From Institu­tions to Instituting

An interview with Massimiliano Mollona on art, politics and solidarity

17 Mart 2017

Massimiliano Mollona 02032017 003 1
Onur Yıldız: In what respects does your practice at the Laboratory for the Urban Commons differ from your practice at the Athens Biennale? What will this transition enable?

Massimiliano Mollona: Under my directorship, the framework of the Athens Biennale was to rethink its institutional boundaries, economies, and forms of operating by connecting it with the grassroots political and cultural organizations that emerged after Syntagma 2001. The idea was to turn what is traditionally a neoliberal art institution into a cooperative, democratic, and sustainable one. But there was the widespread perception, both from “above” and from “below,” that this framework was a dangerous —if not disingenuous— curatorial “gesture.” Private organizations were worried about our activist agenda; smaller art and activist organizations were concerned about being “co-opted.” It was clear to me that, in order to be effective, we had to get rid of our institutional skin and start collaborating with grassroots political and cultural organizations since the very beginning. Shift the focus from institutions to instituting. The Laboratory for the Urban Common (LUC) has been in-the-making for more than one year precisely in order to reach out to an expanded network of solidarity organizations and urban commons, and to co-design with these organizations LUC’s very institutional form, practices, and priorities, as well as define the role of art and culture in long-term processes of political and economic change.

O.Y.: What do you think is the use of art outside the art institution?

M.M.: In a way, there is no art that is non-institutional as artist Andrea Fraser says “we are the institution.” We know the limitations of post-institutionalist or public art. I think that the most interesting contemporary phenomenon is what Yates McKee calls “post-Occupy art” —the movement of artists taking to the streets as activists rather than as artists. Yet, some consider post-Occupy still a middle-class phenomenon, a movement of the “creative classes” circumscribed to the urban New York scene or more broadly the “north,” where gentrification and heavy exploitation of immaterial labour are rampant. In my opinion, these forms of art and activism in the north have exhausted their power.

Gökcan Demirkazık: In your talk at SALT Galata, you mentioned that international art organizations such as documenta are inclined to exoticise the “global south.” What are the markers of this exoticisation? Is there any sufficiently exemplary “good practice” in this respect; if not, how does one engage responsibly with the so-called global south?

M.M.: I do not think we should take lightly this “exoticisation.” It is basically a struggle for survival. Art organizations in the north will not survive the corporate turn, if they don’t decolonize themselves. But shifting the “state of mind” —to paraphrase documenta’s vision of the south— is not enough. Decolonization must happen at the level of the practices and economies of art, i.e. decommodified, non-competitive, and participatory art practices or art that responds to specific needs without necessarily being commercial or public in the conventional way. A good example is Tania Bruguera’s “artivism.” Art and culture have a massive potential in countering the uneven development of late capitalism.

O.Y.: It is possible to identify two forms of reactions to the global economic crisis. One is the rise of xenophobia which blames foreigners for the failures of economic and political structures. The other is solidarity networks which take on certain responsibilities that were formerly undertaken by the state. Athens is a place where these solidarity networks have been very active and the Laboratory for the Urban Commons is planning to engage with them. What do you think is the political potential of these solidarity gestures?

M.M.: You are right. Openness and closure —towards and against migrants, foreigners, and more generally “others”— are the markers of contemporary politics which go beyond traditional distinctions between left and right. Athens is the perfect example. There are strong right-wing and lower middle-class discourses against refugees and foreigners, but there is also a strong tradition of solidarity. LUC is emerging precisely from this network of solidarity organizations that have come to life during the economic crisis of 2008. The ambition of LUC is to turn the solidarity struggles and practices of commoning of these groups into sustainable forms of livelihood. To shift their focus: from being institutions of “reaction” against the state and the market to being enactors of new instituting practices.

O.Y.: University education all around the world is going through a crisis due to pressures from the market and intense marketization of the higher education system on the one hand, and political repression from authorities on the other. As a lecturer at a UK university, how do you see the future of art education in particular and higher education in general?

M.M.: The situation in the UK is untenable. With public funding having nearly disappeared, income from higher education is totally dependent on selling courses to wealthy students from overseas —their fee is 9,500 British pounds— or on the corporate machine of research funding. The violent repression of the market is the mirror image of forms of state repression in higher education going on in other countries. Thus, there is an urgency for higher education to develop forms of international solidarity and militant pedagogy that cut across different regimes of capitalism.