Art, context, critique, and institution

There are many concepts that attempt to account for the changes and peculiarities of artistic practices oriented to specific contexts nowadays. Site-specific, site-determined, site-related, and site-oriented are just some of the terms that seek to conceptualize works that have context – a place or situation for which they are conceived - as a starting point for their design and developing in response and in dialogue with it. Such practices date back to the historical vanguards, in particular to Russian Constructivism and Dadaism. But from 1960 they have gained strength, with proposals associated with Minimalism, Land Art and so-called institutional critique.

In her well-known genealogy of site-specific practices, art historian Miwon Kwon points out the existence of three paradigms: phenomenological, social/ institutional and discursive. The classification takes into account the operative site definition for each point, i.e., the approach to the context/ place/ situation carried out by different practices, which she said has transformed itself from a "physical location - grounded, fixed, actual, to a discursive vector - ungrounded, fluid, virtual."1 While dealing with the concept from different perspectives, the author identifies the criticality in relation to the context as a fundamental aspect in the development of this type of practice during the second half of the 20th century. In Brazil, we can mention, for example, the work, Situações, by Artur Barrio, which used elements such as “bloody bundles” scattered through the streets of Belo Horizonte in 1970 on the occasion of the exhibition Do corpo à terra, in reference to the violence of the military dictatorship.

Action approaches the discursive paradigm described by Kwon, when artists broaden the interests that constitute the site beyond its physical and spatial aspects - which characterizes the phenomenological paradigm, linked to Minimalism and Land Art - as well as beyond "a cultural framework defined by the institutions of art"2 - which characterizes the social/ institutional paradigm, linked to institutional critique. In seeking a more direct integration of art in the social sphere, the practices related to the third paradigm, thus, would establish a critique of culture focused not only to the art system’s intrinsic issues, but the problems of other fields of life and knowledge, that would eventually encompass varied performance spaces such as schools, streets, and supermarkets, as well as various disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, architecture, and political theory, among others.

In addition to this expansion of contexts, places, situations and problems, the main feature of site-specific or site-oriented art today would be, according to Kwon, the discursive character of the site, i.e., the fact that it constitutes a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate. As the artist Jorge Menna Barreto adds, it is the identification of the context/ place/ situation /problem as an active element and not just as support for the work, which would define a working method, "which begins with 'listening' to a place and the subsequent intervention", "very different from practice in a studio, which first thinks about the work and then installs it in a place."3

Considering these approaches, the recent institutionalization of site-specific practices, especially from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they begin to constitute institutional programs, may be seen as one of the presentations of which critic and curator Simon Sheikh points out as the "third moment of institutional critique."4 In this context, it is worth noting programs such as the Unilever Series, Tate Modern of London, a series of works created for the so-called, Turbine Hall;5 the Moderna Museet Projekt, held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, in which artists designed works based on different aspects of the museum, even though the creations were not always presented within the institution;6 and the artistic program developed by Museo Experimental El Eco in Mexico City, all of it geared to the architectural and historical specificities of the place.7

The institution as a space for creation

Simon Sheikh identifies two historical moments of institutional critique called: a first wave between the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which the critical method would be configured as an artistic practice and the institution in question would be art institutions; and a second historical wave in the 1980s, in which critique would focus not only on art institutions, but also other institutional spaces and practices beyond the scope of art. In both moments, institutional critique constituted a practice mainly undertaken by artists and directed against the institutions, "as a critique of their ideological and representative social functions."8 For the author, such a feature would contrast with current discussions and practices around the idea of institutional critique, which is developed predominantly by curators and directors of institutions, arguing more in favor of than against institutions. In other words, these reflections and initiatives "are not an effort to oppose or even destroy the institution, but rather to modify and solidify it. The institution is not only a problem, but also a solution!".9

It is in this sense that curatorial programs like those mentioned above reflect an effort to make the institution not only a space for art presentation - and conservation in the case of museums - but a space of creation, bringing the artists, their interests, issues and work processes close to the institutional context and inviting them to reflect and produce from it, which could potentially raise questions about the dynamics and workings of the institution and its relationship with artists, artworks, and public.

The creation of curatorial programs devoted to site-specific is also observed in Brazilian institutions, such as the Pinacoteca de Sao Paulo with its Octógono Arte Contemporânea Project, created in 2003, and Centro Cultural São Paulo (CCSP) with its Guest Artists Program, in 2008 and 2009. Conceived by curator Ivo Mesquita, the Octógono Project commissions site-specific works for the central area of the museum, a hall in an octagon shape. In a Brazilian art museum with an encyclopedic character, covering the colonial period to the present day, this is the main program and space focused on contemporary production within the institution. In the words of the curator, the idea of the project is to establish "a look at the history of art from contemporary experience," affirming the commitment of the museum "with the contemporary eye to inquire its own collection, role, and place."10 Since the establishment of the program, about forty projects have been developed, by artists such as Cildo Meireles, José Bechara, Joana Vasconcelos, José Patrício, Regina Silveira, Rubens Mano, Artur Lescher, and Suzanne Lafont.

The program developed by CCSP invited seven artists to develop site-specific projects for the institution between 2008 and 2009, responding to specificities regarding the history of the space, its surroundings, architecture, public programming, activities, collections and services. Curated by Carla Zaccagnini and Fernanda Albuquerque, the project featured the work of artists Fernando Limberger, Marcelo Cidade, Jarbas Lopes, João Loureiro, Rochelle Costi, Daniel Senise, and Ricardo Basbaum. For Zaccagnini, creator of the program, the proposal was "to investigate the place and shed light on some underappreciated potential, like graphics, woodworking, archives, and collections, based on the eye and interests of artists." Moreover, "there was a desire to bring other ways of working to the CCSP that could lead to rethinking solidified mechanisms within the institution."11

Regarding the possibilities of context-oriented practices articulate a critical reflection on the place for which they are designed when developed in institutional frameworks, it is argued that the adoption of such practices by institutions reveals a desire to incorporate a sort of signifier of criticality and progressivity,12 or then an absolutely controlled and innocuous critique.13 On the other hand, some believe that such practices may, in fact, create a space for reflection within the institution, bringing it closer to art making and reasoning in an attempt to "learn from art and artists" in order to discuss and possibly transform institutional practices.14

Between one position and the other, it may be possible to consider the existence of different modes of criticality in artistic and curatorial practices today. Among them, a "complicit criticality" as proposed by the curator Victoria Preston (2013),15 in which institutions seek to represent themselves as critical and self-reflective when commissioning projects examining the institution’s history, spaces, programs, and processes - which does not remove its real interest in these investigations and findings. In these projects, a certain complicity between the artist and the institution would be contained in the agreement between both, which makes many works able to demonstrate, at the same time, skepticism and enthusiasm, critique and affirmation.

* Essay originally published at the first edition of PLATFORM, a Brazilian art publication to be published once a year in partnership between seLecT magazine and Latitude. The first number was launched in May 2014.
** Verde e Amarelo, Fernando Limberger, 2008. Centro Cultural São Paulo, São Paulo.


1 KWON, Miwon. Um lugar após o outro. In: Revista do Programa de Pós- 
Graduação em Artes Visuais, ano XV, n. 17, p. 167-187. Rio de Janeiro: EBA/UFRJ, 2008.
2  Idem, p. 168. 
3 BARRETO, Jorge Menna. Lugares moles. Thesis developed at ECA-USP, São Paulo, 2007, p. 10. 
4 SHEIKH, Simon. Notas sobre la crítica institucional. Available at
5 Established in 2000, every year the project commissions works especially for the Turbine Hall, a space which is a sort of museum entrance hall, with about half of its volume. Artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Bruce Nauman have participated in the program.
6 Completed between 1998 and 2001 under the curatorship of Maria Lind, the project had 29 works from artists such as Hinrich Sachs, Annika Eriksson, Apolonija Sustersic and Honoré d'O.
7 Established in 1953 and reopened in 2003 as part of a network or museums at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, the Museo Experimental El Eco houses artistic pratices developed from reflection about the space and historical context and the architecture of the museum conceived by the artist Mathias Goeritz. 
8 SHEIKH, Simon. Notas sobre la crítica institucional. Available at
9 Idem.
10 From an interview in Revista Lugares, Fundação Iberê Camargo. Available at
11 From an interview with the artist in November 2013.
12 KWON, Miwon. One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
13 FOSTER, Hal. O artista como etnógrafo. In: Arte & Ensaios – Revista do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Artes Visuais EBA-UFRJ, year XII, n. 12. Rio de Janeiro: EBA-UFRJ, 2005.
14 LIND, Maria. Learning From Art and Artists. In: WADE, Gave (org.). Curating in the 21st Century. London: University of Wolverhampton, 2000. 
15 PRESTON, Victoria. Institutional Critique: misunderstood legacies and modes of criticality. In: Giant Stpes: Reflections and essays on Institutional Critique. Itália, 2012/2013. Available at

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