When visiting documenta fifteen in early August 2022, with an awareness of the vehement criticism directed at the event, it was the project of a lumbung member, the *foundationClass*collective that seemed to echo most clearly the structural contradictions, which also surrounded the mega-exhibition. Summarizing the debates, the message finally is the same to all outsiders welcomed in Germany and supported by policies and budgets: the established rule is not to give a free hand to those who have not been socialized in “our culture,” do not understand our debates, because they are not at home. The discourse must be controlled. The controversy “successfully” brought discredit on documenta, which many refused to see—making the reputational damage on this edition and the institution documenta itself effective.1
The *foundationClass*collective is a group of artists, students and activists, who in their own words are “committed to working against the isolation faced in the art world because of its exclusion mechanisms.” Their background is the educational project *foundationClass, initiated at Berlin’s Weiβensee Academy of Art.2 The project was set up against the background of Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture), a policy defined by the German state in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, with the aim to help the integration of the large number of refugees. The federal inclusion program also involves higher education and introduces regulations and awareness raising, and importantly, funding.3
From its inception in 2016, the aim of the *foundationClass was to prepare prospective students for the entrance exams of art academies in Germany. The project is still running, although operating under precarious circumstances.4 It received a studio/classroom in the school, and is staffed by artists of immigrant background, who have been working in Germany as professional artists for several years. The teachers themselves have very different experiences and many of them had not taught at a higher education institution before. In the first year, for instance, Marina Naprushkina, an activist and artist, who has created several communities through her initiatives,5 and Ali Kaaf, a regular exhibitor in major museums and galleries, were both on the staff.
The experiences, teaching methodologies and survival strategies from the first five years of the *fC were collected in*foundationClass. The Book, published on the occasion of the group’s exhibition in Berlin at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (2020‒2021).6 The book itself could be read at Hafenstrasse 76, one of the venues of documenta fifteen, where the *foundationClass collective presented their activities. As we can learn from the book, the studio in the school became an important community space, where people with very different backgrounds and types of knowledge, as well as an interest in art and communities, can meet.
The “classroom” and the initiative of the *fC itself have also become an important counter-place within the academy, as many prospective students cannot be helped by the federal regulations, which often do not take into account the limitations placed on their rights, including their freedom of movement (many refugees cannot cross the border of the federal state where the refugee camp/hostel is located), access to benefits and scholarships, and their financial means. Lasting over two years, the pandemic made it very difficult to work, as it was not possible to meet in a physical space, and this brought the inequality of access into sharp relief, as not everyone had a private space of their own, proper internet connection, etc.
Poet and musician Hatef Soltani, who is a tireless shaper of the community, has been an activist for immigrants’ freedoms for a decade, having himself experienced the restrictions that a refugee camp places on life. He makes the radical point that “these integration projects play the role of an isolation camp (for non-students) within the academic society, so that only a few get the privilege to study and the majority have to return to everyday oppression.”7 It is obvious how crucial it was for many participants to find a community where they could share their experiences and make it a common goal to become a founding class not only in the sense of mastering the prerequisites of admission, but also, idealistically, of building new foundations: to criticize the university as a power structure, as it follows established procedures and often overlooks structural exclusion.
Artists who experienced institutional racism during their own studies could now, as teachers and members of the community, build a safe space for, and with, BpoC (Black People and People of Color) students. BpoC artists with formal training also reported that they tended to have had white teachers only, and when postcolonial theories were introduced or included in the programs, they often remained theory only, and did not induce structural changes or reflections on power relations.8 The systems of admission and assessment at a university are given, with non-Germans being classified on the basis of their skin color or traumatic background, while family or class is of no interest when it comes to natives.
The Toolkit für machtkritische Projektverwaltung [Toolkit for Power Critical Project Management] that is included in the book encourages the user to be mindful of power relations. After all, art academies, like all schools, offer legitimacy, placing their students in a position of power and participation in critical programs and provide them with cultural capital: “Use the institutional stamp as often as possible,” goes one of the instructions.9 Since 2020, the community of the *foundationClass has been supported and strengthened by the “*equalAccess Empowerpent for BIPoC students” program.
The struggles of the *fC reflect in an everyday context the control exerted over discourses and Weltanschauungs (world views) that became manifest in the criticisms of documenta. While the accusation was well founded in certain cases, the trump card of anti-Semitism was played to discredit those who came from elsewhere, those who were not socialized in the local/German structures. This approach is directly related to the Causa Mbembe, a case that began in 2020, when Achille Mbembe, philosopher and historian, a respected academic and welcome guest in Germany, was accused of anti-Semitism. Mbembe was condemned for unfairly comparing the trauma of the Holocaust to the experience of the apartheid in South Africa. The controversy has generated intense debates and a flow of discourse on the extent to which memory regimes informed by competitive victimhood are harmful to public dialogue, as well as on the desirability of cultivating a so-called multidirectional culture of memory.10
Some argue that this is difficult in Germany because remembering the Holocaust, which after some delay now informs policies and education, can make German remembrance discourse complacent. Moreover, confronting the devastation and consequences of Germany’s colonial past is slow to make traction, even though it would be important to address the past and present of Nazism and racism together. This could be a blind spot in adopting the approach of global solidarity—which, incidentally, Mbembe is an advocate of. As an author writes in a recent volume of essays on the Mbembe case: “In Germany, the accusation of anti-Semitism is sufficient to remove certain persons and positions from the space of the sayable and from the publicly funded sphere, which requires a particularly well-founded legitimacy…”11
I believe that a direct parallel can be drawn between the attack on ruangrupa and that on Mbembe. Those in power—newspapers, opinion leaders, critics—believe that the discourses and canons they have been able to define for decades are now under threat. They have no need of outsiders who approach the discourse from a different angle and potentially transform it; if necessary, they must be shamed by the involvement of high politics.12
In an extraordinary move, the representative of runagrupa was summoned to the Bundestag twice. On July 6, 2022, Ade Darmawan directly identified with the practice of demanding the same kind of attention to the experiences of the Global North as to those of the Global South, beginning his statement as follows:
“Let me start with a brief comment about history. In 1955, Arnold Bode established documenta in Kassel, Germany, to heal the wounds of the Second World War. A few months earlier, in that same year, a group of leaders collectively laid the ground for what would be known as the Non-Aligned Movement, in Bandung, Indonesia, discussing a way forward independent from and built on the wounds of the colonial powers. I feel the need to retell these historical facts because histories can show us how the world imagined how to deal with atrocities and deep wounds at the same time but differently.”13
This is precisely what those who have an interest in one-dimensional memory do not want to hear, but their interpretation of the past defines the mainstream discourse and the positions of power. There is an unspoken expectation towards those, who receive positions and money from public funds. They are obliged to take on the role of an opinion leader with power—but only insofar as the discourse can be controlled. ruangrupa refused to join the Western power games (perhaps because they did not know the rules well enough), and chose instead to activate their own networks, trying to create new, collectively defined structures. (Consider, for instance, the lumbung art sales initiative, which sought to circumvent the system of commercial galleries).
The *foundationClass*collective is also a movement that seeks to make visible and fight against the racism and inequality that are present structurally in Germany, despite all assertions of the Willkommenskultur. It is another minority community struggling to support their small groups and individual members, by fighting to dismantle existing power structures and to teach people in positions to unlearn those.
For documenta fifteen, the *foundationClass*collective, whose members are mostly of immigrant background or are BPoC, presented shared experiences of discrimination and inequality in statements printed on banners, which were hung in the space of the Fridericianum as part of the Gudkskul (meetings and workshops where various international art and education programs were presented), as well as in the workshop space of the venue at Hafenstrasse 76. The colourful banners among which the viewers could wander bore hard-hitting messages like “My biography is more interesting than my art” and “We refuse to be called just Students. We are far more than just Students, for there is nothing just in our studies. If anything, we are the students of the unjust.”
Furthermore, at this venue, the artist members of the collective also presented individual works. For instance, poet and performance artist Carolyn Amora Bosco, who also teaches at *fC, made screen prints-on-canvas of her activist poems and held two spoken-word performances during the exhibition. Fadi Aljabour filled a space with alienating and at the same time inviting large sculptural works made of different materials from fake fur to metal.
The piece entitled PBoC Avengers, a fictional story written by art and media scholar Rena Onat and drawn by Krishan Rajapakshe, an artist and faculty member at *fC, was also hung on banners and could be read as a walk-through comic book. It tells how the fictive group of the PboC Avengers, as a brave team of superheroes, protect their fellow, who was hurt when her Instagram photo was used in a painting. The power of the group and their protected friend “bursts out of their forehead as a bright, radiant light.”
A new project, Kassel über Kreuzungen (Kassel through Crossroads), a “mobile installation” developed by the collective for Kassel, strove to make the voice of the city’s immigrant community heard. When ordering a car from Mini-Car, a taxi company made up of people with immigrant backgrounds, visitors could listen to the recordings of short interviews in which the drivers told about their working and living conditions, revealing experiences of exclusion and discrimination comparable to those of the artists.14
Meeting other lumbung members and international communities must have been a source of reassurance for the *foundationClass*collective, as was the opportunity to use documenta fifteen as a platform to highlight structural problems that the general public is not aware of. Because that is what this documenta was about: as outsiders or practitioners, visitors were able to look into the processes, and catch some of the conversations that took place during its one hundred days—and this will hopefully continue now that the event is over. These communities are founded on the knowledge acquired collectively and are cemented by discussions and the struggle to reach a better and just world for all.
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 email@example.com.
- The event had 738 000 visitors, which is regarded as a good attendance number, but represents a decline compared to 2017, when 891 500 visited Kassel along (besides Athens). Other factors may also have been at work: we saw far more older visitors (of pensioner age) than young ones; It is a fact that documenta has to face its own Nazi past, as among Hito Steyerl, artist, who withdraw her work from the exhibition exactly of this reason, emphasized. ↩
- The program was initiated by filmmaker and artist Ulf Aminde, who is Professor for Performative Spaces at Weißensee Academy. ↩
- For example, the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, a public organization responsible for academic exchange programs and for organizing and supporting foreigners’ studies in Germany, launched a program for higher education institutions to build capacities for providing foreign students with information and social occasions. https://kh-berlin.de/projekte/projekt-uebersicht/2051. ↩
- Securing funding for several years is not obvious. A newly formulated mission of the project on the website of the Weißensee Academy addresses the student as “du,” which is unusual in Germany in a public and academic context and suggests a welcoming and friendly atmosphere, but the text is only available in German: “An important founding goal was to create a self- and power-critical space within weißensee kunsthochschule berlin, where dominant views and narratives in art education are reflected and questioned. More and more, this claim has also translated into a university-related practice of helping to break down institutional barriers and discrimination in access to art and design education.” https://kh-berlin.de/projekte/projekt-uebersicht/2051. ↩
- Among them, the Office for Anti Propaganda, which organizes decidedly political actions, and the Neue Nachbarschaft Moabit, which was set up specifically to create neighborhood communities for people with immigrant background. ↩
- Katharina Kersten et al. (eds.), *foundationClass. The Book (Berlin: *foundationClass, nGbK, 2021). ↩
- Hatef Soltani, ‘Der Anteil der Anderen’, in Katharina Kersten et al. (eds.), *foundationClass. The Book (Berlin: *foundationClass, nGbK, 2021), 33. ↩
- Mariama Sow, Miriam Schickler, Nuray Demir, Verena Melgarejo Weinandt: ‘Surviving Art School as a PoC’, in Katharina Kersten et al. (eds.), *foundationClass. The Book (Berlin: *foundationClass, nGbK, 2021), 216–234. ↩
- ‘Toolkit für machtkritische Projektverwaltung’, in Katharina Kersten et al. (eds.), *foundationClass. The Book (Berlin: *foundationClass, nGbK, 2021), 51. ↩
- “Today’s Germany is caught between two models of cultural memory: a dominant model of competitive memory and an emergent model of what I have called ‘multidirectional memory.’” Michael Rothberg, ‘The Spectres of Comparison’, Zeitgeister, May 2020, https://www.goethe.de/prj/zei/en/pos/21864662.html, last accessed 26 Febr. 2023. ↩
- Michael Meyen, “Achille Mbembe, die Leitmedien und der Antisemitismusvorfwurf,” in Matthias Böckmann et al. (eds.), Jenseits von Mbembe – Geschichte, Erinnerung, Solidarität (Berlin, Metropol Verlag, 2022), 106. ↩
- All this is complicated by a 2019 resolution of the Bundestag, which designated as anti-Semitic, and denied all support to, persons and projects linked to BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a Palestinian advocacy group that criticizes the policies of the Israeli state. Some works at documenta were also connected to BDS. According to Birgit Englert, the resolution has succeeded in “pushing positions of solidarity with Palestine out of the press and the physical public sphere.” Birgit Englertquoted in the review Gerhard Hanloser: Hoffentlich nicht zu spät. Ein Sammelband blickt auf die Antisemitismus-Debatte um beziehungsweise gegen Achille Mbembe zurück. Über Jenseits von Mbembe – Geschichte, Erinnerung, Solidarität (Berlin, Metropol Verlag, 2022 Affäre Achille Mbembe: Hoffentlich nicht zu spät | nd-aktuell.de, last accessed 26 Febr. 2023. ↩
- Ade Darmawan gave his speech in Indonesian, which was translated into German at the hearing and later into English. https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/news/speech-by-ade-darmawan-ruangrupa-in-the-committee-on-culture-and-media-german-bundestag-july-6-2022/ ↩
- The recordings the taxi passengers could listen to can be accessed at http://foundationclass.org/kassel_ueber_kreuzungen/. ↩