Class Trip

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on Documenta 13: “The Cairo Seminar”

Left: Curator and CIRCA director Sarah Rifky with curator Daniella Rose King of MASS Alexandria. Right: Documenta 13 communications director Terry Harding with artist Rania Stephan and Documenta 13 artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

JUST OVER THIRTY DAYS have passed since Documenta 13 opened in the central German city of Kassel, where hundreds of artworks are scattered like trinkets in a treasure hunt, replete with maps, clues, riddles, and the inevitable question: “That, over there, is that art?” The exhibition’s potential for playfulness may be undercut by its capacity for exhaustion, but the feedback so far has been uncommonly good. The critics are overwhelmingly positive about the work of artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in part because she seems to be saying so much, so deeply, about the purpose of art in relation to time, violence, and trauma. That is not to say the exhibition is friction-free. Where it appears to be creating the most conflict, however, is far beyond Kassel, in Kabul and Cairo, otherwise known as acts two and three in Christov-Bakargiev’s four-part Documenta drama.

Kassel, Kabul, Cairo, and Banff, Canada, are the four “positions” that correspond to the four “conditions”—“on stage,” “under siege,” “in a state of hope,” and “on retreat”—that Christov-Bakargiev has plotted. Each position contains all of the conditions to a degree, but Kabul certainly played its part (“under siege”) when a Documenta 13–related exhibition opened in the Queen’s Palace on June 20, a day before the Taliban attacked a resort hotel outside the city, reportedly looking for foreigners. Undeterred, some two thousand people are said to be attending the exhibition every day. But a sense of unease has crept into the press coverage and reports back from participants, including murmured opinions about neocolonialism, political correctness, elite privilege, the development agenda, and curatorial indifference to political realities on the ground. In Cairo, where a Documenta 13–sponsored seminar did not, in fact, transpire, many of the same issues were more volubly addressed, albeit, as it were, in secret.

Left: Curator Jens Maier-Rothe. Right: Writer and curator Nida Ghouse, Silvia Sgualdini of the Lisson Gallery, art historian Angela Harutyunyan, and artist Malak Helmy.

Here’s the deal: “The Cairo Seminar” took place from July 1 through July 8, and for most of last week, the sixty-odd people involved—students, speakers, and invited guests (all but two of the twenty sessions were closed to the public)—were actually in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and more specifically in Miami, a popular neighborhood on the eastern end of Alexandria’s seaside urban sprawl. Then, on Saturday, everyone went to Beirut, which, in the world of Documenta 13, is not the capital of Lebanon but an as-yet-unopened art space in Cairo run by the curators Sarah Rifky and Jens Maier-Rothe. Confusing? Yes, but also unconvincing as a conceptual gesture of enacting displacement or embodying dislocation, and moreover, way too cute.

Rifky, a curator at the Townhouse Gallery who recently established CIRCA, the Cairo International Resource for Contemporary Art, was one of the eighteen “agents” of Documenta 13, and “The Cairo Seminar” was her project. Just as the exhibition in Kabul followed two years of workshops, the seminar followed a trip that brought ten students from MASS Alexandria, an independent study program and studio space that artist Wael Shawky opened two years ago, to Kassel to help install the exhibition.

The seminar was Documenta’s revenge, or fear and loathing in Miami, or an exercise in art tourism at its finest—to the lighthouse, to the library, to the catacombs. A raucous group of participants—including the artists Julie Mehretu, Rania Stephan, Shuruq Harb, and the Otolith Group’s Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun; the philosopher Alexei Penzin of Chto Delat?; and the psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik—came crashing into town as if from outer space, and they were loud, demanding, articulate, inquisitive (some of them), and argumentative (all). The luminaries of the Cairene and Alexandrian art scenes turned up by car, train, taxi, and tram. Shawky, Hassan Khan, and Anna Boghiguian—all of whom have work in Kassel—were there, as were artists Shahira Issa, Malak Helmy, and Rana Hamadeh; art historians Clare Davies and Angela Harutyunyan; and curators Bassam El Baroni, Mia Jankowicz, and Nida Ghouse, among others.

Left: Writer and filmmaker Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group. Right: Curator and ACAF director Bassam El Baroni with artist Hassan Khan.

Poised as it was on the edge of a festering political crisis, and occurring in the strange lull between the inauguration, on June 30, of Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president (Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood) and his failure, on July 8, to face down the military and convene parliament, the seminar also rubbed up against what Baroni called “the never-ending season of the Arab spring” and writer Yasmine El Rashidi termed Egypt’s eighteen-month-long “national nervous breakdown.” No doubt when the agents of Documenta first hatched the idea, after eighteen days of demonstrations that toppled a dictator, Egypt must have looked like a great place for “hope.” But then the revolution crumbled, and the cogs in Kassel put “sleeping” and “dreaming” where “hope” had been.

“Originally there was the thought of the Arab spring,” said Christov-Bakargiev. “Today there is a sense of uncertainty. We should just stay and hover in this uncertainty. ‘The Cairo Seminar’ makes Kassel a little more bearable, because there is something absolutely obscene about Kassel at this particular moment. Without Kabul and Cairo, Kassel is obscene.”

What does that mean? Was the seminar interested in the Egyptian predicament or not? If not, then what was Documenta doing there? Why does such a strictly sited contemporary art event happening every five years need international outreach and a de facto foreign affairs bureau anyway? And who was the seminar really for, the students of MASS Alexandria or Team Documenta on holiday?

On paper, the seminar looked beautiful. Every element had musical connotations: “key notes,” “accompaniments,” “instruments,” “nocturnes,” a “chorus.” Each day was tagged with a short poetic text: “on the first or second night,” “they appeared in a dream,” “they appeared trapped in an image, or history.” But in practice, the seminar quickly came unhinged, exposing huge gaps between ambition and ability, between gesture and genuine interest, and between subjects and sites.

Left: Artist and MASS Alexandria director Wael Shawky with MASS Alexandria student Eman Hamdy. Right: Curator and Documenta 13 head of department Chus Martínez with curator and Documenta 13 agent Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy.

On Tuesday, Harutyunyan gave a fine talk about an elevator in Los Angeles, towns in Turkey and Armenia, and the work of the artist Kasper Kovitz (whose video about ice fishing was a bit cruel in extreme heat). But it made no sense for her to do so in the Cavafy House. She’d never been there before and had no knowledge, interest, or connection to the melancholy Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who immortalized Alexandria in the 1930s better than E. M. Forster did in the 1920s or Lawrence Durrell in the 1940s. Boghiguian sat quietly through the lecture, having devoted years of her practice to drawing scenes from Cavafy’s life.

On Wednesday, Clare Davies led the MASS Alexandria students in a performative reading, for which she had dug up the raw material of a remarkable newspaper debate that erupted in the summer of 1939, when the first manifesto attributed to the Egyptian surrealists, in defense of art deemed degenerate in Europe, caught the public’s attention. The links back to Documenta’s founding moment were completely missed. And too little was made of the location—the Mahmoud Said Museum, which, like so many other museums across Egypt, is now closed. We sat on the floor of a gallery, in the dark, with no electricity, leaning our heads shamelessly against forgotten paintings, as the students recited a seventy-year-old argument (academia versus the avant-garde), which the seminar nearly repeated, falling into some of the same binary traps.

“I don’t want an audience,” Rifky decreed on Wednesday morning. “It’s a producing moment.” But an audience she had, and a captive one at that. We watched as the schedule unraveled, as talks and meals and activities were canceled without explanation, as we visited art spaces with six-month-old exhibition announcements and no work, as Team Documenta huddled and seemed concerned. We watched Rifky drifting around the Goethe-Institut barefoot in a black frock one minute, staggering in absurdly high heels the next. We watched the foreign contingent coil tighter and tighter around the MASS Alexandria students, asking them what had changed since the revolution, and what they wanted from life. We watched the conversation fray with words like “opportunism” and “exploitation.” Then we listened.

Left: Writer Yasmine El Rashidi. Right: Artist Anna Boghiguian with artist Anjalika Sagar of the Otolith Group.

“The Egyptian surrealists were a movement dedicated to revolution in the psychic sense. They remapped the world according to their fantasies and desires. We who came to Cairo also have our fantasies and desires about Egypt. In the past five or six days we’ve found it difficult to correct them. But if the surrealists taught us anything, it’s not to correct your desires and fantasies but to share them.” Kodwo Eshun saved the day.

On Friday, Christov-Bakargiev and chief agent Chus Martínez shifted into literary mood. Reserved until then, Martínez mustered real enthusiasm for the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Christov-Bakargiev evoked Baudelaire and Mallarmé (but none of the Alexandrian writers, not even Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s most appropriate of novels, No One Sleeps in Alexandria, set at the start of World War II) and ran everyone through the Adorno test. To Malak Helmy: “Adorno would find your talk naive.” To Bassam El Baroni: “If Adorno worked on the German constitution, why can’t you work on a new constitution here? You could do it within a year, I’m sure of it,” a comment that seemed not only cavalier but also ignorant of the realities of Egypt’s deep state. “That’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Harutyunyan. “We’ve all gone mad,” said Rashidi. Perhaps Documenta 13 should have sent in the sanatorium, not the seminar. Or perhaps the projects abroad point to something suspect at the core.

Left: Mia Jankowicz, artistic director of the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo. Right: Philosopher Alexei Penzin of the artist group Chto Delat?.

Left: Artist Julie Mehretu. Right: Artists Shuruq Harb and Rania Stephan.

Left: Critic and art historian Clare Davies. Right: Artist Malak Helmy.

Left: Writer and Documenta 13 agent Adam Kleinman. Right: Curator and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik.