This week's Reflecting on… takes Mathieu Copeland’s Anti-Bodies: Bodies Within the Body of the Institution in Cura Magazine as a starting point. It considers the four examples presented in Copeland's text and muses over the effectiveness of the strategies presented.

'Antibody' has tracked from a pretty specific medical or scientific term that most folks might only hear at the doctors to a word in the forefront of our consciousness over the last year. Antibodies are protective proteins produced by a body’s immune system which latch onto antigens (foreign bodies like viruses and bacteria) carrying them out of the body. They neutralise anything identical to the antigen that triggered the immune response.

Antibodies in the context of this text seem to be anything maintaining existing institutional structures. This is best explained in number three of the four case studies featured in the text, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ The Keeping of the Keys. “Guards have this latent power, and yet they do not normally exercise the power on their own. They only use it because they are told to do so by the official security apparatus that is the institution. Guards do not go around making decisions. There is a collusion of power and non-power.”1. Copeland’s subsequent treatment of this example seems to be positioning staff at every level as somehow complicit in the ongoing practices of the institution as a whole.

I would like here to make clear my issue here isn’t with Ukeles. I think that Ukeles’ work and this piece particularly are vital in the field of institutional critique. My issue is with Copeland’s framing of those defined as “the antibodies of an institution that strives in keeping the integrity of the whole intact”2. It is possible I’m reading this in an overly negative light, but it feels like a very general strike at the body of the institution, to maintain the imagery of the text. Like a sharpened ladle being used to remove a tumour. Yes, a museum guard may hold the keys of the building and as such symbolic power. Yes, they may follow the orders of those above them without question. Ultimately though these individuals along with gallery assistants cleaning staff and various other possibly key holders are frequently in the bottom salary band within the institution. The “collusion of power and non-power” is more of a hostage situation. These people’s livelihoods are attached to keeping that job. Whether I support continuing wage disparity and precarity in institutional employment structures or not (I don’t), for many it is about keeping a roof over your family’s head and food on the table. Most folks aren’t in a privileged position to enact that agency, consequences be damned. I don’t know as branding those who have been worst affected by the institutional cuts during the ongoing pandemic as some kind of is going to solve the issues within institutional structures.

Granted, I think what Copeland is perhaps actually alluding to is the possibility and maybe even responsibility for artists to enact that agency, something which is born out toward the end of the text, in contrast to the constrained situation of one employed by the institution. However, I don’t think that it is productive to produce a hierarchy of guilt or virtue with artists or anti-bodies (ie. onto the body of the institution) providing a cure and those with little to no agency being dumped on from two directions. Looking closer at Copeland’s two final paragraphs might help.

“From the point of view of the power structure institutions are, anti-bodies are nothing but uninvited antigens within the body of the institution. Would the institution be finally in peril? In taking over, anti-bodies become the antibodies that reclaim a renewed integrity for the body of the institution. A revolution devoiced of any endgame, leading to a normalized situation, that of a permanent movement of changes.

So to say, or rather, so to define: anti-bodies produced by the immune institution in response to the presence of a permanent state of affairs. Anti-bodies recognize and latch onto the institution in order to remove, alter—or even destroy—its body. […] As anti-bodies circulate, they attack and neutralize all the identical institution to the one that triggered this violent and necessary response. Anti-bodies attack institutions by binding to them…”3

Ok. So anti-bodies from the institutional perspective are antigens or something external to the institution. So this external influence would potentially present peril to the institution through its actions. This we can assume is the institution as it exists now. It is supposed in, Copeland’s analogy, that any external influence or anti-body would be beneficial it seems. If these elements take over then they would cleanse the institution renewing its integrity. That for me feels very much like purifying the soul and presupposes that institutions have at any point had integrity. These bodies were born corpulent and are ultimately very, very slowly becoming de-toxified; like a radioactive Benjamin Button. Either way, this will apparently result in the neutralisation of all the “identical institutions to the one that triggered this violent and necessary response.”4. I’m going to take a leap and assume (or maybe rather hope) that what is meant here by these identical institutions is the hulking behemoths with overpaid directors, awful standards of diversity and institutional ethics and who shovel resources into blackholes without a thought to the rest of the cultural ecosystem. All the same, here I find there is an issue of generalities at play. And those generalities are not something I am comfortable with.

To suppose that every institution can or should be treated in the same way is slightly ridiculous. To return to my tumour metaphor from earlier, it would be similar to supposing that because six patients have the same kind of cancer they will have identically placed and sized tumours and you could sharpen your ladle accordingly and just scoop out the right shaped hole. As I said, ridiculous. The introduction of an anti-body to use Copeland’s formatting could indeed provoke positive change but throwing the same antibody into every institution I think would lead to the destruction of many institutions entirely whilst potentially allowing the most toxic to survive. If there is a desire for that then what are the alternatives? This text with its "revolution devoiced of any endgame”5 seems to be proposing a kind of institutional anarchy, or maybe anarchy against the institution. That is good in theory but without any notion of where that revolution is going the risk is that either it petters out into a rubble-strewn cultural wasteland full of gleeful billionaires sitting atop mounds of artworks never to be seen again, or even more toxic “public” structures growing up in the vacuum.

What Copeland does present at least is a spectrum of treatments. The four case studies provide the idea of multiple possibilities. From Ukeles subversion of the structures of the institution, tied much more to notions of care, to the more slash-and-burn mantra of Henry Flynt there is something of a sliding scale of confrontation presented (if weighted heavily in the highly confrontational direction). Whilst an amount of confrontation is for sure necessary in forcing change there should always be caution placed in the most violent reaction. To swing back into an anatomical comparison, it makes little sense to cure a patients disease so violently that it kills them in the process. If you’re going down that route you might as well just grab the shotgun and have done. Absent also from Copeland’s analysis is any kind of discussion with the audience. The actions detailed are all very much framed through the artist's singular interpretation of the cure for institutional evil. They are concerned with their own views and desires (perhaps excepting Graciela Carnevale’s Ciclo de Arte Experimental). This singularity of perspective combined with the theme of capturing or subjugating audience members and actively colonising the space of the museum makes me kind of uncomfortable in these references too. Philosopher Achille Mbembe points out the relationship between colonialism and capitalism in terms of capture, influence and polarisation throughout his work. In capturing an audience or forcing compliance with a mandate is an interventional artist not just walking the same roads of colonialism that they as anti-bodies are supposed to be getting rid of?

Also with that singularity of perspective in mind, I wonder how some of those responses would look as more negotiated, processual interventions. Though then the question becomes who do you have the conversation with. In Ukeles The Keeping of the Keys it would rather defeat the point to negotiate the terms of the work with the museum's curators (who by the way felt they and their office should be exempt 6) but perhaps a more obvious collaboration or unionisation with the guards for example. Perhaps Georgia Sagri’s occupation of a gallery in 2011 is more collaborative, and I am certainly for horizontal power structures. In many ways, though the overt performativity of that act becomes more contorting than the thing that it was railing against. Yes, the event presented by the gallery was disrupted, but the gallery still wins through publicity, through many of the audience members in all probability seeing the action as more of a nuisance than a convincing argument for change, or maybe just thinking it was organised by the gallery in the first place. Here Copeland makes maybe the most salient point in the text. The “difficult concern of an anti-body becoming just another body, whereas the seized institution remains just as what it was” 7 sums up the core issue so well. That issue is the risk associated with an insistence on the inclusion of radical and activistic practices into the programming of the institution leading to the instrumentalisation of those practices by those institutions. This has been commented on by Priya Jay in connection to institutions working methods with workshop-holders from minority groups; forming short term, underpaid partnerships to visibly perform representation and diversity whilst never actually having to commit to it 8. I think this ties into many of the stories presented in research project #GallerySoWhite by Susuana Amoah which directly exposes cases of institutional racism within British galleries 9. Highly competent employees being trapped in low-level rolls with little hope of progression to fill diversity quotas and provide a smokescreen for the institution to just keep doing the same as they always have is a rampant problem not only in the UK where #GallerySoWhite focuses.

These thoughts in hand, I believe ultimately just flooding our system with anti-bodies perhaps isn’t the way to go. Instead, we should be listening to voices like Priya Jay, Susuana Amoah and those present in #GallerySoWhite, those who are first-hand experiencing this; as well as academics like Achille Mbembe, Sara Wajid, Uzma Rizvi, Temi Odumosu and Homi Bhabha and artists like Fred Wilson, Ho Rui An and Jeannette Ehlers. Ultimately I think that the most important thing is to tailor our response more specifically to the institute in question. The diligence and energy spent in doing that, to my mind, is much better than simply mirroring the catch-all bigotry and taxonomy of traditional institutional practices. If all our anti-bodies are the same then we can only fight one disease, and it’s a frikkin’ pandemic out there.

(1) Copeland, Mathieu. Cura Magazine. 2021. (accessed 2021.02.05)
(2) ibid.
(3) ibid.
(4) ibid.
(5) ibid.
(6) Lynch, Joeleen. 2018.,Mierle%20Laderman%20Ukeles%2C%20The%20Keeping%20of%20the%20Keys%2C%20Wadsworth%20Atheneum,logic%20of%20the%20museum's%20workday. (accessed 2021.02.05)
(7) Copeland, Mathieu. Cura Magazine. 2021. (accessed 2021.02.05)
(8) Muhammad, Zarina. The White Pube. 2018. (accessed 2021.02.05)
(9) Amoah, Susuana. Black Gallerina. 2021. (accessed 2021.02.05)


Reflecting on... Ukeles and Antibodies

Joe Rowley - Feb 2021

The Reflecting on... series takes situations, objects, artworks, articles, texts, podcasts and anything else really as starting points for reflection on artist-led and self-organised (AL&SO) practice.

Ephemeral Care focuses on ethics, practice and strategies in artist-led and self-organised projects.