PRINT September 2007

Claire Bishop

ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CURATORIAL moves in recent history was Okwui Enwezor’s “deterritorialization” of Documenta 11 via four intercontinental “platforms,” or conferences—held in Vienna, New Delhi, Lagos, and St. Lucia—that effectively unmoored the exhibition from its geographic base in central Germany. Arguably, Documenta 12 aspires to continue this deterritorialization through its magazine project, a collaboration of about ninety periodicals from more than fifty countries. Led by Georg Schöllhammer, editor of Austrian art magazine Springerin, Documenta 12 Magazines posed the exhibition’s three steering questions—Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done?—to an international cohort of publications on art, culture, and theory. The responses—all told, some three hundred—inevitably localized these topics within regional preoccupations and took the form of essays, features, and artists’ inserts in magazines from Cape Town to Caracas. Far-flung workshops were also convened, in an echo of Enwezor’s platforms.

Perhaps predictably, but quite rightly, the magazines invited to participate were not the leading trade journals but those with smaller budgets and circulation figures. As Documenta 12 curator Ruth Noack put it in these pages in May, the project provides access to “positions that maybe are quite important in a particular country, but that aren’t thought to be important internationally.” The North American selection included such magazines as Grey Room, Cabinet, and LTTR; those from the UK tended to represent specific intellectual constituencies (Radical Philosophy, Performance Research, n.paradoxa). Elsewhere, the roster represented a wide cross-section of art magazines (Metropolis M in Utrecht, the Netherlands; Ramona in Buenos Aires; IDEA arts+society from Cluj-Napoca in Romania), as well as organizations such as the Midnight University, an online academic forum based in Bangkok. Participating magazines are included in discussions and presentations during the exhibition; an issue of each contributing title is displayed in the Documenta Halle; and articles written for the project are featured on a (dauntingly dense) section of the Documenta website. The result is an ostensibly integrated global art community united by an unspoken pact: The magazines give intellectual credibility to Documenta 12 (effectively doing the talking for Noack and artistic director Roger M. Buergel), while the exhibition promotes the magazines to its estimated seven hundred thousand visitors.

Had the magazine project been left in this format, I would be tempted to praise its conceptual daring: a spatially dispersed archive of hundreds of articles existing in print in their original cultural contexts, linked through a virtual home on the Internet. But a “best of” was perhaps inevitable: Three publications, one for each question, consisting of contributions selected from the participating magazines, have been published by Taschen. Yes, Taschen—whose recent publications also include The Big Book of Breasts. Aside from this irony, the results are rather good and conjure up an imaginary exhibition that exists as an appealing parallel to the actual show. Modernity?, Life!, and Education:, as these three austerely designed volumes are titled, reprint, as a kind of preface, a 2005 essay by Buergel on the first Documenta (to my mind key to his curatorial position and staging of the exhibition), and include features on a number of the artists appearing in Kassel, such as British photographer Jo Spence, Belgian sculptor Lili Dujourie, and Croatian conceptualist Mladen Stilinovic. This does invite the question of whether an initiative intended to give voice to local positions was ultimately instrumentalized as a research-and-development arm of the exhibition.

A further problem is that the three publications harmonize the project in a way that removes all trace of the participating magazines’ ambivalence toward the directives from headquarters. During a Documenta 12 Magazines discussion in London in May, Peter Osborne of Radical Philosophy aired his opinion that the three questions are neocolonial impositions that are, moreover, belated: For philosophers on the cutting edge, “bare life” is no longer a pressing topic. (When one considers that Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer was published in 1995, Osborne has a point; it’s like philosophers asking art critics to deal with early “Cremaster.”) Osborne compared the impulse behind the magazine project to the music industry’s sponsoring of “independence” as a commodity, citing Gayatri Spivak on “the definitive tendency of the dominant to appropriate the emergent.” The neatly packaged magazines reveal no trace of such contradictions.

Some magazines did decline to participate, among them the French philosophical journal Multitudes. One of its editors, the irrepressible Eric Alliez, formulated three counterquestions as “a critical and clinical interface” with Documenta: “Is modernity (y)our aftermath? Is bare life your apocalyptic political dimension? What is to be done after the D12 Bildung [Education] programme?” These half-hilarious, half-appalling questions are followed by elaborations that push them into tailspin: “Is the concentration camp a useful paradigm for you? . . . Did you ever read Agamben in a state of exception? Crying or laughing?” These questions were sent to more than 250 artists; the results can be found on the Multitudes website. The mainly short and quirky responses are on the whole less illuminating than the letters of refusal, however. (Peter Friedl’s rejection e-mail, for example, reads, “I do not really like these little parasitic artworld projects. I am afraid I am much more concerned about running out of [my life] time than wasting it for such questions.”)

The problem is that no matter how pointed its questions, Multitudes’ chosen format—the Q&A—is in fact entirely symptomatic of the art world’s empty overproduction. Think of all those catalogues and projects that replace sustained thinking with the interview and the celebrity sound bite. This is not to suggest that the Multitudes project is a worthless intervention—only that it might take more complex forms of interrogation to do battle with the values and flaws of Documenta 12, both exhibition and magazine project.

Claire Bishop is an assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Warwick, UK.