Dear God—or Hannah Arendt—Please Make This Documenta Acid Trip Stop!
This is how Geist prefers to handle conflict and crisis, by way of the detour of art.
Dieter Roelstraete, “The Detour of Art,” documenta 14 Public Paper, no. 5, June 2017
Kassel always creeps me out. I can’t wait to leave.
New York City art dealer, documenta 14, 2017
Dear God or Hannah Arendt, whomever is listening: I cannot believe what I read today. Dieter Roelstraete, one of documenta 14’s curators, writes in the essay, quoted above, how the exhibition’s ambitions align with “a German proclivity to seek resolutions of social conflicts within art, within subjectively constructed realms, rather than to oppose authorities in public.”
We’re living in dark times and art is going along with the status quo, yet again.
Without even broaching the problem of expressing a “German proclivity”—someone else can tell you about the problems of naturalizing mindsets around political borders—Roelstraete further argues for the benefits of going along with Geist-minded art that evades “opposing authorities in public.” He acknowledges that documenta, too, does not intend to oppose authorities in public. Again, someone else can tell you about all the historical issues that have resulted from not opposing authorities in Germany, or other countries for that matter.
For such a starkly politically-minded exhibition, the disconnect between the cognitive realm, in which one can think freely and atemporally consider values of how to be in the world, and the world in which these works function, is huge. One of the harder-to-miss public commissions includes a monument erected to refugees named, quite simply, “Monument for Strangers and Refugees.” And yet, the gilt-laden words “I was a stranger and you took me in” harken to the past tense; while the origins of this quotation may be almost two thousand years old, from the New Testament, the status of refugees and strangers, and who “takes them in,” is absolutely current. Is the world doing enough to accommodate unwilling “strangers”? The statement acts more like a wish than historical fact.
In these dark times, documenta’s curators are staking out a claim for an embrace of the global citizenry. Even a film about the PKK makes an appearance, in Angela Melitopoulos’ Crossings (2017). And yet, they have drawn a line to “seek resolutions of social conflicts within art,” as if art had its own borders, as if art were a solid state of its own. Strange, then, how art can let topics of “social conflict” into its gates, but restricts the flow outwards, into the world of action.
Right now, there is an effort, initiated by citizens of Kassel, to occupy a disused building. They had been giving out free spaces to live, free cake, and even free cigarettes. Their effort, “Unsere Villa,” was shut down by the police during the opening week of documenta, resulting in criminal charges and police violence. It’s just down the street from the PKK screening at the University of Kassel. Representation of action is fine at documenta, but not in-the world action—especially not at a local level. Documenta has not responded.
Are you there, Arendt? I really hope so. I’m thinking of so many of your words spoken at the Lessing Prize:
“This withdrawal from the world need not harm an individual; he may even cultivate great talents to the point of genius and so by a detour be useful to the world again. But with each such retreat an almost demonstrable loss to the world takes place; what is lost is the specific and usually irreplaceable in-between which should have formed between this individual and his fellow men.”
PART ONE: PREPPING TO TAKE ACID
Going to documenta 14 at Kassel, I had one goal in mind: to go off-road. I wanted to confront the strangeness of Kassel as a city, more than the strangeness of Kassel, a city with an art exhibition planted in it every five years. Of course, artwork from previous years, such as Joseph Beuys’ iconic and literal planting of “7,000 Oaks,” remain in the city, so there are works from documenta yore that still exist in the city. I could have taken that course specifically: of veering from the official map by tending to public artworks from years of documenta past. Or I could have just hoped to be surprised. Regardless, of which path I took, I wanted to go “off map” as much as possible; after all, our perspective on cities has become overly mediated, with Google Maps, Yelp, and any number of apps to recommend where to go and how to go.
In terms of the type of work presented at documenta, there’s plenty that can’t be statically mapped; they’re always changing. Documenta, more than most other biennials and international exhibitions of the sort that pack in more art than is possible to see during a day, tends to includes performances, sound works, and other time-based works that you have to encounter with a little help from a map, but mostly by chance. Art that occurs by happenstance, rather than directive. And considering that nearly all reviews I’ve read say that documenta is quite walkable, that’d be no problem.
But what happened to me was a spin, rather than a drift.
Spinning around sculptures, spinning away from but never escaping from that central node of documenta. It’s not just the artworks that make documenta present, it’s the curatorial field of paper, with so many official paper maps, newsletters, more maps, maps of individual artworks, all thrown atop other papers given to you upon entrance to the visitors’ centers. On top of the catalog, there’s a thick book of recommended essays, mostly theory, that are part of the exhibition. All this paper(work), though not exactly Kafkaesque, has a heavy-handedness of bureaucratic curating to it: to make sure that you know what type of art-event has been built, and how to prepare for what you’re entering into.
Despite the fortress of paper, meant to build and maintain documenta 14, it’s hard not to see other forces in the city. Like the “ghosts” of Kassel’s past, a city nearly bombed to oblivion during World War II, that would keep surfacing.
Kassel is creepy, I can’t get that out of my head, that one-off comment from an art dealer who’d been to the city before. He wanted to go home. I imagined him with a mini-tornado spinning inside his brain, a headache twisting through memories of the city, spitting them back out just as furiously. But that was his reaction to Kassel. I’m tough. I might be immune.
Even if I did spin, I thought I would try to drift first. And I would do it mostly by walking.
PART TWO: WALKING TIPS AND BREAKING THE MAP
Tip number one: don’t believe the lie that documenta 14 is walkable. The city itself may be walkable—to a degree—but you’ll end up taking the tram to see art if you don’t have a bicycle. One art critic I spoke with while spending time in the documenta Halle, the exhibition’s namesake venue, easily recognizable for its Modernist glass exterior, told me he had been riding his bike around the city for days and still hadn’t seen it in its entirety.
I thought I would sign up for one of documenta’s walking tours, led by a member of the “documenta Chorus.” However, these walking tours, are more or less, educational tours, led by a documenta guide, who starts up a conversation about your surroundings while going on a pre-determined route from one documenta location to another. It’s a tour with some history thrown in. Loosely based on the method of “strollology,” which refers to designing spaces in accordance with how people actually travel to that space, it isn’t so exciting. A quote from one of strollology’s founders, Lucius Burkhardt: “What is required here [now] rather, is design intelligence, intelligence that conveys a dual message: information about the context as well as about the object in question.” Information about the context and the object, again not that exciting, especially in the context of a walk. I wanted more, a wild dérive, especially if I needed to prepare for the “Kassel is creepy” headspin.
Strollology is the two-pill dose of aspirin to cure an historical headache; the dérive is an acid trip. It’s hard to predict what happens on an acid trip, though: the latter’s results can be dangerous, or “meh.” Whatever, I had a few days to spend at documenta and I wanted more than aspirin.
Tip number two: If you want to do more than stroll, don’t start up “north.”
I was surprised that, for all the emphasis on wandering, migration, and walking, that the ideal route, chosen by the curators, begins north and will take you south. Specifically, the ideal route consists of starting at the Kultur Bahnhof [located in the Kassel Hauptbahnhof, on the corner of Joseph-Beuys-Strasse (!)], followed by a stop at a former post office now christened the Neue Neue Galerie, just across the street from the University. To call this “north” documenta, however, would erase several documenta stops from your documenta walk entirely.
To go far north, in Nordstadtpark, for example, you’ll find “The Living Pyramid,” a powerful, 30-foot tower just now blooming: each row of the pyramid consists of planters that seem empty of grass and flowers, excluding a few tufts here and there, but full of soil. Rising skyward, in a dizzying array of not-quite-the-same-size planters, its individual “components” moving with the wind, it’s nothing other than a work-in-process. This limits of this process are plain to see: the extent of what will grow consists of a system of people, plant-based genetics, and the weather. I love it.
It’s a 30-minute walk north from the documenta Halle, not even the southernmost outpost.
Again, another reason to break with the map and find your own walk.
Tip: Most of the permanent exhibition halls do center around Friedrichsplatz, so if you only have an afternoon to spend in Kassel, you can move around the platz and still see hundreds of artworks, mostly located indoors. But not all of them.
One harder-to-find work, a four-channel film installation, by Ben Russell, takes place underground, in the catacombs of the Fridericianum. In order to get there, you’ll need to take a side entrance. Tip: do not walk into the museum and expect to find it. You should see a documenta attendant standing atop a set of stairs, located to the left of the museum, if looking at it frontally. From there, you can descend into the crypts.
Current level of high: ecstatically drifting, from the sky descending into the earth.
PART THREE: TRAINS THAT LEAD TO TECHNO AND UNICORNS
Before walking in Kassel, you have to get to Kassel somehow. Me: I took the Deutsche-Bahn train from Berlin. There’s two stations when arriving into Kassel: Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe has more trains, and long-distance trains. The Kassel Hauptbahnhof is a much smaller station and for local trains. If you accidentally get off at the Hauptbanhof, the wrong station, you’re only ONE short city-train stop away from Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe. Additionally, you’re close to the Kulturbahnhof, in which part of the train station was converted into an art space. Wrong stop? Oh, well, art is around the corner.
Even if you’ve made a misstep, there’s nothing wrong with this local stop, funkier than the K-W station. At 10am on a Saturday, I spotted that odd-in-America but familiar-in-Germany phenomenon of “techno biking”—not to be confused with the “Techno Viking” meme. “Techno Biking,” pretty much, consists of strapping down a boom box to a bicycle and blasting the ooontz-oontz beats of 1990s techno throughout the city.
You’ll probably take the train into Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, and as such, you should know about all the Einhorn-related ephemera in the city. The Kamps Backstube, which flanks the main entrance to the bahnhof, sells unicorn donuts. Rainbow-sprinkled unicorn donuts. A pastel-colored beacon! In fact, Kassel is full of unicorns. There’s a Unicorn Apotheke along Untere Königsstraße, one of the main shopping streets adjacent to documenta. Imagine a unicorn-themed trip to Kassel, and maybe the city becomes less creepy.
Why the unicorn obsession? Sources I spoke with were divided on that issue. Some residents told me it’s because of the fairy-tale history of the city: the Brothers Grimm wrote many of their stories there. What complicates that reading of the Brothers Grimm were the activist unicorns in the city; at least one Kassel resident wore a furry unicorn onesie while waving a sign in solidarity with the protesters in Athens, the partner site of documenta 14, which had opened in April. Eventually, when I finally met my Airbnb host, she mentioned the unicorn costume was a sign of progressive politics. True enough, in part. But I had watched the RuPaul’s Drag Race “Category Is” episode the night before, where the queens designed their own one-horned fantasy fashions for the runway. Suffice to say, multiple histories and fantasies always co-exist all at once.
Tip: When in Kassel, keep your eye out for unicorns.
PART FOUR: BUT THEN A TEXT THAT STARTS THE SPIN
While taking the train into Kassel, my Airbnb host texted, saying the address on the listing was incorrect. Slightly strange, but I didn’t think much of it. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, knowing that I constantly mistype or cut-and-paste the wrong string of numbers or text, I brushed it off. But my fellow traveler, another art writer attending documenta, did question just how much you can mess up a listing for a place, noting that the new address was on the other side of the city. Eh, butterfingers? The new address would be closer to the documenta events, the host mentioned, and honestly, I’d already heard from other art-people attending Kassel that the city was entirely booked for opening weekend. More than once, I heard claims of artists and writers who had long-ago staked out “The VERY Last Airbnb in Kassel.” Nay, we had found one, however far north it was from where everyone else we had met was staying.
Another text from my Airbnb host. Let’s call her Kati: her avatar was a koala. She wanted to meet us at the train station. No worries! We have the address and can take the bus to your place. She insisted that at the very least we meet her at the bus station nearby. We wanted to drop our bags off and start our way out to documenta.
Showing up at the train station with two men, Kati spoke to us on the way to the Airbnb about their living situation. Don’t tell anyone you’re staying there, even other people in the house. The place seemed legal enough to be staying in, with mail slots out front. It wasn’t.
Our trio had to get going soon, to an actual squat, named “Unsere Villa,” that had appeared the week prior to documenta. Obviously, you won’t find that on the official documenta map. Our hosts told us that the police were fine with Kassel residents (made up of students, socialists, anarcho-socialists, you name it) taking over a disused building and alleyway, owned by the university—but they had to shut it down once documenta 14 opened to the public. Wait—which institutions didn’t want Unsere Villa to be there, for visitors to document?
On my course adrift Kassel, I did, of course, visit the squat. When I arrived at “Unsere Villa,” located in a vacant lot and building adjacent to the university, it was strewn with signs for free coffee, cigarettes, and free rent. The building had been abandoned for over a decade.
The motive to create, or at the very least represent, alternative economies and politics paralleled the drive of many works at documenta. Works like Hiwa K’s “When We Were Exhaling Images,” envisioned, through speculative design, alternative apartments, however dystopian and cramped, and barely liveable, inside sewage pipes. In the case of Rasheed Araeen’s “Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change,” a pop-up cafe with free lunches and dinners held in Athens (not in Kassell), action was given precedence over representation. Free lunch, once a day, but not free cigarettes and not a free space to live.
“Unsere Villa” certainly wasn’t on the official documenta map, and unlike the words of documenta curator Dieter Roelstraete, the exhibition would not “oppose authorities in public.” This, despite, the inclusion of many works in the exhibition that show groups like the PKK who do oppose authorities. The curatorial framework allows for representation of action, but not the type of action proposed by the artists, and the activists, and others, whose were shown or made work for documenta.
PART FIVE: FROM SPINNING TO SPENT
Our Airbnb host and their friends didn’t know for sure if the squat would be shut down once documenta had opened. Over the next two nights, our hosts were frantic, looking at their phones and waiting with dread for that inevitable message saying the police had crashed Unsere Villa. As long as the police didn’t come back to our building, or our hosts weren’t going to be banged up from a scuffle….? It was late, we were on deadline. We hoped for the best, however selfishly.
After visiting Unsere Villa I had already started spinning. The late-night texts were pushing me towards nightmares from this documenta acid-trip that would not end. I stayed up working and unable to sleep until 4:00 a.m.The migrants, refugees, and even the PKK members represented in works at documenta, opposed authorities. Was I taking this too seriously, more than at any other art event?
The dissonance between political action and cognitive thought always comes to the fore whenever art exhibitions take the risk of representing communities rather than involving them with the work. But the heavy-handedness of documenta 14’s specific politicization of the exhibition created such a shadow over any move I sought to take in the city. It began to overshadow individual works in the exhibition, which, taken on their own terms, in any other exhibition, would not have seemed so fraught with idealization, positioned as they were within this art bubble.
Unsere Villa was cleared out on July 19, 2017, two days after the public opening of documenta. According to the Unsere Villa website, squatters were pressed with criminal charges, there were violent clashes with the police, and the university still has no plans for the empty building. Documenta 14 has not come out with any statement about Unsere Villa. But why would they? It’s not art.
I couldn’t enjoy the exhibition any longer. I went into the documenta visitor center, stared at my laptop, and I began to write. If only Kassel were merely creepy, my acid trip could have ended when I left.
 Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times. Ebook. Accessed June 21, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?id=_Bt9OWQlke8C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false p. 4-5
 Lucius Burkhardt, “Strollological Observations on Perception of the Environment and the Tasks Facing Our Generation (1996).” PDF. Accessed June 21, 2017. https://monoskop.org/images/3/36/Burckhardt_Lucius_1996_2012_Strollological_Observations_on_Perception_of_the_Environment_and_the_Tasks_Facing_Our_Generation.pdf p. 248