Lecture: On Institutions/the Retreat (2014)

This part of this presentation is about Belgium – based on a youtube video and my own experience.

About Belgium, not because I am Belgian, but because of the country’s possibilities as a place of retreat. Belgium is a federal state with communities, regions and language areas. This means that there is a federal government that is responsible for the entire country and includes: taxation, justice, foreign affairs, social security and pensions. There are three communities, based on language. Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German, and therefore there are three communities. The Flemish Community, authorized for the Dutch language area and it also exercises authority in the bilingual Brussels-Capital area. The French Community, authorized for the French language area and it also exercises authority in the bilingual Brussels-Capital area and the German Community, authorized for the German language area. Each community has a government and a parliament that is responsible for personal matters such as culture, education, welfare, health, sports and language.
The three regions are: the Flemish Region, this coincides with the Dutch language area, the Walloon Region covers the French and German language areas and the Brussels-Capital Region which is authorized in the bilingual Brussels-Capital area. Each region has a government and a parliament that is responsible for territorial matters such as the environment, urban planning, housing, mobility, infrastructure, economy and employment. In addition to the federal government, the communities and regions, there are also local governments, like those of the provinces and the cities.
There is a lot of confusion. On our National Holiday in 2007 the press asked the then Prime Minister to sing the Brabançonne – the Belgian national anthem – and he sang the Marseillaise, the French one.
I grew up in Flanders which is monolingual: we spoke Dutch. I lived under the Flemish community and region. Upon moving to Brussels things changed. In this institutional framework I had no idea to what part I belonged. I spoke Dutch (Flemish), and had an education organized by the Flemish community, but I used the library of the French speaking university, governed by the French community. The Brussels Capital Region collected my garbage. I paid my taxes on a federal level, for a job I did in the Flemish community. My house was under the rules of the Brussels Capital Region, but when there were elections for the regions and communities, I had to vote for the Flemish regions, even though I lived in Brussels. I did not even know the politicians from the Brussels region or the French part. My public transportation card was given out by the Brussels Capital Region, but I travelled for free because I was a student supported by the Flemish region.
I belonged to all communities and regions and to none. I could have easily vanished for one community, while it would think I’d be part of another one. The complexity of this action might be more difficult, but I always felt that disappearing in this institutional madness was a possibility.

This part of this presentation I took from the French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s lecture at a program called The Retreat at Documenta 13 – which is sort of an odd title since it is located at Banff in Canada, which is more of an elitist art hub than an actual place of retreat. At one point in her presentation she starts talking about her three heroes of the retreat. The three great figures of the retreat: Maurice Blanchot, Alexander Grothendieck and Thomas Bernhardt.

This part of this lecture-presentation I took from an interview between Stephen Wright and theorist Alexander Koch. The latter published in 2011 GENERAL STRIKE, a publication that sketches the act of ‘dropping out of art’.
He answers, you are right to ask to what extent this decision (to retreat) has a critical dimension. Remember all those classical gestures of refusal in art: empty canvases, closed galleries, silent artists. I see that sort of silence as a fundamental mistrust in arts’ contribution to social and individual change. I wondered if emptiness, silence or announced attacks on museums were already the radical peak of such distrust. And I found that there was a possible step further to imagine: just leaving the canvases, museums, and artworld as a whole, alone with themselves and seeking out other endeavours. But then how would we know about such steps, once they were taken?

This part of this presentation is about my work as a research for the possibilities of withdrawal from the institutions of art.
In the last Guggenheim International Exhibition in NY in 1971, Daniel Buren hung a huge banner of 20 by 10 meters in the museum’s rotunda. Some of the other artists in the exhibition, like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, complained that the banner blocked the view, and that their works had to deal with this unwillingly. Buren notified that Flavin’s fluorescent lights also unwillingly coloured his banner.
My interest in the retreat comes from institutional critique. I thought it to be fascinating to work with an institution while commenting on it at the same time, and that this institution would actually like that (except for the case above, Daniel Buren got thrown out of that exhibition). But institutional critique is not really retreating. It is known for reflecting the art world’s ideological framework back onto itself. It stays inside the place that it critiques. Andrea Fraser famously says that there is no outside of the art context. To critique the institute means at the same time that you inevitably participate in the institute. And what happens outside the field of art can have no effect within it. She says: ‘We are the institution of art’. That is a rather depressing thought, but it may also be obsolete as it is connected to Institutional Critique in the late ‘80 and ’90. Perhaps the idea of ‘withdrawal’ might create some possibilities. Not as a new form of IC, for it does not necessary imply a critique, but as a way of keeping distance without disconnecting – and from that position question institutional structures. And it can happen on many levels. There are and have been numerous artist initiatives and art collectives that are experimenting with the idea of withdrawing through making alternative institutions or platforms. So did I.

This part of this presentation is part of a lecture by the American artist Oscar Tuazon at The New School for Public Engagement. By introducing Burt and Holly Davis, he explains their really brutal project of hardcore retreat.

This part of this presentation is about my work as a research for withdrawal from the making of an artwork and the rules of the art world.
One of the most recent works I made was part of the end exam exhibition of the school I was graduating from. The graduation is the moment where the transition between art school and art world happens, where young artists make their first steps outside of the school, hoping to find galleries, buyers, museums, further education, residencies etc that might give them a chance. This all is very common, but I had no interest in getting picked up like that. I wanted to take a step back and not correspond to the needs of the set structures, of the institutional rules and – in extension – of the market. I wanted to look at everything from a distance, but not directly comment on it. I wanted to try another possibility. It had to be withdrawal without loosing contact with the context of the exhibition. Therefore, I needed to find a location that was not in use for the show, but that would still have an important function for and in the show. I found two storage spaces on two different floors of the building where all the objectionable objects for an exhibition get stored. Location-wise, this giant repository created the buffer I needed. But the idea of withdrawal had to be discussed as well. Therefore, I collected specific fragments from lectures, interviews and readings by artists, art historians, theorists, curators and critics. The pieces of audible text were montaged next to each other into a sound piece as a collection of thoughts, ideas and sayings. They offered possibilities to ‘withdraw’ and formed a dialogue. With each other, but also with the context they found themselves in. The repository of text resonated with the physical repository of the storage space. One more element was added, a list on an A4 paper containing all the sources used. The fact that the work was almost invisible, and that there was no artist connected to it, made that basically most people walked right passed it. It generated a group of very little people that wanted to be there. That wanted to spend time with the work. People that came looking for it.

This part of this presentation is a definition of ‘the retreat’ that I took from the introductory text for the program The Retreat at Documenta 13.
To enter or enact a retreat, is to draw together, in réfuge, seclusion, separation, and sharing—not in order to abandon active life with others, but to consider ourselves, with others. The choice to retreat, to move to a space away yet in the world, can open up the possibility of redressing forms of disparity and can disturb relations of power, even if the act itself may seem a reduction of means or a lack of means altogether. Retreat is not abandonment of social challenges, political antinomies, or cultural dead ends, but a temporary condition whose intent is to generate permanent change.

This part of this presentation is about this presentation.
This Summer I made the decision to apply to another institution, the one where I am studying at now. Guess I realized the need to take part in the game. For else I would end up disconnecting fully, and how can you research the withdrawal as a possibility for change if you don’t have anything to withdraw from? The final question would be then about my presentation. Why did I not try to withdraw from this one? Perhaps I tried a little. It is annoying when the rhetoric differs from the act.