Fragmented memories from documenta fifteen

A week before I was supposed to leave for the opening of documenta fifteen in June 2022, I learned that my father needed a life-saving operation. Cancelling my trip from Budapest to Kassel immediately, I told myself that life is more important than art—finding out that this was also one of the organizing principles of documenta fifteen’s Jakarta-based curatorial collective, ruangrupa. 

I ended up visiting documenta toward the closing date in September instead. Thankfully, my father fully recovered by then, but the initial excitement of ruangrupa’s grassroots, democratic approach has evaporated, and the narrative and press coverage of the 100-day event became shaped entirely around the organizers’ incompetent addressing of antisemitic accusations. It is an important and timely debate, which Hedvig Turai unpacks in her excellent article of this series, yet from the beginning, I felt that what these claims really did under the surface was attack ruangrupa’s rhizomatic approach, which goes against the tightly organized curatorial strategies we are used to seeing in Western art institutions. As Gregory Sholette wrote for e-flux, “what inevitably comes of such risk-taking is not, cannot, and must not be free of the inconvenient, problematic—and sometimes perverse—realities that make up the world found beyond high culture’s white-walled fortress.”1

Visitors enjoying the Baan Noorg skateboarding ramp. Photo of the author.

Heading into my very first documenta, I was determined to see the bigger picture of how ruangrupa has not only reimagined but restructured one of the most “prestigious” art events according to the preexisting Western standards. And while I deliberately avoided becoming too preoccupied with the antisemitic claims, I had my fair share of challenges with the general organizing that made me hyper-aware of the ways I have been conditioned to view art having studied and worked in Eastern European and US institutions. Since I am writing about the experience almost a year following my visit, using my fragmented memory as a point of departure—examining what I remember the most as well as the surprising gaps in my recollection—seemed like a generative idea.2

Entering documenta’s various locations, I was almost always welcomed by a chaotic cacophony of unfamiliar voices. The festival seemed to feature more “projects” than traditional artworks, presenting dematerialized outputs, prioritizing process over product, and bringing visibility to marginalized communities from neurodiverse artists to Bangladeshi rural communities and Argentinian queer collectives. Excited to find out more about the projects of which I had little to no prior knowledge, I wandered around and sometimes spent over 10 minutes looking for a text to explain what I was looking at as often I wasn’t able to answer the most basic questions (Who? – Where? – Why?) just from looking at the audio-visual output on view. This sense of wonder and discovery was surely one of the goals of ruangrupa, but I found the decentered approach to communication a bit challenging to get used to. 

Documenta handbook with Safdar Ahmeds drawing. Photo of the author.

With the ubiquity of socially engaged projects at documenta fifteen, it seemed that what Claire Bishop has called the “social turn” has arrived at full scale. In her pivotal Artforum essay in 2006, Bishop wrote about practices becoming prevalent that are “less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity—whether in the form of working with preexisting communities or establishing one’s own interdisciplinary network.”3 While these collaborative activities offer the revolutionary potential for tearing down contemporary art’s ivory tower and making a fundamental impact on the people they involve, Bishop has been concerned about how these projects are evaluated, and whether it is only through the ethical conviction of the initiator doing something “good” to others. To that point, it was interesting to see a harvest drawing by Safdar Ahmed in the documenta handbook, which illustrates lumbung members’ (organizing collectives) approach to socially engaged art. Their closing sentence reads, “Our work should not be judged by an outsider but in terms of the benefits it brings to the community which creates it.”4 This belief rhymes with ruangrupa’s repeated call to “Make friends not art!”5

St Kunigundis Church. Photo of the author.

As someone who has been deeply invested in studying and writing about socially engaged art, I was puzzled to find that in retrospect, I tend to remember the “traditional” showcases of artworks more vividly, such as the Haitian Collective Atis Rezitans’ selection of sculptures and installations at the St. Kunigundis Church as well as the RomaMoMA exhibition organized by the Hungarian curatorial collective OFF-Biennále Budapest, showcasing works by artists of Roma origin in the Fridericianum. The screenings of Wakaliga Uganda, the archival display of The Black Archives, as well as the palan garden of the Bangladesh-based Britto Arts Trust also made it to the top of my list, but instead of going into further details, I would like to find the reason behind my brain fog when it comes to a big chunk of the works. I will deliberately avoid coming up with any specific examples—even though my phone’s camera roll remembers more than I do—to follow this idea of fragmented memory. 

The Black Archives installation. Photo of the author.

Going back to the lumbung members’ point about the “outsider,” spending only two days in Kassel, I found that instead of participating, I was more often witnessing artists-activists-collectives doing things to other people. Many of the participants presented their activities from remote parts of the globe on DIY posters, in video footage, or in some other form of documentation. While these initiatives were truly exciting, there was no way to make a direct connection to their displays, and that often made me feel alienated, overwhelmed, like I missed out on something, only arriving to the “after party”. And that brings me to the main question that has lingered in my mind since visiting Kassel:

What is the best way to present a socially engaged project to audiences who are not directly involved? Or more radically, does it even make any sense for the documentation of socially engaged projects to be passively viewed by an outside audience in the format of an exhibition? 

In other words, apart from forming new alliances between organizers, why bring the presentations of collectives to Kassel instead of finding a meaningful way to support their operations closer to home? Alternatively, why not find more ways for the public to be involved in their activities? The Thai collective Baan Noorg’s lifesize skateboarding ramp was one of the few examples where visitors of different ages truly gathered to have fun and perhaps to even make friendships that exceed documenta’s 100 days. 

Returning to the idea of the fragmented memory, it seems that I most remember the works I was able to engage with directly by close looking, listening, or resting; where there was a sensory, visceral presence of something not only being told but being felt. If all the white walls have been dismantled and we are finally arriving at a point where art is not made for the connoisseurship of a primarily white, Western elite, but is a collaborative practice, as ruangrupa claims, then more care must be directed toward the audience or the conscious elimination of the boundary between artist and viewer. I had the impression that the organizers’ care was directed in many different directions to pull off the Sisyphean task of managing so many participants, subverting the system, and handling the pandemic, but this attention was directed less at the visitor, who, witnessing all the collective organizing without any meaningful way to interact, could feel like they were left out. 

Palan garden by the Britto Arts Trust. Photo of the author.

Ruangrupa’s documenta fifteen offered a seismic shift from the tightly organized curatorial strategies that have set the stage for how art has been consumed in Western institutions, but if we are to hold on to this generative change, it is crucial to find ways for audiences, Western and non-Western alike, to feel involved in reshaping our existing models. At documenta sixteen, it would be interesting to see an even more decentralized strategy of organizing—I’m not sure curating will be an applicable term then—in which most of the projects are not even taking place in Kassel.  In 4 years, when heat waves and droughts become even more unbearable, all organizers and participants should stay in their region and the white-walled institution of documenta should support selected initiatives where they are based instead of importing a watered-down version of them.

A display I took a photo of but have no memory of. Photo of the author.

Veronika Molnár is an independent curator and writer based in Budapest. She is the Director of Liget Gallery, one of Budapest’s longest-standing nonprofit galleries. Molnár received her MA in Art History from Hunter College, the City University of New York, in 2021 with the support of a Fulbright grant. Her research interests lie at the intersection of artistic activism and environmental justice, and her writing and curatorial practice aim to amplify the voices of underrepresented artists from Central and Eastern Europe. She has held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art, carriage trade gallery, Edward Ressle Gallery, Faur Zsófi Gallery, FERi Gallery, and Budapest Photo Festival. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and MoMA Magazine.

What did you learn at documenta 15? is edited by Dóra Hegyi, editor of Mezosfera, curator, and project leader of Budapest and Gyula Muskovics, independent curator and artist based in Budapest.

  1. Gregory Sholette, “A short and incomplete history of ‘bad’ curating as collective resistance.” e-flux, 21 September.
  2. I thank my friend and coconspirator Lili Somogyi for her suggestion to use fragmented memory as a framework for writing this article.
  3. Claire Bishop, „The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum, February 2006.
  4. Handbook. Documenta fifteen. HatjeCantz, Berlin: 2022, 29.
  5. Handbook. 9.

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