Instead of Cracking Cases, Kassel’s Special documenta Police Must Answer the Question: Is This Art?

The officers are becoming quite the connoisseurs, we hear.

Police officers walk pass the "Parthenon of Books" created by the Argentinian artist Marta Minujin during the official opening of the documenta 14 in Kassel. Photo: BORIS ROESSLER/AFP/Getty Images.

With documenta 14 well underway, the head of Kassel police department’s special documenta task force, Lars Viereck, recently spoke to HNA, a regional newspaper in Kassel. He recalled an incident during this year’s exhibition in which he observed two Asian women, in a car parked in a spot for the disabled. They were pulling on balaclavas over their heads.

“Are they preparing a robbery,” Viereck says he asked himself, “or is it only a performance?”

In fact, the women were tourists hoping to capture a unique selfie in front of Marta Minujín‘s much-photographed Parthenon replica made from banned books.

Daniel Knorr, Expiration Movement, (2017). Fridericianum Kassel. Photo © Bernd Borchardt, Courtesy Galerie nächst St. Stephan

Daniel Knorr, Expiration Movement, (2017). Fridericianum Kassel. Photo © Bernd Borchardt, Courtesy Galerie nächst St. Stephan

Such are the joys of policing the city-spanning contemporary art event, a task which has led Kassel’s police force to create the special documenta unit to make sure there is no mischief or wrongdoing during the festival. Much of the unit’s efforts are spent on the specialized task of deducing whether any out-of-the-ordinary activity is a spectacle associated with the exhibition or a criminal incident that requires law enforcement to intervene. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

In another example, a concerned member of the public reported white smoke billowing from the Fridericianum, documenta’s primary exhibition venue. Was it harmless art or a deadly inferno? “That’s normal, it’s art,” officer Oliver Stiebing reassured the visitor, according to the German press agency DPA. (The smoke piece, Expiration Movement, is a work by Daniel Knorr.)

Not surprisingly, Kassel’s documenta unit spends more time advising tourists than fighting crime. The cops field all sorts of questions: Is this performance part of documenta’s program? Where is the box office? And so on.

A common thing for the unit, according to reports, is for visitors to confront officers in front of Minujin’s Parthenon of Books, asking, “Where is the art?”

Officer Petra Gummer even reports being asked by a visitor if she was a real cop. “She [the tourist] probably thought I was part of the exhibition,” Gummer joked.

If the police don’t know the answer to a question, they can always ask documenta’s own dedicated security team, with whom they are in constant radio contact. “They help us clear things up quickly,” officer Stiebing told DPA.

Thankfully the crime rate in Kassel remains fairly low, even when documenta rolls around and the entire art world decamps to the small German town. “So far we’ve only had very few cases of pickpocketing,” Viereck reports. “After all, people are here to look at art, not cause trouble.”

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