August 19, 2013  |  Intern Chronicles
“Freedom Not to Know”: New Institutional Approaches at W139, Witte de With, and Van Abbemuseum

Installation view, On Fresh Soil, W139, Amsterdam, June 29-July 28, 2013

Installation view of On Fresh Soil, W139, Amsterdam, June 29–July 28, 2013

Open-endedness, self-reflexivity, discursiveness—together, these characteristics define one strain of thinking about arts institutions and the features that make them relevant to society. Developed in Europe in the 1990s, the associated approach to curating and programming, called New Institutionalism, moves away from the traditional emphasis on static exhibitions of objects and toward models that integrate evolution, social interactions, and educational programming.

Accordingly, the visitor’s experience in these institutions takes on a different tone. While proponents celebrate how new institutions offer visitors unique opportunities to actively engage with their investigations, others question whether their presentations are too inaccessible or prescriptive. I have harbored an interest in this debate for years, and my 12-Month Internship in Adult and Academic Programs enabled me to research it by touring institutions in the Netherlands associated with New Institutionalism and learning about their methods for visitor engagement.

Installation view, On Fresh Soil, W139, Amsterdam, June 29-July 28, 2013

Installation view of On Fresh Soil, W139, Amsterdam, June 29–July 28, 2013

To set the context of my research, I visited Amsterdam’s W139—a self-declared “non-institutional platform for contemporary art”—since the structure of artist initiatives such as W139 is a source of inspiration for New Institutional thinking. With a central focus on experimentation and discovery, W139 invites artists to conceptualize and execute projects like the one I encountered: On Fresh Soil, a work-in-progress exhibition in which the participating artists removed the space’s asphalt floor and created artworks from its remains.

On Fresh Soil’s transparent emphasis on process prompted me to think as much about what I couldn’t see—how the artists’ experiments would continue to unfold—as I did about what was in the space. This sense of openness made the non-institutional ethos palpable: the exhibition allowed for engagement with the messy and the unknown, rather than a fixed narrative. In speaking with managing director Jowon van der Peet, I learned that my experience was reflective of  W139’s characteristic “freedom not to know”—a freedom that pays off in speculative possibilities for both the organization and the visitor.

Jennifer Wen Ma, In Search of the Garden of Eden (2013). Installation view in The World Turned Inside Out, Witte de With, Rotterdam, May 25-August 18, 2013 (and onwards)

Jennifer Wen Ma. In Search of the Garden of Eden. 2013. Installation view, The World Turned Inside Out, Witte de With, Rotterdam, May 25–August 18, 2013 (and onwards)

I was eager to see whether these qualities of the non-institution would translate to one of the sites where New Institutionalism emerged, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. Witte de With incorporates structural freedom by working as a laboratory both internally, with staff working fluidly across departments, and externally, with innovative presentation formats for often interdisciplinary or theoretical subjects. I saw the results of this approach in the exhibition The World Turned Inside Out, an inquiry into historical narratives that consists of an installation showcasing the artists’ ongoing research projects and a series of events placing each artist in conversation with experts from their chosen field of study.

Like On Fresh Soil, The World Turned Inside Out presented visitors with parts of evolving works. However, in the latter, instead of feeling free to imagine what would emerge, I had a sense that I was not getting the whole story. Despite seeming like an interpretive obstacle, I realized that this type of display actually facilitated engagement; since the works hide much of their significance in unseen investigation processes, the exhibition connected me to this crucial opacity by both calling attention to it and elaborating on it through discursive programming. In its focus on both the visible and invisible, the exhibition sets up what Yoeri Meessen, Curator of Education & Theory, called a “framework that allows art to function as art.” By asking what art does rather than what it is, Witte de With’s approach is directed at the visitor, allowing each of us to fill in our own understanding of art’s function.

Surasi Kusolwong, Naked Machine (Volkswagen Modern) (2000-2011). Installation view Van Abbemuseum. Photo by Peter Cox. Courtesy of Van Abbemuseum

Surasi Kusolwong. Naked Machine (Volkswagen Modern). 2000–11. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum. Photo by Peter Cox. Courtesy of Van Abbemuseum

For my final stop, I visited the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the first collecting museum to experiment with New Institutionalism. I spoke with research curator Steven ten Thije about a series of self-reflexive investigations that Van Abbe pursued between 2006 and 2011: Plug In, Living Archive, and Play Van Abbe Parts 1–4. The first two exhibition initiatives explored methods of organizing the collection, while the Play Van Abbe installations homed in on the constituent parts of a museum: creators, presentation models, collections, and visitors.

For example, Play Van Abbe Part 4: The Pilgrim, the Tourist, the Flaneur (and the Worker)</a> (2011) posited that there are many roles that visitors can assume when looking at art, and explored this notion by defining four possibilities, developing unique interpretive materials for each, and inviting visitors to assume one or more of them. As in The World Turned Inside Out, this framework acted as a form of engagement, asking visitors to consider how each perspective informed their encounters. Notably, Van Abbe went a step further than Witte de With in priming visitors to base their interpretations on their lived experiences, since the symmetry of the active role-playing and the central exhibition question made it natural for visitors to think alongside the curators. As an example of how Van Abbe turns self-reflexive questions into inclusive explorations, Part 4 of Play Van Abbe demonstrates New Institutionalism’s potential to inspire new ways of seeing the museum and behaving within it.</p>

Leaving the Van Abbemuseum, I found myself back where I started: appreciating a “freedom not to know.” Perhaps it is for this very reason that New Institutionalism has been so hotly contested. In order to value the type of engagement that this approach fosters, one must first relinquish his or her desire for definitive facts. Though the task seems daunting, my experience at each of these institutions convinced me that the payoff is well worth the risk.