Exhibition histories

Bazon Brock on Harald Szeemann's documenta 5

The documenta team: Peter Iden, Arnold Bode, Harald Szeemann, Bazon Brock, Jean-Christophe Ammann, Ingolf Bauer
Photo: © documenta Archiv

Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 is considered one the most important exhibitions in the history of art. But hardly anyone is familiar with its original concept, which, in the spirit of May 1968, turned radically against art as something you could own. Instead of the art object, the collective event took centre stage. Bazon Brock, who worked with Szeemann on the project, talks about the exhibition that could have been.

How did your first concept for the “100-Day Event” come about?

There was a general tendency back then to think that all that counted was der objektive Geist, the objective spirit: the traffic conditions on the street, the conditions of production, the administrative bodies, the social systems, everything that is the objective basis of life. How can you represent something like that? In 1966 I set up theater seats on Berlin’s Ku’damm and invited the audience to see what was happening on the street as a theatrical demonstration of the objective spirit. How do people move, how do they carry bags, how do they push bicycles? After all, we all followed in the footsteps of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. You have to write your biography as a theater play – and then stage it. We all, including the visual artists, worked according to that model. So at documenta the answer to the question of what the play was called was: the 100- Day Event. The theatrical performance results from playwrights, directors, stage designers, and actors working on a text.  

Who were the stage designers?

The artists. Chuck Close; the photorealists. But the decisive factor was what Harald Szeemann called “individual mythology.” Theater is a structure of the objective spirit. Now we little people were standing there: poets, painters, activists, brush-wielders, and so on. How can the individual artist achieve anything meaningful or worthy of perception with the objective spirit as the basis? This confrontation of objective spirit and individuality, the relationship of the forces of production to the means of production, was reflected most effectively in the work of individual artists.  

So it wasn’t about creating a documenta without objects?

No. Rather, taking up the thread of Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969), the idea was to show that objects were merely forms of expression for specific attitudes that needed to be demonstrated. The photorealists’ work didn’t have a price tag at all back then. Objects were not offered as things relevant to the art market but as records of fact. Paul Thek, for example, the main figure in Szeemann’s individual mythology, who staged his own funeral with burning candles in a raked field that had animals lying in it: Such people were “demonstration artists” with no connection at all to the market.  

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Why call them “demonstration artists”?

Because it was directly related to. Why should anyone still be organizing exhibitions at all when what mattered was happening on the street? How can an exhibition compete with a demonstration, anyway? Obviously only by turning the exhibition into a demonstration as well. And what belongs in such a “demonstration exhibition”? The broad spectrum of forms in which such demonstrations are effective – that is to say, also through the way they are staged. These young people were taking what they could get from art. Until Wolf Vostell in Frankfurt ran along behind a demonstration in which someone had given everyone a white sign to carry and said: “You can’t do that, that’s my invention!” It made clear that when the masses take over something that artists invented, it’s not the death of the author but a demonstration of the power of art, beyond all expectations.

What exactly would have happened on the street?  

For example: How would a theater director organize a demonstration on Kassel’s main street? First by staging the events as a dramatization with specific objectives, and then asking the directors: “Please, [well known theatre director] Mr. Peymann, show us the difference between a demonstration against the Vietnam War and one against the manufacture of Henkel’s herbicide.” Can a space of social action perhaps be restructured as an unregulated space? And by “space of social action” I mean the main train station and the hospital. 

What would one have experienced at the main train station?  

A queue forming, a collective of waiting people. The train station is where people learn about waiting. That’s the most interesting thing about a train station, after all. The slogan was “socio-design”. The people queuing are actually superior because they are already experienced at waiting. But the artists have the ability to modify this experience. Arnold Bode was also supposed to design the ideal bureaucracy for documenta. He didn’t manage. A definition was provided for each area. Linde Burkhardt was the curator for the section titled “Spielen” (Play). What does “Play” mean? It refers to all actions that have reversible results. And then in the exhibition you’d have children playing.

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Did that happen?  

Some of it, yes. Linde Burkhardt’s job was getting visitors to understand the difference between reversibility and irreversibility. There is no objection to the death penalty per se. There is only one rational reason to reject the death penalty, which is that carrying it out produces irreversible results. We wanted to show what the point of the punishment is: solidarity with the victim. And that anyone can become a victim at any time. Everyone has to acknowledge the possibility of this happening. It’s not about resocialization or anything along the lines of making someone into a better person. As a result there was this idea that documenta was fighting against the death penalty. That all real actions in society should be adapted to the realm of the virtual, to the irruption of the possible into the real. Then the question was: Why is the sphere of artistic experimentation so important? Because it avoids irreversibility as much as possible.

How did the list of artists differ from the later one?

They were exactly the same. We didn’t know any others.

You didn’t know any others?  

There weren’t any others. Everyone knew everything that was being shown. The only people there were people we already knew. You can’t work that way any more, of course, now that the market is the only thing left by which you can compare things, through sales.

What did James Lee Byars originally plan to do?  

He was the most acclaimed performer of all. Because he dispensed entirely with the level of objects, elevating everything into the real presence of the generalized Other, obscuring all individuality. Byars made everyone equal, just as death does. And the most important thing was that he accused artists of rejecting the category of perfection. He wanted to go as far as he could to make everything perfect. When he performed on the roof of the Fridericianum, drawings from the seventeenth century came back to life. Byars was such a depersonalized figure, one who was trying to relate everything to everything else in an orderly way. The plan was for him to direct the celebratory rituals. As a conductor or master of ceremonies.

What hopes did you associate with the concept of the event?  

“Event” is a very clear term: the sudden entrance of the numinous into everyday life, a foreshadowing of paradise. When it suddenly becomes possible to see clearly in everyday life. A sudden clarity. Insight. Staging something in such a way that it became clear to people: aha! In terms from the history of Christianity: Advent. Epiphany. Artists like Paul Thek wanted to provoke epiphanies again. The breakthrough to another level of seeing, a higher or deeper one. An insight, a revelation. The event is the Aha.

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Translated by Steven Lindberg

Bazon Brock is a philosopher and art theorist. In 2011 he founded the Denkerei or “Thinkery“, an “agency for work on unsolvable problems and interventions by higher authorities” in Berlin.

Kolja Reichert is a writer and an editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.