Molecular Production and the Cultural Mainstream

Vasif Kortun on the Case of the Evaporating Art Center

In cities such as Istanbul, Madrid and many others, the disappearance of medium-scale institutions seems to have intensified in recent years. Euphemistically called “art centers,” “ICAs,” “kunstvereins” and so on, these institutions are defined mostly in relation to the scale of the cities in which they are located. Current discussion around the possible closure of ICA London – established in 1947 – cannot merely be reduced to analyzing blunders of management. The ICA’s situation is as much a sign of the times as what happened to Rooseum in Malmo, which auctioned off a substantial part of its collection in 2006 and whose space has now been taken over by the Moderna Museet, or what happened more recently to Insa Art Space in Seoul, which has been integrated into the ARKO (Arts Council of Korea) Art Center. It seems that the “middle” keeps on dropping out because of a particular market demand for large-scale institutions, for reasons we know all to well.

Art centers are not expected to be octopoid in reach, nor can they accommodate branded projects or complex sponsorship schemes; that’s not necessarily part of their operational model. Art centers tend to be “director driven,” and often fade out the moment there is a dulling down in vision. Percipient directors such as Charles Esche at the Rooseum, Maria Lind at Kunstverein Munich and Chus Martinez at the Frankfurter Kunstverein produced critical moments in this regards in the early half of the past decade; their respective institutions were unable to sustain incisive programming after their departures. Yet, it is unfathomable to imagine as strong a locus for experimentation, innovation and criticality as what the art center model potentially provides. Where would we have been without Platform in Istanbul, Townhouse in Cairo, Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, or without the experience of Unitednationsplaza in Berlin, BAK in Utrecht and the other not-so-small-not-so grand institutions?

History is cruel to the art center, and most of these institutions fly under the radar unless they obsessively produce print media and other forms of documentation of their activities. Bound by demands to continuously demonstrate their existence, they are not small enough to enjoy the kind of “on-off” flexibility and mobility of molecular formations such as artist-run initiatives, collectives and provisional collaborations.

My question is the following: What are the strategies for establishing ethical and non-hegemonic agencies and working structures that mediate the molecular and the large-scale institutions? How can we bridge potentialities? It is well known that once a mainstream institution undergoes renovation and expansion it suddenly pays tribute to smaller formations, and feeds upon them until the flagship is ready. Little more than benevolent gestures of equipment provisions or the occasional joint project in the name of communal conviviality are ever on the menu, even if the molecular is nothing more to the mainstream institutions than an annoyance. The middle continues evaporating or is forced to scale up under intensely privatized and competitive cultural spheres, as is the case here in Istanbul. It also drops off because sponsorship is furtively directed to institutions with brand value.

It is obvious that the onus is on the mainstream: in its versatility, in its hospitality and provision for the molecular, in its capacity to use public tools upon the molecular’s request and its role in establishing archives and other repositories to protect the molecular’s memory deposit under fair agreements. It seems we have a lot to learn from MACBA under former director Manuel Borja-Villel’s tenure, when the museum was able to accommodate the public sphere through formal and informal engagements with activist groups and research bodies.

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