“How Do You Feel (About Institutions)?” at the Museum as Hub’s Annual Conference, April 12, 2013. From left: Eungie Joo, Naomi Beckwith, Sarah Rifky, Michelle Marxauch, Hyunjin Kim, and Johanna Burton. Courtesy Travis Chamberlain
On April 12–13, 2013, the Museum as Hub hosted a conference to mark the sixth anniversary of the Hub initiative. The conference aimed, in part, to consider strategies for the next phase of the project, while also reflecting more broadly on the rapidly shifting global context it inhabits. Through four panels that featured curators from Hub partnering institutions, as well as those from significant international organizations of differing scales and missions, the conference dedicated itself to a number of questions pertaining to the notion of “institutions,” exploring ways and means by which art organizations assume shape via programming, alliances with other institutions, and dedication to specific content or context.
A closed session with Hub partners, set up to discuss the project’s next phase, preceded the two-day conference, and conversations around it still continue—informed, in part, by ideas raised by, and in between, the four public conversations. The New Museum invited Natasha Marie Llorens, an independent curator and writer based in New York, to write a critical response.
The Museum as Hub, a conference the New Museum hosted in their theater space this year, brought together twenty representatives from various international institutions. The first panel, “How do You Feel (About Institutions)?,” asked how each representative’s personal and political investments come to bear on institutional narrative. “Choosing Your Neighbors” parsed the global context by asking participants to address whom, and what countries, they choose to engage. “Networked Institutions/Institutionalized Networks” fleshed out architectures of affiliation that go beyond collaboration. The final panel, “Institutions After Art,” addressed what happens to institutions when artists and writers take on quasi-institutional roles themselves.
The conference offered a professional referendum on institutional forms operating today, as well as a platform to think critically about interdependence in a global context. Each participant was asked to present a case study in response to their panel’s topic, and the resulting breadth of perspective was impressive.
Panelists included curators from five of the Hub’s seven official partners—Beirut in Cairo, de_sitio in Mexico City, Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil, Miami Art Museum, and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. Over the past six years, the Hub’s core group has worked together to produce both research and programming. The Hub’s Annual Conference traditionally opens up this ongoing discussion by including artists, scholars, and curators from institutions not officially affiliated with the program. Participants this year included Michelle Marxuach from the discursive and pedagogical space Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Vít Havránek and Dóra Hegyi from different nodes of tranzit.org, Omer Krieger, artistic director for Under the Mountain: Festival of New Public Art, a performance festival in Jerusalem, and Hyunjin Kim of Ilmin Museum of Art, among many others.
One of the most interesting threads to emerge dealt with language and fiction. In the first panel, “How do You Feel (About Institutions)?,” Sarah Rifky, Codirector of Beirut, spoke about her project with FormContent, ,“The falling of the books….”...” Rifky was trying to articulate the relationship between an individual and their institution as the shift from “I” to “it,” from the individual to the collective. For Rifky, this shift is “the move from a real person to, in a legal sense, a fictitious person.” An individual’s passion, love, and politics are all manifest in their ability to play with the language that frames people and the structures these individuals help build.
Offering an example from her own institutional experience, Naomi Beckwith of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) spoke comparatively about the Studio Museum’s mandate to represent “work by artists of African descent or work about black culture,” or “this question of blackness produced by black people—self-identified—or about black culture.” At the MCA, on the other hand, blackness can sometimes be taken to mean the African American experience, a concept that does not automatically account for the important shift in discourse to the African diaspora as a framework within which to speak about blackness.
“So what you then have to negotiate—literally on an institutional level—is how to open that conversation back up again,” Beckwith explained. She also pointed out that language was not simply about an ideological stance: “My first show was with an artist from the Caribbean and there was no institutional language to talk about this artist, and without that institutional language, can you fundraise?”
By comparison, and admittedly taken out of context here, I noted a troubling undercurrent in Eungie Joo’s comments during the panel. Joo, newly appointed Director of Art and Cultural Programs at Inhotim in Brazil, has worked hard to produce spaces, Museum as Hub, that productively counter the institutions that house them, yet here she seemed to be saying that if you can’t control the narrative, you aren’t responsible for it.
In her comments, she cautioned against heady enthusiasm for the individual’s agency to change the narratives. Institutions, for Joo, are also made up of “illnesses and potentialities.” While there is “this great motivation of personal responsibility, and politics, and knowledge that we occupy in our institutions, also, it can be a great freedom, which some of us don’t always have the privilege to exercise in our institutional roles, but it can be a great privilege to not be responsible for these many things that are outside of our control.” Personal investments are important, in other words, but so is allowing the institution to be responsible for its own illnesses.
The difference between the positions held on this panel underscores a second important thread running through the weekend’s proceedings: how do individuals hold their institutions responsible? This question came up in the final panel, “Institutions After Art,” in a slightly different form. Tania Bruguera, widely known for her polemical call to put the urinal back in the restroom, after discussing her “Arte Útil” project, joked that “[the Tate] invited me to talk to them about collecting activism. [Audience laughs] Thank you very much. [Audience laughs again] You know, what the hell is that?” But Bruguera’s critique is an ontological one, despite her levity. She wants to know: “Are you guys willing to become an activist institution?” It is not enough, she argues, to collect the pictures. The institution must be willing to incorporate a project’s politics into its operational logic.
Rifky, responding from the audience, spoke to an important contradiction in Bruguera’s militancy—in an activist institution, what happens to doubt, to uncertainty, to time spent considering these questions in crowded rooms with many people or under trees? Would an activist institution preclude these moments of informal and chaotic solidarity? Who gets to decide what constitutes activism; who controls that narrative?
Alex Provan of Triple Canopy also responded critically to Bruguera’s question by asking how she knows, from the outset, that an institution is interested in her for the right reasons. “Sometimes you don’t know until it’s too late,” he said. When pressed by the moderator, Taraneh Fazeli of the New Museum, to speak directly about the difficulties of working across institutional scales on an upcoming project, Provan politely refused to comment. The audience laughed, present company included. You don’t get more public in the New York art world than on stage at the New Museum. But I wonder: Doesn’t political engagement mean speaking about the difficult power structures we must, nevertheless, engage with? Does it not fall to a new generation of urgently needed alternative platforms to speak fearlessly about power, in public? On the other hand, in refusing to speak, Provan effectively marked the enduring impossibility of open discussion about some institutional relationships. There were other speakers who did not even risk that much.
“Strategic regionalism,” a term introduced by Tobias Ostrander from the Miami Art Museum during the second panel, “Choosing Your Neighbors” provides a third important thread. The term, a theoretical amalgamation drawn from Gayatri Spivak and Kenneth Frampton, was used in the panel to open up a discussion about the problematic isolation of regions from their broader political and economic ties, while also acknowledging the importance of identifying recognizable affinities around which to organize. Its articulation at the conference was extraordinarily relevant to a discussion of how arts institutions manage their responsibility to a global context while serving their own neighbors, chosen or not.
Annie Fletcher of the Van Abbemuseum, for example, presented on the Picasso in Palestine project, in which the Van Abbe worked with Palestinian artist and curator Khaled Hourani to loan a painting by Picasso from its public collection to a Palestinian arts organization. An audience member summarized the project’s stakes quite succinctly in response: “Very obviously, the circulation of art mimics the circulation of global capital and we see how power is concentrated in very particular areas…. I love the idea that local and global visions for art can have strong political implications.”
Nick Aikens, part of the audience but also Fletcher’s colleague at the Van Abbemuseum, pointed out during the Q&A that even their own very careful approach to the subtleties of internationalism has blind spots. He argued that there is a balance to strike between putting resources towards loaning art to countries that don’t “legally” exist and working with the people who live next door. “I’m fascinated by the title of the panel, ‘Choosing Your Neighbors,’” Aikens said, “and the idea that you choose your neighbors. I didn’t choose my neighbors where I live. They’re there.”
What responsibility does the institution have to its un-chosen neighbors? This, in itself, might be an interesting question to address at a subsequent conference, especially if the New Museum itself were willing to articulate a position on its own various un-chosen neighbors. This is both a question about who constitutes a legitimate collaborator and the structure of those collaborations.
The latter was the subject of the third panel, “Networked Institutions/Institutionalized Networks.” Ashok Sukumaran spoke about Pad.ma, an effort to administer free access to Mumbai’s rich legacy of independent film and video through an online archive of densely text-annotated video material. Jay Levenson, Director of the International Program at MoMA, spoke on the same panel about a project to digitize the archives of an experimental music and film scene around the Sogetsu Art Center in Japan throughout the 1960s, and to make these accessible on post.
On the surface, both projects work collaboratively to produce digital archives for ephemeral cultural history, but Pad.ma evolved out of a hacker and underground film scene in Mumbai, while Levenson inherited an institutional architecture dreamed up during the Cold War that is still largely supported by MoMA’s donors. Both are enormously valuable resources for scholars and curators alike, but each conceives of the network differently. Attention to this difference in the conversation would have clarified the broader stakes of such a comparison.
No matter how much you read about an institution and their programming, there is always a narrative remainder, something that is impossible to gauge without the opportunity to watch people slip and say something true about what they’re doing that wasn’t choreographed. In this sense, the conference brought together and made visible some important contemporary institutional models. The Museum as Hub, itself a model for many of the themes under discussion, was strangely absent from consideration during the weekend’s discussions, however. Is it committed to a specific kind of international collaboration that this platform exemplifies? Or does it want to produce a stage for others to share their stakes and definitions? What is it’s own institutional narrative, or its relationship to activism? I wanted the frame to take a position, in other words, because I think this would have leant some urgency to its comparison between models.