Power relations in cultural institutions and what cannot be found in their archives?
Laurence Rassel
12 Nov, 3:41
To whom: Carolina Rito, Felicity Allen, Françoise Vergès
Dear Carolina,

I have the difficult task of following your thoughtful and fruitful letter. I am currently involved with the educational sphere and have maintained an art school remotely for a few months. Now I'm back to the institution, where all of us are wearing masks and respect a certain distance when we talk to each other.

I let my thoughts, memories and perspectives be driven by your idea of «enacted research». Let me share with you my past experience and a current one.

For me, to be able to «enact» the institutions means to be able to have access to the source code of those institutions. The source code is the archives, the regulations related to those institutions.

I propose to reclaim the principles of the open source software in terms of institutional archives.

How? This is where I tell you about an experience we had together with the team of a contemporary art center and, а museum in Barcelona. We opened a space, brought the boxes of the center's archive, and made them accessible to the public. The opening of the space and of the boxes to the public use was accompanied by the creation of a contingent, parallel web platform which allowed us to isolate and to describe each digitized document and to describe its relation to the other documents. We considered the archive as «a set of documents, in whatever form and material medium, which has grown organically and automatically in the course of the activities of a natural or legal person, private or public, and whose conservation respects this growth without ever dismantling it». [1] Imagine a document … Its descriptions are defined, for example, by how people use it and which role they assume. We had identified 44 possible roles active in the institution. Could you imagine 44 different practices active in a museum? From architect to producer, to film maker, carpenter, teacher, editor, transporter, singer, dancer and many others. The description list indicated 98 types of documents: from a report to a telegram, comic book, conference recording; but also it describes many activities carried by the institution such as openings, dinners, concerts, seminars etc. Each of the identified roles could be linked to the documents that can have the form of photographs, texts, sounds, etc.

While working on describing and archiving, we stressed the confluences of knowledge and practice and the networks of disciplines that converged and were articulated in an art institution. We posed the following questions: Where were we coming from, what did we inherit? How did we represent an art institution contributing to the collective memory? We thought we would begin answering those questions collectively after we shared and analysed our practices. By this exchange, we thought we could develop practices sustainable for the future, for the collective life. Therefore we needed to establish protocols of collaboration and of negotiation on how to use the archive. In the midst of the crossfire between institutional critique and the systematic dismantling of public institutions by the neoliberal power, we proposed the archive as a laboratory to experiment with protocols and collective practices of producing collective memory. We proposed to make inquiries into our processes as a commentary on what can constitute an institution and a network of disciplines. Institutional processes, we thought, could be revised, compared, shared.

Memory is collective in nature and exists only if it is shared. Here, in this example, a museum is shared between different actors, administrations, registers and therefore finds itself between different techniques, many of which remain closed, hermetic or ceasing to exist, — and working with its archives requires collective work. If we are to commemorate, to remember together, we should not forget that acts of commemoration often come at the price of forgetting or silencing the memory of others. Those acts produce history told by those who have an access and right to speak, those who have an access to the tools of creation, communication and to the archives. It is therefore a question of opening up archives to commenting and to reorganisation of the documents, objects and monuments of memory in order to question their codes of construction and access. [2]

A museum is a place where collective history is constituted, it archives the objects and events of culture, it activates and questions the past.

In her text, Marc benoemt 's morgens de dingen, [3] Bambi Ceuppens, insists on the power of words that name and describe the world. Vocabulary of classification and description consists of words often borrowed from histories of paternalism and colonialism. Language is at the basis of classification, it orders and it excludes, yet it also preserves past for future use and learning…

Let's go back to the archives we were dealing with. Will we succeed in opening our documents to interpretation, and place them a continuous back and forth between the institution, the museum, the collection, the outside of the institution and the users? Language, its grammar, its conception follows socio-political movements. Words and uses appear and disappear, as well as countries, communities and practices. Numerous minority bodies have claimed, diverted and occupied language, the words imposed by the legislators. Poetic, collective and the sign languages claim history on the fringes of what dictionaries and classification codes decide. Still we should not forget that common words are helpful for debate and not only for making orders.

Language can be a link, but it can be a flaw, a hitch because it cannot describe everything, understand everything, especially if we think of the language written by humans to be used by machines. Yet I suppose it is the combination of the intent and the hindrance that creates movement and change.

As Arlette Farge writes in Le goût de l'archive: «There is surely a way, by the choice of words alone, to produce jolts, to break evidence, to take the usual debonair thread of scientific knowledge in reverse. There is surely a way to go beyond the dull restitution of an event or a historical object, by marking places where meaning has been lost, by producing lack where certainties reigned. Tension between the need to construct meaning with a narrative that holds up, and the certainty that nothing should be reified, (…)». [4]

Words, language as a place of power, can be places of empowerment, can't they? And here comes my next example.

When I read your words: «en-act», act within the institution, I propose to consider the double definition of the word «institution». On the one hand, it's a creative movement, an apt to institute, to found, to establish, and is put forward by the present participle of the verb, which names movement: it is the instituting. On the other hand, the past participle of the same verb, the instituted, comes as a result of a creative movement. The instituted is what is crystallised, frozen, established. Alienation occurs when the instituting takes precedence over the institution. We are looking for a real institutional movement that must be at stake for the participants in the institution.

The instituted in the case of an art school, in my second example, represents what by ministerial decree must be in place in the very structure of the institution: the management, the educational management board, the student council, the option council («option» means here the different departments in the school: media, art, narration), the quality coordination, the prevention and protection council (for hygiene, security etc).

The meetings of these different bodies are part of the institution's calendar. These bodies must meet and decide on the texts— regulations, course schedules—and on safety, hygiene, the use of budget of the social council dedicated to students, etc. These practices can be formal or really engaged. Our goal is to restore their potential for change, reflection and evaluation of our collective processes to be able to question, and if necessary to transform, the «always» in the answer «it has always been like that» when you question any team in any institution about why they work like this or why the protocols of decision making cannot be changed.

To reclaim «the commons», we want to make what is «at the service» tangible, visible, and take it out of the closet. And have a shared responsibility for the school. Generally, the cleaning, the cooking, the care are seen as granted in an institution, but the truth is that humans, non-humans, money, decisions, relationships, etc.— this all is involved in the institution's functioning and this all is hidden.

The school is a place full of hierarchies, governed by texts, decrees and also by principles that reveal themselves there as brutal, feverish, urgent, generating a desire to reach a «whole», yet also and the same time a desire to question «the whole» and nevertheless build a common. By opening up the archives and procedures from «read-only» to «read, write and execute», the very structure of the school (or any institution) can be turned inside out to serve new purposes. Thus people can get involved and affect the very structure by writing a new history—this is the process of the collective development of the «how».

We seize the very structure of the school to try to «turn» it to our advantage, and to «contaminate» it with our history in the process of becoming. As did the copyleft movement for copyright. Copyleft is based on copyright. The author uses her right in her work to decide that this work can circulate freely, can be reproduced, and occasionally even modified. Under a copyleft, an author uses her author's right to make sure that her work is distributed openly and to prevent others from disabling its free circulation.

Similarly, the regulations, decrees and bodies governing the institution represent the rights and duties of the institution. We can decide (as I am in power therefore I can decide it, let's not be naive) that they not only alienate us with obligations, but also give us the right to make decisions, to make assessments, to write our missions. The functioning of the institution has to be open, visible, understandable by all its participants, who can seize these rules to make it a collective institution and thus transform participants into actors in the process, actors who also lead the institution, according to a cartography still to be written. When thinking about the necessity of acting from within the institution, even though the institutional context, as you described it, could be toxic and inert, I would like to emphasise the importance of the following lines: «(…) resistance lies in self-conscious engagement with dominant, normative discourses and representations and in the active creation of oppositional analytic and cultural spaces. Resistance that is effectively controlled by a systemic approach to teaching and learning. Uncovering and reclaiming subjugated knowledge is one way to lay claims to alternative histories. But these knowledges need to be understood and defined pedagogically, as questions of strategy and practice of scholarship, in order to transform educational institutions radically». [5]

By reclaiming a situated experience and knowledge within the institutional structures we try to address the very same structures from within the educational system and the pedagogy. In the school, working groups are being formed on the organisation of the admission and graduation processes, on how the cafeteria functions, on the questions of waste disposal, etc. They also discuss the questions of pedagogy, the definition of media, or the politics of employment and status in the school, for example. The word circulates. People and initiatives too. These actions are inscribing themselves in the structure of the law itself or of the institution regulations. It takes ages to share the knowledges, the rules and to make collective decisions… The kitchen is still in construction, some of this year's waste left the school today, some of it is diverted to a recycling room, which opened recently.

How institutional knowledges are articulated by power?, asks Alina in her invitation… Institutional knowledges in my experience depend totally on the people in power. The project on digitalisation and opening of the archives I described in my first example had disappeared, as the new director or somebody else in the institution did not take care of it, meaning literally did not take care of the server. The whole thing was abandoned to its fate… no back-ups were made, and the online archive was gone, the room was closed. Now I think that we would have better had offered the public to copy and run the archives, rather than prioritising to maintain an open archive and believing that it would be sustainable enough.

Meanwhile in the school, we do work to include the open and collective processes of decision making in the regulations of the school, to include care, and what the students name safe space in the functioning of the school. Maybe regulations are as difficult or painful to change as taking good care of a server? Frankly, I do not know but now the institution is in the process of being enacted. But do we have the sufficient capacity to withstand the frustration of legal constraints and their slowness, and to deploy the energy to continuous renewal, to try to get as close as possible to an ideal without ever reaching it? Is it worth it?

I am ending here, looking forward to sharing our different experiences.

1.André Jacques, «De la preuve, à l'histoire, les archives en France», Traverses n.36, janvier 1986, p.29.

2. See for example Kader Attia, «Ces monuments, il faut les métisser», Libération, 8/07/2020.

3. transl: Marc names things in the morning) In The Language of Sharing , 2005 , VJ9, Constant vzw.

4. Farge Arlette, Le goût de l'archive, 1989, p.147.

5. Chandra Mohanty, On Race and Voice: Challenging for Liberation Education quoted in bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 199

Carolina Rito
When Alina Belishkina, Yana Klichuk and Joana Monbaron first got ...
10 Nov
Felicity Allen
Dear Carolina, Dear Laurence and, in anticipation, Dear ...
12 Nov
curatorial forum
Symposium* discussions have been transformed into an exchange of emails between russian and foreign researchers, curators, educators and artists. In their personal correspondence, the participants reflect on questions proposed by curators of the symposium* and talk about issues that they find important at this critical time.
Power relations in cultural institutions ...
The participants of the correspondence were invited to reflect on the problems of participatory projects. These projects are conceived by artists, curators and educators with good intentions to include participants from a non-artistic environment in the cultural process.
Sharing agency ...
Carolina Rito, Laurence Rassel, Felicity Allen and Françoise Vergès have been invited to start a written correspondence on the crucial topic of power relations in cultural institutions and their consequences on processes of institutional archiving.
ГМИИ им. А.С. Пушкина и ГЦСИ в Санкт-Петербурге при поддержке «Фонда поддержки инноваций и молодежных инициатив Санкт-Петербурга» в рамках 2-го Кураторского форума © Санкт-Петербург 2020
Content Oriented Web
Make great presentations, longreads, and landing pages, as well as photo stories, blogs, lookbooks, and all other kinds of content oriented projects.
The participants of the correspondence were invited to reflect on the problems of participatory projects. These projects are conceived by artists, curators and educators with good intentions to include participants from a non-artistic environment in the cultural process. But what do these projects actually mean for the participants as well as for the initiators of the projects themselves? What forms of commitment and responsibility do they take towards the collaborators? In their correspondence, Dmitry Vilensky, Pablo Helguera, Susana Milevska and Bernadette Lynch approached these issues from different positions, but being (like all of us) in a similar situation of global political crisis, distancing, «radical domesticity» and the impossibility of participation.
Sharing agency. What's wrong with participation?
Content Oriented Web
Make great presentations, longreads, and landing pages, as well as photo stories, blogs, lookbooks, and all other kinds of content oriented projects.
Carolina Rito, Laurence Rassel, Felicity Allen and Françoise Vergès have been invited to start a written correspondence on the crucial topic of power relations in cultural institutions and their consequences on processes of institutional archiving. In their letters, the authors reflect upon the potentiality of enacted-research, the necessity of acting from within the institution, and how to include cure and care in the functioning of institutions. Proposing a False Poem, Felicity Allen asks whether gossip could be a feminist strategy, while Francoise Vergès underlines the racial dimension of cultural workers' vulnerability.
The correspondence questions the way institutions are built, by whom and for whom and how their archives are produced, and proposes a feminist pedagogy, a pedagogy from below, as an approach to rethink what is considered as «natural truths».
Power relations in cultural institutions and what cannot be found in their archives?
Content Oriented Web
Make great presentations, longreads, and landing pages, as well as photo stories, blogs, lookbooks, and all other kinds of content oriented projects.