KASSEL, Germany — Documenta, arguably the world’s largest and most significant art event, will once again set the tone for conversations about the current and future states of contemporary art. For the 2022 Documenta 15 (D15) edition, ruangrupa, an artist collective founded in Jakarta in 2000, took the helm as artistic directors. The central theme of the exhibition is “lumbung,” the Indonesian term for a communal rice barn, where surplus goods or harvests are stored for future use and shared by the community. This agrarian common-ist model was put forward by the curators to “heal today’s injuries, especially ones rooted in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal structures.”
When I wrote this article, the controversy surrounding the exhibition regarding antisemitic imagery was addressed by ruangrupa’s public apology; they immediately dismantled the work of Taring Padi’s People’s Justice (2002). This significant oversight sadly undermined the central conceptual premises. The incident stresses the fact that “progressive” contingencies are not immune to racist, patriarchal, and/or other discriminatory ideas – quite the opposite – it should be a duty to examine any representative bigotry and discrimination claims seriously by taking the local context and sensitivities into account without compromising the core values of freedom of speech. This controversy may be a good talking point for the media outlets but should not overpower Documenta’s thousands of diverse voices this year.
Lumbung is a political project imagined as a cooperative artistic and economic model for sharing resources, fair allocation, and equal distribution, which permeates all aspects of D15 programming. Although it is not immediately evident how the practice of lumbung is different from other common-ist examples (rural, anarchist, and/or socialist democratic traditions), the openness of the proposition can be read as one of the strengths of ruangrupa’s conceptual framework.
D15 is a remarkable gathering of potentialities, a careful alignment of militant particles, and a sensational patchwork, all at once. It’s also free press, skateboard park, dormitory for artists, communal kitchen, greenhouse, and sauna. Collectives, collaborations, alternative spaces, political projects, and archives unapologetically occupying D15’s 32 venues and turning them into alternative sites for knowledge production and dissemination with an abundance of objects and positive energy. In line with the idea of lumbung, the power of curating is shared and distributed; the nine-member collective invited 14 other collectives to be “lumbung members”; in turn, other artists and collectives were invited, characterizing an ever-growing dynamic array of projects and ideas with 1,500 participants (with just one American contribution).
Transparency is weaved into D15; the budget is equally distributed, and members of the lumbung are given access to a shared pool to be utilized in collective decision-making in a “majelis” system — an Indonesian term for an assembly. When its corrupt military dictatorship (New Order) was over in 1998, Indonesia underwent sweeping reforms, strengthening the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat).
For instance, one of the critical exemplars of collectivist experiments is Komîna Fîlm a Rojava (The Rojava Film Commune), a collective of filmmakers based in the autonomous region of northern Syria, featured in the Fridericianum Museum and the Gloria-Kino theater. The commune explores ways to research, learn, and share through the process of filmmaking while addressing the critical issues of storytelling and artistic production within a “stateless democracy.”
The Question of Funding (2019), a Palestinian collective composed of artists and organizers, brought together other artist collectives to seek out alternative economic methods that can resist the physical and geographical boundaries and the crushing restrictions imposed on Palestine. Within the lumbung’s spirit of radical transparency, the collective co-curated an exhibition by the Gazan artist collective Eltiqa, which exhibits paintings alongside a detailed narrative on how the Eltiqa group managed to operate amid the systematic Israeli state violence and economic sanctions imposed on two million Gazans. To operate both in Gaza and internationally, Eltiqa artists needed to share their resources and jump many financial hoops. The project successfully weaves together the artists’ desires to explore their artistic potentials and the grim facts on the ground. Their steadfast rejection of projected political readings on their work and defense of “art for art’s sake” is noteworthy.
The specter of alter-global movements of the early 2000s, the occupy movements (Zuccotti, Tahrir, and Gezi, Umbrella Movement), and, more recently, Black Lives Matter and decolonization movements are looming over the exhibition. An entire social justice arch defines the exhibition’s backbone, pinpointing possible organizational strategies against various forms of authoritarianism and state violence. At the same time, D15 provides necessary historical and geographical backdrops. For instance, in the Fredericianum Museum, Amsterdam-based The Black Archive’s installation “Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity” highlights their collection of thousands of books and documents on colonialism, slavery, liberation, and emancipation and shares stories of black radical thinkers. In a neighboring installation, Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie (Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria), an independent initiative by Awel Haouati, Lydia Saïdi, and Saadia Gacem presents an archive of documents relating to Algerian feminist collectives and associations since 1962, composed of political tracts posters, photographs, and film clips.
This archival mode permeates the exhibition, and forms of political and artistic militancy have been temporarily institutionalized, reframed, and exemplified for the exhibition’s duration; D15 turns into a repository of political projects, ideas, and attitudes as the outcome of careful investigations. However, one of the blind spots of D15 is how little the artistic team paid attention to alternative technological and networked modalities that enable new social organizations, collectivities, and the dissemination of information over diverse regions. Although, since the 1990s, opensource (read as form of lumbung) communities and artists have explored the potentialities of the networked media and have had plenty of social and artistic experiments, ruangrupa’s choice to disregard these collective social-technological experiments and outsource the central premise of the D15, “lumbung artists website,” to theartists.net, with a seemingly all Euro-White team with an unproven financial model without much discussion or consideration is a little confusing — as they say in the casinos, the house always wins.
Still, let’s “make friends, not art.” The slogan reverberated in my mind during the frantic preview days of D15. As an artist and practitioner, you feel right at home with your peers; the horizontality of the exhibition grabs you and pulls you into a kaleidoscope of geographies, many unfamiliar. Friendship is possible through gatherings: rituals, ceremonies, meals, workshops, performances, and celebrations, and these situations abound in D15.
D15 is no art fair. There are no NFT droppings, cool “collabs,” no private jets shuttling oligarchs. In fact, art world darlings and their cheerleaders may be disappointed; the exhibition pays no respect to “market forces.” In D15, artists are not treated as the sidekicks of collectors and museum trustees, and no one is getting a free VIP ride in a high-octane BMW. The only high-value German cars worth nothing in the show are Selma Selman’s stunning sculptural paintings on old Mercedes and BMW hoods. Cars are both loved and hated symbols of authority, success, and breaking the spatial boundaries, especially in the developing countries. Utilizing scrap metal, Selman skillfully recycles cars, bringing forward her memories and addressing her Roma heritage. The Germany-based *foundationClass* collective also uses cars in their work for D15. They have collaborated with the migrant taxi company MiniCar to install a sound sculpture in the company’s cabs, and the drivers are rightfully credited as participants of D15, with equal standing as the artists invited by the collectives.
There are so many clusters that are worth nothing at D15, particularly the OFF- Biennale Budapest and Artis Rezistans/Ghetto Biennial. The OFF-Biennale Budapest has two markedly different projects in D15. The first is a long-term collaboration with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) which attempts to map the history and present of Roma art, and includes Selma Selman’s work mentioned above. One of the few more museological displays in D15, a second installation pivots around a monumental work by Tamás Péli, based on 19th-century painting, which depicts a Roma creation myth. The second project by OFF-Biennale Budapest takes place in a boathouse site, and functions as a kind of utopian playground, with installations ranging from a dreamscape for children by Eva Koťátková, and a healing garden by Ilona Németh.
Stopping the visitor in their tracks, so to speak, is the vodou-inspired Ghetto Biennial, amplified by its apt location in the St. Kunigundis Church. Held every two years since 2008 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Kassel iteration features 36 artists that mostly use found and recycled materials, wood, and human remains to create non-human animal and figurative sculptures, as well abstract assemblages, and video works. Stepping into the Ghetto Biennial at D15 is like stepping into another world — full of spirituality, creativity and awe. Like many of the D15 collective projects, the Ghetto Biennial will be activated by performances, screenings, and other events throughout its time in Kassel.
Finally, D15 resists the tokenism of e-flux ads transmitting your daily dose of inclusivity and tolerance. D15 goes all out and poses the most pressing questions by activating a diversity of vectorial forces (modern, alter-modern) of the Global South. D15 provides tools to think, do things, and accumulate. It is a proposition with many parts. It is time to rethink art education and dissemination in fundamental ways to have an expanded reading of art practices without marginalizing them into new domains with an expiration date on them. After D15, business cannot be as usual.