From the monthly letters on (offline)

Of Institutions and Fantasies...

Written by Maria Rößler, March 2017

Keeping fluids in shape requires a lot of attention, constant vigilance and perpetual effort - and even then the success of the effort is anything but a foregone conclusion.1
- Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017)

Fluidity as well as flexibility seem to be popular qualities applied to almost everything today and I think they actually have been for most of my lifetime. What you must know, dear Reader, is that I am not much older than the German reunification and I do not have memories from a time without the tenets of neoliberal deregulation. I have learned that fluidity and flexibility are set against outdated mechanisms of control and rigid structures, promising (even) more freedom to those who adopt them. In the above quote, recently departed Zygmunt Bauman describes the engagement with fluids as quite a high-maintenance relationship if not an elusive one. When confronted with those f-words, I usually end up pondering on their assumed opposites: solidity and stability. I wonder how much stability one thing must at least possess or how much stability must be left in one thing for it to be able to support another thing. Strength to support appears to rely – at least physically – on somewhat stable structures.

Moha, The Roof, (Amsterdam, December 2016), makets © David Cenzer

For me, the month of February was on the one hand marked by my temporary relocation from Amsterdam to Ghent and on the other hand occupied with recurring questions and conversations around the status and the future of institutions – in the majority of cases: art institutions.

All this culminated at a three-day event in the middle of February at Kortrijk’s Kunstencentrum BUDA. In response to a sense of crisis among Flemish art institutions and the ongoing normalisation of precarity amongst artists and artworkers2 (just as among other members of society), Agnes Quackels had organised an extraordinary gathering of artists, theorists, and representatives from art institutions of different contexts, sizes and missions. In Kortrijk, I found myself among peers from Amsterdam as well as new colleagues and friends from Ghent and Brussels, all in one way or the other experienced with the challenges of art institutions in crisis and transition. They were invited to have an exchange abouthow to ‘make’ institutions and to develop together an imagination of the Fantastic (Arts) Institution “in a temporary space between reality and fiction.”3

Having had my share of complaining about the imperfections of institutional structures, I was particularly looking forward to the ‘fantastic’ aspects of the exchange. And I mean ‘fantastic’ as in ‘fantasy’, a genre of fiction and a mode of thinking that - one may think - art institutions have a good bit of practice with. However, despite a few, in fact, quite evocative impulses from brilliant artists and researchers such as Sarah Vanhee, Vladimir Miller, and Daniel Blanga-Gubbay, moments of radical collective imagination or emancipatory use of fiction did not seem to find their way into the agora on that weekend. The conversation about institutions remained hard-headed and almost disenchantingly ‘realistic’. Any possible speculative exercise ‘under the cover of fiction’ – to borrow from Blanga-Gubbay – was stranded in a series of status-quo presentations, which left little time for cross-references between the individual contributions, not to mention space for what-ifs, pipe dreams, or cloud castles.

In a recently published article entitled “Fictional Institutions: On RadicalImagination,” Livia Andrea Piazza and Daniel Blanga-Gubbay write:

It is necessary to be reminded of the fictional aspect in the idea of theinstitution (…) The market, and the system of neoliberal capitalism inwhich we live, are among the institutions that we perceive as themost natural ones, hindering our attempts at critique. (…) capitalism’sfocus on reality emerges from and develops into a naturalised set offictional rules and institutions.4

Our institutions are necessary fictions, which we have agreed to treat as real. To maintain stability and power, institutions have to conceal their fictional character. When an institution is at a loss of stability, it can try to cling to its operational patterns or revisit the social agreements at its core… which for many art institutions would probably mean to re-imagine what it means to first and foremost provide a supporting structure for art and artists. This exact question is one of the concerns Sarah Vanhee put forward in her contribution to the exchange in Kortrijk.
In his lecture, Blanga-Gubbay added another, new thought: Referring to Laboria Cuboniks’ Xenofeminist Manifesto (“A Politics for Alienation”),5 he pointed out the liberating potential of alienation - or fictionalisation - in the face of unjust and oppressive realities. While the dictates of fluidity and flexibility are increasingly perceived as repressive, fiction reserves an open space that allows us to explore and experiment with those qualities beyond capitalist profit logic, but also toimagine solid structures, such as institutions, differently and outside their established ways of operating.

Performance activates and depends on a relational support systems.6 In performance, imagination emerges in the encounter between audiences and performers. And it is my understanding that, besides artists, it will be audiences (not consumers, mind you) who carry the capacity for subversive fictions into the space which is marked by the art institution.

With this in mind, we present to you another set of carefully selected performances and related events in and beyond Amsterdam and we wish you a fantastic beginning of spring.

Maria Rößler
- in conversation with Annick Kleizen, Isobel Dryburgh, Marjolein Vogels & Simon Ascencio

Moha, holding up The Roof, (Amsterdam, January 2017) © David Cenzer, Julia Williams

1. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2000, 8.
2. As, for instance, described in: Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Winchester/Washington: Zero Books, 2015.
3. Agnes Quackels, “Who's afraid of the fantastic (arts) institution?,” 2016.
4. Daniel Blanga-Gubbay and Livia Andrea Piazza, “Fictional Institutions: On Radical Imagination,” Turn, Turtle! Reenacting the Institute, edited by Elke van Campenhout and Lilia Mestre, Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2016, 44.
5. Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, 2015.
6. For reflections of a larger context of the supporting social infrastructures of artproduction, see: Shannon Jackson, “Performance, Aesthetics, and Support”, in: Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York and London: Routledge, 2011, 11-42.