‘The Secretary’, Steven Shainberg, Motion picture, 2002


The mimicry of artistic practices in not a novelty – why art institutions still lack a method to support this phenomenon?

MPhil. Nada Prlja

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The artist as a secretary—an interlude

I can clearly remember the Former Westconference in 2010 and attempts by numerous speakers to engage the audience with the topics of institutional critique in the now apparently ‘Former’ West. I recall the heated discussion directed by various audience members involved in education or curatorship, but I also remember the artists’ disengaged silence, broken by the occasional scribbling down of notes, of names mentioned during the presentations. This particular conference was not a one-off situation where the topics of institutional critique, education as a methodology, etc – resulted in disengaging the artist audience.

This prosaic moment of the artists’ alienation during conferences, leads me to examine the power structure of the art world, as a way of examining the wider issues of contemporary art and artists’ own relation to it. We can clearly see that the marionette’s threads are being pulled by the curators/educators/institutions. It is they, rather than the artists, who are providing the marionette (the artists) with a voice and directing its movements, in their desired directions.

In these power relations, I should openly ask – are the art institutions fully interested in supporting the artistic exploration, or do they limit their support to a particular amount of finite time, effort and expenses? I should furthermore ask: do curators understand and support artists at all, or do they instead seek a reflection of their own concepts in the work realised by artists? Can the artist contribute to a structured methodology or critique of the art system?

By listening to the speakers at the ‘Former West’ conference, I felt like a secretary typing, taking notes, without fully understanding the topics, making numerous spelling mistakes in the attempt not to make any. In those moments of my increasing dis-interest in the what the moderator may have to say, I found myself making parallels, with the secretary (acted by Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Steven Shainberg’s film entitled ‘The Secretary’ (2002). The role of the secretary, within her world of self-humiliation, degradation and masochism – in comparison to the artist within his/her own world of the institutional contemporary art world.

I could argue that the only difference, in this ‘saucy’ comparison, between the actual secretary in the film and the artist, lies in the form of pleasure received by the afore mentioned secretary, as this pleasure is (unfortunately) taken away from the artists’ masochistic experience. In this thrilling and pleasant longing for a pleasurable spank on the bottom, the secretary submits herself voluntarily to her boss, the director (the institution of pain). Spanks received by the artists are instead filled with a sense of guilt, a guilty conscious – a confusion and fear derived from not having the appropriate vocabulary or terminology, or the inability to answer the curator’s/ institution’s selected interests. The artists respond to the demand for their submissiveness, but it is fulfilled without a moment of pleasure.

However, we cannot argue that all artists are in the same position. Artists that base their work on knowledge, on a multiplicity of visual and verbal information—practices such as The Otolith Group or Hito Steyerl—receive legitimation and are rewarded by the curators and the institutions. Those art practices communicate ‘appropriately’, they speak the curator’s ‘language’. Their work is a fertile land for the curators ‘plow’, as their works offer the curators an opportunity to do their job well— enabling them to make references to parallel works of art and or historical events on which these works are clearly predicated upon. Such art practices and their methodologies enable the curators to represent themselves as properly  knowledgeable—both as curators and theoreticians. Those rare art practices and their submissiveness could reach the point of enjoying a reward, a ‘grass and flower bed for the wedding’ (as in ‘ The Secretary’). Other forms of artistic practice that do not perform the ritual of mutual legitimation, instead survive ongoing lashings, scars, and a sense of suffocating strangulation that, for the most part, leaves them voiceless.

How, in this position of internal and physical bleeding and pain, can the artist find a way to comment on or critique the art system or art institutions, without being penalized or even expelled from the same? Even the artist who resists being institutionalized and engages instead with attempts to address society itself, can find himself even more limited by a system in which any attempts of ‘good-doing’, are strictly prohibited. Not only could the artist risk sacrificing his/her own carrier, it could also sacrifice the well being of others.

The essay will address the incapacity of both systems: society and the art system that fails to address the artists’ true intentions. In other words, this essay explores ways in which artistic production evaluates and intervenes with social reality. It questions the ability of cultural institutions to accept, delegate and produce artistic projects that may aim beyond representational artistic goals.

Designed to fail

Cynthia Weber argues that ‘modern liberal citizenship is a failing design’ [1]. This is due to the fact that it is not transparent and implemented well within society. Conditions that can be described as ‘designed to fail’ can be found in all components of social life, especially within the spheres of politics, economy and law.

In Britain, for example, educational cuts steadily continue. This decision, an obvious ‘designed to fail’ situation, will result in the inevitable rise of the educational standards of the upper middle and upper classes, followed by the (seemingly unintentional) strengthening of already existing social polarities and class differences within British society. The cuts in education and culture are consequences of an attitude characterized by the ‘designed to fail’ principle. The cuts function as a veiled insult to notions of democracy and ideals social equality in contemporary society.

Over several decades, many art practices have developed a sensitivity toward such circumstances and the varied consequences of ‘designed to fail’ conditions. Those situations have been recorded and documented through different artistic mediums. In this essay, I review two modes of artistic work:

a.) The first mode is observational and representational

b.) The second mode is oppositional and initiative.

What structurally motivates these differing artistic methodologies? Let us examine how the acceptance of the artists’ work (by the artworld/ institutions) relates to the mode of artistic activity employed in their creation.

Mode 1 – The notion of reflecting temporality

Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson amalgamate their interest in avant-garde videography/cinematography and documentary practice in the video ‘Caregivers’ (2008), (a methodology since appropriated by the artists for a series of new video projects conceived and produced for the Manifesta 7, Italy). The narrative content of the ‘Caregivers’ video, is based on a newspaper article found by the artists, reflecting on the recent phenomenon of migration of Eastern European care-givers to Italy. The content of this newspaper article becomes the matrix for Karólína Eiríksdóttir’s contemporary classical music composition, composed for Castro and Ólafsson’s ‘Caregivers’ video. The video portrays the relations between four women: Eastern European migrant care-givers and their elderly clients from the area of Rovereto, during the course of their daily activities.  Through this work of art, the artists represent a particular form of ‘designed to fail’, focusing on the migrant care-givers’ daily struggle, their departure from their country of origin, their sense of loneliness, etc.

The video ‘Sans Papiers – Illegalized People’ (2004) introduces the viewers to the shocking realities, conditions and treatment that illegal citizens receive, upon being caught in-between state and statelessness the law and the system of bureaucracy.

In their documentary, Tanja Ostojić and David Rych describe the shocking position of unwanted foreigners in major deportation jails in Germany (Berlin-Köpenick), thereby directly illustrating the concept of the ‘threshold of the law’ in contemporary society (one of the main characteristics of the ‘designed to fail’ system), as stated by Ostojic [2]́:

“… EU state governments do everything to give as little asylum as possible. Refugees are deported and removed, and pushed over EU borders….

Upon release, the absolute majority is without resources and without work permits, forced into the black labor market to pay off their debts, and become targets for more stringent production still…”

There are numerous other recent art practices, such as Hito Steyerl, Oliver Ressler & Dario Azzellini, all of whom use inventive artistic methods to observe situations illustrating the notion of ‘the design of failure’. For most of politically driven or socially engaged art practices today, if the artistic project is stripped of its ‘intellectual’, visual and textual qualities, the work’s main aim will consist of informing a mainly art-world audience about certain conditions or situations of political/social/judicial injustice. This kind of artistic activity resembles the straightforward, media model of communication, characteristic of journalistic reportage. Despite the various forms of intricacy and delicate artistic qualities involved, such practices risk becoming a form of aesthetic reportage. Extensive description of this model of work can be found in Alfredo Cramerotti’s book Aesthetic Journalism, in which, Cramerotti speculates upon the potential and limits of a mutual convergence of art and media into a new cross discipline of Aesthetic Journalism.[3]

If we go back a few decades, we can identify the work of numerous practices involved with a similar concept of dealing with the social or political realities of their times.

The videos of Darcy Lange are freed from electronic editing equipment, which results in a process-based, unfinished product, encouraging the development of what could be called the ‘process video’. His video works, as for example ‘Works’ (1971-73) and ‘Work Studies’ (1973-75) aim directly towards being a simple representation of the real situation, with a realistic time frame and  environment. This method reinforces ‘research’ as the artist’s method of working, where the ‘research’ is the observation of everyday activities. With this type of work, the artist reinforces experimentation within the artistic medium (video) while at the same time informing the art-viewing public (visitors to the galleries) about the life of factory workers, workers in the coal-mines, post offices, etc …

The relation between the subject – the artist – the viewers as represented on the drawing by Nada Prlja on the book ‘Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work’.


The artistic representation of harsh realities cannot only be seen in relation to the practices emerging from conceptual art and the years to follow. Since the development of the photographic medium, the representational image serves as a sharp commentary on contemporary conditions. In one of Walker Evans’ photographs, an older woman appears carrying a plate tied around her neck. On the plate, in bold black letters, is inscribed the word ‘BLIND’ [4]. In this specific document of a particular time and social condition, we are aware that this document belongs to the past and is no longer relevant to us (pointing out someone’s disability in such a manner would today be seen as offensive and unacceptable).

From this point of view, all the aforementioned art works were a direct representation of its own temporality, but we must remain aware that they are purely representational reminders, which are all too easily consumed and metabolized by an institutional art-world. This is evident by way of the frequency of invitations of this type of work to be exhibited or screened and promoted.

Mode 2 – Is it possible to redesign the ‘designed to fail’?

In Slavoj Zizek’s numerous public presentations, he points out that the contemporary politician/president should be a maker of the impossible. Analogous to this concept – could art practices contain a similar prospect?

Is it possible to react to and potentially redirect policies, laws and the actual systems that seem to be predestined or ‘designed to fail’? Can artists influence or possibly change the course of affairs? Can we act against this preconceived ‘failure’ while being in the process of failure itself? Could we demand of the artistic activity to use its own inherent potential to ‘go further’, beyond artistic representation, to search and adopt one or more methodologies that derive from other parallel disciplines in order to achieve the modification/alteration/change of the subject examined? Must artists and art works be seen as passive citizens of an art-world, or could they be seen as leading?

Again, looking at Darcy Lange’s practice from the ’70s, the attempt to alter the course of development for such ‘conditions of failure’, can clearly be sighted in his 1977 work entitled ‘Work Studies in Schools’, where he compares the realities and methodologies of teaching environments in comprehensive and public schools in the UK. Lange’s comparative observations and research later became a platform for discussion by the staff members and the pupils themselves.

Darcy Lange’s practice is not interested purely in representation or conveying given information to the audience (like in the works exemplified by Mode 1); his work served as a research tool for the schools. Darcy Lange’s projects re-initiate some of the traditional ideas about photography/filming, reinforcing thereby the factual and documentary power of the image, by referring to the work of Walker Evans, Eadweard Muybridge, etc. But more importantly, Lange’s video project aims beyond representation— he uses the footage to initiate an action/reaction to given conditions (in this case, an existing design which represents failure in the educational system), in order to activate the potential of improved and innovative education by the subjects themselves.

As Guy Brett [5] points out, in regards to Lange’s project entitled ‘Work Studies in Schools’,”… Lange uses the video as a means of involving himself with real people and real problems of life, by engaging a potential to solve the problems.”

The method used by Darcy Lange in his ‘Work Studies in Schools’ project. Image of book ‘Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work’


Lange provides a solution in this particular situation, by use of micro-actions with the purpose of achieving a specific goal. This early attempt to shift artistic practices from pure representational methods into methods with the potential of influencing social structures, has been and remains in practice by numerous artists today.

Artistic initiatives are not set up as applicable and transferable; they affect particular situations and are solutions to a local problem, resolved by the engagement of local participants. Their implementation usually require a long time and are usually without a clear ending; their success to a large degree relies on the artist’s involvement and élan.  Most of these works are based on self initiated projects developed in collaboration with other non-art groups, supported by individuals or organizations often only marginally related to art and not supported directly by the local art community.

The potential of ‘micro-activities’ are not often explored by contemporary institutions of art education. In the following excerpt from a press release which describes the Visual Arts Department at IUAV in Venice [6]’, we can conclude that the aforementioned artistic methodology (based on micro-actions) lacks the potential of being a ‘global initiative’ and could not become generalized.

‘… Students and leading artists, curators and scholars in various disciplines have over the years joined a department where art and curating workshops are equally open to all students, where art practices maintain a relationship to art history as much as to other fields—and means—of knowledge such as aesthetics, theoretical philosophy, semiotics, philosophy of language, psychology of perception, anthropology, sociology and literature, and where the teaching and learning of art take place in close proximity to those of theater, design and fashion design. Conceived beyond any hierarchical distribution between theory and practice…’

Contemporary institutions of art education instead prioritize more global activities – institutional criticism, focused on art institutions, education, art representation and production. ‘Blockbuster’ art education, takes on a different, extended and all encompassing form (theatre, fashion, etc.) and engages with consumption, marketing and distribution as one of the crucial activities within post-democratic globalization.

The attitude adopted by IUAV’s Visual Arts Department, propagates interdisciplinarity as a merger between the economies of art practice, cultural discourse and life-style goods. Transforming the potential for artistic activity to intersect with social needs into increasing alignment with luxury and a perception of culture as a perverse indulgence.

Epilogue – could art institutions support ‘shifters’ practices?

The following artistic action can be taken as a concrete description of micro-aimed artistic processes and illustrates the significance of such actions. The following action was orchestrated in Zagreb, Croatia, where the tax on books (25%) was notably higher than tax for other goods (15%). Due to this economic deregulation – and while consumerism was in full progress – books were not being acquired by the citizens. Artist and activist, Igor Grubic, in collaboration with a group of local anarchists, organized a system of regular theft of books from the bookshops, reading and subsequently returning the books to the bookshops. After their perseverance with this action, intended as a form of protest and communicated as such to the media – the tax on books was lowered. This exemplary project shows, in a direct way, the possibility of disrupting the government tax policy and disrupting the conditions that had been ‘designed to fail’.

This action relied on an implementing an immoral/illegal act, using theft as a methodology, in order to oppose and ultimately ‘break’ a more advanced, ‘legalized’ system of manipulation. This artistic action is thereby placed into a problematic relationship with any given art institution. However, could one imagine a similar artistic action / methodology to be actively supported by an art institution? And could we again pose the same (unsolved) questions:

Despite the common fetishization of ‘political art’ one is left wondering what kinds of possibility and support art institutions could offer practices going beyond experimentation within artistic representation of the social—how would institutions support practices that directly engage with compositions in the social field. Is there a real possibility for the art world to become interested in supporting art practices that go beyond the propagating safe discourses of critical theory or artistic activity that do not resemble the simplistic media model of communication?

MPhil. Nada Prlja, born in 1971, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina. Lived in Skopje, Macedonia 1981-1999. Since 1998 lives and works in London, UK. She received an MPhil research degree from the Royal College of Arts, London, after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Skopje. Prlja is an artist whose work deals with the complex situations of inequality and injustice in societies, ranging from political to economic issues.  Prlja lectures in Metropolitan University in London, since 2004. Prlja is Board Member of Open Space - Open System, Vienna, Austria. She held public presentations in numerous museums, galleries and universities, selected presentations: ICA, London (2011), INIVA Institute of International Art, London (2010, 2007), Tate Britain (2009), University College of London (UCL), London (2010), Goldsmith University, London (2009), etc.

    1. Weber, C., 2008. Designing safe citizens. Citizenship Studies, 12 (2), 125–142.
    2. Tanja Ostojić / David Rych's project statement about project Sans Papiers - Illegalized People (2004)
    3. Paul Strand (American, 1890-1976), Blind, 1916. Platinum print, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1933 (33,43,334)
    4. Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work, Icon and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery,
    5. distributed by Cornerhouse, ISBN: 9781904864509, pp.89
    6. From the press release for a book and conference 'Visual Arts at IUAV, Venezia:2001–2011, What an Art School Should Be?' Edited by Chiara Vecchiarelli with Angela Vettese, Mousse Publishing, 2011
The Hong Kong Institute of Education
SACI Florence Italy
University of Applied Arts Vienna
M.I.T. Program in Art, Culture and Technology
Gerrit Rietveld Academie
CCS Bard