What is an Institution? Granting Institutional Fictions

Summer 2013 | ArteZine

What is an Institution? Granting Institutional Fictions


As we write, people in Istanbul protest the demolition of Taksim Gezi park. L’Internationale, a new European Museum Confederation, makes its first statement in relation to the events. In Cairo, “cultural intellectuals” have claimed the Minister of Culture’s office, in a performance-filled sit-in for a fortnight – and ongoing; in Egypt, millions of copies of Rebel are being signed. How do institutions of art position themselves and speak to the surrounding upheaval and change? June 30th, 2013 is the next awaited date of protest. By the time you read this, something has already happened.

It coincides that June 30th marks the end of Beirut’s first year of being, and the last day of its Season 3, dedicated to the all-embracing question: “What is an institution?” The question informs a practice-based inquiry and leitmotif of Beirut’s founding mission and program. The Season started with a three-day meeting of five international art institutions in Cairo, including Kunsthalle Lissabon (Portugal), CCA Derry~Londonderry (Ireland), FormContent (London), Art in General (New York) and Beirut (Cairo).

“The First Meeting,” which we hosted at Beirut (27th – 29th April, 2013), sought to formulate practice-specific questions towards the inquiry of what an institution is or can be. What is it to build an institution as a curatorial act? Can an institution evolve using the language and logics of art practice? If social and political imagination is a prerequisite for change, can the realm of art be imagination’s guardian, nurturer and inspirer in a time of economic and political violence?

It is a timely moment to re-pose (or re-dress) these questions as they manifest the concurrent desire to collectively rethink, reform or radically overturn (political) institutions, perhaps. The exercise of “instituting” at a time of revolution (meaning: the state of things revolving, and being in movement) becomes a venture and practice-based pursuit of questions and thinking about the terms of organization and governance. Art, as a space for thought, symbolic action, and imagination; art institutions and their politics as a place of work, retain their relevance and role in partaking in a world that is indefinite, uncharted and still becoming. While extreme cuts in state, public and private support threaten the arts and its sustenance – particularly that of young, newly founded, small and medium-sized initiatives – this brings us closer, as conscious, feeling entities, as artists, as curators, as institutions.

In Egypt, this time of change bears witness to a surge of new institutions and spaces dedicated to the arts (art in private space, art in public space, curatorial practice, alternative cinema, dance and music…) These new institutions characteristically differ from existing ones not only in essence and approach, but also in their commitment to discipline and specialization. Through their strong affinities to each other, they also share a collective vision of the evolution of a local cultural scape. Most notable is that these young, self-organized initiatives perform the role of larger institutions, and are perceived globally as having the potential to fulfill the traditional functions associated with large cultural organizations, in the absence of the latter.

At the time when Beirut started articulating itself to the world, we found that we shared an affinity and a set of questions with many other “like-minded” institutions in other places. In an effort to bring into language the expressions of this affinity, which have also found rise in texts, artworks, conversations and encounters we have experienced, we proposed an open framework following John Searle’s question “What is an institution?” in which he extensively speaks about language and the economy as the oldest forms of institution and the trappings of “taking language for granted.” In his text, he speaks to us (his readers) of the “voice” in which he was taught economics. How we learn about equal investment is in the same tone of voice that is used to teach how force equals mass acceleration – the uncontestable “voice” of science.

The contributions that make up this edition of the ArteZine consider this “voice” and “language” we use to think and talk about art institutions today. After the “The First Meeting” in April, we continue to collectively examine each of our institutions in relation to emerging institutional models and off-center principles of organizing, and to examine each other’s institutional structures from facts to fiction.

We look into the parallels that we share as institutions and try to establish the precise synergies and junctures of our interdependence. We work towards formulating how our “coming together” (out of curiosity or recognition of affinity rather than direct invitation or solicited participation) might inform and secure us against a precarious future.

The contributions that make up this edition of the ArteZine evolved in conversation and response following “The First Meeting.” The attending and participating institutions have decided to maintain this exchange towards the formulation of a space for shared action, a platform for research, institutional learning (and love). Succeeding the meeting and the keywords, this informal alliance takes on a name: APRIL.

Featured in this issue are multiple voices, thoughts spanning institutions and the language that we use. Art in General asks What of the future?, reflecting on the future of their 30-year-old institution. Beirut sets up an ATM of references, on institution, friendship, language, politics and autonomy. FormContent recounts an artist talk: Talk Soon is less a memory and more a finding of a new language (for institutions). Kunsthalle Lissabon breaks into institutional rant, questioning the premise of an institution lasting forever. In CCA Derry~Londonderry’s Walls Talk, the institution speaks for itself.

The publication features two special contributions: A Teacup for the Mechanic by Mohammed Abdallah, a text which poses new imagery and metaphors for institutions to think themselves out of chaos by thinking about how cells grow. His text emerges from a commissioned study in context of a newly-founded institution dedicated to alternative cinema in Cairo. Its inclusion gives insight to some of the applied questions, models – and, at times, contradictions – that institutions of art and of culture in Egypt are grappling with at this time. In Cairo, artist Malak Helmy and Nida Ghouse, a writer born to Bombay, were invited to act as outside witnesses to “The First Meeting.” In this context, they share their first articulation on Emotional Architecture introducing you, the reader, to a character: The Auditor of Institutional Ethics.

APRIL continues its monthly discussions on how to think, write, work and organize our institutions, thoughts and selves into a research framework, a means of mutual-exchange that looks at the contingent conditions that define the practice of our engagement with art and its institutions. APRIL is concerned with the language institutions use, the relational-specificity of international art institutions in local contexts, and how our work meets a public and a readership. These ongoing exchanges inform how we organize, plan, structure, develop and grow our institutions. APRIL hopes to inspire and propose new charters for the very becoming of our institutions.

Image: Oliver Laric, Versions (still), 2012. Single channel video, 6:17 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Seventeen Gallery, London and Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin.    

Versions featured as part of the subjective reading of The Library of It’s Moving from I to It, FormContent’s current program. The Falling of the Books was on show at Beirut 27 April–30 June 2013.

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