Every five years, dOCUMENTA attracts hundreds of thousands of people to Kassel, Germany with an exhibition of mostly contemporary visual art that is massive in scale and culturally important in content. This year, for the first time, dOCUMENTA has extended its footprint beyond Kassel simultaneously with the 100-day long exhibition, with outposts in four other locations – including Banff, Alta. The Banff component – a first for North America – begins on Thursday.
It's called The Retreat, and it's officially referred to as a "position" of dOCUMENTA (13) – the other positions being onstage in Kassel, its home since 1955; under siege in Kabul; and a state of hope or optimism in Alexandria and Cairo. Finally, Banff is a state of retreat – "to withdraw, to sleep" as Retreat co-organizer Kitty Scott explains. "I think in a way, it's a retreat about retreats."
If it all sounds highly militaristic, consider that dOCUMENTA was created in the bombed-out remains of the Second World War; part of its function was to get Western Germany back in touch with modern art after its banishment during the Nazi period.
Scott is the Director of Visual Arts at The Banff Centre, and is one of a handful of core agents who worked with dOCUMENTA (13) artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as she curated the exhibition, which, based on reviews from Kassel, sounds comprehensive and intense. (Each dOCUMENTA features a new artistic director.)
When Scott heard about Christov-Bakargiev's appointment to dOCUMENTA, she invited her old friend and colleague to the Banff Centre to speak. Christov-Bakargiev was curious: why did Scott leave London's Serpentine Gallery for the remote wilds of Banff?
"I said, 'well it was just time for me to move away, to step back from things, to be outside kind of major centres of production, to be involved in what I call process and experiment,' " says Scott.
"So she talked to me about it as being a kind of retreat, and we began thinking about the notion of retreat in broader terms."
The Retreat is largely a private event for artists and cultural thinkers. Co-organized by Scott, Christov-Bakargiev and the University of Alberta's Imre Szeman, it will see six faculty work with 30 international participants to "raise questions about the character of our society, and engage in artistic and cultural research to create new modes of becoming and belonging," according to its description.
The faculty is made up of an impressive list of cultural thinkers: media theorist Franco (Bifo) Berardi, philosophers Bruno Bosteels and Catherine Malabou, artists Claire Pentecost and Pierre Huyghe, and Christov-Bakargiev herself.
For the public, each faculty member will give a talk, and the Banff Centre's Walter Phillips Gallery will premiere a film collaboration by Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater, Modest Livelihood.
The Banff Centre thrives on what can happen if artists remove themselves from the everyday: from the bombardment of information, from making their own beds and preparing their own meals. Away from such drudgery and digital overload, what magic can result? It was in Banff, Scott says, where Jungen first dreamed up his Nike masks, and Janet Cardiff created her first audio walk.
"It's a kind of place where you're all gathered together on the side of a hill in a remarkably beautiful landscape," says Scott. "If you're an artist, it's a great place to try out things, to experiment without all your peers being around. It's the kind of place where you can make mistakes and possibly fail. … You can learn an immense amount from that kind of situation."
It resonates with one of the much-discussed works in Kassel: British artist Ryan Gander's installation which consists of a generated breeze blowing through an open gallery space.
The Retreat, ironically – or maybe not – essentially constitutes Scott's own Banff swan song. In September she begins her new role as curator of modern and contemporary art at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario.
Scott will be well into her new job – maybe even onto something else – by the time the results of The Retreat become evident.
"I'm very curious about what, if you like, will come out of it, but at the same time my expectations are not to find out what's come out of it five minutes after it's over," she says. "For a lot of people, what happens here will probably be important for them in their lifetime. That's the way this place functions."
The Retreat is at the Banff Centre Aug. 2 to 15; Modest Livelihood is at the Walter Phillips Gallery Aug. 3 to Nov. 18.