dOCUMENTA (13) - Behind the scenes:
Eva Scharrer, Agent dOCUMENTA (13), interviewed by art journalists Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas.
Ms. Scharrer, please introduce yourself briefly and explain to us what you do for the Documenta.
My name is Eva Scharrer. I arrived in Kassel in April 2009, so I was the first to join the team on site. I started as the personal assistant to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. I’ve known her since I interned for her at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, so more than ten years. Even though we didn’t work together, we kept in touch, and she followed my work as a freelance curator. On the day after she was called to the post, I received a phone call, asking if I would be interested in going to Kassel. Naturally, I couldn’t say no. Besides being a personal assistant, I also did a great deal of research. From the start, though, there was always the option that my job would change over time, and now I’m doing what I mainly did before I came to Kassel: writing. Prior to this, I was a freelance curator and critic, and now, as a dOCUMENTA (13) Agent, I am responsible for writing most of the texts for the guide book. The guide book contains the texts that explain the works of art to the public.
Are you the head of a team?
Not the head of a team. I work in the publications department, but am relatively autonomous. About half of all of the texts in this book stem from my hand. The others are distributed among different agents or people who are all part of the dOCUMENTA (13) team.
So no external authors are writing any texts about the artists?
No, although there are a few exceptions. Some of the artists have done some writing.
It would be important for us in general, if you would again explain the term “agent,” which is so central to the dOCUMENTA (13). How is it used? Why did Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev decide upon this term?
It has less to do with the concept of a secret agent, someone who acts in secrecy—although there is some of that involved—than with the concept of “agency,” meaning, the individual activity of someone authorized to act on another’s behalf. The agents contribute in various ways to the creation of the dOCUMENTA (13) and are involved to different degrees. In some cases, the collaboration is close and continuous, and others tend to be casual and sporadic. There’s Chus Martinez, who, as head of the department, is very deeply involved. She’s the only other Agent who moved to Kassel with her entire family, so that she could work on site. Then there are others who are deeply involved in certain projects within the dOCUMENTA (13). And then there is another group, including the artists and curators, who are doing something else somewhere else in the world, and bringing it here. In this way, the process of making the dOCUMENTA (13) stays organic and open to change.
So they’re traveling, or living in the cities where the artists also live?
Precisely. Based on their backgrounds, their knowledge, and their geographical locations, they’ve proposed some of the artists, and also deal with the artists to some degree.
That means the intensity of their involvement varies?
That’s why they are also not called curators. Not only because Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev entertains a certain skepticism toward the concept of the curator, but also because they are doing things very differently than they did at the Documenta11, for instance, when there was a team of curators working right here in town.
How do the fourteen agents work together? Are there regular meetings or telephone conferences?
No, we don’t have those. Of course, there are meetings. We talk to each other, but there’s no fixed structure, because everyone has his or her own terrain and field of tasks. At the beginning, however, in September 2009, there was a trip where all of the Agents traveled by train from Turin to Kassel. That was after the conference that Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev organized at the Castello di Rivoli, to which all of the former documenta artistic directors were invited. During the train ride, and especially during the ensuing days in Kassel, there were very intense conversations and exchanges concerning the conception and sites for the dOCUMENTA (13).
In order to write the texts about the art, do you visit the artists, or do you gather the necessary information in other ways?
That also varies a great deal. I’ve known some of the artists for a long time and have already worked with them. Much of that also goes back to the time I spent in New York. Additionally, almost all of the artists come to Kassel for a site visit. When they’re in town, then naturally I try to take the opportunity to meet with him or her and talk about the work, if time permits. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. In that case, I do the usual research on the Internet, in publications, and other materials. But there are also artists who are relatively new, or, in some instances, nothing has been written about them, or at least, nothing in English or German. Then I have to rely on the material I receive directly from the artist. Each artist submits a project proposal that contains a biography and information about the work that he or she plans to realize, but which is often still in the process of being made.
About how long are the individual texts on each artist?
In English, each text contains about 440 words. That is more than one page. I write them in English and then they’re translated. I try to write as much as I can about the work in general, as well as the work in progress. Every artist gets two pages of text and pictures in the guide book, and the English and German texts have to fit on one page.
And are there certain requirements that these texts have to fulfill? After all, they probably have to be written for a broad audience . . .
I go about it relatively intuitively. As a rule, a text is structured like this: one-third of it is about the work of the artist in general, then I discuss two or three important, older works; and then I introduce the work that has been done for the dOCUMENTA (13). Sometimes this requires so much space that I mainly concentrate on the project in the text. Sometimes, though, the work is still in an early phase, so that the content can only be described in a relatively open-ended sentence. And of course, it always depends on how much has already been said and written about an artist, how necessary it is to introduce him at all. Naturally, I try to make my texts comprehensible to a broad audience, as well as interesting to experts.
Does every artist arrive with a finished work of art? Isn’t a lot of it made here?
Almost all of the living artists are developing something new on site. Of course, that doesn’t exactly make it easy to write about them. In many cases the concept has already been so beautifully preconceived that it’s not necessary to see the work in order to understand what it’s about and to write about it. There are still a few that remain relatively vague. For many of them, the projects have changed over time. So there are some texts that I’ve already had to rewrite several times, even if they’ve already been edited, translated, and sometimes even typeset.
What do you like the best about your work?
Above all, I enjoy the contact with the artists. I learn a lot about the artists themselves. I like this incredible potential in the creative people around me: the team, the artists, the authors who write the Notebooks. You’re enveloped in a crowd of interesting people and ideas. It’s a unique experience that will probably not be repeated.
That sounds as if the teamwork is very smooth . . .
I must say, the teamwork is very good, and I am wildly happy about this team. The people in our little, somewhat sheltered department get along very well with each other. But I also feel at home with the curatorial and communications teams, and have made a lot of new friends everywhere. Even though the stress and pressure has increased a great deal in the meanwhile, it’s quite a fantastic team and we support each other.
How often do you have meetings with the artistic director? Or is that not so important?
It depends entirely on the department. After all, we all sit together in a relatively small space, and I’m probably the kind of person who can work most independently, anyway. It’s not really necessary to meet formally. In contrast, other departments meet several times a week; otherwise, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, when a project is so complex, and is constantly changing and expanding.
Are there always artists in Kassel? At the moment, for instance?
Most of the time one or more is in town. At the moment, at least one artist is definitely here. Some artists come several times, in order to work on their projects. Right at the start there were times when there were up to twenty artists here at the same time.
Besides the Documenta, what else is there in Kassel that you find interesting? Have you discovered any favorite spots?
Yes, certainly. For instance, I like the Aue very much and spend as much time there as I can manage.
Is that a good retreat, a place to go to think or relax in Documenta-free times?
When the weather is good, definitely. I’ve been in Kassel for a relatively long time already. Soon it’ll be three years. In the meantime, I’ve also found friends outside of the Documenta and even have a little bit of a social life, which was naturally very difficult when I first arrived here and didn’t know anyone. In Kassel, I started riding and doing yoga. When you have this kind of a job, it’s important to get a little physical exercise. Meanwhile, though, it’s starting to become very difficult to find the time for that.
So that means that you’re about to embark upon the hardest phase?
The hardest phase . . . I think we’re all right in the middle of it now. Things will calm down a little bit for our team toward the end of March, because right now, we’re in the midst of meeting all of the publication deadlines. Of course, then we’ll have the revisions. In general, though, it’s a very intense time for everyone; it’s been like that from the beginning, and that probably won’t change very rapidly, either.
You’ll soon be done with writing. What will you spend the next few months doing?
There is certainly still quite a lot to do. When the publications are done, then we turn to the labels and wall texts. I’m also doing some short video interviews with the artists for the website, and the “dMAPS” for the dOCUMENTA (13) app. I’m also a tutor for the “Worldly Companions,” and will also be leading some tours around town. In any case, I will stay in Kassel while the Documenta is running.
Are you looking forward to the time when the exhibition is finally up and running?
Absolutely. It’s a unique experience, being involved with a project like this from beginning to end. I’ve never done that before. Even though I attended the last two Documentas, I was only there for two days during the opening week. So I haven’t yet experienced the legendary effect that you always hear about—how the Documenta changes Kassel, and the city suddenly blossoms and becomes cosmopolitan. Many artists will be in Kassel for longer periods of time, because there are lots of active projects for which the artists are there on site.
Are you already planning for the time after the Documenta?
Nothing specific right now. I come from the freelance world and there is the chance to go back to that. Over time, though, that life can be quite stressful. Some continuity—knowing where and how you’ll live in the following years—would also be nice. At any rate, after the dOCUMENTA (13), I’m going to have to reorient myself completely.
But will you be open to international assignments?