Open Letter from documenta 14 artists:
On the emancipatory possibility of decentered exhibitions

documenta 14 Artists, Athens & Kassel
September 19, 2017

documenta 14 artists and curatorial team prepare to perform Jani Christou’s Epicycle (1968), at Athens opening of documenta 14, Megaron, 6 April, 2017. Image: Mathias Völzke

We the undersigned artists, writers, musicians, and researchers who participated in various chapters of the current documenta 14– Exhibition, Parliament of Bodies, South as a State of Mind, Listening Space, Keimena, Studio 14, An Education, EMST collection, and Every Time A Ear di Soun– wish to share some thoughts about the possibilities and potential of documenta. Firstly, we acknowledge those participants in documenta 14 whom we have not been able to reach at the time of writing, those with whom we could not get to consensus, those participants no longer living, and especially those who passed away while participating in documenta 14. We write this in the context of the invitation of “Learning from Athens,” and the idea of first unlearning the familiar. We also take note of documenta’s specific history as a response to the evil of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We see that initial, painful legacy evolving toward an imaginative and discursive space that can contribute toward challenging war capitalism, unjust borders, and ecological suicide.

The initial iterations of documenta rose in the shadow of rebuilding, after a World War that caused Adorno to disavow a future for poetry. From the 1990s, the exhibition joined a global turn toward decentering the Western art-historical canon, by beginning to emancipate institutions, venues, and universities. There was a welcome, and overdue, acceleration of the presence of artists, theorists, and thinkers from the Global South, starting from documenta 10 (Catherine David), continuing through documenta 11 (Okwui Enwezor), documenta 12 (Roger Buergel / Ruth Noack), and dOCUMENTA 13 (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev). documenta also began a spatial decentering, initiated by documenta 11 with platforms in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos. This was followed by documenta 12 magazine, a network of 100 magazines world-wide, and documenta 13, with satellite projects in Kabul, Alexandria, and Banff. It is in line with documenta’s long heritage of decentering, and decolonizing, that we welcomed the decision to launch documenta 14 as a dialogue between Athens and Kassel.

documenta 14’s Athens chapter began a full two years before the official opening, with the launch of the South as a State of Mind journal in 2015, the weekly public program Parliament of Bodies in 2016, and finally, the opening of documenta 14 | Athens in April 2017, two months before Kassel. documenta 14’s curatorial team worked to encourage autonomous spaces, free of authoritative statements or frameworks. However, criticism appeared immediately, focusing on budget and infrastructure, with far less attention paid to the artworks, journal, radio, public TV, live music, education, and public programs. A few critics did raise some points that were also being debated among the artists and curators. One of those centered on  the challenges of working with local communities in an environment of equality and partnership, while working within large exhibition infrastructures. Another question was whether large exhibitions are the best venue for breaking down discursive hegemonies. documenta 14 had a shared commitment to preserving the autonomy of local spaces and communities, and conducting conversations around culture within a dynamic of mutual exchange, respect, and curiosity.

​​Recently, criticisms of documenta 14 have been expanded to suggest that a deficit in the operating budget is primarily due to the Athenian chapter of documenta. ​​We are concerned about this urge to put ticket sales above art, and we believe that Arnold Bode would have rejected this as distorting the purpose for which he gifted documenta to Kassel. We applaud the decision by documenta 14 to not charge ticket prices in Athens​. We should ​also ​consider ​the responsibility to address the ​economic war fought by European institutions against the Greek population, during the recent debt ​crisis. ​We feel that casting a false shadow of criticism and scandal over documenta 14 does a disservice to the work that the artistic director and his team have put into this exhibition. Shaming through debt is an ancient financial warfare technique​; these terms of assessment have nothing to do with what the curators have made possible, and what the artists have actually done within this exhibition.

What should be highlighted are the positive impacts of exchanges within documenta, including the decentering that occurred through the exhibition. This has caused a creative friction that is an active dialogue between citizens, communities, and institutions of Athens, Kassel, and the rest of the world. This is only a first step, and conversation must continue in coming years. In fact, more such moves of dislocation from comfort zones, and inclusion of multiplicity of voices, many standing outside of western hegemony, should be the future. What we do not need is a neoliberal logic, as well as its institutional critique, that does not allow the possibility of alternative methods, stories, and experiences.

One aspect that makes documenta remarkable is its support of large numbers of artists who are not represented by commercial galleries, and in fact work in non-material, ephemeral, and social practices. Many come from regions and countries still underrepresented in major art events. Naturally, many of the works produced here very consciously suggested proposals for equality and solidarity. We understood this exhibition to be a listening documenta. The curatorial team took care to listen closely and carefully to artists, rather than imposing a top-down curatorial will. The exhibition tried to be inclusive, as well as specific, emphasizing people and stories from the so-called periphery, and voices belonging to those who have faced, and overcome, hardship. Whether in crisis or inflection point, enquiry was encouraged, challenging the more frequent move of wanting to own other peoples’ understanding. The curatorial innovation was to create the space for such an encounter, in Athens and Kassel.

There are many interventions, by the artistic director and curatorial team, which brought together new configurations and dialogue between generations of artists, much of which is invisible to the critics. Also crucial has been the displaying of rare historic material, some of it centuries old and from all parts of the world, some of which has never been displayed in a museum. By commissioning new work in dialogue with centuries-old heritage, new alliances were created across territories and times. The juxtaposition of stories from all over the globe can be disorienting, but that is precisely the point of the structure of this exhibition. Large gestures have to be measured alongside hundreds of small ones to make a complex whole, all going towards globalizing the art historical canon. The challenge for all of us– artists, critics, and audiences– has been to experience that complexity, while subjected to practical economic constraints. We need to think of more economically egalitarian ways of viewing a large exhibition, while resisting the dominant narrative that is singularity (“the Athens model”) over complexity (what actually happened in Athens and Kassel).

documenta was founded as a brave response to a dark history. The 1933 Nazi regime received support from Nuremberg and Kassel, because of the presence of the arms industries. On February 11, 1933, eleven days after taking power, Hitler spoke at the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. On November 7, 1938, two days before Kristallnacht in other German cities began, Kassel and surrounding villages saw anti-Jewish pogroms. In archival footage of trains carrying people to concentration camps, the insignia “Deutsche Reichsbahn Kassel” is visible on some carriages. After 1945, in order to erase this Nazi legacy, Nuremberg hosted war crimes trials, and, ten years later, Kassel hosted the first documenta. Kassel’s central Friedrichsplatz was bifurcated, so that no spatial trace of the 1933 rally remains. In light of this unique founding history, documenta’s unique mission has always been, and must continue to be, encouraging conversations in the contemporary arts that can oppose the spectres of nationalism, neo-nazism, and fascism that are still haunting the planet.

The world has transformed many times over since 1955. Western Europe is no longer the center of contemporary exhibition making. It is being challenged to take its place as one among equals, as Asia, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe come forward to claim their presence. The current documenta continues the arc of the previous four documentas, by highlighting the edges of Europe, the voices of Global South realities, and the presences that press against heteronormativity. Receiving the world, as equals, contrary to anxieties, also contributes to radiance. The contemporary arts no longer looks toward a European exhibition to lead the way in ideas about what art can do, and what it should do. However, Kassel does exercise influence in contemporary art discussions that are emerging from many locations (Bamako, Beirut, Bucharest, Cairo, Dakar, Gwangju, Havana, Istanbul, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Kochi, Ljubljana, Mexico City, Moscow, New Orleans, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Sharjah, Warsaw, Zagreb, and numerous others). We ask the documenta supervisory board to vigorously defend the curatorial team’s vision of documenta 14, and future curatorial teams to continue to make exhibitions that are accessible to all, and that decenter art history, challenge war and nationalism, and fight against the poisoning of the planet.

Contact: documenta 14 artists letter <[email protected]>

Signed,

  1. Aboubakar Fofana
  2. Achim Lengerer
  3. Agnes Denes
  4. Ahlam Shibli
  5. Aki Onda
  6. Akio Suzuki
  7. Akinbode Akinbiyi
  8. Alessandra Pomarico
  9. Alexandra Bachzetsis
  10. Alvin Lucier
  11. Amar Kanwar
  12. Amelia Jones
  13. Anca Daučíková
  14. Andreas Angelidakis
  15. Andreas Kasapis
  16. Andrew Feinstein
  17. Andrius Arutiunian
  18. Angela Dimitrakaki
  19. Angela Melitopoulos
  20. Angelo Plessas
  21. Angela Ricci Lucchi
  22. Anna Papaeti
  23. Anna Sorokovaya
  24. Annie Vigier
  25. Annie Sprinkle
  26. Anthony Burr
  27. Anton Lars
  28. Antonio Negri
  29. Antonio Vega Macotela
  30. Apostolos Georgiou
  31. Arin Rungjang
  32. Artur Zmijewski
  33. Ashley Hans Scheirl
  34. Athena Katsanevaki
  35. Banu Cennetoglu
  36. Beatriz González
  37. Ben Russell
  38. Beth Stephens
  39. Bonita Ely
  40. Boris Baltschun
  41. Boris Buden
  42. Bouchra Khalili
  43. Brett Neilson
  44. Cana Bilir-Meier
  45. Cecilia Vicuna
  46. Chifor Valery
  47. Christina Kubisch
  48. Christos Chondropoulos
  49. Click Ngwere
  50. Colin Dayan
  51. Conrad Steinmann
  52. Constantinos Hadzinikolaou
  53. Dan Peterman
  54. Daniel Garcia Andújar
  55. Daniel Knorr
  56. David Harding
  57. David Lamelas
  58. David Schutter
  59. David Scott
  60. Debbie Valencia
  61. Denise Ferreira da Silva
  62. Dimitris Ginosatis
  63. Dimitris Papanikolaou
  64. Dimitris Parsanoglou
  65. Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat)
  66. Edi Hila
  67. EJ McKeon
  68. Elisabeth Lebovici
  69. Elle Marja Eira
  70. Emanuele Braga
  71. Emeka Ogboh
  72. Emily Jacir
  73. Eric Alliez
  74. Eva Stefani
  75. Evelyn Wangui Gichuhi
  76. Feben Amara
  77. Franck Apertet
  78. Franco “Bifo” Berardi
  79. Ganesh Haloi
  80. Gauri Gill
  81. Geeta Kapur
  82. Gert Platner
  83. Geta Bratescu
  84. Gordon Hookey
  85. Guillermo Galindo
  86. Guillermo Gomez-Pena
  87. Hans D. Christ
  88. Hans Eijkelboom
  89. Hans Haacke
  90. Hiwa K
  91. Ibrahim Mahama
  92. Ibrahim Quraishi
  93. Irena Haiduk
  94. Iris Dressler
  95. Itziar González Virós
  96. Jack Halberstam
  97. Jan St. Werner
  98. Jakob Ullmann
  99. Jess Ballinger-Gómez
  100. Joana Hadjithomas
  101. Joar Nango
  102. Johan Grimonprez
  103. Jonas Broberg
  104. Jonas Mekas
  105. Josef Schreiner
  106. Joulia Strauss
  107. Katalin Ladik
  108. Kettly Noël
  109. Kostis Kornetis
  110. Lala Meredith-Vula
  111. Lassana Igo Diarra
  112. Lenio Kaklea
  113. Lois Weinberger
  114. Lucien Castaing-Taylor
  115. Lukas Rickli (Kukuruz Quartet)
  116. Macarena Gomez-Barris
  117. Magali Arriola
  118. Manthia Diawara
  119. Maret Anne
  120. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons
  121. Maria Eichhorn
  122. Maria Hassabi
  123. Maria Iorio
  124. Marianna Maruyama
  125. Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci
  126. Marina Gioti
  127. Marta Minujin
  128. Mary Zygouri
  129. Mata Aho Collective
  130. Mats Lindström
  131. Mattin
  132. Michel Auder
  133. Mike Crane
  134. Miriam Cahn
  135. Molly McDolan
  136. Mounira Al Solh
  137. Moyra Davey
  138. Naeem Mohaiemen
  139. Nairy Baghramian
  140. Narimane Mari
  141. Nathan Pohio
  142. Neil Leonard
  143. Nelli Kambouri
  144. Neni Panourgiá
  145. Nevin Aladag
  146. Niels Coppens
  147. Nikhil Chopra
  148. Niklas Goldbach
  149. Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat)
  150. Nilima Sheikh
  151. Nomin bold
  152. Olaf Holzapfel
  153. Olga Tsaplya Egorova (Chto Delat)
  154. Omar Belkacemi
  155. Otobong Nkanga
  156. Oxana Timofeeva (Chto Delat)
  157. Panos Alexiadis
  158. Peaches Nisker
  159. Piotr Uklanski
  160. Panos Charalambous
  161. Pavel Braila
  162. Pélagie Gbaguidi
  163. Peter Friedl
  164. Philip Bartels
  165. Philipp Gropper
  166. Pope.L
  167. Prinz Gholam
  168. Prodromos Tsinikoris
  169. Ralf Homann
  170. Raphaël Cuomo
  171. Rasha Salti
  172. Rasheed Araeen
  173. Raven Chacon
  174. Rebecca Belmore
  175. Regina José Galindo
  176. R. H. Quaytman
  177. Rick Lowe
  178. Roee Rosen
  179. Roger Bernat
  180. Rosalind Nashashibi
  181. Ross Birrell
  182. Samia Zennadi
  183. Samnang Khvay
  184. Sanchayan Ghosh
  185. Sandro Mezzadra
  186. Sanja Ivekovic
  187. Sarah Washington
  188. Serdar Kazak
  189. Serge Baghdassarians
  190. Sergio Zevallos
  191. Shu Lea Cheang
  192. Simon(e) Jaikriuma Paetau
  193. Simone Keller
  194. Sokol Beqiri
  195. Stanley Whitney
  196. Stathis Gourgouris
  197. Stratos Bichakis
  198. Suely Rolnik
  199. Susan Hiller
  200. Synnøve Persen
  201. Taras Kovach
  202. Tavia Nyong’o
  203. Thais Guisasola
  204. Tracey Rose
  205. Theo Eshetu
  206. Ulrich Schneider
  207. Ulrich Wüst
  208. Valentin Roma
  209. Vasyl Cherepanyn
  210. Verena Paravel
  211. Vija Celmins
  212. Vijay Prashad
  213. Virginie Despentes
  214. Vivian Suter
  215. Wang Bing
  216. What How and for Whom (WHW)
  217. Yael Davids
  218. Yervant Gianikian
  219. Zafos Xagoraris
  220. Zoe Mavroudi
  221. Zonayed Saki
documenta 14 Artists

documenta 14 Artists

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