In the Friendzone

Linnéa Bake

Being in the “friendzone”, and especially the passive form of how you got there in the first place – by “being friend-zoned” – evokes a sense of disappointment, of politely being told “I really like you, but just not in that way…” The questionable devaluation of friendship in comparison to romantic relationships is not what is at stake here, although the argument that the friendzone might in fact be the best zone to find oneself in does propose itself. What characterises one’s position in the friendzone, in the way the word is commonly used, is that one did not go there voluntarily.

Ever been friend-zoned by an institution? is the question posed by a remarkable publication of the same title, self-published by the so-called sobat-sobat (the group of art mediators of documenta fifteen), in the process and as a result of working within the institutional frame of this year’s edition of the quinquennial mega exhibition. The question has a different ring to it in this context (and I do not believe it has ever been asked before in this form), not only implying the common association of being “downgraded” into the friendzone, but at the same time describing the weirdly familiar and very contemporary notion of being artificially elevated into the position of a “friend”. 

documenta fifteen was marked by a number of conceptual shifts, starting with but not limited to the vocabulary used to disrupt the canonical way exhibitions of its kind are expected to function and to communicate. Even before the 100-day exhibition started, the anxiously awaiting art world was confronted with a whole set of new terminology, from lumbung1 to nongkrong2, and other shifts in institutional language – for instance, the art mediators now being titled sobat-sobat, which means friends in Indonesian. “Make friends, not art” is surely one of the key phrases that will live on after this documenta, which was, for the first time in its over 60 years long history, curated by a collective. ruangrupa, in their role as artistic directors of arguably still one of the most influential exhibitions in the world, invited other collectives, who in turn invited more collectives to join them in Kassel for an exhibition that set out to shake some of the art establishment’s and maybe, specifically, this institution’s foundations. As artist Candice Breitz recently praised, ruangrupa’s visionary concept’s “nonchalant sweeping aside of ‘the art system’”3 was fundamentally rooted in the prioritisation of collective and collaborative practices outside of the Western canon and “the curatorial collective’s complete lack of interest in entertaining categories such as ‘artistic autonomy’ and ‘individual genius’.”4 documenta fifteen is not the first exhibition of recent years indicative of an institutional interest in endorsing collectivity: We don’t need another hero was the title of Gabi Ngcobo and team’s 10th Berlin Biennale in 2018, rejecting the narrative of an individual saviour in favour of an exploration of different configurations of knowledge, while the 2021 edition of the Turner Prize (and it hardly gets more establishment than that) for the first time in its 30 years long history shortlisted only socially engaged art collectives. 

Besides the fact that documenta fifteen was faced with a range of criticism in an ongoing populist-hysteric discourse involving all kinds of parts of the political spectrum, ignited by radical right-wing trolls before the exhibition even started,5 what has (again) become blatantly apparent in this context is the discrepancy between the intentions of the invited curators and the German cultural institutions’ tendency “to present themselves as neutral platforms for global dialogue: this is the – now discredited – founding myth of documenta”, as art critic Jörg Heiser remarks.6 While institutions such as documenta gladly continue to invite collectives into their belly, the difficulty of finding someone to hold accountable – or to be in solidarity with – in this polyphony of voices is a challenge that not only the institution, but also the press, the visitors and the broader public discourse seemed to (more than often unwieldy and unsuccessfully) grapple with. 

Caught between the curatorial concept of friend-making and the institutionally predetermined conditions and realities, the account that the sobat-sobat give in their publication Ever been friend-zoned by an institution? sheds light on yet another segment of institutional layers. The publication gives insights into some of the sobat-sobat’s experiences of working within and between these segments, and importantly, of being the outward-facing communicators dealing with audiences’ concerns and interest in the ongoing debates that the directors’ level seemed so unable and unfortunately clumsy to make public statements about. In an interview, sobat and co-editor of the publication Viviane Tabach describes the commitment, despite being faced with scandals, polemics and discrimination, to have those conversations that the public discourse was so apparently lacking:

“This phrase always came to my mind when I was doing the tours, which were called Walks and Stories – It’s an African proverb that says: ‘If you want to walk alone you can go faster, but when we walk together we can go further.’ The description of the Walks and Stories was very short on the institutional website and people were wondering what it means, what the methodology is. In the publication, you can find an interview with Farid Rakun from ruangrupa, in which he mentions that the idea of the tours was that they should not focus on theory or ‘giving explanations’, but on storytelling. Following this prompt, I liked to imagine, or to practise, this collective body that we, the participants and myself as a sobat, form when we go for the Walks and Stories. As a collective body walking through the exhibition, we tend to walk slower because we discuss and we exchange, but then I think we go so much further with what happens to the experience.”7

An excerpt from another sobat’s diary printed in the publication8 gives further insight into the challenges the sobat-sobat faced in their role, and the responsibility that was passed on to them: 

27 June

Hot antisemitism debate > unavoidable

9 July

Hito Steyerl gone, what a shame… (but consequent)

16 July

Schormann gone9

18 July

More and more people ask about our working conditions

26 July 

Again antisemitism debate

22 August

Person used N-word and Z-word, and was trying to debate it.

I stopped them. OUTRAGE.

26 August

Participant has been to every documenta since 1955 <3

Reading the (rhetorical) questions “What is a friend to you?” and “How do you support your friends?” posed to the documenta gGmbH in an open letter by the sobat-sobat10 hints at the reasons why this group of employees, as service-providers to the institution, ended up self-organising, and, almost ironically, forming a collective themselves. The gesture of labelling the art mediation team as friends may have been originally founded in a curatorial concept that intended to embrace collectivity and shared authorship/ownership of the project. However, after reading the sobat-sobat’s account of encountering the institution, namely the documenta gGmbH, the choice of terminology seems painfully reminiscent of Google-type companies declaring their employees part of “one big family” and justifying unpaid overtime with having set up a Ping-Pong table in the office. The danger of commodifying a concept such as friendship might appear more obvious in a context so clearly determined by neoliberal motivations. But also, and in fact, especially in the art world, concepts of “collectivity”, “friendship” or “solidarity” have all too often proven to become hollowed-out terms, when the working conditions of those conveying these concepts stand in contrast to them. 

In the late 1980s, philosopher Jacques Derrida delivered a lecture series on the subject of friendship, its potentials and limits as a political concept. While his Politics of Friendship11 suggest that a radical and just understanding of friendship (outside the male-centered notion of fraternity) could help us imagine a new experience and political understanding of freedom and equality, Derrida equally highlights the danger of “neutralising” the meaning of the word by its overuse.12 When Derrida delivered his lectures on friendship, he had become obsessed with a line attributed to Aristotle: o philoi, oudeis philos. Often translated as, “Oh my friends, there is no friend”, many (including Derrida) have wondered about and interpreted what Aristotle could have possibly meant by that sentence, at once an acknowledgment and a negation. Thinking about our friends at documenta fifteen, I conclude with the plain observation that there can only be a friendship if you chose to be in one – not if you are friend-zoned, certainly not by an institution.

In: Efstathopoulos, T. & Tabach, V. (eds.), Ever been friend-zoned by an institution? Lumbung Press, Kassel, 2022, p. 17. Photo by the author. (scroll over image to view in color)

1 Translated from Indonesian, it means “rice barn.” In Indonesian rural communities, the surplus harvest is stored in communal rice barns and distributed for the benefit of the community according to jointly defined criteria. This principle stands for the living and working practice of ruangrupa and is used for interdisciplinary and collaborative work on artistic projects. (Source: documenta fifteen).

2 nongkrong is an Indonesian slang term from Jakarta and means “hanging out together”. Casual conversation and togetherness, but also the sharing of time, ideas or food are anchored in this term. (Source: documenta fifteen).

3 Candice Breitz in: THE ARTISTS’ ARTISTS. Twenty-six artists reflect on 2022, Artforum, December 2022. 

4 ibid.

5 See, among many others, Jörg Heiser’s comment on the ongoing debate in: Jörg Heiser, “Contested Histories”: on Documenta 15, Art Agenda, June 2022.

6 ibid.

7 Viviane Tabach in: Soft notes: Voice messages for the collective ear, Air Berlin Alexanderplatz’ Air Salon on Colaboradio hosted by soft power, October 2022.

8 In: Efstathopoulos, T. & Tabach, V. (eds.), Ever been friend-zoned by an institution? Lumbung Press, Kassel, 2022, pp. 46-47. Translation by the author.

9 Sabine Schormann was the director of documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH until 16 July 2022. She resigned from her position over the ongoing antisemitism allegations against documenta fifteen.

10 Also available online at:

11 In 1994, Derrida published the lectures in the volume The Politics of Friendship.

12 Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship. Verso, London; New York, 1997, viii.

Linnéa Bake is a Berlin-based curator, writer and editor. She is one of the co-founders of soft power, a collectively run non-profit art association and venue for artistic projects. As a conceptual framework, soft power appropriates a political term that describes and uses the influence which “soft” assets such as culture and art can have on policies and economic spheres. The ongoing programme is guided by the question of how this notion can be productively subverted, combining curatorial, artistic, sociological and design approaches in an ongoing engagement with the structural realities and political conditions of collective practices. 

In October 2022, soft power curated a radio show as part of Air Berlin Alexanderplatz’ Air Salon, for which they invited other collectives to reflect on their experiences – from decision-making processes to the collective as the basis for alternative economic models. Among the invited collectives were Viviane Tabach and Theseas Efstathopoulos as representatives of the sobat-sobat and co-editors of the publication Ever been friend-zoned by an institution?

Ever been friend-zoned by an institution?

Edited by Viviane Tabach and Theseas Efstathopoulos

Lumbung Press, Kassel, 2022

Available via sobatpublication@gmail.com