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Veda Popovici

Phd. Candidate, University of Arts, Bucharest

The Spectral Institution.
Framing a critical artistic strategy of the contemporary art scene in Bucharest.

Within a Western narrative of theory in contemporary art, there seems to be lingering a particular disappointment regarding institutional critique. It has become obsolete, valid only in the context of the ‘70s-‘80s system of art, it is even proclaimed dead. The dynamics at the basis of this disappointment is the all-encompassing co-optation of the critique within the system, the successful canonization1. It is curious, however, how this narrative insists in remaining Western. Reference to the particular strategies of institutional critique developed in “the rest of the world” is so poorly referenced that one might think that these strategies are identical to the “models”. The institutionalized canon of IC already covers the representative strategies. This assumption triggers a more political one: the context/institutions/form of authority in, let's say, Eastern Europe2 that the IC artists relate to are the same as in the Western world. In this paper, I will try to reveal an artistic strategy developed specifically to an East-European context that may be define as an alternative narrative for the IC. The second generation of (Western framed) IC has seen in the ‘90s and 2000s the preeminent emergence of art institutions that embrace it, institutions that base their function dynamics on the one IC as an artistic strategy is based on. This seems to be in the “natural” way of the progression dynamics of Western Art History: first comes critique, then the criticized

Isabelle Graw, "Beyond Institutional Critique", Institutional Critique and after, JRP | Ringier, Zürich, 2006, pp.137-153. Graw actually acknowledges the "cemented cast-list" that is "mindlessly reproduced and rarely modified by younger art historians". She continues by engaging in "another canon", proposing other, "neglected" artists, like Jorg Immendorf or Martin Kippenberger pp. 143-144.

The specific project I am referring to is the SoCCAS’ symposia “Institutional Critique and after”, 2005, with the

affiliated publication of the same title.


entity accepts the alternative engulfs it and progress is made. The ‘90s also mean the installation of the post-Wall period for both former Cold War blocks, the so-called transitional period. For Eastern Europe, in terms of art system and art institutions, this period is one of building temporary institutional frameworks that would enable the promotion of ante-89 art and the continuity of the same art. These frameworks include: the Soros network for supporting contemporary art, the erection of new contemporary art museums and centers commissioned by the new, democratic State, the expansion of the Ludwig franchise, the East-European development of huge contemporary art collections owned by banks, etc. However, the consistent trait of this new era is not the multiplication of institutions, but on the contrary, the loss of frameworks, of authoritative structures altogether. Not only museums, universities, culture centers of the old system loss their status, but the whole authority apparatus was suspended, converging into a void of authority. The Dead Dictator For the particular Romanian case, the very real loss of institutions and institutional authority was doubled by a profound disbelief in state governamentality all together marked by the December 1989 Revolution. At this time, the Romanian dictator couple Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were caught by the revolutionary factions, briefly trialed and sentenced to the death penalty. The execution was performed immediately. After a couple of days, the trial and the execution were broadcasted by the now Free Romanian Television, co-opting the population to the impressive event. The literal collapse of the Great Leader, reduced to two harmless dead old people, meant the collapse of an entire symbolic oppressive power. I would claim that this event constituted a foundational act, a key element in developing post-communist collective identities. For this paper, I would like to emphasize the contested authority dimension. Is the Killed Dictator a trope of contesting authority? The spectralization of institutions, the transformation of authority in contemporary Romanian society may root in this foundational act. The void of authority and of systemic institutions together with what I would call this foundational act consist the premises for building the new, transitional authority. The legitimacy of the new power has proven to be difficult to obtain, resulting soon enough in a crisis of legitimacy and authority. The disbelief in political representativity of the authority has generalized into a collective mentality. Political (and not only) institutions constantly emerge but face a condition of precariousness, inefficiency and popular disbelief. Suzana Milevska identifies in this generalized East-European crisis the premise for constituting an expanded strategy of institutional critique3. She draws attention upon “other possible directions in transitional institutional critique in the context of the countries of South-East Europe”, of a more broader spectrum including: “-a singular position of an artist, art critic or cultural produce; - a position of a self-organised community of art and culture producers; - a neo-liberal governmental position; 3

Suzana Milevska, “Internalisation of the Discourse of Institutional Critique and its Unhappy Consciousness” published on:, in 2007.


a conservative (nationalist) critique, or - a non-governmental – democratic civic society organisation”. It is not a surprise that, given this context, on the Romanian art scene frequently appear artist-run spaces, improvised exhibition venues, temporary platforms. By the end of the ‘90s and emerging especially in the 2000s, the self-organizational character of the art scene becomes dominant. Institutions of art (related to the State) emerge also, but are largely viewed as unsatisfactory. This compensatory surviving strategy meets a critical turn with what I would call the artistic practice of the spectral institution: the mimicry of an authentic institution by name, practice, functions. This strategy includes the constitution of museums, archives but also of institutions (apparently) outside of the art system. Basically, it is a strategy that creates the Institution as a work of art, undermining both fields of authority. The Spectral Institution At the beginning of the ‘90s, two most visible projects appear that already would respond to the void of authority and the lack of institutionality in the art system: the Contemporary Art Archive by Lia Perjovschi and the three-fold project of subREAL: Serving Art, 5 suitcases and the Art History Archive. The CAA is the project of a comprehensive archive of international contemporary art built to compensate the lack of information during the oppressive regimes. It is a teaching institution that has, through time, sought physical premises, only to fail and remain in a spectral, fragile state. The subREAL project is a collection of about 2,000 b/w negatives coming from the archive of Arta - a Romanian magazine who controlled the public image of the local art world between 1953 and 1989. The negatives, meant to provide reproductive material for printing, were produced in an approximate working context and relied completely on the final cropping in order to adjust the framing and concentrate on the art reproduction aspect of the content. The group exposes precisely the unedited negatives which include the context of their apparition. By this process art becomes just a centered detail, dominated by an aura of events, objects, people, all speaking about the flux of history perceived as a flux of data. The undeniable authority of Arta magazine, the main tool in building the Art History is hijacked by its own, undressed archive. The spectral institution, a strategy not yet visible in these two projects of institutional critique, becomes however much more visible in recent years. Projects like the Bureau of Melodramatic Research, the Presidential Candidate, the Blind Museum and the chameleonic ParadiseGarage are just some of the examples mentioned. I will briefly describe them in what follows. The Bureau of Melodramatic Research4 is a dependent institution founded in 2009 by Irina Gheorghe and Alina Popa. Its main strategic goal is to raise the veil laid over melodrama in different social contexts and ensure public free access to the results of the research. BMR is a non-profit making organization with the general aim of cooperation with institutions in order to

The text is part of the statement conceived by the BMR in 2009, available on their site,


reveal the circuit of the sentimental capital which determines social, political and ultimately economic relations. The Presidential Candidacy5 is a real, authentic political campaign but with a performative attitude. How to get out of the art frames? How to step into a different, in between, artistic practice that juxtaposes art and activism, critical to both of these activities? The political arena is the vital one, and it is the most manipulative spectacle, the most dangerous. Constant awareness of the performing ingredients of a campaign rally, examining the set-up (la mise en scene), using the same tools. The politicians have improved their performing skills; we have to improve our political practice, to parasitize the system by emulating and exposing it in the same time. The Presidential Candidacy focuses on the exposure of ideology by proposing an analysis of the power of the spectacle and the spectacle of power. The Blind Museum is an institution developed as a critical reaction to the lack of coherent, systematic historisation of recent Romanian art. Instead of proposing a narrative, the Blind Museum hosts no works, gives out no information, builds no biographies. The various possibilities of negation are explored in continously self-destructive process. Identity fails to develop. Kunsthalle Batistei or ParadiseGarage is a platform of production and promotion for the alternative cotemporary art scene in Bucharest. The artist-run-space located in a garage was develop as a response to the growing need of the community to meet and produce art. The KB has remained financially independent which lead to the loss of the physical space in August 2010. Its spectrality, one of an continuous institutional mimicry was reinforced by the actual spectralisation of the space. Thus, as a former althernative institution itraises the important issue of the sustenability of the independent, althernative art scene. These four projects are relevant by their own but are also part of a larger direction in the art scene comprising other projects which contribute to the continous building of the Spectral Institution. A red thread of undermining authority, simulating the power of an institution runs through these examples. Between the collective disbelief in the authority of institutions, the authority of the State, its governmentality capabilities and the desire of institutionalization lays this particular mimicry strategy. Institutional critique seems to have expanded in the Romanian context in the sense described my Milevska, however it is undermined by collective disappointment in the transitional governments which ultimately leads to the lack of political agency. Individuals, dominated by a collective disappointment, retire from the potential of becoming critical-political agents. In the art context, this disbelief in authority dialectically relates to the obvious need for systematic historicisation and institutional frameworks. These frameworks would enable the much needed dialogical relation between the canon and a (socalled) avant-garde.


The text was generated by the Candidate, available at:


The dystopia of context In the context of the post-89 process of historisation of art in Romania, a visible history of recent art (starting from the 60s) is still missing, consequently a canon towards one would relate to (either positively or negatively) also is missing. These same frameworks would also enable the institutionalization (or a canonization) of contemporary models and the some-what inclusion of the art social group into the bigger picture of society. Contemporary artists within the Romanian scene, consequently, have an in-between identity status regarding both history and contemporaneity. The SI is a conscious strategy to detach oneself from and question this particular status. It proclaims the possibility of disappearance of art and the conquest of bureaucracy and institutionality. Artists are permanently engaged in building the frameworks for producing art and never actually producing it. This dystopia is palpable in the Spectral Institution project, comprised of an Institutional Congress and a Fair of Institutions 6. Art is evacuated from its potential premises and a virtually perpetual creation of context is enabled. This vision moves from a reflection upon the inescapability of institutional determination, to its possible continuous reality. What is Spectrality? The spectrality is both a chance and a menace. It is the chance of the spectrality of every institution, its not-normalized character. This potential is the potential of an institution to be at anytime deconstructed, rebuild, redefined, destroyed. It is viewed still as just an artifice, a human construct, it is not yet nature. This is the chance of the critique and the menace of perpetualized authority. On the other hand, spectrality is the precarious character of this framework building. The “house” of the art system is built to be demolished. It is the spectralization of institutions, where the institutions are understood as being to some extent necessary to the mechanisms of the art system. As an artistic strategy, the spectral status places the built institution in an in-between space, between the living and the dead. Not yet irrelevant, but still lingering and not becoming fleshed, this partial institution is the desire of an institution but in the same time the refusal of it. NSK & co. Self-historicisation and overidentification. Self-historicisation is a strategy associated by Nataša Petrešin with the particular absence of systematized, institutional historisation in the East-European context 7. She focuses on

The Spectral Institution project consists in an Institutional Congress held at the UNAgaleria, in Bucharest on the 3 rd and 4th of June 2011, and a Fair of Institutions held at the Contemporary Art Gallery of the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu, Romania, opening on the 17 th of June. The project started with the invitation by the Blind Museum (Veda Popovici) to other (now) participating institutions: ParadiseGarage and Kunsthalle Batistei (Claudiu Cobilanschi), PARApolice (Arnold Schlachter), the Bureau of Melodramatic Research (Irina Gheorghe and Alina Popa), the Department for Art in Public Space (Raluca Voinea), the Presidential Candidacy, MAMA – the Museum of Modest Art of Apartment (Luiza Alecsandru), and CAA-Contemporary Art Archive (Lia Perjovschi).

Nataša Petrešin, "Self-historicisation as an Artistic Strategy: Neue Slowenische Kunst, Dragan Živadinov, and East


a particular consequence of this condition: artists engaging in the creation of alternative histories. These are actually genealogies because the subject consciously inserts himself in them: "The artists act as archivists of those of their own and other artists' projects that were usually marginalized by local politics, and made invisible in the international context" 8. The strategy, part of the East European art since the 60s results in important achievements in the field of selfdefinition. Self-historicisation, the conscious insertion of oneself in a the continuous of history, enables artists to resist the threat of being evacuated because ideological interests. For the ante89 period thi seems like an effective strategy to trick symbolic pressure. After 1990, it redefines itself as a strategy of resistance and active critique of the colonizing force of grand Western Art narratives. Building forgotten, overlooked or subjugated histories9 is a continous reworking of the great authority of History. Another strategy, tied to the self-historicisation and developed by the same NSKLaibach-Irwin constellation is the power-appearance approriation strategy. It was employed by the Laibach group and is termed as subversive affirmation by Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse 10, following the concept of overidentification as proposed by Slavoj Žižek. It consists of the total appropriation of the power discourse and practiced as a constant repetition of attitudes, discourses, esthetics of the ideology in power: “He, who has material power, has spiritual power, and all art is subject to political manipulation, except that which speaks the language of this same manipulation.”– Laibach, 198211. The strategies developed by Laibach neighbor the SI especially by the inner mechanisms of the appropriation strategy 12. This simulacra character is the core logic of this strategy. Spectral Institutions copy the names, the logic, and the functions of proper institutions. The mimicry is basically never revealed and the doubt of authenticity lingers. However, there always is a minimal difference, visible for some, inexistent for others. It is precisely this difference that opens the possibility of criticality. This strategy seemed to be tailored for the oppressive, ideological context of ante-89 regimes. Can this strategy be engaged effectively within the transitional, late (or wild) capitalist condition of the so-called post-communism? The power of mimicry
Art Map by Irwin", in Menas ir Politika: Rytu Europos Atvejai = Art and Politics: Case-Studies from Eastern Europe, ed. Linara Dovydaityte, Vytuato Didziojo Universiteto Leidykla, Kaunas, 2007, pp. 96-101. 8 Ibid., p.96.

Petrešin takes the examples of the NSK, and the Retroavangarde project of Irwin as being especially representative for this strategy, p.101. 10 Inke Arns/Sylvia Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance” in East Art Map, Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN, Afterall, London, 2006, pp. 444-456.

Djuric, D. and M. Suvakovic (eds.), Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991. Cambridge: MIT University Press, 2003, p. 574. 12 A project developed by the NSK, following the appropriation strategy and that would even more obviously fall in the category of the Spectral Instituion is the NSKstate,


Marina Grz inic, in an analysis of this appropriation/overidentification13 strategy asserts z that not only is the strategy able to function in the post-89 condition but it is the most effective within the logic of today's Western capitalist, neo-liberal type of society. The performative politics of the copy is at work in the »Retro-Avant-garde« principle and central to the work of Belgrade Malevich, Laibach, IRWIN, NSK and Tanja Ostojić, among others. The original is devalued completely; instead of it the copy takes up the leading role. “The original is installed as a paradigmatic case of art value, the most complete form of commodity in the space of capitalism. The original is an essential civilizational norm and of vital value both to the capitalist art market and the contemporary institution of art. The copy can instead be seen as an evil positioned in relation to the original. The copy introduces an order of senselessness and uselessness. The despotism of the copy that I am developing here asks for a much more radical positioning: not simply the right to make copies but a favoring of the rights that appertain to the copy itself. An imperative of the copy is to recognize its proper radical presence within the field of contemporary art”14. The former dynamics between the Same and the Other is turned around: the original looses its dominant position and becomes the subaltern. The copy has the position of a surplus of knowledge, it is the original+. The “+” is that minimal difference that destabilizes the authority of the original, or authority as such: “The copy contains the idea of the original and also contains its own, proper concept”15. This same logic of the copy is enabled by Homi K. Bhabba in his concept of colonial mimicry16. Colonial mimicry consists in a copying of the Colonial by the Colonized. Through this re-subjectivisation, the colonized represents himself as the subject of the difference: he is the same-but-not-quite. The mimicry becomes the strategy by which the sign of the unfit is employed, the sign of the menace that threatens the dominant function of the colonial power. This particular sign of the minimal difference thus becomes the starting point of delegitimizing authority. It raises doubt in established, normative knowledge and in submission towards disciplinary powers. The structural ambivalence of mimicry (the same-but-not-quite) not just breaks colonial discourse but builds an insecurity that gazes at the colonial subject as a partial, incomplete presence. As an artistic practice, the institutional simulacra resulting in the Spectral Institution cultivates not just doubt in front of authority but proposes a critical platform for the re-definition, the deconstruction and reconstruction of authority. It is a reworking of the State-subject relation,

Marina Grzinic, “Performative politics of the copy in former-Yugoslav space and neoliberal capitalist democracy”, in Re-politicizing art, theory, representation and new media technology, schriften der akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, Vol. 6, schlebrügge.editor, Vienna, 2008., pp. 200-206. In what follows in the section I will largely draw upon the logic of the copy as developed by her. 14 Ibid., p.204. 15 Idem. 16 Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and men (the ambivalence of colonial discourse)”, October, 28, 1984, the text is extended in chapter 4 of The Location of Culture, Routledge, New York, 1994, pp.121-132.


a proposition towards a critical reconfiguring of citizenship. This chance of criticality is however in conflict with the vision of the dystopia. The Spectral Institution can be an institution that previously owned physicality or it can be an institution that will gain soon its physicality. The Spectral Institution opens up the possibility of effacing the minimal difference, the “+” that is the sign of the critical subjectivity. The temporality of the “soon” is the proximity of the generalizedinstitution dystopia where the simulated complicity is turned into the opposite of critical thinking, the cynical mind, the double-thought. Back to IC The core mechanism at work in institutional critique is a dichotomic relation of the artist and art institution. As formulated by Andrea Fraser, in IC, “art and artist generally figure as antagonistically opposed to an <institution> that incorporates, co-opts, commodifies, and otherwise misappropriates once-radical - and uninstitutionalized – practices” 17. This logic of opposites is viewed by critics of IC together with the fixation on the art apparatus the main reasons of its commodification or failure. The conflictual logic is considered by Fraser “a strategy that beyond its debatable efficiency is an escape of responsibilities” 18. The relation becomes a ping-pong movement, where the artist and the institution take turns in playing the love-hate game. The artist plays in being critical meanwhile the institution gracefully pays him to deliver its self-reflexivity. Once this step of staged self-reflexivity is accomplished, both the institution and the artist have earned a critical capital. The heavier this capital becomes, the bigger the price on the art at stake. This particular production of art claims itself from IC and/because “the more seemingly self-evident critical functions that can be attached to a work of art, the better its promotional value”19. It has become to some extent obvious that IC is not only a reconsideration of the essential features of Modernism as the "impulse to criticize itself from within, to question its institutionalization"20, but it draws upon Modernism’s failure too: the final cooptation in the system. This failure can be also attached to late capitalism’s logic of total incorporation of critique. This eminently contemporary condition has come to be known as the “no-outside situation”. But to what extent can we employ the validity of this narrative? It legitimizes Modernism’s failure and installs a dystopian vision as a reality. Slavoj Žižek, a promoter of this narrative, refers to the strategy of overidentification developed by artists in the former Eastern block as a possible solution.

Andrea Fraser, “From the critique of institutions to the institution of critique”, Institutional Critique. An anthology of artists’ writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2009, p.411. 18 Ibid., Fraser continues: “We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship-above all, self-censorship- which are driven by out\r own interests in the field and the benefits that we derive from it”., p.416. 19 Isabelle Graw, "Beyond Institutional Critique", ibid., p.141. 20 Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, "Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art", Artforum (Spetember 1982), 48., 1982


A new subjectivity Following the arguments that position overidentification as a possible solution to the “no outside situation”, I argue that the Spectral Institution represents a possible alternative to this narrative. Emerged out of specific needs of the local art community, the SI represents a strategybecome-practice that inserts itself into the dynamics of the East-European transitional condition. When total appropriation of critique is answered with an appropriation of institution, the “no outside” narrative becomes irrelevant. Suspending this no-way-out narrative, expanding the possibilities of institutional critique, the SI can be linked with what Reneé Green meant by his own practice of expanding IC, "locating other subjectivities" as he asserts 21. He also identifies a "massive project of excavation, articulation and imagination of subjugated histories" at work simultaneously with and even before IC. The SI can be viewed as an alternative history in the framework of what is the institutionalized IC. Its genealogy, the strategies of overidentification, self-historicisation and alternative archives, draw upon a counter-history of Western Art History and continue a strategy of resistance. In its own framework, the SI directly reacts to the both the symptomatic disbelief in authority in so-called post-communist states and to the precariousness of the production frameworks on the Romanian art scene. The practice of the SI enables continous development into new simulacra-institutions to reinforce resistance and critique on a social level. This social level reverberates in a possibly new type of subjectivity, one that reconfigures the subject/State relation or the instance of citizenship.


Reneé Green, "Beyond", pp. 159-170, p.168: "What interests me are the attempts of artists worlwide who have creatively wrestled with situations beyond their control and found ways, as Arthur Jafa puts it, of <navigating gracefully>, even when there is no sign of any improvement on the horizon. (...) I'm also thinking of instances when institutions themselves are in decay or flux, so that there si no single, recognizable target to critique.". p. 168, note 5.