Instituting as a Box, a Forest, a Swimming Pool

Viktoria Draganova, curator, founder, and director of Swimming Pool, has written a text for the Solitude blog in which she addresses the roles and the double beginnings of institutions. Asking herself how an institution begins, she follows the theoretician Cornelia Vismann, who names power as one element, and obstinacy as another. The essay emphasizes the view that art institutions are especially able to provoke a different understanding of what an institution is. »Instituting« can be understood as a method of constantly resonating, emerging, and persistently and collectively inventing new (power) systems of language and laws.

by Viktoria Draganova — Okt 20, 2020

When I founded Swimming Pool a few years ago, the pool on the terrace gave it its name. Back then, I thought, first things first: after all, the swimming pool was the most prominent feature of this space’s architecture, so every exhibition would need to fight for attention against the pool’s strangeness and the city landscape’s sublimity.

It was, however, the emptiness that eventually turned out to be even more important than the pool itself – definitive, relentless, persistent. Emptiness, when associated with swimming pools, is a negative quality, because pools are of course designed to hold water. Emptiness, then, is something not only undesirable for a swimming pool; it is generally wrong. Or, the emptiness simply did not make sense, as many visitors noted. They would usually ask when the pool would be filled again. From the beginning, I was reluctant to answer this question – as if the pool did not deserve it, as if its obscure presence was far more important than making it functional again. I felt I needed to get close to what already is, the way it is, and to take care of it.

The empty pool not only defined the exhibition program, it defined the institution itself – even if not a single exhibition took the pool as a theme. The void enabled thinking of its architecture as a shape, and thus as an abstraction; as something devoid from purpose and not signified. Then it occurred to me that the empty pool space could be perceived as replicating the gallery space, but in an opaque way. In my curatorial mind it turned into a blue cube within a white cube. Whereas the latter was, through its presupposed neutrality, one of the paradoxes of modernity, the former was shaped by contexts, desires, and histories. Moreover, even if most stories about the empty pool have been told through art, the pool itself was continuously scripting stories. These tales from the past cover three recent historical periods: the last days of the Tsarist era in the 1930–40s when the pool was built, the entire Communist regime, and the wildly capitalistic period since 1989. Then come the stories of the pool’s current technical maintenance or rather impossibility to maintain, of all the gallery visitors who came dressed in swimsuits and ready to swim, or the regular calls from lifeguards looking for a job. On Instagram, where everything is hashtagged, we find a panopticon of cross-lineages with possibly all the pools in the world, and there it is: the empty pool – even if empty, or exactly because it is empty – is the one infusing life.

When establishing the space, both cubes appeared to be intrinsically entangled for the first time; however, it was by invoking, living, and expanding this entanglement that Swimming Pool has been instituting itself since. So, is an empty pool – or something like it – a condition for an institution to institute itself?

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The question of how an institution institutes itself is a question about an institution’s beginnings, which is the moment at which a line is drawn, a difference is set, and a body is created.1 This is also the moment at which something is set in motion that can, or even must, constitute itself again and again – thinking of the definition Gerhard Raunig gave of »instituent practices« as a continuous and never-ending chain of instituting events, as a »pluralization of the instituting event«.2 However, how an institution begins seems to be a tautological question, as institutions themselves are beginnings – the Latin verb instituere means » to build«, »to create«, or »to raise.« So, let me ask differently: What triggers instituting powers, sets an institution in motion, as well as later provokes its re-instituting again and again? This question is important both for already existing and yet-to-emerge institutions, as in a certain way there cannot be differences in the backdrop of the need to redefine and reconstitute institutional practices within the current contexts we all experience.

»We need to find ways to resist a multilayered monster that mingles old and new types of power hegemonies and search for new models of society-building, as well as spaces where it can emerge as such.«

We know that when an institution is founded, it adopts a statute setting forth its objectives and principles. This is at least what is required for its incorporation by law. I learned, however, from legal historian and cultural theorist Cornelia Vismann, who was interested in beginnings as a distinct matter of law, there are indeed two types of beginnings, and that adopting a statute and objectives could only be one of two possible types of beginning. In series of essays,3 she explains these two possible types: one beginning is based on what Derrida writes in Archive-Fever, where he discusses the proximity of the Greek word for »beginning,«: arché, to archeia – the Greek archives as well as the residence of the archons who were empowered to interpret the archives. Thus, in his interpretation, Derrida links the archive, beginning (arché), and power (archeia). This first type of beginning is, however, not about establishing something specific as a beginning, as a particular location or text. It is about establishing the power to refer to something that precedes. This type of beginning is about the ability to presuppose its own beginning, about the ability to give itself a beginning. »It tells of itself – for instance, in the preambles to the laws« writes Vismann, and she names it the »eloquent beginning.« This is a beginning by establishing a relation of power.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Instituting as a Box, a Forest, a Swimming Pool

Installation view »Balconia« with painting by Stefania Batoeva at Swimming Pool, Sofia, 2015. Photo: Mihail Novakov

In Vismann’s account, however, there is also a second type of beginning, which can be deduced from another etymological proximity – this time to the Greek word arca, which means »container« or  »box.« This beginning, Vismann argues, sets nothing in motion; it is »obstinate« and it is based in mere materiality »as a receptacle, as an empty ark, as a blank, and as that which is not passed down.«4 Such are the lead rolls that were found in Athens in the 1970s, and which were never opened or read. Vismann calls the archive containing the lead rolls an »outright denial, muteness in the midst of a speaking culture«5 that cannot be turned into text, that exists before the text, before the name – in other words, before the law. For Vismann, this second type of beginning brings us close to the realm of Heidegger’s alétheia, »unhiddenness;« also, this is where all poetics of space evolve from.

Vismann’s theory can, indeed, sharpen our understanding of what an institution is and can be; and, it is worth noting that it is the rarely applied »legal« perspective that allows for another possibility to think institutions. Therefore, it can never be solely about the objectives an institution sets itself in order to later refer to, however high-minded and righteous they may be. In the first place, such objectives are no different than the story an institution tells about itself, it is its own scripted institutional fiction. We can also say that any principles an institution gives itself are no different from the beginning they set; they are part of it. So it is not about dealing in some way with all that surrounds, influences, or confronts the institution. Focusing solely on principles would mean insisting on the comfort of the institution to refer to something mostly for the reason that it can refer to it, and nothing more.

The faults of such a power-led beginning, and power-led institutional action in later years, have been exposed by recent waves of institutional critique of many modern-type institutions that have become places for autocracy and hierarchy while turning into hermetic, self-referential systems; lately, empty placeholders for the rule of capital. The same situation exists with solely restating ethically or politically correct narratives – as many institutions have been recently doing – that are either a moralizing instrument or mere rhetoric.

If we apply Vismann’s typology of beginnings and imagine the arca at the core of each institution, we would have to think about how exactly a difference is created when instituting; also, about all that is left outside the set language. The box leads us to everything that cannot be entirely named, regulated, and identified – just as life itself, which cannot be absorbed through an institution either at its beginning or at any later point in time. Indeed, both types of beginning – the eloquent and the obstinate – are paradoxically interwoven as a double beginning that resonates within any institution’s body. In some cases, however, it is precisely art institutions that can initiate a process of such resonances, and more importantly provoke an essentially different understanding of what an institution is: a place not of representation, but of emergence.

Looking back, most exhibitions at Swimming Pool were trying to grasp the double beginning – as, for example, Bianca Baldi’s »Pure Breaths« (2016), which sought to inhabit the in-between space where no language is set, and where no word has disappeared. The show evoked imaginatively historical sources, literature, miracle poems, and ancient verses to elaborate upon the opaque sides of the well-known historical narratives and the way they extend into the present through cultural artifacts. “As breaths, moving into and out of bodies, it recalls both the desire to know, and the impossibility to settle,” reads the accompanying text. Or Irina Gheorghe’s performance and installation »All The Things That Are Not Here« (2019), which employed various techniques to approach what is not present. »We can measure the space between things which are here; but how can we measure the distance to something which is not here? How can we measure the distance between something which is here and something which is not here? How do we communicate with that which is not here?« Those were some of the questions Gheorghe asked, which also tuned into the space’s broader frames of attention and examination.

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There can also be a forest at the core of an institution.

When artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz was first imagining the El Museo del Barrio, which he founded in 1969 in New York, he thought that all its exhibitions should start with a rainforest. To Ortiz the rainforest was meant to introduce a radically different viewpoint – the viewpoint of the rhythm of moisture – to make people think of political inequities. He eventually managed to create a room with a rainforest in it, even if no images of it have survived. In her essay »The Octopus in Love,« Chus Martínez, curator and director of many institutions in the past, also of El Museo, takes Ortiz’s project as a starting point to discuss models of instituting.6 To her, too, the rainforest was not intended to reproduce or represent nature inside a gallery. As the life force represented by the rainforest cannot be contained within any white cube, it would always be »the opposite of culture, the opposite of an exhibit, the contrary of scale, the opposite of legibility, the opposite of ideology,« and so, »the radical other« of a white cube.

Yet Martínez introduces its radical otherness in order to name two further effects: the one that such otherness did not serve a critical project, but a more profound aim: as »a rejection of the narcissism that defines the re-institutionalization of the forms of knowledge and culture that transform artworks into cultural products, and exhibitions into ideological demarcations of experience.« And there is another effect that primarily had to do with the political situation as El Museo del Barrio was instituted: it namely emerged from a diasporic community that suffered from social and legal inequality. Thus, it could not start by presenting itself as an »alternative« to modern institutions because of the total lack of a political, social, or aesthetic consensus at the time.

»Art institutions have become vehicles of a poetic act performed by society where social textures emerge with their own rhythms, resonance, and language, along with new laws and a state apparatus.«

Instead, it had to give birth to another world of politics as well as to express a completely different system of laws. Therefore, the forest was for Martínez a »true invention« as the image of the rainforest would embody »an ongoing, performative speculation about ways of affecting and being affected, about ways of naming – a language, a place, a time.« To me, most importantly, Martínez expands the notion of invention onto the whole institution by calling El Museo a »museum-as-artwork,« in which the rainforest was not only meant to be a preamble to each exhibition but also provoked the institution to take ritual as its structure that might have remedied or otherwise compensated for the social imbalance that gave rise to El Museo. In the end, Martínez asks the speculative question: »Can you imagine a white cube adopting a rainforest?«

Also, instead of adopting principles, I can imagine it.

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An empty pool, a locked box, the moisture of the rainforest – be they real, imaginary, or speculative, they are vehicles that help us grasp that life there that cannot be consumed by any institution at any time of its existence while this is exactly where an institution originates and what later triggers its instituting again and again. »Adoption« seems to be the true act here, as it suggests care, but no merging; closeness but no sameness; law and love; bearing the unknown past and longing for unknown future. Adoption, crucially, is about helping life.

And then, invention. This is the moment where the institution itself is instituted as life. Institutional critique from the past two decades has seen more and more calls in the art world for art institutions to become »slow«, »(un)learn«; to be »spaces of anticipation«7 – all attempts to oppose the flattening rules of the digital space, commodification, and market-oriented decision-making, while politicizing art institutions to make them more responsive to social injustice. But these endeavors are more complex than that: Art institutions have become vehicles of a poetic act performed by society where social textures emerge with their own rhythms, resonance, and language, along with new laws and a state apparatus. Thus, institutions become again – or for first time – those structures where we establish ourselves as a society.

In recent times, mainly micro-organizations were driven by inventiveness: I am reminded of many independent project spaces, collectives, and grassroots institutions I have encountered in the past few years of my institutional practice that were in large part dedicated to questions of instituting.8 Of course, none to my knowledge has contained an empty pool or a rainforest, but it is always about the effort to relate, adopt, and invent life both through art and through organization’s own instituting practice. At least in Bulgaria, we are in urgent need of inventing institutions. The current cultural context is defined by conservative cultural politics promoted as the long-awaited normalization, while we see how the spectacular, the pseudo-political, the anti-democratic, the elite-flattering and brand-driven thrives within such structures.

»Institutional critique from the past two decades has seen more and more calls in the art world for art institutions to become »slow«, »(un)learn«; to be »spaces of anticipation«– all attempts to oppose the flattening rules of the digital space, commodification, and market-oriented decision-making, while politicizing art institutions to make them more responsive to social injustice.«

In Bulgaria, as in most parts of the world, we need to find ways to resist a multilayered monster that mingles old and new types of power hegemonies and search for new models of society-building, as well as spaces where it can emerge as such. It is not surprising that it is exactly micro-organizations that carry the model of inventive institutions today as they are radically open toward questions of organization as well as feel responsible toward specific political contexts and audiences. Here, another crucial question arises and becomes increasingly important: How do we connect in our inventiveness?

  1. This essay was written along the curatorial schools on micro art institutions organized by Swimming Pool Sofia in 2018 and 2019; as part of a curatorial residency in Prague at the invitation of Jindrich Chalupecky Society in 2019, and at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2020. My thanks to Alejandro Alonso Diaz, Barby Asante, Cathrin Mayer, Cristina Bogdan, Denise Sumi, Dessislava Dimova, Dragos Olea, Fabian Steinhauer, Laurel Ptak, Lorenzo Sandoval, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Marjolijn Dijkman, Maurin Dietrich, Matthias Ulrich, Michal Novotny, Paul O’Neill, Snejanka Mihaylova, and Vladiya Mihaylova for all the insightful conversations, and especially the participants of the first two editions of the curatorial school at Swimming Pool for their most inspiring thoughts.

  2. Gerhard Raunig: »Instituent Practices No 2. Institutional Critique, Constituent Power, and the Persistence of Instituting,« in: https://transversal.at/transversal/0507/raunig/en (01/2007).

  3. Cornelia Vismann: »Die Macht des Anfangs« in: Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung 2 (2011), pp. 57–68; »The Archive and the Beginning of Law,« in: Derrida and Legal Philosophy. ed. Peter Goodrich et al., Basingstoke 2008, pp. 41–54; »Arche, Archiv, Gesetzesherrschaft« in: Archivologie. eds. Knut Ebeling and Stephan Günzel, Berlin 2009, pp. 89–104.

  4. Vismann: »The Archive,« p. 51.

  5. Ibid., p. 50.

  6. Chus Martínez: »The Octopus in Love« in: What’s Love Got to Do with It, ed. Julieta Aranda et al. Berlin 2017, pp. 275–96, online at https://www.e-flux.com/journal/55/60304/the-octopus-in-love/.

  7. Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez: »On Slow Institutions,« pp. 38–47, and Binna Choi and Annette Kraus, »Unlearning Institution: Do as Your Present (or Preach)«, in: How Institutions Think: Between Contemporary Art and Curatorial Discourse. ed. Paul O’Neill et. al. Cambridge, MA 2017; Emanuele Guidi and Lorenzo Sandoval: »Spaces of Anticipation«, in: On Curating 36 (April 2018), pp. 2–9, online at https://www.on-curating.org/issue-36-reader/spaces-of-anticipation-422.html#.XtS9ZhMzbOQ.

  8. I had the pleasure to work or be in intellectual exchange with founders and directors of Art in General (New York), Apart Collective (Budapest), Apparatus 22 (Bucharest and Brussels), Enough Room for Space (Brussels), Enterprise Projects (Athens), Fluent (Santander), HEKLER (New York), Life Sport (Athens), Linda (Sofia), MOZEI (Sofia), New Essener Kunstverein (Essen), ODD (Bucharest), Peach (Rotterdam), Portikus (Frankfurt), Pina (Vienna), Publics (Helsinki), TAM (Veliko Tarnovo), The Green Parrot (Barcelona), The Institute of Anxiety (Prague), and The Institute for Endotic Research (Berlin), and discuss topics of emerging, instituting, and collaborating with micro-organizations.

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