What is it?
The institution is a civic body, a representation with performative power, that can create what it speaks of. Some of the most basic performative acts (Austin 1972) are institutional in nature (marriage, inheritance, etcetera). The institution, as a body of law, embodies and reproduces normative social frames and defines actions of individuals, of groups, and of societies (Mohren/Herbordt 2017, Bernstorff 2020, Bernstorff 2018: 220). The institution is built around the performative act of speaking in the name of (in the name of the institution or what it represents, for example ‘the people’). The institution does not necessarily have closed spatial borders, it is not always clear where it ends or begins. To stabilise and perpetuate itself, the institution relies on other institutions.
Founding an institution is an act of legitimisation and representation: It often embodies a claim for a specific right and interest to be performed by and within the institution. Researching institutions and their conditions means investigating the social, cultural, and political norms and processes that govern them. As an artistic gesture, an alternative Try-out Institution performatively enacts protocols different from those of established institutions. At the same time, it looks critically at existing institutions from a different perspective, questioning the processes and conditions that govern them. Within the PhD programmes Assemblies and Participation and Performing Citizenship, some research projects used the act of instituting to try out alternative legitimisations, representations and protocols for action: The Last Judgement II – An Extrajudicial Hearing (Bernstorff, 2014), Young Institute for Future Research (Plischke, 2013), The School of Girls I – Urban Experts (Gunsilius, 2016), The Archive of the Institute for Falsification (Jungen, 2016) and KAPUTT – The Academy of Destruction (FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research, 2017) All these were Try-out Institutions, “hybrid bodies in themselves, in which all members constantly experienced what it means to speak on behalf of different bodies and to switch between them” (Peters forthcoming).
What is researched?
Some of these Try-out Institutions did research on other established institutions, such as the court (The Last Judgement) or the public school (The School of Girls I and II). In The Last Judgment – A Staged Tour of the Civil Justice Building, students investigated the court as a civic institution; its rooms, its protocols, its bureaucracy, its performativity. Later, the kids formed an alternative court of students that was concerned with what it referred to as ‘lost cases’, cases that were not authorised by the official court, but that were nevertheless real cases brought to the court by real people. Hence, they investigated the performativity of the established institutions and their protocols and instituted an alternative framing to try out other acts of legitimisation and representation, as well as alternative protocols. Try-out Institutions might be the format of choice when it comes to research regarding a right to be claimed (in the sense of the “right to have rights” (Arendt 1951), or when research is meant to focus on given institutional procedures and effects and aims to suggest a specific alternative scenario.
Similar strategies were employed by investigating alternative future research in the Young Institute for Future Research, or the act of falsification as a social and artistic practice in relation to citizenship concepts and struggles (The Archive of the Institute for Falsification). All of these projects can be understood as explorations into different what-ifs: What if children were empowered to administer justice?
The performativity of the institution – the ability of institutions to create the reality they speak of – is slightly twisted in a Try-out Institution. Here, the act of instituting takes its power partially from the performativity of art, which can call something into being. By making use of this capacity, the Try-out Institution becomes a hybrid body that is situated in between reality and fiction. Producing a Try-out Institution is a delicate and not entirely controllable act of balance that can also fail. As such, it undermines and highlights the construction of hegemonial rules.
The performing arts are particularly qualified to engage with the manifold performative aspects of established institutions, to intervene into them and to subvert them. Theatre and performance provide the expertise of fabricating the ‘as if’ that can be used by researchers, co-researchers and participants to invent new institutions and their protocols and to perform them.
To create a Try-out Institution is comparatively simple, which is why it has grown to be an established format within the contexts of live art and performance. The process often consists of putting up a website, writing letters and emails in the name of the institution, and designing logos, letterheads, name tags, accessories and uniforms. It also includes the design of procedures and protocols and their performance.
Furthermore, the institution as such suggests thinking of the people involved as either members of the administration, other kinds of members (members of a club, for instance), or clients, which use services provided by the institution. Performing Try-out Institutions might include, on the one hand, all kinds of one-on-one interactions, service encounters, etcetera, and, on the other hand, events in which the institution comes to live in a more complete and public scenario, involving assemblies and presentations, and possibly instances of collective decision-making. Performing a Try-out Institution is mostly a longer process including a variety of formats, in which presentation and research process go hand in hand and evolve together, rather than leaving the presentation until the very end of the research process.
Try-out Institutions are well equipped for collective and inclusive research, because they translate theoretical assumptions about the institution in question and the alternative scenario that is tried out into actions to be experienced, roles to be embodied, and protocols to be performed. By asking “what if?”, they can address and empower people as experts and researchers and help to define their roles within this collaborative process: To be considered a member of an institution and to be given the authority to speak in its name is empowering all members of the research group and allows them to address each other as equals and in light of the common cause represented by the institution. Individuals can claim the power to speak in its name where they would not have been heard otherwise, just by the authority of the Try-out Institution. The Young Institute for Future Research constituted itself through its practice. Having a name for the institution, a costume, a logo, and knowing the role they had within it, the children and Eva Plischke started their research by asking around the neighbourhood what questions people had concerning the future. Acting in the name of the institution, performing their roles, gave the children the authority to, for example, walk into stores or to talk to politicians. A main moment of performing the institution was the public presentation in which the act of instituting, the practice, the roles within and the results of the research were presented in front of an invited public.
Founding an institution and speaking and acting in its name is empowering for its members. Being a client, in turn, and experiencing a new kind of service may confront people involved with their desires, fears, needs, and expectations.
Potentials, problems and outcomes
Try-out Institutions have a potential for collective research because research questions can partially be translated into objectives for the institution in question. Therefore, the research process can be broken down – on its most accessible and inclusive level – into questions about whether the Try-out Institution has reached its goals or not. These questions can and should be answered by everyone involved, by members and clients of the Try-out Institution, by researchers, co-researchers and participants of the specific research project, as a heterogeneous collective. Try-out Institutions can be forums for citizens’ research.
However, there also might be another level of research and observation established beside the Try-out Institution itself. The Try-out Institution could be an experiment within a more complex research design that might include researching institutional practices within an academic approach.
Try-out Institutions can be created and designed by heterogeneous research collectives. More often, though, the design and set-up of the Try-out Institution is done by a head researcher or head research collective. In these cases, the founder(s) of the institution make a strong statement before other people get involved and have to hope that participants will take the opportunity and find the alternative scenario proposed in the research set-up appealing and worthy of embodiment and enactment. Whether this happens or not will then already be a big part of the experimental outcome.
Another important measure of the outcome of a Try-out Institution will be whether the alternative scenario stays true to its implicit promise: Is the alternative reality created by the institution actually desirable? Does the reality brought about by the try-out indicate certain unexpected problems? Where and when does the alternative reality created by the try-out collide with given protocols of power and practice in unforeseen ways? Many of the results from this kind of research will take the form of answers to those questions. Try-out Institutions therefore should always be conceived with a specific method of archiving in mind, of documentation and memory, to render these answers available for future evaluation.
Try-out Institutions are fictions that try to become real in every step of their performance. In this process, the founders and head researchers of a Try-out Institution can find themselves in situations where the institution, in its attempt to become as real as possible, creates unexpected pressure on professional and on personal resources.
The latin term instituere also means beginning, starting, setting up (Plischke 2020: 132). The set-up, the act of instituting is often the most clearly projectable and most impactful aspect of building a Try-out Institution. Keeping a Try-out Institution going will in many cases prove to be more challenging than creating it. And it seems to be even more difficult to make a successful Try-out Institution sustainable, to make it last and spread. Try-out Institutions can eventually tour through different cities – just like theatre productions, but when it comes to real implementation, it seems that, as of now, there is no funding instrument or social/cultural context ready to take the outcomes of this kind of research serious enough to establish something like The Last Judgement on a wider societal basis. As long as this situation lasts, Try-out Institutions can create insights and experiences, but they will necessarily make proposals and claims for the beginning of social or political processes that then cannot be seen through. This can create friction between founders, members and clients of the institution, between researchers, co-researchers, participants and users of the research. Some of them might expect continuity as a part of the wider institutional claim that then cannot be guaranteed.
Arendt, Hannah (1951): The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harvest.
Austin, John L. (1972): Zur Theorie der Sprechakte: (How to Do Things with Words). Stuttgart: Reclam.
Bernstorff, Elise von (2020): Die Performance des Gerichts. Zwei künstlerische Forschungen mit Kindern. HafenCity University. Available at: https://edoc.sub.uni-hamburg.de//hcu/volltexte/2020/539/
Bernstorff, Elise von (2018): “Institution und Instituierung. Das Theater des Gerichts mit Kindern erforschen”, in: Hinz, Melanie/Kranixfeld, Michael/Köhler, Norma/Scheurle, Christoph (eds): Forschendes Theater in Sozialen Feldern. Theater als Soziale Kunst III. München: kopaed, pp. 219–229.
Mohren, Melanie/Herbordt, Bernhard. (2017): Die Institution. Berlin: Alexander Verlag.
Peters, Sibylle (forthcoming): “How to Relate Differently: Scenes of Shared Research from the Programs ‘Performing Citizenship’ and ‘Assemblies & Participation’”, in: Haas, Annika/Haas, Maximilian/Magauer, Hanna/Pohl, Dennis (eds): How to Relate: Wissen der Künste und relationale Praktiken/ Knowledge, Arts, Practices. Paderborn: fink, pp. 34–44.
Peters, Sibylle (2017): “Performing Citizenship. Beobachtungen zur Praxis performativer Forschung”, in: Klein, Gabriele/Göbel, Hannah. K. (eds): Performance und Praxis: praxeologische Erkundungen in Tanz, Theater, Sport und Alltag. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 339–360.
Plischke, Eva (2020): Zukunft auf Probe. Verhältnisse von szenischer Kunst und Zukunftsforschung. HafenCity Universität Hamburg.
Works / Projects
Bernstorff, Elise von The Last Judgement – A Staged Tour of the Civil Justice Building, 2013, Hamburg.
Bernstorff, Elise von The Last Judgement – An Extrajudicial Hearing, 2014, Hamburg.
Gunsilius, Maike The School of Girls I, 2016, Hamburg.
Thari Jungen, The Institute for Falsification, 2016, Hamburg.
FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research, KAPUTT – The Academy of Destruction, 2017, London.
Plischke, Eva Young Institute for Future Research, 2013, Hamburg.