Skip to main content Start of main content

dOCUMENTA (13): Writing’s Retreat into the Context of Contemporary Art

Mario Bellatin at 'Chorality, On Retreat: A Writers' Residency', housed in the Dschingis Khan restaurant, Kassel as part of dOCUMENTA (13), 2012. Courtesy dOCUMENTA (13)
Nick Thurston considers writing as a focus of the recent Documenta and discusses the proximity between literary production and reception at the writing retreat set up in Kassel.  
Mario Bellatin at ‘Chorality, On Retreat: A Writers’ Residency’, housed in the Dschingis Khan restaurant, Kassel as part of dOCUMENTA (13), 2012. Courtesy dOCUMENTA (13)

From the area titled ‘The Brain’ and the curatorial statement outwards, writing was everywhere at this summer’s dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel. Language figured as a primary aesthetic element in most of the offsite commissioned works and many of the onsite group shows, as in the vinyl lettering of song lyrics by Susan Hiller and the enlarged scrawlings of Nedko Solakov. All this was preluded by the booklet series 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts, which presented, as the title suggests, contributions from more than a hundred writers and artists. This festival was linguistically framed in a literal sense. Written signage can inscribe a productive confusion between exhibition design and artistic installation on the face of any exhibition, an ambiguity that was pulled into play both in the museum displays and the solo presentations hosted in temporary huts across the park, often following the method long worked by Lawrence Weiner of typesetting onto the space of display (which was replayed here by his commissioned text piece on to one glass wall of ‘The Brain’ in the Fridericianum, THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE OF, 2012). Within the auspices of the larger exhibition a sub-series of writers’ residencies was also run, under the title ‘Chorality, On Retreat: A Writers’ Residency’ (hereafter COR), which consecutively featured Etel Adnan, Aaron Peck, Mario Bellatin, Adania Shibli, Holly Pester, Marie Darrieussecq, Alejandro Zambra and Enrique Vila-Matas.

The breadth of nationalities, career stages and literary forms that these authors span (as essayists, novelists, short story writers and poets) was held together by a curatorial agenda carried over from the main show: that is, a privileging of the fictive and a focus on story-telling. Both the exhibition and COR concentrated on the cultural imaginary and the fluid reflexivity of narrative construction in an attempt to find spaces and ways to explore this Documenta’s core philosophical principle: the want to create a polylogic framework within which underrepresented concerns of postcolonial and feminist production can be figured as contemporary art.01

dOCUMENTA (13) notebooks, ‘100 Notes – 100 Thoughts’, 2012. Photograph: Dirk Schwarze. Courtesy dOCUMENTA (13)

I might not agree with some of the philosophical caricaturing that underwrote that principle but the result was a strange and strangely interesting show, which to my mind is any Documenta’s real priority. Befitting dOCUMENTA (13)’s poly-poly principle it is hard for an outsider to precisely locate where and how COR fitted into the structure and administration of the wider festival, other than to see that it was one of many public research fronts. Unlike other ongoing research projects that were represented ‘live’ as exhibits, such as Mark Dion’sWood Library (2012), an ongoing specimen collection in the Ottoneum Museum, the writers’ residencies mimicked the model of a retreat – a model translated from academia into studio-based arts programmes long ago. Retreat residences create a controlled environment wherein the maker can get on with making (in this case writing) with fewer of the obligations to normal life than is normal. The playfulness in COR’s setup was that the space of retreat was very clearly one with commercial obligations and customers. All of the residents were invited to write in a functioning Chinese restaurant, Dschingis Khan, at the west end of the Karlsaue public park. It seems that the residency programme aimed to curate a chorality among the invited writers – or, rather, to create a chorus of writers at work – and as such the series had the collective presence of a polyglossic ensemble of different writerly voices. But by asking the writers to work in Dschingis Khan the curators were also trying to place the production of literature in direct contact with a first (and not necessarily witting) premature audience. Before deciding whether or not one wished to be any kind of active reader of what was written by the residents, all of the visitors who crossed paths (knowingly or not) with the writer within the bounds of the festival were potentially implicated in the live process of composition. In this sense, the audience was premature because they were potential participants, whether they liked it or not, in the production of literature before there was anything to read. What they were an audience to – as witnesses but perhaps also as subjects or objects – was the process of writerly production. The waiters watched the writers watching the customers who watched the waiters watching … The writers watched the art tourists watch the restaurant in search of the writers’ residency. These circularities or feedback loops disrupted the normal subject-object relations between the people involved. Of course these new relationships were orchestrated and not horizontal, but their curation (or, orchestration) was overt and their choral effect quite unique, not least in the awkward sense that the voices of the premature audience might come to be represented within the chorus of the polyglossic ensemble.

In this sense, COR playfully remixed the conventions of a retreat residency with the conventions of the artist placement model, offering none of the guarantees of either but many of the off-shoots of both. Artist placement schemes, famously championed by the Artist Placement Group (active 1966–89), transpose their model from creative intervention tactics used in industrial R&D by which an artist is seconded to a factory or office site. On one side, this model was meant to make the process of creating art public, beyond the closed axis of artist-dealer-gallerist, and to situate contemporary artworks in the discourses of non-gallery spaces. On the other side, it was expected that the intervening artist would offer a creative re-thinking of how their host body (that is, the organisation or company in which they were placed) produced its products, be it materially or immaterially, abstractly or concretely; and in doing so, that that artist would contribute to a creative re-thinking of development.

The best reason that I know for initiating writers’ residencies within contemporary art programmes is to explore what it is that art makes it possible to write – to, if you like, enable kinds of writing that are not possible even within the most critically contemporary literature because there isn’t the will, the resources or, perhaps most significantly, the specific expertise to make a space for it. That third condition – the specificity of real expertise – is, I would argue, the most conceptually important. Not being able to support every kind of writing, every kind of literarity, or even every kind of literacy is not a failing on the part of the discipline of literature. Rather, these other kinds of language use demarcate the limits of literature’s institutions, industries and epistemology – limits that were points of critique for many high-, late- and so-called postmodern writers such as Kathy Acker.

Enrique Vila-Matas, speaking at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, 2012. Courtesy dOCUMENTA (13)

What, then, did COR’s retreat into a different public context generate by way of new writing? And, secondly, to what extent were those new writings formed in, about or because of the festival? Quite appropriately the answers to both of those questions took many forms. Each resident could write in the restaurant constantly or not at all; they each had a visitor pass to the exhibition venues throughout their tenure; and they could work with the COR curatorial team to schedule public talks or events, which were then staged and promoted within the central festival programme. In the final of eight such programmed talks the Catalan novelist Vila-Matas narrated a first-person allegory that played off the variety of ways in which he had been made public at Kassel vis-à-vis the ways he has been represented in public before as a widely-read writer. To do so he told an extraordinary anecdote about a long and unfinished ‘collaboration’ with the French artist Sophie Calle, whom, he said, invited him to write her future, like a master-author, on the promise that she would live exactly as he instructed, like a slave-reader. This dialectic of dependency created such a peculiar pressure between the two (who had never previously met in person, though she knew him insofar as he is ever obliquely present in his novels) that it contributed to his having an already swelling nervous breakdown.

For better and for worse, to ask whether or not this anecdote was true would have been to call forth valuations of truth that this Documenta, and its retreat into a polylogical world of language, refused to entertain. Any literary analysis of the event of Vila-Matas’s reading could only fairly say that it demonstrated the full unapologetic potential of an event so richly resourced (intellectually, passionately, as well as financially) as dOCUMENTA (13), in which a deservedly famous writer could write very subtly for a small and transient audience of close listeners, who could listen to his Spanish-language presentation in a live English-language translation via free-to-borrow shortwave radio headsets. The introduction to the presentation was honest and sharp; Vila-Matas’s talk was eloquent and imaginative; the translation was unintrusive and sustained; the author was open and generous in the Q&A; and all of this served an audience of about twenty visitors.

The potential richness (in every sense) of this space for new writing is unique. In the medium-term, I can only hope that Vila-Matas does publish his flâneuresque account of being a willingly objectified agent amongst the other curated object-events of dOCUMENTA (13). In the longer term, I can only hope that this wilfully disobedient residency scheme continues to keep open a space for literary writing to retreat amongst a new a kind of public.