Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Directing Failure

In the 1990s and 2000s some questioned whether curators were encroaching upon the primacy of the artist. With Documenta 11, Artistic Director Okwui Enwezor proved what an undeniably creative director – one who was not afraid to use artists to prove global theses he had obviously thought a lot about – could do.

Enwezor is credited with rethinking the international scope of the contemporary art exhibition format. In hindsight, it is clear how much Catherine David refashioned Documenta 10 as a temporary global hub.

Besides bridging geographic regions, the question of consolidating power is extra relevant to Documenta because it entails instant entry into the historical registry of the exhibition. Intense scrutiny follows each strategic choice from day one, as artist lists and artistic themes are unveiled. The money behind it is secondary to the fact that inclusion in Documenta has been a canonical seal of approval for the many who have been part of it since the early 1970s, whether the artwork comes from an established or emerging artist.

The weight of granting this affirmation in a public forum ensures that curating Documenta is not art, but the art of compromise. Politicians could easily relate, no doubt.

The burden of institutional memory, coupled with managing the unintended consequences of executive privilege, was obvious when Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev gave her press conference on June 6 in Kassel’s Kongress Palais Stadthalle. Her lecture began by sharing bad news in order to get it out of the way. The Director acknowledged that a plan to ship a meteorite to Germany from Argentina by artistic duo Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg had been abandoned after it agitated local indigenous groups and sparked the ire of anthropologists. Christov-Bakargiev also explained that the plan was not nearly as insensitive as it sounded and that Documenta was a testing ground for bold proposals.

As seen on the plane

Though it was quite clear moving the sacred space rock was probably a terrible idea from the start, one could empathize with the fact that any proposal made from a platform as powerful as Documenta, especially ones that work outside the comfort of western knowledge and continental consensus, almost guarantees failure and, worse, accusations of insensitive (read colonial) appropriation. What we could call geographical condescension is by now inevitable in a list of directorial failures. How the director handles failure is the actual skill in question it seems.

Adding to the problem of unavoidable eurocentrism is a tendency by curators to compensate by dabbling in more fields of knowledge than one could possibly specialize in. Besides imperialism, the accusation of dilettantism is also inevitable. For d13, Christov-Bakargiev took eclecticism to what seemed like a pleasurable extreme. Starting from the problematic meteor that never moved, she used her press conference to speed through a list of research interests that a legion of “interdisciplinary scholars” couldn’t possibly cope with in ten years’ time (often skipping over several pages at a time for dramatic effect), let alone 150 visual artists in as many days. Overextension is the wrong word when genetically modified organisms are (sort of) categorized as art objects, the digital is categorized as nearly extraterrestrial, binary code is considered the destruction of the symbolic, future-knowledge is categorized as an art history already haunting us, a theory of dog-love is categorized as a cure for anthropocentrism, exhibiting is categorized as a “choreography of displacedness” and the cognitive misdeed of “epistemological closure” parades as a new way of unsettling artistic methodology—as though Foucault was a name seldom heard in art schools.

No doubt this buckshot of “mental suspension” aims for a mystical prey that academics dare not hunt. While keeping up with the barrage of proposals became less and less likely, I sensed both the majesty of what Christov-Bakargiev was after and the fact that it could never be caught.

Still, the passion of the chase and that it is still rooted in intellectual curiosity makes Documenta and biennials like it different from the extravagances of the market system and its rote appropriations of contemporary artists in exhibitions thinly veiled as art supermarkets a very small fraction of the so-called 1% could afford and the speculative re- de-appropriations that gallery-led art fairs have become.

The measured willingness to go over-the-top adds intrigue to the inherent politics of Documenta while distracting from the burden of history-making that bears down upon the Artistic Director and which makes him or her an easy target for our grievances with art world savagery.

As with all political appointees, we judge the decision-maker by what they do, not by what they say they will do.