Lidia Rossner/ Jonas Tinius

In the increasingly overlapping epistemic fields of anthropology and (contemporary) art, concepts and theories function no longer as external analytics ‘applied’ to a field by an external and detached anthropologist. Rather, they circulate as expertise in artistic contexts, often as ways to deal with emic problems that artists navigate as well as anthropologists. Notions like participation and exclusion, representation and alterity, work and method, creativity and innovation, are just a few concepts that hold value and are critically negotiated by anthropologists and artists alike. They emerge, moreover, as ‘shared problems’ in the ‘uneven hermeneutic zone’ (Schneider 2015) between art and anthropology.

The institution, or institutions, is one such fundamental matter of concern, a concept that is at once an analytic and an ethnographic term. Therefore, this note (explicitly not a definition, but a starting point for inquiry) will not provide a history of anthropological uses of the concept ‘institution’, but several instances of its encounter between art and anthropology. These notes will focus on four ways in which two anthropologists have encountered the concept ‘institution’ and four different ways in which it has been problematised, both by artists and anthropologists. This starting note is inevitably inflected, because it emerged from fieldwork with public institutions in Germany, but we invite readers to complement further ideas and encounters with the concept.

Encounter 1: Institutions as prisms and mediators between different dimension of social life

Institutions can refract and condense, like a light ray that hits a prism, different vectors and spheres, such as locality and globality, the past and the present, or the individual and the societal. As such prisms, however, institutions also function as mediators between these different vectors and spheres, such as the market, the state, civil society, and/or private cultivation (see e.g. Georgina Born’s 1995 Rationalising Culture).

Encounter 2: institutions as traditions with a continued argument over the values of that institution

The Scottish Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue, 1981) defines traditions as ‘bearers of a particular social identity’ (1981: 220), as “a historically extended, socially embodied argument … about the goods which constitute this tradition” (222). Institutions understood as traditions can therefore be seen as long-term projects with internal goals and virtues that are taught, transmitted through various forms of training, teaching, or apprenticeship. But they are also dynamic fora with continued conflicts over what constitutes that tradition. This relates to, but is different from what has been discussed as ‘organisational cultures’, yet it also relates to it since institutions understood as traditions also implies taking serious the role of authority and expertise, hierarchies and discipline. (For further reading, see Trevor Marchand, The Masons of Djenne, 2009; Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen, 2001; or Eitan Wilf, 2014, School for Cool; Georgina Born, 2005, Uncertain Vision)

Encounter 3: institutions as risk minimisers allowing for unprofitable projects and long-term planning

This notion has been developed by the sociologist Pascal Gielen in his 2013 book Institutional Attitudes, and it refers to the way in which institutions allow for the development of long-term artistic processes that have a greater margin for unprofitable or even failed experiments. This way of looking at institutions is particularly interesting in a context where similar artistic practices take place both in non-institutionally based project-work and in well-funded institutions with long-term plans. The idea of institutions as risk-minimisers here also links to my previous point about institutions as traditions, because institutions can provide a teleological character that stands in contrast to what Bojana Kunst has called the “projective temporalities” of freelance labour (see Kunst, 2015, Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism)

Encounter 4: institutions as sites for institutional critique

Institutions can also function as agonistic sites that allow for their own critique. This refers to the notion of institutional critique and its complicated history in art theory and practice. Institutional critique refers to a form of internalized reflection on the values and telos of an institution. It is also related to the above points in that internalized critique also allows for experimentation. In the tradition of institutional critique, the notion refers to artistic practices that consciously and deliberately insert themselves into and problematise artistic practices in art institutions and galleries. However, institutional critique also has an undertheorised reference point in theatre through the figure of the dramaturg, who, since Lessing, but professionally since Brecht have been employed in German public theatres as professional in-house critics, philosophers, and historians. Or, as Brecht himself described it, he imagines the dramaturg as “transported out of his or her office, away from unread manuscripts, to the stage, where he or she initiates and then mediates discussion between various parties on the function and political role of theatre.” (See also Claire Bishop, 2012, Artificial Hells).

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