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The Messy Politics of Documenta’s Arrival in Athens

As documenta opens for the first time in Athens, Greek artists and anthropologists are closely observing how the German quinquennial will respond to its new location.

"Learning from Documenta" round table on March 9, 2017, "The Politics of Art Making," at the Athens School of Fine Arts; participants (from left to right): N. Pappa, P. Charalambous, N.G. Khan-Dossos, A. Lampropoulos, and E. Rikou (coordinators), R. Lowe, A. Omrani, T. Tramboulis (photo by George Sakkas)
“Learning from Documenta” round table on March 9, 2017, “The Politics of Art Making,” at the Athens School of Fine Arts; participants (from left to right): N. Pappa, P. Charalambous, N.G. Khan-Dossos, A. Lampropoulos, and E. Rikou (coordinators), R. Lowe, A. Omrani, T. Tramboulis (photo by George Sakkas)

With its head cocked 90 degrees to the side and its eyes opened wide, the owl of Documenta 14’s logo is poised for observation. The owl, a symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and learning, and the mythological patron of the Greek capital, signifies Documenta’s new location and theme, Learning from Athens. Since its inception in 1955, the international exhibition that has been staged in Kassel every five years, but the 2017 iteration opened in Athens on Friday, before a second installment opens in Kassel on June 10.

The Documenta 14 logo (courtesy Documenta)
The documenta 14 logo (courtesy documenta)

Athens was ostensibly chosen by Documenta 14’s artistic director Adam Szymczyk (the former director and chief curator of Kunsthalle Basel) because, like Germany in the period immediately after World War II, Greece has experienced a series of crises over the past decade: economic, political, and related to migrantion. (Until the March 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey, Greece was Syrian refugees’ primary gateway into Europe, though it is unclear if the designation “crisis” is reserved for the refugees or Europe itself.) While Documenta’s additional location is intended as a recuperative gesture, with the potential to bring international attention and cultural tourism to the country, some — including former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis — have accused the German culture machine of trafficking in trauma exploitation, and others have likened the arrival of Documenta’s non-Greek curators in Athens two years ago to colonialism and exoticization.

The Greek anthropologists Eleana Yalouri, from the department of social anthropology of Panteion University, and Elpida Rikou, from the Athens School of Fine Arts and TWIXTlab, are examining how the orientation of Documenta’s gaze colors the lessons the German cultural institution learns from Athens and what dynamic its presence creates in Greece’s capital city. Yalouri and Rikou coordinate a group of international artists, thinkers, and educators through the program “Learning from Documenta.” The group’s own logo, designed by artist Io Chaviara, is a viewfinder resembling those positioned at tourist sites like the Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens. From this metaphorical distance, “Learning from Documenta” has been watching Documenta learn from Athens since its curatorial team first arrived in the city two years ago.

As Rikou and Yalouri told me, their multidisciplinary research platform is driven by many questions, including: “What ethics and politics are employed to learn from, with, or even against Athens? How does Athens respond to the desire of a big international institution to learn from a city ‘in crisis’? What processes of learning is Documenta engaged in? How does it unlearn its own cultural perspective to learn from Athens? What can be found in the crossing trajectories of Documenta’s learning from Athens and our learning from Documenta? What means has Documenta employed to ‘learn from Athens’ and by what means have we elected to ‘learn from Documenta’? What can an interaction between anthropology and contemporary art offer to this process of learning?”

Anthropology is a particularly potent discipline for approaching these questions. “Anthropologists are very sensitive to the concept of ‘learning,’ to the relationship between the observer and the observed, as well as to claims of giving voice to ‘the other,’ because the history of anthropology as a discipline has been associated with colonial endeavors and programs,” Yalouri said. “So any claims to learn from or to give voice to the other rings a bell to anthropologist.”

“Learning from Documenta” builds on two previous research platforms Rikou and Yalouri were involved in that examined the intersection of anthropology and contemporary art: For the two-month-long workshop, “Value,” they studied the accumulation of economic, ethical, and aesthetic value in the context of the 2013 Athens Biennale; Voices, a project that ran from 2011 to 2014, coordinated by Rikou and featuring Yalouri as a participant, investigated how sound materializes into social relationships. All three project express the collaborators’ aim of exchanging methods between contemporary art and anthropology to build a more expansive research toolkit.

"Learning from Documenta" workshop in September 2016, “Art and Anthropology Research Kit,” at ΤWIXTlab (photo by George Sakkas)
“Learning from Documenta” workshop in September 2016, “Art and Anthropology Research Kit,” at ΤWIXTlab (photo by George Sakkas)

While their new project’s title, “Learning from Documenta,” can be understood in a critical sense, the organizers also choose to take its meaning quite literally. In June 2016, the program held its first public event: a presentation of its mission alongside a presentation by Documenta 14 curator Szymczyk. Since then, the group has organized four roundtable events: on the politics of learning; the politics of curating (with Documenta curator of public programs, philosopher, and trans activist Paul B. Preciado, and Katerina Tselou, assistant to the artistic director and curatorial advisor for Documenta); the politics of art making (with social practice artist and Documenta 14 participant Rick Lowe); and the politics of cultural exchange between Greece and Germany. “Learning from Documenta” employs anthropological methods to understand and analyze discourses, practices, and other curatorial gestures and their social significance in the conjunction of local and international politics that have accompanied Documenta’s arrival in Athens. “Our project also has a political function in this critical perspective on Documenta,” Rikou said. “We are participating in and formulating a state of public debate. We are trying to understand, respond to, and make public certain issues that are present now or are in the process of shaping themselves.”

Since September 2016, Documenta’s presence in the city has been established by a series events including conversations, lectures, film screenings, and workshops, organized by Preciado at the Athens Municipal Art Center, which is housed in the former headquarters of the military police, the place where dissidents of the junta regime in power from 1967 to 1974 were tortured. The venue’s past life is acknowledged in passing on Documenta’s public programs webpage, and may be lost on the international viewer, but it’s a gesture that speaks volumes to Athenians.

“Local memories and local traumas like dictatorship are touched, for example, by Preciado’s public program, and these events have created some reactions,” Rikou said. “It’s a difficult situation and we are trying to find pertinent ways to approach it.” In the weeks following Friday’s opening, the group will record, analyze, and discuss the various reactions to Documenta 14 from the many publics who form its audience. Though the Documenta team kept especially quiet about who and what would be presented during the exhibition until the very last moment, several trends became evident from studying Documenta over the past two years.

Andreas Angelidakis, "Unauthorized (Athinaiki Techniki)" (2017), installation view, Polytechniou 8, Athens, Documenta 14 (photo © Angelos Giotopoulos)
Andreas Angelidakis, “Unauthorized (Athinaiki Techniki)” (2017), installation view, Polytechniou 8, Athens, Documenta 14 (photo © Angelos Giotopoulos)

Greece has built its cultural profile on its ancient heritage. How this image will be reflected back to Athenians and Documenta’s international audience is one among many points of interest for the “Learning from Documenta” team — indeed, Yalouri’s own work focuses on the role of antiquity in the Greek present. Preciado has built Documenta 14’s public programs by borrowing organizational models with ancient Greek roots, such as parliaments and assemblies, to frame discussions on democracy. Athenian artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis designed a set of oversized cushions that can be moved and rearranged to fit the needs of different events at the Athens Municipal Art Center. The cushions are modeled after the concrete blocks of buildings left unfinished after Greece’s economic collapse and the marble bricks of ancient temples — the ruins of the old and new. Documenta organizers have been collecting books once banned but now in circulation to restage Argentine artist Marta Minujín’s 1983 installation “The Parthenon of Books,” a life-sized replica of the Parthenon built of books. By recreating it this year in Kassel, Documenta will bring a symbol of both Athens and an internationally recognized image of world heritage to Germany. These projects and programs led “Learning from Documenta” to ask if stereotypes of ancient Greece will be subverted or exploited in the exhibition proper.

“Given the emphasis Documenta has placed on the emblematic importance of Athens, one may ask how the symbolic will feed into the literal and vice versa in the process of ‘learning,’” Rikou said. “If the symbol is being engaged, who creates the symbol and what meanings do they give it? What part of these meanings are stereotypical and are stereotypes reproduced through the projects that are proposed? Documenta is opening up a question about how contemporary art in Greece — which has, up to now, depended mostly on private institutions and entrepreneurs — will affect local cultural policies in the long term. Specific artworks and Documenta 14 as a whole operate vis–à–vis certain stereotypes regarding Greece’s ‘difficult’ heritage.”

In addition to its ancient past, Greece’s public image is very much shaped by its debt crisis and the refugee crisis. Rikou understands such positioning as part of Documenta’s legacy. “Documenta 14, in particular, adopts a discourse of the oppressed other, of the refugee, of the trans subject, of the marginalized indigenous, and at the same time, Documenta is a powerful institution that comes to a city in crisis,” she said. “When activists acquire an important role in an important institution, their discourse changes context and creates other effects. This is a major issue and we have to go a step further. Art production today has to think about the relationship between grassroots projects and the institutions that adopt the same language.”

A "Learning from Documenta" event (photo by George Sakkas)
A “Learning from Documenta” event (photo by George Sakkas)

In my own experience of Documenta’s public programs in the fall of 2016, I noticed the frequent conflation of mistranslated terminology. For instance, “indigeneity” was a word used to reference both the Native American experience and the indigenous European in relation to the foreign refugee. In the latter usage, “indigeneity” took on the tone and characteristics of nationalism in a false equivalency of two very different kinds of encounters. The recreation of “The Parthenon of Books” in Kassel runs a similar risk. This curatorial gesture seeks to draw a connection between the censorship of Nazi Germany and that of the Argentinian dictatorship, but it inadvertently makes a parody of the forces that brought objects like Pergamon Altar from ancient Greece to Germany. As Apostolos Lampropoulos, another member of the “Learning from Documenta” team, asked during the “Politics of Curating” round table in January: “Is there something to be gained from this loss in translation that is taking place both ways?” Yalouri added:, “It will be interesting to see how Documenta as a whole can avoid homogenizing different kinds of ‘otherness.’” The question remains what voice will be given in Documenta 14 to these multiple ‘others’ — will they be positioned as the subject of discourse or given the opportunity to be discourse producers?

For all the mistranslations and misunderstandings, positive exchange has already occurred because of Documenta’s presence in Athens. Rikou and Yalouri cited the presence of Rick Lowe, the artist and founder of Houston’s Project Row Houses, as enriching. “Having this contact with Rick, I can see how he works and the way he thinks about this project,” Rikou said. “Let’s see what kind of situation Rick’s presence is going to create at his ‘Victoria Square Project.'” Yalouri added: “It’s one thing to think about what Documenta is going to leave behind when it goes in terms of cultural policy; it’s another thing [to think about] what is left behind at the level of personal involvement and collaborations and artworks and experiences and impressions and feelings and so on. The two outcomes may be connected.”

Rick Lowe, "Victoria Square Project" (2017–18), social sculpture, Elpidos 13, Victoria Square, Athens, Documenta 14 (photo © Freddie Faulkenberry)
Rick Lowe, “Victoria Square Project” (2017–18), social sculpture, Elpidos 13, Victoria Square, Athens, Documenta 14 (photo © Freddie Faulkenberry)

Learning from Documenta” will present its research in the form of audio recordings, photographs, videos, and films collected by artists, in a workshop in Athens in October. The Athenian portion of Documenta 14 is on view at locations throughout the city through July 16.

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