Rito, Carolina & Balaskas, Bill. (eds.) (2021) Institution as Praxis: New Curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research. Berlin: Sternberg Press. <https://www.sternberg-press.com/product/institution-as-praxis/>
Published at the height of the pandemic, Institution as Praxis: New Curatorial Directions for Collaborative Research is a reclamation of the central role that research-oriented modes of enquiry—understood here as an expanded, not necessarily academic notion—have played, and can continue to play, in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices. The volume emphasises the ability of such practices to disrupt hegemonic epistemology through heuristic and often experimental methods, as well as through critical interrogation. Such capacity becomes all the more relevant at a time when the research paradigm, which has underpinned curating over more than fifteen years, might be under question; a trajectory that might however prove longer, should one include the ‘laboratory’ rhetoric that reigned during the early 2000s.1 Carolina Rito, Professor of Creative Practice Research at Coventry University, and Bill Balaskas, Associate Professor and Director of Research, Business and Innovation at Kingston University, have edited and compiled an anthology of texts that may well be opening a productive divide in curatorial discourse. Indeed, it is possible to envisage what seems to be a re-centering of exhibitionary practices in this field, such as the three-part series On the Question of the Exhibition issued by the PARSE journal last year [https://parsejournal.com/journal/#on-the-question-of-exhibition] or the public programme Farewell to Research, held as part of the 9th Bucharest Biennial, which consisted of a conference and a workshop that specifically focused on the exhibition and the biennial as primary arenas for curatorial practice.2
It is amidst this context where Rito and Balaskas’s editorial project gains significance: their case for research as practice—or one should probably say ‘practice-as-research’—doesn’t attempt to retrieve a blueprint for curatorial and artistic methodologies. Rather, they mobilise research as a critical enterprise whose means need to be problematised as a political negotiation, that is, to trouble already existing hierarchies in artistic and academic institutions while thinking with audiences, practitioners and marginalised tropes of discourse. This is both an ambitious project and a professional desideratum that has already been initiated by some practitioners at the intersection between curating and academia—Victoria Walsh’s article Redistributing Knowledge and Practice in the Art Museum (2016) comes to mind. In this sense, Rito and Balaskas situate their volume as part of the self-reflexive conversations (and resulting shift in practices) that the field of enquiry known as ‘the curatorial’ initiated more than ten years ago. Today, such conversations would translate as specific, situated examples of practice that interrogate modes of coming together that can, in turn, be instantiated within institutional settings. Institutions, therefore, are not posited here as monolithic, rigid structures but, rather, as an operational framework—that is, ‘institution’ as institutional doing. The different contributions to this anthology complicate and problematise how that doing might also be a doing with—that is, with constituencies, publics and other practitioners.
While the anthology remains the primary publishing format of curatorial literature, Rito and Balaskas distance themselves from the intellectual ecumenism often attributed to collective volumes. The book is organised in three parts, which correspond to three discursive formations that are not conceived of as watertight compartments. These three subdivisions—The Curatorial and Knowledge Production, Enacting the Institution, and What is Meaning(ful)—help render visible the intricate nature of the institutional and cultural economies that the contributors’ essays discuss; namely the new discursive arenas that the curatorial has brought about for the production and redistribution of artistic practices; an understanding of institutional settings as situated in already existing hierarchical structures while being able to subvert normative dynamics; and, lastly, the construction (and horizontal deliberation) of shared value(s) as a primary activity of research-lead cultural practice.
Functioning as a set of probing tools for the reader-practitioner, the first part of the volume, The Curatorial and Knowledge Production, includes contributions by Je Yun Moon, Carolina Rito, Joasia Krysa, Carolina Cerón, Vali Mahlouji and Michael Birchall. Considered together, the texts in this first part of the book yield a number of seminal notions, restored vocabularies and advanced concepts that future practices might be able to test. Thus, for instance, Je Yun Moon’s focusing on two specific examples of artistic practices held at different iterations of Liverpool Biennial (Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List in 2018 and Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Homebaked 2010), helps her reclaim a by-now disparaged platform—the biennial—as a potential site for a type curatorial research that can make commoning (a fundamental term in her text) effective in an otherwise highly commodified type of artistic event. Moon’s position works as a complementary counterpoint to Balaskas’s essay (in the third part of the book), which advocates for networked, online practices as sites for potential and actual commoning. In turn, Rito expands on the discursive shift inaugurated by the curatorial and further characterises this mode of understanding knowledge production as operating on the surface, as opposed to the ‘depth’ of traditional curatorial thinking.3 Rito’s is a crucial gesture that intends to liberate museum and curatorial practices from the influence still exercised on them by representational notions of artistic production, the surface level referring to the effects of cultural practice when it is materialised and circulated, instead of dwelling on the ‘depth’ of transcendental meaning and qualified interpretation of an artwork. This is a position further elaborated in Joasia Krysa’s text where the epistemological potential of exhibitionary practices, understood as an integral part of academic research, is reassessed and reclaimed as central to critical enquiry. Carolina Cerón’s contribution is a refreshing example of experimental prose and citational practices in curatorial literature (an otherwise rather homogenous panorama of self-reported project accounts). Cerón’s text retrieves the notion of curaduría blanda (‘soft curating’), a term coined by Colombian artist Gustavo Zalamea that allows for the rethinking of active intervention in art institutions as porous, flexible and ductile sites. Vali Mahlouji’s essay is an operational description of his venture Archaeology of the Final Decade (AOTFD), which brings to the fore critical practices and their capacity to render visible marginalised, fragmented and erased archives—an unearthing gesture that can potentially brace curatorial research. Finally, Michael Birchall argues for a positioning of discursivity as an arena where collaborative, plural participation in the production of knowledge can find fertile grounds.
The second part of the volume, Enacting the Institution, gathers together texts by Nora Sternfeld, Mélanie Bouteloup, Emily Pringle, Bill Balaskas and a conversation held between ruangrupa’s member farid rakun and former Gudskul manager Leonhard Bartolomeus. Offering a rich array of examples of institutional and creative practice, the essays in this section hold a shared understanding of institutions as an intricate fabric of discourses, funding schemes, organisational habits, opaque prejudices and governmental imperatives where dominant narratives and prevailing managerial modes can however be subverted and altered. A case in point is Nora Sternfeld’s fictional narration of a dystopian institution—put forward as a propositional exercise—which must be saluted for the same reasons Ceron’s writing should be welcomed. Critical inquiry in the artistic and curatorial fields can instantiate platforms which, despite being hosted within an institutional framework, can still undo the status quo and render visible the inherent contradictions, loopholes, gears and potentialities of the institutional machinery. This understanding of the institution as a porous device is an important shift in curatorial thinking which, while seemingly resonating with what once was called ‘New Institutionalism’, now offers a nuanced panorama of self-reflexive practices that work as instantiations of what Fred Moten and Stephano Harney have referred to as ‘fugitivity’: that is, institutions already contain spaces and tools for their own subversion. In this sense, it is not ludicrous to contend that an Althusserian understanding of what institutions are and can do pervades the essays in this part (and perhaps the entire volume): institutions are indeed sites for hegemonic enunciation—a discursive given—but also for politico-epistemic contestation, where negotiation emerges as the primary task to manage these tensions.4
The third section of the volume is underpinned by the emergence of negotiation as a lens for approaching contemporary curatorial research. With contributions by Sian Vaughan, Andrea Philips, Anthony Downey, and Forest Curriculum’s co-founders Pujita Guha and Abhijan Toto, What is Meaning(ful) investigates a number of different strategies to enact and make possible such disruptions—from inhabiting the interstices of academia (Vaughan), to radically reimagining its structures and protocols (Guha and Toto). Although tacitly, the contributions in the third part reckon with one of the primary problems lying at the heart of those artistic and curatorial practices that position themselves as examples of redistributed knowledge and political horizontality; namely, the unwearable aprioristic presence and agency of the practitioners. This conundrum—which finds its most sober interrogation in Andrea Phillips’ notion of a ‘collaborative imperative’—is acknowledged, though often implicitly, throughout the anthology. Such a reflection implies that curators and other critical practitioners often operate, as Tirdad Zolghadr would have it, as synecdochal representations of the institution they work for, in or as part of. The different strategies included in this section all attempt to suspend curatorial authority in the moral or hierarchical forms in which they might appear.
Whether such a suspension is achieved or not, it is certainly difficult for the reader to ascertain. Such opacity is not only due to the impossibility to reassess, as a reader, the triumphs obtained from the projects discussed in Institution as Praxis. It may well be the case that the most frequently used writing strategy of the anthology, the self-reported project account, is actually re-inscribing such authority. The apparently unproblematic nature of descriptive accounts that abounds in the field often renders this type of writing uninterrogated and taken for granted as self-evident. Overall, the majority of the examples in this volume are posited by definition as successful examples. The moments of conflict and dissent such projects surely had to negotiate and the goals they failed to achieve are frequently left out of the account; with a few exceptions such as Andrea Philip’s account of her tenure as BALTIC Professor and Director of BxNU Research Institute as well as the conversion maintained between farid rakun and Leonhard Bartolomeus on the strengths and shortcomings of Gudskul. In an anthology primarily written in apodictic prose, the question remains whether the production of curatorial discourse, in itself a practice, can incorporate the precious teachings which critical inquiry into artistic and curatorial practices have made available. In other words, if the turn towards non-representational practices in contemporary art and curating has sought, among other things, to undo curatorial authority and redistribute agency in institutional settings, one cannot but wonder what type of authority, be it scholarly or discursive, curators might accrue when they act as the sole narrators of their professional endevours.
Pablo is an AHRC LAHP funded PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, where he has also been a visiting lecturer on various MA programmes. As an art and literary scholar, he is examining the expansion of curatorial discourse, in particular the relationship between curating as a practice that claims to produce some type of political moment and the formats where curating is thought and talked about: the anthology, the conference, the symposium or the case study. Pablo has also taught or presented papers at Manchester School of Art, Bath Spa University, Birkbeck, Central Saint Martins and The Spanish Society for General and Comparative Literature. He has written for several specialist publications as well as for media outlets and has edited and translated the first anthology of essays by George Eliot ever published in Spanish.
- 1I am referring to curatorial practice as critical enterprise and knowledge reclamation, often embracing non-representational formats.
- 2See https://biennialfoundation.org/2020/04/9th-bucharest-biennale-farewell-…
- 3Rito was awarded her PhD by Goldsmiths College, London, where the first rehearsals for this still ongoing conversation took place.
- 4My invoking Althusser’s elaboration of cultural institutions as a type of apparatus where contestation by the subaltern is possible aims to highlight that the ideological grip of such spaces is imperfect and far from monolithic. For this, see Louis Althusser. "Ideologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (notes pour une recherche)." La Pensée 151 (1970): 3–38; tr. as “Ideology and Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation” by Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review 2002).