Los Angeles

Otis Public Practice at 18th Street: What Can We Learn from dOCUMENTA (13)?

Chiara Fumai, Shut Up. Actually, Talk (The world will not explode), 2012, Photo: Henrik Stromberg.
In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + People
A series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves.org

By Sue Bell Yank

This Wednesday, October 24th at 7pm at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, a panel of curators, artists and students invited by the Otis Public Practice program will discuss the multivalent, ground-breaking exhibition dOCUMENTA(13) (which took place this year from June 9 to September 16). Documenta is a large-scale exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany, and is open for 100 days. This year's edition was helmed by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (recently named the most influential figure in contemporary art by ArtReview), who envisioned an event centered around both the frictave and romantic potentials of globalization in the dual worlds of the West and the Middle East (and the fluid digital terrain that melds and complicates their relationships). Otis Public Practice student Tamarind Rossetti instigated this event after returning from a field internship working with documenta artist Mariam Ghani. Her desire to unpack, interrogate, and reflect on the exhibition with a group of Los Angeles based artists and curators (including curator John Tain and artist Leslie Labowitz-Starus, in addition to Ciara Ennis, director/curator of the Pitzer Art Galleries and Pilar Tompkins-Rivas, director of residency programs at 18th Street Art Center) speaks to dOCUMENTA(13)'s resonance in the field, and in the development of young artists in a rapidly changing world.

Sue Bell Yank: What was the impetus behind holding this event?

Tamarind Rossetti: The Otis Public Practice Program places students around the world in field internships during an artist's installation of a project so that we experience how the field actually operates. I went to documenta to work with Mariam Ghani on her pieces A Brief History of Collapses, 2011-2012, a video installation, and Afghan Film Archive, an online database of the Afghan films that had been hidden from 1995-2002. The breadth and intensity of the works I saw at documenta were so meaningful in thinking about how to develop my own work that I wanted to discuss these with friends and colleagues who are interested in: public practice, archives, political art, and site-generated works. We asked Pilar Tompkins-Rivas from 18th Street Arts Center to moderate a panel we convened of artists and curators, including me, who would present their experiences of the exhibition in order to consider, what can we learn from dOCUMENTA(13) and what does it suggest about current developments in social practice?

Sue Bell Yank: And what do you think is the relevance of this documenta to the state of socially-engaged art practice?

Tamarind Rossetti: Mariam Ghani's artwork had a specific impact on how I understood and experienced documenta, because her pieces dealt with recurrences of collapse, recovery, and mirroring of histories. One piece showed a dual video projection traveling through the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul and the Fridericianum in Kassel as a voice described the multiple lives each building has lived. This piece worked with building, occupation, destruction, re-habitation, while the viewer sat in the building being described, visually and historically. There was a feeling of being in two places at once, in many times at once, of the changeability of history, and the persistence of destruction and rebuilding/repurposing, redefining.

John Tain: This edition of documenta was very much engaged with various forms of artistic work identified with social practice, and the curators seem to have adopted many of the strategies to be found in such work in their own thinking. Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev's participation in this year's Creative Time Summit would seem to confirm this.

Leslie Labowitz-Starus: The overall experience of documenta this year was one of expanse across locations, and thinking about the big picture, how all the elements of this complex exhibiton functioned. There were multiple locations throughout Kassel, seminars in Kabul, work in Cairo and Banff. It was impossible to see it all. I saw so many amazing things, and I'm sure I missed so much. In addition to the physical multiplicities, artists from multiple generations, backgrounds, experience, and their work came together in all these places to create a whole exploration to how art relates to society at large. There was also a meeting place in Kassel where the artists and community members from Kassel got together and brainstormed how art can respond to the changing world. Knowing the past structures of society that have not worked, and thinking about what is next. What comes after this capitalistic model that is no longer working for the society? And how can artists inform and help create that?

Documenta isn't about one artwork. It's about all the artworks, spread out all over the city, the world. Bringing artists from the other sites: a question of what s going on in the world.

The exhibition is saying, how do you know about these things that you don't really know about, but only see? It's bringing things together so the visitors can see and experience in a different way: different than the news, than the media.

Sue Bell Yank: What are some of the expanded notions of pedagogy and geography that were enacted in this documenta?

Tamarind Rossetti: I arrived in Kassel and it was 48° and raining. There's too many works to cover, but I can share some reflections on a couple. I walked into the offices to find the video technician, and saw on the door a poster which said "maybe installation." I thought it was funny, but later found out the documenta team had started calling their education department "maybe education." The naming and implementation were unusual--different from other exhibitions and museums I have been to. There was a question of educational models, which was seen in the way the tours were orchestrated. I heard that guides with diverse expertise were hired to give tours and that these were unique to their perspectives, no definitive script. I actually stayed in a flat with some of the documenta tour guides, an art historian and artist/curator. The naming of the people who showed or spoke at documenta were called participants. Labels of individual "artists" or "writers" or "physicists" were all exchanged for "participants."

'maybe installation' poster in the documenta offices | Photo: Courtesy Tamarind Rossetti.

I walked through the Fridericianum and felt the slow wind. A giant open gallery with only wind blowing through, and a letter. Was this for real? A gallery filled with air? Maybe it was empty, or maybe it was wonderful. I wandered into another room in which a voice sang, "I'll just keep on/ til I get it right." Then I looked to my left, and saw a man and a woman in the corner of the room embrace and kiss, with the music trying and trying to get it right. It was very romantic in there, just the three of us.

Leslie Labowitz-Starus: It's an unfolding organism, and it has to do with intuition, a sense of germination. A lot of artists are dealing with things in the world and it is very complex world right now. The show is non-linear, non-logo-centric, so to explain it you have to show it from many different angles. I will show a map of the show, and the online d-tour, the d-map at the event on Wednesday. Looking at the layout, the structure, the simultaneity will show how it is working together to create an organism.

An interesting thing about documenta is the market art world is not the priority. It's not based on fame or the market element. When you take that out of it, it really changes the way the art is shown.

John Tain: It was interesting that dOCUMENTA(13) incorporated performances and spaces that were very far from Kassel. Some of it resulted directly from the curator's decisions (e.g., holding part of the exhibition and planning in Afghanistan). Some of it came about as a result of some of the invited artists (e.g., AND AND AND's linking to other artists, such as 16 Beaver Group and Rheim Alkadhi, who staged actions all around the world). Even within Kassel, the exhibition was quite dispersed, with pavilions strewn around the Karlsaue Park, and performances and installations set in all corners of the city. Part of this was done, I think, to expand the audience beyond the traditional viewership for contemporary art. Abraham Cruzvillegas went so far as to perform at unscheduled times and in random places, partly to encounter unsuspecting viewers.

Sue Bell Yank: What did you walk away with from this exhibition, what challenged you, and what really stuck in your mind?

Tamarind Rossetti: What I walked away with, thinking about since (in addition to Mariam's work, there were so many interesting things going on), but here's a few:

Susan Philipsz
Sound Test, 2011
Audio installation at the end of the outdoor train platform, Hauptbahnhof. As we walked out to the end of the platform, crossing train wires overhead, slowly the sound of stringed instruments became perceptible, and we were enveloped in the sound, the environment, and the architecture.

Floorplan for 'Sound Test' by Susan Philipsz. | Image: www3.documenta.de

Sam Durant
Scaffold, 2012, Karlsaue park
"What at first appears to be a playground or picnic site is in fact a caustic anti-monument to the history of execution." [The Guidebook] This piece invited climbing up and looking at the view of the beautiful Karlsaue park; creeped into my stomach and churned as I looked out. It was viscerally disturbing. There was also a publication with detailed information about the death penalty in the US, which I picked up at a coffee shop.

Sam Durant's Scaffold.. | Photo: Stunned/Flickr/Creative Commons License

MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho
News From Nowhere, 2012
"News from Nowhere begins with contemplating the social function and role of art. Initially proposed by two artists, MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho, the project aims to reflect upon the direction that contemporary art practices - and society as a whole - are taking, while also envisioning the future through collaborative projects with artists, designers, and architects. Furthermore, experts from other diverse fields - education, economics, politics, culture, and religion - will join this practical platform for an in-depth conversation that aims to examine art practices and suggest a better vision for the future." [From their website]

Jerome Bel
Disabled Theater, 2011
Democratization of dance. This piece explored the ways in which certain populations are often assumed unable to produce dance. "Mental disability is generally though of in terms of complete otherness to the condition of the intellectually keen and cultivated public of contemporary art." [The Guidebook] This piece was uncomfortable and transformative in its performance, placing the disability on stage front and center, and then dancing through it.

Michael Rakowitz
What Dust Will Rise? 2012
Rakowitz "collaborated on a workshop with local students in Bamiyan, where the destroyed sixth-century Buddha statues once stood, aiming at recuperating the traditional skill of calligraphy and stone carving intrinsic to Afghanistan's Hazara region." [The Guidebook] Watching the video of students at the stone-carving workshop in the mountain, in a space where the Buddha once was, brought up ideas of loss and rebuilding, time lost, but also the hands that built the original, and starting again.

Work by Michael Rakowitz. | Image: universes-in-universe.org

Leslie Labowitz-Starus: The pieces that stood out for me were Ryan Gander, Charlotte Salomon, William Kentridge. The Kabul Seminars at the Ex-Elisabeth hospital were amazing. Abul QasemFoushanji. Those drawings transported. Rahraw Omarzad's video piece summed up the whole perspective for me. It was amazing. I keep thinking about it.

John Tain: The main challenge for me was simply trying to take in as much as possible in a very short amount of time. I was struck by how memorable many of the pieces were.

Tamarind Rossetti is originally from Ojai, CA, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Public Practice from Otis College of Art and Design. She received her BA from UC Berkeley in Art Practice and English Literature. At Berkeley she received the Robert & Colleen Haas grant for video and photography research in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the Eisner Award for Video. She has worked on site-specific projects in Tijuana, MX, San Ysidro, CA, and Los Angeles, CA. In Nepal, she did documentary work with women sherpas navigating mountains and cultural ravines which focused on group understanding, dialogues, and untraditional choices. She has worked as an educator teaching art and creative writing to students of all ages. Her work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions including 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica, CA; MorYork Gallery, Highland Park, CA; Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, Ojai, CA; Neurosciences Institute, San Diego, CA; DIY Gallery, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, CA; Worth-Ryder Gallery, Berkeley, CA; Gallery PT, Hamamatsu, Japan; VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, Leslie Labowitz-Starus earned her MFA from Otis in 1972 before moving to Düsseldorf, Germany, where she studied with Joseph Beuys. In the early 1970s, she was introduced by Eleanor Antin to Suzanne Lacy, and from 1977 to 1980, the two collaborated on a series of large-scale activist performances that often took place in public settings. They also co-founded Ariadne: A Social Art Network, a support system for women artists.

John Tain is an art historian and curator. Tain has served as a curator for the modern and contemporary collections at the Getty Research Institute since the fall of 2007. His exhibition, Greetings from L.A.: Artists and Publics, 1950-1980, opened in October 2011 at the Getty as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative and will travel to the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 2012. It examines the strategies and contexts artists in Southern California had for imagining and connecting to viewers and audiences. In January 2011, he co-curated a survey called Video Art from the New China that accompanied the Photography from the New China exhibition at the Getty Museum. Before coming to the Getty, Tain taught in Paris and at Kenyon College. His research on topics such as the historical avant-gardes, and Latin America and Surrealism, has been presented at symposia at the Getty, the Institut national de l'histoire de l'art (Paris), and elsewhere. His most recent essay (on Anselm Kiefer) is in issue 3 of the Getty Research Journal.

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Top Image: Chiara Fumai, Shut Up. Actually, Talk (The world will not explode), 2012, Group performance on the roof of the Fridericianum featuring Zalumma Agra and the Stars of the East, words by Carla Lonzi ("Let's Spit on Hegel," 1970) and Rivolta Femminile ("I Say I," 1977), costumes by Antonio Piccirilli, 60 min., Courtesy Chiara Fumai, Commissioned by dOCUMENTA (13) and produced with the support of Fiorucci Art Trust, London. | Photo: Henrik Stromberg.

About the Author

Sue Bell Yank is a writer, producer, and arts organizer. She currently works as an online education producer for the Oprah Winfrey Network and was formerly the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Hammer Museum. She grad...
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