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Kuba Szreder

Institutional Experiments: Progressive Responses to the Dissolution of Autonomous Art


This paper will review the theoretical implications of experiments undertaken in recent years by leading institutions devoted to contemporary art, experiments interpreted as progressive responses to the dissolution of the autonomy of art. I will refer to such examples as the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), SALT in Istanbul, Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (VAM), Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, BAK and CASCO from Utrecht, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (Museo Reina Sofía), the International Association and Museum of Arte Útil (Arte Útil meaning “useful art”), and the L’internationale coalition of European museums. I will analyze how these institutions – searching for a new formula called the “Museum 3.0” – are transforming themselves by supporting artistic practices that transgress the conventions of autonomous art and by establishing connections with their publics (reframed as constituents and users). I will argue that in doing so, these institutions are reformulating distinctions fundamental to the modernist institution of art, such as the distinction between high art and popular culture, symbolic and financial value, aesthetic uselessness and instrumental use, refined and low taste, a proper bourgeois public and its deviant Others (women, workers, and colonized people), and the institutional inside and outside. Such institutions are championed as progressive responses to the double challenge posed by neoliberal capitalism and aggressive nationalism. As stated by Jesús Carrillo, former director of public programs at the Museo Reina Sofia:

The very concept of the public institution is under siege both by corporations that seek to take it over and use its prestige for their own interests, and by reactionary powers who have established culture as a battlefield on which to fight their ‘culture wars’ against the coming of ‘barbarians', being either ‘radicals’ or, simply, “common people’. The democratization of our cultural institutions is the only vaccine against this state of affairs. It should affect its different stages: management structures, labor organization, decision-making methods, programming, budget, and the very definition of the architecture and the circulation of people.1

Museum with traces of being used, commissioned for the exhibition Making Use. Life in Postartistic Times, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016, image by Krzysztof Pyda

A feeling of shared urgency emerges in other texts written by directors, curators, and theoreticians working in the field of contemporary art. I propose here to consider such formulations not as mere empty rhetoric, but as signals of an institutional revival which responds not only to rising authoritarianism and rampant capitalism, but also - or even especially - to the ongoing process of the dissolution of artistic autonomy.

The examples of progressive institutional experiments which I am going to discuss here continue the traditions of new institutionalism from the 1990s and 2000s, a movement to reform contemporary art institutions by implementing progressive ideals in institutional praxis.2 Some of the people quoted here – such as Maria Lind or Charles Esche – were active proponents of this movement back in its heyday. Respectively, some of the institutions to which I refer, like VAM, Museo Reina Sofia or Moderna Galerija, have already been analyzed as iterations of radical museology.3 During the recent decade, when the notions and models discussed here originated, the democratic crisis and the acceleration of global capitalism escalated, threatening the very existence of the social institution of autonomous art, to a point where its current and future existence cannot be taken for granted.

The dissolution of artistic autonomy

Progressive artistic institutions experiment with their apparatuses in a socio-political landscape changed by the tectonic shifts caused by the eroding autonomy of art. In the assumption that the social institutions and ideological edifices, which support the autonomy of art, have weakened or even dissolved (both in response to external pressures and as a result of internal developments), I am merely following a host of other scholars and practitioners, who have analyzed this process and its implications since the 1970s. One of the most interesting takes on the conceptual dynamics of this process was formulated by Jerzy Ludwiński, whose theories of art in a post-artistic age responded to what he perceived as the dissolution of art as a result of the conceptual revolution in art as early as the 1970s. In 1971 Ludwiński declared: “Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities.”4 As Magdalena Ziółkowska recounts, while discussing Ludwiński’s concept of the museum of current art, he formulated this model in response to the processes of dematerialization, deskilling and dissolution of art.5 To discuss art mixing with science, technology, and philosophy he coined such terms as “art facts” and “impossible art” – artistic materialisations and conceptualisations, which could not be easily identified as art objects, but which, as he concluded “offered much greater possibilities.,” in his formulations, Ludwiński was not alone, as similar ideas were propagated by Lucy Lippard and other representatives of the second avant-garde from 1960s and 1970s like Alan Kaprow, Art and Language, Artist Placement Group, etc.

Opening the museum, image commissioned for the exhibition Making Use. Life in Postartistic Times, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016, image by Krzysztof Pyda

The dissolution of artistic autonomy is thus not a sudden rupture, but rather an ongoing deconstruction of the institution of art. In contrast to Ludwiński, I use this term with deliberate irony, as I discuss the dissolution of autonomous art in the social and economic circuits of late capitalism, almost half a century after Ludwiński formulated his optimistic vision. Even though the dissolution I have in mind is a process of a different ilk, I am very far from deriding it for being outright negative. I consider the dissolution of the institutional and ideological framework sustaining artistic autonomy from a more dialectic standpoint, as an opportunity to progressively reach out beyond its eroding boundaries.

While analyzing the process of dissolution, it is important not to idealise the modernist notion of autonomy. The modernist institution of autonomous art, or more precisely – the autonomous field of artistic production – has been thoroughly analyzed in the social theory of art. The field of autonomous art formed an ever-expanding ideological and institutional framework, which conferred the status of art on “mere” objects and enabled attribution of their authorship. The field was constituted by social relations between artists, critics, gallerists, curators, and various institutions (i.e. museums, galleries, magazines), with its own market and capitals, based on a relatively autonomous system of values, in which symbolic recognition might count more than direct financial rewards. As Pierre Bourdieu (among many others) analyzed in his insightful treatises on the rules of art, even in its heyday the bourgeoisie field of art was part of the field of power — art was a way of acquiring status, art works were sold, art careers were limited to people who could afford such sacrifices, and refined tastes were a way of creating social distinctions.6 But, as Bourdieu emphasizes, the ideal of artistic autonomy was a foundational concept for this specific field, which in the name of art resisted external influences, derided the shallowness of capitalism, and despised bourgeoisie values. Obviously, modernist art institutions contributed to national and colonial projects, as analyzed by Tony Bennett referring to examples of 19th century museums.7 But they did so by concealing their own political embeddedness and appealing to universal ideals of aesthetics and reason, the resulting tension identified and disrupted by institutional critique.

Alexander Alberro underlines the fact that proponents of institutional critique from the 1960s onwards (such as Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson, Marcel Broodthaers, or Andrea Fraser) challenged corrupted forms of artistic institutions in the name of the ideals that these institutions were supposed to uphold.8 Writing in a similar vein, Lucy Lippard expressed her disappointment with the failed promises of conceptual art, which by the 1970s had already been commercialized by the gallery system.9 Working on a more theoretical level, Peter Bürger criticized the second wave of the avant-garde from the 1960s and 1970s precisely for its unwillingness to breach the boundaries of artistic autonomy. In his opinion, the artists of this period performed their critique from the inside of the institution being criticized, thus forestalling a more radical program of abolishing strictures of alienation specific to the modernist autonomy.10 Similar tropes reverberate in the texts of Andrea Fraser, who blames the situation of being “inside” the field for eradicating the possibility to transform or even justifiably criticize its structures.11 According to her argument, any attempt to move beyond art only expands the field of autonomous art, absorbing and neutralizing its critique. Writing in the context of new institutionalism and relational aesthetics, Stephen Wright criticized the power of the performative framework of art to capture even the most radical of actions or ideas as “just art,” thereby neutralizing their potential use values by turning them into marketable, collectible, and authored objects of aesthetic contemplation.12

The dissolution of artistic autonomy has many causes and facets, some of them external, others related to internal developments in the field. To explain the transformation in the status of art and culture in the Americas of the early 2000s, George Yúdice mentions the political and economic aftermath of 1990s globalisation, changes in cultural policy after the end of the cold war, and the proliferation of new funding sources, which expected art to be utilized beyond its own field.13 One should not underestimate the exponential growth and global connectivity of artistic circulation, which emerged in this period. Galleries, fairs, consultancies, art schools, foundations, biennials, journals, email lists – all devoted to contemporary art – have mushroomed everywhere, orienting the trajectories of tens of thousands of people worldwide, while connecting them globally. With the rise of global art worlds, the autonomous fields of artistic production, previously stabilized by the boundaries of national cultures, dissolved into a global circulation of art and people14.

This circulation is partially integrated in the economic circuits of financial capitalism, subsuming artistic pretences to autonomy. Subsuming autonomy does not mean its total eradication, but rather its significant rewiring. As the modernist institution of art crumbles, different agents use art for their own benefit, subsuming its autonomous value. In the late capitalist, global circulation of art, masterpieces are not only revered but also blatantly utilized as tourist attractions by museums that have refashioned themselves as global brands. When nationalists redefine the field of art, museums openly identify themselves as guardians of national cultures, their artefacts mustered as if they were soldiers in culture wars, not even veiled by humanist ideals.

When art was more firmly embedded in the institutions of autonomy, it was revered as a priceless object of eternal value. Currently, it is not only aesthetically contemplated, but also marketed, swapped, banked upon, auctioned, evaluated, indexed, incorporated as one of the markets of financial capitalism, propelling fast and speculative growth in the evaluations of assets, skyrocketing despite the largest financial crisis since the 1930s. In this capitalist mode of artistic distribution, analyzed by Luc Boltanski, the exhibition value of a given piece is attributed as a result of market operations, dictated by grand collectors who push up prices – considered to be indicators of artistic value – alongside dealers and other speculators.15 However, the value of art has not diminished, it is still partially embedded in its symbolic appreciation, but now it is featured as just one of many factors among others. Analogical analysis could be applied to other tenets of artistic autonomy, for example disinterested spectatorship has transformed into the ostentatious ownership of artistic objects. Same applies to the social status of artistic trades. From being a sacrificial vocation, art has become a profession, a viable career path for many, but for the sake of which people are still eager to risk precarity or outright poverty.

The late capitalist dissolution of artistic autonomy is matched by the authoritarian assault on the autonomy of art in countries undergoing a nationalist turn, such as Russia, Turkey, Hungary or Poland. The subsumption of autonomy to an authoritarian state works via possibly less subtle, but even more efficient, means of reshaping cultural policies and legal systems. Interestingly though, just as Walter Benjamin warned decades ago, the power of art is not eradicated, but rather redirected to aestheticize the power of the authoritarian state.16 In this regard, the dissolution of autonomy is paired with the rise of international fascism.

Institutions of eroding autonomy

Museum of 1%, action at the façade of the Guggenheim Museum in New York using the OWS Illuminator van, 2014, image courtesy of Noah Fischer and GULF

The same factors which contribute to the dissolution of artistic autonomy frequently imperil the functioning of public institutions of modern and contemporary art. This pressure is felt particularly intensely in Europe, not because it is stronger than elsewhere, but rather due to its existing structures of state patronage, which are prone to financial austerity and an authoritarian upsurge. As Hito Steyerl, Maria Lind and many others have argued, critical institutions are in a dire situation, because resources and influence are amassed at the top of the social hierarchy, imposing harsh austerity on the general public, jeopardizing public art institutions.17 The siphoning of wealth and clout has also had an impact on the general stability of democratic systems, as many countries slide towards right-wing populism. Indeed, every institution described here needs to cope with rapid transformation of public and political cultures – Brexit in the UK, an authoritarian government in Poland, a backlash against social movements in Spain, or a xenophobic shift in Dutch politics. Just as public art institutions are under threat, new institutional models emerge in response to - and as agents of - eroding autonomy. I would like to highlight just two institutional models, which reconstitute institutional landscapes in accordance with the principles of either financial capitalism or a nationalist upsurge.

On the one hand, one can observe a process of capitalist concentration in the institutional milieu, as a couple of larger museums and galleries (the Louvre, Tate, Guggenheim) expand as global brands, locating branches in Gulf states or elsewhere (Ross and Gulf Labor Artist Coalition 2015). This institutional form has been derided as a “museum of the 1%” by the art-activist collective Illuminator, affiliated with Occupy Museums and the Gulf Labor Coalition, who projected this label, alongside slogans such as “High Art Low Wages”, on the façade of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Commenting on the situation in a New York-centered art world, Andrea Fraser has described the convergence between top artistic institutions and financial oligarchies.18 As she convincingly has argued, it is enough to just browse through the lists of art collectors, rankings of influential people, and the names of board members, to spot vast numbers of oligarchs, some of whom made money in the same financial crisis which impoverished multitudes. As she has argued, the art market indexes seem to be correlated with coefficients of inequality: the more wealth the rich amass, the more they spend on luxury products, art included. As the public sphere is ravaged, major artistic institutions become dependent on rich patrons, who, as Chin Tao Wu has explained in reference to such institutions as the Tate, gain prestige, justification and political access for the relatively miniscule costs of sponsorship.19 In time this habit has evolved into what Mel Evans has criticised as the outright art-washing of corporate reputations tarnished by ecological devastation or financial machinations.20 Under such circumstances, the glamour of art is instrumentally utilized to enhance corporate or individual image, while the autonomy of both art and public institutions is subsumed by external interests.

Museum 3.0, image commissioned for the exhibition Making Use. Life in Postartistic Times, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2016, image by Krzysztof Pyda

Another institutional model, which has been developing in parallel to the corporate museum, is the nationalist museum, an artistic institution reconstructed as a fortress of the nation, a process described in the context of Hungary by Edit András.21 Obviously, as Piotr Piotrowski argued, Polish institutions devoted to art have been embedded in a nation-building project, safeguarding the national heritage, since their inception in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.22 But the contemporary fortresses of the nation are to be purged from values embedded in the modernist institution of art, such as autonomy, criticality, or an appeal to universal humanism. The autonomy of these institutions is subservient to the nationalist project. Artworks become markers of national identity, while museums propagate national glory, transforming themselves into stalwarts against otherness.

Both the neoliberal and nationalist institutional models override the modernist institution of artistic autonomy, reassembling some of its edifices as components in their own projects – of financially-oligarchic and nationalist ilks, respectively. Their core mechanics are quite similar, as they decouple modernity from progressive promises of social emancipation and autonomy, while maintaining the fundamental exclusions inherent to the modernist project. In contrast, the progressive responses to the dissolution of autonomous art, described here, try to free modernity from the injustice and exploitation which underpinned it, while salvaging promises of emancipation and autonomy from the double threat of plutocracy and authoritarianism, thus formulating a progressive response to the dissolution of artistic autonomy.

In search of Museum 3.0

Tania Bruguera, Talking to Power (Hablándole al Poder), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2017. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo Charlie Villyard

One model responding to this institutional crisis from a politically progressive position is the concept of the Museum 3.0, formulated by Alistair Hudson in his vision for the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, located in a deindustrialised town in the North-East of England. Hudson proposes to transgress the eroding boundaries of artistic autonomy in order to activate the social value of art and facilitate its uses, working hand in hand with museum constituents. Hudson deliberately talks about “constituents” and not publics or stakeholders, to emphasize a more politically charged relationship between the museum and the social groups, to the interest of which it wants to cater. Referencing the influential Towards a Lexicon of Usership (2013) by Stephen Wright, Hudson explains that the Museum 3.0 is “an idea of the museum that is built on usership, that is, a place that is created and given meaning by the sum actions of all its users”.23 The central tenet of this vision is the usefulness of art, which subsumes the notions of spectatorship, authorship, uselessness, and ownership, considered by Wright as conceptual edifices of modern art. The ambition of the Museum 3.0 is to facilitate what Wright calls artistic practices on a “one to one scale”, i.e. artistic concepts materialized in social praxis, which at the same time hold the promise of social utility and are bearers of aesthetic and conceptual values.24

One of the central agents in the process of activating the social value of art in institutional practice is The Association for Useful Art, which comprises both the online database of the Museum of Arte Útil and local Offices for Useful Art, established and run by institutions such as Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Liverpool John Moors University, and the already mentioned MIMA and SALT.25 It has been featured in many exhibition projects internationally, including the exhibition Making Use. Life in Postartistic Times, which I co-curated with Sebastian Cichocki in 2016 in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Isabel Lima, Gresham’s Wooden Horse, MIMA, Middlesbrough, 2017, courtesy of Isabel Lima

The Association was preceded by the Museum of Arte Útil, initiated in Van Abbemuseum by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera during her project there between 2013 and 2014. John Byrne described the Museum in Eindhoven as a hybrid structure – a commissioning agency, a workshop space and an online database.26 The online repository consisted of four hundred examples of arte útil, some of which date back to the 19th century. It documented constructivist interventions in industrial processes, offices for designing agitprop, hippie shops, free artistic schools or architectural experiments with urban commons. Every practice is described in a short blurb, framed as a blueprint for future action, potentially implementable in social practice. The Museum does not only reside in the disembodied sphere of the internet. Currently, it is run by the Association and Offices for Useful Art which promote the idea of useful art, activating the online archive through workshops and new commissions.

One example of such activity, instigated by the Office for Useful Art in MIMA in 2017, was Isabel Lima’s Gresham’s Wooden Horse, constructed in cooperation with asylum seekers residing in Middlesbrough. It was an impressive wooden construction, set on wheels, and styled after the mythical Trojan Horse. The structure was paraded through the district of Gresham, a derelict neighbourhood in the city center - within walking distance of the main square - in which asylum seekers are housed in miserable conditions for hefty private profit. The parade celebrated the planned acquisition by the museum of a plot of land from the municipality, where a future community garden was to be planted, to serve students and local communities alike. Constructing the horse was an opportunity for skill sharing, as participants learnt practical knowledge of carpentry and design.

Brewing coffee in self-made pottery set, in front of MIMA, courtesy of Emily Hesse and New Linthorpe

Another example from the North-East of England, also associated with MIMA, is New Linthorpe, a cooperative initiated by artist Emily Hesse and curator John Beighton, devoted to the rejuvenation of the local pottery tradition in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement.27 In fact, as underlined by Hudson himself, the entire endeavour is firmly set within the legacy of William Morris and John Ruskin.28 After a couple of years, the initiative was suspended, for two reasons. On the one hand, the artists succeeded in rejuvenating the local pottery tradition so exceedingly, that it was picked up by various local groups and collectives, without the need of artistic involvement. On the other, Hudson’s departure from his post as MIMA’s director in early 2018 implied a recurrence to the more traditionally oriented model of an exhibition centre. But during Hudson’s tenure, actions like Gresham’s Wooden Horse and New Linthorpe were documented and presented on the walls of the Office for Useful Art located on the first floor of MIMA.

By serving as a support structure for such hybrid practices, which combine artistic references with socially embedded creativity, the Museum 3.0 attempts to transgress the limitations of modernist institutions of art, while reworking its own institutional identity. Instead of serving as an institutional guardian of eternal values, the Museum 3.0 employs practices, which have been described by artist and thinker Rasheed Araeen as art beyond art. Araeen argues that in order to realise its social potential, art has to move beyond the limitations imposed on it by the bourgeois institution of art, founded on the very notion of ownership and authorship.29 To illustrate his thesis Araeen discusses Joseph Beuys’ 6000 oaks, calling it a progressive action which did not fully realize its own potential because of the proprietary relationship between the artist and his work. Beuys had planted a mere six thousand oaks, while the scale of the ecological disaster demanded much more decisive action, which would have been possible if Beuys had just relinquished his authorial control and invited everyone to collectively share authorship of the idea.30 Araeen finds a full realization of this potential in the figure of Wangari Maathai, an activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her campaign to combat deforestation in Sub-Saharan Africa, as a result of which not six thousand but millions of trees were planted. Arguing with Beuys, Araeen proposes an alternative ontology of art. He does not prioritise artistic objects, instead focusing on ideas as carriers of human creativity and unbridled imagination that – in their limited forms – are also represented in aesthetic formulas.

Rasheed Araeen, Arctic Circle, reconstruction in the Sculpture Park in Brodno, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven in 2017, image by Kuba Szreder

To redeem artistic creativity from the limitations imposed by the modernist institution of art, Araeen proposes to merge art with the collective flows of global creative resistance, in the process conceptualizing what art on a one to one scale could look like. In his essay Return to Baluchistan, he imagines a small dam, an artificial lake and a sustainable collective farm in the Pakistani desert. If realized, this dam would function as both a conceptual piece of art, created in cooperation between artist and the people living there, and a socially beneficial structure for the local populace. This concept has never been brought to fruition, even though, as Araeen claims, the execution of this idea would require only a modest readjustment of the financial and symbolic flows embedded in artistic circulation. This has not happened yet, but where individual artists falter, artistic institutions, with their resources and connections, might prevail.

Continuing with my central argument, it is important to underline that institutions which subscribe to the program of the Museum 3.0, or champion social uses of art, do not eradicate the modernist institution of art entirely, but rather reassemble it. They use the resources, prestige and visibility of art and give them other uses, different from the ones promoted by neoliberal or nationalist museums. Neither Araeen nor the institutions mentioned are blinded by idealism. Araeen appreciates the world of art as a space where artistic ideas can be actualized, amplified, and communicated. Together with Sebastian Cichocki and Meagan Down, we have argued that Araeen’s dialectic take on artistic institutions has tremendous implications for rethinking institutional models.31 To support our argument, we discuss a reconstruction of Arctic Circle (1983), one of Araeen’s pieces, in the Sculpture Park in Bródno, organized in 2017 in cooperation between the Van Abbemuseum and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The piece was “borrowed” from Van Abbemuseum, where at this time Araeen’s solo exhibition was under construction, but it travelled to Warsaw not as a physical object but as an intangible idea. Funding was spent on reconstructing the piece on the spot, with the help of local people, rather than by paying art handlers or insurance companies, who are usually involved in facilitating inter-institutional loans. In conclusion of this case study, we propose that art institutions can reimagine themselves as custodians of ideas, that can be applied everywhere by keen users, rather than collectors of valuable art objects. In this way, museums would be able to respond to the dissolution of autonomous objects of art, supporting the creative potential of the ideas that they represent, just as the Offices for Useful Art tend to do. In such situations, art institutions play a subsidiary role. Their collections are not considered to be final destinations or an oeuvre’s path to eternal recognition, but rather temporary shelters, where ideas can rest and grow for a while before being integrated with social praxis.

Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava and New World Summit, New World Summit – Rojava, photograph Ruben Hamelink, courtesy New World Summit

Another example of this dynamic could be the parliament for Rojava, designed by the studio of artist-architect-activist Jonas Staal. The idea for a stateless parliament originated during a series of events and actions conducted together under the auspices of New World Summits, the first of which was organized during the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012; subsequent ones were supported by such institutions as BAK in Utrecht. Eventually though, Staal and his office made use of the mechanisms of artistic circulation (exhibitions, collections, visibility) to facilitate the construction of a parliament building in Rojava, in Syrian Kurdistan, supporting the democratic ambitions of a stateless political process. Even though the architectural mock-ups of the parliament were collected and exhibited (like, for example, during the Making Use exhibition, previously mentioned), this idea was fully realized in Dêrik, Canton Cizîrê, in the Rojava district, where it serves as a place for democratic assemblies.

As Tania Bruguera argues in the context of the Museum of Arte Útil, its aim is to reinsert art into society, where it belongs, but from where it has been forcefully ejected by the conventions of modern art.32 The question is, though, how the difference between useful art and social praxis is negotiated. Even more important is the difference between the progressive uses of art, and how it is instrumentalized by the corporate or nationalist institutions, mentioned above. The difference, in my opinion, lies in the political context and conceptual nuance. Referring to the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement, John Byrne argues that arte útil should not be misrepresented as an activity driven by instrumental reason, subsumed by capitalist logic and Taylorist efficiency, but rather understood as a “really useful” activity.33 “Really useful knowledge”, except lending itself as the title of an exhibition curated in Museo Reina Sofia by Croatian collective WHW (2014-2015), was a notion formulated by the British working classes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Granted access by the bourgeoisie to education in trade, engineering, and simple accountancy, necessary to operate complex machinery, the workers rebelled. They demanded access to what they regarded as really useful knowledge – poetry, philosophy, art, sociology, astronomy. The common denominator in these – otherwise deemed not to be very practical - disciplines is their capacity to help one imagine the world otherwise, to think about society not as given and static but as potentially transformable. This capacity of art to “imagine otherwise” is lost when it becomes a consumerist object of late capitalist spectacle or a token of a nationalist identity project. It is reinvigorated when applied in social praxis by constituencies of users, who in the process of this actualization, turn the rules of society’s game upside down, such as when parading a wooden horse to a derelict housing district in Middlesbrough, thereby negotiating common access to land. It is activated when the denizens of Four Grandby Street in Liverpool, sourcing the expertise of architectural collective Assemble, managed to turn their derelict neighborhood into a housing cooperative, beautifying it in the process (which secured Assemble the Turner Prize in 2015). This is acting in 1:1 scale at full throttle, an act of rebellious imagination and pragmatic action in the same instance. And the Museum 3.0 aims to make this happen, repurposing its own structures with a vision of establishing new commons, that is infrastructures and resources, which are used by groups of commoners for a collective benefit, who test new modes of custodianship beyond the opposition between private ownership and state control.34

Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW, Museo de Reina Sofia, 2014-2015, image by Joaquín Cortés & Román Lores, courtesy of MNCARS

From useful to constituent museums

In the discourses emerging in the context of L’internationale the concept of the useful museum is paired with the notion of the museum as a constituent entity, which responds to the dissolution of artistic autonomy by establishing links with constituencies that differ from its “natural” patronage and audience. Just like John Byrne writes in a reader on constituent museums, published by L’internationale:

[…] the normative physical, ideological and conceptual architecture of the museum - as a top down, curatorially driven construct for developing and disseminating knowledge - has become speculatively replaced with a concept of the museum as a constituent and constituted format process that operates within a rhizomatic network of exchange and collaborative production. As a result of this, it becomes possible to begin imagining the Constituent Museum of the future as a model of dispersion and connection as opposed to a model of expansion and colonization.35

As Byrne suggests here, the “new” constituent museum has a capacity to challenge and overcome distinctions, hierarchies and exclusions inherent in the “old” modernist model. As already suggested before in the section on institutional critique, instead of breaching the performative framework of art modernist museums simply expanded it by even absorbing their own critique. By establishing links with a diverse group of constituents and users, the new institutions attempt to counter this tendency, democratically negotiating their own hierarchies and transforming their identity.

However, the process of democratization is a demanding task, a challenge rather than an accomplishment. Very often, such processes are dependent on a specific agenda of an individual, whose departure might endanger the entire process, like it was in the case of Hudson and MIMA, referenced above. It is an open process, driven by a set of compelling questions, just as frankly stated by the already-quoted Carrillo: “Do art institutions feel addressed and compelled by social demands? Do we have a constituency or just audiences? By whom and how are our addressees identified and defined? What new forms of social engagement should we encourage in order to overcome the insularity of art institutions?”36

Advertisement for the summit New Abduction of Europe, organized by L'internationale, Museo Reina Sofia and Fundacion de los Comunes, Madrid, 2014

To democratize themselves, progressive institutions need to overcome numerous obstacles, such as pressure from the state, municipality, audiences, and market; mistrust or lack of interest from their potential constituents; and the resistance of their own apparatus. For example, when Claire Bishop analyzed Van Abbemuseum as a radical institution, a couple of years prior to the establishment of the Museum of Arte Útil (she analyzed projects of up to 2012), she emphasized the problems that this museum had with making and maintaining links with its audiences, publics or constituencies.37 Manuel Borja, director of Reina Sofia, when recounting various struggles with censorship to which the institution was exposed during the aforementioned exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, has stated that “coercion applied in museums is related to the demands imposed to respond to a prescriptive idea of exactly what the institution is, its responsibilities and to whom it must be addressed. It is aligned towards creating a program of consensus, whereby differences are concealed or reduced to merely formal aspects.”38 Similar obstacles have been encountered by Piotr Piotrowski and Katarzyna Murawska-Mutthesius, who between 2009 and 2010 tried to transform the National Museum of Art in Warsaw into what they called a “critical museum.”39 Their idea was to transform the museum into a platform for voices and people suppressed in the Polish public sphere, using all the means at their disposal – the collection, exhibition spaces, visibility, prestige. After a couple of exhibitions devoted to the presence of migrants and homosexual imagery in Polish art, the experiment was abruptly ended by the museum board who, working under political pressure, refused to accept the strategic plans drawn up by Piotrowski and Murawska-Mutthesius, forcing them to resign.

Office for Useful Art in SALT, Istanbul, 2018, photo by Kuba Szreder

Responding to the authoritarian politics of the Turkish state in the context of contemporary art centre SALT in Istanbul, Vasif Kortun proposed to rethink the institution as a sort of secular monastery, tasked with preserving sparks of Enlightenment in the coming Dark Ages.40 In fact, SALT houses a library, an archive, exhibition and workshop spaces, seminar rooms, runs a vibrant research department and a local Office for Useful Art. However, SALT definitely does not resemble the ivory towers of old. It is not a space for the idle, privileged or detached. Instead, as Kortun emphasizes, SALT responds promptly to social movements, like that centered around Gezi Park in 2013, tactically reformulating the notion of artistic autonomy to support progressive social causes.41

The risks and challenges of this democratizing work-in-progress are emphasized in the notion of conspiratorial institutions, formulated by Carrillo – in order to theorize concatenations between public institutions and social movements, in the context of the growing conservative and authoritarian political pressure.42 According to Carrillo, the institutions have to conspire, because they need to find allies to survive the authoritarian and/or economic onslaught, and they need to revive and radicalize democratic policies, currently under threat. But such reforms are inconceivable without extra-institutional pressure, exhorted by movements, constituents or collectives. Institutions left to themselves tend to simply replicate their own mechanisms and expand, even if straying from their original mission and ethos. It is not an art-specific failure, but rather an original sin of modern bureaucracies, recurring from the times when Max Weber developed his theory of modern bureaucracy. Art institutions – just as all other institutions – prioritize their own survival and growth. To break this vicious circle, institutions need to establish links with other agents, creating alliances with social movements and other constituencies, which prompt their transformation, potentially evolving into “institutions of the commons”, discussed in detail in the following section.

As Charles Esche, director of Van Abbemuseum (VAM), argues in his article on deviant art institutions, revamping institutional remits calls for deviating from the modernist norm.43 This deviation requires institutions to deconstruct and alleviate exclusions fundamental to the bourgeois public sphere, from which all the deviants – people of color, women, proletarians, queer people – have been expelled.44 Particularly relevant in the Netherlands is the shameful legacy of colonialism and the current wave of anti-migration sentiment. Such a democratization process entails interventions in the core operations of the museum, including building and presenting its collection, by prioritizing artworks from non-white, non-European, and non-male artists, thus rebalancing the gender, race and political bias of many Western art collections, including VAM’s. Furthermore, VAM prides itself on having become a platform for discussions on Dutch colonialism, a rallying point for artists and activists of color. Such concerns take central stage in VAM’s public programming, being featured in conferences, research programs and new artistic commissions.

When institutions democratize themselves, they need to partially cede their own authority and institutional power, opening up a field of negotiation. This happens when collection departments negotiate their acquisition policies with their constituencies.45 In MIMA, people with experience of migration were consulted when purchasing a piece which would symbolize their flight and they rejected some depictions as misrepresenting their traumatic journeys. In VAM, a community of hip-hop dancers negotiated an acquisition of shoes, property of one of the leading dancers in the scene, a piece of clothing which usually would belong to either an ethnographic (if “exotic” enough) or a design museum. Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm involves its own constituency – mainly migrant communities living in the suburbs of Stockholm – in curatorial and management processes. Such consulting, if approached with the appropriate diligence, blurs the hierarchy of (professional) selectors and (amateurish) audiences. By redefining audiences, who come to museums to look at art, as users, the Museum 3.0 aims to overcome hierarchies embedded in the modernist institution of art – those of authorial or curatorial expertise and a presumed lack thereof amongst audiences, something which riffs on the more general hierarchy that brings together high art and socially embedded creativity. In such instances users become authors, revamping authorial attribution by collectivizing it.

Advertisement for the summit New Abduction of Europe, organized by L'internationale, Museo Reina Sofia and Fundacion de los Comunes, Madrid, 2014

Reality checks

For institutional experimentation not to remain in the sphere of unchecked aspirations, institutions need to undergo stress tests embedded in institutional practice. With this idea in mind, Janna Graham and Elliot Perkins formulated a set of guidelines, presented in A Draft for a Blueprint for Change: Propositions and Demands (2018).46 In this document they gathered postulates and criteria, against which institutional practice could be tested to check the progress of its own democratization, while coping with external pressures and the inertia of its own apparatus. Graham and Perkins suggest that institutions should expose the mechanisms of visibility and invisibility used by institutions in their relationships with broader publics; democratize the management of resources, devise engagement practices based on difference; work with a broad base of people to articulate the value of cultural processes and institutions; and question and demonstrate how art can be used for social change. Probably most of the institutions discussed here would face serious challenges in trying to tick all the boxes of such a rigorous institutional stress test. In this sense, the guidelines mark the horizon of aspirations. Graham and Perkins’ text, just like my intervention, implement basic principles of action research in the field of institutional practice. The aim of action research is to reflectively enhance the development of social praxis, including by setting it in a wider context of systemic trends.

Here, I propose to interpret instances of progressive institutional experimentation as responses to the dissolution of the modernist institution of artistic autonomy. As Byrne, Carrillo, Graham, Perkins, and many others quoted here suggest, this dissolution entails the debasement of institutional hierarchies. The process of democratization must entail negotiation of authority, otherwise it is purely tokenistic. As Ewa Majewska and I have advocated elsewhere, the answer to the authoritarian challenge is not nostalgia for the eroding autonomy, but rather models of instituting the common which would utilize the powers of art and art institutions for society’s benefit.47 Even though the commons, as a mode of shared usership, which does not entail the private ownership of resources or infrastructures used, it requires appropriate institutional models and legal formulas to facilitate such use. In conclusion to my argument, I propose to consider useful, conspiratorial, deviant museums as attempts to come up with such institutional formulas. Even though the institutions in question only rarely change their statues (they remain state-run or municipal institutions), they attempt to broaden the ways in which they can be used for a common benefit. In the context of art, such institutions of the commons do not abandon the notion of autonomy altogether, but rather use it tactically, to build and secure spaces of freedom and relative safety, in an environment shaped by the twin forces of neoliberal capitalism and authoritarian threat. Following Antonio Negri and Micheal Hardt, it is important not to forget, though, that even capitalist and nationalist enterprises offer corrupted versions of the commons, the main problem being that the ones on offer are based on exploitation and exclusion.48 Just as I have suggested before, the same goes for the value and autonomy of art. Nationalists and capitalists do not simply eradicate them, but instead reassemble them as elements of their own projects.

In the case of progressive institutions, the commons offer a horizon of aspiration for transgressing exclusions formative for bourgeois, Western modernity, based on a clear demarcation between state and private, between proper publics and deviating others, between the institutional inside and outside. When institutions such as the Casco Institute of Art in Utrecht recalibrate themselves to work for the commons, they deliberately challenge these boundaries, establishing their own constituent assembly, while reworking its internal procedures and division of labor (for example, the curatorial and administrative staff are expected to take part in maintenance duties, such as cleaning the premises). This is not a frictionless process, as institutions need to seriously engage in processes of institutional unlearning, and rein in their own power. When Museo Reina Sofia tried to establish archives of the commons, as described by Bishop,49 the museum needed to address its own colonial past and current hierarchies. It had to question its own privilege, a privilege which enables richer museums, usually located in capitalist centres, to acquire archives from poorer countries, which lack their own institutional foundations. If left unchecked, such colonial operations impoverish peripheral cultures, precisely as described by Red Conceptualismos del Sur, a bottom-up network of researchers and activists preserving the Latin American legacy of politicised conceptualism.50 To act progressively, institutions like Museo Reina Sofia need to transform their own apparatus, and they do so by establishing a relationship with independent collectives, such as RedCSur. The process of acquisition is reformulated to benefit the commons, as archives are scanned, registered under open licences and stored in publicly accessible libraries, without being moved from the country of origin. The institution and the collective create a temporary yet crucial alliance against economic and cultural colonialism, embedding archives in the public domain.

There are many similar examples of cooperation between progressive artistic institutions and self-organized artistic collectives or social movements. None of them unfolds without tensions created at the threshold between institutional hierarchy and radically democratic modes of instituting from below. But as the modernist institution of art crumbles under sustained pressure from financial capitalism and oligarchic authoritarianism, it creates a systemic impulse for both institutional experimentation and artistic self-organization, manifested during political upheavals like occupations and strikes, but also materialising as a plethora of art collectives and networks. In fact, I would argue that future institutions of the commons, operating beyond the eroded boundaries of artistic and institutional autonomy, will emerge as a fusion between social movements and progressive institutions. These institutional assemblages will constitute support structures for more socially useful and democratic forms of art.


1Jesús Carrillo, “Democratic Institutions versus Culture Wars,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation: A Generator of Social Change, ed. John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sanchez de Serdio, and Adela Zeleznik (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 234–42.

2Nina Moentmann, “The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future,” in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: MayFly Books, 2009), 155–61.

3Claire Bishop, Dan Perjovschi, Radical Museology or, “What’s Contemporary,” in Museums of Contemporary Art? (London: Koenig Books, 2014).

4Jerzy Ludwiński, Notes from the Future of Art: Selected Writings of Jerzy Ludwiński (Eindhoven; Rotterdam: Van Abbemuseum; Veenman Publishers, 2007), 26.

5Magdalena Ziółkowska, “Jerzy Ludwiński’s Testing of the Dysfunction of the Museum: On the Museum of Current Art in Wrocław (1966),” in From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum, ed. Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius and Piotr Piotrowski (Farnham Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), 81–98.

6Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996).

7Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex”, New Formations, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 73-102.

8Alexander Alberro, “Institutions, Critique, and Institutional Critique,” in Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009).

9Lucy Lippard, Six years: the dematerialisation of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (London: Studio Vista, 1973).

10Peter Bürger, Theory of the avant-garde (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).

11Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Institutional Critique and After, ed. John C. Welchman (Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2006), 123–37.

12Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of Usership (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2013); Stephen Wright, “Escapology,” in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, ed. Florian Malzacher (Berlin; New York; Graz: Sternberg Press; Steirischer Herbst, 2014), 311–12.

13George Yúdice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003).

14Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel, eds., The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds (Karlsruhe; Cambridge; London: ZKM/Center for Art and Media; The MIT Press, 2013).

15Luc Boltanski, “From Object to Œuvre. The Process of Attribution and Valorization of Objects,” in Joy Forever. Political Economy of Social Creativity, ed. Michal Kozlowski, Krystian Szadkowski, Agnieszka Kurant, Jan Sowa, and Jakub Szreder (London: MayFly Books, 2014), 17–49.

16Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/ /benjamin.htm, accessed August 22, 2018.

17Hito Steyerl, “If You Don’t Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms,” e-flux journal, October 2016, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/76/69732/if-you-don-t-have-bread-eat-art-contemporary-art-and-derivative-fascisms/, accessed: August 22, 2018; European Cultural Policies 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe, eds. Maria Lind, Raimund Minichbauer (Stockholm; Vienna: Iaspis; eipcp, 2005); Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

18Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” in Institutional Critique and After…, 123–37.

19Chin-Tao Wu, Privatising Culture (London: Verso, 2003).

20Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (London: PlutoPress, 2015).

21Edit András, “Vigorous Flagging in the Heart of Europe: The Hungarian Homeland under the Right-Wing Regime,” e-flux journal, September 2014, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/57/60438/vigorous-flagging-in-the-heart-of-europe-the-hungarian-homeland-under-the-right-wing-regime/, accessed August 23, 2018.

22Piotr Piotrowski, “Making the National Museum Critical,” in From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum, 99–115.

23Alistair Hudson, “Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art: Where Do We Go from Here? Vision Statement for 2015–2018” (Middlesbrough: MIMA, 2015), 4.

24The concepts of useful art and usership are addressed in the reader What is the use? published by L’internationale in 2016. What’s the Use?: Constellations of Art, History, and Knowledge: A Critical Reader, eds. Nick Aikens, Thomas Lange, Jorinde Seijdel, and Steven ten Thije (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2016).

25 http://museumarteutil.net/about/, accessed October 21, 2018.

26John Byrne, “Negotiating Jeopardy. Towards a Constituent Architecture of Use,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation: A Generator of Social Change, eds. John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sanchez de Serdio, and Adela Zeleznik (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 92–114.

27Elinor Morgan, “Middlesbrough’s New Communities,” in The Constituent Museum…, 50–56.

28 Alistair Hudson, “Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art: Where Do We Go from Here? Vision Statement for 2015–2018”…

29Rasheed Araeen, Art beyond Art: Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (London: Third Text Publ, 2010).

30Rasheed Araeen, “Food for Thought. Thought for Change,” in Art beyond Art: Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century (London: Third Text Publications, 2010), 129–43.

31Kuba Szreder, Sebastian Cichocki, and Meagan Down, “Constituencies-Art-Nexus: The Bródno Sculpture Park Case,” in Deviant Practice, ed. Nick Aikens (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2018), 238–56.

32Tania Bruguera, “Arte Útil,” in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, ed. Florian Malzacher (Berlin; New York; Graz: Sternberg Press; Steirischer Herbst, 2014), 299–301

33 John Byrne, “Social Autonomy and the Use Value of Art,” Afterall, no. 42 (Autumn/Winter 2016), https://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.42/social-autonomy-and-the-use-value-of-art, accessed August 23, 2018.

34Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2009); Massimo De Angelis, “Reflections on Alternatives, Commons and Communities or Building a New World from the Bottom Up,” The Commoner, 2003; An Architektur, Massimo De Angelis, and Stavros Stavrides, “On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides,” e-Flux Journal, 2010, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/, accessed October 21, 2018.

35John Byrne, “Architectures of Use: Introduction,” in The Constituent Museum…, 76.

36After: Janna Graham, “Negotiating Institutions,” in Ibid., 45.

37Claire Bishop, Dan Perjovschi, Radical Museology

38Manuel, Borja-Villel, “Really Useful Knowledge,” in The Constituent Museum

39From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum

40Vasif Kortun, “Questions on Institutions,” SALT.TXT (blog), January 12, 2018, http://blog.saltonline.org/post/169608730654/questions-on-institutions, accessed August 23, 2018.

41Vasif Kortun, “IN TURKISH THE WORD ‘PUBLIC’ DOESN’T EXIST: Vasif Kortun in Conversation with the Editors,” in I Can’t Work like This: A Reader on Recent Boycotts and Contemporary Art, ed. Joanna Warsza (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), 133–40.

42Jesús Carrillo, “Conspiratorial Institutions? Museums and Social Transformation in the Post-Crisis Period,” Wrong Wrong Magazine, June 26, 2017, http://wrongwrong.net/article/conspiratorial-institutions-museums-and-social-transformation-in-the-post-crisis-period, accessed August 24, 2018.

43Charles Esche, “The Deviant Art Institution,” in Performing the Institution(Al), Volume 1, ed. Kunsthalle Lissabon (Lisboa: Kunsthalle Lissabon; ATLAS Projectos, 2010).

44Simon Sheikh, ed., In the Place of the Public Sphere? (Berlin: b_books, 2005); Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005); Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Chicago, Ill: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, 1996); Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Ewa Majewska, Kontrpubliczności Ludowe i Feministyczne. Wczesna “Solidarność” i Czarne Protesty (Warszawa: Książka i Prasa, 2018).

45Maria Lind, “Tensta Museum L’Internationale,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation : A Generator of Social Change, ed. John Byrne et al. (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 76–80.

46Janna Graham, “Negotiating Institutions,” in The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation : A Generator of Social Change, ed. John Byrne et al. (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 76–80.

47Kuba Szreder, Ewa Majewska, “So Far, So Good: Contemporary Fascism, Weak Resistance, and Postartistic Practices in Today’s Poland,” e-flux journal, no. 47 (October 2016), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/76/71467/so-far-so-good-contemporary-fascism-weak-resistance-and-postartistic-practices-in-today-s-poland/, accessed August 24, 2018.

48Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009).

49Claire Bishop, Dan Perjovschi, Radical Museology

50RedCSur, “Archives in Use. A Laboratory of Political Imagination for the Present,” in The Constituent Museum…, 316–22.