Institutions by Artists aims to put art back into the hands of its creators

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The notion isn’t quite as odd as it might seem. After all, for centuries, most successful artists maintained a productive relationship with some kind of institution—a church or a court, usually—and it’s only been in the last 150 years or so that the creative classes have positioned themselves outside the mainstream. But Institutions by Artists, a conference and festival taking place across Vancouver this month, isn’t about breeding new cultural lapdogs for today’s merchant princes. Instead, it’s about assuming the appearance of institutional rectitude for decidedly subversive and deeply artistic purposes.

“It’s a way of creating a legitimating structure and a presence that can still be controlled by the artists and by their artistic or aesthetic agenda,” says Institutions by Artists project manager Lorna Brown, in a phone interview from her Vancouver home.

“Over the last few years, there have been a number of artists or collectives who are kind of mimicking or paralleling institutional structures,” she continues. “They’re often reliant on using new technologies to create an institutional presence or persona, using that as a cloak, in a sense, for an individual or a collective art practice. So those are the things we’re really focusing on within the conference, and also within the festival.”

It’s an expansion, the curator and installation artist adds, of the brick-and-mortar artist-run centres that sprung up around the world in the ’60s and ’70s, represented in Vancouver by Video In, Intermedia, and the Western Front. The new institutions, however, are more focused on outreach and community; Brown cites conference participant the Copenhagen Free University as an example.

“It’s using social media and the Internet to create a curriculum, draw people together, and create publications,” she says, adding that this model allows artists “to be very nimble and very strategic on the ground, in terms of investing energy in people as opposed to infrastructure and space”.

That’s very much the thinking behind Brad Butler and Karen Mirza’s Museum of Non Participation, at VIVO Media Arts through October 21.

“This is a museum, not as a collection of inert objects.…but as a site of discursive exchange, and as a multitude of voices, not a hierarchical, top-down structure,” says the London-based Mirza in a separate phone conversation.

The impulse for its creation came in 2007, when she and Butler attended the opening of Pakistan’s National Art Gallery in Islamabad. Outside the gallery, protesting lawyers were being savagely beaten by police. Inside, a selection of nudes, some with homoerotic overtones, spoke to the purported liberalism of Pervez Musharraf’s regime. This strange and unsettling alignment of circumstances—and the artists’ unwitting complicity in them—demanded a response, Mirza says. She and Butler began to think about the awkward dance between participation and nonparticipation that society asks of its citizens; their museum emerged as a way of addressing that issue outside institutionalized art channels, often in conjunction with the public. In its Karachi incarnation, for instance, barbers and street vendors were mobilized to facilitate discussion and the distribution of printed manifestoes.

Tellingly, Mirza notes that in Urdu the museum’s name reads more like “the House of the Unexpected”. We’re not sure how the project will translate here, but like Institutions by Artists in general, it’s sure to generate discussion and surprise.

Institutions by Artists takes place at various Vancouver artist-run centres through November 18. The conference takes place from Friday to Sunday (October 12 to 14) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s. For more information, visit www.arcpost.ca/.

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