Why Athens? A documenta 14 Chorus member contemplates democracy at its troubled root

, 20 June 2017

March 1 marked my first day in Athens. I quite infamously walked up to Sepake Angiama, the Head of Education of documenta 14 and declared loudly that I was here for the revolution. I do not think she quite knew how to respond to me. Just recently contracted to be a cultural labourer for this much anticipated quinquennial, controversially formulated to be equally split between two countries — with the first half running in the Greek capital from April 8 to July 16 — I myself could not have imagined what I was signing up for. During those first weekly trainings with the education department, colleagues teased me on whether I had tagged the pro-revolution graffiti in the toilets of the bars we frequented. I quickly realised that Athens was already engaged in its own subversive credo.


I had come here to be part of the Chorus, an independent and diverse group of adults entrusted to carry the emotional beat of this grand cultural happening, deriving its nomenclature from classical Greek theatre. Together, we undertook the duty of attempting to digest the entire oeuvre of documenta 14 while never losing focus on the variety present in this seemingly interminable feast. The Chorus of documenta 14 does not however engage in direct hierarchies of knowledge. Led by unscripted dialogue and direct conversations, a Walk conducted by a Chorus member circumvents the exhibition’s grand narrative, while simultaneously unravelling the curatorial threads that weave together the plethora of art works presented within the main venues. At first it was hard to fathom the extent to which this job would require more than memorising a list of over 160 artists. To successfully engage in the conversations, it was necessary to unpack the monumental event for the curious visitor coming with quasi-unanswerable questions like, what is Art, is this art, and, why Athens?


Without adequate prior knowledge about the history of Greek-German relations, I had without delay made my first cultural faux pas by announcing in front of my Greek colleagues that I loved Greek architecture as I walked up to Prevelakis Hall, which is part of the Athens Polytechnic. The response was quick and unanimous: it’s German, not Greek. We were in fact standing in front of relics of 19th century neoclassical cultural production. Further research revealed that Athens, the capital of Modern Greece as we know it today, had been born out of a decision made by the Bavarian-born King Otto, who was appointed shortly after independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832, to move the centre to what was then a relatively small town. The impulse driving such a decision is said to originate from the budding Germanic romanticism attached to ancient Greece and its symbolism as the cradle of Western civilization.


The construction of Modern Greece reveals itself to me like a process of grafting an ancient history onto the shadow of nearly 400 years of enslavement under the Ottoman Empire, followed by German occupation, foreign superpower interventions, a civil war, a brief but brutal military junta, with the arrival of democracy in only 1974. Documenta 14 has not shied away from addressing this discombobulated history, opening up a space to reevaluate and better understand the tangled relationship with Germany, and by extension the troubled ideological roots of democracy in Western Europe.

The modern history of Greece has been tumultuous and its future remains uncertain. I have repeatedly heard “but we are a very young country, we are still looking for our identity” as a way to explain the contemporary mood pulsing through the congested avenues of this inhabited concrete jungle. There is much tangible frustration. In a place where aggressive anarchy visibly thrives as a major oppositional force within an otherwise homogenous and conservative population backed by strong nationalistic sentiments, it has been impossible to ignore the citizens their views. Athenians do not seem to shy away from staring into a stranger’s eyes. Unclouded and piercing at times, skeptical and confused at others, here a human body has not yet been subjugated to its status as a scant pawn of late capitalism.


Change is not a mere desire, it is a dire necessity, and life lives loudly through a unique balance of harmony and anger. Resistance is the big cheese and any other way is rebuked as unwanted compromise. Long and heated late-night conversations at taverna tables, sprawled charmingly across Athenian sidewalks, have only proven the repeated requisite to amicably agree to disagree. At times, these conversations have also revolved around documenta 14 and its temporary yet imposing presence in Athens. With this German cultural institution based in Kassel, known for its war tanks industry, symbolising the summit of Western power, it is easily perceived as soft power imperialist capitalism descending upon a subjugated Greek population. Many of my local friends and acquaintances boycott documenta.

In the beginning I thought of myself as a total outsider to the complex situation at hand, and indulged in the privilege of questioning both sides of the exhausted dichotomies. The curatorial team has enlisted many forms of knowledge dissemination and participation. Four years of planning culminated in a public programme which started last September, a nine-month national public television film broadcast series, a world wide radio happening, performances, education programmes, film screenings, talks, books, magazines, re-engaged archives, workshops, installations, and a vast array of both small and large exhibition venues. The working title of documenta 14 was announced as ‘Learning from Athens,’ in and of itself much contested and debated long before the actual opening. Have I learned from making myself present in Athens? I have learned a great deal, but it was a far greater process of unlearning and questioning, before moving forward into any possible state of knowing. I took my time.


Partaking in a study of world history via documenta 14, material pushes past the hegemonic explanations offered in school. To dismiss the exhibition material, artworks, and discourses as archival would fall into the trap of dismissing humanity and every story, trauma, and joy it contains. What I have found most significant is documenta 14’s intergenerational approach, which attempts to trace new cartographies obliquely and amorphously through layered histories across both time and geography. Sincerity may be the only singular quality linking the artworks, at times provocative, at other times revealing. The presence of new modalities of knowledge-sharing can also be found everywhere, in Paul B. Preciado’s curation of the Parliament of Bodies, in the extensive programs of the education team, in addition to exhibiting evidence of many historical initiatives that demonstrate alternative educational and creative methodologies. It is true that this strongly curated exhibition suffers at times from a feeling of inaccessibility. Nonetheless, by placing the public on the same ground as the scholars and artists, there is no superficial simplification for the sake of rendering the conceptual backbone of documenta 14 into an easily consumable Instagram-friendly affair.

As I sit here in the navel of what we like to call Europe, with a direct view of the Acropolis, I am furthermore reminded that I am almost as close to Mecca as I am to London, almost as close to Rome as I am to Cairo. The ‘Learning from Athens’ working title had to be unraveled. During the third week of May, I diligently attended three consecutive evenings of discussions hosted by Studio14 and the Parliament of Bodies around Martin Bernal’s controversial 1987 book Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. I realised that the ‘Athens’ in the working title was not just Athens the capital of modern Greece, but Athens the polis, the birthplace of Western democracy. From this angle, I humbly extrapolate that documenta 14 has tried to achieve the near-impossible: to invite every world citizen engaging in the programme to rethink their relationship to the concept of democracy, trace it through approximately 150 years of bio-politically charged colonial capitalism, through all the truths, myths, alternatives and potentials lying beyond dominant historical narratives, straight into a decisive moment of multiple crisis as it is experienced worldwide today. We are thrust into an arena of anti-fascist, de-colonial, post-patriarchal, feminist, indigenous, and queer deconstructive investigations to further gain knowledge and understanding of our collective past before stepping into the future. Without having the chance to contemplate where our ideologies of the 20th century come from, and understand all the ways in which they may have failed, how could we possibly move forward from this collective predicament we find ourselves in?


If Athens, as both a notion and a location, has been reactivated for the purpose of reassessing how the rest of Europe posits its origins in the ancient spender of this city’s ideals, can a renewed understanding be forged in Kassel, during documenta 14’s 100 days in its hometown, through this bold reminder of the historical whitewashing of ancient Greece for the purposes of justifying racial supremacy? Is it not time to engage in the discussion proposed by documenta 14, to question how the continued mechanisms of economic colonialism and war-fuelled capitalism contribute so directly to the ideological and physical violence witnessed on this planet?

I had naively turned up at 2017’s biggest cultural party without caring too much about who was organising it. Now my head reels from all the self expression and creative engagement I have been experiencing. The jolting crash of a comedown is scheduled to hit soon as my mind shifts after having participated in venturing to unexplored boundaries of thought and inspiration. The best cure for the most intense documenta 14 hangover will be to create, to ponder, and to create some more. If I am sure about anything, this is it. I am more ready to tackle the revolution than I was three months ago. They say documenta sets the tone for the next five years. So who’s with me? **

documenta 14 opened April 8 in Athens, running to July 16, and June 10 in Kassel, running to September 17, 2017.