Agents Who Came in from the Cold

dOCUMENTA (13) Artistic Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, spoke with Noemi Smolik about creating the exhibition and throwing out the concept

Von links nach rechts: Mark Dion (sitzend), Cary Fowler, Marta Kuzma, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Amar Kanwar

From left to right: Mark Dion (sitting), Cary Fowler, Marta Kuzma, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Amar Kanwar

Noemi Smolik How was your trip to the North Pole?

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev Wonderful! I was 600 kilometres from the North Pole with two artists – one from India, one from the US – and one of my agents. It was a research trip for dOCUMENTA (13). We were in an area where there were 2,000 people and 3,000 bears. Things look a bit different when you change your point of view like that.

NS You’ve said that dOCUMENTA (13) feels less like an exhibition and more like a state of mind. What’s your state of mind just now?

CCB Well, the state of responsibility. It’s like having a blessing and a burden. The burden is a sense of huge responsibility towards culture at large, the blessing is that because there were so many fantastic art works made for documenta over the years – I think of Walter De Maria’s Vertical Earth Kilometre created for documenta 6 in 1977 or Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks which began at documenta 7 in 1982 – this exhibition has such great potential in our imaginary system of what art is and can be. Everybody takes documenta very seriously.

NS You’ve said that dOCUMENTA (13) is not only an exhibition but also a place to explore ideas. What’s the most important idea you want to explore?

CCB The idea I think about the most is how to make a meaningful cultural project without a concept. But if you do something without a concept, you could easily just end up with a very good art fair. If the only difference is the concept – and then you remove it – how is the exhibition different? The question of the concept is the most important thing because the concept is now overshadowing the work of culture. Take Facebook for example. Here, the concept of communicating is overshadowing what is being communicated, and it creates narcissistic disorders in the society. Sometimes I believe that the fact that it was possible to put the video on the Internet of the Buddhas of Bamiyan being blown up in 2001 may have even been an indirect cause of the decision to blow them up. So sometimes concepts influence reality in ways that can be a disaster.

NS How do you see the Internet’s role?

CCB We’re in the 21st century after 30 to 40 years of the digital revolution, after 20 years of the Internet revolution. This means that the premise of a system of power is the production of knowledge. It starts with the fact that the most important producers of wealth in the society are the intellectuals who do the calculations, make the software and so forth. We’re in a society that many people call knowledge capitalism or cognitive capitalism. It doesn’t mean that there are no factory workers. If you looked at the beginning of the industrial age in the 18th and 19th centuries, it didn’t mean that there were no more farmers. But what was politically relevant in terms of articulating a new system of the world and power were the industrial labourers. Today, of course, you have factories, and you have farmers, but the class of workers who are the most vital for establishing the new system of power in the 21st century are the creative people, intellectuals, mathematicians, quantum physicists, artists, designers, among others. The world of art is a place for critical consciousness, not a place where you change the world but where you ask questions. I believe that art not only represents but is also a way to durcharbeiten – or a way of ‘working through’ the society in which the artists live. But that work doesn’t have to be done through the content – it can be through the form, style, technique, methodology, formats, procedures and so on. The politics of the work is often in the politics of the form, not necessarily of the content, as so many people have said and proven throughout the 20th century, well before Jacques Rancière popularised these notions in his writings.

NS How do you find a way to deal with all of these problems without using any concepts in the exhibition?

CCB There are hundreds of thousands of ways. For example, the catalogue has almost exploded into the series of notebooks ‘100 Notes – 100 Thoughts’. They’re going to explode the coherent catalogue and are coming out successively between now and the exhibition. I don’t even know who the authors of the last notebooks will be, nor do I have a coherent concept for them. But there is a tone – a dOCUMENTA (13) tone of unlearning, a form of assured tentativeness.

NS What about the exhibition?

CCB Same thing. It’s a similar process of organic growth. You see time is both the resource and the burden of documenta. dOCUMENTA (13) time is very slow. Some of the artists whom I’m working with were invited by me a long time before they were invited to exhibitions taking place this summer. I’m thinking of Mariana Castillo Deball or Omer Fast, Llyn Foulkes or Ryan Gander in Venice. It’s the same with Allora & Calzadilla who have been chosen to do the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale or Dora Garcia who will do the Spanish pavilion. Or Mariam Ghani and Amar Kanwar at the Sharjah Biennial. These things occurred after we started to think about documenta together. So documenta has all this time, which seems like a great burden in our age of speed and simultaneity, but this slowness can become a great asset. There’s another thing about the 20th and the 21st century. Beuys was one of the artists most invited to documenta in the last century. Amar Kanwar also isn’t new to documenta and has been in twice since Catherine David. The fact that in the beginning of this century one of the most invited artists is going to be from India says a lot about how the world is changing.

NS The world has become less Eurocentric. How do you try to overcome Eurocentrism?

CCB I don’t need to do anything because it’s already completely overcome. I don’t believe that there ever really was a European Eurocentric idea in the first place, though I believe the colonial project was horrid. I grew up partly in Italy, and my mother was an archaeologist. When you have an archaeologist in the family, you know that things are much more complicated than people think. The biggest mistake of postcolonial theory in the West was that the theorists were talking about something that really was not European at all – it was Northern European, 18th–century notions of aesthetics, like Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s. Ancient Greek culture was not forward thinking; it was not Eurocentric – it was mythical thinking and shared, especially in the pre-Socratic era, much with indigenous philosophies around the world. So I’m not exactly part of Eurocentrism. I’m an internationalist in the old way of thinking, against the nationalisms of the 19th century. Indeed, I really believe in the internationalism of singularities and commonalities, and that’s not about separate cultures coming together. I think it is a very silly thing to say ‘Central Asian culture’ or ‘Indian culture’ – there are millions of singularities and shades of grey.

NS Last January, you named your agent Chus Martínez as a ‘Member of Core Group, Head of Department’. Shortly after her nomination, she gave the lecture ‘aren’t we living in a world where headless men only desire decapitated women?’ at the New Museum in New York. Does this title mean that dOCUMENTA (13) is going to be a feminist show?

CCB That’s a fantastic question because it means that you think about what the agents are doing. Making the system of agents was already a part of that process of an absent concept. There are different ways of being an agent: acting on a stage, being on retreat, being under siege and being in a state of hope, to cite a few examples. Chus is not the head of the agents because we did something very Surrealist. She is the Head of Department, but nobody says what the department is. She could be the head of the department of gardening. When I made her title, I was actually thinking of Marcel Broodthaers’ Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968–72). I was thinking about him because I think a lot about post-Surrealism. Surrealism was a very open organic movement if you look at how different Surrealist groups were popping up all over the world. The Surrealists in Cairo, the Surrealists in Mexico… Usually Surrealism is eliminated from the postcolonial and Postmodern discussion. Why? Because Surrealism doesn’t fit in those definitions. The revolutionary potential of the imagination, which is a Surrealist concept, is incredible, fantastic. That was a pretty Surrealist title for Chus. But to answer your question, I think that dOCUMENTA (13) is indeed feminist, not post-feminist, because I don’t think feminism ever ended. So it is feminist, but that doesn’t mean that an overwhelming number of the artists will be women. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that the works are about gender… Many artists are feminist, some of them are men. For me, Francis Alÿs is a feminist artist for sure, even though he never speaks about men or women or gender, and William Kentridge is a feminist artist. It’s quite clear who are the feminists and who are not. It has to do with formal, procedural, stylistic, technical and conceptual frameworks based on uncertainty and tentativeness, it has to do with knowing that there’s no inside nor outside to our bodies – only the theories of interrelated Möbius strips.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011

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