Issue #141 Proposal for Documenta 16

Proposal for Documenta 16

Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun

Issue #141
December 2023

In this issue of e-flux journal, we present Manuel Borja-Villel and Vasıf Kortun’s joint proposal for the upcoming Documenta 16 in Kassel, a proposal that, for various reasons, could not be considered by the edition’s Finding Committee. This is the first time e-flux journal has published any kind of curatorial proposal, and we are grateful to its authors for sharing what is usually an internal document, offering a rare view onto two renowned curators collaborating for the first time to signal the spirit, intentions, and key references for a possible edition of Documenta.

—e-flux journal editors


Permanent war: Let us begin with a fact. Extensive globalization exploits the entire planet and intensive globalization exploits society as a whole. This is the “civil” transposition of the war economy, which has coexisted with coloniality since the sixteenth century. The matrix of contemporary capitalism lives in the globalization of war. If the rule of law had traditionally maintained the fiction that war occurred in other places, including the colonies, this is no longer the case.

We cannot ignore neoliberalism’s dark, dirty, and violent genealogy, where torturers in military uniforms rub shoulders with criminals espousing intellectual credentials in the offices of economics departments. Such was especially the case in the colonized countries (Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala are clear examples in Latin America; Angola, Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, and others in Africa; and Indonesia in Asia). The problem this raises is not “moral” (the anger about the armed destruction of the revolutionary processes in Chile of Salvador Allende, for instance) but theoretical and political. It implies that the obedience of the governed can only be achieved in conditions of defeat, more or less bloody, that passes them from the status of a political adversary to subjugated subjects.

The postwar revolutionary movement against colonialism and imperialism, a cycle that profoundly destabilized capitalism and its world economy, occurred in several countries of the former colonies with an intensity, organization, and persistence incompatible with those in the West. It would have been impossible to merely propose that these revolutionary subjectivities committed to overcoming capitalism and its forms of domination conceive of themselves as human capital, get involved in the competition of all against all, and cultivate selfishness, personal achievement, and success. Maurizio Lazzarato reminds us that they could never have been made to believe they would enjoy and control their lives if they accepted the market, the state, the company, and individualism. It would never have been possible to manage them and lead them individually towards realizing oneself.1

In an article in Afterall, Madina Tlostanova says, “One certainly cannot speak of a well-shaped ‘decolonial art movement,’ so to speak, in the post-Soviet context.”2 Eurasian colonialism has been primarily limited to academia and security papers, but it came into full bloom with the war in Ukraine. The invasion was a continuation of Russian colonization that started in the seventeenth century by annexing Siberia and other territories. There is a vast literature on “salty waters,” Atlantic and Indian Ocean colonization, and its aftermath on both ends. That discourse has essentially characterized coloniality as a singularity within its plural forms. If colonization is a process of founding a colony and structuring an unjust and unforgivable global system, its manifestations in Russia, China, and Turkey are not secondary or derivative. They too were based on race, heteropatriarchy, and extractivism. How do we otherwise explain the cultural sinicization of East Asia, and that China was not always the same culturally and geographically? Or Russia’s annexation of the northernmost regions of European Russia to Siberia, the Steppe Region, Turkestan, and the Caucasus? The difference is that Russia and China exercised a level of assimilation that even the French could not match in Africa.

Certainly, Eurasian colonialism did not experience the circa-1968 revolutionary movements. Reading the region from an anti-imperialist angle, its scholars and analysts did not engage with the literature that characterized postcoloniality. As exhausted and remote as 1968 may be, its lapse in the Eurasian space was quickly replaced with pro-China, pro-Soviet or pro-Albanian, and pro-Cuban political calibrations. That alignment gave longevity to Eurasian colonialism and placed it at the heart of the “anti-imperialist” camp. Many on the left find it hard to face colonial legacies beyond a solely Western European/Atlantic conception. Soviet modernity once hosted 185 ethnicities, and sapped cultural and ethnic specificities, queer lives, and ancestral bodies. China’s neocolonialism positions itself as a benefactor. Turkey, whose liquid borders often seep into neighboring territories, is not shy about calling Iraq and Syria its lebensraum. If we disregard these late-modern positions, we fail to account for the forces of difference across Eurasia and how they speak to decoloniality. It is indisputable that centers talk to centers, and the de-orbitational share more across temporalities, bodies, and spaces.

In the literal sense, we live in apocalyptic times that are revealing, that let us see. But what do they show? Fundamentally, that the financial collapse of 2008 started a period of political ruptures, which made manifest that the three axes of the capitalist world system since the sixteenth century—race, heteropatriarchy, and extractivism—can no longer be sustained. A change of episteme has occurred in recent decades (including multifaceted reactions against segregation by race or gender, impending signs of ecological collapse, and the failure of the promise of unlimited capitalist progress). It is also clear that the ultra-right has co-opted the concept of “revolution,” which traditionally means a will to change the status quo. The historical alternative between “fascism or revolution” is today asymmetrical and unequal. Today, revolution often means the reaffirmation of conservative values.


Localization with Western methodologies: Cairo, March 14, 1932. At the request of King Fuad I of Egypt, an important international congress was organized to discuss and document the sound traditions of the Arab world. After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, the Egyptian government yearned to define its identity by showing a history distinct from the British to serve as a modernizing example for its citizens. Scholars and musicians from the Maghreb and the Middle East, along with Muhammad Fathi, Ali Al-Darwish, Rauf Yekta Bey, Mohammed Cherif, and European composers such as Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith attended the convention.

One of the most important conclusions of the meeting came in the form of a formal demand: improvisation needed to be restricted and the tuning system had to be standardized. The Government Delegate to the Congress, Muhammad Fathi, recommended that music groups in the area use Western instruments, which he believed possessed superior expressive qualities. If Egyptian vernacular music produced what some British commentators called “terrible sounds,” harmony would be guaranteed. The reinvention of rules favored standardization and state control. What was deemed “national” was reclaimed within a framework of Western thinking, allowing participation on the condition that it conformed to preestablished and supposedly scientific ordering and classification parameters—of possession and destruction.

Decolonial processes have not always been successful and have even had counterrevolutionary effects. Analyzing the causes and consequences of their failures is essential. Hence, the relevance of what the Moroccan thinker Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938–2009) called “double critique,” the questioning of colonial reason and our own position:

The overturning of mastership, subversion itself, depends on this decisive act of turning infinitely against one’s own foundations, one’s origins, those origins undermined by the whole history of theology, charisma, and patriarchy if one can characterize thus the structural and permanent givens of this Arab world. It is this abyss, this nonknowledge of our decadence and dependence, that should be brought to light, named in its destruction and transformation beyond its possibilities somehow.3

Modernization: In her article “What It Means to Curate for My Native American Community,” Kiowa-Muscogee-Seminole curator and activist Tahnee Ahtone considered how Indigenous cultures have been introduced into American museums. She did not doubt the good intentions of her colleagues, yet she questioned whether there was any real will to change the structures. Ahtone lamented that Indigenous curators are often asked to develop their careers in a system alien to their communities’ customs and ways of doing things.4

Employing an alternative to the status quo only stylistically does not designate anything outside mainstream culture. Art fairs, exhibitions, and museums confirm this. Racism is denounced, and raciality is vindicated, but this critique tends to refer to established patterns, which not only fall short of questioning what makes racism possible, but also validate it. It does not imply a paradigm shift because the power behind it remains intact. When certain approaches become fashionable, when a work of art becomes a product separated from the context in which it was born, when we fail to understand that we are all part of a shared ecosystem in which nothing is ours, when the subject-object separation is ratified, then the master-slave relationship remains, regardless of whether the images depicted are African American or Indigenous.

It is about transforming history, not just remembering it. This requires reformulating the governance of institutions, understanding the artist’s role in each society, and recognizing that we cannot talk about art from a modern perspective as a universal and infinitely interchangeable object. We must not forget that in some Indigenous languages, such as Mayan languages, the word “art” does not even exist. Referring to artistic practice requires other terms related to healing, the biosphere, tradition, or what is done with one’s hands. This applies to things that belong to everyone and are inseparable from their community and territory. In the same way, for Yoruba cultures, aesthetic delight cannot be separated from the functionality of songs and dances, crafts, sculptures, symbolic representations, sciences, and music. Leda Maria Martins reminds us that in the West, the triumph of the economic over the imaginative spirit made possible the rupture between life and art. For the Yoruba, on the other hand, aesthetic pleasure is added to and not disassociated from a fundamental ethical understanding constitutive of all the qualities of doing/making.5 This involves a radical regime change concerning Eurocentric ways of collecting, ordering, exhibiting, and describing.

Memorials are fashionable, both in their construction and in their demolition. Any repressed society’s natural and logical tendency is to try to take down the symbols of those who subjugate it. Removing the monuments of repressors from public spaces is one thing, but it’s quite another to amputate history. Such erasure is often how an order of power is concealed and survives. After 1989, most countries that had constituted the Soviet bloc destroyed or hid almost all the memorial statues of the former regime, but this did not mean that the oligarchy ceased to exist in Russia and other countries. Instead, monopolies replaced the Party apparatus. The need to find different ways of writing history became urgent. The need goes beyond the text; it requires collective effort to imagine counter-monuments, social events, and relations, including those isolated from official histories, from humans and nonhumans.

The testimony offered by such counter-monuments is neither at the center of nor outside of conflicts. It is a counter-history that exposes how power relations activate specific devices of knowledge and politics of truth. These power relations consist of the ability to tell other people’s stories and simultaneously make them the definitive accounts of those people. To begin telling the history of the continent we call America with the arrival of Christopher Columbus is not the same as telling it from the perspectives of communities that originally populated it. Nor is it the same thing to begin telling the story of Africa with the failure of African states or begin telling that story with the creation of colonial states.


Traditionally, the importance of Documenta has been its ability to offer visitors tools to understand the world. But how do we continue fulfilling that task at a time when everything seems to immediately become a commodity, a flurry of infinitely interchangeable images that are neither tied to any substantial social relationship nor anchored in any particular territory or community? How do we accomplish that goal in a historical moment characterized by the extreme degradation of the public sphere and its democratic representations? Absorbed into the cultural and tourism industry, art and critical thinking are experiencing moments of great fragility, oscillating between a feeling of irrelevance (why produce objects or thoughts in a world that seems not to need them?) and frustration (lacking the capacity to redirect the sense of the world, and afflicted by recurring cases of intolerance and censorship).

There is an expectation, in a globalized world, that the historical form of the exhibition is also globalized. But the “biennialization” of the global art system can often be part of the problem rather than the solution. Global shows do not naturally constitute a global public sphere. Significantly, the crisis has not affected the art market: art, more than gold or oil, has become a haven where immense financial and international investments in art rise disproportionately in value. As Peter Osborne reminds us, through this global system of biennials and fairs, contemporary art assures an unequal and unfair world of the fiction of a stable and harmonious homogeneity of space and time.6

Situated thinking: We learn from others and with others. We learn about what we do not know collectively. We live, of course, in a connected, networked society. The multiplication of information is exponential throughout the world. But does this constant input of information help us to grow as human beings and prioritize life over money and affection over violence? Or does it lead us to develop an increasingly competitive and paradoxically more individualistic drive? Knowledge without questioning or critical and self-reflective positioning only increases the weight of the things we carry. It does not make us question what we do or say.

In order to know things, it is necessary to unlearn—understanding that we speak and often act based on inherited concepts and stories that are never neutral. The freedom, equality, and fraternity that began to spread throughout Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, without a doubt, did not explain that many lacked it. It did not reveal that these ideas were based on what the Peruvian thinker Anibal Quijano called the “coloniality of power”—a type of power that had not existed until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and that was rooted in an idea of superior and inferior races.7 It changed the way of understanding the world that existed until then.

Colonialism and violence are inseparable. One is based on the other, however much this relationship has been spurned for centuries. Modern thought, supposedly universal and rooted in a linear conception of time and progress, built the intellectual structure on which colonialism stood. This was made up of a unique story. Those with a place in it existed, while those without a place were condemned. Enlightenment reason is dialectical and entailed resistance and revolutions, yet when they did occur, as with the Haitian Revolution of 1804, they caused terror among the white ruling classes. The Haitian Revolution was a revolution led by Blacks against whites, with one of the best-known articles of its Magna Carta establishing the world’s first Black republic. English, French, and other European forces allied to prevent the revolution from succeeding. Today, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world.

All thought starts from a place and a historical moment. What would be, then, the place of Documenta today? What significance might our proposal have at this moment? How is it different from those put forward initially during the Cold War? What would some of its mythical curators like Harald Szeemann, Catherine David, or Okwui Enwezor have done today? What sense has the work of a non-European collective like ruangrupa had? What to do in a historical moment of deep crisis in which illiberal and xenophobic positions seem to expand? Is it necessary to recognize that the world is in a state of emergency, in a kind of global civil war that began decades ago? What can be done with an artistic event such as Documenta?

Documenta was born with the Cold War, and its first three editions (1955, 1959, and 1964) framed the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), responding to questions about the role that art and culture should play in the recovery of freedoms in the world, after the fascism(s) of the 1930s and the moral and material collapse of Europe caused by World War II. If Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor announced, at the opposite end of that historical cycle, that their respective Documentas would be the last of the previous century and the first of the current one, it was not only because both went through the turn of the century on the calendar, but because dX (1997) and d11 (2002) tried to deal with the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the irreversible crisis of European modernity. David critically reviewed the history of art and the political history of the twentieth century, even if she was anchored in a Eurocentric view of the world (despite having included significant works by Asian, African, and Latin American artists), and the declaration of intent was signified by the first guest at the series of conferences that took place during its one hundred days: Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual and author of Orientalism. Enwezor expanded that field of action. Not only did he expand the discussion platforms to various cities around the world (from Vienna to New Delhi, passing through Saint Lucia, Lagos, and Berlin), but also the presence of artists from non-Western countries was conceived in programmatic terms. Beyond the controversies, ruangrupa has undoubtedly represented a break both at a conceptual level and in artistic practice. The exhibition space gave rise to a multiplicity of devices, in which the place of the archive, the space for dialogue or dance, occupied different buildings and antagonized each other. But, above all, the break was in the concept of lumbung, which attempted to redistribute financial resources and institutional support among the participants.

What role can an event like Documenta play in what seems to be a change of episteme? Should it be content with questioning the model? Is the institutional critique of the 1970s still valid? Resistance or revolt is not possible without an institutional process. Documenta should undoubtedly accommodate the positions opened in recent years by raciality, nonidentity feminism, and the commons. It should propose alternative ways of understanding the world, but be aware that they run the risk of absorption by a society that appears to tolerate anything that does not disrupt preestablished areas of comfort. And what remains of the distribution processes developed in the last Documenta? Has the system changed in any way, or has it remained as a one-off? Where does it sit in history?


To give a response to all these questions, Documenta 16 should be articulated on two levels:

1) First of all, Kassel should be a dispositive where a narrative will be constructed of the malaise of our time, but also of its new sensibilities and democratic practices. The world will converge on this territory where the vertiginous global flows will be interrupted to constitute a heterotopic space where the present can be understood and inhabited differently.

2) This dispositive must be constructed through interpellation, questioning, and negotiating with different agents. Thus, there is a need to develop a process of “agency,” establishing concurrent alliances with international networks that will articulate a new global democratic public sphere with institutional impact in different places.

We must provide Documenta with a solid new meaning worthy of its biography. Kassel must be a key site for reflecting on the relations between art, culture, and democratic politics. To put it another way, d16 is under the obligation to return valiantly to the original motive for Documenta’s birth in 1955, but in the awareness that Europe ceased long ago to consider itself the center of a universal vision of the world.

In contrast to the linear narrative of European modernity, a new long-cycle history would have to be structured in a complex and irregular fashion. This irregularity is very different from the postmodern celebration of the fragment. On the contrary, it is a question of configuring a new map of histories constituted as nodes or monads and organized in force fields, where articulations by similarity and difference are of equal importance, with antagonisms and irreconcilable contradictions brought to the fore. Artworks that reflect the difficulties of the present would reach out to aesthetic and social proposals aiming to strengthen community bonds. We refer to a history that is a long cycle, yet nonetheless full of ruptures, concealments, and resistances. In it, artworks from the colonies of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries could alternate with images from photographic missions or contemporary pieces. Thus, in the Fridericianum and other spaces in Kassel, we would propose a discursive structure, which should be performative and not organized either by themes or forms, but articulated in three lines of flight: Terrible Beauty, Border Thinking, and a Detaining Strategy.

i. Terrible Beauty

Against the positivism of the archive and the fetishization of data, we propose to vindicate the enigma of the poetic. We are not talking about poetry or beauty in a romantic sense, but how the African-American author Saidiya Hartman defines it when she refers to “terrible beauty.”8 Terrible beauty moves in tension between the impossibility of saying something and the need to tell it. That tension is productive and inevitable when narrating the life of the subordinate, the dispossessed, and the enslaved. There is an incommensurability between prevailing discourses and events, amplified by the instability and discrepancy of the archive. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman writes:

The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair, must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future. My effort to reconstruct the past is, as well, an attempt to obliquely describe the forms of violence licensed in the present, that is, the forms of death unleashed in the name of freedom, security, civilization, and God/the good … The intent of this practice is not to give voice to the slave, but rather to imagine what cannot be verified, a realm of experience which is situated between two zones of death—social and corporeal death—and to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance. It is an impossible writing which attempts to say that which resists being said.9

It is also an act of rebuttal. It includes the refusal to fill the gaps and provide closure. How to tell the story of people who went down in history as prostitutes, witches, merchandise, or an object of hatred? Would not telling again the story of the Black woman whom Hartman calls Venus, whose existence we only know about because she was murdered, be condemning her again? How do we tell the story of those who have not existed? The archive—Hartman reminds us—comprises, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history. It is essential to say more than this, and recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive, without committing further violence in our own act of remembering.10

Not being recognized in history or not accepting its recognition condemns the subaltern to a nonexistence. All the exclusions, the oppressions, the scorns, and the plunders are derived from that eviction. But that eviction also leads to heresies and dissent, criticism, and the creation of unsubmissive worlds. Those “without history” are those who are expunged by it as well as those who resist its capture. This was the case with civilizations that did not enter into what was considered the legitimate genealogy of Western culture. “How to bear nothing? How to resist not being?” asks Marina Garcés in the epilogue to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book The Danger of a Single Story.11

Hartman, meanwhile, ponders hypervisibility. When we study our past and present, when we propose to decolonize our history, a double ambivalence is established because we see and are being seen by the past and future. She writes: “Therefore, rather than try to convey the routinized violence of slavery and its aftermath through invocations of the shocking and the terrible, I have chosen to look elsewhere and consider those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned … By defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.”12 This ambivalence requires an exercise of looking and being looked at, and it carries with it a necessary reflection on the opposition between spectacle and routine, violence and pleasure.

ii. Border Thinking

Against xenophobia and nationalism, Gloria Anzaldúa provides insight on border thinking as antithetical to the limits established by nation-states and heteropatriarchal identity.13 Anzaldúa argues that it is necessary to draw a map that does justice to the territorial reality of the border, that trans-geographical and transhistorical place where the reconstruction of collective identities of the diaspora or those located beyond coloniality takes place. To this end, reducing the scale to embody the territory in conflict is essential. Because it is shared, it harbors more stories than those that make up a national narrative. These stories are nourished by what each denies of the other. Between the reciprocal denials, a space is created in which the suppressed tales of the displaced take shape.

“Can I belong by not belonging?” Anzaldúa asks herself. “To be a citizen, yes, but a second-class citizen. Is this belonging by not belonging, or belonging by pretending to belong? These are two positions in tension that should be mutually exclusive, and yet they are two positions whose overlapping shapes a social identity.”14 Conditioned by the dictum that only those who inhabit a territory have stories, we have not been able to construct a history in which narratives have more to do with relationships than identities.

Relationships are not fixed. We should reach beyond reductive categories such as “American,” “Latin American,” or more recent concepts such as “Afro-American” and talk about the flows and encounters that took place on both sides of the Atlantic. While Foucault understood confinement as a form of control, control is exerted over mobility in our day. Diaspora has become a state of permanent deportation, which is the condition of many people without a voice in history.

Forced migrations, planned relocations, and exiles are part of our condition. They mark history’s silences. The movement of authors who have worked on the border and constructed hybrid languages nourished by the past while subverting them, maintaining anchors that have disappeared in their regions of origin, is unstoppable. This language finds its space at the crossroads: a sacred place of intermediation between diverse knowledge systems and instances. In Yoruba cosmogony, this crossroads is represented by Èsù, constitutive of everything, of the material and the superhuman, of the feminine and the masculine—not in a binary sense, but in a flux that cannot be reduced to any category. Èsù represents the ontology of time in Yoruba cosmogony, since it is ontology itself, the time that curves forward and backward.15 The reinvention of new subjectivities, of gazes that hinder the colonial domination of those rejected because of their race or sexual orientation, is inescapable. Resisting the discourse of shame and seeking strategies to rewrite history are radical political acts that break with many established epistemological divisions and link with authors from different continents, generating unexpected cartographies.

iii. Detaining Strategy

We live in a continuous present, with no past or future. At the same time, fluidity in communication and transportation is increasingly accelerated. This occurs alongside large zones of exclusion whose relationship with interconnected networks is passive, configuring territories to be expropriated or human groups to be exploited. In observing our epoch, we propose to stop its flow, in the same way Walter Benjamin advised materialist historian to act: by “striking” the historical process violently so as to induce its crystallization.

What could a refounding of Kassel as an exhibition center consist of but a “crystallization,” a state of exceptionality necessary for constructing a junctural public sphere? In the history of twentieth-century avant-gardes, “detaining” strategies were linked to the “estrangement” effects of a reality that hid its own material conditions, to the “denaturalization” of a common sense for interrogation, or to the “negativity” introduced by an element in contradiction with a given state of things. Bertolt Brecht seems to have adopted the concept of “estrangement” from the Russian formalist linguists, translating it into the context of epic theater, where it interrupts a flowing scene that has engaged the spectators’ attention, suddenly wresting them away from identification with the stage to show an arrested moment containing an opportunity for reflection. Off the stage, Augusto Boal proposed applying the same effect of “denaturalization” to street theater, so that everyday life would suddenly be interrupted by a theatrical performance that might shed light on reality by alienating it.

These three axes lead us to think of invisible and condemned places. We propose discussing diasporic peoples, such as the people of the Caribbean (Haiti being an extreme case), Armenia, Amazigh, and other place. But we also propose discussing those who have not moved from their lands: Indigenous communities. Documenta must give visibility to all that has remained hidden or silenced. In this sense, it must constitute a place to heal the colonial wound. But how to do that in the context of culture wars?

We should reread Antonio Gramsci from another angle, beyond the Marxist creed, which took a certain teleology of history for granted. Gramsci (like Benjamin) belonged to a generation that experienced firsthand the defeat of the left at the hands of fascism. His proposal (a meditation on that defeat) was to abandon the schematic universalism of classical Marxism and reconstruct a concrete universalism based on local cultures and their histories.16 For us, this would mean abandoning the schematic universalism of individual rights (without losing its ethical and political tension) and addressing a delicate and complex (but not impossible) construction of world history and a post-globalization world popular culture. In our cities’ poorest neighborhoods, for example, there are many people, whether migrants or not, who are waiting for the left to offer them a narrative in which they are incorporated, not as barbarians to be educated, but as capable actors who can contribute elements of reflection and development—capable, in short, of bringing in their history as a thread of everyone’s history.


We know that Europe’s centrality to the history of modernity is, at the very least, ambivalent. While it has produced emancipatory echoes, like the cycle of global revolts that went from the Latin American struggles for independence in the 1810s and 1820s to the European liberal revolutions of 1848, the ominous reality of colonization is ineluctable. What confronts us is the need to rebuild a robust democratic idea of Europe, not to situate it at the center of a universal project, but to add it to a refounding of democratic and emancipatory practices worldwide through a decolonized relationship with other territories. In this way, Documenta 16 would present itself as a boost to the policies of “agency” implemented by international networks made up of local, “situated” agents. These policies cannot stop at a mere enlightened “gesture” by a curator or curatorial team trying to transfer a static expository concept from one part of the world to another. They must not end with the organization of reflective events that can occur indistinctly in different places.

Neoliberalism has postulated the disappearance of any public structure, calling for the general privatization of our lives. It promotes the destructuring of the nation-state but simultaneously demands that the latter reinforce its policing to defend the established order and identity. Neoliberalism and nationalism thus go hand in hand. It comes as no surprise that today’s world wavers between homogenization and identity, which are no more than two sides of the same coin, two pincers that deepen the precariousness of today’s world. While the free circulation of goods and capital is fostered, favoring speculation and the accumulation of vast profits in a few hands, migratory flows are demonized, and the foreign and the different are signaled as the root of all evils, creating a situation of fear and terror. Against this false dichotomy, we propose situated knowledges, meaning those anchored in a local reality, but without being localist or identitarian. Moreover, this network of networks promotes processual and long-term work against a culture where the spectacular event appears to dominate all artistic manifestations.

It is preferable to work with existing networks. Collaboration with them would take the form of cooperation to foster their self-determined continuity beyond the one hundred days of d16. The network would include artistic collectives, cultural associations, social movements, and other agents. It is a question of articulating existing synergies and participating in practices whose alternative modes of doing make them incompatible with the status quo. These practices vary from place to place. There could be a collaboration with initiatives whose work with underprivileged Indigenous communities opposes central state policies and extractivist policies. Ecology and the preservation of the biosphere are a major concern of many autochthonous communities and other collectives. In other cases, there would be an opportunity to work with the feminist assemblies organized around the mobilizations of 8M, the women’s general strike, and the “Ni una menos” movement.

In its relationship with such networks, Documenta 16 must be something other than an organ of patronage or a hosting program that would achieve nothing but a recurrence of some of the current system’s problems. On the contrary, Kassel will function for this network of networks as a coordinating agency, a platform for visibility, and a site of debate. It must also take advantage of its centrality to strengthen networks and promote lines of work that extend and evolve beyond the event in Kassel, generating new forms of sustainability and solidarity among institutions with different scales and diverse organizations (from schools to squats, archives, artists’ platforms, or journals), as an alternative to a system dominated by the market and the cultural and communications industries. Regardless of whether the networks’ work signifies a continuous interpellation of the institutional position of Kassel, their investigations or aesthetic or political actions may be incorporated into the general exhibition discourse.

Benches out of the snow: The Italian philosopher Mario Tronti proposed the concept of a political rejection of capital.17 According to Tronti, this destructive force must not only target the “masters,” but also the “slaves” and their activities, in order to stop the identification with forms of “productivity,” “work,” and “consumption.” After all, these are predicated on the power that they want to get rid of. The destructive force must be summoned because, in reality, there is no double production of subjectivity that separates labor from capital. Without a revolutionary break, the workers (like everyone else) are trapped in power relations that, instead of antagonism, take the form of complicity, collaboration, and participation in the great disaster of capitalist production. The destructive force has the function not only of neutralizing the domination of capital but also of creating the conditions for a conversation among subjectivities, for a change in their modalities of cooperation and action, since even forms of resistance still bear the mark of the adversary.

In consequence, we should not be content with considering the working class as a producer of capital but also as a “capital-destroying” force. Documenta 16 should refrain from the overproduction of events, which appears to characterize the art system, despite all our good intentions during the pandemic. Instead, Documenta 16 should propose to be “destructive” of a system which precarizes the majority.

According to Franco Rotelli, the former director of a radical mental healthcare institution in Trieste, an institution cannot support its reproduction as the point of reference of its practice.18 On the contrary, the priority of a critical institution is to renounce its autonomy and instead support the autonomy of its constituency. In his words (lifted from Bertolt Brecht), the institution should not be scared of producing “benches out of snow,” to let a citizen sit down and rest in the winter of their life. When the spring comes, they will be able to stand again and participate in society. It doesn’t really matter if the bench melts or the institution is left empty. Either way, the institution will have to start inventing anew.


We were asked individually to present a proposal to Documenta, but decided to do it together. We both have a history of working collectively and helping to create networks of autonomous and connected organizations. Most of the “agents” we mention in our proposal are people or groups with whom we have collaborated for years. But the idea of joining goes beyond this history. It has to do with a different form of working together.

We referred earlier to Harald Szeemann, Catherine David, and Okwui Enwezor, but we don’t think this is the time for projects developed by a single person, regardless of how many collaborators or associate curators they have. Knowledge today can only be a process of learning and unlearning, which can only happen through a process of permanent interpellation between each other. We don’t propose a more or less traditional collective, like in the last edition of Documenta, which might risk an endogamic position. In terms of organization, we propose the creation of a horizontal, asymmetrical group in which differences could be negotiated and tested without violence, in the trust that all share the same goals and the support of others. We would propose working in the first instance with two other people from different backgrounds and generations. This curatorial team would have exchanges and conduct interpellations with a second circle of thinkers, activists, and artists. In addition, a larger circle of collaborators from different disciplines can participate in our discussions and decisions. We neither intend to have a caucus of initiatives nor to export exhibitions to other venues in the world.

We realize that after d15, the upcoming Documenta faces the danger of a retour à l’ordre. We cannot offer that. However, we offer a project with a choreographed discord. Ancient Greek culture employed two words to name a space. One of them was topos, implying a fixed space within which you can move, but whose frame remains unchanged. The other, chora, on the contrary, is a space that keeps forming itself, restructuring itself all the time. While topos corresponds to a modernist conception of time and space, chora refers to time that is a spiral, a space that is at a crossroads, and a form of governance that is of the commons. Discussions and debates must always include a reflection on their institutional structure.

We have both worked in institutions throughout our practices, running venerable international operations and instituting new ones. As such, we know well how to execute programs with responsibility, criticality, and timeliness.

Who is Documenta for? We do not ask this question in a literal sense. Other than the public of the present moment, publics keep arriving from unresolved pasts. Those pasts do not go away, and need to be reckoned with. There is a future public as well, which also gives us reason to do what we do. This plurality does not privilege the “now.” But any decision we make in the “now” affects all three, including changing the past in the present. Creating a project for the dead, the living, and the unborn is a challenge, but one worth taking up.


Maurizio Lazzarato, El capital odia a todo el mundo: Fascismo o revolución (Eterna Cadencia Editora), 20–21.


Madina Tlostanova, “Decolonial AestheSis and the Post-Soviet Art,” Afterall, no. 47 (Spring–Summer 2019), 102.


Abdelkebir Khatibi, Plural Maghreb (1974; Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 26–27.


Tahnee Ahtone, “What It Means to Curate for my Native American Community,” Hyperallergic, December 28, 2021 .


Leda Maria Martins, Performances do tempo espiralar, poéticas do corpo-tela (Cobogó, 2021), 70–71.


Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (Verso, 2013).


Aníbal Quijano, “Colonialidad del poder y clasificación social,” in A. Quijano, Cuestiones y Horizontes: De la dependencia histórico-estructural a la colonialidad/decolonialidad del poder (Clacso, 2014).


The phrase “terrible beauty” is a paradox that captures the complex emotions that Hartman conveys in her writings. The slums are a place of both beauty and ugliness, of hope and despair. She focuses on the promise and precarity of transient spaces and liminal zones. It is a place that highlights the different perspectives of insiders and outsiders. The outsiders see the slums as a place of danger and despair, while the women who live there see it as a place to call home. “Terrible beauty” also refers to how Black social life is consumed and enjoyed by outsiders.


Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12 no. 2 (2008).


Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 2–3.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, El peligro de la historia única (Penguin Random House, 2019). All translations by the authors.


Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.


“Border thinking” was first used by Gloria Anzaldúa in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute Books, 1987).


Martha Palacio Avendaño and Gloria Anzaldúa, poscolonialidad y feminismo (Gedisa Editorial, 2020), 67–68.


Martins, Performances do tempo espiralar, 51.


Antonio Gramsci, Cuadernos de la Cárcel, 1929–1935 (Akal, 2023).


Mario Tronti, “The Strategy of Refusal,” in Workers and Capital (Verso, 1966).


Pantxo Ramas, “Autonomy,” in Glossary of Common Knowledge (Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, 2018).

Contemporary Art
Return to Issue #141

Manuel Borja-Villel was Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS) in Madrid from 2008 until 2023.

Vasıf Kortun is a curator, writer and teacher in the field of contemporary visual art, its institutions, and spatial practices. He has vast experience and knowledge in establishing mission driven institutions, long-term strategies, design and building processes and in assembling interdisciplinary teams.


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