Post / The Use of History a...

March 21, 2015

The Use of History and the Histories of Use: Museum of Arte Útil and Really Useful Knowledge

Author Nick Aikens
Published January 2015 on

Published  January 2015 on

The title of L’Internationale’s five year programme The Uses of Art: The Legacy of 1848 and 1989 succinctly marks two areas of inquiry. The first is the question of art’s use – from those that make, enact or deploy art to its public and the institutions that mediate it. The second is that of legacy, the remnants of history that remain in the present. These two areas address the fundamental questions of art’s relationship to the world and how we meaningfully configure history. They are particularly pertinent in our contemporary moment when, with the demise of ideological binaries between East and West, avant-garde art is no longer positioned as a symbol of a liberal, free society. This means the question of art’s ‘use’ to society has to be re-calibrated – for artists, institutions and the public we address. Equally, the institutions that house, produce and mediate artistic thinking are under pressure to redefine their role and the stories they tell. A perpetual presentism pervades coupled with a market logic that demands that institutions quantify their output, either through visitor numbers or raising private capital. Within this framing, attempts to map the roles for art, history and, by inference, the museum appear as pressing tasks.

This paper will look at how the notions of history and use have been approached through two exhibitions in L’Internationale programme’s: the Museum of Arte Útil which closed at the Van Abbemuseum at the end of March 2014 and Really Useful Knowledge which recently opened at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Through these exhibitions, I hope to examine different approaches to the notion of use in relationship to art practice and knowledge production – and how the mechanism of the museum, as a generator of history, is exposed and challenged through the format of an exhibition and its modes of display. Most importantly, however, I aim to explore how these projects speak to one another, as a set of ideas and methodologies.[1]

The Museum of Arte Útil was a project initiated by the artist Tania Bruguera. Útil in Spanish roughly translates as useful, but it goes further, implying the notion of a tool or device. The central premise of the Arte Útil project is to consider practices and initiatives in which artistic thinking is used as a tool to intervene in the world and bring tangible change. In this sense, it stands opposed to modernist notions of artistic autonomy. By initiating this project, we were interested in naming, interrogating and tracking practice that has taken place over many years outside the gallery or museum, a means of working that is initiated and carried forward by multiple users (with the inherent demand for self-organisation, collectivity and the eschewing of singular authorship that that entails) and has the ability to offer alternative solutions to the status quo as imposed by systems of power or market logic. We wanted to identify a set of protocols, or tactics that were being carried out across vastly different contexts and time frames, offering a vision of a way in which artistic thinking can serve as a form of pragmatic resistance, wrenching the notion of critical art practice away from “mere” critique to show a method and history of working that takes place, as Stephen Wright would term it, on a 1:1 scale – not representations or prototypes but “the thing itself” (2013, p. 3–5).[2]


Exhibition view: Museum of Arte Útil. Archives Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven.

Central to the project has been the development of the Arte Útil archive.[3] The word archive here is used loosely – it is more of an inventory or reference tool. Currently online, it contains around 200 projects giving details of where initiatives took place, the duration, those involved, their goals and outcomes.[4]At present the archive begins chronologically with the Cincinnati Time Store in the United States, a labour exchange store that ran from 1827 to 1830; and ends with the most recent projects which include Núria Güell and Levi Orta’s Political Degenerate Art, incidentally part of Really Useful Knowledge at the Reina Sofía. The scale and scope of the entries in the archive includes entire movements (Bauhaus, for example), as well as single actions with profound reverberations (the presentation of the Yirrkala Bark Petition by Aboriginals in 1963 which saw the first recognition of native title in the Australian Parliament), and projects whose distinction as art, rather than activism for example, is barely if at all perceivable other than through those who initiate it (Laurie Jo Reynolds’ Tamms Year Ten project, a successful campaign to close a maximum security prison in Illinois being a case in point). What the archive presents – or speculates upon, therefore, is an alternative history to the one we inherited from modernism, where artistic thinking has consciously stepped outside its own frames of reference.

We sought to place focus on the question of methodology, asking how knowledge – and subsequently history in the form of an archive – is arrived at and presented through institutional structures. To do this, we set a series of criteria whereby projects would be evaluated, a quasi-scientific means of looking at projects and their emphasis on collective authorship or their duration and outcomes.[5] The output and effect we were trying to evaluate was explicitly that which fell outside economic capture or individual gain. As Manuel Borja-Villel argues in his introduction to the catalogue of Really Useful Knowledge: “The value of knowledge does not rely on a level of productivity […] there is a radical difference between value in use and price” (2014, p. 6–8).

As part of our consideration of methodology, came the question of vocabulary. What were the words that we needed to articulate and talk about such a move when those currently at our disposal were, for the large part inherited from a discourse formulated around the individual autonomous artist? We invited theorist and writer Stephen Wright who has been addressing what he calls the “Usological Turn” in contemporary culture for some years, to think with us about some of the political and lexical implications of Arte Útil. Central to Wright’s position is the argument that “with the rise of networked culture, users have come to play a key role as producers of information breaking down the longstanding opposition between consumption and production”. Usership, Wright posits, has emerged as an alternative to the fading categories of political subjectivity such as unions or the social democratic consensus and stands in opposition to what he refers to as the three “stalwart conceptual edifices of the contemporary order: expert culture, spectatorship and ownership” (2013, p. 1). The result of our collaboration with Wright was a lexicon of forty three terms divided into what he terms “conceptual institutions to be retired” (words such as “authorship”, “autonomy” or Kant’s notion of “disinterested spectatorship”) with emergent concepts such as “1:1 scale”, “repurposing” or “museum 3.0” and actual modes of usership such as “hacking”, “gaming” and “usership” itself.

There is an inherent tension in the notion of a museum of arte útil – whereby initiatives that are not object-based, that happen in the field and deliberately sidestep questions of authorship, ownership and expert culture, are captured within a museum, whose very physical and conceptual architecture is founded on these three principles (Wright 2013, entry for “Museum 3.0”).

Key to challenging these three principles was the organisation of the physical spaces of the museum. If, as we had hoped, we wanted to transform the museum from a site of spectatorship to one of usership, we would need to radically alter its modernist white cube architecture and with it its conceptual framing. Working with constructLab, a team of designers, artists and architects, we re-imagined the Old Building of the Van Abbemuseum as what we termed a social power plant. At the centre of this configuration was the archive, the fuel for the plant, which was arranged chronologically and available for people to refer to, take, print or add to through computers. Cutting through the spaces of the museum was a three metre high wooden wall, dividing and breaking the white cubes and extending outside the museum, physically linking inside and out. The galleries themselves were divided by strategies that saw groupings of projects from the archive span different geographical and historical time frames. This also served as the protocol for different activities to take place within the galleries – the first room “Use it Yourself” saw projects by Santiago Cirugeda, Yomango and Bik van der Pol presented on the white walls of the museum whilst in the centre of the space the architect’s workbench was repurposed for education projects and workshops throughout the exhibition. “Institutional Repurpose” which looked at projects that hijacked and reworked institutional structures for alternative means with Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University, the Austrian collective WochenKlausur, or the Mexican initiative Torolab which were framed next to Apolonija Šušteršič’s Light Therapy Room. The room, a re-working of a project Šušteršič had carried out in Moderna Museet some ten years earlier, was filled with ultramarine light, drawing on its capacity to enhance social interaction and intellectual productivity. The room was used by various groups in the city, including the Eindhoven Council for policy meetings. “Space Hijack” highlighted projects that took over or occupied space, ranging from Bonnie Sherks’s pioneering urban farms in San Francisco in the 1970s to Núria Güell who circumvented eviction laws in post economic crash Madrid. In this room, artists were invited to occupy the space with Laurie Jo Reynolds who spent six weeks constructing a vast archival display from boxes of material that were shipped from Chicago, literally working through what it meant to aestheticise and mediate this type of artistic work to a public.

Yet the exhibition format brought with it unresolvable problems. The manner in which projects were presented, through short texts on archive cards, via documentary photographs or short videos could never fully address the complexities of the contexts out of which these initiatives took place, revealing the shortfall in research and mediation methodologies currently available to meaningfully transmit the time and aesthetics involved in this type of work which takes place in the field and away from the gallery (Kester 2013). In essence, it revealed how we were trying to frame a type of artistic practice that had deliberately eschewed representative models through the very devices which it had deliberately turned away from. Our wish to critically address the material we had accumulated focused on a series of discussions in the “Controversies Room”, the central gallery joined to the archive room. Yet, the scope of the practices and subjects we were addressing demanded a far more extensive and extended discussion. Equally, beyond the life span of the exhibition, embedding the principles of the project in the museum has been hard. The impetus of discussions and experimenting with new modes of working can fade as the museum machine rolls on to the next exhibition. The need, as Gerald Raunig has argued, to break “the rigid time management” of exhibition programmes and structures is one of the key challenges facing institutions if they are to transform themselves into what he has termed “institutions of the common” (Raunig 2013). So, it is precisely in the contradictions of the Museum of Arte Útil where the limitations of an institution geared towards presenting history through the collection, conservation and presentation of objects lie. That said, the need to continue experimenting with ways of presenting, mediating and accommodating practice that challenges or circumvents other modes of capture seems a fundamental task if museums are able to reshape themselves to house and catalyse new forms of instituent practice. For the Arte Útilproject itself, its “use” will be defined away from the museum in how the archive is added to, mediated and deployed in the future.[6]

Whereas the Museum of Arte Útil attempted to expose the procedures inherent in the formation of a speculative history of use, Really Useful Knowledge at the Museo Reina Sofía placed its emphasis on critically appraising the question of use itself.

Workers groups in the United Kingdom coined the term “really useful knowledge” in the early nineteenth century. It describes a body of knowledge that was deemed unpractical or more specifically unprofitable such as politics, philosophy and economic theory and stood in opposition to “useful knowledge” as understood by business owners, which would include maths, chemistry and physics. As the exhibition’s curators What, How and for Whom? summarise: “Whereas the concept of ‘useful knowledge’ operates as a tool of social reproduction and a guardian of the status quo, ‘really useful knowledge’ demands changes by unveiling the causes of exploitation and tracing its origins within the ruling ideology; it is a collective emancipatory, theoretical, emotional, informative, and practical quest that starts with acknowledging what we do not yet know” (What, How and for Whom 2014, p. 19). These opening remarks draw clear lines between the rhetoric and mode of working of the Museum of Arte Útil: the insistence on acknowledging “that which we do not know” stands in contrast to the accumulation and presentation of a history in the form of an open source archive. Though drawing different historical trajectories, the exhibition takes its cue from the current economic crisis and widespread demands to re-imagine democracy for the twenty-first century, which continue to have profound reverberations in Spain. Really Useful Knowledge is seen as a provocative antidote to contemporary society’s demand that everything be quantifiable and productive, steadfastly fighting the instrumentalisation of culture. In this sense, the notion of “really useful knowledge” seems to position itself in opposition to “arte útil” that calls directly for art to be put to use. It is a conflict the curators explicitly acknowledge when they write: the exhibition “develops through a number of recurring themes revolving around the relationship between the artist and social change, the dialectic embedded in the images and visual realm that can generate political action, and the tension between perceived need for active involvement and insistence on the right of art to be ‘useless'” (What, How and for Whom 2014, p. 23).

Catarina Simão’s work, Mozambique Institute Project(2014), commissioned for the exhibition, examined the archives of the Frelimo Mozambican Liberation Front and their development of the Mozambican Institute in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania as a means to educate the population outside the systems imposed by the Portuguese colonisers. Here, education and colonial struggle went hand in hand. Elsewhere, cultural production and forms of resistance merged in an extraordinary room that paired the Partisan Art Movement in former Yugoslavia with the Black Panther’s fight for civil rights in 1960s America. The Partisan Art Movement, formed in the early 1940s in Slovenia to unite against fascist forces controlling part of the country after their defeat to German forces, saw the role of culture as central to resistance, understanding art’s critical potential to awaken social transformation. Seen next to journals and posters of the Black Panther movement with tag lines such as “Whatever is good for the oppressor is bad for us”, this room seemed to press home the role art practice and critical thinking have had and can play within a wider emancipatory project. The inclusion of these two historical examples, however, were hard to reconcile with the curators’ wish “to insist on art’s right to be useless” or the wider implication that “really useful knowledge” is that which falls outside notions of cause and effect.


Catarina Simão, “Mozambique Institute Project”, 2014 (Dar-es-Salaam). © Picture: Joaquín Cortés, Román Lores / MNCARS.

This conundrum was tied up most explicitly in the central room of the exhibition with Carla Zaccagnini’s Elements of Beauty (2012). The project looks at acts of sabotage on renowned masterpieces by members of the WPSU (Women’s Social and Political Union), the militant association for woman’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, which began in 1914 with Mary Richardson slashing Velázquez’s Venus at the Mirrorin the National Gallery in London. The installation comprised a vast wall covered in numbered floor plans, delineating the different sites with an audioguide and a publication that recounts the attacks. Richardson is quoted as saying: “Art is of no use until political rights of equality are achieved”. Such a position is complex. Culture is only deemed of “use” once the fight has been won, yet its political potential can be harnessed for the cause through the act of its symbolic defacement. The suffragette movement – and to some extent the exhibition as a whole – denies art a clear-cut role in a project of social change, certainly one as cut-and-dry as the framing of Arte Útil, not quite letting go of its modernist, autonomous credentials for fear of it being instrumentalised.

Yet within Really Useful Knowledge, some projects wholeheartedly abandoned “art’s right to be useless”. Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube (2014) is a case in point. Formally referencing Hans Haacke’s iconic Condensation Cube (1963–1965), the piece uses the Tor network to allow those who log on to be untraceable, pinging users around a global network of nodes before spitting you out somewhere on the other side of the world. This is not a critique of systems of mass data collection and analyses, it is an entirely useful means with which anyone visiting the Museo Reina Sofía can avoid it. Likewise, it quite brilliantly reframes the museum (or its internet network at any rate) as a truly public space, free from controls and surveillance. Similarly, the Public Library project, commissioned for the exhibition and seeing thousands of books scanned and digitised for wider access, is a means with which art practice breaks away from Kantian notions of “purposeless purpose” to offer a real alternative to the mass privatisation of education and culture, operating in the real and on its own terms. Or perhaps the most “útil” of all was Núria Güell’s collaboration with Levi Orta, Political Degenerate Art: the artists directed their production budget to the creation of a company in the tax haven of Panama. The company is now being used by a group of activists for various initiatives in Spain, allowing them to sidestep tax and control systems in the European Union.

Central to the question of knowledge production which the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge took on was the museum, how it generates and propagates knowledge and how that might be challenged. A good example of this was an ambitious two-room installation by Brook Andrew using different works from the collections of the Museo Reina Sofía, the Anthropological Museum and the Museum of America (all in Madrid) alongside his own archives related to his native Australia. With the walls covered in a black and white design based on Aboriginal patterns, the installation included anonymous photographs of indigenous Australians juxtaposed with Cindy Sherman’s film stills with her face painted black. Elsewhere, other artists such as the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera were chosen to initiate a dialogue between Australia and Spain’s colonial past. In the centre of the room, a large vitrine included hundreds of photos, books and documents. A skeleton of bones lay amidst them with a vast foghorn on the end proclaiming the need to acknowledge and broadcast those buried histories.[7]

In a similar vein, Ariella Azoulay’s ambitious installation The Body Politic: A Visual Declaration of Human Rights (2014) reworked Edward Steichen’s iconic The Family of Man (1955), carried out in post-war America, treating it as an “archive of the human condition”. The installation extends the original archive of The Family of Man, incorporating contemporaneous images of human suffering, creating what Azoulay calls “a visual declaration of human rights”. As such, The Body Politic questions how histories and struggles are presented to us, recuperating and extending that narrative beyond its original frames of reference.

The question of how the institution produces and mediates knowledge was most explicitly taken on through the invitation to the Spanish collective Subtramas to coordinate the public programme for the exhibition. By inviting Subtramas, who in turn have asked a number of different cultural and activist groups working in Madrid and beyond to conduct workshops, conversations and guided tours of the exhibition, there is an attempt to disrupt the museum’s authorial control. It continues the Reina Sofía’s trajectory of working with political collectives as a means to try and transform the institution’s relationship to its constituency through external collaborations. Whilst such a relationship must invariably be fraught with difficulty, it seems vital when thinking through how alternative forms of knowledge and collectivity can be harnessed as a means to challenge the methodologies and production mechanisms of institutional thinking.

However, within the rooms of the exhibition, the means with which Really Useful Knowledge made its argument was, for the most part, mediated through singular artworks. Indeed, the role of the art object as a transmitter of histories and ideas was paramount, as the focus on a number of craft-based practices, such as panel painting, textiles or anonymous ex-voto miniatures bore testament. In vast contrast to the Arte Útil archive, or the interviews, documentation and remnants of initiatives that had taken place “in the real”, the works presented in the Reina Sofía were, for the most part, conceived for gallery display. These works stood in greater contrast to the manner in which the projects within the Arte Útil project had often eschewed representation completely. In this sense, the comparison between the two shows a difference between what Alistair Hudson described as “radical performativity” in critical art practice and “radical competence” in projects that operate on a 1:1 scale.[8] Equally, where the Museum of Arte Útil was organised through a central scenographic device and the subsequent division of rooms through strategies, Really Useful Knowledge unfolded as a choreographed sequence of narratives, histories and approaches, drawing on the dramaturgy of the exhibition format. The historical combinations and inclusions were intuitive – this was a materialistic historiography where, to quote Walter Benjamin: “Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest as well” (Benjamin 1999/1940, p. 254). This emphasis on arresting thoughts, in a broader sense of critical engagement through artworks marks the most significant difference in approach compared to Arte Útil.[9] By presenting arguments through the lens of singular artistic practice in contrast to an expanded, self-made archive, a clear division is set up between the production of knowledge and its critique through artistic practice. Looking at these two case studies side by side, the means with which to interpret and play out questions of knowledge production and appears to be a question of balance or of one feeding off the other.

I would like to conclude by considering whether in our current moment the practice of critique – either as a model for artistic work, curatorial practice or institutional thinking – is sufficient. As Marina Garcés writes in a wonderful essay in the Really Useful Knowledge catalogue (2014, p. 37– 45), the need for criticality should, it seems, always run parallel to the production of knowledge or new protocols, the two constantly informing and mutating one another. Yet what happens if there is a need to step beyond critique – or at the very least to propagate modes of working and knowledge production that seek not only to question but to offer alternative ways of thinking and doing? Invariably, realising or enacting new models will have profound repercussions for the museum, its presentation formats and event rhythms. But these are experiments we should feel obliged to try.

Benjamin, W. 1999, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, originally written in 1940, in Illuminations, trans. Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., Pimlico, London.
Borja-Villel, M. 2014, “Foreword”, in What, How and for Whom (ed.), Really Useful Knowledge, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Kester, G. 2013, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism”, e-flux journal, no. 50, December, viewed 19 December 2014,
Garcés, M. 2014, “Beyond Access: The Problem of Having a Useful Relation to Knowledge”, in What, How and for Whom (ed.), Really Useful Knowledge, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Raunig, G. 2013, “Flatness Rules: Instituent Practices and Institutions of the Common in a Flat World”, in P. Gielen (ed.), Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flatworld, Valiz, Amsterdam.
What, How and for Whom (ed.), 2014, Really Useful Knowledge, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Wright, S. 2013, Toward a Lexicon of Usership, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
1 — My relationship to these two exhibitions is imbalanced. I worked on The Museum of Arte Útil and continue to work with its material, so I am unable to talk about its ideas, potential or problems with much distance. Subsequently, my understanding and reading of Really Useful Knowledgeis framed largely by the experiences and ideas generated when working on Arte Útil.
2 — The lexicon can also be downloaded: (viewed 19 December 2014).3 — The archive was put together by two researchers in Eindhoven, colleagues in the Queens Museum in New York with whom we collaborated on the project, a group of around thirty correspondents from around the world and a series of open calls to the public who were invited to propose initiatives for inclusion.4 — The archive can currently be accessed at The Van Abbemuseum is continuing to work with Bruguera and others to develop Arte Útil. From February 2015, a new online platform can be accessed at Two presentations of the archive in Eindhoven and Zagreb are currently scheduled.
5 — The criteria of Arte Útilstate that initiatives should: propose new uses for art within society, challenge the field within which it operates (civic, legislative, pedagogical, scientific, economic, etc.), be “timing specific”, responding to current urgencies, be implemented and function in real situations, replace authors with initiators and spectators with users, have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users, pursue sustainability whilst adapting to changing conditions, re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation.
6 — A new version of the Arte Útil website will launch in early 2015 with plans to activate and mediate the archive being undertaken by different groups.
7 — The emphasis and interrogation of colonial histories here and elsewhere in the show, revealed an acknowledgement of what Raunig has identified as “the responsibility to investigate (the institutions) colonial and neo-colonial entanglements, to deconstruct them and try out a practice of decolonization, (… an) exchange beyond times and geographies, a practice of translating that takes histories of dominations and different geopolitical contexts into consideration.” (Raunig 2013).
8 — Alistair Hudson made this comment in a response to this paper at the University of Hildesheim, Germany, during The Uses of Art: History conference, November 2014.
9 — The grouping of different forms of resistance and struggle that often spanned different time frames and geographies without contextualisation was critiqued by Francisco Godoy Vega in his blog post “Local Stories, Global Designs. Really Situated Knowledge”, L’Internationale Online, 10 December 2014, viewed 6 January 2015,