DOCUMENTA KASSEL 16/06-23/09 2007

“I would never have dreamed of becoming an art mediator at the documenta.” - Interview with Ulrich Schötker

Ulrich Schötker is director of education at documenta 12. Together with Carmen Mörsch, an academic research consultant, he developed the documenta’s educational concept. Even before his engagement with documenta 12, the qualified art teacher had conducted research into aspects of art mediation.

Herr Schötker, could you tell me something about your previous professional experience in the field of art education and with the institution documenta?

One basic question in art education has always been of special interest to me ever since I was an undergraduate, namely: What has art education got to do with art anyway? And taking it one step further: To what extent does one integrate art works into the educational process? How can one do justice to the art works? And what sort of theory can be formulated from it, if at all? Questions and issues which helped to prepare me for my profession during the course of my studies. But I would never have dreamed of becoming an art mediator at the documenta.

After graduating, however, I worked as an art mediator, or rather as a guide for documentas 10 and 11. Now I am director of the education department and we call our staff “art mediators”. On the one hand, I very much enjoyed collaborating with my professional colleagues back then, who included Carmen Mörsch. On the other hand, I experienced for the first time how interesting it is to work with such diverse groups of visitors, whereby I realised that you can’t always choose your favourite audience. The great variety of visitors was exciting for me, the different contexts they introduced, the different positions they represented in discussions and disputes. I found that absolutely fascinating and still do today.

I have been developing the basic idea of documenta 12’s mediation concept for many years, which was also part of my dissertation on system theory and on the interdependencies between educational and art systems at the University of Hamburg.

Could you explain the difference between a guided tour at documenta 12 and one, say, five years ago?

I would say that it is at once different and still the same. Back then, we had people who were responsive to the public – and I would count myself among them – who had already embraced and implemented the principle of inviting the public to actively participate at documentas 10 and 11. The major difference is that this time we have openly communicated this aspiration to the outside. At documenta 10, art mediation went by the name of “visitors’ service”. Of course, it is still a service provided by the art mediators to the visitors, but, conversely, they also do us a service by visiting the documenta. I believe that our public has grasped the fact that documenta 12 does not offer any standard guided tours, and that this should be seen as an enrichment rather than a drawback.

Photo: Isabel Winarsch
What were your objectives at the beginning, when you first started? And how have these embryonic ideas been modified into a finished concept?

Well, we already knew exactly what we wanted to do by October 2006, and from then on we just set about implementing it. Basically, there are many things I wanted from the exhibition, which have also been realised. With the support of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research we were able to set up an area specifically for children and young people. We were also able to gain the cooperation of the Heinrich-Böll Foundation and the Fond Soziokultur to implement a number of projects.

The biggest unknown factor was, however, the team of art educators. Although these were people who have been successful in other professional areas, this was the first time they had worked with strangers, as it were. Within six months we had to forge a team which could work well together and which collectively reflected their work. Therefore, it was important from the outset to assemble a team which was fundamentally capable of working together with quite diverse groups of visitors, and which was entirely open in its approach. We invested a great deal of energy in building a team and teaching them to adopt a quite special methodology. Ultimately, we formed a team which could work fantastically together, which openly embraced the most diverse groups of visitors and which was also content to “guide” groups of non-experts.

Could you say a few words on the various mediation formats?

It is not easy – in the context of the documenta – to consider using a format different from that of the “guided tour”. The format is so simple and effective, and can be so easily communicated externally by an institution to a public that one has to critically assess why that is. Consequently, the criticism of Capitalism or “service industries” is always present when exploring the issue of guided tours. And I agree with this, as long as it does not lead to “guided tours” per se being abolished.

As a contrast, we set great store on differentiating between the many different formats within the overall programme to ensure they were not duplicated, but rather that they complemented each other tactically. There is, therefore, a broad range from the monologue to the dialogue-orientated, experimental guided tours. Which format is applied depends upon the specific group. Even monologue-based formats can be fun. But this should not imply that we only work with groups or have abandoned the lecture-style approach. That would be unreasonable because it does not take the individual concrete situation into account.

Our art mediators are power-conscious people. I think it important that they are able to “guide” or even misguide – that is also part of the game. At this documenta, we have, for example, endeavoured to deconstruct the authoritative position of the speaker. Of course, this is only possible if one actually possesses this authority. These are therefore roles which people must, paradoxically, discover and act out for themselves. We members of the documenta 12 art mediation department can also annoy people if we have to.

Now, at the conclusion of documenta 12, are you able to give an assessment of the public reception of the mediation concept and the various formats?

The overall reception has been fantastic. The art mediation programme has been as popular, if not more so, than last time. And as far as I can tell, our experimental, dialogue-based projects are meeting an excellent response. If a group does not wish to say anything, then we will not tie them to the Ai Weiwei chair or force them to speak, contrary to what some press articles have claimed. I think that the opportunity to become involved oneself has proven highly popular with the public. This is patently demonstrated in the exhibition room, where you often see groups standing together engaged in collective discussion. The visitors bring their own experiences with them, are open to aesthetic experience and attempt to articulate this verbally - which is anything other then easy. The palm groves were used both by the guided groups and by other visitors to sit down and contemplate. I believe that our invitation to people to involve themselves more strongly has been successful. It has not gone unnoticed that there is a need for this, and that the people have something to say.

Photo: Isabel Winarsch
What advice would you give to your successor for documenta 13? What should be continued or further developed?

Well, I could give some advice now, but all I really want to pass on to my successor is my telephone number.

But beyond that, I really don’t want to suggest what should or should not be done because the next exhibition may well incorporate totally different ideas, and any ideas I may develop now could be completely counterproductive. Consequently, I would advise reflecting on documenta 13 when the time comes, i.e. one should not start thinking about art mediation for documenta 13 until 2009, when one can explore what specific models are possible. Who knows what ideas the curator will come up with? The basic conditions are quite promising and they were quite different at this documenta from the last one: At documenta 10, Catherine David said that the exhibition did not have any chairs because it wasn’t a library. And this time there are lots of chairs and yet it still isn’t a library. These are simply positions which the curators take and which have to be implemented.

However, I regard it as indispensable that the next exhibition has an area for kids and young people, and that there are guided tours.

Did the art mediation programme at documenta 12 create a benchmark? Has it also contributed to a change in awareness in the general public – among the visitors and other art institutions, which still operate with more conservative formats?

I don’t wish to make any predictions because I really can’t do that. But I do believe that in our society  – in Germany and in Europe – art mediation is set to become a much more important topic which has been realised across a range of different institutions, or is seen as a crucial foundation for a functioning art institution. There is, at least on the professional level, a much stronger sensibility for this issue than 10 or 15 years ago. What the situation is among the general public is difficult to say. Of course, I hope that visitors at documenta 12 take up and develop the idea for themselves, and realise that one can educate oneself at an art exhibition and go on to subsequently attend other exhibitions beyond the documenta.

What personal experience have you gained from your work here?

I really don’t know – my head is simply buzzing at the moment. But what transpired here at the documenta was nothing new for me – I’m quite used to this febrile atmosphere. Perhaps I’ve learned to remain cool when the going gets tough and to withstand tension. And to remain objective amidst all this hectic activity in order to make decisions which you don’t regret later. Besides that, collaborating with so many interesting people with whom I could engage in debate was wonderful; people you don’t necessarily have to reach consensus with – that’s not what it’s all about. I continue to value many of these colleagues highly and I am certain that I will give them a call some time when I have to make decisions.

Thank you for the interview, Mr Schötker.