ISSN 2451-2966


Marta Keil

What Is the Purpose of Institutional Critique Today?

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I believe that a genuine and effective campaign for art as a democratic instrument can only succeed if the methods and conditions of producing art are rendered more democratic; and the programme of social emancipation ought to begin with a critical examination of the mechanisms, structures and internal relations in force within the organization we are responsible for. I am in no doubt that public arts institutions remain a priceless good, requiring care and attention, but in my view the campaign for their survival will only be efficient insofar as we reflect critically on how these institutions are organized, how they operate, and whom and what they realistically benefit. In this context, I understand institutional critique as a critical enquiry into the practices, structures and methods of working in art. I find it equally important to expose the institutional framework and the process by which it is delimited – in doing so, I am especially mindful of the fact that defining borders inevitably leaves out fragments of territory. I will attempt to answer the question about the practicability of institutional critique in the current socio-political and economic context, and address the issue of why this type of critique is more vital today than ever.

<i>What Is the Purpose of Institutional Critique Today?

In Poland’s current political and economic context, practising institutional critique has become very problematic indeed. With institutions under threat and in need of defence, how is one to survey them critically? Raising controversial issues is frowned on as these may become bones of contention in the theatre world, bringing on new divisions and undermining the already volatile position of theatre makers, arts producers and of these institutions. Such contentious subjects include but aren’t limited to pay, relations within the company, the subjectivity of artists and their audience. One brings up these issues at the risk of ostracism, contempt or condescension at best from colleagues. Another recurring argument is that critical analysis of institutional practices is an esoteric and self-referential occupation, benefitting nothing and no one except its own object and subject.

How, then, is one to campaign for structures based on equality, and for equal distribution of both responsibility and visibility, without being accused of petty-mindedness? Does it do to expose the patriarchal nature and misogyny of left-wing arts organizations at a time when conservative, nationalist language is prevalent in public discourse and the political left has no representation in the Polish parliament? When the most important, most interesting theatre companies disappear from the map of Poland one after another, while excellent ensembles fall apart and space for making critical art shrinks rapidly, of course one does find oneself thinking this may really not be the best time for posing questions like these.

But will there ever be a better time? I fully second the view of Dorota Buchwald, director of the Theatre Institute in Warsaw, that we must defend public arts institutions with all our might, as they are an invaluable part of the common good and are also requisite if this good is to endure.1 The European system of public funding for the arts is a minimum, and is a must if artists are to develop without constraint and if critical thinking is to live on. Mechanisms described by Frederic Martel in Theater: sur le déclin du théâtre en Amérique (published in Polish translation by the Theatre Institute) and the individual fortunes of American theatre artists are both excellent cases in point. Refusing to commodify their work, queer artists of New York City’s WOW Café have never moved beyond the underground art scene;2 major works by Robert Wilson have been produced in European theatres; similarly, Nature Theater of Oklahoma wouldn’t have been able to develop their ‘Life and Times'production series if not for their collaboration with arts organizations in Europe. Then, when a financial crisis hit Vienna’s Burgtheater during the 2013 / 2014 season, Nature Theater fell apart and disappeared from the scene.3 Only very recently, little by little and considerably reduced, has that company begun to regain clout.

All this reaffirms my deeply held belief that public arts institutions remain a priceless good, requiring care and attention – but in my view the campaign for their survival will only be efficient insofar as we reflect critically on how these institutions are organized, how they operate, and whom and what they realistically benefit. I find demands of conservative theatre politics no less a threat to present-day public theatre institutions than the risk of commercialization or complex and not always conscious entanglements in capitalist mechanisms.4 According to that conservative mindset, arts institutions are up for grabs and can be either blatantly turned into instruments of producing and reinforcing nationalist narratives or ‘silenced’, a move that may seem more measured at first glance but is in fact the most dangerous of all.

The most relevant and distinctive institutions are frequently being subjected to that latter scenario, with attempts made to dismantle their programmes and castrate their critical and political potential, as in the recent cases of the Polski Theatre in Bydgoszcz, the Stary Theatre in Kraków, and in the response that Klątwa [The Curse], directed by Oliver Frljić and produced by the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, elicited from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.5 However, I’d add another key aspect of public arts institutions that poses a threat to their survival: the mechanisms underpinning such institutions are vague, preventing all actors within the arts field – by which I mean staff at all levels of the institutional hierarchy – from taking full responsibility for those mechanisms. A genuine, effective campaign for the arts as a democratic instrument is only possible if methods of and conditions for producing art are rendered more democratic. I also believe that a critical overview of mechanisms, structures and internal relations within an organization for which we hold responsibility ought to be the starting point of any programme with objectives of emancipating society. Otherwise, even the finest programmes will prove only fronts in the long run, leading us nowhere but towards casting the current state of affairs in stone and causing the pool of resources that’s still available to shrink drastically.

In this context, I understand institutional critique to be a critical survey of practices, structures and methods of working in the arts. I find it equally crucial to bring to light the institutional framework and the process by which this framework is delimited – in doing so, I’m particularly mindful of the fact that defining borders invariably leaves out fragments of territory. In my interpretation, the political and emancipatory potential of arts institutions is revealed at the as-yet undefined, risk fraught and confused moment when the institution is only just being created. Thus institutional critique is considered here as a potential instrument of grasping that moment, and of winning institutions back for the practices of resistance and dissent.

While it’s obvious we must fight for the survival of public arts institutions – especially in light of the fact that communal spaces where genuine popular debate is possible are constantly being degraded – it’s much more difficult to answer the question of what kind of institutions we’re fighting for. In our attempts to preserve public arts institutions, are we intent on consolidating their hierarchical order and reinforcing the interests of social groups that called a given institution into being? After all, an institution is not established once and for all: it can be surprisingly ephemeral and carries within it, contrary to appearance, great potential for change. It’s always political, as well: it establishes the order of perception, delimits the scope of vision, supplies the instruments and principles which organize society and make it work, consolidates or abolishes social hierarchies and structures. An institution has nothing to do with universality: after all, it’s made up of and by particular individuals working in a certain context, to more or less specified ends. As philosopher and political-philosophy scholar Sonja Lavaert has pointed out:

Social institutions are projects that are being realized, imagination that is being tested in reality […]. Institutions — both concrete organizations with their buildings, funds, directors and budgets, and the regimes with their value system and procedures – create a general space for the benefit of private subjects. The notion of ‘institution’ presupposes general rules, but these rules are always invented, made and imposed by people, which is precisely where they differ from natural laws. At one time they originated in the brain of the individual; they have not always been there.6

What’s more, when it comes to institutions, their political nature is always revealed on at least two levels. First, institutions operate within the social field and reflect social order, being as they are its representation, legitimization or contradiction. They reflect behavioural norms and standards of social relations – or set new norms and standards. Arts institutions name a given phenomenon, assign it to a certain order and define conventions. They decide what is and what is not art, formulate canons, establish hierarchies, condition the methods of producing and receiving art. They delineate the scope of the visible (and the ways in which it can be perceived), and determine the positions of the artist and audience member. In the case of theatre, institutional structure, line-up and mutual relations are revealed already in a theatre’s architecture or stage set: delimiting the dividing line between stage and audience (the proscenium stage; black box; situating the audience around the stage) and defines the basic rules of role distribution and the nature of action taken by those participating in a production.

Second: contemporary arts institutions came into being in a specific political context – usually, they were established as instruments of constructing the narrative of modernity. The order of an arts institution is based on the more or less arbitrary decision of an individual, on the performative act of creating a given structure or relation, and on accepted convention. Therefore, institutions are never neutral or innocent. Similarly no canon of artworks, no way of producing art and no choice of a production for a festival programme is ever innocent either.

Referencing the institutional theory of art, Ana Vujanović argues that art as we know it in contemporary Western culture is a social practice – which is why it’s governed by completely different rules from those in force in, say, a corporation or a state:

The artworld is not an institution similar to, for instance, the Catholic Church or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is an established practice, not an established society or corporation (George Dickie, ‘What Is Art? An Institutional Analysis’, in Art and the Aesthetic. An Institutional Analysis [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974, pp. 19–52]), since it has no strict and codified rules and procedures – its rules and procedures are mostly conventional. In that sense, as Nöel Carroll will later formulate (Nöel Carroll, Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 1999]), art is a loose institution. Nevertheless, this does not imply that its rules and procedures are easily changeable. It rather indicates that although the acts and decisions about the status, value, visibility and historicity of art works, practices, notions and even artists that are made by the actors of artworlds are formative, they do not have juridical but – performative – power.7

Were performativeness at the core of how this artworld works, one would, Vujanović argues, regard art as a dynamic system, never capable of fully constituting itself; a kind of order in which moments of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization overlap constantly.

One might add here that performative arts make for an especially interesting research field in that they are where institutional order is created and the process of assigning agency and a scope of action to those involved takes place virtually on a nightly basis. Within the realm of theatre and choreographic practices, institutions are regulated as the performance situation occurs and is being negotiated by those who bring it about (performers and producers) and by artists and their audience. Artists strike a deal with their audience, audience members honour (or disregard) the order put forward to them at the moment of entering the auditorium and then decide how to respond to the rules they’ve been presented with. At times, this response is in line with hints given by the artists, and their intentions; at other times, it’s just the opposite.

Good examples of artistic strategies revealing the institutional framework very clearly and attempting to shift, break or redraw it include works by Xavier Le Roy – Low Pieces and the process of working on the second part of the production, where Le Roy and a group of choreographers and dancers he’d invited stretch the theatre apparatus to the limit while rendering problematic the mechanism that makes the apparatus operate – and productions by Ivana Müller and Mårten Spångberg. Each of these artists engages in their own way with the time and attention of an audience member, knocking out of her hands the perception tools she’s used so far, and breaking the rules of attention redistribution within theatre. The artistic and research practices of Ana Vujanović and the Walking Theory collective with whom she works are another apposite example of such a strategy of exposure.

There’s little doubt that in Polish theatre, The Curse at the Powszechny Theatre (premiered on 18 February 2017) is the most widely debated – and, to an extent, the most effective – example of institutional critique. This is particularly true of events surrounding the performances, which are discussed in detail in the present issue of Polish Theatre Journal. The case of The Curse has exposed very clearly the rift between the institutionalized, regulated order where social roles have already been assigned, leaving us to accept or reject them, and a chaotic situation, a state of disarray in which everything is still possible. Unpredictable, untamed by any institutionalizing gesture, this situation carries a variety of risks. The Curse uncovers and renders problematic the order of arts institutions, questions rules and mutual entanglements in force in the theatre world, and exposes the incapacitating hegemony of ecclesiastical discourse in Poland. Obviously, the strategy proposed by Frljić, the director, and his team is not a universal let alone a long-term model – it is meant to offer a diagnosis of the situation rather than to solve problems. It exposes the framework of social order and the institutions that guard it, pointing out spots that are particularly sensitive and reactive to tensions, and reveals lines of conflict including those not yet brought to consciousness or named. At the same time, however, it is but one of many critical-institutional strategies in the field of theatre; it doesn’t exhaust all possibilities or impose a single critical perspective.

If, therefore, Dorota Buchwald rightly remarks that ‘a grassroots, networked, self-referent model of building, rebuilding and expanding theatre consciousness – including collective consciousness – is no utopia. It is a necessity’,8 I believe we must first work out the instruments that will open up before us various ways of organizing ourselves, enabling us to create an organizational model – or, ideally, several models – and taking a critical look at the mechanisms within which we’ve worked up to this point. This would make us aware, for instance, of negative implications of the monopoly of repertory theatres on the theatre life in Poland – a monopoly that has a decisive impact on an actor’s social and professional standing. As Monika Kwaśniewska has rightly observed,9 actors consent to being exploited beyond their capacity and accept the hierarchy and non-subjective treatment imposed on them because they don’t have much chance of making a different choice. The absence of a regulated, transparent system of supporting alternative work models to the repertoire-based institution (collectives, co-operatives, arts NGOs) reduces this sphere to several organizations operating exclusively on the power of their founders’ determination. The decision to quit employment in the repertory-theatre system is synonymous with either subsisting on the brink of poverty with very little chance of stability or a foreseeable future, or looking for jobs in the commercial sector (advertisements, soap operas, commercial theatres) – with, it must be said, slim chances of success.

And there we have, in condensed form, the features shaping the status of the contemporary freelancer, a worker who pays for the illusion of her independence with being constantly switched on and ready for a career change, forever chasing new projects that could grant her at least bare subsistence (which, if they come to fruition, usually fail to meet even that basic requirement). It’s not that all young Polish actors and directors choose to work in institutional repertory theatre straight out of school – quite simply, there are no other jobs available. Let’s look at Poland’s best independent10 theatre: the Komuna// Warszawa company can only operate thanks to the stamina of its members, each of whom combines Komuna work with their day job. The result is that collectives such as Komuna// Warszawa and the Teraz Poliż company are still exceptions and function because the artists who founded them are extremely motivated and prepared to make sacrifices. Though artists, curators and producers working in Polish theatre cite the need to search for new solutions with mounting frequency and make their own attempts at congregating into collectives or co-operatives, a broad-ranging public debate and coming up with instruments that would help those involved to formulate basic working conditions within the so-called independent sphere would be needed in order to devise, develop and sustain new forms of self-organization that don’t end up in parasitical relations with institutional theatres – as is the case with the Centrala company, discussed by Kamila Paprocka in the present issue of PTJ. The example of Berlin’s independent theatre scene could serve as a reference point here, albeit distant and seemingly utopian: after years of difficult discussion, debate and conflict, theatre in Berlin has come up with an efficacious representative body, an association that’s been speaking for theatre in public debates. On the initiative of that entity, Berlin’s municipal senate passed a resolution on granting minimum wage to artists working in independent organizations.

It’s my great fear that in the name of ‘what’s essential at the moment’ and in the name of some inviolability of surviving institutions, we’ll squander the opportunity to discuss their shape, role and the responsibility they have to take. We’ll lose the opportunity to ‘reclaim institutions’ and chances of grasping their political and emancipatory potential will diminish drastically. The perspective of institutional critique obviously entails risks: after all, we may occasionally find not all mechanisms of working out relations within an institution are in line with its professed programme. We may discover that some methods by which order is brought to a given organization ought not be repeated – because of a change of context, a change of the institution’s nature, or because there are other, better, more interesting ways of attaining the same goal – and that, as a result, we may face a period of chaos, uncertainty and experiment. In the short term, this course of action may undermine the status of a given institution, triggering a debate that’s not always agreeable, bringing about divisions – as is the case with every attempt at reform.

But the costs of preserving the status quowill be much higher: over time, the institution will inevitably become petrified, out of touch with reality; it will turn against goals it assumed it would achieve and this might make it either an instrument of reinforcing the oppressive order or into a no-man’s land, neglected and uncared for.

I’m convinced it’s precisely this reluctance to ask unpalatable questions that weakens the significance of an institution in social life – with the result that it loses its emancipatory potential. Thus I’d like to make use of this article to set forth a strategy of institutional defence that would involve but would not be limited to a considered analysis of how the institution works, spotting its mistakes so that it could improve – and survive. Wise, constructive institutional critique could enable artists and remaining employees of the art world to determine their own position within the field of the arts, and supply tools to facilitate coming up with new operating modes. I’m particularly interested in studying the process by which a given order is established, institutionalised, then subsequently criticised and toppled. To look carefully at what we regard as self-evident and immutable is to open our space to what has yet to be devised – or has thus far been consigned to the margins. What I also find particularly interesting is an attempt to grasp the moment of calling an institution into being: when an established order has been dispensed with already but a new one has yet to be created – not yet institutionalized and ossified by its own rules. I believe it’s this moment of creating an institution, negotiating conditions within it, defining how it operates and establishing its internal relations, that reveals an institution’s fundamental political and emancipatory potential.

The process of arriving at new work methods, new structures, new forms of organization and self-organization is another field where I discern an opportunity for performative arts to change and regain political and emancipatory potential. It seems we really have no choice: work methods we’ve known to date are shrinking before our eyes. But art has a huge asset in its hands: fiction. Following the concept of a ‘fictional institution’ put forward by Daniel Blanga-Gubbay and Livia Andrea Piazza,11 I’d like to propose that fiction be thought of as a political instrument. What if we regard fiction as a space, open to the impossible and to what has yet to be devised? What could happen were all the working conditions and work opportunities we’ve known thus far become things of the past? And, in any case, such opportunities remain few, far between, and hard to get, even now. What if we question the established rules for thinking about a festival, and propose instead a completely different set of guidelines? What if, rather than presenting audiences and the theatre world with ever more attractive events, we oppose the basic rule on which a festival is founded and use instruments at its disposal to build a communal space, not subjected to rules of production, promotion and networking? What if we think of an arts institution as a common good, property shared with those social groups that have been excluded from it? What if, for a moment, within our fictional institution, we defy the regimen of constantly producing new shows and focus instead on the process of work and the conditions of that process? What if we allow ourselves the luxury of being late? I believe thinking about fiction as a research field, a space in which to search for utopian solutions, is one of the very few instruments we still hold in our hands.

Translated by Joanna Błachnio


Blanga-Gubbay, Daniel, Livia Andrea Piazza, ‘F'ictional Institutions: On Radical Imagination’, in Turn, Turtle! Reenacting The Institute, eds. Elke van Campenhout, Lilia Mestre (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2016)

Buchwald, Dorota, 'Institution: the Defence of Necessity', Polish Theatre Journal, 3 (2017)

Lavaert, Sonja, 'Bartleby’s Tragic Aporia', in Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World, ed. Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013)

Vujanović, Ana, 'The Magic of the Artworld (Three Scenes from Belgrade)', Performance Research, 20:4 (August 2015), pp. 30–38

1. Dorota Buchwald, ‘Institution: the Defence of Necessity’, Polish Theatre Journal 2017, 1-2,

2. Their company gave their first European performance during the 2015 Theatre Confrontations Festival in Lublin, as part of the programme prepared by our Lublin team in collaboration with Joanna Krakowska,

3. For founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, the loss of their Burgtheater subsidy meant a lack of funding both for upcoming productions and, above all, for maintaining the company in its existing line-up and form, comprising freelance actors working in the US.

4. This includes but is not limited to instances of overproductivity causing institutions to sanction then extend precarious working conditions.

5. See the Ministry statement of 26 April 2017 regarding the unrest in front of the Powszechny Theatre: ‘The Ministry’s senior officials have learned about the form of The Curse from media reports and reviews. According to these sources, the artists’ intention had been to produce a peculiar theatre performance that would lead to a sharp worldview clash. This performance takes place not just on stage, but also beyond it; another of its acts has been staged in front of the theatre on 21 April. Director Oliver Frljić has been known, in Poland as well as in Europe, for his other ventures, taking advantage of theatre to ideologically and politically motivated ends. Is this kind of performance, combining artistic work with insults to religion and a breach of the supreme values of the Catholic Church, in accord with Article 73 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland (freedom of creative work); does it not infringe on other constitutional values, enclosed in Article 30 (the inherent dignity principle), Article 32 (the equality principle, proscription of discrimination), Article 37 (taking advantage of constitutional freedoms and rights), Article 53 (freedom of conscience and religion) and finally, Article 2 (the democratic law-governed state principle)? This issue should be examined and assessed by the judiciary, who are independent guardians of respect for the law derived from the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. Those reading the fundamental statute would, moreover, do well to note the Preamble, where the Nation, by whom the Constitution is established, highlights the need to preserve inherent human dignity, making respect for the right to individual freedom and the obligation to show solidarity with others into an “immovable fundament of the Republic”. In light of the above, the Minister of Culture and National Heritage wishes to appeal to the Mayor of Warsaw – the organizer of the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw – that she take seriously her responsibility for the institution in her charge’. [accessed on 15 June 2017].

6. Sonja Lavaert, ‘Bartleby’s Tragic Aporia’, in Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World, ed. Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2013), p. 118.

7. Ana Vujanović,‘The Magic of the Artworld (Three Scenes from Belgrade)’, Performance Research, 20.4 (August 2015), pp. 30–38 (p. 33).

8. Dorota Buchwald, ‘Institution: the Defence of Necessity’, Polish Theatre Journal 2017, 1-2,

9. During a discussion at the conference Pitfalls of the Language of Representation, held at the Art Institute of Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences on 12–13 June 2017.

10. The term ‘independent’ is used here to denote all theatre organizations that are not repertory-based.

11. Daniel Blanga-Gubbay, Livia Andrea Piazza, ‘F'ictional Institutions: On Radical Imagination’, in Turn, Turtle! Reenacting The Institute, eds. Elke van Campenhout, Lilia Mestre (Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2016), pp. 40–48.

Marta Keil

(1983), performing arts curator, based in Warsaw, Poland. Since 2012 she curates together with Grzegorz Reske Theatre Confrontations - international performing arts festival in Lublin ( She created and curates the East European Performing Arts Platform ( Worked as curator and dramaturg with i.e. Agnieszka Jakimiak, Rabih Mroué, Agata Siniarska and Ana Vujanović. In 2014 and 2015 she worked as curator at Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz ( and co-curated Festival of New Dramaturgies ( One of the initiators and curators of the Identity.Move! project ( Editor of the book “Dance, Process, Artistic Research. Contemporary Dance in the Political, Economic and Social Context of “Former East” of Europe”, published in 2015. PhD student at the Polish Academy of Science's Art Institute. She writes a blog