Questions in Riga
Maaretta Jaukkuri


We are living at a time very much characterised by paradoxes. One of the more common ones seems to be the recommendation to increase consumption to safeguard work opportunities while we are experiencing the threat of climate change. Another to bear in mind here is the very name/concept that is being discussed: museum of contemporary art, in other words, an instant musealisation of art. It, however, has other implications, leading to changing the role of a museum into something that is a combination of engagement in ongoing practices of art, discussing them and mediating them to people at large. The art object is still important in these activities, but collecting should be done parallel with other things which can incorporate art events, processes and practices.

There is a deep wish in today's culture/politics to create public spaces which would allow free discussions, critical voices and moments of sharing. It is often for these reasons that art has been searching out places/sites/situations and also discussions (immaterial frames of a kind) which are outside of the institutions. It has not meant that art spaces are in any way in danger of losing their position of offering a "tightly focused, concentrated publicness [...] along with art galleries and art periodicals these spaces have the function of making art public [..]." (Sven L¸tticken)

What we are witnessing could rather be defined as an increase in the functional register of a museum or an art institution.

 There are many interpretations, analyses and theories concerning the state of art today.  For me one of the more interesting ones is littoral art: "The term ‘littoral' art is derived from the root meaning of the word littoral. ‘Littoral' is a geographical term that describes the [intertidal] zone; it's a liminal zone, in-between zone, between the ocean and the land, which is covered at times by ocean and at times bare. The term ‘littoral' is used as a trope or a metaphor to describe artists who work liminally, that is, between the institution, museological gallery scene and the public sphere, using the term that the German social philosopher Jurgen Habermas developed in many of his books and essays. An artist may move back and forth between the gallery museum nexus and the public sphere that is the community or local context. This term doesn't necessarily mean that artists disavow the gallery network for artist-run centres. In fact, artists can work within those but move out into the community and back and forth. It's an organic term to describe an in-between zone." (Wikipedia)

The term is closely related to another term "functional site" which was introduced by James Meyer.

When thinking about the changing role of contemporary art museums, it seems to me that there are a few basic questions that should be asked:

1. How to change a place into a space - how to create activities/functions/models of working that can be seen as living with both time and space in the world;

2. How to keep changing the hegemonic structure of an institution so that it can serve the critical function of art; in other words, how to maintain art's "ability to contradict", as Jacques RanciÈre has defined it, within the desires, limits, rules and regulations of an institution;

3. How to avoid pressure to instrumentalise both the art shown in the institution, as well as the goals of the institution as such:  to let art be art;

4. How to cope with the double-edged discussion wherein the institutions wish to democratise the attendance of the museum, trying to involve as many people as possible in the activities of the museum, while at the same time having to recognize that art and the showing, the selecting of it, are profoundly undemocratic;

5. How to define beauty/quality;

6. How to cope with the pressures of simultaneous public and private funding.

How to change a place into a space

Michel de Certeau has said that space is a practiced place meaning that when something is happening in place it is transformed into space. A street as an architectural structure is a place, but when people are walking in it, it changes into space.

The challenge for an institution of contemporary art is to maintain the field of memories (collection, archives, documents, links to art's traditions) in its activities while also creating links or hooks that connect art to the real life and the changes going on outside of the institution.

The hegemonic structure of an institution in a changing society

An institution is as such a creation of the shared will within the society to focus and concentrate some functions or interests into an organized system. On the other hand, it is important to bear in mind, to understand and to make transparent the kind of hegemonic practice that is imbued in the very idea of an institution, its rules and concerns. What is visible in a given society is as Chantal Mouffe has expressed it: "What is at a given moment considered as "the natural" order - jointly with the "common sense" that accompanies it - is the result of sedimented hegemonic practices; it is never the manifestation of a deeper objectivity exterior to the practices that bring it into being."

What is particularly interesting in the situation here in Latvia is the ruptures in hegemony that have taken place here. How to challenge the new scenes, cultural, political and financial, to understand the need for people to have access to contemporary art. How important it is in today's world to have these sites of communication, sharing experiences and creating dialogues. Or, to quote Hans-Georg Gadamer, to make it possible for people "to live with art". 

Today's memory is short, the working life demands most of our time and energy, the entertainment industry is easily available - even in our homes. The demands on us are constantly changing and there seem to be few possibilities for us to keep up a "consistent" narrative of our lives. Here a museum can still offer spaces for reflection backward in time as well as understanding what is going on in society and opening up alternative ways of perceiving the future.

This is why it is of crucial importance to keep up the freedom required for critical discussions which should be as many-sided and complex as life itself and not definitive, as art still has this "freedom" to test ideas, to play with things, to create alternative worlds...


There is a growing tendency in art to become socially engaged. This often reveals a critical edge or an endeavour to make some marginal group or social problem visible. These projects have been criticized for abandoning art's freedom, its autonomy. On the other hand, the discussion seems now to move into a direction where the autonomy as such is understood not to disappear but instead to undergo a change.

Dave Beech, a British artist, has recently written an article (Studio International, Sept. 2007) in which he tries to analyse the present stage of the autonomy discussion. He starts with Brian O'Doherty's classic text "Inside the White Cube" (1986), where the writer shows how "modernist art, far from cutting the artwork off from its surroundings and society, actually made the edges of the artwork porous. [The disappearance of the gilt frame and the abolition of salon-style hang] show how the modern artwork was utterly reconceived as integrated with its physical and social environment. In this way modern art doesn't cut itself off from everything else but takes account of an ever-expanding range of contextual forces and determinations. [...] Thus even as modern artists called attention to the art object or paid attention to the art institution, they were not drawing a tighter circle around art but embedding art increasingly into its physical, cultural and social contexts. Modern art did not retreat into art objects and their supposedly essential features; it required new spaces, new modes of display, new public and even a new society altogether. In fact, autonomous art was seen often as only conceivable under such transformed social and institutional circumstances." According to the writer, art in its approach to life (avant-garde) needs the kind of expansion of art's scope that self-determination requires. "If autonomy means self-determination rather than apartness then it must spread its wings in this way" - also "against the social and institutional forces that try to constrain and steer it". In this way autonomy has become a mobile term no longer applying just to the art object.

This is also a discussion that is good to bear in mind when the well-meaning social agents try to harness art to cope with the ills of society today. A museum cannot and should not become a social institution, but it can contribute to the awareness of the state of things. As Jacques RanciÈre has implied, "the aesthetic doesn't need to be sacrificed at the altar of social change, as it already inherently contains this ameliorative force."

An art institution is a symbolic space where we come to see art. Our horizon of expectations is tuned accordingly. Among the greatest institutional challenges today are undoubtedly the moments when art's strategies come so close to real life situation that the symbolic space with its traditional freedom no longer offers a free zone/forum for the presentation of art which also touches the liabilities, interests and laws of the real world. The projects of the Danish artists group Superflex are often good examples of this kind of moments.

The double bind of the democratic-undemocratic

One of the main concerns of today's museums seems to be how to increase their audiences. Often enough, the success of a museum is defined on the basis of these numbers + the media coverage, which are intertwined.

At the same time, it seems that in this phase of the world we are more and more sensitive to how, what and why someone addresses us. We are sceptical both of the speaker and of the message. 

The museums use pedagogy, clear informational texts, attempts to engage the public in discussions, etc. to try to bridge the gap that seems to exist between contemporary art and its public. Many appreciate this and feel calmed by the explanations/interpretations and the additional information offered. Personally I don't feel we have so far managed to find a way of addressing the audience which would not be based on the dichotomy of those in the know and those who do not know. A real situation of horizontal communication would be the ideal and it is still a challenge in today's museum world.

The selection processes of a museum are by their nature undemocratic, but they should be opened up for discussions, even though the weakness of these discussions seems to be that they get very focused on persons doing the choosing instead of trying to understand why something has been selected. There is also always an intuitive aspect to these selections, difficult to translate into clear statements. Personally in my curatorial work, I try to think of my choices as proposals (hopefully informed) for further discussion and reflection.

An important aspect of the selection process is a lively internal discussion within the institution. A museum's program and collection today should not be only based on one person's preferences. It should be a more multi-vocal forum where different voices have influence and which in this way would create also an internal discussion about what should be shown, what is worth presenting. It can also be open to voices from the outside, although still making its own decisions.


It seems that the discussion has often stopped at issues like whose definition of beauty, whose understanding of quality. The definitions of beauty/quality now have to include processual art, the methods of art as well as ways of working. After all we are dealing with art, so it is important to discuss, analyze and compare all work under this label critically as art - even the processual, participatory and relational works.

The definition of quality can often find its premises if we are able to situate the work at the crossing point between how it relates to earlier works, how it touches today's art and life and whether it opens up new ways of perceiving future possibilities.

The tensions between public and private funding

This is an area that I am least familiar with. I just understand and have experienced the complex relationship between these two fields. I think both are fine, but neither of them should be allowed to influence the art shown and the aesthetic in its "ability to contradict".  To conclude these ponderings which have been meant more as incentives to discussions: I don't think anyone of us coming from the outside can really understand the dynamics, undercurrents, power relationships and so on in a local scene. It is the task of the local scene to interpret, translate and turn them into practical ways of working. The local scene again is the immediate context for the work of the artist as well as the framework for its encounters with the public. An abstract focus on nationalism can theoretically be interesting as a historical phase, but does not work in other contexts, as it has a self-serving, competitive purpose. The local scene, however, does not exist in a vacuum. We are increasingly connected to the whole world in economics, politics, communications. Apart from nationalism, we can focus on national identity. What is the role of national identity in this? Art offers a way of keeping up our personal narratives, which are threatened at this time of short memory spans. Along the same lines, it can keep up national identity as long as it is perceived as the collective story supporting our self-understanding. Art is sharing, an individual voice trying to speak of our common time and concerns, not competing. This is true on all levels of art's manifestations: individual, local, national, and international.
go back