INTERVIEW WITH MATTHIAS SAUER
Art journalists Nicole Büsing & Heiko Klaas interview Matthias Sauer, head of infrastructure, concerning all topics across the organizational backgrounds of dOCUMENTA (13).
Mr. Sauer, why don’t you briefly introduce yourself and tell us what your job is at the documenta?
My name is Matthias Sauer, and officially, I’m the Head of Infrastructure. I always say that it’s about everything but the art.
What does that mean, everything but the art? What do you do, then, precisely?
The documenta is an art exhibition like any other exhibition. But the difference is that other shows are like single family homes and the documenta is a skyscraper: the bigger the operation, the more complicated it is. Every time, the documenta has to find new places to set aside for the art. I take care of the things around that: ticket booths, toilets, cloakrooms, and everything that has to do with vehicles. We always have a lot of sponsored vehicles. And this time there is also a documenta bus line. But we’ve already had a streetcar line and we even had our own boat line once. And then we take care of the printed materials for the show, admission tickets and catalogues. There is an unbelievable amount of printed material distributed, because we have so many sites. There was a lot last time. This time there will be even more.
So, you’re basically responsible for organizing everything so that it gets to the right place at the right time?
Correct. There’s also a little intervention team that always drives around; they do the main deliveries in the morning, and they might go twice a day on Saturdays.
So that everyone gets their supplies . . .
Yes. It’s all improvised. We don’t have much storage space on site. We’ve got a container in the middle of the train station hall, for instance. And that has to be somewhat organized, and we need to get permits, too.
Is it easy to get permits? Is the city of Kassel cooperative?
They’re cooperative, but they don’t make any exceptions for us. We’ve also had the Duisburg Effect here. Everyone is afraid of sitting on the podium, like the mayor of Duisburg did, and saying: we messed up. Nobody wants to risk that anymore. So things are more strictly controlled now than they were before—for instance, evacuation routes. But that’s completely OK and not a problem for us. The fire department has always been strict with the documenta, because we have to reckon with large numbers of visitors. We had a peak with the documenta 12; we sold fourteen thousand tickets per day. And that‘s not just a head count—that’s the actual number of tickets sold.
So there are probably long lines at the ticket booths . . .
It’s really rough then. There were two or three weekends when the line in front of the documenta hall joined up with the line in front of the Fridericianum. Thanks to certain measures taken with the infrastructure, though, we’re able to avoid lines in front of the ticket booths. It would be possible to set it up so that nobody would have to stand in line anywhere. But we’re limited by the capacity of the exhibition spaces themselves. If we allow too many people in at once, then the insurance company gets up on the roof and says, you can go this far and no further. They have certain requirements, and then we just have to close the building for a while.
The documenta 13 is not your first documenta. How long have you been doing this?
If you’ve done two or more exhibitions, as I have, then you’re one of the documenta veterans. I was an intern at the documenta 10. I was always gone in between, though. That’s typical of the documenta. Nobody has a permanent contract, as they do at the Biennial. They just keep right on working, because it takes place every two years. But here, we take a four-year break and do something else in the meantime.
What do you do in between shows?
Between the documenta 10 and the documenta 11 I spent four years in Stockholm. It was the European Cultural Capital at the time. I worked at the Kulturhaus there. Between documentas 11 and 12 I worked for the city of Kassel. They were also applying for the Cultural Capital program. I did events for the Cultural Capital Office.
Can you tell us something about your background? About your education?
I studied Public Policy and Management in Konstanz. Originally, I wanted to work for a foreign aid organization. I got into this by coincidence: we had to do a long internship, three-quarters of a year, in between undergrad and postgrad years. It had to be abroad, and I had already gotten a position in southern Africa. Two months before I was supposed to go, a civil war broke out there, and I had to quickly find something else to do. So I landed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was so much fun that I stuck with it.
The cultural field, you mean . . .
Right. So while I was at the university I kept doing internships at cultural centers or museums.
So did that awaken your interest in art, or was it already there before?
Art—only to a limited extent. Actually, my internships were always in design or architecture. That’s what I was interested in. But basically, it’s like this: regardless of whether you’re exhibiting expensive design or expensive art, the things that you need in the background are actually very similar.
Still, you kept coming into contact with art . . .
Yes, of course. You develop an interest. You get to know the people; you go to other exhibitions and learn about what the competition is up to. That’s obvious.
So you’re in touch with people at the Venice Biennial, for instance, or other large exhibitions?
Yes, especially through the Grand Tour, which was five years ago; a lot of contacts were made at the Biennial. But people from Art Basel come to see us, and so on.
So there’s a brisk exchange going on?
Yes. We always go to the opening of the Berlin Biennial, and vice-versa. That’s quite clear.
Let’s go back to your work day. There is still some time before the documenta opens, so what are you working on right now?
At the moment we are in the end phase of planning the documenta bus line. There’s going to be a D13, a bus line 13, which will connect all of the documenta sites in a loop. And right now we’re trying to figure out where to set up the bus stops, where we’ll need wheelchair ramps, that kind of thing.
Very practical matters, or so it seems . . .
Here’s another example: a long time ago we talked to the Hessian minister of traffic about putting up signs on the autobahn. For directions, on the one hand. But on the other, it’s good advertising for us if there are signs on the A7 and the A44, three by four meters or so.
But that was always the case, right?
Yes. We’ve always had that. And this time there’s a game between the bureaucracy and us. The design that we’d like to have does not conform to German standards for signs on the autobahn.
So you probably need another exemption, right?
There aren’t any exemptions. We’re trying to feel out the situation carefully . . .
Is a solution in sight?
Yes. Basically, it’s a sign with a white background. Because it’s not a tourist sign and drivers should be subjected to as little distraction as possible when they’re speeding through the German countryside, we weren’t allowed to put them up last year. But they’ll be up soon.
You work with a team. How big is your team?
As an organization, the documenta expands and then contracts afterward, like an accordion. It’s the same in my case, too. I now have a colleague who deals only with the printed matter, takes care of all of the printers’ bids and so on, and she also makes sure that the designs are produced according to the wishes of our graphic designers and the communications department. Then I have colleagues who only deal with the fleet of vehicles and logistics. And right now there is a whole troop of people driving around setting up apartments. Because this documenta has produced a lot of new art, we are expecting a lot of artists who will be in Kassel for a long time.
And they all need housing . . .
Yes, at the moment we have rented about forty apartments, which will gradually be occupied by the artists. There are hardly any furnished apartments in Germany. So a lot has to be done. We’re buying things at Ikea; we’re borrowing beds, and so on. It’s more than we thought it would be. It’s kind of turned into a stressful job. That’s why we now have five people working just on furnishing apartments, from the bed linens to the last spoon.
Every once in a while you have to mediate between the artists and the city, don’t you?
It depends. Every once in a while there are projects that require us to deal with the city, and at times there has been some trouble. Then I’ll often get involved. Ten years ago, for instance, Thomas Hirschhorn had a project on the north side of the city. There was constant trouble with the bureaucracy. They were selling kebabs without a permit. And they offered a taxi service in an ancient Mercedes. So I made sure that the boys who were driving got taxi licenses. That kind of thing. As soon as you go out into the public space, there are an incredible number of rules in Germany.
But with your steady temperament you’ve always managed to find a way to solve the problems with the bureaucracy?
Somehow. If it can be done at all, then we manage it somehow. Occasionally there will be a project that is simply not feasible, because complying with city requirements makes it too expensive. Or because it really is too dangerous. Then we have to find a solution.
You’ve been with several documentas. Have you ever had a chance during the one hundred days to look at the exhibitions in peace and quiet—or do you never find the time for that?
Very late, generally. For the first three or four weeks you’re still tying up loose ends. In the places where you notice that the solution isn’t the most optimal. Afterward, sometime in July, you can go through it all quietly. But not piece by piece. Instead, you take three hours for one building, then after a while, another three hours for another building. Something like that.
Do you have a favorite place in Kassel where you like to go to relax, to think, and switch off the documenta?
I don’t have a garden or anything like that. But behind my house is a little wood called the Tannenwäldchen. I can sit down there on a bench with my coffee cup, and that’s great. In the background you can hear the trains going from the Hauptbahnhof to the Wilhelmshöhe station. But you can’t see them. I kind of like that. To me, that’s a really beautiful place.