Over 200 Artists Pen a Letter in Defense of Adam Szymczyk and documenta’s Organizers

Participating artists came to the defense of the financially strapped quinquennial.

Argentinian artist Marta Minujin poses inside the 'Parthenon of Books' at the Documenta 14 art exhibition in Kassel. Photo: RONNY HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images.

More than 200 artists who participated in documenta 14 have come to the defense of artistic director Adam Szymczyk and the financially beleaguered quinquennial in an open letter circulated by email on Monday. Artists including Emily Jacir, Geta Brătescu, Jonas Mekas, Piotr Uklanski, and Stanley Whitney are among the signatories.

News of documenta’s precarious financial situation came to light last week when the German newspaper HNA reported that the event’s joint owners, the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse, agreed to issue an emergency support package of €7 million ($8.3 million) to keep the exhibition up and running after the latest iteration, which closed yesterday, went drastically over budget.

In the letter, the artists criticized the “ancient financial warfare technique” of “shaming through debt,” explaining that “these terms of assessment have nothing to do with what the curators have made possible, and what the artists have actually done within this exhibition.”

The signatories represent the vast majority of the more than 250 artists who participated in documenta 14. Additional artists “continue to request [to have] their names added as word gets out,” according to an emailed statement accompanying the letter. The signatories suggested that the HNA article was an attempt “to politically subjugate” Szymczyk, documenta CEO Annette Kulenkampff, and other officials.

In their letter, the artists praised documenta 14’s decision to organize sprawling presentations in both Kassel and Athens, although HNA suggested that the Athens branch of the show was the primary reason for the overspending. “We applaud the decision by documenta 14 to not charge ticket prices in Athens,” the artists wrote. “In fact, more such moves of dislocation from comfort zones, and inclusion of multiplicity of voices, many standing outside of western hegemony, should be the future.”

The artists also reiterated the curatorial team’s assertion that the significance of art—and the success of an exhibition—cannot be measured by its financial return. “We are concerned about this urge to put ticket sales above art… We feel that casting a false shadow of criticism and scandal over documenta 14 does a disservice to the work that the artistic director and his team have put into this exhibition.”

The signatories praised documenta for its continued support of artists, especially those “not represented by commercial galleries,” those working “in non-material, ephemeral, and social practice,” and artists from parts of the world “still underrepresented in major art events.”

Not all exhibiting artists agreed with the letter, however. In a response posted on publishing platform e-flux, artist Georgia Sagri wrote that she didn’t understand “what this letter brings from the side of the artists” and questioned why the exhibiting artists should take responsibility to “save documenta as an institution” and “restore the reputation of its current curators.”

Although Sagri said she doesn’t regret participating in documenta 14, the demands of the project and the sensitivities surrounding the show did take their toll. “I lost friends and I didn’t make any new ones through this exhibition and that will take time to be restored,” Sagri wrote. “I didn’t make any money out of this exhibition and my life wasn’t improved.”

To read the artists’ letter in full and view the list of signatories, see below.

We the undersigned artists, writers, musicians, and researchers who participated in various chapters of the current documenta 14—Exhibition, Parliament of Bodies, South as a State of Mind, Listening Space, Keimena, Studio 14, An Education, EMST collection, and Every Time A Ear di Soun—wish to share some thoughts about the possibilities and potential of documenta. Firstly, we acknowledge those participants in documenta 14 whom we have not been able to reach at the time of writing, those with whom we could not get to consensus, those participants no longer living, and especially those who passed away while participating in documenta 14. We write this in the context of the invitation of “Learning from Athens,” and the idea of first unlearning the familiar. We also take note of documenta’s specific history as a response to the evil of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We see that initial, painful legacy evolving toward an imaginative and discursive space that can contribute toward challenging war capitalism, unjust borders, and ecological suicide.

The initial iterations of documenta rose in the shadow of rebuilding, after a World War that caused Adorno to disavow a future for poetry. From the 1990s, the exhibition joined a global turn toward decentering the Western art-historical canon, by beginning to emancipate institutions, venues, and universities. There was a welcome, and overdue, acceleration of the presence of artists, theorists, and thinkers from the Global South, starting from documenta 10 (Catherine David), continuing through documenta 11 (Okwui Enwezor), documenta 12 (Roger Buergel / Ruth Noack), and documenta 13 (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev). documenta also began a spatial decentering, initiated by documenta 11 with platforms in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos. This was followed by documenta 12 magazine, a network of 100 magazines world-wide, and documenta 13, with satellite projects in Kabul, Alexandria, and Banff. It is in line with documenta’s long heritage of decentering, and decolonizing, that we welcomed the decision to launch documenta 14 as a dialogue between Athens and Kassel.

documenta 14’s Athens chapter began a full two years before the official opening, with the launch of the South as a State of Mind journal in 2015, the weekly public program Parliament of Bodies in 2016, and finally, the opening of documenta 14 | Athens in April 2017, two months before Kassel. documenta 14’s curatorial team worked to encourage autonomous spaces, free of authoritative statements or frameworks. However, criticism appeared immediately, focusing on budget and infrastructure, with far less attention paid to the artworks, journal, radio, public TV, live music, education, and public programs. A few critics did raise some points that were also being debated among the artists and curators. One of those centered on the challenges of working with local communities in an environment of equality and partnership, while working within large exhibition infrastructures. Another question was whether large exhibitions are the best venue for breaking down discursive hegemonies. documenta 14 had a shared commitment to preserving the autonomy of local spaces and communities, and conducting conversations around culture within a dynamic of mutual exchange, respect, and curiosity.

Recently, criticisms of documenta 14 have been expanded to suggest that a deficit in the operating budget is primarily due to the Athenian chapter of documenta. We are concerned about this urge to put ticket sales above art, and we believe that Arnold Bode would have rejected this as distorting the purpose for which he gifted documenta to Kassel. We applaud the decision by documenta 14 to not charge ticket prices in Athens. We should also consider the responsibility to address the economic war fought by European institutions against the Greek population, during the recent debt crisis. We feel that casting a false shadow of criticism and scandal over documenta 14 does a disservice to the work that the artistic director and his team have put into this exhibition. Shaming through debt is an ancient financial warfare technique; these terms of assessment have nothing to do with what the curators have made possible, and what the artists have actually done within this exhibition.

What should be highlighted are the positive impacts of exchanges within documenta, including the decentering that occurred through the exhibition.This has caused a creative friction that is an active dialogue between citizens, communities, and institutions of Athens, Kassel, and the rest of the world. This is only a first step, and conversation must continue in coming years. In fact, more such moves of dislocation from comfort zones, and inclusion of multiplicity of voices, many standing outside of western hegemony, should be the future. What we do not need is a neoliberal logic, as well as its institutional critique, that does not allow the possibility of alternative methods, stories, and experiences.

One aspect that makes documenta remarkable is its support of large numbers of artists who are not represented by commercial galleries, and in fact work in non-material, ephemeral, and social practices. Many come from regions and countries still underrepresented in major art events. Naturally, many of the works produced here very consciously suggested proposals for equality and solidarity. We understood this exhibition to be a listening documenta. The curatorial team took care to listen closely and carefully to artists, rather than imposing a top-down curatorial will. The exhibition tried to be inclusive, as well as specific, emphasizing people and stories from the so-called periphery, and voices belonging to those who have faced, and overcome, hardship. Whether in crisis or inflection point, enquiry was encouraged, challenging the more frequent move of wanting to own other peoples’ understanding. The curatorial innovation was to create the space for such an encounter, in Athens and Kassel.

There are many interventions, by the artistic director and curatorial team, which brought together new configurations and dialogue between generations of artists, much of which is invisible to the critics. Also crucial has been the displaying of rare historic material, some of it centuries old and from all parts of the world, some of which has never been displayed in a museum. By commissioning new work in dialogue with centuries-old heritage, new alliances were created across territories and times. The juxtaposition of stories from all over the globe can be disorienting, but that is precisely the point of the structure of this exhibition. Large gestures have to be measured alongside hundreds of small ones to make a complex whole, all going towards globalizing the art historical canon. The challenge for all of us—artists, critics, and audiences—has been to experience that complexity, while subjected to practical economic constraints. We need to think of more economically egalitarian ways of viewing a large exhibition, while resisting the dominant narrative that is singularity (“the Athens model”) over complexity (what actually happened in Athens and Kassel).

documenta was founded as a brave response to a dark history. The 1933 Nazi regime received support from Nuremberg and Kassel, because of the presence of the arms industries. On February 11, 1933, eleven days after taking power, Hitler spoke at the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. On November 7, 1938, two days before Kristallnacht in other German cities began, Kassel and surrounding villages saw anti-Jewish pogroms. In archival footage of trains carrying people to concentration camps, the insignia “Deutsche Reichsbahn Kassel” is visible on some carriages. After 1945, in order to erase this Nazi legacy, Nuremberg hosted war crimes trials, and, ten years later, Kassel hosted the first documenta. Kassel’s central Friedrichsplatz was bifurcated, so that no spatial trace of the 1933 rally remains. In light of this unique founding history, documenta’s unique mission has always been, and must continue to be, encouraging conversations in the contemporary arts that can oppose the spectres of nationalism, neo-nazism, and fascism that are still haunting the planet.

The world has transformed many times over since 1955. Western Europe is no longer the center of contemporary exhibition making. It is being challenged to take its place as one among equals, as Asia, Latin America, Africa, Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe come forward to claim their presence. The current documenta continues the arc of the previous four documentas, by highlighting the edges of Europe, the voices of Global South realities, and the presences that press against heteronormativity. Receiving the world, as equals, contrary to anxieties, also contributes to radiance. The contemporary arts no longer looks toward a European exhibition to lead the way in ideas about what art can do, and what it should do. However, Kassel does exercise influence in contemporary art discussions that are emerging from many locations (Bamako, Beirut, Bucharest, Cairo, Dakar, Gwangju, Havana, Istanbul, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Kochi, Ljubljana, Mexico City, Moscow, New Orleans, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Sharjah, Warsaw, Zagreb, and numerous others). We ask the documenta supervisory board to vigorously defend the curatorial team’s vision of documenta 14, and future curatorial teams to continue to make exhibitions that are accessible to all, and that decenter art history, challenge war and nationalism, and fight against the poisoning of the planet.

Signed,

1) Aboubakar Fofana
2) Achim Lengerer
3) Agnes Denes
4) Ahlam Shibli
5) Aki Onda
6) Akio Suzuki
7) Akinbode Akinbiyi
8) Alessandra Pomarico
9) Alexandra Bachzetsis
10) Alvin Lucier
11) Amar Kanwar
12) Amelia Jones
13) Anca Daučíková
14) Andreas Angelidakis
15) Andreas Kasapis
16) Andrew Feinstein
17) Andrius Arutiunian
18) Angela Dimitrakaki
19) Angela Melitopoulos
20) Angelo Plessas
21) Angela Ricci Lucchi
22) Anna Papaeti
23) Anna Sorokovaya
24) Annie Vigier
25) Annie Sprinkle
26) Anthony Burr
27) Anton Lars
28) Antonio Negri
29) Antonio Vega Macotela
30) Apostolos Georgiou
31) Arin Rungjang
32) Artur Zmijewski
33) Ashley Hans Scheirl
34) Athena Katsanevaki
35) Banu Cennetoglu
36) Ben Russell
37) Beth Stephens
38) Bonita Ely
39) Boris Baltschun
40) Boris Buden
41) Bouchra Khalili
42) Brett Neilson
43) Cana Bilir-Meier
44) Cecilia Vicuna
45) Christina Kubisch
46) Christos Chondropoulos
47) Click Ngwere
48) Colin Dayan
49) Conrad Steinmann
50) Constantinos Hadzinikolaou
51) Dan Peterman
52) Daniel Garcia Andújar
53) Daniel Knorr
54) David Harding
55) David Lamelas
56) David Schutter
57) David Scott
58) Debbie Valencia
59) Denise Ferreira da Silva
60) Dimitris Papanikolaou
61) Dimitris Parsanoglou
62) Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat)
63) Edi Hila
64) EJ McKeon
65) Elisabeth Lebovici
66) Elle Marja Eira
67) Emanuele Braga
68) Emeka Ogboh
69) Emily Jacir
70) Eric Alliez
71) Eva Stefani
72) Evelyn Wangui Gichuhi
73) Feben Amara
74) Franck Apertet
75) Franco “Bifo” Berardi
76) Ganesh Haloi
77) Gauri Gill
78) Geeta Kapur
79) Gert Platner
80) Geta Bratescu
81) Gordon Hookey
82) Guillermo Galindo
83) Guillermo Gomez-Pena
84) Hans D) Christ
85) Hans Eijkelboom
86) Hans Haacke
87) Hiwa K
88) Ibrahim Mahama
89) Ibrahim Quraishi
90) Irena Haiduk
91) Iris Dressler
92) Itziar González Virós
93) Jack Halberstam
94) Jan St) Werner
95) Jakob Ullmann
96) Jess Ballinger-Gómez
97) Joana Hadjithomas
98) Joar Nango
99) Johan Grimonprez
100) Jonas Broberg
101) Jonas Mekas
102) Josef Schreiner
103) Joulia Strauss
104) Katalin Ladik
105) Kettly Noël
106) Lala Meredith-Vula
107) Lassana Igo Diarra
108) Lenio Kaklea
109) Lois Weinberger
110) Lucien Castaing-Taylor
111) Lukas Rickli (Kukuruz Quartet)
112) Macarena Gomez-Barris
113) Magali Arriola
114) Manthia Diawara
115) Maret Anne
116) Maria Eichhorn
117) Maria Hassabi
118) Maria Iorio
119) Marianna Maruyama
120) Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci
121) Marina Gioti
122) Marta Minujin
123) Mary Zygouri
124) Mata Aho Collective
125) Mattin
126) Michel Auder
127) Mike Crane
128) Miriam Cahn
129) Molly McDolan
130) Mounira Al Solh
131) Moyra Davey
132) Naeem Mohaiemen
133) Nairy Baghramian
134) Narimane Mari
135) Nathan Pohio
136) Neil Leonard
137) Nelli Kambouri
138) Neni Panourgiá
139) Nevin Aladag
140) Niels Coppens
141) Nikhil Chopra
142) Niklas Goldbach
143) Nikolay Oleynikov (Chto Delat)
144) Nilima Sheikh
145) Nomin bold
146) Olaf Holzapfel
147) Olga Tsaplya Egorova (Chto Delat)
148) Otobong Nkanga
149) Oxana Timofeeva (Chto Delat)
150) Panos Alexiadis
151) Peaches Nisker
152) Piotr Uklanski
153) Panos Charalambous
154) Pavel Braila
155) Pélagie Gbaguidi
156) Peter Friedl
157) Philip Bartels
158) Philipp Gropper
159) Prinz Gholam
160) Prodromos Tsinikoris
161) Ralf Homann
162) Raphaël Cuomo
163) Rasha Salti
164) Rasheed Araeen
165) Raven Chacon
166) Rebecca Belmore
167) Regina José Galindo
168) R) H) Quaytman
169) Rick Lowe
170) Roee Rosen
171) Roger Bernat
172) Rosalind Nashashibi
173) Ross Birrell
174) Samia Zennadi
175) Samnang Khvay
176) Sanchayan Ghosh
177) Sandro Mezzadra
178) Sanja Ivekovic
179) Sarah Washington
180) Serdar Kazak
181) Serge Baghdassarians
182) Sergio Zevallos
183) Shu Lea Cheang
184) Simon(e) Jaikriuma Paetau
185) Simone Keller
186) Sokol Beqiri
187) Stanley Whitney
188) Stathis Gourgouris
189) Stratos Bichakis
190) Suely Rolnik
191) Susan Hiller
192) Synnøve Persen
193) Taras Kovach
194) Thais Guisasola
195) Tracey Rose
196) Theo Eshetu
197) Ulrich Schneider
198) Ulrich Wüst
199) Valentin Roma
200) Vasyl Cherepanyn
201) Verena Paravel
202) Vijay Prashad
203) Virginie Despentes
204) Vivian Suter
205) Wang Bing
206) What How and for Whom (WHW)
207) William pope)l
208) Yael Davids
209) Yervant Gianikian
210) Zafos Xagoraris
211) Zoe Mavroudi
212) Zonayed Saki


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