Documenta Vandalised

Anonymous threats of violence are the culmination so far of the discussion surrounding the Palestinian artists’ group The Question of Funding and its participation in Documenta 15.

Graffiti on the wall where the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding is scheduled to exhibit at Document 15. “187” is a reference to California criminal law, where the code is used as slang for murder. Photo accompanying the Documenta artists’ statement of support for ruangrupa in E-flux, 2 June.

On the night of 28 May, persons unknown broke into the former nightclub where the Palestinian artists’ collective The Question of Funding (QoF) will exhibit during Documenta 15, opening in just one week. The walls of the building, called WH22, have been defaced with spray paint spelling out the legends “187” and “PERALTA,” phrases which the Documenta curatorial team, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, regards as “cryptic death threats” according to a statement published on 31 May.

The number “187” is thought to refer to California criminal law, where section 187 concerns murder, while the curatorial team believes that “Peralta” is a reference to Isabelle Peralta, the leader of the far-right Spanish group Bastion Frontal, which has previously been accused of calling for violence against Muslims. Peralta attracted attention in the German media in 2021 when she took part in a ten-month training course with the neo-Nazi group Der III Weg in Düsseldorf.

The attack on WH22 marks the culmination so far of six months of heated debate over QoF’s participation in Documenta 15. In April, the venue ruruHaus was vandalised by unknown persons applying anti-Muslim stickers with slogans such as: Freedom, Not Islam! No Compromise with Barbarism! Fight Islam Consistently! and Solidarity with Israel. In January, the blog Bündnis gegen Antisemitismus Kassel (BgAK) levelled accusations of anti-Semitism against the artists’ group and the curatorial team of Documenta based on QoF’s support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign calling for economic sanctions against Israeli goods and initiatives.

In 2019, a majority in the German parliament passed a resolution which regards any involvement with the BDS movement as tantamount to anti-Semitism, which means, among other things, that institutions and events associated with BDS cannot receive public-sector funding for cultural purposes. Members of the Documenta curatorial team have previously signed an open letter titled “Nothing Can Be Changed Until Faced,” criticising the resolution for threatening artistic freedom of expression. Despite factual ambiguities and errors in BgAK’s accusations, the story that Documenta supposedly supports anti-Semitic groups appeared in several German media outlets.

In a press release issued 19 January, Documenta dismissed the claims as “false and destructive misinterpretations,” which “hinder critical and productive debate.” Documenta pointed out at the time that it resolutely rejects “antisemitism, racism, extremism, Islamophobia, and any form of violent fundamentalism,” while also emphasising that Documenta is founded on principles of freedom of expression, referring to an upcoming three-week series of discussions entitled ‘We Need to Talk! Art – Freedom – Solidarity’ that would address the allegations.

However, in early May, a few days before the first talk was to take place, the Documenta curatorial team suddenly cancelled the entire discussion forum. In a press release, ruangrupa explained that several participants elected to withdraw in response to a complaint from Josef Schuster, leader of the organisation Der Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (ZdJ), sent to Germany’s Minister of Culture Claudia Roth. Instead, ruangrupa announced that it would wait for any responses following the exhibition’s official opening and address any need for discussion then. ruangrupa specifically points out that there were never any plans to invite BDS to take part in the scheduled discussions, and that the Documenta organisation has been in talks with the ZdJ on the composition of the discussion panels to ensure that both sides of the issue are addressed.

“The problem, thus, is not that the Central Council’s [ZdJ] position was not represented. Rather, the actual issue appears to be the refusal by some to engage with and attempt to effectively deplatform recognised scholars whose views they don’t share,” ruangrupa stated on 7 May, adding that “the criticism […] clearly shows that it is difficult in Germany to bring both perspectives – the one affected by antisemitism and the one affected by anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism – into conversation.”

Last week’s attack on WH22 was reported to the police by Documenta. In a statement published on 31 May, ruangrupa wrote that the vandalism against the venue is perceived as “politically motivated” and “an attack on all of us […] We are wishing for a working atmosphere where acts of violence towards the artists’ persons, venues, and artworks cannot be tolerated.”

In the same statement, Lord Mayor of Kassel Christian Geselle supported Documenta and said: “Having discussions about documenta fifteen is one thing, but intimidating artists by committing crimes goes far beyond the pale and damages the image of the city of Kassel as a place of artistic freedom and host to artists from all over the world. Here, all those involved should become aware of their responsibility and stand up for a common coexistence.”

The curatorial team behind Documenta, Director of the Museum Fridericianum Sabine Schormann, and Lord Mayor Christian Geselle all promise that measures to protect the safety of artists and visitors alike will be in place when Documenta 15 opens in a week. The exhibition’s team of security personnel is currently receiving specific training on the background behind the conflict, and the level of security will be increased overall in light of the threats made.