MY OFFERING HERE, is a taste of the ‘documenta’ experience, starting from the press conference (April 6). Because one thing is for sure: we will be discussing ‘the documenta days’ in Athens for a long time. The programme is so packed with events, literature, theory, let alone art, that you definitely need your time to digest it all. Because this isn’t just one of the most famous international art events that is happening this time both in Kassel and Athens, that goes way beyond the divergent historical, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds of the two countries involved (or their current EU ‘relationship’). This isn’t a cultural ‘peace offering’ either, from the Germans to the Greeks, nor is it a Trojan horse, as some would like to believe. Documenta 14 is a whole organism in itself, that both provides answers, poses questions but also seems to be trying to push forward, for a new global awareness and reality.
April 6 was the day of the main press conference at the Megaron, for documenta 14 in downtown Athens. The marble concert hall was buzzing with journalists from around the world. The press conference kicked off with a performance of sorts, in which the lights were dimmed, and the curtain of the Alexandra Triandi Hall went up to reveal the main artists/curators/team members of documenta 14, all seated in rows. One audience watched the other audience, as if it was ‘us against them’. They then started to perform the ‘continuum’ from Jani Christou’s ‘Epicycle’, adding their own human sounds to this work. Afterwards, one by one, the main protagonists of the documenta curatorial team took it in turns to speak.
Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk was first up, explaining that although the event’s working title was ‘Learning from Athens’, their whole concept of learning was ‘against interpretation’, and that the issue of learning “should become more than just passing on knowledge from those in the know to those ignorant, or extracting various kinds of indigenous knowledge as precious goods that can be explored and exploited to the benefit of those in power”. “We believe that unlearning of what we believe to know is the best beginning. We are at the beginning, not at the end of documenta 14.”
He then went on to say that if he is was here to answer the question that he has been asked so many times (‘what have you learnt in Athens?’), he would answer that he has learnt that “we need to abandon preconceptions” and to immerse ourselves “in the darkness of not knowing”.
On the subject of added support from Germany’s Federal Foreign Ministry this time round for documenta, Szymczyk stated: “let’s not be too naïve about this, but not too cynical either”.
When it was Marina Fokidis’ turn to speak, she added to the concept of ‘unlearning’, the whole Socratean dimension of things, and the famed philosopher’s words that fit so well into documenta 14’s frame of mind: “One thing I know, is that I don’t know”. Pierre Bal-Blanc spoke of how “sound was a departure for documenta”, and how the ear of the shaman, the prophet, but also the schizophrenic have something in common: they hear messages. And as I experienced later, at the Athens Conservatoire and at EMST, you will hear ‘sounds’ too, whilst enjoying this documenta. In fact you will be ‘all eyes and ears’ as they say.
Transgender Paul B. Preciado started his speech thus: “Ladies and gentlemen and those who don’t fit into those categories”, going on later to explain how due to his Spanish roots, he never felt like a foreigner in Greece, because Spain has shared some similar moments of history (members of his family having also been killed during the Spanish dictatorship). He stated that we are standing “on an epistemological cracking ground” at this moment in time, with the neo-Fascist turn of countries, the immigration situation, Trump etc. The world is going through a process of counter-reform according to Preciado, where the white western male is reinstating supremacy.
Quinn Latimer spoke of how “Language is migrant”, and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung spoke of how the best way to spread messages around the world is via the radio waves (hence the setting up of the worldwide broadcasting radio project of documenta, called ‘Every Time A Ear Di Soun’); because around half the world’s population still doesn’t have internet (including his granny). “Sound has the possibility of squeezing itself into all sorts of nooks and crannies”, he said.
An interesting contrast was also made at the press conference, between two different historical moments in time, that had both occurred on April 6: One was officially presented by the documenta team, when three members of the Society of Friends of Halit Yozgat spoke about the murder of Yozgat in Kassel, in 2006 (April 6), by the neo-Nazi group NSU. Later on, during the question/answer session, journalist Vassilika Sarilaki pointed out that April 6 was also the day that the Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia (in 1941). I found out later, that April 6 was also the date of the first modern Olympic Games that were held in Athens back in 1896.
“Try to see this exhibition as a geography and try to explore the venues by area and not by the size”, Szymczyk went on to say, urging the people to explore the tiny venues too. But I headed straight for the Athens Conservatoire, one of the main venues in central Athens, seeing as it was easy to get to (sorry Adam, I suppose I did some ‘unlearning’). And low and behold, it was indeed a very interesting art experience. (see ‘The documenta diaries part 2’).
PS. Outside the press conference, all eyes were on the man in yellow, holding up a sign which said ‘Capitalism is not art’. He was Constantine from Berlin, a ‘performing art journalist’. I asked him if he knew anything about Greek contemporary art, and he told me that he loved Kounellis, but also how collectors (including Greek ones with a penchant for Koons), were only interested in collecting ‘winner’s art’. Is documenta 14 about winners’ art? His answer was divergent and elusive.
But the documenta mix of 160 artists in Athens, seems to be a ‘democratic’ one. It is also a geographically expansive one – going beyond the boundaries of Europe, as does the Mediterranean: Africa, the Middle East and Asia also come into play in this artistic event, together with some strong Northern spirits too.