04 07 07
The Documenta files
Economics of the art system: The example of Documenta
The opening of Documenta12 in June was an event in many respects: While new price records for art works in auctions and art fairs were the main topic of art journalism in recent years, reporting on Documenta focused on artistic content only. The Documenta positions itself as a countermodel to the market dominated art world. Its main claims are “education” and “emancipation” which was reflected in reports about the Documenta. At the same time, there are no reports about working conditions or internal economies of the event. Aesthetic questions dominate - despite the fact that the economics of Documenta are a prime example for the functioning of the art system. As participant of Documenta magazines project, the Vienna based magazine MALMOE (www.malmoe.org) got a glimpse of how it works.
The Documenta Magazines project invited 90 independent and self organized non-profit publications from the fields of political theory and culture around the world to come together and reflect on the main topics of Documenta.
Participating Magazines were asked to publish and discuss articles among them through an electronic platform provided by the institution, on the topics proposed by the Documenta team. The Documenta would then select the most interesting ones for their own three magazine issues, which accompany the exhibition. In return, possibilities for networking and exchange with other magazines would be provided as well as the outlook of getting invited to workshops and conferences abroad. But no money was offered for the work of the participating magazines, except for the authors chosen for publication in Documenta’s own magazines.
On the one hand, this is an interesting project: Instead of cooperating with established fancy elite art journals from the centers of the world, Documenta brought together marginal and critical publications from all over the world and provided them with a unique visibility and possibility for exchange.
On the other hand, the form and framing of this project are very typical for the art field. They make the project a good example for the functioning of the art system in general. Seven aspects come to mind here:
1 Outsourcing of idea scouting
The magazines project is designated as a “research system” by the Documenta director. It shall provide the curators with information to be used in the exhibition. As remarked by participating magazine Radical Philosophy, this is a form of outsourcing of innovation on independent small players, which is typical for the cultural industries. With this move, the institution gets their credibility on board and cheaply procures information from decentral networks, which would have required a major research-effort for outsiders. Similar to deals between major and indie labels in the music business, the question of balance of cost and benefits, giving and taking is key in assessing this situation.
2 Casting Show Principle
The intellectual cooperation within the Documenta Magazines project seems to represent the total opposite of commercialised events like the casting shows of the “Pop Idols” variant. But on a structural level there are striking parallels: A limited amount of participants is selected to take part in a kind of competition, where they are to provide unpaid work containing performative aspects within a prespecified framework involving special tasks. Among these, winners are selected via a mixture of group processes and expert decisions. This is nothing unusual in the art world, but the common model in most exhibitions below the upper segment of the market.
3 The attraction of the promise of glamour
Why is this offer to work on assignments of an institution without getting paid accepted by cultural workers? Because taking part in such a project promises social and symbolic capital which is valuable in itself and even might be transformed into economic capital in the future.
All gate keeping systems in the art world like galleries, exhibitions etc. work on the assumption that people are willing to work for reputation, without expecting to get paid. This is especially visible at Documenta, where a legion of interns (youngsters, most between 18 and 20) are working for 400 euros a month.
The only “real” payment Documenta Magazines project offers are rare and sporadic fringe benefits like tickets for conferences, free issues of magazines and the promise of social and symbolic capital: Getting in contact with other magazines, profiting from the reputation effect of taking part in Documenta.
Some of the participating magazines seemed to be satisfied with these opportunities, and made Documenta12 subject of their cover stories and their promotional material. In other editorial groups, doubts were raised to the point of internal conflict, centering around the problem of taking part in a state-sponsored project under exploitative conditions.
4 Distribution of money according to the principle of maximum representational effect
One of the rules of the cultural field: Money is primarily used for representation. The more distant the contributing work processes are, the lesser the chances for them of getting paid (except if they are indispensable for other reasons).
At the presentation party of the first Documenta magazine in Vienna, a rather opulent buffet was offered compared to local standards. Everything which has representational value is being financed generously. But people from publications participating in the Documenta Magazines project do not get travel funds to visit the exhibition, even if they have an official presentation – their representational value is too small.
5 Maximum number of participants – minimum individual payout
Another characteristic feature is the minimisation of the payout for individual participants as a result of the maximisation of the representative dimensions.
Of course it would cost a lot of money to pay author’s fees and travel expenses etc. for the 90 participating magazines from around the world. But why does it have to be so many? Which audience can appreciate such a vast amount in a reasonable way? Who in the small editorial team can handle such an enormous project in an appropriate manner? Experience has shown: It is too much, and this leads to mistakes, defects, discontent and overcharge among the participants. This could have been foreseen, but it was not the decisive point in the selection by the curators, because the attraction of big numbers predominated their choice. They wanted to signal: Our project is representative, and it is of unprecedented, gigantic, astonishing dimensions.
In exhibitions there are also usually too many artists invited, so that the available budget does not allow the payout of any meaningful sums for individual artists.
6 Personal relations make it hard to keep critical distance
At the Documenta which is run mostly by people from our city (Vienna), we experienced what is typical for local art scenes: One is acquainted or even befriended with the people involved, one is part of the same networks, appreciates each other, sometimes is even dependent from each other. This involvement makes it hard from time to time to keep up critical standards, which one would hold firmly onto in other contexts.
7 Star system and individualising, anti-collective framework conditions
Despite the fact that he is heading the Documenta together with Ruth Noack, Roger Buergel officially functions as the artistic director, because the rules of Documenta enforce the appointment of an individual. This is not an exception, it is characteristic of the individualistic art system. This also shows in the way of dealing with groups participating in the Magazines project: There was only one ticket available per editorial team for project conferences – forcing editorial collectives to choose a representative among them, which is sometimes in stark contrast to the working style of the magazine concerned. The principle of individualisation is put aside only when the collective itself gains a spectacular quality: For instance in Wei Wei’s project of bringing 1001 people from China to Kassel.
Dealing with the double role as on the one hand individual eager for symbolic capital and on the other hand member of a collective, sometimes leads to interest conflicts which can be explosive for collective projects.
This individualising pressure makes it difficult in most cases to challenge the problematic distribution of resources in cultural projects. Even more than in regular employment relationships, where there are many regulatory protections, the collectivisation of discussions about distribution of resources is absolutely necessary in project work. Even more so in projects which claim to be critical. In that respect, Documenta is not worse, but also not better than the usual exhibition project.
The magazines, scattered around the globe and mostly unacquainted with each other outside of the Documenta project, have not succeeded to collectively articulate their annoyance about the working conditions offered to them. The exhibition guides in Kassel at least have succeeded in negotiating about their salaries. How the artists participating in the Documenta exhibition have fared, still longs to be researched by paid journalists in the art sections of commercial media.