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by Dorothee Richter and Rein Wolfs

Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?

The symposium Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, organised by the Kunsthalle Fridericianum and the Zurich Postgraduate Program in Curating(Institute for Cultural Studies, Department of Cultural Analysis, Zurich University of the Arts), attracted an international audience to Kassel on 26 and 27 March 2010. The two-day discussion was opened with the provocative question in how far it is possible to exercise institutional critique by curating exhibitions.

'Institutional critique' is a term designating artistic practices and positions such as those of Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Andrea Fraser and Hans Haacke. The question is: how can a practice that intends to radically show the conditionality of art, its financial entanglements, and its function as a means of distinction be related  to institutions  and  curators’  activities therein? Is this not a contradiction in terms? The aim of the symposium was to explore these contradictions as well as the possibilities and limitations of critical curatorial practice.

Oliver Marchart’s introductory keynote talk addressed the issue of the ideological engagement of exhibitions based on the example of theoretical positions of three documenta exhibitions. While documenta 10 transferred theoretical contributions in the 100 days 100 guests format to the exhibition space, thus contributing towards a paradigm shift in the finearts, and Documenta 11 extrapolated on and decentralised the theoretical part through the concept of international platforms and symposia, documenta 12 retracted some of these achievements. Hence hegemonic and counter-hegemonic tendencies are in constant conflict in exhibition making. Although institutional critique  is  articulated  in the exhibitionsituation and as criticism of specific representation formats, it emphasises social conditions.

For if exhibition visitors find themselves in a  one-Euro shop after entering a museum, as was the case in Christoph Büchel’s large solo exhibition Deutsche Grammatik mounted atthe Fridericianum in 2008, the clear message is that capital is the absolute benchmark in our form of society.

In spite of the seemingly spectacular incorporation of a discount supermarket in the exhibition concept, this message is not lost, for the visitor’s unclear position isrevealed. Visitors are addressed as consumers (which is what they actually are) at a place where they had hoped to find 'purer' pleasures.  When visitors are thrust into an event in this way, the art institution becomes  visible asa societal agent that produces exclusion as well as recognition. As places of representation, however, art institutions are also contested territory themselves. Who is allowed to convey what messages at art institutions?

Other symposium contributions dealt with the direct influence of politics on curatorial activities. Often policymakers too quickly see institutions and curators as taking a critical stance and try to curb such activity.

Exhibition institutions generally have to cope with insufficient financing and political demands to 'generate' high visitor numbers. In terms of education, this can reverse the aim of educating and emancipating visitors, conveying artistic and curatorial messages that conform to the masses.

Some of the postgraduate courses on curatorial practice and theory whose students took part in the symposium have integrated the idea of educational turn into their curating curricula. According to Nora Sternfeld, the so-called educational turn in curating marks an important shift in the understanding of both curatorial practices: "Curating is no longer understood as the mere mounting of exhibitions, education is no longer understood as the transmission of existing values and acquirements."1 As Dorothee Richter noted at another point, from the very outset curating is intertwined with pedagogy, whose effects (content) and influences (form) on subjects and group formation have to be discussed in each case.

As a spatial practice, exhibition making arranges bodies in a space and as an event inscribes itself in bodies via behavioural patterns.2 Curating programmes provide students with both atheoretical  background and innovative practical approaches. The courses and thus the participants are at the interface of a contradictory mission. On the one hand, courses formalise and standardise curatorial methods. On the other, they strive to not only emancipate participants but also to make them players in the field of art who are capable of critical thought and action. Therefore it is no coincidence that the issues addressed at the symposium stemmed from an advanced art institution and a programme for postgraduate studies in curating.

'Critical' curating engages with very similar issues by striving to overcome ingrained structures and renew the institutions museum, gallery and art world. The aim is to develop socio-politically relevant exhibition formats, to question cultural-historical facts and myths, politicising the narration of the shown content concerning gender issues, migration, economy,urbanism and globalisation, to name but a few. This is connected with the desire to have 'radically democratic' (Mouffe / Laclau)3 and emancipatory effects, which can be created through a link to political-activist groups, through radical curatorial decisions, and through curatorial 'complicity' with subversive artistic practices.4

So if we view exhibitions and art projects as an institutional apparatus making it possible to  convey certain meanings and new perspectives to a larger public sphere, then what is important is how new publics are addressed, how knowledge circulates, and which social spaces and therefore institutions can be created and addressed. Thus criticism may have onlyjust begun through the medium of the institution art, which is why we have to take the issue of the messages of exhibitions seriously.

So what are the opportunities, possibilities, and impossibilities of critical curating? How and for whom are programmes designed? What kinds of deviations from formats changecontent?5

Dorothee Richter, the head of the Postgraduate Program in Curating in Zurich, described the course of study as a platform focusing on collaborative project work and new kinds of curatorial practice and art education, and the MAS Curating graduates Irene Grillo, Maren Brauner and Damian Jurt presented their institution-critical curatorial projects as an example. Rein Wolfs, the  artistic director of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, discussed Christoph Büchel’s Deutsche Grammatik exhibition. Büchel integrated a one-Euro shop into the foyer of the Fridericianum and put a construction sign on the outside of the building announcing that the Fridericianum was being converted into a branch office of the German Federal Employment Agency.6 As mentioned, the keynote speaker Oliver Marchart (professor of sociology in Lucerne) formulated a radical criticism of the last three documenta exhibitions. Other speakers included Maria Lind (former director of the CCS Bard  Graduate  Program),  San Keller (a Zurich-based artist), Carina Plath (curator for Painting and Sculpture, Sprengel Museum Hannover), Axel Wieder (artistic director of the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart), Stih&Schnock  (Berlin-based artists), Giovanni Carmine (director of the  Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen), Hassan Khan (a Cairo-based artist), Stella Rollig (director of  the  Lentos  Museum  in  Linz), Yael Eylat van Essen (director of the Curatorial Studies Program, Tel Aviv), Marysia Lewandowska (artist, London), Renée Padt (director of the CuratorLab, Konstfack, Stockholm), Søren Grammel (artistic director of the Grazer Kunstverein), Sissel Lillebostad (curator and coordinator of Curatorial Studies, Bergen), Beryl Graham (professor ofNew Media Art, Sunderland), Olga Fernández López (tutor of the Curating Contemporary Art course, Royal College of Art, London) and Lisa Le Feuvre (lecturer in Curatorial Studies,Goldsmiths University, London). In addition, a student in the Postgraduate Program in Curating, Isin Onol (Istanbul), together with the Serbian curator Maja Ciric organised a talk with students and graduates from Zurich,Amsterdam, London, Istanbul and Belgrade.

The discussion about the critical potential of curatorial practice was elaborated on and this debate given a platform again in the symposium Institution as Medium. Curating asInstitutional Critique? A selection of the contributions will be published in two issues. San Keller’s intervention is a peculiarity in this web journal.

Keller documents his performative contribution for the symposium and puts it into the larger framework of his project for Kunsthalle Fridericianum: Pre-, Pre-, Pre-, Pre-, Preview.


Dorothee Richter, art historian and curator; Director of Studies for the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ICS, at the ZHDK Zurich and publisher of On-Curating.org; prior to that Artistic Director of the Künstlerhaus Bremen; symposia on questions of contemporary art with the following publications: Curating Degree Zero – an international symposium of curators (with B. Drabble); Dialoge und Debatten – on feminist positions in contemporary art; Im (Be_)Griff des Bildes (with Katrin Heinz and Sigrid Adorf); Die Visualität der Theorie vs. zur Theorie des Visuellen (with Nina Möntmann); Re-Visionen des Displays, (with Sigrid Schade and Jennifer Johns); Institution as Medium. Curating as Institutional Critique?, Kassel (with Rein Wolfs), teaching: University of Bremen, Ecole des Beaux Arts, Geneva,Merz-Akademie Stuttgart; University Lüneburg, Zurich University of Arts. Initiator (with B. Drabble) Curating Degree Zero Archive, archive, travelling exhibition and website on curatorial practice, www.curatingdegreezero.org. Other editions: Curating Critique (with B. Drabble) editor of the web journal On-Curating.org.


Since January 2008 Rein Wolfs is the Artistic Director of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum. From 2002 until 2007 he was the Director of Exhibitions of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. In 2003 he curated the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennial. From 1996 until 2001 he was the first director of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, where he also established the magazine Material in 1999. Among his most important exhibitions were shows withDouglas Gordon, Maurizio Cattelan, Angela Bulloch and Cady Noland at Migros Museum and retrospective exhibitions with Bas Jan Ader and Rirkrit Tiravanija aswell as large shows with Urs Fischer and Erik van Lieshout at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. At Kunsthalle Fridericianum he curated major exhibitions with ChristophBüchel, Pawel Althamer and Teresa Margolles and shows with Klara Lidén, Latifa Echakhch, Daniel Knorr, Cyprien Gaillard and Navid Nuur among others. Rein Wolfs is a member of several international committees and publishes regularly.



1 Nora Sternfeld (ed.  Anton Vidokle), Unglamorous Tasks: What Can Education Learn from Its Political Traditions?, in e-flux journal, 14 March 2010.

2 Dorothee Richter, Pedagogy of Exhibition Making, in Eigenheer, Drabble, Richter: Curating Critique, Frankfurt/Main, 2008.

3 Cf. Mouffe, Chantal; Laclau, Ernesto: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: towards a radical democratic politics, London 1985.

4 Freely adapted from the concept of Irene Grillo, Jennifer Johns, Damian Jurt, Andrea Linnenkohl, Siri Peyer, Dorothee Richter, Rein Wolfs.

5 See above.

6 With his large-scale exhibition Deutsche Grammatik Christoph Büchel made use of all of  the  rooms of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum as well as a large part of Friedrichsplatz in front of the museum  building. At the content level, Büchel investigated four aspects of German reality in grand style, under the fictional pre-requisite that the museum  building was being used temporarily for other purposes during the exhibition (and afterwards).The Fridericianum was supposedly being converted into a branch of the Employment and Social Service Agency of the City of Kassel. A large construction sign in front of the building made this unmistakeably clear and wooden boards in front of all of the windows ofthe ground floor heightened this 'fictional  reality'. For purposes of interim usage, the entrance hall was converted into a real functioning one-Euro shop that visitors had to pass. Further examples of a 'pedestrian zone aesthetics' dominated the building’s entire rotunda area:  a real  game  arcade, a 12-meter-high Christmas tree, a tanning studio, a fitness  centre  and a  tourism  trade fair  for  the former East German states enhanced this  first  aspect. A bowling alley with a restaurant ambience and a ballroom served to display countless scraps from torn-up files of the former German Democratic Republic’s Ministry for State Security. This was the second aspect – a historical one.

The third aspect was a destroyed and plundered museum  with a fully furnished caretaker’s flat, whose rooms were divided into two parts by a grey 'inter-German' wall, as well as a break room for the caretaker and the technical staff, which symbolised the lost museum function. During the opening weekend, a real functioning trade fair for political parties in the Federal  Republic of Germany called 'politica' including an event room and  a  café was held. It became a large-scale installation after the trade  event and embodied the fourth aspect, a political one.

The political aspect was also present outside the building, as Friedrichsplatz – formerly 'parade grounds' – was converted into ploughed farmland. On the field there was a silo, which covered the statue of Landgrave Frederick, as well as a dud sticking halfway out of the ground.


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