Not about institutions, but why we are so unsure of them

J.J. Charlesworth

4 Sep 2008
Why an institution of contemporary art(s) like this, and not any other?

Anniversaries, especially those of institutions, often become opportunities for taking stock. This is true of the ICA in its 60th anniversary year, and the programming of Nought to Sixty has sought to implicate itself in the dynamic of critical reflection and self-questioning which the arrival of the ICA's seventh decade has prompted. That process of critical reflection has been both explicit and implicit; explicit in the various events of dialogue and discussion that have been a key part of Nought to Sixty's programme; explicit in the texts, like this one, published every month. And that process of critical reflection is implicit in the form of the programme itself – "60 projects, 6 months" – which, quite apart from being a good catchphrase, prompts a variety of questions: Why 60 projects? Why 'emerging artists'? Why shows that last a week? Why openings on a Monday night? In short, why present a programme of art like this, and not any other way? And by extension, Nought to Sixty asks a bigger question. Why an institution of contemporary art(s) like this, and not any other?

How to be an art institution today seems beset by a huge range of uncertainties and conflicting demands. Sixty years ago, there was not one institution in London that explicitly championed contemporary' art. Today, it is the great galleries of old art that seem out of place and anachronous, and everywhere is a space for contemporary art. So the project that was the ICA – for an institution explicitly committed to artistic culture that was speculative, independent and current, rather than hidebound by tradition and dominated by the sanction of the academy – is one which now seems to have been realised, and the ICA has become a victim of its own success. Instead of being driven by the need to represent forms of cultural practice ignored and unrepresented by the institutions that represented art, the ICA now finds itself to be just another 'venue' for that thing which it set out to make visible in the first place.

So, how to be not just another venue. If Nought to Sixty presents 60 projects in six months, this points to an ongoing critical dilemma about the function that institutions of contemporary art now perform. What does it mean to represent already current artistic practice today? This is no easy job, when much of the most self-consciously critical art of the last decades has called into question the relationship – between art and its public – that is produced and perpetuated by this thing called the art institution. In her essay for Nought to Sixty, curator Emily Pethick describes her approach to her job as curator of Casco in Utrecht, the defining feature of which "is that it is not conceived of as a gallery but as an open space, where many different kinds of activities and forms of work can happen."1 Her discussion of the projects she developed there shows how far one can go from the standard idea of a 'gallery', where particular objects and works produced elsewhere are brought for presentation to a public.

Nevertheless, the presentation of works produced elsewhere is still, by and large, what goes on in these spaces we once used to simply call art galleries. Yet one paradoxical aspect of the debate over alternative definitions of what can go on in an art gallery, or 'art space', is that such alternatives inevitably return to being 'presentations', however much they attempt to redefine the relation between work and public away from presentation and spectatorship. 'Presentation', it could be argued, isn't a relationship produced between people and certain types of artwork, but is rather a type of relationship between people and an institution, produced, in largest part, by the institution itself. That's why the ability to present is itself a form of power.

That power, however, is rarely alluded to explicitly. To a cynical observer of the art world, it can appear as if all institutions that 'present' are involved in a similar business of inclusion and exclusion. While the power of that business is an unspoken given; institutions appear merely as passive presenters of what is 'best' or 'most innovative' in artistic practice, while obscuring or hiding the fact that institutions make choices about what not to present, exerting power over how artistic practices are made visible.

This 'behind the scenes' character of presentation is the actual relation of power that exists between artist, institution and public. It's this form of relationship that leads institutions to various habits of deferral of responsibility in the way they explain the choices they make. Often this responsibility is passed to some other institution – artist X has had previous shows in one or other major exhibition / biennial / museum, which becomes justification for another show elsewhere. This form of serialised artistic career, where an artist can move from one institutional presentation to another, highlights how homogenised the culture of presentation of contemporary art has become, in the sense that many institutions replicate the same attention to certain artists once their significance has become unquestionable. (In this regard, the reputation economy of much of the art world uncannily mirrors that of the art market, where artworks are seen as investments whose value should only go up, not down.)

The active aspect of institutional choice becomes more visibly unstable, however, when it addresses that thing called the 'emerging artist'. What is an 'emerging artist'? Where do they emerge from and what do they emerge into? This is an obvious preoccupation for a programme such as Nought to Sixty, which offers itself as a mediator of a thriving scene of artists in the UK and Ireland who have not had "significant commercial exposure". Nought to Sixty draws instead "on a network of artist-run initiatives". Again, the legitimacy of such a programme is based on the sanction of a constituency elsewhere – the network of artist-run initiatives – and the process of presentation becomes a job of facilitating the communication of this pre-existing constituency to another one; that of the ICA's public. There is of course a lot of truth in this, even though what remains unspoken are the many exclusions and omissions that are always part of such programming. But the paradoxical aspect of such formulations of art as 'emerging' is that responsibility for art emerging is assigned to itself, or to any other agency other than the institution which in fact enables its emergence. We could argue that nowadays the institutions of presentation of contemporary art are strangely uncomfortable with openly declaring the power that they do in fact wield. I may be wrong, but the Independent Group, so central to the establishment of the early ICA, did not claim for itself the description of 'emerging art'. What it did claim was the legitimacy that came from championing an art that related to contemporary experience, rather than the institutionalised conventions of a culture rooted in the past.

Emerging art only emerges if powerful institutions allow it to. It is obvious, for instance, that art that cannot be sold will not emerge out of the 'institution' of the commercial art market. Public institutions have the option to either merely reflect the conditions of presentation of the commercial art system, or instead to sponsor and support different forms of artistic practice and presentation. Since the late 60s, ambitious art has massively extended the definition of what can be presented within the institutional sphere of art; that expansion of artistic possibilities was assisted by – is in fact synonymous with – the progressive expansion of semiautonomous public venues for new artistic production such as the ICA. The acknowledgement of the role of the contemporary art institution in producing an art scene, and not merely representing an already existing one, lies behind many recent discussions regarding curatorial practice and the role of the curator, especially the role of the curator-as-author.

But curiously, what is largely absent from those discussions is an acknowledgement of the curator as someone who wields power and makes substantial decisions of inclusion and exclusion. Curator-as-facilitator, curator-as-DJ, curator-as-artist – what these well-worn tropes have in common is the persistent disavowal of the purely institutional character of the curator's power. It may be that an artist can curate and that a curator can make art, but – until all artists are in charge of their own personal art space – the categorical distinction between artist and curator remains an institutional one, governed by an inequality of access to resources. This is the real power of the already-existing institutions of contemporary art. It was the concentration of power in the hands of certain institutions that provoked the formation of the ICA (and subsequently the Independent Group). A couple of generations later, it was a similar concentration of power that drove the explosion of artist-run initiatives that characterised the London art world of the 1990s. With the rising cost of property in the last decade, that dynamic has largely disappeared from the London art scene, shifting from non-commercial spaces to commercial spaces, and from the artist-run space to the artist-run event – including the performance evening or screening programme. It is not coincidental that the period of decline of the artist-run space is also the period in which the role of the curator has expanded. But it also the period in which institutions of art presentation have become increasingly homogenous and interchangeable, directed to an increasingly mainstream public, while the process of decision-making becomes increasingly

professionalised and opaque. This is no coincidence either. What distinguishes the art institution today is its relative distance from the community of practising artists (or rather, the separation of the latter from those institutions that directly represent them). In contrast to earlier institutional formations such as the original ICA, the usual contemporary art institution's programme is no longer governed by a close association with a group of artists or mutually interested practitioners.

As the ICA goes through a period of self-scrutiny and revision, how might it rethink itself, in a crowded market of identikit public spaces for contemporary art that its own long history has helped to shape? Staying close to young artists, being implicated in their 'emergence', and acting as a first port of call for ambitious new art is a good place to start. But if that process is to distinguish itself from the 'scene' of other similar institutions – each with their programmes of presentation that appear ready-made, and yet all strangely similar – it needs to go further. Rather than merely present the emergent as if the institution has no hand in the matter, the case should be made for an institution which is argumentative, that openly discusses the choices it makes and the art it chooses to represent.

Rather than a taste-maker institution that serves up its own version of the 'contemporary' to an otherwise casual public, this imagined institution would not only present, but re-present: shaping the attention of practitioners and non-practitioners alike through discussion of the questions that drive the shifting tendencies of the art scene; and harbouring what it disagrees with, as much as what it agrees with. Such strategies would openly reveal the power and partisanship that all institutions wield, rather than hiding them behind a false and inscrutable neutrality. In these ways the institution would avoid becoming 'institutionalised'. Recomposed of active, conflicting publics of practitioners and non-practitioners, a forum for opinion and opinion-former, it might solve the apparent contradiction of being an institute for the contemporary.

JJ Charlesworth is a writer, teacher and Reviews Editor of Art Review.


1Emily Pethick, 'Resisting Institutionalisation', Nought to Sixty, Issue 4, August 2008, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.

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