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Institutional Critique Revisited

Helena Björk, Laura Kokkonen / 2014

The American artist John Baldessari has said that the most important goal of art education is to demystify artists. “It is important for art students to learn that art is made by human beings, just like them,” he said.
We believe the same is true of art institutions. They too are created and run by human beings and can therefore be criticized, rethought and imagined differently. Too often, however, everyday practices and power relations make us stick to old habits and prevent us from seeing the possibilities.
The teaching material Never Underestimate the Institution (2014) is intended for curatorial and artistic study programmes but available for anyone interested in the topic. Since the 1960s, artists have taken on institutions in order to reimagine the material frameworks in which art has been presented. “Institutional critique” has been art historically institutionalized as a genre of artistic practices and become part of the canon. The idea behind the publication is to return to the practices of the canonized figures of institutional critique by reviving their critical perspectives.
The purpose of the material, commissioned by the MA programme in Curating, Managing and Mediating Art at Aalto University, Helsinki, is to stir up the established notions of institutions by revisiting some artistic practices of past decades that take on institutional structures in one way or another. The artists and artist groups selected represent strategies that are closely -associated with the genre of institutional critique. By presenting examples from recent history, we want to urge reflection on how the institutions have actually changed during the last decades and on what they might look like in the future.
Institutional critique’s development can be asso-ciated with poststructuralist and critical theory and with their impact on visual practices. Subsequently, it was also linked to social developments, especially the civil rights and feminist movements early on, and postcolonial and queer politics later, as well as theore-tical critiques of the opposition of high and low culture, or Modernist and mass art. The institutional frameworks related to practices of displaying art have been called into question since Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades in the 1910s, when the entire institutional -context in which the work of art occurs came into focus. Since the 1960s movements such as Fluxus and the Situationist International also contributed to the questioning of the institutional framework of art. Many artists later identified as occupying the genre “institutional critique”, such as Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Michael Asher and Marcel Broodthaers started off in the late 1960s, followed by a “second wave” of -artists such as Andrea Fraser and Fred Wilson in the 1980s.
In addition to the artists mentioned above, the material presents Mike Kelley, Mark Dion, Martha Rosler, Jimmie Durham, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and the collectives Guerrilla Girls, Group Material and Critical Art Ensemble. Over the decades, institutional critique has come to be used as a label for specific artistic practices, and seems in 2014 to belong in the past. The publication Never Underestimate the Institution asks: What could we learn from these artists today – and what could institutional critique be but like complaining when everyone throws you a party?1
Simon Sheikh has suggested that institutional critique should be seen as an analytical tool, a method of spatial and political criticism and articulation that can be applied not only to the art world, but also to disciplinary spaces and institutions in general. Similarly, we hope to inspire discussion with a wide perspective and to revitalize questions that have lost none of their relevance. Below is a selection of assignments from the material to inspire critical thought and action.

Instructions for a Museum
Find the mission statement of a museum. Create instructions for the museum by cutting words or phrases from the mission statement and gluing them onto paper.
(Wir Spielen2)
What are the underlying basic assumptions of the text? The starting point for this exercise is the vocabulary of the museum. Can you subvert, alienate or highlight meanings in it by simply rearranging words?
Optional exercise: Send the final result to the museum director.

Get a copy of the floor plan of a museum that you are visiting. Map your own way through the exhibition and mark any pauses. Also write down any thoughts, wishes and dreams.
Research into museum architecture by watching visitors can reveal many things. Are visitors free to move as they want, or disciplined into a predetermined choreography?

Commission a monument for someone or something you want to commemorate.

Propose an alternative curriculum for a school subject of your choice.
What is the purpose of Physical Education? Could Geography become more critical and be taught imaginatively? Is the Music curriculum multicultural enough? Can history education be made less nationally focussed?

Form different new collectives and name them according to their goals.
A name can be everything from a power statement to a parody. Try the style of established institutions for a small, informal collective and vice versa.
Optional exercise: Use image-editing software and existing photographs to create a mock institution.

Teile dieses Manuskripts wurden bereits früher veröffentlicht in: Helena Björk, Laura Kokkonen, „Never Underestimate the Institution“, CuMMA Papers #11, November 2014, https://cummastudies.wordpress.com/cumma-papers/.

1.) Trisha Donnelly, www.frieze.com/issue/article/keywords.
2.) The workgroup WIR SPIELEN (WE PLAY) is a critical/analytical reading and action group with a focus on contemporary strategies of sharing and the cultural production of art and action. http://wirspielen.net.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 47.]

Institutional Critique

Helena Björk

(*1981) is an independent curator and art educator. She has worked for different art organisations and with freelance projects, most recently with a turn towards performance art. She is currently finishing her studies in the MA programme in Curating, Managing and Mediating Art at Aalto University, Helsinki, alongside working as an art teacher in a secondary school. Her interests include working across disciplines both as a curator and a teacher, and investigating encounters with contemporary art in public space.


Laura Kokkonen

(*1988) is an independent art historian (MA, 2012) and curator working with research, organizing, and writing. She is finishing her studies in Curating, Managing and Mediating Art MA programme at Aalto University, Helsinki. Her current interests include the changing preconditions for contemporary art production from material circumstances to the Internet as a space for artistic practices and their mediation. Her recent curatorial projects include the exhibition Rauma Biennale Balticum – Crime Scene that she co-curated in 2014.


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Asher, Michael  ·  Björk, Helena  ·  Broodthaers, Marcel  ·  Buren, Daniel  ·  Critical Art Ensemble  ·  Dion, Mark  ·  Duchamp, Marcel  ·  Durham, Jimmie  ·  Fraser, Andrea  ·  Group Material  ·  Guerrila Girls  ·  Haacke, Hans  ·  Kelley, Mike  ·  Kokkonen, Laura  ·  Laderman Ukeles, Mierle  ·  Rosler, Martha  ·  Sheikh, Simon  ·  Situationistische Internationale  ·  Wilson, Fred