On the second day of the press preview of dOCUMENTA (13), I got up early to cover some ground in the Karlsaue Park. As I headed down the stone steps I could hear the hectic chop-chop of a helicopter descending towards a field behind the Orangerie. As I approached, I saw a group being escorted out of the aircraft, ducking to avoid the rotor blades as if they were stunt doubles in an action film or visiting dignitaries touching down in a war zone. Who were these very important people?
At the landing site, I found a scene less reminiscent of an official state visit than the queue for a carnival ride. The helicopter, it soon became clear, was simply ascending and descending vertically. ‘Is this a piece?’ I asked dumbly. It was. If I wanted a chance to ride, I could purchase a raffle ticket for the price of any single coin. I pulled out a euro, not wanting to seem cheap. The ticket read: ‘Economic Inequality Helicopter. Scratch for a chance to win.’ I scratched. ‘WINNER,’ it said.
My winning ticket was part of A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Inequality by Critical Art Ensemble. Since 1992, the US-based group have been trying to realize a project that would illustrate global economic disparity through physical distance. Here, the first 15 metres of the helicopter’s ascent represented 99 percent of the world’s wealth; it had to climb another dizzying 210 metres to reach the one percent of the world’s financial elite. Because I had won by lottery, and not paid €200 like the majority of other participants, I was not allowed to approach the helicopter via the red carpet that had been laid out for paying customers. My secret thrill was dampened by the idea that I didn’t earn or deserve this ride as much as my wealthier companions. Still, I climbed into the front seat, beside the uniformed pilot. We lifted off, and the Karlsaue Park appeared from behind the Orangerie and, gradually, the rest of Kassel – its red-roofed houses, its wide river – unfolded vertiginously beneath me. I deliriously snapped picture after picture on my iPhone: the instrument panel in front of me; the views out the side and front windows; the pilot in deep concentration; then several self-portraits, grinning elatedly.
For the next hour, I giddily texted and called everyone I knew: I rode in a helicopter! But my excitement was drowned out by its incessant hovering, which went on for ten hours that day and annoyed everyone. Still, seeing Documenta from such a rare viewpoint gave me a warped sense of pride. After all, the idea that you’d managed to see something others didn’t is valuable currency at an exhibition like this. When I looked down at the other visitors from my elevated vantage point, it didn’t only reflect wealth disparity, it also illustrated another kind of disparity – of the often arbitrary and highly contingent tiers of access and privilege that exist within the art world.
Though the helicopter was the adrenaline high of that day, my emotional high came that evening, at a performance of choreographer Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater (2012). During the show’s deliberately tense introduction, a translator invited the performers – members of Zurich’s Theater HORA – to stand still for one minute on-stage, then to return and say their name, age, occupation (‘actor’, for all) and their disability. The more the dancers defined themselves, the more comfortable they became and, in turn, the more at ease the audience felt. Bel’s carefully choreographed introduction established the relationships between viewer and viewed, actor and spectator, performance and work of art, in anticipation of the central act, for which each of the actors performed a two-minute dance routine.
I don’t remember who the first dancer was, but as soon as the music started and she began moving across the stage, I was bawling. My reaction surprised even me. Dance after dance, the performers were so exuberant, and moved so freely to routines executed to music ranging from hiphop to ABBA, that what arose was not uncomfortable laughter, as I thought it might be, but clear, irrepressible joy. Throughout the performance, I didn’t dare reach for my camera or notebook. The proximity and confrontation were too direct, and taking photographs would have felt like voyeurism. Unlike the now-ubiquitous auditions for TV talent shows, where people perform to the judges’ ridicule and the audience’s amusement, Bel’s conceptual framework for the piece tipped that power relationship toward his performers. Instead of asking us to judge the dancers, he was asking us to judge his work of art.
As I watched and cried and laughed, I thought about the elevated view of the exhibition I’d had earlier. I experienced the same mixture of thrill at being lucky enough to witness this rare, unexpected event, coupled with the unease of the position from which I was viewing it. And so I had to ask myself how I ended up in an audience of mostly European, mostly educated members of the art world, who had travelled to a press preview of an exhibition in the middle of Germany, sitting in a theatre laughing at mentally disabled adults dancing on a stage. That feeling tugged at the free and easy laughter and tears that spilled out anyway. That morning I’d been amused to be looking down from such great heights, hovering above the rest of the crowd in my privileged seat (albeit only thanks to dumb luck). But here, a few seats away from the stage, so close that I could see the dancers sweating, my overwhelming thought was: do I want to be the person watching?
Like A Public Misery Message, Bel’s Disabled Theater gave me the chance to see something from a rare, new, unexpected angle. In so doing, it also asked me to consider my position as a member of a specific, rarefied audience – to observe myself observing. And then to ask myself what the moral implications not only of seeing this work or of critiquing it, but of enjoying it might be. Perhaps no other words have been as overused in the art world this year as ‘activism’ or ‘socially engaged practice’, but none have been employed as rarely as ‘humanity’. Yet here were two pieces that – without leaning on rhetoric, metaphor or grand claims of activism – asked me to respond not only according to where I was sitting or what kind of audience I belonged to, but where I’m sitting in the world at large. These works didn’t fall into my own critical categories for pieces of art, but rather appealed to me as a member of any society in which wealth is unequally distributed or in which certain groups are overlooked or marginalized.
Afterward, my friend told me his friend had recently been involved in working with mentally disabled dancers and he’d witnessed their recitals. My feeling of luck and access turned to one of inadequacy – while I was a spectator for a day, there are activists, social workers and others who are initiating these projects, without an audience and without recognition. It is only in my life as an art critic that I find myself with a front-row seat to these kinds of unique events, but seeing them from a critical distance is sometimes what prompts the feeling that I’m not as close to ‘real life’ as I could be.