To shape or to serve?

The museum still dominates the horizon of our material culture. The institutional practice of display, which can include organization, classification or selection of objects, deploy value that control the way we decipher our past (O’Neil 2007, p.14). However, art institutions can also reflect on specific contradictions in society, and therefore, the museum, which is the most authoritative of the art institutions, may allow at some point to govern the construction of our present and also our future to come.

An attempt to rehabilitate the criticality of the exhibition space remerged in the 1960s and 70s by the first wave of Institutional Critique with artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher and Robert Smithson among others, whom reflected on the authoritarian role of the cultural institution and tried to reveal the entangled relationships between cultural production and the corporate institution. Moreover, Institutional Critique connected method and object: the method being the critique and the object the institution (Sheikh 2006). While very different, these artists engaged with a critique against the (art) institution, questioning its ideological and representative social functions and exposing their implications on the authoritarian legitimation of the nation state. Contrary to Peter Bürger, Benjamin Buchloh argues that Institutional critique “turned [the self-reflexivity of conceptual practice] back onto the ideological apparatus itself, using it to analyse and expose social institutions from which the laws of positivist instrumentality and the logic of administration emanate in the first place” (Buchloh 1997, p.52).

In earlier forms of institutional critique, the physical condition of the exhibition space remained the primary point of departure. Michael Asher and Hans Haacke, among others, created pieces to exist in a certain place, each of which reacted against the modernist object and hence inaugurated an inextricable and indivisible relationship between the work and its side. Robert Barry declared in 1969 that his pieces were “made to suit the place in which [they are] installed”, and in that sense they “cannot be moved without being destroyed” (Barry 1969, p.22). Site-specific practices, therefore, incorporated the physical conditions of a particular location in an attempt to rehabilitate the criticality associated with non-commercial art. These artists were not so interested on the critique of the cultural confinement of art via its institutions but rather presented an engagement with site-oriented practices that brought back the interest to unite art with the everyday life. It is in the late 1980s and 90s, in the so-called second wave of Institutional critique, that putting aside the resistance to undermine institutional authority from the first wave, artists engaged with the notion of art as something that isn’t an object, in which the work of art was an “encounter of the demands of the place and the methods of producers” (Meyer 1994). In Art and Contemporary Critical Practice (2009) Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray argue that the second wave of Intitutional Critique had been pushed to new directions due to the global transformations of contemporary life. Now, the interrogation of the relations between institution and critique was enriched by the influence of social movements, which incorporated a preoccupation on the relationship to the actuality of a location and the social conditions of the institutional frame. The museum is conceptualised here as a field of knowledge, as a place for intellectual exchange or as a platform for cultural debate (Fraser 2005, p.127).

For years, the analyses of the white cube as a stable and monolithic entity have marginalized the reflection of the exhibition space as a place for dialogical encounter. Since the 1990s, however, many key independent curators have been hired directors of major European art centres, in which they have initiated a new interest in curating’s expanded field. Charles Esche, director of the Van Abben Museum, argues that the museum should be a “radical democratic space for free-form discussion on how things could be otherwise”. Nonetheless, the conception of the institution as a site for necessary and actual struggle for hegemony, requires actors who are able to effectively shape and influence. Institutions are not merely abstract formations that are either dominant or marginal, but hey do need visitors that are not subservient to or at mercy of structural entity. Therefore, this is a change in which we must all be involved.

Published in Beyond the Walls.