“The double bind”: on Documenta 15

Skye Arundhati Thomas

View of The Question of Funding hosting Eltiqa, Documenta 15, Kassel, 2022. Image courtesy of Documenta 15. Photo by Nils Klinger. 

August 3, 2022

In the third of our dispatches from Documenta 15 over the course of its 100 days, Skye Arundhati Thomas reflects on the exhibition’s foregrounding of collectives from the Global South, how this has been received, and what it might mean for the future of exhibition-making.

Collectives are often born out of necessity. In India, where I live, I see how essential communal endeavors can become: raising money for bail bonds, distributing funds for the living costs of members, building infrastructure. Collectives of this kind—often occupying a blurred borderland between activism, art, and social work—respond to a political and social alienation bred from the breakup of communities under the mechanisms of authoritarianism. In situations of near continuous emergency, and in the absence of welfare states, public funding, and institutions, the task of providing support and crisis work often falls onto individuals and their capacity to build community.

“Lumbung,” the Indonesian rice barn which serves as the curatorial proposition of ruangrupa’s Documenta 15, is a means by which to collect, store, and share resources. In keeping with that principle, theirs is a show engineered towards a relational rather than an aesthetic experience. Fourteen primary participating collectives were given €25,000 as “seed money,” and the money was used as they discerned: some bought land, others paid rent. Some produced artwork, others put on shows within the show. Each one was free to invite more participants. The Palestinian collective The Question of Funding, for example, hosts the Gaza-based artist collective Eltiqa, sharing excerpts from interviews in a display comprised of text and paintings. One anecdote explains how, in 2001, Dr. Fathi Arafat, founder of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PCRS), donated $10,000 to Eltiqa. The organization put the money towards producing, procuring, and distributing art materials banned under the Israeli occupation from entering Gaza—an exhaustive list that, according to the wall text, also includes fried potatoes and chocolate, fabric, flower vases, toys, and notebooks—to artists in their immediate community.1

The Question of Funding’s installation shows—through the detailing of several anecdotes that track the movement of money between organizations—how under the conditions of military occupation, charities and artist collectives must find creative ways to redistribute funds. This resourcefulness is what directly threatens state infrastructure that maintains restrictions, creating environments of scarcity. Community network and support is a challenge to structures of oppression: a month before Documenta 15 opened, the venue hosting The Question of Funding was broken into and “187”—the Californian penal code for murder, a threat—sprayed on the wall. In July, and in the context of an investigation into whether their inclusion contravened a 2019 Bundestag resolution that explicitly equated the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement with anti-Semitism, members of the collective left Kassel and canceled their public programming.2 Groups that provide charity or crisis work are targeted for the ways in which they subvert the logic of regulation and constraint.

For decades, across the Global South, communities of solidarity and crisis intervention have been assembled around the redistribution of foreign funding accessed by NGOs. Ruangrupa’s special attention to funding plots how this money has historically been a double bind: it’s used to advance the regional foreign policy interests of the donor nation states, but it’s also often the only available support. Fehras Publishing Practices’s maze-like installation of their long-term research project Borrowed Faces (2019-ongoing), for instance, tells the story of how funding bodies prioritized supporting particular types of literature during the Cold War. The work takes us across 1960s Beirut, Cairo, Bandung, Rome, Paris, New York, and Moscow, exposing the networks through which the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom intervened into what circulated as public discourse. The project of “globalizing the Middle East” is revealed as a myth of development established to dispel communist approaches to governance: markets were liberalized to make it easier for money to move across borders.

Decades of neoliberal economics and austerity measures in Europe and North America have decentered community building in favor of a capitalist individualism. This Documenta proposes the collective as an antidote to alienation. Primarily non-Western collectives are on display, showing items produced in workshops, mind maps, work-in-progress videos, and architecture with recognizable, simplistic aesthetic registers of their home country: tin sheds, brick, straw, bamboo. Productivity is linked to communal experience: karaoke, community picnics, exotic meals with food grown from plots cultivated for the 100 days of the show.

It is clear that ruangrupa are sharply aware of how funding reproduces certain representational totems, and their vision for Documenta 15 was to momentarily release pressure on the participants. In an accompanying essay they describe how their own experiences with funding over the years have “proven to be highly competitive […] exploitative and extractive” and anticipate some of the pitfalls of their own project: “we are still curious to see whether the 100 days of Documenta 15 will only result in pragmatic exercises—a temporary ‘time-off’ for artists and initiatives to learn from—only to swing back to the old system of doing things, relapsing to state funding/or free art-market systems.”3 My visit to the exhibition made apparent that the invited participants, who will amount to more than a thousand over the exhibition’s course, were gaining the most from this exhibition. Viewers looking for single doses of authorship, or formalized art objects, rarely found any, and this seemed to be the point: to resist the demands, to ease the pressure, of an art market oriented towards the production of objects.

When funding provides both an opportunity through which new infrastructure is built and the means by which external political motivations are furthered, collectivity ends up being mediated as a token of difference. In their institutionalization, the ways in which collectives are able to conjure infrastructure from scarcity are made precious: they are held up as emblems to be learned from, means of escaping western alienation, proxies for political action. But contexts are integral to how collectives form in the first place, which makes this a pressured paradigm. Ruangrupa’s model makes explicit the political motivations of institutional funding structures—and how they shape the reception of the work they support—and attempts to defy them. It is an approach that, given how Documenta 15 is being defined in the public imagination by allegations of anti-Semitism and censorship, might struggle to find such a significant platform again.


A 2010 report by Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement on items not permitted to enter the Gaza Strip gives an indication of how lengthy and often arbitrary are the prohibitions: https://gisha.org/UserFiles/File/HiddenMessages/ItemsGazaStrip060510.pdf


In 2021, an advisory board to the Bundestag reiterated that the 2019 resolution is not legally binding, and found its use to block funding in the cultural sphere a violation of constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech in Germany. In January 2022, a German federal court described as “unconstitutional” the city of Munich’s refusal to allow a public venue to be used for a debate on its 2017 anti-BDS resolution.


ruangrupa, “How to Do Things Differently,” Documenta 15 Handbook, ed. ruangrupa (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2022), 16–17.

Biennials, Global South, Art Collectives, Palestine, Germany, Censorship

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer based in Goa, India. Her essay-length book, Remember the Details, is out now with Floating Opera Press.

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August 3, 2022

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