BY iLiana Fokianaki in Opinion | 24 OCT 16

Missing Bodies

A report from the opening of Paul B. Preciado’s Public Programs for documenta 14, Athens

BY iLiana Fokianaki in Opinion | 24 OCT 16

There is always a reason for Greeks to take to the streets. This time, instead of protesting its politicians, Athenians set out on a grim route: the locations of torture sites from Greece’s seven-year military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974. Organized by the Contemporary Social History Archives of Greece (ASKI), this walk was one of many events and workshops that took place over ten days as part of documenta 14’s Public Program, curated by Paul B. Preciado in the lead up to the official opening of documenta’s Athens leg in April 2017. Apart from this cross-city tour all other events were held at the city’s Parko Eleftherias (Freedom Park) and its small building, the Museum of Anti-Dictatorship, once the headquarters of ETA/ESA (the military police who consistently used torture during the military junta). Locals and international visitors, formed a contemporary demos, a ‘Parliament of Bodies’ using the moveable work DEMOS – consisting of 68 foam blocks designed by Andreas Angelidakis for the occasion – as architecture for events. The programme as a whole was described by Preciado as ‘neither a conference nor an exhibition’:

We have avoided conventional museological names that establish distinctions between talk and performance, theory and action, criticism and art. Instead, we invited forty-five participants to “exercise freedom” within the building […]. We drift in history. There is a space. There are some bodies. There are some voices. But what does it mean to be together, here, now? What can be done? Who and what are made visible? Whose voices can be heard and which remain silent?

Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens. Part of the opening of the Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

It was an ambitious participatory call that attracted just as many visitors as it did criticism, particularly from the national press who accused Preciado of resurrecting the ‘Zombie of the Left’, as one headline put it. From this reaction, actually what Preciado highlighted was Greek right-wing puritanism at play.

Preciado’s programme is both timely and necessary. In a city where sexism remains an unaddressed and accepted reality, where the LGBTQI+ community is marginalized, where xenophobia is common within its – until recently – homogenous mono-cultural population, presentations such as those by Linnea Dick or Niillas Somby, (who are both activists for indigenous populations), or the excellent talk by Jack Halberstam (professor of English and Comparative Literature and Gender Studies at Columbia University, New York), generated discussion and brought forward new ideas and information. Though director of documenta 14 Adam Szymczyk joked that Greeks  ‘know everything about everything’, there was certainly an appetite to know even more, proven by the impressive stat that 1,700 visitors attended the various events.

Niillas Somby and Linnea Dick. Performance as part of the opening Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis. Background: Andreas Angelidakis, DEMOS, 2016, photo printed vinyl, foam, dimensions variable.  

Invited academics looked into the philosophical questions rising through the theme of dictatorship, such as Kostis Kornetis’s lecture on how a tortured past is carried into a present trauma, or Diana Taylor’s and Ana Longoni’s readings on the Chilean, Argentinian and Brazilian dictatorships. There were also intriguing film screenings, such as Your Neighbor’s Son: The Making of a Torturer (1976/81) by Jørgen Flindt Pedersen and Erik Stephensen. A highlight of the programme was an exquisite performance by Sergio Zevallos, Civic Education, consisting of a 20-minute choreographed piece that imagined through its performers (dressed as soldiers and civilians) the history of its location as well as police violence in recent Greek demonstrations. It was a typical endeavour for the Peruvian Zevallos, whose work has been examining sociopolitical relations of power and violence around sexuality and the body for decades.

Sergio Zevallos, Civic Education, 2016. Performance as part of the opening Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

There were weak moments, however. Annie Sprinkle’s performative lecture, possibly eye-opening for middle-aged puritans in the ’90s, seemed dated in 2016. For someone of Sprinkle’s track record, I wanted to hear her discuss labour rights in the sex industry, that industry’s relationship to human trafficking, the problems faced by the profession due to online porn, the appropriation of BDSM and fetish in mainstream culture – anything other than a ‘stand-up comedy’ routine involving clips from her films followed by a painfully dull performance that asked the audience to come wearing blue in reference to water, to frolic and ‘get wet’.

Equally disappointing was Daniel García Andújar’s book, A Lexicon of Dictatorship. Published and distributed to visitors for the occasion and comprising catch phrases used during the seven-year military junta, a reading from it would have been enough, but it was inexplicably accompanied by seemingly random imagery trying to convey a visual testimony of Greece’s history. It looked like a printout of a Google images search on ‘Greek Nationalism and dictatorship’ or ‘Nazi Greece’. The images jumped from 1940–49, to the dictatorship of 1967–74, to contemporary Neo-Nazi tattoos of Golden Dawn members. Hands of Greek statues were juxtaposed with dictators’s handshakes. Amidst these was a portrait of anti-dictatorship hero Alekos Panagoulis – with no mention of who he was or what his role in the dictatorship had been.

Judith Revel’s talk as part of the opening Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

Panagoulis, was a politician and activist killed under mysterious circumstances. At the centre of one of the many untold accounts of Greek politics, his story would have been interesting to contextualize in Preciado’s Parliament, as a truly unrecognized body. The paramilitary, accused of being responsible for his death, emerged in the 1950s, were amplified during the dictatorship in the late ’60s to early ’70s and today take the form of Greece’s neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn – an interesting thread of history sadly left untold. So it was suprising to read Greek newspapers accusing documenta 14 of reviving an ‘old left dialect’ when in fact there was not much of the old left to find, bar the inspiring speech of Toni Negri during the opening day, or Judith Revel’s lecture on freedom as market value.

Preciado’s aim was to provide stimuli for viewers to make their own connections – between the common threads of theory and history that the speakers were tapping into. For me at least, this was largely achieved, links were forged between different, dissident areas of knowledge and new and interesting perspectives were presented. Wisely the programme broke free of the dominant and generally unproductive format of the panel discussion, allowing audiences to figure connections by themselves.

Democracy, freedom and the body are excellent starting points for discussion, but presenting such particular manifestations of the terms, at times left audiences bewildered. It was also a far-fetched claim to juxtapose the notion of Greek eleftheria (freedom) with neo-liberal freedom, in a country where debt was created in some part by over-spending and reckless consumerism. It seemed that there was far more research needed into Greece’s historical context for the programme to accurately narrate a story and for that story to relate to the local audience.

Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens. Part of the opening Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

One of the programme’s subtitles ‘Democratic Transition into Neoliberalism’ was not to be found in the parliament, but rather everywhere in Athens: experienced by citizens through the implementation of an austerity that has stripped their lives bare these past eight years. The current political and financial situation and its relation to freedom, democracy, parliaments and bodies, was rightly addressed by documenta 14’s curatorial team, but they chose to read these subjects through marginalized communities and activism in Greece and elsewhere, rather than addressing the greater reality that glooms over Europe currently, one that affects all but the 1%: austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism.

There was indeed a space. There were indeed many bodies; there were indeed many voices. We were indeed together. But the true notion of assembly – so wonderfully questioned by Judith Butler in her book of last year Towards a Performative Theory on Assembly – the re-imagination of power, the actual dissection of political frameworks such as the parliament that have seized to work in our European reality, were left untouched. In the reality of Preciado’s parliament, certain voices remained unheard; certain bodies were missing.

It might be that documenta 14 chose to engage with a ‘lighter’ part of the Athenian art world – one that does not particularly care for politics and history, and one that a visiting artist participating in the upcoming exhibition told me he found ‘surprisingly bourgeois’. It might be that some Greek employees of the organization had opinions but were afraid to voice them. Still it is all too Greek to deny reality, or to nostalgically cling on to the past – while sun, sea and ouzo cloud the daily news of suicides, 60 percent unemployment, rising nationalism and a collapsing parliament. In this respect the public programme could even be seen as ‘indigenous’.

Georgia Sagri, Attempt. Come., 2016. Performance as part of the opening Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, Athens, 2016. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

Yet for all the local unease about documenta 14’s presence in the city, the fact that is in Athens has been a benefit for many: those that have found jobs as a result, those that through this public programme experienced inspiring performances and lectures, and those that choose to engage, through constructive criticism, with the presence of this colossal organization and all it symbolizes. And that can only be a good thing.

The first part of documenta 14’s Public Programs ran 14–24 September in Athens. It recommences tomorrow, 25 October, in the city at Parko Eleftherias.

Main image: Georgia Sagri, Attempt. Come., 2016, performance documentation. Part of the Public Programs of documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias. Photograph: Stathis Mamalakis

iLiana Fokianaki is a writer and curator based in Athens, Greece. She is the founder of State of Concept Athens, a non-profit institution operating since 2013, and the co-founder of Future Climates, a platform investigating sustainability and precarity of small art institutions and art workers. In 2019, she founded a research grant for Greek women artists above 35.