TJ Demos reflects on documenta 14, Athens.
T J Demos
Marta Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, 2017, steel, books, and plastic sheeting, Friedrichsplatz, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Roman März
With its provocative working title, ‘Learning from Athens’, documenta 14 split its exhibition between the Greek capital and Kassel, the latter, its traditional base since its post-war founding in 1955 as a project of de-nationalisation in post-fascist reconstruction-era Germany. In doing so, documenta 14 extended the trend of recent iterations of the quinquennial show, including the eleventh edition directed by Okwui Enwezor, with several of its ‘platforms’ located outside of Europe, including Lagos, St Lucia, and New Delhi; and the thirteenth by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, with activities set in war-torn Kabul, as a means to connect art to crisis zones beyond placid central Germany and in order to deprovincialise the exhibition. The most recent version foregrounded crisis Europe, learning from the precarious situation of Germany’s austerity-struck southern neighbor, and more broadly the perilous financial, political, and demographic conditions of the EU today. Its thematic engagement was perhaps most spectacularly announced in The Parthenon of Books, 2017, Marta Minujín’s scale replica of the Acropolis’s iconic building. Reconstructed in wire and plastic and prominently situated on the Friederichsplaz just in front of the Fridericianum museum, it provided an armature on which to display books that have been banned worldwide. The lesson of Minujín’s anti-monument to censorship appeared to be that modern liberal democratic society, originating in classical Greece, has been terribly impoverished by the repressive forces that challenge free speech. Yet the intervention also dramatised the generally vague way Athens was invoked and made to signify in documenta 14 at large.
Rather than learning from Mosul or Moscow or Caracas – other prospective locations of contemporary crisis that could also have provided worthy lessons for current politics and culture – documenta organisers chose Athens, one suspects, because the city has emerged during the last few years as a flashpoint providing insights on the withering state of democracy in the face of our most recent stage of capitalist authoritarianism, no doubt an epoch-changing transition defining our present.1 Indeed, one wonders whether we are living at a time when democracy is finally outliving its political usefulness, for which it has long functioned in fact as an apology for imperialism, domination and social inequality. For is that not one important lesson of ancient Athens, the Greek city-state where democracy provided not only a novel structure for representative governance (albeit for the few), but also defined an efficient operating system for the entrenched practice of patriarchy, slavery, classism and military expansionism?2 If so, then the contradictory aspects dramatised by the spectacular failure, more recently, of once-hopeful popular political party alternatives, such as in Greece, to the neoliberal austerity policies imposed by the European economic consensus led by France and Germany, are not entirely new. In that case, the most urgent lesson to be learned today from Athens, one would expect, is how to re-invent politics following the seemingly radical leftist party Syriza’s astonishing reversal of the 2015 popular referendum, when citizens overwhelmingly rejected the bailout conditions proposed by the Troika (comprising the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) for the Eurozone’s rescue of the Greek state’s debt. With that reversal, the Greek alternative faltered and democracy was revealed as a farce. How might artistic creativity be injected into a radical political recalibration in order to reconstruct a world worth living in beyond that moment of crisis?
Addressing that very quandary, documenta 14’s artistic director, Polish curator Adam Szymczyk, asserted his agenda in an editorial inaugurating the first of three issues of South as a State of Mind – the Athens-based journal that hosted documenta’s publication of its conceptual and theoretical framework in advance of the exhibition: ‘documenta 14 is… a plea for imagining and elaborating on the possibilities of a different, more inclusive world, one that appears unattainable in the light of current political and economic developments and the unmasked violence they bring about’.3 As he explained further, our current ‘state of emergency’ involves both ‘the near-collapse of the banking sector and the establishment and dissolution of the new left-wing government, under conditions created by European-imposed austerity programs that have produced one of the worst modern depressions ever recorded in a developed country’. In addition, that crisis has coincided with ‘the largest recorded global displacement of people since World War II’, a ‘humanitarian crisis… with the displacement of four million Syrians fleeing civil war, as well as those escaping the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa, all imagining a possibly better life on the European continent’.4 In other words, documenta promised to learn from the state of contemporary post-democracy, where elected populist governments move against their constituency’s wishes with impunity, where economic austerity is more and more the unquestioned rule of the day, and where inequality has spilled over into a deplorable and unmanageable refugee crisis, fanning the flames of rising intolerance, xenophobia, militarised security and illiberal governance. While that set of affairs obtains in Europe, it is, in fact, with important regional variations, global in scope. ‘We will insist on ‘learning from Athens’ not as from the cradle of Western civilisation but as a place where the contradictions of the contemporary world, embodied by loaded directionals like East and West, North and South, meet and clash…’ Szymczyk noted, appropriately seeking to avoid the obvious dangers of superficially invoking the over-determined Greek capital as misguided conceptual inspiration, even as it became emblematic of our global condition.5
The problem was, that, as with Minujin’s Parthenon of banned books and the many other romantic representations of the Acropolis and its celebrated architecture in the galleries – particularly in Kassel’s Neue Galerie, where there were paintings and drawings of the classical icons by documenta’s founding director Arnold Bode, Hitler’s favorite painter Alexander Kalderach, and first president of the German Republic Theodor Heuss – the exhibition itself, measured in its artistic inclusions, declined to directly address the situation of Athens with any theoretical depth or political specificity. It thereby risked acritically repeating the very colonial dynamic that many saw in the initial proposal and realisation of bringing the massively funded and powerful German ‘exhibitionary complex’ – in the words of Tony Bennett as quoted by Szymczyk in several of his documenta statements – to its poor southern EU neighbor, the very one that had accused Germany of bullying and exploiting Greece in the context of the latter’s debt crisis. (In fact soon after documenta’s opening in Athens, a new round of Eurozone-imposed tax increases and pensions cuts kicked in). For, aside from a handful of exceptions to its artistic checklist – including Bouchra Khlaili’s The Tempest Society and Angela Melitopoulos’s Crossings, both commissioned for the show, and more on which below – there really was no investigation of Athens’s politico-economic circumstances or its radical and rebellious social context within the galleries of Athens or Kassel. Even in the three issues of South, there was hardly any discussion of the exhibition’s putative theme, aside from that of Angela Dimitrakaki’s ‘“Elections Change Nothing”: On the Misery of the Democracy of Equivalence’ in the magazine’s first edition.6
Rather, the show appeared surprisingly distanced from that urgency, its selections in general surveying a history of twentieth-century art, including many aesthetically self-referential models completely removed from Athens’s situation.7 Indeed, simply walking around the graffiti-filled Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens, with its many self-organised community spaces and political meeting grounds – an area associated with radical leftists and anarchists – felt closer to the Greek state of emergency than nearly anything in the exhibition. It was not shocking then that the outspoken critic of EU economic policy Yanis Varoufakis compared documenta’s relation to Athens as ‘colonial’, one that, given the curators’ off-the-shelf critique of neoliberalism, completely missed the mark, delivered as it was without any mention of the Troika, Brussels or the German austerity czar and Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble. More, what Athens has to teach, according to the scathing critique of Syriza’s former Finance Minister and recent founder of DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, is not another stock case of neoliberal structural adjustment, as documenta curators argued, but rather something beyond its logic. Athens in fact reveals a post-neoliberal condition of twenty-first-century gunboat diplomacy, of economic war executed by bureaucrats, with the simple goal of extracting maximum wealth from the Greek state by raising taxes, exploiting debt, and stripping the country’s assets, including its seaports, airports, mines, real estate, and anything else of value, in order to guarantee the profits of German and French banks. Highlighting how the exhibition took advantage of Greek hospitality, receiving its many venues for free or on the cheap, Varoufakis observed how ‘Documenta took a great deal more from Athens – from both its private and public sector – than it gave. Adding the veneer of a left-wing narrative against neoliberalism to a purely extractive neocolonial project that’s framed as a gift to Greece is adding insult to injury’.8 The word on the street echoed this charge, as one of many acts of anti-documenta graffiti found around Athens’ exhibition venues declared: ‘DEAR DOCUMENTA 14: IT MUST BE NICE TO CRITIQUE CAPITALISM ETC. WITH A 38 (70?) MILLION EURO BUDGET. SINCERELY, OI 18AGENEIS.’ As a large-scale project of international scope set within the EU’s crisis political economy, it is indeed hard to see how the exhibition resisted perpetuating the cultural logic of late capitalism. If it did so it was in word alone, merely paying lip service to radical politics but practicing cultural colonialism, critiquing colonialism but demanding ticketed admission to its commodified experiences, proposing to learn from Athens but conspicuously not from Germany.
So what did we learn from documenta 14? The enormous sprawling presentation of diverse artistic mediums addressed a wide range of topics, occupying approximately thirty-two venues in Kassel and forty-seven in Athens. With its overarching thematic giving way to numerous smaller organising topics, none of which dominated the exhibition or cohesively related to each other, the inclusions indicated less a single disciplined curatorial vision and more the varied concerns of the large group of curators comprising Szymczyk’s team, not surprising given the vast scale of the show.9Among the notable subjects addressed by the exhibition’s more than 160 artists were the legacies of experimental practices outside conventional art-historical canons, especially those from former Soviet block countries (the previously largely unfamiliar paintings of Albanian artist Edi Hila were seemingly omnipresent, and Polish artist Artur Żmijewski presented videos in both Athens and Kassel). Art of the 1960s and 1970s investigating experimental sound, dance and performance also took on a recurrent presence, including Open Form models of Polish architect and pedagogue Oskar Hansen; documentary miscellany from the collective San Francisco Bay area workshops of dance pioneer Anna Halprin and her landscape architect husband Lawrence Halprin; abstract scores and compositions of English music composer Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra; and the archive of album covers and belongings of the late Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Connecting to local musical tradition, the exhibition restored the EMS Synthi 100, an analogue synthesiser build in 1971 and purchased by Athens’s Contemporary Music Research Center (KSYME), for which four new compositions were commissioned.
There were also numerous references to the history of geometrical and biomorphic utopian abstraction, with the contribution of several drawings and sculptures by US-artist Agnes Denes, and more recent colorful plaid canvases of compatriot Stanley Whitney. Several artists addressed migration and cultural displacement, including the epic video installations of British artist Theo Eshetu creating a montaged catalogue of multicultural physiognomic difference drawn from global art history and pop culture with overlaid audio files reproducing speeches by James Baldwin, and the musical constructions made from refugee detritus originating from both the US-Mexico border and the shores of Greek Islands by Mexican sculptor Guillermo Galindo. Another thematic node was the exploration of post-identitarian body politics, developed, for instance, in the work of gender non-conforming artists, including Lorenza Böttner’s foot paintings, Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle’s eco-sexual performances and archive of related documents that links environmental justice with post-anthropocentric libidinal desire. The latter subject was also expanded upon in the exhibition’s public programming directed by Spanish gender and sexuality theorist Paul B Preciado under the title ‘Parliament of Bodies’, with numerous events before and during the summer dedicated to the formation of ‘an antifascist, transfeminist, and antiracist coalition’.10
Agnes Denes, The Living Pyramid, 2015/2017, various materials, Nordstadtpark, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
Theo Eshetu, Atlas Fractured, 2017, digital video projected on banner, Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
In addition to these diverse explorations, a further major strand in the exhibition was Indigenous art practices examining such topics as postcolonial cultural endangerment, the deconstruction of Western anthropological epistemologies, environmental destruction of native lands, and the persistence of tradition in the neocolonial present (in this regard, it was questionable how Indigenous decolonial political aesthetics, predicated on the return of land and respect for native autonomy and tradition, could possibly conform to Preciado’s postidentitarian call for solidarity on the basis of radical nomadism and displacement from conventional body categories). Among the highlights were the contributions of the Sámi Artist Group addressing the culture of Indigenous peoples traditionally residing in the far north of Norway, Sweden and Finland, including the hand drawn and colored maps of these lands by Keviselie/Hans Ragnar Mathisen, various proposals for Sámi flags by Synnøve Persen, and Britta Marakatt-Labba’s rather amazing Historja (2003-2007). Presented in Kassel’s Documenta Halle, the latter is an embroidered tapestry on linen spanning more than twenty-three meters and offering a nonlinear account of Sámi life interspersed with selected historical events, which one can read like a scroll. Reindeers are herded, daytime and night-time scenes are depicted, and in one passage Sámi anti-colonial rebels burn down a church and kill its missionaries. Other Indigenous-related projects were Thomas Dick’s early twentieth-century photographic archive of anthropological studies of Australia’s Birpai aboriginal community, coupled with John Heath’s contemporary critical research into his ancestors who appear in those idealised images; Khvay Samnang’s zoomorphic masks made out of vine inspired by the Indigenous Chong people of Cambodian; and the recently fabricated colorful wooden masks of the late Beau Dick appealing to Kwakwaka’wakw cosmology in the traditional style of Northwest Coast tribes.
Britta Marakatt-Labba, Historja, 2003–2007, embroidery, print, appliqué, and wool on linen, documenta Halle, Kassel, © Britta Marakatt-Labba/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14, photo: Roman März
With these diverse selections, the exhibition developed a complex account of Indigenous cultural continuities and disjunctures, especially as they merged with Western contemporary artistic conventions. As such they expressed an antinomy of postcolonial conflict and hybrid signifying systems, where Indigenous aesthetic modes emerging from communal customs were displayed in white-cube environments valorising exceptional individual identities.11 Yet this was not unknowing. Indeed, if the exhibition’s deconstruction of anthropology’s colonial connections felt at times like outmoded 1980s exercises in institutional critique, curatorial team member Candice Hopkins made it clear that many battles over the ownership of cultural property remain unresolved just as colonialism is far from concluded. She addressed the cultural repatriation of Indigenous objects and the canny historical transformations of cultural practices like the Potlatch ceremony as a means of postcolonial survival in her essay in South.12 In another South contribution, Gene Ray developed documenta’s relation to Indigeneity further by offering a moving personal account of the inadequacies of Frankfurt-school critical theory, especially when attempting to comprehend the intersection of colonial genocide and modern industrial ecocide.13 With that discussion in mind, it was astounding that the exhibition made little or no reference to current artistic explorations – including Indigenous ones – of climate change in its galleries, given that subject’s increasingly indisputable status as the most urgent and unprecedented world-historical challenge facing contemporary civilisation and its biodiverse life-worlds.
While the documenta curators risked perpetuating a predominantly traditionalist and even essentialist view of Indigenous artists – where the signs of aboriginal difference and authenticity were connected most often to non-Western aesthetic expressions distinct from the dominant neo-conceptualist, representationally critical and new media trends of global contemporary art – the inclusion of the Indigenous North American collective Postcommodity was a notable exception. One of the group’s biopolitical acoustic installations, The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking (2017), was situated in the Athenian ruins of Aristotle’s ancient Lyceum, and utilised advanced audio technology capable of projecting sound long distances at great amplitude. The same technology was recently used in the militarised policing of the Standing Rock Indigenous resistance to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, where audio was weaponised at extreme and painful volumes in order to disperse water protectors. But here the decibels were lowered, the speakers playing music from Greece and the Southwestern United States, forming part of a daylong ‘opera’, such that the violent infrastructure of the petro-capitalist state was put to radically different purposes. Postcommodity’s Indigenous aesthetics assumed a post-traditional modality, one, by extension, implicated in current geontological resource wars, to use the term of Elizabeth Povinelli, where opposing cultures are battling over the understanding of and ethical relation to Earth’s elements – sound included – in the present context of petrocapitalist ecocide.14
Postcommodity, The Ears between Worlds Are Always Speaking, 2017, two-channel hyperdirectional opera, installation view, Aristotle’s Lyceum, Athens, documenta 14, photo: Stathis Mamalakis
Inclusions like Postcommodity’s aside, the art-historical proclivities of documenta 14, in contrast with the more contemporary-focused iterations of previous versions, gave this exhibition an overall retrospective sensibility. As with the relocation of Athens’s EMST collection of modern and contemporary art to the whole of the Fridericianum, documenta’s traditionally privileged venue, for the length of the exhibition, it seemed more to gaze back at minor and peripheral artistic contexts of modernity, than to present a forward-looking art of political engagement and prefiguration, contrary to the promises of Szymczyk. When it did consider contemporary conditions, the exhibition often opted for modes of critical realism that, posed in a defiant refusal to look away, seemingly left little maneuverability beyond the continued documentation of ongoing colonial violence, as with Ahlam Shibli’s extensive photo-text presentation addressing the depredations of the Israeli occupation in al-Khalil/Hebron, where, more than ever, residents’ desire for home is continually confronted with the colonial military-political-bureaucratic complex. There was also Naeem Mohaiman’s Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), an impressive cinematic study of the history of the Nonaligned Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, narrated by historian Vijay Prashad, shot in New York’s United Nations headquarters and in Algiers, the site of the historic 1973 Non-Aligned Movement summit. The three-channel video addressed the collapse of the geopolitical formation that dared to resist Cold War oppositions between US capitalism and Soviet communism, resulting, in the case of Bangladesh, in its transformation into political Islamism as the newly post-secular basis of transnational solidarity. The piece’s history foreshadows the directions, shortfalls, and violent conflicts of the present. More broadly, it is tempting to see in Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning, his 2017 feature-length video presented in both Athens and Kassel, a diagnosis and critique of the exhibition’s apparent negotiation of the aforementioned state of emergency: both an escape into aestheticism without corresponding political engagement, and an acknowledgement that such a maneuver is self-defeating and bound to fail. Impressionistically depicting the enigmatic story of an old academic who retires to the forest and makes a home in an abandoned railway car, filled with poetic titles and sumptuously colored environmental shots, Kanwar’s video allegorises resignation that is clearly a contemporary quietist lure. Yet it is an ineffectual and disastrous one, as the video points out in its subsequent tale of an old woman who sits calmly in her seemingly secure house as it is literally dismantled around her. Analogously, it is incomprehensible how returning to aestheticist contemplations of geometric abstraction, avant-garde opacity, and open form indeterminacy, could possibly suggest an adequate or appropriate response to the current conditions of politico-ecological crisis, disaster capitalism, rampant militarism, and the resurgence of neo-fascist white supremacy.
Amar Kanwar, Such a Morning, 2017, digital video, installation view, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) – Pireos Street, ‘Nikos Kessanlis’ Exhibition Hall, documenta 14, photo: Freddie F
However, there were three notable exceptions to documenta’s strongly historicist and aesthetically mediated relation to politics that did offer provocative models for such a response. These were the contributions of Bouchra Khalili, Forensic Architecture, and Angela Melitopoulos, which, in my view, were among the strongest inclusions in the show. As well, two of these, unlike the exhibition at large, actually addressed the current geopolitics of Athens and indeed have pressing lessons worth considering at length. First, Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society offered an hour-long video, presented in the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA), and University of Kassel’s Gottschalk-Halle, which re-actualises the Théâtre d’al-Assifa (‘Theater of the Tempest’), a project of radical street performance and a kind of ‘theatrical newspaper’ run by a North African migrant worker and two French students in 1970s Paris. Dedicated to anti-xenophobic politics and multicultural solidarity with migrants – ‘Wherever they can perform, they address injustice, inequality, and racism,’ the video explains – al-Assifa was re-engaged by Khalili in the context of contemporary Athens, with the piece’s three actors appearing on screen in carefully choreographed acts of storytelling directly addressing the camera. The performance mirrors the original triad of actor-activists, but here is rendered in the highly formal terms of serious political discourse. While it includes some rare original footage of the French troop, the video mainly offers its actors speaking about the current neocolonial creditor-debtor relations between Germany and Greece, the precarious situation of Europe and its refugee crisis, and more broadly the geopolitics of the Mediterranean region. The video reengages Pier Paolo Pasolini’s critical notion of the ‘civic poet’ as the necessary basis of the public performance of political solidarity – a longstanding reference for the artist. Yet one wonders whether our time of emergency renders Khalili’s oftentimes logocentric density ultimately illegible and inefficacious. More, what does it mean to reactivate such radical theater in the projected-image medium and black-box context, renewing calls for equality, civic belonging, and solidarity in the framework of a formally compacted video-essay shown in the confines of a consumerised international exhibition? One important though unacknowledged lesson here, which surely exceeds Khalili’s project, is the collapse of erstwhile theatrical models of anti-colonial liberation and radical political speech into the objectified and institutionalised commodity-form of dominant conventions of global contemporary art (even though performances in 1970s Paris too had their contradictions – how to deploy activist theater and cultural militancy about immigrant worker experience in a public sphere dominated by post-68 return-to-order France?). In this regard, Khalili’s act unintentionally reproduces the very contradictions committed by documenta 14, which risked making a commodity of crisis in its very attempt to show the crisis of the commodity, as anonymous graffiti pointed out in Athens. If this situation regarding the contemporary enclosure of radical artistic experience in capitalist consumer society is all-too-familiar, then it is one we must continue to come to terms with and to challenge, in part by inventing new forms of public exhibition, re-commoning space and institutions, and reversing ongoing privatisations.
Bouchra Khalili, The Tempest Society, 2017, digital video, installation view, Gottschalk-Halle, University of Kassel, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke
The second model is Forensic Architecture’s research project and accompanying video entitled 77sqm_9:26min (2017), presented in Kassel’s Neue Neue Galerie as part of a collaboration organised by the Society of Friends of Halit, referring to Halit Yozgat who was shot in Kassel on 6 April 2006. As the video clearly explains, Yozgat was killed while working at his family’s internet café – the size of the crime scene and the murder’s possible timeframe are identified in the video’s title. Halit was the ninth victim in what later proved to be a string of racially motivated murders committed by the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right German terrorist group operating between 2000 and 2011 (the only surviving member, Beate Zschäpe, is currently on trial in Munich along with suspected accomplices). The video’s investigation revolves around one Andreas Temme, an undercover agent working with the German intelligence service who had infiltrated the NSU and was actually present during Halit’s murder, though in his testimony Temme claims to have been present coincidentally and neither saw nor heard anything of the killing while he was in the café consulting a dating website. He has since been officially cleared of any involvement in the case, but not without lurking doubts. Reconstructing the crime scene both physically and virtually on the basis of various witnesses’ and official accounts, the London-based Forensic Architecture team tested Temme’s claims according to three scenarios, ultimately finding it highly unlikely that he could not have heard the gunshots, smelled the gunpowder, or seen Halit’s body lying on the floor behind the counter on his way out of the café.
While the video is completely convincing, it also appears unfortunately cut short, limited by its own positivist focus on testing Temme’s account, for it leaves largely unexplored two intriguing and disturbing implications also made in the video: either the agent carried out the killing himself or, colluding with the murderers, helped cover it up. Although Forensic Architecture’s explanation of the project states that ‘The term ‘NSU-Complex’ describes this composite of neo-Nazi terror and ever-increasing cycles of institutional and structural racism that run through contemporary German society,’ and that as such the internet café event serves as a ‘a microcosm of the entire social and political controversy that makes the “NSU Complex”’,15 the video itself leaves these wider ramifications of the case largely untouched. In addition to presenting the piece at documenta 14 as part of The Society of Friends of Halit, the investigation was presented at the NSU Tribunal in Cologne on 18 May 2017, at the German Parliamentary commission, and at community centers in Kassel. At the same time as Forensic Architecture makes use of counter-forensic practice – using standard technologies of criminological analysis against the very state and corporate actors that normally benefit from those technologies – it also inadvertently shows the limits of seeking justice by appealing to the same juridico-political system it shows to be flawed. While the Forensis project acknowledges the need for alternative forums of truth and politics beyond those already constituted by the state and its compromised institutions of law and governance,16 how might the consideration of documenta 14 as just such an unconventional public forum of truth be brought into the project itself, and its potential effectiveness as a force field of political transformation be assessed? Also, what does Forensic Architecture’s migration of the processes of investigative truth and justice into the non-public fields of nongovernmental organisations and experimental artistic and research architecture mean for the conditions of democracy and social justice? If we indeed confront a state of post-truth determined by institutional racism and anti-migrant xenophobia – which of course exceeds this local context – then the project’s learning from Kassel likely has much more to tell about the corrupted state of politics, legality, and democracy in Germany and beyond.
The third and final model of exemplary politico-aesthetic engagement at documenta 14 was Angela Melitopoulos’s Crossings (2017), an epic four-channel video and sixteen-channel sound installation running at 109 minutes, with contributions from Angela Anderson, Maurizio Lazzarato and others.17 The project represents a continuation of the artist’s established research into European political geographies delivered via cinematographic stagings. Specifically in this case she investigates the extraction of resources in Greece both in ancient and contemporary times, where archaeological strata reveal traces of social exploitation and environmental violence that overlay one other. Presented at the University of Kassel’s Giesshaus, the round building’s setting was entirely appropriate: it originally served as part of the nineteenth century Henschel factory that subsequently became one of the central sites of arms production in Nazi Germany, relying on more than 6,000 forced workers, a history that adds further resonances to the video’s historically expansive investigation of slave labour, anti-democracy and colonialism. Crossings was, in my view, the most conceptually far-reaching and analytically devastating project in the entire show, moving beyond both Khalili’s at-times opaque allegories and idiosyncratic performative mediations, and Forensic Architecture’s positivist-leaning investigation of figural contradictions set against a largely unexplored ground of systemic factors. Melitopoulos’s video begins by investigating gold, copper, and rare earth extraction occurring in the Skouries mine in the Halkidiki Peninsula, near Thessaloniki in northeast Greece, locating extraction as a key paradigm of contemporary capitalism’s ongoing accumulation of wealth.18 There, transnationals such as Eldorado Gold of Canada and the Greek subsidiary Hellas Gold are in the process of laying waste to a pristine forest ecosystem with clean water supporting traditional agriculture coinciding with a cultural-heritage landscape dotted with ancient archaeological ruins. The area is also the scene of violent conflict, which the video investigates at length. Militant activists have been involved in protests, sabotage operations, and have been repeatedly repulsed by militarised riot police equipped with chemical weapons supporting the massive extractivist machine that transforms everything into a source of exploitable capital for the benefit of the elite few (with little to no proceeds going to Greece). In placing viewers uncomfortably in the crossfire of its four large screens, the installation forces an experiential confrontation with this war zone, as if demanding of the viewer to choose whose side they are on. When faced with the evidence of imposed financial and resource exploitation, brutal police assaults, massive environmental destruction, and democratic collapse, the answer is not very difficult.
Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017, video and sound installation, installation view, Giesshaus, University of Kassel, Kassel © Angela Melitopoulos/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, documenta 14, photo: Nils Klinger
Crossings presents multiple sources of footage, which rotate on competing screens. Overview shots depict heavy machinery transforming Skouries into an environmental sacrifice zone, polluting the area with mercury, arsenic and cyanide spread by dust and acid rain, similar to other surface mines, from the Canadian Tar Sands to those in Indonesia and Brazil. These shots are punctuated with interviews with diverse stakeholders, including long-time residents of the area, political activists, migrants, and an archaeologist, who provide first-hand accounts of the situation, articulating the political stakes of the struggle for environmental and social justice, and elaborating on the wider context of both ancient metallurgy techniques and contemporary procedures. As it turns out, Halkidiki was once mined for precious metals by slaves in pre- and classical Attica, when bonded labourers were several times more populous than citizens. As with the Laurion silver mines to the southeast, these operations provided the wealth that enabled ancient Athens, an economy driven by the constitutive social inequalities of money, to buy the ships to defeat the Persians in the Peloponnesian Wars, and in turn open the way for Athenian dominance of the region’s other city-states, as archaeologist Panos Kasaris explains in the video. As he tells that revealing story, footage of contemporary Brussels-based EU financial ministers appears, the implication being that that history of socio-political brutality and environmental violence, executed in the name of ‘democracy’, is repeating itself today. Crossings thus reveals a fascinating modern version of extraction that constitutes nothing less than a war fought by other means, by accountants, bureaucrats and politicians, one that is bloodless but not without its victims. As such, it portrays a contemporary ‘chaosmosis’ – as the video’s voiceover deploys Guattari’s term for the transversal nexus of subjective, social and environmental intersections – of politico-ecological and financial violence, with roots in ancient slavery and the classical mobilisation of democracy for imperial purpose. Developing this story, Melitopoulos utilises her own mode of archaeological forensics to draw larger conclusions (indeed, she studied in Goldsmith’s Research Architecture program, out of which Forensic Architecture also emerged), but without fetishising technological devices of cartographic and spatial analysis, and benefits in theoretical expansiveness by her longstanding collaboration with Maurizio Lazzarrato.
Moving to the wider context of extractivism’s current social topography, Crossings portrays scenes of Greece’s refugee camps, including one at Idomeni, north of Thessaloniki, and the Moria Camp on the island of Lesbos, just off Turkey’s coast, where migration is shown as symptomatic of social breakdown in the face of political authoritarianism, economic inequality, and environmental-military violence that is part of the global scourge of illiberal capitalism. Drawing on recordings of the voices of refugees participating in Inside Lands, a workshop that took place at Lesbos’s Pikpa refugee camp (the participants are identified in the video’s extensive credits), this section connects the pillaging of the country’s natural resources by transnational corporations to the structural social effects of similar zones of sacrifice elsewhere. The ‘crossings’ of temporal and spatial geographies of violence also introduce the forces of resistance that, like their causes, are similarly historically repeated today. Asylum-seekers tell of desperate conditions in the camps, the cruelty of police and guards, and the interminable waits that make their experience of migration allegedly worse than being in war-torn Afghanistan – which explains the many protests against, and condemnations of, these conditions, echoing the slave rebellions of ancient times that materialised demands for political transformation. Analysing these conditions, the video’s commentary suggests that migration is the most recent phase of decolonisation, implying that current demographic shifts and rebellious migrant subjectivities, challenging reified European nationalisms, will inevitably reshuffle political compositions, leading to new potentially emancipatory formations.
To give further outline to what these formations might be, the video includes interviews with refugee camp inhabitants who are also members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They discuss their self-critical and affirmatively feminist political culture and support for Kurdish leader and PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who, remarkably influenced by US social ecologist Murray Bookchin’s theories of libertarian municipalism, has attempted to develop autonomy beyond the state in northern Syria and Turkey. For his efforts, he has been jailed by the latter since 1999. The movement nonetheless continues in the autonomous zone of Rojava, established in 2012, currently being defended against the Islamic State and Turkey alike by the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the PKK, which camp interviewees commemorate in martyr posters and protest slogans shown in the video. Still, this is a volatile situation: While migrant children are shown learning words for care and love in new languages, protesters chant ‘Fuck the EU’, as the video depicts an explosive context oscillating between constructive community building within migrant culture and potentially violent revolutionary uprising. Given that instability, Crossings reaches one implied conclusion: just as one older Halkidiki-based anti-mining activist is shown admitting his hopelessness regarding political transformation in the current system, speculating that violent resistance may be the only effective solution, PKK camp residents sing songs in praise of revolutionary guerrillas set to the Greek bouzouki. In the authoritarian conditions of war fought by other means, it appears, life must be defended by any means necessary. And when democratic voting offers no effective means of political phase-shift – whether in ancient slave-holding states of patriarchal imperialism, or in today’s post-neoliberal unfolding of authoritarian capitalism – we must look beyond conventional systems for ways of reclaiming justice, equality, and environmental liveability, and inventing solidarity on that basis.
It is true that documenta 14 offered an important platform for the lessons revealed in Melitopoulos’s Crossings, as well as those of Khalili’s and Forensic Architecture’s projects. Each indeed made ‘a plea for imagining and elaborating on the possibilities of a different, more inclusive world, one that appears unattainable in the light of current political and economic developments and the unmasked violence they bring about…’which documenta 14 had promised its contributors would provide.19 In the end, however, those three models can be read only against the grain of the exhibition’s larger tendencies, which in many ways were, as we have seen, more invested in diverse and non-canonical modes of experimental aesthetics, particularly avant-garde practices committed to aesthetico-political indeterminacy, than in any kind of engaged or militant revolutionary practice appropriate to the anti-democratic crisis conditions we confront today. It is not that documenta 14’s conceptualisation of the contemporary state of emergency – politically authoritarian, violently militarised, ecologically catastrophic, and grotesquely unequal economically – was far off (Varoufakis’s critique notwithstanding). Rather, the exhibition, as a broad and strategic selection of artworks, failed to determinedly address or suggest viable contemporary responses to the historically unprecedented global urgency its curators diagnosed. If its inclusions were meant to provide responses to current crises, then what was absent was any articulation of how such a connection could be realised. As a result, one might very well conclude that the documenta project played the familiar divided role of the large-scale exhibition: offering artistic discoveries for future market investment, on the one hand, and, on the other, providing politically relevant discourse for researchers and critics. Ultimately, it was only with a handful of inclusions that incisive political analysis and captivating aesthetic form approached a compelling modelling, wherein we could glimpse both the alarming extent of growing contemporary politico-economic violence and environmental threat, and what it would mean to alter course and creatively bring about an alternative world.
T J Demos is Professor in the Department of the History of Art and Visual Culture, University of California, Santa Cruz, and Founder and Director of its Center for Creative Ecologies. He writes widely on the intersection of contemporary art, global politics, and ecology and is the author of numerous books, including: Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Sternberg Press, 2017); Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Sternberg Press, 2016); The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013) – winner of the College Art Association’s 2014 Frank Jewett Mather Award – and Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, 2013).
1 For diverse analyses of this condition, see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution, Zone, New York, 2015, and Luka Mesec, ‘The Greek Lesson’, Jacobin, 30 March 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/slovenia-eu-euro-integration-exit-austerity/; and Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2017.
2 See Roslyn Fuller, ‘Delivering “people power”: Lessons from Ancient Athens’, Roar, 10 January 2016, https://roarmag.org/essays/people-power-athenian-democracy/
3 Adam Szymczyk, ‘Editors’ Letter’, South as a State of Mind: Documenta 14, no 1, autumn/winter 2015, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/12_editors_letter
6 Angela Dimitrakaki, ‘“Elections Change Nothing”: On the Misery of the Democracy of Equivalence’, South as a State of Mind: Documenta 14, #1, autumn/winter 2015, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/
7 Or perhaps this was not surprising, given the funding structure of the exhibition.
8 Iliana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis, ‘‘We Come Bearing Gifts’— Iliana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens’, Art Agenda, 7 June, 2017, http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/d14/. See also: Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Greek Lesson: We Need European Democratization’, Counter-Punch, 11 September 2015, https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/11/greek-lesson-we-need-european-democratization/
9 For a list of the expanded documenta 14 curatorial team, see: http://www.documenta14.de/en/team
10 According to the online description: ‘The Parliament of Bodies, the Public Programs of documenta 14, emerged from the experience of the so-called long summer of migration in Europe, which revealed the simultaneous failure not only of modern representative democratic institutions but also of ethical practices of hospitality. The Parliament was in ruins. The real Parliament was on the streets, constituted by unrepresented and undocumented bodies resisting austerity measures and xenophobic policies.’ http://www.documenta14.de/en/public-programs/927/the-parliament-of-bodies. See also: Paul Preciado, ‘The Apatride Exhibition’, e-flux conversations, 10 April, 2017, https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/paul-b-preciado-the-apatride-exhibition/6392
11 Writing on the imposition of processes of severalty in relation to colonial history – but without addressing his subject’s controversial relation to Indigeneity – Fred Moten explains that ‘the individuation of the artist is already a kind of massacre’, in ‘Some Irruptions and Incoherences for Jimmie Durham’, in Anne Ellegood, ed, Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and DelMonico Books/Prestel, Munich, 2017, p 182
12 Candice Hopkins, ‘Outlawed Social Life’, South as a State of Mind: Documenta 14, no 2, spring/summer 2016, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/685_outlawed_social_life#footnote-4; also see her essay, ‘The Gilded Gaze: Wealth on the Colonial Frontier’, in Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, eds, the documenta 14 Reader, Prestel, London, 2017
13 Gene Ray, ‘Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame’, South as a State of Mind: Documenta #3, autumn/winter 2016, http://www.documenta14.de/en/south/895_writing_the_ecocide_genocide_knot_indigenous_knowledge_and_critical_theory_in_the_endgame
14 Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2016
15 See: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/146566/77sqm-9-26min/
16 See Eyal Weizman, ‘Introduction: Forensis’, in Forensic Architecture, ed, Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2014
17 The piece also includes a live performance version with two-screen projection and sound, also with the participation of Angela Anderson and Maurizzio Lazzarato, which was presented at the Greek Film Archive, Tainiothiki, Athens, on 9 May 2017
18 In this regard, her position resonates with recent analyses, such as Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, ‘On the Multiple Frontiers of Extraction: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism’, Cultural Studies, vol 31, issue 2/3, 2017, pp 185–204. For further research on extraction at the aesthetic and politico-economic intersection of current disaster capitalism and its multiple resistance movements, see the resources on the website of Extraction: Decolonial Visual Culture in the Age of the Capitalocene, a project developed by T J Demos of the Center for Creative Ecologies and Laurie Palmer, UC Santa Cruz, 2017, https://extraction.sites.ucsc.edu/
19 Szymczyk, ‘Editors’ Letter’, South as a State of Mind, op cit