Documenting documenta 14 Athens

Issue no5
Oct / Nov 2017
REMIX

There has been a lot of criticism on documenta 14 (d14) both locally and internationally since the very moment it was announced under the title Learning from Athens. The most severe criticism came from Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finance. At the sixth Moscow Biennial he compared d14 to ‘rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country’.1 But is Varoufakis’ acerbic comment a legitimate accusation? Many of us, operating as cultural workers on the ground for the last twelve years, had difficulty commenting. Sometimes in fear of not being objective, but mainly because we wanted to avoid the cul-de-sac of being in a position of self- exoticization and marginalization.

The director of d14, curator Adam Szymczyk, explained to have taken the inspiration for an ‘Athenian learning experience’ from the fourth Athens Biennial of 2013, entitled Agora.2 But in Szymscyk’s public lectures throughout his two-year presence in Athens, it remained vague what exactly had inspired him. The only thing he declared was that documenta would be ‘guest’ rather than host in Athens. Athens: a city with the symbolic value of being a place and space where European ideals emerge, whilst simultaneously a paradigm of any city operating in crisis. Maria Hlavajova, director of BAK basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht, addressed the public during a lecture at the Athens Biennial in September 2015 with the following sentence: ‘I can feel your agony with this alien landing in your city.’3 The alien has arrived with unclear intentions, behaving very much like the extra-terrestrials in the recent film Arrival – silent, shy and enclosed in their craft. In Denis Villeneuve’s movie, the aliens have a positive message for humanity; in the case of d14, we have to wait for the exhibition to shed some light after the in-so far ambiguous signals.

Prior to d14’s own arrival, there were two elephants in the room: the antagonistic relationship between Germany and Greece, fuelled by propagandistic reporting in German press.4 The ‘greedy, lazy Greeks’, who are always asking for money from the European Union, were now to host a huge exhibition from Germany, which had invited itself declaring its desire to ‘learn from Athens’. The locals were flattered, but also bewildered in terms of their infrastructural incapability to host such an endeavour. The wound that the 2004 Olympic Games had caused was still sore. The second elephant was that of cultural colonization, as mentioned by Varoufakis. Some local artists reacted by filling the walls of Athens with the stencil: ‘Dear Documenta, I refuse to exoticise myself to increase your cultural capital. Sincerely the indigenous (Oi i8ageneis).’5 Many of us thought it was a hasty reaction.

Documenta’s Economies versus Local Economies

Since 1959, documenta is a ‘non-profit organization supported and funded by the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse, as well as by the German Federal Cultural Foundation’.6 Due to the massive increase of its budget and the cultural and financial capital it provides, it is also funded by private bodies such as the ‘international friends of documenta’ – these contributions are never specified in numbers, as only the total budget is made public after each edition. The first negotiations with documenta’s board in Kassel proved to be much harder than Szymczyk had anticipated. Kassel seemed unwilling to split financial means equally between the two cities. Recently, Paul B. Preciado, curator of d14’s public program, stated that the relationship with the institution was ‘strained’, and having the exhibition in Athens ‘was a form of resistance in itself’.7

D14 has landed in an artistic scene exhausted by the continuous effort to sustain itself through alternative economies, volunteer work and DIY exhibitions. Today, after eight years of economic recession, 37.1 percent of the Greeks have an annual income of less than 10,000 euros and official unemployment rates are at 23 percent.8 That number includes art workers in their majority. The Athens Biennial is a good example, as it has always operated in precarity, mostly through voluntary work and internships. Smaller scale institutions are similarly volunteer-based. The state cultural machine operates with minimal to non-existent funds. In d14’s 2016 public press conference featuring the mayors of both cities, it was made clear that Athens had no funds to offer, but would be providing labour and buildings to d14. In lack of public Greek funds and the reluctance of Kassel, the d14 team reached out to Greek or Greek-born Germans for financial assistance through the ‘international friends of documenta’. At the press office of d14 a few months ago, the organization declared that it has not received any funds from Greek donors. Greek donors in private conversations claim the opposite and informed me that the ‘funding committees’ of d14 are still reaching out. The official budget estimation for the exhibition is roughly 30 million euros, with artists receiving up to 40,000 euros each for production. Local artists contest this. If anything, a lack of accuracy in budget numbers and cash flow is certainly an ‘Athenian learning experience’.

Learning about documenta 14 and its ‘working title’

Despite Varoufakis’ comments at the Moscow Biennial, the initial reactions of artists and institutions have been positive in its majority, apart from a discontent due to the lack of a Greek curator in the team.9 But despite the public declarations on cooperation, inclusivity and the title Learning from Athens, no formal meeting with the documenta team and cultural workers of Athens has taken place in order for curatorial interests or directions to be shared, or discourse to be generated. The interest in the artistic production of the city has been equally minimal, with very few studio visits or attendance at openings. That is surprising considering the size of the team. Apart from three Greek artists already familiar to Szymczyk, the remaining rumoured eight artists were invited in October 2016, to propose works for two exhibitions: leaving only four months for production. Most international artists have had more time, like Marta Minujin, who had already finished her proposal when I met her in Argentina in May 2016. It remains unclear why d14 has chosen to add Greek artists at such a late stage of the process.

The first dark clouds over d14’s presence appeared after their first ‘semi-public’ events.10 The Fine Arts School of Athens offered one of its ‘jewels’; a small building in the Polytechnic School, formerly part of the Fine Arts department. The lectures and workshops that took place between May and June 2016 were by invitation only, and only for the local art scene. They have not been publicly announced. In a conversation I had with Preciado, he claimed that the space was too small to accommodate a lot of people. Another international member of d14’s educational team stated that the events have mainly been organized for the staff of d14 and Greek art students. Most students did not manage to attend however, since the events clashed with the Fine Arts schedule and the location was too far from the school.

But the Polytechnic School was close to the offices and residencies of the d14 team in Exarxheia, alluring for its ‘anarcho-capitalist’ profile11, and most importantly; it carried a heavy symbolic capital. Next to its entrance lies a part of the actual crumbled fence of the university, taken down by tanks during the military dictatorship in 1973, killing dozens of students, and marking one of the bleakest moments in modern Greek history. It was ironic to see the once anti-dictatorship motto of ‘bread-education-freedom’, which can be found on that very building, in relation to events that were limiting the sharing of knowledge to a selected few.

Then followed the actual public program, curated by Paul B. Preciado inaugurated in September 2016. Its first part was an ambitious endeavour titled The Parliament of Bodies that offered 34 Exercises of Freedom. In ten days it managed to breach almost all of the hot topics of the Western curatorial context: biopolitics, violence, indigeneity, LGBTQI+ rights, activist practices and the concept of the (agora) assembly. The scathing reaction from the local press was immediate.12 It was unclear to the Greeks why there was no talk of the two elephants in the room: the strenuous relationship of Greece with the European Union and the austerity policies that are impoverishing Greek and EU citizens at large. And of course: cultural colonization.13

Preciado was quick to re-direct the program’s focus in November to events such as the Apatride Society dealing with issues of displacement and nationality, or The Society of Friends of Ulises Carrión, and the more recent 2017 third part of a trilogy of lectures by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and the newly conceived Cooperativist Society. In reference to the Apatrides Society, the theme was a priori interesting, but the execution was confusing. The ‘meetings’ had a very depressing feel to them. Representatives from local communities were treated as token examples of immigration policies, they were ‘given voice’ to tell their personal stories, evoking emotion when presenting their struggles of not being recognized. It was painful to see the intervention of a clerk from the municipality, addressing groups of Filipino residents of Athens and the Union of African Women of Greece, bluntly explaining why they and their children will not be getting the Greek nationality due to legislations that cannot be changed unless the constitution itself is changed. In contradiction, as detached from the political take of d14’s curatorial framework as it was, The Society of Ulises Carrión seemed one of the most honest projects, taking ‘the work and methods of the Mexican artist as a starting point in order to explore cultural strategies and practices’.14 The program’s most recent event, the Cooperativist Society, aimed at ‘using documenta 14 as a lever, as a means to strengthen the local fabric of social pluralism’15, came a little too late to create any tangible results. It should have been organised back in September 2016. It was strange to see it in the program, when initiatives of this kind have been already taking place in Athens since early 2016, initiated by colleagues such as the PAT collective (Temporary Art Academy). It seems as if the public program of d14 tries to catch up with what is already happening in the local scene, without actually wanting to include it.

The curatorial practice of Szymczyk does not really have a track record of projects that involve active political discourse, but he seems to honestly desire to address his d14 through a political kaleidoscope. His huge team is mostly made up of long-term collaborators of his, but not curators activily engaged with socio-economical-political practices of artists, with the exceptions of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Hila Peleg. Therefore the research and formulation of a program that does not correspond to the majority of the curators’ framework, brings about the need to include everything that might seem relevant. Szymczyk recently said his practice ‘has turned documenta 14 into a continuous aesthetic, economic, political and social experimentation’.16 Indeed he has shown a great record of solo presentations at Kunsthalle Basel. Therefore I am positive that this will be an aesthetically impressive exhibition. But the economies at play in d14’s presence in Athens remain opaque, the politics addressed feel forced and the social experimentation seems an empty gesture. D14 will soon welcome thousands of visitors. It will offer an exhibition, which through its public program and presence, has made us unsure of what it wants to say.

Can d14 in Athens be considered as ‘rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country’? Or is it rather Hlavajova’s comment that stands, of an art organization landing as an alien? Running an Athens based institution myself for many years, I would rather say that the answers lie in learning after documenta. What does it mean to be a massive art institution that operates in a Europe of crisis, in terms of financial and other transparencies?17 Is the idea of re-locating such an institution a good one, being a guest in a country that is financially exhausted? What does it mean for curatorial practices in general to build ground through dialogue with those that live this exhaustion both in the arts and society at large? Is the proposal of an exhibition split in two possible in all its capacity, if not fully supported by the institution itself, limiting curatorial possibilities and artistic practices? How (as in every journey) can a guest avoid the terrors of a recommended by another guest ‘good local’ by doing extensive research by building bridges with many locals? And finally, what does it mean to become a visitor, not a guest but neither a tourist? A visitor that is happy to experience the enrichment of being in a place where people have decided and declared that they wish to work by you, and not for or with you. For now we hope for some of these questions to be answered, and the doubts silenced, through an impressive exhibition.

POSTSCRIPT

Today, two weeks after the opening of documenta14 in Athens and with several critical articles already having been published[1], there are some additional points to be made. First regarding the labour conditions mentioned in the article above, and second regarding the curatorial claims of what the exhibition wishes to convey versus what it actually presents.

I will depart from Adam Szymczyk’s interview on German Cultural Radio on the 7th of April 2017 where he was questioned on the allegations that documenta 14 had not worked very closely with the Athenian art scene. His reply raised a lot of eyebrows, I quote:

Of course, we could be accused of having been too little occupied with the local art scene. We were, however, not that interested in the artistic scene of Athens, but rather in the city as a living organism. And this goes beyond contemporary art. Athens is not alone; it stands for other places in the world. Lagos. Guatemala City. They deal with us here as well. The claim to connect us with the Athenian art scene would be too small for this documenta. And if someone should feel deceived, he should know: our exhibition never wanted to represent the Athenian art scene. Others are supposed to do that. If people do not feel so represented here, then they should think about why they are not heard.’[2]

It is important to remember that this “disinterest” that Szymczyk references was not there from the start. Documenta14 announced its presence in Athens during a public conference on the third of December 2014 at the National Foundation for Research, that took the form of a panel discussion and presentation.[3] It primarily celebrated the award of the Athens Biennial by the European Cultural Foundation, but also provided the opportunity for Szymczyk to publicly announce his collaboration with the Biennial for the upcoming edition of documenta, in which he introduced the idea of d14 as a “guest.” This collaboration was concretely put to practice when the teams of d14 and the Athens Biennial shared an office space at Exarchia, but halted a year later due to irreconcilable differences. So it actually seems that the initial wish of documenta was to engage with the artistic scene, and institutions like the Athens Biennial, the DESTE foundation and the Onassis Foundation, as well as smaller independent spaces in Athens that were approached. It is for this reason that Szymczyk’s statement was received with bewilderment in Athens last month[4].

The second raise of eyebrows occurred after a public letter in the Greek press by the invigilators of documenta14, accusing the organisation for “horrible working conditions”[5]. The international outcry was averted when their contracts were quickly changed[6].

Through that latter dispute with the invigilators, the statement of Szymczyk and the general discourse used in the documenta 14 catalogues, press conference and materials, emerges the biggest conundrum of this exhibition. Greece is continuously referenced as the epitome of the “crisis,” and the battleground through which the “neo-liberal powers that wish to destroy Europe”[7] operate. But as it seems, documenta14 itself has enjoyed the benefits of cheap labour from the global south. The curators of documenta14, lamenting against the injustices of neoliberal “white masculine supremacy” that deprived the Greeks of their right to practice their NO referendum, sat hand-in hand with those that promoted and organised the YES campaigns against the referendum that summer of 2015, in particular the Mayor Kaminis of Athens that provided documenta with most of the free exhibition spaces for this edition.

The question “why Athens?”, that has been on everyone’s lips since d14 was announced, remains unanswered after the exhibition opening. It seems what is extracted from “Athens” or “Greece” is the cliché of all clichés, formulating in the opening lines of documenta’s “daybook” publication: Kavafy’s poem “Ithaca” from 1911. One would at least expect something along the lines of Katerina Gogou, the great anarchist poet of the 1980s, who lived and worked in the curatorial team’s beloved anarchist neighbourhood Exarhia. Her anti-establishment verse fitted like a glove the curatorial statements of this exhibition.

The lack of a clear curatorial narration, the lack of contextualization of works, the lack of wall texts replaced by the unfortunate choice of papyrus-like floor scribbles with marble labels on top of them, that resembled touristy simulations of ancient epitaphs, as noted in many reviews the past weeks, seems to confirm this fetishization of “Greece” through the eye of the tourist. Was it a nostalgic revisiting of Greek cultural heritage that d14 was interested in, more than its contemporary artistic language? And even, was it a “mainstream” and historically approved by the patriarchical white suprematist powers, cultural heritage?

The current condition of its citizens, this Athens “as a living organism” as Szymczyk claims in the prementioned interview, does not manifest anywhere in the exhibition and the actual elephant in the room – the real-time crises the Greeks are experiencing – is never addressed. Rather, Athens is vaguely grouped with the rest of the global south, that as it seems, does not deserve too much contextualization: all the languages of “the Other” are one and the same; Lagos, Guatemala City, Athens, Kolkata…

Thankfully this was countered by the act of art itself; it was the artists that chose to engage in a dialogue with the city and its idiosyncratic profile. Not with the city as a metaphor, nor the city as a representative of other cities, but the city as a cultural actor and generator of artistic ideas. Thanks to artists like Naeem Mohaiemen, Regina Jose Galindo, Hiwa K, Sanja Ivekovic, Postcommodity and Bouchra Khalili, the question ‘why Athens’ was actually answered: the reason lays in the city’s articulation of a specific contemporary cultural language, that might or might not be linked to other articulations globally, but as any other place in the world, is unique. These artists chose to beautifully engage with this language, and to use it to do what every true visitor should do: arrive with an interest. An interest not just for a fetishized past, but for an intriguing, yet struggling present.

DIT ARTIKEL IS GEPUBLICEERD IN EEN NEDERLANDSE VERTALING IN METROPOLIS M Nr 2-2017 LICHAAM/VENETIË. NU IN DE WINKEL. STEUN METROPOLIS M NEEM EEN ABONNEMENT. ALS U NU EEN JAARABONNEMENT AFSLUIT STUREN WIJ U DIT NUMMER GRATIS TOE. MAIL UW NAAM EN ADRES NAAR karolien@metropolism.com

iLiana Fokianaki is a writer curator, founder of State of Concept Athens (2013), co-founder of Future Climates (2016 with Antonia Alampi) and curator at Extra City Antwerp since March 2017.

This article in part is a gathering of anonymous testimonies that wish to remain as such, due to the precarity of the cultural workers in the d14 team as well as the general precarity of the Greek cultural scene after ten years of severe recession in Greece.

NOTES

1 Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Artists should be feared by the Powerful’, keynote at the sixth Moscow Biennial, October 1 2015, via:
https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/10/04/artists-should-be-feared-by-the-powerful-keynote-closing-the-6th-moscow-biennale-1st-october-2015/

2 Szymczyk made these statements during a symposium under the premises of the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet Award in Athens, December 2015. According to Szymczyk, he went back to his hotel and changed his original proposal, inspired by the bottom-up, horizontal structure of Agora that involved fifteen curators and initiated dozens of socio-politically themed projects. D14 was aiming to work closely with the biennial team, which in the end never happened.

3 Despoina Zefkili, ‘Learning in Past Tense’, Athinorama, 10 October2016, via:

http://www.athinorama.gr/events/article/documenta14_mathainontas_se_xrono_aoristo__-2516938.html

4 With covers such as the one ran by Focus in 2011, picturing the Aphrodite de Milo giving the middle finger. This particular image added insult to injury, since the sculpture is one of the many antiquities ‘acquired’ under dubious circumstances by the French during the Ottoman occupation of Greece.

5 It is interesting to note that Paul B. Preciado, during his introduction speech of the first lecture of the series The Apatride Society of d14’s public program in November 2016, declared this stencil to be the inspiration of looking into the notion of the indigenous. Sadly, he did not research the many aspects of literal indigeneity in Greece in the form of the dozens of indigenous minorities that have been part of the Greek national identity, but remain unrecognized such as the Vlachoi, the Sarakatsanoi and the Arvanites.

6 Website documenta, last retrieved 14 February 2017
http://www.documenta14.de/en/

7 Cathy Drake, ‘On the Ground in Athens’, Artforum, 10 February2017, via: https://www.artforum.com/slant/id=66502

8 Report from AthensLive.gr, 12 February 2017, with data from numbers from the following Greek state survey: http://www.imegsevee.gr/dtimegsevee/1127-dteisodima2016

9 A few months ago, Marina Fokidis, former head of the artistic office of Athens, and Katerina Tselou, assistant to the director, changed job titles and are now ‘curatorial advisors’.

10 This term was used by d14’s public program curator, Paul B. Preciado, during his first press conference on 24 September 2016.

11 A term used by Paul B. Preciado in a local newspaper, see: http://popaganda.gr/paul-preciado-documenta14/

12 See note 7

13 See: Maria Nicolakopoulou, ‘Exercises of Freedom? A review of documenta14’s public launch’, Ocula, November 2016, via:
https://ocula.com/magazine/reports/exercises-of-freedom-a-review-of-documenta-14’s-pu/ 

and iLiana Fokianaki, ‘Missing Bodies’, Frieze, 24 October 2016, via:
https://frieze.com/article/missing-bodies

14 Website documenta14

15 Ibid.

16 From Szymczyk’s contribution to the event Insights in Curatorial Practice vol. 3 in Haus der Kunst, Munich, 10 February 2017

17 The secrecy of documenta is notorious and seems old-fashioned and unnecessary in 2017.

Notes Postscript

[1] See articles such as JJ Charlesworth’s in ArtReview entitled “Documenta14 against Democracy”

https://artreview.com/home/may_2017_opinion_jj_charlesworth_documenta/

[2] Original quote in German: ‘Natürlich könnte man uns vorwerfen, uns zu wenig mit der hiesigen Kunstszene beschäftigt zu haben. Wir waren aber gar nicht so sehr an der Kunstszene von Athen interessiert, sondern mehr an der Stadt als lebendiger Organismus. Und das geht über zeitgenössische Kunst hinaus. Athen steht nicht allein, es steht auch für andere Orte dieser Welt. Lagos. Guatemala City. Die beschäftigen uns hier genauso. Der Anspruch, uns mit der Athener Kunstszene zu verbinden, wäre zu klein für diese documenta. Und falls sich jemand betrogen fühlen sollte, der sollte wissen: Unsere Ausstellung wollte nie die Athener Kunstszene repräsentieren. Das sollen andere machen. Wenn sich hier Leute nicht genug repräsentiert fühlen, dann sollten sie selbst darüber nachdenken, wie sich mehr Gehör verschaffen.’ See: Adam Szymczyk in conversation with Vladimir Balzer, ‘Reaktion auf Kritik aus Athener Kunstszene’, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 7 April 2017, via:  http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/documenta-chef-adam-szymczyk-reaktion-auf-kritik-aus.1895.de.html?dram%3Aarticle_id=383349

[3] At the event, widely publicized in Greek and international media, other panel participants included Katherine Watson, director of ECF, Denis Zacharopoulos, former curator of documenta and advisor to the cultural section of the Municipality of Athens, Afroditi Panagiotakou, director of the Onassis Foundation, Giorgos Tzirtzilakis, architect and advisor of DESTE Foundation, and the founders of the Athens Biennial; Xenia Kalpaktsoglou and Poka-Yio.

[4] In terms of the artistic scene it was certainly represented in this exhibition through works of many Greek artists, past and present, amongst them great examples such as Apostolos Georgiou, Mary Zygouri, Costas Hatzinikolaou and Vlassis Kaniaris.

[5] See newspaper Avgi http://www.avgi.gr/article/10812/8088276/-tholo-ergasiako-kathestos-katangelloun-oi-ergazomenoi

[6] “Zero hours” contracts of temporary staff are a recurring phenomenon –and crisis- for today’s art workers that are employed by large scale exhibitions and museums, one example being the TATE.

[7] Paul Preciado’s curatorial statement on the press conference of documenta14 in Athens, April 6th 2017.

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2017