Theme Party


Left: Documenta 12 artistic director Roger M. Buergel with Documenta 12 magazine editor in chief Georg Schöllhammer. Right: Documenta 12 magazine's Cosmin Costinas and Afterall's Pablo Lafuente. (All photos: Armin Bardel, © documenta GmbH)

“So where is it?” whispered Frieze’s Dominic Eichler, slipping into one of the chairs set up in the main exhibition hall of Vienna’s Secession. Like me and numerous other critics and journalists, Eichler had come to attend the Monday-afternoon press conference launching the first issue of the Documenta 12 magazine, titled “Modernity?” Before I could answer, Die Tageszeitung’s Brigitte Werneburg confronted the panel, headed by D12 artistic director Roger M. Buergel and the magazine’s editor in chief, Georg Schöllhammer: “How can we ask anything if we don’t have the magazine yet?”

The D12 team’s decision to hand out the publication after the press conference was part of a larger strategy to transform the once-every-five-year mega-exhibition into a “medium”: namely, from a show curated around a predetermined theme into an active (and interactive) process. For the press conference, “we didn’t want a speech, nor texts about aesthetic experience,” said Buergel. “We want to get people not just to stand there but to produce.” In other words, Buergel wasn’t about to volunteer a curatorial tract, let alone a prosaic artist list.

When I finally got my hands on the goods, it quickly became apparent that this is a wide-ranging yet intimate read, which runs from Buergel’s reflections on the origins of Documenta to the Beirut artist Tony Chakar’s epistolary essay penned shortly after Israeli bombs pummeled the city, “To the Ends of the Earth.” The eighteen other contributions, including materials from the late Lee Lozano and Mira Schendel, were selected by Schöllhammer from over three hundred texts, almost all created after he invited ninety-one publications from around the world to respond to three questions: “Is modernity our antiquity?” “What is bare life?” “What is to be done?” (Artforum and Frieze, while being “the most relevant information media in the international art world . . . represent other formats than those magazines included in the project.”)

Vienna Secession's Melanie Ohnemus and curator Helmut Draxler. Right: archplus's Martin Luce (left) and Anh-Linh Ngo (right).

Schöllhammer’s choices from the larger pool of submissions (the next two issues, “Life!” and “Education,” will appear in April and May, respectively) is not a definitive selection, but rather a guide for future DIY editors: This summer in Kassel, visitors will be able to edit their very own version of the magazine inside the Documenta Halle, which the organizers hope will include a print-on-demand service. Those unable to make the trip can download articles from a website in the works. But the miles are worth clocking, since the editors of the participating periodicals—from Ghent’s A Prior to Zehar, based in Donostia-San Sebastián—have been invited to transform the Halle into an editorial office of sorts and produce on-site commentary.

What a plan: Instead of preparing a stodgy brick of a catalogue, D12 has managed not only to garner international pre-event press coverage but also to sensitize editors, writers, and readers to the questions that the exhibition will try to address. The curators have effectively combined Okwui Enwezor’s moving “platforms” of conferences with a virtual network that will continue to produce texts up to, during, and even after the show.

Kassel’s provincialism is its greatest asset, forcing curators to bridge the local and the international in a way that organizers in a city like Berlin would never imagine necessary, and the D12 team insists that the magazine has been a two-way learning process. “The project took us to regions where we had not planned to go,” said Buergel. “Modernity means different things in France, Spain, and Lebanon.” “In China, they say, ‘We never had a modernity, and we never will,’” added his partner Ruth Noack. “Although Käthe Kollwitz has been influential in Chinese printmaking.” “These dialogues are the working process,” continued Buergel. “These correspondences are the form of the exhibition.”

I caught up with other participants at a party held later that evening, and heard repeatedly that D12’s questions prompted a dialogue between local and global perspectives. “It was better to think about our history from our own perspective than to make a general statement about modernity,” said Heie Treier from Tallinn’s Editors had the chance to meet one another via “regional and transregional” meetings, which, so far, have taken place in Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Săo Paulo, Cairo, New Delhi, Singapore, Beirut, and Bratislava. Next stop: New York (later this month). Budapest-based curator Lívia Páldi, speaking about exindex’s participation, summed up the attendees' effusiveness: “It really energized the scene. We were forced to look at ourselves from an outside perspective.”

Left: Remont's Sasa Janjic. Right: exindex's Balázs Beöthy, Řjeblikket's Karin Hindsbo, and's Heie Treier.

Left: archplus's Nikolaus Kuhnert with Brumaria's Irene Montero. Right: Musician Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

Jennifer Allen