Motes or Nanobots?

Posthumanism and Biopolitics at dOCUMENTA (13)


If someone analogizes the historical consciousness of a sixty ton meteorite and ponders over the emotions of a carpet that fell victim to a bomb blast, the ignorant and naive viewer may recall the Michel Foucault’s classic metaphor with the face drawn in the beach sand, which stands for the place and significance of the notion of man in the history of culture.

Perhaps it is this image owing to which the beginning of posthumanism is usually associated with Foucault’s opus magnum (The Order of Things), at least by philosophically inclined culture researchers, as there is another discourse on the subject which deals with downloading consciousness, artificial intelligence and the anatomy of cyborgs, leading to the grounds of informatics and cybernetics as well as science fiction. (1)

These two approaches, the anthropological and the cybernetic, used to be absolutely distinct, but lately there is some transfer between the two, which can be explained with the avant-garde cult of originality and the claim for modern, innovative thought.

However, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is interested in more than the fate of art and the work of art in the age of “biocybernetic reproduction”. (2) The director of Turin’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Castello di Rivoli) is not even that much fascinated by the terribly trendy issues of terrorism and genetics, as behind her special non-human and transhuman optics hides a very much familiar, although today, in the “inhumanly” tough postpolitical age perhaps a little outdated, “zealous” empathic humanism.

Perhaps it is a peculiarity of this specifically postfeministic (in Donna Haraway’s terms) humanism that although d(13) is not characterised by great Names and great Theories, certain patterns are outlined in Christov-Bakargiev’s complex fabric of knowledge and time, which are rather just random and provisory by the “Designer’s” intention, and in constant movement, to top it all. This sudden allusion to Haraway and so-called cyberfeminism is perhaps not uncalled-for here because in the artistic director’s rhetoric, artistic creation appears in the broader context of knowledge production.

This way, lacking buzzwords and conceptual guidelines, the mega-exhibition appears as though it constructed the broadest possible platform of different knowledges and perspectives on the very real basis of the society of knowledge, from artists through curators and cultural scientists to theoretical physicists. This astonishing scope can be observed geopolitically as well, as in addition to the four main sites, Kassel, Kabul, Cairo and Banff (more on the metaphorical nature of these later), along with Yerevan and Phnom Penh, Budapest also has a place in the space of theoretical foundation and intellectual discourse with Lívia Páldi, György Lukács, Tamás Szentjóby, Gáspár Miklós Tamás and Péter György.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the artistic director’s (rather just implicit) concept does not become functional and commercial despite this well-known interdisciplinary and global perspective. If labels need be added, posthumanism and postfeminism form its principal trait, at least between the lines, as the title of the introductory and programmatic essay, for instance, is not a well-known topos, but a surprising quotation: “the dance was frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time” (3)

By the way, the source of the quotation is given by the artistic director in another writing, more precisely, a “letter” of hers. Here we learn that she found the sentence in question on the internet in German, where it was used by someone to characterise a Haitian tribal dance (Bamboule). The artistic director liked the atmosphere of the sentence, and in the act of dancing, in the ecstatic and devoted, at once individual and collective, rather emotional than intellectual movement, she discovered the central metaphor of the entire dOCUMENTA.

Moreover, she arrived at the dance whose history is entwined with slave rebellions, in connection with Breitenau, as the Benedictine monastery that had used to function as a prison and then concentration camp, later became a psychiatry clinic with an adjoining dance hall for recreation. Surfing across enormous perspectives, the choreographer-curator invited to Kassel artistic researches whose mentality was lively and devoted, whose subject was related to politics and theory, and yet the projects themselves were strongly matter-based, whether living or lifeless.

Accordingly, Christov-Bakargiev’s “art theory” is holistic as well, but not logocentric and sceptic in the philosophical sense of the word, while trying to keep in view the construction and functioning of every animate or inanimate component of the world. For good measure, the community of sensitive and insensitive, spirited and spiritless beings is an intellectual phrase that is often emphasised in the artistic director’s rhetoric, and leads to posthumanistic territories that are populated by seemingly unusual, hybrid entities, quasi persons and quasi objects. (4)

The Life of Objects

From the perspective of a specific segment of the philosophy of science, our entire world is inhabited by quasi-objects and quasi persons, that is, beings that are not merely persons and not merely objects, and whose life and functioning is hybrid, as the “actors” consider the given entity now an object, now a person, and now an element of the discourse, be it an artwork, an artist, or an exhibition concept.

By the way, quasi objects appeared sometime in the seventies in the works of French philosopher of science Michel Serres, but they owe their real career to Bruno Latour’s sociology of knowledge implanted in anthropology. He intended a central role for them in his actor-network theory, which is still a preferred analytic method of philosophers and sociologists who profess the social construction of scientific knowledge, whether it be about clams or quarks. (5)

Parallel with the anthropological analysis of lab life, the notion of hybridity has gained an important role in the feminist philosophy of science as well, a prominent member of which, Donna Haraway, was elected into the dOCUMENTA (13) honorary advisory committee. (6)

Exhibiting a world made up of animate and inanimate agents, which is yet not primarily discursive but strongly material, Haraway’s and Latour’s – not unrelated – perspectives form an intellectual framework that has made considerable impact not only on the rhetoric of Christov-Bakargiev, but also on the entire dOCUMENTA’s optics.

It is emblematic in this respect that the protagonist of this year’s dOCUMENTA was a meteorite “older” than Earth, existing in non-human dimensions. Also symbolic is the fact that in her introductory essay, the artistic director expatiates on “dancing photons”, which also make superb quasi objects, as we treat them as objects while attributing intentions to them, although they do not even have measurable weight.

Once we are talking quantum physics, it should be noted that besides Haraway, the artistic director was inspired by a postfeminist physicist, Karen Barad, a disciple of Haraway, who, instead of interactions, writes about intra-actions, which constitute not only the discourse but also its participants, whether they be sentient beings, sensitive instruments or inanimate photons. (7)

Actually, Barad quite confidently connects particle physics with poststructuralist theories of subject and communication and taking Haraway’s notion of (both socially and biologically!) situated knowledges as her point of departure, she endeavours to place the whole of epistemology on an ontological basis. (8)

Along these lines, the phenomenology of embodied knowledge comes into view with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who inspired a longer treatise of Christov-Bakargiev, which gave room even to Donald Winnicott’s child psychology in the context of objects and persons. And if Merleau-Ponty is here, let us have Judith Butler join the lot with her performative improvement of the phenomenology of knowledge and perception, and her reinterpretation of the biology of social gender roles.

In comparison, modern natural science and its constructivist epistemology are not too prominently present at dOCUMENTA, at most inasmuch as the artistic director named the central section, the chaotic Wunderkammer of the exhibition „brain”. And, of course, the exhibition includes Kassel’s museum of natural history, Ottoneum.

However, the spirit of science haunts more noticeably somewhere else: in the high-tech installation News from Nowhere by two Korean artists, Moon Kyungwoon and Jeon Joonho, which illustrates survivors of a post-apocalyptic world, resembling cyborgs, who try reconstructing the past and their own humanity, which live on in the present, from the surviving artefacts by archaeological and biological means.

Humanism and humanity appear in the same spirit but in a completely different material in Pierre Huyghe’s (also member of the honorary advisory committee) large end phenomenal installation made up of living organisms and non-living things even according to its description. While Moon and Jeon quite elegantly drew up a familiar story, the power of Huyghe lies precisely in the unknown.

For the installation itself is made up of odd hills of debris difficult to identify, and a stone statue of classic mood, its head covered by a beehive. And the bees are just as much part of the piece as the two dogs with pink painted legs, whose movement and interaction with the spectators produces an utterly confounding effect.

If, however, we expand the discourse on the posthumanist philosophy of science towards the common perspective of animate and inanimate, sensate and insensate entities, then it can include Shinro Ohtake’s cyberpunk shelter, or Konrad Zuse’s (constructor of the first computer) painting, or Peter Galison and William Kentridge’s joint space-time project; in fact, the entire Karlsaue park.

The royal English garden in which now several dispersed installations and solo exhibitions explore the borderlands of various things and discourses, internal and external, human and nature, animate and inanimate from classics (e.g. Giuseppe Penone’s tree cast in bronze) to contemporaries (e.g. Song Dong’s garden of waste).

The Irregular Spirit of the Place

Genius loci, the topos of the ghost of the past is a quite worn-out theoretical phrase, which Christov-Bakargiev endeavours to fill with new content, as she thinks it is time to face the history and stories of Kassel and the “other” Kassel, that is, the nearby Breitenau a little more noticeably than at previous Documentas. (9)

I presume – not without respect to the theoretical framework outlined above – that Christov-Bakargiev considers Kassel and Breitenau as a kind of quasi place, which does not mean that horrible historical facts are forced into the background or apostrophised. In fact, the artistic director extends the specific local history of the prison and concentration camp similarly to Giorgio Agamben (based on Foucault). Breitenau preserves its own identity while becoming an embodied metaphor of supervision and penalty.

This localistic approach is of course influenced by Walter Benjamin’s Arcade project and Adorno’s aesthetic autonomy as well, which appear on the intellectual horizon of a German exhibition almost by definition. Similarly to the problematics of trauma, which, in Christov-Bakargiev’s reading departs from Benjamin’s and Klee’s Angelus Novus, but does not end with the discussion of history as catastrophe because according to the artistic director, empathy, sympathy and contemporary art based on the recipient’s engagement (e.g. AND AND AND or Critical Art Ensemble) can show not only the way of “treatment” bat also that of curing and healing.

From this perspective it can be understood why the apples of concentration camp survivor Korbinian Aigner made it into the exhibition along with Gustav Metzger’s posttraumatic paintings or Gunnar Richter’s photographic researches of “local history”. (10) Nevertheless, the piece where Breitenau appears most markedly is not Richter’s “historical” slides but Clemens von Wedemeyer’s “artistic” canvases, confronting different sensory and intellectual aspects of imprisonment and confinement, freely moving about space and time.

At the central “brain” of the exhibition, however, Lee Miller invites us on an entirely different space-time journey, slightly alien to the spirit of the exhibition, posing in Hitler’s bathroom in Berlin, not without irony. Vogue’s photojournalist takes a bath in neo-classical pose in the Fuehrer’s tub, while her friend and companion takes a sensational photograph of her.

In Christov-Bakargiev’s empathic interpretation, however, the shot and the act rise into mythical dimensions as the military boot in front of the bathtub reminds us that the heroic woman is cleansing herself of the filth of the concentration camps she has recently visited, and its subject is not so much crime and punishment as memory and forgetting. This sublime interpretation, however, somewhat neglects the fact that the photographs were made for a women’s magazine and with the purpose of entertainment: the profane interpretation shows a bombastic, all but kitschy photograph of a beautiful woman in a quite cultic place.

The work of Sanja Iveković operates in similarly spectacular (at once spectacular and theatrical) dimensions, while its point of departure is also an archive photo from the time of World War II, of an incarcerated donkey on public display to warn the stubborn citizens of Kassel to comply with the Jewish Laws.

The Croatian artist celebrity developed her own “adorable” installation from this photograph, displaying various stuffed toy donkeys placing the names of famous thinkers (obviously including Walter Benjamin) and artists next to them. Each christened cute little donkey is a gesture towards the media and the academic world, just like the title of the piece: The Disobedient (The Revolutionaries).

In this genre, in other words, balancing between the intolerable and the pensive image, Rabih Mroué of Beirut seemed to find the middle ground, representing “war” murders in his multimedia installation, and quite irregularly, in the form of flipbooks. (11)

Moreover, instead of simple drawings, Mroué made miniature “digital films” from the close-up footages also seen on Youtube, showing gunshots and murders in Syria in the past years.

Besides Mroué, a number of African and Asian artists immersed themselves in the hell of war, but the whole of the exhibition interpreted war, and more specifically, the recent war on terror not so much as a curiosity or spectacle than as a traumatic event, which marked out new frontiers between subject and object, legal person and biological body, from Iraq through Afghanistan to the United States.

These new frontiers and the biopolitical strategies that can be related to them are marked by dOCUMENTA’s symbolic quasi places, Kassel in Germany, Banff in Canada, Kabul in Afghanistan and Alexandria in Egypt. For these cities embody four possible human (creative) conditions with respect to the outside world, that is, society and politics: “on stage”, “on retreat”, “under siege” and “in a state of hope”.

Moreover, holistic and non-logocentric Christov-Bakargiev calls attention not only to the hybrid coexistence of these conditions, but constantly proves her optimism concerning the role and weight of art.

The flesh of Politics

The newly ever so fashionable trend of postpolitics (consider the corpus of texts by Laclau, Mouffe, Badiou, Žižek and Ranciere among others, which may be heterogeneous and conflict-ridden, but their approach is poststructuralist) is surprisingly not too prominent in the intellectual network of the exhibition, while of course Miklós Tamás Gáspár, Micheal Hardt and Franco Berardi Bifo represent a kind of Marxist ethic.

This rhetoric, however, cannot be spotted in the artistic director’s statements; rather, she shifts towards the offshoot of “biomarxism”, as she is attracted most of all by the approach of gender studies besides science studies. And through Judith Butler’s person, the concept of biopolitics and the work of Michel Foucault in particular come into view.

This recalls the previous Documenta a little, one of the keynotes of which was the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben with the political ontology of “bare life” and “state of exception”, marking out the terrible continuity of modernity from Auschwitz to Abu-Ghraib, while pointing out paradoxes of Athenian democracy and Roman law, the consequences of which are everlasting. (12)

If five years ago Agamben represented current philosophy and ethics, today this function is fulfilled by Haraway and Butler, who, like Agamben, cherish and criticise Michel Foucault’s legacy in the history of ideas. In a book of hers – inspired by the war on terror, in fact – Butler used the expression “precarious living” to describe the current ontological situation, with the intention of pointing out the frailty and fragility of life between the new demarcation lines of total war. (13)

Christov-Bakargiev refers back to this when speaking about the fragility, and even life and feelings of artworks and objects, that is, quasi objects (Michel Serres), to which the already mentioned irregular perspective of science studies and the notion of actor (or agent) contributed quite considerably.

If we add feminist focus, historical sensitivity and devotion to matter, we might discover the allegorical figure of the entire Documenta in the special gems of the “brain”, the delicate figurines of the Bactrian princesses.

The Bactrian princesses are small statuettes from the territory that today is Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, 20-30 centimetres high and made up of several parts; their bodies are made from some green metamorphic rock (not incidentally, ancient even in terms of geohistory), and their delicately carved heads (sometimes the hands too) are made of white marble. The individual parts of the statuettes are not held together by any adhesive, and Christov-Bakargiev was specifically fascinated by the fact that despite their frailty (fragility), they had survived the millennia.

Of course the artistic director had other examples too of the dangerousness of living, which are more about destruction in both senses – at least apparently, for the artistic director always discovers in them the moment of healing, curing and survival (occasionally in a different form).

Such examples are the bombing of the corpus of the Lebanese National Museum of Beirut or the demolition of the 55 meters high, 60 ton Buddha statue of Bamiyan and the conservation of the debris. A similar example inspired Michel Rakowitz’s piece from 2007, which comprised the reconstruction of the treasures of the Baghdad National Museum looted during the Iraq war, in collaboration with Iraqui artists.

Another historical inspiration and segment of the “Afghan focus” of dOCUMENTA are Alighiero Boetti’s One Hotel Kabul and Rug of War. In the scope of a project, the Mexican Mario Garcia Torres sought out and put into operation Boetti’s legendary hotel in Afghanistan (One Hotel) where he had worked as receptionist during part of the year. In addition to the arte povera past of the director, this also might have contributed to exhibiting Boetti’s “Afghan” carpet, which is a map of the world viewed from Kabul.

The gigantic (5.2 x 17.4 m) tapestry of the Polish Goshka Macuga rhymes with this work, as it is a digital montage of past and present, of Kassel and Kabul, intellectuals and refugees, fiction and reality, portrait and historical tableau, in which a gigantic cobra orients the eye in addition to the bombarded Presidential Palace of Kabul.

Nevertheless, the whole of dOCUMENTA is not about the spectacle; even Macuga’s collage was inspired by concrete, real and personal events. It seems as though after the cult of virtual culture and incorporeal digital images, Christov-Bakargiev wanted to direct our attention on actual things and events.

This is what the preference of archaeologically motivated artistic research on the one hand, and the encouragement of politically motivated, collaborative art on the other hand is about, the latter stressing communication and participation.

The genealogy of these two kinds of praxis are somehow still in sync with the research of epistemological and political problems of visuality around the end of millennium, as the former suggests Benjamin and Aby Warburg’s archive and the latter implies the situationist critique of the spectacle as well as Fluxus and the figure of Joseph Beuys, which surface in several different forms in this year’s dOCUMENTA.

Kader Attia’s ghastly and uncannily tangible anthropological “museum” can be perfectly interpreted in terms of archive and always contextualising archival, as it sets up a parallel between the European appropriation and reinterpretation of African tribal art and the biology of wars and human injuries, as well as the history of Chinese medicine (not marginally, discrepant healing).

Similarly postcolonial in its motivation, the installation and film of Alexandrian Wael Shawky focuses not so much on the trauma as on its treatment, inspired by the alternative, Arabic side of the history of crusades. The story performed by old puppets of course reveals still effective consequences in terms of West and East.

Just as Sam Durant’s enormous execution ground draws up parallels between the “American” criminals of present and past from Ku-Klux Klan to counter-terrorism. This makes the fact that Scaffold appears at once to be a monument, a modernist world model and a playground even more gravely upsetting. Meanwhile, it includes the specific cases that are not apparent in István Csákány’s similarly spectacular sewing workshop (carved from wood).

Csákány’s piece thus seems to be l’art pour l’art, a showy simulation that of course lacks no Marxist critical edge. It is another question, of course, that from Christov-Bakargiev’s holistic perspective it is not so much the piece or its allegorical meaning (or the lack of it) that is symbolic, as its hybrid organic nature, its existence fluctuating between fictive and real (quasi sewing workshop) that might be interesting.

Durant even earned to have a beautiful conceptual sculpture of his (entitled Calcium Carbonate and representing a bag of cement) exhibited at the “brain”, which cannot be said about Csákány, although next to his Bernsteinzimmer, the originality of the sewing workshop would be seen in a different light.

However, Christov-Bakargiev is not interested in such nuances; she is not interested in the ampler details of the local context because she no more uses a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes, much rather a scanning electron microscope like Las Vegas crime scene investigators.

The absolutely not insignificant difference is only that the purpose of the American artistic director of Italian and Bulgarian origin was not entertainment and not even a quest for culprits, but holistic healing, which, according to the curatorial vision, can be capable of replacing the modern, scientific, clinical gaze and remedy the damages inflicted upon humanity.


Translated by Daniel Sipos

(1) Michel Foucault: The Order of Things. An Archaeology of Human Sciences. (1966). Vintage, 1994. On the other genealogy, cf., for instance, Robert Pepperell’s or Ray Kurzweil’s work.

(2) W. J. T. Mitchell: The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction. (2002) Mitchell’s writing of course toys with the title of Walter Benjamin’s legendary text, while attempting to merge the perspectives of informatics, biology, politics and image science at the turn of the millennium. By the way, Mitchell was already intensely interested in the “life” of images independently of Christov-Bakargiev and this year’s Documenta: What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2005.

(3) Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: „The dance was frenetic, lively, rattling, clanging, rolling, contorted, and lasted for a long time.” In: The Book of Books. Catalogue 1/3 of dOCUMENTA (13), Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012. 30-45.

(4) The expression “quasi object” was created by Michel Serres to cover those actors of the discourse that are not subjects, but are in some substantial relationship with subjects, thus bearing their intentions. Such quasi object, for instance, is a rugby ball, but a work of art may also be one, as it plays an essential role in a type of communication and links different subjects. Cf. Michel Serres: Le parasite. Grasset, Paris, 1980.

(5) Cf.: Bruno Latour: We Have Never Been Modern. (1990) Harvard University Press, 1993.

(6) Christov-Bakargiev was actually backed by a large intellectual assistant staff, she had a head of department, seven core agents and tewlve agents, and eleven honorary advisors.

(7) Cf.: Karen Barad: Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, Durham, 2007.

(8) Cf.: Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledge. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 1988/3. 575-599.

(9) Péter György’s study, one of the 100 Notes of Documenta, also deals with this,: The Two Kassels. Same Time, Another Space. in: The Book of Books, Catalogue 1/3 of dOCUMENTA (13), Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012. 144-146.

(10) More amply on the representation of Holocaust by Hedvig Turai in Muérto 2012/7-8.

(11) On the definition of the intolerable and the pensive image, cf.: Jacques Rancičre: The Emancipated Spectator. (2008) Trans.: Gregory Elliott. Verso, London, 2009.

(12) Cf.: Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998.

(13) Judith Butler: Precarious Life. The Power of Mourning and Violance. Verso, London and New York, 2004.