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Institutions & Identity



oK so what actually is identity? Is it something subjective and solitary; the things that describe us specifically and uniquely, like a fingerprint or a barcode? Or is it collectively built; about who we are in community with, the groups we make into a home for ourselves?

I’d like to think it’s the second option: I am a Londoner, a Muslim, a Haruki Murakami stan, a very very casual vegan. These are all things that describe ✨me✨, but they are also communal descriptions. This communal description implies mutual understanding, shared interests or experience, or collective aims. Sure, I can be understood as a single individual entity, but these descriptors place me in a wider group and make sense of me within that group based on what we share or have in common.


Political ideologies shape our everyday realities in strange and intimate ways. Through the shaping of our world, these ideologies come to shape us in turn. The political system we sit within can place a cap on what we can viably imagine for ourselves, or define the limits of our imaginations.

I didn’t start really caring about this until last year, when I realised that I was tired of writing about the specific problems of the art world’s institutions. I felt like I was continually battering my head against a brick wall, and the only thing that looked likely to give way was my head. I didn’t understand why things couldn’t just be easier and I was frustrated by my own inability to identify a happy solution. Everything I could think of was just swapping out different options, slotting them into the same shape from a different angle. I didn’t have the political vocabulary to put a solution into words, I didn’t know what it was possible to ask for.


The very premise of Liberalism relies on us believing that the individual is the unit of measurement we should be using to interact with the world. Margaret Thatcher once said that there was no such thing as society, only individual people and families. That’s the point Liberalism starts from, the rest of it is complex and unwieldy, but it all pours out of this belief: an individual is the ultimate unit of measurement.

Through a Liberal lens: you can look out at society and see a collection of individuals, you can explain behaviour using the kinds of explanations that would apply to individuals, you can deliver services and build institutions and processes according to what would suit the individual entity best.

This is not an inevitable or universal way of structuring our lives, but it shapes our understanding of the world and the way the world around us works. This is all massively oversimplified, but the important bit to understand is: if you see society as a collection of individuals, you miss an incredible amount of information.


I have written before about the importance of recollectivising our understanding of different flavours of oppression, but I’ve not done a great job of explaining the working parts of it all. Mostly because the finer details of most things are sort of hazy to me, being rigorous requires work that I can never be arsed to actually do. I like to wave my hand and point at the bigger picture, but really even I only truly understand something when the details are filled in. So I am explaining it all in a way I would best understand it: as a series of steps.

What does ~recollectivising our understanding of [insert chosen flavour of oppression here]~ mean?

I think it means: not just understanding it as something we only experience as singular individuals, but something we experience as one part of a wider group, or not just as something that is enacted by singular individuals, but something that is enacted by a wider system. While individual experience and enactment might be a face that we meet immediately, that individual experience/enactment isn’t the extent. There is a wider systemic machinery that rumbles away in the background doing the work. When we understand our experience as singular, all that stuff on the scale of a system drops away unnoticed. It makes navigating our own experience a bit more difficult, because all of a sudden, we only have half the information we need.


I’m now going to describe a problem:

White institutions hold a lot of power, disproportionately. People of colour are excluded because of this.

If we understand this as a problem that works on the scale of an individual, our solution would be on the scale of an individual too. It would then make sense to say:

Put more people of colour in positions of power within that institution.

If we understand this as a problem that works on the scale of a system, then swapping out the people wouldn’t be enough to provide a solution. We’d have to understand that the people themselves aren’t the root of the problem, the system of the institution is.

If we decide to be rigorous, we would ask questions about that system:

Hold on. How does that system exclude people? What specific way does it work? How did an institution like that even come to hold a disproportionate amount of power in the first place?

The first way of phrasing the problem makes it all sound disconnected. Those two things aren’t coincidences taking place alongside each other, they’re directly linked. The exclusion is happening because power exists in a white centre that allows only conditional access based on how well an individual complies with its interests.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to phrase the problem like this:

White institutions hold a lot of power, disproportionately. People of colour are excluded from certain things because of this, as they are reliant on the white institution’s approval for their access.

This description allows us to see this problem as a systemic one: it’s about the dynamic between two entities and how they are made to interact with each other, as part of a system. If our understanding of the problem is based on an acceptance that the system is the part that’s broken, our solution should be on the scale of a system too.

Looking at that problem, we’d say:

There’s something wrong with that institution and how power is structured within it. It should be dismantled and a new system should be built, where power is more evenly spread. That way, access won’t be reliant on individuals or compliance.


Seeing problems on the scale of an individual isn’t inevitable or neutral. It’s a way of thinking about problems and solutions in a way that preserves the fundamental system itself.

Just from the example ^above^:

Put more people of colour in positions of power within that institution.

The institution in its current problematic state is assumed to be inevitable. It is not considered part of the problem, it is unquestioningly preserved as part of the solution.

Preserving the fundamental system of how the institution operates creates a dynamic where individuals within that system are representative of the larger groups they are a part of. They exist within the system and play an active part in its operation, the representative part is: their inclusion demonstrates that the system itself is structurally sound.

If there are people of colour in positions of power within this institution, they are not excluded.

The institution has neutralised the problem without making any change to its fundamental structure. Power then stays put in that white, monied centre that was exclusionary. Because of what they represent, these individuals are turned into tokens of value that the institution is able to instrumentalise for its own benefit.


This text so far has mostly just gone through political ideologies and the dynamics that they prescribe. What’s this got to do with art?

In 2019, the Art Newspaper published a text by Maria Balshaw (the Director of Tate) called ‘Art in Sensitive Times’. In it, Maria sets out a model for the museum as a Liberal institution. The ‘Sensitive Times’ includes everything that could fundamentally affect the current structure of an institution like Tate: from Brexit, the concept of decolonisation and restitution, Donald Trump’s border wall, #MeToo. These are all things that present challenges to the current structure of things, for better or worse. The museum’s role in these ‘Sensitive Times’ is to represent ‘the liberal values of the arts’ and ‘hold open an open space for dissenting experiences of art and culture’. Maria frames it as a nice thing: ‘better listening skills and more empathetic codes of engagement’ sound like good practice, but fundamentally that is the extent of her suggestion. She doesn’t mention anything after the listening and empathy, that is framed as an end point to secure an expanded audience.

It’s worth mentioning that the ‘liberal values’ she mentions uses a small L, not Big L; so it’s slightly different to the understanding we’ve constructed here. But the very premise of her suggestion for the role of a museum is one that’s also Big L Liberal. The Museum in Maria’s imagination is a neutral container for dissenting opinion. People with opinions come into it as audience, which we can understand as a collection of individuals. Their opinions become subject to be deployed; through programme, through engagement, through academic discursive exercise. Things that could pose a threat to the structure of the Tate are neutralised: by taking the very structure as an inevitable fact and repositioning the threats on the scale of the individual, as ‘sensitive’ subject. As subject, these things have become representative and the energy they contain is then released through the programme. Threat is converted into something that has actual tangible value for the institution: by expanding the offer of what the Museum represents, they also expand the Museum’s potential audience.

It might sound trite, but galleries and museums are institutions in the same way that political bodies are. They are governed by political ideologies, even if those ideologies don’t look like ideologies or declare themselves to be ideologies. Maria says it quite explicitly, quoting Tristram Hunt (Director of the V&A): ‘museums are not straightforwardly political tools’. Funnily enough, despite the wording, that is a straightforwardly political statement about the way museums should be positioned in public life. Maria Balshaw’s image of a museum’s role in public life is not inevitable or universal, it doesn’t speak to an ultimate truth or a correct way of working. It is shaped by a political understanding of the world and of the way structures should work in relation to people.


Now this becomes sticky, because I have to take a few leaps for the sake of brevity.

What follows Liberalism is Neoliberalism. Neoliberalism doesn’t declare itself as an ideology, but it is sweetly intertwined with Liberalism and Capitalism. It has all of the same understanding about individuals as a universal unit of measurement for society, structures and services. It adds marketisation on top of that: a strong preference for the logic of free market competition as a way of assessing value and ensuring efficiency. It creates new markets to exploit for value, favouring deregulation and privatisation.

Returning to the problem from 5 & 6, Liberalism says:

If there are people of colour in positions of power within this institution, they are not excluded.

Neoliberalism is characterised by the opening up of new markets for value extraction, and representational diversity is a new market of value. It says:

People of colour should be in certain positions of power within this institution, because diversity is a valuable commodity.

Within Neoliberalism, there is a political understanding of the market value of diversity. But diversity is an end point, the structure of the institution remains the same. The model of diversity that it presents is one where specific individuals are allowed access to positions of power, but it is conditional. It relies on their ability to demonstrate that they can assimilate: take up the institution’s interests as their own and preserve its fundamental structure.

It’s not just that they’re unable to dismantle the structure of that institution and redistribute power from within. It’s also that they are unlikely to, because it would act against their own interests. Neoliberalism inserts the free market values of competition into this dynamic, participation relies on people being in competition for proximity to power. Those who are are willing funnel through the existing structure and comply with its existing shape, those who don’t are prevented from succeeding within it because there are others who will comply ready to take their place.


When an element of your identity becomes representational, it’s because you are being seen as a singular individual entity. You are not part of a wider group with mutual understanding, shared interests or experience, or collective aims; you are an individual representing that all on your own.

In that moment, the complexity of the network you exist within is flattened. When it is flattened it can be handled and deployed as a commodity by the institution that has placed you in this weird transactional representation-space. Maybe that’s co-option? Maybe it’s tokenism? Maybe it’s just a systemic scale that we are unable to fully grasp.

Whatever it is: individual identities are valuable to institutions. They can prove something with it. They can use your flattened identity demonstratively. Whether it is the social capital of being at the cutting edge of woke culture, the business case for diversity, or just being able to access an expanded audience at a time when funding bodies place such heavy stress on public engagement. Whatever it is, it is of Value.


I never really understood what it meant. Systemic racism, institutional racism - how did those descriptors at the beginning actually work in practice. Surely all racism is systemic, like isn’t that the point of it? It works on a scale beyond that of an individual, so when you are confronted by it, it hurts as it shrinks you.

It clicked a couple years ago. It’s not about how the scale feels, it’s about the way it all works. Maybe it seems like a slight difference. But it is embedded in the way something quite literally runs. Everything from policy, pay, HR guidelines, institutional processes for how an exhibition gets put together, to the basic understanding of what art fundamentally belongs in a gallery. That’s the system. The way this disparate collection of things come together and run as one interconnected entity.

I think after a while using a word or a term, its value starts to dissolve away from you. I remember when I was in primary school, one time I got so confused about how to spell the word orange because I thought about it for too long and it started to sound strange and unreal. I was frozen, not entirely sure this word actually existed, and if it did I had no idea what it meant or referred to. I only really snapped out of this haze at lunchtime, when I saw a bowl of fruit in the canteen. It was there, cupped in the curve of a bunch of bananas: a satsuma (technically).

Keep the actual thing you’re referring to in sight.

The last time I tried to write about this, I called the text the Problem with Representation. I framed it all in such a way that made it seem like one day, someone had woken up and decided that representation was a valuable and satisfying end goal.

I wrote:

‘The issue with seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks.’

I wasn’t wrong, I was just framing it wrong. No one seeks out representation as a singular end goal, no one goes out in the world to preserve a busted structure. We just can’t always see structures, they are covert background music, white noise blur - especially if we’re within them. If you’ve forgotten how to spell orange and actually have forgotten what an orange is entirely, it’s absent from your frame of reference. You don’t know what to conjure up for yourself, how to burst through the other side of the haze and remember.