Go back to article: Moments of danger: photography, institutions and the history of the future

Institutional critique

What I am grasping at here, in a roundabout way, are the multifarious and interconnected ways in which politico-economic systems shape both institutional histories of photography and the public meanings of science. I am also trying to make sense of the strange ways in which an exploration of precisely those issues in Revelations may have ended up providing an accidental model through which the fate of the National Science and Media Museum can be understood in political and economic terms. Most of all, I am attempting to come to terms with the uncanny ways in which events that were in all likelihood underway when we were working on the exhibition, but which we were in many ways oblivious to at the time, have – upon becoming public – expanded the meanings of the work we produced. I no longer know where the exhibition ends and something else begins.

When I delivered my paper at the SMG conference, as part of a panel that included Museum staff, and to an audience that included the Chair of the SMG Trustees, I came to suspect (not for the first time) that I was stuck inside an allegorical artwork of someone else’s making. I have a long-held interest in questions of institutional critique. There is an appealing paradox in deploying the spaces provided by museums and universities to pose questions about the political and economic operations of those institutions – probing at the limits of the freedoms they purport to offer through self-reflexive interrogation. Art historian Alexandro Alberro describes that practice in terms of the juxtaposition of ‘the immanent, normative (ideal) self-understanding of the…institution with the (material) actuality of the social relations that currently formed it’. The goal is therefore ‘to foreground the tension between the theoretical self-understanding of the institution…and its actual practices of operation’. Both ‘as an analytical and political position’, Alberro explains, institutional critique develops the view that ‘if one problematized and critically assessed the soundness of the claims advanced (often tacitly) by art institutions, then one would be in a better position to instantiate a non-repressive art context’ (2011, p 3).

We were always aware that our exhibition, housed on the second floor of the Science Museum, provided opportunities to pose questions about attitudes and approaches that prevailed elsewhere in our host institution (Bush, 2015). As I have explained, Revelations focused on the social meanings of science and technology. It traced links between the attitudes articulated through artists’ engagement with scientific forms and wider discussions prompted by the ways that science had been instrumentalised in different socio-political contexts. The meaning of early scientific photography shifted across time and space in ways that reflected wider ideological formulations and the resistance they had spawned. Contemporary artists offered a particularly sceptical view of technology as a benign social force. The implications of those questions appear to have become more focused as a direct consequence of the planned changes to Bradford and the politico-economic forces that drive them. Shifts within the institution have acted, quite unexpectedly, to amplify and refine our critique. It is the implications of that fact that I am still struggling to come to terms with.

Alberro explains that the process of institutional critique is necessarily dialectical. By playing host to this kind of reflection, the museum makes good on its promise as a public institution, while critique is absorbed as part of the institution it set out to question. Both are transformed as a consequence (2015, pp 3–4). I remain uncertain, however, as to what happens when changes to the institution that have no direct, causative link to the initial critique nonetheless impact, in retrospect, on what that initial challenge is taken to mean. What happens, specifically, to conclusions drawn about the original project as a consequence of that change?

I had taken Revelations’ pessimistic ending as the clearest indication of what the exhibition was about. To lament the applications of technology used to service the interests of surveillance, profit and post-industrial power felt like an important statement to make in the context of the Science Museum. But, in light of changes within the institutions I was working with, which could not have impacted more directly on the curators with whom I collaborated, I find myself questioning the importance of that statement today. In particular, I regret the omission of alternative conclusions that would have required a more thorough thinking through of the socio-political possibilities contained in the present. In truth, I have come to suspect the meanings I had attached to our history to be as inadequate a response to the troubling times we face as the uncritical celebration of STEM. Both, it now seems to me, involve a fundamental failure to imagine socio-economic relations in anything other than their current individualistic and market-focused form. Each, I suspect, is symptomatic of the political malaise so memorably described by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher in terms of ‘Capitalist Realism’: ’the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’ (2009, p 2).

Figure 13

Colour photograph of a section of the Revelations experiments in photography exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford

Revelations: Experiments in Photography exhibition at the National Media Museum, Bradford

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170708/006