Try-out Institution

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 performance acts (Austin 1972) are of institutional decent (marriage, heritage, etc.). The institution, as a body of law, embodies and reproduces normed social frames and defines actions of individuals, of groups, of societies (Mohren and Herbordt 2017, Bernstorff forthcoming; Bernstorff 2018: 220). The institution is built around the performative act of speaking in the name of – (the institution or what is represented by it, e.g. ‘the people’). The institution does not necessarily have closed spatial borders, it is not always clear where it ends or begins (see Schatzmann/Strauss 1973 after Bernstorff 2018: 220). To stabilize itself, it refers to other institutions.

Founding an institution is an act of legitimization and representation: It often embodies a claim for a specific right and interest to be performed through and within the institution. Researching institutions and their conditions means to investigate the social, cultural, political norms and processes that govern them. As an artistic gesture an alternative Try-out institution enacts performatively different protocols. At the same time it looks critically at existing institutions from a different perspective, questioning their processes and conditions. Within the PhD programs Assemblies and Participation and Performing Citizenship some research projects used the act of instituting to try out alternative legitimizations, representations and protocols for action: TheLastJudgement (Elise von Bernstorff, The Last Judgement , 2014) The Young Institute for Future-Research (Eva Plischke, The Young Institute for Future-Research, 2013), The School of Girls (Maike Gunsilius, The School of Girls I, 2016), The Archive of the Institute for Falsification (Thari Jungen, The Archive of the Institute for Falsification, 2016), (Moritz Frischkorn, The Institute of Choreologistics, 2017) and further KAPUTT – The Academy of Destruction (FUNDUS THEATER/Theatre of Research, KAPUTT – The Academy of Destruction, 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 like the Court (Elise von Bernstorff, The Last Judgement, 2014) or the public school (Maike Gunsilius, The School of Girls I (2016) and II, (2016). In The Last Judgement (Elise von Bernstorff, The Youngest Court, 2014), which could also be translated in The Youngest Court, students investigated the court as a civic institution; its rooms, protocols, its bureaucracy, its performativity. Later the kids formed an alternative court of students that was concerned with ‘lost cases’, cases, which were not authorised by the official court, however 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 legitimization 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), or when research is meant to focus on given institutional procedures and effects and wants to suggest a specific alternative scenario. The more specific the better.

Similar strategies were employed by researching on an alternative future-research in the The Young Institute for Future-Research (Eva Plischke, The Young Institute for Future-Research, 2013), on the relation between logistics and choreography in the Institute of Choreologistics I (Moritz Frischkorn, The Institute of Choreologistics, 2017) or on the Act of Falsification as a social and artistic practice in relation to citizenship concepts and struggles (Thari Jungen, The Institute for Falsification, 2016). All of them can be understood as ‘What-if’-explorations: ‘What if’ children were empowered to make judgements? ‘What if’ choreography and logistics were conceived as the same or as connected practices? ‘What if’ the act of falsification of a passport was used to claim the right to get one – or better to claim the rights attached to this document? ‘What if’ children were respected as experts on questions of their own future?

Artistic Means  

The performativity of the institution – the ability of institutions to create the reality they speak of – is slightly twisted in a Try-out Institution. The act of instituting takes its power partially from the performativity of art, which can call something into being just in the name of art. By making use of this artistic power, and at the same time possibly by the resources rendered available to and by art, the Try-out Institution becomes a hybrid body, which is in between reality and fiction. A delicate and not entirely controllable act of balance, that can fail and create failure. As such it undermines and highlights the construction of hegemonial rules.

Especially the performing arts are able to pick up the manifold performative aspects of established institutions, to intervene in them and to turn them around. They can also have the expertise to invent new institutions and their protocols and perform them.

To create a Try-out Institution is comparatively simple, which is why it has grown to be a rather common format of performance art. It often comprises putting up a website, writing letters and emails in the name of the institution, design logos and letterheads for it, name tags, accessories and uniforms. It also includes the design of procedures and protocols and their performance.

Furthermore, the institution as such suggests to think of people involved as either members of administration, other members (like in a club) or clients, which use the institution as a service. To perform Try-out Institutions possibly includes on the one hand all kinds of one-on-one-interactions, service encounters etc., on the other hand events in which the institution comes to live in a more complete and public scenario involving assemblies and presentations, possibly collective decision making. To perform 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 postponing presentation to the very end of the research process.

Try-out Institutions are well equipped for collective and inclusive research, because they turn theoretical assumptions about the institution in question and the alternative scenario that is tried out, into action to be experienced and roles to be embodied and protocols to be performed, by asking ‘what if’…? They can address and empower people as experts and researchers and can help define their roles within this collaborative process: To be a member of an institution and to have authority to speak in its name, is empowering all members of the research group and allows them to address each other on eye level 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 (Eva Plischke, The Young Institute for Future-Research, 2013) constituted itself by its practice. Having a name for the institution, having a costume, a logo for it, 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 walk into stores and talking to politicians. A main moment of performing it was the public presentation in which the act of institution, the practice, the roles within and the results of the research were presented in front of an invited public.

To be a client and experience a new kind of service possibly confronts people involved with their wishes, fears, needs, and expectations.

Potentials, Problems & Outcomes

Try-out Institutions have a potential for collective research, because research questions can partially be translated into the purpose of the institution in question. Therefore, the research process can be broken down – on its most accessible and inclusive level – into questions about, if or if not the Try-out Institution reached its goals. These questions can and should be answered by all people involved, members as co-researchers and clients as participants, as a heterogeneous collective. Try-out Institutions can be forums for citizen’s research.

However, there also might be another level of research and observation established beside the Try-out Institution itself. It 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 setup 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 setup appealing and worthy of their embodiment and enactment. If, or if not, this happens, will then already be a big part of the experimental outcome.

Another important measure of the outcome of a Try-out Institution will be, if 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? Lots 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 protocol of archiving, of documentation and memory, to render these answers available to future evaluation.

Try-out Institutions are fictions, which in every step of their performance try to become real. 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 forthcoming: 132). The setup, the act of instituting is often the strongest side of a Try-out Institution. To keep a Try-out Institution going will prove to be more challenging, than to create 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 field of cultural or social service ready to take the outcomes of this kind of research serious enough to establish something like The Youngest Court (Elise von Bernstorff, The Youngest Court, 2014) 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, which they then can’t see through. This can create friction between founders, members, and clients, between researchers, co-researchers, participants, and users because the latter might expect continuity as a part of the wider institutional claim that then can’t be guaranteed.