The following was written for Emma Mahony’s excellent module, Art Institutions And Their Publics, which was delivered as part of the NCAD MA Art In The Contemporary World course in 2013. It deals with the notion of the deviant art institution, a concept introduced by Emma on the course, and considers whether Michel Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia might or might not function as an appropriate conceptual model for such an institution.
Michel Foucault’s 1967 lecture Of Other Spaces outlines his concept of the heterotopia1, a sort of countersite which somehow contests or inverts the sets of relations by which spaces and sites in the rest of our world are constituted. Foucault claims that such sites are critical to functioning of the human imaginary and implies that without them a collapse into authoritarianism is inevitable. As he puts it at the end of the piece, after providing the example of the ship as a heterotopia par excellence, “without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates”.
I’d like to consider Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia in relation to contemporary conceptions of the art institution as a site of counter-hegemonic practices. If we define a deviant art institution as being one that operates at an interstitial distance from the state with the explicit aim of mobilising counterpublics, then does this serve the same function as a heterotopia? I will argue that to a large extent it does, but that nevertheless there is an important difference in terms of how notions of public and private manifest themselves in both cases, and that this raises a fundamental question about how a deviant art institution should operate.
Foucault’s essay commences with a discussion of how notions of space have overtaken notions of time within contemporary thinking. This is rooted in the debunking of modernist ideas of the primacy of historical progress, yet Foucault traces its genesis back to Gallileo who opened our eyes to the infinity of space surrounding us, while at the same time the decline of religion closed us off to considerations of the infinity of time. This historical change in thinking manifests itself in terms of how conceptions of space, or practical methods by which we manage space itself, have themselves changed over time. Foucault talks about the Middle Ages as being the space of emplacement: this means space was divided into fixed and finite places, all with strictly defined purposes. So there were “sacred and profane places; protected and open exposed places; urban places and rural places” and so on. This was hierarchical in nature and strictly imposed and enforced. Gallileo’s discovery of the infinity of space destroyed this rigidity, as we realised that nothing is fixed, everything is in movement, or as Foucault puts it “a thing’s place was no longer anything but a point in its movement, just as the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down”. Foucault calls this extension, meaning that space came to be seen an an extensible resource, with new places being dynamically assigned functions as needed.
However, in the contemporary world, what Foucault calls the site, has now replaced this concept of continual extension. The site is a place that is defined in terms of relations with other sites. So, in other words, places are no longer defined in isolation (whether fixed for all time, as in the Medieval world, or continually expanding, as in the post-Enlightenment world) but rather achieve their meaning and purpose in terms of how they are connected to, and what sort of relations they can or cannot enter into, with other places and other things. Foucault gives the example of a train, saying that any meaningful description of the train must be in terms of its relations with other elements within the transportation network, and also its relations with those people who move within it, those who use it to get from one place to another, and even those who stand there waiting for it to pass by. We can talk about any place, or site as Foucault would have it, in this way: for example we can describe a particular church in terms of its relations with other churches within the same denomination, its relations with those who do or do not use it, and its relations with other sacred or non-sacred spaces within the society in which it is situated. Foucault’s point is not that such forms of connectivity between places did not previously exist, but rather that such connectivity now constitutes the defining characteristic of contemporary space. It is worth noting that the lecture was delivered in 1967, a time when the modern Internet was confined to research laboratories within the US military, and it therefore predates the “everything is connected” mantra of digital culture by several decades.
Foucault is interested in a particular type of site, specifically one that has the property of being in relation with all the other sites. By doing so it reflects, contests, describes or inverts the world itself, and according to Foucault there are two types of sites which do this – utopias and heterotopias. The key difference is that a utopia does not actually exist whereas a heterotopia is a real place. The heterotopia is what Foucault calls a countersite, a “kind of effectively enacted utopia in which all the real sites .. are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted”. Foucault uses the analogy of a mirror to explain the heterotopia. The mirror opens up an unreal space, an other space, in which we see a reflection of the real space in which we are standing, and consequently a reflection of ourselves, and our relationship to this space. In the same way that Foucault has talked about how the concept of reason was developed and defined in terms of its opposite, unreason; our sense of space can be constituted in terms of these other spaces which the heterotopia opens up for us.
So, if we see the art institution, or at least the deviant art institution in particular, as being a site that is intended to reflect, contest and invert, then we can see how we might consider it as an example of a heterotopia. However before teasing this out in detail, it is useful to look at the six principles of the heterotopia that Foucault identified. The first principle is that they exist in all human cultures but take many varied forms. In “so-called primitive societies” the dominant form is what Foucault calls the crisis heterotopia: a place where individuals in some sort of state of crisis are temporarily removed to adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, and so on. In the contemporary world these are largely disappearing and being replaced by what Foucault refers to as heterotopias of deviation: places where those whose behaviour deviates from the norm are placed – rest homes, psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
The second principle is that, as history unfolds, their function can change over time. Foucault cites the example of the cemetery here. The cemetery is a heterotopia because it is a site that bears a relation to all other sites: since those who are housed there have relations everywhere else. At one point cemeteries were situated in the centre of city, adjacent to churches, but were gradually moved to the outskirts; ostensibly because of concerns with disease, but this move also reflects the decreasing sovereignty of religion over death itself, and also the increasing importance that the living came to place on the remains of their dead. As Foucault puts it: “the cemeteries came to constitute … the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place”. This other city becomes a mirror of the living city, the real city, both reflecting and inverting it.
The third principle is that there can be a multiplicity of sites concurrently existing within the real place. So for example, the theater brings into being a whole series of places that are opposite and foreign to each other. The fourth principle is that the heterotopia facilitates a break with the normal flow of time. This can be a permanent break, as in the case of the inhabitants of the cemetery, or a temporary one, as is the case with those who lose themselves for some period in the cinema, at a festival, or at the fairground. The fifth principle is that the heterotopia has some principle of access which both closes it off from the outside world but also allows members of the outside world to enter into it. It is not freely accessible like a public place but involves some sort of code, permission or ritual to gain entry. The final principle is the one that is perhaps most crucial to the whole concept which is that they have “a function in relation to all the space that remains”, that is that they are related to all other spaces in some way or another.
Foucault concludes his essay with the claim that the ship constitutes the perfect heterotopia. It is a real place that nonetheless bears a relation to all other places; it can house a multiplicity of spaces and practices within it; those who embark on a journey on it are taken outside their normal flow of time for a period; and there are strict rituals of entering and exiting. It is, for Foucault, “the greatest reserve of the imagination”.
So, is the deviant art institution an example of a heterotopia? Is this a useful way to think about how such an institution might operate? Before trying to answer that it is useful to try and clarify exactly what is meant by the notion of the deviant art institution. There are three key characteristics: a resistance to instrumentalisation; a promotion of counter-hegemonic practices; and an emphasis on creating new publics (or perhaps counterpublics in the sense of Michael Warner2). The context for the formulation of the idea of the deviant art institution is a situation in which the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism has gradually instrumentalised the traditional art institution and systematically eroded its capacity to engage in critical activity that is capable of thinking, or promoting, a politics that is outside the confines of this hegemony. It should be clear that the overall function of both the deviant art institution and the heterotopia is similar, since the heterotopia is also committed to facilitating counter-hegemonic practices, as Foucault repeatedly makes clear throughout the piece. A deviant art institution necessarily takes an oppositional stance and this stance finds its parallel in the oppositional nature of the heterotopia also, in that it reflects and inverts society at large, and indeed functions as an “other space” itself. Nina Montmann3 remarks how this oppositional stance inevitably implies a somewhat marginal existence on the part of the institution, and this marginality is also typical of the heterotopia.
If we look down through the list of principles of the heterotopia that Foucault identified we will also see further support for this kinship. Like a heterotopia, the deviant art institution is a real place with an actual physical location. Like a heterotopia, a multiplicity of spaces can exist within the deviant art institution (not just separate physical spaces but also temporary spaces created by exhibitions and other activities). Engaging with such an institution can form a break with normal time. While the rituals of entry and exit may not be as formal or well defined as those envisaged by Foucault for the heterotopia, we can see how the deviant art institution, with its possibly marginal physical location and slightly more esoteric and challenging programming, might be more in line with this heterotopic condition than the traditional art institution with its open-armed welcoming policy designed to attract the largest possible public and make everything as accessible as possible.
So, we can identify a similarity in intent, as well as a number of specific parallels between these two conceptions. However, if we look at some broader theoretical considerations we will see that there are important differences as well and that things do not fit quite as neatly together as our initial investigations might have implied. One of the ways in which we might talk about an art institution is in terms of its position vis a vis the State. An oppositional, counter-hegemonic organisation has a number of possible positions that it might choose to take. The first of these would be a position of resistance within the State apparatus. This would represent a form of engagement, as advocated by Chantal Mouffe4 and others, that seeks to critique, challenge and ultimately reform, the liberal democratic consensus from within. The second position is one of exodus, represented by Hardt and Negri5, where the institution adopts a position of opposition completely outside the state apparatus and challenges it from without, with the ultimate aim of replacing it. The third position, which is the one adopted by the deviant art institution, is one of interstitial distance from the State it works within the State apparatus but also at a distance from it, with the aim of opening up multiple new spaces of opposition to it. The question then is what sort of position is the heterotopia taking? What is its relationship to the State and to the prevailing hegemonic apparatus?
This question is difficult to answer as Foucault’s conception of it hinges on the fact that the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony. It is not a space of exodus in the Hardt and Negri sense, as it is fundamentally entangled with all the other places. It seems somewhat more in line with Mouffe’s idea of antagonisms as being a natural and even desirable element of properly democratic societies. We could imagine the heterotopia as a space in which these antagonisms and oppositions are nurtured. Without heterotopias they disappear and a uniformity takes hold that allows authoritarianism to tighten its grip. This is not quite right either though, as Mouffe would insist that these antagonisms must be voiced in public and in doing so form part of a healthy democratic process, whereas the nature of the heterotopia would entail something more hidden and underground. Is the heterotopia a form of interstice then? This does not seem entirely right either. By definition an interstice is a nonspace, a space between other established spaces, whereas the heterotopia is a real, established space. However, we must consider that in the same way that the deviant art institution is a real place that perhaps opens up new spaces of opposition within its walls, the heterotopia also allows a multiplicity of spaces to be present within it. This seems to imply that of all three positions, the heterotopia occupies one that is closest to the interstitial model.
A more significant difference emerges though when we think about how deviant art institutions and heterotopias differ in their relationships to notions of public and private. The deviant art institution (or indeed any art institution) is founded on the idea of making things public; making aesthetic interventions that are aimed at making things visible that might previously not have been so; using the practice of art production as a method by which to formulate new publics. The traditional art institution foregrounds a notion of a Habermasian universal public sphere that can be addressed, whereas the deviant art institution is more in line with Warner’s idea of how counterpublics operate. Either way though, the crucial characteristic is that the work of the institution is opened up in some way to a public, whether this public is already formed, or whether its formation is part of an ongoing process facilitated and encouraged by the activity of art production itself. The heterotopia operates in a fundamentally different way with the emphasis being on making things invisible rather than visible. As Foucault admits, “the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place” it has a system of opening and closing and rituals of entry and exit which close it off from the general public. This is not to say that members of the public cannot enter into it, but rather that once inside, the activities therein form a sort of temporary private zone that is inward facing rather than outward looking. For Foucault this is a necessary condition of counter-hegemonic practice. In order to mobilise a counter-discourse it must be independent, and shielded from the dominant discourse. In order to mobilise the imagination as a means of critiquing the hegemony there must be a space in which the opposite and other can be allowed to flourish. However, it runs contrary to the stated aims of the deviant art institution, which must face outwards in order to create its publics. The
heterotopia is essentially a private space, though a somewhat fluid and intangible one, where it’s members fluctuate over time and come and go at will.
In a recent lecture6, Boris Groys bemoaned the tendency of contemporary art production to be an activity that takes place in full public view. He criticised the necessity (encouraged by the Internet) for artists to be continually on view talking about their work in various stages of completion, engaging with the public through various communications channels. He criticised the contemporary art institution as being something that we must follow, through its constant programme of activities. His point is not that Art should be hidden from the world but rather that being subjected to a constant gaze is exactly what the artist should be rejecting. Their job is to struggle against the forms of subjectivity imposed upon them by society and the State and in order to do so they require secrecy, seclusion and disassociation, not constant exposure to the public. In effect what he may be calling for here is for the arenas of art production to be private, heterotopic spaces. His suggestion is that, like Foucault, imagining alternatives to our reality requires spaces which are other to that reality; that true deviation is only possible in private. If he is correct, then maybe what we really need are heterotopic art institutions.
The photograph at the top was taken at Gracelands, which was staged as part of IMMA’s Summer Rising party in July 2014. Gracelands is a festival-style performance art event curated by Vaari Claffey. Thanks to Vaari for giving me access to take photographs at this edition of Gracelands.
- Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics: The Essential Works 2 (The Penguin Press, 1998) ps. 175-185
- Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics” in Public Culture Volume 14, Number 1, Winter 2002
- Nina Möntmann, “Playing the Wild Child. Art Institutions in a Situation of Changed Public Interest”, in Art as a public issue: how art and its institutions reinvent the public dimension. Open (14), Rotterdam: NAi Publishers (2008)
- Chantal Mouffe, C. “Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention” (2008)
- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Globalization and Democracy” in Enwezor, Okwui et al (eds.), Democracy Unrealized: Documenta 11_Platform 1. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, pp.323-336 (2001)
- This lecture by Groys was delivered at the Former West congress in Berlin in March 2013