documenta15, part one: lumbung

The letter is dated July 5, 2022, but it looks like an  April 1 joke.  On social media, you can find a letter from the mayor of Kassel, Germany. He warns the population for the measures taken in relation to the staggering energy prices. From September 1 until April 15, 2023 Kassel will be divided into time zones.  And so the residents of this particular district he’s addressing will have to take care of the following: “all heating off until September 30; from October 1, each heating device may work for thirty minutes a day, on maximum setting 3 – Hot water may be used from Monday to Saturday between 4 and 8 o’clock in the morning and on Friday and Saturday also from eight to half past eleven in the evening’.  Violations can be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 euros.

The letter is fake, the city announced  on July 25.  A silly joke, as there has been more tragicomedy in Kassel in  recent times, especially  around documenta fifteen, the current edition of the five-yearly art manifestation.  An amalgam of (green) politicians,  classic ‘right-wing’ media (Bild, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, …)  and a number of obscure anti-Palestinian and Zionist figures created a diatribe about « anti-Semitic stereotyping. »  This led, among other things, to the removal or modification of works and the dismissal of the director of the non-profit company Documenta and museum Fridericianum. This whole thing is a pity, and not only because there’s much to say about the manifestation itself.

A reflection in two parts.

Part One: Lumbung, majelis, ekosistem

‘Make friends not art’, is the welcome greeting of ruangrupa, the ‘artistic direction’ of documenta15.  ruangrupa is an art collective that originated in 2000  in Jakarta, Indonesia. (For this kind of information I use the excellent website and the printed handbook.) Lumbung is a crucial term for them, and now also central to the concept of the manifestation.  The term refers to a rice barn where a village community jointly  stores (part of) its  harvests (those who have nothing left themselves, leave nothing behind). That stock is collectively managed for times of need.  According to ruangrupa, the basic values of lumbung, as also reflected by the invited artists in their practice, are: generosity, humor, local anchoring, independence, regeneration, transparency and sufficiency.  At first sight these are all meaningless terms, but the consistency with which ruangrupa  has  pursued the lumbung idea in the invitation to those who are now called lumbung members and artists, leads to radical consequences.

As soon as it was clear that ruangrupa would be the motor of documenta15, they put together an artistic team of five people from the international art world.  Together they invited fourteen other collectives to join the lumbung, and those fifteen collectives attracted another 53 artists (collectives) who could agree with the concept, and who were all allowed to bring people or other  collectives themselves. So a sort of a decentralized autonomous organization came about, a collective of collectives and artists, all of whom are focused on making locally anchored, emancipatory art.  As the handbook states somewhere: « Different ways of producing art will create different works, which, in turn, will ask for other ways of being read and understood: artworks that are functioning in real lives in their respective contexts, no longer pursuing mere individual expression, no longer needing to be exhibited as standalone objects or sold to individual collectors and hegemonic state-funded museums.  …  Our work should not be judged by an outsider, but in terms of the benefits that it brings to the community which creates it.”

Now, exhibiting collective work is not something that doesn’t already take place in established art centers. But  from  the  beginning, ruangrupa was less concerned with the outcome of that collective labour, than with how the artists work in their specific contexts, and how they exchange strategies and approaches to enrich their local communities.  An important part of documenta15 were and are therefore the majelises.  A majelis is a meeting or exchange in which collectives or artists discuss with other members or artists about their approach or their work.  For each participating project, the handbook states which other artists (collectives) have been or are consulted.  Sometimes these (virtual) meetings lead to concrete results, sometimes it turns out that people just talked or shared meals.  The collaborative networks in which all those ideas, resources, practical knowledge are shared, are called  ekosistem.  The processes in which the work is created are depicted in a more or less creative way as harvest;  these often splendid results are also exhibited.

A logical consequence of this approach is that there  is no point in exhibiting in Kassel if you  cannot make a translation towards and from similar activities on location.  Documenta already had a long tradition of locally embedded art. Think Joseph Beuys, who during the edition of Rudi Fuchs (1982) started with the planting of seven thousand oaks in the city: 7000 Eichen.  Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung.  The documenta15 handbook mentions more than a hundred local institutions that actively participate in the event.  Even C&A offers its façade to work by Taring Padi.  A side project, Eine Landschaft/A Landscape, provides a route along eleven initiatives of ‘local knowledge’ through Kassel East.

However, this also means that part of what is presented as documenta15  is factually reserved for the inhabitants of Kassel.  Across from our hotel stood (and still stands, I assume) the Trafohaus, the former transformer cabin for the distribution of electricity in the district. It is closed now, inside and outside walls are covered with photocopies of drawings and banal slogans, there is some graffiti, a  now wildered vegetable garden has been laid out, and next to it was a construction made of bamboo, which on the day of our departure laid on the ground. So what is this Trafohaus all about?  Arts Collaboratory uses it for occasional radio broadcasts and the Caribbean collective Alice Yard (which has also invited nine artists in residence) can also use it. Do they? Unclear, for those who only visit documenta15.  Something similar at the Nordstadtpark, a little further on. The place is listed as a venue for the Palestinian Jumane Emil Abboud.  On closer inspection, there appears to be just a specially designed stage that can be used for performances and as an open-air cinema.  Does that happen?

In itself, it is not bad, nor unusual, that as a visitor who spends four days on a manifestation that lasts a hundred, you miss a lot.  I don’t even want to consider experiencing everything at a hundred-day event.  I quickly realized that documenta15 is actually not made for spectators, but for participants.  What’s on display isn’t the most important thing;  it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The processes of exchange and solidarity are what it is all about. For example, the rather banal presentation of La Intermundial Holobiente on the Karlsaue is  in fact an opportunity to discover, with some effort though, that the group organizes three night walks with “a music performance in conversation with non-humans”. (There is one more walk at the end of September.) You actually have to look at the calendar to see what will happen each day: a lecture, workshop, night walk, performance, radio broadcast, film …  We may have been unlucky, but on the four days we spent on and around documenta15, hardly anything was programmed.

Anyway, the documenta is alive in Kassel. In the park at Lutherplatz,  where quite a few ragged people are spending days and nights,  you can notice this installation:

Keine Kunst * * bitte hängen lassen!

If it were art, would you  be allowed to take it with you?

In general, every effort has been made to make the whole event as accessible as possible.  There are brochures and a version of the website in large letters and easy to read, there are guided tours with hearing support or sign language, in several places there is a ramp for wheelchairs (which you can also rent), there are resting places and childcare.  Then you think: great, luckily I don’t need any of that despite my age and physical condition. But a little later you have to conclude that at the showing of the long films of Komîna Film a Rojava or Wakaliga Uganda you can only sit on the floor, on cushions or carpets.

The emphasis on documentaries and archives is also something that has been going on for a long time on documenta.  On the first one I visited, number 11 with curator Okwui Enwezor in 2002, that was already the case, and documenta14 in Athens also had a strong political and documentary approach.  I don’t think that’s a problem, but what I’ve seen of documenta15 this year I often  found just annoying, both in terms of the expressed intentions, as for the design in which those intentions are expressed.

I realized I had had enough when, on the third day, I saw the installation of The Nest Collective on the Karlswiese, the huge lawn of the park in front of the Orangerie.  In a tent you could watch the film ‘Return to Sender’, a documentary the likes I have seen a lot already, about the enormous amounts of waste (including textiles and computer parts) that are sent from the rich West to Africa ‘because there they can still be used or recycled’.  Nonsense. More than seventy percent of all that junk is also unusable in Africa, which means that Africa is simply used as a garbage dump for the Western world. But you already knew that, don’t you?  To further illustrate their statement, The Nest had placed bales of, indeed, old textiles and computer parts outside the tent.  If you compare that with the images of Maurice Mbikayi, also made from electronic waste, that were in Middelheim, Antwerp during Congoville in 2021, the presentation of The Nest was simplistic and boring.

So we walked further to the end of the park, where in a greenhouse the Colombian Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA) had placed a pile of tree trunks and a three-hour recording of forest and tree sounds was running.  The trees came from local forests in Hessen, and they had to be cut down because they were infested by beetles. The installation “underscores the need for a common conversation about climate justice and biodiversity”, the handbook states. Right.

How many contributions haven’t I seen in which the makers express their concern about the loss of biodiversity and confirm their conviction that man and nature are one and dependent on each other?  You can assume, I think, that the people who visit this documenta are already convinced that the capitalist system is ruining the world. Or should you have to keep repeating that?  Many works are also  about oppression, exploitation, repression, violence against people – political work in the traditional sense of the word.  But those are often so incredibly clichéd (think Taring Padi’s canvases), or when films, formally so boring.  You can see such documentary films and reports on Dutch television almost weekly at the vpro, zembla or 2doc.

And that again raises the question: is what can be seen actually intended for the Western viewer?  And if not, for whom then?  For the local population and the local contexts in which these works were made?  Sure, that was the general starting point.  And for the colleagues and artists inside and outside the majelises?  For them probably the result is less important than the processes that led to it. 

Anyway, all this does not mean that there were not also beautiful or impressive works to be seen.  I remember the documentary and the works of Wajukuu Art Project from Nairobi, the beautiful and mysterious tapestries at Off-Biennale Budapest, the staggering images of the US-American war against Iraq from Sada [regroup], but also  the British Project Art Works with their work with neurominorities, Football Kommando, the new action film of Wakaliga Uganda, starring German football star Ruminiger  or the ingenious constructions of El Warcha.

I already mentioned that I quite quickly realized in Kassel that this documenta was not an exhibition that was made for me.  It is indeed, as the organizers themselves say, not a showcase of collective works of art that you come to see.  Documenta15 is first and foremost a meeting place where the hundreds of  artists involved can share and exchange ideas, practices, tricks, strategies, contacts and networks among themselves.  The processes are more important than the results, the procedure takes priority on the form.  ruangrupa did not want to use the Western art scene, of which documenta is an important part, primarily for showing forms (results) but for exchanging processes.  And an important process was: the distribution of finances.

In the handbook ruangrupa makes no secret of the distribution of the documenta funds. Initially, the group considered offering all participating artists a basic income for the entire duration of their work on documenta15. That would be in line with their views, but leave only resources for a medium-sized exhibition.  In the end, it was decided to divide the budget among the fourteen originally invited artists and collectives and the 53 participants they had invited.  Each of the fourteen lumbung members received a production budget of 180,000 euros plus 25,000 euros in recognition of what they have built up locally and as a kind of sealing of the agreement that the contribution to documenta15 would have a lasting impact on and in Kassel.  The 53 lumbung artists also received a production budget and fixed compensation. Besides, there was  also  the Common Pot  per mini-majelis: a joint pot in which a group of artists could jointly manage and distribute 20,000 euros and non-monetary resources such as skills, space, time and energy.  A kind of totem pole, ruangrupa calls that common pot: “something very symbolic, that holds the community together”.

Perhaps this is a conclusion: if on this documenta15 the processes, the solidarity and the exchange of knowledge, skills and networks are more important than what is shown to visitors, then the most important process is that all that good & beautiful Western money has ended up in places and with collectives that use it to create their own networks and to strengthen those of other collectives working in the Global South without government support.

This was from the start the aim of ruangrupa: “… instead of integrating ourselves into the long-established documenta system, we decided to stay on our path. We invited documenta back, asking it to be part of our journey. We refuse to be exploited by European institutional agendas that are not ours to begin with. … We are not in documenta fifteen, we are in lumbung one.”

I guess they succeeded – although they themselves are not too shy to include in the handbook a page ‘How we could have done things differently’.

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