After numerous artists reported that they were targets of racist and transphobic harassment in the German city of Kassel, Party Office, a New Delhi-based gallery and performance space that was invited to uplift queer voices at Documenta 15, suspended all live programming on June 19, one day after the exhibition opened.
In a statement posted to Instagram on July 4, Party Office explained further. “All our guests are Black, Dalit, POC and trans* people. At this moment as hosts we feel completely disabled by the current situation, many of us have our c/PTSD triggered repeatedly, our mental health is in danger and so is our physical safety.”
This announcement, since taken down over fears of prolonged harassment, is a stark contradiction to the messaging Documenta 15 has used to promote this year’s festival. Artistic direction, helmed by the Indonesian arts collective ruangrupa, revolves around the concept of “lumbung,” a building where a community’s harvest is stored and equally distributed. In this spirit, Documenta 15’s programming emphasizes inclusivity, kinship, and equity.
Ruangrupa invited Vidisha-Fadescha, an artist and founder and curator of Party Office, and curator Shaunak Mahbubani to program club events and concerts at a satellite space in Kassel. Their festival programming, Queer Time: Kinships & Architectures, showcased an international cohort of more than 28 transfeminist artists making art about rest, parties, and radical pleasure.
But before Documenta began, Party Office’s curatorial team was targeted by xenophobic harassment. The team’s temporary residence and exhibition venue, which they share with the Palestinian art collective The Question of Funding, was vandalized with the word “Peralta” — a possible reference to Spanish far-right and neo-Nazi youth leader Isabel Peralta — and the number 187, a graffiti symbol that refers to murder.
In response to this incident, Party Office asked Documenta to provide a safety plan they could follow in the event of a hate crime. This would be shared with the curatorial team, their artists, and the predominantly queer, transgender, and BIPOC people that would be attending the club central to Queer Time. Instead, they say, Documenta’s organizers told them to rely on a private security firm they had hired, and local police.
When the club opened for previews on June 15, Party Office posted their code of conduct on every door in the venue, as well as online. It notified patrons that an Awareness Team would intervene with any unsafe situations, and had the right to remove people from the space.
Ali Akbar Mehta, a curatorial advisor for Party Office, told Hyperallergic that when the festival entered the first day of press and VIP previews, one of the private security officers had to be ejected from their space due to verbally and physically harassing queer attendees. Documenta provided Hyperallergic with a statement, included later in this article, but has not yet responded to a request for comment regarding the allegations against the security officer.
After the incident, Party Office began enforcing a strict door policy that did not allow cisgender White men to enter their space.
“It’s in line with our curatorial ethos,” Mahbubani added. “But we were met with verbal and gestural aggression from White men asked to leave our space.”
Things reached a boiling point when another curatorial advisor, Joey Cannizzaro, and two other Party Office members who wish to remain anonymous were allegedly targeted by transphobic locals on July 2, according to accounts shared on social media. Cannizzaro said they avoided assault by running into a hardware store next door to another official Documenta venue. When a police officer arrived on the scene to help, they instead handcuffed Cannizzaro for not carrying their passport, two eyewitnesses told Hyperallergic. Fearing for their community, Party Office canceled all live programs.
(Cannizarro was eventually uncuffed and released without any citation. The Kassel Police Department has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
All the Queer Time artists united to ask Documenta’s Director General Sabine Schormann to release a statement and warn festivalgoers about the elevated danger, but no public announcement concerning the recent incidents of racism and transphobia has been made yet. Documenta has, however, released multiple statements about removing an artwork by the Indonesian arts collective Taring Padi, “People’s Justice” (2002), that included antisemitic depictions. The decision to dismantle the work came amid a months-long saga sparked by one pro-Israel Antideutsche blog’s allegations of antisemitism over Documenta’s inclusion of artists aligned with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
In a statement provided to Hyperallergic, the festival’s organizers said, “Documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH regrets the incident that took place in the public space on 2 July 2022 and takes it extremely seriously. We are in contact with the artists involved from Party Office as well as the responsible local authorities in order to clarify the circumstances of the incident. The documenta und Museum Fridericianum gGmbH has taken additional measures and offered support.”
Party Office, however, wants Documenta to issue a public apology. “My main desire is for them to admit they did not make a safety plan, apologize for not making a plan, and to actually publish a plan. Because it will happen again. It’s a powder keg they have created,” Cannizzaro said.
Cannizzaro added that some solutions could include staffing people trained in de-escalation, providing officers not connected to the German criminal justice system, and creating a phone line to reach a dedicated emergency response team. Documenta does have a special helpline in place, but, according to Cannizzaro, it took over 45 minutes for anyone to reply to their calls for help while they were in danger.
With programming at Documenta canceled for some weeks, Party Office is moving their live events to Berlin and online, and putting other work into a publication. Mahbubani is hoping to receive financial restitution for all the additional expenses and labor this will cost.
“We have to react to a hostile situation. After one year of planning, we must spend more labor continuing this programming in another form. We never reached a space where we could do our artwork,” Mahbubani said.
While Party Office works on salvaging their programming, its absence is already being felt in Kassel. A sticker of solidarity appeared on a utility pole: “We miss Party Office.”