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some critical views on art and culture today  

On Institutional critique

Nina Czegledy     print
I have been fascinated by the discourse of institutional critique defined from the "inside" and "outside", since over my long working practice, I was mostly positioned in- between the sanctioned boundaries. From the East to the West, from science to art, from producing to curating I have been in motion conceptually as well as in practice. I am not alone in this state of affairs. Over the last decade, the increasingly blurring boundaries between Artists, Critics, Curators and Audiences created an entirely new environment where nearly every phase, every aspect, and every role embodied in art practice is radically changing. Artists often become toolmakers, educators critics, curators become entrepreneurs, venues metamorphose into virtual sites - all developing a new economy in the process. Thus the parameters of critical writing, production, curation, dissemination and reception have shifted- beyond previously imagined settings and conditions and as a consequence produced alternate forms and interventions of institutional critique.

Institutional critique appears in many forms including art works, critical writings, interventions and cultural activism. An academic approach to critical analysis entails systematic inquiries, however the spirit of activist interventions does not necessary fall into a constrained category. Consequently the defining terminology related to institutional critique remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, whether you choose print or web publications - extensive literature is available on institutional critique. Paradoxically, recent reviews are often presented within the context of cultural institutions including universities and museums. As a result dominant institutional interests are frequently perpetuated at conferences and in publications. Accordingly "any form of dependence on cultural institutions, be it on commercial or public sector, will come to determine cultural practice, it will structure perception. In these circumstances, critique, in the sense of questioning the conditions of cultural production, including one's own, becomes complicit, inhibited or impossible" noted Andrew Brighton (1).

Over the last century numerous artists and revisionist art movements have been associated with institutional critique. The long list of these is outside the scope of this text; it is sufficient to note a pioneering activist wave in the nineteen sixties and seventies, including the work of Hans Haacke, Barbara Bloom Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers and the Guerilla Girls. This well documented era is now relegated to art history. The so-called second wave of investigations -from the mid eighties- aimed at "art as an institution" is the focus of interest for this brief text.

In the last decades of the twentieth century institutional frameworks became powerfully systemized and firmly established worldwide. The new situation prompted a shift in critical interventions. Ironically, many artists who formerly targeted institutions and institutional policies became lately part and parcel within the expanded institutional scheme as educators, curators and writers. In this process- moving from the outside to the inside- as Simon Sheikh noted (2), time and again artists opted for instead of directing comments at institutional frameworks. The question remains whether there is still an "outside" and an "inside" or as Andrea Fraser claims movement between the inside and the outside of institutions is no longer possible as the structures of the institution have become totally internalized. Does this co-option make institutional critique as a critical method completely obsolete? Regardless of a clear-cut verdict on this issue, the shift prompted Irit Rogoff to comment:

"Within the space of a relatively short period we have been able to move from criticism to critique, and to what I am calling at present criticality. That is that we have moved from criticism, which is a form of finding fault and of exercising judgment according to a consensus of values, to critique, which is examining the underlying assumptions that might allow something to appear as a convincing logic, to criticality, which is operating from an uncertain ground of actual embededness (3).

So, what happened to institutional critique? James Meyer (4) first posed this question in 1993. Fraser, who used the institution itself as primary fodder for her interventions, provided a debatable-reply "We are the institution!" Not only are we the institution, but also it seems the institution is within each of us. Nonetheless, one is prompted to ask, who are the "we" in this case? According to Fraser, "we" should judge the institution of art "against its own claims and discourses, and against its self-image or mythology of radicality, resistance, and revolution".

Recently the institutional critique debate has received renewed attention although this time the interest has shifted to issues of globalization, finance, IP and environmental and cultural activism. These are challenging and noble aims. "But what comes after the critical analysis of culture? What is beyond the endless cataloguing of the hidden structures, the invisible powers and the numerous offences we have been preoccupied with for so long?" Asks Rogoff. While there are many possible answers, I would like to address and illustrate this query with two case studies to characterize a distinct contemporary and practice-based form of institutional critique.

In 1989, Andrea Fraser presented Museum Highlights (5), her videotaped performance, - which she termed "counter practice". Disguised as a museum guide under the pseudonym of Jane Castleton, she escorted visitors on an interventionist tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Throughout the tour Fraser offered routine visitor's information, however the over dramatized delivery changed the commentary completely into an ironic message, proficiently highlighting some of the organizational bias and social prejudices of established cultural institutions as exemplified by the museum. In Official Welcome (2001) performing as several "personas" Fraser expertly parodied the official rituals of exhibition openings and award ceremonies, while stripping down to bra and thong. The performance was repeated at the Tate Modern in 2007 where it provided a jumbled re-mix of the museum's Multimedia Tour. From Fraser we have learned the combined rhetoric of highbrow cultural embellishment as it presents itself through institutional rituals. Her work sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely investigates politics, business, histories, exemplified by contemporary institutions such as museums including the hierarchies and the exclusion mechanisms of art as an enterprise.

Irony is also frequently employed in Vera Frenkel's thoroughly researched methodical investigations into the various manifestations of cultural bureaucracy. The Institute or what we do for love (2003+), one of the latest projects of the internationally known Canadian multi-disciplinary artist confirms this assertion (6). The Institut? claims to be a professional and residential haven, providing support to some of the 50 year or older leading artists of our time. An assembly of stellar Canadian corporations manages the National Institute for the Arts, otherwise known as the Institute?. This first experimental branch is located in a vacant hospital building, however, there are expansion plans of further branches in the future. The Institute? motto is: "Creativity and care - home to the conscience of the nation". It mission statement already reveals the characteristic euphemistic approach that Frenkel maintained throughout the website: "Dual mission, to provide physical care and professional studio support for the nation's leading artists in their retirement years. A non-denominational interdisciplinary heaven with branches coast to coast supporting the art forms of all kinds of the institute hosts and projects the lifestyle and studio practices of the living cultural treasure of our time".

Exploring the website one discovers the remarkable facilities including the swimming pool, art gallery, the archives and the caf?. The visitor also obtains information on various activities such as the excursions, lecture series and the artist in residence project. It is worth to quote an excerpt concerning the clinic, which typifies the overall tone of the project: "The clinic is second to none in terms of its equipment and resources, and as for the garden seen from the clinic windows, Jamie Cornish, the gardener, keeps it up wonderfully well, letting the seasons flow into each other in great horticultural harmony."
Group photos of the residents, and information on the consultants are also available.

The gallery installation of The Institute? compliments the content and style of the website with presenting an odd assortment of furniture, potted plants and bronze plaques stating official policies. This excellently produced euphemistic project deftly incorporates the "official content" into the work, thus revealing the fundamentally dysfunctional aspect of institutions via caricature. In Frenkel's words, The Institute or what we do for love presents us with a curious tangle of control and chaos that characterizes even our most cherished institutions"

The artists cited above have crossed the threshold between the inside and the outside of the institution providing us through parody a critical approach reminiscent of some classical surrealist tactics. Notwithstanding the ironic fa?ade, these projects reveal Fraser and Frenkel's critical insights into institutional structures. The mocking roundabout style embedded in these works reinforces Christine Paul's suggestion "that the ideas and logic of Institutional Critique have only rarely been addressed, in any direct form of commentary or dissent, by new media activities, and then only by the specialized subset of "Internet Art." (7). Paul detects the clearly defined process of our time, a process in which institutions and artists validate each other through a critical engagement that does not result in more radical redefinitions.
Can one detect continuity since the 1960s in the analytical process of institutional critique? And if yes are the same questions posed a half century ago still valid? Or as Welchman asks: "have they been reformulated once again in more recent work, which develops its relations to the connectivity of art and social extension somewhat more obliquely, with a new round of obsessions that are less historically weighted?"(8) He proceeds to say that these queries open up new questions, such as "could it be that there is something delusional in practices that are so attached to deconstructing the apparatuses of the museum-mostly from within the institution-yet still believe themselves to be "critical" according to some measure or judgment from the outside? Has critique been evaporated into absorption; and the era of installation and site-specificity ushered in during the 1990s digested the assumptions of Institutional Critique so thoroughly that the predicates of place have now become the first conditions of the artwork?"? In her overview of Institutional Critique practices over the last 15 years, Paul emphasized "the inherently collaborative, participatory, networked and variable" character of new media and how it tests restrictions of traditional museum and gallery facilities. Undeniably a considerable amount of the currently produced process based art is more suitable for venues without walls, a flexible space open to experimentation and collaboration. Conceivably a revolutionary change from traditional arrangements will revitalize the practice of institutional critique in the future.

1. Brighton, Andrew VARIANT: A Review for the Director, Scottish Arts Council, Summer 2002 www.variant.randomstate.org

2. Sheikh, Simon Notes on Institutional Critique

3. Rogoff Irit Academy as potentiality

4. Meyer James 1993 Whatever Happened to Institutional Critique? Reprinted in Peter Weibel, Kontext Kunst, . Buchloh, Benjamin, [October 55, 1990],

5. Fraser Andrea

6. Frenkel Vera The Institute or what we do for love
7. Paul, Christine 2006:New media art and Institutional Critique: networks v. Institutions in Welchman, John C ed 2006 Institutional Critique nd After, Volume 2 of the SoCCAS symposia California: jrp/ringier
8. Welchman John C. Institutional Critique and After angelfloresjr.multiply.com/journal/item/167/Institutional_Critique


Nina Czegledy is an independent media artist, curator and writer. Over the last ten years she has programmed and curated over twenty international media art/video programs and touring exhibitions that were presented in 28 countries. Together with Iliyana Nedkova she has organized the Crossing Over, a workshop/media residency project for producing and presenting video shorts, which has been realized in Sofia (1996 and 1997), Novi Sad (1998), Ljubljana (1999), Colombus, Ohio (2000) and Liverpool (2001). One of her most recent works is Digitazed Bodies, interdisciplinary project exploring the ways in which the rapidly developing technologies affect the perception of our bodies - the project has evolved through a series of online events, exhibitions, performances, video programs and public lectures in Canada (2000), Hungary (2001) and Slovenia (2001). Czegledy is also a board member of ISEA, Images Festival, Interaccess Electronic Media arts Centre and Charles St. Video. She has published both internationally and in her native Hungary.




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