“How might one structure an institution that is designed to problematize the idea of the institution?”

In Summer’s Artforum, Taraneh Fazeli poses this question in her reflection on the Night School, a recent hybrid collective artwork-as-pedagogical-structure conceived by Anton Vidokle and housed by the New Museum in New York City.

Night School, Jan 2008-Jan 2009, New Museum, New York

This question implicitly accepts the paradox of institutional critique, and Vidokle’s search for an answer bespeaks a series of prior attempts and “productive failures” like Manifesta 6. This biennial in Cyprus was organized around an art school structure, but was cancelled before it began. This prompted notions of experimentation and interesting failure, which became the central themes of “United Nations Plaza,” the result of Manifesta 6’s relocation to Berlin comprising a series of lectures and discussions that subverted pedagogical convention.

The Night School grew out of this project and morphed into a series of seminars and workshops over a year that involved multiple artists and cultural thinkers giving both public sessions and private workshops. The “core group” of 28 accepted applicants (of which Taraheh Fazali was one) committed themselves to a year of private sessions and meetings in addition to the public events. The series of eleven seminars were offered on three “tracks,” each on the last weekend of each month. The tracks were loosely organized around subjects like progressive cultural practices (Liam Gillick, Martha Rosler, and Boris Groys), artistic agency (Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Okwui Enwezor, Maria Lind, and Paul Chan) and self-organization in the field of cultural production (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Zhang Wei and Hu Fang, Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Raqs Media Collective).

Fazeli recalls her participation in the Night School’s core group, and ultimately believes that Night School was mix of successes and failures – success at facilitating a core group of art world insiders to achieve greater theoretical and cultural knowledge as well as the social networks that provide the armature for professional advancement – but a failure in its ability to problematize the institution in which it exists. Rather it legitimated the museum as a “center for power” and “hotbed of intellectual activity” as Martha Schwendener of the Village Voice describes – the museum easily co-opted dissent by inviting it in, and assembling art stars and individuals with high intellectual capital to participate in this series raised the New Museum’s cutting-edge profile.

I understand the “failure” that Fazeli talks about – the “public” audience of the Night School events could not experience the same level of engagement as the privileged core group and were already self-selected due to societal conventions surrounding museums. As Schwendener says, it was a “long way from Paolo Freire or…Hebert Kohl teaching kids in Harlem.” But institutions exist to perpetuate themselves, and the New Museum has an audience of art students and art world types who were exceedingly well served by this project. Both writers admit how complicated, gratifying, and ethical it was compared to a traditional pedagogical model. It is not really the purpose of the museum to teach the oppressed or to solve societal problems. The museum can, however, function as a site where these questions are raised and discussed, where education and institutions and power can be decoded and reapplied. Just because the museum benefits from such structures is no reason for them not to exist.

So the question remains – can such discussion and sustained pedagogical structures actually problematize the institutions in which they exist? If they can only do so by somehow breaking down and delegitimizing the umbrella institution, then no. The art world doesn’t work that way, not in reality. But working subtly within the paradox of institutional critique, adding to institutional reputation while simultaneously raising questions of theory and power amongst the stakeholders (the art world) can only be beneficial. One aspect does not negate the other. It is disingenuous to wish for a purity of critique, to ignore real contexts or real barriers – that constitutes shooting oneself in the foot before the project even begins (Manifesta, perhaps?). Much better to dream up an interesting structure with the best of theoretical intentions in mind, and see what transpires in all its complex and messy glory.

Read Fazeli’s entire article here.

Thanks to Tanya Yorks for her research help.