Blog L’Internationale #6: The Institution and Self-organisation?

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Kaja Kraner, Tjaša Pogačar, Izidor Barši in Andrej Škufca pišejo blog na spletni platformi L’Internationale. L’Internationale je projekt večih evropskih muzejev (več o tem tu: ), pri katerem sodeluje tudi MG+MSUM. Njihov blog najdete pod rubriko OPINIONS:

To je njihov šesti blog (za besedilo v slovenščini se prosim pomaknite navzdol):

Dear Kaja, Andrej and Izidor!

The question that Kaja raised at the end of the 5th post draws attention to the important fact that for quite some time, public institutions (in the Slovenian context) have no longer been self‑sustaining rigid structures of hierarchically organised regular employees, but have been, in the context of the neoliberal model of cultural policy and cuts in cultural budgets, increasingly becoming dependent on self‑organised work force. In this respect, it is therefore also no longer possible to talk about an (hierarchical, closed and self‑sustaining) institution as separate from the open self‑organised unhierarchical exterior, since the latter, pressured by the system, pierces, transforms and fexibilises the institutional body. Indeed, even earlier discussions on such a separation were questionable, since non‑governmental organisations, which are still often considered as an »independent« scene, are completely dependent on the same source of funds – namely national (and European) financial resources – and consequently on the same logic of operation, based on projects and tenders. I do not wish to claim that the method of financing is the only thing that makes a space or a practice »independent« or »alternative«, but it does seem much more likely to me that the deciding factor is the method of operation, which is at least partially conditioned by the method of financing.

As I am writing this, I am also thinking about the two roundtable discussions entitled Self‑organisation: Community and Labour (Samoorganizacija: skupnost in delo, held on 18 December 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana) where guests from different self‑organised initiatives highlighted this and several other relevant questions touching upon the notions of independence, the alternative and the relation between the exoinstitutional activities and the institution, and especially the ambivalent nature of self‑organisation, which can represent both a means of emancipation and submission to the pressures of the current cultural policy.

Self‑organisation, even if it commits to completely refuse financial dependency on any financial source and is based on donations, can for the most part function as an emancipatory practice only in the »spare time« of its members. As it became evident during the roundtable discussions featuring guests from different self‑organised initiatives, such self‑organised activity often would not be possible without the members being involved in exploitative relations of some other more or less regular working circumstances. Or, as you, Andrej, have pointed out in the debate following the second roundtable, even though in some self‑organised group, openness and non‑hierarchical relations are guaranteed by the fact that the people involved are all volunteers, such activity can nevertheless be highly exclusionary. For hardly anyone, particularly in the field of culture, can nowadays afford to do unpaid work. The question is therefore when and to what extent is self‑organisation a conscious choice (maybe even a political statement) and when is it an imposed choice, pre‑determined by the context of the aforementioned circumstances of production. As you, Kaja, have pointed out at the roundtable (and in your 1st post), a paradigmatic example of such forced self‑organisation is the cultural worker, who is at the same time the worker, the manager and the investor.

So what do we have in mind when we are talking about an »institution«? Much ink has been spilled on the collapse of the barrier between the »inside« and the »outside« and on how an institution should not be equated only with spaces of presentation and distribution of art, since we after all embody it ourselves. That is why I do not intend to talk about different conceptions and theories of the institution. I am more interested in, quite concretely, what do we mean when in the context of the Slovenian art scene, based on public funds, we use the word institution? Or rather: who is the institution? This is another question that opens innumerable possibilities and directions of theoretisation, which is not what this short post is about. Let me narrow down our interest to two situations that provide us with very different answers. When the identity of an institution is defined with regard to its social role, the focus of the discussion is usually outward‑oriented towards the question of the importance of the institution for the space where potential audience can be found. What follows is the question of strategies by which the institution expands into this space or incorporates it into its own spaces. In the context of such a focus, openness, solidarity, equality, democracy, accessibility, non‑exclusion etc. are usually the fundamental values of institutional activity. The visitors increasingly become participants and users, they increasingly co‑create the activity, institutions increasingly become social spaces, the roles of curators, artists and the audience are increasingly muddled. The dissolution of the institution in the social is supposed to be the other side of its openness. Who has the right to an institution? Everyone.

On the other hand, the disappearing dividing line between the institution and its exterior reverts to a clear and sharp delimitation as soon as the focus is directed inwards and the rights to an institution, to decision‑making and to the corresponding responsibility align with the internal hierarchy.[1] In the first instance, self‑organised groups of self‑organised workers, freelancers and other precarious workers co‑create the institution (e.g. they organise and perform program activities) and in that sense represent its integral part from the »external« point of view (that of the general public, audience etc.), whereas in relation to the institutional interior, these workers always have the status of »outside« and temporary staff. They are therefore excluded from the processes of crucial importance in determining the host institution’s operation, meaning that they do not have much influence over their own (precarious) status either. Because they are placed in this limbo between the inside and the outside, where the extent of their inclusion is conditioned by the host institution’s interests, they are effectively prevented from any kind of serious critical activity, since the self‑organised group cannot transformatively intervene in the operation of the institution — into which it embeds itself, but has no power in decision‑making —; it can only accept or reject it (discontinue collaboration). Critique is, of course, possible, acceptable and desired on the level of content production. This could very well be the main problem, since it is actually at the level of community production that the activity of self‑organised groups produces the greatest critique/difference/deviation from the institution.

The question of the difference between the production of an external product (in the case of an institution, for example, this would be production of content: exhibitions, events, educational programmes) and the production of the community itself (which is what self‑organised groups generally spend more time on) was touched upon several times during the discussion at the aforementioned roundtable. The preservation of this difference serves to separate and prevent mutual influence between two spheres that, as it became evident during the discussion, probably cannot be truly separated at all: every production of products simultaneously implicates a (re)production of a certain type of organisation and therefore a production of a community, and vice versa.

Roughly speaking, self‑organisation could be described as an organisation of individual elements that is not lead by some higher regulatory principle, but is instead evolving according to current needs, determined by a certain temporal, spatial and social context. That is why self‑organised groups are mostly structured non‑hierarchically, unlike public institutions, whose hierarchical structure and organisation of work are often determined by law and therefore more rigid. Due to the nature of its own organisation, the institution cannot produce such a community of openness and equality as it strives for (at least on the level of content production), therefore it »imports« or hosts self‑organised practices. In order to ensure that they are free from rigid institutional frameworks and by doing so give them the opportunity to create different forms of organisation, activity and production, the institution grants them the status of relative independence from the institution (regarding their programme and its financing). But at the same time, the very concern for the autonomy of self‑organised groups can cause their activity to become isolated and its effects neutralised. By doing so, it blocks intervention into the very space where the self‑organised horizontally structured group places itself. The concern for autonomy that would supposedly prevent the detested institutionalisation of »alternative« practices, which I personally do not necessarily understand as a negative process, can have the very same final consequence: the difference produced by the »alternative« practice is neutralised through institutionalisation precisely because the institution never exposes its own core to the practice that it incorporates.

Consequently, the activity of the self‑organised group is also not perceived as an intervention in the process of producing the institution (as a specific community), since thus packaged in the »autonomous« zone, it acts only as a production of the institution’s content (programme).

Granting independent status to self‑organised groups, while giving the impression that there is no conflict when the institution and the group meet and that everybody wins (the institution gets the desired programmes while the self‑organised group gets free space and visibility), is actually a means of denying ever greater (mutual) dependency (see the beginning of this post) and simultaneously a means of creating a distance by which the institution is no longer responsible for what the self‑organised group produces in its »autonomy« nor for the conditions of this production. For now, the only way horizontal structures could possibly exist in the hierarchy of the institution is therefore as a result of precarious work, whereas the contradiction between production of open, egalitarian content and conditions of production remains more or less unaddressed.

It is probable that an answer to the question of what will determine the type of partnership between an institution and a self‑organised group, even before we try to (re)define it, would only be possible if based on a perspective that would recognise the activity of the self‑organised collective for what it has always been: and active production of the institution’s community. Such a perspective would recognise the self‑organised group as an existing, working member of the institution, as its constituent part that has been silently co‑creating the institution for the whole time — not only with production of its programme content, but with its modes of operation as well —, while in return highlight the institution as distinctively heterogeneous and fundamentally shake the self‑evidence of existing hierarchies. Maybe in this way, the practice of self‑organised groups in institutional spaces could become somewhat more binding and could therefore reach beyond mere production of programme content.


[1] The opposition between the two views and notions of an institution was brought about by separating its production (of programmes, knowledge, content etc.) from the conditions of production. The two should be thought simultaneously in particular to avoid paying for the ever greater outward institutional openness, solidarity and horizontality with an ever greater »internal« hierarchisation, precarisation and exploitation, as you, Izidor, have already problematised in your post.


V angleščino prevedel  Miha Šuštar / Translated by Miha Šuštar

Coproducers: Moderna galerija in Muzej sodobne umetnosti Metelkova (MG+MSUM)
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