Excerpts of the panel’s transcript
on Radical Institutionalism

Chiara De Cesari is associate professor of European Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of Amsterdam and IMAGINART’s PI.

With this roundtable, we inaugurate our IMAGINART project at the University of Amsterdam. … The project [investigates] how artists and cultural producers in different parts of the world are collectively experimenting with different kinds of public institutions, particularly cultural institutions, and reimagining them. … [Arguably, these creative experiments are producing] a set of very concrete institutions and practices that might show us the way out of the [current crisis] of public institutions, a crisis of publicness and crisis of the state at large in different parts of the world. … [It aims to offer] a global survey of [intersecting] creative institutionalisms. … Our invitees [are] leaders of established cultural institutions, museums, and biennials that they are trying to change into more open, [just,] inclusive, emancipatory and transnational bodies. [They] think public space and publics otherwise. … [Borrowing Audre Lord’s words,] they are trying to dismantle the master’s house using the master tools in the sense that all our speakers inhabit [and reform] very established and sometimes traditional institutions. … We are interested in how they do that, in how they practice radical institutionalism.

Helena Nassif is Director Arabic transliteration of Culture Resource: (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy). Base: Regional offices in Beirut

Helena Nassif: [When I started,] we didn’t have an articulated theory or terminology to define the process of change [we wanted]. In the first year of becoming director, I had [guiding-like] experiential models that I [had learned] from previous jobs. … Along the way, I was learning that another organizational culture is possible and needed. [We started] developing guiding principles. [These] guiding principles were emerging as the experience was unfolding. [In the following, I outline these principles:]

The first [is] to build a work environment that every team member would want to wake up in the morning to come to … by building a safe environment that does not tolerate toxicity and noncooperative attitudes. The second [is] not to let power get to my head and I’m not talking about [simply] holding power, but also about a certain performativity linked to certain power dynamics. I was practicing a feminist ethics of care, but without really calling it as such. … The experience felt experimental [especially for what concerns] building another model of power, of practicing and sharing power [this was our third principle]. … I am in a constant conscious exercise of unlearning and pushing the boundaries of expectations of what a director should act like. … The fourth principle is linked to power, but from the angle of its abuse[:] how to be transparent on public money spending, how to make sure that we are building a culture of professionalism that is not inspired by the corporate sector, by practicing radical practices of internal reflection and assessment of the tools we use and the values we hold and we apply. The fifth principle [is] to make research and learning central to our work.

[The sixth principle is] how to be realistic and idealistic at the same time, [in other words] idealistic realism. Working within the boundaries of the limitations and constraints that exist, with the belief that each push we do, is a step towards a more inclusive future for us internally, and for our partners. The seventh and last one …. is the most important principle that was there from the start. But that is also still developing [as] we go and which is the question of workers’ rights, working conditions and wellbeing of the of the team.

[In sum,] we are not simply using the master’s tools, but restructuring [them]. [Our work builds first on the assumption] that an institution is one of the masters’ tools[;] the second assumption is that power itself can be productive. Thus, by thinking critically and always questioning the givens, we are experimenting and practicing a non-patriarchal power that is self-conscious, reflexive and aiming to change culture as it is being practiced. If we succeed [what] we are doing is towards a revolutionary and non-reformist end.

Wayne Modest is the Director of Content for the National Museum of World Cultures of the Netherlands, head of the Research Center for Material Culture, and professor of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Wayne Modest: [I want to start by sharing] my own discomfort [with] the tense relationship between the mobilization of thinkers such as Audre Lorde [and other] radical Black, feminist, queer intellectuals for the recovery or resuscitation of institutions, [given that these institutions] themselves still struggle with their bodies. We inhabit a space [that still] struggles [with] discussions about diversity and inclusion, [where] whiteness is institutionality. So one of the challenges of what radicalism might mean [is] to create an institution that acknowledges its own embeddedness in an institutionality that still struggles with that kind of person, that body. …

We sit in what are called ethnographic museums. These are European institutions, EuroAmerican institutions that have come under significant pressure recently as the masters’ house, as the colonial. [Here] colonial entailments [continue to] burst through the walls of those institutions, in the fabric of the institution itself, but also in the collections that we have and hold. One of my ways of thinking about radical institutionalism [is] that it is precisely from the master’s house that the dismantling needs to come. It is precisely with the master’s tools that we need to chop down. Small axe [undoes] the institution, because it is precisely these kinds of institutions [where] there is a potentiality, where embedded in the institution itself is both the violence of the colonial projects, and its entailment that gave birth to the institution, as well as the many possibilities for its abolition or for its provinciali[zation].

[It is important to] acknowledge that in one of the places that I come from, the Caribbean, [we] have been conscripted into a modern world that is not going anywhere soon. The centralization, and the structures and constrictions of power that inhere in these kinds of institutions, won’t disappear. …[The Caribbean] is a place that emerged out of the colonial project. [There] it is so hard to speak of a moment before [the colonial as] colonialism was that extinction catastrophe project that meant that the Tainos are now dead. … My strategy has been to suggest to invest in that moment of catastrophe which gave birth to the Caribbean. [I suggest that] another possible institutional history can be told. There’s another institution that can be imagined. … I do not want to hear anymore personally about the photographic history that started in 1839 in Paris and London. … I’d like to hear about the photographic history that started in Haiti in 1842. I want to know what that says about photo technologies, photo histories, the photographic imagination, [while being fully aware that] it has been complicit in the colonial regime.

What can I wake up to do every day so that the institution does less harm? … What might a caring and careful institution look like? … I’ve been suggesting [to] move away from the museum as a logic of preservation, as a logic of keeping, to a logic of care. My institution [thought] much more about preserving objects in perpetuity, even at the expense of the extinction of the people from which the objects came from. … [So, we] may reorganize and rethink the collections that we hold in their relationship to community. … For example, the return of objects might be much more productive for the care of a community than for the preservation of a thing itself. … When you return objects and Indigenous people leave these objects in the forest and [these objects] disappear in the life they should have lived so that the spirits can be let go, that is community care, and I’d like a radical institutionalism that is more complicit in that. In addition to something that I have learned from my colleague … Charles Esche, the possibility of degrowth, which is a planetary conversation. … But to think future planetary care is to think our [historical] complicity [during] the 19th century in planetary destruction. That is the care I’m interested in.

I want to move Helena’s notion of idealistic realism to what I think as hope. Hope is not optimism. But hope is what one has to fight for. To do that, I’m interested in what Ariella Azoulay speaks up when she speaks of companionship. I imagine this meeting as a form of creating companionship for imagining the possible futures.

Lastly… the radical institutionalism that we need to imagine [is] to rethink the publicness of the public museum. I am convinced that the public museum in Europe today still imagines its primary stakeholder in the same way that much of Europe imagines itself, as being white. That is how we understand citizenship. And everybody else is struggling with this ongoing notion of being either the diaspora, the ongoing migrant, the refugee, because Europe is still constituted in a particular understanding of itself. … A public institution that thinks the question of race, racism and its afterlives needs to be more [invested in] how we critique the notion of what publics look like.

[In Rastafari thought there is this] notion of Babylon. Babylon is not a state, but it is the state. Babylon is the police. Babylon is UNESCO. … Babylon is an imagination of authoritative governmental violence. So, Rastafari already offers us the possibility of imagining a structure of power that is beyond limited state formation … Rastafari [has] modes of undoing Babylon [and an] important one is art practice. And in almost all Rastafari, they are trying to write another history beyond the state. They’re writing a history of diaspora, a history of black liberation. So that’s one of the things that I want to suggest to you, [is] to do what Arturo Escobar describes as [the] possible ‘possible’ beyond nation state formation. My own institution [does] this possible ‘possible’, because if one were to admit the violence of the ethnographic work or whatever museum [that] is bound up with nation state formation and that formation in terms of history. … [Our] museum [experiments with] modalities of undoing Europe as the center of the world.


farid rakun trained as an architect (B.Arch from Universitas Indonesia and M.Arch from Cranbrook Academy of Art). He is a member of ruangrupa, a Jakarta-based collective established in 2000, which is currently preparing documenta fifteen (Kassel, 2022) in their capacities as the event’s first ever collective Artistic Direction.

farid rakun: It’s good to have opportunities like this. So we are forced to reflect while we are doing something [curating the upcoming Documenta fifteen as part of the artist collective ruangrupa].

[When we were invited as ruangrupa to curate documenta,] [our] immediate reaction was to invite more people to work with us, because we [didn’t] assume we [knew everything], especially [as we decided to] work [on] a planetary scale … [It was as if] we were extending conversations we [were] already having … to more people. [This is how] I like to think about it. …

Even if [institutions] question how they institute themselves, [their] ability to change is limited, because [they are built in] a system [that is not so easy to dismantle]. … We can prove something else can happen outside of the system, so we forced the system to look at that thing because otherwise [they] will become obsolete. So, we look [at] subtle strategies, such as sharing or taking power, and making initiatives or institutions that are breathable. [The institution] needs to live and breathe, let’s say, with [its] neighbors, and [learn] how to transcend or harvest this connection. This [came] from an understanding that [we needed] to start somewhere else and continue expanding, until institutions [could not] afford not to look at what we’re doing. Basically, [we are] learning from our experience.

[In our experience,] we realised that [often] we were extracted, or taken, from our main responsibility in our own localities to practice what we like to do, somewhere else. Lumbung, or in Indonesian rice farm, is used as a model [for] collectively governing resources. So documenta is part of that journey. We [have] experimented with that notion since 2016, and then we continue[d] to do it… When documenta invited us, we invited them back. [We asked them] whether they wanted to be part of this interest we are having. So, by doing something like documenta, we made sure that we were not to be extracted by invitation, because this is what we were interested in doing anyway. So, we [thought we] could use this opportunity to go somewhere else, and [turn it] into a tactic rather than an extraction. We imagine documenta as part of a journey, an important stop of it—a journey that will not end in 2022. If we manage to go beyond documenta, we can think of it as useful for the local, not only for our own local, but also for the local of others, like the Biennale in Hungary and the funding issues in Palestine. … We are [questioning how] an event-based institution [can function] for a longer term or [foster the creation of] sustainable models of practice. … It’s not any more like a parasite thing lying to the system. … But maybe it’s also time to do, I think, like when we’re doing hacking and fighting all this kind of stuff, we can do a lot. …

[We are] trying to work [in an] institutionalized and organizational way [with] a group of artists and people who cannot pinpoint back to an old concept of nation, not even a constructed one, within a Western frame. I [am] a person, [who] represents a group of people which has been robbed of their national wealth and identity and [which] are either stateless or identity-less, cultural less. Therefore, [we are] searching [and using] tools that are defined by a nation, [defined] by borders, [defined] by frames we really cannot use, because we speak from a point of non-existence when it comes to nationality.

Chiara De Cesari: [We talked] about idealistic realism, about turning cultural institutions which keep and preserve, based on possessive individualism, into institutions that care, and about this idea of the lumbung as a model for future cultural institutions that are not extractive. [I was also struck by this idea of] imagining “in spite of” and on the ground, from a position of lack of resources. [So, I question] how to imagine from a position of lack, [in] spite of that lack and [while] working with that lack, [or in other words] how to work from that sort of space of, in a way, negativity. … [M]y interest in [these ideas] started in Palestine, and in a way Lebanon is a similar case where you have a lack of resources, and yet you also have really very interesting, very creative forms of institutionalism that work through companionship and different forms of collaboration. [My other question then] would be [around] this idea of shifting from monolithic institutions to ecosystems, networks of companions. [C]rossing scales, there is a change in the forms of our institutions. I guess this is also one of the one of the ways to change and reform them.

Helena Nassif: [I like to] think the “in spite of” the extraction, but without really reaching a point where we are romanticizing the scream. I mean, in my context today [i.e., Lebanon], it feels as if it is the last breath, [we are] completely exhausted. We might, through companionship, keep on creating something from nothing. But [we also] need to acknowledge the alarm. … [Things] cannot continue as they are.