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.
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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.