Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


Para- Museum

The prefix “para–” derives from ancient greek παρά (pará, “beside; next to, near, from; against, contrary to”) and can redefine the word that preceeds either from a temporal, spatial, or causal perpective. Moreconcretely, para means: above, beyond (paranormal activity, paramiliar beside, near, alongside; throughout abnormal, incorrect (out of, against the rules of) resembling to a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, most often attached to verbs and verbal derivatives, with the meanings “at or to one side of, beside, side by side” (parabola; paragraph; parallel; paralysis), “beyond, past, by” (paradox; paragogue); by extension from these senses, this prefix came to designate objects or activities auxiliary to or derivative of that denoted by the base word (parody; paronomasia), and hence abnormal or defective (paranoia), a sense now common in modern scientific coinages (parageusia; paralexia). As an English prefix, para-1 may have any of these senses; it is also productive in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status, on such models as paramedical and paraprofessional: paralegal; paralibrarian; parapolice. The prefix para- has been used by academic Nora Sternfeld in the context of museology and curatorial studies to define “a para-institutional praxis that desires more than occupying a subversive position, because it does not shy away from the radical democratic demand to engage in the struggle for hegemony”. In her words, the prefix para- suits the new relationship that artists and cultural producers produce by being neither against nor fully governed by the institution museum. In her book ““Das radikaldemokratische Museum,” Sternfed calls for a new museological praxis that takes account of the museum not only as a public institution connected with the street as a space of protest and the parliament as a meeting room, but also as an infrastructure that can go beyond this definition. For this purpose, she coins the term para-museum: “a subversive gesture that steals (the power of definition and the infrastructure) from the museum”. For Sternfeld “(t)he Greek word παρά can be translated in many respects, for instance, locally as from…to, nearby, next…to; temporally as during, along; and figuratively as in comparison, in contrast, contra-, and against. Although para refers to deviation rather than opposition in Greek, in Latin it becomes contra.”

“The post-representational therefore seems to need something additional to remain a critical practice; besides engaging with exhibitions as contact zones and spaces of assembly, or—more precisely—as sites that hold the potential for something to happen, other aspects have to be addressed as well: the focus on action and what is happening in exhibitions gives rise to questions concerning continuities, memories, and what remains when everything is constantly in flux. And the attention to the social space that emerges between us provokes questions concerning material and structural conditions. In this sense, the post-representational does not simply leave representation behind, it engages with questions of presence and absence, with the space that emerges between us, and the things that are not in our power that turn the space between us into a public space in the first place (... ) Rather than believing in something outside of representation and the institution, following a critical engagement with the neoliberal imperative of presence, the conundrum arises of insisting upon the institution (...) To better understand this conundrum, I suggest looking at the ways in which artists use the museum as a medium. I would like to call this strategy the para-museum (...) What makes the museum, both as a subject and medium, so attractive for contemporary artists? Perhaps they are drawn to the canon now that it is almost impossible to establish meaning, because everything is constantly in flux. The museum becomes relevant as a space where it is still possible to negotiate meaning and stand up against the apparatus of value-encoding. Artistic museum projects insist on idiosyncrasy, autonomy, criticality, as well as on the museum’s heteronomous potential: the possibility of intervening in the space where the power of definition resides.

Imagining the para-museum simultaneously as an inside and an outside, with a parasitic relation to the museum, we might conceive of it as a subversive gesture that steals (the power of definition and the infrastructure) from the museum (...) In The Undercommons,[ix] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe this subversive relationship to the institution as the resistance of “the undercommons,” who find a place inside the institution and lay claim to its future by simply inhabiting it in uninvited and uncalled-for ways. Harney and Moten call this acting against the grain of institutional norms and logics of exploitation “fugitive practices.” Because critique is inextricably entwined with neoliberal and (neo)colonial conditions, they find themselves undermining and moving beyond it (...) What is given up in such a form of ongoing movement is any possibility of permanence. For this reason, I propose a para-institutional praxis that desires more than occupying a subversive position, because it does not shy away from the radical democratic demand to engage in the struggle for hegemony. From the position of the undercommons, what would it mean if we were to take the institution at its word? This complicated relation of neither being against nor fully governed by the museum can be described using the prefix para.” 

︎︎︎Sternfeld, Nora. Das Radikaldemokratische Museum. De Gruyter, 2018.

︎︎︎Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” Feminist Studies No. 14/3, 1988, pp. 575–599.

︎︎︎Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, 2013.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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