How was documenta born, and how has it evolved? From the “100-day museum” of its founder Arnold Bode to the “archive in motion”—the oxymoronic definition of 2007—Julian Myers retraces the history of this very particular institution, created as a moral and cultural recompense in postwar Germany—an attempt to reconnect the threads of modern art persecuted by Nazism. In particular, Myers concentrates on some of the most radical editions of documenta over the last forty years, including those curated by Harald Szeemann, Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor.
Launched in 1955 by the artist, critic and designer Arnold Bode with the Society for Occidental Art of Kassel, the documenta exhibition was initially a complex gesture of mending and expiation. More than an “overview” of the contemporary art of the moment, the first edition set out to juxtapose European postwar abstraction—the avant-garde trend at the timewith the historical works of the pre-Nazi era.
In certain critical writings these works have been indicated as icons of modern art (Expressionists, Fauves, Cubists and so on) disparaged by the Nazis in the most spectacular way in the major exhibition on “Degenerate Art” in 1937. From this standpoint, documenta was supposed to be a way of apologizing for the phobic offenses perpetrated by the Nazis against art and life. According to other studies, on the other hand, almost all those artists (and Bode himself, last but not least) had shown their works at the Orangerie of Kassel in a series of shows prior to the Nazi rise to power: this outlook interprets the first editions not as a way of apologizing for German misdeeds, of promoting a renewed attitude of internationalism and open-mindedness, but as a revitalizing return to the modern expressions of pre-Nazi Germany—especially the ideals of Jugendstil and the Bauhaus, where Bode had eagerly found nourishment at the time (2). Installed among the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum, “the truth of the present” (to quote from the first documenta catalogue) (3) was shown through its reconnection with the past of the avant-garde that had been brutally cut short by Fascism.
This complex historical position—the investigation of contemporary art through the use of past models of internationalist modernism—sets documenta apart from the myriad of biennials and periodic exhibitions it has nevertheless helped to inspire. In effect, the most interesting recent editions subject the ever-present art of the present to a yardstick based on the past of the exhibition. The present condition claimed by the definition “the one-hundred-day museum” chosen by Bode for the event coexists with a description of the show as an “archive in motion”—the oxymoronic title with which documenta presented its own history in 2007 (4).
To further define this curious temporal condition: joined by the art historian Werner Haftmann as the “theoretical brain” of this retrospective avant-garde (5), Bode went on to direct the three successive editions of documenta (Annette Tietenberg has convincingly explained how the book by Haftmann Painting in the Twentieth Century, published in 1954, represented a key model for the project of historical engineering of the first edition) (6). Christoph Lange chooses an ambiguous way of classifying this cycle of exhibitions, noticing a “detemporalization” and citing the apocalyptic vision of Haftmann of a modern avant-garde deprived, at this point, of any future projection: “The artist is on the front line, faced by a dark, chaotic field, without traces and form, in which he must venture with the ‘antennae’ of his own medium and on which he must seek to impose order with his arguments, to active transform it into pure presence” (7). But this disoriented avant-gardism would not last: Haftmann withdrew halfway through the planning of the 1968 edition, leaving the work of selection up to a committee that made a breakthrough with respect to the temporal strangeness of the first three editions, opting for a more conventional “review” of contemporary art.
The next editions of documenta addressed the need to index the present under the guidance of always different directors. With the aim of “Questioning Reality—Image Worlds Today,” Harald Szeemann “outlined a trajectory of mimesis” that, like the editions marked by the influence of Haftmann, was well-equipped on a historical level (with the presence, for example, of works by Adolf Wölfli, an exponent of Art Brut who died in 1930) (8); nevertheless, the 1972 edition is remembered above all for the involvement in its “structured chaos” of Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Fluxus. In like manner, the exhibition of 1977 curated by Manfred Schneckenberger presented a radical “overview” featuring the unprecedented inclusion of video, performance art and new media. The contribution of these two curators influenced the future of the event, cutting off its link with a universalizing but weakened—due to lack of future—vision of a modern bent. This did not prevent the two curators, however, from becoming the targets of harsh criticism for their radical approach. As the historian Walter Grasskamp points out, they paid a price, namely the substantial impossibility of finding work in the years to come (9). Szeemann liked to say that documenta had been “the end of a career.”
While recent editions—especially documenta 10, 11 and, it would appear, the next one, number 13—have made a growing commitment to focus on the history of the event, this diachronic orientation has been accompanied by spatial expansion. The watershed edition curated by Catherine David in 1997 placed its contents in the framework of what she defined as “retroperspectives”—in explicit reference to the past-present dynamics mentioned above, while organizing the selection of the works around turning points of postwar life. But although she called into play the idea of “limits,” David also pursued an incredible scattering of content and of the spatial logic of the exhibition. The event seemed both crowded and empty, with frequent displacements of certain aspects outside the exhibition site, or in the non-site of cyberspace; the curator also (through the Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant and Gayatri Spivak, among others) embraced the logic of otherness and diaspora, offering a “multiplicity of spaces and a platform extended to discussion and debate, in Kassel and elsewhere...” (10). Okwui Enwezor then formalized and expanded this dispersive logic in the 2002 edition, with multiple “platforms” set up in Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia and Lagos. The universalist vision of Bode and Haftmann has been productively relativized with these exhibitions, in favor of a position that recognized (or, more precisely, attempted to reproduce) heterogeneities and a contemporary “global” existence.
How can we sum up an exhibition that is both now and in the past, and that (in its recent manifestations) is neither here nor there? How can we stop this “archive in motion” in order to study it? The artist Morgan Fisher has suggested that the very uniqueness of the exhibition, set up under the authorship and image of a single curator or director, has become irritating and arbitrary, though the exhibition itself seems to spread into other places and eras (11).
Perhaps I can hypothesize an ideal resolution in the terms of a “dialectical image” (to cite a central methodology of Walter Benjamin) (12), that might solidify some of the elusive generalizations outlined above. A photograph of an old newspaper clipping offers a complex comparison. A first figure occupies the right part of the image: a man seen from behind, hands at his sides, clinging garments almost indistinct in the dark image. Facing him there is another man or his virtual image, in the rectangular frame of a TV screen. We can recognize the hat and vest of the German artist Joseph Beuys (heroic cult figure of German art and veteran of many of the editions of the event). A caption tells us something more, informing us that the other man is the artist Douglas Davis, and that the occasion is the opening of the sixth edition of documenta, in 1977 at Kassel, Germany; Davis, Beuys and Nam June Paik participated in the performance The Last Nine Minutes, one of the first five performances to be broadcast live via satellite for an international audience.
Other actors appear on this singular stage: a hand enters from the left edge of the image (what is it indicating?); a spotlight aims a beam (at what?) from the floor; and behind Davis, we see part of the profile of another person, wearing headphones, in the frame of a painting hanging on the wall. We can even see a glare on Beuys’s cheek—perhaps the flash from the camera of Nancy Frank, reflecting on a monitor. But we continuously return to the figures that are the fulcrum of all this movement: the two artists, Beuys and Davis, who through the mediations and multiple proximities of the broadcast and the exhibition—with Davis at the center as the melancholy subject that observes and is at the same time observed, produces and at the same time consumes. Here the “present condition” of the exhibition can be sensed in the midst of the telegraphic refraction in multiple places, experiences, audiences, moments, none of which has absolute knowledge or legitimacy. Instead, we are looking at the assertion of a sort of direct communication (between Beuys and Davis, Davis and Frank, and then, decades later, Frank’s camera and our eyes)—a communication that is in any case obsessed by the spectral image of the mass audience represented (though in negative form) through this complex tangle of transmissions and mediations.
The photograph was used to illustrate an interview conducted by Peter Frank published by the magazine from San Francisco, Art Contemporary. “You have just concluded the satellite broadcast for documenta—with Beuys and Paik,” Frank begins, and then goes on:
Millions of viewers have watched your performance, live and later, on different continents. Doesn’t the enormity of this event—as spectacle, or as a phenomenon of international audience obscure its message?
And Davis responds:
Only if you imagine that the spectator has seen it as part of the masses, as non-humans. I don’t think that is what happened. And my attempt was to reach the spectator, him or her, not millions of people. That figure is a myth, anyway. There is only one mind, two or three at the most, at the other end of the screen. (13)
Of course the photograph embodies these themes with equal force: the single viewer to whom the apparatus (the broadcast, the exhibition) might be addressed, through different mediations; and the spectre of the “non-human” pursued by projects of this scale and this ambition. To evoke this figure, in any case, means rephrasing the question: for whom does documenta stage its revolutions of time and space? (The institution likes to emphasize the numbers of its constantly growing audience, true, but what do these numbers explain exactly? Why should we be informed about them?) Maybe we could think about borrowing a particular suggestion or “action” from Davis, who continues his conversation with Franks as follows:
PF: You refer to the end of your aktion, when you ask the viewer—the world—to break the television screen and let you pass to the other side. Do you think anyone did it?
DD: I’ll never know. There are too many cities and languages involved. The day after, in Kassel, a woman told me that the previous evening she had broken her television—please, come and fix it, she said (14).
1. I’ve borrowed this title from Louise Lawler, who though she was not officially invited to documenta VII, created stationery that reproduced the invitation sent to the artists by the director Rudi Fuchs. See the description of the work by Douglas Crimp in On The Museum’s Ruins, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1993, pp. 239-241.
2. See Dirk Schwarze, “Arnold Bode und der Impuls zur documenta,” in Arnold Bode: Leben + Werk (1900-1977), Staatliche Museen Kassel, Neue Galerie, Kassel 2000. With thanks to Gary Schwartz who from his blog The Schwartzlist pointed me to this source. See the post of 2007 “284 Being Where?” [http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/schwartzlist/?id=117].
3. See Gesellschaft für Abendländische Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, ed. documenta: Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, Kassel 1955, p. 13 (note 6).
4. Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel (ed.), Archive In Motion: 50 Years Documenta 1955-2005, Steidl, Göttingen, p. 21.
5. Christoph Lange, “The Spirit of documenta,” in Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel (ed.), Archive In Motion, p. 21.
6. Annette Tietenberg, “An Imaginary Documenta, or The Art Historian Werner Haftmann as an Image Producer,” Archive In Motion, pp. 35-45.
7. Lange, ibid.
8. See the interview conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Harald Szeemann in A Brief History of Curating, JRP | Ringier & Les presses du réel, Zurich and Dijon 2008, p. 91.
9. Walter Grasskamp, “For Example, documenta, or, How Is Art History Produced?” in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (ed.), Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, London and New York 1996, p. 56.
10. Catherine David, “Introduction,” in Cornelia Barth & Jutta Buness (ed.), Documenta X: Short Guide, documenta and Museum Fridericianum, Kassel 1997, p. 11.
11 Morgan Fisher, “Documenta, a Show of Shows,” in Jens Hoffmann (ed.), The Next Documenta Should be Curated by an Artist, Revolver in collaboration with e-flux, Frankfurt am Main 2004, pp. 34-37.
12. See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1989—in particular the chapter “Natural History: Fossil,” pp. 58-77.
13. Douglas Davis and Peter Frank, “Interview, July 1977,” Art Contemporary, Volume 3, Issue 9 (1), 1977: 46. Reprinted in Liz Glass, Susannah Magers & Julian Myers (ed.), Give Them The Picture: An Anthology of La Mamelle and ART COM, 1975-1984, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco 2011, pp. 52-64.
When Artworks Crash: Restorers Face Digital Test
Cómo se restaura una obra de net.art
A pesar de todo, estas dificultades no han desanimado los conservadores del Whitney Museum de Nueva York, que acaban de poner al día una de las obras más emblemáticas de su colección de net.art, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence de 1994 (...y enalce a la obra original), del creador estadounidense Douglas Davis (1933).
Adquirida por los coleccionistas Eugene y Barbara Schwartz, The Sentence fue donada al Whitney en 1995 y desde entonces se mantuvo a disposición del público en la red las 24 horas del día, convirtiéndose en una de las piezas más emblemáticas del Artport, elportal online del museo neoyorquino, que desde 2002 y bajo la dirección de Christiane Paul, se ha convertido en una referencia internacional para la escena digital.
The Sentence, que representa una instantánea de la primera era de Internet y un documento vivo de su evolución, ha crecido y evolucionado a lo largo de una década apareciendo en eventos expositivos internacionales, hasta llegar a contabilizarmás de 200.000 contribuciones en 12 idiomas.
Con el tiempo y el desarrollo de los soportes informáticos, The Sentence empezó a tenerproblemas de funcionamiento hasta que en 2005 el Whitney decidió dejarla inoperativa,congelándola en una versión que no aceptaba nuevas contribuciones y desde entonces hasta ahora sólo pudo ser leída.
“The Sentence se estaba desintegrando”, indicaChristiane Paul. “Contenía enlaces inactivos,códigos obsoletos que imposibilitaban su lectura y no se podía seguir añadiendo más contenidos”, explica la comisaria, destacando que además de la presencia de enlaces basura (link rot), los navegadores actuales malinterpretaban los viejos códigos de programación y la visualización de los textos en distintos idiomas generaba caracteres ilegibles.
“Cuando Christiane tocó a mi puerta diciendo que quería discutir sobre los enlaces basura, no tenía idea de que se trataba de un problema de conservación”, comenta Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Directora Asociada para la Conservación e Investigación del Whitney, que en 2012 dio inicio al proceso de restauración con el apoyo de Paul y un amplio equipo de profesionales. A partir de la pieza original, se aprovechó la posibilidad de
reproducir el código informático, que puede ser multiplicado al infinito, para crear dos nuevas versiones, una que ha sido definida “histórica” y otra “funcional o live”.
La versión “histórica” puede visualizarse también con un navegador antiguo y ofrece The Sentence así como se podía experimentar en el momento de su creación, pero los enlaces han sido reemplazados en la medida de lo posible con una versión alternativa de los archivos originales extraídos del sito Internet Archive. La versión “funcional o live” se caracteriza por mantener inactivos los enlaces rotos, en sintonía con la naturaleza efímera de la red y por permitir seguir contribuyendo al texto, devolviendo así a la obra sus funcionalidades originales.
“El proyecto plantea algunas de las principales cuestiones tecnológicas y filosóficas con las que hay que enfrentarse para la conservación de las obras de net.art. ¿Cómo y porqué preservar la naturaleza efímera de la web? La decisión de crear dos versiones del proyecto es una estrategia de preservación inusual, facilitada por el potencial del arte digital para crear copias idénticas. Además este proyecto ofrece un modelo potencial para la preservación de las primeras obras basadas en Internet, que se están deteriorando muy rápidamente”, asegura Christiane Paul.
Consideramos que el problema de la caducidad de los soportes informáticos, mucho más que la obsolescencia programada de las herramientas, impulsada por la industria tecnológica, es una realidad que nos enfrenta a lo que podemos definir una futura extinción cultural. Si en la Piedra de Rosetta todavía podemos leer unos textos de hace más de 2000 años, esto con toda probabilidad no se repetirá con los archivos digitales. Por mucho que digan los expertos en conservación, el usuario corriente de los soportes informáticos, a menudo no consigue ni siquiera abrir los documentos almacenados en suviejo ordenador.
Sin embargo el caso de The Sentence de Douglas Davis nos enseña que, como no podía ser de otra forma, las instituciones saben encontrar una solución para la conservación de las obras valiosas, aunque quizás con el tiempo resulte más viable conservar un retablo románico que la información almacenada en una memoria digital con más de 1000 años de antigüedad.