Vacant Positions:

Institutional Drag and Institutional Form

Justin A.  Langlois

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Positions to Consider (vacant or otherwise):

1. Institutions are lying to someone at any given moment [1]

2. Institutional practices can be managerial, fiscally-oriented, custodial, structural, and pedagogical [1]

3. Institutionality is a playspace [2] for both the wicked and the utopian Institutions provide an articulation or manifestation of a number of rules that we have agreed to abide by, at least momentarily.

Institutions are both containers and platforms, and in everyday life we often feel the impacts of both of these limits and foundations. When we encounter institutions, we are often trying to get something done and these institutions are either the gatekeepers or the thoroughfares. We acknowledge and encounter their power. When we work within institutions, we are often hoping for a formal recognition of our efforts and the institution is either the prefect or the conferrer of gold stars. We acknowledge and enact their power. We can feel the rigidity of a set of bureaucracies that seem to exist only for their own survival, and we can witness the capacity of institutions to amplify and empower causes that have our favour. There’s an infinite refrain based on an ethic of pragmatics that suggests we need to work within institutions to change them. It presumes that the institutions are both capable of change and that they are indeed worth the investment that it takes to try to change them. These presumptions may not be worth our time.

But, if they are, then institutions are compelling objects of attention because they house concentrations of resources that cannot otherwise be configured. We want to imagine that institutions provide a legitimacy, or that they offer a very real arrangement of space and time and people and capital, but more often than not we allow these imagined legitimacies to set the boundaries. When we recognize and acknowledge institutions as concentrations of the resources noted above, a logic follows that insists that we need to either work with them or against them. Yet, we are confounded and frustrated by this lack of options. We wonder, how could there not be a third way?

We think we are being clever when we decide to invent and imagine our own institutions, ones that can somehow do the things that the other institutions, which are also invented and imaginary, simply cannot do. For so long we’ve been enclosed by the necessity of institutions and their bureaucracies [3], that we insist on continuing to work within the model, within that same imagined structure, inside that same imagined building, wherein we put different paint on the walls and move the doorways around and make the windows open left-to-right rather than up-and-down, and we think we are making change. We get lost in tracking our actions in relation to what already exists, and we believe we are validated by our efforts in opposition.

These thoughts and beliefs, as compromised as they may be, cultivate a restlessness, and this restlessness should not be dismissed. We need it. When we envision creating our own institutions, we envision embedding within them the values that seemed unable to be represented in the institutions we otherwise encounter. Our invented institutions are sites of very real social production and become a productive position for critiquing the things that it may echo or mirror.

Even if we seemingly always have to work with or against an institution, and even if we try to make our own institutions that somehow fill a gap in logic or values or practices, and even if we must acknowledge a questionable utility to those actions, they are important insofar as they help us to rehearse another possibility. They help us to practice a sense of agency. To be sure, our imaginations may still be compromised, and our sense of agency may still not be entirely self-determined, and both of these things may be continually understood in relation to these known institutions, but if the institutional form itself can be thought of as a placeholder for cultivating and rehearsing different ways to be in the world together and this somehow shifts the world we already encounter even momentarily, then institutions are not worth abandoning completely.  

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Institutions to Invent (or storm or retake or burn down):

1. A place where power is shared [4] transparently [5]

2. A place where an authority can be held for a period of time after a collective decision [6]

3. A place where trust implies that we know why we are together [7]

The School for Eventual Vacancy [8] has a mandate to try and make itself unnecessary and vacant; it also assumes that any amassing of power in the form of a legible position should be vacated once a critical amount of power has been assumed or amassed by that position. Within the School for Eventual Vacancy, the people involved try to undo the things they have learned to do in other things that have been called schools. Part of this is to imagine an institution (a school) that only exists when they are there. There is no activity going on over and above the room they are in when they are not in it: the lights are not on, the computers are not being backed up, there is no security guard roaming the hallways, for there are no hallways if they are not there. The people involved try to find the space and time to talk about things that they wouldn’t otherwise be talking about together, and this should be understood as something important, or at least important enough to temporarily secure or sustain.

Imagining The School for Eventual Vacancy when I already teach at another school and sharing the space with the same people that I teach (in that other school) and finding a few other people that I haven’t taught before, but who have also been in school at one time or another, and inviting them to be a part of a new school (that we invent together) is less about inventing the school than it is about inventing ourselves in relation to one another in a way that no other structure can currently accommodate. When we embed or imbue that institution with values that are important to us, we work against the muscle memory of acting within the limits of institutions and again find new ways to be together.

Originally, The School was setup to operate as an ongoing exploration of education as creative practice and political subjectivity, wherein it would try to find the power to [9] make itself unnecessary and vacant. It has been technically open to anyone interested in art and design-based discourse and production, but has also ultimately circulated in the social circles that I and the other two inaugural instructors, Caitlin Chaisson and Lisa Novak, find ourselves in [10]. The structure was initially very ambitious, meeting twice a week for six hours a day in May 2015, scaling back with each subsequent iteration, and will soon unfold in October 2015 (biweekly on Fridays, the 9th and 23rd, from 1pm–4pm) at compressed intervals, a reflection of all the scheduling constraints of all our other roles and efforts that are not interested in becoming vacant. The School for Eventual Vacancy is an art school that has no interest in current models of the art school, and yet, it often mimics the same kinds of exercises we take on in other art schools: we read texts and discuss them together, work on very small production-based projects together, and venture on short field trips together. The familiarity of our activity does not compromise our efforts, but it is an acknowledgement of the difficulty in achieving what we want to do. However, it is the sensibility and set of commitments to those interests that make it what it is.

The realities of all the other institutions that we are affiliated with, the ones in which we are singularly defined as student or teacher, are constantly stealing time and in this way, and so we are continually unable to vacate The School. It is difficult to amass and share power as a part-time job. Creating The School for Eventual Vacancy and thinking about it as an art project is helpful some of the time, but it’s also unfulfilling some of the rest of the time. If it’s just an art project, it can end without having an obligation to anyone involved in it. If it’s just a school, it makes all of us wonder why we can’t do this at the schools we’re already at. Why do we need to create another space, another institution?

Perhaps like rehearsal, it helps us to prepare to act in different ways in the institutions we are already at. Or, perhaps like a maquette, it assists us in trouble shooting before we actually commit to changing or building anything. But, most satisfyingly, as a school, it allows us to remember that a site of learning can look different and can look like something beyond the neoliberal educational industry. Hopefully, it allows us to remember that the roles we take on aren’t fixed, aren’t forever, and aren’t worth sustaining just for the sake of themselves.

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Photo courtesy of Justin A. Langlois

Things to Do (now and forever):

1. Retrofit transparency [11]

2. Bake cakes [12], burn bridges [13]

3. Hold a contingency [14] tightly

An institution that we invent stands next to an institution that already exists. Aiming to undo or compromise the limits and expressions of power we see in the institution that already exists, the institution we invent necessarily takes on familiar forms and compromises. However, institutions, as record keepers (in walls, drawers, cabinets, back-up drives, and imaginations) can also leave traces and hints of proof of a legible capacity, one that provides us with a position of assertion and resistance. Invented institutions are objects of compression and representation, and how we enact resistance through their creation necessarily relies on existing institutions, but our resistance is also not limited to this counterbalance. An institution we hold together through trust, mutual aid, and shared power, is an expression of a collective imagination, perhaps the one kind of imagination that can help to create a glimpse of how we could otherwise be together in new configurations of space, resources, and practice.

[1] It goes both ways. We are managing, fiscally supervising, caring for, building and renovating, and teaching institutions at the same time we are managed, fiscally supervised, cared for, built up and torn down, and taught by institutions.

[2] Perhaps I should have also noted it as a kind of hell for both the wicked and utopian as well.

[3] See David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, 2015, First Melville House printing, Brooklyn, specifically Chapter 1 “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” pp 45–103.

[4] Shared, but not divided equally.

[5] To share transparently is different than being transparent.

[6] This sounds like term-limits for certain appointments, but I am imagining much shorter periods of time, perhaps just hours at a time.

[7] Which is to say: a place where trust is based on affinity, not proximity.

[8] Read more about the project at

[9] See John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, Pluto Press, London 2002, pp 27–38.

[10] In addition to Caitlin and Lisa, the School for Eventual Vacancy has also played host to courses led and attended by Lexie Owen, Joe O’Brien, Lily Mead Martin, Meichen Waxer, Andrew Phillips, Matthis Grunksy, Taryn Goodwin, Tara Mahoney, Selah Paulsen, Rachel Seburn, Sara Seburn, Christian Vistan, and Carla K. Stewart, among others.

[11] Do we have to move out during the course of renovation?

[12] Baking as a form of alchemic construction that relies as much on convincing the raw elements to stay together as it does the force of actually combining them.

[13] One of my colleagues told one of my students that there are times to burn bridges and I agree.

[14] Helpfully defined as “a provision for an unforeseen event or circumstance”.

Justin A. Langlois is an artist, educator, and organizer. He is the co-founder and research director of Broken City Lab, an artist-led collective working to explore the complexities of locality, infrastructures, and participation in relation to civic engagement and social change, and he is the founder of The School for Eventual Vacancy. His practice explores collaborative structures, critical pedagogy, and custodial frameworks as tools for gathering, learning, and making. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Culture + Community and Academic Coordinator of the Imagining Our Future initiative at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.