The Fitness Model Institution

Vasif Kortun on the balance between institutional evolution and diversity

In recent years I have been involved in a series of interviews with architects, curators, and brilliant, quirky unorthodox museum professionals such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Kathy Halbreich, Marie-Claude Beaud and David Elliott, probing the idea of how to craft a new institution. I call these simply “the expert discussions.” The new institution I have been trying to sculpt will develop out of an uneasy mix of three existing spaces, one of which, Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, I have been directing since 2001. The new institution, which is yet to be named, will be launched in early 2011 with a core focus on research and archives geared towards generating new public programs. The experience of intellectually collapsing into one three institutions that had respectively addressed a range of interests from architecture to economic and social studies is akin to leveling compartmentalized museum concepts. It is comparable to drafting a new program that eradicates from the typical museum framework departments of painting and sculpture; prints and drawings; photography; and film and video. If compartmentalization was a bad idea to start with, it has become entrenched and obtusely arrogant in professional jargon over the past decades. While non-medium-specific departments have been no-brainers for a very long time, the anxiety of those who protect their fortresses has to be offset by the invention of über-inter-curatorial positions and other stopgap measures at the risk of postponing the inevitable demise of departmentalization. Hence, all around us, way past their shelf lives, are many a “zombie institution.”

The construction of encyclopedic museums too is a thing of the past. I remember a very interesting project back in 1993-94, a project that has been overlooked in the plethora of institutional revisionism exhibitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s such as the Parrish Art Museum’s “Past Imperfect” (1992). Curated by Trevor Fairbrother at the Boston MFA, “The Label Show: Contemporary Art and the Museum” featured works accompanied by fundamentally contradictory wall texts written by different departments. The museum’s authority was destabilized. The MFA, buried in inert taxonomies, looked silly. This could have been exactly the moment to develop oppositional statements and differences to link up with the public. Whereas instead the dirty work of “linking up” was given to yet another department – education – to sweet-talk academic themes to museum visitors. It seems that education is the only place where diversity is acceptable precisely because it is thought to be more plebeian.

Returning to the matter of crafting a new institution, one of the experts with whom we engaged in discussion was the “transarchitect” Marcos Novak, who has come up with as many new terms and ideas as he has slashed through accepted truths. Here is a long sound bite from Novak’s discussion: “You can look at evolution as fitness, which is sort of an industrial way of understanding it…or you can look at it as diversity. And it’s much more interesting to figure out a mechanism for producing diversity which requires the fostering of mutations…This can be applied culturally to the functioning of an institution or to the content of what’s shown and what’s curated for the purpose of not fixing categories, but constantly producing new ones, trusting that the rest of culture will take care of fixing them.” Our discussion had centered on inter-disciplinarity, and Novak’s metaphors about the evolutionary model could be taken innocently as a kind of “limited excellence.” Anyone who can stand on two feet can run 100 meters, be it at slow, fast or record-breaking speed. That is, there is always a threshold, and there is pretty much nothing that is unexpected. The model has more sinister undertones in the context of market capitalization where the threshold is hegemonic takeover and total exhaustion; when the job is done you move on to the next target. Culturally speaking, we are undergoing the fitness model in Istanbul at the moment. The whole world is looking at the city as museums crop up right and left. Diversity, however, is not yet on the horizon, while failure, alas, is not an option.

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