Curating as institutional critique?
Symposium Kunsthalle Fridericianum

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

What are the possibilities, opportunities as well as the limitations of current critical curating? On the 26th and 27th of March the symposium ‘Institution as Medium’ subtitled ‘Curating as institutional critique?’ took place at the Documenta Hallen in Kassel, discussing the current state of institutional critique.

Throughout two days the intention was to discuss the possibilities and opportunities as well as the obstacles and impossibilities of critical curating within the exhibition format, art institutions and exhibition paradigms. In the outline of the symposium the organisers (among others Dorothee Richter and Fridericianum director Rein Wolfs) define critical curating as overcoming entrenched structures and reinventing the institution, museum, exhibition hall and art society. They talk about developing socio-politically relevant exhibition formats or challenging cultural-historical facts and myths, as well as politicizing the narration of ‘shown’ content concerning gender issues, migration, economy. However throughout the presentations this proposition was predominantly anchored on the question whether such a meta-level approach is at all possible.


On Friday morning Oliver Marchart (Professor at the University of Luzern) discussed the politics of ‘biennialisation’ and voiced his reservations towards Documenta 12, curated by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack. He substantiated his general point that large-scale exhibitions such as Documenta are hegemony machines, by pointing out that subjects and subject-positions are only the effects of hegemonic discursive formations. He argued that Documenta 12 had depoliticized whatever political art it showed by taking an aestheticising approach to art and that it had marginalized theoretical contextualization by outsourcing the reflection. This raises the question whether an aesthetical approach can at all have a political impact and in the context of this symposium whether a political approach necessarily generates criticality?

Maria Lind (Director, Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY) briefly situated the historical context of Institutional Critique. She identified it as a fundamental subject in 16th century institutions where it was a vehicle to communicate the wish to govern ‘otherwise’. This historical trace makes us wonder if the recent discussion on the binary inside – outside position from which one operates in order to be critical is at all relevant. According to her, institutional critique is going through four or even five phases. Exemplified by the practice of artists such as Carey Young, Lind characterises this fourth phase as a vague critique on the whole apparatus of the art-system from an inside position. The fifth phase then draws on the position taken by ‘institution builders’ often referring to the ‘educational turn’ where cultural producers set up their own institutions such as Anton Vidokle and e-flux. To conclude her talk Maria Lind shared her opinion on the overstated believe in the role of an individual exhibition and states that the joint venture between institutional critique and curatorial practice is volatile.

The following, slightly more pragmatic talks were interspersed with the occasional artist’s performance or screening. Artist San Keller staged a lengthy public discussion with Rein Wolfs on Keller’s upcoming exhibition, concerned with the responsibility of the artist and the curator, and as such in a literal manner institutional critique was performed and incorporated.


The second day of the symposium started with a controversial talk by Helmut Draxler (author of Curating Fatigue) ‘Ecstasy in Mediation’. It related the exploding cultures of mediation (biennials, symposia, publications) to the shift of institutions from executing a given canon to an open and flexible approach, allowing and even welcoming inside and outside critique. These institutions therefore find themselves in a state of permanent reform that is of course nothing new, though it makes you wonder what it is that constitutes this ‘institution’ today. Draxler states that in parallel the independent curator, reputed to build and maintain a more immediate, personal relation to the artist, is incorporated and we can talk about a general institution of curating. He disagrees with Beaudrillard that only mediation is left, but rather considers mediation as a productive format able to show the immediate, the unmediated. Mediation, for him, is in constant need to signify something and as such it always refers to the unmediated. The type of mediation he argues for is the ecstatic one in the tradition of Eisenstein’s over-involved actor. Ecstacy he considers not only to be an expressionist attitude but as a political intention. Is it a confirmative strategy and a useful tool to expand cultures of mediation, and a way not to distinguish the critical from the aesthetic?

Giavanni Carmine (Director Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen) and Hassan Khan (artist, based in Cairo) finally asked what good could come from a politically untainted position, so free from all power struggles. And I wonder whether this critical position has become the ethical guideline. If so for Hassan the ‘dirt’ is most interesting, certainly more than the abstract and pure. He continued by describing two types of curators he likes to work with; The ‘über-professional’ distant curator on one side, and the personally engaged, the one that immerses himself, on the other. In the first case it is clear why you are in the relationship and the second one is often messy but overly involved so in both cases what is at stake is valued.

After this stimulating and energetic discussion, the symposium returned to presentations that pragmatically reproduced examples avoiding provocative thoughts or constructive claims. However the two days enabled the professional audience to gain a comprehensive overview on the current state of institutional critique in its many forms and opened the discussion on its role and outcomes. Perhaps an elaboration on the current political and socio – economical situation would have been interesting, to understand why a certain strategy or practice is or isn’t effective. I’m thinking of possible alignment as we know them in some historical moments when theory, practice and politics find the right balance to shake and alter a situation. Referring back to Maria Lind’s comment in the overstatement in the believe in the effect of one exhibition - what would happen if we actively addressed programming as a curatorial strategy rather then the individual exhibition.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020