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I keep returning to thinking about power, I have so many questions; Who or what shapes the systems and structures of cultural institutions ? Who holds institutional power? How do institutions create and distribute power? What knowledge, experience and voices do institutions privilege? How do they make these decisions? How do institutions relate to those who don’t hold or share the same cultural values or institutional power? Who do institutions empower and how? How can cultural and institutional power be distributed fairly? What do we need to do in order to create systemic change within the cultural sector?

‘…when we ‘think institution’ – however critically we imagine ourselves to be thinking – we are already implicated in an instituent process, and are formed, or even confined, by our experiences of institutions. Proceeding from this point, we hope to reconsider the practices, habits, models, revisions and rhetoric of institution and anti-institution in contemporary art and curating, by considering themes of epistemic practice of cognition and social bond, power/knowledge, and of institution as an object of inquiry across multiple disciplines, including political theory, organisational science and sociology.’

Introduction, How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse, P21 Luma Foundation and The MIT Press 2017

This is an invitation for curators operating in distinct geographies but within an intertwined geopolitical reality to slow down their ways of working and being, to imagine new ecologies of care as a continuous practice of support, and to listen with attention to feelings that arise from encounters with objects and subjects. This is a call to radically open up our institutional borders and show how these work—or don’t—in order to render our organizations palpable, audible, sentient, soft, porous, and above all, decolonial and anti-patriarchal.

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez

I want to play with and disrupt how we as cultural objects and subjects, practice or make the institution. I view culture as a construct with hierarchies, through which power, dominance, privilege and status are subtly put in place through the institution’s, values, interactions and language, Power and status are held onto, circulated and recirculated through etiquette and complex codes of behavior.

As cultural subjects we are held prisoner by the centrifugal force of the institutions we create, held into our position within hierarchies, social bonds, knowledge and experience - sometimes powerless, at other times the power holders. Institutions are closed worlds where subjects talk to each other and other across similar institutions. These institutions tend to have insides and outsides, members and others. I want to examine how we frame, embody and realise the cultural sector, through everything we are or our ‘encounters with objects and subjects’ (Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez).

There is so much work, research and activism I am looking at as part of my research.

For me, Tania Bruguera’s Arte Útil movement reconfigures cultural power relations and calls into question the purpose of art, artists and museums alongside the agency of audiences or spectators.

In this lecture Tania explores the relationships between and role of ethics in political art.

Tania is an artist activist who grew up in a communist country, and now works internationally, at times on the edge of political safety. Last month she was jailed by the Cuban Government, for protesting again censorship laws in Cuba. For this blog I would like to focus on one of Tania's projects, that took place from December 2013 to March 2014 at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands. Tania reopened this institution as the Museum of Arte Útil.

How do we ‘use’ the museum? How can it become a site of production, and output? Through this project the museum aims to transform the museum, with a fixed set of attributes, into a Social Power Plant. At the project’s core is the Arte Útil archive, which tracks a significant and growing development in artistic practice. This archive provides the fuel for the Social Power Plant where it can be activated through use, analysis and debate.

Museum of Arte Útil, Abbesmuseum, Netherlands

Charles Esche (Director of Van Abbemuseum) talks about Tania's project in this video. I am interested in his drive to question how museums should look, feel and operate in the 21st century - in light of post-colonialism, modernism, modernity, capitalism and communism. He also expands on the notion of an art museum as a social power plant.

Theresa Cisneros’ Document 0 is a power full work.

‘I decided to dial in, to take others through a series of scripts to slowly unwrap the workings of the institution and how it performs in relation to bodies or subjects that don’t hold positions of power or find themselves as part of the majority.’

Theresa Cisneros

She calls for us all to address our complicity around structures of institutional racism and ‘the systematic oppressions that are woven into the fabric of many of our cultural institutions.’

Kamina Walton is Artistic Director of Rising Arts Agency, an organisation which represents young people as opposed to being an institution with a building and a curated programme. It’s agile, viral and constantly transforming,evolving and morphing according to it’s members. Kamina collaborates with young people to challenge and intervene in existing cultural structures and systems through a range of projects including; a mentoring scheme, involving young people at governance level of a range of organisations and working with young people of colour to question what culture is in the context of Bristol. Rising Arts Agency might not be an art work but it connects to or fulfills most if not all of the criteria for an Arte Útil project. When I met recently with Kamina and Ellie from Rising to discuss leadership in the context of cultural democracy as part of the Extend programme, Ellie eloquently described her practice and the role of Rising as being to clear away the undergrowth of the cultural jungle and hold back that space to invite other young people to enter and bring their skills, voices and practice. This image of making a clearing for others to be, has stuck with me.

So how do these artists, curators and projects that seek to re-imagine museums, cultural, power and agency connect to my research, and in particular Arnolfini's Education archive.

Charles Esche talks in his interview about how the museum deals with it's own history. He describes the importance looking back, but forward a the same time. This PhD is an opportunity to look back whilst thinking about the future. I need to think carefully about how I make sense of the mess of the archive and prioritse the stories I choose to tell. In other words how do I order the past to make sense of where we go next?

I am finding many objects in Arnolfini’s archive that describe and evidence the making of the institution, specifically it’s education programme and participatory practices. The minutes of meetings read like scripts, letters and memos reveal the author’s position within the organisation and relationships with communities beyond the walls, reports tell stories about how the staff carved out a job role for themselves and so it continues. I am beginning to trace the constant remaking, rerouting and reappropriation, again and again, of cultural power. I must work slowly, as a deliberate strategy, in order to deeply mine this rich resource. The title of Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez’s article that I quoted at the beginning of this post is For Slow Institutions. She reminds us to ‘listen with attention’. I feel it is my responsibility to use this PhD and the opportunities and privileges that come with working within a University to create a platform or platforms that make visible the power structures from the past, whilst reimagining how we collectively weave new or future cultural institutions. The work I make is likely to be relational and involve digital culture. It will use the archive as a starting point for mapping out future possibilities. There are so many unresolved questions including; How can cultural institutions be relevant in the future? Can cultural power ever be distributed evenly or fairly? I must apply my original set of questions to my own research.

I need to think carefully, rigorously and with respect about how my presence will frame or influence my inquiry, who holds power within this work and how that power is shared.


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