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by Ayşe Güleç

Learning from Kassel

In recent years, art institutions have set out to reach an audience that until now had not counted among its usual visitors. The focus of these efforts is usually children, young people and immigrant communities, who are often classified as having little education or knowledge about art. To engage them, art institutions develop their own, special in-house programmes. Meanwhile, ministries, sponsors and large and small foundations support various cultural education projects designed to acquaint groups of people regarded as uncultured and non-art-savvy (in other words, the uneducated) with the museum. Adding to these is a plethora of projects and co-operations between, for example, educational institutions such as schools, day-care centres and museums. One seldom asks why migrant communities (or any group less likely to frequent the museum) should actually go there. Few art institutions have ventured beyond their own walls to connect art and audiences in other places. Still more rare is the question of what and how museums would have to change structurally and institutionally, if they want and have to accommodate heterogeneous groups in a migrant society. The change does not mean that these institutions become “migrant museums” but museums in a migrant society.

Regardless of the institutions’ motives and desire to reach out to new groups, one should ask what venturing out could mean, and what art institutions can and should learn (preferably about themselves) by doing this. Experiences within the context of documenta 12 can serve as an example, as here we find one of the most influential contemporary art exhibitions in its first structural attempts to move out, find, address and cooperate with various segments of the population. Taking as an example the 12th edition of documenta, an institution that understands itself as an international exhibition,[i] it is possible to examine how the institution connected to the local context (Kassel, Germany) and which participatory−cooperative work modes were established there. These experiences are then compared with the approaches taken by dOCUMENTA (13) to uncover differences, continuities and discontinuities in their structural connection with local population groups—though the successor, in my view, did not take up, develop or sharpen the basic approaches used in documenta 12.

Learning from Kassel

Anyone wanting to assume German citizenship, first has to pass the naturalisation test for his or her respective state. Besides general questions about the colours in the German national flag, principles of the welfare state and cornerstone freedoms of the press and right to demonstrate, the test in Hessen includes more specialised questions about science and culture. Future Germans must know, for example, the name of Casper David Friedrich’s most famous painting. This is followed by question 85, which asks test-takers to name one of the most important modern and contemporary art exhibitions, held every five years in Kassel. documenta is so important, in fact, that knowledge of it is required in a test that determines national boundaries of belonging and defines a cultural hegemony. To the same extent that taking note of documenta appears significant for future citizens, one could also ask how knowledgeable documenta should be about the citizens for which the exhibition is held, among them many residents of Kassel.

The relationship between Kassel and documenta can generally be described as follows: the institution of documenta as a large-scale recurring exhibition is important to the city and its inhabitants. But this relationship is also marked by a sceptical distance. Much of this is owed, perhaps, to the view that documenta lands in Kassel every five years like a UFO and takes off again after 100 days. All the same, Kassel residents follow every step of the preparations, and every exhibition is very much appreciated, even though certainly not by everyone, of course. It is appreciated because every documenta attracts international guests over the course of the exhibition, awakening Kassel from its usual slumber and generating economic advantages. Other cited reasons for the exhibition’s importance to the city include the emergence and expansion of cafés and restaurants around the exhibition venues, and the vitalising of the city’s culture with international flair.

Local Partnerships

At the start of preparations for documenta 12, artistic director Roger M. Buergel and exhibition curator Ruth Noack contacted three socio-cultural centres in Kassel. At a joint meeting in the fall of 2005, they explained their desire to collaborate with local institutions to build a stronger connection between the exhibition and the city. In doing so, they said, they wanted to support existing initiatives and draw energies from the exhibition into the city. The confrontation with art in other places could reassert art’s potential, as it makes the perception of art more concrete. Two representatives from the Kulturzentrum Schachthof—Christine Knüppel and myself—expressed interest. We were prepared to share our knowledge of the local realities and open our contacts to the various population centres and interest groups.

In late December 2005, Kulturzentrum Schlachthof—in coordination with its new cooperation partners—organised a meeting of some forty Kassel residents, all of whom were active in a diverse range of areas including school, extra-curricular and higher education, child and youth education, socio-cultural work, architecture and urban planning, the trade union and women’s initiatives. From this group the “documenta 12 Advisory Board” emerged: a discussion and action group that discussed the three guiding questions for documenta 12 in monthly meetings and linked these back to the situation in Kassel.[ii] The members formed working groups and developed their own actions and events responding to various socio-political topics. These monthly advisory board meetings saw the various actors come together in a trusting, open work atmosphere: artists, Kassel residents and the curator/directors. Each brought his or her own, specialised knowledge and experience to the discussions.


Müseüm Fridericianüm”, official documenta 12 signage by VIER5 (vier5.de/projects/documenta-12-kassel), embellished by graffities. Photograph and ©: Nanne Buurman


Learning from the Other

The development phase for the documenta 12 advisory board included regular attempts to contact various population groups. Wanda Wieczorek, the assistant to the artistic director and I spoke to initiatives, networks and migrant communities and visited these people at their respective organisations and districts in the city. This form of contact was important for inviting other population groups (many of whom we had never met) to the advisory board, and learning from these experts.[iii] The discussions were especially interesting for us because we were able to derive new insights from our discussion partners’ points of view about the art institution. From these perspectives, we could generate knowledge: for changes to our own institutional−structural barriers and for the value of cooperation with a win−win situation for all parties involved.

Scene 1

Profound changes in industrial production and the world of work in recent decades have led to high unemployment and poverty, which has left its visible mark on the city of Kassel. The crisis of working society and its effects was also a frequent topic at advisory board meetings, prompting us to make contact with an unemployment initiative. One afternoon, we met with a group of five people who were active in the initiative’s office. After a short round of introductions, they asked if we had come on behalf of documenta, and if our intention was to offer them one-euro-jobs for building and installing the exhibition. [iv] It was only after allaying these fears that we were able to have a relaxed, exciting conversation about the situation of the unemployed and the initiative’s activities.

Translation of the Situation

Is documenta an exploitative employer? An institution that demands maximum attention and resources from everyone, giving little or nothing in return?

Scene 2

At the oldest mosque in Kassel, we were greeted by the Imam and five people from the first, founding generation of the local mosque association. We contacted them in an effort to get to know the congregation and invite those interested in the advisory board to join. After hearing our reason for coming—that documenta wanted to introduce itself and get to know them—they were astonished. It was their first experience with those responsible for documenta. At the end of an intensive conversation, the association’s representatives assured us “We’ll give you everything you want. But if you want money […] we don’t have any either.”

Translation of the Situation

Do many people not know about documenta, making it difficult for them to understand its intentions? Do some people suspect documenta of only making contact when it wants something (money)?

Scene 3

At a visit to a senior centre, we were received in a large room with a table of Christmas biscuits and coffee for around thirty people. Five people came and listened politely before disappearing without further questions.

Translation of the Situation

Does documenta have to be interesting to everyone?

In many of the conversations, we encountered people who had heard of documenta, but had never been to one of the exhibitions. Many were very surprised that the documenta exhibition has ties to subject matter to which they could personally relate. We invited some of these people to the documenta 12 advisory board several times, because we thought their voices and points of view were important. They refused, citing an insufficient knowledge of the German language. Like many committees, the advisory board’s organisational form was such that many less assertive, language-oriented participants were excluded. These notes on documenta 12 exemplify some of the opportunities and stumbling blocks that art institutions have to deal with when making contact and building cooperative partnerships with hitherto unaddressed segments of the population.

Structural Consequences

Every documenta has a clearly defined timetable. Its five-year rhythm begins with the naming of the artistic director and ends after 100 exhibition days. The exhibition comes down. The team disperses. Only a small, organisational core of people stays on site. The network of the documenta 12 advisory board ended with the exhibition in September 2007. What remains are many experiences and personal contacts, but no binding commitment or concerted form of continuing the work together.

The director of dOCUMENTA (13) was Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Nineteen agents (curators, writers, artists, scientists and philosophers) from around the globe participated in the development of dOCUMENTA (13).[v] Like all the documenta exhibitions before it, the thirteenth edition organised its contacts differently during preparations for the exhibition, and thereby largely ignored the work of the documenta 12 advisory board and documenta 12 art mediation.[vi] Knowledge from individuals who had experience in the context of art mediation, specifically at the previous documenta, was only built on in part. The Maybe Education Department emerged after a three-day workshop titled “No Education”. Members included staff, agents and various individuals from Kassel, who gave feedback on the programmes relevant to the audience. There were no longer any significant connections to local bodies or participatory forms of cooperation. At dOCUMENTA (13), the art mediation and advisory board—building blocks relevant to the documenta 12 context—came together in the form of the so-called “Worldly Companions”.

Those responsible for the outreach, education, and public programme sought people who lived in or had a connection to Kassel to do the art mediation. An advert in the local newspaper drew 700 applicants. One-hundred-and-seventy people from this group were selected and became Worldly Companions. The majority of the Worldly Companions were native to Kassel and practised various professions (i.e. gardening/agriculture, medicine/therapy, pedagogy), or studied at the art academy in Kassel. Chosen individuals were schooled in dialogue-based art companionship from January 2012 until the exhibition opened. The “School for Worldly Companions”, as it was called, consisted of monthly meetings during which theory texts were read and discussed, along with talks by artists, philosophers and scientists.

“d’occupy (occupy documenta)”, Friedrichsplatz after occupation during dOCUMENTA (13), photograph and ©: Nanne Buurman

Changing Institutional Frameworks

Contact and invitations extended to groups that have not previously been addressed can and should lead to a challenge of one’s own institutional framework. In societies influenced by migration and heterogeneity, art institutions are called upon to challenge, to examine and change their own structures, in order to make them accessible to the widest variety of population centres and interest groups. To do this, art institutions need long-term, process-oriented collaborations with individuals who can contribute different points of view. The most important factor is transmission, or a desire to learn from one another.

At the meetings of the documenta 12 advisory board, the working atmosphere between artists, Kassel locals and the curators/directors was one of confidence and trust. The importance of the advisory board was stressed on a symbolic level and emphasised in the media, but the exchange was rather one-sided and unsystematic. At documenta 12, makers were given local knowledge and could productively use it for the exhibition by, for example, including people from Kassel or finding certain sites, spaces or situations in the city without having to do much research on their own. The advisory board members, on the other hand, had less to gain from documenta. Their activities took the leitmotif of the exhibition as a point of departure, but they could not use the artworks for their advisory activities. The transfer of theoretical information relating to art was lacking as well. At dOCUMENTA (13), strikingly, the Worldly Companions were not even acknowledged in any of the official catalogues or publications. They were never listed by name. The justification was that they did not need documenta’s symbolic capital. At one public session of the Maybe Education group, the artistic director mentioned that she never wanted the Worldly Companions in the first place, because her exhibition and the artworks in it could also have done without mediation.

Conditions for successful cooperation with communities and other interest groups at documenta are generally complicated by the temporary dimension of documenta as a fleeting event. Adding to this was the fact that what was introduced and achieved in terms of local collaboration during documenta 12 was regrettably not taken up by the new makers of dOCUMENTA (13), and therefore could not be developed any further. Other, more stable art institutions are at a clear advantage here. They can allow, or better yet, create room for contacting various population groups, enter into long-term partnership and use an open, democratic and truly participatory practice to redirect their relevance as institutions in migrant society. There is tremendous potential to be found in collaborations between art institutions and local or non-art savvy communities. documenta 14 currently makes an effort to realize these potentials—this time not only by learning from Kassel but by Learning from Athens as well.

*This text originally appeared in Ruth Noack, ed., Agency, Ambivalence, Analysis. Approaching the Museum with Migration in Mind, Mela Books, 2013. It has been edited only very slightly for reprint.

Ayşe Güleç studied social education/social work at the University of Kassel and has been working at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof e.V. cultural centre since 1998. The focus of her work is migrants and (inter-)cultural communication. She is involved in the development of self-organised initiatives in the areas of gender, migration and anti-racism. Güleç developed the documenta 12 advisory board and consequently became its spokeswoman. She became a member of the Maybe Education Group at dOCUMENTA (13). She is currently responsible for community liaison in the office of the artistic director of documenta 14 in Kassel. Publications include: “Fordern, überfordern, verweigern. Bild- und Raumpolitik(en) in der Migrationsgesellschaft,” in Zülfukar Çetin, Savaş Taş, ed.: Gespräche über Rassismus. Perspektiven & Widerstände, March 2015, pp. 189–216; Kunstvermittlung Arbeit mit dem Publikum, Öffnung der Institutionen. Formate und Methoden der Kunstvermittlung auf der documenta 12, diaphanes, Berlin, 2009.

[i] Company self-description, documenta GmbH.

[ii] The three guiding questions, or leitmotifs, formed the basis for research, concept and the development of the exhibition. The questions were: Is modernity our antiquity? (modernity as historical form), What is bare life? (vulnerability of human existence), What is to be done? (the question of education). See the three documenta 12 Magazines, titled Modernity?, Life!, and Education:, ed. by Georg Schöllhammer and documenta und Museum Fridericianum GmbH, Taschen, Cologne, 2007.

[iii] See Carmen Mörsch: “Special Invitation. Art Education at documenta 12 as Critical Practice”, in: documenta 12 Magazine, Education:, ed. Georg Schöllhammer/documenta und Museum Fridericianum GmbH, Taschen, Cologne, 2007, pp. 223-225. See also Ayşe Güleç /Wanda Wieczorek on the Advisory Board, ibid., p. 221.

[iv] Unemployed individuals receiving unemployment benefits from respective “job centres” may be obliged to perform duties for which they receive €1 an hour. There was also an art mediation project titeld, Arbeitslose als Avantgarde (the unemployed as an avant-garde), see Kunstvermittlung 1. Arbeit mit dem Publikum, Öffnung der Institution, ed. by Wanda Wieczorek, Claudia Hummmel, Ulrich Schötker, Ayşe Güleç and Sonja Parzefall, diaphanes, Zurich, 2009, p. 112.

[v] dOCUMENTA (13) also took a regional institution as a thematic reference and anchor point: the Breitenau Memorial in Guxhagen. It was a forced labour camp until the end of the Second World War and later a home for wayward girls. The facility served as a metaphor for the exhibition theme “Collapse and Recovery”.

[vi] Documented in Kunstvermittlung I (see note 4) and Kunstvermittlung II. Zwischen kritischer Praxis und Dienstleistung auf der documenta 12. Ergebnisse eines Forschungsprojekts, ed. by Carmen Mörsch and the d12 art mediation research team, diaphanes, Zurich, 2009.

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç