Documenta 14: What happens when the international art elite goes Greek?

Photos: Gerasimos Domenikos / FOS PHOTOS

The art festival Documenta, which normally takes place in Kassel, Germany, will split in two, and in 2017 also take place in Athens. A brave move, for even though the festival will bring extended tourism and awareness on Greece, the decision raises criticism on ‘colonisation’, ‘exoticism’, and ‘intellectualism’. As a counter move the public program of documenta 14 is held six months in advance, walking on a thin line of political correctness and with the eye of the Athenian art milieu watching carefully.

The art crowd outside the stone building, which once functioned as headquarters of the Junta dictatorship from 1967–74, in Athens, looks like any other art crowd in a European capital. They look serious, gathered in small groups, wearing dark coloured clothes, or clothes with a sense of hipness that you know is cool, but you don’t exactly understand.

It is Wednesday the 15th of September, and the first evening of the public program of documenta 14 is taking place. Starting ten days of intensive art events in Athens. And in a bigger picture, taking the early steps on the road towards what will become the documenta festival in 2017, held both in Athens and Kassel.

Paul B. Preciado, who curated the public program, introduces the next ten days, and there are several issues to address.

First he approaches the buildings, which have been debated in the Greek media, and called ‘inappropriate’, due to the history of the dictatorship.

Secondly and thirdly, he notes, the public program constructs ‘The Parliament of Bodies’ and ‘34 exercises of freedom’.

“It was a quite difficult to understand how to make a public program in Athens coming with documenta,” Paul B. Preciado explains looking back at both the last five months of planning and the last 10 days of the public program.

“There was a lot of suspiciousness and expectations at the same time. But I started working on the building and place around it, which gave me most of the ideas for the program. So I decided to work — almost forgetting I was working for documenta, and just work on a small-scale project,” he tells.

Paul B. Preciado decided to work on the issues of dictatorship and the transition to democracy, when he visited the buildings for the first time. But he also decided to work with politics beyond democracy; for example queer and sexual politics.

All those topics were intensely debated in the Greek newspapers, especially in the conservative newspaper Kathimerini.

“They went mad and furious,” with Paul B. Preciado’s own words.

“They produced a bunch of articles, which at some level, is the best thing that could happen, cause in a sense, it was about opening up the debate. I don’t have the answers yet, but I wanted the debate to get open under the saying of freedom — as a practice freedom,” he continues.

“They moved us directly to the political pages or even to the frontpage, in order to criticise us, because we were speaking about dictatorship or criticising democracy. I mean, hello, we are in Greece, democracy is not exactly blooming,” he tells over a phone from Kassel.

“And somehow it is the same all over Europe. We are living through the failure of participatory and representative democracy. So we need to find other ways of doing politics together. This was also the main challenge of the public program. That is why I needed 10 days to do the program. When I proposed the program in the beginning, Adam Szymczyk (artistic director red.) told me: You are insane.”

We understand freedom, with Foucault,” the press release on the public program explains and continues, “as neither an individual property nor a natural right, but rather as a practice.”

It was a serious public program. No doubt. Hours, and a lot of thoughts went into the planning, settling on the specific mixture of the program, which involves artists, curators, professor, walking tours and two or three person which merely represent themselves and their own stories.

It is a program, where documenta is very aware of itself; both as the guest and the host. As the intellectual, economical superpower which… tries to at least… not to practice the wrong kind of freedom; the neoliberal, condemning, colonising one, of course.

The question is, whether this is possible at all? Or if documenta in Athens is one big contradiction.

The public program shows a reflexive capacity like an intellectual superman; introducing presentations on representation, colonisation, the history of the dictatorship in Greece, and understandings of neoliberalism. It is a program, which make you a bit dizzy, and where the word intellectualisation blink in yellow neon light: This might not be for everyone.

On the other hand, art and art events have never been for everyone, some like sports and some don’t. The same goes for art. Making art more available for the public can’t be criticised; ten days of events with open doors, and afterwards ongoing shows until April. It is definitely how to attract people, who don’t have a university degree that seems to be the problem.

Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister and founder of DIEM25, condemned the two-split of documenta 14, calling its placement in Athens a gimmick and sort of ‘crisis tourism’:

“I have to say that I am not very happy about the idea that part of documenta will take place in Athens,” he said in an interview with Spike Art Magazine, “it is like crisis tourism. It’s a gimmick by which to exploit the tragedy in Greece in order to massage the consciences of some people from documenta. It’s like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country, doing a safari, going on a humanitarian tourism crusade. I find it unhelpful both artistically and politically,” he continued.

Past documenta curators have also experimented with decentralization as a part of the exhibition. For example in 2013 when a team of global co-curators placed projects in Cairo and Kabul. However artistic director of documenta 14, Adam Szymczyk, has decided to decentralize on a larger scale.

The argument of the two-split is to investigate and put awareness on the division between North and South Europe — hence calling documenta 14: “Learning from Athens [working title]”.

The phrase [working title] stresses the tension; the awareness of the festival encountering, other would say invading, Athens.

Adam Szymczyk, well aware of this problem, points out, that “fear of been misunderstood is a poor excuse for not doing an actual movement.” He also explains that documenta shouldn’t be seen as “art aid for the suffering country” nor “as a colonial conquest of yet unknown territory”.

Adam Szymczyk argued that just as Germany was at the centre of changes in Europe in 1955, the founding year of documenta, Athens, today, is the city facing the challenges for Europe.

“Europe as a project is not divided into opposing camps,” he explained “but I believe we have arrived at a point where fundamental questions on time and place needs to be asked in order to continue as an efficient measure against the passive cultural mood defined by the art audience and the art market.”

“Documenta should become a critical agency,” he continued, “documenta needs to be radically redefined,” and then concludes, “must again seek for its location”.

When you think about it , it seems that documenta needs Athens more, than the other way around. And turning this question to Paul B. Preciado he agrees.

“Absolutely. We need Athens to deconstruct documenta, this is what we need completely. Every single aspect of this institution.”

But the problem is, can documenta ask to be deconstructed, while the power relation in some ways being the way they are; unequal? I guess this is the paradox.

“Honestly, from working within documenta, and I have been working in a lot of institutions, documenta is really a rare institution. It is not a museum, with a collection, it doesn’t have territory. I mean of course it is attached to Kassel, but not so much. It is not about Germany, it is not about Kassel,“ he tries to explain.

“In a way it is free-floating. It gives you a lot of agency, which means we are not fully crossed by power issues. But power issues are hard to deal with as well as political structures and economy, the question of economy is a big one in relation to Athens.”

Transparency also. Will documenta for example be laying out the budget?

“We are working on somethings. So I cannot tell you quite yet.”

The art elite goes Greek might be an overstatement. The international art elite, which followed documenta, might be in Athens; listening interested to the stories of torture in the Junta dictatorship, but the speakers and artists at the public program is more a melting pot, introducing stories from around the world: Chile, Norway, Canada, Armenia, Bangladesh and many more. In this case Norway seems as exotic as Greece.

Alexis Fidetzis, an artist living in Athens, expressed both excitements on documenta 14 placements in Athens as well as concerns, before the public program started.

“I think it is great documenta is coming to Athens, that was my first thinking,” Alexis Fidetzis starts out. “But I have concerns, and they are two-fold” he continues, explaining the political tension in Greece, and how the program might spark nationalism, a flammable topic, without the documenta team even knowing.

The other concern addresses what happened earlier this year at Athens and Epidaurus festival, where the Belgian artist and curator Jan Fabre was the Artistic Director.

To sum up, Jan Fabre resigned after local artists rebelled against his “plan to turn Greece’s major arts festival into ‘a tribute to Belgium’ and devote eight of the festival’s 10 productions to those from his homeland,” an article in The Guardian explains.

With this example within recent memory, Alexis Fidetzis is looking carefully how documenta is addressing the Athenian art milieu; if it is open, flexible, and dynamic.

But he also highlights that ‘the Belgium case’ and the neglect of Greek artists raised nationalistic rhetorics — within the art world. Another perspective he fears.

“Because Fabre was clumsy, the reaction of the Greek artists was full of nationalistic rhetoric. And my fear is that documenta might bring similar reactions, or that in order to avoid those reactions, they will include some participants just so they won’t be called “colonialists” thus lowering their cultural product. Something I think would be unfair to the Athenian public,” he says.

Looking back at the days of documenta, Alexis Fidetzis is not entirely left without concerns, but in a general overlook, he sees the program as educational for the international audience.

“I don’t think the program was created for the Greek public, but more for the documenta public. Created so they will have an understanding of what is going on here.”

Do you think that is a problem?

“Not really. I think it is good that in some terms, they will understand the issues, and hopefully it can lead to a more contemporary, interesting documenta in 2017,” he answers.

What about documenta’s involving of Greek artist?

“I believe they are doing a good job, they have a team in Athens, who knows some artist — of course not everyone, but that is how it goes. On the other hand, I still think there will be a lot of fuzz over it,” he explains.

“What I really think documenta needs to address, having a anti-neoliberal standpoint, is how the left deals and debate the rise of the right wing, but I don’t see them doing that.

They read that the rise of the far right happens just because of neo-liberal politics, and I believe that is superficial. Greek society and education have for decades cultivated a culture of nationalism that in times of crisis has left the public vulnerable to rhetorics of hate. That is something that hopefully will be addressed by documenta in the future.”

Layers on layers are the feeling you are left with as the 10 days of the public program ends. Each talk or performance draw a perspective from the previous, and together leaves a complex net of stories and interconnection.

‘The Parliament of Bodies’ which is us; the audience, is also a part of this complex net, or so we are told. The Parliament of Bodies is a radical understanding of the audience, as something more than a silent viewer. Participators. But I am not sure if I feel involved in this Parliament at all, and I ask Paul B. Preciado, how well the Parliament of Bodies did:

“With a project like this one, we cannot aim at the utopia of full participation. You still have to give some content at the beginning to set up the premises for people to discuss.”

“There is a sentence by Deleuze and Derrida, that is very important to me: It is not just about giving the mic to the people, but setting up the condition where people will be able to speak, which is different. And this takes time,” he continues.

Stathis Gourgouris, professor at the institut for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, talked at the public program about learning how to listen, how learning to listen is as important as learning to speak.

“I have this feeling that these days people were learning to listen, even myself,” Paul B. Preciado then reflects.

The Greek artist Angela Brouskou and Theatro Domatiou also addressed the problem of participating, with the performance ‘Epitaph for Democracy’. Which was a stressful experiences: statements and ‘crisis statistics’ was flying around in the air, carried by the voices of the more or less 30 actresses who performed. White papers with questions as how do citizens move from passive to active circles around the audience. The answer seems to be not to drown people with information, but it is a paradox; of course citizens needs to be enlighten to carry out democracy. It is difficult question, and so is the judgement of documenta.

One night a German art couple notes: “Having documenta in Athens is not done because it is easy.“ And I’m sure they are right.

Documenta in Athens is a contradiction. The question whether or not the invading of Athens is okay, boils down to how you see the role of documenta: Exploring a set of yet unsolved questions. Or as a representation of the art industry.

[Note: The group ‘Wir wollen nicht zur documenta 14’ is against the exhibitions, and explains their reasons like this: “We must be against it because one task of the artist is to be against everything that is too big!”]

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