What documenta fifteen offered to the future – documenta fifteen closing days #1
In the current media debates about documenta fifteen a very important aspect of the event is almost being absent: the fact that it was a tangible proposal for artists, curators and art institutions concerning how to work differently. This proposal invoked very positive reactions inside a large part of the art scene in Germany and internationally. What were the reasons for this enthusiasm?
It is maybe not visible so much from the outside of the art scene but many active art workers are very critical of the art system, strictly speaking of the neoliberal ideology behind it. The current structure of the art field is a particular historical invention, very much related to the neoliberal stage of capitalism which it evolved with. The most problematic elements of this system are: individualisation and competition, lack of solidarity, proliferation of burnouts, short term funding, lack or shrinkage of structural funding, not enough recognition for types of work whose results requires longer times to become visible, superficial understanding of diversity, bureaucracy (especially in relation to funding procedures), obsolete hierarchical structures in institutions, and constant cult of the young, the new, the mobile, and the flexible. The disappointment with and critique of the neoliberal art system does not however translate into broader scale initiatives aimed at changing it. Although many cultural workers feel exhausted and unhappy and many discuss these structural problems, there is a widespread perception that the status quo of the art world is the only viable model, and it feels impossible to imagine – and even more to implement – an alternative to it. We call this situation ‘neoliberal art realism’, rephrasing by Mark Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’. In this context, documenta fifteen was a very unique large scale proposal for the art system to work differently. It creates the opportunity to reimagine the art system otherwise, and it commits quite concretely to the construction of such an alternative.
The proposal for a new model for the artworld begins in the language used to formulate content and activities of documenta fifteen. The neoliberal art system has created a whole constellation of concepts on which it thrives: exhibitions are ‘projects’, organizers or conservators became ‘curators’, artists became ‘producers’ or ‘makers’, catalogues became ‘publications’ or ‘readers’, visitors – ‘clients’, ‘users’, or ‘consumers’. Current discourse around the arts revolves around ‘grant applications’, ‘measurable outcomes’ and ‘artist statements’.
Art workers are so much immersed in this terminology that they barely notice how its ideological components influence their thinking about working in the arts and the art system. For example, the word ‘project’ usually means a task with a clear goal and a strategy designed to achieve it in a measurable time in future. Artistic and curatorial practices are developed and assessed based on series of subsequent ‘projects’. What about activities without a clear goal or without strategy? What about activities that cannot be planned and need to develop spontaneously?
documenta fifteen replaced these terms with concepts, like lumbung, nongkrong, or harvest. Many of them refer to agriculture or to the domestic sphere, in opposition to the typical neoliberal division between resources/producers/consumers, the public and the private/domestic, high and low culture, or between different fields of activity.
Lumbung No. 1
Documenta fifteen could be renamed as ‘lumbung n.1’. Lumbung was a core concept and principle in this edition. As most of the visitors might know by now, lumbung is the Indonesian term for rice barn, a storage where the gathered harvest is collectively governed for the common good of the community. In the context of documenta fifteen, embracing the lumbung as a guiding ethos and organizational model meant to shift the focus from the individual to the collectivity, from the notorious 100 days of the exhibition, to what happens beyond the 100 days in Kassel. It meant to think about the different kinds of resources the community has (money, time, but also imagination, crafts, knowledge, empathy, solidarity…), and how these resources can be shared within the community, in order to benefit its members in the longer term. It means to translate the idea of the commons and of ‘commoning’ into the mechanisms of a major international art event. At the core of this alternative model, there was a set of values which inspire these ideas, which emerged from the experiences and conversations of ruangrupa, the artistic team, and the lumbung artists. These values are: generosity, curiosity, humour, being locally anchored, transparency, regeneration, sufficiency, independence, and endurance.
To adhere to these values in the context of documenta fifteen meant for the curators, the artistic team, and the whole lumbung ecosystem to formulate and develop a number of practical alternatives and speculative modes for the art world. Rather than being the presentation of a finalized accomplished model, it should be understood as an ongoing process, rooted in documenta fifteen but aimed to branch out in the upcoming future, evolving in the interconnected local contexts of the lumbung members. The processual and propositive nature of this documenta has quite some implications for the experience of the exhibition by the public.
There was a set of values which inspire these ideas: generosity, curiosity, humour, being locally anchored, transparency, regeneration, sufficiency, independence and endurance
As we know, more than 1500 artists were invited to documenta fifteen. The invitation left them free to decide what to do in the framework of the exhibition and how to spend the budget assigned to them. This attitude reflects well an ongoing transformation in the art system: it is increasingly common nowadays that cultural practitioners stop calling themselves ‘curators’ and choose other words like ‘conveners’, or ‘cultural workers’. They seem to be embarrassed with the power relation between them and artists or employees, implicitly suggested by role definitions, and are longing for a more equal relation in which both sides can shape programs and structures of art institutions. There is a widespread criticism of the figure of individual curator or director of an art institution, treating subsequent ‘projects’ as an expression of his (often still very masculine and voluminous) ego. The age of the superstar curator jumping from one plane to another seems to be (luckily for the art community and nature) over. The workers in museums emancipate, rebel, and demand more equality in work relations. Of course, this happens in other fields as well, and it becomes very visible in the popularity of alternative less hierarchical management models as the one presented in Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations. Implementing those models does not necessarily mean a total restructuring of art institutions. Even small changes, such as introducing organizational bodies that represent the workers, can make a difference here. Concerning the history of documenta itself, already in the previous editions, the main curators worked with curatorial teams and in this way shared their curatorial power.
In documenta fifteen, Runagrupa took a much more radical approach. Through a system of assemblies, called majelis, ruangrupa opened up the curatorial process inviting the artistic team, the lumbung artists, and the lumbung members to become part of it. This entailed risks and has not come without consequences. Building an atmosphere of trust and openness are key to construct a decentralized curatorial model and open-governance system among artists and collectives based in very diverse contexts and in times of global pandemic. One of the ways reciprocal trust and solidarity were nurtured, has been through the mini-majelis, smaller assemblies between five and seven artists’ collectives. The mini-majelis met regularly throughout the whole preparation period and shared a common production budget, additional to the production money they received.
Where Is The Art?
documenta fifteen is about artistic practices profoundly embedded in life, in its manifold forms and meanings. ‘Art is rooted in Life’, the catalogue reads, and, as such, arts become a special place and time where life can thrive beyond contemporary neoliberal constraints. During the 100 days, the public could experience cooking sessions, workshops, discussions, music lessons, political panels, and more. There was even a lot of architecture designed with these activities in mind: cafes, workspaces, workshops, various sitting arrangements and even ‘quiet spaces’ for the ones seeking ‘a time-out and a retreat from the exhibition visit’. Rather than crossing as many venues as possible, it was more relevant to start the visit by looking at the calendar of events of the public programme. This allowed to take part in the manifold conversations, making new friends, delving into the vibrant and informal atmospheres created by the artists’ collectives in Kassel. In lumbung words, rather than visiting, it was more interesting to try nongkronging this summer in Kassel. Nongkronging, which literally translates from Indonesian as ‘hanging out’, is a practice essentially anti-hierarchical and inclusive. It opens up situations when new creations and ideas spontaneously emerge in a dimension of time which would be considered ‘unproductive’ according to the neoliberal paradigm. This is a particularly interesting thought in relation to the critical times we leave in, when many make pleas about the needs to re-learn, to de-learn our approaches and assumptions about the world, in order to find more respectful and sustainable ways of living together.
While visiting documenta fifteen, some visitors express a certain discomfort and unease, created by the experience of an exhibition less focused on presentation of objects and more on commoning practices, an exhibition which invites visitors to embrace another way of experiencing art. Some lumbung artists consciously and playfully engaged with this discomfort, as emerges from Cem A. ironic meme art, and from a documenta fifteen working group named ‘Where is the Art?’.
Such frustration and disorientation are quite surprising though, if we consider the history of avant-garde art. Didn’t we have many active art collectives in the history of Western art? Didn’t we have Fluxus movement experimenting with blurring the boundaries between life and art? Didn’t we experience relational aesthetics, activist art, and socially-engaged art? What is new and truly radical at documenta fifteen is that for the first time we saw these ideas implemented on a large scale which brings the stances advanced by the above-mentioned artistic practices a step further. Some artistic practices in documenta fifteen radically redefines roles, positions, and forms of the artwork, the artist, the public, the exhibition, and the institution. Creating spaces for conversation and cooking, or a skate park within an exhibition venue (Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture from Thailand), not only opened up the boundaries of the white cube. It dissolved them, allowing real life in its non-performative facets to reclaim the space. If we come back to the idea of the transformative power of the ‘aesthetic experience’, if we delve into the challenging endeavor of re-learning, such discomfort and unease could leave space for joy and, possibly, long-lasting inspiration.
Childcare and accessibility
A surprising element the visitors experienced while entering the main venue of documenta fifteen – the Fridericianum – was that a large part of the ground floor was dedicated to a project by Graziela Kunsch ‘Public Daycare’. Open from 10am until 5pm, the facility was meant for children between 0-3 years old and for those responsible for them. It included environments set to play, photos, videos and a library and was developed with a Kassel resident, Elke Avenarius. Putting this project in this central venue is a very strong statement about the necessity of supporting caretakers in an art institution. In this perspective, the art institution is not only a place that exhibits art, but also a place that asks who can see this art and how to make it accessible. Neoliberal art system is not very accessible for parents, for instance. Art institutions rarely support parents’ participation in events, and many forms of support, such as for example residency programs, are not adjusted to the needs of families. In Germany, if a mother is invited by an art institution to conduct research or to produce a new artwork, the funding body will not cover the costs of travel of her partner, nevermind if their presence is necessary for the mother to work. The inclusivity of documenta fifteen was also present in the attention to neuro-diverse visitors or differently-able audience. This was visible both in the digital and physical spaces of the festival: the exhibition booklet and the website were available also in a easy-read version, around the exhibitions videos show content in sign language, and the website is available also in international sign language (IS). Next to this, a number of quiet rooms was scattered around in the exhibition venues, accessibility maps were widely distributed, and ramps, elevators, and other accessibility supports were clearly indicated throughout the whole exhibition areas.
Beyond the white cube
Something interesting that can be perceived during the 100 days, was the changing role of the artists. Art is rooted in life, and artists are not isolated beings floating in a suspended world or resting in their ivory towers. In documenta fifteen, they became very much grounded in earthly problems and mundane struggles. They entered the realm of policy making, such as the Indonesian collective Jatiwangi Art Factory which responded to the New Urban Agenda by launching a New Rural Agenda. This initiative promotes important multispecies conversations on the subject of land reclamation and regeneration, and the artist collective behind it has been invited to participate to the upcoming G20 summit to be held in Indonesia in November 2022.
Artists in documenta fifteen are educators, cooks, beekeepers, child-carers, policy makers, economists. They questioned the boundaries of the white cube and delved into the complexity of worldly problems. They wanted to concretely contribute to solutions (or at least improvements), and documenta fifteen offered them the space, the time, and the resources to do so. Finally, institutional critique has found an exit strategy from the cul-de-sac in which it had ended. Rather than advancing a critique which inevitably will be absorbed by the same system in a process of commodification of the critique itself, the lumbung members and artists directly engaged and experimented with alternatives to their realities. Examples of these could be found in the past editions as well, such as the canonical example of the oaks planted by Josef Beuys in collaboration with the Kassel community after documenta 7, or the more recent Carved to Flow by Otobong Nkanga during documenta 14, in which the artist created regenerative systems of production and distribution between Kassel, Athens, and Akwa Ibom. Following this historical legacy, documenta fifteen featured a number of imaginative proposals, next to more concrete ones, both aimed at real change.
Rather than advancing a critique which inevitably will be absorbed by the same system in a process of commodification of the critique itself, the lumbung members and artists directly engaged and experimented with alternatives to their realities
The Common Pot
As someone with a background in economics might have noticed visiting this documenta, there were many economic concepts which emerged throughout the exhibition: surplus, exchange values, resources, redistribution. Translating the lumbung values in institutional practices has meant also to think about so many mundane and crucial topics: to question and to rethink not only which economic models support our practices, but also which economics are enacted and nurtured by art practices. The lumbung economy working group aims to create an alternative art economy, inspired by ongoing economic practices such as the lumbung, the Buen Vivir in Central and South America, and the Maaya in Mali. Through a horizontal form of governance and decision making, the lumbung economy working group has aimed at creating systems to liberate and share resources (knowledge, money, problems and forms of solidarity) among the artists collectives and their local contexts (more information can be found here). The economy working group consisted of four sub-groups: lumbung Kios, lumbung Gallery, lumbung Land (Jatiwangi Art Factory is one of the members), lumbung Currency. They all have developed alternative concrete models, based on open and inclusive conversations with guest researchers, community leaders, lawyers, and other interlocutors.
The lumbung Gallery, in particular, is an attempt to reconfigure the conventional model of the art gallery – based on neoliberal values such as the individual gain, speculation, commodification of art – and to reinterpret it according to the lumbung ethos. Art prices are based on basic needs and basic incomes for the artists next to other material variables, such as the production costs. Reinterpreting cooperative organizational forms, lumbung Gallery implements a ‘transvestment’ model, where the capital and the incomes are redistributed within the community, by delving part of the sales to a ‘common pot’. This common pot, as well as the functioning of the lumbung Gallery, are organized through collective governance mechanisms which ensures open and transparent communication. Such an economic experiment has been developed in collaboration with The Artists, a not-for-profit platform where a highly-skilled group of lawyers, art managers, curators, and other art experts, is experimenting with more balanced and fair relations between the art community and the art market.
Of course, we are aware that bringing the changes to the system is neither an easy nor an immediate task. As always with attempts to carve some space of freedom in dominant systems, there is a tension between artists and institutions trying to work differently, and the conservative neoliberal environment. Also – in order for the change to root – the whole system has to change: organizational structures, funding structures, art schools. This doesn’t mean however that any attempt is pointless. The only possibility is to address these tensions, to find ways of tackling problems and maintaining energy within the progressive community. A critical and constructive examination of progressive ideas is also necessary.
This article aimed to bring under the spotlights a non-exhaustive selection of relevant progressive ideas implemented at documenta fifteen. Without claiming they are perfectly realized or that their development has been completed, they show a possible alternative to the neoliberal art system. Finally, someone (and probably we should not be surprised it is a collective of art workers from Global South) has had the courage to put them on the table. It is the task of everyone dissatisfied with the current state of the art system to analyze them, adapt them to our conditions and try out. Only through this we will know if the ‘neoliberal art realism’ can be abandoned. This is lumbung n. 1. We are looking forward to the next ones.
Aneta Rostkowska is director of CCA Temporary Gallery in Cologne. Giulia Belinetti is a PhD researcher (UvA) and head of the Nature Research Department at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.
Aneta Rostkowska and Giulia Bellinetti