Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Centre Square, Middlesbrough TS1 2AZ

Rethinking the Institution: What We Talk About When We Talk About Work
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
Review by Celine Elliott

One place asking questions of itself is Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Under Alistair Hudson (recently announced as the next director of Manchester’s Whitworth) MIMA has operated as an ‘Office of Arte Útil’; roughly translated as ‘useful art’, principally developed by Tania Brugera, it can be understood as a way of imagining art - and the gallery - as a tool or device. An appropriate venue for the launch of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Work’, a programme of public discussions across the North of the UK, bringing together curators and artists from the region along with creative practitioners from different European cities and begins with looking at the subject of ‘Rethinking the Institution’.

The event saw four invited speakers respond to this theme; Miguel Amado, Senior Curator at MIMA, Binna Choi, director of Casco in Utrecht and artists Emily Hesse and Maurice Carlin. The group represented a selection of curatorial and institutional figures as well as artists whose practice works with and against institutional structures and directly engages with local communities.

Curator Miguel Amado began the presentations by introducing MIMA’s ‘civic agenda’: an intention to reconnect art with its social function through being a ‘useful museum’ – addressing current issues in politics, economics and culture and offering a changing programme of exhibitions, events and initiatives – working with ‘many artists and many publics’.

Amado’s far-reaching presentation encompassed Marx and Engels (both of which are heavily referenced in ‘The Housing Question’, MIMA’s latest exhibition), the injustice of 99% of the world’s wealth being owned by 1% of the population and MIMA’s choice to ‘align itself’ with those who oppose the current status quo as opposed to endorsing it (arguably evidenced in the dependence on patronage and philanthropy by many large galleries).

These concepts are drawn from pre-existing schools of thought, including those of Ruskin, Kant, Gramsci as well as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s examination of ‘The Undercommons’, or underclass. All of this contributes to what Amado calls, ‘Art without art…art as a device for societal transformation - an art “other”, a counterpart to the dominant modernist aesthetic’. Through this, he recognises a ‘need to dismantle the museum as it has been established and create an alternative institution’, principally serving the so-called ‘Undercommons’, previously ignored by, and invisible to, current organisations, working in respect of ‘current urgencies’.

Another institution working towards increased engagement or co-authorship with surrounding communities is the recently renamed, Utrecht-based, Casco: Art Institute working for The Commons. Director, Binna Choi, explained that the organisation’s latest exhibition had served as a ‘testing ground’ regarding the name change (chosen in reference, again, to Harney and Moten’s work) which she felt better communicates the institution’s purpose. The exhibition also used diagrams or ‘maps’ to illustrate the importance of collaboration, or what Choi described as ‘convergence or mirroring’, between like-minded arts organisations and Casco.

Choi’s presentation, equally ambitious in its scope, focused on the impact of gentrification and the subsequent lack of established spaces for meeting. From this, there comes a need to re-think how institutions present their work, including operating with those that are hidden or marginalised within communities. Choi asserted that ‘in art institutions we cannot deal with art any longer’: exhibitions may provide one form of ‘assembly’, however, institutions must first examine which questions are most pressing, and then ‘go into the place(s) where the question directly matters’, to make ‘embedded exhibitions’. Echoing Amado’s identification of ‘current urgencies’, Choi’s presentation suggests that the art institution has the potential to shape, educate and facilitate social transformation by working with communities that are, at present, underserved or marginalised by current institutional structures. Of particular importance is the need to work within these relevant contexts as opposed to transposing them into the ‘gallery space’.

Artists Emily Hess and Maurice Carlin contributed by sharing details of their relationships with institutions and their questioning and re-modelling of existing institutional structures.

Based in Teesside, Hess has an inter-disciplinary practice which, ‘questions and aggravates social and political power dynamics through regional folk histories, collective action and the use of land and its associated materials, as a physical form of protest’. Hess’s presentation reflected on her work and relationship with MIMA, which she considers as a ‘trusted platform’ or ‘test bed’ for her own practice. As a self-identified advocate who, together with the team at MIMA, ‘co-authors’ work with the community, Hess hopes to ‘remove the border between the institution and the community outside that it serves’, concluding that working together has shown a ‘new level of trust that people seem to have really responded to’.

A question of working together as a means to disrupt and reconfigure relationships between existing institutional structures, artists and the community was further explored by Maurice Carlin, the inaugural visual artist Fellow of The Clore Leadership Programme and Founding Director of Salford’s Islington Mill. Carlin’s practice includes ‘Temporary Custodians’ - a crowd-funding style initiative to raise renovation funds for the future use of Islington Mill which provides a creative provocation for participants.

Having taken 1000 prints of the derelict fifth floor of Islington Mill, Carlin invited individuals to purchase a print and become a temporary custodian of the individual work, but, also the work as a whole. By working collectively with, a curator, a sociologist, a digital developer and Mill residents, custodians decide on ways of engagement both with the work – if the prints will be brought back together and, if so, how and where – and also with the building and its development as a future hub.

Carlin’s self-starting ethos (having established the Islington Mill Art Academy in response to tuition fees in 2007) extends to the assertion that artists shouldn’t wait for institutions to provide ‘cues’ or opportunities. Challenging current dominant modes of funding, through initiatives such as ‘temporary custodians’, could help re-position the relationship between artists and institutions.

However, the discussion on ‘rethinking’ could have benefited from more direct testimony from those it purports to serve. Without hearing from Amado and Choi’s ‘Undercommons’, there is a danger the well-intentioned message can get lost in overblown ‘artspeak’, itself becoming a discourse of privilege and elitism that is seeks to disband.

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