The Ephemera(l) Institution 9

by Martin Gantman

Let us first be clear about what I mean by institution. An institution is not an organization; it is a medium. One definition describes an institution as a structure or mechanism of social order that governs behavior and cooperation. Another person characterizes it as a constraint. A constraint devised to shape human interaction. Constraint is an interesting, if not loaded, term in this context. It suggests an almost forceful set of restrictions set up to dictate how the organization operates and is viewed.

The reality, though, is probably not that blatant. If an organization establishes or encodes, even innocently, a particular thematic as a material source within its functioning, this source may begin to dictate any number of activities within and without the organization. It may unwittingly become a basis for organizational decision-making. It may also suggest, if not compel, a focus for how the organization is generally viewed and appraised. Thus, as in the case I have been ruminating on, the institutionalizing of a medium, such as the use of ephemera (or detritus) in its processes, may unconsciously constrain how the organization operates and influence how outsiders see its mission.

My particular interest is not about how the organization does its business, but about how it is viewed during its active time, and more importantly, how its message carries on after its organizational presence is ended. And this, I think, is where how the organization defines and constructs its institutions becomes exceedingly important.

As I have quite naively delved into the processes and machinations of this organization, the Institute, in quest of the elusive ephemeratic impulse, I have been struck by the fact, once again, that, just as with any good art, the viewer may bring the message. In this case I am the viewer. I am, surprisingly, the one who has had to maintain that there lurks within these walls an ephemera(l) influence.

I assumed, when I first walked through the organization’s doors that the issue was evident, and that I was here only to satisfy my own vagaries about the nature of ephemera. But then the problematic of interpretation (ephemeron/detritus) slithered across my innocent path and has effectively obliterated any sense of way through which I once eagerly trod. This is all somehow reminiscent of my hesitance to accept Walter Benjamin’s widely sanctioned interpretation of the term aura in his famous essay. For me the idea of the emanation of an aura has always signified a somewhat ethereal and obtuse way of receiving art.

Similarly, I feel that the notion of ephemera includes a sense of ethereality – that is that there is an unnatural importance laid onto the interpretation of some images, though the visible operations of this organization seem to disabuse one of the assumption that there is here a selective preference. Whether this view is in fact accurate requires further archeology, but regardless of whether there is an auratic influence on the constraints of the organization; it is interesting to observe how the organization uses its institution, its chronicle of sometimes obscure history, to bring attention to the present.

The influence of the Ephemera(l) institution, then, may ultimately be that it can determine, and actually become, a method or even a way of seeing. In the recent past we have seen how an ephemeron can be something that has a very low life term, perhaps with some auratic constituent, and quickly disappears. Or it may have the character of detritus, the intentionally disappeared. In either case it is obvious that representations of these incidents and/or objects have a second life, may evanescently return, and can point us toward something important that we have possibly missed.