Organisational Asymmetry and An Ecology of Organisations

af David Hilmer Rex
organisational assymetry, overarching collective effort, organisational differentation

This piece was developed for a symposium titled Art and Organization by UKK, held at Overgaden, Copenhagen, May 28, 2016

So, there are two parts to my talk.

The first part deals with a set of side-effects, caused by an inattention to the organizational qualities of artistic practices as well as the current ecology of arts organizations. In short, the parts of an artistic practice that concerns the relations you have to other professionals, organizations, institutions, sites, etc. are not considered as directly part of your work, but a kind of secondary clad or scaffolding that is simply an instrument, a means to an end.

Equally, curators or admins of our arts institutions, more so inhabit their institutions than actually exercising the organizational agency that comes with it.

This produces what I would call organisational asymmetry; a disconnect on both parts, in terms of discussing whether the institutions we do have, are adequate for our purposes and the many types of practices operating now.

The second part sketches out a situation where organizing, isn’t considered a passive backdrop, but as an integral active component, that is instrumental to negotiating what types of practice we might see emerge.

PART 1: The disintermediation of artistic practices from other practices, organizations and societies at large

While artistic practices since the 1950s, through their increasing proximity with universities, have exercised an import of virtually everything external to themselves, to the degree of becoming a sort of meta-discipline and site for transdisciplinary ambitions, the modes of export and engagement in what lies beyond the art world are few and underdeveloped. Production of works of art and their circulation, is the main way in which artistic competencies and capacities makes their way into societies.

In parallel with this massive import, the fundamental concepts of artist, work of art, viewer, institution, etc., have remained somewhat stable and robust.

The socio-economic backdrop for this problem, is a situation (in Denmark) where only 10% of all artists make a living from their practice, and so the remainder 90% of artist go on to do other things and effectively disappear from the value system of art.

My thinking is that the art system we have, is not differentiated enough, meaning that there is almost only one way that artists are deemed successful, and that is through production of works of art and their circulation. Besides this, there are very few other ways in which artists apply what they are capable of, what they know, their skills, competencies and capacities, to processes in societies.

Lack of an overarching, collective effort, that take on the task of systematizing and articulating the distinct qualities of artistic practice and capacities …

I think an important task today, a process which everyone will have a stake in, is to develop a more differentiated set of ways in which artists can operate in societies. Before I get into the details of this, I want to sketch a set of what I see as the key-problems opposing this process.

Lack of conceptual differentiation and invention, that is, engagement with the generative, extra-categorical, compositional and complexifying characteristics: artistic practices are extra-categorical activities though more often than not activities are recentred on familiar conceptual ground. We do not have the adequate heuristic and operational languages for the specific type of practice that is artistic practice. The languages we do have about art today, are mostly communicative and representational and do not grow from the inside of artistic practices. Artistic processes are understood mechanically and linearly, rather than for their ability to spawn new processes and generate new conceptual resources through which they should be understood. The discussions on artistic research in europe and research creation in canada, is a slow start into this, but they are yet to manifest at the level of the individual practice in our art academies fx.

Lack of organisational differentiation: there is a need for more types of organisational forms to mirror or allow for more types of practices to operate in societies. There is an increased need for artists, curators and admins to consider the organisational qualities of their practice, not as a passive backdrop, but as an integral active component on equal footing with what is deemed the primary or core part of a practice.

Lack of access to problems where they exist and the resultant responsibility: the isolation of artists from societies at large, effects a wholesale disengagement with decision-making processes, the responsibility it would offer and the processes of bordering with other practices and viewpoints. Autonomy is misunderstood as a politically sanctioned right to exist independent from others; I would argue autonomy is something you achieve through radical exposure to what you are not, to the foreign and unknown.

Lack of an overarching, collective effort, that take on the task of systematizing and articulating the distinct qualities of artistic practice and capacities, their full-spectrum complexity in terms of the many types of operationalization they can allow for besides the work of art, as well as develop relationships with like-minded organisations, professionals, state departments and private companies. (Foci of the remainder of the talk).

PART 2: How art might engage societies in new ways and operate with a more differentiated open-ended model

In Inventing The Future: A World Without Work, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, trace the emergence of neoliberal hegemony, and argue that the success of the right, in deploying neoliberalism, is due to long-term planning and the development of what they call “an ecology of organisations”1. Which is made up of think tanks, media organisations, lobby and interest groups, informal networks, publishing houses, academic journals and the ability to put people into positions of power.

The founding moment was 1945, when Friedrich Hayek founded the “Mont Pelerin Society: A closed intellectual network that provided the basic ideological infrastructure for neoliberalism to ferment. MPS eschewed folk politics by working with a global horizon, by working abstractly (outside the parameters of existing possibilities) and by formulating a clear strategic conception of the terrain to be occupied – namely, elite opinion – in order to change political common sense.”

So they’re basically challenging the left to think and organize at scale, reckon with complexity and formulate positive visions for the future …

“Think tanks and utopian proclamations organised long-term thinking; public-facing speeches, pamphlets, and media efforts frame the general outlines of the neoliberal common sense; and politicians and policy proposals made tactical interventions into the political terrain.”

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation: “founded in 1981 and it declared as its explicit aim ‘to institutionalise the process of helping start up new think tanks’. Atlas today boasts of having helped create or connect over 400 neoliberal think tanks in more than eighty countries.”

At the same time, they argue, that the left have failed in mobilizing a counter-hegemony, due to its lack of focus on long-term planning, complexity, prioritizing instead the small-scale, immediate, protesting or reactive activities, authenticity, the local; what Williams and Srnicek term folk-politics. That is, strategies, that operate mostly at the short-term, lower-level areas, and do not have a long-term positive vision of the future they actually want. So they’re basically challenging the left to think and organize at scale, reckon with complexity and formulate positive visions for the future.

So, what might a positive vision for the future of art look like? I want to finish off by putting forth two examples of what might be nodes in a future ecology of organisations.

In 1979, Willy Ørskov, danish artist and sculptor proposed an “Institute for Aesthetic Planning” that would initiate projects combining the lived, experiential, multi-pathic and open-ended qualities of artistic practices, with large-scale infrastructural socio-technical change processes.

“The Academic Council has no resources, neither technical nor financial, and can therefore not, like other parallel institutions, base its expertise on research. Let us for instance compare it to the Danish Building Research Institute. It is absolutely correct that aesthetic concerns cannot be treated without ambiguity like the technical ones. However, when it comes to environmental planning, to use a typical example, in which the public can make enquiries to the Academic Council, it is likely to imagine an interdisciplinary exploration of environmental models and an arrangement of methods of analysis, wherefrom evaluations could be made. In addition, the Academic Council does not have any qualifications other than those assigned by the users, every time an enquiry is made. The Academic Council can never acquire skills singlehandedly. This means that the Council is often faced with situations where it only functions (or enquirers cynically use them) as an obstacle for ongoing initiatives. In other words, despite the accelerated financial, technical and traffic-related exploitation of the country, there is no agency maintaining a parallel aesthetic planning in an effective manner. This is due to shortsightedness. Lack of aesthetic planning is not necessarily immediately disastrous, (like lack of technical planning is – and still is to an even wider extent, since the technical apparatus is still becoming increasingly vulnerable) – often its effect will not become evident until later on.”2

This so-called Institute of Aesthetic Planning, might’ve operated akin to the role of The Danish Design Centre or The Danish Architecture Center. Speculatively, what might Ørskovs institute have been today had it manifested? It might have:

a) acted as an intelligence institute, developing a complete history of all art ever made, in a readily available resource, in effect elucidating the role of our local, yet globally connected context

b) acted as an intermediary, between art and non-art actors and organizations, developing partnerships and projects that would allow artists to operate in societies in new ways

c) assisted in the development of techniques and tools for how to make sense of and navigate open-ended, exploratory practices and their many possible roles in change processes across

d) developed tools for understanding the cultural, social, material effects and values specific to hard-to-quantify artistic practices and projects

e) developed educational programs for our educational system

f) consequently, assisted in the development of a far more differentiated art world, that might’ve been a bit more porous and connected to societies than what is the case today.

The second example is by Bernard Stiegler, french philosopher, who is currently engaged in developing what he calls Contributory Research. He has recently launched a project titled Contributory Society. It takes place in Plaine Commune, a suburb of Paris with 400.000 inhabitants. The project seeks to recast the relations between civil, public and private actors. The project acts to address rising unemployment and future forms of automation of labour. Actors such as the telecompany Orange, the 3d printing company Dassault Systèmes, schools, universities, insurance, production and technology companies, will work together to create new economic and social models through the establishment of a new network architecture. The project will inquire into what work and value can be in a post-work society and, among other things, establish a contributory income. The project will be organized by 3 chairs and 20 PhD students in a new research school. They will design a set of digital platforms with private companies and citizens, as well as action research projects on the territory of Plaine Commune with authorities, organizations and citizens.

Stiegler argues that the university in its current state:

“– either allows to be instrumentalized, and transformed into various specialisms,

– or takes refuge in a dream with no future, the dream of unconditional autonomy, free from all pharmacology,

To escape this false alternative, it is essential that the university invent a new relation to its outside, its milieu, and not just the ‘environment’, but also its  physical, economic, political or mental surroundings through the development of contributory research.

Biotechnologies and nanotechnologies are referred to as transformational sciences and technologies, but we must conceive the human and social sciences as likewise transformational, that is, performative.

This is also why academic and industrial power and knowledge must negotiate a peace treaty with a view to forming a peaceful alliance – failing which there will no longer be any civilized future for anyone – which would be an intergenerational alliance, that is, a new contract between the different generations, and with bodies dedicated to the transindividuation of reference on absolutely long time-scales.”3

Stiegler talks of the university, but I think the modern problem facing the university, equally faces the art profession, in that it operates on a very robust and stable organisational backdrop, that is not considered as directly influencing the types of research and practice it can allow for, consequently limiting the ways in which knowledge practices might engage in societal and technological processes.

The problems specific to art, that such two nodes might begin to scratch at, are as I see it the following:

A general seclusion of artistic practices from societal processes and the resulting lack of responsibility, commitment and engagement in problems where they exist.

An overidentification with existing conceptions of concepts like artist, work of art, institution, audience, to the degree where they prescribe what might emerge rather than allow for their co-conception as they serve as heuristic tools integral to a practice.



1/ Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso, 2015. Print.

2/ Ørskov, Willy. Is The Academy of Fine Arts worth Debating in 1979?. Issues: Infrastructure. Diakron, 01 Jan. 2014. <>

2/ Stiegler, Bernard. States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century. Polity, 2014. Print.