The Matter of Art Biennale Symposium Who are We Talking with? What Can Institutions (Un)learn from Artists?

Who are we talking with? What can institutions (un)learn from artists? Prague, 17-18 May 2019

In contemporary critical artistic and curatorial discourse,  the word “organization” is often accompanied by the word “future”. Through the practice of self-questioning and self-positioning, the institution of the biennale recently also became a vehicle for critical investigations focused on envisioning the future beyond a global administered society. Several interesting biennales were initiated in Central and Eastern Europe where, according to Vít Havránek, for a long time “we had believed that democracy and capitalism were two separate processes and that aesthetic differentiation was a mirror image of the emancipation of society.”(Vít Havránek, “Conceptual art as an intuitive choice: Postmodernism and post –conceptual art in Czechoslovakia” in Zdenka Badovinac, Bojana Piškur and Jesús Carrillo eds., Glossary of Common Knowledge, (Ljubljana: Moderna galerija, 2018), pp. 241-247, p.243.) Thus, after the accelerated post-1989 professionalization, there is a tendency in the former East to develop slow and sustainable art infrastructures that offer alternative formats of instituting art. Recently established biennales function as an almost unnoticeable processes of re-assembling people, works, and thoughts. Their organizers seek merely to eradicate the contradictions between bureaucratic art organization and the critical intentions behind artistic projects.

Biennales such as the Biennale Warszawa, the Off Budapest Biennale, the Kiev Biennale and the forthcoming Matter of Art Biennale in Prague develop their positions in opposition to both neo-liberal and populist cultural policies working towards a format that can be called a  “biennale-as-institutional-critique.” If, after two historical classic phases of institutional critique, in the 1970’s and in the 90’s, currently we have to do with a “hybrid stage that combines social critique, institutional critique, and self-critique,”(Gerald Rauning and Gene Ray, “Preface”, in Gerald Rauning and Gene Ray eds., Art and Contemporary Critical Practice. Reinventing Institutional Critique, (London: MayFly Books, 2009), p. xiii.) the transformation within the biennale discourse can be seen as an exemplary manifestation of this tendency. “Biennale-as-institutional-critique” offers, instead of a spectacular centralised or dispersed art show, a series of discursive events that aim at re-formulating cultural counter-strategies. Within its structure, the art exhibition is considered one of many formats among talks and meeting, publications and forums.

Art is often presented directly by the artists during artist talks and presentations, rather than curated by the biennale’s organisers. These formats, as well as the curatorial focus on “the constellations of discursive domains, circuits of artistic- and knowledge production, and research modules”(Okwui Enwezor, “The Black Box,” in Okwui Enwezor et al., eds., Documenta11_Platform 5, (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), pp. 42–55, p. 42) are certainly not new. The redefinition of the art exhibition and its transformation into a series of dispersed, discursive, art-related events is well exemplified by the several editions of Documenta. It is not therefore formal innovations, but rather the particular focus on organization that distinguishes recent biennales. In the following, I would like to discuss how the Matter of Art Biennale in Prague uses formats such as talks and symposia as a means to problematize its own structure and organisation, pointing to the paradoxes and limitations of its own situatedness and seeking to develop sustainable strategies of working with and for local communities.

The organisers of the Matter of Art Biennale, Tereza Stejskalová and Vít Havránek, have been involved in the activities of the Czech branch of Tranzit for over ten years, working together with international communities of artists and researchers. Relying on these networks and connections, they moved towards a new institutional stage. The biennale format, according to Stejskalová, “offers an opportunity to establish a critical and self-critical institution that has the potential to communicate with a wider public in Prague and the Czech Republic.”(Interview with Tereza Stejskalová, conducted over email on September 1, 2019.) “Matter of Art” is not the title of the first edition of the new Prague biennale, as one may think, but it is a name of the actual institution. (“Matter of art” is a literarily translated Czech expression “Ve Věci umění”, a formal phrase put in the subject field of the email or letter.) The forthcoming exhibition will be focused on the critical reading of the period before 1989, but its title is still to be announced. It will open in 2020 in the Prague City Gallery and some currently abandoned and demolished brutalist buildings. As part of the exhibition, Matter of Art Biennale also explores the format of artistic residency—the artists are invited to Prague not to produce new works for the biennale, but rather “to reflect together with the curators on the work to be produced”.(Interview with Tereza Stejskalová.) Among artists that have already been invited to contribute new projects are the Institute of Anxiety (Eva Kotátková and Barbora Kleinhamplová), Lada Gažiová, Tuan Mami, Sung Tieu, and Volodymyr Kuznetsov.

Before making art public within the framework of the approaching exhibition, Tereza Stejskalová and Vít Havránek organised the Matter of Art Symposium entitled Who are we talking with? What can institutions (un)learn from artists? Already last year several cultural workers involved in organising biennales were invited to Prague to discuss the possibilities of unlearning biennale.(See the project description at http://cz.tranzit.org/en/lecture_discussion/0/2018-10-19/symposium-unlearning-biennale (last accessed September 08, 2019).) During the recent symposium, the object of unlearning was defined more broadly, as an art institution as such i.e. any infrastructure and its agents that enable making art public. The symposium was conceptualised around three kinds of agents and agencies operating within art institutions: “those who make art, those who make art public and the others (the public)”.(Vít Havránek in the closing remarks at the Symposium) Surrounded by the touristic frenzy of central Prague, curators and artists, in a strange travesty of a clandestine dissident meeting, tried to figure out how to make art relevant for the others (the public). This location of art—in the centre of the city but predominantly irrelevant for non-professional audiences—was also a driving force behind the set of questions posed by the organizers of the symposium.(See the project description at https://matterof.art/symposium (last accessed September 08, 2019).)

Recalling his own experiences of working within the framework of the Chto Delat’ collective, Dmitry Vilensky proposed a broader historical perspective on this debate. He pointed to the historical development of the institutional discourse, dominated in the 60s and 70s by institutional critique, concentrated in the 90s on the notion of potlatch and gift economy, and currently focused on the problems of administration, access and the recognition of minor communities. Thus, the main challenge pertinent to the current situation relates to the potential danger of representing and appropriating “the others”. During the two days of the symposium, artists and researchers spoke about these contradictions, proposing institutional models focused on reaching audiences in meaningful ways by making and sharing art ethically.

Several presentations put forward the idea of the de-centralisation of the art institution by developing strategies of working together with local communities. James McAnnaly, the founder (together with Brea McAnnaly) of the organisation Luminary Center for the Arts in St. Louis (“the art organisation we can live in and with”(James and Brea McAnnaly, Manifesto for an art organization we can live in and with. Full text available at https://theluminaryarts.com/about/manifesto (last accessed September 08, 2019).)) emphasized the importance of the sustainability of relations between culture workers and communities in the age of professionalization. McAnnaly’s point of departure was the recognition that contemporary life (profession and private) has been formatted by the protocols of corporative logic and language. In their practice, they work towards overcoming neoliberal paradigms devising an organization that “is also a kind of organism and it must not simply last, but live.”(Ibid.)

Another possibility of sustainable collaboration was suggested by Mark Wilson, a curator of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, who advocated working with community leaders as a very effective strategy for a meaningful engagement and making an institution public. An institution, in this case a museum, was conceptualised as a “critical friend”, experimenting with the idea of delegating power and competences to the community members and destabilising the ways in which exhibitions are created. This practice relies on social consultations designed as a “social occasions”, community curation and the opening of archives. The ultimate aim of such a collaboration between a museum and communities is to prepare tools for social disobedience (protest labs) and to connect the museum with the streets.  However, a skeptical member of the audience questioned the museum’s policy of diversifying its workforce by collaborating with community curators and postulated instead employing curators with more diverse backgrounds on an equal financial basis.

One of the main challenges related to the sustainable community-based instituting was identified as a commitment issue. Jonas Staal emphasised the necessity of commitment, but  problematized it rather in terms of life-long commitment to certain ideas than as a commitment to particular communities. Within his practice of organisational art, Staal defines art as a tool used to prefigure new possible infrastructures. The archive was also identified as a means of subversive political action: a tool that enables the extraction of unheard voices, practices and points of view.

The artist Alex Martinis Roe spoke about the possibility of revisiting existing archives, in her case the archives of feminist art, to uncover the knowledge of experience transmitted cross-generationally through documents and personal contacts. Jakarta-based artist Andang Kelana, on the other hand, positioned archiving as a practice of collecting public expressions and bringing them to the multi-agent audiences. His project Visual Jalanan aims at re-covering fragments of collective resistance articulated visually in the public space of the city. The role of an art institution in this case is to merely collect, maintain, and amplify existing impulses.

A more radical answer to the problem of the art world’s systemic contradictions can be described as the project of utopian instituting. Czech artist Jiří Skála argued that “It is necessary to change the whole intellectual framework in which contemporary art finds itself” and proposes making all human activities equal. A utopian thread was also conspicuous in the account about the failure of engagement with communities, in the case of Illia Gladstein’s  attempt at organising the Festival of Film and Urbanism “86” in the post-industrial Ukrainian city of Slavutych, which represents the ruins of the Soviet utopia.  The question of how to engage with a disinterested public was exercised in several ways during the preparation of the festival, ultimately leading to failure. The only moment of successful communication between artists and the local community was made possible through the strategy of appropriation of existing formats of cultural participation—such as official ceremonies and parades.

The most effective and comprehensive strategy of instituting art differently discussed at the symposium can be identified as feminist instituting. In her presentation focused on the politics of care and the idea of the feminist institution, Lucy Lopez defined instituting as a practice of care, and postulated a slow, porous, soft and anti-patriarchal institution. Her concept was in line with the Code of Practice of the Feminist (Art) Institution developed at a symposium organized by transit.cz in 2017.(Feminist (Art) Institution, Code of Practice. See description at http://feministinstitution.cz/code-of-practice/ (last accessed September 08, 2019).) The code defines a feminist art institution as self-critical, transparent, and ethical, and based on a feminist understanding of work(ing). One of the main aims of the feminist art institution is to redefine “what it means to be a public institution and to embrace groups that are otherwise marginalised or discriminated against within the concept of public.”(Ibid.) The Matter of Art Biennale is an attempt to implement these principles within the infrastructure of a biennale. Questioned about the challenges of building a feminist art institution from scratch, Tereza Stejskalová responded that “the main challenge is to try to do a feminist institution in an environment that is not feminist at all.”(Interview with Tereza Stejskalová.) But it seems that the institution of the Biennale which is in the making in Prague has precisely the ambition not only to distribute and publicise art but most of all to recast the environment in which art is created and consumed. This environmental aspect of the project can be captured by referring to Félix Guattari’s concept of “existential territories” and three registers of ecology: environmental, social and mental.

Thus, the institution of the Matter of Art Biennale was set up not to enrich the cultural offerings of the city, but out of the necessity to offer artists and audiences a more sustainable and fairer format of cultural participation. The curators of the Matter of Art Biennale are looking primarily at the social relations created through art, considering environmental and mental conditions of its production. Prior to making an art exhibition and developing an infrastructure that makes art public, they seek to reconsider, with the help of artists, how to make art public without contradicting the artistic content and values of works that are often critical of the current institutional situation. They also think about how to create non-exploitative working conditions. This environmental focus and the actions related to it can be perceived as the actual work of the Matter of Art Biennale. Instead of merely giving a platform to artistic projects that criticise the neo-liberal condition, the Biennale itself tries to think and operate beyond the neo-liberalist paradigm and  imagine “after neo-liberalism”.

If in the end the symposium still did not provide comprehensive answers to the posed questions, nor did not teach us how to make an ecologically sustainable, socially just and inclusive public art institution that makes the individuals who constitute it feel good, several participants did at least propose some fragmentary solutions. They are all worthy not so much of being “considered” as being practiced and maintained in ever-changing contexts, places and locations. The theoretical frameworks and models of instituting explored at the conference— such as community–based, archive-based, utopian, and feminist instituting—are not exactly new. Yet the conference renewed the belief that new answers can come only from the praxis.  This almost utopian insistence on the value of practice against all odds, including potential failure, was, I suppose, also a lesson that we can (un)lean from artists.

Karolina Majewska-Güde
Karolina Majewska-Güde, Ph.D., is a researcher, art historian, and curator. Her research focuses on the east-central European neo-avant-gardes, feminist art histories, performance art, contemporary issues of circulation, translation, and production of knowledges through art-based research. She recently published Ewa Partum’s Artistic Practice. An Atlas of Continuity in Different Locations, (Transcript, 2021). Majewska-Güde is a member of the research collective pisze/mówi/robi, devoted to curating exhibitions and workshops focused on practices of artistic research and artistic archives.