Question from 2015 | Elaine W. Ho: What is a “Good Institution”?

This is a rather bold rhetorical question, of course. While we continue to delve into various responses to the question of the “instituent practices,” which stem from and push beyond the issues raised by institutional critique, this article places Arrow Factory as the default answer, thus carrying out a critical reflection of ways to navigate that question in the context of Chinese contemporary art production.

The first time I visited Arrow Factory’s website in 2008, a few quotes garnished the “About” page, with one, in particular, standing out bluntly at the top. “It’s huge,” claimed Doryun Chong, then Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, currently chief curator at M+ Hong Kong. Knowing the actual size of Arrow Factory’s wee 15 m2 space, we can take this highlighted statement as a humorous use of irony in public relations, but just as the rhetoric of words like “huge” or “big” or “good” in any such context, the drama of association brings Arrow Factory into another realm of “grand” artistic relevance, and that is precisely part of the discourse of institutional critique that is being addressed here.

The “Good Institution”: Historically Speaking

The kind of institutional critique many of us working in the art world have come to understand has a genealogy tracing back to the 1960s when artists such as Michael Asher, Robert Smithson, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, and Marcel Broodthaers broadly began to question the conditions of the museum and institutional frameworks. Art was no longer viewed as a pure dialogue between artist and viewer but inherently shaped by the systems in which art is produced. Later in the late 1980s and 90s, artists such as Renee Green, Christian Philipp Müller, Fred Wilson, and Andrea Fraser began to typify what could be analyzed as the second wave of institutional critique, which further complicated structural conditions with an awareness of varying forms of subjectivity. The institutions were no longer simply representatives of a public sphere founded upon ideas of the nation-state, but the producers of splintered realms of subjective representation.

This minor art historical review may seem irrelevant if we jump back to a 15-meter-square space in Beijing and see names like Liang Yue, A Diao Dui, and Instant Hutong, but such “irrelevancy” is perhaps crucial if we are to veer into a whole other vector of thought regarding the possibilities of institutions. Indeed, what contemporary artists in China failed to experience in terms of an art historical trajectory was the very making of a dialogue with the conditions in which they were represented by art spaces. As many historians generalize, “contemporary art” did not come to the Mainland until after Reform and Opening Up began in 1978, and as such, the realm of artistic response may have less to do with institutions (there were none accessible to artists1“Like most art critics and historians within China during the 1990s, Zhu Qingsheng, Wang Lin and Wang Nanming were concerned about the lack of contemporary art venues to produce and exhibit art within China. The fact that Chinese contemporary art could only be exhibited abroad gave audiences the impression of an ‘art in exile’.” Shao Yiyang, “The International Identity of Chinese Art: Theoretical Debates on Chinese Contemporary Art in the 1990s”, in Contemporary Chinese Art and Film, Theory Applied and Resisted ed. Jason C. Kuo (Washington, DC: New Academia, 2013).​), but more with the influx of Western media and ideas on the Chinese sociopolitical stronghold. Now more than three decades into the contemporary, a rather disappointing obsession with identity affirmations in current Chinese theoretical discourse continues; the links between institutional participation and the fractured subjectivities under capitalism still need to be redefined. As art historian Li Xianting ironically describes, “We can always play the Spring Roll in a pro-active way and to a certain degree alter the content of the Spring Rollover time, while all the time realistically reckoning with issues of our own contemporary culture.”2Li Xianting, “Chinese Art: Egg Roll at an International Banquet?—The Impact of Western Consumer Culture on a Chinese Socialist Stronghold”, Yishujia, Vol. 2. No. 1, 1998.​ His strategy, parallel to the ideas being shared by postcolonial theory, is an in-practice manifestation of institutional critique, aimed at establishing an alternative framework for the production and presentation of art. Its aim is to reconfigure the dynamics of power within the institution of meaning and value, and this is the “instituent practice” that brings us back to a wee, little space in Beijing.

The “Good Institution”: Meaningful and Valuable

So, what exactly are we proposing with this juxtaposition of Arrow Factory and the rhetorical “good institution”? In fact, it is not such a clean one-to-one relationship. Like the layout of this publication, what is being presented here is a spectrum of positions in the consideration of meaning and value, not only influenced by a history of institutional critique, but also by a desire to look back towards a more fundamental question of the institution itself. Institutionalization, in this sense, does not refer to the oft connoted formalizing of rules, resolute objective seeking, or the scales of bureaucracy (traits which Arrow Factory deviates from almost entirely), but if we rethink the institution in terms of its more intrinsic quality as a shared system of stabilizing social behaviors, then The Next Four Years is just such a process.

Returning to that originary sense of the institution, philosopher and semiologist Paolo Virno identifies language and ritual as the two most critical anthropological institutions to frame our ambivalent existences as human beings.3Paolo Virno, “Anthropology and Theory of Institutions”, in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: MayflyBooks, 2009) 95-112.​ What these systems do, in fact, is establish an order of meaning and value, expressed through the codification of behavior and framing of concepts. This process as singularity can be manifested via the work of the artist, and if we are to examine each of the projects in this volume, we may find for each a particular artistic subjectivity in accordance with a particular system of meaning and value, a particular sense of being in (and detached from) the world. In the same sense, if we follow the sense of scale, practicality, and site-specificity by which Arrow Factory operates, we begin to understand another set of coordinates pertaining to meaning and value. Its contribution is both consequence and initiator of certain temporal and spatial conditions/phenomena: village-in-city scenarios of Beijing's sold urban center; gentrification; the Chinese contemporary art world; and small-scale independent artist initiatives. The way these parameters intersect, and the small structures of response that Arrow Factory’s organizers set up to counter, deal with and even participate in, is also a manner of negotiating alter-possibilities of meaning and value despite an acknowledgment of a marginal position.4The obvious conflict between resistance to and participation with existing structures is described by artist Marcelo Expósito as “no different to the way which post-Fordist labor, in general, oscillates between self-valorization and control (subjugation), and it’s often paradoxical because it operates under the conditions of autonomy and subjection simultaneously.” Rather than become mired in such ambivalence or lie fallow while waiting for hegemonic recuperation, however, he remains steadfast to “the potential of critical labor within art, cultural and educational institutions—not only to enlighten some minds but, above​ Meaning, is exemplified here in the artwork as metaphor and symbol, a statement of an idea. Value refers to the reconfiguration of meaning along alter scales of sociopolitical possibility. Both of these are conditioned by the context of Arrow Factory, itself a system or platform that establishes meaning and value, the precise function of the institution in Virno’s sense. We are thus able to reconsider the concept of institutions in the first place, to accord new forms of meaning and value to even the “small” (15 square-meter), “low-budget” (volunteer-run, partially self-funded, without consistent external funding sources), and relatively “unspectacular” (public openings are not hosted for any of the exhibitions).

It is indeed a certain “quasi-institutional” quality that Arrow Factory has been able to embrace, not only in terms of scale but in terms of its oscillating relations to modes of power in the field——namely, funding bodies established artists and critics (of course also enveloped by those aforementioned systems of “contemporary art” dominated by the Global North). Unlike more official institutions, however, these relations are not fixed and occur as an unprogrammed series of encounters (or refusals), not so distant from the “concatenation of instituent events” described by Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray as the modus operandi for the emergent third wave of institutional critique.5Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique (London: MayflyBooks, 2009) 95-112.​ While Arrow Factory is currently veering towards the eighth year of practice, there is still no assumption that certain mechanisms, routines, or decisions have been put into place to allow for continued progress. These include the accumulation and ongoing refinement of certain techniques (for putting on shows, collaborating with artists, appropriating funding, etc.) and relationships (with the neighbors and the landlord, or among co-organizers, etc.), but they also include in this case a certain degree of flexibility and spontaneity that many larger-scale institutions cannot afford. The variety of work presented in Arrow Factory: The Next Four Years attests to certain tweaks and developments in the way that the space has been directed and organized over the years. These are processes, negotiations, and balancing acts that must be emphasized as part of the multifacetedness of the small-scale institution, where artists become curators, sellers, and construction workers, and vice versa.6It is no surprise that in the case of small-scale institutions we observe “organizers” doing both the “conceptual groundwork” as well as the “grunt work,” but one of the perhaps more unexpected highlights of such multifacetedness can also be seen in the exhibition of Li Yueyang, a loan shark and ex-convict, whose artistic identity premiered at Arrow Factory with Time Spent (2014).​ From one angle, we can acknowledge this hand-in-hand with the previously mentioned splintering of subjectivity as part of our precarity as cultural workers, but we can also recognize a play where hierarchies are able to be dismantled, and roles shared and interchanged in ways that are also positive new iterations of it. The negotiations between condition and response are——here across the bounds of a white storefront window frame——and examples of institutionalizing that is less to do with stable behavior, but more by way of an ongoing, dynamic practice. […] We are on slippery footing, as artists, designers, or space organizers, third wave or not. And maintaining a foothold amidst that grimy, polluted Beijing landscape is no small feat (we are not only talking about the air quality here). Perhaps it is even “huge.”

Afterthought from 2021:

Six years after we first asked this question, the blaring, unignorable fact is that: the instituent of which I wrote about in “What is a Good Institution?” had actually realized a cessation, Arrow Factory is no more. In actuality, that was not such a distant subjectivity from that which I wrote in 2015, because HomeShop, the artist-run project space I was involved with just a few blocks away from Arrow Factory, had also met its demise only two years prior. However, with lessons learned, seeds planted, and the organizers, many collaborating artists, and most former neighbors of Arrow Factory still as active as ever, cessation should not be misunderstood as a counter to the instituent, but rather as an integral part of caring for ourselves and our work in a manner that the rigid machine of large-scale institutions cannot: learning when to stop.

As one example that blares from recent news, the request of the Chinese state for the international community calling out in support of tennis player Peng Shuai to “not politicize sports”, sounds more like an antiquated and obdurate excuse to keep the institution of the Olympics, next scheduled again for Beijing this winter, blindly greased despite the fact that institutions, as structures for organizing people, have been and always will be political. The sphere of art is no exception, and similar allegations of sexual harassment and coercion that have recently complicated art organizations in my geographical realm of Guangzhou and Hong Kong have played out as an extremely disappointing silence on the part of organizations in power. This will to hush bleeds painfully through individuals in the community and is the worst answer of the power-drawn divisions within the organization of people that so-called ‘good institutions’ large and small have still been unable to answer.

Elaine W. Ho

December 17, 2021

The text was originally published in Arrow Factory: The Next Four Years (2015) as its structural and conceptual guideline from the perspective of its contributing editor and designer of the publication. This online version has been adapted to highlight the structural nodes of its operative methodology as well as a reflection of the legacy of one of Beijing’s former alternative art spaces.


Elaine W. Ho works between the realms of time‐based art, language, urban practice, and design, using multiple vocabularies to explore the micropolitics, subjectivities, and alter-possibilities of an intimate, networked production. 

The act of describing takes on a number of forms——a kind of grammar, documentation, a gesture, a biography——or an experiment in Beijing known as HomeShop. She is the initiator of the artist-run space, active from 2008-2013, and continues to ask questions about the sociopolitics of syntax, more recently via print (• • PROPAGANDA DEPARTMENT), pirate broadcast (Widow Radio Ching & #RADIOHED) and as a co-conspirator with Display Distribute, a networked research platform investigating bottom-up organization amidst global trade (2015-ongoing).

Installation view of Time Spent (2014) by Li Yueyang at Arrow Factory. (c) Arrow Factory and the artist.

Special Event: Hairdo! A Festival of Hair (2014) at Arrow Factory. (c) Arrow Factory

Installation view of “20140706” (2014) by Liang Yue at Arrow Factory. (c) Arrow Factory and the artist.

Installation view of “Arrow Factory Grotto” (2011) by A Diao Dui Collective at Arrow Factory. (c) Arrow Factory and the artist.

Published: 2021.12.21