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BERLIN: This year’s documenta — the contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany — eschews the idea of ​​the individual artist working in isolation and embraces the collective. The exhibition, which runs from June 18 to September 22, explores the intersections between art and life, less object-oriented and more process-oriented; artistic practice as a social structure.

Mirwan Andan, a member of the artistic directors of this year’s Jakarta-based ruangrupa collective, told Arab News: “We realized from the beginning that involving people from different backgrounds will enrich the idea of ​​the collective. It is not enough to involve the artists.

Ruangrupa designed documenta 15 around the idea of ​​“lumbung” – an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn. In this case, conceptually and in practice, it is akin to the Islamic notion of jam’iyah, in which participants pool resources and redistribute them.

The Question of Funding, How to Work Together, 2019. (Supplied)

In fact, many of the organizing principles of documenta 15 are dictated by aspects of Muslim culture, such as working groups forming a majlis and the public program called Meydan. “We don’t separate daily life from our practices, so lumbung isn’t a theme, it’s more (like) software that can run on any hardware,” Andan explains. “We want to experiment with this practice, which takes place in the southern hemisphere, rather than hijacking the art world as curators.”

The Ruangrupa are perhaps better known for the convivial spaces they open up in an urban context than for the art they make. For example, during the Sharjah Biennale in 2019, they staged “Gudskul” (pronounced “good school”), a public learning space established with two other collectives who provided a toolkit for sharing knowledge. Here, the roles of teacher and student were interchangeable.

“Many aspects of the ruangrupa space in Jakarta – a house, an exhibition space and a library of pirated books – which I discovered in 2015 during a visit with the conservation program De Appel, resonate with the informal art scene in Ramallah,” says Lara Khaldi, Palestinian cultural worker, member of documenta’s artistic team. “And what the ruangrupa call ‘ekosistem’ — a set of relationships that you cannot define — are like conversations that take place at home, in the garden and in cafes.

Yazan Khalili. (Provided)

“The curator has become a question of authorship, which is not an honest way to define the role, since it is always a matter of collective authorship,” continues Khaldi. “It is interesting to consider lumbung as a pre-colonial Indonesian practice that is also present in our cultural scene in the region.”

In addition to an artistic team, ruangrupa has created an international lumbung network of 14 collectives (whose work together will continue beyond documenta), including Question of Funding, a group of Palestinian cultural producers whose exhibition in Kassel has recently been subject to vandalism and fascist practices. slogans.

Despite expanded ways of thinking about geographic and political configurations – this year ruangrupa announced participating artists based on time zones – organizers still have to deal with the complex political and cultural climate of Germany as a place affected by both by anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian. feeling. It’s ironic because, as Amany Khalifa, a former community organizer at Grassroots Jerusalem and now a member of The Question of Funding, tells Arab News: “We wanted to avoid the depiction of Palestinian art in documenta and get bogged down in identity politics. We are on the idea of ​​the collective. Since 2016, we have met informally in kitchens and gardens, trying to create different economic structures, models that have been left aside by civil society. It is the question of who owns the means of production, and this does not only apply to Palestine.

SADA, still from the film, Journey Inside the City, by Sarah Munaf in Sada, 2022. (Supplied)

Drawing inspiration from what they call the “NGO-ization” of Palestinian civil society in the 1990s, The Question of Funding was formed in 2019 by NGO workers and institutional representatives from the Cultural Center and the Khalil Sakakini Folk Art Center, among others.

“We use this dilemma as a framework to think about community practices, and not just theoretically,” explains Yazan Khalili, artist and member of Question of Funding. “The issue of funding is a historic issue. It attempts to move away from a critique of donor economics to rethink what funding can be and learn from other economic models.

Khalili, became the president of the legendary Sakakini Cultural Center, the first cultural NGO in Palestine, in 2015, after his MFA in Amsterdam. “Our approach was to turn the economic crisis into a cultural crisis. We call this the total work of the cultural institution. It can be said that the main tool of cultural practices in Palestine is an institution which is not only a means of production but also an ideological structure. So how to practice institutionalism without recreating an institution? How to form structures of production through the critique of the cultural institution as such? We are interested in creating works of art that resemble those of an institution, while producing structures in which critique of the cultural institution can be practiced.

Installation Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices. (Provided)

While, as a whole, the exhibition emerges from a position of criticism – of institutions, of the art industry and of the exhibition itself – Khalili says it is an affirmative position. While the world is unstable – with pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid thinkers and artists subjected to smear campaigns – spaces in the art world are being created for alternative ways of thinking outside the arena Politics.

“What scares us the most is this buildup of McCarthyism and mass fear,” Khalili says. “But we had the support of German artists, academics and collectives in Kassel. There is plenty of room to fight back.

For documenta, The Question of Funding organizes exhibitions and common spaces with other collectives, including the Eltiqa group for contemporary art in Gaza. With the help of writers and illustrators, they will also create a children’s book on economics and a new economic media called Dayra, a form of cashless exchange using blockchain technologies.

El-Warcha Courtyard Project, Hafsia, 2019. (Supplied)

“Eltiqa is a unique example of a collective in Palestine,” says Khalili. “They produce paintings, sculptures and photographs in a collective space that also supports young artists from Gaza. And they managed to do it without becoming an NGO. During the last May 2021 war against Gaza, a member of the group, Mohammed Hawajri, posted a comment on Facebook about what it means to show solidarity. He offered to go beyond the level of funding by showing the work of artists from Gaza. We need intellectual and artistic support, not just money. So how do we use documenta as a resource to support another group that is also trying to produce something outside the given cultural production structures? »

With Berlin-based Syrian artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices, presenting “Borrowed Faces” – a hybrid archival research project on Arab globalization and political agency, as well as a fictionalized story about female figures in the movement of Afro-Asian solidarity in Tashkent, Cairo and Beirut; Tunis-based El Warcha brings its idea of ​​the studio to Kassel with a library and public art installation; and Sada organizing an exhibition of commissioned video works in Baghdad, there is a lot of collective action and alliances from the Arab world at documenta 15.

It remains to be seen what artists as scholars, collaborators and thinkers can come up with in a non-hierarchical format, but this looks like a watershed shift in how the region’s practices and artists are presented on the global circuit – non-essentialized, transdisciplinary and more collaborative.

Michael A. Bynum