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by Tanya Abraham and Maayan Sheleff

Reflections on the Workshop “Untitled (Re-curating documenta fifteen)”

The aim of the workshop “Untitled (Re-curating documenta fifteen),” organized by us for OnCurating’s “Commoning Curatorial and Artistic Education,” was to “re-curate” documenta fifteen as an embodied experience, situated in the personal knowledges of the workshop participants. It treated the curatorial choices and texts of ruangrupa and their associates as raw materials, in reflection of their concept of lumbung as a common space to share ideas and (hi)stories. By adding layers of meaning and offering possibilities of interpretation, we were hinting as to how the workshop could commonize the curatorial act further than its own intentions and questioned whether any curatorial narrative is inherently hierarchical.

The workshop participants were asked to choose in advance one of the works presented as part of documenta fifteen. The choices produced an impromptu route, which the workshop participants followed and walked through together. Stopping next to every chosen work, the participants told their personal narration of the work, as an alternative to the curatorial text. The spoken interpretations were recorded and posted online, accumulating into an archive of a collectively guided exhibition tour. You can join the tour here.


Listening, Loosening
Tanya Abraham

When Maayan Sheleff and I started working on the workshop for OnCurating’s summer school, it was an approach that was aimed at providing a setting to see how my curatorial work could proceed in relation to my PhD studies. Both of us worked in tandem to develop the workshop, focusing on the idea of participation and with the aim of offering an embodied experience to participants, albeit one with approaches attuned to our specific curatorial visions. The commonality involved in terms of community participation remained the core of the workshop, each pulling out perspectives pertaining to respective curatorial practices from what would manifest at the end of the workshop. While Maayan’s PhD studies concern the political agency of voices, I considered how these voices could be used to highlight my intent of community participation in my own studies.

My curatorial practice specifically concerns social change in the community. India is a country with a strong history of traditional art and culture intertwined with the social practices of its peoples; to take contemporary art practices to them as a new medium of art and allow it to enmesh with their way of living, I find this a challenging proposition. Not only is contemporary art new to the public, but the divisions in Indian society concerning the arts are based on upper and lower classes. Caste-based[1] demarcations limit the extent to which such artistic practices may be freely embraced, and across hierarchies. Although being based in the city of Kochi, home to the “Kochi-Muziris Biennale”, the biennial does not necessarily dilute the “strangeness” associated with contemporary art practices among locals, at least not yet because of the learning period involved concerning a new art form. In fact, it begs the questions as to what extent such work resonates with the public and becomes meaningful to them. Is it creating a close bond with the locals to enable them to think, ponder, and express themselves? Even shift ways of thinking?

The workshop conducted at Kassel was, for me, a start to this experimentation of how new perspectives can be created. Not only so that audiences could provide their own versions of what an artwork is, but to examine what more might be required to allow my curatorial practice to result in what I am aiming at.

Since gender roles and gender identities make up a significant part of my PhD study, it is imperative that as a citizen of a nation immersed in innumerable religious and cultural differences pieced together through centuries of practices and bound by identity-driven thinking, and as a single mother in an environment influenced by numerous socio-cultural parts of the societal framework that challenge this situation (women without husbands, for one), the aspect of ideology and situatedness is stretched beyond what is visible to the apparent eye. Whilst gender roles and their positioning awaken me to a reality of how the female is positioned (in my country), inextricably tied to an intricate framework created from numerous ideology-based constructs thrust deep into the belly of society’s functioning, the workshop opened the possibility of a democratic approach of loosening them. The core of the workshop discovered an anecdote in the eventual setting, an embodied experience that became the fulcrum upon which new and dynamic possibilities of the curatorial could emerge. The freedom for participants to experience, absorb, and express themselves threw open the possibility of providing a view from “the other side” through their voices, creating an awareness about how the audience experiences things.

In my previous exhibitions, although the voices of the audience were recorded, it was not possible to attain a deep and embodied participation; nor was it possible to lure participants to examine the artworks intently because of, as previously mentioned, the lack of familiarity with contemporary art and the desire to associate with a new art form. The involvement of the public/audience in this co-produced workshop allowed a sense of democracy in the way artworks were looked at, through the idea of community participation, rather than simply asking the audience what they felt or thought about artworks.

My work concerning the curatorial and its capacity for social change found an experiment here, as participants re-examined the artworks: the idea of one-dimensional thinking or a boundary within which dynamic forces operate were set free to include a free flowing encounter of perceptions and expressions. These expressions also concern the start of realizing and becoming aware of one’s own personal encounters (for my work, of patriarchy), and permitting the participants’ own voices to be heard—not only in the outside world, but also to themselves. Although the participants in the workshop were very familiar with contemporary art, it provided a chance to see how such participation can then be molded into involving new public participants in my country. Through this, I hope to address women of all classes and denominations in India; as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states, “Can the subaltern speak?,” where she looks at the way certain classes are treated in India. I extend this to the female, the position of Indian women situated in a patriarchal setting, bound by roles defined by religion, caste, and so on,[2] and how their voices can be heard—to let them speak (up) and let their voices be heard and resonate within their own selves.

As one of the curators of the workshop “Untitled (Re-curating documenta fifteen),” this involved the possibilities of querying and recreating, which then provided the opportunity to bring in the larger narrative of the public. Blurring the lines between the audience and the exhibition experiments with how thinking and understanding exhibitions can provide new discourses of participation: the awareness created about how a single artwork can narrate numerous episodical results is the beginning to understanding that curatorial practices have the authenticity to adopt a wider and a more far-reaching method of interpretations and perceptions. Taking a cue from this, I look at participatory art practices where artists and the audience work together, and the other artworks in my exhibition are then to be constructed in a manner that propels such an experience.

In the context of India, where the patriarchal foothold and the position of women is set in the midst of numerous religious, cultural, and social hierarchies, I hope that a voice of the subaltern is heard and in turn creates a personal/societal awareness leading to societal change.


It’s Not My Party But I’ll Cry If I Want To
Maayan Sheleff

My late grandmother used to tell me that if I don’t remember something, it means that it’s not important enough. I used to get annoyed by this assumption, but I’ve learned to appreciate it with time. When she didn’t remember who I was anymore, I just held her hand and played her favorite music—Vivaldi, the Four Seasons, Spring. I wanted her to enjoy the moment because the moment was all she had.

My own memory is not that sharp. I always regret not writing a detailed diary of impressions while I’m experiencing exhibitions, or meeting people, both in professional and personal contexts, which for me are always entangled. I want to remember people and artworks that I was touched by, remember every detail; what made me angry, what made me happy, what gave me a new understanding, what made me even more confused. At the same time, I’ve learned to understand that what stays with me at the end, what I do remember, even if I remember it wrong, is what has value for me, what I can learn from. And either way, it is all subjective; but that doesn’t make it less true.

When Tanya Abraham and I planned the workshop “Untitled (Re-curating documenta fifteen),” we were attempting to respond to the curatorial concept in a manner that extends it and examines its boundaries. By offering different situated narratives from the point of view of the audience and the artworks that they selected as personal mementos, we stretched the democratic premise and promise of the curatorial concept further; we took the liberties of a delegated and de-centralized authorship that was extended to specific artists and artist collectives and used it for non-invited audiences; this was thus both an act of care and appreciation for the curatorial concept, by resonating it further, as well as a gently conflictual nudge to probe how inclusively participatory the concept actually was. The tour that was created and collectively guided formed a participatory embodied account of the exhibition.[3] As these voices were recorded and uploaded online, people who could not visit the exhibition could listen to them and shape their own interpretation of the works, imagining what they looked like from hearing someone describe them, which could, in turn, open additional layers of interpretations.

Tanya and I developed the workshop in relation to both our curatorial practices and research around forms of participation and collaboration. This reflection upon our experience in two voices is part of the fragmented co-authorship, which, like every collaboration, is full of holes, questions, and fractures in terms of how decisions are being made and what is the place of every voice. For me, the term “collaboration” is always problematic, as it implies that a consensus could be reached without coercing one voice to accept the point of view of another. I prefer participation, which invites deconstruction and allows conflicts to unfold without self- destruction. Thus, the workshop is part of my ongoing attempts to practice an embodied, performative, and at times personal position; looking to connect to others to create a fragmented collectivity, a disruption of normative perceptions of kinship, where the individual voice is present and differentiated amongst others.[4]

As previously mentioned, the workshop put an emphasis on people who came in as audience members, not as invited artists-activists-participants. When we planned it, I couldn’t have predicted how my own experience as an audience member enacted a certain complexity, read through the lens of the participatory intentions and their aftermath. While I’m not able to give concrete examples here, I’d like to foreground my contradictory experiences of the exhibition, which shifted between a generous sense of welcoming and care to a certain inaccessibility within participatory forms and formats.

In that moment with my grandmother, which I suddenly recalled while visiting documenta, we connected through a shared memory of music that we listened to together when I was a child. Perhaps our ears have better abilities than our eyes, in provoking memories, feelings, and with them evoking embodied criticality.[5] There were many speaking subjects and voices that documenta amplified and resonated, some that in other contexts are silenced and marginalized.[6] Many works seemed to have asked about forms of listening or offered sonic solidarities. At the same time, within the exhibition’s radical participatory approach, there were voices that felt excluded from the conversation.[7]

It felt like an invisible line was drawn between the mostly Western audience and the mostly non-Western participating artists, collectives, and the communities they worked with. The line defined two different levels of engagement: on the one hand, a collaboration and sharing of resources with the invited artists, exhibiting numerous multilayered approaches to activist participation of communities in situated contexts, appealing in their inventive use of political imagination and performative documentaries; on the other hand, the participation of the audience, which often remained on the level of spectatorship. While attempts were made to offer more direct participation, they seemed to have been countered by conflicting moments of confusion as to whom the invitation was extended and to what level—meaning how one is meant to participate and in what. This conflictuality, whether intended by the organizers or not, is at once, in my view, the Achilles heel of the exhibition, as well as where its unique power lies.[8]

Perhaps taking control from those who are used to having it and delegating it to others is an essential way of rerouting to something different. The entire concept of lumbung seemed to have been an invitation for documenta to let go of its control,[9] and confusion is inevitably a part of letting go. While I’m still processing these contradictions, I can sense the transformative power of this experience and hope that the conflicts will lead to new meeting points between participation and activism, rather than to a backlash in the form of censorship and limitations of radical, experimental, participatory curatorial endeavors.

As a curator based in Israel, I had my own inner conflict between the curator working with (conflictual) participation, feeling that this exhibition was everything that she had ever dreamed of, to someone who felt like they crashed a party they weren’t invited to. But maybe that was exactly the point? When the curatorial approach is based on friendship, one can’t be friends with everybody.[10] Perhaps the question of how to take part when the meaning falls apart, or when identity takes over meaning, cannot be untangled.

One thing that stayed with me is how I cried at least three times during documenta fifteen. Once because of a song in an artwork. The second time because I felt helpless and sad about the violence conducted by my country in my name, and because of the lack of possibility of speaking about it. The third time was because of the kindness and empathy of one stranger who said that no one should cry because of their identity. But I still did.

Impressions of workshop “Untitled (Re-curating documenta fifteen)”,
part of “Commoning Curatorial and Artistic Education,” CAMP notes on education, documenta fifteen. https://www.curating.org/commoning-curatorial-and-artistic-education


Maayan Sheleff is a PhD candidate at the Curatorial platform, the University of Reading (UK) and ZHdK (CH), exploring the agency of the voice in participatory, performative and political curatorial practices in relation to protest movements of the last decade. Since 2005 she has been working with museums, nonprofit spaces and in the public sphere, both as an institutional curator and as an independent practitioner. Until recently she was the Artistic Advisor of the Art Cube Artists’ Studios, Jerusalem, and the founder and curator of its international residency program, LowRes Jerusalem. In the past she was the curator at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv, and the co-curator of the first Tel Aviv- Jaffa Biennial (ARTLV 2009). Sheleff curated projects at the Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht, the Netherlands, Reading International festival, UK, the Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Madre Museum, Naples, Shift Festival, Basel and Tranzit, Prague, among others. Her publications include (Un)Commoning Voices and (Non)Communcal Bodies, OnCurating academic book series (co- editor with Sarah Spies, 2021), “Fear and Love in Graz”, in Empty Stages, Crowded Flats. Performativity as Curatorial Strategy, Performing Urgency #4, ed. Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza (Berlin: House on Fire, Alexander Verlag and Live Art Development Agency, 2017) and “The Infiltrators - Crossing Borders with Participatory Art”, in Refugees and Cultural Education- Formats and strategies for a new field of practice,
Transcript publishing, Germany (2016). Sheleff teaches at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design, Jerusalem.

Tanya Abraham is a PhD student at the curatorial platform, the University of Zurich(ZHDK) and the University of Reading (UOR). Her thesis concerns contemporary art formats in a culturally traditional society (Kerala, India) and its impact on society through participatory art practices. Since 2012 she has been working as researcher and curator in the field of culture and the arts in Kerala. She has to her credit, two books in the field, and contributes as a writer to the national publications Times of India and Art India. Tanya is also the founder-director of the award winning non-profit organisation The Art Outreach Society (TAOS). Her work associated with it concerns gender roles, art education amongst the less privileged, and social impact in society. TAOS has been recognised for its strong impact on societal change via art education, recently the organisation was granted a mandate by the government of Kerala state to take art education across its 13000 schools via a digital medium. Till recently she was also the creative director and curator of Kashi Art Gallery in Kochi, and is the founder of the Kashi International Art Residency. She has curated a number of exhibitions; In 2016 she curated as collaterals of the Kochi Muziris Biennale two art education projects (exhibitions) titled “Artist the Public Intellectual” and “Landscapes and Silence” , the latter in collaboration with Canadian curator Wayne Baerwaldt In 2018 she curated the collateral exhibitions “Red Crown Green Parrot” and “Of Memories and Might”.Some of her other projects include “Influences of an Ancient Nation”, Kashi International Residency 2015 in association with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and “My Name is Gayatri Gamuz” , 2013, in association with Museuo Fundacion Antonio Perez, Cuenca, Spain in addition to others.
Her current exhibition during the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2022 is titled “A Place at the Table”, a participatory public art project of an embodied experience, concerning Kerala’s public’s relation to contemporary art woven in relation to the position of women in Kerala society.
Tanya lives and works in Kochi, Kerala.



[1] Caste is any of the ranked, hereditary, endogamous social groups, often linked with occupation, that together constitute traditional societies in South Asia, particularly among Hindus in India. T. Madan, "Caste," Encyclopedia Britannica, February 14, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/caste-social-differentiation.

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak uses deconstruction in her work Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) to examine how certain people are positioned and treated based on class. In my curatorial work, this approach is extended to understand the influence of certain ideologies which position women in India. Through the workshop, the aim was to see how participants were likely to respond to an embodied experience, what awareness is created, the possibility of vocalizing their perceptions through them, and examining their own positions in society.

[3] Some of the workshop participants gave other contexts and extended information on the works from their unique knowledges. Others mentioned what they experienced when the works were activated differently on other days, enhancing documenta’s ability to shapeshift and produce multiple viewing experiences; yet others described how the work made them feel, how it connected to their own personal contexts, and what memories it triggered.

While this iteration of the workshop was conducted mostly with artists, curators, and MA and PhD students, impacting the type and breadth of knowledge and input, any other group would have produced a valuable body of knowledge with its own merit. Thus, the workshop proposes itself as a model which could be reproduced by other audiences in other exhibitions.

[4] My soon to be completed PhD, titled Echoing with a Difference—Curating Voices and the Politics of Participation, explores how participatory artistic and curatorial practices in the last decade embody and voice conflicts, in relation to the protest movements that begun after the financial crisis of 2007-8. In it, I tackle the entanglement between the personal and the professional as embodied criticality in both curating and research, by connecting with thinkers that encourage an embodied and at times feminist position with regard to research and curation. Among them are Donna Haraway in “Situated Knowledges,” calling for embodied local accounts that regain agency through collectivity; Irit Rogoff’s  notions of “Smuggling” and “Embodied Criticality” as a state of frustration and heightened awareness with transformative powers (More recently, Rogoff has been developing the terms “the Research Turn” and “Becoming Research” to discuss how research has turned from a contextual activity to a mode of inhabiting the world); Marina Garcés in “To Embody Critique,” calling for intellectuals to get off their balconies in favor of an embodied relation to the world and to others; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Echo,” which explores the empowering potential in echoing others as a form of creating difference; Ulrike Bergermann’s contradictory account of participating in protests of the Occupy movement; and Sruti Bala in “The Gestures of Participation,” who reflexively acknowledges the inherent difficulty in embodied research and subjective accounts of participation.

[5] The contested relations between the voice and the gaze are another focus of my PhD research. I explore the political potential of the human voice as a manifestation of critical participation (Freud, Austin, Dolar, Žižek, Chion, Conor, LaBelle), as well as look at conflictual collectivities manifested with voices and bodies and how they affect the power relations between curator, artist, community, and institution (Nancy, Butler, Moten, Lepecki, Dyson, and others).

[6] This platform is too limited to discuss them, but I would like to mention some of the artists and artist collectives that exhibited impressive works in this context, among them Wakaliwood, Black Quantum Futurism, Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, Komina Film a Rojava, Sada, Cao Minghao & Chen Jianjun, Madeyoulook, FAFSWAG, Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt, Trampoline House, and others.

[7] I’m not only relating to what has been known unofficially as “the scandal” and the events that followed, which I won’t go into here, but to a multi-layered perspective developed from conversations with artists and audiences. I attempt to develop this perspective further in the concluding chapter of my PhD and bring concrete examples. Unfortunately, this platform is too short to allow this kind of detailing, and I’m aware that it’s somewhat unfair to bring in this argument without further explanation. I can only promise that it will be continued in another platform and emphasize that this is my embodied experience of the exhibition and of how it was encountered by others, based on observation, conversation, hearsay, and gossip. Also, I emphasize that I bring this perspective from the utmost respect to the caring, radical, complex, and revolutionary move conducted by the exhibition curators and all their collaborators.

[8] In my PhD, I look closely at the challenges and potentialities of conflictual and antagonistic participation via Grant Kester, Claire Bishop, Oliver Marchart, and others.

[9] An interesting anecdote in that regard is the story told by one of ruangrupa’s members in a conversation with Richard Bell and Taring Padi, which I listened to in the frame of Bell’s “Embassy” project: he mentioned how, when asked if they wanted to give a proposal for curating documenta, ruangrupa, instead of sending in a proposal, asked documenta a question in return: Do you want to do the lumbung thing with us?

[10] ruangrupa spoke in various contexts about how their curatorial methodology is to make friends. One example can be found here in my conversation with farid rakun from ruangrupa for OnCurating: https://www.curating.org/farid-rakun/


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Issue 54

documenta fifteen—Aspects of Commoning in Curatorial and Artistic Practices

by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter

by Unchalee Anantawat, Ariane Sutthavong, Lara van Meeteren, Bart Wissink

by Anna L. Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena and Feifei Zhou

In Conversation with Anastasia Baka, Leilani Lynch, and Anna Wälli

in Conversation with Leilani Lynch and Maria Mumtaz

in Conversation with Sophie Brunner, Marinella-Sofia Gkinko, and Maria Mumtaz

in Conversation with Rosela del Bosque, Olena Iegorova and Veronica Mari

Hajnalka Somogyi, Eszter Lázár, Nikolett Eross, Katalin Székely, Bori Szalai, and Eszter Szakács in Conversation with Anna Konstantinova and Giulia Busetti

in Conversation with Smadar Samson and Giulia Busetti

An Interview with Morten Goll, Trampoline House in Conversation with Nadine Bajek, Thamy Matarozzi, Alejandra Monteverde, and Anna Wälli

In Conversation with Chiara Borgonovo, Rosela del Bosque, Marina Donina, and Lotte Van Ermengem

In Conversation with Marina Donina and Regina Tetens