Who’s afraid of the fantastic (arts) institution?

There was a time when Flanders invested (a lot) to create the best possible conditions for ‘good art’ to appear. Different types of grants were made available and many grass-roots organisations emerged to accompany every step of the artistic creative process, from pure research and experimentation to the best possible ways to share the creation with various audiences.

The fear that new institutions will be imperfect, in their turn, does not justify our servile acceptance of the present ones.

IVAN ILLICH, 1969

But in the meantime, within the current political sphere, and certainly since 2008, the reality is that what was at the very core of our beautifully professionalised field is slowly being siphoned off: project funds are disappearing, co-productions are becoming rare, artists are creating in a state of long-term precarity, being structurally underpaid, overworked and overdependent in the development of their practices. And the supportive organisations (workspaces, production and presentation houses) do not have the means to compensate this growing scarcity – nor is it their function.  Looking at how our field functions today, knowing who effectively has the autonomy of development, how decisions are made, how the cash money is percolating down to the artists, etc., one could even say that the primary goal of the art institutions – which was to support the emergence and dissemination of ‘good art’ – could almost appear as a peripheral issue (who has heard of the infamous 20 per cent in Flanders?). So: what are the art institutions actually protecting today?

One could say that the primary goal of the art institutions – which was to support the emergence and dissemination of ‘good art’ – could almost appear as a peripheral issue.

As Bojana Kunst explains with great precision in her article ‘The Institution Between Precarization and Participation’ (in Performance Research: On Institutions, 2015), the current neo-liberal method of governance through social insecurity, flexibility and continuous fear is forcing the art institution (like any other institution) to become part of the normalisation of precarity. Kunst argues that art institutions are perpetuating and reproducing the neo-liberal ideology by using precarity and vulnerability as the main social capital (among others in their relations with artists as content providers), but they are also forced into protective practices of their own working – being asked to continuously reach out to others, becoming clearly marked as social (or public) places where (disappearing) social practices are being exposed and eventually preserved. According to Kunst, the development of participatory arts performances shows the need for arts institutions nowadays to prove that the audience has effectively been involved and reached.

The paradoxical reality is that in their non-public, invisible and private space, most art institutions persistently remain immune to the (micro-)political effects of their own artistic projects.

As self-designated knots of communication between communities and as spaces where social or political changes could be experimented, Kunst further argues, art institutions could be the place where various forms of domination are challenged. But the paradoxical reality is that, in their very organisation, in their non-public, invisible and private space, most art institutions persistently remain immune to the (sometimes micro-)political effects of their own artistic projects, being in no way influenced or modified by the experiences they are instigating, making sure they do not endanger their status as receivers of public or private money.

Reproducing the same old pattern in the institutions we have inherited , however, will surely lead us all to a dead-end. As to decide to stay blind to what is clearly coming our way, it seems urgent to question the very working of the institutions, to look for new models and decide that we could as well refuse to accept that ‘this is how things are done’.

However, the question does not seem to be whether we should leave the institutions or not. There are enough examples of the need to instigate changes simultaneously from within and without the institutions as interconnected sites where the responsibilities and roles of the institutions can be investigated. Quoting Andrea Fraser (2005), mentioned in the article ‘Settings and Steppings’ by Gigi Argyropoulou and Hypatia Vourloumis (in Performance Research: On Institutions, 2015), ‘it is not a question of being against the institution. We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kind of rewards we aspire to’ (2005: 278).

In search of structural alternatives, BUDA wants to take the opportunity of the BUDAVISTA#10 festival to open up a temporary space between reality and fiction in which we will invite thinkers, institution directors and artists to work together on the Fantastic Arts Institution.

First, we will try to see through our habits, look at the current problems from various angles and invite some inspiring examples of institutions to listen to how they are ‘making institution’ differently.

In search of structural alternatives, BUDA wants to take the opportunity of the BUDAVISTA#10 festival to open up a temporary space between reality and fiction in which we will invite thinkers, institution directors and artists to work together on the Fantastic Arts Institution.

Then we will possibly try to (mis?)use our radical imagination skills to come up with other possible institution models, deciding that we could also become a ‘future factory’ (Seba Hendrickx) and use science fiction, futurology and ‘as if’ strategies to unleash our collective imaginations. For this part, we will try to walk the difficult line between what could indeed become real and what seems today to be pure utopia – but could still be strongly desirable in a near future.

We will ask ourselves questions about Power, Money, Work Rhythms, Decision-Making, Spaces, Curatorial Practices, Communication, Shared Responsibilities, Equal Payment, Exclusiveness vs Openness, Publicness, Transparency, Fluidity vs Stability, Soft vs Hard, Flexibility vs Solid, Small vs Big, Quantity vs Quality, etc. etc. etc.

And we will raise all those questions, knowing, of course, that our search for the fantastic institution should steer clear of any utopian quest for perfection – this poison that makes all finished things dead. Following D. Haraway in her call to ‘Stay with the trouble’, the fantastic institution is probably (still) a quite problematic one.

But how fantastically problematic? That’s the question.

So, who’s afraid of the Fantastic Institution?

A.Q.

Agnes Quackels

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