Waiting for the After-Effects of Documenta 14 in Athens

[*In 2017 whilst participating in Capacete’s mobile school project on the occasion of Documenta 14 ‘Learning from Athens’, Gian Spina edited a series of articles Documenta in Athens, and co-authored a couple of them. And, I got the chance to work with a friend (in a publishing capacity) on the series. I took particular interest in the two he co-authored, On Pedagogical Turns and the Use of Time (with Nikos Doulas) and Waiting for the After-Effects of Documenta 14 in Athens (with Jota Mombaça), which offer institutional critique for the ‘art school’ and ‘art event’ respectively. While these articles predate Luv ’til it Hurts, the project was already in my mind when working with Gian, and with this project I attempt to both make an HIV & stigma-themed work–that evokes themes and issues within ‘art curating’ and ‘art philanthropy’–and offers criticism on the conditions of production encountered along its two-year course. Thanks Gian for the inspiration!!! xo Todd]

This article is part of a series of texts which are being produced throughout 2017 from Athens, Greece — a city which has been going through severe changes and now has the peculiarity of hosting one of the most influential international art festivals: Documenta 14. This series of eight articles will engage a heterogeneous group of writers to address a range of problematics. The core of the project is not to concentrate on specific forms or content, but to allow themes to arise which are outside of the hegemonic narrative, thereby cultivating a space that captures motifs that we otherwise might not grasp.

Waiting for the After-Effects of Documenta 14 in Athens

At the beginning of April a group composed of ten Latin Americans and two Greeks came together to do a nine month residency in Athens. The program, called CAPACETE, has been running in Rio de Janeiro for the past 20 years. This year, as part of the public program of documenta 14, Capacete has extended an arm to Greece, creating the platform that now hosts us. We are here regardless of our commitment to a formal research project. There’s no precise mission or goal, but this doesn’t necessarily means that we are here for no reason.

The group came together through the application process to an open call, which particularly did not require the formal proposition of any concrete goal or duties to be done during this time. It is based on the idea of a group going to a specific place and spending time there, embracing the context, learning from it, and constructing something from the experience of being embedded in the local dynamics. The curatorial perspective of the residency is informed by questions such as: What kind of processes will arise from the encounters of these cultural inventors with the people who inhabit this place? What does it mean to be in a nine month residency program without having to do anything formally? What does it mean to not have a plan?

That proposition contradicts the productivist modus operandi of the art world. Little by little cultural programs, courses, exhibitions and residencies tend to put themselves as alternatives to the status quo, when in reality they re-produce the same mechanisms and the same fast-paced logic of the market. The Capacete program proposes not only a dilated usage of time, but also an empirical process of learning and creating through a real conviviality and immersion in this European context; a juxtaposition of empirical, theoretical, practical, and non-productivist time pedagogy.

At the same time, we didn’t just come to “some” place to immerse in “some” European context, but to a very specific place in a very specific period of its history. We came to a city under intense external intervention, catapulted by enormous financial and biopolitical crises that opened the path for contemporary strategies of precarization, imperialism, and colonial update — which, by the same token, has created an atmosphere of contestation that now justifies the existence of programs such as the one we are part of. This is to say that we are in Athens and that we came because of Documenta’s movement towards here, and that this particular location changes everything.

Since the launching of the project, but especially after its big opening on the 8th of April, Documenta has faced huge criticism concerning its presence here in Athens. Recently an open letter was released by a collective called Artists Against Evictions which was addressed to the viewers, participants, and cultural workers of Documenta 14: Learning from Athens. In one of the paragraphs we read the following statement:

Your jostling bodies crowd the streets of Athens, your mouths are speaking of our hardship, your feet are pounding the pavements. But this is not enough. Now is a time for carving out a space for all, not a time of culturally archiving crisis. Now is a time of action not blind consumption. We ask you to redirect your limbs into the shadows and the black outs, away from the feast the Mayor of Athens has staged for you.

You say you want to learn from Athens, well first open your eyes to the city and listen to the streets.

On the other hand, the chief-curator of Documenta, Adam Szymczyk, in one of his public statements of the week said:

Naturally one could accuse us that we didn’t engage enough with the local art scene. We weren’t that interested in the Athens art scene, but rather in the city as a living organism. And that goes beyond contemporary art. Athens does not stand on its own, it also stands for other places in this world. Lagos. Guatemala city. We are equally engaged with this here. The expectation, to connect ourselves with the Athens art scene, would be much too narrow for this Documenta.

In talking with Greeks from the so-called art world we quickly noticed a disgust with all aspects of this festival. Why do Germans want to learn from Greeks now? Are they really willing to do such a thing? In the opening week we could hardly hear any Greek been spoken. The vernissage party was a copy-paste of a traditional German fabrik-techno party; it felt more like an imposition of how, to a certain degree, things should be done, than a real open dialogue, as the chief-curator tried to propose.

Comparing both statements, the one from the open letter and the one from the chief-curator, it is easy to notice how Documenta neither connects with the Athens art world, nor with the “city as a living organism.” The relationship between the festival’s network and the city described by the Artists Against Evictions exposes the contradictions of the very aim of the curatorial team’s proposition. When they suggest that the viewers, participants, and cultural workers of Documenta “open their eyes to the city and listen to the streets,” they are calling attention to the wounds in the “living organism” of Athens which are overshadowed by the overexposed lighting of the exhibition’s venues.

Wor(l)ds and Narratives

“Global south,” “Financial Crisis,” “Refugee Crisis,” etc. Today’s nomenclature exposes a much more sophisticated relationship of power between the subaltern and hegemonic, the colonized and colonizer. This diffuse form of constructing hierarchy leads us to a force field full of contradictions, questions without answers, and problematics that require a different form of performing responsibility.

In the seminar “The Gesture of Hospitality” held in the public program called “The Parliament of Bodies”, one of documenta 14‘s curators, Hendrik Folkerts, was asked about the power relationships that have materialized through this edition of Documenta. His response commented on the possibility for an ethical commitment to the detachment of the curatorial premise of documenta 14 from the colonial apparatuses of Documenta as an institution, by putting into practice an approach using indigenous thinking and aesthetics, biopolitical activisms, and other forms of contemporary political and artistic contestation. He added, however, that his position might have been too naïve for not taking into account the political dimensions of the geopolitical game that documenta 14 contributes to.

To claim a naïve position within a dominant framework means, in a certain way, a disregard for the contextual and political implications of one’s own subject position. This effect should not be ignored, since it reproduces the very logic which configures the historical position of the Eurocentric subject. The erasure of such accountability through the claim of a naïveté concerning the power relations that make up the international (art) world, which can be read as part of the fundamental axis of such geo- and bio-political games, tends to empower the systems in place. In other words, it enhances the historical oppositions such as subaltern/dominant, colonized/colonizer, and local contexts/global investments of power, instead of operating as they claim to: as mediators of these dualities in the spaces between them.

If we consider the history of such art events, they are a development of what were called previously “World’s Fairs (Exposition Universelle),” which had not only exhibited the machines and products of the industrial revolution, but also the achievements of the colonial enterprise. The vastness of the empires was portrayed and exposed in those gigantic exhibitions. In 1895 two important events took place: the first was the launching of the Venice Biennale (as a result or development of the Universal Fairs), and the second was the formalization of the Berlin Congress, which regulated what is called the Scramble for Africa, or the partition of the continent amongst imperialist powers. This period gave birth to the new imperialism and to exhibitions such as the Biennales and other forms of colonial exhibitions.

The “coincidence” that those events took place at the same historical moment gives us a sense of the entanglement of the ideas and the approach which have been criticized in Documenta’s Learning from Athens project, and, at the same time, it exposes its historical persistence, since the platform for the development of a critical turn today is the same one that created the problem. What if the changes in the narratives, modes of writing, and performance of power has paradoxically perpetuated the very same dominant discourse? What if this critical turn, which now inserts words and narratives on decoloniality, anti-capitalist activism, political solidarity, and biopolitical contestation into a culturally hegemonic framework, could not simply detach itself from its own historical contradictions regarding colonial and imperialist heritages?

While these questions cannot be answered, they may lead us to an ontological paradox: the impossibility of a turn inside of a system built to embrace its own contradictions. In other words, the problem that documenta 14 has to face now is the one of its own implication in the processes that this curatorial project seems to criticize or attempt to surpass. To merely archive the voices of resistance and the aesthetics of contestation within the infrastructure inherited by colonial and imperialist powers, could be read, thus, as not a form of learning from, but of earning from. This is to say that the critique performed by this exhibition has no political effect if it is detached from a certain form of radical self-critique.

Photo by Theo Prodromidis

After the event

We do not want to claim an outside position, since we came here through an articulation between Documenta, CAPACETE and the Fine Arts School of Athens. We are part of it, so the open letter by the Artists Against Evictions is also targeted at us. We are, in a sense, part of the problem and we must embrace these contradictions as ours without being confined by it. But how can we operate from our own position as a breach within Documenta’s environment, since we are inside — as participants of the residency — but not exactly related to the institution? At the same time, what forms of political accountability must we enact in order not to erase our own implication in the problem? How can we operate a form of contestation which does not create some sort of heroic avatar for ourselves?

We are again posing questions without answers and those are some of the questions that will live with us even after the event. When Documenta leaves Athens in July, we will still be here, as part of the “legacy” — or of the after-effect — of Documenta’s crossing through the Greek context. If, in a certain way, it creates a possibility of interaction which cannot be reduced to Documenta’s form of acting in this specific context, it at the same time enhances the contradictory aspect of our presence here. Then how do we inhabit those contradictions? How do we stay here as a form of staying with the trouble?

Article originally published on ArtsEverywhere, on May 31st 2017