In his brief essay Introduction to the book of the same title, Norwegian critic Jonas Ekeberg has introduced the term “new institutionalism” to the curatorial discussion (1). Derived from new management debates, the term describes a range of experimental institutional practices that take their own conditions as a starting point for critical reconsideration of curatorial devices such as the art exhibition, the catalogue, the collection, and so on. This was in 2003. When the project “Early Years” opened at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin on February 27 in 2010, “new institutionalism” itself seems a historical concept. A transnational financial crisis and the subsequent budget slashings in art institutions across the globe are heralding a novel era of precarity for cultural production. How is that insecurity reflected in “Early Years” and what does that tell about experimental curating today?
(1) The show is conceived by the four Polish curators Sebastian Cichocki, Ana Janevski, Katarzyna Karwańska, and Joanna Mytkowska. The collaborative nature of the project can be said to be the first criteria for a “new institutionalist” approach.
(2) The producer of the exhibition is the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the main funding comes from the Gothe Institutioes Warsaw and Berlin. The presentation of an externally produced project in Berlin’s center for contemporary art serves as an indicator of the transnational condition of precarity of art institutions.
(3) The seventeen artists of the show, mainly of Polish origin, were invited to reflect on the foundation of the producing museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. This commission caters the phenomenon of artistic “institutional critique on demand”.
In sum, these three criteria make the exhibition a rich example for the development of experimental curatorial practice in conjunction with critical artistic strategies and the framework of an increasing yet contradictory precarization of public art institutions.
Let me give this a little more thought:
1. Curatorial Cooptation
Part of the larger framework of the project “The Promised City”, a cultural partnership between Germany, Poland and India, the notion of collaboration is inscribed in the development of the project from the very outset. Within the metropolitan horizon of this thematic umbrella, a curatorial team was assembled in order to achieve a broad perspective on the projects core issue: the foundation of a new museum in Warsaw. However, whilst the singular curatorial authority is traded for a multiplicity of standpoints, the creative hub of “Early Years” remains within the confines of the professional position of “the curators”: while funding member of the legendary Foksal gallery, former centre Pompidou curator and future director of the museum in question, Joanna Mytkowska, has a major international reputation, shooting start Sebastian Cichocki guarantees the freshness of up and coming Polish blood. Without foreclosing the possibility of deep discussion between these busy individuals, the experiment of collective curating seems rather an addition of cultural value in this case.
2. Locational Alliances
The impression of a bulldozing curatorial approach that equals the heavy construction work on Plac Defilad, where the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is currently erected, is consolidated by the actual choice of the exhibition venue: The most renowned center for contemporary art in Berlin, KW Institute for Contemporary Art. But also the time: The placement of the show immediately before the 6th Berlin Biennial opens its doors in Auguststraße. This will not be a coincidence. While the visibility of Warsaw’s new institutional heavyweight in its embryonic state might seems achievable with the selection of the acclaimed team already, the cultural coordinates of the spring season at KW will certainly multiply quantitative success.
What finally is the artists’ role in this campaign? Some of the seventeen invited positions do indeed seem to complicate the situation. Yael Bartana’s large video installation on the kibbutz movement, “Mary Koszmary” (Nightmares) (2007) comes to mind. Placed in a key position, the basement of the first floor, it is one of the first pieces the visitors are encountering. The discomfort of its cinematic display – that presents the edges of the plywood screen with the same force as the oversized seating furniture in front of the image – parallels the tense German-Polish relations that the video tackles by instigating a new Jewish settlement in Poland. On the floor above, Sharon Hayes’ slide projection “In the near future” (2008) claims centre stage. Her delicately choreographed yet fleeting images of political protest quote the resistance one might feel with the announcement of a new museum building in times of institutional closings on the same latitudes. Paulina Ołowska in the top floor completes this strand of subtle doubt with a neon sign “MUZEUM” (2008) with cheap light bulbs reminiscent of the crappy stores that once crowded the now newly developed place. Glamour and decay converge in the cultural industry complex where megamonstermuseums (Tone Hansen) rule out the possibility of site-specific programming in the name of the visitor, replaced by numbers.
These and other tactics contribute to productively question the “Early Years” as a story of mere triumph and bi-lateral agreement. Yet the very performance of these critical pieces within the parameters of the experimental as much as precarious framework of the project, they also allude to the boundaries of aesthetic criticism as such. Hence this sardonic except from the press text anticipates the conflictual constellation of the project symptomatically:
“The Museum shared its anxieties with the group, and they reciprocated with their share of expectations towards the new institution.”
If the share of curatorial authorship would have exceed other discursive positions than artistic producers, and the benefit of this enterprise for the KW and its local audience would have carved out a space for critical reflection on at least Berlin’s institutional landscape in return one could have imagined a less disquieting undertone perhaps – a possibility of disarticulating the locational narrative of institutional establishment towards, a less precarious transnational bond even.
1 Ekeberg, Jonas (ed.): New Institutionalism, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, Oslo 2003.
~ Julia Moritz
(Images: Yael Bartana, Wall and Tower, 2009, 35mm film, Film still, Photo: Magda Wunsche ; Courtesy Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw; Sharon Hayes, In the near future, 2008, slide shows ; Courtesy the artist and Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw)