Documenta, held every five years in the central German city of Kassel, is the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics. While its scale may be rivalled by Venice, its quinquennial timetable and large budget allow curators time to develop an elaborate vision, and it has often been used to test the temperature of contemporary art production. Some previous editions have been influential in changing the direction of the art world—for instance, Catherine David’s documenta 10 and Okwui Enwezor’s documenta 11 (to use the official typography) did much to push it towards documentary and a greater engagement with politics.

The unusual situation and history of documenta has haunted many of its editions, including the latest. Kassel is a small industrial city set in the hilly and forested countryside of north Hesse. During the Second World War it produced planes and tanks, and it is still a production centre for Germany’s main battle tank—a fact that has not escaped Kassel’s Occupy protesters. The city was repeatedly bombed by the raf and extensively damaged, with thousands killed and many more made homeless. As in so many German cities, its modern centre is the product of that destruction, and its few older buildings were those considered worth restoring from ruin. documenta, founded in 1955, was from the beginning seen as a reparation of the damage done by Nazi cultural wrecking, and its first edition showed works of classical modernism which had, of course, been condemned as ‘degenerate’. They were exhibited in what remains the main venue of documenta, the Fridericianum, which then still bore the marks of war damage.

The latest exhibition, documenta (13), is a vastly ambitious attempt to influence the course of art and culture as a whole. Its Artistic Director, the American curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had previously directed the 2008 Sydney Biennale. Using a frame of reference that takes in phenomenology, quantum theory, feminist thinking and psychoanalysis, she has explained that she wants to push the centre of human cultural concerns away from subject–object oppositions towards a perspective that would include the viewpoints of all entities, organic and inorganic. If matter has an intricate connection with information, at least at the quantum level, then all entities may be said to communicate and even to have will. In recounting a failed attempt to have the world’s heaviest meteorite shipped across the world for display at documenta, Christov-Bakargiev is led to ask, not just what she wanted or what the rock’s custodians—the indigenous Moqoit people in Argentina—wanted, but what it wanted:

It had travelled through vertiginous space before landing on Earth and settling. Would it have wished to go on this further journey? Does it have any rights, and if so, how can they be exercised? Can it ask to be buried again, as some of the Moqoit argue, or would it have enjoyed a short trip to an art exhibition, rather than a science or world’s fair?footnote1

Thinking of this type is used to prop up a series of gestures towards radical positions: environmental, activist, participatory, anti-war, minority. In all this, it is paramount that there be no ‘closure’, no settling and no agreement: rather a dissonant dance of beings and objects in which all perspectives are acknowledged in an ‘anti-logocentric’ frame.

Documenta’s five-year gestation period has often involved complex intellectual engagements. Enwezor’s edition, for example, had seminars dotting the globe and involving hundreds of peripatetic and local participants. These discussions produced four volumes of essays on subjects such as truth and reconciliation, the current state of democracy and the African city.footnote2 Christov-Bakargiev’s documenta has produced no less than 100 mini-books that have been collected into a gargantuan volume for the show itself—The Book of Books—and has staged events not only in Kassel but in Cairo, Alexandria, Banff (Alberta) and nato-occupied Kabul.footnote3 As with previous documentas, only invited participants can judge the process by which this is brought about.

This account will be concerned only with the final product as seen at Kassel by a regular viewer. I will look at a series of works that give some idea of the range offered at documenta and some of its common concerns, starting with an accomplished and typical piece of ‘biennial art’. The subject matter of the installation and video by Rabih Mroué is contemporary and newsworthy: the relation of cameras and guns in the Syrian uprising. Why, Mroué asks in his compelling video-lecture, do people risk their lives to make photos and videos, even to the point of continuing to film while being shot at? He shows a few instances when it is clear that the person behind the camera sees the gunman turn towards them, raise his weapon and take deliberate aim. Still they keep filming as the gun is fired. Mroué makes the point that videos are also weapons, when distributed in Syria and beyond, and are essential to feeding the resistance; also that the phone camera is not used like a film camera of old but becomes a prosthesis, an extension of the eye which is continually active, even when the images produced—for instance in scanning the urban landscape for danger—are to the outside viewer a jumble of meaningless frames, piled jerkily one on another.