Other Doings

On Production Politics and documenta 15

By Els Silvrants-Barclay

The following contribution is based on a lecture-statement by Els Silvrants-Barclay at LLS Paleis on January 8, 2023 in Antwerp. She reflects upon the broadly discussed 15th edition of documenta in Kassel and its curation by ruangrupa. The Jakarta-based artists’ collective built the foundation of this documenta on the core values and ideas of lumbung, the Indonesian term for a communal rice barn.
As an artistic and economic model,
lumbung is rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing and equal allocation, and is embodied in all parts of the collaboration and exhibition.1 These values resist ones that have been dominating the international art world for ages, bringing forth a highly competitive, market-oriented system in favour of a small elite of collectors and artists, while ignoring the rights, dignity and values of the large majority of art workers.

How can you bring what you do to Kassel?

Departing from this refreshingly simple invitation, documenta fifteen curator ruangrupa developed a project that puts its own set-up – including the institutional apparatus around it – at the core of its curatorial proposition.

Instead of commissioning artworks, we want to show the processes that give rise to them.

Insisting on process rather than output has a number of implications. It implies knowing that the process is the practice and the artefacts are simply side effects.2 Showing practices of making, organising and sharing implies that the exhibition itself always remains a kind of side-product: the exhibition is thought of and set up to facilitate these practices, not the other way around. This does not mean that the exhibition itself lacks curatorial intelligence, on the contrary, but the aim of the project always beyonds the exhibition; surpasses it; lies outside of it. But I’ll get back to that later.

A second important implication of engaging with the question of how we work (rather than what comes out of it) is the question why and for whom we work.

Why do we do what we do in the arts, and who actually benefits from it? What do we value in that process, and why? Who decides this, and on what basis? With what aim?


Gudskul banner, Fridericianum, Kassel, June 11, 2022 Photo: Nicolas Wefers

Production implies logics, procedures, values, systems and goals, and these are built into institutions and apparatuses. They gladly represent themselves as neutral, but obviously they are not. They are bound to specific worldviews, ideologies and conditions that in turn reaffirm and reproduce. Production is where worldviews, ideologies and conditions are kept in place, outside the political realm, and that is precisely the reason why we need to politicise production. Production is politics, producing value; value versus currency.

I would argue that the political project in the arts lies precisely there: in the active questioning and rethinking of the set-up and conditions in which we work as artists and artworkers, rather than in the (mere) performance of the political topics we address.

To be truly political implies we cannot disconnect artworks from the processes and frameworks that bring them into being.

This perspective of what I would call ‘production-politics’ makes every work of art fundamentally political, including so-called ‘autonomous’ works. There is no autonomy when production comes into play. In fact, an artwork claiming formal autonomy can be political precisely because of its refusal to be productive. Refusing a purpose or usefulness is also taking a position in relation to the conditions in which we produce. I have to think of a work of Joëlle Tuerlinckx at the central square of Molenbeek: a huge 12,5 ton sculpture is buried inside the square, with only a small tip of it remaining visible. One way of looking at this work is its refusal to perform the typical visibility that is expected from a work in public space. It claims radical autonomy from what it is supposed to do. This production perspective shows that the contradiction between autonomy and politics is a false one, and reveals they are in fact deeply entangled.

How, why and for whom?

This documenta approached the question of how, why and for whom we make art through an expanded and explicitly diverse cultural paradigm, anchored by different realities and subjectivities. This made the production politics at play fully visible. Different values, goals, modes of production and elaboration – and specific to ruangrupa’s curatorial interest – different understandings of authorship surfaced, showing that different contexts and production conditions lead to different conceptions of what art can be and do.

As such, documenta fifteen finally added a much-needed project of diversification to the ‘global’ project of the biennale that emerged from the (capitalist) desire to expand and internationalise (the art market) without touching upon its foundations. In this documenta, these foundations now take centre stage.

Artists and practices that have been ‘othered’ by dominant frameworks no longer want to perform in already defined set-ups and narratives they do not have a stake in, they want to build their own.

This inevitably convolutes and unsettles dominant perspectives, which might feel very uncomfortable for those familiar with them. Yet, to be able to give space to a new and more diverse ‘we’, it is key to understand and produce art through multiple realities and subjectivities.

This leads to an existential crisis, as criticism of this documenta has shown. Those in dominant positions feel at a loss for words and reference. The ground underneath established values is trembling. Much like those ‘othered’ who have been ignored, belittled and patronised have experienced for many generations of art-making. (This at a loss for words we all now share, and through this, in fact, a new collectivity emerges, but one that is not yet seen).

When this speaking from multiple realities and subjectivities engages with very charged concepts, this existential crisis turns into conflict. Anti-semitism can only be addressed in a certain way (we are not that collective after all; there is still work to be done). The sympathetic newcomer is not that sympathetic anymore.

It is important to state here that those ‘othered’ are not merely those ‘outside’ the so-called centres in geographical terms.

Otherness is also to be understood in intersectional terms: as a crossover of race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, ableism and other forms of discrimination.

what art can do?

More than anything, documenta fifteen was an attempt to diversify what art can do.

Many of the invited artistic practices act in situations and localities where precarity is not an abstract phenomenon on which art can comment from a distance, but an affective reality that compels art to act. The Cuban artist and activist, Tania Bruguera, also present at this documenta as a founding member of INSTAR, the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism, talks in similar terms about ‘arte util’ or ‘the useological turn’, by which she proposes an understanding of art not merely as an object to look at or preserve, but as a ‘utilitarian’ object, intended for concrete use.3 Art as banners, posters and signs for protests, as in the case of Taring Padi, or as a tool for collectively, reimagining a new rurality, as in the case of the Jatiwati Art Factory.

When I asked Tania during a roundtable conversation if she didn’t consider it tricky to reduce art to its useability, to allow art to be instrumentalised or see artists as service-providers, her answer was telling. This hinges on the question for whom it is useful, she said. By building little to no symbolic capital for the art market and its acolytes, and shifting this ‘for whom’ towards an enforcement of collectivities that are already doing what they are doing outside of it, this documenta sure made a statement.


Documenta15: Carnival Remembering 4 years of the Lapindo mud Tragedy at Siring Barat, Porong, Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia, 2010, courtesy: Taring Padi

A glorious mis-use of the documenta

This was another phrase that fell during that same roundtable that stuck with me. A documenta going beyond its intentions (to make an exhibition in Kassel and build capital through individual authorship) towards a new utility (to advance collective practices making change ‘on the ground’) through a bold act of redistribution and diversification (of means and modus operandi).

This documenta, however, was more than just a signpost to other ways of producing, or other ways of ‘using’ art to try to make a difference. Contrary to what the polarisation surrounding this edition suggests, I saw no anti-edition, no negation of the importance of form and aesthetics, not just chaos, randomness and empty chairs. In fact, I saw explosions of aesthetics: from the films of Saodat Ismailova to the sculptures of Fondation Festival sur le Niger or the absolutely wild intervention of Atis Rezistans in St. Kunigundis Church. Here too, the frameworks through which we look are at stake: labelling this documenta as only process and not aesthetic experiment only proves the fact that many still fail to acknowledge certain forms and modes of expression and aesthetics, simply because they are not registered as such by dominant frameworks.

In the end, I lived a documenta of joy. To walk and talk and dance and drink together much like Fred Moten & Stefano Harney setting up study by not calling the classroom to order,4 their version of ruangrupa’s lumbung. I did not see a documenta against what documenta has been before, but a documenta showing what is possible besides this. An exhibition that not only displays but invites to be truly present: to be-in-it-together without needing to be the same.5 To get lost and wander around, think through the body, and through that, think otherwise. I felt empowered, made complicit, affected, and most importantly, I felt mobilised for other doings.

  1. see documenta-fifteen.de/en/ 

  2. Virgil Abloh (2021) Abloh-isms 

  3. See www.arte-util.org 

  4. Fred Moten & Stefano Harney in The Undercommons (2013) 

  5. Rosi Braidotti