humans of the institution

Issue no2
April - May 2022
countryside & biennale guide

The three days conference Humans of the Institution in Amsterdam brought together curators, theorists and artists from all over the world to discuss ways to speak out about their precarious positions in the cultural field.

In these times of precarious working conditions and uncertainties, with fraudulent museum directors and lousy fees, how can the industry standards in the arts be changed? The tree-day gathering Humans of the Institution, curated by Vivian Ziherl and Anne Szefer Karlsen, features position papers, plenum sessions and discussions that deal with these topics and looks closely at who ‘makes the present.’ The conference is organized around the experiences from an international group of curators that nuances the debate through these experiences during Amsterdam Art weekend.

Part of the program is the opening of Black & Revolutionary: The Story of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud at Vereniging ons Suriname and a danceable lecture Sobredosis de amor by Ericka Florez and Hernán Barón. In Veem House For Performance, the entire space is inhabited by chairs on a silver grid, an experiment by Uglycute. Three screens and stages are placed in different directions in order to break the grid with the turning of chairs. Luckily, many plants and the calming sound of running water by the Zen fountains throughout the space soften the chaotic set up. It is a unique situation with many cultural workers from many countries, from the Americas to New Zealand, forming a rich fabric of experiences and skills that are shared and reflected upon. The ambitious program harbors many speakers and topics and make it hard to go into detail, so I will trace some trends and commonalities that stood out during the presentations and debates, since they indicate underlying concerns and subjects.

The starting point of the first day was formulated as ‘whose global, whose local.’ Director of the Van Abbe Museum Charles Esche took the audience through decades of history from the tobacco plantation to the white cube and the concept of the platform where encounter can happen, all under 10 minutes. According to Esche, we need to take account of where we are from in the case of the Van Abbe, it is the tobacco plantation in Sumatra, not the white cube which has been paid thanks to all profits made from the tobacco plantation. Esche underlines the importance of the fact that institutions are not neutral spaces, and therefore need to take a firm position. The word ‘possibility’ is an important concept that Esche mentions, since it implies something that can be created but does not exist yet. Institutions need to think about how they can create these possibilities. Lara Khaldi from Ramallah, on the other hand, works from and through a set of impossibilities and deals with the tension between the local and global art world. In order to be internationally recognized, Palestine needs a museum, but she questions whether this is really the right form to act for the the oppressed? It seems more like an impossible museum… Khaldi suggests that the museum in any case can modify their possibilities and choose to become hostile.

What is the identity of an institution and who does it want to be hostile to? This question was taken further by the next speaker, the curator Natasha Ginwala. She talks about hacking from the inside of the institution, forming trust and comradeship with artists, while being hostile against the institution. When talking about her work as curator at the Documenta 14, she mentions that it was non-national with the possibility of failure in it. And again in this case, it is important to take a position as curator and as institution and here Ginwala and Esche reach a common ground.

The key in terms of success or result seems to be the creation of local alliances. The Croatian curator Sabina Sabolović talks about her successful alliance between local Zagreb and the global. Alan Michelson shows some interesting examples from his Indigenous New York project that aims to increase the visibility of indigenous people, by creating partnerships in and outside institutions.

The alliances are crucial to create a front together, to a neo-liberal choking, nationalist governments, institutions. And Humans of the Institution does exactly this. People from all over the cultural field share their strategies and experiences in order to strengthen their positions and create a front. It allows space to think about long-term strategies instead of demonstrations, because there is a consensus among the audience and speakers that demonstrations don’t work anymore. There is a need for long distance solidarities in space and time and this conference is the beginning of that. Sharing information and skills while staying extremely local is key: ‘we don’t have to be both: global and local.’

The second day of the conference revolves around precarious practices, which seems to be a term defining the curator. The speakers talked about these precarious practices and how to work with or through them, towards an alternative or something better. Cultural theorist Antonia Majaca held a performative lecture against curating as endorsing towards finding ways to show the material and its interpretations. The paradigms to understand the contemporary, the cybernetic, ecological and left accelerationist logic, are all flawed according to Majaca. Different ways of mapping should be found, in order toquestion the confident white male curator.. She points to curating as a bitch cartography that deals with slippages and fuzzy logic. Exposing rather than exhibiting and zooming in on certain aspects. Also during the second day, the importance of taking a stance returns to the discussion: dis-identifying from power, and taking responsibility for who you invite as a curator.

Alexandria-based curator and writer Bassam El Baroni also takes up the idea of the hostile in relation to democracy and the art institute, based on the writings of philosopher Chantal Mouffe. Participation in democracy and critique of democracy are popular topics in current art discourse, but instead we need to strive for an antagonistic pluralism, which is a way of getting out of the crisis of democracy. Now, museums spread the democratic ethos, but democratizing does not solve anything and is not the end goal. How can we think about pluralism, is a question institutions should focus on instead. We need to think of new designs for pluralism and put unreason on a pedestal. One way is the institute as parliament, as a battleground, which indeed could be more productive and valuable. This new democratic design might draw on dialogue as cognitive orientation, as a shared cultivation of the space of reason as such, as Baroni formulates.

During the plenum, the majority of the speakers tap into rethinking the institution in a more practical way. Nana Oforiatta-Ayim held a fascinating presentation on an art space she founded in Ghana, where the modernist and conservative view on galleries and museums is still prevalent. Alternatively, she went beyond the western model of the white cube and employed a festival model, but also the kiosk as accessible medium, while creating new networks and ways of fitting the local in the global. Artist Matthijs de Bruijne experimented outside the conventional forms as well and observed that the art world is not progressive enough. Trade unions are, as he has experienced while working with the trade union of cleaners, who organized themselves as a democratic institution. Also Maria Hlavajova, founder and director of BAK, propagates an ‘instituting otherwise,’ a non-fascist form of living in a Foucauldian sense, meaning the fascism in our head that causes our love for power. How can we rethink the operation of power, acknowledge and rebalance it?

The third day builds on the dialogues from the conference to six intensive working groups that deal with topics such as censorship and strategy, fees and conditions, and critical regionalism. These groups are a space to take aspects of the discussions and turn them into concrete action and form solidarity, which is necessary after a long weekend of debate and thinking about the infrastructure of humans in the institution. Each group makes a statement, or firmly takes position, which will be collected and co-published by L’Internationale Online.

So, what are the action points and takeaways from the conference that can transfer tothe practices of curators, artists, and institutions? Take a position, think in possibilities (or work through impossibilities), look for alliances, make a front and dare to be hostile. Another thing that emerged often in the conversations was the emphasis on mapping, visualizing, and making graphs. Apparently we need to first map and visualize what is happening and what we are dealing with and then act. I think this is exactly what the conference did: map the humans of the institution with their precarious practices in globalizing dynamics.


All images courtesy Frontier Imaginaries and Curatorial Practice (UiB) 

Humans of the Institution, 24-27.05.2017, Veem Vloer voor Performance, Amsterdam

* Co-presented by Frontier Imaginaries and Curatorial Practice (UiB), in partnership with the DAI Roaming Assembly, Veem House for Performance, Amsterdam Art Weekend, De Appel, the Working Group hosts, and core funders Mondriaan Foundation and The Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK). Spatial design provided by Uglycute. Humans of the Institution has been initiated through dialogue between curators Anne Szefer Karlsen and Vivian Ziherl

Corine van Emmerik
is art historian

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