Institutional critique in 2010, is it an alternative version?

Institutional critique in 2010, is it an alternative version?

In 1974, Hans Haacke mounted an index of the museum’s corporate sponsors and board of trustees along the Guggenheim’s walls. The work, simply titled, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees, bared the political and economic affiliations behind the exhibition’s proverbial curtain. For Haacke, the work’s site (the museum) became the “institutional membrane” linking artistic avant-garde practice to global corporate and political networks — as it was for many of his earlier air flows and condensation cubes — by way of the cultural negotiations between exhibition sponsorship and museum board membership.

And, as Benjamin Buchloh (October journal) once wrote about this subject that the work “turned [the self-reflexivity of conceptual practice] back onto the ideological apparatus itself, using it to analyze and expose social institutions from which the laws of positivist instrumentality and the logic of administration emanate in the first place.”

For many artists practicing in the 70’s , it was a critical turning point in the untangling of relationships between cultural production and the corporate institution — be it the Guggenheim Museum or Gordon Matta-Clarks architectural interventions onto corporate galleries architecture. Yet, as much of this work was situated within the museum itself, these radical conceptual strategies were quickly subsumed under their own “institutionalization.”

Today, this kind of Marxist materialist analysis that compelled Haacke to disturb the commodity system of art production seems to have been extinguished. (Laura Fried)

There was a moment when institutional critique held some currency as a proposition for (and often against) the ethical standards of arts institutions. But is this brand of critique a viable, or even a compelling, possibility for art practice today? It’s nothing new to say this genre of conceptual art—in its dematerialized, utopian resistance to market forces and the corporate institution—had long ago foreclosed on its own radical potential.

Despite intention for revolution, as any art magazine reminisces about 1968, the contentious history of institutional critique was troubled early on by the avant garde’s inevitable, and ineluctable, affiliation with economy. Its pursuit of criticality, in other words, was largely quashed by its failure to produce more than merely revelatory gestures.
Indeed, corporate sponsorship has become de rigueur in the new millennium, and increasingly, images of radicality and revolution—now often perceived as impotent gestures—are marshaled by global brands and marketed back to us as exchangeable commodities. All told, the great weakness of institutional critique as an alternative model for production was its failure to move beyond the exposure of unethical (or questionable) institutional practices in favour of effecting real change.

Artist-activists certainly took up this mantle a decade later, as did a generation of artists who began to move beyond the museum frame to explore other sites of information.

Today, the productive alternatives to this troubled life of institutional critique lie with those artists who pose not critiques but insertions within our institutional frameworks.

Laura Fried curated a show, at the Contemporary Museum of Art in St Louis, of British artist Carey Young. She describes the young artist as positioning as an “inheritor of the legacy. Charactering her practice by its investigations of the corporate and legal worlds from an insider perspective, actively resists these historical models of critique.”

Young juxtaposed the Contemporary’s architecture with the negative spaces, and the administrative networks, of the institution. While nodding to works by Robert Morris, Cildo Meireles, and even Andrea Fraser, Young’s exhibition, at its core, explored the conditions of site-specificity, language, performance, and our own capacity to communicate in the world by activating her audience as both agents and performers.

Some young notable artists, such as AGENCY, explore institutional memory and the history of objects, loosely tying their practices to a teleology of institutional critique. But again, how do we as an audience register, and participate in, the exploration of institutional site?

If the practice of institutional critique reflected critically on its own place within galleries and museums and on the concept and social function of art itself, then lets jump ahead!

posted on the art 21 blog.

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