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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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‘’White invaders you are living on stolen land”, read a banner as part of Australian artist Richard Bell’s installation Tent Embassy, right outside the Fridericianum Museum, the main site for all editions of documenta and also the main city center. A fast moving ticker in bright red, reminiscent of a stock market’s chaotic energy next to the Museum, showed a rapidly growing number with over eighteen digits, which according to Bell is what the Australian government owed the Aboriginal communities. Bell was genial, light hearted and full of quick humorous retorts. His work, equally moving and telling. Richard Bell was not the only artist whose work was questioning the complexities of colonisation and political problems of Western colonial art production. Most artists in documenta 15 had a story to tell – of atrocities, erasure and invisibilisation of their narratives.

Tent Embassy, 2013 – ongoing
Richard Bell 

Trampoline House’s Castle in Kassel offered a scathing critique of Denmark’s inhumane asylum system by exhibiting works and testimonies from asylum seekers of the treatment meted out to them by the border control agencies. Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s busy and large scale works adorned the walls and ceilings of an old swimming pool site. The work focused on their core principles – to organise, educate, and agitate. For documenta 15 their commitment towards using art as a tool for social change was evident. They collaborated with urban, migrant and street artist groups as well as schools in Germany, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Australia to create works under the theme of Bara Solidaritas: Sekarang Mereka, Besok Kita (Flame of Solidarity: First they came for them, then they came for us). The collective’s works were intricate, detailed and politically charged.

documenta 15 has been unlike any other in the past. For the first time in documenta’s 66 years history, a collective was appointed as the artistic direction team instead of an individual, as has been the case in the past with notable names like Okwui Enwezor and Catherine David taking on the reins. For its 15th edition, ruangrupa, a Jakarta-based artist collective was selected to be at the helm of one of the most coveted positions in the art world. ruangrupa was conceived in 2000, two years after the fall of the repressive Suharto regime in Indonesia. Suharto’s authoritarian regime lasted 31 years and its end allowed for more freedom for arts and cultural spaces and the press to function. Much of ruangrupa’s way of working and their preoccupation with decentralised/diffused structures, cultural and political socialisation stems from their own experience of working as creative practitioners under an oppressive dictator. Throughout ruangrupa’s history as a collective of artists, journalists, architects, ecologists, musicians and printmakers (to name a few), they have tried to spurn the idea of art as object.

“When the documenta committee asked us if we would like to curate documenta, we sent back an invitation to them asking them if they were willing to work for lumbung. It makes sense only if documenta is part of our journey and not the other way around”

– Mirwan Andan, member of the ruangrupa collective

ruangrupa’s emphasis on process, collaborative and collective action and resource sharing is reflected in their overarching theme for documenta 15 – lumbung – a term used in Indonesia for a communal rice barn created to store produce which is equally shared by the community. ruangrupa’s personal journey is reflected in their overall practice, their ways of functioning as a collective and their commitment to socially engaged art practice – none of which has taken center stage in premier art shows like the documenta in the past. Mostly dominated by the Global North, ruangrupa’s appointment has been an anomaly – one that is difficult to fathom by the art world.

Using words like ‘members’ instead of ‘participants’, ‘adjustment’ rather than ‘limitations’ are some of the things the collective has harped upon while thinking of lumbung and its values around collective practice. For documenta 15, ruangrupa asked 14 collectives and 54 artists from around the world to be their “lumbung partners” inviting them to show ongoing and existing practice and further invite collectives and individuals to join hands with them. Spread across 32 venues, the show has credited over 1,500 participants. While the Friedricianum has been the nucleus of documenta in the past, for this edition ruangrupa decentralised the show by including eastern Kassel, an old industrial site to feature more prominently. ruangrupa has always been keen to work with people outside of the commercial and capitalist art circle.

Pay the Rent 
Richard Bell

Unlike market driven art shows, where artists are competing for space and visibility, constantly negotiating the idea of presenting for an audience, ruangrupa did not ‘commission’ any new works and urged collectives and artists to nurture existing works, looking to sustain rather than present and showcase process. With community cooking areas, a huge collective printing press taking over much of documenta Halle’s ground floor, a skate boarding arena, kitchen gardens, stories of loss, belonging, dissent, sculptures, films from war torn Middle East, documenta 15 is the coming together of diverse groups and forgotten archives for a 100 day festival, a deliberate attempt to show the art world what it has failed to see in the past.

‘…….and this is what I’ve seen my mother doing’, 2022
Jumana Emil Abboud 
Anna Sherbany

The ruruHaus located in the city centre was started as the living workshop space where one could truly experience the idea behind lumbung – it was the hub of all conversations, talks, cooking sessions, debates and zoom calls. Aptly termed the ‘living room’ of documenta 15, the space was casual, where one could immerse themselves in the values of lumbung. During the early 2000s, owing to the fragile socio-political situation in Indonesia, the artists converted their private living spaces into public spaces so they could continue their art practice from there. The ruruHaus embodied a similar vibe and offered the visitors a chance to understand how ruangrupa works and understands art.

Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie

Despite the pandemic raging, the collective has worked with local vendors, the government and different communities towards every aspect of putting together documenta 15 and for it to have an afterlife beyond the 100 days. With a clear install and deinstall strategy, one that focuses on sustainability and respect for the environment, everyday found objects and discarded materials were upcycled to create furniture, bookshelves and several other counters and spaces. El Warcha – meaning ‘the workshop’ in Arabic, was invited from Tunis to ideate with the local community and develop alternative pedagogical tools and participatory design methods to reimagine the spaces and the lived environment. At the Friedricianum Museum they experimented with new ways of inhabiting the space by creating a workshop like atmosphere with repurposed furniture. Terracotta tiles and school desks were repurposed to create shelves, and plastic shopping crates for seating. Collectives were encouraged to bring in local building materials to recreate their living spaces in different sites.

With complete autonomy awarded to collectives for showing process and works, documenta 15 appears thoughtful and true to its intention of projecting an alternate understanding of what a large scale exhibition can look like by blurring the role between art and social practice. However, this ambitious project has also exposed several cracks in the system when it comes to curatorial accountability and creative freedom. Before the official opening of the show in June, documenta 15 artistic direction team was mired in controversy for allegedly allowing anti-Semitic works to be a part of the show. When questioned by the German government, ruangrupa apologetically accepted that certain aspects of the anti-Semitic imagery slipped their eye. In the aftermath of these claims, high profile German filmmaker Hito Steyerl and a few others backed out of documenta 15 for apparent mishandling of the controversy by the collective. For some, it came as no surprise that given ruangrupa’s absolute respect for artistic freedom, they failed to screen the works and something offensive managed to slip through the cracks. But for the others this was seen as a failure to own up, to take responsibility. Whether this was an act of resilience, honest oversight or indifference, has sparked many debates.

Part of Amol K. Patil’s work at Hübner-Areal, East Kassel

An unremarkable town with dismal architecture, Kassel has been the host of all documenta editions since 1955. Known by some as one of the ugliest cities in Germany, one may wonder why this is the chosen site for a prestigious contemporary art show like documenta. Almost entirely rebuilt after WW2, Kassel’s unfortunate location in the Eastern bloc changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Kassel found itself in the middle of the map and became German heartland almost overnight. To add to this, Arnold Bode who started documenta also hailed from Kassel. Central Germany was seen as the ideal place for hosting an art show that was conceived to explore the role that documenta played in shaping global politics. documenta was conceived as a form of rebellion, to repress the effects of Nazism in post war Germany. Its objective was to build on the anti-fascist legacy of Arnold Bode’s first documenta. However, growing controversy over documenta 15 has compelled one to rethink creative freedom and art’s role to question, subvert and challenge existing power structures and their toxic nexus in influencing the global art scene. Is it time to reclaim documenta’s original narrative?

Floating System for Snails, 2022
Chang En-Man

Still buried under the guilt of Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, German public’s political stance, while understandable, is still questionable. Their unconditional allegiance and support for a Jewish state and their complete indifference for the plight of the Palestinian people’s right to exist in their homeland has raised questions around German hypocrisy and double standards. The attempt to invite an artistic direction team from Asia might be the first step towards a more inclusive documenta but one can only hope that such steps will be go beyond tokenism in the name of representation to genuinely create platforms for a plurality of voices to come forth. It is hard to overlook that ruangrupa’s grand claims of collective action, solidarity and their commitment to legitimise socially engaged art practice through a mainstream art show has also revealed cracks in their working when it came to fighting for the showcasing of works by the Palestinian artists. But beyond the misgivings, what may seem rough around the edges, scattered, an ambitious grand idea waiting to be realised, almost like a work in progress site, documenta 15 is actually a heart-warming experience which requires time to understand how deeply the curators have thought through their own process to apply the same to one of the most prominent art shows in the world.

ruruHaus, the ‘living room’

Where is the art in documenta? A question I heard being whispered around in many sites. Shrouded in doubt and desperately trying to go against the tide, documenta 15 is much more than an art exhibition. It’s a belief system, an appeal to the power structures around the world to look beyond their silos and to come together to create meaningful spaces where art making and life intersect. It is an attempt to create an expansive network of socially engaged art practitioners whose ideas are embedded in the values of lumbung. documenta 15 is the manifestation of smaller movements, an alternate and radical model that is looking to unpack the complexities of co-existence and believes in co-creation, co-sharing and continuity over finality.

As Khoj gears up to showcase its three year-long socially engaged art project in November, there is much to learn from the spirit of documenta 15, but also its challenges and risks of being perceived as a non-art project.

documenta 15 opened in Kassel in Germany on the 18 th June, 2022 and will run for 100 days till the 25th September, 2022.

*Khoj was invited to visit documenta 15 by the Goethe Institut, New Delhi.