Every five years, documenta emerges as a grand spectacle that sets Kassel as well as the art world in motion. This staging is as important for the institution behind documenta as it is for the curators and journalists, all of whom are keen on another media event. Just as regularly, feature articles in the arts sections, especially in German newspapers, express their disappointment with documenta’s troubled relationship between being a large-scale event and a critical voice within the art world. Reflecting on this in 2005, Sarat Maharaj, co-curator of documenta 11 (2002), proposed escaping this back-and-forth between “critique and spectacle” by placing the focus on other demands or claims of documenta. Drawing on the history and the original idea behind documenta, Maharaj suggested placing the emphasis on finding ways to “‘re-connect’ with ‘lost, terminated, interrupted, exiled, diasporized’ terrains of idea and art practice.”[i] For this to happen,[ii] he argues, we must enter into the thick of the conditions, utilizing anything and everything that enables action to be taken within the (post-)colonial relations rather than from an external position. With reference to Dada and Kurt Schwitters’ Fall in den Zufall (Fall into Chance), Maharaj calls working in the thick of it “Merz-thinking.” He further explains: The “‘stick on’ way of working without knowing beforehand how the pieces will configure suggests an add on ad infinitum model of thinking-creating. I call this an agglutinative mode—an unfinishing process of becoming, billowing out, nosing-forward.”[iii]
In the following I would like to pursue this idea and draw on examples from the history of documenta in order to develop a perspective that enables looking into social relations from within them. Since documenta is certainly a spectacle, since it does certainly act within a neoliberal art market, and definitely has deep historical roots in the Cold War era, it is a place of concentrated energy that indicates and sets trends in the field of art. These, however, are not its only traits. Much more can still be learned by working with the history and the archive of a recurring large-scale exhibition like documenta. For this reason, I propose learning from within the thick of the material—not only in order to learn more about the large-scale exhibition and hegemonies within the art field, but also to understand social relations through documents, strategies, practices, and events of past documentas, and to take cues from the historical material to explore what all this means for the present. But how can the archive be activated and made available to the public? Moreover, where are approaches such as these positioned in relation to spectacle and representation, to historicization and agency?
In the Middle: The In-Between Space Within Representation
Let us begin addressing the problem of overcoming representation by looking at an example taken from the history of art education at documenta.
As artists and art educators at documenta 12 (2007), Annette Krauss and Claudia Hummel invite the visitors to place their own bodies in relation to a historical artwork, tracing its entire journey from the gallery back into the main exhibition. On October 7, 1968, artist-activist Graciela Carnevale locked the audience of her opening inside an empty storefront gallery and left. As a member of the Grupo de Arte de Vanguardia de Rosario, Carnevale, along with many other political artists of the time, was interested in forcing the spectators to act. After about an hour of growing tension, the trapped audience members managed to make contact with a passer-by, who threw a cobblestone through the window and freed the people inside. In the now iconic photograph of this event displayed at documenta 12, we see a spectator take her first step from the gallery onto the street. The original action and the documentary photograph bear witness to an artistic praxis that that strives toward an act of leaving the gallery. In this respect, showing this particular piece at documenta 12 in 2007 almost seems ironic, as it can still be read as a sign that activist art—even when it actively seeks to resist being incorporated into the canon and institutions—ends up right back inside the canon and the institution. This leaves artists, curators, and art educators who still refuse to relinquish their claims to critique with the problem that there might not be such a thing as an outside. If by 2007 the belief had been dispelled that one could escape representation or the institution by taking political action, as was still the case in Graciela Carnevales's Confinement in 1968, the question that arises is where critical art education—as well as critical research and education as research—can locate and, in Donna Haraway’s sense, “situate” itself. According to Donna Haraway, situated knowledge is never neutral.[iv] It is always already a position in many different senses: it speaks from a specific body, from a specific social situation within power relations, and it takes a position when it speaks. It is in the middle—in-between spaces that emerge between art and reality, representation and presence, theory and practice, and above all between the current state of affairs and the possibility of changing it. Claudia Hummel enters this in-between space with Annette Krauss. As an art educator, she does not give an overview of documenta, but instead becomes involved in it with her body.
If we can no longer presume that researchers can assume an external position from which to voice critique or undertake action, then strategies learned from artistic, art education, and curatorial practices become all the more relevant for research. These strategies perform their actions in the middle: in the middle of conditions, of materials—and in documenta’s case—in the middle of Kassel, and in the middle of the world. If getting an overview of the subject matter is no longer the main concern of research, it might be an option to become intimate with it. In recent years, “middling” has become a relevant method for praxis-based research. In many seminars and lectures over the past two years, for instance, theorist Irit Rogoff has explored the question of the “how” of doing research. In a seminar entitled “The Way We Work Now,” she stresses that it is important for her to “start in the middle.”[v] Researcher Katve-Kaisa Kontturi likewise speaks of “middling” and “following” as methods of research.[vi] From the vantage point of transgressing disciplinary boundaries or from the idea of undisciplined knowledge production, research is seen as a relation within relations, concerned with pursuing questions rather than answering them, and with learning in the middle rather than establishing an imaginary overview. Curator and performance theorist Bettina Knaup describes this process as becoming “intimate” with her subject. All of these approaches put the researcher in a position where she can change and thus learn something that had previously been unknowable.
What Does Post-Representational Mean Here?
And what remains after the event? The documenta archive collects materials: traces and remainders of each documenta. Asking questions about the history from within the midst of these materials enables an engagement with what went on in the past and what it means for the present. Thus—between (temporal) event and (durable) institution—a post-representational in-between space can emerge, pointing beyond representation. What does post-representational mean? Both in terms of Darstellung (representation as depiction) and Stellvertretung (as standing in for), representation has been subjected to substantial critique within the art field (for instance, by the manifold waves of institutional critique) and within theory (for instance, in the context of new museology or feminist, postcolonial, and poststructural political theory). These critiques have engendered countless action-based and de-material strategies within artistic and curatorial practices, at the latest since the 1960s—including Graciela Carnevales's action.
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. Besides merely focusing on the temporary character of the exhibition, it thus becomes increasingly more interesting to consider the permanent character of the institution, or even the durability of the museum. Based on this, can documenta as an event, therefore, be considered as both ephemeral and permanent at the same time? What would this mean for debates on the large-scale exhibition? documenta is undoubtedly an institution. But would it also be possible to consider it as a para-museum?
Ever since Harald Szeemann tried to redefine Bode’s “one-hundred day museum” by calling it a “one-hundred day event" in the run-up to documenta 5 in 1972—only to find himself back inside the exhibition space—the history of documenta has been narrated as a tale of two poles: of institutionalization and event, of aesthetic autonomy and social responsibility, of museum and public space. From my newly acquired post-representational perspective, this no longer seems to be the main discrepancy. Given the neoliberal transformation processes, it appears problematic to resolve the controversy by arguing in favor of one side: of the museum or the event, of representation or presence. 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, but .
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. The para-museum was prefigured most notably by the artists’ museums of the 1970s, to which an entire room was dedicated at documenta 5
The room comprised Claes Oldenburg's Maus Museum (1972), Marcel Broodthaers' Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section Publicité (1972), among other examples. Forty years later, Kader Attia's installation at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, titled The Repair, consisted of repaired faces and objects that had been destroyed by war.[vii]
His material markedly disrupts the familiar ethnographic ways in which objects such as these are presented by complicating binary colonial modes of representation. At documenta 11 (2002), Meshac Gaba exhibited the library from his project Museum of Contemporary African Art.
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 speaking about his Musée d'Art Moderne Département des Aigles at documenta 5, Marcel Broodthaers says, “The fictitious museum tries to steal from the official, the real museum, in order to lend its lie more power and credibility.”[viii] In fact, countless subversive forms of thievery have been known to take place in art museums as well as in art education—the mediating belly of the para-museum—in the twilight and in the shadows of attention, where art educators spend hours upon hours with visitors, custodians, and doorpersons, especially on the weekends when the journalists, curators, and directors are out. In such situations and in-between spaces, surely much is risked, said, taken, and used differently than specified by the institutions. 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. The 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.
With this in mind, a possible perspective for researching documenta could be to look at how, from the very start, the artists, curators, and educators involved with documenta have established a “museum of the future” as a para-institutional position. The question that certainly arises here is which future is imagined in the present of each documenta and what this means with regard to the respective power relations. Furthermore, the materials and the history of documenta may also give rise to other, alternative histories and interventions. I therefore propose reading documenta as a practice situated within the respective conventions of contemporary exhibition-making while simultaneously exceeding these given norms and ascriptions anew with each edition. Although originally conceived as a temporary intervention, meanwhile documenta has aquired a continuity spanning over sixty years by now. And finally, the Fridericianum as the main site of documenta also points to both, a temporary as well as an ongoing engagement with the museum. Like the artists’ para-museums, documenta is and is not a museum. It expands the boundaries of what can be said, shown, and seen. It can be approached as an intervention, as a positioning, as an assembly, as a discourse, and as research. The documenta archive invites explorations without a preconceived idea of the outcome—and to a certain extent it invites us to be on intimate terms with the traditions, historical documents, materials, stories, and memories of the exhibitions. But then another iteration of documenta takes place, reinventing documenta, and shedding a completely new light on its history and its future.
The primary goal of my proposal of looking at the space between the institution and the event is not to gain a better understanding of documenta. Instead, in this post-representational in-between space, I am suggesting thinking with documenta and critically assessing its decisions with regard to the state of the world in which we live. This could be about using the history of documenta to devise questions regarding the present. This can be done by looking at the artworks and interventions of each documenta, at the interventions staged by it, those with which documenta declared solidarity, and those it saw itself challenged by. Critical research that situates documenta in between the institution and the event understands its position as being in the midst of social conditions and working with the history of documenta, to enable—as Catherine David, artistic director of documenta X (1997) put it—people to “gain access to an understanding of the state of the world we live in” in a variety of different ways.[x]
Translated from the German by Erika Doucette
Nora Sternfeld is an educator and curator. She has recently been appointed as the new documenta Professor at the Kassel School of Art and Design. She is currently professor for curating and mediating art at the Aalto University in Helsinki and co-director of /ecm — Master’s Program in Exhibition Theory and Practice at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. She is part of trafo. K, office for art, education and critical knowledge production based in Vienna (w/Ines Garnitschnig, Renate Höllwart, and Elke Smodics), of the Viennese network schnittpunkt. exhibition theory & practice, and of freethought, a platform for research, education, and production based in London (w/Irit Rogoff, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Mao Mollona, and Louis Moreno). In this context, Sternfeld was one of the artistic directors of the Bergen Assembly 2016.
[i] Sarat Maharaj, "Merz-Thinking: Sounding the Documenta Process between Critique and Spectacle," in Minna Henriksson, Sezgin Boynik, eds., Contemporary Art and Nationalism. Critical Reader, Pristina Institute for Contemporary Art “Exit” and MM-Publications – Center for Humanistic Studies “Gani Bobi,” Pristina, 2007.
[ii] It is important that I begin with this demand, as cutting through this practice of repeatedly enacting the same debate is not an end in itself.
[iii] Sarat Maharaj, "Merz-Thinking: Sounding the Documenta Process between Critique and Spectacle."
[iv] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,” Feminist Studies No. 14/3, 1988, pp. 575–599.
[v] Irit Rogoff, “Starting in the Middle. NGOs and Emergent Forms for Cultural Institutions,” in Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson, and Dominic Willsdon, eds., Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, New Museum and MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016, discussed at Freethought City Seminar, Bergen Assembly, September 2015, http://bergenassembly.no/event/seminar-4-stefano-harney-and-irit-rogoff/
[vi] Milla Tiainen, Katve-Kaisa Kontturi, Ilona Hongisto, "Framing, Following, Middling: Towards Methodologies of Relational Materialities," Cultural Studies Review No. 21, September 2015, pp. 14—46.
[viii] Marcel Broodthaers interviewed by Johannes Cladders "Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles," in Christian Kravagna, ed., The Museum as Arena: Artists on Institutional Critique, Verlag der Buchhanndlung Walther König, Cologne, 2001.
[ix] Stefano Harney, Fred Moten, The Undercommons, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, 2013.