Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

Documents Magazine 1992–2004: Part Two, Helen Molesworth
Helen Molesworth and Amy Zion

Part Two: Helen Molesworth

Amy Zion – When I spoke with Miwon Kwon, she mentioned that Rosalind Krauss had considered folding October magazine around the time that Documents began because she suspected that a new generation could continue their scholarly and political work. Miwon recalled that some people even joked that your journal should be named November. But Documents does not resemble October. Could you recount how Documents began and what its relationship to October was?

Helen Molesworth – I do not remember a moment when Rosalind was considering stopping October. The early conversations that I remember concerned our frustration with the dichotomy between Artforum and October, where Artforum seemed really market driven, and October, while we were reading it avidly, felt remote from a lot of what our own peers were beginning to do. Instead, we wanted a third term, and I think the third term was a very important idea for us at the time, too.

I was one of Rosalind’s students at the City University of New York Graduate Center. I was going to graduate school part-time and was Ron Clark’s secretary at the Whitney Independent Study Program, and there had been talk among a bunch of us around the Whitney ISP about starting a magazine. It was in Rosalind’s class that I learned about Georges Bataille’s Documents, which made us realize that we did not have to invent the third term, since it already existed. There was a model in place, and so we thought we could recover the name Documents, similar to how the October group had lifted October from Sergei Eisenstein.

Then Margaret Sundell and I went to see Rosalind in her loft to tell her we were starting a publication, basically to ask for her blessing; we did not want her in anyway to think that we were, in fact, trying to usurp her, or October’s pride of place. I remember feeling like we were in a scene out of The Godfather—the wedding day scene, when everyone asks the Don for favours. She gave us her blessing, and told us something that has stayed with me for the rest of my career: “She who does the work gets her way.”

I don’t remember her considering stopping October. I would be flattered if this was the case, but we were never going to be October. We were not Grey Room, we did not come out of that mould. When Grey Room began I thought of it as another version of October. Even though I like Grey Room, its character formation—born of tenured professors—felt conventional to me. At Documents we had a certain ambivalence towards a purely academic life, which was influenced by the fact that two of the five editors, Chris Hoover and James Marcowitz, were not going to graduate school. We always had this other way of being, so to speak. We were really committed to artists, more so than either October or Grey Room. We wanted to publish artists’ writing, we wanted to interview artists, we were interested in artists as equal practitioners of theory, which is something Miwon and I learned from Hal Foster at the Whitney program.

At the time, we were amongst the curatorial studies students who started to have an antagonistic relationship to the museum. Prior to that, there was a sense that the curatorial studies students had a sympathetic relationship to the museum and that they were professionalized subjects learning how to be curators. My year did not have that partly because of Hal; he really felt that exhibitions should not be thematic, nor should they be illustrative. Exhibitions should produce theory, not stage it. Curators should not approach artists and their practices to illustrate particular ideas, but that artwork produced a certain kind of knowledge and theory rather than merely reflecting it. That felt like a monumental shift. If that was true, it meant we were equal to artists—equal but different. That commitment to artists, in retrospect, is one of the things that differentiated Documents from October and ultimately from Grey Room.

Zion – Hal Foster’s notion of producing theory appears to be enacted in Documents, for example, when you put Michael Taussig and Jimmie Durham into conversation.

Molesworth – Yes, exactly. We really thought that we were creating, again, this third zone where people could meet around ideas that they were working on in common, in order to see what kind of conversation would emerge from crossing different apparatuses and ways of thinking.

Zion – Miwon used that same word, “crossing,” to describe how Documents paired specific voices so that they would engage with one another.

Molesworth – We definitely thought we were uniquely positioned to facilitate these kinds of conversations because of our commitment to artists, on the one hand, and our proximity to what we then called theory (without any quotes around it) on the other. We felt we could bring these two realms together. We were not interested in who was right and who was wrong, we were interested in this crossing over, that moment when things rub up against each other and that spark creates this other thing...a third term.

At the time I did not think there was a ready-made audience for Documents, but I believed that the magazine itself could engender a different kind of audience, a different kind of discursive space.

Zion – Developing that audience was really important, yet it’s sad that the discursive space you produced is relatively inaccessible, since Documents was published before it could have a significant Web presence, and, due to its cross-disciplinarity, did not fit into mainstream indexes such as Wilson Web and EBSCO. How did digital and Web formats encroach on the magazine, since this technology and publication emerged at the same time?

Molesworth – Honestly, I did not understand what was going to happen with the Internet. I remember thinking, “Who cares if you can look us up on the Internet, when you could just go to the library?” [laughter] The fact that Documents ran the risk of disappearing entirely because it was not digitized was a huge surprise to me.

Zion – Looking back at Documents, what are some of the most salient aspects of the project?

Molesworth – There are three things that we put forward as a program—although I am not sure we necessarily could have articulated all of them as a program at the time—that are worth reiterating and insisting upon. I am referring to our relationship to interdisciplinarity, our relationship to what would become relational aesthetics, and our sense of the parity between artists and other cultural practitioners.

Our relationship to interdisciplinarity is best articulated in our first editorial statement in Issue 1. I still believe that interdisciplinarity only works when one occupies a disciplinary position. Or rather, I think that the vogue for interdisciplinarity, in the wake of what has happened in the twenty years since Documents began, has led to a lot of watered-down content, resulting from the lack of a disciplinary basis. For instance, this is one of my largest concerns about curatorial studies programs at the moment: that they have unhinged themselves from the discipline of art history. I do not think that curating is a discipline, I think it is a practice, and a practice without a discipline is a murky affair. Documents set out to model interdisciplinarity that was about different disciplines interacting with one another. But instead of saying it, we tried to do it. Sometimes I think that is why we “failed.” Had we stated explicitly that this was what we were doing, instead of just modeling it, perhaps it would have looked less naturalized; it would have registered as a mode of working, as a theoretical paradigm.

Very early on in the magazine’s history, Miwon and I went to one of the first big site-specific shows in Europe, held at the Unité d’Habitation in Firminy, France. We were really suspicious of the ideas that would become relational aesthetics in their early iteration, meaning, we were wary of the way people got helicoptered into places and landed for a week or a month to do “site-specific” work and then left. We were suspicious of certain kinds of social programs, or an art of “good intentions” and we published things to that effect, including an early conversation with Mark Dion in Issue 1/2 about his installations at American Fine Arts Company, New York, in which he classified plants while interacting with the public, as well as a really searching critique of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s early work, “Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Liability” by Janet Kraynak in Issue 13. There is also a whole roundtable discussion in Issue 4/5 dedicated to site specificity.

At the time relational aesthetics had not yet been codified. When Nicolas Bourriaud first published Relational Aesthetics (1998) we knew we did not agree with his argument, but the text itself had not yet developed the traction it has now. It did not immediately sum up a zeitgeist; it accrued energy over several years and we resisted that energy over time. But again, no one ever wrote any prescriptive manifesto against relational aesthetics. And, this is because we were incredibly wary of the historical relationship between criticism and judgment.

Zion – Could you elaborate on this idea specifically?

Molesworth – We were very wary of establishing ourselves as critics who summed up the zeitgeist, and made declarations about what was bad or good, à la Michael Fried, à la Clement Greenberg, à la Rosalind Krauss...and, to a certain degree, à la Hal Foster. Although, for me Hal’s early work signalled the beginning of the way out; he would stage both arguments, and even though you could tell that he preferred one to the other, he would hold them in a dialectic. We were interested in whether or not we could write intelligently about what we did not like. Could we take it all seriously, could we be fair about it and not be exclusively partisan?

Zion – I imagine this is also why you didn’t just look specifically at fine art since the magazine also reviewed movies and television programs, and brought an equal amount of seriousness to each of these aspects of cultural production.

Molesworth – Yes.

Zion – This also relates back to that idea that you were equal to artists, you were not trying to position yourself in an authoritative role, as the person who peers down from a bench and judges people from above...

Molesworth – Right, we did not want to occupy the authoritative role of judging artists, and, likewise we did not want the artists to trump us either! We did not believe that artistic intention determined the ultimate meaning of the work. We felt equal to artists. After all, this was a moment prior to our professionalization, when we were all living in SoHo or Williamsburg, and we all had two-bit jobs, and went to the same bars—artists were part of our circle of peers. Our professional lives profoundly altered who we were and what we did, and Documents happened at a point prior to that professionalization.

Zion – Can you track that professional evolution through the magazine? For instance, there is a significant difference between the earlier issues and those published later, especially after Issue 8. Documents moves from publishing larger issues with New York–based conversations and “surveys” to smaller issues with more single-authored exhibition and publication reviews from an expanded geographic scope.

Molesworth – Probably, although it has never occurred to me; I have never reviewed the magazine in that way. Curiously, when I am asked to give a lecture at a university or a college these days, I am routinely asked if I will meet with the art history students or the curatorial studies students in an informal group setting to talk about how I got to where I am professionally. I am always surprised by the request, partly because I am saddened by the burden of professionalization that young people currently operate under. I frequently talk about Documents in this context and I talk about how Documents was born at a bar from a group of friends. We wanted many things, but one of the things we wanted was an opportunity to keep hanging out and to hang out in a way that produced something, in the same way that people who form bands and people who make movies get together to make something. It was very intimate and it was really fun. We wanted to produce something that did not exist and we had this crazy sense (that I now realize is born of such privilege) that we could make it ourselves. We did not feel that we had to fit ourselves into a pre-existing matrix in order to have our intellectual and/or professional life, largely because when we made Documents I do not think we imagined the professional lives we ended up having. At least I did not understand what was going to happen because we all had easy jobs at that time, like putting stamps on envelopes at a not-for-profit or working as an artist’s assistant.

Zion – Do you think that the economic situation you describe is necessary in order to produce a project like Documents?

Molesworth – Well, the privilege I am referring to was not the privilege of idleness, because we were in school and we all had jobs. The privilege came from how much cheaper it was to live then, and how easy it was to get a job, combined with the idea that we thought we could make it ourselves if we wanted to. It was the privilege of living in a world that wasn’t as tightly circumscribed in terms of the professionalization of the art world qua art world. The art world was still a place that was (in New York anyway) deeply immersed in the neighbourhood fabric of SoHo. That neighbourhood was changing into a place for fancy sofa purveyors and cool clothing stores, but it was still a neighbourhood. It was still where artists lived and worked, where people shopped and went to the post office. This seems so naive now, but I feel, in retrospect, those things had a huge impact on what we thought was possible. So too I feel like that sense of doing it yourself—that freedom—came from a mix of zine culture, punk, and ACT UP.

ZionDocuments began in 1992 and ended in 2004, so it spans a very significant period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, when Internet use mainstreams, “identity politics” emerges, and the advent of new technologies such as digital printing revolutionize independent publishing. At the same time, publishing’s accessibility arguably impacts writing. Could you discuss the role of developmental editing and the view that an editor is an unwanted authority figure over the writer? Do you believe that to have a democratic free space, you do not edit?

Molesworth – I learned how to write from being edited by Sheila Schwartz, who was the editor at the Whitney Museum (and also Leo Steinberg’s editor), and from Hal Foster, who had been an editor for years at Art In America. And, again, to speak to a pre-Internet or pre-digital age, editing back then meant that you handed in a twelve-point, courier, double-spaced, printed manuscript. Then you received—in red pencil or red pen depending on the confidence of the editor (Sheila Schwartz: red pencil, Hal Foster: red pen)—edited copy with reader’s marks. They queried my word choices, rejigged my sentences....It was extraordinary and I felt like I was in the hands of people who had a great skill, a skill I wanted. I wanted two skills: the skill of being a great writer and the skill of being a great editor. Editing seemed like magic to me, it meant being able to help someone say what they want to say in the best way they can say it. It was a profoundly empathetic relationship to a text. Being an editor meant not reading the text as a critic, but reading the text as if you were in some avatar-like way inhabiting it. That felt like an extraordinary thing to have done to oneself, and to also be able to do for others.

I read most art writing on the Web with one eye closed. It makes me cringe. I feel like I am being assaulted because most of it is so terribly written. It makes me feel old and cranky and curmudgeonly and ungenerous. I long for the days when I—and everyone else—was well edited.

Zion – I think editors get reduced to merely compiling or commissioning texts instead of forming or shaping them along with their writers. I had a conversation recently with someone who works at an art magazine in New York and they didn’t seem to understand the difference between editing and copyediting. How is this possible and why has good editing become so rare?

Molesworth – I think email produced a totally different form of writing; it is a totally instrumentalized form of writing. When I first started using email the convention was that you wrote in all lowercase and that was okay because it was email. Now, so much happens through email (or even worse, texting), and the lack of any kind of formality around email discourse has really bottomed out people’s ability to write—my own included. I do not craft beautiful emails. How can you if you write two hundred per day?

Zion – Looking back over the project, what do you think the greatest legacy of Documents might be?

Molesworth – I have not thought about the legacy of Documents. For me, there are two moments of Documents: there is the part I was involved with and the part I was not involved with. Not being involved in Documents was painful for me and as a result I haven’t really thought about it.

Zion – Can you talk about that shift between those two moments, or the circumstances that surrounded that shift?

Molesworth – When I became a full-time curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art I was thrust into a completely different form of professionalized life, and it was very hard for me to work on the magazine. At the end of my first year at the museum Miwon asked me to not be involved in the magazine anymore. She wanted to be the sole editor from Los Angeles. Even though I understood why she felt the way she did, it was very painful for me.

Zion – Miwon said she made a “unilateral decision” to end the magazine, without consulting the other editors, which caused problems as well.

Molesworth – Yes, she made two unilateral decisions: the first was to be the sole editor around 2001 and the second was to end the magazine without consulting the former editors.

I was not upset by her decision to end the magazine. Since she had chosen to be its only editor, she was free, at that point, to end it. I was upset, however, by the fact that I learned of her decision through a mutual friend.

At that point I let her know that I very much wanted to be a part of the final issue, to which she graciously consented. But, despite her inclusion of my short essay on Eva Hesse, for me, the damage of the “unilateral” was done, and my friendship with Miwon ended.

When you approached me about discussing Documents, I wrote to Miwon to say that the inevitable has occurred—people younger than us have discovered Documents and want to do something about it. I was surprised by how soon it had happened, only ten years. I was not prepared for that. It reminded me of when Documents “recovered” Mierle Laderman Ukeles, which was a gesture partly bound up in our resistance to what we thought was an amnesia about a lot of feminist practices that predated relational aesthetics.

We threw a launch party for Issue 10, which included the work of Ukeles, who was at that time the artist-in-residence for the sanitation department of the City of New York. When we were leaving the party, on the way down in the elevator, Ukeles turned to her husband and said, “I have been recycled.” I remember Miwon and I thought that was the perfect line, and it was exactly what we believed in. When I see Ukeles’s work referred to as often as it is now, I feel like Documents played a pretty big role in its discursive recycling.

I have a question for you: What is it about Documents that you and your peers at Fillip are interested in? What is it that you want or need from it?

Zion – There are many we reasons we pursued this project. For me, to look at Documents and revisit its topics while also seeing them recycled again and again in contemporary art publishing without any reference to Documents is depressing, especially since I work on a publication.

Molesworth – I, too, have seen those topics recycled again and again with no reference to Documents, so I figured we did not have a legacy. You can only see yourself not footnoted so many times...

Zion – I guess it is about a desire to not let this history die. It is an attempt to reconnect Documents to larger chains of discussion in the art world—and perhaps beyond it. How you addressed the AIDS crisis with rigour and care, for instance, is something really important to document and reflect back on.

Molesworth – We were all shaped by the AIDS crisis in ways I did not understand at the time. It’s only possible to see, in retrospect, the way in which my intellectual and political formation is completely shaped by that period—my political formation is unthinkable without the AIDS crisis and the attendant response on the part of ACT UP.

Zion – And, the AIDS crisis also had a relationship to small publishing, since alternative media played a significant role in addressing the apathy towards funding medical research and combating draconian political policies. Can you say more about the relationship between a publication’s scale and its impact?

Molesworth – At the time, I believed in two seemingly contradictory things. On the one hand, I believed you had to work on the canon, because the canon was where the value was, and if you wanted to make an inroad you had to take on the “big guys.” So, I wrote a dissertation on Duchamp. I thought to really make change was to go to where the value was and interrupt the flow of value through that object. But then, the other way you worked was always and forever in the minor key. The artist Moyra Davey made me realize the importance of always looking at the small things and working in the margins—the importance of never imagining yourself at the centre. And when you found that you had been imagining yourself at the centre, ipso facto or unconsciously, your job was to get the fuck up and walk to the margin immediately, because the centre position is unfeminist, untenable, unradical, and “un-avant-garde.”

If one of the aims of the avant-garde was to broker a deal between art and life, one had to pay absolutely as much attention to life as to art. So, small magazines felt like part of this brokering. One could only address issues such as the AIDS crisis from a place of modesty. It never would have occurred to us, for instance, to print on glossy paper. We never even considered it because modesty was a value that the magazine held dear without necessarily even articulating it. We all had, to varying degrees, different experiences with punk, and we knew that a band like Flipper or the Germs, bands that had no radio play, no traction, had changed everything. On the one hand, there is modesty and, on the other hand, there is the vanity of thinking that the smaller it is the more effective it is, the more worm-like it can be in a system.

When we made Documents we were also aware of the history of little magazines. We were really interested in Wedge, which was a magazine for aesthetic inquiry, made by Brian Wallis and Phil Mariani, starting in 1982, and we were interested in Heresies....1 We had all these other little publications in the back of our minds—other than this gorilla-like pairing of Artforum and October—we knew that history of independent and small press publishing and we wanted to be a part of it.

Zion – Do you think there are publications today that have taken on the project that Documents began?

Molesworth – I read things and I think that they are smart, and I think that there are great writers out there, but to my knowledge there is nothing like Documents.

Zion – Do you see Documents’ crossing of voices, interdisciplinarity, and inclusion of unanticipated voices as an opposition to art magazines oriented more toward fashion or advertorial goals? Are there projects fulfilling that “third term” you mentioned earlier? Can you talk more about the “third term”?

Molesworth – It came out of reading Rosalind Krauss, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and Homi Bhabba during the rise of queer theory and postcolonial studies, which destabilized this hithertofore two-sided argument. When I was twenty-one and in the Whitney program, Hal told me that any argument with only two sides is not worth having. That really changed how I thought, because previously I thought there were right and wrong ideas or good and bad artists. The idea that any argument worth having had to have more than two sides was exciting—to me it felt like an epistemological break. It felt like postmodernism, not modernism.Zion – Speaking of multisided structures, I should note that the multiple interviews regarding Documents were insisted upon by Documents’ editors, first and foremost, rather than Fillip’s, although we are extremely pleased by and support such insistence. In addition to interviews with you, Miwon, and Margaret Sundell, we are also reprinting an excerpt from Issue 4/5, from the survey on “Terror and Terrorism.” Could you provide some background on how this survey developed?

Molesworth – At that time, I was involved with the filmmaker Roddy Bogawa, who came out of a southern California punk scene. He was very interested in the possibility that the only way “to change the system” was through terrorism and cyberterrorism. He felt that there was no place you could stand “outside” of capitalism to critique the system. For him, terrorism was the last “viable” option to dismantle the military-industrial complex and its relationship to capitalism and patriarchy. At the time of the first attack on the World Trade Center, Miwon’s brother, who was living in her apartment in Battery Park (she was living with me in Ithaca, New York), and Roddy, who was living in the West Village, were both very agitated by the attack. I have a feeling that is partly where that issue must have come from; it felt physically and psychologically close to us.

  1. Heresies was a feminist publication on art and politics, which produced twenty-seven issues between 1977 and 1993. All issues are available as PDFs, archived alongside other feminist projects at
About the Authors

Helen Molesworth is the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, where she has organized one-person exhibitions and group exhibitions such as This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. She is the author of numerous catalogue essays and her writing has appeared in publications such as Artforum, Art Journal, Documents, and October.

Amy Zion is Associate Editor at Fillip.

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