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Magazines mania at Documenta 12

A Southeast Asian critique of the Documenta 12 magazines project.
By Kean Wong | Sep 2007

After two days of often compelling, sometimes intense but long discussions in a windowless box of a meeting room, the patience of the dozen or so East Asian editors, writers and critics was wearing very thin. These believers in the freedom of the arts had come from afar to Documenta 12's Halle in Kassel as part of the exhibition's magazines project.

The first to snap in impatience was Nirwan Dewanto, associate editor of Indonesia's premier arts journal Kalam [1]. What preceded his storming out of the meeting room was a series of revealing testimonies from five Thai arts activists and editors, and an arts critic from the Philippines, about the nasty return of state-sponsored censorship in what have been two of South-east Asia's trail-blazing democracies.

The five explained in turns how their publications - through clever, complex and fleet-footed publishing strategies - had evaded censorship by using a design language of colour and graphics iconography, reviving a common practice before the onset of mass literacy. These sharp-looking Thai publications in print and online helped stoke public debates over the clampdown on democracy following last year's military coup which ousted the controversial but democratically-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawat. [2]

But it was not this - or the fascinating discussion about decentralised, diasporic media and communist-state censorship sparked off by Hoai Phi and Ly Doi of the Vietnamese-run talawas web portal [3] - that had directly inspired Nirwan's walkout. It was, as he apologised later with more typical Javanese finesse, the frustrations of discussing common strategies and potentially building shared infrastructure and mechanisms to combat censorship of the arts and life in general that upset him most.

Discussing such critical matters at Documenta12 was well and good, he said. But where could such discussions ultimately lead, and how sustainable would such collaborations be in the absence of the sporadic sponsorship of something like this year's Documenta project?

Although all of the editors and critics gathered at the week's East Asian magazines meetings agreed that their encounters with each other over the course of a few Documenta12-organised conferences in Asia and now in Kassel had been affirming and revealing about the differences - and many similarities - of arts publishing and problems of censorship, they were also raising similar points echoing Nirwan's two pertinent questions about the objectives of the Documenta 12 magazines project itself.

These included questions such as: why the need for such grandiose scale, where around 90 publications of culture and theory were to come together and collectively discuss the three main leitmotifs of Documenta12? Why not something more concentrated, which would arguably produce something more useful, rather than attempt something representative where a limited budget stretches unbearably thin, where few were paid anything more than just a few airfares to international conferences?

And then there is the faint whiff of a neo-colonial gesture in play, where these publications of Documenta12's defined 'peripheries' are feeding a much richer metropole of the magazines project's headquarters in Vienna, feeding it with ideas, text and images mostly for free, and transferring even more of such 'wealth' towards an exhibition budgetted at EUR19 million planned over five years?

Would a redistribution of priorities and funds produce a better outcome for struggling Asian (or Latin American, or African, etc) publications, where savings made from fewer international conferences of editorial elites are instead spent sponsoring, say, several editions of Indonesia's KUNCI [4] or Malaysia's SentAp! [5] journals? Such sustenance would in turn help develop some critical mass for arts activism and seed more cultural debates, agreed the usually polite editor of SentAp!, Nur Hanim Khairuddin. And it would certainly have helped save the superb South-east Asian arts journal based in Singapore, FOCAS, from closing prematurely - ironically, the last issue of FOCAS was launched on the eve of the week-long 'Asia Speaking Up!' meetings mentioned above.

Even as most of these Asian publications struggle to survive - like SentAp!, going from edition to edition in a daze of unpaid articles and frantic fund-raising while avoiding too many compromises with both commercial market and government demands - the space for the free and open discussion about art, society and pointed debates about state-sponsored utopias continues to shrink as media and consumption habits change.

As several participants suggested during the 'Asia Speaking Up!' meeting, while South-east Asian desires for more democracy has not resulted in greater freedom to check the dominant state and government, the freedom to go shopping is paradoxically pervasive and growing.

But as the Documenta magazines project chief Georg Schöllhammer pointed out, none of the invited publications were compelled to join the project if the offered conditions were unsuitable.

"We did not co-opt people involuntarily into this situation," he defended in an interview between the meetings. "We were aware of the contradictions, that either we work it through or one can stay outside. The conditions were always transparent,"

"Even within Documenta, this project had to build faith in the project, we created (raise) money on our own. So it was really like a spin-off in a neo-liberal firm... my choice would've been not to do it either, so I'm in the same position of those magazines (criticising the project). Either you take that kind of logic and work things through, and try to politicise the antagonisms. Or you stay outside."

So why did these Asian publication take part in the project, especially given these contradictions while they struggled with their meagre resources?

While Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez of the Philippines' Pananaw [6] magazine agreed that "any self-respecting publication should have felt measured degrees of uneasiness" - where at an initial Documenta12 meeting hosted in Singapore the project was accused of "poaching, this big monster of the west devouring/scouring for content elsewhere" - there was also the typical and primary concern of those in the 'peripheries' such as the poorer, developing world, that failing to participate in such a global exhibition would neglect addressing the vacuum.

"There's so little information trickling from this side of the planet (east Asia) to Europe, that it seemed irresponsible to pass up the opportunity," Legaspi-Ramirez explained. "Over and above this, there was a very obvious difference between the way Documenta the exhibition was imagined, and the obviously more pluralist nature of the magazines venture. So from our end, it has very much been a tactical alliance."

For Kathy Rowland, publisher of Malaysia's online arts magazine kakiseni.com [7], it was obvious that the project was potentially "the perfect marketing campaign for Documenta in a region where it's still relatively unknown". She felt there was a "genuine, if misplaced, interest in being inclusive" which was borne out by the selection which defied the practice of only choosing the "big names that have become du jour at international shows".

"My big beef with the whole thing is that the curators never really dealt with the reality of art publications in Asia, where we're almost exclusively independent, alternative and self-funded," Rowland said.

"Even after this was made clear to them, they kind of chugged along with their game plan to include us, but never to really provide the kind of support that would have allowed us to make a meaningful impact, to be wholly part of the project."

Although she maintains her criticism of the project's outcomes so far, and "some large conceptual gaps in the way it was conceived", she was reluctant to join in the "fashionable, disgruntled" complaints levelled at Documenta12.

"As a first step, the project was an innovative one... Its greatest contribution may be facilitating relationships like the conversation pulled together by Kakiseni, Kunci/CLiCK and Pananaw."

But whether such relationships can be sustained beyond the next rounds of frantic fund-raising remain open to question, admitted Kakiseni's Adeline Ooi. And while the contradictions of the magazines project may be just a theoretical conceit in Kassel or Vienna, reality bites hard when another arts space closes somewhere in East Asia.

Kean Wong

Journalist and broadcaster from Malaysia and Australia. Writes among others about Islamic modernity, popular culture and the media.

'Asia Speaking Up!'
Discussion and workshops, organised by Keiko Sei, editor Bangkok/Kassel.
17 editors, critics and arts activists from across Southeast Asia participated.

6 - 12 August 2007
Kassel, Germany

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