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by Cornelia Sollfrank

Commoning the Institution – or How to Create an Alternative (Art School), When “There Is No Alternative.”

What does an art school have to do with open source, feminism, or institutional psychotherapy? For the average art school, probably very little. Some individuals may use free software on their PCs, there might be this or that seminar on feminist theory, or a feminist artist teaching, but certainly, when it comes to institutional psychotherapy, no matches at all.

The reason for asking this question is an experiment undertaken by the Brussels-based art school École de recherche graphique (e.r.g.),[1] or rather its current director. Laurence Rassel was appointed as Director in July 2016 and has since worked toward transforming the school, making into a site of commoning, or, as she calls it, “a site for collective instituting.” The tools she is using, her “kit for surviving the institution,” and making it into a “less toxic” place, stem exactly from these three diverse fields: open-source software, feminism, and institutional psychotherapy. Together they provide certain working principles that Rassel combines into a unique conceptual framework that is meant to reconfigure the workings of the institution as a whole.[2]

We invited Laurence Rassel to participate in one of the research meetings we have organized as part of the research project Creating Commons.[3] In this research project, we investigate art and cultural projects that develop new models of access to and use of cultural resources. For our research, the notion of the “commons” provides the theoretical framework for investigating how new forms of organizationcan constitute evolving realities that point beyond the growing commercialization of culture and its damaging effects. Our phenomenological approach takes existing projects as a starting point, and the majority of the projects we are looking into are self-organized projects run by small groups and initiatives. Considering a publicly funded art school in this context is due to the fact that e.r.g. has become an experimental zone in which processes of commoning and alternative ways of dealing with resources take place within a traditional institution.

The Commons Framework
For the analytical framework of our phenomenological research, we found the structural definition of the commons conceived by political economist Massimo de Angelis most useful. In his words, “Commons are social systems in which resources are pooled by a community of people who also govern these resources to guarantee the latter’s sustainability (if they are natural resources) and the reproduction of the community. These people engage in commoning, that is a form of social labour that bears a direct relation to the needs of the people, or the commoners.”[4] While the model originates in historical ways of sharing natural resources, it has gained new momentum in relation to a variety of natural and cultural resources, constituting a third paradigm of production – beyond the state and the private sector.

The commons, however, should not be idealized as a “solution”; they are as much a symptom of a global crisis into which capital has maneuvered itself, as they are a “fix” to the most urgent systemic failures: “It needs a ‘commons fix,’ especially in order to deal with the devastation of the social fabric as a result of the current crisis of reproduction.”[5] At the same time, commons have the potential of creating “a social basis for alternative ways of articulating social production, independent from capital and its prerogatives. […] Indeed, today it is difficult to conceive of emancipation from capital – and achieving new solutions to the demands of ‘buen vivir’ social and ecological justice – without at the same time organising on the terrain of commons, the non-commodified systems of social production. Commons are not just proclaiming a ‘third way’ beyond state and market failures; they are a vehicle for emerging communities of struggle to claim ownership to their own conditions of life and reproduction.”[6] In that sense, commons can be understood as an experimental zone in which participants can learn to negotiate responsibilities, social relations, and peer-based ways of production.

Commoning the Art School
Although Laurence Rassel herself does not frame her work directly within the context of the commons, applying this framework to her organizational and managerial project demonstrates that her main references show substantial parallels to the concepts of the commons, and thus provide productive overlaps. At e.r.g., like in any other art school, the “community” is one of people who did not choose each other and who have to deal with an inbuilt hierarchy: workers, teachers, collaborators, students, and admin staff. “Resources” in the form of public funding broken down into maintenance, human resources, and working material can only be partly up for negotiation by the members of the institution. The most interesting aspect with regard to commons, however, is how processes of commoning can be encouraged, how they instigate new forms of learning and unlearning, new forms of subjectivation, and, lastly, produce not just different kinds of social relations, but with that, different cultural works.

Commoning here parallels the notion of “instituting,” the verb Rassel uses to describe the process of forming an institution. It is the opposite of the already “instituted,” the crystallized, frozen, and established that often is equated with the noun “institution.” For Rassel, “institution” means the co-existence of both, of “becoming” and “having become,” at the same time. And it is important to maintain a balance, i.e. to give space for the process of instituting to constantly evolve and not allow the “instituted” to take precedence. Based on the inspiration provided by institutional psychotherapy, it is important that the whole “community” of the art school is involved in this process. The members inhabit a “common territory” that is constructed not by conformity but rather its opposite: the multiplicity of individuals. It is the result of an action composed of the “differences in presence,” and the common is always understood as a “common doing” rather than a fixed group.  

In that sense, art schools could be conceived exactly as the kind of experimental zone in de Angelis’ sense. If they are given the opportunity, all participants can learn to negotiate responsibilities, social relations, and peer-based ways of production—beyond their specialized tasks. The relative freedom of the art school provides the ideal breeding ground for such experimentation, a laboratory for re-learning democratic forms of organization, for developing a sense of collectivity in a social setting that all too often pushes individuality and singularity to their extremes. In Rassel’s own words, “The paradoxical task then is to sustain the collective, the common, while preserving heterogeneity and the singularities in place.”[7]

The inspiration for Rassel’s models for work processes comes from open source/free software culture, but also from institutional psychotherapy. The school is a hierarchical place, governed by texts and decrees but also by consciences that reveal themselves there as brutal, feverish, and urgent, generating a desire to reach a “whole” and a desire to question “the whole,” and nevertheless build a common. By opening up this layer from “read-only” to “read, write, and execute,” the very structure of the school can be turned inside out—to serve new purposes. People can get involved and affect the structure by their history to be made. The process is the collective development of the “how.”

Quotes from the Interview “Experimenting with Institutional Formats”[8]
Before looking at some sections of a live conversation with Laurence Rassel, it is interesting to highlight her personal background. After having been trained to become an artist herself, she traversed a variety of institutions, from small and self-organized to large and publicly funded, eventually re-entering the art school in a leadership role. Before Rassel was appointed to become the head of e.r.g., she had been the artistic director of Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, an institution created in 1984 by the artist Antoni Tàpies to promote the study and knowledge of modern and contemporary art. One of her big achievements when working with this large institution was the opening up of the foundation’s archive. Before that, she had been involved for eleven years in a small collective in Brussels, constant,[9] a non-profit association and an interdisciplinary feminist artslab, active in the fields of art, media, and technology where issues related to intellectual property as well as gender and technology have been central. The experience she has amassed by assuming very diverse roles and inhabiting these different corners of the art world has been essential for her process of becoming and certainly helped her take a radical look at an institution of higher education whose role is to produce future artists—but that can obviously be much more…

Open-Source Software
“For me, what was always interesting in free and open-source software was the GPL license, the fact that, you know, you open the source code and you give the authorization of transforming, copying, modifying, and we distribute with the same, open access to that. And also that you document it properly, so other people can make use of that, and you cannot predetermine the use of the software—somehow.

So, for me, it’s my brain saying, ah, it’s interesting for an institution to imagine it as a machine or as a structure—that you can open as a software as a dispositive that is you, at least, give access to how it works […]  That means that the people who participate in that machine can transform it, copy it, or use it for other purposes. And also, this idea that it was self-sustainable, that the machine can take care of herself, because the participants have the possibility of repairing the software, finding the bugs, being protected from the viruses. If you are not alone taking care of the machine, then the machine could live longer somehow.”

Institutional Psychotherapy
“Institutional psychotherapy, I discovered [it] through a seminar that took place in Barcelona on François Tosquelles, a Catalan psychotherapist who was active before the Republican war in Spain. During the war, he was a psychotherapist inside the Republican Army, and he created a group caring for soldiers, and he said that it was necessary to have different competencies and knowledge about the entire body and mind. So, there were artists, nurses, sex workers, other soldiers; I mean, whatever was necessary to take care of a person. The basic idea, in short, is that institutional psychotherapy was based on the idea that if you want to take care of a person, you have to take care of the institution, that if the institution is sick, the people who are patients there will be as sick as the institution is.

And also that everything counts, that the way the garden is done, the cleaning is done, or the cooking is done affects how the people live or are. And also this idea that the nurse, the cleaning person, the gardener have their say, their part in the care function, or the cure function. One of the principles that is important, is that the patients are actively relating to their cure; so they participate in their cure. This idea that the people working inside the institution are active [means] to give them the agency, the power to act and not to be told what to do, how to do it, and so on and so forth. But you think that the institution is done by the people who are in it. Also basic stuff, right?

For me, it was one night [when] I realized that the way the cultural institutions, the museum, how they were affected by the change in politics, the push that they should raise more private funding, save public funding, the pressure of quantification, numbers, figures, and how [they were] told there was no alternative, you have to learn that, you have to raise more money, you have to attract [a bigger] audience, you have to be nice with the nationalists, and—whatever. But there must be an alternative! And so, don't ask me why, I said, okay, we are under attack, I mean symbolically, or not symbolically for some people, how can we think [about] that? And I thought, but during the war, those people [Tosquelles and his colleagues, author’s note] were able to imagine something else. So, it's not that I can apply institutional psychotherapy directly to the school, but it can affect me. And the way I can act as director.

Guattari said, when someone asked him, “What do you bring to people?,” and he said that it's not so much about what we bring, but the fact that we try to be as less toxic as possible, that we are not reproducing the alienation that is outside in the world. Because this is what also we asked, and the patients can also ask for. There is not someone who tells you how to behave, and what to do. It is the self-consciousness of the institution at work. That is something that it is important for me, the tool of [asking], what are we doing and how do we do that?”

“Feminism for me [started] when I became a cyberfeminist and feminist in 1997, and I can tell you the exact day […] It was at this seminar on Marxist feminist analysis of cinema. It was like your eyes are opening, you're not blind to the system anymore. It's really about the condition of who, whom, in which condition, and what for. And, so to be careful of how the systemic machine is working; and so for me, it's totally connected and embedded, to be careful, full of care, about who and how; the words presentation, identity […] and feminism becoming more complex, means this idea of questioning authority, hierarchy, nature, the system, the power structure […] Feminism, for me, was really a tool, and it has been a reading companion. So, it’s just one of my tools. Maybe I’m becoming more complex, and my tools are numerous, but in a way they are all the same, about deconstructing […].”

“I believe that how the structure works will affect the art that is produced and the artists who are out in the world. They don't have to produce art, but as citizens, as human beings in relation to the world, the way the school works will affect, transform, or sustain them somehow. Some of the students, now, are working collectively, [and the question is] how does it affect the grades, or the forms, and what can we bring to them so they are conscious about their choices in terms of form of production and so on. I mean, it's amazing what they have. Donna Haraway is like normal stuff for them, or queer, gay, or trans; there are trans people […] Paul Gilroy came […] I mean, they have access and can decide for themselves, [they have] the choice; this knowledge about the condition of production and distribution […] And this is why I'm interested in art, but it's really the possibility of hybrid workspaces. Where in the world can I say that I'm working from feminism, free software, institutional therapy—and science fiction—and be the director of an institution? I mean, this kind of possibility of hybridity, for me, is the privilege of what could be called art. If I imagine I would be somewhere else, I would not be a director of anything […]”.

Both the interview with Laurence Rassel, “Experimenting with Institutional Formats,” as well as her talk “Rethinking the Art School” are available online on the Creating Commons website: creatingcommons.zhdk.ch

Cornelia Sollfrank (PhD) is an artist, researcher and university lecturer, living in Berlin (Germany). Recurring subjects in her artistic and academic work in and about digital cultures are artistic infrastructures, new forms of (political) self-organization, authorship and intellectual property, techno-feminist practice and theory. She was co-founder of the collectives women-and-technology, - Innen and old boys network, and currently is research associate at the University of the Arts in Zürich for the project ‘Creating Commons.’ Her recent book Die schönen Kriegerinnen. Technofeministische Praxis im 21.Jahrhundert was published in August 2018 with transversal texts, Vienna. For more information, pls visit: artwarez.org


[1] www.erg.be

[2] The relevance of these three concepts will be explained by Rassel in the interview excerpts below.

[3] Creating Commons is funded by the SNF (Swiss National Fund) and based at the Institute for Contemporary Art Research (IFCAR), Zurich University of the Arts (ZHDK); co-researchers are Felix Stalder und Shusha Niederberger, http://creatingcommons.zhdk.ch.

[4] Massimo De Angelis, “Economy, Capital and the Commons,” in Art, Production and the Subject in the Twenty-first Century, Angela Dimitrakaki, and Kirsten Lloyd, eds. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), 201.

[5] Ibid., 211.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Laurence Rassel, “Rethinking the Art School.Institution, instituted, instituting, common, commoning,” lecture abstract, available online at: http://creatingcommons.zhdk.ch/?p=429.

[8] The interview was conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank and is available in full length online: https://vimeo.com/275522913

[9] http://constantvzw.org/

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Issue 43

Revisiting Black Mountain
Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization

by Dorothee Richter and Ronald Kolb

by Ronald Kolb with Bitten Stetter, Brandon Farnsworth, Dorothee Richter, Jochen Kiefer, Martin Jaeggi, Paolo Bianchi

by Daniel Späti

by Steven Henry Madoff

by Mieke (Annemarie) Matzke, She She Pop

by Susanne Kennedy

by Olga von Schubert, Caroline Adler and Boris Buden

A collaborative exercise by Sascia Bailer, Lucy Bayley, Simon Fleury, Gilly Karjevsky, and Asli Uludag to reflect upon our shared experiences at Un-Learning Place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Interview by Ronny Koren

by Raqs Media Collective