THROUGH THE OAK TREES
When Joseph Beuys started a campaign to plant seven thousand oak trees in Kassel for documenta 7, was he anticipating the future? Beuys’s multidimensional social space-time sculpture, titled City Forestation Instead of City Administration (1982), was created exactly forty years ago in the midst of the rising environmental movements, and is echoed in documenta fifteen’s pledge to address Germany’s concerns over its quickly diminishing forests. The planting campaign by Beuys was in that sense a symbolic beginning. As he put it, “art needed to help humans develop better relationships with nature.” Beuys used the institution to organize tangible and sustained environmental actions that went beyond representing the then amplifying ecological crisis. Now, in response to accelerating climate change and in collaboration with the ecological project HessenForst, documenta fifteen once again initiates a reforestation campaign to protect the nearby Reinhardswald Forest, which is threatened by incessant storms, droughts, and an overpopulation of bark beetles (Scolytinae). The campaign is financed by a symbolic “sustainability Euro” that is collected with every ticket sold at documenta fifteen. The aim of the project is to plant one hundred and seventy thousand oak trees in the Hessen region within the next several years.
Joseph Beuys, City Forestation Instead of City Administration, 1982.
Accountability for the multiple emergencies we face – from mass tourism or carbon pollution to workers’ rights and financial precarity – should be at the forefront of demands to transform institutional exhibition making in museums, biennials, and other establishment apparatuses. The ideas that started with Beuys have emerged once again in documenta fifteen. By shifting our attention from creation, innovation, and production into sustainable processes, relationships, and outcomes, documeta fifteen is a demonstration in progress of how such venues can become sites for collective rewilding.
In the exhibition’s first month, ruangrupa radically shifted the role of documenta in a globalized world operating under a neoliberal and nationalist logic. By understanding that art institutions are not neutral places of representation, as they work under conditions that are linked to colonial violence enacted on non-Western bodies, spaces, and societies, ruangrupa has turned documenta into an embodied manifestation of collective and collaborative exchanges. Ruangrupa’s work in documenta is better characterized as decentralized, or rather, decentered. While focusing on the Global South and Afro-Indigenous diasporas in the Global North, documenta fifteen isn’t rejecting or critiquing the Global North as much as prioritizing a decentered view of the world. By bringing together specific local, regional, and national groups that focus on matters of access, justice, and redistribution, documenta fifteen becomes a social study for so-called “grassroots globalization”. A global economy with a bottom-up strategy that not only relies on, but also accommodates approaches, visions and horizons for the developing countries.
lumbung 1, as ruangrupa refers to documenta fifteen, has deconstructed mainstream institutional practices by rethinking the very foundation of what a “culture” is as a human-made superior model, while offering an understanding of our responsibilities and relationships with nature, other-than-human actants and communities. Lumbung, which stems from the Indonesian word for a communal rice barn where farmers share harvest surplus, manifests itself as the principle by which ruangrupa’s documenta nurtures relationships between local people, ecosystems, and places. lumbung 1 results, however, not simply in a platform for intellectual thought where participants get to discuss their interests in economic, social, and environmental issues, but enact a collaborative model of resource use based in friendship, solidarity, and community. Acknowledging the importance of language in the act of connecting, learning, and educating oneself about terms used in the invited collectives plays a big role in the program of documenta fifteen. Concepts such as land rootedness, community knowledge, and collective labor were the inspiring frameworks by which alternative forms of re-existence were enunciated and practiced across participants.
Visitors have alternative routes of access to lumbung 1: a case in point is the ceremonial launch of the Citizenship. A vessel that was placed on the rooftop of the Z/KM institution in Berlin has now been transformed into a ship that will travel for sixty days without fossil fuel from Berlin to Kassel. The roof is activated by the support of the people who can join along the route and use the service of a vessel free of charge to reach documenta fifteen, thus symbolizing cultural exchanges of practices, food, provisions, accommodation, and energy generation. Upon reaching its destination, the ship will be used as a structure for housing and documenting artifacts and rituals from the journey in which the vessel facilitated an exchange between travelers, cultural practitioners and the citizens of Kassel.
The list of the participating artists was published exclusively in asphalt street magazine.
Unlike similar big art events happening simultaneously in other places, lumbung 1 and its organizers are finding a variety of ways to be accountable towards the local community in Kassel. For one, the announcement of the participating artists and lumbung members was published in the local journal Asphalt Magazine. Like AWC, Asphalt Magazine is a street journal sold by individuals facing houselessness and extreme poverty, and is designed to generate income for such citizens in need. Building on the concepts of sowing and harvesting as forms of collective writing, the April issue of Asphalt invited locals to ask anything that interested or concerned them about documenta fifteen. Then, the June issue included the results of that survey in an article titled “Twelve Answers to Twelve Questions”. In it, ruangrupa members Indra Ameng and Lara Khaldi addressed the community’s most pressing interests, bridging the needs of the Kassel community with those of the participating collectives.
In another attempt to alleviate potential tensions between visitors and local communities, while thinking of hospitality in a curatorial context, ruangrupa invited small and medium-sized businesses in Kassel to become active co-hosts of lumbung 1. In an effort to organize an art event that functions as a site for mutual support, where art visitors are discouraged from being careless tourists and are instead engaged as invited guests, ruangrupa contracted regional companies to produce all of the publications, provisions and merchandise offered in and around the venues in ecological and low-waste production methodologies.
WITH THE MANY
By choosing a curatorial concept that goes beyond organizing a typical art show, ruangrupa created a platform for collective exchange. For that reason, documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH accepted the responsibility of offering their space, time, and resources to artist-led organizations and collectives whose practices critically interrogate the history of art institutions in their contemporary forms, while simultaneously cultivating new and healthy foundations. By doing so, documenta fifteen is no longer an event dedicated only to representing art as a response to the global transformations of contemporary life. Instead, it presents art that expands beyond a connection to social ideas, fostering an acknowledgment of embodied forms of resistance that delineate testimonies of survival far removed from the global art world.
Karlswiese Cinema Caravan & Takashi Kuribayashi, 2022. Installation View, Kassel. Foto Nils Klinger
By presenting a wide range of holistic, spatial, and personal practices, the lumbung events gathered people around food, music, contemplation, and mutual care. In so doing, exhibition venues were turned into schools, living rooms, and meeting spaces. Under the motto “make friends not art”, the Cinema Caravan Collective is hosting a series of events for visitors to gather around an open-air cinema, a bar, a DJ booth and a sauna in a sustainable greenhouse aesthetic. The functioning herbal steam sauna, which is activated in the evenings, was shaped after the Fukushima nuclear reactor, allowing everyone to participate in this simple act of self-care through a heat session. Similarly, contemplation boxes that allowed visitors a secluded place to gather their thoughts were distributed throughout Hallenbad Ost and Documenta Halle, so as to slow down everyone's processes and participation.
THE IMPASSE OF COLONIAL SPECTATORSHIP
Britto Arts Trust, 2022. Foto Nicolas Wefers.
Ruangrupa were put in a difficult position, having to navigate between offering a space for collectives from around the world to continue their practice, while simultaneously creating a ludic scenario for the reiteration of the Western gaze. This is exemplified by the encounter between the Britto Arts Trust, a collective that deals with food politics, displacement and culture, and those who visited their event. As part of the lumbung program, the Britto Arts Trust worked on building an organic palan: a traditional Bengali vegetable garden and a pak ghor, a family's eat-in kitchen, a space for gathering around food with the intention of making migrants and their food culture visible.
In this reviewer’s experience of the project 100 food cultures from 100 nations in 100 days, the participation of visitors was either timid, shy or voyeuristic. While the emphasis on physical and social labor set the stage for hospitality, collaboration, cooperation and exchange, the project created an uncomfortable fishbowl effect. It became a stage for a Western gaze, tied with its colonial histories of spectatorship, as well as with the act of passive watching that comes hand in hand with an underlying exoticism. Almost like in Richard Bells’s painting Kessel Road Protest (2002), demanding to see, art visitors once again imposed their practiced entitlement to consume and own the world and its people as mere objects of representations, ultimately challenging ruangrupa’s efforts towards creating an art institution as a site for repair and care.
Richard Bell, Kessel Road Protest, 2002. Installation view at Fridericianum.
Banner: Launch Citizenship Berlin (c) Martina Pozzan, 2022
 “Collective rewilding” is a possibility of questioning institutional art practices, deconstructing the very foundation of “culture” as a man-made superior model and to acknowledge the importance of holistic natural systems as an alternative form of structuring the institution. Rewilding means understanding our responsibilities, our relationship with nature and other peoples, as well as getting insight that can inform adaptive management and sustainable development of artistic projects.
Art critic Claire Bishop in Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship: “the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant”. However, when considering the phenomenon of spectatorship in the case of mega art events, it continues to be assumed as a passive term. Following the recent protests in Venice that demand new approaches to the tourism industry, we are questioning the role of spectatorship within this controversy. How much participation do tourists have in the seemingly passive, but in fact, active destruction of human and other than human ecosystems?