Detail of ruangrupa’s Harvest Timeline, ruruHaus, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Detail of ruangrupa’s Harvest Timeline, ruruHaus, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Documenta 15

Detail of ruangrupa’s Harvest Timeline, ruruHaus, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

AT THE OUTSET, we would like to express our solidarity with ruangrupa, the lumbung artists, and the staff of Documenta as they continue to be subjected to political and bureaucratic harassment. We view with great concern the upsetting discourse, particularly in Germany, playing out in a cynical game of liability management among politicians and public figures, which we fear will ultimately lead to a further precaritization of intellectual, artistic, and other forms of labor within Documenta; of Palestinian artists; and of all those who take a position against ongoing Israeli apartheid.

But this article isn’t about Germany—or not only about it. This article starts from a painting: not the one everyone’s been writing about, but one rather ignored and quietly tucked away. In the basement of the ruruHaus in Kassel, a mural lays out ruangrupa’s curatorial strategy and concerns more clearly than any press release. It plots the trajectory from the collective’s founding, in 2000, to the realization of Documenta 15, interpolated by local and global events. One of the statements on the snaking lines marks the point at which “Documenta is invited to join the ruangrupa ecosystem.” This seemingly cheeky turn of phrase actually articulates ruangrupa’s methods and intentions. In the first instance, the collective aim to call into question what ecosystems of artistic production Documenta as an institution has heretofore participated in, how its funding structures have functioned, and, more crucially, how practices emerge and are sustained and what relationship they have to exhibition-making. Documenta 15, then, is not just about placing abstracted art objects into symbolic circulation, but rather becomes a site for planning, for thinking together about how artistic milieus around the world might come into contact with and support one another. As such, it challenges the de facto neoliberal consensus of the art world, which continually forces us to produce under increasingly precarious circumstances, and in which the objects we make are often more welcome than our bodies.

Lumbung proposes a refreshingly uncynical inquiry into an aesthetics of redistribution.

Dormitory, Fridericianum, Kassel, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Documenta 15 is not only the exhibition we experience as an audience but also the program of meetings, discussions, and conversations that lead up to and develop from this point of gathering. Ruangrupa’s strategy further speaks to a specificity of address, asserting that not everything is for everyone and that that’s OK. It recognizes that different groups bring different concerns to Documenta and that there is not, nor has there ever been, a singular “public,” but rather multiple communities of concern. This refusal of universalism also undoes the assumption that an exhibition must be an explication of a singular theme, orchestrated by a genius curator and (usually) his team. Instead, the collective propose, an exhibition can be a plurality of propositions, and we can choose or choose not to engage with them, as we prefer. Documenta 15 redistributes the authority to make meaning while also imagining forms of material redistribution. Thus it takes Okwui Enwezor’s or even Adam Szymczyk’s models of a distributed Documenta and carries the concept further—away from a model of parachuting that presumes the “art world” happens mostly in a few largely Western cities and emanates outward and toward a framework where different fragments align with one another at different moments. This model builds, for example, on networks such as Arts Collaboratory, which supported ruangrupa’s work in their early days of operation, and other experiments such as the 2002 Gwangju Biennale, curated by Charles Esche, Hou Hanru, and Sung Wan Kyung. Indeed, Arts Collaboratory’s method of accounting, in which collectives report to one another rather than to a central organizational body, finds reflection in the overall structure that ruangrupa produce and therefore in the mural as well: We see a form of public accounting, where the distribution of funding at various stages is clearly laid out. So are explanations of how different groups form majelises (gatherings or networks of collectives), share space, and collaborate on various counts. This model of a fugitive redistribution from the market into sustaining practice has long been a part of how things work in the “Global South”—think, for instance, of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s support of Gallery VER in Bangkok, which allowed generations of experimental and political work in Thailand to flourish. Considered from this perspective, Documenta 15 pointedly raises the question of strategy, of what models we would need to invent to continue the work that we feel to be essential across different contexts.

Gudskul Kitchen, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 14, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

Lumbung, then, thought of as method rather than theme, proposes a refreshingly uncynical inquiry into an aesthetics of redistribution, one informed by both the strategies and the failures of generations of institutional critique. The project is located at a moment of a global questioning of institutional form—following decolonial movements and movements such as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and those questioning funding sources within plutocratic neoliberal systems. It asks what we could do with these “problematic” institutions. This method does not attempt to art-wash or redeem reputations, instead taking an approach that is much more material and practical yet does not shy from ideological positions.

Richard Bell, Umbrella Embassy, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas, 70 7⁄8 × 94 1⁄2".

The mural trails off into a recurring theme (nightmare?): Visa issues, visa issues, a lot of collective members can’t come to Kassel because of visa issues. As a collective with many members with weak passports, we chuckled in recognition. We often ask ourselves, “How much more work could we get done each year if we didn’t have to constantly represent ourselves to the border hounds of resource-accumulating nations?” By bringing the problem of the unequal experience of borders to the public’s attention, the mural underscores how much violence is enacted as policy and exposes the lie of a mobile, “global” art world. It forces recognition of continuing regimes of exclusion, built on histories of imperial control of bodies. We recalled an incredulous commentator with a European passport who couldn’t believe that the artists directing Documenta could have any problems at all entering Germany. Despite this, the program has placed an emphasis on artist travel, with about 1,500 members of different participating collectives flying in over the course of the exhibition’s hundred days for talks, performances, workshops, even just to cook and nongkrong. Many of them are hosted in the Fridericianum, where a part of the museum has been turned into a dormitory occupied by a rotating cast of collective members. There are beautiful spaces for childcare interspersed throughout the exhibition venues, many of them designed in collaboration with the children of members of ruangrupa under the framework of their project ruruKids. The Gudskul Kitchen is a welcoming place for artists and members of the public to eat, hang out, or sing karaoke. Pervading the atmosphere is an air of conviviality that invites you to spend time with others and with the works. What might seem chaotic is actually undergirded by a well-organized logistical system, with an ethos of commoning against the f(r)ictions of the state.

Komîna Fîlm a Rojava, Darên bi tenê (Lonely Trees), 2018, HD video, color, sound, 43 minutes. Installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

The exhibition as a whole continues this spirit of conviviality, even when dealing, as it often does, with themes of violence and dispossession. Sunlight fills most spaces, and there are areas of rest for visitors. Gestures such as these produce an experience of exhibition spaces that one would actually like to spend time in, rather than bunkered halls one rushes through while trying to consume every signifying object. Thematics emerge as you move through the exhibition, with relationships to music and land among the most palpable. In the Fridericianum, Richard Bell’s powerful paintings set the tone for the discussion of Land Back. Nearby is the Komîna Fîlm a Rojava’s presentation with songs of communal resistance. Next door, in the Museum of Natural History Ottoneum, Tropics Story, 2022, a haunted two-channel installation by ikkibawiKrrr (a newly reconstituted iteration of mixrice), visits military infrastructure, airstrips, and naval bases once managed by the Japanese colonial empire. Desolate and set to a funereal score by Choi Tae-hyun, it stages encounters with an asphalt landscape forested or rewilded by creepers, ferns, and moss (ikkibawi means “moss rock” in Korean): life adapting and emerging against infrastructures of violence, life that has been left behind and forgotten.

Cao Minghao & Chen Jianjun, Water System Refuge #3, 2022, yak hair and fabric structure. Installation view, Karlswiese, Kassel. Photo: Nils Klinger.

Chengdu-based artist duo Cao Minghao & Chen Jianjun bring to Kassel a tent woven of yak hair and fabric. The tent for them signifies an itinerant architecture for nomadic communities of upland Sichuan or eastern Tibet as well as a space of gathering and sharing knowledge among pastoralists, Documenta staff, artists, and visitors. They pair this installation with their publication The Ecology of Sands andBlack Beach” (2022; also found at the venue Hafenstrasse 76) and their expansive, oneiric video installations Water System Refuge 1–3, 2019–22, and Observing Point, 2019 (both at Hafenstrasse 76). These texts and videos retell how communities build lifeworlds or survive against the threatening presence of dams, modern waterways, even sand extraction. Similarly, Johannesburg-based collective MADEYOULOOK’s joyous, insurrectionary sound piece on land politics, extraction, and colonialism in South Africa envelops an undulating but layered wooden installation against the fading velvety floors of Hotel Hessenland. Across the street, at the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Pınar Öğrenci’s video As¸ît, 2022, finds the artist returning to her father’s hometown of Müküs in mountainous southern Van, a Turkish province along the border with Iran. A poetic layering of the region’s many avalanches (as¸ît means “avalanche” in Kurdish) and the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915, the video is “sewn” with a wall of white tissues collectively stitched by the women of Van. The work seems to reverberate with a wailing, both on-screen and architecturally.

Amol K Patil, Black Mask on Roller Skates, 2022. Performance view, Rainer-Dierichs-Platz, Kassel, June 19, 2022. Photo: Frank Sperling.

Documenta 15 creates space for deeply located political discussions about such issues as caste in India, food insecurity accelerated by kleptocratic governance in the Philippines, and political disappearances in Cuba and brings them into dialogue with one another. In the Hübner areal, Amol K Patil’s work emerges from his lifelong discourse/engagement with India’s caste hierarchies. With its low-lying lamps and their precisely cast shadows, the installation transfers an ethos of “chawls”—Mumbai’s low-cost urban housing, where blue-collar workers live—onto Kassel. Patil’s standout work is the video Black Mask on Roller Skates, 2022, in which a performer on roller skates fitted with rotating brooms saunters through the busiest alleyways of South Mumbai while listening to songs against caste on a cassette player, a reference to the embodied experiences and resistance of India’s untouchable scavengers and cleaners. Kiri Dalena’s immense five-channel video Pila (Lines), 2022, features people in the Philippines waiting for rations and conversing about their everyday lives during a severe food shortage exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. During the opening days of Documenta, Dalena unfurled a banner on the steps of the Fridericianum with the words STOP THE KILLINGS, a reference to the more than thirty thousand Filipinos murdered during former president Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” its letters made from thousands of black mourning pins marking the lives lost. In Documenta Halle, Tania Bruguera, under the rubric of the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), has produced a memorial to disappeared activists and intellectuals in Cuba. This makes the invitation of a collective like Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, whose work is installed quite close to INSTAR’s, seem quite strange: Thailand, where they are located, has been undergoing a collective-driven pro-democracy political revolution, whose participants have called for a reformation of the ruling monarchy, and during which cultural workers have been repeatedly put at risk, and Baan Noorg’s decision not to platform this in their presentation feels like a missed opportunity. Another disappointing showing is made by Party Office. We are in solidarity with the members in regard to the deeply racist attacks they have faced in Kassel, but it must be said that they are here presenting a body of work that seems to lack the depth and nuance of the contributions of the more experienced collectives.

Kiri Dalena and RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings) demonstrate against former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” Fridericianum, Kassel, June 18, 2022. Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images.

Still, the selection overall points to ruangrupa’s questioning of what a collective is and to their articulation of a vision of collectives as formal or semiformal groups of artists working not merely together but always in relation to others and with a sense of accountability. Their exhibition challenges the notion that collectives are formed only out of the paucity of resources in the “Global South,” demonstrating that these groups come together through shared political, social, or aesthetic concerns or through finding joy in learning together and from one another. Ruangrupa’s notion of “situatedness,” and of what a relationship to community could be, does seem slightly dated here, given that collective practice has evolved considerably in recent years and is no longer tied to nation-states or to immediate, mostly urban localities. With a few exceptions, such as Sa Sa Art Projects and Sada [regroup], the participating collectives seemed to include members of only one nation-state, which sometimes gave the exhibition the atmosphere of a trade fair. While the Gudskul program creates space for conversations among collectives from disparate contexts, we hope for a more robust imagination of forms of collectivization, built not on perceived ideas of geographic location or cultural belonging but on deep understandings of solidarity. Documenta 15 stands as a significant experiment, with both successes and failures, in institutional form and the attempt to build a truly decolonial ecosystem of artistic practices. It rejects any distinction between artistic work and the systems that allow it to exist, and it does so in a truly life-affirming way.

The Forest Curriculum is a nomadic platform for interdisciplinary research and mutual co-learning, based in Southeast Asia and operating internationally.