A conversation with Andrea Fraser

In New Habits, CASCO (Utrecht)

Andrea Fraser assures that “with each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or reintegrate it into everyday life […] we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.” (Fraser 2005, p.283) Thus, “it is not a question of inside or outside […]. It is not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of Institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.” (Fraser 2005, p. 284). For Fraser, it is not a matter of questioning art’s social impact and critique, but rather analyse its own social condition, problematizing, furthermore, the institution of art “against the critical claims of its legitimizing discourses.” (Fraser 2012, p. 30). It is in Pierre Bourdieau’s notion of `habitus´ in which Fraser finds an answers to the question of ideology, and a way to untangle Louis Althusser’s `ideological state apparatuses´. As, “habitus is the social made-body, the social-made-mind, the social internalized as schemes of perception and practice” (Fraser 2005, p. 282). Fraser conceptualizes the institution as an inherent component of her (and our) subjectivity, as “every time we speak of the `institution’ as other than `us´, we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its condition. We avoid responsibility for, or actions against, the everyday complicities, compromises and censorship -above all self-censorship- which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it.” (Fraser 2005 p. 281). Indeed, what if the way out of our contemporary and contradictory exploited art world lies within our own grasp? Could we, by inquiring into our individual habits, think of ways to break free those habits and form new ones in common? Can the art institution be constituted as a place in which these new habits are collectively discussed and its coming (autonomous) communities analysed?

Due to the historical backdrop of its new building, the site of a former Franciscan sister convent, and by taking as a major reference the analyses of the Italian Franciscan Giorgio Agamben, CASCO (Office for Art, Design and Theory) presents, in its current exhibition New Habits (1 May – 13 July 2014), a space dedicated precisely to rethink the notion of `habit´ as a form of life central to community formation. Exhibiting Fraser’s video installation Projection (2005), next to pieces such as Little Sisters (2012) by Andrea Büttner among others, CASCO proposes to treat the noun institution as a verb, maintaining that the verb institutionalization needs its counterpoint deinstitutionalization in order to find a way in which a community of self-governance may be able to sustain itself. Seeking to experiment towards such a possibility, CASCO organized, and generously hosted, a familiar seminar with Andrea Fraser, the students of the Research Master Visual Arts, Media and Architecture (Vrije University) and some members of CASCO’s staff to discuss, on the one hand, the state of our art institutions today, and on the other hand, the ability of the field of art to produce `habitus´. For Fraser, thinking in terms of `habitus´ was a way of avoiding “the fallacy of so much artistic anti-institutionalism, that we can somehow escape art institutions. In fact, these institutions exist inside of us, as `habitus´, because we have internalized them: we embody and perform them.” (Fraser 2013) Within the complexities that the analyses of the art world demands today, Fraser has directed her work, for over twenty years, to trace an interdisciplinary practice between the fields of art research, postmodern sociology, psychoanalysis and feminist theory. As she declared, “I’ve always hoped to bring together the social and economic and the psychological, sexual, and emotional: fundamentally, the personal and the political -that’s our feminist heritage. Group process was central to that feminist project, not only in terms of building a collective movement but also in terms of uncovering the constant back and forth between the individual and the social.” (Fraser 2013) A back and forth that, using Bourdieu’s lexicon, she presented in the seminar as a `dialectic of objectification and embodiment´ between `field´ and `habitus´.

Making thus clear that her approach arises from an understanding of the psychological and the social structures together, Fraser interestingly brought into the discussion the idea of `aesthetic neutralization´. Inasmuch, for Fraser, even if art discourses “speaks of [the financial and affective] world incessantly, […] they do speak so as if did not speak of it” (Fraser 2012, p. 31). Fraser affirmed, by using Bourdieu’s `artistic negation´ which primarily refers to `negation´ in a Freudian sense, how much of our contemporary art discourses are “poisonous combination of envy and guilt”. Naïve, bad faith and self-defeating forms, that “save us from confronting the social conflicts we live, not only externally but also within ourselves” (Fraser 2014). By understanding the neutralization that the `negation´ of the social produces, and thus by understanding art as a social `field´, Fraser and CASCO propose us to analyse, perform, and tweak art’s common internalized `habits´ to paradoxically be able to unlearned and refashioned them. Indeed, if as Fraser suggests `we are the institution´, it seems our duty to not locate art institutional conflicts elsewhere.  As, “while a transformation in art discourse would not, of course, resolve any of the enormous conflicts of the social world or even within ourselves, it might at least allow us to engage them more honestly and effectively” (Fraser 2012, p. 33). Overall, as Cosimo, the main character of the allegorical novel De Baron in de Bomen by Italo Calvino, learned to be frankly himself by living in the trees, it is necessary to thanks CASCO to create a temporary `art-world habitus´ in which, as Fraser proposes, we were able to imagine through this seminar new `habitus´ through honest “processes of internalization and externalization, introjection and projection” (Fraser 2014).

Comissioned by CASCO (Office for Art, Design and Theory)