Conspiratorial institutions? Museums and social transformation in the post-crisis period
The rise and, particularly, the fall of «alter-worldism» in the first decade of the new millennium brought about an unexpected alter-institutionalist political imagination in European social movements, perhaps as a deferred action of the virtualities of the «general intellect» revealed around 1968.
To embrace the issue of institutionalism was contra natura and a risky business for antagonist movements, but the brutal crisis that innaugurated the new century made patent the blatant obsolescence and banality of existing institutional structures.
The Universidad Nómada appeared in Spain in the early 2000s as one of the conveyors of this instituent imagination: a war machine designed to develop new conceptual tools to understand «the specific patterns of exploitation and domination we are submitted to today, and to devise projects and actions able to short-circuit them».
Meanwhile, public institutions, our museums and universities among them, were trapped in the governance of an opaque mass of individualized subjects, being their sustainability underscored by the very neoliberal regime they were obliged to serve.
The unbearable awareness of living «on the edge» and in a state of structural crisis made some cultural institutions look around and recognize in the questions on institutionality contemporarily raised by social movements a possible raison d’être, an ultimate life saver against «zombification».
Some contemporary cultural agents found in this radical imagination an echo of the emancipation promises of 20th century avant-garde movements, as well as a luminous horizon towards which to look up in a time when they were obliged to keep their eyes on their feet as the floor was cracking beneath.
Jorge Ribalta, by then the public activities director at MACBA, was pioneer in realising that the best way to go beyond the tendency to replace the old bourgeois notion of the public with that of the consumer and «to understand publics as transformers and not as reproducers» was to engage with the activities of the so called «new social movements».
Alliances were held and projects were developed in which «monstrous institutions», as experimental movement structures called themselves, and «progressive institutions», as our museums were usually identified, improvised and negotiated a common ground for action.
On our side, this probably happened due to the increasingly thin and fragile walls of contemporary institutions and the proverbial ambivalence of artists, academics and curators, who were seldom becoming double agents of some sort. On the side of the movements, this was seen as a way out from the previous cul de sac and as a step forward in the longer term task of building institutions of a new kind. In 2007 Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, a founding member of Universidad Nómada, used a little-known text by Deleuze on David Hume’s work «Instincts and Institutions», to rescue a notion of institution, that unlike laws, were structures of social invention, means to convey individual experience to satisfaction; to affirmative, and non constraining nor exclusionary, modes of action. Raúl’s text «Towards new political creation. Movements, institutions, new militancy» was part of an issue of the Transversal Internet journal, which the EIPCP devoted to instituent practices.
The case of Reina Sofía intervention on behalf of La casa invisible in Malaga is a good example of these experiments. As you may know La casa invisible is a CSA, an autonomous social center occupying an abandoned building in downtown Malaga, which in 2007 brought together activists, artists, architects and neighbours as a counterpoint to the tourist-based cultural policies of Malaga City Council.
In June 2009 the public activities department of Reina Sofia, together with Universidad Nómada, organised the seminar Cultural Governance vs Institutions of the commons. The right to the city and new cultural policies in La casa invisible. The issue at stake was the diverse forms institutions of the commons may have from existing experiences all over Europe: from Hamburg to Seville, London, Barcelona, Venice and Madrid.
Our hidden agenda was to play with the expectations of Malaga’s city council to have a branch of prestigious Reina Sofía in Malaga, as they had with the Thyssen Museum, and would have soon with the Pompidou, and so to prevent the imminent eviction of La casa invisible. La casa invisible is still open and active in Malaga today, and beyond that, its «institutionalisation» process, in which our department was active, brought about the Fundación de los comunes in December 2011.
Enthusiast and optimistic as we were from both sides, it was not an easy path being forced to invent and to create the space for every step. Jaime Vindel, in «The displacement of criticism: cultural instituions and social movements since the ’90s», a text published in Desacuerdos 8, that we edited together in 2014, talked about the «uncomfortable situation of institutions being simultaneously leading progressive institutions in Europe, and moving awkwardly behind grassroots processes of political empowerment, which eventualy would end up in the taking over of public institution by destituent powers».
Even if today general pessimism may obscure our diagnosis of the present, the violence of the current situation in 2017 seems to problematize severely the viability, although not the urgent need, of both instituent processes and institutional transformations, at least as we imagined them when we conceived the project The uses of art five years ago.
The intensification of budget cuts, bureaucratic control and cultural wars tends to make of contemporary institutions either complicit instruments of power or suspicious conspirators against what is depicted as a vulnerable social order under attack, within a black or white, normal or radical, binary logic. In this context, our cherished artistic ambivalence has definitely lost its grounds.
As long as this «state of war» is going on, may we assume conspiracy as a plausible logic for action? In such a case, should we encourage an «art of conspiracy»? With whom should/could we conspirate? With what purpose? How would this conspiratory attitude affect our definition as institutions?
Conspiracy has always been a common, even structural practice in our cultural public institutions, at least in the South, as the way to dribble bureaucratic suspicion and control in order to do what we are supposed to do.
I have conspired with my students and colleagues at the university in order to develop different learning practices; conspired with members of different departments of Reina Sofia to work together despite the hermetic institutional boxes we were incapsulated in; conspired with our peers at the Internationale to adjust the rigid structure of European application to really existing projects; conspired with my team of civil servants at the Madrid city council to get out from our bureaucratic glass box in order to negotiate with neighbours and art agents.
I always found this kind of conspiracy tiring and unproductive since it keeps the formal carcass of the institution intact while replacing its engine with an informal and intersubjective network which rarely leaves a trace behind, which rarely changes anything. You could get your institutional goals only as long as you knew the right people and as a personal favour. This sort of conspiracy is not subversive. Quite the opposite, it guarantees the continuity of an inadequate institutional system and of the subaltern status of workers.
The kind of conspiracy we learnt to develop in our institutional experimentations, first in the early steps of Desacuerdos project and then in the Reina Sofía public activities department was of a different kind.
Somehow, the etymological meaning of conspiracy, conspiratio, breathing together, or even the more general sense of «plotting» was suddenly recovered. We were not conspiring within our inadequate institution in order to make it work, we were conspiring with others from our inadequate institution in order to open up the conceptual, imaginary and political space for a different kind of institution to emerge.
Our conspiracy was meant to break out our insularity and to recognize relevant others to conspirate with. By the same token, we were recognized from the outside as a useful tool in an ongoing collective instituent process. Conspiracy meant blowing, breathing, plotting, knitting together at the same time as it recovered its deep subversive function, since it was ultimately oriented to the radical transformation of our institutional structures.
Obviously this kind of radicality could only be allowed if undetected, or as long as it happened under the cover of avant-garde art experimentation.
But in 2011 the vision of a few became the «indignación» of many, and the desire of political autonomy accumulated through years mutated into a powerful image of destitution and restitution of what it was called «real democracy».
The rise and public visibility of a massive social movement in the 15M Occupy process, coinciding with the victory of conservatives in Spain, displaced institutional experimentation from the museum to the streets and squares, local assemblies, internet social networks and, eventualy, new political parties.
The desertion of conspirators from the museum coincided with an increasing pressure over cultural institutions, from the financial side, through budget cuts, the managerial, through a restriction of their autonomy, and the ideological through the inspection and preventive clearing of any potentially subversive content they may convey. The temptation to embrace corporative powers and assuming a role within leasure and tourism industry seemed to have no alternative.
I have the conviction, however, that the alternative is here and now, within ourselves. We are conspirational institutions endowed with highly sophisticated tools to engage in actual processes of social transformation. We may just have to assume that conspirational, collective breathing, attitude in the way we organize ourselves, the way we administrate our budgets, the way we address our constituencies and the way we design our programmes.
Conspiracy, with all its subversive power, is at work when we take part in the collective and cooperative endeavour of resisting expropriation, segregation, commodification and banalisation.
We no longer need that relevant other, the visionary social movements, to conspire with, in the same way that we no longer need to be that exclusive and detached laboratory we once aimed at.
Today, the conventional boundaries of institutions, defining clear in and out positions, are nothing but a carcass which does not say anything significant about what we are as organisations of social relations.
Conspiracy involves a detachment from our traditional structures of legitimation and may bring unexpected travel companions, people you would have never recognized as your peers, since conspiracy means negotiating with others.
Conspiracy means a commitment with a collective cause but it also implies secrecy to operate within a dead angle from which you will not be seen by power, and the risk of being discovered, exposed and erased.
Conspiracy, the act of blowing together, may be the only way we have to build institutions today.