PRINT May 2012


talks with curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev about Documenta 13

A selection from Documenta 13’s 100 Notes—100 Thoughts publication series (Hatje Cantz, 2011–12). Photo: Dirk Schwarz.

ELIZABETH SCHAMBELAN: As artistic director of Documenta 13 this summer, you’ve chosen not to organize the exhibition around a single theme or concept. Instead, the materials circulated so far articulate a constellation of figures, ideas, and concerns, some of which are in tension with others: for example, secrets, riddles, and paradoxes on the one hand, hard science on the other. Yet interdisciplinarity emerges as one implicit animating principle—of course, contemporary art is inherently interdisciplinary, and curatorial practice reflects that, too, but in the case of Documenta 13 this tendency is pushed toward what seems to be almost an explosion of the category of art. You don’t list “artists” on the website—you list “participants,” and artist is just one type of participant among several dozen, from activist to zoologist. The publication series 100 Notes—100 Thoughts (commissioned by you and Chus Martínez and edited by Bettina Funcke) includes contributions from scientists, poets, and theorists of all stripes. In what sense should we understand Documenta 13 as an art exhibition? Or should we?

CAROLYN CHRISTOV-BAKARGIEV: I think that right now there is an urgent need for what I call a worldly alliance among so-called cognitive laborers of every sort, artists and scientists and fiction writers and so on. It is very urgent to speak together and to work together and to be in a state of the propositional together. The notion of “the artist” is a very limited notion historically. The ancient Greeks didn’t even have a word for “art.” They had the word techné, which did not at all mean “art” as we understand it today but instead something like “craftsmanship” or “craft.” So whether or not art will even continue to be defined as a discrete field for much longer is an open question. It is not guaranteed that in a hundred years the Tate Modern’s collection or MoMA’s or any museum’s will be defined as a collection of artifacts made by those who are today called contemporary artists. It might be that there are other aggregations of objects that we decide to constitute as spaces of knowledge and of experience. So while I wouldn’t define it as interdisciplinary, because that implies a space that is neither one thing nor the other, the exhibition points toward an alliance of sensibilities, intelligences, different forms of knowledge, and different ways of acting.

ES: I’m struck by your use of the term worldly. It has such an old-fashioned ring, in a way, and it crops up elsewhere in Documenta 13—there’s the School for Worldly Companions, a component of the exhibition’s educational programming, which has been organizing lectures and training a group of mostly local guides who will lead visitors through portions of the exhibition in Kassel. And I found myself thinking a lot about a possibly related term, also old-fashioned, when I was preparing for this interview—universalism. Specifically, I was thinking of Susan Buck-Morss’s 2009 book Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. What put Buck-Morss in my mind is that she collaborated on a Documenta notebook with Emily Jacir, and that led me to think about potential commonalities between your curatorial methodology and Buck-Morss’s historical methodology. But what triggered the specific association was a quote I’d intended to ask you about. In your essay “Letter to a Friend,” which is published as part of the 100 Notes series, you write that Documenta “emerged at the juncture of where art is felt to be of the utmost importance as an international common language and a world of shared ideals and hopes (which implies that art has indeed a major role to play in social processes of reconstruction of civic society, practices of healing and recovery).” There is a boldness to the desire to reclaim art’s healing potential as a common, or universal, language. For me, that resonates with Buck-Morss’s contrarian call for a reclamation of “universal history.” Underpinning both ideas, perhaps, is an implicit assertion that we may wish to reanimate certain humanist ideas in relation to art. Does that strike a chord with you?

CCB: I very much appreciate Susan’s work and her complex and open mode of thinking and tying things together, and speaking of unwritten connections and histories. The words one uses are very important—etymology is very important, and we share some thinking around words as committed objects. There are many ways in which one is trying to constitute these alliances without proposing a return to modernist universalism. So I don’t use the word universalism, and I don’t use the words international and transnational, because that for me would be reconstituting the idea of the national. But within this cluster of related terms, I think worldly can find its contemporaneity with the need for a definition that does not bring us back to universalisms. In the 1700s, worldly simply designated someone who was aware of the world. And it also has to do with eliminating the idea of a boundary between the so-called cultural and the so-called natural. The traditional history of the left is entangled with the question of the human, of humanism—which is also a term I wouldn’t use, because it speaks to an anthropocentrism that I am trying to work against, in concert with exhibition participants and advisers like Donna Haraway and others who have advanced a notion of worlding together.

The idea of the worldly allows for a mode of vision that sees different kinds of knowledge as existing on a par with one another, not only, for example, Western hydrology and indigenous knowledge in Australia about the flows of water and the balance of the environment, but beyond that even including, say, the knowledge that a plant is using when it turns toward the sun. Michael Hardt wrote an interesting article that relates to this after the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, and in it he speaks about the fact that there should be an alliance built between a Marxist left that is coming out of the analysis of labor, on the one hand, and the heirs of the ecological movements, on the other. This means that it is essential to forge a connectivity between social movements that focus on politics, on our vita activa, and the movements that center not only on the human but on the rights and perspectives of others, and “others” are not only women and marginalized social groups nowadays.

But to return to the idea of a single concept, or the absence of a single concept: It has partly to do with the resistance to the production of knowledge in a knowledge economy.

ES: Is that where riddles come in?

CCB: Yes. In fact, there’s a section of the exhibition that I sometimes call the “riddle,” in the rotunda of what historically is Documenta’s central venue, the Fridericianum. It includes a number of objects, ranging from fragments of destroyed sculptures from the Beirut National Museum to a photograph by a young Cambodian artist named Vandy Rattana—showing the now-picturesque impact site of a bomb that was dropped in the 1970s—to a series of Giorgio Morandi paintings of bottles and the bottles themselves, which he also painted, meaning he coated them in oil paint. So there is a shifting of registers from the fictional sphere of the artwork to the world outside it. And all of this in a sense is a concept. But it is a concept in the way that hieroglyphics would be a concept. It is not usable—you cannot digitize it; you cannot send it to someone as a PDF. In a way, Documenta 13 emerges as a kind of resistance, a formal resistance, a conceptual resistance to epistemological closure and knowledge production. Let’s say that I am on strike.

Vandy Rattana, Takeo, 2009, color photograph, 35 3/8 x 41 3/8". From the series “Bomb Ponds,” 2009.

ES: Do you see Documenta 13’s extended, expanded structure as part of that resistance too? There will never be a single dramatic, spectacular unveiling, because the exhibition has technically been under way since June 2010, when Giuseppe Penone installed the first work: Idee di pietra (Ideas of Stone), a bronze tree with a stone in its trunk, “planted” in Karlsaue Park in Kassel [see Artforum, October 2010]. The first notebooks were published in 2011. And over the past couple of years there have been a number of activities all around the world. For example, since 2010 the collective AND AND AND have been carrying out a series of events from Tunisia to New York that, taken together, constitute their contribution to the exhibition. Separate from that, there are projects taking place in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Canada that are all part of Documenta 13 and haven’t all been publicized. And then in addition to this dispersion across time and space, there is your decision to work with a number of “agents,” who, you say on the website, are your proxies in a sense—you delegate part of the curatorial responsibility to them. This is a dispersion of your own agency, too, and therefore presumably you deliberately opened up the show to spontaneous and unplanned shifts and changes. So in all these different ways, the show resists imperatives for a certain kind of transparency.

CCB: In terms of planning, I am not in favor of absolute spontaneity, like, “Let’s think of something and do it tomorrow,” but I am also not in favor of having everything plotted in advance in a totally rationally constructed choreography. There is something in between the intuitive and the planned, which is the space of the propositional. It is about choreography, the articulation of different actions or movements together, but it is also about the impossibility of choreography and about the fiction that we live in a universe of simultaneity, a synchronic universe, which cannot be true and actually engenders a lot of pain and injustice.

The whole project is structured around four positions from which an artist or for that matter anybody takes action. And those are: What does it mean to be in a state of siege? What does it mean to be in a state of hope? What does it mean to be in withdrawal, in retreat? And what do I do when I am onstage, when I am performing? I am interested in how these four are never separate. They are always somehow overlapping in a condition of disjuncture yet simultaneity. Take Kassel, for example: Kassel could be considered a stage—the exhibition is always a stage, a virtuosic space of performativity. But Kassel is also under siege, in the sense that the system of art, this set of twentieth-century or nineteenth-century rituals, is in a phase of transition toward something else, and the ideal condition of the exhibition has become a fiction of itself. Yet you could also say that Kassel is in a state of hope, because historically Documenta is a space that is suspended outside the flow of the financialization of art—the religion of finance, which is the contemporary religion of the world. It is strongly supported by public funding, which is increasingly rare. And then we all know that Kassel is something of a retreat, whether for a few days as a visitor or for months while working on a project as an artist. So it is all of those things.

And you could say the same about, for example, Afghanistan, where part of Documenta, a series of seminars, is taking place. It is occupied, under siege; it is onstage (as in the West Bank or Gaza, anything that happens there is beamed across the world); it is a place of tremendous hope; and it is also in a bit of a state of retreat or withdrawal. So although of course the two situations, Kassel and Kabul, couldn’t be more different, both places can be understood as escaping from and engaging in those four positions at once.

ES: Could you tell me more about what has been happening in Afghanistan and the other locations beyond Kassel?

CCB: There is a group exhibition that will be opening at the end of June in Kabul organized by Documenta 13 agent Andrea Viliani together with artist Aman Mojadidi, but that is only the last moment of a long series of seminars and workshops that have been ongoing for quite a while, ever since Francis Alÿs, Mario Garcia Torres, Mariam Ghani, Khadim Ali, Michael Taussig, and others first traveled with me there in 2010, in relation to looking for Alighiero Boetti’s One Hotel, and to research generally. What was very important to me was the web of grassroots relations that were built over time with people there, ranging from Afghan-American artist Mariam herself, who lives part of the year there; to Rahraw Omarzad, who single-handedly runs the Centre for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan there; to the young filmmakers of Jump-Cut such as Sayed Jalal Husseini and students such as Zainab Haidary; up to the department of fine arts at Kabul University, the National Museum of Afghanistan, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and Kabul National Gallery. And there has been no spectacle around it, no press releases. And that too is important to me.

In Egypt, we have been doing a project called “The Cairo Seminar,” which is admittedly a bit of a misnomer since it occurs mainly in Alexandria. It is a collaboration with MASS Alexandria, a small school run by the artist Wael Shawky, and with the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, run by a curator and theorist, Bassam El Baroni. Sarah Rifky, director of a newly invented paradoxical institution called Cairo International Resource Center for Art, is the agent I am working with to conceive and organize all this. It is a seminar about hope: What does it mean? What is that concept? Taking it apart and exploring the relations between hope and sleep—sleep as a form of hope. In Egypt there is no exhibition, because often when you are in a state of hope, you don’t make art. So it was intended to be a seminar without an exhibition.

The fourth place is the Banff Centre, which is in the mountains in a national park in Alberta, Canada. The center is run by Kitty Scott, who is one of my agents. The location constitutes a very specific alliance that I wanted to make because Banff is a space of retreat. People—mathematicians, artists—go there to think, to write. In August, we will be doing a two-week retreat on the subject of retreat with participants ranging from Pierre Huyghe to the philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás from Budapest. And there will be an exhibition in Banff by Brian Jungen in collaboration with Duane Linklater—Brian is part Swiss and partly of indigenous Canadian ancestry, which is something he has touched on in his work, so he is like our host. All of this is part of Documenta 13.

ES: How will these initiatives be represented in Kassel?

CCB: It varies—Banff is not represented in Kassel at all. In the case of “The Cairo Seminar,” there has been an exchange—a group of young students from MASS Alexandria, who came to Kassel in the months prior to the opening to research Documenta’s history, will be here during the installation and opening. So that won’t be represented, exactly—it will be actually happening. The question of Afghanistan is very different because that does have to do with representation and breaking through isolation. The Afghan project is very present in Kassel, in two ways. First, there is a presentation of documentation and artworks that resulted from the seminars held there. Second, there are a number of Afghan artists coming and doing projects. For example, Mariam Ghani led a seminar in Kabul, together with Ashok Sukumaran and Shaina Anand, both of CAMP and, which began the process of archiving, digitizing, and annotating an archive representing fifty years of Afghan film. Some of the films will be shown as part of the Documenta 13 film program. You know, people think that the Taliban destroyed the film heritage of Afghanistan, but a lot of it survived. Much of the archive at Afghan Film in Kabul was preserved thanks to a man called Engineer Latif Ahmadi, who actually hid a cache of films behind a wall. Working with Afghan Film is very much about a sustainable situation, where after Documenta the film archive will continue to be a resource. That is very important—that what I am doing is not just for the exhibition. It is not over when the exhibition in Kassel closes.

ES: So this harks back to what you say in “Letter to a Friend”: This is one way that the exhibition will participate in processes of civic reconstruction and the development of a common—perhaps not universal!—language.

CCB: One thing I want to mention—one point on which I really agree with Susan Buck-Morss—is that histories are not composed only of “proven” materials, as in, here is a text that proves something. The whole idea that Hegel was very aware of the Haitian Revolution, which is what Buck-Morss is arguing in her book even though it can’t be proved, connects to this. Of course Hegel was aware. How could he not have been? People move, people talk, people meet. Those worldly alliances are people going from one place to another; they are bringing ideas with them, they are discussing ideas, and they’re bringing ideas back with them when they leave—it’s a series of conversations. Not everything is published; not everything finds its way into the historical record and into the realm of what can be proved. And those leaps of imagination, those connections, are constantly happening today, too.

Documenta 13 will be on view in Kassel, June 9–Sept. 16.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is artistic director of Documenta 13.

Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of ARTFORUM.