15 August, 2007

Documenta - review

"The economics of Documenta are a prime example for the functioning of
the art system. Our experiences as participants of the magazines
project. "

(English version)

by Kati Morawek and Beat Weber

The opening of documenta12 in June was an event in many respects:
While new price records for art worksin auctions and art fairs were
the main topic of art journalism in recent years, reporting on
Documenta focused on artistic content only. The documenta positions
itself as a countermodel to the market dominated art world. Its main
claims are "education" and "emancipation" which was reflected in
reports about documenta. At the same time, there are no reports about
working conditions or internal economies of the event. Aesthetic
questions dominate - despite the fact that the economics of documenta
are a prime example for the functioning of the art system. As
participant of documenta magazines project, Malmoe got a glimpse of
how it works.

The documenta Magazines project invited around 90 independent and self
organized non-profit publications from the fields of culture and
political theory from around the world to come together and reflect on
the main topics of documenta.

Participating magazines were asked to publish and discuss articles
among them through an electronic platform provided by the institution,
on the topics proposed by the documenta team. The documenta would then
select the most interesting ones for their own three magazine issues,
which accompany the exhibition. In return, possibilities for
networking and exchange with other magazines would be provided as well
as the outlook of getting invited to workshops and conferences abroad.
But no money was offered for the work of the participating magazines,
except for the authors chosen for publication in documenta's own

On the one hand, this is an interesting project: Instead of
cooperating with established fancy elite art journals from the centers
of the global art world, documenta brought together marginal and
critical publications from all over the world and provides them with a
unique visibility and possibility for exchange.

On the other hand, the form and framing of this project are very
typical for the art field. They make the project a good example for
the functioning of the art system in general. Seven aspects come to
mind here:

1. Outsourcing of idea scouting

The magazines project is designated as "research system" by the
documenta directro. It shall provide the curators with information to
be used in the exhibition. As remarked by participating magazine
Radical Philosophy, this is a form of outsourcing of innovation on
independent small players, which is typical for the cultural
industries. With this move, the institution gets their credibility on
board and cheaply procures information from decentral networks, which
would have required a major research effort for outsiders. Similar to
deals between majors and indie labels in the music business, the
question of balance of costs and benefits, giving and taking is key in
assessing this situation.

2. Casting show principle

The intellectual cooperation within the documenta magazines project
seems to represent the total opposite of commercialised events like
the casting shows of the "Pop Idols" variant. But on a structural
level there are striking parallels: A limited amount of participatns
is selected to take part in a kind of competition, where they are to
provide unpaid work containing performative aspects within a
prespecified framework involving special tasks. Among these, winners
are selected via a mixture of group processes and expert decisions.
This is nothing unusual in the art world, but the common model in most
exhibitions below the upper segment of the market.

3. The attraction of the promise of glamour

Why is this offer to work on assignments of an institution without
getting paid accepted by the cultural workers? Because taking part in
such a project promises social and symbolic capital which is valuable
in itself and might even be transformed into economic capital in the

All gate keeping systems in the art world like galleries, exhibitions
etc. work on the assumption that people are willing to work for
reputation, without expecting to get paid. This is especially visible
at documenta, where a legion of interns are working for 400 euros a

The only "real" payment documenta magazines project offers are rare
and sporadic fringe benefits like tickets for conferences, free issues
of magazines. The rest is the promise of social and symbolic capital:
Getting in contact with other magazines, profiting from the reputation
effect of participating in documenta.

Some of the participating magazines seemed to be satisfied with these
opportunities, and made documenta subject of their cover stories and
their promotional material. In other editiorial groups, doubts were
raised tot the point of internal conflict, centering around the
problem of taking part in a state-sponsored project under exploitative

4. Distribution of money according to the principle of maximum
representational effect

One of the rules of the cultural field: Money is primarily used for
representation. The more distant the contributing work processes are,
the lesser the chances for them to getting paid (except if they are
indispensable for other reasons).

At the presentation party of the first documenta magazine edition in
Vienna, a rather opulent buffet was offered compared to local
standards. Everything which has representational value is being
financed generously. But people from publications participating in the
documenta magazines project do not get travel funds to visit the
exhibition, even if they have an official presentation - their
representational value is too small.

5. Maximum number of participants - minimum individual payout

Another characteristic feature is the minimisation of the payout for
individual participants as a result of the maximisation of the
representative dimensions.

Of course it would cost a lot of money to pay author's fees and travel
expenses etc. for the 90 participating magazines from around the
world. But why does it have to be that many? Which audience can
appreciate such a vast amount in a reasonable way? Who in the small
editorial team can handle such an enormous project in an appropriate
manner? Experience has shown: It is too much, and this leads to
mistakes, defects, discontent and overcharge among the participants.
This could have been foreseen, but it was not the decivise point in
the selection by the curators, because the attraction of big numbers
predominated their choice. They wanted to signal: Our project is
representative, and it is of unprecedented, gigantic, astonishing
dimensions. In exhibitions there are also usually too many artists
invited, so that the available budget does not allow the payout of any
meaningful sums for individual artists.

6. Personal relations make it hard to keep critical distance

At the documenta which is run mostly by people from our city (Vienna),
we experienced what is typical for local art scenes: One is acquainted
or even befriended with the people involved, one is part of the same
networks, appreciates each other, sometimes is even dependent from
each other. This involvement makes it hard from time to time to keep
up critical standards, which one would hold firmly onto in other

7. Star system and invidualising, anti-collective framework conditions

Despite the fact that he is heading the documenta together with Ruth
Noack, Roger Buergel officially functions as the artistic director,
because the rules of documenta enforce the appointment of an
individual. This is not an exception, it is characteristic of the
individualistic art system. This also shows in the way of dealing with
groups participating in the magazines project: There was only one
ticket available per editorial team for project conferences - forcing
editorial collectives to choose a representative among them, which is
sometimes in stark contrast to the working style of the magazine
concerned. The principle of individualisation is put aside only when
the collective itself gains a spectacular quality: For instance in Wei
Wei's project of bringing 1001 people from China to Kassel.

Dealing with the double role as on the one hand individual eager for
symbolic capital and on the other hand memeber of a collective,
sometimes leads to conflicts of interest which can be explosive for
collective projects.

This individualising pressure makes it difficult in most cases to
challenge the problematic distribution of resources in cultural
projects. Even more than in regular employment relationships, whrer
there are many regulatory protections, the collectivisation of
discussions about distribution of resources is absolutely necessary in
project work. Even more so in projects which claim to be critical. In
that respect, documenta is not worse, but also not better than the
usual exhibition project.

The participating magazines, scattered around the globe and mostly
unacquainted with each other outside the project, have failed to
collectively articulate their annoyance about the working conditions
offered to them, or organize. The exhibition guides in Kassel at least
have succeeded in negotiating about their salaries. How the artists
participating in the exhibition have fared still longs to be
researched by paid journalists in the art sections of commercial media.

MALMOE magazine - http://www.malmoe.org

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