Suzana Milevska: The Internalisation of the Discourse of Institutional Critique and the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’

Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, Rowe CD jukebox, 100 CDs / 1500 tracks, ongoing project started in 2003. Installation shot from Brank & Heckle, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, 2011. Photograph by Ruth Clark. Courtesy of the artist.

Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, Rowe CD jukebox, 100 CDs / 1500 tracks, ongoing project started in 2003. Installation shot from Brank & Heckle, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, 2011. Photograph by Ruth Clark. Courtesy of the artist.


The vicious cycle of institutional critique stems from its dichotomous nature. It inevitably entails a certain position that exists outside or beyond any institution, in contrast to the institutional position that is being criticised. It implies a severe critique of powerful, supposedly autocratic, institutions and their systems of governance, in contrast to the preferred form of weak, supposedly democratic, institutions that, by all accounts, are expected to deal with art and cultural production in a more creative and liberal way. I want to argue that, because of this dichotomy, any discourse reliant on institutional critique, paradoxically, becomes dangerously internalised, in a similar way to the biopower and biopolitics that are its initial targets. [1] I am interested in tackling the set of questions that derives from such an intrinsically dichotomous split within institutional critique, which results in an ‘unhappy consciousness’. Hegel called this kind of divided mode of consciousness the ‘unhappy consciousness’, because the self is in conflict with itself when there is no unity between self and other. [2] On the one hand, this ‘unhappy consciousness’ within institutional critique is the institutional consciousness that is conscious of itself, as being divided internally and as not being able to reconcile itself with its ‘other’ – the institutional system. On the other, the undivided consciousness would be a dual self-consciousness which brings unity to the self and the ‘other’. In this text I want to argue that what stands behind the ‘unhappy consciousness’ of the institutional critique is the performative contradiction of contemporary society today that prevents such unity from taking place. However, the question to be asked here is, what if such a completely independent position of institutional critique (beyond any institution) cannot exist? What if one can utter relevant statements only when there is a certain institutional framework (weak or strong), from which to speak? Does this indicate that the position of any institutional critique is that of a double dialectics, always already simultaneously self-legitimising and self-legitimated and, therefore, strong but questionable, in implying the oppositional shortcomings, exactly because of its reliance on self-legitimated strength? The main paradox of institutional critique is that at first sight it seems as though it is a logical impossibility, on account of this internal performative contradiction – meaning that it is always already impossible, a posited contradiction within itself, in which the interlocutors are entrapped, since they deny the possibility of communication and understanding. [3] However, even if this were so, it would be relevant to discuss the potentialities for other possible directions in transitional institutional critique in the context of the countries of South-East Europe. Let me give you the good news now: what could demonstrate more clearly that institutional critique is still possible and very much alive than the fact that individuals and communities are still willing to step aside from society, pass judgment on it, and break free from the bonds of ideology? By questioning and pursuing truth, these ‘rebels’ seek to achieve a kind of institutional emancipation. Seen from this perspective, if we try, despite all the contradictions, to re-establish the need for institutional critique in a post-socialist context, we see that the question of the standpoint that any such institutional critique might adopt becomes crucial and much more relevant, in fact, than the choice of any professional standpoint. Because of the crisis of legitimation and state authority in this transitional period, institutional critique has become possible in more general and political terms, and not only in terms of art or cultural institutions. Therefore, it has become increasingly significant to determine whether institutional critique should be understood as: – a singular position of an artist, art critic or cultural producer – a position of a self-organised community of art and culture producers – a neo-liberal governmental position – a conservative (nationalist) critique, or – a non-governmental – democratic civil society organisation. It is important to emphasise that, even though each of the above-mentioned positions entails a different starting point, some of the objectives of these different positions overlap and intertwine with each other. Institutional critique can only have a relevant impact on society as a whole, if the agents of institutional critique are aware that their questions are formulated from a certain institutional platform. However, a more complex approach would suggest that the different strands of institutional critique can be brought together under a common denominator. Self-consciousness embodies a certain intrinsic ‘otherness’ within itself, in that the self is conscious of what is other than itself. Self-consciousness on the part of institutional critique is contradictory, because it is conscious of both sameness and otherness. The contradictions of governmentality, self-governance and self-organisation, to name but a few examples. The fundamental challenge of each form of government is how to govern, but not too much, or, as Michel Foucault famously put it: ‘The suspicion that one always risks governing too much is inhabited by the question: Why, in fact one must govern?…In other words, what makes it necessary for there to be a government, and what ends should it pursue with regard to society in order to justify its existence?’[4] The ‘art of government’, for Foucault, is actually something that does not entail any universalised distinction between different governing systems. ‘Instead of making the distinction between state and civil society into a historical universal that allows us to examine all the concrete systems, we can try to see it as a form of schematization characteristic of a particular technology of government.’ [5] According to Gerald Raunig, ‘not only resistive individuals, but also progressive institutions and civil society NGOs operate on the same plane of governmentality.’ [6] The main attribute of parrhesia (‘frankness’, ‘freedom of speech’) is not the possession of truth, which is made public in a certain situation, but the taking of a risk, the ‘fact that a speaker says something dangerous – something other than what the majority believes.’[7] Raunig actually refers to Foucault’s statement that distinguishes between the ‘classical Greek conception of parrhesia’ – constituted by those who dare ‘to tell the truth to other people’ – and a new truth game, which entails being ‘courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself.’ [8] The activity of speaking the truth is much more important than setting up truth in opposition to a lie, or to something ‘false’. Criticism, and especially institutional critique, is not limited to denouncing abuses, or to withdrawing into a more or less radical from of self-questioning. In the field of the visual arts, this means that neither the belligerent strategies of institutional critique of the 1970s nor the notion of art as a service to the institution from the 1990s offer any guarantee of the potential for intervening effectively in the governmentality of the present. [9] According to Raunig, a productive game emerges from the relationship between activists and the institution, so that social criticism and institutional critique permeate the interwoven strands of forms of political and personal parrhesia. It is only by linking the two techniques of parrhesia that one-sided instrumentalisation can be avoided, the institutional machine is saved from closing itself off, and the dynamic exchange between movement and institution can be maintained. In addition to Raunig’s proposal for applying parrhesia as a double strategy (as an attempt to engage in a process of refutation and self-questioning), I would suggest that dialogical critique offers a more appropriate model of institutional critique, in terms of a positive agency of action. I suggest that a kind of deconstruction of the one-way critique inherited from the models of institutional critique from the 1970s and 1990s would engender a collaborative policy that could engage both state and independent institutions in the same critical projects, and favour the development of institutional awareness, though promoting a critical, yet constructive form of institutional activity. Instead of assuming that an institution has internalised power through the instruments of governance only because it is an institution with a higher position in the hierarchy, perhaps it would be more constructive to remember that the institutions of power are all around us, and that biopolitics reaches much further than only within its own institution. Acknowledging this complex entanglement of power, its institutions, and its critique, could bring us closer to a sober, more refined, critical position that would be responsive to today’s forms of institutional critique. Different institutions could then contribute, both by embracing a self-critical approach and by critiquing each others’ practices.  Institutional Critique, as the Internalisation of Power and Politics The internalisation of institutional critique is a two way street: On the one hand, institutions very quickly internalise the critique aimed at them, by appropriating the same vocabulary as their critics and superficially incorporating the new structures. Institutions criticised in this way are strengthened in the process, even if they continue to work under the same rules as before: an institution constructs itself only after being interpellated by the right kind of critical opposition! On the other hand, critics themselves internalise institutional power, by practising the same forms of self-criticism time and time again, to the point where this starts to govern their own activities. By continuing to use the same methods, under the pretext of receiving protection from more powerful institutions, they thus become the gate-keepers and agents of a form of negation that itself amounts to the exercise of power, of a different kind. In particular, the shift in institutional critique can best be discussed, by taking into consideration the shift in the role of contemporary art museums in South-East Europe and the challenge to their monopolistic position on the regional art scene, posed both by individuals and by the emergence of independently run, non-governmental, art spaces. These changes have mainly occurred, because of the new critical curatorial practices that started as far back as the early 1990s and have been carefully nurtured by small, but very active, art institutions. It is important to stress the fact that, in the beginning, most of these new initiatives – especially, the appearance of the Soros Contemporary Art Centers and their offshoots – were viewed as urgently needed means of balancing, contesting, and even confronting, the monopoly of the powerful state-governed and -supported art institutions. Their important political agenda was to stand up to communist ideology, in favour of an ‘Open Society’ purportedly by promoting the new art media.[10] However, there were instances where an ambiguous kind of unwritten agreement was reached between the centre and margin, and between the mainstream and alternative.. Therefore, the internalisation of institutional critique on the part of these new institutional models for almost a decade threatened to become an even more centralised monopoly of power, at least in cultural environments where the state institutions collaborated closely with their critical counterparts. The most interesting example of this kind of merging of state power with oppositional institutional critique was the collaboration between the Soros Contemporary Art Center Skopje and the Skopje Museum of Contemporary Art that started with the very beginning of the activities of the SCCA-Skopje, in 1994. At that time the Museum of Contemporary Art was at its undisputed acme, as the lead institution for the presentation of international contemporary art in Skopje, and the only institution professionally capable of representing Macedonian contemporary art abroad. The Museum of Contemporary Art was established in1964, as the outcome of a political decision, embodied an Act of the Skopje City Assembly, to host the collection of art works that hundreds of international artists had donated to the city immediately after the catastrophic earthquake of 1963. The new museum, which opened in 1970, was one of very few museums of contemporary art in the region and could thus be regarded as a cultural institution of exceptional importance. The plans for the building were themselves a gift to the city by the Polish architects J. Mokrzynski, E. Wierzbicki and W. Klyzewski and envisaged a total area of 5000 square metres, with over 3500 square metres of exhibition space, plus storage space, cinema, archives, library and all the other necessary concomitants. [11] However, the museum’s administration always had a struggle to manage its assets and the building was completely run down by 1994, as a result of the poor decision the management had taken, to redirect the funds assigned to it for acquisitions and structural maintenance into programme activities. (Recent examples of this tendency have included the decisions to use maintenance funds to cover the expenses of an exhibition in Japan, in 2000, and to use rental income from a wedding reception at the museum in 1998 to pay for the cost of a museum café in 1998, instead of repairing the roof). The decision not to spend funds on structural repairs to the roof, in particular, has led to the catastrophic situation in which the entire collection has had to be removed from public display for the last fifteen years or so, and more and more of the museum’s important potential long-term partners, such as international foundations and other museums, have abandoned any thought of collaboration, because of the risk of showing any valuable, or sizeable, exhibitions under such conditions. [12] The first serious attempt to reconstruct the building was started only recently, with the support from the Italian Government, but a question mark hangs over the condition of the works that have been held in storage under appalling conditions for more than fifteen years [13] This policy of self-promotion on the part of the museum’s curatorial team, and of support for only a handful of favoured artists, has gradually resulted in the building, and the institution itself, becoming completely marginalised within society and by the general public. Attempts by independent artists and critics to protest, in the name of democracy, against this centralised abuse of power have been isolated and doomed from the outset. Indeed, any outsider attempting to criticise the institution has risked a form of ostracisation that is virtually tantamount to committing professional suicide. On the one hand, artists and critics who voice any kind of criticism are ruled out from participation in any creative initiatives. On the other hand, ciriticality turns into a vicious cycle, so that those expressing critical views have been prevented from taking any initiatives of their own through the combined opposition of institutional critique and institutional power.[14] The best example of this perverse state of affairs is provided by my earlier comment, to the effect that the Soros Center for Contemporary Art Skopje had initially been promoted as a kind of alternative to the Museum of Contemporary Art. What actually happened was that, when the SCCA-Skopje joined forces with Contemporary Art in the early 90s, it brought even more power to the museum. Of course, there would have been nothing wrong with this, if it had not directly affected the wider art scene in Macedonia. Mainly because of the monopoly of power in the display of contemporary art, hardly any criticism has been directed at to the problematic artistic and cultural policies that are being pursued by the museum. It has even become impossible for artists who are not interested in the issues that dominate the MOCA/SCCA’s agenda of large-scale group exhibitions and electronic arts to exhibit in the framework of these institutions. Today many things have changed. The weakening of the SCCA-Skopje, due to the loss of support from its main benefactor, and the right-wing nationalistic cultural policy of the governing coalition that places greater emphasis on national heritage and archaeology, and less on contemporary art, have led to a general deterioration of the situation and a decline in these institutions’ once untouchable monopoly. Paradoxically, this worsening situation in the museum has opened up the possibility of new kinds of institutional, or non-institutional, practices.  Some recent public-private collaborations are especially relevant here. Independent initiatives, such as the press to exit project space in Skopje and the Tocka Cultural Centre, in Skopje, function in a similar way to better known and longer established alternative spaces, such as Kuda, in Novi Sad, P74 in Ljubljana, WHW in Zagreb, and Remont in Belgrade. These all function in such a way as largely to overcome the performative contradiction in institutional critique and its unhappy consciousness, and succeed in producing art projects that deal with institutional critique in a more positive, and visionary, way.[15] Instead of critiquing, complaining or nagging, the new generation of artists and artivists, with the support of many different funding sources and foreign institutions, have become aware that their committed art activities are perhaps the most productive form of institutional critique, and that they may ultimately lead towards a kind of self-parrhesia.


[1] Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Empire, London: Harvard University Press, 23-27.

[2] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979, 119-139.

[3] Habermas, Jürgen, ‘Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification’, in Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. C. Lenhardt and S.W. Nicholsen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), 89.

[4] Foucault, Michael, Ethics, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Editor: Paul Rabinow, New York: The New Press, 1997, 74-75.

[5] Foucault 75.

[6] Raunig, Gerald, ‘The Double Criticism of parrhesia: Answering the Question ‘What is a Progressive (Art) Institution?”’, 18 September 2007

[7] Raunig, ‘The Double Criticism’.

[8] Michel Foucault, Diskurs und Wahrheit, Berlin 1996, p.14 (cf. discussion of parrhesia in English: <>, 150, quoted from Raunig, ‘The Double Criticism of parrhesia’).

[9] Raunig, ‘The Double Criticism’.

[10] George Soros, the main founder of the Open Society Foundations that started to emerge throughout Eastern Europe in the early 90s and of their offshoots, such as the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art, is a controversial figure, with an overtly problematic philanthropic image. Beside the intellectual aura owing to Soros’ friendship and obsession with the philosopher, Karl Popper, there are many financial scandals that cast doubt on his philanthropic motives. Interestingly enough, his name appeared in one of Mark Lombardi’s charts of the flow of capital: Mark Lombardi, George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (5th version).

[11] Today the stock of donated works consists of around 4600 art works by several hundred artists in various media, but acquisitions are rare and incidental. The works by internationally well-known artists are of special importance, but most of the works that are now in the museum depot either belong to early modernism (Jan Štursa, Václav Spála, Emil Filla, František Muzika, Jindrich Stýrský, Vojtech Preissig) or date from 1950s -1970s: Fernand Léger, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, Hans Hartung, Victor Vasarely, Alexander Calder, Pierre Soulages, Henryk Staževski, Alberto Burri, Christo, Enrico Baj, Robert Jacobsen, Etienne Hajdu, Zoltan Kemeny, Robert Adams, Emilio Vedova, Antoni Clavé, Georg Baselitz …

[12] There is a series from 2004 of ten digital photographs, ‘Legend About the “legen”’ (Mac. bucket) that the artist, Sašo Stanojkoviќ, made on the upper floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art. The photographs show the colourful plastic bucket ‘installation’ that was ‘hosted’ by the museum for almost fifteen years, instead of the collection (reproduced in Contemporary, London, No.70, 2005, 20.) Taking into account the fact that that floods of dirty ‘rivers’ are frequent sights in the museum after each rainy day, some projects exhibited in the museum (such as Mozart’s Boat by Antoni Maznevski, consisting of a 6.5 m wooden boat), sounded like a bad joke.

[13] The fact that the director newly appointed in 2008 comes from the field of theatre management does not inspire much confidence in the quality of future programming, however.

[14] From 10 September to 16 October 1990, a three-months’ local debate was conducted in Skopje between the author of this text and the museum’s curator, Viktorija Vasev-Dimeska. The controversy was triggered by a review written on the occasion of the Second Youth Biennial, curated by Vasev-Dimeska at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. See Suzana Milevska, ‘The Perfectionism of the Obedient– or why the 2 Youth Biennial looks so classical’, in Republika, 10 September 1990. The text of this review was published in the first independent and privately owned newspaper in Macedonia, Republika. It was envisaged as an attempt to problematise the ideology behind the strictly modernist institutional and cultural policy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, known for continuously neglecting and leaving aside many alternative postmodern artistic practices, such as the performances, public painting actions, installation, and concerts of the members of the Macedonian art group, Zero.

[15] The best example is the project ‘Oskar Hansen’s Museum of Modern Art’, by Hristina Ivanoska and Yane Calovski, which looks at the proposal that this Polish architect submitted to the open competition for a Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, instigated by the Polish Government in 1966. This proposal did not win the competition, as it was conceived as a radical, visionary experiment, proposing the use of transformative design. With 12 posters of imagined exhibitions, Ivanoska and Calovski simulated an imaginary programme for the museum that was never realised. See press to exit project space, 28 September 2007

Dr. Suzana Milevska is a theorist of visual art and culture based in Skopje, Macedonia. Currently she teaches art history and theory of visual art at the Faculty of Fine Arts – University Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje. From 2008 – 2010 she taught fine arts and digital arts at the New-York University in Skopje and she taught art history and analysis of styles at the Accademia Italiana Skopje and she was its Dean. From 2006 to 2008, she was the Director of the Center for Visual and Cultural Research at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Institute “Euro-Balkan” in Skopje and she taught Visual Culture at its research degree M.A. in Gender Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths College in London (2006) where she thought from 2003 to 2005. In 2004, she was a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in Library of Congress. Her research and curatorial interests include post colonial critique in arts, visual culture, feminism and gender theory. Since 1992 she curates exhibitions, conferences, long-life learning and other participatory projects. She was a member of the Advisory Board at the Contemporary Art Museum in Kumamoto, Japan (2004/2005). Her most recent research and curatorial project The Renaming Machine consists of series exhibitions and conferences discussing the politics of renaming and overwriting memory in art and visual culture (2008-2010). Recently she published her book Gender Difference in the Balkans (Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2010) and edited The Research Machine (Ljubljana: P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Institute, 2010).