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.
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. 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.
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« – 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. 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?