documenta fifteen: Kiri Dalena, Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings (RESBAK), banner activation, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, June 18, 2022. Photo: Victoria Tomaschko.

“It Has Been Dreamed”: Kiri Dalena on documenta fifteen

Kiri Dalena, one of the artists at the controversy-ridden documenta fifteen speaks with Pristine De Leon about the uneven dynamics between global exchanges and local needs, between lumbung and rigid hierarchies, between what has materialised and what was dreamed.

The working process of collectives calls for creativity that is often not just visual but relational. When the Philippine’s RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings) created a banner of monumental scale—the words ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ are composed of a thousand mourning pins—it travelled across countries through informal networks and chance encounters. 

The banner was made in 2017 in response to a specific Philippine context, the ‘war on drugs’ sanctioned and endorsed by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte upon being elected in 2016. The call then became resonant elsewhere, as when the banner flew to Bogotá with artist, activist, and RESBAK co-founder Kiri Dalena, who was invited to be part of VIII Bienal ASAB in 2017. It reached, among other places, Los Angeles, Washington, California, and Portland in 2018, Missouri in 2019, Berlin and Cologne in 2021, New York in 2022. As it changed sites, it activated scenes of conviviality and solidarity among circles of activists and artists. 

RESBAK traces its beginnings to Duterte’s first year in office. The alliance of art, media, and cultural workers has employed a range of visual strategies to protest human rights violations, while their organized efforts draw on flexibility and inventiveness to address pragmatic needs. RESBAK initiatives are as varied as art therapy workshops for families of victims, zine-making, exhibition-making, film screenings, and online circulation of informational materials. Some members help with community pantries, stations of food organised by volunteers in response to scarcity during the pandemic. Here, the throbbing place of care and struggle is resolutely the local. 

Nevertheless, the transnational—a circuit accessed through the mobility of RESBAK artists—is a site of aspired-for solidarity and support. Last June 18, at the opening of documenta fifteen, in Kassel, Germany, where Dalena was invited as an individual participant, the ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ banner was unfurled with around 20 Filipinos, including RESBAK members, based in Germany.

This processual nature of collective work seems to have found a promising congruence in lumbung, the curatorial framework proposed by Indonesian collective ruangrupa for documenta fifteen, where they were appointed as artistic directors. A term for communal grain stores where surplus harvest is shared, lumbung is a relational wish that has become operative through the clustering of artists into “mini-majelis.” ruangrupa gave their invited participants a production fund to develop their works and an amount reserved for a ‘common pot.’ Within each small cluster, members discern among themselves how to spend the pot allotted to them. Dalena’s mini-majelis had met online several times, months before the opening and had allocated parts of their common pot to fund the transportation of Filipino participants to Kassel and support RESBAK operations in Manila. 

While ruangrupa’s curatorial pitch fosters flexibility, decentralized support, and open-ended exchanges, its compatibility with the institutional scaffold of documenta gGmbH¹ has been put into question. In January this year, accusations of anti-Semitism were aimed at documenta fifteen for its inclusion of Palestinian collectives allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. The opening saw another wave of accusations, culminating in the highly publicized dismantling of Taring Padi’s 2002 banner perceived to contain anti-Semitist caricatures. Amid mounting controversies and deepening pressures from the German media, state offices and diplomats, more covert acts of censorship were carried out. For instance, the videos of Subversive Film collective², which look into Palestinian-Japanese solidarities, were switched off for an entire day in June. 

As a way to dodge the storm of further allegations, censorship can be anticipatory. On the ground, however, discrimination and harassment were actual. A number of participating artists endured the vandalism of their venue, threats of violence, and verbal assaults. “We do not feel completely safe here,” admitted Dalena in a June 22 Facebook status. “This is how I would normally describe my home country. But staying far longer than the usual and having access to those who have been attacked or wrongly defamed as anti-Semitists allowed me to understand that Kassel is not safe either.”

100 days of documenta saw participants contending not only with external pressures but internal conflicts. Last August, an advisory panel of seven scholars was appointed to investigate the allegations. Their preliminary report, published early in September, recommended suppressing the screenings of Subversive Film for what it described as anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist elements. Participants then challenged these claims with an open letter, questioning the slipperiness of the terms and how the report seemed to cast blame on the lumbung structure itself.

If ruangrupa’s curatorial pitch privileges encounters, then how might lumbung’s impact be assessed from the standpoint of artists and collectives? It is clear that documenta fifteen does not end with the visual—and its policed taboos—but it must take into account the relational: the exchanges between participants that can be enabling in the future, the possibilities as well as the injuries. 

Parts of the interview were translated from Filipino and edited for clarity and length.

You work across film and visual art. Since you were invited as an individual participant at documenta fifteen, you produced the five-channel video Pila (Lines) (2022). Then, through lumbung, and the common pot of funds you pooled in your mini-majelis, you were able to involve RESBAK at the activation of the ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ banner.  

First, can you tell us about Pila? The subject is the community pantries in the Philippines. How did people react to being filmed while they were falling in line for the pantry and how has the video been received?

Kiri Dalena (KD): The community pantry for me, as conveyed by the installation, provided a space for people who have been separated because of the pandemic, whose movements have been limited. It provided a space to come together and commune, form friendships, exchange information, share differing ideas about history, about the vaccine, about the pandemic, about politics.

I told them I would record their voices, but asked them to go on as they would everyday, talk about what they wanted to talk about. It added this layer of awareness of what they wanted to be heard. They knew it was going to be amplified, so they were talking about housing, how they were chased by Task Force Disiplina and arrested, charged PHP 300, or how they wished the food pantries would just go on. 

There was a comment from a German-Filipino. She said, at some point when she was watching, she became worried, “Did I have a right to access these stories?” But then a woman looked directly at the camera, smiled, and waved, as if telling her, “It’s alright, I see you.” 

What was the impulse for unfurling the banner ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ at documenta’s opening?

KD: I raised the idea of bringing in RESBAK by virtue of the ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ banner, which we made in 2017. There were invitations [to show the banner], first in the Philippines, in the more expected venues like street rallies. But eventually we understood that the support we needed and the information about the effects of the war on drugs needed to not be confined to the Philippines. [We had to reach the] Filipino communities abroad.

[documenta fifteen] gave us the ‘Go’ signal to hold the event during the opening. The common pot allowed us to invite [RESBAK] members who are already in Germany. Our members extended the invitation to other Filipinos currently based in Germany, whether it’s for study or for residency. We offered to pay for their transportation, accommodation, and access pass. 

How did the public engage in the event?

KD: We were able to print out posters as well as flyers that contained the context of the Philippine human rights situation with specific focus on the drug war. Since this is recent, we also talked about the extension of the Duterte powers through [the election of Sara Duterte as vice president] and the reinstallation of the Marcos presidency. 

[Some audiences and documenta participants] asked to join, and when we told them that they could, they went behind us and we explained the context.

You’ve talked to me about instances of discrimination and harassment that participants have experienced at documenta. Did you encounter any of that at the Filipino solidarity event?

KD: documenta fifteen, from my experience, only had two days that felt really free. When I say that the opening—[June 18 and 19], the first two days before the Taring Padi storm happened—felt free, I mean that it went without incident and drama. We were able to focus on taking people around to see our works, and we were able to freely participate in the many events that were organized by the participating artists and collectives in different venues.

On the days preceding the press conference on June 15, there were a lot of uncertainties, tension and fear because of what happened to the exhibition space of The Question of Funding, which we believed needed to be taken very seriously. [It] was followed by the attack in the venue St. Kunigundis [church] where the artists from Haiti had to lock themselves in a room. [There were] also attacks in the form of projections on the buildings of ruruhaus, fridericianum which framed ruangrupa as a present-day Hitler.

We [the lumbung community present in Kassel and online] had a dialogue with the Mayor of Kassel and the CEO of documenta gGmbH [on June 1]. Their recommendation was to add security and they acknowledged that there are still individuals who hold racist beliefs but that we just have to live with it. I remember asking another artist if it was a mistranslation, the part where we were told that “we have to live with it.” I remember always fearing the worst case scenario that any participating artist or collective visiting Kassel might be harmed or even killed. We could not live with that. 

During the press con, I remember it proceeded very smoothly. I did not catch the speech of documenta gGmbH and the City of Kassel but the artists who heard it shared that it gave them assurance that all will be well. The opening days were genuinely a celebration. 

documenta fifteen: lumbung artist Kiri Dalena at Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings (RESBAK), banner activation, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, June 18, 2022. Photo: Victoria Tomaschko.

When the controversy about Taring Padi came in and the media started reporting on these, what did it feel like on the ground?

KD: It was so uncertain. In my venue, the Hübner areal, one of my neighbours is the Subversive Film collective. They were showing films recovered in Tokyo. Some were film reels about what was happening in Palestine. After [controversies arose over Taring Padi’s banner], suddenly we saw that [Subversive Film’s work] was shut down. A sign indicated that there was a tech problem. We took pictures of it, sent them to the artists. We found out later that documenta management intentionally turned it off without informing the artists. 

The climate was that of a witch hunt, that the works presented by the artists were being weighed and scrutinized using, for example, standards and definitions that we do not necessarily agree with. My perception there and then was that an apparent line has unfortunately been drawn between documenta gGmbH and documenta fifteen’s artistic team, ruangrupa, instead of becoming one united body. 

The lumbung framework had so much promise. It was inclined towards meetings, solidarities, support. It’s unfortunate to hear about this rift. 

KD: It became a test to the system. Lumbung was no longer a concept on paper. Beyond lumbung as a way of sharing resources, it became the framework for something more: How do we come together in a crisis situation? 

Suddenly, we’re dealing with understanding the position that artists from our contexts occupy, the precarity of this position when we are in Europe, when we are invited to these events. The precarity of this space that we have there—it’s almost like powerlessness. I wish we had that 100 days to show our works freely and without interruption and this added pressure of allegations and attacks. 

I’m sad about it but at the same time it’s enlightening, because I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the experience of those who are in the diaspora. 

Have there been efforts to make works in response to what is happening? 

KD: We already formed the anti-discrimination working group that’s collecting the accounts [of attacks]. We also decided to have our own communications working group that’s separate from the communications group of [documenta management]. 

We’ve been planning to come up with statements. Erick Beltrán, one of the participating artists, had a proposal called Manual for the Living that’s supposed to be released by the end of documenta, but we’re now thinking of releasing it sooner. 

[The process in the lumbung community] is not without shortcomings and can be exhausting, but we needed to try. A community to turn to for support and solidarity is necessary to survive. Thanks to ruangrupa, the framework was already in place.

How has your involvement at documenta affected RESBAK in Manila? Considering the solidarities you’ve formed and the common pot you pooled in your mini-majelis, I take it that the benefit is on RESBAK’s operations? What RESBAK projects did it support? 

KD: I think that’s one, operation. We used [part of the common pot] to support installation for [RESBAK’s exhibitions in Manila] that were ongoing during this time, like PuROPAGANDA (2022) and Non-random Opponents (2022). Part of Logfiles (2022) was also supported. 

Before, we would solicit our funds every time there’s an activity. So, to an extent, the monetary support provides a short break. It lessens the labour, even if we know this is only temporary. Given the situation, the precarity, even if this is just for three months, it’s helpful.  

documenta fifteen: Kiri Dalena, Pila (Lines), 2022, installation view, Hübner areal, Kassel, June 13, 2022. Photo: Maja Wirkus

What commonalities did you find with the working process of other collectives? 

KD: What they call lumbung, almost all are already, in a way, in operation. In RESBAK, it’s already in operation: the transparency, the idea of generosity, sharing, finding collective work as a necessity. The principle of solidarity is there, constantly reviewing your actions to do no harm. 

[In documenta], we’ve connected with other artists and collectives who live in far more difficult circumstances. They shared experiences and strategies on continuing with their work even in the midst of attacks or wars. In Sada [Regroup], one collective from Iraq, they continue to be artists and find ways to survive even if there’s a war. Question of Funding, in Palestine, shared how they distribute the funds. They explained that when they break down the funds for creating art works, [necessities like] food is included. 

When I saw their works, they were no longer just exhibits or objects to look at. It felt so alive and dynamic because they were very intertwined with the life of the artists. 

Given the vulnerability of our situation here, as a practicing artist, how helpful has it been to have a platform in another country? 

KD: For a long time, I’ve always thought that these were temporary. When we participate in another country, they don’t tell us about budgets or sometimes we’re not even introduced to the other artists. This is the first time that we’re actively meeting a year before. documenta, or at least ruangrupa, [invited us to] try to imagine this possibility of really creating something sustainable and long-lasting that could go beyond documenta’s 100 days. 

We were all very optimistic about this possibility. In light of what actually transpired, we saw that it took only two days, then the controversies came in. It’s almost as if they were saying that this is not possible: the kind of freedom that we want, the possibility of occupying this space. If this isn’t possible even just for 100 days, then what more? That is if I go in a more pessimistic route. 

But then, if I go in a more optimistic route, maybe we just have to understand that there are other places. Of course, historically, having our voices included in these high profile events is important—I’ve had Filipinos reaching out and sharing how happy they were. But that’s still not primary for me, considering what I understand is where the battleground is. 

But I also saw how essential support is. When I say support, it’s not necessarily financial but the moral support—understanding there are people beyond your country who are taking your side. The full potential of what is possible has not yet been realized, but it has been dreamed. The full potential of coming together in these international platforms has not been realized in documenta fifteen as we hoped for. They tried and we are still trying. 

I have a feeling that documenta fifteen was also primarily for artists. And when you say ‘artist’, artists who take the side of people.

¹documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH is the non-profit organization behind the documenta exhibition. The organization is supported and funded by the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse as shareholders.

² Subversive Film is a cinema research and production collective based between Ramallah and Brussels. For documenta fifteen, they curated a film program around a collection of reels recovered from Tokyo, which casts light on the solidarity relations between Palestine and Japan. The recovered reels were produced by filmmakers and journalists of different nationalities during the 1960s to the 1980s.

documenta fifteen opened to the public last June 18. It runs until September 25 2022 across venues in Kassel, Germany. Kiri Dalena’s Pila (Lines) (2022) plays at the Hübner areal.

About the author(s)

Pristine L. de Leon is an art critic, researcher, and educator based in Manila. She lectures on art, writing, and collaboration at the Fine Arts Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. Since receiving the Purita Kalaw-Ledesma prize for art criticism in 2016, she has written reviews and features on visual art and theatre for The Philippine Star. Her research on public art in the Philippines was published in the journal Southeast of Now and was supported by the Emerging Writers Fellowship program. Currently working towards a master’s degree in Art Studies at the University of the Philippines, she researches and writes around space, site, tactility, and participatory practices.

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