The Institutionalisation, Precarity and the Rhythm of Work

Green Park, Athens (c) The Hackable City

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It is essential to consider this misty unconditional core, when reflecting about the process of institutionalisation, especially in relation to the precarity of the human being. Such mist can be described as the dreamy, foggy, steamy matter, or to put it differently, an uncontrollable and wet foam of imagination, which brings people, animals and things together and is actually the perplexing condition of every institution. Perplexing, because it is also a reason why institutions, when established, try to erase their irrational, misty, impossible core and build monuments to themselves in the form of solid spaces, rules of behaviour and protocols, and archival possessions of the past. Because of this foggy imagination in their core, the institutions rationalise their own progress and growth and relate it to the causality of history, they try to systematically control the temporal rhythms in which the future is produced. This misty substance of imagination is then so slippery and ungraspable, that it could be easily compared to the inflammatory dreams, to the phantasmagorias for which, as it was believed at the beginning of modernity (when we actually saw the formation of our current institutions) particularly women and children were sensible: it was believed phantasmic imagination could harm their bodies and well being, it could kindle their passions and transform them into hysterics, lunatics and loners. The misty substance of this imagination is so elementary, that sometimes we are even ashamed of it. It seems as if a life must have much more complexity as this misty phantasmic idea, this foggy and slippery proposition: an imagination of living together, the creative invention of forms of togetherness and capacity of formation of distinction, the imagination of support and care; the capacity of taking care of our vulnerability and enabling the ways in which we are actually not alone in our vulnerability.

The question then is how it is possible to practice processes of institutionalisation inside this paradoxical knot: here the practice of institutionalisation continuously needs phantasmic imagination and dedication to the impossible, to actually make something possible.

This is why I would like to consider with you today how it is possible to take care of this foggy, imaginative, dreamy institutional core and why it is necessary to talk about the poetic processes of institutionalisation through various forms of engagement, care and persistence. The question then is how it is possible to practice processes of institutionalisation inside this paradoxical knot: here the practice of institutionalisation continuously needs phantasmic imagination and dedication to the impossible, to actually make something possible. These are then poetic processes, which can be placed very close to the performative action, to the engagement with actuality through the invented, artificial and staging procedures: in this sense actuality is not something natural, something which is lying there, but it is also continuously produced through our engagement. At the same time, poetic processes are part of the performative actions of engagement, namely they deal with the invention of forms and particular inclinations in language and subjectivity, they disclose the inventive and imaginative side of being and working together. It is immensely productive for the thinking about artistic institutions (but also institutions in general) when we bring these two processes together – performative action (acting as if) and poetic capacity of invention (imagining as if not yet).

I still vividly remember Athena’s powerful thesis about paradoxical power of the institutions: how they are necessary to sustain human beings and how at the same time they can also be violent, they can destroy human beings.

I was very much inspired to think further about this imaginary core of the institution, when I heard a lecture in October 2015, in Athens, in Green Park, by Ahena Athanasiou. Her lecture was held in an old abandoned theatre, which was taken over by a collective and transferred into the temporal venue, a conference meeting, but also a temporal retreat at the same time for refugees, since the Green Park theatre is located inside the city park, where in 2015, just before the conference, hundreds of people were still sleeping, before moving forward to what, was then, still an open route through the Balkans to the western countries of Europe. So, in Green Park, Athena Athanasiou talked about the paradoxical conditionality of the institutions, the conditionality that we have to take into consideration especially in the present moment, characterised by institutional distrust on one side and institutional failure on the other (both actually coming from all political spectrums). Athanasiou was describing a paradoxical temporal structure of institutions, which also defines our action when involved in the process of institutionalisation, or better to say, our institutional engagement: it is only possible in the persistence between fiction and reality. I still vividly remember Athena’s powerful thesis about paradoxical power of the institutions: how they are necessary to sustain human beings and how at the same time they can also be violent, they can destroy human beings. Institutions have namely a complex relationship with the precarity of the human being, they can support us but also take us down by the constitutional violence which intrinsically belongs to every process of institutionalisation; it then inhabits its core in the same way as the imaginative poetic mist I was talking about before. That’s why it is crucial to always think about institutions through the specific temporal perspective: even if they are spatially bound, related to houses, shelters, domains, abodes, constructions and platforms, they should not be approached as facts, something which is given and completed, but only as potential processes, space of the institution appears because of the particular temporal constellation of forces. Institution is not a fact, is not an achievement, but a conditionality, which enables the simultaneity between performing the institution and resisting the very process of institutionalisation. It is only possible then to defend the process of institutionalisation, when at the same time performing it as something that has yet to be constituted. Here the poetic side enters into the process of institutionalisation: this process can only be done in a way that at the same time imaginatively and politically works against the very closure of the processes we are in. In that way, said Athanasiou, we have to act in the process of institutionalisation as it would be possible, but at the same time, we also have to be always aware of what do we lose if we win. This position opens a crack in time, a temporal conditional rupture. To act as it would be possible is also at the core of every engagement in general; not because this would be a kind of individual superpower, a tricky and tactical position of enlightened institutional worker and critical subjectivity, if we go this way, we could soon end in exhaustion and loneliness. This conditionality is rather at the core of engagement, which is always already, and engagement with others. The temporal quality of the process of the institutionalisation belongs to the specific common practice, which is at the same time always incomplete, unforeseeable, rather a “co-existential history of surprising itself”. (Athanasiou, Becoming Engaged, Surprising Oneself). The institutional practice is related to the opening of “space and time which comes into being precisely through producing its own agents” (Athanasiou, Becoming Engaged, Surprising Oneself) and this is only possible because this practice is already a common practice from the start, protecting the common precariousness of being. Nevertheless, at the same time, the threat of violence is always there, originating in the erasure of this common pre-condition of every activity.

Why is it so important to be reminded on this temporal dimension of the process of institutionalisation, to think about the conditionality that defines processes of being and working together? And how this relates to the artistic institutions, especially to the ones, which are characteristic today for the field of performance, choreography and the visual arts, in which many freelance and flexible, nomadic artists are working today? Something perplexing is happening with the precarious work of those artists, which can be especially well observed in art institutions, particularly the ones, which are not related to the historical model of national institutions, but appeared together with the late capitalist economy from the 1990s onwards, supporting mostly contemporary performance practices. Institutions that produce and support dance and performance are still somehow inheritors of the specific politic and economic situation in the early 90s and I would even state, they didn’t change much since then, even if their conditions changed a lot. Those houses and spaces mostly arise from a particular situation in Europe in the beginning of the nineties, a situation which resulted from the economic growth, the fall of the Berlin Wall, neo-liberalism, internationalisation and the overall economisation of production and creative imagination, rise of the creative and attractive cities and discovery of the East (and South) of Europe. This model, which was somehow directed to support the international, engaged and daring practices through international collaboration and co-production, providing support to nomadic, highly educated, internationally based artists, is nowadays deeply questionable and full of paradoxes. This is because of the changed economic and ideological situation, caused by overall governmental precarisation. Isabell Lorey used this notion to describe the process of governing through continuous precarisation that establishes social links, structures, relations and dynamics in society precisely with the production of a pertinent feeling and fear of insecurity. (Lorey, Isabel (2015). State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious) In this sense the very daily reality of the art institution is also governed by precarity – with the incredibly accelerated, regulated and evaluated process of production, where it is only possibility to self-produce continuously in between battles with politicians, marketing processes and continuous self-invention. At first glance, such an institution looks far from being closed, bound to space in a traditional sense, but flexible, continuously searching for young and inventive artists, producing concepts, intervening in the surrounding, etc.

However such a mode of production should be thought of in relation to the fear of insecurity: art institutions are not exceptions from governmental precarisation, but so deeply involved in its normalisation that in many cases they became an utter example for it. The art institutions themselves are deeply embedded in the constant use of vulnerability as a main social capital today: not only that many of them work with a very badly paid or voluntary workforce (and paradoxically this especially goes for the ones who are the most stable and can use their symbolic value for even greater exploitation), but they also work under extremely vulnerable and unstable conditions, which demand the constant implication of protection measures. To protect their own vulnerability they have to continuously reach out, develop themselves as social places and continuously give a new form to the glittering force of human productivity. The result is that most of the time they function as logistical and production knots for many simultaneous projects, which have to continuously compete in terms of cleverness, cunningness and tactical strength, but at the same time also nourish the values of collaboration and friendship among cultural agents and the surrounding society.

The art institutions themselves are deeply embedded in the constant use of vulnerability as a main social capital today: not only that many of them work with a very badly paid or voluntary workforce, but they also work under extremely vulnerable and unstable conditions, which demand the constant implication of protection measures.

Therefore today, institutions mostly offer the infrastructure of support for the practices of art, which also demand different modes of organising and inventing working processes, these are art practices that are closely related to the poetics of invention: but these institutions themselves are today in a very peculiar situation. On the one hand, they are under threat to protect themselves as much as possible and on the other, they have to endure somehow and sustain their own progressivity, develop experimentally, etc. What I mean by that is, that we are living in the time, when with the one swing coming from the populist and nationalistic cultural “reformations“ on the march throughout Europe, such institutions could be erased; and there are currently many places in Europe where this is going on. This also shows us, how problematic the idea of the progressive institution is, on the kind of shallow foundation this idea is built, as if the progression would be an argument today, where progression is actually one of the main ideological falsehoods of neo-liberalism. So institutions are continuously under pressure to produce and provide evidence of their “social and political“ value to fight the pressures coming from financial cuts and cultural reforms and with that turning themselves into a good and obedient cultural agent. However the infrastructure they offer can be actually used and developed further if there is space for the persistence in the mist, for the fogginess of imagination and opening up new processes. Institutions should today enable a persistent and demanding fight in the field where values are produced and where imagination is not yet colonised; so it should become something that is opposed to the transparency and logistical and spinning managerial evidence of success (a crucial institutional criteria of evaluation nowadays). Such awareness about the contradictory process of support and violence inherent to the institution, is especially important at a time of immense distrust in the institutions, at a time of populism which is deeply intertwined with processes of de-institutionalisation, resulting in the destruction of the forms of social support, care and common infrastructure. So this is the real power of unconditional conditionality, of the crack in time opened up in the process of institutionalisation: the appropriate time for the scrutiny of institutional operations should be exactly a time when they are also thoroughly endangered: because this is the only way they will not be protected in the sense of keeping them as they are. Therefore the institutions with which we work should not be defended as monuments to freedom and experiment, but invented anew inside the utterly changed political and cultural circumstances. The scrutiny also cannot come from the outside, but is rather a power of the poetic and inventive action, a persistent working towards impossibility, which opens new forms of imagination and being together.

Institutions should today enable a persistent and demanding fight in the field where values are produced and where imagination is not yet colonised.

The poetic capacity of invention also has much to do with a particular rhythm, and rhythm is, at least in theories of poetics, crucial for poetics and poetry, because it is related to the subjectivity of the language, to its distinction, which can only be a distinction in common. Perhaps this could be one way of thinking about the poetic capacity of invention in the relationship to the institution; how this poetic action can change the rhythm of work and the ways in which we operate and organise ourselves through work, how we organise ourselves inside the foggy mist. I don’t want to propose slowing down and similar pieces of advice, etc., even if this is a much desired wish of many cultural operators and artists. Something else is at stake here: the need to develop imaginative temporal forms of working, which would have the power to resist the flexibility and precarity of contemporary work: Instead of framing and disseminating (which figures today as a better word than selling) the work would rather be dealing with infrastructural care, support, some kind of groundwork on foundations, where it is possible to stand and occupy the place or time for some fixed period of time. How would it be possible to change the temporal rhythm in a way that it would not depend on future applications and evaluations, speculations about the precarious future, to change the rhythm and resist the fear and continuous need for protection? In this sense it is necessary to work imaginatively and resist the closure of the institution as a possibility, and perform the process of institutionalisation in a way that has yet to be constituted.

There should be a radical shift in a temporal dimension of production, fighting the project logic, however at the same time allowing a multiplicity of proposals and imagination, through which modes of work and thinking are enabled, supported and also sustained. This can be only possible if this process is understood as a conditional persistence (a dedication to what is yet to come) with ideas, political imagination and proposals, a dedication to movement in the present time, which is not the time dedicated to the acceleration and enumeration of projects and ideas about them. It is rather a dedication to openness towards the present time, which includes something restorative and re-establishing along something unfinished and incomplete. In this sense the process of institutionalisation is not to take care of the past (and freeze it), but also not about pushing it on the future (and leave ruins around), but much more about a difficult process of giving change to the present – visible between the repetition of the past and imagination of the future.

Maybe this is exactly what many of the artistic attempts of institutionalising, thinking differently, trying different modes of living together, do today and why there is such a need for bringing back fantasy and imagination when thinking about the institution: this proposal trying to bathe and take place in this fragile foam, is a poetic proposal. Poetic in the sense that it tries to makes the production itself visible, how something comes into being, disclose and not yet hold this in eternity, which is so crucial when thinking about the temporal frame of the institution. New attempts at institutionalisation should open up this process as a poetic process, a process that is not only an invention, but a specific production of form, a generation of the visibility of production, of bringing something into being. The institution kind of establishes and makes visible the distinction of the form in which people could live together. The fogginess of institutionalising also opens up the institution to a very special idea of spatiality, which is not so much related to the construction of the house, with the transparency of the spaces and their organisation (rooms, venues, cafes, corridors etc.), but belongs much more to the ungraspable cloud, a swamp maybe, garden, a kitchen, a forgotten space or time, sometimes with no light, often in semi-darkness or even underground, flat, dispersed and mutable, nevertheless not immaterial, very much connected to matter. Only in this way can the misty core be continuously revealed and not hidden in the procedures, which fix the temporality of action into a specific kind of causality. Only in this way can the institution exist as a conditional and not as a fact, the institution should namely never be understood as an achievement, but it is a complex rhythmical loop between acting as if and imagining that which is not yet.

Je leest: The Institutionalisation, Precarity and the Rhythm of Work