“Ketika Aku ke Kassel Tahun Lalu” (“When I go to Kassel Last year”)

I have never been to Indonesia but one of my strongest desires is to visit it one day. And I am honestly incredibly grateful to ruangrupa art collective for planting this thought in my head and organizing this “paint the town red 100-day long museum” exhibition the way it did.

The title of this text refers to an installation of Agus Nur Amal Pmtoh – whose exhibition I liked very much. It took place in Grimmwelt, a nice, modern building devoted to the Grimm Brothers’ life in Kassel, their rich legacy and its contemporary artistic re-interpretations.

Not coincidently, since Agus Nur Amal Pmtoh is a storyteller from Sumatra who got into the centre of attention from the very beginning of d15. In my opinion, it is because learning is a crucial element of his art. He cultivates an old tradition of storytelling in songs, named hikayat, he preserves and revitalizes it, but he deserves attention for the additional installations made of everyday objects. He teaches young and the old about how to love and respect Nature. I think this is essentially different from the kind of ecological thinking or consciousness that we, in the Global North, try to acquire.

Agus Nur Amal Pmtoh in Grimmwelt. Photo: Andrea Pócsik

The grammatical strangeness of the title is not a mistake. It can be understood as a sentence structure of Global English, a Sumatran dialect of “World Englishes,” a local variant of non-native speakers (who, according to statistics, are no less than three times as many in number around the world as the natives). To me, as to another non-native English speaker from Eastern Europe, it gained meaning interwoven with my own experiences of otherness-commonness. In 2021, I spent four months in Kassel, during the ruangrupa preparations. I bought a bike, it rained a lot and once I passed a rainbow which constituted an arch above the d15 advertisement am Weinberg. It was a cathartic adventure to return to the city of documenta during the exhibition I was not exactly looking forward to and the past of which became a rich, living experience during my archival research titled “What if…, documenta?”.

Am Weinberg, Kassel, 15/10/2021. Photo: Andrea Pócsik

For some reason, the cultural translation efforts of ruangrupa made perfect sense to me. I enjoyed it a lot that I understood the terms used in the native language of a given artist / art collective, whether it was about the Bengali bamboo kitchen (pakgohr), or about the vegetable garden (palan) built at the side of documenta Halle to serve the documenta community (involving visitors), or about any other language. One learns not only the expression but can also associate it with certain values of the given community (e.g. palan is usually next to the kitchen and women and children grow vegetables from the seeds collected during cooking there.)

I made a ruangrupa dictionary for myself, containing many more words and expressions than one could find in the main press releases. Reading the wonderful editions published for various purposes, I was amazed at how easily I understood heavily theoretical texts from the past about decolonization and the role of contemporary art in it retrospectively. (Just to name a few: The exhibition proved the legitimacy of such thinkers as Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vázquez about the re-interpretation of aestheSis, returning to its original meaning in Greek, i.e. the importance of artistic influence, not artistic expression. It also justifies how the Geertzian interpretative anthropological thinking works, pointing out the indispensable usage of original terms even in transmitting art. And finally, it demonstrates how epistemic violence can be overcome through giving voice to the marginalized and how epistemological violence can be applied in reviews and other media responses without any consequences – a Hungarian example is a review that questions the legitimacy of, and thus, tries to annihilate the work of the curatorial collective. The author labelled the event “the documenta of mistakes” and pointed out in the lead of the article that “This year’s documenta has been termed not only the documenta of shame but also the last documenta. One could have foreseen it since an art collective from Indonesia, a country not really famous for contemporary art, was invited to organize it.” Before making the case for his rather strong and – at least, to me, implicitly racist – statement, he lists his documenta experiences from the past. Strangely enough, d15 doesn’t seem to be a real, physical experience, rather an imagined one based on his readings, selected carefully to support his standpoint. It is an ethical issue which concerns the reviewer and the editors but the consequences we all know from postcolonialism.)

documenta 15, Pak gor (community kitchen) at documenta Halle, Britto Arts Trust. Photo: Andrea Pócsik
Yazan Khalili, Sahar Abdallah and Hassan Sahredinne: A Book Like No Other, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, Germany, 2022. Photo: Andrea Pócsik

The basic question of Mezosfera, namely “What did you learn at d15?”, cannot be answered easily in its complexity. From the different levels, I chose the one I could hallmark with “ruangrupa and the kids.” I will introduce four projects which show how the younger generation was addressed by different lumbung members.

At the very beginning of my visit, I noticed the special attention children and young people were given at d15. The venue that many visitors connected to politics (equally important, of course), to me was also a treasury of ideas about how to invent all sorts of DIY jobs not just out of the need to survive but to fill life with creativity, value, and hope. My favorite was the children’s book series of the Palestinian The Question of Funding, a collective of cultural workers and community developers. The books were published for d15 with ISBN numbers and distributed worldwide, in Germany by the Walther König Bookshop, the most prestigious distributor of art books (who are contracted with documenta GmBh to sell their editions). The Book Like No Other by Yazan Khalili, Sahar Abdallah, and Hassan Sahredinne is about how to make your own book by collecting all the ingredients from members and venues in your community. 

Walking, finding, sharing, A Graphic Companion to documenta 15, Hatje Cantz Publishing, 2021, pp. 82-83.  Photo: Andrea Pócsik

Ruangrupa also published a guide for children and young people, explaining the main characteristics of certain venues, projects, and installations. I love this edition partly because of its graphic design (each chapter/walk is illustrated by a different artist, in a different style), and partly because it taught me a lot about education methods.

Gudskul – Fridskul, Fridericianum, Photo: Andrea Pócsik

But let’s return to the documenta Halle: For me, the most impressive works were made by art groups from different “Global South” countries where young people, mostly from the street, were involved in different kinds of activities. I am going to highlight two of these. Wayukuu Art Project installed a tunnel “inspired by both Maasai traditional housing and the informal aesthetics of slums.” The Nairobi-based art collective from Kenya with their project Killing the Fear of the Unknown managed to transmit their knowledge about community building among extreme circumstances in a way that one did not fall into the trap of victimization. In a densely populated slum, like their home Lunga Lunga, where fire often demolishes houses, rebuilding, physically and metaphorically, is a constant activity between urbanization and heritage which “permeates creative consciousness yet catalyses imaginative energy and solidarity” (Enos Nyamor).* 

Wayukuu Art Project, Photo: Andrea Pócsik

To get to the other side of the building, the visitors had to pass one of the most spectacular attractions of d15, the huge meeting hall where a skateboard mini ramp was built. It was part of the project by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, a collective from Thailand. They managed to bring different communities together, combining urban subculture with mythic ritual. They collaborated with the Kassel-based skateboard group, Mr. Wilson Skatehalle, and organized events and exchange programs between Kassel and Nongpho. 

In the corner of this hall, one could go to a cinema screening – one of my favourite shows, where I spent quite a lot of time, despite my tight schedule. Wakaliga Uganda is a film studio named after a slum neighbourhood in Kampala. Their founder and director Isaac Godffrey Nabwana defines their philosophy through cinematic don’ts: “Don’t premier movies, don’t make movies for judges, don’t come for salaries…”.

Wakaliga Uganda, Rachael M Ug, Photo: Andrea Pócsik

 “The secret – if such it is – lies in the social systems that make it possible. Known in the local lingua as Bulungi Bwa’nsi (good of the land), the collective spirit by which individuals freely sacrifice, for the greater good without expectation of material reward, is itself the making of Wakaliga Uganda” (A.K. Kaiza). The 10 x 15 m inner courtyard is filled with creativity and enthusiasm, and gives space for many locals from the age of 4 to 70 to become a star. 

Rachael M Ug started here as an actor and now makes music and music videos on his own YouTube channel.

On the way from the central venues to the Bettenhausen area, one could find Ahoi Bootsverleih, an exciting adventure of “what-ifs and why-nots” and a wonderful scenery as part of the Fulda Walk. The lumbung member OFF Biennále Budapest transformed part of it into an imaginary playground, creating, for example, a Daydreaming Workstation with the contribution of artist Eva Kotatkova.

I left deliberately the central building of documentas, the Fridericianum, to the end. Here I have chosen two projects that bridge Indonesia and Hungary through Kassel (and Brasil): What a wonderful geocultural adventure! Gudskul is an alternative cultural, community space in Jakarta which was founded by three Indonesia-based collectives – ruangrupa, Serrum, and Grafis Huru Hara. But it has also become the intellectual, spiritual symbol of d15 (founding Fridskul in the museum), since education and learning, that is, sharing activities, as basis of their work, were transmitted in every single element of their enormous series of events. Visitors could sense the nongkrong (hang out together) spirit through the design of the spaces, the videos about the experiences and the events organized they replicated. The educational model Sekulah Temujalar (Temujalar School), replicated for documenta 15, was a very inspiring experience. Its name derives from the words temu (meet) and jalar (spread). I would encourage everyone to find out more about it on the web. The education system in Hungary badly needs such influences. 

Dr. Pikler Emmi: Mit tud már a baba? (Medicina Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1976, with the photos of Mariann Reismann, p. 29.) Photo: Andrea Pócsik

On the left hand side of the ground floor, in a far, quiet corner, I found a wonderful surprise, another Hungarian contribution: A Sao Paolo-based artist, educator and mother, Graziela Kunsch, with the collaboration of a local civil engineer, Elke Avenarius, who is also a mother, set up a Public Daycare, where babies and parents learn together. I was honestly touched when I entered the wonderfully designed room for babies and noticed the photos of Marian Reismann, – a Hungarian photographer and colleague of the internationally well-known paediatrician, Dr. Emmi Pikler – on the wall. One could also have a look at Pikler’s books, published at least in six languages, displayed on a table. According to the Pikler Ház website, “Visitors have the chance to read about the cornerstones of this approach, watch movie excerpts, see some of Mariann Reismann’s photos taken in the former Budapest infants’ home and also try for themselves the ‘playful objects’ and the playspace offered – all in accordance with the Piklerian ideas of self-initiated play, autonomous gross motor development and respectful care.”

When I asked curator and ruangrupa member Farid Rakun about the project, he sent me the latest info: “The city of Kassel has been undergoing public crowdsourcing to make the work sustains in the center of the city, although not in Fridericianum anymore. There was a public demonstration by parents in Kassel prior to the closing of d15, demanding the longevity of the project, which warms everyone’s hearts. Thought as a nice update to the project if you want to write about it.”

I am not surprised. It shows – what I was honestly convinced about after my visit – that ruangrupa with the lumbung members and many-many others who contributed, managed to create a project not as an ephemeral phenomenon but a continuing collaboration, even friendship, because it was a documenta of “human relationship based on mutual respect.” Now, I quoted the introduction of Anna Tardos, the daughter of Emmi Pikler. This is what I learnt from her a long time ago, while I was raising my three kids, reading her book. The Indonesian art collective transformed the ivory tower of contemporary art into a tower of Babel, and I am happy to answer the question of a German art magazine:

 “Sprechen Sie Ruangrupa?” Yes, I am learning the language.

Zeitungskiosk, Bahnhof Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel, 13/09/2022. Photo: Andrea Pócsik

* Quotations are from the documenta fifteen handbook if not stated otherwise. 

Andrea Pócsik Ph.D. is a free-lancing cultural researcher, film historian and university lecturer. Her research about Roma representation in film and media has been published in a book titled: Passing – the (An)archaeology of Roma Image Making (Budapest, Gondolat Kiadó, 2017). Her academic activities are devoted to purposes of domesticating engaged scholarship and building cultural resistance through critical film education, working out new higher education methods. She has been involved in several art events as a curator. Recently she became interested in memory studies, and started doing archival research in the Open Society Archive in Budapest in 2020 and in documenta archive in Kassel in 2021.  

What did you learn at documenta 15? is an open-ended issue edited by Dóra Hegyi, editor of Mezosfera, curator, and project leader of tranzit.hu Budapest and Gyula Muskovics, independent curator and artist based in Budapest. If you would like to contribute, please submit your proposal, including a 200-word abstract and your short bio in English at office@tranzitinfo.hu.

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