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Documenta 14 artists and curatorial team prepare to perform Jani Christou’s Epicycle, 1968, at the opening of Documenta 14 in Athens on April 6, 2017. Photo: Mathias Völzke.

Documenta 14 Artists Pen Second Open Letter Defending Exhibition

After writing a letter in September in defense of the curatorial vision of Documenta 14, the artists who participated in the quinquennial exhibition are voicing their support of the event’s expansion to Athens once again.

In response to the controversy ignited by the exhibition’s overspending and the criticism of CEO Annette Kulenkampff and artistic director Adam Szymczyk, seventy-four artists have signed a second open letter defending the artistic autonomy of the exhibition. They also denounce its stakeholders for trying to assign blame, questioning the curatorial concept of Documenta 14, and mishandling the release of its audit report.

The letter calls the “scandal” surrounding the exhibition a ploy to take more political control. “Documenta should not turn away from its own trajectory and return to a conservative triumphalist European model of a contemporary art exhibition,” the letter reads. “On the contrary, it must stay free from political interference in order to be able to add important voices to contemporary discourses and fulfill its mission of materializing artistic freedom.”

The full letter is as follows:

We the undersigned artists, writers, musicians, and researchers who participated in various chapters of documenta 14—the exhibition in two cities under the (working) title Learning from Athens, the Parliament of Bodies, South as a State of Mind, Daybook, Reader, aneducation, Listening Space, Keimena, Studio 14, and Every Time A Ear di Soun—wish to defend the artistic autonomy of documenta 14 against the current focus in media on financial profit and political gain. In light of the recent “scandal” regarding documenta 14’s deficit, the lack of transparency in the process of the discussion of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ audit, the unilateral decisions taken by the board of documenta gGmbH, and their possible effect on the integrity of the entire documenta project, we who participated in documenta 14 feel the need to speak up, following our earlier open letter of September 2017.

While we reject focusing on profit as the only relevant result from art exhibitions, it is also useful at the outset to examine which sets of data are not publicly communicated, including the value that this documenta edition has brought to the lives of people in both countries, Germany and Greece. While the media described documenta 14’s “bankruptcy already in sight,” an independent report by the University of Kassel concluded in November 2017 that documenta’s visitors spent approximately 130 million euros in the city of Kassel in the 100 days of the exhibition, while tourism grew by eight percent in comparison to documenta 13. Therefore, while the economy of the “documenta-Stadt” is gaining more than a hundred million euros, Kassel’s actual contribution is far less, and yet it is documenta that is called “deficient.“ The media and the board of documenta did not include these factors and their long-term impact on the social life of the city and region in their calculations of “profit and loss” of documenta gGmbH.

Recent public statements that blame Athens as “responsible” for the deficit in the documenta 14 budget refuse to acknowledge that this project was conceived and authorized from the outset as an exhibition to be shared on equal footing across two cities: Athens and Kassel. In this bi-located documenta 14, the curatorial challenge was in part to decenter Germany and reveal the structural and economic realities, inequalities, and conflicts of today’s Europe. Without documenta 14 in Athens, there would have been no documenta 14 in Kassel: the two were bound as one.

The analysis offered by journalists after the deficit became public suggests that the desire to quickly find the sole responsible “culprits” (documenta CEO Annette Kulenkampff and Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk), rather than seeing it as a result of a structural weakness built into the process with approval of the board, has meant that “city and state have allowed the reputation of documenta to be seriously damaged.” The “main culprits were quickly identified with Adam Szymczyk and Annette Kulenkampff. Maybe too fast?” What was at stake was “the political dismantling of a public cultural institution.” In fact, as early as March 2017, documenta 14 CEO Kulenkampff publicly called for a stable, reliable financial basis for documenta and warned that the financial structure was “not sustainable in the long term.” She went on the record with the German Press Agency calling documenta “underfunded,” and pointed out the dangers of relying on documenta’s own uncertain future incomes to finance the exhibition’s costs. This statement was reflected by analysts, who mentioned documenta 14’s “underfunded office” and “a venue full of imponderables, for which no figures based on previous experience were available: Athens.”

Yet, following Kulenkampff’s early warning, the Deputy Head of the Supervisory Board of documenta Boris Rhein publicly admonished Kulenkampff, calling her cautionary statement and analysis of the financial structures of documenta “inadequate,” and stating that the state of Hessen had “sufficiently reacted to the cost increase in their funding.” By silencing Kulenkampff and not allowing her to speak to the press after documenta’s possible deficit became public, a financial “scandal” was created which obscured the artistic and political vision of “Learning from Athens.” When Kulenkampff finally defied the ban and spoke out, it was clear that the media’s singular focus on profit had eradicated the vision for a decentered documenta (which we spoke of in our September letter). Instead of a discussion about the political impact of the key curatorial decision to decenter documenta 14 and share it between Athens and Kassel, the discussion became about how starting the exhibition in Athens was a financial “mistake.”

The shareholders in the board of documenta gGmbH represent the state of Hessen and the city of Kassel. They are mayor Christian Geselle (Vorsitzender, SPD); minister of state Boris Rhein (deputy chairperson, CDU); minister of state Eva Kühne-Hörmann, CDU; councilman Dr. Rabani Alekuzei, SPD; councilman Marcus Leitschuh, CDU; member of the state parliament Karin Müller, GRÜNE; councilman Axel Selbert, LINKE; councilman Gernot Rönz, GRÜNE; councilman Axel Wintermeyer, CDU; and state secretary Dr. Martin J. Worms, independent. According to public statements, the representatives participated in numerous board meetings since Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk’s appointment in 2013. The shareholders did not voice concerns in this period regarding the plans and steps necessary to realize the first documenta to be held on equal footing in two countries. No planned motion introduced by the CEO to the board to reach this objective was rejected at any point of the process.

Since August 2017, once “success” as measured in financial terms only was in question, the project faced a brutal public scapegoating in the media, led by the selective reporting and omissions of Kassel’s newspaper HNA. Meanwhile a public prosecutor is deliberating whether to pursue charges brought by the Kassel branch of the right wing extremist party AfD against the CEO and Artistic Director of documenta 14, and against the former mayor of Kassel. AfD is a far-right party known to vote for cuts in municipal support for projects fostering cultural diversity, who voted against the financial package for documenta 14, and whose members called the Monument for Strangers and Refugees exhibited in Kassel as “entstellte Kunst,” evoking the Nazi term “degenerate art.”

How did confidential information and reports discussed in an extraordinary board meeting in August get leaked preemptively to news media? Why were people who could best respond to questions about the exhibition’s organization excluded from crucial board meetings in which the deficit was discussed? Minister of state Boris Rhein, at the opening press conference of documenta 14 in Kassel on June 7, said that the decision to share documenta 14 between Kassel and Athens “was exactly the right decision.” Yet, after the exhibition ended in Kassel on September 17, he issued a press release stating that “documenta 14 in Kassel (without Athens) is closing with a positive result.” Did the documenta board mean that artistic freedom, and a decentered exhibition, is only “exactly right” so long as it is also profitable? The result of the “deficit” discussion is a dismantling of the artistic autonomy of documenta, in favor of a profitability drive. Bertram Hilgen, the outgoing documenta gGmbH chairman—whose experience with three previous editions of documenta was ignored by his successor Christian Geselle—stated that the board was compromised by events.

As artists in documenta 14, we worked with a curatorial team (led by Adam Szymczyk) and administrative team (led by Annette Kulenkampff) that professionally handled and realized an enormously complex, and financially constrained, project comprising newly commissioned and historical artworks in both cities of the exhibition. Over 1.2 million visitors in two cities experienced countless events and engaged in public programs and debates initiated a full year before the opening in Athens. We endeavored to contribute through our work to a vision of more sustainable relations between countries and peoples (while not exclusively focusing on Germany and Greece), with a stated goal to work with publicly-funded institutions that included art schools and museums in both cities of documenta 14, archives and archaeological sites, and civic society initiatives in the largest possible spectrum. This was an expression of our basic, shared belief in the potential of common artistic action to address the endemic inequalities that bring uncertainty, dispossession, material ruination, and spiritual impoverishment to people’s lives in our era.

With over four hundred artists, thinkers, and others participating in a program running continuously over 163 days (or one hundred days in each city), documenta 14 was a demanding endeavor. The documenta team managed an organization that grew to over one thousand employees in less than three years, with no pre-existing model of how such an endeavor would be organizationally possible, under the circumstances and with the available means that the stakeholders did not examine and sufficiently adjust in a four-year process. The stakeholders pushing the responsibility towards individuals, questioning the core curatorial idea of documenta 14, and declaring Athens guilty of the exhibition’s deficit means a step towards gaining political control over documenta. It serves a future vision of a documenta that takes place only in Germany and is streamlined under strict financial and managerial control that is now presented as the politicians’ ultimate and only goal.

The publicly debated “deficit” of documenta 14 is a handy tool used in an essentially populist attempt to “renew the basis” of documenta gGmbH, by for example transforming it back to a GmbH—from a non-profit limited liability company to a regular limited liability company. The Chair of the Supervisory Board and Mayor of Kassel, Christian Geselle, said in a public speech that he will ensure that documenta 15 will have only Kassel as its main site. However, the legacy that has been built by documenta through its history over six decades is the exact opposite. It assures the freedom to hold positions in a free manner, to highlight injustice and act against it, to remain critical of political and corporate hijacking of culture, to experiment and think against all repressive odds. This legacy is now being erased by the demand to implement a rigid German identification of documenta, against its cultural mission that has evolved to become a globally relevant exhibition. To destroy the global values named above would add to a vision of a community whose citizens, subjected to political exploitation of their economic woes, uncertainty and inner fears, are offered a dangerous nationalist sentiment to soothe their sorrow—“documenta only in Kassel.” Has a decentralized documenta 14 that argued for an end to Eurocentrism been thus rebuked by an active policy of “Germany first”?

As we stated in September, from the 1990s, the exhibition joined a global turn toward decentering the Western art-historical canon, beginning the emancipation of 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 X (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 the 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 comprising both Athens and Kassel.

The world has transformed many times over since 1955. Western Europe is no longer the center, and not only of contemporary exhibition making. It is being challenged to take its place as one among equals, as Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe, and Australia come forward to claim their presence. Contemporary art 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 because of the global focus of documenta and the critical self-awareness maintained through its recent editions, coinciding with emergence of new multipolar world order since 1989.

A Germany-first, Kassel-only, Eurocentric stance goes against the values of documenta 14. Our exhibition, documenta 14, was built up by a vast diversity of artistic practices, and drew on the legacy of the previous four editions of documenta, in which the (global) South confidently asserted a position within contemporary art production, further challenging and changing the key parameters of the discourse in question. Documenta should not turn away from its own trajectory and return to a conservative triumphalist European model of a contemporary art exhibition. On the contrary, it must stay free from political interference in order to be able to add important voices to contemporary discourses and fulfill its mission of materializing artistic freedom.

Signed by the artists of documenta 14 (alphabetical by surname):

Akinbode Akinbiyi
Nevin Aladağ
Daniel G. Andújar
Andreas Angelidakis
Franck Apertet
Michel Auder
Alexandra Bachzetsis
Fabio Balducci
Sokol Beqiri
Ross Birrell
Pavel Braila
Miriam Cahn
Maria M. Campos-Pons
Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Banu Cennetoğlu
Panos Charalambous
Marie Cool
Anna Daučíková
Moyra Davey
Yael Davids
Maria Eichhorn
Hans Eijkelboom
Bonita Ely
Theo Eshetu
Regina José Galindo
Pélagie Gbaguidi
Sanchayan Ghosh
Yervant Gianikian
Gauri Gill
Douglas Gordon
Johan Grimonprez
Hans Haacke
David Harding
Edi Hila
Susan Hiller
Ralf Homann
Amelia Jones
Hiwa K
Amar Kanwar
Andreas R. Kassapis
Bouchra Khalili
Daniel Knorr
Pope.L
Katalin Ladik
Angela Ricci Lucchi
Narimane Mari
Marianna Maruyama
Ed McKeon
Jonas Mekas
Angela Melitopoulos
Sandro Mezzadra
Marta Minujín
Naeem Mohaiemen
Rosalind Nashashibi
Brett Neilson
Emeka Ogboh
Aki Onda
Neni Panourgia
Verena Paravel
Dan Peterman
Angelo Plessas
Nathan Pohio
Tracey Rose
Roee Rosen
Ben Russell
Ashley Hans Scheirl
David Schutter
Nilima Sheikh
Ahlam Shibli
Mounira Al Solh
Annie Sprinkle
Beth Stephens
Vivian Suter
Ariuntugs Tserenpil
Jakob Ullmann
Antonio Vega
Cecilia Vicuna
Annie Vigier
Lala Meredith Vula
Lois Weinberger
Elisabeth Wild
Sergio Zevallos
Artur Żmijewski

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