When Crisis Becomes Form
Athens as a Paradigm
Theophilos Tramboulis and Yorgos Tzirtzilakis
Documenta 14 in Athens: a glossary
Documenta 14 (d14) was an undoubtedly important exhibition which triggered endless debate and controversy that continues today. The choice of Athens as a topological paradigm by Adam Szymczyk, an ingenious curator with expected and unexpected virtues, initially fired people’s appetite and enthusiasm. Yet what it ultimately managed to do was demythicize the event itself in a way, as well as demonstrate a series of dangers in the operation of the institution. At the same time it brought to light a series of innate ailments and fantasies of contemporary culture in Greece, which manifested themselves in a distorted and sometimes aggressive fashion. This is not without significance, since it functioned complementarily to—rather than independently of—the exhibition. In short, d14 served as a kind of double mirror with which we could see the cultural relation of Greece with Europe and the world, but also the reverse: that of Europe with Greece. So what was d14 in Athens? For now we must necessarily sidestep its contribution to making Athens and Greek culture a temporary center of international attention in order to focus on what must not be overlooked. The series of arguments below can be read individually or successively as a network of alternating commentary, but also through their diagonal intersections, ruptures, disagreements, and connections, where meaning is produced in a syncretic or dialectical way. D14 is the symptom from which all discourse around it begins.
A political metonymy
The critical reception of d14 in Greece focused mainly on the institution and its operation; on its discursive and political context rather than the works, concerts, or lectures—generally speaking, the actual art and discourse presented by the exhibition. As early as 2015, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Minister of Finances, expressed his objection to d14 coming to Athens in a discussion with Leon Kahane, saying it “is like rich Americans taking a tour in a poor African country.” The inauguration of the Parliament of Bodies, the public program of d14 in September 2016, in the Municipality Arts Center at Parko Eleftherias, a site used for torture by the Greek Junta, generated a wave of criticism denouncing exoticism in the use of left-wing stereotypes. Throughout the exhibition, posters, graffiti, and pamphlets criticized the colonial aspects of the exhibition.
In fact, to understand this critical paroxysm, we must examine the way in which the curatorial discourse of the exhibition came to join the tense political landscape of Greece. Indeed, the thematic and exhibitional core of d14 included issues that had become highly charged in the political debates of recent years in Greece, specifically having cornerstones of leftist rhetoric: the periphery’s dependence on the centers of political and economic power, radical and emancipatory movements, local communities and their demands for autonomy, social solidarity initiatives, the history of the Greek Left with emphasis on its fight against the Nazis and the dictatorship, and discursive constructs of gender and sexuality.
The political art in d14 was not an art with abstract political themes which would promote a theoretical “distribution of the sensible,” to allude to Jacques Rancière; on the contrary, it seemed to actively reflect the Greek political debate and reproduce it on an unexpected cultural level. Just as in country house dramas, where an unexpected visitor uncovers the traumas, the secret yearnings, and the cracks in the comforting certainties of a closed community, one could say that d14 came as a catalyst to demonstrate the discontinuities and discrepancies in the common places of our political discourse.
Part of the centrist and right-wing range of the political spectrum in Greece had positioned itself, especially after the 2015 referendum, behind the conviction that only they represented the pro-European pole of Greek society, against the “isolationist” Left. The curatorial rhetoric of d14, an institution that reflects—accurately, in many ways—the European perception of culture as an agent of knowledge and criticism, performatively demonstrated that the very same demands articulated by the supposedly “anti-European” Left are at the core of the current European political discourse. At the other end, one of the dominant left-wing narratives linearly describes the Greek debt crisis in simplistic terms of colonialist exploitation (i.e., as a neoliberal Europe, and specifically Germany, exploiting national wealth and undermining popular sovereignty). The German d14 demonstrated that Europe and its institutions are not a homogeneous political formation and are shaken by the same political controversy as the Greek political discourse; new identities are formed all the time, and a schematic evocation of national sovereignty is not sufficient to describe today’s economic, social, political, and gender stratifications. Like “The Visitor” in Pasolini’s film Teorema (1968), the political discourse of d14 acted as a defamiliarization mechanism, unveiling traumas and repressed attractions. At the same time, the Greek criticism of d14 was self-referential to the political condition of Greece itself, and restrictively approached d14 as a mere metonymy of the political adversary, failing to look at the exhibition per se, the works and their curatorial cohesion.
Political art as a neurosis
In this sense it is worth exploring how “political art” is defined today. This question was key to d14. No answer to it can avoid measuring itself against the description of the matter as attempted by Walter Benjamin in 1934, in “The Author as Producer.” Benjamin opens the essay with a reference to the tedious and fruitless debate among the European Left of the interwar years about what matters most—the clear and correct political tendency or the artistic quality of a work. He soon makes it clear that what is important is not a work’s “political line” but its “technique” and its participation in the relationships of production of a period which make it accessible to a social, and hence “materialist,” analysis. Eighty-three years later, d14 highlights a currently dominant attitude towards the question of “political art” which has all the traits of a declarative or discursive event. Art needs to reconnect to society and the present time. But how? The emphasis goes back to the “subject,” the “view,” and the “political line” with a strong didactic character, and is not on “technique” or the artwork’s participation in the relationships of production, and hence “materialist analysis.” Most of d14 was essentially a text-centered exhibition, communicated through the transparent policy or the anthropological obviousness of the artistic act—that is, through language. If we had to trace a change of paradigm, it would be in the priority afforded to the lingual level: the exhibition itself, the program and its meanings, but also the disputing of it, are expressed more through concepts and terms (natives, nationless, queer, minorities, feminism, LGBT, heightened anti-capitalist rhetoric, dictatorship, democracy, and so on), and less through the works themselves. This may add another dimension to the deliberate—and often attractive—choice of minor works and artistic practices. This is because d14 is but a narrative which functions mostly through language. Yet once such a perception of “political art” is positioned at the center of world art, it becomes inevitably what it wished to avoid: a normative paradigm which confirms the normative role of the institution itself, and which in turn attempts to repudiate this. In this sense, d14 constitutes a “total social event” without a society, and a mega-institution that increasingly resembles the psychopathology of neurosis: it reveals by concealing.
A profound spectacle
D14 was an exhibition based on the archive, exploring architectural, anthropological, notational, and other systems of knowledge which have generated resistance and ruptures, and contributed to the fluidity of forms and identities—national, cultural, gender, or other. Yet this shift towards the text, towards language and flow, inevitably poses issues of performativity in artistic and curatorial practice. What are the limits to the political orientation of a major exhibition, especially when attempted in the context of a society in political hyper-excitement? How political can a political exhibition be? In other words, to what extent can it address its audience politically? In this context it is worth considering the example of Albanian artists in d14. The exhibition’s delving into the archive of Albanian artistic production was an ingenious curatorial move with many complementary functions. It highlighted an overlooked body of artists and also touched on the great postwar adventure of art and politics; it affirmed the aesthetic power of the indomitable art and propaganda workshop of socialist realism, but also the resistance to it—and that in a country without the tradition of Russia or Poland. It recontextualized the genealogy of Albania’s established contemporary artists, like Adrian Paci or Αnri Sala, although they were not included in the exhibition, demonstrating the historical depth of the Albanian School. At the same time, it did something more: it presented these works in Greece, a country whose official policy and whose population had always been hostile to the Albanian community, so that for two decades Albania and Albanians were the prime targets of Greek xenophobia. The exhibition of the multifaceted Edi Hila, Sotir Capo, and the esoteric Arben Basha could have been in many ways a top political act, demonstrating the chasms and contradictions in the Greek cultural context. However, it went largely unnoticed. Part of the responsibility for this lies precisely within the critical paroxysm which focused on an abstract political dimension of d14 and failed to listen to the discourse that the exhibition articulated. Another part of the responsibility, however, lies with an innate political “misfire” in the curatorial practice itself. How well could this fissure in the reception context of d14 (i.e., Athens) be understood by an international audience which, although positively disposed, shared none of the life conditions of either the artists on show or the host city? D14, at least in its Athenian version, failed to get its political, anthropological, and cultural agenda into a true dialogue with an audience actively interested in this agenda, stopping instead at a profound yet shallow spectacle.
The Other today
The political content of d14 revolved around a central political precept: the redefinition of the Other. The title, “Learning from Athens,” initially drew our attention to the weak link of the acute European crisis. Yet, as it transpired, the focus acquired a broader and more complex horizon. Of key importance throughout this event were the policies of alterity. Hence, it would be naive, almost ludicrous, to claim that this was merely a neocolonial act, as some hastened to declare. Essentially it is a quest for the political in contemporary art as something that is located “elsewhere”—in the “repressed” Other. It would be useful at this point to resort to the hermeneutic scheme of Hal Foster and expand upon it; for example, in modernity the place of the Other went to the proletariat or the primitive, and in postmodernism to the subalterns (i.e., the postcolonial agent). This approach marked Documenta 11, directed by Okwui Enwezor in 2002. D14 attempted a field shift: the authenticity of the Other lies in the natives, minorities, refugees, and all those without a country, but also in the queer, and even in the “sex worker.” This “lumpen proletariat of the twenty-first century,” as described by Paul Preciado—one of d14’s curators—reforms the model of the ethnographer. This a matter of fundamental importance, since it could mark a key cultural contribution of d14. Instead, excessive self-confidence and a showy handling of this contemporary condition—especially during the opening phase of the Program of Public Actions—and the distinction of the authenticity of the constructed Other triggered a series of pointless differences and controversies of a predominantly moral nature. The risk described by Foster came true once again: victimization of the Other, anthropological exoticism, ethnographic conceit, claims of expertise on matters of gender, and a kind of cultural arrogance, not to mention the notion of “ideological patronage” or narcissistic self-fashioning. Thus, against the “self-encapsulation” of star artists, what d14 ended up registering—despite the likelihood of different intentions from many artists, the art director, and certain curators—was a series of moral dipoles (authentic/non-authentic, systemic/anti-systemic, egoism/altruism, self-interest/selflessness, etc.) and the totalized de-territorialization of the constructed Other. In the case of Athens, this tends towards othering (i.e., creating a fascinating yet devalued Other). The result of all this schematization was extensive confusion and the displacement of debates to the old ideological condition of “false consciousness.”
Realism vs. Mysterion
If we were to pinpoint one predominant aesthetic idiom, this would be an ascendancy of realism—and sometimes a new kind of socialist realism—over abstraction and what composer Jani Christou called Mysterion (1965). The latter was represented mainly by works of experimental music (such as the drawing-scores of Christou and Jakob Ullmann, the painting of Sedje Hémon, etc.), but this direction was not sufficiently pursued any further. It is worth noting here that some of the most interesting works of d14 moved in this direction, relating to music and sound in general. The political revival of realism obviously has its roots in the expansion of the biopolitical and somatic horizon in contemporary art, and the attraction exerted by the language of the media, but also in a key vein of the nineteenth century which should not go unnoticed. Contemporary realism can be seen as the ultimate destination of naturalism, at least in the way it was described by Wilhelm Dilthey, approaching the real in a direct and “raw” fashion, with no qualms.
A new genealogy
The labels for the works in the Athens events used small rectangular pieces of marble, which brought to mind how contemporary Athens was founded on the utopia of classicism, but also the riots in the streets, in which pieces of marble removed from buildings are often used as a makeshift weapon. In Kassel, d14 used more traditional signage, reinforcing the feeling that the Athenian exhibition was ultimately a single, huge project in situ. Yet this reference to marble, alongside other artistic materials of the exhibition—the use of the area around the Acropolis as designed by the architect Dimitris Pikionis in the 1950s, the opening performance with the horses under the shadow of the Parthenon, which resembled the ancient Panathenaea procession, Marta Minujín’s Parthenon made of books in Kassel—awakened the fear of d14 reviving a classicist ghost. Moreover, the documenta rhetoric about the emancipatory, movement-like aspect of nativism recalled the ideological constructs around land and an essentialist relation to ancient Greece as supposed traits of the nation which, in the Greek context, are not restricted to an extreme-right nationalist discourse but permeate the entire political spectrum. It was only recently that mainstream culture began to liberate itself from the double grip of ancient Greek civilization and its complementary folk culture. With its stature as a robust contemporary institution, d14 could potentially restore this twin bond as a new, active, and stifling hetero-determination. Happily, it avoided this danger. Perhaps its most important curatorial proposition, at least as far as Greece is concerned, was that it reconstructed a narrative of contemporary Greek culture based on the ruptured, unfinished, and fluid poetic thought; what in recent history has moved on the fringe of what is mainstream and permissible. It functioned corrosively with regard to the perception of the contemporary, not by seeking out the minor but by showcasing the overlooked corrosive forces in what is already major. In this respect there was a key way in which d14 visited such notable figures of contemporary Greek culture as Yannis Tsarouchis, Elias Petropoulos, Jani Christou, Ioannis Despotopoulos, and George Lappas and set them within a new, crucial, and critical genealogy. Equally significantly, it sought to trace within current conditions the official or unofficial institutions and discourses that formed part of the same genealogy of fluidity. Of course, this had an unexpected downside: it used, deliberately or unconsciously, years of fieldwork and experimentation by artists and thinkers who worked at great cost and without the institutional backing of a major exhibition, and did not always acknowledge their contribution.
Didacticism without pleasure
The greatest paradox of d14 was certainly that it constituted an interesting exhibition without the attendant pleasure one would expect. Although this claim is necessarily aphoristic, it is worth consideration. Why? Because it is obviously not a question of current hedonistic tendencies, but the exact opposite: an exhibition that does not afford pleasure blocks our access to its spiritual aspect and thus underplays the radical questions it might raise. In short, it fails to keep alive the potential concerns, disturbances, and ruptures. In Athens d14 soon acquired the expanded character of a series of shows and events scattered around forty venues, with a surplus of didacticism and a deficit of pleasure which diminished their unpredictable ramifications and consequences. To the uncritical pleasure of blockbuster art shows it juxtaposed a critical approach without pleasure, without paroxysm, and essentially without negativity. D14 is one of those exhibitions which are meant to provoke, yet actually tend towards the mild nature of the median—and this is one of the reasons that we approach it with mixed feelings. Of course, it would be silly to claim that it did not include works that moved us artistically or intrigued us with their anthropological and psychological insights. I can cite as examples Rebecca Belmore’s emblematic marble tent on Filopappou Hill and the most poignant of d14’s interactive projects, Rick Lowe’s Victoria Square Project. Above all, however, it was those “minor works” scattered around various locations, passages, and “niches” of the exhibition that approached what Szymczyk described as “the darkness of not knowing.” Here we must include some of the Greek artists who participated. But there were also events and projects that resorted to readymade ideologies, moralistic arrogance, narcissistic opposition to neoliberalism, and sentimental responses to complex issues. This surplus of didacticism played a crucial role, distorting the identity and the scope of the Athenian event. Such a didactic attitude—what Benjamin calls Lehrwert—in the Program of Public Actions was presented as a political act par excellence.
As soon as the parallel presence of d14 in Kassel and Athens was announced under the provisional—and eventually official—title, “Learning from Athens,” a spontaneous awkwardness arose: “What can one learn from Athens?” and “Why should one learn from Athens?” This double query is effectively condensed in the single historical, political, and cultural question of “What is Athens?” The syntax of the title readily brings to mind the classic work Learning from Las Vegas (1972) by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, in which the local folk architecture of what was still a small, almost makeshift city was proposed by the authors as a new model of urban planning and architecture. Moreover, as Robert Assaye pointed out, it “nods to German artist Christoph Schlingensief’s stated desire to ‘learn from Africa’ through the construction of an ‘opera village’ in Burkina Faso.” One could be tempted to assume that the exhibition approached Athens as a similarly idealized primordial space, a topology of the folkloric, the makeshift, the seemingly unruly, and still close to the earth (i.e., a topology that reverses and reproduces the stereotypes which have accompanied Greece since the onset of the crisis, mainly in the tabloid press of Germany and Britain). Yet d14 avoided this reduction. The Athens of the exhibition emerges as a city-matrix, like all cities in Europe, which has a historical tradition and is subject to history; a city that generates culture, buildings and contradictions, social movements and unfulfilled plans; a city with its avant-gardes and its monuments, its empty buildings and its painters. The “Greek works” in d14—from the proposals of architect Christos Papoulias for the Acropolis Museum to Eva Stefani’s narrative about the “Odyssey of Molly” (Manuscript, 2017), and from the mathematical music scores of Iannis Xenakis to the interaction of cinema and literature in Constantinos Hatzinikolaou—attest to the city’s normality, to the pace of a city that participates like any other in Europe in the postwar vision, to the plans of the avant-garde and the great letdown of the new millennium. The Athens of d14 is a city, the exhibition seems to be saying, which we must notice beyond the mnemonic disturbance on the Acropolis, as Freud put it; we must perceive it in terms of the view of the city from the Acropolis and not the view of the Acropolis.
If Athens is a city of normality, what can one learn from it? The curatorial framework of the exhibition says clearly that Athens is a normal city shaken by crisis, a city which presages the economic, political, and social collapse that threatens Europe, and at the same time a privileged receptor of alterity: the alterity of the destitute resident, the alterity of the native person at risk of losing their land, language, and tradition, the alterity that claims it owns gender and sexual identity. D14 uses the crisis as both a subject and a framework through which to receive and interpret the works and artistic gestures. Each work in the exhibition is read because it is presented in a city that is in a state of emergency. Conversely, the works on show at the d14 venues furnish the city with the specters of individuals and identities, the whispers of forgotten tales and lost localities, the dust of the soil. In this sense the title “Learning from Athens” proposes that we look at Athens as a transparent present that foretells a global dystopia, at the same time proposing methods and tactics for reflection, resistance, and everyday practice.
D14 managed not to make Athens the destination of a revived romantic tour where the ruins of ancient temples are replaced or complemented by the ruins of the social body. However, it has constructed Athens through a twofold statement: on the one hand, it claims Athens to be at the core of European identity, part of the system of Europe’s social and political structures; on the other, that Athens is forever remote from Europe, forever not belonging to Europe, precisely because this proximity/distance makes it “something from which we will learn.” The critique of d14 is that it has tried to deliberate about Athens but did not sufficiently determine who is to “learn” from it. Who is the syntactic subject of “learning”? Perhaps we should recall here the French linguist Émile Benveniste, who distinguished two levels of parole, narrative and dialogue, and asserted that the “I” of the enunciation belongs exclusively to the dialogue and can never be defined on the basis of the objects to which it refers, but only with respect to the speech act conditions. “The ‘I’ can only be defined by the instant of the dialogue which includes it,” and in this sense is equivalent to the “you” which is waiting in the dialogue to take its turn. If we consider that the subject of “learning” is in dialogue with Athens, we find ourselves before the conditions for mutual hetero-determination: learning from Athens means constructing an alterity but also being constructed by and as an alterity.
“It’s about the connecting force from form to form. […] And form is always environmental. […] For those in the business of making aesthetic forms, the god-business, the business of calibration, the questions of aesthetic presence and absence, instinct and craft, are complex ones riddled with hubris, humility, hope, respect.” Ali Smith reminds us that every metaphor and every transformation is founded on this topological dimension of form, intrinsically associated, in the history of art and ideas, with an absence that words, images, sounds, and acts try to reconstitute and fulfill. Hubris, humility, hope, and respect are the foundation not only of the arts, but also of the politics and power that model and remodel Europe. D14 attempted to remind us about this association through its success and failures.
The exhibitional economics of power
The gigantism of d14 in the wounded body of a city like crisis-ridden Athens undermined the orientation, exacerbated the vagueness, and impeded the generation of meaning—or, rather, increased the “hemorrhage of meaning.” A kind of political horror vacui permeated the event in Athens, and the inevitable overemphasis in artistic achievement shifted the focus of interest onto the power, ascendancy, and dominance of the institution. This undermined the meaning and founding principle of documenta itself, but also our ability to “weave” mental associations and possibilities, ambivalent artistic codes and differences. The great scale of power vanquished the marginal forms of artistic expression and led to an economy of power which promotes fatigue, distracted attention, and incredulity to annihilate the mystery and the opacity of the Other. The gaze of the Other presupposes weakness, as in Aristotle’s “all power is powerlessness,” because only thus can it deactivate the mechanisms and practices of power. And this, indeed, could be one of the issues at stake in “Learning from Athens” today.