Decentralised Non-Autonomous Organisation

Documenta 15 is the perfect institution-building machine powered by the broken dreams of collectivity.

Spend a few minutes in the crypto world and you’ll hear about decentralised autonomous organisations, or DAOs, member-owned quasi-corporate bodies organised algorithmically without centralised leadership. A plethora of DAOs have sprung up of late; some claim to serve the needs of distributed governance, some are useful in gaming, and one attempted to buy a copy of the US Constitution. Most engage in fundraising and capital allocation. Nearly all boast ‘communities’ that form around their smart contracts. These communities are the DAOs’ ambassadors and shareholders. Many participants of these congregations remain hidden behind pseudonymous usernames and unintelligible Blockchain wallet addresses. Even though the rules of DAOs are theoretically transparent, to outsiders, the purpose and workings of these organisations may as well be magic.

Following the announcements of the Indonesian collective ruangrupa charged with curating this edition of Documenta has been like trying to decipher the jargon of a DAO. The very idea of curating became a concern named lumbung, a term originating from the Indonesian practice of communal resource management. Decision-making was driven by majelis assemblies. In uncanny resemblance to the lexical habits of the very online, the lumbung community evolved multiple ekosistems [sic], one of which is named Gudskul [sic]. Artists (estimated to number in the ‘thousands’[1]Artnet News, ‘Thousands of Artists Are Participating in Documenta 15. Here’s the Most Comprehensive List to Date’, Artnet News, 15 June 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/artist-list-documenta-15-2130911. although fewer than a hundred credits appear in the catalogue[2]Ruangrupa, Documenta Fifteen. Handbook. (Berlin: Hatje/Cantz, 2022), 45.) became lumbung members. The exhibition itself was billed as a process rather than a product. The aim? To turn the community into an institution, the stated objective of just about every other DAO. Beyond that, little is clear.

What does this lumbung DAO look like in real life? Walking through Documenta’s multiple locations feels like touring a museum dedicated to Zuccotti Park of 2011. Many spaces, like *foundationClass*collective’s takeover of the Fredericianum rotunda, are decorated with the paraphernalia of an assembly: seating made up of colourful plastic crates, carpets, and plywood, often accompanied by presentations tracking the history of the collective in question, records of previous meetings or projects, and banners gesturing at the collective’s aims (for *foundationClass*, this appears to be the reorganisation of higher education after the model of the art foundation class). Some of the collectives, like ook_ (whose full name expands to include all the collaborators involved) moved into existing community centres. Others, like Jumana Emil Abboud (a singular artist who nonetheless is credited with inviting over twenty other participants), pitch up meeting spaces in parks and on rivers. What happens in these assemblies during the 100 days of Documenta is shrouded in mystery. Someone could be talking or making art but an opening-day event at the indoor skateboard park of Baan Noorg Collaborative Art and Culture attracted neither the billed ‘fooding’ nor ‘conversing’. Another event was announced only on an artist’s private mailing list. A meme-style poster asking where the art was was spotted in town.

One of the many discursive spaces, this one by *foundationClass*collective.

Even imagining the process spaces activated by communities eager for art or political progress is depressing because the method they propose has already proven itself ineffective. Collective after collective, the wall texts and mind maps gesture at members of artistic communities coming together to form grassroots organisations in a manner reminiscent of the European avant-gardes of the early 20th century. But if these processes of collective knowledge-sharing and governance were to produce the better world (or merely a better art world) that the artists long for in the 21st century, why is a success story missing? What happens to the hundreds of life-size cardboard cut-out protesters of Taring Padi’s outdoor installation when it rains? Why did Occupy fail in Zuccotti Park?

Taring Padi‘s installation outside Documenta Halle

Documenta 15 tries to remain focused on method even beyond the assemblies but when, as if by mistake, the exhibition turns into an exhibition, this preoccupation with institution-building gives way to singular concerns. Amol K Patil’s constellation of objects and sounds, Britto Arts Trust village food store selling steel pomegranates along porcelain hand-grenades, and even Hito Steyerl’s (!) installation that riffs on crypto warfare and animal spirits are welcome surprises despite asking more questions of the lumbung than they answer. Atis Resistans’ voodoo takeover of a Catholic church is more ‘subversive’ than Graziela Kunsch’s crèche in Fredericianum. Pınar Öǧrenci’s film Avalanche captures the struggle of nature and politics at the nexus of Turkish Armenian, Kurdish, Farsi, and Arabic influences in the artist’s birth town and is simply sumptuous. Richard Bell’s Tent Embassy and his paintings of protests from the 1970s are knowingly disillusioned with the lumbung’s promise of rewriting material relations but remain powerful for it. Perhaps the strongest counterpoint to ruangrupa’s proposal is Erick Beltrán’s Manifold, a graphic study of the history of individualism and its role in affirming structures of power. Beltrán navigates between taboo folkloristic imagery and the tools of political science such as the political compass, throwing in anonymous, tortured clay sculptures of human heads for good measure. 

Erick Beltrán, Manifold, 2022, detail.

Is this Documenta a series of relationships, as the ever-present spider diagrams suggest, or one of transactions implied already by the lumbung concept and Documenta’s funding mechanisms? What does it mean when the art world behemoth, which for decades followed a centralised, single-curator governance model complete with corporate oversight and state-approved political intent, invests in a decentralised structure like that proposed by ruangrupa? One of the outcomes of Documenta’s institutionalising drive is the forfeiture of the autonomy promised to the lumbung artists. It is a common misunderstanding that the autonomy of the DAO rests with the members of the token-holding community. Instead, it is the logic of the organisation that is autonomous: the smart contract does not account for the wishes of members beyond a set of predetermined parameters. For all the promise of dialogue, negotiation, slippage, and mutuality, the lumbung’s only logic is that of central oversight and rule-keeping.

The omissions in the geographic reach of the exhibition go some way in exposing the logic of the operation. Artists and collectives from Eastern Europe are by and large missing from the exhibition, perhaps because those locales’ institutions have already been firmly integrated with the liberal politics and funding structures of the Western NGO scene. But when the city of Kassel routes its tourism revenues through Indonesia, it gets to shape the culture that ruangrupa propagates because, as in the case of the DAO, the rules are centrally rigged. And the NGO-industrial complex is not kind to the community: a drawing by Tropical Tap Water presented in the catalogue points to the stress of having to ‘spend it before September’.[3]Ruangrupa, 23. In the project The Question of Funding, the Palestinian artist Mohammed Al Hajawri complains of always having his work interpreted through a ‘political’ prism but the exhibition itself barely allows any other reading. Add to this the conspiracy theory that Documenta was at one point funded by the CIA and this is the stuff of secretive DAO Discord servers and anonymous crypto exchanges.

The vandalized WH22 exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Courtesy of documenta.

The lumbung’s organisational structure showed some of its weaknesses even before the opening. In May, the exhibition space allocated to The Question of Funding was vandalised with anti-Muslim graffiti.[4]Taylor Dafoe, ‘Vandals Attack a Kassel Arts Venue Where a Palestinian Group Is Set to Show During Documenta’, Artnet News, 31 May 2022, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/documenta-vanadalized-2124017. Accusations of Documenta’s antisemitism followed.[5]Miriam Dagan, ‘Are Organizers of a Major German Art Festival Gaslighting Critics about BDS Support?’, 16 June 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/are-organizers-of-a-major-german-art-festival-gaslighting-critics-about-bds-support/. That this edition would be troubled is no surprise: Adam Szymczyk’s documeta 14, for example, went €7.6m over budget.[6]Catherine Hickley, ‘Documenta Deficit Caused by Athens Overspending Widens to €7.6m in Final Audit’, The Art Newspaper, 30 November 2018, … see more Then, as now, the artistic community issued statements of support and protest,[7]ruangrupa, ‘Antisemitism Accusations against Documenta: A Scandal about a Rumor’, e-flux, 7 May 2022, https://www.e-flux.com/notes/467337/diversity-as-a-threat-a-scandal-about-a-rumor; ‘Lumbung Community Statement’, e-flux, 2 June 2022, … see more but this time, their action was aimed at parties external to Documenta GmbH itself. The fact that the lumbung is distributed and its members are only tied to one another by an unwritten compact means that when the collective of collectives faces stress, their solidarity comes in for the test. Would the Documenta mothership handle the attack differently if it had the duty of corporate care towards a named artist rather than a mere ‘programme participant’?

Artistically and organisationally, Documenta 15 reads like a series of creative workshops staged by corporate HR departments to boost loyalty at the lowest possible cost. Even though the human resources industry has recently rebranded itself as the business of ‘people and culture’, their allegiances remain aligned squarely to the corporate HQ. Anecdotes suggest that ruangrupa handed over much of the development of the exhibition to administrators and coordinators after the initial Zoom meetings with their invited lumbung members. Artists, many of whom have never worked with art institutions before, found themselves reporting to middle managers. Even if the resulting lumbung ‘harvesting’ workshops offer opportunities for expression, they are programmatically designed to prevent any change in the power structures that sanction them. Perhaps the next Documenta should be curated by an artist.


Main image: Kevin Buist.

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