A short and incomplete history of “bad” curating as collective resistance

Gregory Sholette

Workshop with ruangrupa, Documenta 15 artistic team and lumbung members, Kassel, 2020. Image courtesy of Documenta 15. Photo by Nicolas Wefers.

September 21, 2022

In the last of our dispatches from Documenta 15 over the course of its 100 days, Gregory Sholette defends the exhibitions daring, decentralized curation, placing it in the context of artistic and activist movements from the nineties to the present, and contrasting it to the presentation of the Berlin Biennale.

Between the start of this year and the end of September, the artistic universe has delivered up an increasingly ominous sequence of events that, for me at least, resembles the tangled history of decentralized curating, the recrudesce of which feels downright spooky. Der Spiegel’s recent exhortation regarding Documenta 15 that “the German cultural sector has a big problem,” for instance, made me think of a threat made by Walter White in Breaking Bad: “There will be consequences.”1 Given that much of the criticism of Documenta 15 has focused on alleged curatorial inadequacies—and has included not only menacing editorials recalling sensational crime drama, but direct threats of violence against curatorial staff and artists—it feels pertinent to ask: a big problem for whom? And if the show’s decentralized curating has been attacked as “bad,” then according to what reputed standards?

In 1998, as the recently hired Curator of Education at New York’s New Museum, I inherited a number of previously planned exhibition projects from my predecessor Brian Goldfarb. Still, none of these fledgling exhibitions, including one called “Urban Encounters” (UE), were anything but dates on the program calendar. Given my own background with other artists’ collectives—PAD/D and REPOhistory—I took the opportunity to invite a half-dozen activist art collectives based in the city in order to focus on the theme of artistic collectivism itself.2 And, given that the late 1990s was not an especially robust moment for collaboration in the visual arts, it seemed like a worthy topic for an educational exhibition.3 Additionally, all of the collectives I invited were engaged in some form of social or political critique, a distinct difference from the wave of informal, “whatever” collectivism that swept the art world soon after.

Along with an invitation to participate, I requested that each group create a kiosk-type installation about why they chose to work collectively and what past art groups they looked towards as precedents. I also specified a budget (the same amount for all invited groups) and the size of each exhibition space (also all equal). Even though some of the senior museum staff were less than thrilled with my DIY approach, no other instructions, curatorial review of proposals, or additional intervention took place on my part regarding the content of the exhibition. And on the day of install, each collective—the Guerilla Girls, Godzilla Asian American art group, Bullet Space squat print collective, ABC No Rio, World War Three Illustrated magazine, and REPOhistory—unloaded art and piles of construction materials for assembling the six stations of artistic collectivism in the museum basement, then located on Broadway in SoHo. Aside from some anxious expressions on the faces of several New Museum colleagues, the installation went off without too many hitches (ok, unbeknownst to me, Bullet Space installed a work using human blood—a potential biohazard, I was told by staff—and dozens of bottles of what appeared to be urine that squatters use to fend off police and inspectors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). Opening night included an impromptu soup kitchen and the show attracted so many visitors that the downstairs “educational space” of New Museum looked like a block party.

I was fired the next day.4 Cest la Vie, Cest la Guerre. Now the spooky bit. One especially sagacious commentator on UE was then a student in the prestigious Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) program. Her thesis pointed out that, given my largely hands-off, archivally-oriented process, the UE exhibition was not actually a curatorial project at all. Briefly flustered, I took this as a compliment. After all, I was far more interested in collective forms of artistic activism than discerning acts of connoisseurship. Now, if my organizing process almost a quarter century ago shares a rough semblance to ruangrupa’s approach to Documenta 15 today—intentionally decentralizing their curatorial authority by inviting a cluster of art collectives who then invited other artists and collectives—it is especially cheering to note that the former CCS student left the program to work collaboratively for many decades in Denmark, most recently with asylum seekers and refugee rights activists as part of Trampoline House, one of the fourteen primary collectives invited to be part of this year’s Kassel exhibition. Prego.

Documenta 15 has its own historical repetitions to deal with. Germany’s twentieth-century war crimes and genocide hovered over the show from the start, prompting nearly daily flagellations in the press over allegations of antisemitism. Certainly, there are outstanding issues to be addressed with Documenta 15, especially regarding several decades-old, pernicious caricatures, two of which were removed from view in June. While such images offend, isn’t it the very nature of an archive to be made up of what it actually contains, in order not to devolve into a cherry-picked, or censored, collection of select historical documents? All of this preceded Hito Steyerl’s withdrawal of her artwork in early July, an act that may have been aimed at hastening the necessary conversation. Nevertheless, Steyerl’s vanishing act appears to have had little lasting impact, which is curious given that she is not just one of the only German citizens participating in Documenta 15, but a prominent artist with non-European ancestry. Silence from the mainstream German press also greeted a communique sent from the Brazilian-Jewish cultural center Casa do Povo [The People’s House] on July 20, which stated that while they were not ultimately invited to participate after an initial visit by ruangrupa, they were still involved and supportive of Documenta 15’s “unique, decentralized community of artists, friends.”

We have admired the way the artistic team decided to work: the idea of turning documenta into an open resource for so many collectives and artists is fascinating. Of course, the decentralization of decision-making can imply a partial loss of control. So we knew that problems could come up but we also hoped that these issues could be dealt with collectively.5

Still, some have argued that Documenta 15’s scandal boils down to a couple of luckless missteps by the organizing collective. Then again, isn’t it ruangrupa’s overt display of collective and rhizomatic organizing—or conversely, their lack of strict curatorial oversight—that is under attack here? In other words, by applying such an unconventional, virtually archival approach to the world’s most intellectually acclaimed art venue, ruangrupa’s lumbung was not just an anomaly, but to some observers appears flagrantly perverse. And what inevitably comes of such risk-taking is not, cannot, and must not be free of the inconvenient, problematic—and sometimes perverse—realities that make up the world found beyond high culture’s white-walled fortress.

As the German philosopher of cynical (some would say curmudgeonly) reason Peter Sloterdijk stated with regard to Documenta 15: “we are observing the mobilization of a postcolonial intellectual culture,” adding that “intellectuals from the periphery” are prepared to “take power in the center.”6 Sloterdijk’s use of a reflexive “we” pretty much spills the beans. To rephrase his comments more directly: “dear elite, what on bloody earth did you expect to happen when you handed over this prestigious exhibition to a pack of resentful outl​iers?”​ ​Which is to say that in light of ruangrupa’s ethno-political and collectivist curatorial methodology, it feels important to entertain the possibility that the shadow of antisemitism is really serving a hostile art world, the German liberal press, and far-right racist ideologues as a default justification for condemning this experiment in total.

It is also crucial to know that charges of bigotry towards Documenta 15 started well before the offensive imagery was detected and removed in mid-June. Back in January, the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding was anonymously assailed online by the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel blog over links between the group and Boycott, Disinvest, and Sanction (BDS) human rights campaign, which the German parliament branded antisemitic in 2019.7 The online ambush was followed by physical vandalism against the group’s installation, an attack that also included what may have been coded threats of future violence against the collective and its members.8 One unfortunate outcome of all this poorly researched Northsplaining was not only the loss of a critical conversation about the substance of Documenta 15, but waves of media-enhanced scorn against the exhibition going forward. Months later, when a couple of offensive caricatures were discovered in the midst of Taring Padi’s enormous mural, early accusations of bias were corroborated. Despite good faith apologies by both the mural artists and the curators, for many people, Documenta 15 itself has faded from view (as did the mural), only to be replaced by a torrent of complaints including charges of mismanagement, along with calls for censorship and increased government oversight.

I spent several days touring the exhibition, and (full disclosure) facilitated an evening event with curator Olga Kopenkina for Tania Bruguera’s installation INSTAR (Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism). But it was not until I traveled to the Berlin Biennale a few days later that the significance of Documenta 15 truly began to take shape in my mind. In essence, the comparison boils down to this: the Berlin Biennale explains; Documenta 15 shows. The latter’s attitude towards the art world borders on indifference, as if the Kassel artists were telling us “should you feel like exploring our varied, collective artistic activity—wonderful. But if not, no worries, because we will continue doing what we are doing regardless.”

Such tactical disregard echoes Occupy Wall Street’s notorious refusal to state a list of demands in 2011. One might even go so far as to propose that ruangrupa used their curatorial invitation to initiate a slow-motion occupation of the institution known as Documenta. The overall effect is rhizomatic. They first gathered fourteen other collectives into what they labeled a lumbung, a traditional Indonesian communal barn used for storing and redistributing surplus of rice and other crops. These groups were tasked with establishing an “ecology” related to their own practice and extended networks. The Question of Funding serves here as a good example of ruangrupa’s lumbung approach, in so far as the group’s second installation (not the one damaged in the attack) pivots on what radical geographer Katherine Gibson describes as post-capitalist Community Economies: “ethical economic practices that acknowledge and act on the interdependence of all life forms, human and nonhuman.”9 The Question of Funding walks visitors through the process of arriving at sustainable models for Palestinian cultural institutions in three phases, starting with questioning and debating, both of which are forms of artistic research abundant in the Berlin Biennale, followed by solutions involving communal blockchain-driven economic platform based on trust and zero-trust systems, which is where Documenta 15 diverges from Berlin most explicitly.

While there are many excellent works of critical art in the Berlin Biennale, curated by artist Kader Attia, the general approach is a familiar one: a post-conceptual critique of visual culture, capitalism, and colonialism that pivots on an exegesis using such documentary media as archives, films, photographs, videos, and various material records including books, reports, and letters. An investigative analysis of Russian missile strikes in Ukraine by Forensic Architecture, for example, is as intellectually engaging as all of their work. But, as Ben Davis has argued, in this context the project feels suspiciously like a checked-off box “labeled war in Ukraine.”10 Maithu Bùi’s augmented reality projection Mathuật – MMRBX (2022) seeks to exorcize the historical amnesia of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia; Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s The Natural History of Rape (2017/22), an epic timeline of weaponized rape, constitutes a massive dossier of revisionist history during the occupation of Berlin by allied forces in the late 1940s; Lawrence Abu Hamdan offers a staggering data visualization of the Israeli army’s militarized sonic presence over wartime Lebanon in 2006 in Air Conditioning (2022); excerpts of Clément Cogitore’s 2017 video Les Indes Galantes [The Gallant Indians] with the multi-racial dance crew K.R.U.M.P. is mesmerizing; and Serbian artist Mila Turajlić explores socialist solidarity newsreels made by Yugoslavian journalist Stefan Labudović in the 1950s, in her 2022 video installation Screen/Solidarity/Silence – Debris from the Labudović Reels. An archival tribute to the militant anti-Nazi resistance of Jewish women by Zuzanna Hertzberg is the type of project one wishes Documenta 15 had embraced, both in order to focus on Eastern Europe, a region almost entirely absent in Kassel, but also as additional counterweight to charges of antisemitism.

The Berlin Biennale has not been without its own controversies this year, including the withdrawal of work by three Iraqi artists protesting an installation displaying photographs of torture of prisoners by the US military in Abu Ghraib, circa 2003. Nevertheless, it champions the type of self-critical introspection of western assumptions that helped to open up the very possibility of a Documenta 15—one organized by artists from the distant periphery of the global art scene—in the first place. Indeed, one might spin a phrase by Theodor Adorno to propose that Documenta 15 and the 2022 Berlin Biennale are torn halves of an absent critical cultural analysis, to which, however, they do not add up.11 Meanwhile, Documenta 15’s participants raise a host of other questions and concerns. By focusing on art’s collective margins, for example, we wind up with a profusion of unimpeded cultural production—starting with Taring Padi.12 Despite the cancellation, the group still presents a cornucopia of works that occupy an entire building and its former indoor swimming pool at Documenta 15’s Hallenbad Ost location. The sheer abundance of Taring Padi’s often burlesque painted, drawn, and printed figures—social realist–flavored, sometimes affirmative, and other times angry or deeply ironic—mitigates against charges of intentional bigotry, while simultaneously bolstering the marginal, even anti-art-market tenor of Documenta 15. After all, why overproduce what is alleged to be a limited and rarified commodity (“art”) to the point of undermining its value as a uniquely collectable possession? Put differently, when it comes to Taring Padi and some of the other Documenta 15 participants, the parsimonious output of Jasper Johns stands as an extreme opposite.

More importantly, the excess productivity of the many collectives that make up Documenta 15 extends far beyond these material surpluses. INLAND operates a radio station, art academy, study groups, offers training programs for rural shepherds, publishes informational pamphlets about ecologically appropriate land-use, and makes its own goat cheese in the Spanish countryside. Más Arte Más Acción is engaged in environmental activism, hosts artistic residencies, research groups, and a school known as Chocó Base that investigates nature, music, regional knowledge and “creative laziness” among other topics in rural Colombia. The Nest Collective hails from Nairobi, Kenya, and along with constructing art installations out of used consumables they organize Kitchen Conversations with Black and immigrant groups in London, and a “Lift Festival” featuring theater and cinema, as well as dance spaces focused on non-binary people of “all origins, faiths and generations.”13 The Britto Arts Trust “hub,” based in Dhaka, offers residencies, book-making workshops, and video screenings, and has even ventured into border politics by organizing meetings between Bangladeshi and Indian artists under the rubric of “No Man’s Land.” Meanwhile, Trampoline House (referred to above) has served as a meeting place in Denmark where refugees escaping human rights violations, war, and economic hardship can work with counselors, language classes, educational programs, and art exhibits. And finally, there is Taring Padi, who describe their mission as facilitating resistance against “elite discourse” by promoting a “populist or people’s art,” but also through directly organizing social and cultural organizations around a philosophy of anti-capitalism, mutual respect, and democratization—ideas that could only have been spoken aloud after the fall of President Suharto’s 32-year-long military dictatorship fell in 1998. And this is merely a fractional sampling of Documenta 15’s multitude of collective, expanded artistic practices.

Consider another measure of the project’s scope. I attempted to quantify the precise number of actual participants including not only members of the initial 14 groups, but also their invited contributors. I began to add up the numbers and stopped soon after I realized that most had invited over 50 other participants each, some of which are also collectives in their own right, therefore multiplying the count to virtually unknowable proportions. It’s as if the art world’s “dark matter”—that missing mass of invisible producers who literally ground and reproduce the entire system—was flowing giddily through the stalwart venues of Documenta 15 like an ocean of now brightly charged particles.14 With this image in mind, one cannot help but recall the late Okwui Enwezor’s innovative Documenta 11 of 2002. The Nigeria-born curator approached his curatorial venture as a series of platforms generating knowledge about contemporary social, cultural, and political realities including such themes as democracy, creolization, transnational justice, and siege as the latter relates to postcolonial African cities. But only Documenta 11’s central Halle was devoted to artists collectives, and notably it included an archival project on Palestinian history that, as far as I know, drew no charges of antisemitism at the time—a comparison perhaps worth further analysis two decades on.

Drawing out this conceptual line from Documenta 11 to 15, I am further reminded of Lucy R. Lippard’s well-known comparison of activist art to the Trojan Horse. Lippard describes the poison “gift’s” dual function as “subversion on the one hand and empowerment on the other,” adding that activist art operates both within and “beyond the beleaguered fortress that is high culture or the ‘art world.’”15 We could therefore envision Enwezor’s millennial exhibition—perhaps with spectral assistance from a Joseph Beuys and his involvement in the Documenta 5 of 1972—as that initial subversive breaching of a certain Western-Euro-American cultural citadel.16 If so, then the doors are thrown wide open by Documenta 15 for entry by a peripheral army of others, as ruangrupa completed the takeover, before leaving the field indignant, rattled, and retaliatory. “We refuse,” they and dozens of participating artists ultimately countered, in what appears to be their final communique published on September 11 (a date no doubt viewed by some as yet another offense): “we do not give permission to be defined, inspected, re-colonized by yet another institution.” And so, collectively, they fully turn their backs from Documenta 15, withdrawing from the pale fortress: “in the same manners of the lumbung: we do it together, affirmatively and poetically.”17

There have indeed been consequences.


See editorial, “Documenta’s Guernica Moment,” The Jakarta Post (June 25, 2022), https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2022/06/24/ruangrupas-guernica-moment.html.


See: https://archive.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/316; Holland Cotter, “Art in Review: Urban Encounters,” New York Times (August 14, 1998), https://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/14/arts/art-in-review-urban-encounters.html; and Alan Moore, “Urban Encounters at the New Museum,” Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/reviews/moore/moore8-5-98.asp.


The 2002 Whitney Biennial featuring groups such as Fort Thunder, Forcefield, and Destroy All Monsters, was still a few years off. Curiously, ruangrupa was founded in Jakarta in 2000.


My “breaking bad” curating may or may not have been a factor in my sudden termination, however, an admittedly poor decision I made to contact board members about shifting away funding I had raised for the Education Department was cited as grounds for our “mutually agreed upon separation.”


Casa do Povo, “From a ‘São Paulo Jewish collective’: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s False Rumors about documenta and Anti-Semitism,” e-flux Notes (July 20, 2022), https://www.e-flux.com/notes/480764/from-a-so-paulo-jewish-collective-frankfurter-allgemeine-zeitung-s-false-rumors-about-documenta-and-anti-semitism.


See “Documenta and anti-Semitism – Sloterdijk criticizes the art scene,” Time (June 25, 2022), https://time.news/Documenta-and-anti-semitism-sloterdijk-criticizes-the-art-scene/.


Erroneously so, in my opinion. And in full disclosure, I have supported cultural withdrawals as a way of pressuring Israel into granting full equality for Arabs and Palestinians (see: https://usacbi.org/2015/08/artists-launch-letter-for-palestine-cultural-boycott-campaign-at-venice-biennale/). I have also actively confronted labor and human rights injustices in the UAE via Gulf Labor Coalition, which categorically refuses and resists all forms of racism and discrimination (see: https://gulflabour.org/posts/).


Taylor Dafoe, “Vandals Attack a Kassel Arts Venue Where a Palestinian Group Is Set to Show During Documenta,” Artnet News (May 31, 2022), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/Documenta-vanadalized-2124017.


David Bollier, “Katherine Gibson and the Community Economics Research Network,” Resilience website (April 1, 2021), https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-04-01/katherine-gibson-and-the-community-economies-research-network/.


Ben Davis, “The Investigative Mode of the Berlin Biennale Raises an Uncomfortable Question: Who Is All This Research Really for?” Artnet News (July 12, 2022), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/berlin-biennale-2022-review-2144516.


See Adorno’s letter to Walter Benjamin at: https://theoria.art-zoo.com/letter-to-benjamin-theodor-adorno/.


Statement by Taring Padi on Dismantling “People’s Justice,” documenta-fifteen homepage (June 24, 2022), https://Documenta-fifteen.de/en/news/statement-by-taring-padi-on-dismantling-peoples-justice/.


See The Nest Collective homepage: https://www.thisisthenest.com/about.


See “’Artists, Embrace your Redundancy,’ an Introduction to Gregory Sholette’s ‘Dark Matter,’” Manifesta Journal (#15, 2012), http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Sholette-Manifesta-15-Journal-Artists-Embrace-Your-Redundancy-in-Manifesta-Journal-15-2012.pdf.


Lucy R. Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” in Art after Modernism, Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 41.


See for example, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, “Future-Oriented Systemic Thinking: Effects of Beuys, Duchamp, Joyce, O’Doherty … Yours and Mine” in Beuys & Duchamp: Artists of the Future Exhibition Catalogue eds. Magdalena Holzhey, Katharina Neuburger, Kornelia Röder (Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2021), 354–68: https://www.uva.nl/profiel/l/e/c.m.k.e.lerm-hayes/c.m.k.e.lerm-hayes.html.


Multiple Documenta 15 participant signatories including ruangrupa, “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united: Letter from lumbung community,” e-flux Notes (September 10, 2022), https://www.e-flux.com/notes/489580/we-are-angry-we-are-sad-we-are-tired-we-are-united-letter-from-lumbung-community?fbclid=IwAR3ysaNU8V3NVphjIbAYu1DSpRxMBxjis_cBDDsk0jZmLoGucJNvMDb_WGU.

Art Collectives, Global South, Biennials, Germany, Art Activism

Gregory Sholette is a New York–based artist, writer, and activist whose latest book, The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art, is published by Lund Humphries (2022). Together with Chloë Bass he codirects the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded Social Practice initiative “SPCUNY” at CUNY Graduate Center. He blogs at Welcome to Our Bare Art World.

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September 21, 2022

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