Theory of Discomfort – Becoming Human
«The Museum as Medium» exhibition and the MARCO de Vigo
(a case-study from Spain)
«New Institutionalism» was a trend with a strong impact during the first years of the new Millennium. The expression was coined to address a series of artistic and curatorial practices that became popular in Northern Europe and had a more uneven presence in the South. In a sense, it could be said that «New Institutionalism» was a product of the Welfare State, as it used to be conceived in countries like Germany, the Netherlands or Scandinavia. Some authors such as Nina Montmann (2006) or Simon Sheikh (2006) wrote texts or edited books which mapped them. The critical and transformative hopes of «New Institutionalism» – which was built out of the legacy of Institutional Critique and Relational Aesthetics – vanished almost from one day to another with the crash of the Lehman Brothers in the Fall of 2008. Especially in southern countries as Spain.
In this paper I will address this period through a curatorial project in which I participated in 2008, at the MARCO, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Vigo, Spain, titled The Museum as Medium. Out of this experience I will compare that moment with the present (with a special focus in my own country: Spain) in order to find out what is left from «New Institutionalism» after a decade of deep social, political, and economic changes.
My hope is that the content of this project will be useful as a «case study», contributing to enlarge our debates these days from geographic, artistic, and theoretical points of view. Also, I hope my intervention will help to show the changes that the Spanish institutional scene in the periphery, in Galicia, has suffered in the last ten years.
The project I am going to address was titled The Museum as Medium and took place at the MARCO museum in Vigo in 2008. It was my first experience as a curator, which I shared with my collegue Pablo Fanego. Pablo Fanego and I began to work together in the context of another institution that was born in the mid-1990s, and is also currently suffering a very problematic situation: the Fundación Luis Seoane in A Coruña.
We began to discuss the first ideas for The Museum as Medium around 2004. The project reflected our interest and curiosity for some artists and curators of our generation or a generation slightly older than us – in the first years of the 2000. Artists such as: Roman Ondak, Annika Eriksson, Andrea Fraser, Tino Sehgal, Sergio Prego, Maria Eichhorn, etc… which were not only proposing new ways of addressing the art institutions but also building this approach on a very specific tradition coming out of Conceptual Art and Institutional Critique.
Our project was part of several contexts:
– The context of Europe and Spain.
– The international and Spanish artistic context.
– And the more specific context of those debates about Institucional Critique, site-specific art and so-called «New Institutionalism».
2. Historical context in Spain: 1975-1992
To make a long story short, I’ll just mention the complex story of Spain through the 20th century – with a Second Republic from 1931 to 1936, which took the power away from the Monarchy, a Civil War from 1936 to 1939, and a dictatorship ruled by General Franco until 1975. The end of Franco’s rule was welcomed as the begining of a new democratic period that would help to abandon a dark history of violence and abuse of power, incorporating the country to the timid path of modernity that was lost since 1936.
The concept of «modernity» which I am using here is a polysemic one: on the one hand it has to do with the material development and the technological progress, on the other it refers to the emancipation and educative process that are related with Enlightment. Furthermore, it also addresses the critique of all these ideas in the post-modern age.
Next to the establishment of the new constitution in 1978, two factors were crucial and contributed in a very significative way to the country’s social transformation. First, the consolidation of a free-market system in a social-democratic context (the socialist party was in government and ruled the country from 1982 to 1996). And second, the entrance, together with Portugal, in the European Union in 1986.
Since the end of the 1980s, the hope to surpass the obscurantism and backwardness that Spain had suffered with Franco became a reality. This new stage materialized in 1992, when the Barcelona Olympic games projected a completely new and «modernized» image of the country. Since then, Spain experimented a very intense economic growth, mainly based in the real estate and tourism areas, which increased the average incomes to levels which were similar to those in other European countries, and which attracted immigration to the point that population rised from 40 to 47 millions between 2000 and 2007. This period lasted until 2008, when the crisis exploded.
3. Spanish artistic context: ARCO and new museums
The evolution of art production in Spain in the last thirty years is obviously very connected to all these historical, social, economical, and political shiftings. From the point of view of visual arts, the creation of the ARCO art fair, in Madrid, in 1982, carried important changes regarding the previous years (this is also the moment when the socialists come into power and they embrace the free market system, from the point of view of social-democracy). Through ARCO, many artists which began to work in the so-called «transition» period (1978-1982), in a more or less precarious way, got access to a weak art market – or symbolical market. Faced with the absense of any type of infraestructures which would serve as a support for them – museums, exhibition spaces, workshops, grants, etc. – ARCO became the real center or core of the Spanish art scene for a long time. In fact, almost everything which happened in the art world in Spain was in some way or another related to the fair. And that has continued practically up until today.
Parallel to this (late Eighties and Nineties), the central and regional governments started to invest money in buildings for new museums and exhibition spaces, and promoting other resources for the production, exhibition, and diffusion. It was then when many institutions were created, for instance: IVAM, in Valencia (1989), Museo Reina Sofía, in Madrid (1990), CGAC, Santiago de Compostela (1993), or MACBA, Barcelona (1995).
The creation of these institutions was intimately linked to this modernization process that I just mentioned. There were museums opening each year, as there were inaugurations for highways, speed trains or airports. In fact, museums were also part of the real estate boom and the gentrification processes. But museums were, obviously, «something else». Museums represented a radical modernity which was associated with artists’ groundbreaking and iconoclast languages. It could be said, then, that this «crave» or «eagerness» for modernity that Spain was experimenting, materialized in a very clear manner in this area.
Or, put it in another way: it was not enough to look «modern», it also had to «be» modern. And that was only possible through culture. In a process that, as it’s known, happens in societies that suffer accelerated material development, as the United States in the 1940s, or as it’s happening right now in China or the Gulf Emirates.
There was some sort of symbolic surplus value on museums – a matter of «status». That is, perhaps, why different administrations and polititians spent large amounts of money in museums buildings – most of which came from the European Union development aids. These processes even provoked competitivity among the cities and regions to see which one would have the better or most striking museum. It was as if the cities without a contemporary art museum would be second class cities – backward, and isolated from «progress». And it was in this context that, all of a sudden, the Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao in 1997, influencing and changing the course of these new institutions and their aims.
4. Institucional Critique, site-specificity and new institutionalism
Faced with such a panorama, it seemed and still seems inevitable to deal with these contexts or realities through the critique of the institutions. Even more so for professionals like Pablo Fanego and me, and others in my generation, who were working in our first projects. After this period of expansion and growth our country experienced between the early 1980s and 2000, which strongly affected the art production, we assumed that the first thing that we had to do was to pose questions such as: What do we want from our institutions, our public resources, and the organisms that represent us? How do we want them to function, beyond the more technical or practical point of view? And, above all, what values do we want to promote and what values do we want to discard/dismiss? In other words: What is the potential of the museum in the 21st century?
To put it short, and quoting the title of a text I wrote in 2007, it was about the transition from a period dominated by «Concrete» into a period defined by «People and Ideas». From hardware into software.
Which were and still are the contents we wanted to fill these museums with? They were, among others, those present in the project that I am about to describe, The Museum as a Medium, and in which we tried to focus both in the new relations between artists and institutions in the present (2008), and the way in which these projects affected them – the institutions. In other words, it was our intention to discover the way in which artists’ projects, and their production modes, can help to generate certain types of «institutions» – certain models for culture production, exhibition and diffusion – alternative and different to those that were predominant back then (object-based), and which we thought needed to be surpassed.
The discursive and theoretical background of this project was composed by articles and books such as: James Meyer’s «The Functional Site, or the Transformation of Site-Specificity», included in the catalogue of the exhibition Platzwechsel: Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Christian Philipp Müller, and reprinted in the book Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. «The Functional Site» is a classic on site-specificity and institutional critique, especially helpful to understand the transition from the «material» to the «discursive» site.
But other approaches were also influential, such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics (1995), recommended by the artist Tino Sehgal, and of course very influential readers in the mid-2000s, which helped to coin the concept of «New Institutionalism», such as: John C. Welchman’s, Institutional Critique and After, JRP/Ringier (2006), Nina Möntmann’s, Art and Its Institutions. Current Conflicts, Critique, and Collaborators (2006), Jonas Ekeberg’s, New Institutionalism Verksted #1, (2003), Simon Sheikh’s, «Notas sobre la crítica institucional» (2006), and the collection of essays Institution Building (2009), among others.
The term «New Institutionalism» was, in fact, introduced by Jonas Ekeberg in the homonymous first issue of the publication-series Verksted, published by the Office for Contemporary Art Norway as early as in 2003. «New Institutionalism» saw museums and art institutions as places of production, sites of research and spaces for debate, an «active space between community center, laboratory and academy». Jonas Ekeberg regards the discussion on «New Institutionalism» «as a valuable opportunity to focus on the relation between artistic production, public institutions and social change.» «New Institutionalism» engaged thus with institutions as negotiable entities.
«New Institutionalism» was important for us when we curated our project. We agreed with these ideas of changing the way of producing, showing and distributing visual arts. But nonetheless there were also differences, beyond the cultural distance among most of these institutions in the north of Europe and Galicia. Our project possibly tried to keep the focus on the institution itself instead of reaching out into other urban or social realities, as some projects related to «New Institutionalism» did. That was a conscious choice that we made in order to keep the debate around the concept of the institution (artistic or not) as a «medium».
In this sense, our proposal for The Museum as Medium was based on the consideration of the exhibition space – or any other space in which the work is produced; from a magazine to a public project – as a simultaneously material and immaterial reality. As a «device»; or as a medium, as our title reads. That is, as a reality whose physic or architectural appearance is the product of a series of invisible layers which superimpose one another in time, and which shape its form and meaning from a historical and linguistic point of view, which has to do with economical, political and social factors.
Secondly, The Museum as a Medium was based in the idea that this discursive notion of space is far away from any tautological, autoreferential or narcissistic rhetoric, and favours a transitive approach to the museum as a device through which it is possible to set debates that involve the context. In other words: the opposite of the museum as an end in itself; as an auto-satisfied instrument which looks itself in a mirror.
5. «New Institutionalism» then…
The exhibition happened in two different venues: the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Vigo and the sala Koldo Mitxelena in San Sebastian. The first venue was Vigo, which was the museum that invited us to develop this project. MARCO was inaugurated at the end of 2002 in Vigo, a city very much defined by its industrial character and fishing port, which expanded uncontrolledly in the sixties and seventies. The absence of any city planning at that time, when Franco’s policy of urban development was at its most rampant, caused the destruction of numerous public spaces, the separation of the city from the sea, and the disappearance of a large part of its architectural and historical patrimony.
In addition to endowing Vigo with the cultural centre that it lacked, the MARCO project, financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), was formulated precisely to combat these two deficiencies:
– On the one hand, it should serve as a meeting place given the non-existence of other public spaces.
– On the other, help to conserve one of the few vestiges that represented the city’s past: a building that had housed a jail at the end of the nineteenth century, a law court until the late eighties, and which was then chosen as the main quarters of the museum following a harsh polemic between those who were in favour of demolishing it to make space for a new shopping centre next to the square, and those who preferred to maintain it as one of the few enclaves in which to appreciate the collective memory of the city.
The historical and material reality of the museum and its role in the city of Vigo was crucial to the curating of the exhibition and the way we chose the artists included. There were two different kinds of works, among the 20 artists we selected: Works that had already been produced in different contexts (Almarcegui, Eriksson, Fraser, González Torres, etc…) and works we either re-enacted or produced for the first time in Vigo and San Sebastian (Eichhorn, López, Martinez Troncoso, Ondak, Prego, Sehgal, Silva).
Maria Eichhorn’s work is paradigmatic of our intentions, and it’s the one which matters the most for the sake of this text’s thesis. For more than twenty years Maria Eichhorn has been trying to question and challenge the autonomy of museums, and its conventions, with the aim of giving her work a more narrative and historical character. She tries to open the traditional limits of the art work and engage it in deeper cultural debates. In Vigo, her proposal consisted on a piece made out of three elements that were defined after a research that began with a visit of the artist herself. This research began to be shaped when someone (Carlos Núñez) facilitated us a letter written in February 1937, in the building that houses MARCO nowadays, then still a jail.
Since the very begining the content of the letter impressed the artist and all of us collaborating with her. It was the farewell of a prisoner, Jose Domínguez, to his girlfriend, Angelina Estevez, the day before being shot by the fascist authorities. This text combines personal and intimate contents, with other historical and contextual. On it we can find both the will to be a witness of such a moment, but also the wish to transcend its own time and become heritage. In this text Mr. Dominguez addresses Ms. Estevez but also future generations.
Drawing from this document, the artist’s intention was to recuperate a part of the building’s memory, and also that of the city of Vigo. She thus exhibited the letter – written on both sides of the paper – following the same mounting and framing instructions that are used to show this type of material in the Prado Museum, as occurs, for example, with some of the drawings in Goya’s series of etchings Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War.
The presentation in the exhibition room was complemented by the publication of the letter in a local newspaper on July 4th 2008, and an announcement of a round table to be held on the subject in MARCO’s auditorium. Invited to this event were Carlos Núñez, Xesús Alonso Montero and Antonio Alonso Fontán, collaborators in the research project conducted on the history of the building that lead to the discovery of the letter. Alonso Fontán is also the owner and inheritor of the letter, which was given to him by Angelina Estévez.
Obviously Eichhorn’s proposal poses an entire series of questions that have to do with the renewed attitude and commitment that many artists have taken on recently with respect to institutions. On the one hand, her work insists on a conception of the museum as a research instrument. That is to say, as a democratic space of confrontation with the past in which cultural histories are presented and discussions are held to avoid falling into the myth of a unique and transcendental culture.
In addition, Maria Eichhorn’s work is also formulated as an experiment on the meaning of the production, exhibition and dissemination of an art work today. The artist therefore renounces the triangle made up of visuality, autonomy, and object, to defend another set of elements, namely, language, contextualization, and object. Through her work she enacts her commitment to distributing instead of creating a hierarchies (even though we know that movement of one cannot exist without movement of the other). In other words, the same values that Jonas Ekeberg reclaimed in the previous quote: production, research, debate.
6. …and now
In the last part of my intervention, I’d like to dedicate time to briefly recount what happened after this project. After a few years in which its officials – Director Iñaki Martínez and Chief Curator Agar Ledo – mantained the institution afloat, in the present days MARCO’s original project is on the verge of disappearing. Despite the remarkable efforts to keep the quality of the program with less money than it used to have, the different administrations involved on MARCO’s existence have withdrawn a very substancial amount of its support.
Gradually different administrations reduced or suspended the money they were contributing to the institution. The understated reason was the «economic crisis». But the actual reason was the lack of interest on the activities developed by the museum. In fact, what happened is that different politicians have worked against it – and even questioned its role in the city.
When MARCO opened as a foundation there were four different administrations participating on the budget: the city council, the «Diputación» (province administration), the «Xunta» (regional administration), the Ministry of Culture (national), and a local bank then called Caixanova and now Abanca. The bank (which suffered the consequences of the crisis and was sold to a Venezuelan bank), the Diputación, and the Ministry of Culture no longer participate in MARCO foundation. They abandoned the museum one after the other since 2008. The only remaining institutions are the City Council and the Xunta, which quarrel for the control of the institution. From a budget of 1,986.788€ (with 791,907€ allocated for exhibitions) in 2008 – the year we curated The Museum as Medium –, the museum’s budget decreased to 804,146€ (with 114,784€ allocated to exhibitions) in 2017 – most of it provided by the city council. Xunta still supports the museum but changed its contribution from 300,000€/year (at its peak) to 100,000€ last year. The difference is approximately 83% less support from the different administrations comparing 2008 and 2017.
Iñaki Martinez addressed this troublesome situation as the trigger of his decision to step out, after several years trying to keep a decent program and the quality standards which characterized the museum once:
«Those who work in the cultural field are well aware of the challenge which is to carry on with projects in midst of a delicate situation which the economic crash in the last years has made even worse. At MARCO we have been too much time working on a difficult situation, with a budget on the very limit of what should be reasonable for an institution or equipment of this size and characteristics. I’ve been trying to keep the course and defend the role of MARCO as a contemporary art center, for years, as well as trying to maintain the quality of its program and the independency of its managing. Nowadays, I reached the conclusion that – after eleven years leading a project that has been extremely exciting – my time has come to an end and a new stage is needed».
Although Martinez was elegant in his farewell, he undoubtly pointed out in his letter the main problems that MARCO has struggled with – and this, I believe, can be said of many other institutions in Spain – and that have been at least two: scale (too much space for too little a budget) and political interference. For a while, the presence of several administrations in the board of MARCO foundation created a sort of balance which favored freedom on the artistic side. However, as the museum lost the support of some of these administrations and stayed with one only – the city council – this balance was broken and they were forced to face increasing interferences.
As a colophon, I’d like to reaffirm the words that Pablo Fanego and I wrote in the last paragraph of the catalogue essay for The Museum as Medium, in which we already sort of hinted what was approaching:
«In a context of economic, political, ecological and cultural crisis, this notion of a ‘new institutionalism’, or of an ‘experimental’ or even ‘imaginative’ institutionalism, as it has been called on various occasions, seems headed towards an uncertain future. This does not, however, signal its failure as a project of social transformation; in fact the truth is quite the contrary. It demonstrates the pressing need to defend the original idea of the museum as an educational space over and above its instrumentalisation by purely political and economic forces. For it is by assuming this perspective as well as the need for a profound understanding of history that it will become possible to avoid any form of “cultural hegemony and mould new expectations of the present via a permanent dialogue with the past’».
Yes, museums in the 21st century should be tools for research, for production and debate, as new or experimental institutionalism preached. They should be imaginative and open. They can be schools, laboratories and many other things. But above all they must keep being what they have always been: places to collect artworks and discuss memories – collective memories, forgotten memories, repressed memories –, that help us deal with this mirage that we call «spectacle».