The 2017 iteration of the quinquennial Documenta in Kassel arrived with the announcement of a new, permanent initiative – the Documenta institute. The institute will provide a home for the art festival to ‘keep alive the concept and experience of Documenta in the years between exhibitions’. At a time of growing transiency in the global art world – the rhythm of which is kept alive by the waxing and waning of biennials and art fairs – the creation of this institute acknowledges the importance of permanence.

Linked to this transitory art-world infrastructure is the proliferation of performative and participatory art. Early experiments in this area were closely bound to the biennial format – such as Joseph Beuys’ 100-day-long conversation at 1972’s Documenta 5 – and these festivals often incubate experiments with the artform. At Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale actors recited Marx’s voluminous Das Kapital, and this year’s Skulptur Projekte Münster features a walk designed by Pawel Althamer, and a garden by Jeremy Deller. These works position the art object itself as ancillary to the experiential; ephemera leftover from, but not constituting, their art.

Speaking at a press conference in April, on the eve of the opening of Documenta 14 in Athens, Adam Szymczyk stressed his curatorial mantra that ‘an exhibition should be an experience’. Consequently, alongside more traditional media, his exhibition has included a food sharing project and a sidewalk sex clinic. Central to Documenta 14, therefore, is the primacy of the art experience, whether gleaned at an exhibition or performance.

Keeping ‘alive the concept and experience’ of Documenta, or any comparable contemporary arts festival, cannot therefore just take the form of a straight-forward, object-based archive. So what might this institute look like?

While the Documenta institute marks a novel experiment in converting the biennial/quinquennial form to a permanent institution, fixed institutions have long had to calibrate themselves to the changing time-signature of the art world. Similarly, as seminal works of participatory art wield growing canonical importance, the relevance of collecting institutions is increasingly staked on their approach to the experiential.

Within such institutions, therefore, much salient work has been conducted which may help the Documenta institute lay down some initial coordinates. The daily graft of contemporary art’s conservators places them on the front-line of this discussion, and a recent gathering of conservators and academics at Glasgow’s CCA captured current thinking on the matter.

Addressing this conference, Denise Petzold deployed Tate’s display of Beuys’s ‘Four Blackboards’ to sketch one problematic. The blackboards were not intended as art objects, but in the gallery space are made to operate as a proxy for Beuys’s performative lectures. The transition from ephemera to object d’art risks inviting an overvaluation of their aesthetic qualities, promoted by their presentation alongside works of visual art. In this context, the objects fail to signify the ‘experience’ during which they were forged, therefore baring scant relation to Beuys’s original artistic gesture.

Similarly, documentation such as photographs or films of participatory works (akin to administrative records kept by institutions of works being accessioned) offer only a diluted approximation of the work: neither displaying relic nor record would allow the institute to claim to be keeping the ‘experience’ of Documenta ‘alive’.

These records and relics are the physical manifestation of what delegates at the conference referred to as the ‘collective memory’ of a work. Participatory artworks persist in multiple participants’ memories and, taken together, this is their most tangible form. This casts the ‘collective memory’ as a kind of archive; as the ‘cloud’ is to data, so the collective memory is to art experience.

Taking this one step further, keynote Tiziana Caianiello suggested that the artwork itself consists of the aggregate of all its participants’ experiences across time. Participants of re-enactments encounter the works encumbered by their history and resuscitations. But can you step into the same participatory artwork twice?

Any attempt to ‘keep alive’ Documenta through recourse to material artefacts alone risks failing to signify the ‘experience’ of both the whole festival and many of the works that constitute it. However, re-enacting these artworks does not provide a portal to their original existence either. Much of the legwork done by conservators of contemporary art may help point the way out of this impasse, such as Tate’s initial industry guidelines.

The Documenta institute finds itself in the midst of this clash between the art theoretical and professional practice. Finding creative work-arounds to this stalemate will be its criterion of success.

1. Banu Cennetoğlu, BEINGSAFEISSCARY, 2017, various materials, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, Documenta 14. Photo: Roman März
2. Rasheed Araeen, Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change, 2016–17, canopies with geometric patchwork, cooking, and eating, Kotzia Square, Athens, Documenta 14. Photo: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis

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