On Institutionalization

The assumption that institution is on one side and non-institution on the other might make sense only on the first sight. It is not self-evident that non-institutional means per se a situation, relationship or constellation that is politicized in a non-hierarchical context of equality within artistic creation. In accordance with these cues I come out of the premise that there is no clean, clear or uncontaminated space of art production with guaranteed “ideal” conditions for independent operating and autonomy that are usually attributed to what is usually named independence.

That still does not mean that there is no qualitative difference between mainstream (dominant production and representation mode) and counter-culture; the fact is that every institutional frame influences the quality of creativity and, undoubtedly, causes certain reduction of critical expression to the extent of its annihilation. However, within that context, I would like to highlight the phenomenon of internalization of the institutional paradigm in those who work/act in the field of contemporary performing arts—authors, performers, actors, producers, critics, theatre scholars and theoreticians.

But let’s get back to the “beginning”, reversing step by step: institution is a consequence of institutionalization of production, while production is basically an interweaving of methods, ways, and circumstances directed toward creating and performing of certain work of art. The work of art as specific gesture of its author is here essential. There is a certain idea and concept before it. Conceptualization of a work of art derives from the position of desire—to send a message to the world, give a proposal, share an opinion, express one’s view, anger, protest and so forth.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari show that

“every position of desire […] has in itself something that can put under question the existing order of a society[.] The oppression of desire is therefore society’s vital interest, even inventing something better than oppression to make […] hierarchy […] desired. The desire ‘does not want’ revolution, it is in itself virtually unconsciously revolutionary with wanting what it wants to want” (Deleuze 94-95).

Institutionalization is, in fact, a realization of that perverse inventing of something better than oppression: as much as hierarchy, repression, enslavement and exploitation are desirable and internalized, the sooner it is taken for granted that an institution should regulate and normalize them; and it also encourages their internalization.

As the desire does not want revolution, but self-realization, the theatre performances framed in institutionalized engaged theatre fail beforehand in contextual sense. Even if they are based on a need to declare/stage/perform some revolutionary desire, it dilutes in the given context of production (system of production that is alienated from production immanent to creation), consequently such shows slip into desire’s re-presented opposite. Exactly that is the basic challenge of the theatre that wants to be political, yet it can not be realized as such within institution (internalized in its agents), or, with other words, in circumstances that are not communitarian (and potentially political).

The political cannot emerge in the hierarchical and authoritarian operation mode that is inherent to institution. Saying political, I have in mind the space-time that is characterized by, referring to Emmanuel Barot, everlasting contradiction between the real and the possible, “an active experience of dispute and disagreement” (Barot 87, 117), and at the same time, paraphrasing Jacques Rancière, a constellation of setting up speaking instead of noise. Therefore the challenge is to cope with dominant hierarchical structure of production, that we ourselves are also contributing to in one way or another, by inventing and exercising certain nodes of political. Alongside such process of inventing and exercising, the causes for hierarchization are under scrutiny, both from the perspective of social structures and on the level of self (psychology). These causes are embedded in socialization networks that cross through social and personal levels, i.e. they are attached to structures of symbolic capital. It is important to untangle those structures.

To do that, we cannot bypass certain Pierre Bourdieu’s findings: social capital as symbolic capital is the total sum of real or potential sources that depend on whether one has or not a permanent network of more or less institutionalized relations of mutual recognition; these sources are, with other words, related to belonging to a group as a whole of agents who not only have common features, but are also tied by permanent and useful bonds. So agents are sorted in global social space by the total volume of various sorts of capital they posses, and then also by its structure, therefore by a relative weight of different types of economic and cultural capital within their total capital (Bourdieu 83, 99).

Understanding the structures of symbolic capital and awareness about our positioning within them are the keys of understanding hierarchies and institutionalization as objectification of hierarchization in the existing order.

Mind the Culture Industry

The culture industry—following Horkheimer and Adorno’s conceptualization of the phenomenon—converts institution critique in its means, as it is to a large extent evacuated in advance, by very acquisition of rights. As institution itself is apparently critical, we can allegedly trust the task of (self)critique that it takes on. That goes hand in hand with the neutralization of performance’s political dimension on the level of representation, reflected in performers’ and spectators’ bodies, and, overall, in depoliticization of the time-space of performance.

Such perverting of criticalness—in terms of transferring a critical potential to an exclusive managerial instance that governs institution—is the feature of again and again updated institutionalism. It is based on virtually genuine cooperation between artist and institution, however, as a rule it turns out to act and justify itself on the account of authenticity of critical potential of the work that comes out from that relationship and is realized/presented within it.

In Ljubljana, for instance, the art production emerged from the (punk related) counter-culture of the 1980’s, has been mostly specialized, institutionalized and “autonomized”; it has become “as if” autonomous, while strongly related to NGO operational logic, like in most cases of Metelkova’s production.1 In that way it has become non-dangerous companion and (unconsciously?) promoter of liberal social reversal often called transition—from capitalistic socialism into neoliberal capitalism (even though it is rather not about transiting but about sudden switch that is in accordance to the shock doctrine of spreading Western market-related influence to the rest of the world). One of the plastic examples of institutionalization is the collection entitled Punk Museum exhibited in Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova2 in Ljubljana; it is a paradigmatic case of neutralized counter-culture resistance that I am putting in formula: punk + museum = 0.

Such mapping and legitimization (as a basic museum’s, but also theatre’s function), often masked by ostensible autonomy, goes hand in hand with commodity fetishism that is typical for modernism. It is, however, based on procedures of historicizing that are so very institutionalized and automatized that history of selected contemporary works emerges instantly; works are anesthetized by historicization even before they come to life. Dictate of historicizing reminds us of voids/gaps in modernist paradigm which are by no means accidental.

The classification of artists as producers and art producers as managers is usual way to preserve and maintain managerial paradigm in art production. Such separation based model is typical for contemporary institution. Some of its features are persistent refusal of performative forms with critical charge, and promotion of assumption that an artist cannot create a “suitable” product—therefore a product that can be successful on the real or symbolic market—without mediation of curator/manager as a supervisor of the re-presentation procedure.

There is an administrative background to enable and maintain such circumstances: the cultural policy. It is invented to administratively justify certain kind of professionalism that preserves the culture industry’s machinery. The most important thing in this regard is: cultural policy is something else than politics; it is an efficient tool to contempt possibility of politicization of questions related to human creativity. And it pretends to be a political tool. It effectively destroys socialization. However, we can notice this perverse strategic reversal (exported by the imperial Anglo-Saxon cultural model) already on linguistic level: policy instead of politics; the word policy that is indicatively similar to the word police.

Rancière invents the term police to describe certain organizational system of coordinates that provide reconfiguration of sensible, or, the law that divides art community into groups, social positions, and functions. The law implicitly divides participants from excluded ones and therefore assumes an a priori aesthetic division between visible and invisible, hearable and non hearable, pronounceable and unpronounceable. In “real life”, the increasingly technocratic art managing, both on governmental and NGO level, is tending to swallow self-organized production, especially critical one. Managing structures parasite on any possible creative act, idea, concept, action or intervention by processing and remodeling it into its culturalized shadow. Yet, exactly these facts confirm both consequences of managerization/culturalization and potential power of self-organization.

We therefore have to deal with authoritarian models of separation of (critical) thought from (performative) practice, and with separation of creativeness from possibility of its situating and conceptualizing in political sense. The creative, critical and research dimension of art is systematically washed out in dominant discourse, also by supporting quasi/codified researches. The critique, on the contrary, integrates non-codified and in radical sense unproductive research in an act that can potentially contribute to formation of political situation. The aesthetic dimension of that act cannot slide into a self-sufficient production integrated in the culture industry.

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Performing the Desire

A specific syndrome emerges in the synergy of “external” and “internal” dimension of institutionalization: the syndrome that reflects intricacy in the status quo of the existing, the syndrome of being stuck in paradigm of legalism (as institution is actually a specific embodiment of legal norms purposed for administering various human activities). Anxiety arising from that syndrome can be understood as one of discontents in the field of art—understood as an allegory of Rancière’s term police. When I think on art and when I am making it, having in mind its political-emancipatory power that acts beyond that discontent and provokes the status quo, I also include an effort to at least reflect—if not abolish—the institutional paradigm.

Here I recall Deleuze and Guattari’s thesis on revolutionary as something inherent to desire. There is an emancipatory potential in desire’s (self-)realization: a promise of a conflict as breaking the existing and an as an act of exiting from the status quo. Self-realization of desire is a realization or a happening of “impossible” or “impossible” (within a) situation. The impossible situation is actually a break in the existing, a rupture as a happening. Certainly, it ‫requires establishing of production conditions which are qualitatively different from the dominant ones, which means self-organization of production that enables realization of that “impossible”; yet, it does not mean that it guarantees it.t

It is not neither about changing institutions “from inside” nor their demolishing, but about the gesture of performing the desire (that is by no means a staging of the desire’s projection) that means actual liberation in the very space-time of its performance, which is the other name of break with the existing. In this context, the question of institution is turned into another question: What and how after institution? And that question becomes important at the moment we decide to act not following institutionalized canons and production ways, and when both limits and supports provided by institution fall off.

Speaking on performing the desire while questioning institution and canonized relationship between performers and audience, I have to more explicitly draw attention to the trap of ostensible politicization that actually strengthens impermeability of theatre territory. The pseudo politicization can be noticed in trendy efforts to push a participatory and interactive impression into actually conservatively devised plays.

When co-participation is not organically rooted in context and concept of a play—that includes a true author’s need to make such conditions to achieve it—, its audience is often addressed in ways that are far from cohesive and that actually only stress usual incorporation in theatre canon. But politicization requires exiting the canon, a step across the border, even more, forgetting the border, which also means exit from ourselves, from self’s own boundaries, in terms of relativization of our identities, including ourselves as canonized functions (director, actor etc.), that is to say disidentification. The very functions of co-creators of a performance projected within certain performing strategy are, not to be mixed, something else.

The artificial, structural, but above all the unconscious dividing between spectator and performer calls for intervening in that core, for rethinking, deconstructing and reconfiguring that—spectacular—relation. We are speaking about the very dividing that directly, in physical sense, too—on the level of embodiment and bodies configuration—reflects ideology of the existing (alienation, reprogramming, and automation of desire) and its influence to the potentially critical performance. One can not be totally exempted from wheels of that ideology, however, everybody can make a step into a performative situation that can be initiated and co-created beyond the dominant production way.


1 Metelkova is a popular name of the squat-style area in Ljubljana’s city centre. It is not intended to be used for living as in the context of squatting, but is dedicated to cultural production, as stated in its name: Autonomous Cultural Centre Metelkova City. Exactly that awkward stress on the paradigm of culture—the term which is not only paradoxical in itself, but is in the first place depoliticized and exclusivist i.e. meta-racist—narrows Metelkova’s declarative autonomous perspective to a regular exercising of cultural production (with added make-believe anarchistic spice) hybridized with NGO-kind of administration that actually goes hand in hand with empty mantras of tolerance and multiculturalism. This discrepancy reveals that hybrid as a way far from what autonomy is about in politically emancipated sense, and what it might intended to be in its very beginning in early 1990’s. However, drinking a bear and having a party there can still be a wonderful experience (this is not ironic statement). The point is that the culture industry maintain its ghetto-style areas to prove its inclusiveness that is constructed on the account of actual exclusiveness.

2 The museum is situated right next to Metelkova City and names itself after the popular name of the area. This naming is a school example of appropriation of a name’s symbolic capital, which somehow reflects actual musealisation and turistification of the whole area, including Metelkova City.


Barot, Emmanuel. Camera politica. Društvo za širjenje filmske kulture Kino! and Membrana, 2017. [Camera politica: Dialectique du réalisme dans le cinéma politique et militant (Groupes Medvedkine, Francesco Rosi, Peter Watkins). 2009.]

Bourdieu, Pierre. Sociologija kot politika. *cf., 2003. [“Espace social et pouvoir symbolique”. 1987; “Le capital social. Notes provisoires”. 1980.]

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Edip. Kapitalizam i shizofrenija. Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, 1990. [L’Anti-Œdipe. 1972.]

This text is an updated contribution to international scientific conference Theatre between Politics and Policies: New Challenges organized by Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade (Yugoslav Film Archive, 23–24 March 2018).

This text is a part of the research program Theories and Practices of Performance at Kitch—Institute for art production and research. The text is based on the writer’s contribution Težave z institucijo. K samoorganizaciji produkcije. Skica. [Troubles with Institution. Towards Self-organization of Production] at the symposium “(Disrupted) Flow: The Question of Institutions in Contemporary Performing Arts”, organized by the Association of Theatre Critics and Researchers of Slovenia in collaboration with Radio Slovenia and as a part of the Maribor Theatre Festival 2017.