Pluralising the Institution: On the Conference ‘Institutions by Artists’

Liz Park

Contexts / 20.12.2012

View of the debate ‘Is there space for art outside the market and the state?’ during the conference ‘Institutions by Artists’, Vancouver, 12–14 October 2012. Photograph: Ian Barbour. Courtesy Institutions by Artists, Vancouver

‘What does it mean to think personally about one’s critical investments, especially for those of us who are not artists but who have had intimate relationships with artist-run projects?’ Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson posed this question during a session at ‘Institutions by Artists’, a three-day conference that brought over fifty speakers from around the world to Vancouver, Canada on 12–14 October 2012.1 In urging for a personal reflection on artist-run projects, Bryan-Wilson dug deep into the motivations that drove the conference, the speakers and the attendees: we were gathered there to think through the complicated relations artists have to the institution of art, as well as how these shifting relations challenge, transform and expand our role – whether we are artists, curators, writers or administrators – as contributors to the discourse of art.

The title ‘Institutions by Artists’ hints at the mutability of relations among artists and other art professionals within the bounds of what remained largely undissected that weekend: ‘the institution’. The closest the conference came to tackling the term was during the opening plenary, when the artist, and programming chair of the conference, Kristina Lee Podesva offered another way of looking at the institution through the work of the Portuguese anthropologist João de Pina-Cabral. Departing from de Pina-Cabral’s idea that institutions are not static organisations but representative of relational processes of sociality, Podesva described the practice of ‘institutions by artists’ as ‘a discursive formation that wrests the institution of art from the gallery and museum, and relocates it in the field of relations among artists living and working in the world’.

View of the presentation by Concrete House during the session 'Intimate Institutions' at the conference ‘Institutions by Artists’, Vancouver, 12–14 October 2012. Photograph: Ian Barbour. Courtesy Institutions by Artists, Vancouver In pluralising the institution as well as the artist, this conference created a chain of allies engaged in practices that question this singular institution.

What does it mean for artists to embrace the role of the author/producer in relation to ‘the institution’? In contrast to the flexibility with which Podesva understands the term, the common use of the definitive article recalls how ‘the institution’ had previously been defined by Institutional Critique. In her article ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’ Andrea Fraser argues that, as participants in the field of art, we cannot escape the singular institution since we embody and internalise the system that defines what we do as art. For Fraser, ‘we are the institution’;2 whereas for Podesva, we create institutions. In pluralising the institution as well as the artist, this conference created a chain of allies engaged in practices that question the singular institution, understood as a hegemon that lays out the measuring sticks against which to evaluate success in art. This is not to suggest that the convened speakers were coming from marginal positions: well-recognised names such as Anton Vidokle of e-flux and AA Bronson of General Idea lent much cultural capital to the convention. Importantly, however, the conference was held under the auspices of the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference (ARCA), an organisation that represents approximately 170 artist-run centres and collectives in Canada. Mainly attended by artists taking on additional roles as administrators, curators or writers across these institutions, the atmosphere at the conference was indeed one that fostered the building of relationships and alliances.

View of of the session 'States and Markets' during Vector Collective member Matei Bejenaru's presentation. Photograph: Ian Barbour. Courtesy Institutions by Artists, Vancouver

The oldest of these artist-run centres emerged in the late 1960s and the early 70s, when the federal granting body Canada Council for the Arts began to financially support their activities. This period was also marked by much advocacy work by formal and informal groups such as Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC), which, to this date, determines the minimum fee artists in the country must be paid. In an anthology of the same title published by the conference organisers, Montreal-based curator Vincent Bonin charts out the history of artist-run activities in Canada as well as of the major critiques levelled against them – i.e. their progressive bureaucratisation and their eventual transformation into miniature institutions.3 Bonin follows the parallel tracks of Institutional Critique in the United States and artistic self-determination in Canada, concluding that in the face of the institution’s tendency to co-opt experimentation and subsume critique, in the 1990s Canadian artist-run initiatives faced a similar impasse to that experienced by artists associated with Institutional Critique. Bonin describes this moment as a realisation of how ‘one could not be inside and outside the institution’.4

I see this conference as a way of moving forward from this point of impasse. With the hindsight of a decade, artists, curators, critics, academics, administrators, art students and programme officers from various funding bodies gathered for the conference in Vancouver to collectively explore their relationship to the current state of contemporary art and the larger forces that influence the institutions of art. The conference explicitly recognised our role in creating and maintaining not one but various institutions of art, and replaced the question of the inside vs. outside with an enquiry on what kind of institutions we are creating, and how and to what end. In this regard, two keynote sessions appropriately took the form of an Oxford-style debate with a panel of three speakers on each side arguing for or against the questions: 1. Is there a space for art outside of the state and the market?; 2. Should artists professionalise?

Given the crisis of the market and the slashing of state money for arts and culture in Europe and elsewhere, the first debate felt particularly urgent. Arguing for an autonomous space for art were artists Deirdre Logue, Matei Bejenaru and art historian and critic Jaleh Mansoor, while artists Dirk Fleischmann, Gregory Sholette and Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars argued against it. The speakers worked with varied definitions of the terms ‘the state’ and ‘the market’, with Sholette providing a Marxist analysis of the market within which art production and consumption take place, and Mansoor offering more historically specific ways of tracing back the art market and the state (reframed as the state-apparatus of the museum) to their origins in the mid-nineteenth century. However diffuse the definitions may have been, there was an agreement that a certain crisis loomed large: on the 'yes' side of the question of space for art outside the state and the market, Mansoor argued that we must necessarily seek such a space, because both state and market are on the brink of collapse; and on the 'no', Sholette suggested that by stripping away the mechanisms of protection and state control, in its extreme form neoliberal capitalism lays bare the limits to capital.

View of the debate 'Should artists professionalise?’ during the conference ‘Institutions by Artists’, Vancouver, 12–14 October 2012. Left to right: Jeff Derksen, Candice Hopkins, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Sam Gould, Claire Tancons, Tania Bruguera. Photograph: Ian Barbour. Courtesy Institutions by Artists, Vancouver

The second debate also seemed to reach a similar convergence point. Arguing for artists’ professionalisation were Bryan-Wilson, poet and academic Jeff Derksen and curator Candice Hopkins, and vehemently against were artist Tania Bruguera, artist and co-founder of collective Red 76 Sam Gould and curator Claire Tancons. While the 'yes' side argued for professionalisation as a form of subversion, the 'no' side warned against the dangers of wearing a managerial mask, which, as Gould alerted, could end up becoming the real face of the artist. The idea of mimicry or parody was widespread among the speakers who presented themselves under the auspices of an institution at the conference. The Museum of Non Participation in London, the Feminist Art Gallery in Ontario (‘with its irresistible acronym FAG’),5 Johannesburg-based Center for Historical Reenactments and even Bruguera herself, with her ongoing project Immigrant Movement International (2010–ongoing), are examples of artists’ initiatives that appropriate the language of various state-apparatuses for artistic purposes. Furthermore Hopkins stated that professionalisation appears to be ‘a natural impulse to marginal conditions’ and gave examples of artists-run institutions that aim to provide opportunities for those excluded from the mainstream. She thus argued for professionalisation as a way of carving out a space outside of the institution, echoing the previous evening’s debate.

Bruguera piercingly asked who benefits from the professionalisation of artists; Tancon’s answer was ‘the art system’, a moniker for the institution. In other words, one may ask whether professionalisation implies collusion with the institution of art. However, given the previous discussions on institutionalisation as a strategy of subversion, parody and infiltration, conceiving of professionalisation as merely feeding the hegemony of the institution seems to be too narrow a perspective. Borrowing ideas from literary scholar Yuri Lotman, Derksen spoke eloquently of professionalisation as setting up alternative structures to open up a space of potentiality. In summary, Derksen advocated for an artistic engagement with the existing structures of the hegemonic institution of art by creating parallel institutions with different political and artistic goals. I see this process as the key operation of institutions by artists whereby the institution, in its singular form, can come under scrutiny.

View of the debate 'Should artists professionalise?’ during the conference ‘Institutions by Artists’, Vancouver, 12–14 October 2012. Left to right: Sam Gould, Claire Tancons, Tania Bruguera. Photograph: Ian Barbour. Courtesy Institutions by Artists, Vancouver

As Bryan-Wilson reminded the audience during the debate, the definition of ‘artist’ is also wide-ranging in the uneven terrain of contemporary art; one could even say that it’s much more slippery than the term ‘institution’. If the questions posed by the conference cannot have a straight answer, perhaps the main success of ‘Institutions by Artists’ was to bring together such a diverse group of artists to explore how we can collectively change the apparatus of production and enter into a process of becoming in a shared field of relations, as per de Pina-Cabral’s definition of the institution. That is, rather than feeling paralysed by its singular definition, perhaps we should look instead at the various ways and degrees in which we are circumscribed by numerous and mutable institutions as a generative mode of self-reflexivity.

  1. Video documentation of all the sessions is available at the conference’s website:

  2. Andrea Fraser, ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’, Artforum, vol.44, no.1, September 2005, p.283.

  3. See Vincent Bonin, ‘Here, Bad News Always Arrives Too Late’, in Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Lee Podesva (ed.), Institutions by Artists: Volume One, Vancouver: Fillip Editions and Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, 2012, pp.49–79.

  4. Ibid., p.71.

  5. In a presentation of the activities of Feminist Art Gallery at the conference, co-founders Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell described the acronym as ‘irresistible’. I also could not resist using this acronym in the text.