. The colonial clock and critical chaos at Kassel: Reflections on documenta 15 | Ceasefire Magazine

The colonial clock and critical chaos at Kassel: Reflections on documenta 15 Arts & Culture

Art, aesthetics and racism are combined in a critical configuration that has transformed documenta fifteen into a significant political event, writes Iain Chambers.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, August 11, 2022 10:17 - 0 Comments


(documenta 15: photograph ©Iain Chambers)

The phrase ‘Chaos at Kassel’, attributed to the German Minister for Culture, Claudia Roth, emerged in the initial storm of accusations of antisemitism at the art event documenta fifteen (18 June – 25 September) that takes place every five years at Kassel.

A world-renowned exhibition of the contemporary arts, for the fifteenth edition, the artistic direction was entrusted to the Indonesian collective ruangrupa. Accusations began brewing even before the official opening. The presence of the Palestinian collective ‘The Question of Funding’ was signalled out for attention in a country where a recent law basically outlaws any criticism of the state of Israel, turning support for the Palestinian cause and the peaceful Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign into a federal crime.

Subsequently, a caricatural antisemitic figure of a Jewish male, reminiscent of the stereotypes circulating in Europe in the early Twentieth century, and most notably in Nazi Germany, was identified in the work of the Indonesian collective Taring Padi. It was withdrawn and led to an apology by the group. More recently, a further accusation has arrived from the depiction of an Israeli soldier mistreating a Palestinian child in a comic strip from the 1980s in the space devoted to Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie.

This turbulence led to talk of vetting all the works for antisemitism under the tutelage of a scientific committee. However, like the removal of books on uncomfortable topics such as slavery from school curriculums presently occurring in parts of the United States, the desire to cleanse the archive of troubling material that disturbs the consensual narrative is ultimately about censorship.

Whether one likes it or not, such politically sensitive issues open-up far deeper archives, posing questions of their management, definition and control. Ultimately, we are left asking “who has the right to narrate?” which, put more starkly, and to evoke Hannah Arendt’s noted phrase, means “who has the right to have rights?” Art, aesthetics and racism are combined in a critical configuration that has transformed documenta fifteen into a significant political event.

(Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie: cropped photograph © junge Welt)

From the cracks in the facade at Kassel, there also emerged further issues involving homophobia, islamophobia and a generalised intolerance for non-normative lifestyles. In the public discussion and highly restricted debate on antisemitism, a distance was consistently maintained between that discussion and considerations of other forms of racism that would necessarily include black, brown and Palestinian bodies and histories. Altogether a somewhat perverse limitation in what is, and is undoubtedly the case with documenta fifteen, a global art event.

Insisting exclusively on Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust, it became a local question directed and decreed by white Europeans. The aesthetics were colonised. Other racisms, other genocides and their centrality to the colonial constitution of Occidental modernity were excluded from consideration (including earlier German colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa).

The opportunity for a radical re-examination of the histories that the scandal opened-up was deliberately avoided. So much national authority has seemingly been invested in curating the question of antisemitism in exclusively German terms – one that arrives at unconditional support for the state of Israel – that other voices are silenced.

Eminent art critics and philosophers have stepped into the fray and inadvertently (or perhaps not) fueled the suspicion that this is all about defending the colonising cultural authority of Occidental culture, German identity and white supremacy. To close down discussion in the name of a national sense of righteousness leads us down a well-trodden path. Europe is full of the debris of those savage dreams. It is now repeating them on its eastern borders, both in Ukraine and probably soon in Kosovo. So, an incident of antisemitism that also drew on other historical contexts and colonial memories in Indonesia has transformed documenta fifteen into truly planetary significance: art and politics, or aesthetics and ethics – to quote Wittgenstein – became one.

Through inviting collectives rather than internationally recognised individual artists (there are some, but nearly always associated with the multiple souths of the world), ruangrupa has insisted on the interaction of collective practices to create a lumbung. Lumbung is an Indonesian concept that indicates the surplus collected in the rice barn for communal distribution. This unplanned artistic and aesthetic excess raises profound interrogations that interrupt the institutional consensus at present directing the modern art world. The guests remain and wish to propose their recipes and agendas.

The artistic collectives, overwhelmingly from non-Occidental localities, provide and provoke dynamic interactions and expand ecosystems that bring others to participate and share resources. The ongoing harvesting of practices, events and processes is never static. Workshops, discussions, debates, cooking, dance, printing, sauna, free coffee from Vietnam, and listening to music that arrives from the banks of the Niger while seeking Hamja Ahsan’s halal fried chicken franchise dotted around Kassel means that documenta is always in movement.

(Maria Thereza Alves, photograph ©Iain Chambers)

A tentacular network emerges, stretching well beyond the buildings and events of Kassel, Europe, and the Occidental management of contemporary art. Archives des lutes des femmes en Algérie are next to the Black Archives from the Netherlands. Or walking the under passages in central Kassel, sounds and signs from Black Quantum Futurism invite us to cut up and redistribute time in the temporalities of social and historical justice.

Meanwhile, the possibility – or, better, the impossibility – of art in Baghdad is caught in flickering videos of Sada (regroup). It goes on and on and involves more than 50 collectives and their outreach in a remarkable breakdown, interruption and redistribution of artistic practices that breach the gallery walls, the curatorial regimes and the fetishism of artistic objects in both the museum and the market.

The idea of collective art practices and the removal of an individual signature strikes at the very core of the political economy of the modern art system. The liberal imbrication of the individual and property, of names and capital, unwinds. Of course, there may still be products or art objects coming out of the process, but the premises for evaluation are radically stunted. The existing global system of the modern art world becomes vulnerable to other questions and practices and is not automatically authorised by capital and the market.

All of which explains the lukewarm, even hostile, response of curators, gallerists and many renowned artists to the collectivising or lumbung procedures proposed by the Jakarta art collective ruangrupa in the curating of documenta 15. The Artist disappears into the artistry of the collective; the individual – the source of the artwork’s inspiration and authenticity – into the anonymity of shared networks and socialised production.

A whole aesthetic and commercial apparatus is threatened, and an Occidental formation of taste and value inherited from European modernity is exposed to more worldly concerns. Does that mean the end of Art as we have known it? Not necessarily. But it certainly opens up a potential discussion and critical friction between that art history and others. Perhaps the former, hegemonic variant, to remain ethically significant and not merely a collectable value in the market, must practice this undoing and displacement through listening and learning to live in a ruin called Europe.

As Frantz Fanon would have put it, this abandonment of Europe and its limited humanism is precisely an interrogation of the former’s universalist pretensions, not only in artistic terms. The storm over antisemitism was initially stirred up by right-wing groups (who these days are all pro-Israel, having moved their hatred to Muslims and Islam) and then amplified in the German press. Yet, if we return to the artistic practices at work at Kassel these provide another route into the debate.

The question, which is too big for documenta fifteen to answer on its own (and why should it?), lies most obviously in the charred history bequeathed to Germany and Europe by the Shoah. Centuries of Occidental antisemitism, transformed into murderous rationalisation under the Nazis, have been dumped on the Middle East. Initially sustained by the British, the post-1945 world has subsequently allowed Germany and the West to consider the ‘Jewish Question’ resolved through unconditional support of the state of Israel. The absolute status of this resolution is highly troubling. It recalls other absolutisms and solutions. Of course, it has resolved nothing, and certainly not the racist hierarchies essential to the colonial fashioning of Occidental modernity, both at home and abroad.

As the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe recently suggested, you cannot answer the ‘Jewish question’ and antisemitism through a totalising response: whether the death camp or unconditional support for the state of Israel. If insisting that the right to have rights includes Palestinians leads automatically to being accused of antisemitism, then the concept has become the hysterical label of local paranoia. It speaks only to poorly elaborated German (and European) obsessions. Proposing a politics whose confident labelling ensures the smug assurance of one’s grip on memory, history and justice, it simultaneously loses its hold on the cruel complexities of the modern world.

The drive for universal validity also returns in the documenta management’s proposal for a scientific committee or advisory board to oversee the artworks for antisemitism and avoid the scandal of unauthorised voices and counter-narratives. The very appeal to ‘science’ in this proposed authority betrays the belief of being able to capture the complexity of social and historical processes and render them transparent, hence fully knowable and controllable.

This is the stuff of nineteenth century positivism and a historical moment when, while carving up and colonising the rest of the planet, a triumphant European will proposed scientific theories of race, nation and civilisation that morally constituted the historical necessity of the white man’s burden: whether it was the British in India, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in the Congo, the Americans in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Philippines or the Germans in East and Southwest Africa.

(Black Quantum Futurism, photograph ©Iain Chambers)

The centrality that Hannah Arendt and Aimée Cesaire gave to the colonial violence of racial othering and the extermination of native populations, subsequently transferred to European soil and the configuration of European Jews as non-white and foreign populations seems to have been completely forgotten. Until it confronts the colonial constitution of its present – from carving up Africa with other European empires in Berlin in 1884-5 while massacring native populations in the colonies of what today are Namibia, Tanzania and Cameroon – the official German position on antisemitism and its choking entanglement with the state of Israel seems to be a smokescreen. Its rhetoric, which the historian Enzo Traverso has recently called a ‘perverted form of civil religion’, has little to do with contesting the racial disposition of power upon which it and the rest of Europe have historically depended for their ‘progress’.

The investment in Israel as a historical solution to national guilt and shame veils these deeper connections of European antisemitism to violent colonial management, and racial discrimination, organised through what were then considered scientific categories. Such categories are always destined to fail. They can never capture the historical processes and cultural relations they pretend to explain in a unilateral rationalisation referred to as ‘scientific’. In its limits and uncertainties, a genuinely rigorous analysis registers precisely the opacities its language fails to reduce to a uniform perspective and point of view. That could also be a definition of art.

The guiding idea of responsibility should surely substitute the category of guilt. A critical undoing of the absolute authority of antisemitism over the national narrative in Germany would then have to respond not only to the Shoah as an exceptional event but also to the colonial conditions out of which it emerged in the heart of Europe. More than policing antisemitism, this requires, as a Jewish philosopher from the Maghreb – Jacques Derrida – has taught us, a willingness to take responsibility for a past still to be registered and worked through; that is, a history still to come. It leads to breaking present indifference to other forms of racism, counter-narratives and the suffering also of others; for example, the Palestinians.

Taking this on, which is undoubtedly at work in many of the artistic practices at documenta fifteen, involves turning the tables around. It would mean to commence from antisemitism (initially inaugurated as an accusation against ‘The Question of Funding’ for being… Palestinian) to enter an altogether deeper and vaster space rather than one solely policed by Occidental concerns.

In its artistic and aesthetic manifestation, drawn from practices and languages developed in the so-called ‘Global South’, what is happening at documenta fifteen is clogging up the colonial clock with unauthorised grit and pushing time out of joint. The narrow linearity of liberal ‘progress’ wobbles in the swerve into a deeper turn that registers racism as a planetary apparatus of power rather than simply a local pathology requiring a cure.

The burning fuse of aesthetics and ethics has acquired a fresh and energetic urgency in the potential of planetary combustion. The ruling body of documenta and German authorities apparently cannot handle it.

Iain Chambers

Iain Chambers lives in Italy, where for many years he has taught Cultural and Postcolonial Studies of the Mediterranean at the University of Naples. He is the author of Postcolonial Interruptions, Unauthorised Modernities, as well as Mediterranean Crossings and Migrancy, Culture, Identity.

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