Infrastructural Institutions: An Interview with Resolve Collective
In 2020, the Open Call for Fellows by Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Research Department focused on the theme, Regeneration: New Institutional Practices. It invited collectives to take current conditions of burn-out and exhaustion as a point of departure to generate forms of collective organisation and action. Following a pre-selection and final jury process, two collectives were selected for a fellowship from October 2020 to March 2021. One of them was Resolve Collective (Seth and Akil Scafe-Smith, Melissa Haniff, Sahar Ibrahim, and Cynthia Sylveira). With their project, the collective’s members aim to make institutional space infrastructural and in their research took Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) as one of their case-studies. What does it mean to make institutional space infrastructural, and what are the tools Resolve Collective developed while working on this question over the past six months? How does this infrastructural mode of thinking, being and practising tie in with their interdisciplinary architecture and design practice?
Only a few minutes into the Zoom conversation with brothers Akil and Seth Scafe-Smith, the initiators and directors of Resolve Collective, and some thought exercises on how to reimagine everyday institutions and infrastructures have already come up—from Akil proposing to use Uber to transport Seth’s forgotten laptop charger back to his house, to trying to picture what role translated transcriptions can play in re-organising digital conversational spaces on a much larger scale. “Organisations, including our own, could still utilise this time of digital communication a lot more,” Akil says as we are trying to set up the Zoom recording of our conversation. “While we are making so much use of digital conference call software as infrastructure, we should probably be trying to reach out to organisations across the world who don’t share a common language with us—in order to share stories and learnings from across the world without having to rely too much on the English language.”
Conversations, interpersonal interactions and especially how, where, and with whom these are constructed, take centre stage in many of Resolve Collective’s projects and ways of working. Resolve Collective is an interdisciplinary design collective, using architecture, engineering and technology to address social issues. The collective has worked in the UK and Europe, often with cultural institutions, local community groups and public sector organisations. “At the heart of our practice, we work alongside local communities through the design process,” Seth states. “Working both with and for those communities, we use our practice and research methods to challenge traditional concepts in design and traditional ideas of institutional work.” Resolve started off in a rather informal way, working in and with the local community in London in forgotten and underused spaces. The collective is now transitioning into working with more formal spaces and institutions, while still pulling together concepts of informality, relationship formation and forms of care.
Conversations also lie at the basis of Resolve’s thinking about making institutional spaces infrastructural. Not only in the fellowship project for Het Nieuwe Instituut, but also with students at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA). “In our classes there, we often host small scale sessions where we think collectively about what an institution could be,” says Akil. “We encourage the students to think much more broadly than the idea of museums.”
Institutions are often predominantly understood as clusters of opaque, established and homogenous rules and behaviours practised in particular architectural buildings (formal institutions such as museums, prisons or city councils). Resolve encourages us to think of different kinds of family organisations and marriages as institutions, too. In this the collective is practicing institutional ethnography, a form of critical ethnographic research which considers social relations and institutional sites as dynamic shape-shifters instead of static entities. While practising institutional ethnography, Resolve explores the social relations structuring people’s everyday lives, specifically by looking at the ways in which they interact with one another in the context of education, religion, the economy, work or family, and by understanding how those interactions are then formally and hierarchically institutionalised. Instead of reflecting on institutions as those top-down rules practised in specific buildings only, Resolve's practice is informed by learning to understand institutions as the day-to-day variety of patterned social relationships between people as well. “We are more interested in broader understandings of ‘the institution’ and how certain types of behaviour and certain practices have persisted through time, across societies, genres and of course spaces,” says Seth.
When thinking about what institutions could become, Akil gives the example of learning from roads and transport systems and how these infrastructure systems, despite many contexts where they are also weaponised, are essentially about moving resources from one place to the other. “Whereas some institutions, like museums, are often about self-preservation and conserving,” he says. “During our work we realised that this is not always negative. In many places where collective memory is at risk, as it was for example in post-civil war Beirut (Lebanon) or in contemporary Cairo (Egypt), institutions of memory are absent but often desired in order to support in saving and celebrating lost built heritage.”
However, in many British and European institutions that Resolve Collective is familiar with through work, this form of self-preservation and conserving starts to manifest as a problem. Especially in terms of how self-preservation can limit an institution’s reach and access to certain groups or audiences; where many communities outside of the institution’s walls are not able to engage with the museum, or the museum with those communities. “And that barrier, I think, is where this ability to distinguish between institutional and infrastructural space becomes very important,” Akil states. “We do not, however, propose a direct opposition or hierarchy between the institutional and the infrastructural but rather an understanding and convergence of the two from the very beginning.”
During the fellowship at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Resolve proposed analysing how institutional spaces can be read and intervened in through a series of methods collected under the terms ‘folding’ and ‘unfolding’, borrowed from the study of topology. Through these methods, Akil and Seth aim to understand how existing spaces and relationships can be used, apprehended and appropriated in order for them to be rearranged and become infrastructural. The members of the collective understand an infrastructure space as the relational nature of institutions to become distributive with their resources rather than conservative and to allow for different communities of care to flourish.
At a time when many public institutions and cultural institutions are starting to question their own reach and access to certain groups of people and individuals in society, Resolve proposes the institutions themselves practice differently rather than continue to push often homogenous answers as to how the institution can encourage people and communities to engage with them. Resolve stresses the potential for institutions in reversing this question and instead imagines what a different form of institutional engagement with communities might actually look like, and how they might learn from distributive infrastructures of provision within this shift of relationship forming.
For an audience, participant, (local) community, and institutional collaborator or worker, this might manifest in possibilities for building reciprocal, non-extractive, long-term, caring relationships with people who hold similar interests and values. In an attempt to move away from dominant, prevailing interpretations of institutional relationships often based on the values, needs and therefore protection of conservative behaviours and practices of the institution (as depicted in the diagram above).
“Such behaviours often tend to result in conflicts manifesting between sets of relations who may hold similar ideals but end up being posed against each other nevertheless, as a result of institutional protocols or managerial structures,” says Seth. Resolve's proposition therefore asks for a radical yet personal and personalised change in what we understand to be an institutional relationship; from one often marked by homogeneity, forms of dehumanisation and verticality to one allowing for care, support and resource distribution.
Dialectics as institution
A first step towards this infrastructural mode of thinking about institutions, is to understand those structures not as monolithic entities housed in an architectural building but rather as a space determined by organised sets of relationships between people. “When we think about conversations, even the small tick to tack conversation that we’re having right now, those are great examples of how institutional space is condensed into dialectics,” Akil points out. “For our research we focused on those dialectics rather than on the architectures of institutions, their management protocols or other kinds of prescribed managerial structures, which can sometimes be misleading or opaque.”
Through their small-scale conversations with groups of individuals working in different roles within Het Nieuwe Instituut during their fellowship, Resolve concentrated on understanding the nature of an institutional space by analysing behaviours as a result of institutional bureaucratic structures rather than the structures themselves. Their current research shows that only through these conversations one can start to grasp the specific characteristics of an institution.
“In our research, we are concerned with ‘network spaces’; how relationships between people and also non-human actors create spaces and not necessarily how walls contain space,” shares Seth. Resolve Collective shows how, without the conversations and (institutionalised) interpersonal relationships contained inside and subtended outside by an institution, it is merely an empty building.
“Perhaps after both of our experiences working in local authorities, we learned to understand how speaking to the ‘right people’, having the ‘right conversations’ or being involved in the ‘right gossip’ contains the difference between a project coming to existence within an institution or the project not getting off the ground at all.”
Folding and unfolding infrastructures
Within normative galleries or art institutions, collaborators, patrons, finances and contracts hold a specific type of conservative, aggregated relationship to the location the institution situates itself in and is engaged with. Yet through Resolve’s aforementioned methods of ‘folding’ and ‘unfolding’ the collective gives a more speculative look into how these normative relationships can be ‘folded’ or radically rearranged into a number of different relationships without ‘tearing’ social spaces or tearing down the museum in its entirety. “We look at institutional spaces as associate-historic and connected spaces, rather than individual architectures,” Akil explains. During such a rearrangement of relationships, parts of the previous normative relationship may eventually be abolished altogether.
In order to investigate the folding and unfolding of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s infrastructure Resolve developed a series of digital conversational spaces: 8-bit Bitsy games called The Fold. This web-based tool was developed under the impossibility of being physically present at Het Nieuwe Instituut, due to the Covid-19 lockdown and travel restrictions. While conversing with different individuals, ducks or archival records in 8-bit versions of several spaces at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Akil and Seth digitally reveal the fusion of the institution between the Nederlands Architectuurinstituut (NAi), Premsela (Institute for Design and Fashion) and Virtueel Platform (Knowledge Institute for E-Culture) on 1 January 2013. Resolve approaches this ‘fold’ of the institution not only as a managerial or bureaucratic decision, but also put at the forefront of the non-linear experiences, narratives and personal histories of a number of employees of those three institutions still working at Het Nieuwe Instituut today, while also including animals from Het Nieuwe Instituut’s pond and archival records into the conversation. Resolve flattens the architectural space of the ‘physical’ institution in the game, in order to talk about, understand and learn from the rearranged social spaces of the three institutions in the period of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s fusion.
In the following months and over summer these conversations will be layered with other experiences of current employees through digital and physical workshops and small-scale sessions with the collective. Consequently, other existing or possible folds might become apparent in the social infrastructure of the museum. Resolve is already turning various methods, findings and learnings from conversations on the existing folds at Het Nieuwe Instituut into practice for other museums in the United Kingdom and Europe, for example in the relationship between Victoria & Albert (V&A) East Museum and young people from East London. Through a variety of collaborations, Resolve’s infrastructural and collective thinking will continue to fold and unfold institutions while provoking a revaluation of institutional practice and proposing alternative modes of operating within conversational spaces and social infrastructures.
Quotes in this text have been taken from a longer interview conversation between Resolve Collective and Delany Boutkan and have been edited from spoken language to written word, in dialogue with Akil Scafe-Smith and Seth Scafe-Smith. The link to the Fold game will be published in Ardeth 07 and on this page soon after.
Read the interview with the members of collective O grupo Inteiro, the other 2020-2021 fellows, here.