When writing about aspects of education, it is inevitable to look at the very initial steps that were taken by the newly re-emerging organizational entity that is currently materializing and performing documenta 14. In autumn 2014 Adam Szymcszyk announced the working title “Learning from Athens”. Choosing “Learning” as a self-description and labeling it as a working title is a tautological emphasis on the process of creation rather than the result of such, as if revolting against the presumption that documenta “only” is the exhibition-phase. With choosing this title it remains unclear who is learning and if by what means they are learning. The working title transports a humble stance of those referring to themselves as those who learn but at the same time can belittle when applied in a hierarchy to those less powerful. Even though it remains unclear who is carrying out the act of learning the directionality appears given – those who already are learning are learning from Athens.
If you want to trace down or describe the subjects who are learning, map the processes of learning or identify what the “curriculum” could be, one of the departure points is examining the organizational units that were established by documenta for that purpose. Traditionally the education department is assigned to run programs and projects that “teach” – or educate different kinds of audiences. The education department of documenta 14 chose to call itself “aneducation”, manufacturing a self-description that marks the importance of being aware of only providing a facet of the potential educations one could receive, comparable to dOCUMENTA (13)’s “Maybe education”. The following text will describe the programs that were designed for students in the preparation of the exhibition, analyze its effects and relate it to the working title elaborating on expectations of their agency by all people involved. Followed by this I will introduce the work of the semi-autonomous students group MEMBRANE that partially emerged out of these programs. I will consider the processes of the creation of agency stimulated by the programs, as well as its difficulties, contradictions and chances. The description and condensation of resulting layers of learning, self-teaching and structural outcomes should be compared to the thesis, that transparently experiencing and reflecting on institutional realities (*also deriving knowledge) is core to the realization of agency in the notion of being able to do what one wants to do and in the notion of being a self-conscious political subject. In the final part I will critically refer to more subjects and groups of subjects within the framework of documenta and their potentials and impediments to realize their agency.
However, first I will “reveal” who I am in this context, to make clear from which perspective I‘m writing. I am currently pausing my studies in fine arts and sociology to work for the aneducation department. I was part of two students’ programs devised by aneducation before interning for three months. Afterwards I was offered a job and I started working in the aneducation department full-time. I have some experience in self-organized group work – as I work in a collective called “Agency for Contemporary Artistic Discourse and Collaboration” (ACAD&C) and also founded a political group when I was younger. One of my core motifs is to understand and multiply knowledge of how power relations are established and maintained in group processes and internal compensation mechanisms in individuals, as well as resulting patterns of behavior and emotions. My activist heart beats therefore for acts of transformation and my artistic heart pounds for experiences of community and emotional resistance.
aneducation saw the (un-)education of a group of students as their task. Unlike previous edition of documenta, in which public moments of „education” were taking place on a larger scale (150 people and more in one auditorium), aneducation limited their mode of address to a „core“ group of 15 students, which had to be selected out of several applicants. Understandably the hype was big within the students of the art school. Secretly many people wished to be chosen, while at the same time I experienced suspicion: What are we supposed to do for them? What is the trade and the currency?
Accepting this offer as a gift took a while. Students in the school of art and design Kassel are not spoiled with educational offers. There is not much of a theoretical curriculum at the art school itself and so the idea of trading is not far-fetched, especially when being put in contact with an institution like documenta. It took me quite some time to overcome this bias, too. I think, two main preconceptions played into the misjudgment of the offer by aneducation: Firstly, the art school makes its students „work“ for their education, meaning that in case you want to know something specific you would have to find a way of finding out - there is not an easy access. The art school does not offer introductions to current discourses on a regular basis or as part of its agenda, it leaves its students to their own cleverness or will to know. Secondly, students therefore, especially if they came to uni directly after school, are used to school-like education. They expect to be taught, rather than being given access to self-learning tools. Their self-learning capacities aren’t high, not because they don’t want to be able, but because there hasn’t been any inspiration for it. Of course, this is a crazy generalization, but still I want to stress the importance of an introduction from those who have access to a certain knowledge to those who don’t and sometimes even don’t know, that they don’t.
My experience drives me to criticize this stance: When I first came to this art school, I clearly suspected I wasn’t told the whole truth, at least not from the beginning. I was told I should write an artist statement and that it should be this and that way – but I didn’t know whose rules they were and why I would have to follow them. They told me that there is art and things not to be considered being art. I became angry and felt inferior, as if I was missing something that everyone else seemed to know. However, I even didn’t know what it was. This anger of not knowing and a tamer form, curiosity, is still my fuel. Part of my feeling of inferiority was due to the idea that my knowledge was less valuable than scientific knowledge. I lacked vocabulary and a grammar of concepts and I had the impression my simple words could not express, what I wanted to say.
I made one of my best choices to make use of my dilemma: I chose to study sociology on top of my fine arts studies. Even though I could still criticize the Kassel sociology curriculum, I was finally introduced a domain of society and how it came into being. Understanding how a whole strand of science could newly arise gave me the basic idea of how other institutions come into being (e.g. religions, sciences, …) Through this d-tour I finally found keys to doors that had been closed beforehand: I learned about discourse theory and the art worlds. I found out why people were writing artist statements and which processes of value added were taking on here. It was deeply satisfying to read about my own thoughts in other people’s voices and to be able to articulate criticism in a language that was precise, referential and valuable – at least that’s what I thought.
Aneducation’s program had to overcome my skepticism, too. So far I had been believing one had to oppose to institutions and representatives of such because they were either unable to make their knowledge transparent or were purposefully restrictive with the transmission of information and knowledge to maintain their status and form. I was super critical and super curious, too. By any means, I wanted to be part of this documenta 14 core group. I was very happy when my collective was eventually chosen to take part in this program with two fluctuating positions.
The d14 sessions were time-intensive. Firstly, we were surprised that aneducation expected us to spend a whole week with them – five days from the morning till the evening and sometimes even in into the night. That the participation in this week was required was announced quite spontaneously and the expected flexibility was new to me but at least I knew the level of expected dedication from the art context (which is very different to the sociology context). Still I would have not been able to follow the schedule if I hadn’t been in shared responsibility within my collective, which gave us the opportunity to have “shifts”. “The mapping week”, as it was called, left open what it was aiming at. From the beginning I had the impression it was designed for finding suitable ways of documentation, but soon gave up on this idea. This uncertainty of what it was for required trust by students towards aneducation, which wasn’t a problem, since aneducation paid with the currency of documenta’s reputation. You just didn’t want to miss something and you wanted to be a part of it, you wanted to learn the vocabulary and grammar rules of this group and you wanted to get close to the aura of documenta.
Trust is a requirement of learning. Of course, you “learn” from life, the decisions you take and from the "hot stove" (praxis). However, when put in a room with people that tell you something, or when you are recipient of art, you must be willing to get to know what you are confronted with, you must have enough indications of trustabilitiy in order to get involved. This should be applied to exhibition settings, too: How do we earn the trust of the recipients? However, documenta is so big and powerful, that comparatively many people raise enough trust or are seduced enough to be able to “listen” what is said.
The radiance of documenta is seductive and trustworthy. It made people follow the curriculum of the mapping week and the documenta 14 sessions, that took place every week for two events, one taking 3 hours, the second taking up to eight hours (but mostly only four). This intensity enabled us to deeply plunge into the ideas, concepts and practices that were presented to us. The structure of the sessions was well designed, too. On a Friday the members of the core group got input from either team members of documenta 14 and/or artists (Curators Hendrik Folkerts, Monika Szewczyk, Paul B. Preciado and Dieter Roelstrate, Head of Communication Henriette Gallus, Artist Roee Rosen, Curator at Large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Editor of South as a State of Mind, Quinn Latimer, Founder of South as a State of Mind and Curatorial Advisor, Marina Fokidis) and on the Mondays there was a seminar in which participants were able to make connection to the experiences, between each other and to the (mostly academic) theory that was handed out. Sometimes even the lecturer from the forthcoming Friday event would be present to engage in a colloquial conversation. Instead of teaching in a coherent manner, aneducation made room for different and contradictory voices, while still offering a continuous conversation around those experiences that made the program so enriching.
The summer intensive was a two-week long seminar programmed by aneducation and curator Candice Hopkins, including artists of documenta 14 (Joar Nango, Rebecca Bellmore, Zafos Xagoraris, Panos Charalambous, Guillermo Gallindo and Mattin) and Dieter Roelstrate on “listening”. Topics that were discussed where the notion of score – which is quite important to documenta 14, post-colonial concepts of Indigenity, and recipients of art as instruments that can interpret art with their own knowledges.
Instead of emphasizing main concepts that were elaborated on from different perspectives, the main message was, that there shouldn’t be something like a main message. There is, as advocated by documenta 14, no main thread, no hegemonic knowledge that should be promoted, but instead a will of questioning hegemonic forms of knowledge. Recipients, contributors and artists of documenta 14 intersect and hold different knowledges that are equally valuable and important. Stories should be told from various stances and put into a multitude of contexts to question the heteronormative, white, male view of “the” history. Of course, there are many more subjects that create a vastness of threads that must not lead to overwhelming confusion, but to a proactive stance of not-knowing, knowing with the body and with the own experience.
Many imperatives for an endeavor that wants to encourage an emancipatory stance, right? One could argue that it is too contradictory to be considered accountable (in a need for coherent narratives), but one could also see it as a mirror for and a commentary on contemporary times: societies, opinions and ideas are contradictory, not one truth can be condensated, but many exist at the same time. Political crimes, violence, injustice exist parallelly to wealth and health in different parts of the globe. One could choose to remain inactive confronted with these supposedly negating truths, falling victim to the feeling of insecurity and contradiction, or one could become a political subject promoting change and acting according to it, while at the same time knowing, that we are unable to know the “right” path. Contemporary times require action but at the same time force subjects to acknowledge their ambiguous stance: How can I do right when I also, as if automatically, do wrong? Many share the impression of uncertainty, relativeness and insecurity, as well as a sense of futility in all actions. This edition of documenta, as it has presented itself towards us as students, has requested us to become active, to take a stance and to have agency anyway.
The request of having agency is transgressive. It is the act of preconceiving everyone has the potential of agency that is interfering with the presupposed sovereignty and autonomy of the individuals. The inherent ability of subjects to have agency is the subtext of utterances often made by actors of the dispositive* of documenta and the political art world (and e.g. many strands of sociology, political science or the political left). It seems obvious why documenta 14 is using its power to ask for agency: It is to create a reality in which political action is possible (as e.g. opposed to the notion of a world in which every action becomes commodity). It neglects the idea that not everyone is able to have agency due to a multitude of restrictions (outer restrictions like the physical body of a person, the geographical position, the resources available as well as inner restrictions of an individual that are often woven into the identity of a person), or simply because there is not a free will, but an interdependent one, entangled in the social and cultural formation of our selves. In the following paragraphs, I am going to examine which actions have been taken, other than the already described educative programs to enable or prevent this sort of agency.
Having left a deep impression on us and after a long break in the summer months the students of the two programs were invited to gather in the aneducation office (“Peppermint”), but other than the seminars this framework wasn’t announced as a seminar, nor an offer to be educated. It was a gathering to ask: what remains (according to the three questions that were posed beforehand: What shifts, what drifts, what remains?)? Aneducation wasn’t able or didn’t want to provide a structure and subtly this question was a prompt to create something on our own, it was the kind of preconception or hope that we have agency. Aneducation still provided an aid, it employed me as an intern to take over organizational tasks for the group and made available their office as a place to meet.
Aneducation left it to us, to make use of our agency. If agency is translated as the possibility of doing what you want to do, the first step is, to find out what we want.
We began with trying to find out, what everyone was interested in. It turned out everybody had a variety of interests and it wasn’t possible to find a main strand of interest.
So, we created GLUE and designed MEMBRANE as two group structures. MEMBRANE as a maintainer, a structure that on the one side grants continuity while at the other hand focuses on the question of how to bridge the gap between what was given to us as knowledge within the educative programs and misunderstandings from the institution documenta towards different groups of publics and members of different publics towards documenta. Hence GLUE was the gathering of different interest groups (like the music and sound group), that relied on MEMBRANE to organize a bigger structure.
MEMBRANE met weekly, while GLUE should have had a monthly meeting. We only had one GLUE meeting and it turned out, that the interest groups faded away, remained inactive or had little energy to continue or have output.
As hard as it is for individuals already, the efforts of facilitating a consensual and/or accepted structure as a container for polyphonic voices are exponentially higher. With a cause still in discussion and without the background of a hosting institution that sets the framework like a university or a company, the requirements of building of such is not only a pragmatic question, it also reacts to the fluctuating content in many ways. The processes of negotiating a satisfying and suitable structure is tiring and often frustrating, the uncertainty and flux reflects the adverse and insecure circumstances in which an endeavor is situated. Regarding our situation, it was the changes in the individual lives and our unclear position towards documenta 14. The loose offer of being associated was responded to in a proposal to documenta 14; not fully understanding its structure (which I often nebulous to its employees, too) resulted in a vague performance pressure: Are we able to fulfill the requirements?
What are the requirements of documenta 14 in praxis as opposed to the theory that we encountered? What is the scale of this organization? As a first findig: It is not only the usage of certain vocabulary but again also the grammar and the intonation. In praxis, the curation of a certain tone takes control – it is not that an initiative outside of documenta can chose to be in the realm of it, it must be chosen, while the processes of curation take many ways. It is a word spoken by a curator most directly, but it may also happen in an internalized behavior and mode of assumption that is embodied by other employees and contributors of documenta. It is formed and trained in repetitive micro practices performed between the employees themselves and towards audiences. It is realized in not speaking clearly and in a simple way and in the fear of not fulfilling expectations of quality, even though the word “quality” has not officially been used in any of the work contexts within documenta that I have encountered. Still there is the unspoken awareness of the required ability to justify the actions and products towards an unnamed recipient, or towards a future history. In the example of our project we got our feedback in words by the aneducation department and the friendly neglect from hierarchical positions. At the same time this neglect gave us freedom to experiment in our own time scale and with our own capacities. Basically, we found ourselves in a situation that we imagine being like creating the structure of documenta 14 itself: A vague pressure of expectation, strong idealism and many people and parties involved in the creation of the structure and the subjects. It might not seem obvious in the context of Kassel’s part of documenta 14, in which the documenta gGmbH is the continuous element between the editions of documenta and a preset infrastructure, but it becomes clearer regarding Athens where a whole new (infra-)structure had to be created.
From my experience talking to employees of documenta the creation of structure was a frustrating topic, too. One of the most exhausting performances for me is to adapt my own idealism to the non-functionality of an organization. Adam S. wanted to take documenta out of its comfort zone and in my opinion organizationally it worked: Hierarchies were deconstructed. To me the lack of a traditional given structure resulted in a network of informal hierarchies in which the unavailability of nodes of the network could break down a lot of decisions to the level of individuals who then have to deal with their own despair, inability to move, feelings of being left alone, maneuvering in situations of unclear responsibilities and periods of waiting for feedback but never receiving one. The bright side of this stuttering network is the actual creation of consciousness for this situation and sometimes the chance to take decisions. Still we are not the free running individuals that can go wherever we want, be are restricted by social situations, histories of institutions that work outside and inside of us and interdependency. But we can challenge our limits by finding a way of navigating.
Isn’t that the learning process itself, too? The learning process how to create a structure with all its obstacles and unavailabilities? What is theoretical stimulation if not translated into action? Learning to create action and being in feedback relationships and paying close attention to the people involved? At the end of this essay I would claim that learning from Athens happens within the people involved in this process, that those who work on this documenta are the subjects that learn. It is indeed unfortunate that not much of it can be experienced by the audiences of the exhibition, or can it?
With MEMBRANE documenta made room for explorations of agency, and may give room for the implementation of reflection, evaluation and transformative forms of critique in the institution itself. If given attention documenta 14 will make itself vulnerable, the only chance of granting access of change. It also brings to light which kind of education and knowledge is required to give a chance of agency. It is to make transparent how this exhibition is built, its struggles, its fights, its working conditions, its structure, its negotiations and its compromises, without damaging it but with the aim of making it more accessible. It is not a specific academic knowledge, but a knowledge of how things are created together in order to enable a new aesthetic of togetherness and an option of people relating to art. It is false to assume that audiences hold this knowledge automatically. They even might feel the same anger of not knowing that I used to experience. Feelings of being excluded keep people from paying attention and from involving or interpreting the scores given as a gift to them, it holds them from enjoying this uncertainty. A lack of transparency may create trust issues, too. As an example: documenta being perceived as a colonial force against its will is exactly the result of not revealing the processes and intentions clashing behind the curtains.
This is not to demystify art. Revealing the background info, the person to person relationships behind it, still gives room to the joy and mystery of art. It does not take anything; it adds to it. However, I don’t want to say that documenta purposefully restricts information. It just hasn’t implemented moments of reflection and feedback in the extend it could have in a dream reality. Still there are and were many aspirations of making itself transparent, like my very position or the many public moments before the exhibition. Why this couldn’t happen more inclusively should be part of another essay which will touch more upon the time, financial and organizational structure of documenta and documenta 14.
*I have written this text before the opening in Athens. After visiting the exhibition, I tend to see the endeavor on another scale again. I wasn’t expecting the media echo and see on which level this exhibition may have an impact, too. It is kind of strange that what is reflected upon in most of the media is the “content” of documenta 14, like who is exhibited and of course: Why Athens? These tend to be the primary stimuli. Sometimes, when I read an article I was surprised how much background info they had gathered on the artists, but how little they reflected on the modes of production or even the discursive context documenta provided with the South magazine themselves. It might be due to the economy of attention: documenta14 is so rich in occasions to reflect upon, that only what is perceived to be the most important is covered by media. Without intending it, the variety of matters creates a hierarchy of experience and voice again. Next to all the intense struggles of creating a process that starts earlier and lasts longer than the actual exhibition, the event-character and the lack of display of the process takes over in this hierarchy.
Author: Amelie Jakubek