an afterword, Jesús Carrillo

narrator Jesús Carrillo
term an afterword
published May 2021, Madrid

This is an expanded version of the letter I wrote to Adela Železnik, head of the public activities department of the Moderna galerija of Ljubljana, in which I was replying to her reflections on the programmes we developed together having the notion of “constituencies” as both a horizon and methodology. By then, I was part of the mediation team of L’Internationale on behalf of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid: “I perceive some melancholy in your letter, Adela. This is a feeling that I have tried to exorcise since I left the museum. Our “constituency-based” projects did not fulfil the expectations of those who we nominally recognised as constituents, those whose demands and interactions were supposed to affect and change the structure of our institutions. As members of Somateca – one of such constituency groups – once said “we are inside, but we are invisible”.[1] Indeed, our institutions were not prepared to look and see, to hear and listen and to respond and react to the presence of others, and less to be substantially transformed by them.


Were we naively self-deceptive? Did the enthusiastic rhetoric of L’Internationale produce an institutional mirage which made us blind to our structural limitations? Were we so deeply immersed in our museum bubble so to believed that our “constituencies gambit” would have significant consequences in the institutional chessboard? As people involved in education, we know well that affecting and transforming requires constant trial and failure, as well as a utopian horizon to move forward. It is an enduring process which, by definition, is never accomplished and, for the same reason, is always yet to be accomplished.


I remember that → after an intense debate among L’Internationale confederates, the joint action of our mediation teams managed to change gears and move the initial discussion on “usefulness” to the questioning of our institutional basis with regard to our constituent parts. As if the constituent process of the museum was still open, we were eager to engage with the new wave of political imagination which was by then growing out of our walls. We were eager to relinquish our authority as institutional agents and → negotiate in equal terms with others. This eagerness may have to do with the recent political history of our countries, in which institutions, especially art institutions, were endowed with the promise of democracy as an ongoing, emancipative process.


By referring to the etymology of an English notion which directly connects the institution to the people it represents, we aimed at replacing the eroded notion of the public not with that of the “free user”, but with the constituent subject: one endowed with the capacity to question the institution from the substantive position of the constituent (ontologically prior and necessary to the existence of the institution) intending to revive, by so doing, its fading democratic body.


However, committing ourselves to a constituent → process would necessarily demand, as Yaiza Hernández reminded us, “to operate claiming no authority over it”, suspending and undoing our institutional sovereignty so to recognise the primacy of the assembly from below, the assembly of our constituents.[2] Far from the universal and “tamed” subject of the bourgeois public sphere evoked by Habermas, our contemporary constituencies were multiple and fragmented, closer to the counter-publics described by Nancy Fraser, Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt: subjects gathered around specific agendas and struggles, bearing demands and claiming a degree of agency which existing institutions are not yet in the condition to assume, as Aida Sánchez de Serdio recently reminded us.[3]


Members of such groups, absent if not directly excluded from our museums, were to be involved in L’Internationale programmes through specific projects, necessarily defined by the negotiations required when radical democratic demands meet bureaucratic protocols and inertias. The researcher and activist Janna Graham, a member of the British collective Ultrared, described the dynamics of our Liverpool constituencies meeting of 2014 in the book that L’Internationale devoted to the event, called The Constituent Museum. Janna recorded in her text the “draft for a transformation project” produced collectively by the constituency groups with her facilitation. Among the propositions and demands contained in that document there was an emphasis on transforming the regimes of visibility, on the democratisation of resource management and on the urgency to expand the social basis and forms of value production in cultural institutions. Our constituencies were addressing very specific and reasonable demands, as if our museums were indeed able to listen and respond, performing a role as institutional actors that was not yet recognised.[4]


One of the projects of the Reina Sofía Museum in which the constituency paradigm was tested was the mediation dispositive devised by the art collective Subtramas for A really useful knowledge, one of the ambitious programmes developed by the museum within L’Internationale framework in 2014. The principles inspiring A really useful knowledge drastically challenged the logics and procedures ruling the museum.


The “usefulness” of the different knowledges invoked in the programme contradicted in many ways the administrative, space and operational rationale of the institution, as well as the sort of “use” a museum should have. The “real” referred to in the title was emphatically non-instrumental. In fact, it involved both a radical questioning and a rejection of the alienating efficiency logics ruling capitalist society and the institution itself. Accordingly, the curatorial concept designed by the collective WHW (Who, How, For Whom) was supposed to transgress the rules which mark strict limits between process and results, action and exhibition, white cube and public space, art practice and political intervention.


Our wish was that the interaction with collectively produced “useful knowledge” would affect the institution to some degree: would have a “constituent effect”. All those who participated in the project were aware that the institutional transformation that we were discursively announcing in our programmes would only take place through the friction and negotiation with those outsiders that we recognised as our constituencies, and by adjusting our goals and procedures accordingly.


The effective collaborations set up by Subtramas with the various collectives and social agents proved to the sceptics that institutional → learning was “really” possible. However, it also taught the most naïve of us that such a way of learning may not necessarily be suitable for our institution. As the members of Subtramas argued in a later reflection on their mediation work, the answer to the institutional dilemma requires moving the focus out from the formal institution and instead highlighting processes and phenomena happening beyond the dual “in and out” logics.[5]


With their energies diminished by budget cuts and management control, our museums have also come under attack in the culture wars led by conservative powers, old and new, which are getting stronger all over Europe. Institutional members of L’Internationale, from Madrid to Barcelona, Ljubljana and Istanbul, have been violently shaken by the new wave of intolerance and fear.


The hypotheses of “The uses of art” exploded into pieces well before the deadline of the project, making clear that our institutional prospects and procedures are no longer the measure of time in our uncertain international and local contexts. And as we know, the new project “Our many Europes”, which extends the work of the confederation until 2022, has not been any luckier.


Reconsidering the institutional strategy according to the suggestions from Subtramas was both urgent and necessary. As the possibility of a substantial renewal of the fossilised bones of the museum seemed temporarily impossible, an exo-skeleton should be devised. This dispositive had to be built from the outside in instead of the other way round. As I argued a few years ago in this same context, the ruling principle of this post-institutional dispositive is conspiracy. Recovering the Latin meaning of conspiratio – breathing together – as well as its more subversive sense as “plotting”, we should start conspiring with others beyond our walls having as a common horizon the building and operating of institutions of a radically different nature.


Conspiracy spreads out through the holes surreptitiously pierced in the conventional walls separating the formal and informal, the legal and illegal, so as to achieve its subversive intentions (knitting new commonalities, against the grain of the individualising, privatising, exclusive process with which art institutions are complicit). It involves → rehearsing a relationality of a different kind: temporary and discontinuous but intense and versatile. This breathing, plotting together, would produce, precisely by failing once and again, the compost upon which the institution to come would grow.


The development of the meta-programme Museo en red – Network museum – in Reina Sofía can be understood as part of this post-institutional strategy. Museo en red is an ambivalent dispositive which works both as a timely institutional tool in tune with our contemporary “network society” and as a Trojan horse which allows “the enemy” to enter the citadel of the museum in disguise. The network paradigm, as re-defined by the Zapatista movement in the 1990s, has allowed the museum to knit a complex web of connections and alliances among singular entities which prevents a potential process of institutional subsumption and neutralisation, at the same time as it makes possible the collaboration with entities eventually “dangerous” from a conservative point of view, and as seen of right-wing observers always ready to denounce the radical and politicised nature of our operations.


A good example of this is the close collaboration between the museum and the Institute of Radical Imagination, a “monstruous institution”, according to the definition of the Universidad Nómada, which gathers up a group of artists, activists and museum workers from different Mediterranean countries. On the local level, the programme Museo Situado→ Situated Museum – is a clear example of the functioning of this conspiratorial model. Museo Situado is an autonomous assembly of citizens and social agents of the Lavapiés neighbourhood held under the umbrella and support of the Public Activities Department.


As I had the chance to tell in this very context one year ago Agujerear el museo – Piercing the museum – is the motto of the group. Perforating, unlike conquering, mines the structure of the building, makes it porous, soft, exposed to external influences, transforming the relationship between the inside and outside. It involves both a danger, since it erodes the solidity of the fortress, and a new life, since the holes permit breathing and the circulation of flows which may, otherwise, become a perilous wave, or finally move to other watersheds.


The conspiratorial model at work in these programmes involves a jump in the void since it gets rid of the conventional institutional safety net and replace it with a network of alliances with unlikely peers based on trust and affection.


Conspiring, as I said, means breathing together, but it also involves secrecy, the use of a double code and acting in the blind spots of the formal institution. It requires action whenever possible, and being quiet and expectant otherwise.


It does not permit melancholy or → disappointment, since reward or recognition are never the goal.


There is always the risk of being discovered and exposed, of being dispersed before the foundational network is solid enough to sustain a new building, but there is always the possibility of knitting new networks that avoid the dual logics of failure and success. Assuming both the danger and the potential of breathing together is perhaps the only way to keep on building institutions today.

[1] Barbara G. F. Muriel, Sara Buraya Boned, Loreto Ares and Diana Vázquez, “Close the folding screen before Lenin escapes”, The Constituent Museum: Constellations of knowledge, politics and mediation: A generator of social change, eds. John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sánchez de Serdio Martín and Adela Železnik (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 206–211.

[2] Yaiza Hernandez, “A Constituent education”, Byrne et al. (2018), 128–131.

[3] Aida Sánchez de Serdio Martín, Una educación imperfecta. Apuntes críticos sobre pedagogías del arte (Madrid: Producciones de Arte y Pensamiento, 2021).

[4] Janna Graham, “Negotiating Institutions”, Byrne et al. (2018), 44–49.

[5] Virginia Villaplana, Montse Romaní and Diego del Pozo, “Between Acts: influence, negotiate, encounter, instigate, narrate. Re-writing the Relations Between Art and Situated Knowledge Found in Times of Crisis”, Byrne et al. (2018), 196–201.