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In Conversation with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Lisette Lagnado, Instituto Goethe, São Paulo, 16 September 2010
Where to begin? What will the first question be in the mind of the curator of a Documenta, if not to review the realizations of her predecessors?

I know, it is an enormous task to seek to understand “what is the role of the Documentas in the history of art exhibitions?” If it weren’t for it, there would be no way to speak of the “curator as producer,” “curator as critic,” “curator as educator,” “curator as cultural agent,” “curator as mediator,” “curator as artist,” “curator as activist,” “curator as ethnographer,” “curator as translator,” “curator as editor,” “curator as citizen”... and we can’t leave out the “curator as iconoclast” of Boris Groys.

If you would choose a class to be conducted by a specialist (to discuss and explore the inheritance of the Documentas), I would suggest that you reserve a time to consider, at the end of the conversation with Carolyn, the problem of the spatialization of artworks. Setting up a large group show in a way that will support a narrative is a theme that has become central over the last 60 years, with notable influences on the agenda of museography.[1]

This centrality is owing to the importance given to the aesthetic perception of the visiting public, whether laymen or specialists: contemporary art is not defined only by an eventual intrinsic quality of the objects shown, as at an art fair, but rather by its capacity to create an atmosphere, an environment. Therefore, all the specifics, including the placement of the artworks, their height on the wall, the color of the panels, the distance between the works and the distance between the works and the spectator, the lighting, the graphic information... a great many details – which, we know, are not details – are the soul of the exhibition.

The Kassel Documenta is a key reference in contemporary art worldwide. It would be worthwhile to investigate the factors which contributed to the construction of its prestige based on the quality of its critical reflection on art. After all, its merit is considered to lie more in its capacity to propose a historicization of art than in its choice of artworks [2] on the other hand, we know that this historicization can no longer be focused exclusively on Germany, or in the Western Europe of the Cold War, but should comprise an entire, global sociopolitical context.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev presented here “what/whom a Documenta is meant for,” “what is necessary” and a little of her “curatorial methodology.”

Exchanging curatorial ideas and experiences alongside her sends me forcefully back to the place I occupied in 2005 and 2006, as chief curator of the 27th Bienal de São Paulo. The proposal for that edition was subjected to a selection process that had never been used in the history of the Bienal up to then (and has not been repeated since). For the first time, the process for selecting a proposal for the Bienal was very similar, with some differences, to the procedure of a Documenta. To wit:

A group of “notable people” (including museum directors and curators of cultural institutions from different parts of the world) get together to make a checklist of possible candidates;

this list is discussed and is usually reduced to about five names;

the candidates are invited in a confidential way to come up with a proposal specifying only the conceptual guidelines (with a one-month deadline, in the case of the São Paulo Bienal);

each proposal is analyzed among the members of the organizing committee, which subsequently receives the authors separately for one or more personal interviews, at which certain points are gone into in more detail.

I imagine that other large shows around the world have a similar procedure for choosing the artistic director of the biennials of Venice, Istanbul, Sydney, etc.

At the Fundação Bienal, it is understood that the appointment of the chief curator is the prerogative of the foundation’s president. The last ten years of the Bienal de São Paulo’s history have evidenced the type of interference and multifold, improper links between the executive direction and the intellectual proposal, jeopardizing the freedom of expression of both the curator and the artist, who are committed with a rigorous program of reflection.

In this sense, discussing the prestige of a show with an international character necessarily involves the question of the professionalization of the curatorial work.


The first part of my presentation seeks to place roughly the critical source of Documenta, its challenges and missions from modernity to globalization. Some accounts are perhaps on the order of the myth - I'm thinking here, specifically, on the distance and independence from the sensationalism of the media and the market [Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan ...]

In the second part I try to answer if there is a possible match between São Paulo Biennial and the exhibition in Kassel.

For these two parts I need to establish the historical curve of each of these exhibitions and, finally, I hope, address some more specific examples. It would be interesting to see the Documenta files and further studies on the critical reception of Documenta in Brazil - which certainly differs from the receipt of such shows in Europe, Africa and Afghanistan [3]


1. Critical Sources of Documenta

A. Of modernity to globalization

There is much talk of the multiplication of biennial exhibitions of contemporary art. Neither Documenta may be compared to a Biennial or the Bienal de São Paulo is one among other biennials.

At first, what unites these two exhibitions is the strength of their historical tradition. That is, two successful art forms in terms of scale and inaugural ambition and both appear in the 1950s (1951 and 1955):

Bienal de São Paulo is the unfolding of the work as "patron" of the Italian-Brazilian industrialist Cicilo Matarazzo whom, since 1944, harboured the desire to bring the European modernity to Brazil [4] - first BSPs present major works by Picasso, Giacometti, George Grosz and others;

Documenta is an initiative with a redemptive mission of the German identity: to rescue the modern art banned during the Nazi regime.

Therefore, both are born "modern", aiming at setting or adjusting the pace of society with their time. That said, it is important to emphasize that they are not the results of the same spirit of construction and progress.

Another difference concerns the willingness of every little town today to invent on its own biennial. The current intention is to belong to the circuit of cultural tourism. And here's a warning to hasty enthusiasts: do not confuse the internationalization claimed in the 1950s with today's already globalized world.

B. The "time" factor

When Carolyn’s team opens their Documenta 13 in 2012; the São Paulo Biennial will be on the eve of his thirtieth edition. Even though they have emerged virtually together, a 17 exhibitions difference separates the two events. It is assumed that each has accumulated consonant knowledge and experience with the pace of their schedules: while Documenta rethinks itself every five years, the BSP redraws its goals every two years.

It is immediately obvious the first feature that makes Documenta an unique event in its kind: between the artistic director's name is announced and the opening of the exhibit four years have elapsed in Kassel’s example; while in Brazil, at best, the curator has a year and a half to put in motion a machine that dismantles itself piece by piece. Preparation time given is far from negligible.

We would go too far following with sociological considerations to reflect on the speed ranges between continental Europe and the Americas, but it’s worth remembering that, besides Documenta, the Germans still keep, since 1977, another exhibition set at larger intervals: Sculpture Projects Münster, which takes place every ten years!

Time has, therefore, been the greatest asset of Documenta as to counter the rampant anxiety in search of the "new." It is the essence of Documenta to prospect, i.e. research: make deep analysis and direct the prospecting to a precise point. It doesn’t seem to be a space for gambling [in four years, any bets would become anachronistic or would leak to the market], but a fertile ground to explore a hypothesis yet scientifically unproven.

For any curator, Documenta assembles certain dreamed conditions that allow him to receive a visionary idea, able to propose again, from time to time, a distinct space for enjoyment - remembering that the main building that houses part the of the exhibition is the Friedericianum Museum (opened in 1779):  the first public museum of the European continent and Documenta abandons the slogan "100-day museum" to "100-day event."

But is time an only positive stock? In the world of instant communication having four years to organize an event does not turn into an obsolete, without agility, machine? What kind of prospecting awaits knowing that the anachronism is a trap that swallows the most promising prospects?

C. Challenges and mission

The first challenge is to tackle the numerous demolitions of art theories. There are several trends and no one understands one another when it comes to discussing the autonomy of art and the critique of this autonomy, the constant reassessment of modernity and utopian projects, the dystopia and heterotopia as anti-nostalgic narratives, the resistance strategies and activism in spontaneous organizations; the possibility of taking these events as an informal way to understand the contemporary "social classes"; the advancement of spectacle and entertainment and so on in an endless succession of questions.

Another challenge is to maintain a kind of visibility in the capitalist agenda of ideas and the news, between the announcement of dOCUMENTA 13 in 2008 and the opening of the event in 2012 - assuming that Carolyn will propose an exhibition, because not even today it is an assurance given by the curator.

Strategies vary. In documenta 12, this visibility counted on the platform of around 100 publications (journals and magazines) from around the world. For the next edition, the website is being fueled by an artistic initiative titled AND AND AND [5]

But all these sprayed efforts refer to what exactly, but a reality that lurks in the insidious passage from the exhibition Documenta into an event? Again, it is worth listening to what each context meant to convey in its own time. In this case, the difficult equation that the exhibition placed with Harald Szeemann’s turning point in 1972, Documenta V, for today no one competes with reality shows.

Not being a historical exhibition made from established names and assuming the present and the future continents as asking to be explored, what’s the mission now? The curator's task would compare to a little objective and purely subjective task: a promising exhibition as a ”stock market", which anticipates a useful idea for the future by launching a platform for talent still unpublished.

Hence, if the artist enjoys the privilege that allows him announce, anticipate, we know that the task of critique requires an opposite type of reasoning: joining, writing, collecting, restoring, setting ... Therefore, to break with established patterns of reading and found a new paradigm for the interpretation of art and its present and future time: there is no more evident vocabulary than the expectation of launching a continuous vanguard, which remains the heaviest burden that the curator of Documenta receives when appointed.

D. Vanguard curatorship and critical curatorship

And that's not what happens? When we analyze both Catherine David’s Documenta X (1997) and the Paulo Herkenhoff’s XXIV Biennal (1998), there are some similarities: angry trials during the exhibition were replaced over the years by a consecration as "the best Documenta" and "the best Bienal de São Paulo”.

That means admitting a "before" and an "after" in proposing a curatorial narrative. It means, in the cases above, admit the correctness of retroprospective and anthropofagism, to name just a concept of each, of discursive devices and assembling (display), and the adequacy of a critical system to account for both historical and contemporary manifestations.

From Documenta 9, the exhibition absorbed artistic manifestations located in countries outside of the hegemonic centers of diffusion of culture. In Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta (11) this footpath was explored to the fullest with the post-colonial studies, provoking another crisis in relation to the future of the exhibition.

The crux of the matter is work simultaneously nowadays with the following paradox: without wishing to seek a universal paradigm, is it necessary to summon other forms of artistic expression.  But how to do it without butchering their contexts? Or is it a whim? Are we still debating the "old" question raised by Walter Benjamin: how to shift (translate) an object from a context in which it enjoys a cult value to a context where it will have exposure value? [6]

Dispossessed of glamour (the brand, the clothes, the tech gadgets i-phone, i-pad, i-pod, i-mac etc..), the curator’s figure rehabilitates the movement of Baudelaire’s blinds: "dummies; somewhat ridiculous ; terrible, as unique as sleepwalkers." [7]

And  what are they looking for at the sky, curators-blind/blind-curators? Basically, they try to make sense of a drama called Zeigeist, "the spirit of time" in the philosophy of history [and carry the burden despite not being Germans], this is the drama that the curators of Documenta 12 illustrated with a copy of Klee’s Angelus Novus, famous for being read by Walter Benjamin.

Would the curator be the "angel of history" double, divided into a storm called globalization? [8]

Would the curator (Kassel’s, at least) bound to realize the cultural atmosphere and, to do so, travel the world in search of the right point of inflection between past and future?

Would it be Documenta’s fate that (once the task of regenerating a degenerate modernity is completed, which is to bring artists ostracized by the Nazi regime) is no longer content with the idea of a temporary museum and encompasses the event of 100 days?

Occupying this position is as challenging and thankless as it was to Greenberg to write the form of art criticism. However, in interviews or conferences, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev has said that Documenta is not an exhibition; it doesn’t deal with historicizing and would rather be in the range of a state of mind, since it assumes to itself the inability to historicize [9].

In conclusion: is it possible to remain critical?

The question that alarms me most is: when we know that all the sensitivity of an exhibition lies in its small details and links that it can establish within a body of work, would it be possible for one to maintain control of the project and orchestrate all the parties involved? When we know that Documenta is devoured by visitors who, at best, spend four or five days in Kassel to judge a work that took about four years to be done, when we know that the hours of films of Documenta 11 resulted longer than the whole period during which the show was open, when we know that Documenta has entered the canon and is no more "attitude”...

Is Documenta able to now answer whether it entered the circuit of the great shows as another form of entertainment? After all, wouldn’t the most interesting discussions be caused by lateral exposures of importance, modest scale, within small alternative programs?


2. Some possible correspondence between São Paulo Biennial and the exhibition in Kassel?

A. The betting paradox without error

I mentioned several "crises" and so far it doesn’t mean at all that Documenta’s identity crises has any resemblance to the crises of the Bienal de São Paulo. For what seems to me laudable to realise in this so distinct example is that the German show suffers from the very theoretical impasses that it poses itself. And every reopened crater invests again on the need to keep redefining what art is at the moment it is displayed. What better way to explain what is "contemporary"?

The fetishization of Documenta in Brazil (of course this only occurs in an over restrict context) comes from a paradox that I call the paradox of betting without error, which is to take a chance with the condition to (always) win. And it is so that, at least, the Brazil of my generation, received the echoes of each Documenta, always with flair of high-voltage novelty and all of them hitting bull’s eye! And "bull’s eye" meaning, for a country still with low self-esteem regarding the Great Powers, un-quest-ion-able ".

Today the picture has other nuances and gained complexity.

We went through so profound technological and social changes that people in this auditorium, for example, have no notion of what it was and still is like the geographical distance of Kassel, the difficulty and cost of travelling from one continent to another thirty years ago. It is a question to be asked to students that crowd curators training classrooms. They speak very lightly about dozens of aspects that haven’t been even experienced in Brazil. What real examples of curatorship by artist may be called?

How many of us have attended a single exhibition in Münster, the exhibition held every ten years that I mentioned earlier? I'll tell a revealing anecdote: it is likely to find a European artist around his 45 years who has visited in his childhood and youth the four editions of skulptur projekte. He might even be invited to the last edition due to a public project that makes explicit quotations from a selection of highlights from previous exhibitions, providing almost a little spacial guide [I'm thinking of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Roman de Münster, 2007]. This is an imaginable reality in the formation of a non-European artist!

It is not as prosaic as it seems to say that one particular trip to Kassel entered the travel itinerary of the Brazilian artist’s look about fifteen or twenty years ago [10]. The same can be said of the most respected Brazilian critic. Most certainly this is one of the new problems that Documenta must face henceforth, since it is included in the Grand Tour of cultural tourism trips.

B. A little of the critical reception of Documenta in Brazil

The history of Documenta begins, to the Brazilian circuit, from Documenta 8, 1987, which was directed by Manfred Schneckenburger. I quote here at least three discursive landmarks that emerge simultaneously through Sheila Leirner’s projects: the "end of grand narrative," "loss of utopia" and the "contamination between theory and artistic practice." I don’t recall another Bienal de Sao Paulo, before his editions of 1985 and 1987, which have bonded so clearly to an "internationalizing" vision of art - remembering that Sheila is also responsible for the noisy arrival the of German neo-expressionism stars and Italian transvanguard here.

But it's Jan Hoet’s Documenta IX (1992) which, in fact, leaves the seeds that have not yet been studied. I must tell you a little personal story.

At that time I worked as a reporter for Folha de São Paulo when it came by a Hoet’s employee, Bart de Baere (unforgettable for his height). The news leaked to the newspaper in a diametrically opposed way to the situation we are witnessing now. Bart was staying incognito, and didn’t expect nor intended to give an official statement, when I turn up to his hideout trying to extract some information about a possible participation of a Brazilian artist in the exhibition. Decades later, surprise hit me: browsing books randomly in a bookstore (in Stockholm?) I notice a publication (whose name I didn’t keep) that brings together various curators talking about their craft and there is Bart de Baere citing very jokingly our meeting. And he tells he only experienced the celebrity attributed to the curator when he was in Brazil by the way he was "discovered", "approached" and had his photograph enlarged in a newspaper of mass circulation...

About Catherine David, well known in our scene, I will not elongate. After Documenta X, she became regular visitor to the point of implementing the project "Sao Paulo / SA" here at Copan building.


3. Analogies and differences between the Biennial and Documenta in Kassel

I won’t have time to draw lines that cut across the history of the Biennial and Documenta in Kassel. I only recall Paulo Herkenhoff’s words when he was invited to ponder upon the ten years of his Biennial:

Kassel maintains its position as an exhibition of reflection. This cannot be created aiming at A’s, B’s or C’c, Richard Serra’s or Anselm Kiefer’s exposure

A potentially more interesting difference between São Paulo, Venice and Kassel is that the Bienal de São Paulo has a great city alive and productive behind; Kassel is a small borough and Venice, a tourist monument, a world cultural heritage. What I prepared myself to do was to  distance São Paulo from Venice and bring it closer to Kassel. That is, deviate from Venice’s political model to Kassel’s intellectual one. I did it on the sly so as not to frighten Ciccilio Matarazzo’s heirs. [...] [11]

Among various measures taken by Herkenhoff, I would highlight one that even today, remains repressed. The 24th Bienal de São Paulo established the removal of the term "international" from its title so as to become the international benchmark - "a less provincial environment than the Brazilian." [12]

[1] Jens Hoffmann launched a project in e-flux in 2003 that has resounded until today, to verify whether “the next Documenta should be curated by an artist.” Why “by” and not “with” the artists? This is not a mere deconstructionist conceit: there is a growing perception that Documenta cannot remain disconnected from artistic creativity only because it assumes an essentially critical thrust. Another question that perturbs the cultural authorities of Kassel are the rumors of moving the show from its city of origin, a proposal that Catherine David is said to have raised. According to Dieter Lesage, the project Would you like to participate in an artistic experience, by artist Ricardo Basbaum for Documenta 12, already pointed to this possibility. Cf. D. Lesage, “The Next Documenta Shouldn’t Be in Kassel.” e-flux Journal ≠ 1, December 2008.

[2] It is curious to observe that even the Documenta has joined in with the complaint against the critical reviews that pay little attention to the works of the artists, and instead focus exclusively on their curatorial aims.

[3] Intervention of Okwui Enwezor in the 1st Former West Research Congress, citing Helio Oiticica, is well intentioned but demands a little adjustment, synchronizing the Documenta file with the artist’s file.

[4] A. Fabris, “Um ‘fogo de palha aceso’: considerações sobre o primeiro momento do Museu de arte moderna de São Paulo”. In: MAM 60. São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 2008. (p. 23).

[5] AND AND AND is an artist run initiative, which will use the time between now and dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 to consider with individuals and groups across the world the role art and culture can play today and the constituent publics or communities which could be addressed. The series of interventions, situations, and occurrences entitled AND AND AND are part of dOCUMENTA (13) and will compose a map of emergent positions, concerns, and possible points of solidarity.   

[6] The titles of W. Benjamin’s texts are par excellence sources of inspiration for anyone who looks at the artist's work: "The translator’s task," "The Author as Producer”.

[7] C. Baudelaire, Les aveugles, in: Les Fleurs du mal. Tableaux parisiens. Published for the first time  on 15/10/1860 in the journal  L’Artiste.

[8] Cf. W. Benjamin, “Thèses sur la philosophie de l’histoire”. Paris: Denoël, 1971. “Il existe un tableau de Klee qui s’intitule Angelus Novus. Il représente un ange qui semble avoir dessein de s’éloigner de ce à quoi son regard semble rivé. Ses yeux sont écarquillés, sa bouche ouverte, ses ailes déployées. Tel est l’aspect que doit avoir nécessairement l’ange de l’histoire. Il a le visage tourné vers le passé. Où parait devant nous une suite d’évènements, il ne voit qu’une seule et unique catastrophe, qui ne cesse d’amonceler ruines sur ruines et les jette à ses pieds. Il voudrait bien s’y attarder, réveiller les morts et rassembler les vaincus. Mais du paradis souffle une tempête qui s’est prise dans ses ailes, si forte que l’ange ne peut plus les refermer. Cette tempête le pousse incessamment vers l’avenir auquel il tourne le dos, cependant que jusqu’au ciel devant lui s’accumulent les ruines. Cette tempête est ce que nous appelons le progrès.”
NT.: See W. Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Paris: Denoël, 1971. "There is a Klee painting entitled Angelus Novus. He is an angel who appears to have deliberately moved away from what his eyes seemed riveted. His eyes are staring, his mouth open, his wings. This is the aspect that must be the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Which seems to us a series of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and collect the vanquished. But a storm is blowing from Paradise who got caught in his wings, so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him constantly to the future that he turns his back, while up to heaven before him accumulate the ruins. This storm is what we call progress.”

[9] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Timur Shah Mausoleum in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2/06/2010. Viagem com Michael Taussig (antropólogo) e os artistas Francis Alÿs e Mario Garcia Torres.

[10] The adoption of foreign trips as reward or incentive for young artists is perhaps as old as the existence of Art Salons. Antarctica Artes together with Folha(de São Paulo) has awarded the winning artists with a trip to the Documenta in Kassel and the Venice Biennale that year.

[11] P. Herkenhoff, “Bienal 1998: princípios e processos”. In: marcelina | antropofágica, Revista do Mestrado em Artes Visuais da Faculdade Santa Marcelina, São Paulo, Fasm, 1º semestre de 2008.

[12] Cf. P. Herkenhoff, op. cit., p. 21.