The Aura of the Institution

On affect, atmosphere, and immersion as problematics in contemporary architecture and art

Published in: Paul Grundei, Stephanie Kaindl, Barbara Steiner, Christian Teckert (eds.), "Negotiating Spaces. The New Exhibition Building of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig by as-if berlinwien", Jovis Verlag, Berlin, 2011


Museums and exhibition buildings dedicated to contemporary art have experienced an unparalleled boom in the last few years. It seems that hardly any city can afford to do without a spectacular new museum designed by a star architect. The “success” of a Tate Modern in London, a MOMA in New York, or a Guggenheim in Bilbao, as well as the Museumsquartier in Vienna, sets the standards. If museums were once dedicated to a complex of exhibits and shows[i], they have now significantly taken over the function of tourist sites, of urban communication centers with a multiplicity of commercial programs. In most contemporary museum conceptions, a significant reversal of conditions can be observed: While in traditional museums, at least two thirds of the spaces were dedicated to exhibitions and one third to infrastructural requirements, this relationship is now reversed . Large areas of museums are now designated to commercial ventures such as museum shops, restaurants, and cafés. This growth of multi-functional areas in the museum converges with an increasing economization and commercialization of culture.


Even before the museum boom of the last few years, the “art institution” had already become “the place to be” in the truest sense of the word: ubiquitous lounges with reading areas or social environments, which were meant to generate temporary and local communities within the exhibition context, formed a kind of substitute dwelling in which the art-affiliated urbanite knew he/she could feel at home a notion of space. These communicative spaces exemplified the characteristics of many artistic and curatorial practices subsumed by the curator and writer Nicolas Bourriaud under the intensively discussed term “relational aesthetics”. According to Bourriaud, “relational aesthetics” was no longer about a utopian design based on a prefabricated idea of evolution, but rather about inhabiting the existing world in a “better”[ii] way. After a period of sometimes rather moralizing contextual art practices, subsumed under the term “institutional critique” in the 1990s, the development of “art as a social space”[iii] made it possible to feel comfortable again in the institution, while at the same time allowing for reflection and criticism, and establishing the “coolness” of the art world as a scene of distinction. The White Cube debate, a main catalyst for the critical and artistic strategies of the ‘90s, had lost its momentum after the potency and aura of this hegemonic model for exhibition spaces had been analyzed, deconstructed, and criticized in detail. For the time being, I would like to address Bourriaud’s thesis that the production of aura no longer takes place through the artwork (nor, for that matter, through the exhibition space), but instead through the assembly of a micro-community[iv]. In his book, Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud describes an increasingly participatory practice that results in more collective and user-friendly exhibition projects, with an atmosphere that is primarily generated by “a momentary grouping of participating viewers”[v]. The notion of atmosphere has created a comeback for the concept of the “aura” (whose gradual disappearance under the influence of mechanical reproduction was already stated by Walter Benjamin in 1935), but under changed auspices. The work of art and the white wall are no longer the sources of this aura. Instead, it seems “as if the micro-community gathering in front of the image was becoming the actual source of aura, the ‘distance’ appearing specifically to create a halo around the work, which delegates its powers to it.”[vi]


Link to the publication here.


[i] Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex”, in: Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, London, 1996, 82­–109, p. 84

[ii] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon, 2002

iii] Nina Möntmann, Kunst als sozialer Raum, Köln, 2002

[iv] Bourriaud, p. 61

[v] Bourriaud, p. 58

[vi] Bourriaud, p. 61