On Care and Parrhesia

Can a practice of instituting also be a practice of care? In his paper “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming”, Gerald Raunig discusses the potential of ‘instituent practices’ as a process of ongoing instituting, rather than a process of gradually “becoming institution in the sense of constituted power.”1 He describes the process as one of exodus – not in terms of withdrawal from the institution, but rather through “betraying the rules of the game.”2 This entails a departure from the two previous iterations of Institutional Critique by drawing something from each: working from a position of ongoing self-questioning (not imagining an artificial distance from the institution), but also not fixating on complicity within it.3 In his development of this theory, Raunig draws on Foucault’s writing on parrhesia (developed in “The Courage of Truth” lectures at the College de France from 1983-84) as a form of uncompromising truth-telling: to practice parrhesia is to speak frankly from a position of exposed vulnerability, to speak truth to power4 and in doing so to practice a kind of radical care of the self.

In 2016, Simon Sheikh expanded on this use of parrhesia to consider the connection of care and power in terms of the institution.5 In other words, to consider institutions speaking truth of, and to, themselves – by looking at the relationship between their artistic programs, the information they make public, and their modes of governing and instituting. How could the institution practice care of the self – towards (or on behalf of) its workers and its publics? As Raunig describes, the truth-teller is involved in a self-critique that “queries the relationship between their statements (logos) and their way of living (bios)”.6 If we see the outward facing program of the institution as its statements, or logos, and its internal functions as its way of living, or bios, then a reconciling of the two is needed in order to practice parrhesia as a radical position of (self) care.

Writing for the October 2017 issue of e-flux journal, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez makes a case For Slow Institutions, with a call to curators to “imagine new ecologies of care as a continuous practice of support…to radically open up our institutional borders and show how these work—or don’t—in order to render our organizations palpable, audible, sentient, soft, porous, and above all, decolonial and anti-patriarchal”.7 This sentient and porous, slow institution – one which might adapt according to changing needs8 and resist crystallization9 – might go some way towards a practice of parrhesia.

As Nina Möntmann has put it, the art organization – often the smaller, non-profit, the artist-run – has the potential to function as a wild child:10 to challenge and disrupt the forms of institution building and institutional governance that form the major infrastructure of our societies and culture. There is no lack of art which challenges existing conditions and makes propositions for new ways of living and working together – yet all too often these practices are strictly supported and celebrated in the realm of programming, while our institutions neglect to learn from the radical practices that they propose.

What can we learn from the practices of artists such as Alex Martinis Roe (whose project “To Become Two” continues her research into feminist alliances and methodologies for navigating the contemporary condition), Dorine van Meel and Nelmarie du Preez (who, in their project “The Southern Summer School,” worked together with collaborators from the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom, towards creating non-normative spaces and alliances of solidarity across national borders) and Sidsel Meineche Hansen (whose discursive projects “Towards a Physiological Novel” and “This is Not a Symptom,” explore nervousness as a response to the institution and the biochemical production of subjectivity through what they term the “biopolitical regime that shapes the consumer’s nervous system”11)? With the histories and problematics of institutional critique in mind, how might we resist the subsumption of these practices into the institution, and instead critically address, acknowledge, and act upon their capacity to have a measurable impact on the way that we work? In the 2017 Contemporary Art Society conference in London, Andrea Phillips proposed management as a site of contemporary political struggle, and not in the ways we might expect (such as exploitation of workers or micromanagement under contemporary capitalism), but rather a site of struggle in how we manage institutions – with management as key to their transformation in real terms.12

This struggle over management is also simultaneously a struggle over the bios of the institution, viewed most directly through the experience of the art worker, and the anxiety and exhaustion which this often entails. As highlighted by FcU (Feminist Curators United) at a recent event in Nottingham Contemporary’s New Institutionalities series, the tendency to fetishize hard work, to present as a public face the ‘coping curator’ is widely recognisable. During this event, curator Helena Reckitt presented the results of a workshop around working practices, with responses from numerous contributors stating their relationship with work: one which was underpaid, overcommitted, and often took precedence over family and personal commitments.13 To put it simply, we know that we are overworked, and that it seems almost unavoidable in the strained financial context of working in the arts under neoliberalism. What does it matter, in the wider context? Apart from the obvious (that institutions – publicly funded or not – should not be exploiting their staff), it matters because the first stand we can make is how we work together (and treat those who work alongside us) and because this is a real enactment of the care that we might profess in grander and more distanced ways.

It is up to us as art workers to address the reality of the institutions in which we work – to make demands on behalf of ourselves and our publics. Artistic research and practice is at the core of curatorial work. Can we follow the lead of artists imagining new ways of living, of truth-telling, of establishing collectivities? If we are to think about how we can really make a shift within the wider context, we need to likewise reimagine this institutionally: what are our governance structures? Could they be rethought as a critique, rather than a reflection, of the neoliberal context under late stage capitalism?

As Andrea Phillips writes in her recent paper ‘Reclaiming participation: arts centres and the reinvention of social condensation’;

“just as arts centres have morphed into sites of the performance of neoliberalism, so they could transform again into locations where we test and perform practices of equality on a daily basis: not just through the making of exhibitions and events but through equal staffing and pay structures, through fair pricing, through the maintenance of equality within our collegiate relationships and through the recognition of the intelligences of our audiences”.14

In order for the institution of art to practice parrhesia, it needs to be as Petrešin-Bachelez writes, sentient; to care and to speak. In his essay “Art After Trump,” Simon Sheikh asked the questions: “How do we act institutionally? In terms of how we govern within artistic institutions such as galleries, museums, biennials, art fairs and art schools – can we re-orient these spaces away from the vanishing center, and towards a resurgent left?”15 This reorientation could be a form of reconciling the logos and bios of the institution.

This framework was the starting point for Policy Show, the current program at Eastside Projects (Birmingham, UK), which I have co-curated with Gavin Wade. Policy Show brings together a group of artists and art workers (Teresa Cisneros, Christian Nyampeta, Ciara Phillips and Rehana Zaman) to think along with Eastside Projects about its existing policies, and to develop together a policy of care for the organisation. Our first step was to publish the existing policies of the organisation, ranging from measurable policies (‘We will work with a minimum of 50% women artists and curators’) to the more everyday (‘last one out, turn off the tea urn’), and those policies which function more as artworks, though are no less considered as guidelines to live and work by (‘evolve according to changing needs’ and ‘as long as it lasts’). Working together with Cisneros, Nyampeta, Phillips and Zaman, and facilitated by artist Rosalie Schweiker, alongside the input of Eastside Projects’ staff, volunteers, board members and publics, our first event resulted in a number of action points towards developing our policy of care. Moving forward from this first meeting, we will develop a care consortium – working with other small art organisations to share and develop policy together (around maternity leave and sick pay, for example), whilst also acting as a potential lobbying group. The further development and implementation remains to be seen over the course of the project, and the years to follow: part of our work will be to develop a framework for accountability within this.

We must not only begin to imagine how these policies are situated within the singular institution, but how they might begin to connect to a resurgent left. Sheikh locates these potentials within “galleries, museums, biennials, art fairs and art schools,” but we could extend this to networked contexts such as Common Field, that connect and form alliances between the resistant strategies of artists and art organisations, in order to reimagine not only the institution but the “rules of the game” itself. Raunig states that what is needed is “parrhesia as a double strategy: as an attempt of involvement and engagement in a process of hazardous refutation, and as self-questioning.”16 Applied to the institution, we can see how in order to practice parrhesia it must both speak truth to power (in terms of content and on behalf of its publics) and, at the same time – speak truth of, and to, itself.



This essay was commissioned by Temporary Art Review for Field Perspectives 2017, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field as a part of their Los Angeles 2017 Convening. Field Perspectives 2017 is a collaboration between Common Field and arts publications ARTS.BLACK, Art Practical, The Chart, Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, contemptorary, DIRT, Pelican Bomb, Temporary Art Review, and X-TRA. Partners each commissioned a piece of writing that aims catalyze discussion, dialog, and debate before, during and after the Convening. Read the other contributions here.

  1.  My emphasis.
  2.  Raunig, G. (2006) ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’, trans. Derieg, A. Available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/raunig/en
  3.  Ibid.
  4.  Foucault, M. (1983-84), collected lectures from the College de France, in The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II), Ed. Gros, F. (2011) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5.  Sheikh, S. (2016), ‘Careful and Careless Power’, paper presented during a public editorial meeting at BAK, Utrecht, 2016, titled Instituting for the Contemporary, commissioned  by Clark, T. Hlavajova, M. and Lopez, L.
  6.  Ibid.
  7. Petrešin-Bachelez, N. (2017) ‘For Slow Institutions’, in e-flux issue 85, October 2017. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155520/for-slow-institutions/
  8.  ‘Evolve according to changing needs’ is Eastside Projects policy number #5, 2009, as included in the publication Eastside Projects User’s Manual #7.2, 2017, eds. Langdon, J., Lopez, L., and Wade, G.
  9.  Raunig, G. (2006)
  10.  Möntmann, N. (2008), ‘Playing the Wild Child: Art Institutions in a Situation of Changed Public Interest’ in Open, 14: Art as a Public Issue.
  11.  Meineche Hansen, S. (2014) ‘Emotional Reasoning’, in conversation with Gritz, A. in Mousse Magazine issue 44.
  12.  Phillips, A. (2017), ‘Museum as Social Condenser’, paper given at the Contemporary Art Society conference The Museum as Battlefield: Alternative Models of Museum Practice.
  13. Child, D., Reckitt, H., and Richards, J. ‘Labours of Love: A Conversation on Art, Gender and Social Reproduction’ in Third Text, 2017, available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09528822.2017.1365492
  14.  Phillips, A. (2017)  ‘Reclaiming participation: arts centres and the reinvention of social condensation’, in The Journal of Architecture, vol.22:3.
  15.  Sheikh, S. (2016) ‘Art After Trump’, in e-flux conversations, November 2016. Available at: https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/simon-sheikh-art-after-trump/5325
  16.  Raunig, G. (2006)

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