The Möbius Strip. On Fictional Institutions

Dit artikel is enkel in het Engels beschikbaar.

I would like to start from a sentence:

Today I wrote a detailed critique of a non-existing movie. I described the three characters in a plot somehow violent, a peculiar form of acting, and the precise movements of the camera.
Maybe somebody will find my writing. Maybe somebody will look for the movie. Maybe not finding it, somebody might decide to do a remake. Or perhaps just the sequel: a place on the second foor, that ignores the absence of the foor below, and yet remains up in the air.


Last year this sentence accompanied a booklet edited by Aleppo for the last issue of the series How To Build a Manifesto for the Future of a Festival, edited by the Festival of Santarcangelo. I was accompanying the conception of the forth issue, that became an experiment of radical imagination: conceiving – with a group of students – a fictional festival that never took place, and printing the brochure including its program, with all projects, and a reader gathering and making emerging refections around it. Back then the question was: ‘What are the possible consequences of a festival that never took place, or that took place in fiction?’

The experiment was inspired by an exercise that Koen Brams did some years ago, while compiling he Encyclopedia of Fictional Artists. Within it he was gathering characters of artists living inside novels and movies: they live the realm of fiction, and so do their productions, which are fictional artworks – such as sculptures, films or performances, that were never created, or are every time created by the reader through the literal description, on their shape and colours, movement. Fictional artworks created by the fictional artists of the novels, that transport us to a second level of fiction, a fiction inside fiction. And yet, sometimes what is created in fiction does not stay in fiction.

While compiling the Encyclopedia, Brams says for example that a canvas of Frenhofer –the character of Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece – inspired Picasso, not only metaphorically, but rather in the technique of Frenhofer, whose canvas never existed, and yet whose infuence is present.

Starting from this example, today I would like to workshop some ideas together, in order to understand the use and potentiality of fiction while speaking about institution.

More specifically the first part of my talk will go through the concept of fictional institution – a topic explored in a recent article on Turn Turtle, that I wrote together with Livia Piazza, who I would like to thank – while the second part opens up to the use of fiction as a tool in reflecting inclusiveness within institutions.

To investigate the possibility of fictional institutions I propose to start from a first short point on the notion of the institution itself.

In an article titled Il cosiddetto male e la critica dello Stato (2005) Italian operaist thinker Paola Virno, offers real protection only and exclusively if they demonstrate at all times that they suggests that “institutions belong to the domain of that which can also be something other than it is”.

I would like to start from this sentence – whose metamorphic agenda seems to have the ability to transport us already in a fantasy plot – and more precisely from the idea of real protection that exists at its core: it seems to imply that the institution has an established frame –hence an inside and an outside; an inside which might be identified and characterized by sharing some rules, and a common understanding of them.

Institutions offer real protection only and exclusively if they demonstrate at all times that they belong to the domain of that which can also be something other than it is.


In order to proceed this morning, I would propose to start proceeding from this model, taking a paper strip to represent a scale model of the institution as a frame, in which to recognize its inside and outside.

The further point is to add the word fiction to the word institution to explore the possible meaning of their neighbouring. 

One might say that the art institution is that which often hosts fiction within its frame and border; the question that I would like to raise is more: what is the possibility for the institution not to host fiction, but rather to be fictional? What do we have to intend for fictional institution? Indeed while speaking about fictional institution we are in front of several possibilities.

On the one side – exactly as we encountered fictional artists in the realm of fiction – the possibility of encountering a fctional institution in the realm of fiction, as might be the institutions (investigative societies, companies, museum, schools) that we might meet inside a sci-fi book of Octavia Butler or Ursula LeGuin. Each of these institutions have a frame and are characterized by the share of some rules and a common understanding of them. However, I am referring here to the possibility of investigating something else, namely fictional institutions that we do not encounter in fiction, but rather that appear directly in front of us, camouflaging themselves as real ones.

In 2011, Jozef Wouters set up, together with a group of scientists and activists the Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species adding a new wing to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. The new institution provided this wing with a collection of images and comments that tried to illustrate the position of the human race on this planet. The temporary extension could be accessed by museum visitors during the day, passing through a simple corridor from the old wing to the new one. This artistic project is particular: it is not only a fictional institution, it also stands contiguous to the real one, opening a refection on this meeting and interference. What are the consequences of this direct confrontation? Jozef Wouters said once that through fictionalizing themselves as institutions artists scale themselves to the size of the institutions with which they want to bargain. Hence, once the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science asked the Zoological Institute to put a sign in the corridor clarifying the entrance in a fictional area of the museum–where the term’s use no longer referred to its meaning of imaginary rather to made-up, constructed and almost fake–immediately its question bounced back: is not the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science fictional as well?

The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science presents itself as non-constructed. 

As if it was devoid of fiction or natural (and I would like to focus now on this term).

In september 2008, at the beginning of the financial crisis in the US, American journalist Jerry Monaco wrote on his blog an article titled The Fiction of Institutions: The Institution of Fiction, within which he said:

As far as we know humans are the only life form evolved on our planet who have developed flexible and changeable institutional structures, such as states, bureaucratic entities, organized religion, voluntary associations, and, most importantly today, business institutions, such as the modern corporation. Such institutional entities are always a ‘fiction’. They are not ‘fictional’ in a trivial way but ‘fictional’ to some important extent that says something about human society, history, and how we come to understand and misunderstand the world we have created for ourselves.


Further in the text Monaco explains the use of the word fiction in quotes is exactly to underline that these institutional entities are not un-real social structures, but that they are social structures created by human beings and treated by us as if they were natural.

Nature is here used by him as opposed to fiction (made-up), and Monaco says that a semantic of nature is used by institutions to remove the (suspect of) fction that always lays at the origin of their foundation: an attempt to remove the suspect of fiction, to legitimate its existence and naturalize it as the only possible reality.

The following year, in 2009, Mark Fisher analyzed this mechanism in Capital Realism, remarking how capitalism presents itself exactly as “a shield protecting us from the perils posed by belief”: it says that if it is not the optimal world, it is certainly the most desirable one, imposing only a little price to pay, before the risks of terrorism and totalitarianism, which are accused of thriving in false belief and fiction. On the contrary, rejecting fiction on the others, capitalism sells itself as a system devoid of fiction, and while doing so it weaves its own fction until the point it “is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Mark Fisher). If the notion of fiction reminds us the possibility of being different, everything is made to make us forget the fction at the core of the institution; the absence of fiction (and the semantic of nature) become a tool to defend itself from critique.

Hence, this is exactly the purpose of fictional institutions, as the one of Wouters: reminding the fictional aspect laying at the core of the same idea of institution. The institution is always made up, and hence it could have been made up differently.

Facing the small model of the institution I just constructed with a paper strip, it would be suddenly being reminded of the deliberate gesture of its construction, and that – eventually – it could have also been a different one.

The fictional institution is that which blurs the solidity of the existing one: it does not claim its realness, rather transports the same idea of institution in the realm of fiction.

Jerry Monaco raises a second point, while analyzing in the same article the use of nature in the semantic of the institution: while presenting itself as natural, the institution does not simply defend itself from critique, but also provokes a misattribution of agency.

The way ancient humans misattributed personality and agency to natural phenomena, we misattribute personality and agency
to institutions. Ancient humans did not understand and could not control natural phenomena; yet we act in relation to our own historically developed institutions, as if they were a phenomena of nature that we do not understand and cannot control. Institutions do not act. People act. A corporation does not “do” anything. People do things, individually and collectively in the name of the corporation. The institutions we have created have become as Gods and Monsters to our own eyes.


According to Monaco the natural presumption of the institution is not simply ontological (in the self defnition of a naturalness that avoids critique), but also phenomenological (hence, modifying the way of perceiving it and its agency).

I think it is more complex than this, and that institutions are layers of antecedent behaviors that have been accumulated – or a third entity flled with pre-given missions that exceed the will of the people working in it – and it would be maybe too easy to imagine it as a pure contingency that is equal to the sum of individual behaviours, since somehow the third entity is more than the sum of the parts. Still, following Monaco, it is important to unveil the misattribution of agency, as a starting point to release awareness on the possibility of changing the institution.

Indeed this investigation of fiction in institutions does not look much at the past of the institution itself, to simply unveil the construction, or as an archeological tool to deconstruct the past genealogy; rather it might be a tool projected towards its future.

This is where I would like to proceed to the second part of this lecture, raise a question on the use of fiction not as a deconstructive tool looking at the past of the institution, but rather as an instrument for its future. Furthermore, I would like to see the possibility of fiction to appear not only as a tool that can be used from the outside to challenge the institution, but also what are the possibilities for an institution, from the inside, to use fiction as a tool?

For this second part I would like to start from another perspective where this dichotomy fiction/nature is present, yet with a different use. 

Two years ago the feminist collective Labora Cuboniks released a manifesto, titled Xenofeminism: a Politics for Alienation, constructed as an interplay to rethink nature through fiction. In it fiction appears without the negative aura that seemed to still be present so far, and affirms fiction as an act of freedom from the fxity of Nature, in its modern construction as something immutable. The first page of the manifesto says:

Two years ago the feminist collective Labora Cuboniks released a manifesto, titled Xenofeminism: a Politics for Alienation, constructed as an interplay to rethink nature through fiction. In it fiction appears without the negative aura that seemed to still be present so far, and affirms fiction as an act of freedom from the fxity of Nature, in its modern construction as something immutable. The first page of the manifesto says:

Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’— neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us—the queer and trans among us, the differently- abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination.


XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated – but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy.

Coming from the tradition of sci-fi feminism, Laboria Cuboniks sees fiction as an alienating tool from assigned and fixed identities; a form of liberation from an assigned image. Fiction is not a tool to unveil our construction, but more a liberating gesture from assigned positions. While doing this, Laboria Cuboniks participates to the idea of fiction as subversive tool, such as it appears in the last twenty years in Arab and Afro-futurism, using fictional and science fictional elements to perturb and liberate identities from the iconography of primitivism still existing in the colonial gaze upon the Middle-East and the African continent: dressing oneself with fiction as a subversive tool.

Hence, flirting with its fictionality, opens something more than simply deconstructing the genealogy. The fiction is not simply something that might be discover, rather a cover – hence something that might operate from the inside – under which proceed in the future.

Here is a shift in the operation: from the outside to the inside; and from discover to undercover.

By going back to the question about the institution, and investigating the Xeno-feminist tools in the construction of institutions, what does it mean to dress up the institution with fiction?

Jerry Monaco was speaking about the misattribution of personality and agency to institutions, with the risk of being treated as natural phenomena: what if one could free institution from this determinism, and try to give it the pace of a character inhabiting the pages of a novel?

More than a goal, this has to be perceived as a – still important – exercise. To work under cover of fiction, or to pretend to be something else. (A series of questions might be: act as if your institution were in another place; act as if your scale were different act is if your audience were composed of human and non human). It would be easy to see this as a game, or an empty exercise; yet is it not about fction, but rather what it produces: a generative fiction. What is it not simply in itself, but in its possibility to create further possibilities?

In a book about volatility of the market, Lebanese thinker Elie Ayache, wrote:

Events that are really unexpected create their own possibilities. Only by occurring – and not before they occur or regardless of whether they occur – do they create the path that the meta-physician, if he wishes, can retrace in order to see how they possibly occurred.


Fiction might be the cover under which some impossible events pretend to happen. And yet, after it, we’ll retrace how this was possible to happen.Pretending to be something else might create the possibility for this something to appear. The fictionalized appearance of the possible creates its possibility to appear. Eventually, the institution does not simply host fiction, but is hosted by it, inviting in a circular mechanism.

It is here that, while going back to the small model I started with, I would like to propose to shift the paper circle into the figure of the Möbius strip, a figure discovered by Möbius in 1858.

What does this gesture produce? The Möbius strip is a band producing a continuous surface that has one side and one border, and in which one can no longer distinguish the differences between the inside and the outside. It is enough to disconnect the band and link it once more, turning one of the two sides.

I was looking at the band as the image of an institution, having defined limits, protecting and creating and inside and an outside, and sometimes hosting fiction. With Möbius, while following its wall with the finger we are vertiginously transported into the inside, without understanding when this exactly happened. The limits are blurred, I find myself transported into fiction, and discover fiction as part of the each institution, and discover the pleasure of fiction as a tool beyond assigned identity.

And yet – while losing the boundaries – the band still has a precise shape: the small model does not dissolve in a flexible and liquid one, infiltrating qualities that often imply precarity and vulnerability. It reclaims its solidity: yet it hosts and is hosted by fiction, suggesting to welcome and produce events that are really unexpected, in order to create they own possibilities.

While having this model in front of me, a last question emerges: what kind of consequences might the fact of setting fiction as a tool have in regard to inclusiveness and discrimination in today’s institutions? 

I would like to end opening a question on fiction as a tool in the struggle for inclusiveness.

In a lecture she gave last april in Dubai, titled The Future Was Collective young African-American feminist thinker Adrienne Maree Brown reminded the audience she started working on feminist sci-fi, while having enough of identify herself in a world imagined by others; having the impression of living inside the imagination of someone else.

The art institution is a place to exercise imagination; and in recent years the frst question that very often emerged was: who is concerned by the imaginary that is proposed? Who is not represented by the imaginary that is proposed? Who is not concerned by the questions that it suggests? (A set of questions that sometimes are reduced to the idea of reaching new audiences, or in the political push toward social practices that might allow other political structure to disengage from some sectors).

Yet, during the same speech, Brown proposed a turn. Addressing directly the audience she loudly asked:

Imagine if only people in this room were responsible for the future. How does this feel for you? What kind of level of responsibility would this imply?


If we say that the institution is a place where to exercise imagination, the question is not simply ‘who is concerned by the imaginary that is proposed’ but rather ‘who is concerned by imagine the institution itself?’

What Brown raises is an awareness on the fact that putting efforts only on the first level (hence thinking that one can work only on the content in engaging with people that are not close to the institution) preserves the risk of a patronizing model. The claim of Brown might be to engage with people that were not concerned by the institution, not simply under the form of consumer of the content of the institution. What is proposed with Brown is a suggestion of shifting between the content and the structure, the inside and the outside, as Möbius suggests.

What does it mean to suggest that the character is to be written? What about hiring someone that is unfit for the job? This might mean that the institution was – so far – unfit for her or him. If the institution is a character inhabitating the pages of a novel, what does it mean to not simply adapt the character to be perceived closer for some people, but rather suggests that the character in unfinished. It is not simply a process before engaging with the others; but the moment of engaging with the other, in which the institution appears not only as that which feeds the imagination of the other, but also releases her imagination to write it.

While connecting the two sides of the band with Möbius, something is produced.

Beside the possibility of losing the distinction between the inside and the outside, a hole is produced. The fictional institution communicates its fictionality, and by doing this it opens up its incompleteness, its possibility to be written.

Möbius produces a gap, something that remains open and cannot be close. Maybe this hole, this entry door, is not a collateral effect of Möbius; maybe it is the point around which the institution is very carefully constructed. This is the point that belongs to “the domain of that which can also be something other than it is”, and the institution hosts real protection, only in being unprotected, with a collective and speculative exercise of imagination that, more than keeping itself in the realm of fiction, explores the creation of possibilities, and the possibility of bringing the institution elsewhere.

While speaking about Möbius there is a last point that is often remarked in geometry. The Möbius strip cannot continuously touch the surface on which it lays: it has to be suspended. This might be my final remark, as a wish for the institution. May the institution be a house at the second floor, that ignores the absence of the floor below, and yet remains suspended, up in the air.

Je leest: The Möbius Strip. On Fictional Institutions