Institutional Garbage: An Online Exhibition

Caroline Picard and Lara Schoorl are the curators of Institutional Garbage, a digital exhibition  that is viewable online through December 31, 2016. In Institutional Garbage, more than 40 contributors speculate about what forms of garbage or trash a Utopic institution might accumulate and leave behind. We chatted over email about the curation process, the nature of institutions, and revolutionary art.

Wendy Burk: Is there a story that crystallizes how Institutional Garbage came into being, or how you worked on curating the exhibit together?

Caroline Picard: Devin King and I were helping some curators, Aliocha Imhoff and Kantuta Quirós, with a film they were working on during a residency at Rebuild Foundation. Part of their work involved asking the question of progress. What does progress look like now?, or something like that. They conducted these interviews in the basement of The Stony Island Bank, literally in this old bank vault that was not yet refurbished and so totally rusted out, dirty, and mesmerizing in a trash-porn kind of way. The site itself made me think about human infrastructure, and how personally difficult it is for me to see a positive way through the future. Statistical projections about global warming, waning resources, reactionary politics, rising nationalism, neoliberalism, and stiffening border controls make the world seem increasingly inhospitable, to such an extent that I find it more and more difficult to imagine what a future looks like. I recently attended at a lecture by Elaine Scarry where she pointed out that the US alone has 14 nuclear warheads; it takes just one warhead to destroy an entire continent and yet there are only seven continents. What’s with this excess of potential force? So the question of what does progress look like struck me as quite strange, and I guess from there I thought about the desire for Utopic institutions that would regulate human society, so that we might reach to be our best selves collectively. And then I laughed because those places would also have carbon footprints, and they would also make trash, and people who went to work at those places would probably hate their jobs some (if not most) of the time, and disagree with the hierarchies those same institutions relied upon. But that’s a sketch of my footing—I’m also interested in how the idea caught your imagination, Lara, as I get the sense that you tied it into language more directly…

Lara Schoorl: You’re right, I did. We sat at the counter at Sector 2337 and you asked if I wanted to help you reach out to several artists with a question that you couldn’t quite formulate yet, so you described, in different ways, how you were thinking about a future institution, an ideal or Utopic institution, one that would never exist, perhaps was impossible to exist, and then what its footprint would be, its trash. I couldn’t imagine or understand this place you were talking about. Not as a concrete place I or anyone could visit, but I understood the question of it. Perhaps I had difficulty understanding you because English is not my first language, yet I knew all the words you used. Translation has become inherent to how I think and express myself, and now that I speak two languages fluently I often wonder about a deeper meaning of words, their etymologic, visual, and phonetic origins. Do I really understand a certain word? Do I feel their meaning when saying them, do they come out of my mouth in addition to recognizing them on the page? In this case, the word ‘institution’ kept confusing me. Many things can be an institution, perhaps everything is an institution in the sense that a majority has agreed on what each word and/or thing stands for and/or means (although this differs in different languages, of course). I took a class once that was called “Art as Institution (and its critique)” and we read different philosophers, such as John Searle, Arthur Danto, Valéry Proust, and Walter Benjamin, who all tried to define or break definitions of art. Of course we never came to an understanding of what the institution of art is; it became clear that it is malleable enough so that everyone could work within a vast field of art and make work that is significantly different from each other.

CP: Somehow that makes me think that you are getting at what an institution is or means with this idea of malleability — like the institution is strong enough to remain unchanged, despite the movements and gestures that happen within it…but that keeps the notion of the institution also quite vague. Institution of what?

LS: The word institution is as malleable as art. When we talked at the counter you didn’t say museum or gallery or project space; those words seem more defined already. You didn’t use those words because you did not know what kind of institution a future institution might be. Thus purposefully you asked for just an institution, and its trash, leaving it malleable and via that vagueness inviting the artists and writers and curators to contribute in shaping a possible impossible institution.


WB: Would you briefly walk us through what we will find in each the three digital rooms of Institutional Garbage?

CP: It’s more or less divided into the categories of writers (A), curators (B), and artists (C), although there are cases in which the distinctions are a little arbitrary, maybe in the same way that beurocratic—

LS:  I remember you saying you always have trouble spelling this word, bureaucratic, and how for some reason it is not difficult for me, perhaps because it has the same spelling in Dutch. Your spelling it incorrectly the same way as before now makes me smile. Also, did you know “bureau” in Dutch means “desk” – maybe next time we can just write deskcratics?

CP: Yes! It’s true, actually, and actually since that conversation I’ve gotten much better at spelling it (though obviously not in this case) because I always think of the French word for desk, bureau, which I’ve never had any trouble spelling. I love how typos are usually private things. They are embarrassing in public and detract from the authority of a given text or writer.

LS: And I wonder always, why are they wrong? And why do we automatically correct them in our minds? What does “beurocratic” mean?

CP: Maybe in this case, the show is funny because I wouldn’t typically curate an exhibit with such a regulated system, defining artists from curators from writers (and maybe it’s especially ironic because I inhabit all of those roles rather promiscuously), and yet in this case we did make a system whose distinctions, or cuts, don’t always make sense. For instance, Sofia Lemos is included in the writers category, although she is a curator whose text proposes an exhibition, and Lise Haller Baggesen is an artist who also writes, and who in this case has included a text. In the B section, the curators all present a unified format, however, and it functions almost like an institutional retrospective, presenting ephemera from its history—in this case, posters for exhibitions. Except of course none of these exhibitions happened.

LS: The rooms are in a way divided broadly by field. We thought about having those fields mixed throughout each room, but because of the large amount of works and the vines growing in the background, it made sense to create some kind of order to make visible the chaos that drives this project. This division, which actually came forth out of a Google drive that just happened to be divided this way for practical reasons of keeping track how many visual and textual works we received, was copied practically by Pouya Ahmadi, our graphic designer, when moving the works from the Google drive to the website. Seeing the show for the first time this way it made sense. It might have been our most curatorial decision to keep it divided.


WB: What question would you most like to ask visitors to Institutional Garbage?

CP: Ha! I’m not sure. Maybe we can go back to the beginning again — what is progress? What do you think, Lara?

LS: I am very curious in what Institutional Garbage does to / for visitors. It has given us and the contributors a place to think about, to create things in or for, but I wonder if it is or remains a place for creativity for visiting people unrelated to the exhibition as well? Or, what do you think the residue, trash, perhaps even treasures of the institution Institutional Garbage would be if it were to be demolished?


If you would like to read more of Wendy Burk's interview with Caroline Picard and Lara Schoorl, you can find the full transcript here

Visit Institutional Garbage through December 31, 2016 at

Read Caroline Picard and Lara Schoorl’s curatorial essay at