From escape attempt to institutional strategy

When political rhetoric is used in the service of the art institution, the critique of the institution goes bankrupt.

Luca Frei, DK-1414, 2011.

It’s difficult to disagree with the curatorial intention of the exhibition Terms of Belonging. With a starting point in the reality of crisis and in a critique of the xenophobia which in the past decade has become a dominant political frame-story in several countries worldwide, not least in Denmark, the two curators Aileen Burns and Jonah Lundh hope, in their own words, to explore “whether there are ways we can be together in the world that aren’t overly determined by the nation state and existing law.” In response to this problematic Burns and Lundh have invited a small group of Danish and foreign artists to address questions about communal relationships and forms of being in community, along with various excluding and inclusive conditions for such ways of being in common.

Not surprisingly the artists’ works confirm the curatorial intention, at the same time that they problematize the consensual understanding of community upon which the national state builds. Symbolized in Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson’s work Your Country Doesn’t Exist – Do It Yourself (2011) – a photograph of the Icelandic ambassador to Denmark, who is painting a picture with the sentence “Your country doesn’t exist” – the national state is only present in its absence. In that sense the exhibition is not an explicit attack against the national state, but a presentation of alternative communities beyond its history, borders, and processes of territorialization. There is, for example, a documentary in text and images of Pia Rönicke and Nis Rømer’s project Gåafstand (Walking Distance), in which they arrange “guided” walking tours as occasions for an open discussion of infrastructural logic and histories in urban and suburban landscapes (the project is also represented by walking tours in Copenhagen). Althea Thauberger gathers a group of statistically representative mothers and their babies to stage a situation that deals with differences and similarities. Kasja Dahlberg has filmed the women on Femø as a prelude to the Danish general elections and arranged a collective reading of Zoe Leonard’s “I want a president….” Johan Tirén, with religious and cultural connotations, has marked an abstract line with tape on the floor of the exhibition spaces; audience members “must” remove their shoes to cross the line and come into close proximity to the works. And Olivia Plender, against the background of a survey set up for the exhibition, has created a series of graphic plates reflecting Copenhagen citizens’ self-understanding in relation to identity and communities.

Pia Rönicke & Nis Rømer, Gåafstand, 2011.

As such Terms of Belonging gathers works clearly relevant to the investigation the exhibition seeks to undertake.

The quality of the work notwithstanding, the exhibition is most interesting as a curatorial project—not because of the thematic content, but because the exhibition seems symptomatic of a real and partially new form of curation which in general terms may be called “the political” within the art institution. This form distinguishes itself partly from the analytic institutional critique that challenged “the white cube” ideology in the 60s and 70s, partly from the more activist form that grew up outside the walls of the cube through the 80s and 90s. In relation to these, Terms of Belonging operates differently—more comfortably, in a more professionalized way—within the territory of the art institution.

To push this a bit to an extreme, one might say that Terms of Belonging is a paradoxical continuation of what Lucy Lippard in her retrospective characterization of conceptual art called “escape attempts.” As with Lippard’s attempts to escape the prison of the art institution, the exhibition’s thematizing of the politics of belonging tries to create an interchange between art and social reality with the aim of challenging established rules, but in opposition to this, the exhibition does not aspire to affect the politics of the art institution. The two curators have quite certainly contracted with Superflex to break the law by committing the crime of corruption, but it’s difficult to see it as anything but an ironic alibi. Otherwise the exhibition does all the right things a “political” contemporary exhibition in the year 2011 is supposed to do. The text of the curators’ statement refers to the canon of left-oriented theory, from Brecht and Benjamin to Jean-Luc Nancy and Hardt & Negri, drawing on ideals of active audience participation and accentuating the importance of new media and the grass-roots revolutions in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. In addition there was a seminar 3 September at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in which the curators led a discussion among some of the artists and other participants in the field. And finally the exhibition has also attached a so-called “production residency” which gives artists the possibility of becoming familiar with the local milieu and establishing a dialog with it.

Superflex, Corruption Contract, 2011.

The opposition, friction, and irritation Lippard’s escape attempts tried to create have developed into an institutional strategy in the age of the educated curators, a strategy that seeks to deliver an accommodated product which can circulate more or less problem-free in the discourse economy that forms the basis of large parts of the contemporary art scene.

Perhaps the development happened with Nicolas Bourriaud’s intervention. With his concept of “relational art” he introduced a kind of cozy version of art that criticized the institution. As he writes, this form of art creates “a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within this system.” It is the same harmonious set of relations Terms of Belonging seems to have with the art institution. By way of an extension of Bourriaud the exhibition understands the political in contemporary art as an operational gesture or act, in the sense that it services—or better yet—affirms the art-institution’s self-understanding. The political is not expressive of a disagreement or an emphasis on a conflict, but is understood as a discourse which does in fact problematize, but only to the extent that it can be arranged and digested within the frameworks defined by the art institution.

In a larger sense Terms of Belonging can thus be seen in context with a tendency from the last few years in which curators, after years of experimental exhibition formats, have begun to embrace a more conventional conception of what an exhibition is. The recently opened Istanbul Biennial is a good example. Here the two curators, Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa, speak of “renewed attention to the importance of the exhibition itself” (emphasis supplied), understood as a unit clearly bounded in time and space. The model seems to be the time before conceptual art, for example MoMA after World War II, a feeling underscored by the white cubes in which the works are presented. At the same time Hoffmann and Pedrosa state that they have a political ambition. With Felix Gonzales-Torres as a reference they understand the political potential of art as a consequence of its formal language. Jacques Rancière seems to be an implicit reference. His “esthetic,” which has become part of the theoretical canon of contemporary art, distinguishes itself precisely by ideational linking of the autonomy of art and a power of political action within a modernist tradition whose origin is in the art of Flaubert’s novels.

Olivia Plender, Machine Shall be the Slave of Man, but We Will Not Slave for the Machine, 2011.

But whereas Rancière’s esthetic at the level of the work supplies a productive rethinking of the relation between the formal qualities of art and political characteristics, it is problematic and almost reactionary at the level of the system. His examples by and large are exclusively works that circulate securely and affirmatively within the system, and he ends by accepting and arguing for retaining the art institution in its given form.

Rancière’s blind spot in this context is that he does not acknowledge the theory of conceptual art, as Lippard emphasized. It is a theory that stimulates a critique of the system, not least in relation to the art institution, which is integrated in a steadily more intensive and comprehensive way into a cultural-industrial economy.

There is a great difference, of course, between the Istanbul Biennial and Terms of Belonging, but their understanding of the political beyond a challenge of the art institution is comparable. Perhaps one can grasp this accommodation to the art institution in the extension of the formalization of the curator’s role that has occurred in conjunction with the arrival of specifically curatorial education which produces curators created by the system to make a living from the system. This education teaches curators to develop a special system-intelligence which prepares them to operate in a disciplined and strategic way within the system, to create for themselves careers that service the system. Many smoothly functioning exhibitions result, but the risk of conformity is inherent.

A critical alternative to this concept of the schooled curator is to understand the curator’s role within the system as an extension of the hacker tradition. Hackers specifically do not accept the system’s given form and definition of purpose. Instead they use their intelligence about systems to challenge the system’s understanding of itself and generate tensions, spasms, and mutations which include possibilities of radical rethinking. This method also includes the risk of error, even a high risk, but here it is important to understand that the critical potential in Lippard’s escape attempts does not lie in whether they succeed, but in joining the attempt to take flight.

Translation from the Danish by Richard Simpson.

Kajsa Dahlberg, Femø Woman’s Camp 2008, film still.