Somehow a week has gone by. not sure how that happened. We’ve both been somewhat tired and listless i suppose. Anyway, we begin week 5 with a summing up and some discussion.
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What is an institution? This is the question to which we keep returning.
We started by articulating the institution through an escape narrative. We wanted stage the scene of a break-out from the confines of the institution’s precinct and thereby to evoke its larger structure. Our sculpture depicted the interior spaces that the escapee passes through in their passage from captivity deep within the institution, through the circuitous corridors of its architecture, and out the front doors into freedom. But what kind of ethos does such a sculpture express?
At its most optimistic, the piece assumes a slightly mocking tone towards the trope of freedom, and its impossibility with regard to social structures. Seen as the product of a more cynical position, it expresses a genuine desire for freedom from human collective endeavor which can only stem from a disparaging view of its institutions. Neither of these reads is helped by the proposed rendering of the piece, which left the outside of the architectural path that is traced a uniform white, while the interiors were to be finished to a doll-house level. The problem with this is not that it lodges the piece within the logic of representation, whose operation of deferment of the purely experiential we are happy to exploit like many an artist before us. The problem was that the power dynamic inherent to the scopophilia of the miniature was incommensurate with the questioning we wanted to subject the institution to. To create a perfectly controlled world modeled on the institutional space of society was to enact a false reclamation of that space, a sort of pyrrhic victory. So, having set up the promise of the institution in miniature by making the shapes of its walls and floors, wouldn’t it be more fitting to leave the power relation this promise contained unconsummated, to leave the materials raw and unfinished?
Our first step away from the initial concept was to rethink how we were going to treat the exterior: while initially the outside of the escape route was to be an immaculately constructed, smooth white finish. This was to be suggestive of minimalist geometric abstraction, and referred to a moment in art history when such a language was being developed. This was to tie a certain impulse towards completion (of both a historic trajectory as expressed in the cultural project of Art, but also of that culture’s stance towards the object) to the futile desire for freedom. We realised, however, that in so neatly stitching up our piece, in creating such a balanced arrangement of rationales, we were effecting a continuance of the very impulse we were purporting to dismantle. The outside of the architecture, and the support system used to float it in the gallery space (since upper levels are not supported on those floors below them which are not rendered in the sculpture, since they don’t form part of the route) had to be reconsidered.
In fact, in our discussions at this time, it became clear to us that we both considered it a problem in our practice more generally that we tend to over-resolution. Perhaps it comes in part from our process – because we live apart, we must do a fair ammount of pre-planning when it comes to making our work. This encourages a tendency to try and work out all the details of a production before we’ve begun to work with material. Also, each succesive project involves the use of different materials and processes, so that we don’t make decisions based on emergent concerns, but rather we are forced to treat the element of the emergent as problematic to our pre-conceived plan of production. But the emergent is the mode in which a work’s life asserts itself. It should be engaged with, not suppressed. So, with regard to the instituition piece, we considered how we might disrupt this over-resolution, which was definitely at odds with the way the piece was growing. But then, just how was the piece the growing, and what did we want the gesture of making it to mean?
What is an institution? Perhaps our original idea was not tenable. There was a certain disengenuiness towards our subject, and a tightness of resolution which belied the complexities of the relationship we were trying to represent. The plan to which we were working began to unravel at this point. What are institutions, and how do we fit within them? If our piece was about the relationship we all have to the institutions in which and through which we live, what treatment of the outside and what rendering of the inside would best realise this relationship?
Having built a rough armature of the architectural spaces at 1:24 scale, and having decided that the outside of the piece, including the support system, would need to encapsulate a level of irresolution, we decided to stack found objects to hold up the piece. Certain institutional furnishings and paraphenalia would help to evoke the sort of spaces we were dealing with, but were also resorting again to a literal logic that tended towards the comfort of solid resolution. Perhaps a more careful but abstract approach is required. A certain level of hermeticism might even be helpful in evoking a sense that there is no knowing what is on the supposed outside of a constructed interiority when it comes to social structures like institutions. So. What, then, exactly, is an institution?
The important features of institutions that we immediately identified were: institutions are emergent from human social activity; they are as much enabling as constraining to human agency; in fact, institutions propose models of proscribed individual agency. This last point is especially important, because it describes specifically the way that institutions are enabling: they establish systems within which certain modes of action become possible. Partly this is through a process of authorisation, but one which is not in itself legalistic. In fact, Deleuze makes an interesting note regarding the relation between institutions and laws, proposing that tyranny is a kind of regime with few institutions, and democracy a kind of regime with many institutions. Oppression, he says, is apparent when laws are brought to bear directly on individuals rather than on the institutions which they constitute. Institutions, then, define realms of possibility. Seen in this light, our piece was beginning to look like it addressed life more generally, that it functioned like an image of a life lived within the structures of society. This impression was reinforced by Frances Stark when she and Stuart Bailey visited our studio.
But it is important in all this that we are not using the institution as a metaphor or an emblem for human life. And if it can’t stand in for human life, why does the life our piece represents move only within the confines of institutional walls? What about the moments of life outside of institutional complexes? Surely we don’t mean to suggest the grim view that all humans are institutionalised creatures because they are dependant on social structures.
Perhaps what the piece suggests is that the categories we use to think of human life – the individual, the agent of a subjectivity, etc – are a form of institution. So maybe in letting the piece speak for itself, take on a life of its own, we have allowed it to answer our question, or at least to propose a possible answer. And although I wouldn’t want to stretch the term ‘institution’ to breaking point by suggesting it simply means the same thing as ‘structure’ or ‘system’, this definition certain resonates with the sense that what can be conciously grasped of a life lived, the segment of existence that be brought to bear upon itself, is itself the result of precisely the kind of enabling that institutions effect. Our piece then, doesn’t represent a life lived so much as the journey of a conciousness, made possible by the institutions we uphold on each others’ behalves.
In speculating about institutions and how they work, it occured to us that we are in some way creating a monument. The idealisation this involves maybe has to do with the ethos our piece is beginning to express: a hopeful commitment to those institutions to which we belong, and acknowledgment of their importance, and an embrace of the possiblities they afford.
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This weekend we went away. Duncan’s wife Joey, fresh from a work trip to New York, joined us, as did two friends from the residency and the Banff Centre. We drove to Duncan’s parents’ condo in Radium and spent a couple nights recovering from the exhaustion we’d built up, and taking a break from working at the coal face of our practice. We are essentially reinventing the whole endeavor, and it is not always easy work. But much refreshed, we came back for the last two weeks of the residency. Within an hour of our return we had our first meeting, this time with Jonathan Watkins, director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. The visit went very well, probably because Jonathan is a very encouraging and affable chap.