The official opening of the most popular contemporary art exhibition, Documenta 14, was on the 8th of April. Tourists from all over the world arrive in the centre of Athens intending to be part of a cultural safari. More than 5,000 art personas, such as artists, art collectors, museum directors but also investors, have already confirmed their presence during the 3-months event. However, why would we want to talk about D14 a little bit despite the fact that it is an event concerning the elite of the artists and intellectuals?
Documenta was initially organised in 1955 in Kassel, Germany. The event aimed to display artworks that were censored by the Nazi regime and pieces of innovative art, unknown until then in Germany. The exhibition was a great success, leading to its institutionalization and its fixed conduct once every five years in its birthplace. Historically, Documenta is not only one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions, but also the most radical one. Since it was initially organised, there was an intense linkage with politics through the art curators and artists that took part, who made an effort to express the collective trauma of guilt that was common amongst German populations concerning the Holocaust and they also attempted to reform the collective imagined reality towards a democratic and liberal direction. Since then, many artists expressed with their work plenty of ideas and theories of radical intellectuals such as Foucault, Debord, Arendt, Guattari etc through this institution.
It is widely known that there is a tendency in contemporary art to address social-political matters and bits of communities’ history. This tendency makes contemporary art to increasingly look like a kind of elaborate journalism. However, D14 is of a special interest. It is not simply an organization with a political nuance as it would be expected in the current global social-political situation; it is also an institution that produces political thought and aims to have a political impact. The decision of D14 director, Adam Szymczyk, to carry out the biggest part of the event in Athens, and also the title of the event “Learning from Athens” are themselves a political statement. Athens today is the epicenter of the global economic crisis; it is also a city where one can see in extreme dimensions all the phenomena that are gradually developing in western societies, namely poverty, pauperization, disintegration of the public fabric and the rising of the fascists within the society.
Moreover, it has been two years now since the intense experience of the refugee and immigration issue. Nevertheless, the D14 curators insist to manifest that they don’t intend to “consume” the crisis of the Greek society and that they tend to find other, less obvious, bits of the city more attractive to them. Szymczyk notably says:
I think it is about an integrated discovery of a place where everything is politics, where you can passionately discuss about political and social issues for hours, however not in the way of a discussion in a traditional café where we talk over again today about what we were talking about yesterday.
It is then clear that the D14 curators see Athens as the most ideal place for the localization of their own political agenda.
The first hints of political features were in last September during the D14 forefeast of the 34 Exercises of Freedom that took place at the Athens Municipality Arts Centre (former place of torture of EAT-ESA – the brutal police force during the 7-years dictatorship) under the diligence of Paul Preciado. Preciado is the most important persona and the theoretical arsenal of D14. Feminist philosopher, political thinker and an activist, was chosen by Szymczyk as the diligent person of the public events of the exhibition in Athens. Being the theoretical sprout of Judith Butler and one of the most important theorists of the queer theory, and also a transgender person, he obviously has an exceptional part delegating the institution. The “Parliament of Bodies” is an institution created by Preciado specifically for this exhibition and is its most theoretical-political part. This institution appears to be conceptually detached from art, since it consists of a mixture of academic lectures and political assemblies aiming, according to Preciado, to create a cultural-political movement. Drawing pieces from the queer theory and from the theory of performativity, the Parliament of Bodies seeks to become a platform where, according to the expectations, the potentiality of discussion on issues of power, oppression and regulatory standards is given to a heterogeneous multitude of people, consisting of theorists, intellectuals, homosexuals, transgender people, sex workers, marginalised people, refugees etc.
During the 34 Exercises of Freedom, which were held in the framework of the Parliament of Bodies, there were references on issues such as the historical period of the 7-years junta in Greece, the crisis of the representative political system, the feminist movement of Rojava, the refugees, the queer movement etc. The manifestal introduction of Preciado which apart from the orientalist analysis on the sociopolitical situation of the European South contained also a patriotic-left call-out for an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist coalition of the countries of the South. The highlight of this manifestation was the invocation of ethnocentric archetypes, such as the Greek singer Sotiria Bellou as a queer idol, instead of the foreigner Andy Warhol; by this an inevitable association to the nationalist-consumerist culture of “Made in Greece” is being made. A big impression was also made by the presence of Toni Negri in this event, thus his analysis had nothing essential to offer apart from a presentation of the sociopolitical landscape. Besides, the thinker that is considered to be deprived of any ideological project and also considered by many to be nowadays a reformist, cannot be associated with the emblematic figure of the Italian Workers Autonomism and the city guerilla.
But which is precisely the language used by Szymczyk and Preciado? Even though they promote a so-called radical agenda including anticapitalist and antistatal analyses, they don’t seem to desire to be associated with the corresponding political space on a local level. Despite the fact that in our days the social movements are in a relative inactivity, there are self-organised collectives such as initiatives of solidarity with refugees and immigrants, social collective kitchens, social etc. Nevertheless, the D14 curators didn’t bother to mention any of the above; on contrary their political analysis is deprived of any social vision. This is absolutely consistent with their political vision. Szymczyk and Preciado are two persons with discrete academic culture and it seems rather natural to perceive the theory production and the construction of keywords as political acts sufficient enough to have an impact of the sociopolitical reality by themselves. This “verbal” policy which is practiced by the postmodern academics is usually promoted as the only realistic policy unlike the unattainable traditional political practices, namely the organisation of the people through political procedures, the social struggles, the struggles of resistance and the uprisings; it is a policy that uses the complaint just in order to verbally violate the System, leading -intentionally or not- to a hint for inaction.
The problem of the political narration of Szymczyk and Preciado is not only the lack of the political strategy, but also the vehicle they use to produce antistatal and anticapitalistic rhetoric. D14 is institutionalised within the German Ministry of Culture and was sponsored by the German state by the incredible sum of 70 million euros. Namely, antistatalism and anticapitalism funded by the State! The same contradictory logic was used for the decision of the organisers not to have any collaboration with any private sector in Athens (namely any galleries) intending in this way to give the impression of dissociation between the exhibition and the Art Market. However, even though D14 has always been a non-commercial exhibition, this does not mean that it is necessarily out of the Market system. Moreover, it is an indispensible part of it, since it is an important tool for the spiritual validation of art pieces by giving them a spiritual value which, according to the market laws, is translated into sale value.
Despite the fact Szymczyk seems to realise the contradictory framework in which he sets up his “antisystemic” project, he also defends it morally. Specifically, he says:
The best we can do is to use the existing structures in order to make an effort to change things, why not from inside! No one will ever give away to us an absolutely neutral, political correct structure and wide range as Documenta, in order to create something. If once in a lifetime we are given the chance to use this infrastructure, we can either deny the tool that Documenta represents, by saying “no thank you, I don’t want my hands dirty” and then go home to uninterruptedly indulge to the classic leftist artworks or to undertake a more dynamic action. But if we believe that by accepting the invitation we can affect as people or as a group of people –which is much more interesting- a part of this society or the societies in general, then we just do it without setting to ourselves theoretical questions.
It is absolutely clear that the postmodern political morality of the D14 inspirers along with all those who sell radicalities funded by the State could not care less for such contradictions, even if they are spotted on the center of their ideology. We could agree that being a top modern art curator belonging to the cultural elite, then it seems likely that a structure such as Documenta appears to be the unique chance to promote sociopolitical ideas. And if someone with the prestige of Preciado is available to chip in one or two radical theories, even better. Instead of an exhibition of left-bank art, an exhibition of left-bank politics is created, leaving behind a Documenta-milestone in the History of the institution, while skyrocketing your own fee.
Those who resist any oppression deriving from the State and the Capital do not anticipate to any “space” to be conceded to them in order to reclaim freedom in their lives. They organise themselves in forceful mobilisations for which they pay the price many times with repression, persecutions, imprisonment or sometimes even with their own blood. It is granted that the people of the artistic and academic lobbies who dispose their political asset as a product of high cost, participants in harsh organisational and spiritual hierarchies, have nothing to offer to emancipating politics. Their materialistic way of living and their social status are so solid that they do not feel the responsibility for change. We are sure that D14 cannot achieve any association with the oppressed parts of the society, because there isn’t any scope for that in reality. The partakers of the exhibition will be the art lovers’ insiders, the aspiring artists, some hipsters and eventually the contemporary art investors. The refugees, the transgender persons, the sex-workers and the marginalised people are nothing more than the materials upon which the art curators build their careers.
If we had the amount of a hundred euros to buy a season ticket, we would watch the whole set of D14 in order to provide a more insightful analysis. However we don’t have the money for this.