This years’ documenta—dOCUMENTA (13) titled with a small d as a subtle typographic gesture to create a distinctive branding —is sited around the city of Kassel with over 180 art projects, mostly new commissions. With a budget of thirty five million euros, it is the most expensive contemporary art exhibition in the world.
I visited dOCUMENTA (13) during the opening dates of the exhibition. Everyone spoke of the curator’s peculiar approach, choices, and her eccentric personality. The idea of the star curator is relentlessly promoted in the growing numbers of biennials and triennials all over the world, without bearing on the quality or content of the exhibitions. But nevertheless, the organizers use the lure of the curator-figure as a cheap marketing strategy. In fact three months before the opening, a press kit landed on blogs, featuring curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in various glamor shots with different outfits. With almost no mention of the participating artists, the emphasis was on the curator as the sole mastermind.
These days, biennial openings are eerily like business events. Museum directors, gallery owners, collectors and schmoozing artists form a toxic bubble, diluting art’s effectiveness for a salient alternative future, transforming it into any other commercial activity. But one has to ignore all this to see the content and the hard work put into the exhibition by thousands of cultural producers. A biennial is best navigated by creatively selecting the sources to read, the people to speak with, the restaurants to eat at, and the events to participate in. Even so, it is exhausting to spend three days to see all the work. I have to admit that I could not watch all the films or visit all the sites.
Nevertheless, compared to many other contemporary art biennials, with its scope and careful execution, documenta is still a very exceptional experience. Since the organizers have an extensive time period to put the exhibition together, from its research to its commissioned projects, it provides a vigorous snapshot of the current state of contemporary art. Because of its scholarly yet experimental approach and keen emphasis on new works, it has become the most anticipated art event in the world. This years iteration, dOCUMENTA (13), proves to be worth the anticipation. In addition to the exhibition, an intense schedule of public programs, including lectures, film screenings, and performances are spread over its 100 days duration leading to rich encounters no matter when you visit the city of Kassel.
Christov-Bakargiev points out that the exhibition’s main focus is “artistic research and forms of imagination” that problematizes the idea of logo centric progress by actively bringing “sensual and energetic” artworks, which operate with a strong theoretical focus. In general, dOCUMENTA (13) does not have a definitive theme. Instead, it has a scope that reflects a complex set of intellectual propositions and different artistic approaches. The exhibition successfully weaves various politically acute art practices together as a grand poetic narrative. Many of these art projects explicitly tackle global and historical events, namely the Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan, European colonialist histories, and of course, the Occupy Movement. It would not be fair to make easy generalizations for such a big exhibition, but for the most part, as highlighted by the curatorial statement, one can identify the crystallization of a trend, which was apparent in the last couple of decades: research-based art practices.
But, how is so-called artistic research different than an ethnographic account by an anthropologist who employs visual research tools? Can art practice address urgent socio-political topics successfully? In that regard, before looking into some of the interesting projects within the show, I would like to highlight the importance of artistic research and raise some questions regarding its possibilities.
A reference to research usually implies a specific social [or natural] scientific methodology or combination of tools and techniques that are employed to identify certain patterns in natural or social worlds. When we use the terms research and artistic in conjunction, it immediately creates a difficulty as it refers to a systematic and somewhat verifiable approach mixed with personal expression.
In contrast to any scientific model that aims to either explain, or interpret social or natural phenomena, the outcome of artistic research can be best measured by its ability to engage with seemingly unrelated matters, things and concepts, and in return with its ability to generate some forms of intelligible affects. When an artist enters into a social realm to conduct research, intuition allows her/him to generate in-situ knowledge, therefore a particularly practical intellectual opening. In this regard, in artistic research, more so than any other scientific exploration, intuition is utilized as a method to identify a wide range of modalities. As explained by Henri Bergson (later critically expanded by Gilles Deleuze), intuition differs from knowledge (something known), but it is never the transcended (pure idea).
Intuition, anchored in material reality, is somewhere between the action to be taken and knowledge that was inherited. For instance, a painter, poet or carpenter knows what to do next without actually knowing what is to be experienced; their whole body operates as a whole. Intuition serves as an activator for the possibility of changing the ways in which the normal intellect operates. Intuition allows a creative opening, a unique moment where new types of knowledge can emerge. For that matter, one can argue that artistic research aims to create a type of knowledge, which is ultimately a synthesis of the new experience of the artists and intellectual operations they engage. We need to think of artistic research as a different, but totally legitimate, way of understanding social phenomenon. I will illuminate how this works in my next post focused on “The Afghan Seminars” at documenta.