Caveat is a collective research project initiated by Jubilee, reflecting and acting on the ecology of artistic practice. Emptor continues along the methodology and efforts of Caveat. It actively applies the practice-based approach to 'property', a concept that highly defines the economy of visual arts.

Report of Assembly of Practice #3: Whose institution?

What better way to start our reflection on ownership at the level of the art institution than with a collective reading of Andrea Fraser’s ‘To an institution of critique’. During Reading Room #24, we read:

It is not a question of being against the institution. We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalise, what forms of practice we reward, and what kind of rewards we aspire to.

Ownership of the art institution reformulated into a collective responsibility. The text is not new. Among other things, it was also used as inspiration in Kunstenpunt’s 2020 ‘The fantastic institution’ trajectory. We are clearly broaching an old sore, a topic, which after many discussions we have not finished with, a yard, where many have gone before us. Discussions range from a possible ‘outside of the institution’ over unmistakable hierarchies to tactics to stagger (and thus transform) the arts institution through consistent action. Emptor’s partner art institutions are absent.

ruangrupa’s approach as curators of documenta 15 (or: ‘Lumbung 1’) comes up remarkably often, not coincidentally. Consequently, their texts for the catalogue of documenta 15 provide material for another collective reading: Reading Room #25: Lumbung. Concepts like lumbung, majelis, majelis akbar, nongkrong take on meaning and give an insight into the process ruangrupa went through in Kassel. We are delighted that Danielle from Kunsthal joins us and brings the critical eye of institution to our discussions: “Maybe the tide is turning, and the next documenta is curated by a gallery or an institution?”

These reflections clearly call for a more in-depth discussion at the local level. On 2 December, we gather at Kunsthal Gent for a day of reflection and discussion on ownership relationships in the context of the art institution. We open the day with the reflection that speaking about ‘instituting’ instead of ‘institute’ would already change a lot. It shifts emphasis from established practice to action, continuous searching, balancing and making.

A process that Danielle Van Zuijlen clearly endorses from the workings of Kunsthal. She lets us take a seat inside the work Syllabus by Irish artist Jesse Jones: a monumental curtain with the arm of Silvia Federici that creates space for (activist) gatherings. She introduces us to Kunsthal’s early history and outlines its current dynamics.

Kunsthal is an open house. It is unclear how many keys circulate that give access to the building. Boundaries between development, exhibition and production are increasingly intertwined. Construction is ongoing. And yet things seem to be falling into some kind of fold. From Danielle’s account becomes clear that there is a team at work that pays particular attention to the ecology of the arts, creates space to connect with the environment (cfr. reading groups ‘Syllabus’ with precarious and minority groups, or lending the former monastery chapel to young makers or to exhibitions of artists’ (including amateur artists) works at an annual summer salon), and is open to new ideas.

The question of the relationship between artists and institutions is easily answered on the basis of a collaboration with Twee-eiige Drieling (TWIIID) on a ‘foster care’ agreement for artworks, which are part of The Endless Exhibition. Critical voices are raised here and there. Also regarding the integration of artists into the operation: “If Kunsthal is a commons, what voice do artists and environment have in e.g. writing a new plan for the next five years?” Open to new ideas, Danielle brings along thoughts and suggestions (including for further testing and rethinking the Foster care agreement) for the future and makes us understand that not everything is in her hands and making choices as an institution sometimes means going with the flow.

We move to the cinema, a self-built space at the back of the Kunsthal, where we talk to Grace Ndiritu and Hanne Cottyn. Grace plunged into the history of the Caermersklooster (or Convent of the Discalced Carmelites) during the COVID period. She was prompted by a message from the province of East Flanders and Woning Gent that they would put their part of the monastery up for sale on the private market.

As part of Kunsthal’s development programme, Grace had the opportunity to examine this issue more closely, inspired by recent collaborations in South America on land right struggles and looking to deepen the issues at the local level. In a public programme Ghent: how to live together? - a season of truth and reconciliation she brought together different stakeholders and gave them a voice in the controversy surrounding the monastery, its history and possible future. Meditation, collaboration with historians, an archive set-up, a film evening, and a reading room brought together a diverse amalgam of voices. Hanne Cottyn makes it clear that this case is exemplary and points out on the basis of her research that in the fundamental questioning of land rights, artistic projects can play an important role in terms of awareness and emancipation.

Discussions raise the question of how an art institution can participate in agitating such issues. How can Kunsthal take on the role of powerhouse that it aspires to? For Danielle, it is clear that supporting this kind of project is one way of taking up this role. It is not the institution that acts, but rather it facilitates, bringing dynamics into a longer-term project. Frustrations arise over in-depth archival research, which eventually ends up in boxes with the artist. What goes around comes around! Disbalance in input and compensation rears its head. A persistent issue to solve for a ‘powerhouse’.

The key to establishing generative collaborations keeps getting lost under the dust of established ideas about ‘the institution’, which benefits from the artist’s work. It seems like a mirror for the monastery’s situation. Many a former resident came to testify about how they contribute(d) to the neighbourhood, young activists keep up the resistance…but the energy is dwindling. We hope that the powerhouse finds a way to continue working in an emancipatory manner to create dialogue in this impasse.

We move again. Through the long corridor – disputed territory officially owned by the province of Ghent – we make our way to the office for lunch. Setting the table, distributing the food, clearing away...everything seems to magically and very naturally flow in a collective dynamic in Kunsthal. Hierarchies are way off in this house. Everyone does the dishes!

We are ready for Jester. For the occasion, we take a seat in Martin Belou’s work, Remuer Ciel et Terre. A whole that functions as a blueprint for a village – for a gathering. Ideal for a conversation about Jester, which recently settled on the site of C-mine in Genk and is building a new home there, literally and figuratively. Orlando Maaike Gouwenberg opens the conversation with an improvisation exercise. After all, principles of improvisation form the backbone of the new organisation. How exactly these translate in practice to cooperation and internal functioning remains unclear. It seems that improvisation is becoming daily practice within Jester. Orlando is trying to establish a new dynamic in the organisation, a recent merger of FLACC and CIAP. The long-running collaboration with Max Royakkers & Ciel Grommen, Le paysage ménage, which looks at its connection to the site and its history, marks the organisation’s genuine concern about its place, which it will occupy in the future, and clearly puts art as practice, and longer collaborations at the centre.

Ambitions for the future are outlined, merging the functions of working and presentation spaces, forging ideas around an ‘open house’ and continued relationships with art lovers from the region through outings and tours. In our discussion, the question arises about the name ‘Jester’, which was recently chosen, explicitly referring to the notion of a court, and we return to our conversations of the morning:

How to function critically as an art institution?

How to act in a context where the gentrifying function of art potentially takes over?

Again, an answer appears to formulate itself on the basis of facilitating critical work (cfr. Paysage ménagé, among others). How the questioning and critical notes articulated in this kind of work are consistently translated into internal workings and collaborations remains an open question. Orlando adds that ‘never say no’ is one of the key principles in improvisation and that the principles should allow for vulnerability, even as an institution.

Yet it seems that shuffling between established frameworks and questioning them remains a subject for the symbolic, metaphorical space of the arts. After all, the jester works for the court?

We conclude our conversation by looking back at Vijai Patchineelam’s work at the Jan Van Eyck academy in Maastricht. Indeed, during his studies, he managed to leave this symbolic space. He transformed his studio into a kitchen for fellow students and thus succeeded in bringing the internal functioning of the academy to concrete change. Vijai continued his research into the functioning and potential role of artists in an art institution in recent years. His artistic PhD research at the Academy of Antwerp The Artist Job Description: A Practice Led Artistic Research for the Employment of the Artist, as Artist, Inside the Art Institution is a search for strategies to bring new ways of thinking and working inside an art institution as an artist-employee, recalling our reflections around Artist Placement Group with Caveat at Argos in 2019.

The guests for the public moment arrive and we continue our conversation with Vijai. Together with co-authors Adrijana Gvozdenović and Pia Louwerens, he presents the book, which was published in collaboration with a.pass on the occasion of his PhD. Together, they read pieces from Descriptions Change, an exchange by Vijai with co-authors as part of a research seminar, a search for alternative ways of collaborating with an arts institution as an artist. What possibilities are there for moving away from exhibition and production of work and using the space for artists in institutions differently? How can artists thus share responsibility for an institution and address social issues?

Each of the authors testifies about attempts to embed themselves in the day-to-day functioning of art institutions. Adrijana Gvozdenović takes us through ‘Towards Otherwise Exhibiting’, an attempt to create places for learning together as ‘artists, consultancy, and exhibitions’. Acknowledging shared fears and precarity form the backbone of her text. Pia Louwerens testifies about her employment in a Dutch arts institution. An attempt to develop an artistic practice without being visible as such by going against expectations of how an artist should behave. She brings us again to Andrea Fraser. ‘I accommodate the institution.’ ... ‘How to be undigestible?’ seems to be the key question. To bring change as an artist in an art institution you have to be swallowed up by it, there is no ‘outside’, but at the same time remain impossible to digestible.

It’s time for soup and chats. We gather around the long table in Kunsthal’s corridor and continue the conversation that leads us past ideas about ‘opacity’, ‘paranoia’ and here and there plans for future collaborations emerge.

We close the evening with a screening. Maïder Fortuné joins us for the occasion. Her film The Stranger of Collegno was selected for this evening by Orlando from Jester. A poetic reflection on the mystery of ‘identity’ and the conflict between faith and scientific knowledge reflects our discussions of the day. Who is the man with the damaged memory? Why is it important to know who he is? How do we find out? It shines a new light on Jester’s seemingly superficial, not-knowing discourse earlier in the day and the opaque attitude of Pia, Vijai and Adriana in their attempts to collaborate differently with institutions.

Not coincidentally, the film ends with the suggestion that the man may not be the missing professor, nor the wanted fraudster but ‘a third’. We read it as an invitation to ‘instituting’, shut down the Kunsthal for the day and go together to see the exhibition Radiator at 019. An invitation to reflect on how the institution can spread ‘warmth’ to its surroundings.

At freezing temperatures, in the middle of a natural gas crisis, in a shed without a roof filled with home-made heating appliances, ovens and stoves, we get the feeling that perhaps something is quietly changing after all in the way institutions appropriate their operations.