Institutionalizing an experimental format – documenta now

  • 04.08.2015

documenta celebrated its 60th anniversary with a two-day long symposium (July 17.-18., 2015) thinking about its future and past. This comment took some time to form itself, maybe due to the hot summer days, maybe as I am still putting the pieces of thoughts and notes together.

The title of the event was: “Expanding thought collectives: documenta 1997–2017”. Thought collective is a term used by the immunologist Ludwik Fleck to describe social groupings that share a Denkstil, a specific way of thinking. Applying this concept on exhibition making raises different questions: What does it mean for an exhibition if it does not only display art but actually shows modes of knowledge production? What are the origins of the theories underpinning the last four documentae and how do we evaluate them today?

Putting a conference together means to think about choreography, time frames, questions, moderation and most important: panel speakers. Dorothea von Hantelmann, the organizer of the symposium and current documenta visiting professor at the School of Art and Design Kassel, could have been more rigorous in several points. Each artistic director could organize their panel and invite guests; usually they went for artists or part of the curatorial team.

In a retrospective manner, concentrating on the last 20 years, six of the artistic directors Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Ruth Noack, Roger M. Buergel, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Adam Szymczyk were invited to discuss developments and use the conference to reflect on the what it means to institutionalize a format as documenta.

Getting part of the curatorial Olympus together raises the expectation to get substantial knowledge and insights in what it means to curate such an exhibition at a large scale. Given that the presentations were way to long, sometimes cryptic and with almost no space for a substantial Q&A, the talks centered around the figure of the artistic director and some professionals linked to the instance of documenta; but that was mostly it. It is a pity that the organisation team never jumped into shorten the presentations in order to facilitate a discussion. With around 800 registrations, there were plenty of people in the audience who would have appreciated some structure in the terribly hot venue, the Documenta Halle.


The documenta archive was founded on the initiative of Arnold Bode by the city of Kassel in 1961. Today, the archive houses a library and maintains a collection of valuable documents, photographs, and correspondence relating to all previous documenta exhibitions, extensive press documentation, and a growing media archive. To contribute to the institutionalization the documenta archive was officially entrusted to the documenta und Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH within the 60years anniversary week.

Through the institutionalization of experimental formats they are pushed to be part of a canon that characterizes categories within knowledge production. It forces exhibition formats to become institutions with solid structures, to define from which point of view and in which time frame positions are argued and that usually comes with the burden to identify how the definition of art changed and, therefore, what is considered art. Surprisingly, the discussion in the panel of Catherine David escalated on a certain point between Okwui Enwezor, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and David Joselit, who where all sitting in the audience and not taking part in her panel, on the issue what institutional construction and canon building means. The discussion circled around a strong MoMA critique. Enwezor criticized the institution for its “production and acquisition of discursive authority” that allows them “to provincialize and allocate modernity”.

He continued to point out MoMA’s lack of self-criticality concerning their influence on the definition of which narratives gain visibility in the art discourse. The development of the institution into a big corporate brand gives them the financial background and changes the scale as well as the topics of exhibitions.

Griselda Pollock went on countering this authority, as being misused to “rediscover” art, through a gesture of exoticism, rather than “to point the finger at what rendered these things as invisible in the first place”. There was no conclusion on what the MoMA Model means for the institutionalization process of documenta, but the fear of the format getting changed and loosing its ability to draw attention to marginalized positions was perceptible in the air of that summer day. The fierce debate around MoMA was the only moment throughout the conference where some of the former artistic directors actually took a clear stand.


Formats as Biennials, Manifesta or documenta are deeply rooted in transnational knowledge production and function as spaces of communication (Oliver Marchart). The main discourse takes place in what we call “the center” (aka. The capitals of power) usually located in western countries. Past documenta curators have decentralized the exhibition as such by organizing events and conferences in venues around the world and by the time preceding the show, as a pursuit of globality without the colonial gesture of “discovering non-western art”, in order to avoid exoticism (Okwui Enwezor, d11, 2002). Or by recruiting a worldwide team of agents who served as co-curators and placed projects in locations considered periphery as Banff, Cairo and Kabul (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, d13, 2012).

Taking this tradition of dispersion further, Adam Szymczyk organizes the next documenta 2017 in Athens and Kassel. In a statement, he explained that “just as Germany was at the center of massive changes afoot in Europe in 1955, when the exhibition was founded, so Athens is emblematic of the challenges facing Europe after the economic crash of 2008 and the crippling austerity measures that have followed.”(1)

The predominant discourse has political and economic consequences of value and relevance. Through the “pluralisation of geographies” (David Joselit) the objects of art placed at exhibitions like documenta become “extraterritorial entities” within the given space. This development leads to “image circulation” (Joselit) and to the transformation of exhibitions becoming organisms -a “Cosmos” where knowledge production does not function linear but meaning is constituted through different narrations. Instead of being a representation of territories the art works become “machines for meaning making” (Joselit). The potential of the documentae and their institutionalization is that “the exhibitions end but the life worlds that were created through it continue and are nourished through the discourse” (Enwezor).

Large scale exhibitions as an economic entity

“An exhibition as documenta can just be realized through great personal sacrifices. It comes along with great neoliberal insecurities: some curators and staff end up without health insurance, without being able to translate their involvement in the exhibition into professional currency. Discursive hegemony is not the same thing as institutional security.”

These were the brave introductory lines of Ruth Noack’s panel (d12, 2007). It is a peculiar symptom of the current art world structures that the discussions within the symposium concerned displacement, globality and knowledge production, though ignoring the conditions of intellectual labor of artists, curators or any kind of volunteers and interns. . To get a real insight into the power structures it was interesting to observe where the panelists were seated and the kind of insider networking.

Documenta and other exhibitions at a large scale are just possible through an extensive network and the ability to keep the interests alive. An analysis of those networks, in which cultural players are part of, would be actually a useful, transparent insight into understand the politics of exhibition making. At least if that is the topic of these public discussions, transparency should be inevitable.

The present majority re-assured that the curatorial legacy of the documenta consists in “caring and trusting of what the other artistic directors did” (Christov-Bakargiev). But honestly, the logics of large scale exhibition are deeply rooted in capitalization. Once Szymczyk announced that the next documenta is taking place in Athens and Kassel, the region feared the loss of the monopole.(2)

It contributes to the marketing of the region and functions as “machine of cultural production” (Oliver Marchart) as the infrastructure in terms of staff, offices and venues has to be established every five years. The public attention and the constant increase of visitor numbers is connected to certain logics: First, there has to be a certain number of venues throughout the city to handle the public and to actually create something substantial in scale. Second, one has to characterize several types of public, the professionals who is not really able to participate the whole 100 days but have to be able to gain a fast impression and the people of the region who really participate and are day in day out confronted with the exhibition. Third, every exhibition is a process of research and this knowledge has to be made accessible.

documenta as a curatorial practice

It has been optimistic to think that the curatorial particularities of documenta could be defined in a short symposium. None of the artistic directors wanted to actually be the one criticizing the format. It was just in the end of the event where thoughts arose if the exhibition and its display format still are contemporary tools to make relations and create narratives.

What is the future of the documenta format in a world that faces deep instabilities and how does curatorial responsibility succeeds here?

Tino Sehgal, who has been invited to the panel of Christov-Bakargiev, mentioned that art emerges in the interaction of people, if there is actually a thing as art. His statement brings up the question how to theorize the experimental format of documenta which lives through site-specificity and temporality. Sehgal is an artist whose artistic practice is based on ephemerality, participation and interaction. The institutionalization of documenta might facilitate to build a canon for knowledge production, but how can a curatorial practice be institutionalized being a tool for experiences to happen?

In the tradition of a Weltausstellung, documenta is a seismograph for the current discourses, questions and problems, but due to the logics of the large scale and time consuming organisation, the contemporaneity of the exhibition is never anticipating discourses but recurring to the urgency of discourses that are already existing. There is a collision between site-specific visiting experiences, identifying discourses that were initiated through the curatorial practice, and the experience of putting such a large scale exhibition together (research, meetings, staff). In retrospective the urgency and effects of those discourses are going to built the base for a documenta canon.

Learning from Athens: documenta 14

European citizens are not just facing a financial crisis but a reevaluation of what it means to be European. It challenges the belief that trading contracts are enough to create affective relations between countries and its citizens. Germany’s predominant role in the financial sector and its role within the financial crisis, that hit particularly the Mediterranean countries, was lead by a change in attitude and rhetoric and resulted in a strong antagonism.

Szymczyk’s proposal to organize documenta 14 equally in Athens and Kassel challenges the historical tradition of the format being deeply connected to Germany’s postwar reconstruction and opens questions about the German legacy. These historical implications are also brought up to light through the announcement that documenta would also like to exhibit the Gurlitt Collection as part of the main show.

The chosen title “Learning from Athens” puts the focus on a central point of documenta: knowledge production. The title is an active affirmation and might open the contemporary art discourse for new areas. The presentation of Szymczyk on the stage might have been already a foretaste of what the audience can expect. He spoke only as the narrator reading fragments of three migration stories, alternating with flamenco interventions of the artist Hiwa K and flamenco performer Carmen Amor, and short movie sequences of a conflict zone where young men were walking through the streets with 3 musicians. The presentation was marked through the tense emotionality and the connection of individual histories and a collective imagination.

Flamenco is a folk art form, which arose as the musical outlet of the marginalized ones, and strongly rooted in its community as it continues to be passed on from one generation to the next. The knowledge production is based on the legacy of tradition but still able to adapt to current conditions. During the financial crisis in Spain several artistic flamenco groups emerged e.g. Flo6x8. Flamenco was manifested within the panel as an organic form of knowledge production, not as a contemporary phenomenon of the arts, but as scrutinizer of how monopolization of knowledge appears in the canon building. Which forms of knowledge production are being introduced into the documenta 14 format and can the new director of documenta outsmart the logics of the large scale exhibition?

Szymczyk stated already the political urgency in which the documenta 14 was born: “The Greeks” are constantly infantilized from the outside. We’ve also noticed this, among other things, since we began working here in Athens. We want to change the direction of learning from the teacher to the student. The example of Greece emblematically reveals Europe’s contradictions and future. It’s not a system error that’s occurring here - the system itself is in a deep crisis. My approach is to leave the position of power, of authority, as far as possible and assume the position of weakness in order to exercise solidarity and learn from it.”(3)

After the performative panel in Kassel, Szymczyk, Amor and Hiwa K walked off the stage without a word.