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"Footnotes from Athens" by Mirela Baciak


Mirela Baciak

I spent four weeks in Athens starting in early February 2017. I conducted thirty interviews with people, some of whom have been living in Athens and working in the field of art for at least a few years, and others who, like myself, only recently moved there because of the interesting momentum the city finds itself in. Drawing on documenta 14’s premise of taking the position of a guest, my aim was to understand what the presence of the institution means and does for its hosts. Is an uninvited self-invited guest still a guest with full rights? What kind of hospitality is possible within the context of the so-called crisis, which has become a permanent condition for Athens? How can one be a guest and stage an exhibition under conditions of globalized capitalism, in which social relations are based more on competition than conviviality?

During my conversations with protagonists from the local art scene, apart from asking many general and at times obvious questions (which to me seemed to relate to specific “Greek matters,” but which are perhaps international ones), I also asked my interviewees to draw a map showing how they visualize relations within the local art scene, including its problems and conflicts and where documenta 14 fits in.

The following text is a selection of drawings and footnotes that I collected during my stay in Athens. I have collaged them together in a search for friction, resistance, or difference, to see how they might generate an interesting clash without creating a hierarchy among them. I do this from a position of someone who moves around in search of more than one perspective and struggles with and within the conditions in which I am implicated.

Drawing by Antonis Theodoridis

“In Greek, ‘crisis’ means it is a time of judgment. It is a moment after something bad has happened, before one will start to live in a new reality, but in our case, it feels more that people are trapped in this moment, in living in the consequences of the crisis, not a new reality. One is not condemned to hell, but one is condemned to live in the ruins of heaven.”
—Antonis Theodoridis

“The crisis is everywhere, but the question is, from where do you consider it? Where do you go to have a good point of view to consider the crisis?”
—Denys Zacharopoulos

Drawing by Enterprise Projects

“Let’s draw the Earth. Let’s consider the whole Earth as Greece!
It is a little bit nationalistic…
Well, for us we are in the middle, it is our very small reality.
Documenta has a funny shape.
Because it is undefinable.
We should mention our neighbor.
No, our actual neighbor. Let’s mention all of them!
Ok, for our closest collaborators I’ll draw a border without a see.
Our wine sponsors—it’s like Crete.
I will put the artists here—like Italy.
No, the artists should be the islands!
Funding—it is on Antarctica, super far away.
And institutions—a little bit more outside—like reaching the earth.
The state it is somewhere in-between.
Let’s put our cat as well; he is like a moving island.
No, then the cat would compete with documenta.
Ok, I will also draw a hole here. Let’s say this is a space for documenta to land.”
—Enterprise Projects

Drawing by Maria-Thalia Carras, from locus athens

A shortage of financial and infrastructural support for contemporary art is nothing new to Athens. I was told that there has always been a crisis in that respect. There is a lack of public funding for art, while the dynamic of private funding is very limited. In recent years, the number of art galleries has shrunk. Younger artists find this situation especially difficult, but more established artists do too. If one imagines a pyramid of culture in Athens, the broad base would consist of artists, curators, cultural workers, and nonprofit and artist-run spaces. At the top are a few institutions whose priority is preserving cultural heritage. The middle, which used to be filled with galleries and emerging institutions prior to the crisis, is mostly empty. At the same time, a considerable number of self-organized and artist-run spaces are emerging to fill this gap. They respond to the needs of younger artists. The project spaces I talked to (locus athens, Enterprise Projects, 3 137, SUPER, Kassandras, A-dash, Snehta, and Y Residency, among others) came into being out of the eagerness of their initiators to do something, to reactivate the earlier abandoned, low-budget, and beautiful spaces, making them accessible to a wider public and showing their own work as well as that of others. These initiatives attract large portions of the local audience, along with temporary international visitors. Although the spaces have different profiles and priorities, they operate like a network of collaborators rather than competitors. According to rumors, there are further project spaces being created, many of which will be initiated by people who are coming to Athens from other countries, pushed by the gentrification processes in their own cities.

“Most of the time people are coming from a place which has been gentrified to another one. I am a victim of gentrification myself. It is a general problem, but it brings people on the move and pushes them to go somewhere else and take advantage of the situation which they find. It is a nice moment to be here, because the city is in the process of reconnection and building something up. “

“During the last five years many artist-run spaces developed in Greece. The fact that there is a whole variety of self-organized and community-building initiatives setting up here is a symptom, which is related to different things. I believe it is a defense and an offense at the same time. There has always been a lack of funding, also before the crisis, as well as a permanent lack of institutions.”
—Charis Kanellopoulou

“Scale does matter in a political way.”
—Kosmas Nikolaou, from artist-run space 3 137

Drawing by SUPER

At this moment of great precarity, documenta 14, apart from bringing many resources—even if temporarily—absorbs a whole range of spatial, intellectual, and even financial resources. As I was talking to people from the local art scene about their positions towards the exhibition, I noticed three things. First of all: confusion, profoundly connected to the title of the exhibition (“Learning from Athens”), which raised expectations to be part of what is being looked at in this critical moment. Secondly: a certain disenchantment due to the alleged lack of a hands-on curatorial approach—most of my interviewees said they were not approached by the documenta 14 team, or were approached in a condescending manner, with a clear preconception about a possible collaboration. Thirdly: empathy towards documenta 14 and its team, who themselves must be perplexed as they deal with the poorly working bureaucracy of the upper-level Greek government.

“The title ‘Learning from Athens,’ for me, can only be taken with a grain of salt. I am still wondering about the content of this new-found knowledge, because until now [February 2017] documenta’s public actions seem to visualize a pre-existing attitude and/or knowledge relocated to Athens instead of forming a certain type of knowledge in dialogue with the here and now. For me the lessons from Athens at least until now are unclear. The exhibition itself will hopefully show us if these lessons are related to current conditions through a spatial connection or if the word ‘learning’ only works as a catchy title.”
—Giulia Dimakopoulou

“If they were not using this title, there would be fewer critical opinions, because the title is like the 2004 Olympic Games—let’s go to Greece, let’s go to the place where the Olympics were born, let’s reinvent democracy through the Olympic games. Documenta is coming with a similar feeling, but in a different moment, in a very strange political moment, which cannot be defined.”
—Enterprise Projects

“I believe that the preposition ‘from’ in the title refers not to the object of observation but to the position of the observer. It is as if an astronomer who decided that Athens is the right place to put a telescope to look at the sky does not intend for this telescope to serve Greece. Instead, it will serve the entire world, and through that, it will also serve Greece indirectly. I believe this is the way that documenta came to Athens. So, they came to Athens in order to learn from here about what happens in the world.”
—Denys Zacharopoulos

Drawing by Theo Prodromidis

“Imagine that you go to a kiosk and ask for a pack of cigarettes and they respond, ‘Okay, please go to your family and ask your wife and your children if they allow you to smoke and bring back four certificates.’ So, you do that and come back to the kiosk and you ask again for a pack of cigarettes, and they say, ‘Okay, now you have to go there and there in order to legitimize these certificates.’”
—Denys Zacharopoulos

“OUTLOOK? I’ve never heard of it. Because Greece has cultural amnesia. OUTLOOK was one of the most prominent international art exhibitions in Greece before the crisis. This is another problematic issue in Athens, which is related to the lack of institutions, creating a lack of institutional memory. Cultural projects and exhibitions are easily forgotten.”
— Maria-Thalia Carras, from locus athens

“Documenta is a big guest, twenty times bigger than any other institutional event in Greece. It is facing a globalized post-capitalist world; they are addressing differences on a high global level. For the Greek scene to host them in Athens, is a complex situation, but it would be complex anywhere. We are not facing completely different difficulties and gaps than other European countries, on the contrary, I believe these are European issues, which in Greece are extremely visible. “
—Kosmas Nikolaou, from 3 137

“I think it is problematic to expect an art institution, even of that size, to resolve problems that are systemic problems, that one can address but cannot solve. The issue of how to engage with the local context is also very problematic; it is not an exhibition about Athens, it just happens to be here. There has been a general feeling of a lack of engagement from the curatorial strategy, but this is the critique from the people who didn’t engage with the megaship. If you ask the people who engaged with the megaship, they will say the opposite, so this issue of who is included, who is excluded, is a general problematic of democracy. Democracy is based on exclusion in any political system. Furthermore, the neoliberal democracy in which we live further reinforces exclusion as a way of operating.”
—Theo Prodromidis

Drawing by Despina Zeykili

“Many people will come to Athens to see Kassel; I mean documenta.”
–Documenta Person

Drawing by Nektarios Pappas

“At the end of the day, it is my first paid job!”
—Documenta Person

A great number of people remain skeptical about the international interest that documenta 14 generates. The unresolved question that everyone asks is: What will remain in Greece after documenta 14, when the exhibition and the attention it brings to the city fade away? Will the spaces that have been renovated and reactivated remain open? What kind of memories will be left for future generations of artist and cultural practitioners to deal with? Will this big operation, which mobilized the ministry of culture and several municipal agencies, force the upper levels of government to reconsider the value of contemporary art?

“Not everyone is happy; the domestic lack of institutions creates undue expectations for this institutional arrival. Cultural gestures like this one have been observed before. For me documenta 14 is like a firework—a relocated, broken-in-two, diffused firework, which I enjoy, but which I am aware will soon be gone.”
—Panos Giannikopoulos

“I think that each of us has independently questioned what we are doing here, why we are here, and how we can be here. There are accusations that the exhibition is a colonialist gesture and I think in some way it is, but maybe sometimes you follow these operations only to inscribe them differently.”
—Documenta Person

“It is obvious to me that through the relocation, they add capital to their own position, but I don‘t care and I don’t want to focus on that. I am interested in how they will point out the difficulties and create a dialogue in an interesting way. I think that so far, by activating and gaining access to different public institutions, by showing an ecology that can be open, they have built an empowering narrative for the local scene. It is touching to see EMST—the Museum of Contemporary Art—functioning.”
—Kosmas Nikolaou, from 3 137

On April 8, the first part of the bi-located documenta 14 exhibition opened to the public. The title “Learning from Athens,” which began as merely a working title, remained unchanged, emphasizing the continuum of the process of being and working in Athens. Documenta 14’s stages are spread across forty locations: along with four larger public buildings—EMST, the former Athens Conservatoire, the Athens School of Fine Arts, and the Benaki Museum—documenta 14 occupies a number of smaller spaces in the city. Wandering around from venue to venue enables the viewer to experience at times inconvenient coincidences between the exhibition and the life of the capital.

As I was drifting in the city on the opening weekend, with a gaze sharpened for a graffiti-like number 14, I was especially drawn to the smaller venues. I thought that what documenta 14 does by inhabiting a number of interesting localities with the transformational potential of contemporary art resembles very much what the Athens-based project spaces have already been doing for the last few years. It is a gesture through which the exhibition embeds itself in the fabric of the city. In this regard documenta 14 acts like a chameleon, which appropriates colors and strategies from its surroundings. It is hard to say if it is an unconscious mimicry or a camouflage. At the end of the day, documenta is an institutionalized species. As I continue to digest my impressions from the first part of the exhibition, I am not sure if and how documenta 14 is reflecting on its own institutionalization, its mechanisms of power, and its incommensurability. A good chameleon knows when to camouflage, but also when to remain just as he is. Not every background is equally conductive to a positive cover.

It remains to be seen what documenta will amplify through its split self and how it will manifest during the exhibition in Kassel.


Athens-based project spaces and people featured in the text:

A-dash is an artist-led initiative in Athens combining studios and a project space, with an emphasis on experimentation, collaboration, and interdisciplinary exchange.

Antonis Theodoridis is an independent artist-photographer based in Athens.
See http://www.antonistheodoridis.com.

Charis Kanellopoulou is an art historian and curator based in Athens.

Denys Zacharopoulos is an art historian and art critic, as well as Artistic Director of the Galleries, Museums, and Collections of the Municipality of Athens.

Despina Zefkili is an art critic, senior editor of Athinorama, the city guide of Athens, and a researcher at the Temporary Academy of Arts (PAT).

Documenta Person stands for various people who are part of the documenta 14 team and with whom I conducted anonymous interviews.

Enterprise Projects is an Athens-based project space initiated by Danai Giannoglou and Vasilis Papageorgiou. See http://enterprise-projects.com.

Giulia Dimakopoulou is the Director of Contemporary Greek Art Institute. See http://www.iset.gr/en.

Kassandras is an Athens-based project space. It adopts a role as space-activator by concentrating a spectrum of local and international forces from the fields of architecture, art, design, urbanism, technology, agriculture among others. See http://kassandras.org.

locus athens is an independent contemporary arts organization based in Athens and run by Maria-Thalia Carras and Olga Hatzidaki. See http://locusathens.com.

Nektarios Pappas is a sound and visual artist based in Athens. See http://nektariospappas.com.

Panos Giannikopoulos is an independent curator based in Athens.

Snehta promotes and facilitates local and international artists through its residency and exhibitions programs in Kypseli, Athens. See https://www.snehtaresidency.org.

SUPER is an Athens-based project space initiated by Lukas Panek and Paul Makowsky See http://supersupersupersupersuper.com.

Theo Prodromidis is an artist and filmmaker based in Athens. See http://www.theoprodromidis.info.

3 137 is an artist-run space in Athens founded by Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Kosmas Nikolaou. and Paky Vlassopoulou. See http://www.3137.gr/en.