by Paul B. Preciado
“Spring is not a good season for austerity,” sang the Greek musician Lena Platonos in the 1980s. Despite the decisions of the Troika and the collapse of democratic institutions, the resurgence of fascist aesthetics and the progressive transformation of refugee camps into concentration camps, spring returns to Athens in 2017. And it is still not a good season for austerity. The sun still sets despite cuts to public spending. The birds know nothing of rising interest rates, the shuttering of public libraries and museums, the hundreds of artworks kept in basements that will not be shown to any public, the inability of public health to provide minimal care to the chronically ill and HIV-positive people, the abandonment of people with psychological or motor difficulties, the lack of medical and school assistance to migrants. The April sun and the birds of Mount Lycabettus are indifferent.
Under these conditions, what does it mean to make documenta 14 in Athens, an exhibition that until now had always been done in Kassel, Germany? To continue to believe that spring is not a season for austerity and that the sun shines for everyone. Or, perhaps, to embrace our changed climate and accept that, as François Lyotard said, even the sun is aging.
The first documenta, organized in 1955 by Arnold Bode, was aimed at making once again visible the work of avant-garde artists who had been excluded by the Nazi regime after the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich in 1937. Bode sought to reconfigure European public culture in a context devastated by the Second World War. The current, fourteenth documenta arose from the same feeling of urgency. We are not in a postwar situation but rather in the middle of an economic and political war. A war of the ruling classes against the world population, a war of global capitalism against life, a war of nations and ideologies against bodies and immense minorities. The 2007 financial crisis served to justify the greatest political and moral restructuring of global capitalism since the 1930s. Greece, along with the countries that would later be known as the PIGS (Portugal, Spain, and Italy), became a politically dense signifier that absorbed all the forms of exclusion produced by the new financial hegemony: restriction of democratic rights, criminalization of poverty, rejection of migration, pathologization of all forms of dissidence.
“You can not possess our spirit without sharing our political reality,” says Australian Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey in one of his works. The failure of the Oxi (No) referendum in July 2015 revealed the failure of representative politics. When the government refused to accept the citizens’ decision to reject the conditions of a proposed bailout, the parliament showed itself to be as an institution in ruins, empty. But for many days, Syntagma Square and the streets of Athens were filled with voices and bodies. The parliament was on the street. These events greatly influenced the formation of the documenta 14 exhibition. The public program, the Parliament of Bodies, took its name and vocation from the reality that manifested itself in these moments. In September 2016, we opened a space of debate for artists, activists, critics, writers, poets, dancers..., located at Parko Eleftherias, to rethink the reconstruction of the public sphere in a context in which democracy (and not just the market economy) has entered into crisis. One of the difficulties (and beauties) of making this exhibition was the decision of its artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, to collaborate only with public institutions in Athens. In conditions of war, the institutional interlocutor of the exhibition can be neither the establishment, nor galleries, nor the art market. On the contrary, the exhibition is understood as a public service, as an antidote against economic, political, and moral austerity.
When it comes to an international exhibition such as documenta, everyone asks for the list of artists and their nationalities, the proportional number of Greeks and Germans, men and women. But who is entitled to a name today? Who can claim to be a citizen of a nation? It is the status of the “document” and its processes of legitimation that are in question. As the sun ages and the geopolitical map collapses, we enter a time in which names and citizenship have ceased to be banal conditions but rather privileges, in which sex and gender have ceased to be obvious designations to become stigmata or manifestos. Some of the artists and curators of this exhibition lost a name or acquired another to modify the conditions of their survival. Others have changed their citizenship status several times or continue to wait for an asylum request to be granted. How will we name them, then? Will we count them as Syrians, as Afghans, as Ugandans, as Canadians, as Germans, or as mere numbers on a waiting list? Do you count as Greeks or as Germans the hundreds of Greek migrant artists looking for better living conditions in Berlin? Do the Sámi count as Finns or Norwegians, “Roma” as French or Romanians, Catalans or Basques as Spaniards? Do the exiles of the Biafra war count as Canadians or as Nigerians? How do you count the exiled artists who were born in Palestine and whose work returns to a land that has no name? The same applies to gender-equality statistics. Do trans or intersex artists count as men or women? Un-documented.
documenta 14 takes stands on a cracking epistemological and political ground. The economic and political sacrifices to which Greece has been subject since 2008 are simply the beginning of a broader process of the destitution of democracy extending throughout Europe. Since we started preparing this documenta in 2014, we have witnessed a progressive destruction that now permeates all cultural institutions: the rejection of refugees, a withdrawal into xenophobic forms of nationalism in many countries, the ultra-conservative turns in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, Turkey, the coming to power of Trump, Brexit... The planet seems to be going through a process of “counter-reform” that seeks to reinstall white-masculine supremacy and to undo the democratic achievements struggled for and achieved by workers’ movements, anticolonial, indigenist, feminist, and sexual-liberation movements during the last two centuries. A new form of neoliberal nationalism draws new frontiers and builds new walls.
In this context, the exhibition, with its diverse forms of constructing a public space of visibility and enunciation (the magazine, the books, the public programs, the display of unseen collection, and of works by more than 160 artists), becomes a mobile site for cultural activism. A nomadic process of collective cooperation without identity and without nationality. Kassel transitioning into Athens. Athens mutating into Kassel. The conditions of homelessness and exile, of successive displacements, of migrations and many journeys, of translation and polyglossia force us to move beyond the ethnocentric account of modern Western history, opening up new forms of democratic action and cooperation. documenta is transitioning. Inspired by experimental pedagogy, by anticolonial, feminist, and queer methodologies that call into question the conditions in which different bodies emerged as political subjects through the process of making themselves visible and audible, this exposition affirms itself as apatride, stateless, in a double sense: questioning the link with the nation-state but also with the colonial and patriarchal genealogy that has built the museum of the West—and that now seeks to destroy Europe.
This piece was also published in Spanish by Babelia and in French by Libération. Image via Libération.