agency, Nick Aikens

narrator Nick Aikens
term agency
published February 2016, Eindhoven, Netherlands
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

What are the motivations and implications for foregrounding constituencies in the museum? As the preamble on the glossary website suggests, it is part of an attempted “shift away from a hierarchical, top-down and ‘broadcast’ based model of knowledge dissemination”, where a museum’s constituents can play a formative role. In this sense it is part of the institution coming to terms with the limitations of its founding model, not only in terms of the type of knowledge it produces (through the historically or geographically limited scope of its collections and archives, for example), but also the modes of dissemination and exchange it uses such as exhibitions, publications, and symposia.


Opening up the museum to constituents and constituent power means a substantial, and we would argue welcome, re-orientation of emphasis. It would seem to suggest a new focus away from collections and exhibitions to a foregrounding of relationships with those who have a political and cultural stake in the museum. Significantly, it means not only understanding who our constituencies are, but also forming positions and arguments with them. However, for this to be meaningful, the terms of the relationship are crucial in understanding how constituencies might work with or through museums – and vice versa. It is here we propose the term “agency”.[1]


In its simplest terms, agency can be understood as one’s ability to act. Yet when considering how museums might work with constituencies this ability to act has wider implications: What agency can an institution foster with its set protocols, formats and languages? Who decides the conditions for this relationship setting the potential and limitations for agency to be enacted? And what agency does the museum itself hold to operate in new ways with constituents, tied as it might be – or think it might be – by different obligations to funders, partners or governments? With these and other questions in mind, agency seems a potentially cogent term with which to explore what working with and through constituencies might mean – both for the museum and its constituents.


As we heard from Ahmet Öğüt’s term → intervenor, the foregrounding of relations within the museum does not mean making it the subject or medium through which to make an art project. Similarly, the type of relationships that agency points at are aimed at something different from audience development and engagement, where institutions define their goals through the numbers they can bring through their doors. Rather, it aims to recast the institution and its public as constituent parts in a wider social body. If the museum takes seriously the notion of placing relations at the core of the institution, then it seems the first task would be to understand that a museum, now more than ever, cannot define its subjects.[2]


Museum as constitution?

Here it might be interesting to think about a recent text by the legal academic Stacy Douglas, “Museums as Constitutions: A Commentary on Constitutions and Constitution Making”, which highlights revealing similarities between the museum and the constitution, and its implications for how constituencies and subjects are formed. Douglas opens her text as follows:


Museums function much like constitutions. Although they are not accorded the same juridical powers as the state-sanctioned constitution, nor are they recognised social contracts upon which the national juridical apparatus sits, they do operate as a site from which imaginations of political community are launched. Indeed, they are alike as both set the representation of a political community as their task.[3]


A museum has conventionally “set the representation of a political community” through its collections, archives and programmes. Constitutions, Douglas argues, similarly try to communicate the idea of a society and its people. Both, however, are accused of being intrinsically exclusionary. As one public is defined, so another is excluded. Nowhere is this clearer than in the emergence of the museum that arose out of a particular historical, social and geopolitical conjuncture in European modernity. This was a conjuncture that was embedded in practices of colonialism and imperialism, as well as the formation of the nation state. As Douglas writes: “[…] museums and constitutional democracy share a common link with the advent of liberalism. For both, the revolutionary moment of secular statehood marks an organisational change, but one that allows sovereign hierarchies to persist.”[4] This conjuncture produced a specific, and largely exclusionary approach, to the representation of a political community that was built around the bourgeois subject. If museums today see one of their tasks as undoing or countering this approach, we need to ask how do we want to re-write a constitution for the present, with whom and on what terms?


Following Michael Hardt, a first step would seem to acknowledge that in museums, as with political society at large, constitutions might be re-written with each new generation if they are to be meaningful, inclusive and representative of the constituents of a specific historical juncture. For the museum, that would involve a radical re-thinking of how it understands its cultural heritage. It would mean continually reforming and reshaping the tools it has to “set the representation of a political community” (its archive, collection and programme) with its constituents. If, as Douglas’ comparison makes clear, the constitution should be thought of as a memorialising mechanism – a way of sedimenting histories, subjects or even political communities – then the museum needs to strive to constantly reform or rewrite itself in response to the present conjuncture.


In some respects, orienting the hardware of a museum to be representative of, or respond to, the historical moment out of which it emerges should be one of the primary, critical objectives of an institution. If we take Douglas’ comparison seriously, however, the harder task and more significant question is understanding how the museum’s constitution can be co-written with its constituents. What type of relationship would that entail and what form would that constitution take? Can we think of new models outside the representative tools we currently have?


Central to this would be to first consider how a museum identifies or defines its constituents and the type of relationship this definition fosters. In a recent text Jesús Carrillo considers this question within the context of the Museo Reina Sofia and emergent political subjects in Spain:


Even if we, the team at the museum at this time, choose not to speak to the affluent class, nor to an undifferentiated mass of tourists, it is true that we still address a subject defined in terms of lack, a disempowered subject, imagined in relation to or in contrast with the luminous subject defined by the Enlightenment. It is the subject inflicted upon by the alienating conditions and struggles of late capitalism who, with the aid of the museum would become aware of the ideological nature of the system we live in, starting with the art world and the museum itself (institutional critique).[5]


Carrillo goes on:

To an extent, our task is then to provide critical tools to understand a system which we may not have the capacity to change. Would we be ready to deal with a new kind of subject not defined by deprivation but by expectations and desires which go beyond the apparent “immanence” of current capitalism? Would we be ready to deal with a subject that is already experimenting with other forms of organisation and producing its own imaginaries? What if the → South started making sense of the world beyond and without our mediations? Could the museum still be a suitable scenario for the performance of this new subjectivity? This is very much an open question.[6]


A shift to working with and through constituencies should be seen as an acknowledgement of the inadequacy of the type of pre-suppositions Carrillo cites, given the recent emergence of new forms of political subjectivities, ones that do not see themselves in terms of any form of lack. Similarly, as Carrillo’s text makes apparent, it is not entirely clear that even if we are able to understand the situation we find ourselves in, we will in fact (either as institutions or as part of a constituent, social body) have the agency to act.


Constitutional limits?

In Insurgencies, Antonio Negri’s argues that the multitude’s – or constituencies’ – ability to “facilitate historical rupture” (as an effective expression of political agency) is curtailed through constitutionalism.[7] Similarly, in the preamble to the “New Charter for Europe”, the collective document arising from the New Abduction of Europe conference in Madrid, one of the stated aims is its “attempt at collectively elaborating on the central problem for political organisation and agency outside the representational sphere”[8]. In relation to the museum, then, and its shift to working with and through constituencies, a complex set of considerations emerges. On the one hand, these positions argue for a shift away from the (exclusionary) constitution-forming offered by collections and exhibitions, opening up the possibility for relationships that are not defined through the geographical or political scope of archives and programmes. Yet this means museums relinquishing – or certainly holding less tightly to – the tools that they have used for so long to structure “a site from which imaginations of political community are launched.”


In closing, we could say there is need to break the shackles of the museum’s relationship to the constitution or the representational sphere if we want to foster forms of political agency or “facilitate historical rupture.” Yet, as museums try and rely less heavily on the representational sphere, how they might forge and foster political communities becomes more opaque. This lack of definition is both a strength and a danger. Indeed, different constituencies working with partners of L’Internationale have often regretted the lack of clarity in the relationship between them and the museums.[9] How much agency is the institution willing to cede, and how can it avoid reproducing the same dynamics of exclusion where museums set the terms of the debate as well as those taking part? These are questions of individual and collective agency: the museum and its constituents’ abilities to act.

[1] A note on how we arrived at our term: As L’Internationale narrators we are asked to think about a term that resonates with the practices and thinking of our museum. I was also asked to engage the museum’s constituencies in the formulation of this term. This term, then, has been arrived at through conversations with one particular constituency group, the Umbrella Network, a group of social designers the Van Abbe is currently working with to map different social initiatives in Eindhoven – and Gemma Medina, an independent researcher who works with the museum on a number of curatorial and mediation projects. Agency is not a new term for the Van Abbemuseum. As a part of our five-year policy paper to the city council in 2013, we listed it as one of the three core values that we felt defined the museum’s practice, alongside transparency and dispersion. At the Van Abbe we have talked about the word agency within the context of trying to define a role for art and its institutions that could counter or inflect that of the → autonomy imposed on art by Western modernism. In this regard, we think of the relationship between art and agency as being diametrically opposed to Kant’s notion of the “disinterested spectator”.

[2] That said, it is perhaps revealing that the term constituencies is one introduced by the museums themselves, meaning we should be wary that this is not simply another in a sequence of steps where the museum tries to define its subjects.

[3] Stacy Douglas, “Museums as Constitutions: A Commentary on Constitutions and Constitution Making”, Law, Culture, and the Humanities 11, no. 3 (October 2015): 349.

[4] Ibid., 350.

[5] Jesús Carrillo, “Museos del Sur”, in What’s the Use? Constellations of Art, History, and Knowledge. A Critical Reader, eds. Nick Aikens, Thomas Lange, Jorinde Seijdel, Steven ten Thije (Amsterdam: Valiz, Van Abbemuseum and University of Hildesheim, 2016), 352–353.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Antonio Negri, Insurgencies, Constituent Power and the Modern State (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[8] See “Charter for Europe, 1.2: open source”, Internationale Online (5 September 2014), (accessed 28 February 2016).

[9] This was part of the feedback from constituency groups working with L’Internationale partners at a meeting in Barcelona, 2015.