in the contemporary dialectic of institutionalized anti-institutionalism. Instead, now it is important to look at propositions rather than reactions in a period of radical uncertainty and reactive securitizing control for us to imagine the situation in new, non-polarizing ways, beyond increasingly anachronistic and narrow geopolitical terms.

In Mary Douglas’s 1986 social anthropological work, How Institutions Think, she sought to expand upon and reimagine the numerous contemporary possibilities for — and limitations of — institutional formats, practices, and imaginaries. [1] In the book, How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse (2017), I co-edited with Lucy Steeds and Mick Wilson, we employed Douglas’s work, using her title and some of her arguments both as a polemical statement and as a loose framing device with which to look to new thinking on institutions. In particular, I am interested in how Douglas describes how different kinds of institutions allow individuals to think different kinds of thought, and to experience diverse emotions, writing that “for better or worse, individuals really do share their thoughts and they do to some extent harmonize their preferences, and they have no other way to make the big decisions except within the scope of institutions they build.” [2] In reminding us that individual cognition is socially controlled, Douglas emphasizes our responsibility for the thinking we produce through the institutions in which we take part. Clear-sighted in her vision of what is entailed and what is at stake in the process of re-thinking institutions, Douglas acknowledges that “solidarity is only gesturing when it involves no sacrifice.” [3] Hence, she poses a question for us: How are we to build and sustain institutions for art that equip ourselves and others to be aware of our inherent contradictions and yet still “make the big decisions”?

Douglas is less a foreboding omnipresence than a proximate spectre. Taking up her theory of institutions being a social construct, we might begin by stating that thinking itself is dependent upon institutions. This thinking acknowledges that when we ‘think institution’—however critically we imagine ourselves to be thinking—we are already implicated in an institutionalizing process, and are formed, or even confined, by our experience of institutions. Proceeding from this point, we might hope to reconsider the practices, habits, models, revisions, and rhetoric of institution and anti-institution in contemporary cultural discourses, by considering themes of epistemic practice, of cognition and social bond, of power/knowledge, and of institution as an object of inquiry across multiple disciplines, including political theory, organizational science, and sociology.

Some of the questions in need of further address include: Is institution building still possible, feasible, or desirable? Are there emergent future institutional models for progressive art and curatorial research practices? How do we legitimate or challenge institutions? When do acts of constituting become the act of instituting? How do we know when institutions make decisions, and whether these decisions are built upon ethical principles? Can we institute ethical principles and build institutions accordingly? If so, for whom are we building these future institutions? In what ways can we think extra-institutionally, contra-institutionally, non-institutionally, para-institutionally? How serious are we really, when we claim to wish to build our future institutions together?

Pedagogical or curatorial institutions – the art academy, the museum, the gallery, the theatre – are institutionally entwined, but more widely I have been asking myself what is the institutional basis for art’s exhibition, its experience production, and discussion, in the public sphere. It is needed to look to all forums or hubs that operate over time to sustain art’s capacity to question, provoke, and inspire people in general, while defending the value of the cultural voice distinct from government and commerce. This means that we traverse the institutional field from the museum to the artist collective, from the art academy to the research network, and from the privately funded to the state sponsored – all while foregrounding cross-cutting initiatives.

The tradition of curatorial development within Western Europe and North America would conventionally point us toward a trajectory for and around art that starts with institutional critique in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, then progresses to artist-activist interventions in the 1980s, and experiments in curatorial institutionalism in the 1990s – with alternative spaces, self-organizations and instituent practices that reject formation, increasingly threading their way in between and beyond as we move into the new century. The rise of the creative or cultural industries — and indeed algorithmic institutions that respond to logistical capitalism and are thereby only nominally public – brings us up to the present moment. While this trajectory has the merit of having been tested over the past years, it excludes as much as it includes, and does not account for the way in which already invented institutional types might suddenly offer themselves for full or partial revival under new circumstances at almost any moment. Allowing histories and forms of institution to be reimagined must be done in tandem with any mapping of new possibilities that present themselves in our current conditions – hearing and learning from specific places and practices that are perhaps less widely known and can offer some ways forward.

It is useful to retain a productive tension between any attempts to rethink the historical modernist project as anchored in Europe for our post-Euro-colonial times, and the work of de-modernizing, or of looking elsewhere for anchors and historical mirrors that might inform institutions as they go forward. This tension is arguably one of the most important reasons why it would be foolish to attempt to pin down a single institutional history that would inevitably reify certain practices or contingent decisions, while ignoring a wider field of political, commercial, and globalizing pressures that force the hand of many institutional actors.

For this reason, we should enable a breadth of positions, rather than any fixed conclusions about institutional thinking. With reference to the work of Chantal Mouffe, to represent agnostic pluralism as a form of learning from each other. To appropriate the words of Ludwig Fleck, via Mary Douglas, we could aim to build “a thought collective” – such a phenomenon being most simply understood as a community or constituency of persons mutually exchanging ideas and maintaining intellectual interaction. [4] As a call to reflect upon how institutional practices inform art, curatorial, educational, and research practices as much as how they shape the world around us, it is essential to implement a work-together methodology, combining and sharing networks and knowledge resources, we might begin to conceptualize and build possible institutions/anti-institutions. At the same time, to be wary of how any collective can itself verge upon institutionalization, so it is important to bring in new partners, voices and thinkers to our institutions at all times, regardless of how conflictual or divergent they may be to our own.

Bookies independent book fair, PUBLICS 2018
Bookies independent book fair (PUBLICS 2018, photo: Noora Lehtovuori)

More than considering how institutions ‘think’ at present, we might ask: What are the models, resources, skills and knowledge needed to develop a new, innovative and progressive research-led institution? Is such a thing possible? Will it ever be? Can it be realised in tandem with its publics, its collaborators, its guests? Obviously I believe such a model remains a real potentiality and is something we are trying to do in Helsinki with PUBLICS. It is an evolving co-operative, research-based art project enacted together with others in public, in practice as a critical method of listening, sharing, and being open to a decolonizing of what we think we know by supporting the curatorial needs of others.

More than ever, we need to look after each other, one another, and to take care of ourselves. How can this spirit of care constitute a productive way of working together institutionally, organisationally, curatorially? One concrete way we have been doing this is through our Parahosting Programme at PUBLICS, which began in the Autumn of 2018, and has grown into a key method of decentering authorship, or self-critiquing PUBLICS’ own elective curatorial agency. As the parahost, PUBLICS offers its space, its staff; resources, time, knowledge and funding to provide support for the curatorial ideas of others, and to parahost those initiatives who are in need of space to practice and to support the realisation of their projects publicly and who do not have the resources to do so. PUBLICS continues to host other peoples, other bodies and their ideas, and allows its identities to be taken over, and on many levels, we will be preoccupied by our guests. PUBLICS takes care of its para-sites, its para-institutions, its para-guests. Its space continues to become increasingly the workspace of other curatorial initiatives.

‘Parahosting’ is a flexible, evolving, expanding, and sometimes messy, programme of residencies, performances, talks, and discursive events. Although it now has a list of protocols to adhere to, it often culminates in multiple educational formats, and hybrid exhibition forms, with many different levels of co-production. [5] Paraguests have stayed with us for a day or a year, where we do what is needed to make their proposals happen. Each guest brings with them different needs, expectations, diverse ideas and often divergent publics. [6]

Installation view with Gordon Hall
Installation view with Gordon Hall (Higher! Higher! Lower, Lower. Louder! Louder! Softer, Softer, Shimmer 2020)

One example of the evolution is PUBLICS’ year-long project with Shimmer, Rotterdam, which began with us co-hosting a small exhibition of three sculptures by artist Gordon Hall at PUBLICS, alongside a performative live reading of Gordon’s writing with Gordon, Eloise Sweetman and Jason Hendrik Hansma from Shimmer in parallel to Shimmer’s evolving exhibition involving Gordon’s work in Rotterdam. Through extended dialogue between us about listening and reading aloud, this parahosting expanded into ACROSS THE WAY WITH… as a co-selected and expanding series of informal readings of, with, and about intimacy in the public domain with readings by invited readers from across the world. [7] The project origates as Shimmers idea but it co-programmed, and together we are thinking about the texture of the voice, the rhythm of a body, the poetic and artistic forms of writing, and how these forms of intimacy can be ‘voiced’ publicly. Together with Shimmer, we helped create a space that is both public and intimate, digital and analogue, distant and in proximity. We created an online platform as a support structure for the act of reading aloud for others and with others, and which we were planning already before the current pandemic, but somehow seems somewhat more timely now. For the audience, it is the intimate act of being read to, to experience the intimate texture of the voice, the rhythm of breathing, the digitized voice streaming to you. In this way, rather than creating a ‘reading group’ for discussion, we create a space for the phone in the pocket heard at work, in the kitchen, or the laptop taken to bed. ACROSS THE WAY WITH… is a resource, a place available to contemplate, to flesh out the possibilities of access, a site that goes beyond our individual networks, and our own physical and spatial limitations.

Parahosting is a practice of doing something ‘other than’, ‘beside’, ‘outside’, or ‘auxiliary’ to, and operating at a distance from the main act of curating exhibitions. Through acts listening and taking care of para-guests, para-sites, and para-institutions, ‘parahosting’ is an essential means of working together without boundaries or containment. ‘Parahosting’ is proposed as being central to how we can work without prioritizing our own authorship, and as a progressive terrain for organisational praxis that both operates within the curatorial paradigm and retains a destabilizing relationship to it via (para-)texts, sites, works and institutes. In this sense, ‘parahosting’ is a useful term to describe transitional temporal processes of engagement with people taking precedence over exhibitions or productions as the primary end product.

In the face of such a reductive scenario, ‘Parahosting’ proposes an evolving field of operations that persists in resisting the established order of things as part of the destabilizing curatorial constellation.

Paul O’Neill

Dr. Paul O’Neill is an Irish curator, artist, writer and educator based in Helsinki. He is the Artistic Director of PUBLICS since 2017. 

The original basis of this text stems from the introductory notes that led to the introduction for the anthological publication Paul O’Neill, Lucy Steeds, Mick Wilson, eds., How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, (CCS Bard College, LUMA Foundation and MIT Press, 2017), PP. 20-22. It has developed from there through a lecture initially delivered at Pori Art Museum in 2019 and  developed in subsequent lectures in Berlin, St. Petersburg and elsewhere in parallel to setting up PUBLICS Parahosting Programme in Helsinki.


[1] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986) p. 128.

[2] Ibid., p.4. See Paul O’Neill, Lucy Steeds, Mick Wilson, eds., How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, (CCS Bard College, LUMA Foundation and MIT Press, 2017), PP. 20-22.

[3] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986), p.12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See

[6] As PUBLICS Programme Manager Eliisa Suvanto states: ‘PUBLICS Parahosting Programme was first, partly through circumstances and necessity, introduced through a durational project that was outlined, rehearsed and finally performed at PUBLICS. The working group, WASTED, constituted seven practitioners from varied backgrounds within arts. The project realized in September 2018 looked at labor and more specifically “how work life would be if we were to view it through the lense of sustainability and care?”. The question of care has since the beginning of PUBLICS been one of the key operative principles and has led us to nourish long-term relationships, such as working with an artist Jeanne van Heeswijk whose practice is rooted in the framework of togetherness and commitment. We can often think “care” is a straightforward act where the carer is simply “looking after” or “taking care of” things and people. But caring is also uneasy, full of weight, often distressed and disproportionately unbalanced. Collective caretaking holds multitudinous desires, some already shared while some may not be fully tangible yet. When describing “Strange Encounters”, Sara Ahmed says: “I was very interested there in the actual, the everyday way in which an individual body moves and negoti­ates its relationship to space. It is how we are talking about the constitution of spaces as being for bodies.” But all bodies are not the same as some bodies are always more comfortable than others. An institutional body is composed of elements–an individual and a collective memory, power and authority, encounters and collaborations, private and public funds, internal strategies and external evaluations, emerging talents and those who we call the pioneers, success stories and failed projects–that reside next to the smaller units equally vital to us. While our body maintains the structure that supports the system, cells are the building blocks. One can argue if the existing structure can be challenged through short-term experiments and timescales. Although we have had over twenty projects, I mention WASTED here not only because their project unofficially launched PUBLICS’ Parahosting Programme but more because their–at times chaotic, and perhaps more individually practiced rather than collectively claimed–actions were able to bend our composition and demonstrate our own limitations.’ WASTED was Roy Boswell, Laura Jantunen, Sonya Lindfors, Pauliina Sjöberg, Kristian Palmu & Anni Puolakka: WASTED 2018. See  For Ahmed citation see: Schmitz, Sigrid/Ahmed, Sara, ‘Affect/Emotion: Orientation Matters. A Conversation between Sigrid Schmitz and Sara Ahmed,’ FZG, 2-1014, pp. 97-108.

[7] See