Kassel and Documenta(13) – Workhouses, Archives, and other Repostitories


Willkommen in Kassel!

Last week I was in Kassel to see Documenta. Kassel is a strange city; it has a curious combination of clean, blank modernity, but there are many traces of reflecting what must have once been its historical importance. It is like an empty theme park, filled with many grand spaces and wide promenades. There was some bomb damage which resulted in many parts of the city being rebuilt, but it still retains many old structures and buildings, such as Treppenstrasse, which is said to have been the oldest “stair promenade” to have been built, and a 500 year old castle that we stumbled across that had a odd, small glass building constructed into it.

Despite the bustle in Friedrichplatz with its hordes of Documenta visitors, the city of Kassel is curiously empty. Many shops are empty, or have the appearance of having been completely abandoned. When the currywurst stand put up its “closed” sign for the weekend, we could not help but imagine (or rather, we began to fear) that it was going to be closed forever, because of the complete lack of sound and people in the area. One almost wonders how it survives on the other 4 years when there is no Documenta. Of course, it is not to say that there isn’t business or industry within Kassel, and there are good universities in the vicinity – yet the bare fact of the matter is that the infrastructure is so very huge and the people so few that one almost cannot imagine how empty it would be without all the visitors from Documenta thronging its streets.


Kassel-Wilhelmshohe Station

Located 45 minutes away from Frankfurt, one first arrives at Kassel-Wilhemshohe, which is another small tram or train ride away from what feels like the city center at Kassel-Hbf. In order to connect Kassel to the highspeed ICE train networks, the main station moved to Kassel-Wilhelmshohe, which feels a little like a ghost town at times because of its incredibly huge roof which dwarfs all its visitors.


One is only truly introduced into Documenta at the Kassel-hbf, where queues snake around the ticket booths and the equipment rental booths. Scattered over several different venues (including sites in Kabul/Afghanistan), Documenta(13) comprises sculptures, installations, political weavers, apple growers, quantum physics hobbyists, maxims, sculptures, new media works, and looping sound installations all to be found at Documenta, but by the far the most interesting works for me this time happened to be the ones concerned with archives; and this seemed to be an important concern for quite a number of them. Perhaps because it is an area that I am interested in, this explains why this sort of work stood out for me too…

It is impossible to adequately write of all the works I have seen into one single post, so I will attempt to write about a few that I really liked (Note that this is not an exhaustive list and I will add more to this post later as well, some will only be brief until I have more time to flesh descriptions out):

Avery Gordon & Ines Schaber – Room 2 Breitenau: The Workhouse Project
Mario Garcia Torres – Have you ever seen the snow?
Gunnar Richter – Breitenau
Mark Dion – Xylotheque Kassel
Kader Attia – The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures
Ryan Gandar – The Invisible Pull

Avery Gordon & Ines Schaber
– Room 2 (Breitenau: The Workhouse Project)


Room 2 (Breitenau: The Workhouse Project)

Avery Gordon (a professor of sociology) along with Ines Schaber (Berlin-based artist) created a space within which one could listen or read to a series of narrative and letters at the Handwerkskammer in Central Kassel, near the top of the Treppenstrasse.

Entitled “Room 2”, the recordings of letters being read out by people looking back at the different periods in which Breitenau was used as a workhouse first in 1874, then concentration camp during the Nazi years, then a girls’ reformatory, and then now a rehabilitation center and psychiatric residential treatment facility. It also houses a memorial and research center, and the various stories and narratives being told by the text and the audio at Room 2 engage with the meaning of “work” and “home” through the imagined stories of people who had lived within the past/present/future of the workhouse.

From the text on Workhouses:

1872 – The district of Kassel purchases the former Breitenau monastery, Prussia having earlier returned the property to Hesse on condition that a workhouse be installed. The official archive begins in earnest. Records are kept systematically now: name date place of birth and reason for confinement etc. A story is told about each individual, some stores are more detailed than others, none is particularly understanding. As the workhouse grows, other records are added to the archive, which becomes large and will require management by a state bureaucracy and careful investigation by professional historians. The Breitenau archive never contains many photographs, but it always retains the institution’s changing same unconscious and holds a not so easily accessible collection of stories, ideas, and other marginal and surplus things left by all the outlaws who have passed through it. The workhouse is an archive where secrets and hidden messages are deposited.

In Note 41, Gordon also describes the “encyclopedia” nature of the workhouse; in becoming “a kind of encyclopedia of the prisoner” – the form of the workhouse that was used to confine and restrict the movements of rebel peasants who refused to work, the rural and landless poor, the homeless, political dissidents, cultural radicals, indentured workers who refused to work, “the others” from despised racial groups, and troublesome nonconformist girls. The workhouse is a peculiar sort of “state home” which is not at all homely despite being called a “home” or “house”, and in this case the “state” applies itself as social control – a construct to instill servility and utility into the people who are disadvantaged, who refuse to work and refuse to conform to others. As a tool of the state, it had to be “managed”, and records were made to describe each “crime” perpetuated against society that led to the individual’s incarceration.


Along the way from the hbf towards Treppenstrasse, we found a poster on a pillar (with fake brands that looked very convincing on first approach) that blended right into the street; I was told it tells of different reasons for incarceration at the Workhouse. I do not know who made the poster on the pillar, but in Note 41, Gordon also writes out a list which is as follows:

because she was a fortune-teller
because he walked out of his job and wanted to move to Holland
because of persistent bad behaviour and refusal to work
because he was guilty of violating work disclinpine
because she recently started to stay off work without any excuse and hanging around doing nothing
because she had sex with a French civilian worker
because he had a sex with a German national
for continual absenteeism from work and singing the Internationale on the street
because he repeatedly violated orders not to practice astrology

They say that they aim to create a space that is “hospitable” for the “critical and imaginative thinkings/practices” that had been forbidden in a time of utilitarianism and societal/class control, where poor or working class people were sent to workhouses to be “re-educated” and “corrected” for refusing to work or behave like good workers.

The idea of a workhouse is very distant to myself, first because it might be more of a european construct, and second because my only point of understanding or reference would be the Victorian workhouses in England which one would obviously have read about in books such as Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I also hadn’t really given much thought to this idea of how people could be or should be consigned to a life of servitude (even Brothers’ Quay’s “Institute Benjamenta” depiction of a fictitious school where people are taught how to become ideal servants appeared as a conceptual abstraction to me, despite my fondness for the film and its aesthetics). My first thought was also about how I don’t really “work” in a traditional sense either (now ever more so, as an artist on residency), and there must be scores of artists who also do not typically “work” in that sense and that had we been born in a different era and different place then an attempt to do what we do today in that context would have been met with very different consequences.

From the text:

2010: The Workhouse is erected off-site. No lessons are taught, no cures administered, no transportation provided. Permission is granted to do nothing, to pretend, to move on, to think, and to cause trouble. Strikes, idlers, runaways, travelers, agitators, blasphemers, and their friends are welcome. Delicious rich soup filled with fresh vegetables and herbs, and a little meat for those who eat it, are served.

Mario Garcia Torres
– Have you ever seen the snow?

Another interesting work was Mario Garcia Torres’ “Have you ever seen the snow?” – a slideshow and narration tracing the location of the One Hotel in Kabul. The premise of much of Torres’ work is about filling in the gaps in art history, and the video work shown at Documenta deals with one such “mystery” surrounding the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti who almost showed his work “Mappa” (1992) at Documenta 5 but had shown another work in the end.


Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa (1972)

The work Mappa was conceived by Boetti in the fall of 1971 while he was in Afghanistan, Kabul, and it was woven by Afghan weavers. Boetti was greatly fascinated with Afghanistan – to the extent that he decided to run a hotel there which was named “One Hotel”. Some decades later, Boetti’s fascination with Afghanistan seems to have rubbed off on to many others… particularly with recent events of the last few years…

Torres’ video work and documentations provide the backdrop for bringing Mappa back into Documenta, and he also speaks of his 20 year journey tracing the location of the One Hotel in Kabul, which he first discovered through a photograph in an art history book. The photographer is unknown, and even Boetti passed on in 1994, making it by and large a mystery – as it seemed as if no one knew where the actual hotel was located.


One Hotel in Kabul

Initially our point of reference seems obscure, as he begins the piece by making references to “fragments” of stories – which in term spawn other narratives and stories. I was not intimately acquainted with this photo prior to watching this film, but it almost seemed to assume that the viewer did, which made the beginning even more puzzling. The photo itself, which was taken in 1971, shows a mundane scene of passerbys on a normal day on this mysterious street in Kabul. The building that housed the One Hotel also had a pharmacy and a supermarket next to it. Nobody notices the camera, except a figure on the second floor looking out of the window, whom he also notes is most certainly impossible to trace now due to lack of information.

Torres is basically an armchair sleuth researching and contacting people from across the globe to find out more about the lost location of the former One Hotel, and he goes about a step-by-step critical commentary of each archival photo, describing each of the figures and the buildings in photographs and muses over each of their past, present, and futures.

There are long pauses in the video, during which we are confronted with a blank screen of light in between slides. As he pauses weightily between sentences, the light appears to dance on the retina and one almost wills the pictures to come back into being. And the pictures truly do fade in slowly into one another.

When we finally see a photo taken of the location today, it is unrecognizably modern and has been taken over by shops. The balcony where Boetti must have once stood had already been altered to increase the space within the shop itself by removing the division to the balcony area; something you always see happening in cities today.

After an exuberant expedition through the various mysteries of the photos, I get an almost deflated sense of bathos in seeing the photo of the building’s flat modern form. Then again, many of my own “mysteries” also end this way… like when I went to the site of Pulau Saigon holding my breath and hoping to see some ever-so-tiny physical trace that would reflect the history and epicness of the very spot (for i was building it up in my mind after reading about it so much!)… AND THEN there was nothing but a boring, flat condominium in its place. One that was so featureless and generic that there wasn’t even anything interesting to speak about. And people walked past as if there was nothing there. Just as in Kabul, where Torres also admits that no one living their everyday lives there gives a damn about this location that has come to be of importance to art historians from the west…

But I think, it is interesting to sift through facts and pictures and search for the clues to bring us closer to places that would otherwise slip through the cracks of our awareness…

Gunnar Richter
– Breitenau

In a similar vein, and also related to the Workhouse piece (in fact, being part of the source for the first work), Gunnar Richter is a researcher and director of the Breitenau memorial, and his slideshow speaks of his own tracing of the mystery of what happened to the people who were wrongfully executed at Breitenau – solving a mystery of what happened to the memorial for those who were killed, and how many and who suffered and was killed in the concentration camp. He was present at the

Mark Dion
– Xylotheque Kassel

Dion’s work in the Ottoneum featured the “ready-mades” of the wooden books, rehoused into a library within a library; and with the addition of four more books to represent the missing volumes of trees not yet represented in the original collection. Dion’s work typically deals with the ways in which museums categorise and exhibit their collections.





Kader Attia
– The Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

A collection of images of the faces of soldiers who suffered facial injuries and underwent corrective surgery in the aftermath of WWI – compared to the images of oriental/african artefacts which were “fixed” by colonial re-possesors and how the imperfect stitch lines made in colonial times to fix it are often left very visible, and it becomes part of the artefact itself. These artefacts are also considered to be unusable from a museum or historical viewpoint as they have been altered and tampered with, yet many of them exist in the market.



in case you are wondering why the post tapers off, it is because…

0 responses to “Kassel and Documenta(13) – Workhouses, Archives, and other Repostitories”

  1. we do like an occasional tamper Debbie, and often those 'scars' are what makes the artifact. Its just whether the tampering /repairs /alterations are considered as part of the objects history making. In a thousand years the European tampering of African objects will be considered fine- it may even increase its value in a social history collection. Its just about perspective and ways of seeing. And we do like a clear sky.