PRINT Summer 2010

Manuel Borja-Villel

ALTHOUGH THEY RETAIN THEIR importance in the network of creative industries, as public institutions museums have lost much of their mediatory power and, further, have lost their privileged position in defining what we understand to be culture. This is partly because those who shape the cultural scene most definitively today are prominent figures in communications industries, as well as a diffuse magma of cultural producers, who typically subordinate creative singularity to the selling or expropriation of creative capacity. At the same time, we are immersed in a profound systemic crisis to which museums are not immune: Just as an economic paradigm based on speculation and easy money has proved itself to be unsustainable, so the primacy of a museum’s building and spectacle over artistic program is bereft of validity. There is therefore a pressing need to invent new models.

To make such a statement is to suggest that changes must be made to the very structure of the museum. Institutions have long been the principal structures for inventing the social and for generating affirmative and nonlimiting action. This significant historical function is even more important now because governance in modern Western society no longer consists of applying repressive measures, but rather of getting citizens to interiorize them. In other words, with the advent in recent decades of artistic criticism as a characteristic form of labor relations—to borrow Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello’s phrase for the articulated desire for an authentic, nonalienated life based on creativity and nondependence on the Fordist prototype (with a boss and fixed working hours)—people are no longer forced to behave as they once were. Instead, such criticism now plays an active role in our subjection to governmental rule; it promotes the subordination of the subject to a labor structure in which the cultural producer contributes to his or her own precarious status. Cultural producers may seek greater freedom and flexibility, but it comes only at the cost of the expropriation of their work by those who wield the capital or the legal tools needed to dispossess them—the tools, in short, that mold creativity to the logic of the marketplace or to those forms of cultural domination intended to serve projects for appropriating public space.

In this regard, the defense of the public institution is very difficult to maintain today because the dichotomy between “public” and “private”—on which social organization has rested for the past century and a half—no longer works. The creative dimension that defines our society now lies in both the private and public spheres, which are separated in an illusory fashion. Casting the public sphere as the disinterested administrator of creativity does not guarantee that such creativity will not be expropriated for profit. “Public” now signifies a management regime founded on property, whose goods are thus transferable no matter how accessible they are to a broad sector of the population, and despite the fact that they may be administered by the state.

It is therefore necessary to rethink the institution in terms of a communality that constitutes neither a state public sphere nor a private one, but instead resides at the edge of both. This calls for breaking the dynamic of franchises so attractive to those in charge of museums. Moved by the imperious need to attract the largest public possible, as well as to manage their economic (and cultural) resources more effectively, many museums have chosen to open subsidiary centers, branch divisions of the head office. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Metz, and many other cities are wit- nesses to a globalization process in which cultural interests intermingle with commercial and even political ones. The job is network, not to create subjectivities but to construct publicity spaces and to establish flows that favor people’s and objects’ mobility. In opposition to this trend, we must instead propose a sort of universal archive, a confederation of institutions that share the works stored in their centers and, most of all, the experiences and narratives that are generated around them. Only then will we be able to assert that making me a plural word depends on my commitment to others in the world, rather than on my access to them. The place between me and the other is where the sphere of the common emerges. It is different from the public sphere because, in the final analysis, what is public does not belong to us. The public sphere offered by the state lies only in the economic management assigned to the political class by all of us, collectively. The common is not an extension of the individual and will never be complete. It only develops through and for others, in a common realm, a shared being, to use Blanchot’s terms.

WE OFTEN IMAGINE AN ARTISTIC construct in which the other speaks with us, when that is not really the case. It is not enough to represent the other; we must seek out forms of mediation that are simultaneously examples and concrete practices of new forms of solidarity and relation. That implies replacing the linear, one-way, and exclusive narration to which we have become accustomed with one that is plural and rhizomatic, where differences are not only annulled but interlaced. It also implies transgressing established genres and canons, as well as extending the artistic experience beyond contemplation and including projects that are not limited to the context of the art world or reduced to established institutional settings. If the main objective of cultural and even artistic institutions is to seek beyond, seeking out innovation and what emerges anywhere in order to tame it and transform it into merchandise, then the new institutional sphere should have an open and explicitly political dimension. It should be open to that multiplicity, simultaneously protecting its interests and favoring ethical, political, and creative surpluses that are antagonistic in a shared space. It is very important to seek out legal forms appropriate to the production and promotion of what is common through network structures, rather than industrial ones. It is fundamental to get institutions to return to society what they take from it, so that what is common is not usurped by the individualities that make up that magma.

At the Reina Sofía museum, we have been developing various approaches aimed precisely at transforming a public institution into one of the common sphere:

First, the collection. It does not construct a compact, exclusive narrative, although it is not a hodgepodge of multiculturalism, either. Our idea is to have a collection characterized by multiple forms of relation that question our mental structures and established hierarchies. We advocate a relational identity that is neither unique nor atavistic, but instead has multiple roots. This situation permits, even invites, an openness to others and to the presence of other cultures and ways of doing things in our own praxis without fear of a hypothetical loss of identity. Of course, the poetics of the relation cannot be understood without a notion of place. A dependence on the concept of center and periphery no longer makes sense, and the periphery’s claim to the center—a claim levied so many times in our country’s history—no longer holds. Relations no longer run from the particular to the general, or vice versa, but instead from the local to the world in its totality, which is not a universal, homogeneous reality but instead a plural one. In this context, art simultaneously seeks the absolute and its opposite—that is, the written and the oral.

Second, the creation of a universal archive, a sort of archive of archives. This implies breaking with the notion of the museum as owner. Rather, the institution should be considered a custodian of goods that belong to all. Of course, making this happen involves digitizing works, documents, and so on, and making them available to the community of users. But it goes further than that, because there is also a sharing of opinions, commentaries, and judgments, as well as of the norms underlying such opinions. That is how a choral history is constructed, one in which we can offer our version of the story and others can also explain their perception of themselves and of us. It is important that these stories multiply and circulate as much as possible. If our society’s economic system is based on scarcity, allowing artworks to attain stratospheric values, then the universal archive is based on excess, an ordering that escapes accounting criteria. Here, the richest are those who receive the stories—but those who give or narrate them are none the poorer. It is a matter of constituting federations of free communities that contribute to the common.

Third, we are organizing a heterogeneous network for working with collectives, social movements, and universities: a network that favors questioning institutions and generating a space for negotiation rather than mere representation. This space is produced by recognizing those other agents regardless of their institutional status—that is, recognizing them as valid participants in the dialogue, as equals in the process of defining goals and assigning resources. Also, and in relation to the above, it is produced by setting aside conventional a priori notions of legitimacy (no one can assign him- or herself greater legitimacy than the other when constructing the common) and eschewing the use of culture to legitimize ends outside this open process of constructing the common. Finally, it is produced by using the authority and exemplary function of the museum to endow this collective exploration with nonauthoritarian and nonvertical methods of cultural action, platforms for visibility and open public debate.