I spent eight days in Germany in late July, to attend Documenta and the launch of Web3.0 impact community building in Europe by one of our partner accelerators Lift99.
After an intensive 72 hours with Berlin’s Web 3.0 impact startup community, it is clear why this city is a natural magnet for such an ecosystem. Already the major European capital attracting the largest pool of left-leaning talent, its startup ecosystem is at the tipping point of experiencing the success of more mature hubs like Silicon Valley. In addition to the largest blockchain VCs in Europe, I had also met motivated impact startup founders from Germany, Ukraine, US, Vietnam, Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands, the Baltic and Nordic countries who chose Berlin as their base to solve global grand challenges.
On Friday night, which started with a midnight tea ceremony and finished with a sunrise walk, two Gen-Z founders Nikita and Andriy gave a thoughtful analysis on how the young tech founders would use the rebuilding of Ukraine to implement innovations in social design and sustainable technologies. Alex, the super connector, is working on mathematical models to enable authentication without sacrificing private information and recently raised €50 million in a round led by Andresson Horowitz. The tea-master, Evgeny, shared a profound passion for tea culture and his thoughts on how China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam came to evolve distinctively different tea philosophies. Although he had to leave behind his personal collection of teas and utensils in fleeing Ukraine with his elderly parents, Evgeny could still take us through an astonishing journey using what he could find in local shops and supermarkets. Although I have experienced tea ceremonies before in Japan and China, this was the first time I truly appreciated the effects of tea on the faculties of perception and thought. In return for his kindness, I like to send him a unique tea pot to symbolise the rebuilding of his family’s lives. If anyone has suggestions for tea-pots, please ping me.
It was with these reflections in mind that I took the three hour train ride to Kassel in late July to visit the art festival Documenta. For the next 4 days, I walked everywhere across the town to visit 23 exhibitions put up by 1,000 artists. It was hot work as the temperatures in Germany was nearing 40 degrees in these days. The world continues burning. It was over 40 degrees in the UK and 47 degrees in Southern Europe during my visit. The grim warnings published by the US National Academy of Sciences that a third of the world could become climate refugees becomes more real every summer. Parts of South Asia are already declared unliveably hot by human rights groups.
With an unsurpassed reputation for spotting emerging movements and giving free rein to creative expressions, Documenta is called the Olympics of the art universe by influential American critics. This festival attracts art world insiders who want to catch a glimpse of what the future has in store for artistic movements and intelligent society, and which issues are most deserving of the global spotlight. Unlike previous installments, the privilege of curating this 100 day exhibition was given to a collective rather than an individual. It is also the first time that this privilege was given to Asia – Ruangrupa, a 10 man artistic collective from Indonesia, included an academic, an architect, an ecologist, a performance artist, and a journalist. The group is known for engineering environments that focuses on collaboration and fostering social, cultural and creative exchanges. The group is best known for the Gudskul space in Jakarta, a knowledge sharing community hub to accelerate the understanding and practice of collectivism.
I also took the chance to catch up and celebrate ten years of friendship with my mentor Hans. For many years, since his time as mayor of the host city of Documenta, Hans was a driving force of Documenta. This close relationship lasted through his time as German finance minister, chairman of the G7, co-founder and chairman of the G20. Even though he is now retired, when the art festival ran into controversy over the conflict between its Muslim artists and the local Jewish community, it was one of his proteges who stepped in as the new general director in to resolve the challenges and put Documenta back on track. Over dinner and an evening journey into Kassel’s UNESCO site Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, we discussed the exhibitions, the rise of autocrats and populists, and how climate migration would reshape demographics north of the Alps.
I have many thoughts from Documenta which my mind is yet to neatly categorise or simplify. But here are the impressions stickiest to me:
- The ascendence of the collective over the superstar individual. While there will always be many who favour the leadership of dominating figures like Elon Musk or Xi Jinping, there is growing momentum towards the kind of collective leadership that historically shaped the rural and fringe communities. Given that such communities tend to bear the brunt of the harshest crises, we should look at how to augment and scale such traditional models of decision making.
- The issues of refugees vs citizenship rights will continue to grow in importance and fuel divisions in societies. How we process and resolve such issues will become a de facto referendum on our common humanity. The results can be disastrous and/or it can result in deeply fundamental social innovations.
- The festival behind the festival is as interesting (maybe more) than the festival itself. This small town of 200,000 (many of them immigrants) coming together to embrace and support 1000 artists (largely from collectives, largely from emerging countries) has created a very unique co-living experiment on a scale that is beyond that of any comparable festival. The interactions and co-operation, controversies and conflict, are openly accessible and discussed by the people I met, including art lovers, waiters and retirees.
- In an era where populists and cynical pessimism are proliferating, Documenta has a necessary role as the world’s iconic arts festival championing human rights and solidarity amongst cultures. Since its origins celebrating art that had been banned by the Nazis, Documenta has given credibility and validation to many nascent new art movements over the years.
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