asylums | institutions


we live double lives.
one is concerned with organic practice of joyful living.
the other is concerned with institutional practice of accountable accounting.


Dear Aura 

Today is the day of the conference at Leeds, which marks the end of my month away from you and everyone at home. Right now I’m feeling a bit cold, lonely, tired, anxious about how my presentation will go today, what the other people there will think of it, and whether or not I can begin to describe the special problem I feel as an artist in the world, and what voice it needs to be articulated. It’s actually a problem I think everyone shares who is alive today, and so that’s includes you now and as you grow up.

It’s also a problem that I have felt at every turn in this overseas journey, whether in New York creating a piece of sound art with brass players on the lake at Central Park, where the audience was on rows boats. It was beautiful and I wish you were there. To experience it. The audio and video recordings will give you a glimpse but it would hardly be the same. The way the sounds spread across about 400 metres of the park, shooting back and forth and through us, and the way they connected to the sounds of the city and the possibility that we all felt connected there together might not get through in the traces will we put online.

It’s a problem that I have felt when assessing the assignments of students back home, meeting with prospective institutional partners in New York and UK, and talking with artists about how much to play the game with big institutions and/or just work with people you like, and how that impacts on one’s practice.

I call it a problem, but it may just be a very interesting dynamic, full of tension. Maybe a dilemma, maybe an opportunity. Maybe something to change, or just deal with as best we can.

So what is this problem?

I call it: living a double life. It is not like it’s a choice between one or the other, but the two happen simultaneous, and yet almost in completely different universes.

One life is the life of local, material engagement. Okay, even that is a mouthful. What about: living with a concern for sharing, growing and adapting to the things immediately around us, right here and now. I call this the practice-life, because it is the practices we practice which enable us to live like this. Practices are different ways of being in the world, and whilst we each carry them out ourselves, it is nearly always connected to others. That’s because we learn practices from one another, and actually the whole history of humanity is long interweaving set of threads of practices, and practice-domains, that are passed on generation to generation whilst also evolving as new people and new places take them on. Aura, you are part of that are when we draw together, we are practicing a type of mark making that goes back hundreds and thousands of years. But also, you and I are learning a way of drawing together that is its own unique thing, and in that moment, we are caring for the drawing that happens in front of us locally.

As we are drawing, there’s all these great things that happen within and between us. We share some time together, getting to know one another more, and differently. Maybe we get a sense of satisfaction in what we do – it does look like it and I know you like concentrating so much. We also get to move our bodies about and feel a kind of happiness together at home. And sometimes N joins in and we have a three-way sharing of drawing. There’s a guy, now pretty old, called Alasdair MacIntyre who describes this practice-life as caring for ‘internal goods’. Whenever we are living within a practice, all the reasons we do this are very connected to how the practice makes us feel and what it helps us achieve in the very details of the practice.

But there’s another life. I feel this a lot, and so did Alasdair it seems, and a few others too. It’s really clear in an essay written, a few years ago by Alan Warde, who lives in England still I think, who sees the double life explored in two halves of the lifetime of writing by the Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu. The first half concerned with practice and the practice life (or logic of practice) and the second half dealing with fields. Pierre doesn’t mean fields of grass or farm land, but maybe more like a sports field where everyone is in a competition, with teams, game-playing, point-scoring, ongoing rankings and winners and losers. You know I love watching sports, and I’ve missed out on see a few major events whilst away, but sports can be either really fun and enjoyable (a sporting practice actually) but it can also be something else, about money, fame, sponsorship deals and very un-sporty men in suits sitting around making up rules for anything and everything surrounding the moments of playing the sport itself. All this is referred to by Alasdair as the ‘external goods’ of a practice, and Pierre describe this as capital, which is gained and lost depending on the positions and performances we take up in this field.

This non-practice-life I call the institutional life. That’s because it is these things called “institutions” which are the focus. Institutions can seem rather boring in comparison to the fun of practice, but they can actually be really important and special things that help us out a lot. I can imagine that a very long time ago, as practice-domains started to evolve, certain practices were able to give humans better ways of living in the deserts, forests and tundra, that meant they had more food, more community and more understanding of who to live in the world. And populations started growing and then humans started to gather together the stuff they made into stockpiles which they protected from the weather, from other animals, and even from each other. This stockpiling produced a whole lot of surplus stuff, which meant populations could keep of getting bigger, and the stockpiles keep getting bigger. As part of this the stockpiles started to be exchange between groups of people, firstly across a city or region, and then across whole continents and the entire globe.

Now, someone had to be in-charge of the stockpiles, whilst other people went and hunted, gathered, farmed and designed things. And if you are in charge of the stockpile, like a Chief, Master, Head Mother or King, then you also get to decide who gets what. And we keep trying to invent better rules for working out what is fair for distributing the stockpiles of stuff. All this creating, managing and distributing of resources is what we called “institutions” and includes big things like governments, banks and museums but also smaller things like families and groups where people make choices to distribute resources between one another, as well as exchange between other groups and people across a city or across the whole world. Sometimes the rules of this game are obvious, and sometime they are almost a secret that only those-in-the-know know.

And very recently and very rapidly, through these institutional-fields, so many, humans now exist around the world, with some many ways of creating, managing, exchanging and distributing resources.

The practice life is definitely not the institutional-life, but it is connected. Institutions evolve around practice-domains. Seeking to support the practice and it’s dedicated practitioners, but also seeking to claim from the practice resources which it can manage and trade.

This relationship between the practice life and institutional life sounds rather cosy, almost ideal, but it’s really tricky and problematic.

Institutional-fields can never easily nor fully encompass a practice-domain. That’s because the institutional life does not deal with the practice-life directly, but only with particular traces of the practice-life, which the institution then converts into a set of units which can be readily compared, counted and exchanged. This conversion we can call commensuration or isomorphism. Two sociologists in the early 1980s, DiMaggio and Powell, came up with idea of institutional isomorphism, to explain why institutions like museums tended to all look the same, and had the same sort of people running them and making the decisions about the resources. From my travels I can really get a sense of this. All the galleries and museums and art centres really do look mostly the same, sometimes almost identical. When I went into the Cubist room at the Tate Modern, it was almost exactly the same works and layouts as MOMA in New York. Which I thought was totally weird. But it’s not just the case with arts institutions and I think this isomorphism idea can be applied to all institutions -- because it makes exchange and resource distribution much easier, and this is after all what has given the human race it’s competitive advantage on earth.

However, the internal goods of the practice-life are not commensurable in themselves. They only exist in an embodied, material and totally embedded, local relationship, shared and communicated but not able to be traded, exchange nor counted and stored.

But in order to produce some commensurable units, something in the practice-life is somehow re-versioned or uploaded into the institutional life. This is most obvious when the commensuration produces a series of numbers, or quantities measures, like rating scales from 1 to 10, or the counting of money or other things. But it can happen more subtly too, through the creation of a shared sense of pecking order, where some items or events or people are considered higher or lower on the rungs of a ladder of success. Generally speaking, the higher up the rung, the close you get to controlling or benefiting from the stockpiles of institutions.

What’s more, institutions and institutional fields have their own momentum. Once specialization, concentrations and entrenched trade pathways are development, it is more efficient to stick with them than change them. This can mean they end up existing almost just for themselves, without regard for what the practice-domains are now evolving into and what practitioners and practices now need.

So the institutional life doesn’t actually deal with the practice-life, only it’s traces. This works the other way too. The practice-life only deals with the traces of the institutional life. And what are the traces of the institutional-life? A whole set of resources and infrastructures that the practice-life can take to use for it’s own purposes. Because the practice-life is locally embedded, it can never be concerned with generic, globalised, commersurated units and positions. If it were, it would no longer be the practice-life, but the institutional-life.

What this means is that there are completely different values operating in the practice-life and the institutional-life.

That’s a really important point to make in general—because dealing with one value system is hard enough but dealing with two makes things really tricky, which is why I call the double life a problem. But it is particularly significant to make this point right now, because this conference at Leeds is about values, morals, ethics and virtues, and arts and culture. I’m thinking that unless we understand on own up to the doubled ethics of the practice- and institutional-lives, we won’t really be getting to the heart of any question of value.

So what are the two values?

For the institutional-life, especially in a liberal democracy, the key values are accountability, transparency and equality. Accountability in that the resources that institutions measure are structurally countable, and needs to be counted. Transparency because the public associated with these institutions want to see the accountability. And equality, not to mean everyone receives the same distribution of resources, but that everyone has is on the same level playing field to access the resources if they wish. I think these are the virtues of the institutional-life, and the opposites are it’s clear vices: not accountable, not transparency, and not equivocal. If institutions were like this, we call that corruption, or feudal.

For the practice-life, there is nothing to commensurate or compare across time and space. Everything is invested in the internal goods of the local engagement. The values here are relationship, sharing and generation of meaning. Alasdair wants us to think that the practice-life is more collaborative, and the institutional-life competitive, but practice can be quite combative and institutions quite cooperative, so he’s being a bit simplistic here. I’d rather say that the practice-life is rhizomic, and the institutional-life hierarchical. Hierarchies are based on comparison, and thus commensurations, which is the modus operandi of institutions.

What’s more, each life as a different type of autonomy. The practice-life has an autonomy from global relevant. It is only locally pre-occupied with what is internal to a practice-domain. And this is what Bernstein, drawing on Durkheim, calls “sacred”. This is also the autonomy so often remarked in terms of avant-garde artists and hard-score scientific research. It is what practitioners attempt to cultivate in the studio or laboratory, or ivory-tower to cast it in a disparaging light. Basil Bernstein would call all the external goods of the institutional life, the “profane” dimension of social life, where practice-domains are having to reach beyond itself to deal with the units of trade and exchange of contemporary social institutions. The institutional-life would call this relevance (Kiwi Bum has remarked to me that business is the ultimate test-bed of relevance), but the practice-life might think of this as “dirtying” it’s sacred concerns.

If these values are so much at odds, you could say that the practice-life and the institutional-life are always in some form of tension. Necessary but fraught. Necessary because practices would not flourish as they do without using and abusing the resources concentrated through institutions. And institutions are some point needs practices to produce the traces it then stockpiles and circulates. Fraught because the goods, and goals, of such lives are so different.

Now, how do we deal with this double life?

Some more extreme options:
Saddle up to one life, and consider the other life…
· non-existent (ignored, dismissed, pretence of absence)
· non-legitimate (non-proper, wrong-valued, an incorrect turn)
· non-harmful (exists, but not the ‘real’ stuff of life; trivial at best)

And some co-productiive options:
· The other exists to be exploited / to gain support (our chance to suck off the other life)
· The other exists to support / to enable (our duty to help the other life)

This is where Michael De Certaue and Gilles Deleuze’s ideas come into play. And, Aura, maybe this is something to talk about some other time, and maybe when you are a bit older. The practice-life is the life of the tactical nomad, moving about in a free smooth space, being a terrorist to the institutional-field, or leaving a trail of goodies for the institutional-life to feed on. The institutional life is of the strategic sedentary, moving about and structuring a striated space, being a militant force against the practice-life, or else a strategic enabler.

Those orientated to the practice-life can work with the traces of the institutional life in various ways.

Gilles rightly says that smooth and striated space don’t exist independently. And this get us back to Alan and his essay on practices and fields. He not only says that practices and institutions co-exists, which Alasdair and Pierre would I think agree about, but he shows that it is never an option of one life or the another. We live both at once. Or maybe more correctly, we can analysis any human activities are functioning in both lives. The practice-life and institional-life are uncovered through different, but co-existence strands of analysis.

Warde gives two brief examples to show this. One related to tennis. Sports, especially professional sports are easy to explain in terms of the game-playing institutionalised field. Just think of world tour rankings, the prize money, the celebrity status, the hierarchy of players and of officialdom. But also think of the practice of tennis and it’s internal goods of physical exercise, social connection and task accomplishment. The other example relates to eating. We have the culinary field (the field) and then we have eating out (the practice).

As an academic and artist, I can seek out opportunities, networks and resources to build my position in the field, and to open up a space for some further local, embedded dialogues and practice. But which orientates me?

Am I going to seeking to secure further sonic arts project at The Tate Modern in London, The Met in New York, and Federation Square Melbourne to gain some traction in the institutional-life (uber cultural capital) or because they have resources and the physical environments that means we could create some amazing moments of practical, sonic-spatial connection between us as artists, the performers and audience?
And why are people turning up as performers and audience – because of the cultural cache of the institutions? Or to connect in shared, meaningful ways?
And why are the arts agencies going to fund us for this – how could they say no to the institutional partners, even if they don’t get or like our practice itself?

When we ask, what is the ‘good’ life, we need to think about whether we are wanting to think of the goods of the institutional-life, or the goods of the practice-life. Or both.

See you soon



Some examples / questions and choices to be made

* Examples from teaching
* Examples from research

* Examples from arts bureaucracies
* Representation of the artistic practitioner
* Representation of the arts institution

* The artist in the academic world
* The artist in the art world
* The designer in the service/client world
* The designer in the public procurement world
* The media maker in the broadcast world

* Teaching feedback survey results (quality of teaching, against single 5point score)
* Assignment results > unit grade (quality of student outputs, against since 7-tiered rating)
* Booking teaching rooms through centralized server (distribution of rooms, single algorithm, no regard for the local needs, no chance to input them)
* Unit outline and unit structure (the essence of the unit/course, in a proforma and rules)

* Research outputs/audit (RQF/ERA what counts and why)
* Research income (total amount earnt/won)
* Research degree completions (total amount)
* Esteem measures > graduate pathways / impact of research / rankings of journals - BUT ALL PUT INTO a single 5-tier rating
* Research grants (set proposal/reporting headings > leads to a ranking/ordering from best to worse, and then funded)


The virtuous
and the vicious

At it’s best, the institutional life is…
· re-distributing resources to account for the diversity of social existence
· has flexibility and eddies
· will re-configure when necessary; in-built reflexivity and critique
· does it’s best a commensurating diversity; is open and honest and transparent about how it does this

At it’s worst…
· distribution is unfair
· doesn’t account for individual, local needs
· no flexibility, no way to bend and break the rules
· Keeps on going despite any usefulness – has a momentum that is un-connecting from it’s beginnings


From the point of view of one, the other can look:
· non-existent (ignored, dismissed, pretence of absence)
· non-legitimate (non-proper, wrong-valued, an incorrect turn)
· non-harmful (exists, but not the ‘real’ stuff of life; trivial at best)

Or, something else:
· a necessary, fraught existence
· a potent possibility, if not legitimate
· the stuff of contemporary (large society) life


Have a look at the relationship of autonomy and connection to all this (both fall on both sides).


A possible story-board for structuring these ideas:

Two lives
This life
That life
Who has identified these (MacIntyre > Bourdieu > Warde ; situationists > de Certeau > Deleuze)
But what are they missing?

Some key differences (from an ethical point of view)

The meeting point (here, or later?)
[ A key historical question to bracket ~ how did we get like this? Historical ]

Multiple maneuvers
Extreme options
Co-production options

[ A key methodological question to raise ~ how to unpack this stuff? ]

Some sites for gathering stories



What is this?

It is the way in which the two lives intersect.

How does this happen?

It occurs when what is of the practice life is ‘uploaded’ into the institutional grid, and it happens when the resources of the institutional life is ‘downloaded’ for use by the practice life.

What is this uploading and downloading?

Uploading is a process of converting whatever has been made in the practice life, into the tradable unit that then circulates in the institutional life. But actually, the tradable unit is created, against the representation, or promise of representation of something that exists in the practice life. I have an orange, you have coins, we swap. Coins are now in my possession, and you now have an orange, and this transaction occurred as a swap…. So its actually a process or either forging or swapping. Forging is a moment of the earth entering the world. Swapping is a moment of the earth shifting terrain, and the world shifting balance – a redistribution of worldly cash and earthly goods. Besides forging and swapping, there is also speculating and re-counted what has already been counted (doing statistical analysis). In short, uploading is point scoring.

Downloading is cashing in. So the points that have been scored can lead to resources being accorded to particular agents. I represent my goods to the market, I swap with points (cash etc), and I redeem the case for other goods, which will then be circulated and transformed in my organic practice life. My track record scores a certain institutional status, that means certain opportunities come my way, and when they do, I have access to a particular time and space, to then do something with it.

So uploading is a special practice/procedure, and so is downloading. Is that all there is to life?

No. The practice life happens in the organic local zone of manipulation. And the institutional life happens in the institutional zone of accountability. Many things can be down in these lives. But they reply on the other, and at certain points come into a kind of contact with the other.

Uploading just for the sake of it—is that selling out? From the point of view of the diehard organic practice life, it always is. Any noble purpose is replaced with the hording of capital. And this could lead to consumption of tradable units detached from the earth (or, rather, attached is unacknowledged and run-away consumerist ways—the local is depleted; things have no connection no more).

Does anyone upload for the sake of it?

I don’t know; you would need to ask them. I am only giving out a range of possible options. Which becomes an invitation to ask people how it works for them.

How do both lives exist con-currently, but separately?

I suppose I am saying that anyone living in contemporary life, which is connected to instituted circuits of trade, is going to be going about their lives such that there are organic-practice-effects and institutional-effects. At the same time, but in different orbits so to speak.

There are possibilities of only exist in one orbit, for a bit.

For instance, you have a zone of foraging, where you exist in some super-engaged way (in a ‘flow’) that means all the ‘bullshit’ of the institutional life fades away and it is just you mooching about with the material connections of your particular practice. This is the ‘autonomy’ of the studio/lab/flow space.


Hey Dazzle Dream

I’m at the Heathrow airport, two weeks after arriving at the UK by port, and four weeks after leaving you and Aura and Mr E and EL-ES. I wish you were here with me, so you could have been part of the most interesting parts of the journey, and to just be with you each day to talk to and cuddle. Travel by myself is pretty lonely, when I am staying by myself or with one hundred per cent strangers. Which happened for most of the last two and a half weeks. I don’t mind trecking about by myself, because it is from space to space and/or meeting to meeting, but it is the landing zone at night that is when I realize that I am so much geared to be with the intertwined intensity of you and the children.

I’ve learnt a bit about the rhythms of traveling about, which should come in handy if more traveling comes my way. But also I am wondering how to have you along as much as possible. It costs another airfare, and more with the kids, and air travel is often the biggest expense so this seems like it could need some work to make happen. But I would like to see what we could come up with. Some fame and fortune wouldn’t go astray here.

But this begs the question as to why go to the bother of living this way at all. There’s something seductive about doing projects in cities around the world. People want us. Important people want us. Of course, this is in terms of power centres. The big institutions. The top of the pops. The appointed, elected and in power. I suppose it is the way a middle class person can feel like they are indulging in the luxuries and trappings of the rich, without being rich. All this panders to, pampers and pimps up the ego – and by ego I mean the way of understanding our selves as more special, more real, more worthy, more lovely because of the circumstances that we attach ourselves to. I’m hip because this person or that organisation or this source of power has taken notice of me, even condoned or anointed me.

What’s the point of it all? The power centres has resources that we can more efficiently get our hands on. There are plenty of amazing spaces and locations to work with for Super Critical Mass, but unless we do things unannounced and/or illegally, it is going to be much easier to use the spaces which have cultural institutions attached to them. And to get noticed by the institutions, we need to talk their language and play their game. And then I suppose we can forget it is just a game and a funny old language, and start to think that the whole universe or even just our own sense of being rests of this.

I don’t think all the people in institutions are bad or corrupt. Just that they are in the business of selecting some things from many, and investing decent chunks of resources in a few things. So inevitable there is a game of hierarchical selection and sanction. Even if the goal is “all about the art, or experience, or community, or beauty” or whatever, having resources to distribute just puts us automatically in the hierarchical state, especially when the point is quality, not just plane spread-thin quantity.

I guess I’m looking for reasons that make all the game play, and associated travel, since it is the major cities we are probably needing to work with and they are naturally distributed across large sways of land (in Australia and across the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and possibly even Asia at some point).

Part of the answer of this comes in the largest discussions of which the massive project becomes a part. Larger discussions beyond getting the opportunities and getting the event up itself. Discussions within massive, between massive and others, and also the discussions that you and I have which includes massive but of course many, many other things.

How can we have a discussions of the consequential, which is most important, which is about what is most important, rather than just plunder and blunder through the circumstances? I’m not really sure, which is why I am asking you. Maybe you have some ideas here. Getting the bbq discussions going would be one thing; after three initial bbqs it hasn’t happened for a while and partly because of going overseas. Maybe S coming to stay, specifically to insight some conversations between me and him, but hopefully you to, would be part of this. But what about between you and me, and then surrounding that?

By discussions and conversation I mean chatting but also the dialogue and exchange of being together with or without words. Re-designing things Trying stuff out. Doing stuff together.

I’m thinking where we find a place to live in the next while, might be really important. Or, we can make it important. And I really want to chuck out all the earlier stuff down stairs. Some of it is important, but I want to only keep what is important for the future. And what is that? So project ideas are arising for me, at uni and at massive and with my own art practices and hanging out with you and the kids. Maybe it is just keeping things for these projects, which could take up a few years, is the way to go. Or maybe even just making a list of project but only selecting the top two or three and not pursuing anything else. Completing things or at least pursuing them for an extended and polished way is something I could do that would help push the conversations forward I think. Which is to say: not withdrawing when I need to be embracing, even when embracing seems unfun or hard work or boring or lonely.

What do you want to be part of in your lifetime? How are you feeling about things? What gets you excited? What is your dreaming? I want to re-learn what this is for you. There is those 5 life goals you had a few months ago, which we wrote on the white board, but what is it now, and how do those things relate to the questions I have here?

I’m not sure where to go, except into your arms when I return… hoping you can be part of all the other stuff.

Love, L