The End of the German ‘Streitkultur’ As We Know It

When I arrived in Kassel in the first days of July, after an exhausting fifteen-hour journey, the city seemed like an unfamiliar acquaintance. It was like a direct continuation of the post-COVID universe I had experienced on the way there, where there was air travel, but there were more delayed and canceled flights than scheduled ones; in which it was impossible to get from Berlin’s new airport, which had finally opened, to the central station by rail (since all train and S-Bahn services were canceled due to an accident); from where it was also an adventure to get to Kassel, given how many trains were canceled that day and how few tickets were available for the remaining ones. There was a documenta, as there is at this time of the year every five years, but it wasn’t like any other. Instead of creating a showcase of marketable artworks, presented in accordance with an elaborate curatorial concept, the Indonesian ruangrupa availed itself of the principle of the lumbung, which also informs their own operation, and invited such art collectives to Kassel that represent the spirit of cooperation and solidarity. It would be nice to say “collectives from all over the world,” but even a cursory look revealed that this time most of the exhibitors came from countries where they don’t usually come from.

Then again, by this time the public discourse on this survey of contemporary art was no longer framed by lumbung, ekosistem, majelis, meydan and the other terms little known in this part of the world and duly explained in the glossary of the catalog,1 and was determined instead by concepts that have long defined discourses in the Euro-Atlantic cultural space, such as anti-Semitism and racism. While they had come to dominate the news by early July, the city seemed calm. If we were to disregard ruangrupa’s concept and make artists and artworks our signposts in the maze of the scandal that surrounded documenta fifteen, we could say that when I arrived, the Taring Padi’s banner, entitled People’s Justice, had long been removed from Friedrichsplatz, while Hito Steyerl’s installation Animal Spirits was still open to the public (or those willing to stand in line for 90 minutes) in the Natural History Museum. Although concerns had been raised since January 2022 about ruangrupa’s Palestinian connections2 and some of the organizations they invited, the first concrete visual manifestation of anti-Semitism could be found in the banner that the Indonesian activist collective exhibited to commemorate the victims of Suharto’s dictatorship. Steyerl, who was exhibiting in Kassel in collaboration with the INLAND collective, felt that the administrative and artistic management of documenta fifteen was unable to deal adequately with what had been escalating for months on the various media platforms, and withdrew her work in protest. And it is true: even though there was increasingly loud criticism of not only the structural presence of anti-Semitism but of concrete cases of iconography, while some of the exhibiting artists were subject to racist attacks, there was little in the program of documenta fifteen by way a meaningful response, aside from panel discussions announced and then repeatedly postponed/canceled.

documenta fifteen: INLAND, Crafts & Workshop materials, without year, installation view, Museum of Natural History Ottoneum, Kassel, July 6, 2022, photo: Nicolas Wefers 

All this despite the fact that entrusting the 15th documenta to a curatorial team that ignores—in aesthetic, political, social and economic terms—everything that has come to be known as the tradition of the renowned German event of contemporary art was not only a radical (or, reckless, if you will) decision, but also one that was a direct consequence of the developments of recent years. We must believe so, that is, if we really want to uphold the lofty principles that have come to dominate the discourse on contemporary art in Germany (and elsewhere) in recent years. The principles in question include doing away with Eurocentrism, the dehierarchization of the relationship between North and South, the democratization of artistic practices, prioritizing cooperation and solidarity over individual performance and competition, emphasizing the process of production and its community-building power rather than a product-centered approach, and last but not least, the need to reckon with the colonial past. It was easy to see that all this would not only push the boundaries of the concept of art that emerged in aesthetic modernity, but would also necessitate a radical rethinking of the tasks and responsibilities of curators.

Over the past two decades, something similar has taken place in the world of theater. Along with the still dominant tradition of literary and art theater, there are an ever-increasing number of projects that foreground the social function of the theater. It is true of theatrical practices that are outside the traditional network of institutions and whose purpose is therapeutic, pedagogical, community-developing or expressly political that they cannot be judged solely on their results, and the same goes for the work that is done in municipal theaters with the participation of nonprofessionals. This is all the more the case because applied theater projects or, for example, the Bürgerbühne (“citizens’ stage”) sections of German municipal theaters do not necessarily aim to create performances for distribution in the institutional network of theaters. So for me, the biggest question arising from the concept of documenta fifteen was how it was possible to present, within the framework of the traditional exhibition dispositif, the activities of collectives that mostly move in the borderland between art and activism and whose primary aim is not to create works that are optimized for the exhibition spaces of contemporary art.

When I arrived in Kassel, it immediately became evident that a documenta based on ruangrupa’s concept required the recipient to adopt a very different attitude than for previous installments of the event. One could not, for example, move around the exhibition spaces scattered over the city in search of the “big names” culled from the catalog, given that even insiders to the scene were hard put to find one, for the reasons already mentioned. So for me, a visitor with a typical Western-centric background, the learning process began by realizing there were no clues that would help me to routinely navigate this festival of the collectives that ruangrupa had invited. Entering the Fridericianum, it also soon became clear that, more than ever before, this time documenta would be an occasion for learning in the literal sense of the word, rather than a place where you absorb (or, “delight in”) the visual stimuli that usually characterize the reception of fine art. I say this in the knowledge that events focusing on the transfer of art and knowledge have always been a salient feature of documenta.

This time, however, all this was not attained through side events, but by turning the Fridericianum into a school. The Fridskul was a concrete manifestation of the concept of the lumbung as promoted by ruangrupa. And just as the word in Indonesian refers to the barn in which the surplus rice harvest is stored, for the purpose of being distributed in accordance with communal decisions, so the Fridericianum became a “repository for shared resources,”3 a performative site for the accumulation, preservation and sharing of knowledge. It was unlike the traditional concept of the museum in that, in addition to the museum learning spaces for the different age groups (such as RURUKIDS, a children’s area for creation and play, and talks and workshops for adult visitors), community spaces for the artists to stay and cook and eat were also fashioned. This was less a provocative gesture about the inseparability of life and art, which in this part of the world goes back to the historical avant-garde, than a recourse to the economics of the lumbung.4

documenta fifteen: Fridskul Common Library, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 17, 2022, photo: Victoria Tomaschko

Yet it was not only because the artistic leadership of documenta fifteen called it a school that the Fridericianum made me feel like a “student.” But also because it was here for the first time that the exhibits—the archives of the activities of socially engaged artists/art collectives, which tended towards political activism—gave me the impression I was studying the history of colonization. So, my most obvious answer to the question, “what did you learn at documenta fifteen?” is that I found out all those things about the history of colonization that I did not have the opportunity to learn in the Hungarian school system. Then again, confronting the legacy of the colonial past is clearly a blind spot even in the memory culture of what is, in terms of dealing with the past, the “model student” of Europe, if not the world—German society. It is for a reason that a broad social debate on issues related to the colonial legacy emerged in Germany, for the most part, only in the last decade. This includes, for example, the discourse on carefully verifying the origin of artworks in museums and the return of war spoils, and in this context it is also worth mentioning the use of blackface, which in German theaters had until recently been considered a mostly “innocent stage device.”

Whether a controversy concerned artworks stolen from the countries of the Global South or the racist tradition of representing Black people, the arguments that were made revealed how the German society does not seem to be conscious of its own colonialist past and its consequences for the present. The lesson of The Black Archives project at the Fridericianum is that the Netherlands has outstripped Germany as regards both research into colonial violence and the documentation of the struggle of the Black Dutch for emancipation. Even what was shown of the archive, a fragment of some 10,000 documents, invited you to stay for hours, or rather, to spend hours reading, as did the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie, which was in the same space and took the unknowledgeable visitor through the history of women’s rights movements in Algeria. Following the massive anti-government demonstrations of 2019, Awel Haouati, Saadia Gacem and Lydia Saïdi set themselves the task of collecting, digitizing and making available for research documents that are related to the political struggles of women’s organizations since the country gained independence in 1962, as well as conducting oral history interviews with activists who are largely unknown to the public.

documenta fifteen: The Black Archives, Black Pasts & Presents: Interwoven Histories of Solidarity, 2022, installation view, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022, photo: Frank Sperling

The presentation of both archives was fraught with serious professional challenges, beyond the obvious problem of how to select material for a group exhibition from such a large body, especially when the collection is largely made up of books, as in the case of The Black Archives. It could hardly have escaped our attention that some of the objects that found their way into the space of the Fridericianum, from both archives, were rightly shocking to many: while the relics of the Dutch colonial past contain undeniably racist representations, the 1998, Palestine-focused issue of the feminist magazine Présence de femmes, which itself played an important role in the Algerian women’s emancipation movement, contains such images of Israeli soldiers using violence against Palestinian civilians that prompted charges of anti-Semitism. As part of the debates and investigations that framed documenta fifteen, the latter were removed from the exhibition space for a few days, while no one contested the visibility of the former, as they were considered artifacts of their time.

The presence of the controversial exhibits confronts us with the fact that, despite all claims to the contrary, images do not speak for themselves, and are instead contingent on the necessarily discursive acts of interpretation and contextualization. The latter was not carried out by the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie collective when installing the exhibits, and they only performed it after the outrage.5 In their defense they cited their working method: “We “carry out the work of archivists and give access to documents that we digitize in their totality, in unedited form—that is to say, without any manipulation or censorship of the content, confining our interventions to basic information that allows for each document to be identified. […] It is out of the question for us to censor or conceal a document due to its content or the political opinions it expresses, which would go against our ethical principles and the values for which we strive: the sharing and free circulation of documents and knowledge. Our project is not only historiographical and documentary, but also pedagogical and critical.”6 Yet it was precisely the pedagogical and critical thrust of the enterprise that was undermined by the absence of the historical-political context.

The feeling that I did not have enough information, nor the time to absorb and process what was available, and consequently did not stand a chance of actually interpreting the objects on view—the messengers of what were alien cultures to me—accompanied me to the other venues of documenta fifteen as well. For learning in the strict sense of the word, the act of looking around, scanning the sight—which is not alien to exhibition spaces—was insufficient. I believe that doubling the usual two-day stay that the pricing of documenta usually encourages would have allowed me to not only see the works exhibited but also to learn about their historical, political, social, economic and cultural context—in which case the event could indeed have compared favorably with an intensive course in postcolonialism. Nevertheless, limited as the time was, it was still possible to understand the need for a change of stance, to appreciate the experiential horizon of the subjugated and plundered countries of the Global South. This included the realization that there is a perspective from which the countries that are considered to be in the Euro-Atlantic vanguard of liberal democracy appear to be exploitative powers, or at least the supporters of repressive military dictatorships.

Ruangrupa, the administrative leadership that commissioned them, and the provincial and federal politicians who oversee the latter, all defined documenta as a place to obtain knowledge. Let us not forget that the primary intention behind giving curatorial responsibilities to the Indonesian collective was to have practices from outside art’s Euro-Atlantic framework represented in Kassel, in a spirit of mutual knowledge. This alone makes it disheartening that documenta fifteen failed, at least at a structural level, to ensure, of all things, a mutual understanding of dissimilar positions. The German hosts were not prepared for what the dismantling of hierarchical structures and the introduction of collective decision-making meant for the day-to-day practice of organizing the event—they were not ready for the end of curatorial work as they knew it. Also, they were caught off guard when the adoption of the postcolonial perspective created a complex discursive conflict that could not be resolved within the extent of German memory culture. And while the Germans are justifiably proud of their way of conducting public debates—their Streitkultur, or, “culture of debate”—this time around they failed to organize, either in or outside the framework of documenta fifteen, a single public discussion where the parties concerned could have participated and given voice to their positions on an equal footing—auf Augenhöhe (“at eye level”), as the Germans put it.7 Which in a way throws into relief the spectacular failure of a principle of memory policy, as well as of education and pedagogy, namely that if socio-political problems (such as anti-Semitic behavior) are talked about at sufficient length, they will sooner or later cease to exist. Yet the disagreements that arose from the attempts to understand different life experiences in a single, global frame of reference could not be talked about at the 2022 documenta—let alone be talked out.

Beatrix Kricsfalusi is a theatre scholar, curator, and an Assistant Professor at the University of Debrecen. She works at the intersection of Theatre, Literature, and Media Studies. Her research interests include the theory and aesthetics of drama and theatre, theatricality and theories of the political, as well as theories of representation and performance.

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.

  1. The glossary is also available on the documenta 15 website, at https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/glossary/.
  2. Including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
  3. https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/fridskul/
  4. For the economics of the lumbung, i.e. the allocation of resources and the use of available space for accommodation and exhibition, see pages 19–21 of the catalog.
  5. See the explanatory text published on documenta fifteen’s website: “Contextualization of the work of Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie and the historical material from 1988,” https://documenta-fifteen.de/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Einordnung_Archives-des-Femmes_EN.pdf. On the image in question, they wrote: “As documenta stated, the 1988 issue of Présence de femmes was briefly removed from the exhibition about three weeks ago for a more in-depth review, in the course of which it was determined that there are no depictions of Jews as individuals or a community, but rather of Israeli soldiers. The Star of David, while clearly a Jewish symbol, here identifies the Israeli military via its national flag. The child with his hands behind his back next to the woman kicking the soldier apparently refers to a well-known Palestinian cartoon (Handala) as a critique of mistreatment by the military. As a result of this review, the material has been reinstated in the exhibition.”
  6. Ibid, 4–5.
  7. At the discussion entitled Anti-Semitism in Arts, which was organized by the Bildungsstätte Anne Frank and documenta gGmbH on 29 June 2022 and was streamed live, the representative of ruangrupa sat, for unknown reasons, in the audience, whence he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to learn from the panel. See, https://www.youtube.com/live/B6plSiv-vTI. In other words, instead of being talked to, they were, bizarrely, talked about, with members of the collective seated in the audience. As it was repeatedly stressed, this was all done with the intention to “clarify the situation.” Likewise, at the Bundestag hearing on the scandal, the floor was given to Claudia Roth, the Minister of State, and Daniel Botmann, Managing Director of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, before Ade Darmawan, the representative of ruangrupa could speak. See https://youtu.be/PehTAEPZUYg. The hearing thus had more the feel of a trial with a speech for the prosecution and the corresponding defense statement than a dialogue between equals.

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