dOCUMENTA (13) Recap: the Artist’s Assistant

Hunter Longe is a San Francisco-based artist currently residing in Kassel, Germany after working as an artist assistant at dOCUMENTA (13). Longe’s mixed media works and installations have been exhibited in San Francisco at The Popular Workshop, The Luggage Store Gallery, and Triple Base, in Oakland at Krowswork gallery, and in Los Angeles at Show Cave Night Gallery.

After meeting at dOCUMENTA (13), Longe and I spoke about his experiences in Kassel working with an array of participating artists, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and of his overall opinions on the 100-day exhibition.

You originally came from San Francisco to Kassel with the intention just to visit the dOCUMENTA (13), what was your plan and how did it change?

Yes, I really like Germany. I came to here to research schools and visit friends. I had been in Frankfurt and Cologne and a few other cities before coming to Kassel. There is absolutely no way I could come to Europe in 2012 and miss dOCUMENTA(13). It is one of the most important and large scale exhibitions of its kind and this year it is massive. I planned to come for 4 days. On the the third day I was invited to a BBQ at the Huguenot Haus (a live-in project by Theaster Gates and many other collaborators). I almost didn’t go as I felt funny attending alone. Last minute I decided to go. I instantly met three nice students from Mainz who said that Gareth Moore’s project could really use a hand. I just went there and started. I planned 2 weeks and it quickly became 50 days! I have met so many people, this has been one of the best experiences of my life. Also seeing an exhibition like this from the inside and not having to rush fully changes the experience.

12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, Theaster Gates

Which dOCUMENTA(13) artists have you interacted with and/or worked for?

I helped build a small one room house for Gareth Moore’s main assistant, Brodie Kitchen. I’ve been helping out with general things through my stay. Gareth has a large plot in the Karlsaue Park. He built a house there and has been living in it for almost 2 years. The plot now includes many structures and shrines all made from found material. To many people’s surprise Gareth is a very clean cut and sharp fellow. He is such a nice person and really respectful to everyone who helped on the project. I have also been helping on Pedro Reyes‘s project.  Stuart Ringholt is just wonderful, Andrea Büttner is also very personable and so smart, as are Cevdet Erec, Theaster Gates, Jan Verwoert, Tue Greenfort–every artist I have met has been so humble and kind.

Sanatorium, Pedro Reyes

What have your experiences been like working with Pedro Reyes at the Sanatorium? What is the context for his project?

I started as an assistant for this piece about one month ago working mostly with a wonderful group of students from an academy in Geneva. I haven’t interacted with Pedro in person, just via Skype. He is a really nice guy. The piece is a Sanatorium offering what he calls “cures for urban illnesses.” While I can be skeptical of artists who think they can do something like this, I do think this project is very interesting. It is a participatory experience in which my friends and I act as therapists and engage with the viewers by doing a series of potentially therapeutic activities. The work is something between art, a game, and therapy, mostly playful but super intense at times. There are eight therapies offered and we all take turns doing them with people. I think there are a few really good ones and some not so good. This piece was first shown or performed at the Guggenheim in New York. I think it is much different here with an average of 7,000 viewers per day coming to see documenta. There has been some serious struggle with this project but, after all it has been successful.

What is the general make up of the artist assistants at dOCUMENTA(13)? 

There are plenty of paid assistants and dancers and facilitators who have been working on the exhibition for years. Most of the large scale participatory pieces, educational group pieces, ongoing performance series, and live-in sites have groups of assistants who are from art schools all over Europe. It is part of what Carolyn (Christov-Bakargiev) calls the Maybe Education Program. Everyone is sooo great. Spending a condensed amount of time in such close quarters with young artists and peers from all over the world has been unbelievable. The exchange of ideas and critical thought is impressive, not to mention the social aspect, cooking, and dancing. The experience has brought so many diverse people together.

How were your overall impressions of the exhibitions? Do you have a favorite work?

My impressions are biased. Living here has changed everything; I have an unlimited pass, I have had plenty of time to see the show and to return to my favorite pieces. I think it is impossible to choose favorites, the show is too expansive. Being here feels like a gift or something. In general I find it awe-inspiring. It is so diverse, housing every kind of art you could imagine. Clean formal works, totally funky stuff, highly conceptual, huge all-encompassing installations, tons of outdoor sculpture, writing, film, political work, participatory works, and pieces that totally blur the line between art and life so far that even I question whether or not it is art. I would say documenta entirely challenged and changed my formerly narrow definition of contemporary art. It was Carolyn’s intention to include things that aren’t really claiming to be art (for instance the research and technological devices of quantum physicist (Anton Zeilinger) and through this context everything can be totally reconsidered.

Have you had any interactions directly with Carolyn? 

Yes I have met her twice. In general I like her. I pet her dog. I can’t help but be impressed and humored by her whole persona. She is such a diva. I think all of her knowledge resides in her large tightly-curled shiny hair. Sometimes when she speaks she can be quite direct and other times she will be so rude and weird. You will see her in a lecture/discussion and she will be texting and interjecting comments that are highly generalized. I think she is totally acting all the time. One-on-one she is really nice, but I think she has strange social skills. Chus Martinez (her second-in-command) is more impressive. She is quite smart and pulls immense knowledge from her brain with ease. She also has a great sense of humor. Once she spoke with six of my friends and I for almost an hour telling us exactly what she saw to be happening in the Arts and describing every aspect, trend, collectors curatorial practice, the market etc. At one point she referred to Europe as “a festival of cynicism.”

Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

What is your general feeling regarding Carolyn’s concept or “non-concept?”

At first I was quite unsure about the language describing the show. The theme is simultaneously a total cop-out and totally on point. It is easy to arrive at the idea that art is about everything and nothing. By nature, art is contradictory and often a dialectic; it seems so obvious. When you get into what Chus and Carolyn are doing, you begin to understand how ambitious the show is. It is a show that illustrates art itself in all forms. It operates as a meta or micro version of the world in a way just giving in to the natural phenomenon of disorder and struggle. There are many terms used that I disagree with. There are also many very concrete sub themes like destruction and recreation. Chus explains the “non-concept” in a way that really makes sense. It is actually meant as a critique of the entire curatorial method that has dominated the last few decades. She notes that curators produce theory laden shows. Her stance is, how can one accurately curate a show around a theory when, 1 – the art is not yet in the space and 2 – art is entirely subjective. The artwork itself is a theory, therefore theory should not be applied to it and it totally limits the work if the viewer sees it through the curators chosen theme. This is all my interpretation, but I think that while a show like this can’t fully do what it claims, Chus and Carolyn are challenging the institutions of contemporary art.

Several of the sectors of dOCUMENTA(13) experienced strikes by the workers. What brought on these frustrations or issues among the artist assistants?

A show of this scale breeds frustration and disorganization. It would have been easy to select less artists and book less programing. I truly believe Carolyn wanted the show to function this way. I think it was totally her intention to lay the show out in confusing way and to create stress; it is all part of the exhibition. She even said she likes that nobody can see everything. Of course documenta went over budget so in the case of the press office, 10 or more long-term employees were fired with no notice and the whole team went on strike. At the Sanatorium it was a combination of dealing with the viewing public that are often quite rude, a poorly structured schedule, plus the fact that many students were upset about working without pay (I didn’t really identify with that as we had agreed to work for free). We had a system which was not working. The project became like a Mcdonald’s, people just selecting off a menu, and us being too rushed to really get in depth with them. Many assistants were frustrated and left. It got hectic. Pedro never came for the second half and his lack of presence made everyone feel less connected to the project. One day, Carolyn came by and spoke with us. She was very nice. What she said shows her interest in stirring things up. She told us, “If you are unhappy, go on strike.” Then we did, although not everyone agreed and several people lost interest. In the end it brought us more together. It even brought us together with administrate staff.

Your newest plan is to stick around Kassel and continue to create work, what is it about this town that you find inspiring and conducive to your development as an artist?

Well I wouldn’t say it is the art scene. As far as I can tell the only art scene is the Kunsthochschule  (art school). I will be hanging out there for sure. Kassel is really cheap. I have access to the documenta Archive, which is incredible. From Kassel it is easy to get to many other cities, plus things are really quiet after documenta and I will be able to get some artwork done. It will be a good transition place.

What direction do you see your work taking? Are you drawing inspiration from the themes of documenta?

I can’t say specifically how documenta has inspired me but I think the experience changed my life. I am inspired on so many levels. Hanging out with all these young artists has been great. I am going to start a project with a Swiss friend I met named Vianney Fivel and it will be much more performative that any of my work has been. I think the people back home will just have to see what happens. I will be challenging myself to do some really different things! But first, I will start with a series of drawings that will be quite simple and a bit nonsensical.

Gerhard's Müller Behind Plastic, Graphite on paper, mounted on panel, Hunter Longe


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