DOCUMENTA KASSEL 16/06-23/09 2007

“It’s when things get difficult that the fun starts!” - Interview with Carmen Mörsch

Anyone booking a guided tour of documenta 12 and expecting to receive the standard service package in which everything is neatly explained may well be in for a surprise. Together with Ulrich Schötker, the head of mediation, Carmen Mörsch developed the art mediation concept at documenta 12. During the 100 days of the art show she is supervising the art education and mediation programme as part of a research project conducted by the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg. In the following interview, she outlines the concept.

© Julia Fuchs/documenta GmbH

Ms Mörsch, what is special about the concept of art education and mediation deployed at documenta 12?

Well, we took as our starting point the third leitmotif of documenta 12: What is to be done?, which is dedicated to aesthetic education. This, in turn, requires dialogue-based formats rather than the mere acquisition of facts. We are not in the business of communicating “definitive truths” here. Rather, we are seeking to encourage visitors to become engaged in the process of “interpreting” the art themselves. At the same time, the art educators and mediators are operating with a highly heterogeneous set of strategies which they have formulated themselves, and which encompass a wide spectrum of different styles. In addition, we work self-reflectively, and consequently our educators often strive to make their own formats very transparent. They inform the participants of a guided tour of what methods they are deploying and when they change them.

What form does this take in practical terms?

There is a wide spectrum of vastly differing variants - depending upon the personal backgrounds of the educators. Our staff range from classic art historians, who mediate substantial expertise, through to people who come from art themselves and who like to experiment with a performative, fun-based approach. Alone the curatorial emphasis on the migration of forms is in itself an invitation to engage intensively with the artworks. You can ask the visitors initially to move through the rooms of the exhibition and to discover for themselves connections between the works. It is at this stage that the mediators then intervene and initiate a stimulating debate with the audience.

“Many visitors think of us as a speed-drink.”

How has the concept been received – one month into documenta 12?

Overall, the response has been excellent. We are overbooked and have never been so much in demand as we are at this documenta.

Is there the danger that with this type of art mediation facts are overlooked and expectations remain unfulfilled?

Well, you can’t please all the people all of the time. [laughs] Many visitors see us as a kind of speed drink, as one of our team colleagues formulated it. They arrive expecting to learn a lot within a short time and then are “only” served up hot tea which has to be savoured slowly so as not to burn your tongue. So some people are indeed disappointed. Given the vast number of exhibition visitors, however, such problems occur relatively seldom. Many visitors are somewhat surprised at first, but are then prepared to experiment with an approach which is different from the usual lecture-style mediation of knowledge, and by the end they are delighted. When there are complaints, these are usually prompted by the approach of the educators falling short of the expectations of that particular group. In concrete terms this means that a particular service was not performed, that not enough authoritative knowledge was supplied or that the mediation concept was not sufficiently experimental.

"Substantive and productive conflicts are intended – both in the art mediation and in the exhibition!" - © Julia Fuchs/documenta GmbH

Despite this, are there groups which insist upon a classic, monologue-based guided tour?

No specific format can be booked in advance. But people have the opportunity of stating their preferences. This applies both to the topics and to the formats, although visitors can express their particular area of interest. The boundaries between the individual formats are highly flexible. During the tour itself, some educators even change the formats or combine them with other formats. Yet the process must remain transparent and not become a standard service package. And the challenges to the public which this entails are part of our approach, for engaging with the public also means engaging in conflict.

Are you conducting research into art mediation at the University of Oldenburg?

For the past three years I have been responsible for cultural education at the Faculty of Cultural Studies. Prior to this my main focus lay in the mediation of contemporary art and forms of art education. It is important that one does justice to the complexity of contemporary art and perceive art education as a critical, independent discipline.

Do the transparency of the formats and the aspiration to encourage proactive audience participation at documenta 12 represent an innovative step, or are they just part of a general trend in art education?

I would not describe us as “innovative”. We are more a symptom of the growing significance of this profession: its professionalisation, theoretisation and differentiation. Over the past decade we have seen an increase in the production of theory. And we are exploiting the momentum which has been generated from the discussion on art education and mediation and its societal relevance. In other countries this practice is in some ways more advanced than in Germany; for example, in Great Britain there is a high degree of professionalisation in this field.

In what form will the findings of your research be evaluated?

They are to be published in a study – together with the results of 17 other projects which the individual educators, together with the Advisory Board, have conducted with the local population. We are planning to publish a comprehensive report which will make the complexity of our work accessible to a broader public. This will be primarily of benefit to this nascent professional field.

During your time here in Kassel have you also discovered areas warranting more intensive research?

Yes, on the basis of our experiences with art mediation at documenta 12, I would now like to study the inherent contradiction between art mediation and the provision of an information service to visitors. I am interested in the challenges this generates and how to resolve such conflicts. Furthermore, I am also interested in the offensive and de-normalising attitudes to works decried as “pornographic” by the public, and in the latent homophobia and racism in the reception of the exhibition. My concept of art mediation could render a valuable contribution to shaping an anti-racist and anti-sexist programme of art education.

Many thanks for the interview.



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