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This year’s edition of documenta, the city-wide international art exhibition that occurs in Kassel, Germany, every five years, was an expansive and inclusive reimagining of what art, and the world, could be. Predominantly featuring art collectives from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the exhibition implemented new practices and terminologies around collectivity, like the concept of the harvest, which was used to describe reflecting, listening, and recording one’s perspective as an active participant in group discussions and meetings.1 Experiencing documenta fifteen was like traveling through a vast ecosystem of art communities, each made up of diverse creative practices and histories. Throughout the exhibition, visitors could, for instance, prepare and share a meal in an outdoor kitchen by Britto Arts Trust, a Bangladesh-based art collective whose contribution was devoted to food politics. On the same day, they could also watch videos of conversations with asylum seekers in Denmark in a living room environment set up by the Copenhagen-based collective Trampoline House.
Curated by the Jakarta-based art collective ruangrupa, documenta fifteen was centered around the idea of “lumbung,” an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn. The curators invited 14 community-oriented collectives to develop the methods of lumbung, and those groups, in turn, invited others to participate in the exhibition. In the two years leading up to this summer’s opening, lumbung members and artists held regular online “majelises,” or assemblies. The attendees used this time to discuss their ideas for collaborating and sharing resources during the 100 days of the exhibition.
Organizing such a diversity of constituents during a global pandemic is an accomplishment in and of itself, and, given the total overhaul of documenta’s institutional structure, growing pains were to be expected. Several months before the opening of the exhibition, ruangrupa was accused of being sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, (which is widely viewed in Germany as antisemitic2) due largely to the inclusion of the Palestian-collective the Question of Funding.3 These claims intensified days after the opening of the exhibition over the inclusion, and quick removal, of a mural titled People’s Justice (2002) by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi.4 While the German media riled up the controversy,5 ruangrupa pushed back against curatorial expectations of complete autonomy, pointing instead to their roles as stewards of a collaborative process, and moreover, to the shifts in meaning that occur when artists’ practices (and diverse cultural backgrounds) are translated into a European context. In a speech delivered on July 6, Ade Darmawan, founding director of ruangrupa, emphasized the importance of collaboration even when it leads to unexpected consequences, stating that, “The curatorial approach and responsibility in the lumbung lies in this collectivity. We see this as a political endeavor, where collective agency, decision making and governance presents an alternative to forms of authoritarianism.”6 Collectivity can be a messy process, but it is vital to building more equitable systems.
The lumbung establishes an alternative economy to distribute resources, resist authoritarian powers, and anchor itself in the local values of its members. The inclusion of the lumbung model in documenta fifteen points to the growing international interest in non-hierarchical structures of organizing and resource-sharing. It represents both a global movement and a concentrated set of local efforts to redistribute power within their respective communities in service of artists.
Here in Los Angeles, vast disparities of wealth are constantly on display: just ride the public transportation system, browse the real estate listings in your neighborhood, or drive by the temporary settlements of the unhoused. Still, it is challenging to understand the specific impact of this extreme economic imbalance on the L.A. artist communities. Life in this city is undoubtedly precarious for artists, particularly for those who lack the financial security of a full-time teaching gig, a viable market for their practice, or generational wealth. If an artist’s viability must depend on an economic system that solely benefits the privileged few to the detriment of the rest, then it is easy to presume that Los Angeles will eventually lose those of us who cannot afford to live here.
Working against such a dismal fate, several organizations in Los Angeles have emerged in recent years to offer more sustainable models for supporting Angelenos outside of the conventional art market and institutional structures. Their work invokes the lumbung model, as they utilize their core values, education, advocacy, and collectivity to counteract the historical and contemporary inequities that afflict this city while advocating for community care and resources. Groups like the Los Angeles Artist Census (LAAC), Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), and the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy (TTPC) collectively organize, share knowledge, and advocate for individuals through volunteer networks, community-driven initiatives, and a shared ethos of reciprocity. Their efforts not only highlight the need for alternative and reparative structures in this city, but also reflect the broader international movements toward more collective models of support.
LAAC influences community thought and public policy by weaponizing bureaucratic language and instrumentalizing conventional methods of data collection. As a grassroots research initiative, the project asserts that the economic and social challenges faced by artists in Los Angeles County are not only quantifiable, but that the data collected about artists can also inform actions that may better their lives. Using a generative model similar to the lumbung majelises, the organization initiated its project by hosting a public gathering at the performance space NAVEL in 2019, inviting artists to gather and illuminate the issues that directly impacted their lives. In the months that followed, several of the artists worked together to determine the questions included in an artist census that would be widely circulated in an attempt to collect data that would help quantify the average working artist’s financial reality. In February 2020, LAAC launched its first census, distributed through social media, newsletters, the census team’s network, and with the help of several local arts organizations. They recently published their findings in a 20-page newspaper; the results from the 2,371 artists who responded are at once staggering and unsurprising.
Among the disappointing data points, the report states that roughly 95% of respondents earn less than the L.A. County living wage ($19.35 per hour) through their art practice, with trans and nonbinary respondents more likely to report lower earnings than cis female and cis male artists; 87% of respondents lack gallery representation; one-third of respondents do not have a studio. For those with studios, the average monthly rent is $623.70, an untenable financial strain when, according to LAAC, of artists who went without a basic necessity to to a lack of funds in 2019, 28% went without housing. While the numbers reveal what some of us may already know from experience, according to LAAC, the data is more than just statistical evidence. It serves as the building block for influencing public policy and increasing sources of funding: organizations like the Center for Cultural Innovation and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs have reached out to LAAC about its work.7 As the organization’s founder, Tatiana Vahan, succinctly put it: “Data is a way to turn the lights on in the room.”8 For arts organizations and local governments that have trouble understanding the specific inequities faced by the city’s artists, LAAC’s work makes inaction inexcusable.
Accountability is a precept of lumbung, and exposing imbalances of power helps improve the overall health of our art ecosystem. In L.A., where housing insecurity is a concern for many artists, groups like the LATU have stepped up to resist the rampant speculation in the real estate market. Focusing on collectivity, education, and relationship building, LATU empowers renters—a group that makes up the majority of residents in this city—to advocate for themselves in the face of eviction or landlord harassment. The organization first emerged as part of the anti-gentrification movement in 2015 to address the diverse housing crises across the city. Since then, LATU has formed over a dozen chapters across Los Angeles County, from Canoga Park to the South Bay, facilitating workshops and hosting bimonthly meetings where neighbors can socialize and learn from one another. All of their communication is fully bilingual in Spanish and English, and they offer free guides for renters engaging in conflict resolution and negotiating cash-for-keys agreements.9 LATU’s model of mutual collaboration and community care resonates so clearly with the spirit of lumbung that they would have easily fit in as one of the collectives that staged educational sessions and information-sharing during the 100 days of documenta fifteen.
While LAAC and LATU respond to systemic inequities directly, TTPC looks to destabilize settler colonialism from the ground up. Inhabiting the first parcel of rematriated10 Indigenous land in the Los Angeles area, TTPC cultivates shared space for members to come together, grow native plants, and practice ceremonies on an acre of Tongva land in Altadena. The property was donated to the organization this year by Sharon Alexander, who, upon learning that the group hoped to obtain ancestral land,11 decided to gift her grandparent’s Altadena home to TTPC rather than profit from its sale.12 After two centuries of European settlement, TTPC’s reclamation of land is the most direct example of decolonization we’ve had in Los Angeles—for TTPC, the act of gathering for ceremony no longer involves a bureaucratic process of obtaining permission. As TTPC coordinator Samantha Morales-Johnson recently put it: “We shouldn’t have to ask anything but the plants for permission to gather.”13 This fall, TTPC will launch its first artist residency, hosting an Indigenous artist and their family in one of the homes on the property, and in the future, they plan to renovate the second home for Indigenous elders to live in.
In truth, the reparative models practiced by groups like LAAC, LATU, and TTPC are the exceptions to the capitalist systems that dominate broader Los Angeles. My experience at documenta fifteen inspired me to examine how local organizations fit into global movements of collectivity—by decentering the individual artist, restructuring the distribution of resources, and inventing new systems of management, the exhibition proposed an overhaul to the model offered by European art institutions. Back in Los Angeles, the communal spirit of the lumbung has generally proven hard to find. Imagine if the assemblies held by the lumbung members were replicated in Los Angeles, the constituents of our communities gathered together to prioritize all artists’ well-being. But the settler colonial mindset weighs heavily upon us, and the California dream is often an individualistic conquest of space. We have a long way to go before those in power—in Los Angeles and elsewhere—take seriously the consequences of their actions. In the meantime, organizations like LAAC, LATU, and TTPC are on the ground, already working toward a more collaborative and equitable future.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 30.