Institutions as a Way of Life

Annotating is a series of workshops and discussions, seeking to elaborate and explore perspectives on institutional practices. They are public events, with invited partners and collaborators, oriented by specific sub-thematics, such as feminism, technology, individuation, dividuation, performance, publishing.

Annotating, Institutions as a Way of Life
Workshop and Discussion Series

Annotating is a series of open access readers, resulting from public workshops and discussions, seeking to elaborate and explore perspectives on institutional practices and intervening into processes of public making and publication. Each reader is a compiled and commented, annotated and reworked edited compilation developed by a commissioned collaborator, a select author-compiler, who’s inspired and inspiring work is to bring into momentary focus, and relation, institutional-practices from a given perspective.

Recomposing the inevitable canonizing power of all institutional practice, and in particular this thing we call ‘research’, Annotations seeks to envelop the outlier and undo the archive of movements known as ‘institutional critique’, ‘new institutionalism’ and ‘instituent practice’, concentrating on what is to be done, by whom, with whom and how. If we are to change institutional life (of which all life takes part), we must first change our understandings of how to act within them. If institutions are a way of life, a mode of being, we ask what other ways of life we might further imagine?

The overall Annotations series is convened by Bernhard Garnicnig, Lucie Kolb and Jamie Allen of the Institutions as a Way of Life project and edited by Curatorial Editor Mela Dávila Freire. Graphic Design by Sonia Malpeso.


Annotating, or The Experience of Shared Writing
Mela Dávila Freire, Hamburg, March 2020

“Faced with a written text, the reader had a duty to lend voice to the silent letters, the scripta, and to allow them to become, in the delicate biblical distinction, verba, spoken words – spirit. The primordial languages of the Bible – Aramaic and Hebrew – do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking; they name both with the same word.” Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (1)

1. Institutions as a Way of Life (IWL)

“Institutions as a Way of Life” was a research project organized by Bernhard Garnicnig, Lucie Kolb and Jamie Allen in the Critical Media Lab of the Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures, which is attached to the School of Arts of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, in Basel. The aim of IWL was briefly to “elaborate and explore perspectives on institutional practices” (2) by focusing on several specific themes which, at the outset of the project, included feminism, technology, individuation, dividuation, performance and publishing. Besides addressing these topics, Garnicnig, Kolb and Allen also set down some basic guidelines for the research. One or two collaborators were invited to compile a selection of bibliography that would offer insightful perspectives on each one of the selected themes. Compilers were expected to present their bibliographic selections before a small group of participants who would join the discussions that followed as part of a workshop. The goal of this three-step procedure – selection, presentation, discussion – was not only to share sources within the group and evaluate their relevance, but also to produce “annotated” versions of the chosen essays.

From the beginning, however, the answer to the question about what specific method(s) of “annotation” were to be used was left intentionally blurred and, therefore, open: annotating might take many different forms – known or as yet unknown – as long as it enriched every essay with new layers for interpretation and productive comments. Likewise, although every selection of “annotated” essays around the themes at play was indeed expected to be disseminated at the end of the project, it was equally vague what form these compilations of essays – or “readers” – would eventually adopt in their process of being divulged, that is to say, of becoming public.

IWL consequently embarked along a set of well-defined guidelines, the outcomes of which had yet to be established. Or, in other words: it took off from precise departure points that would lead down unknown paths. I had the pleasure to be invited as curatorial editor. Although my role was initially almost as blurred as the meanings of “annotating” and “making public” were in this context, some things were obvious: I had to monitor the development of IWL and the workshop discussions and produce input which, hopefully, would anchor the resulting compilations of essays to reality by helping to define what their material shape would be.

The project unfolded into four two-day discussion sessions, held between May and November 2019 at the Critical Media Lab, in Basel. During each session, a small group of people gathered around a large table at the Critical Media Lab and explained, talked, questioned, discussed, commented, argued, played and experimented with annotating the successive sets of texts brought in by the compilers. Throughout these sessions and the accompanying research, the original themes under discussion grew ever more complex, so that by the end of 2019 the list of topics that IWL had explored had almost doubled: feminism, fiction and performance, publishing, print, decentralization of ethics and care, graphic design, instituent practices, unbuilding infrastructures and art schools. As we perused the selections of texts that every compiler brought to Basel, it became evident that “making public” could mean publishing the outcomes of IWL at least in digital form, and that the resulting “thematic readers” would ideally include one annotated version of every selected text and also, where possible, every independent text in its unannotated version, so as not to cancel the potential for viewers external to the project to come up with new groupings of essays – to produce, in other words, new “readers”. A list of references for every theme, inserted in the art school library catalogue as a Zotero bibliography, would be the third – and last – of every reader’s materializations.

Session after session, we realized that there could actually be many different annotating methods adopted by each group of compilers. Therefore, the definition for “annotating” continued to be open all through the development of the project: some of the compilers designated “annotated”, as “commented on the margins”, while for others it meant “highlighted in different colors”, or “transformed into dialogues between invented characters which would incarnate opposite intellectual positions”, or “modified so as to change every semantic word by its opposite, and see what the resulting text read like”, or “transfigured as a map, even an unconventional one”. Every compiler simply chose their own, and for this reason the resulting readers present heterogeneous annotating modes that may end up being quite dissimilar from one another.

2. Reading / Writing: Annotating

But what does to annotate actually mean? The definition given by the Webster Dictionary of English is quite simple: “To make or furnish critical or explanatory notes or comments.” The Oxford Learners’ Dictionary of English does not take the matter much further: “To add notes to a book or text, giving explanations or comments.” All of us, however – although we never really stopped to discuss in much detail what we understood by annotating –, had a similar idea about the potentials of annotation as a research technique which are not to be found in these standard definitions of the term. Luckily, other explanations of “annotating”, elaborated in contexts where it is encouraged as a learning or understanding strategy, are a little more productive. See, for instance, the depiction of annotating put forth by the Writers’ Center of the Eastern Washington University (the italics are mine): “Annotating is any action that deliberately interacts with a text to enhance the reader’s understanding of, recall of, and reaction to the text. Sometimes called ‘close reading,’ annotating usually involves highlighting or underlining key pieces of text and making notes in the margins of the text.” (3) Annotating as a form of exchange with a given text, which involves a certain dialogical back-and-forth between such text and a reader, is definitely more in line with the way IWL understood this procedure. This idea of exchange is expanded a bit further in the definition of “text annotation” provided by Wikipedia: “Annotating is the practice and the result of adding a note or gloss to a text, which may include highlights or underlining, comments, footnotes, tags, and links. Text annotations can include notes written for a reader’s private purposes, as well as shared annotations written for the purposes of collaborative writing and editing, commentary, or social reading and sharing.” (4)

In terms of the IWL research, it was precisely this social, collaborative aspect of annotation which lay at the core: a collective process of knowledge production was at play, a process which would require sharing perspectives and sending feedback in order for the annotation proceeding to move forward. Regardless of how partial or obscure annotations might end up being, they would always be meant to capture and reflect reactions to the selected essays, make them visible and integrate them in the annotated texts as well.

Lastly, there was one more level of depth in which annotating felt like the right method to use in the IWL research. Scientific and specialized essays constitute one of the various incarnations taken by intellectual authority, that is to say, by approved knowledge which bears the seal of academia and is therefore consolidated. Consequently, the exercise of engaging with these essays through annotation was also a way of showing a certain resistance to the institutionality that such essays help to construct. And this resistance felt adequate for a research project intended to “change institutional life”. (5)

3. Reading / Speaking: Sharing

As I started writing this introduction, in the first days of March 2020, the series of IWL workshops had come to an end some three months earlier. It felt like a good vantage point from which to evaluate how the research had worked and whether the modus operandi chosen for such research had fulfilled expectations. Looking back, all of the reasons in favor of selecting annotating were still valid. But, in retrospect, the focus clearly fell on a very specific aspect of the process: what mattered was not so much the knowledge encapsulated by annotations, but rather the ongoing reading, annotating, discussing and annotating again – that is, the continuing dialogue which had been aimed at finding shared, common epistemic grounds.

Seen in this light, the whole annotating issue seemed to be, above all, an excuse for us participants of IWL to sit down together and read – and thereby thinkcollectively. I could see that, all along, we had been understanding reading as the opposite to the private, intimate activity that it mostly is nowadays. Interestingly, the act of reading has not always been so private and intimate. Historical studies show that for many centuries it was almost solely conceived as a collective activity where a reader would read out to one or more listeners. The change from loud to silent reading is apparently connected to the advancement of writing – specifically, to the introduction of word separation (6) – and took place somewhere between late antiquity and the 15th century. Way before, around 1000AD, annotation had already become a popular way for scribes to pass knowledge about manuscripts on to the next scribes, that is: a way of sharing knowledge among the members of a community.

So maybe what we were doing, throughout the IWL preparations and annotating sessions, was just taking up these old threads and turning back to reading and annotating as the collaborative, communal activities that they were for a long time.

As I conclude this introduction, it is now the beginning of May 2020. In the last six weeks, our world as we knew it has been turned upside down by the expansion of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has confined millions of us to our homes, while cities and towns have now stood completely empty for weeks. Universities, shops, museums, libraries, restaurants… have been closed. Planes have stopped flying, trains have stopped running, long-dismantled passport controls have been reinstated. As physical separation has become a compulsory norm and we have radically stopped meeting family, friends and colleagues, we have also been made brutally aware of our bodies’ fragility and limits and, by extension, of how much human contact means to us. The emotional situation in which many of us have been set by this pandemic is complex – and so is our political situation as well.

In this light, the creation of the necessary conditions for dialogues and processes to be started feels particularly pertinent. These conditions are not just physical – a table, a room, a plane ticket – but also economical and intellectual. And the dialogues that they will give raise to, which are a way of encouraging participation as a tool for the definition of “new ways of life”, are, in essence, deeply political. By way of picking up in a contemporary manner the long tradition of reading as sharing, so that annotating develops, de facto, into processes of collective writing, the ultimate meaning of “Institutions as a Way of Life” gains a new weight, and the tentative process of collective knowledge production which it sparks could not feel more relevant to our present times.

(1) Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (from the chapter “The silent readers”). London: Flamingo, 1997.
(2) https://www.ixdm.ch/events/annotating-institutions-as-a-way-of-life/
(3) https://research.ewu.edu/c.php?g=82207
(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_annotation
(5) https://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Manguel/Silent_Readers.html
(6) Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.


Instituent Practices

Annotating Instituent Practices
Sarrita Hunn & James McAnally

From New Institutionalism to New Constitutions: Annotating Instituent Practices traces a series of inquiries drawn from the final three years of publishing on Temporary Art Review, a platform for contemporary art criticism that focused on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities from 2011-2019. This reader engages the ways in which institutional thinking incubating in Europe and embodied practices in the United States were brought into productive tension, particularly in dialogue with Gerald Raunig's writings on 'instituent practices'. These inquiries offer not only a diagnosis, but an active imagining of alternate possibilities for prefigurative, insurgent, and embodied institutionality as one of the urgent tasks of our time.

PDF, Bibliography

Unbuilding Infrastructures

Unbuilding Infrastructure
Susannah Haslam & Tom Clark

Unbuilding Infrastructure constellates and annotates texts that show how infrastructure composes and determines the limits of possibility between its indeterminate shapes and scales and what counts as life for infrastructure (its use); how infrastructure is as a way of life; the infrastructural as simultaneous value system and means of materialisation and complex; and how to begin the task of unbuilding what infrastructure presents and maintains as ‘proper’. Anchored by the texts’ engagement with various aspects of art, design, policy and education the reader sets a ground for unbuilding infrastructure as methodology.

adpe is a collaborative research practice between Dr Susannah Haslam and Tom Clark which aims to better understand the relationship between art, design, policy and education through conceptual and procedural research. (Tom Clark was supported by AHRC during this work.)

PDF, Bibliography


The Basil Document: Association for the Research of Circular Studies*

The Association for the Research of Circular Studies* has put together the the reader The Basil Document around PRINT. The Basil Document examines ‘Reality Making’ internal to the practice of printing, through attention to the double nature of print as at once directing our thoughts towards the interpretation of reality and producing meaning in this spatial materiality.

*head quarters: Rebecca Carson and Verina Gfader


Graphic Design

Graphic Design Reader
Edited by Sonia Malpeso,
additional research by Bernhard Garnicnig

This reader examines Graphic Design as an Institution, exploring different moments and movements that shape the practice of design: ideation, creation, practice, product. Part compilation of readings, part page-by-page performance, this reader elaborates on how institutions imprint themselves on the designer and the design practice.

PDF, Bibliography

Art of Making Art Schools

Making Art Schools
Edited by Dorothee King,
additional research by Bernhard Garnicnig

Some say that art can be neither taught nor learned. If this is true, then perhaps the institutions, places and communities we know as art schools exist to learn and teach the art of making (art) schools? What kind of histories would inform such programs, and what styles and practices serve as orientation for those eager to learn such an art? This reader assembles histories of the development of systems and nomenclatures of art and design schools and schooling around the globe, collecting texts on the formation and transformation of educational institutions in Europe, the US, South America, and China.

PDF, Bibliography


Publishing as instituent practice
Rebekka Kiesewetter & Lucie Kolb

Publishing as instituent practice assembles texts that discuss feminist and intersectional strategies to intervene in the field of academic publishing: by reconsidering the cultures of knowledge production and putting center front publishing as a non-linear interplay of interwoven processes, institutions, actors, and practices. The reader highlights the act of annotating (traditionally understood as a by-product of reading) as a form of publishing, — a possibility to make grounded, reflexive and self-critical encounters with, within and beyond the text. Herewith the reader aims to ask: Can annotating become a ground for more intimate and less alienated ways of relating with different knowledges and agencies across time, geographies and the contested boundaries of contemporary academia, a part of a collective and relational publishing practice?

This reader is a collaboration between Rebekka Kiesewetter, PhD researcher at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC) at Coventry University and Lucie Kolb, artist and post-doc researcher in the project “Institutions as a Way of Life” at the Institute for Experimental Design and Media Cultures FHNW Basel.

PDF, Bibliography

On Decentralization

On Decentralization
Genevieve Costello, ReUnion Network

This Annotated Reader, formulated as a research-zine in html, is about the decentralization of institutionalized care relationships: the basis of our lives and society, the relations that maintain our everyday. Such systems of interrelations might be understood through terms such as family, kinship, care, basic social units, and social reproduction. Their forms vary across culture, class, ethnicity, gender, and time. The Reader-as-research-zine examines manifestations of the ideologies of care relations under particular conditions within western capitalist societies. We, ReUnion Network, do not aim to make a survey, nor to propose unified descriptions or universalities, of arrangements of interrelations of care. Instead, our project champions autonomously-determined and diverse structures of interrelations of care by considering how technological infrastructure, social frameworks, and philosophical grounding may be expanded upon to better serve the diverse needs for, and capacities of, care. We acknowledge that there are relevant distinctions between decentralization and diffusion, or distribution; and, autonomous and cooperative, that we cannot address within the frames of this Reader. For the purposes here, we use these terms, although unique, to discuss our general interest to move away from the governed and institutionalized interrelations of care, and consider alternative value systems that forefront care as a common resource. The Reader-as-research-zine is a webpage to move through, with an overarching text and marked up mixed literature leaflets as pop-up window explorable pdfs.

This Reader is made by ReUnion’s Ethics of Care Researcher, Genevieve Costello. A dedicated explanation of ReUnion Network may be found in our paper, Commoning by P2P Care.

HTML, Bibliography

Fiction and Performance

Under Construction – Digging holes into the institutional landscape
Livia Andrea Piazza, Heike Bröckerhoff

Under Construction – Digging holes into the institutional landscape is a reader on fiction and performance annotated by Livia Andrea Piazza and Heike Bröckerhoff. The collected texts dig holes into our ways of thinking art institutions. Inspired by plants and squids, human artists, anthropologists, anarchists and many more, the reader engages with fiction as a dirty job: demolishing naturalized institutions and practices, and constructing with materials that are not yet there.

PDF, Bibliography