Postcards from Kassel: Parks, Politics, and Empanadas at dOCUMENTA (13)

Elizabeth Dorbad and Ann Schnake, "Kunsthalle Fridericianum with Empanadas," 2012

Every five years the art world descends on Kassel, Germany, for Documenta. For 100 days, venues across the city present one of the world's largest and most prestigious art events to hundreds of thousands of visitors. The 2012 edition is curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and features an all-star list of hundreds of international artists, from William Kentridge to Song Dong.

Showcased amidst these luminaries are a few CCA graduates and faculty members -- including Amy Balkin (Fine Arts faculty), Ann Schnake (MFA 2012), Elizabeth Dorbad (MFA 2011), Shaun O'Dell (Fine Arts faculty), and Ruth Robbins (MFA Social Practice 2010) -- whose works explore such diverse subjects as parks, politics, and empanadas.

About Documenta

Documenta was established following World War II as a means for bringing the German people together after the disastrous cultural policies of the Nazi regime. Since the first edition in 1955, attendance has exploded from 130,000 to more than 750,000 -- that was in 2007, for Documenta 12 -- and it has grown from a regional art fair to a global phenomenon.

Christov-Bakargiev's vision for dOCUMENTA (13) was to look across art and nonart fields of inquiry to present "artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory."

Amy Balkin and Public Smog

Fine Arts faculty member Amy Balkin is one of the featured artists. She presents documentation from her ambitious ongoing project Public Smog, which seeks to establish a clean-air park in the earth's atmosphere. "The iteration shown at dOCUMENTA (13) is an effort to inscribe the entire atmosphere on the UNESCO World Heritage List," she explains.

She sent letters to 186 nations in the six official languages of the United Nations, seeking a UNESCO State Party to lead the nomination process. She received 13 replies. Many were form letters. A few were thoughtful and engaged rejections of her proposal. And one, from the Kingdom of Tonga, expressed genuine interest. Tonga, however, lacked the resources to lead a nomination.

In response to this impasse, visitors are encouraged to fill out postcards (provided) and mail them to their own governments, urging them to lead a coalition for inscription of Earth's atmosphere to the list on an emergency basis. She calls her participation in Documenta "a great opportunity to put this work in front of a large audience and ask: Is there a political moment within an art exhibition?"

As of mid-July, German visitors have signed more than 35,000 postcards for mailing to the current German minister of the environment.

Ann Schnake & Elizabeth Dorbad: Itinerant Structures

Ann Schnake (MFA 2012) and Elizabeth Dorbad (MFA 2011) are in the new edition of Documenta via their work Itinerant Structures: Traveling Medicine Show & Empanada Stand, a pop-up sculptural café and performance space. The piece is part of a performance series curated for Documenta by the art collective Critical Art Ensemble.

Itinerant Structures includes a collaboration with former Chez Panisse chef Sylvie Osborne-Calierno as well as various performances by artists and musicians, from a confused waitress playing a violin to a bureaucrat grilling customers for illuminating thoughts. Dorbad describes it as operating "in a fictitious economy, where theater, food, and beauty are offered in exchange for ideas regarding unmet needs, sociopolitical conditions, failing economies, and whatever the viewers want to discuss." The work also makes various historical references.

Schnake explains: "Early medicine shows hawked snake oil and 'Indian medicine' for curing ills, bringing ideas of the Wild West, magic, and entertainment to the bored and the desperate in small towns. We will peddle warming food, the occult, a cacophony of ideas and suggestions of the types of far-reaching possibilities that emerge from hurricanes and erratic weather systems, feminine wildernesses, and other destabilizing forces, sweetened by touches of domestic kindness gone feral."

The duo made the empanada their delicacy of choice because it is a food emblematic of the nomadic. According to Schnake, the portable Galician pastry originated as the Indian samosa and eventually made its way to Europe, South America, and the Philippines. Thus it is an excellent accompaniment to their work and to an international art exhibition that features artists and visitors from dozens of countries, not to mention satellite venues in Alexandria, Banff, Cairo, and Kabul.

Healing Wounds, both historical and physical

Dorbad reports that the news of the acceptance of the Documenta proposal came as a surprise. "The more I learn of the history of the dOCUMENTA exhibition regarding its role as a post-WWII antidote to the cultural darkness of Nazism, and its continued role questioning and defining the interface of art with contemporary society, the more interested and excited I am to participate."

Schnake agrees that it is "wild, exciting, and scary." She gains her resolve from an unusual quarter: her past experience in emergency rooms and county clinics working as a nurse practitioner. "I learned the lesson of taking one's work very seriously and not blinking in the face of fear, intimidation, or pus-filled wounds. I would say that since I spent many years in service, I'm OK with feeling I can claim a place in the world of ideas."

CCA alumna Ruth Robbins (MFA Social Practice 2010) and CCA Fine Arts faculty member Shaun O'Dell are also [participating in dOCUMENTA (13).

Following Documenta, Amy Balkin will be working on A People's Archive of Sinking and Melting for Carbon 13, a group exhibition at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas, on view August 31, 2012, through February 17, 2013. Balkin refers to the piece as "an archive of things from places that may disappear owing to impacts of climate change." The work asks what it means for a place to disappear -- a question of imminent interest to places such as Tonga. The Archive is open for submissions at sinkingandmelting.org.

Elizabeth Dorbad's upcoming projects include a solo exhibition of Itinerant Architectures at the G11 Galerie Berlin. The work is an ongoing series of photographs, sculptures, and architectural interventions that began with dilapidated trailers in the California Sequoia wilderness, moved to demolition sites Berlin, and will continue on to its next stop in Amsterdam in September 2012.

Upon her return from Germany, Ann Schnake will be collaborating with the San Francisco-based MicroClimate Collective, presenting a series of dinners and building a local version of the Traveling Medicine Show.