Rethinking the art institution is the central mission of L’Internationale confederation. The five previous referential fields of the Glossary of Common Knowledge can be seen to an extent as a meandering approach to a question, which involves us and our practices within the object of interrogation.
The institutional debate has acquired unexpected relevance since the beginning of the new century. It was not exclusively a new wave of the institutional critique of the 1970s and 1980s. Although it soon connected with many open questions raised within our realm, it emerged from positions and disputes taking place elsewhere. The institution was not called forth as that pertinacious object of analysis and critique, which ultimately fed its proverbial narcissism, or as the enemy to be beaten in order to clear the path of → emancipation, as targeted in traditional antagonist movements. Institutionality came forth both as a challenge to political imagination and as a horizon for collective action in a context of extreme social vulnerability and increasing delegitimation of the dispositives and structures of the existing system. The invocation to radically “other” or “new” forms of organisation arrived at art institutions at a moment in which this was under siege by neoliberal productivism, general disaffection and cultural wars.
The 1990s observed the dissemination in the intellectual and artistic circles of the powerful image of a society of interconnected individuals who, once the potential of new communication technologies was released, would be able to cooperate and develop synergies without institutional mediations or any structural support beyond the dictate of those technologies. The new modes of relation/production and the new processes of subjectification attached to them seemed to demand a new political economy which did not require, apparently, the → construction of new institutional structures. According to this fin de siècle view, the TAZ, those Temporary Autonomous Zones which, for Hakim Bey, emerged spontaneously from the will of individuals and collectives, were to impose their evanescent nature and ad hoc forms over the aspiration to build permanent institutions. These were not seen only as dispositives of social control working for the perpetuation of the structures of domination, but as the anachronistic remains of an inefficient and obsolete system. The TAZ were not any more a way to scape an almighty state as imagined by the libertarian Hakim Bey, but the prototype for a stateless society. Not only the existing institution, but institutionality itself was said to be over.
This radically utopian vision responded, however, to the same premises that neoliberalism was simultaneously identifying in order to design the new global order, and their respective vocabularies and procedures were easily confounded. But, whereas for the former the state would eventually collapse due to its obsolescence, for the latter it should remain instrumental in order to guarantee the limitless unfolding of financial capitalism. The believers of the post-institutional truth: creative, self-employed and flexible workers, would end up becoming the “precariate” of the new machinery of post-Fordist capitalism.
But the fin de siècle did not only produce the image of a network of interconnected singularities floating in technological amniotic liquid. The Italian post-operaist thinker Paolo Virno denounced the arriviste cynicism of those who hailed the end of institutions, becoming collaborators with the new forms of neoliberal domination. As an alternative, he identified in his Grammar of the Multitude (2001) the potency which may lead to a new form of society. The multitude, the bunch of singularities which, according to Hobbes, preceded the institution of the social body, would return from the remote origins of pre-modern politics to push away the vanquished remains of the modern subject. Certainly, civil disobedience and exodus, as ultimately prescribed by Virno’s text, did not seem to provide with the best grounds for a new institutional imagination. However, his powerful description of contemporary society identified the pillars of a “radically other” public sphere, as well as “radically new” conceptualisations and forms of democracy based on the innate tendency of the multitude to communicate and cooperate through affections.
The tempering of millenarianism, and the rise of new waves of political action and organisation to counter the increasing violence and instability of the system of domination, brought about a gradual displacement of the previous emphasis on defection on behalf of the power of the “general intellect” to produce new forms of life in → common. In 2007, the online journal Transversal produced by EIPCP (European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies) issued a monograph on what were called “instituent practices”. As I note in my contribution to the Glossary, this issue included a text by the activist thinker Raúl Sánchez Cedillo under the title “Towards new political creations. Movements, institutions and new militancy”. Taking a little-known text by Gilles Deleuze as a point of departure, Sánchez Cedillo proposed an alternative approach to the “institution” which emerged from the “general intellect”, and led to affirmative, non-constraining and non-repressive or exclusive forms of action. Perhaps, the actual shape of such institutions could not yet be recognisable, and could only be perceived as part of specific and contingent “instituent practices”. This text revealed, however, that social movements were reshaping their agenda according to a new political imagination in which the “institution” should play a central role.
Working on the semantic ambivalence of the term, this approach to the “institution” did not refer to the formally constituted structure, the institution defined as such, but to the action of instituting, and, above all, to the political practices moved by an instituent impulse. Gerald Raunig conceived this instituent practice as a process: as a concatenation of instituent events which escaped the binary instituent/instituted, constituent/constituted, departing from the traditional movimentist opposition to institutions. This reading exorcised the closed and centripetal image of the state institution and allowed the recognition of the instituent nature of the cooperative and affective practices which Virno identified as appropriate for the multitude.
In 2008, Transversal devoted a special issue to “mental prototypes of political action” which could overcome the “frustrated virtuality” of the 1968 revolts as well as the more recent alter-globalisation movements. Universidad Nómada, one of those agencies which emerged from the mutations of political subjectivity in the late 1990s, proposed the “untimely irruption” of “monstrous institutions”, as itself was defined. This monstrous institution was described as a hybrid and contradictory dispositive, permanently negotiating with heterogenous elements in which both “movement” and “institutional” ingredients mingled together. It was seen as a strategic dispositive bursting in the state or privatised public spheres in order to transform them from within. Their monstrous nature, typical of the multitude, prevented them from having a recognisable and stable shape but, by the same token, provided the conditions from which to produce collective political actions and intellectual creations which may contribute to the invention of new political paradigms. The oxymoron “monstrous institution” allowed us to recognise in the exodus of the multitude the matrix of an instituent process.
The “new” or “alter” institutionality invoked in the last chapter of the Glossary of Common Knowledge relates, to a great extent, to such a monstrous nature, reluctant to fit in an institutional shape defined in terms of clear identity. The novelty resides in the fact that monstrosity is now vindicated from the museum itself. Institutions, as discussed in the presentations and debates which took place in the Glossary seminar, are not planning an updating of their structures either to respond to the demands of the new “prosumer” publics of neoliberal societies, or to feed the self-referential cultural minorities which already share their vocabularies and values. Our museums are not anymore striving to catch up with a tide which does not hide its hostile and violent nature, or trying to identify its “true” community. They choose to → deviate, to get mad, to erotise themselves, in order to → conspire with others beyond their walls, so to keep on making sense of the world. Instead of following the logics of branding, growth and novelty, they aim at holding “altern”, → reflexive, minor dynamics, and relating to the environment in terms of → interdependence and → sustainability instead of territorialisation, competition and gain. Rather than a reform or an updating, to be a valid social dispositive the museums involve an → estrangement with regard to our logics and to become a → stultifera navis, which navigates unknown rivers and seas without a fixed destination.
The picture rendered by the discussions held during the seminar prevents us from looking for a vantage point from which to define the new institution. Social movements may never articulate ex novo structures which would eventually replace the existing ones, and these may never transform themselves in a relevant way by merely applying reformist recipes. Both the crude nature of our times and the very essence of what we are seeking should lead us to find the answers to the institutional question in the ethics and politics which define the specific procedures, protocols and economies organising the relationships among different agents. An “other” institutionality may only be possible by rearticulating institutional practices from an ethical and political perspective, taking into account their contingent and conflictive nature and suspending the binary structures in/out with which institutions divide social space. Obviously, to introduce alterity in the institution requires breaking up blockages and countering inertias, as well as the rehearsal of monstrous, hybrid and contradictory dispositives in which the encounter and the negotiation may take place.