On the Politics of Visibility, Documentation, and the Claim of Commoning the Artwork: Critical Notes on Shamiyaana-Food for Thought: Thought for Change

On the Politics of Visibility, Documentation, and the Claim of Commoning the Artwork: Critical Notes on Shamiyaana-Food for Thought: Thought for Change

Grigoris Gkougkousis

Introduction: Learning from the Field

This paper provides a socially-engaged critique of Shamiyaana–Food for Thought: Thought for Change (henceforth Shamiyaana), Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen’s contribution to documenta’s 14 Public Exhibition in Athens, based on my ethnographic engagement with this art project and the city. Drawing its inspiration from the homonymous Pakistani wedding ceremonies, Shamiyaana was an open facility consisting of vibrant multicolored canopies decorated with minimalist geometric patchworks, wooden tables, and an on-site kitchen, which was located in Kotzia Square in front of Athens City Hall. From April to July 2017, every day sixty passers-by were invited to sit together under the artwork’s tents and share a free meal, cooked on the spot by Organization Earth, an Athens-based NGO. The analysis presented below is based on fieldwork that I conducted in the context of the research project Learning from Documenta, along with my later collaboration with the anthropologist Herbert Ploegman, during the course of the international summer school Visual Ethnography of Cityscapes, co-organized by the Athens Ethnographic Film Festival–Ethnofest, and the Netherlands Institute in Athens, in collaboration with the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. The present study is based on this collaborative work, through which Herbert Ploegman and I produced a short ethnographic film about Shamiyaana, exploring the operation of the platform in the social field of Athens. In this text, I focus on an empirical narration and a critical analysis of my ethnographic field notes from the venture of researching and visually documenting this specific documenta 14 artwork. Therefore, my text is characterized by a self-reflective tone to a large extent, moving between the boundaries of an autoethnography and a theoretically and politically informed anthropological critique of Shamiyaana.

In the first part of my paper, I attempt to situate Shamiyaana in the broader historical context of alimentary, participatory and relational art practices, among which I see some significant conceptual and historical affinities. By doing so, I attempt a close reading of the artwork’s central themes and intentions, in order to politically contextualize it in the social field of Athens during the recent financial crisis. This process brings to the fore the notion of social encounters, central to participatory art, as a modality and a medium through which to contemplate power relations. Subsequently, I gradually present the proceedings of the conducted fieldwork and the often-surprising findings and obstacles we faced during filmmaking. Several events and encounters that took place in the public space of Kotzia Square produced certain social dynamics that critically tested the artwork’s core ideas, shaping the ways power relations were enacted institutionally inside and outside of it. By engaging critically in this field of social encounters, I attempt to analyze Shamiyaana as a complex field of interactions formed by a plurality of social agents and a multiplicity of power regimes. This approach is theoretically informed by critical reflections on the concept of the assemblage, and an exploration of the performative possibilities of the assembly of bodies in public space. The detailed presentation of the above aims to contribute to a further discussion on the limits of public art, the politics of documentation and censorship, copyright issues, precarity, agency and exclusion, and calls for a critical reimagination of the terms towards less sovereign and more collective public art practices.

Art as a State of Encounter

 The core concept of Shamiyaana follows a rather long genealogy of artistic projects engaging with food beyond its representational and aesthetic uses in the course of the twentieth century, varying from the first Futurist’s Banquets in the 1930s, the use of food as a raw material for art-making, the exploration of the sensorial and bodily aspects of eating, to the most recent focus on commensality and conviviality between art visitors who are invited by artists to share a meal.[1] This latest tendency coincides with a broader shift in the field of contemporary art, with a steady and continuous rise after the 1990s towards a more open and collaborative engagement of artists with their audiences, the general public, and the broader field of the social and the political, coming under the broader categories of participatory [2] and relational art.[3] Introducing “relational aesthetics,” Nicholas Bourriaud sketched the rise of a socially engaged, processual art movement, in which the main art form is inter-subjectivity and human interaction,[4] as they emerge through social situations activated by artistic intervention. In this context, artworks are conceptualized as any social event that produces interpersonal engagement, that is, a dinner, a game, or other actions, as the art-making process is not crystalized in a finished and complete cultural product, but is rather conceived as an active “state of encounter”.[5]

Artistic gestures that operate within this paradigm are commonly part of a broader institutional critique, in which Rasheed Araeen has actively participated throughout his rather politically engaged career.[6] Shamiyaana, specifically, embodies the artist’s latest political insights, and conceptually intends to express an egalitarian, non-hierarchical tone,[7] that is part of Araeen’s recent interest in the power of collective creativity and the potentials of social change that can emerge through human collaboration, as a critique against art institutionalism and the fetishization of the artwork inside the global art market.[8] These concepts constitute a underlying theme that is evident throughout Shamiayaana’s design and conceptualization. For example, the colored geometrical shapes, commonly used in Araeen’s latest work, are indicative of the artist’s desire for the establishment of more symmetrical ways of social organization.[9] Additionally, the choice of Mediterranean food served at the Shamiyaana table, shares a conceptual connection with the artist’s earlier thoughts expressed in his Mediterranean Manifesto.[10] This project sketched the utopian construction of a new cultural and political collective that would connect all Mediterranean people in a single union, in order to reconfigure the Western principles of European modernity and neoliberal politics.[11]

Rasheed Araeen, Shamiyaana. Food for Thought: Thought for Change, 2016-17. Tents with geometric patchwork, cooking and eating. Kotzia Square, Athens. Photo by Yiannis Hadjiaslanis.

As we read in one of the few interviews of Araeen talking about his work in documenta 14, Shamiyaana, which has now extended its operation in the form of an art-restaurant in central London,[12] is seen as a project through which the artist tried to move beyond the walls of the museum, and to abolish the need for institutional legitimization of his work, in order to dedicate himself to his relation with the audience,[13] claiming that “art is in the interaction between idea and audience […] not in the physical object”.[14]

Encounters as a State of Power

The above thoughts share conceptual affinities with relational aesthetics and participatory art, i.e. that by opening the artistic space to the public and encouraging the active participation of the crowd in artistic production, more horizontal, egalitarian and democratic relations between visitors and the artist, and between visitors themselves can emerge.[15] It is in this context that the focus of contemporary art has moved, in the last few decades, to the concept of the micro-utopias which emerge through everyday acts of relationality and social encounters, such as the act of eating together or other convivial relations.[16] But it is this very concept that has also raised important criticism, like that of Claire Bishop, who puts the focus instead on a more complex understanding of encounters through the notions of conflict and antagonism.[17] In contrast, although Bourriaud’s suggestion that we conceive art as a “state of encounter”[18] is important, it encompasses a rather problematic notion of artistic intervention as a corrective to what is thought to be already broken social bonds[19] and narrowed spaces of social relationality brought about by technological advances.[20] Similarly corrective ideas ran through the conceptualization of Shamiyaana and led to the decision to place it in Kotzia Square, as we can read in the formal description of the artwork on documenta’s site:

Once a vital meeting point […] Kotzia Square has become seemingly deserted due to the recent decline of Athens’s commercial center. For documenta 14, Rasheed Araeen presents an open structure that considers the environmental dynamics of the square and revitalizes its activities through a gesture of hospitality […] Araeen invites people to sit together and enjoy a meal while reflecting on possible scenarios for social change.[21]

I suggest paying close attention to the above description, as I find it significant for a proper contextualization of the artwork in the frame of documenta’s arrival in Athens. It is important to contemplate the spatial politics enacted in this very statement on two levels. The first concerns the curatorial decision to place Shamiyaana only in the Athenian part of the exhibition, and not in Kassel respectively, where Araeen made a very different type of contribution. The second concerns the placement of the above statement on documenta 14’s site, where it is not presented as the artwork’s description, even though it is the longest and most informative written text about Shamiyaana, but as a framing of Kotzia Square itself, which is marked on the map of Athens under the category of Venues in the Public Exhibition part of the website.

If this excerpt is read more closely, it becomes apparent that the conceptual intentions and placement of Shamiyaana are inseparable from dominant discourses and conceptualizations about Athens in crisis. In this case, the Athenian center is symbolically constructed as a place of desolation and passivity–a social landscape of poverty–in order for the artist’s intervention to work therapeutically in a “revitalizing” way, by activating social encounters. Apart from reproducing a rather problematic concept of artistic intervention as akin to “divine intervention,” with connotations of salvation in the field of social relations, these thoughts also bring to the fore some other important topics that call for further contemplation and analysis. What kind of encounters can possibly emerge through the concept of participatory artistic intervention? Is just the event of their emergence enough, in order for more symmetrical and horizontal social relations to occur? If not, what are the operations that have to take place in order for this to happen?

Kotzia Square before Shamiyaana, as depicted on the documenta 14 web page. Photo by Mathias Voelzke.

Bearing in mind Michel Foucault’s critical reflections about the notion of power as a diffused concept reproduced “from below” and among subjects across the social matrix,[22] we must examine social encounters as a complex field of power relations. Adding this layer of understanding to the discussion of “art as a state of encounter,” particularly in the case of Shamiyaana, my analysis focuses on the ways power relations are performed, reproduced or deconstructed in the context of the artwork and through artistic intervention. To achieve this objective would mean to depart from the conceptualizations and intentions presented by the artist, and focus on the social fabrications and relations (re)produced through art as an interactive space. In this endeavor, the methodology of participant observation emerges as a research tool of significant importance, towards a focused, reflective and critical engagement with art, putting primary emphasis on the social results and performativity of the artwork in the field of inter-subjective relations.

Getting Inside Shamiyaana

Not discreet at all, Shamiyaana has been one of the most intense presences of documenta in Athens, producing some of the most significant, albeit temporary, changes to the city’s public architecture. The fountain in Kotzia Square was cleaned and renovated after a long time, while the Town Hall building was decorated with an oversized banner with a D14 blueprint, contributing to the strong impression of the exhibition’s arrival in the landscape of the city’s center. During my visits in the first days of its operation, I was fascinated by the international character of the artwork, and the mix of art visitors from all over the world, creating an interesting “mosaic” of ephemeral relations. While the encounters of visitors were non-linear and unstructured, the architecture of the platform, which was separated into four different sides with no connection in between, left space for selective groupings of people to happen, based on similarities in age, nationality, or, more often, common language.

My core ethnographic observation of Shamiyaana, took place a couple months later, in July 2017, in the framework of the Visual Ethnography of Cityscapes summer school, where international students attended advanced visual anthropology courses and undertook productions of short ethnographic films, working in teams, under the broad common theme of Athens and its varied social landscape. Coincidentally, I was teamed with Herbert Ploegman, a Ph.D. candidate of Social Anthropology in Vrije Universiteit, who was also very interested on documenta 14 due to his prior research engagements with art and curating. After the first week of intense courses, we got to the point of selecting the site of our fieldwork. Like documenta 14, we were also engaged in “learning from Athens,” but from a very different standpoint. So, I suggested that we visit Shamiyaana together, in the hopes of building on my initially interesting, but unfinished, field notes from Kotzia. In this first visit after a long time, we chose to sit at a table of mainly middle-aged people who were all speaking Greek. The discussion topics seemed different from those of my first visits, and were more centered on politics, Greek-German relations and the financial crisis, as most of the visitors didn’t have a close relationship to art, but were mainly passers-by.

On our next visit to Kotzia Square, we attempted some preliminary research in the field and talked with people from the square about the artwork. In the first minutes of this trial visit we met Yannis,[23] a middle-aged unemployed Greek man who had visited the artwork several times and was talking loudly to a friend of his about his experiences at the tables. As we introduced ourselves and our short-film project initiative, our interlocutor directed us to follow him towards the artwork, stating repeatedly that we must document what was taking place there. Moving closer to Shamiyaana, we got into a rather long queue of people, some of whom were fighting and pushing each other as they waited to receive the free ticket to get inside the platform.

Shamiyaana, as a public venue, was exposed to a wide and heterogeneous audience that included art admirers, documenta visitors and tourists traveling to Athens from various parts of the world just for the exhibition, but also refugees, homeless Athenians, and people living in poverty, who eventually had reinterpreted the artwork as a soup kitchen and were forming a long queue everyday next to the installation’s ticket booth in order to be served a free meal. Crucial to this development was the specific placement of the platform in the human geography of the city, in Kotzia Square, which is close to most of Athens’ refugee districts, with the majority of municipal soup kitchens placed in the wide area around the square.

The daily line of people waiting for a meal at Shamiyaana. Still from the film Let Them Eat Art, Grigoris Gkougkousis and Herbert Ploegman, 2017.

The events of the arrival of all these people, who persistently formed a line in the center of the square every day, soon became the main subject of our short ethnographic film project. Their presence seemed to create a dynamic that tested the aforementioned micro-utopic reliance on non-hierarchical collective conviviality, and raised a series of interesting questions. What happens when heterogeneous subjects, such as middle-class art tourists and impoverished citizens, coming from asymmetric positions of hierarchy, get close in order to dine together in the frame of an artistic work? In which ways can “art as a state of encounter” possibly manage these power relations and overturn them, but also, what are the chances of simply reproducing them or even enhancing asymmetry?

A Seat at the Table

Let’s go back to the official statement about the artwork on documentas 14’s website, where visitors are informed that the distribution of food in Shamiyaana would follow a first-come-first-served policy, to maintain the platforms’ open accessibility, with no selective priorities. Through our observation in the square, our involvement in the line, and the interviews we conducted with visitors, Herbert and I soon realized that the first-come-first served order was not in place and that access to the work was not allowed equally to all visitors. Documenta employees distributed daily only a small number of free tickets to the impoverished people standing in the queue, excluding the majority of them, and kept the rest in case an art audience showed up later. While the main reason given for the exclusion of some visitors was the attempt to keep extra tickets for newcomers, we, and other seemingly more privileged subjects, faced no problem getting access to the platform on consecutive days. Often, we were even encouraged to jump the queue and sit at the tables at the same time that others were denied access. Thus, it seemed apparent to us, and to our interlocutors waiting in line, that the actual goal was to maintain a quota of a certain number of refugees and impoverished people, and a majority of tourists and other art visitors, through an informal evaluation of phenotypical profiling.

The exclusion of people belonging to already marginalized groups created an untapped antagonism among them, leading them to fight in order to ensure a seat at the table. These individuals were forced to form a line not because of an overwhelming demand for seats in the installation. In fact, based on our daily observations, there was sufficient room in the facility for all of those waiting. Rather, the persistent formation of the line seemed to be the result of the exclusionary politics that the curatorial team held towards these visitors, in response to the event of their unexpected arrival. Our research showed that while tickets were distributed to a wide audience twice a day, half an hour before each of the two servings, it was exclusively announced to the impoverished people forming the line that a certain number of tickets would be distributed to them for both servings only once, one hour before the first meal. In this way, the queue took shape early and dissipated before the rest of the audience showed up. Consequently, documenta tourists and other interlocutors did not even know about the existence of the line before our research brought it to their attention. The discovery of this differentiated handling of visitors prompted us to continue our research, and led to an urgent need on our part for visual documentation and political intervention, something which posed many difficulties.

On Documenting documenta

As Sarah Pink has noted, the ethics of visual research are bound up with power relations, as the practice of filming and the research’s final visual product are inserted into a broader cultural field of visual knowledge and image production and distribution; a field in which the ethnographer engages with various informants and institutions.[24] In the course of our fieldwork on Shamiyaana, while we followed the ethical norms of visual anthropology with regard to declaring our research intentions in filmmaking, receiving our interlocutors consent for recording our interviews, informing people of filming during public gatherings and agreeing to blur the faces of everyone so that their identities would not be disclosed, the presence of the camera and the practice of documentation institutionally added layers of difficulty and problematization in an already challenging field of research.

After our first visit to Kotzia Square we were repeatedly prevented from filming by the documenta team under the concern that we might publish our recorded material. For the next two weeks, until the end of our visual anthropology courses, which coincided with the end of the exhibition in Athens, we got entangled in a rather tense communicational procedure which took place on various levels: during our presence in the field, our visits to documenta’s press office, through phone calls between the exhibition’s administrative staff and our summer school professors, and by the exchange of e-mails that stated our desire to continue the filming procedures without further restrictions.

In all these instances, we were told that the artists’ permission was obligatory in order to continue filming even the surroundings of the artwork, or to make a film from the material we collected from the queues. During multiple conversations, our request to have direct contact with the artist in order to listen to his thoughts about the events in the line, and to conduct an interview with him about the artwork was fruitless, and all communications took place through several institutional intermediaries. Further demands followed, stating that we were not allowed to depict the image of the canopies of Shamiyaana on the screen, even as a part of the background of the square or the queue. Moreover, we were also informed that we couldn’t rely on the permissions we received from our interlocutors to record the conversations we had at the tables because, by sharing food on the platform, we were part of the “social sculpture” of Shamiyaana–an allegedly public artwork which was now reclaimed as private space and copyrighted property of documenta and the artist.[25] The above statements raised significant theoretical, methodological, and legal questions about the politics of copyrights and documentation, the boundaries of art in the public sphere, and our right to film in the public space of the square where the line was formed, outside the so called copyrighted platform.

After ongoing conversations with our summer school professors, the Learning from documenta team members, especially those who shared similar concerns with us about copyrights, and after getting advice from lawyers, we concluded that there was no solid legal justification for prohibiting us from filming in the square. The subject of copyrights and filming in public spaces exists in a grey area of legislation, and formally we were not violating any copyright laws, but neither were we completely protected. The curatorial team still held the right to involve us in a rather difficult, time-consuming and financially unsustainable court procedure if they wanted to. Constantly considering and rethinking the dangers and our precarious position against the administrative system of an international exhibition, we decided to take the risk and engage more actively in the urgent questions that this whole procedure raised, by continuing our research and filmmaking carefully, mainly based on interviews with visitors in locations beyond the Shamiyaana platform itself. In the course of our two-week presence in Kotzia Square, we talked with a large number of people and established friendly relations with many of them. In accordance with the requirements of our fieldwork, we got our interlocutors’ consent to record parts of our regular conversations while sharing a meal at three tables, each of them consisting of five to seven visitors, and we conducted and recorded in-depth interviews with eleven other individuals.

After finishing our film under these pressing conditions, we submitted it to the documenta press office so they could forward it to the artist. Soon we were informed that we were only permitted to screen our film in the closed circle of our summer school class but not at any other place or platform.[26] These issues became the main topic in our short ethnographic film, entitled Let Them Eat Art [27]. In the final cut we decided to follow an aesthetic form of “absence”. Even though the platform is in many instances depicted in the background, the documenta 14 artwork or the events of the line are not initially introduced. Instead, they are gradually sketched through the development of the film and mainly through the voices of our interlocutors and the daily recording of the line, placing the focus on the performative aspects of Shamiyaana instead of its initial description and the primary idea behind it. The film narrates the events that occurred in the line formed daily in Kotzia Square, depicts our struggle to record in public space, and identifies the multifarious experiences of these events through recorded interviews and conversations with visitors of diverse class, gender and race positions, and with very different experiences of exclusion and inclusion in Shamiyaana.

Through our research, the field of the visual emerged as a point of contesting authority and conflict, raising broader ethicopolitical issues and epistemological questions concerning “what constitutes ‘the visual,’ who owns it, who can reproduce and educate about it, where it resides, how it can be manipulated and construed, and with what effects”[28] As the film has remained mostly unseen by the public, the core ethicopolitical stakes of the events mentioned above, remain unresolved, and still require some significant points for further reflection.

Assemblages of Power and the Performativity of the Assembly

The above remarks highlight some significant questions regarding the practice of visual documentation, the institutional management of art, and the multiplicity of the social field of encounters. In this section, I attempt to scrutinize these issues, without necessarily seeking answers. Rather, I am more interested in highlighting the social dynamics emerging in the field of Kotzia Square, in the presence of Shamiyaana, among the people gathering on the line, and within our research initiative, in order to focus on the multiplicity of these encounters and the differentiated power relations taking place in each context.

To achieve this, we need to move beyond the binary distinction between the ethnographic-self and documenta, a distinction which I have perhaps relied on in my text up to this point, as this risks simplifying a rather multifaceted field of inquiry and a complex nexus of social relations. On the contrary, I suggest seeing the case of Shamiyaana as dispersed in a series of social events and actors that encompass, and extend to, a plurality of human and non-human agents and political subjectivities. Consequently, I follow theoretical paths that focus on the distributed and diffused aspects of power and agency, and the plurality of social formations and collective performativities, by focusing on the Deleuzoguattarian concept of the assemblage,[29] and the Butlerian concept of the assembly.

Returning to the concept of art as a state of encounter/encounter as a state of power, I would like to argue that Shamiyaana emerged in our temporally and spatially specific fieldwork, not just as a stable entity, but in the form of differentiated assemblages that shaped its political operations. As a philosophical and analytical category, the assemblage provides a wide understanding of the multiplicity of interactivity, with the focus of the initial term (agencement in French) being on the concept of connections, and on the relations among different patterns.[30] In this framework, we can understand Shamiyaana not just as a cultural product but also as an assemblage of a variation of human and non-human bodies, technologies, ideologies and institutions. These extend, but are not limited, to conceptualizations of the condition of contemporary art, artistic imagination and initial intentions, the multitude of varied visitors and their manifold interpretations, the platform’s architecture, the artistic appropriation of Pakistani traditions, dominant discourses about the city of Athens, the global economic crisis and its local resonances; but also, our ethnographic research initiative, the camera, contesting discourses on the regime of copyrights, institutional authority, neoliberal interests, aims of professional advancement, work hierarchies, and formal or informal protocols of image making and the distribution of access. The list could go on, but here I’m less interested in how specific assemblages were articulated, or “what assemblages are,” but rather, “what assemblages do”.[31]

Paraphrasing this quote of Jasbir Puar, I am mainly interested in the performative aspects of assemblages, and, more specifically, I would like to focus on a different order of “assemblage”–an order defined by the bodies gathering and forming the line every day in the center of Kotzia Square. This endeavor resonates with the work of Judith Butler in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly [32] where the philosopher gives an analytical account on the body politics of collective gatherings and actions, the politics of the construction of humans as “subjects of rights,” and the performative power of cohabitation in public space. For Butler, regardless of the ascribed identities of subjects, the assembly of bodies in space provides a distinct kind of performativity on its own and asserts collective claims beyond the limits of language.

While Butler draws on protests and massive demonstrations in squares to build her arguments, her theoretical work can also illuminate a wider spectrum of contexts involving the relations of bodies, public space and politics which, in my opinion, can contribute to the understanding of the line formed daily in Kotzia Square as a distinct political entity, bearing certain performative claims. Additionally, Butler’s remarks provide a politically and theoretically elaborated account of the differentiated distribution of vulnerability, and the construction of vulnerable subjects or populations, a notion I have used schematically to describe the people in the line, beyond a model of passivity or inactivity, calling us to contemplate “vulnerability and agency together”.[33] Focusing on the collective actions of subjects that embody “alterity,” like stateless people, workers and refugees without papers and other precarious subjects, Butler highlights how the disavowed body of the disenfranchised, is not reduced completely in the sphere of “bare life,” but it rather remains “angered, indignant, rising up, resisting”.[34]

Despite the internal disputes that resulted from the antagonism produced by their partial exclusion, the impoverished people persistently reassembled each day in Kotzia Square in a new order and in differentiated spatial arrangements, performing claims of plural rights, asking for the inclusion of all, contesting the authority of the art institution, and in many instances calling on us to document these events in order to make them public. Moreover, the simple act of gathering their bodies, the collective embodiment of an assembly, disarticulated and rearticulated daily, on a central square in front of the Athens City Hall, and the headquarters of the National Bank of Greece, performed an ephemeral, yet persistent, claim of recognition, addressing the event of exclusion from the art platform as well as broader sociopolitical conditions of structural violence, injustice and invisibility.

The assembly of bodies forming a line next to Shamiyaana, in front of the headquarters of the National Bank of Greece. Still from the film Let Them Eat Art.

Τhe body politics of this assembly intervened dramatically in the formation of public space, imprinting a corporeal trace on the square and inserting a visible claim into the public “space of appearance,” both mobilizing and contesting what is thought of as public while also expressing an “opposition to being the unseen condition of what appears to be the political”.[35] Communication technologies and visual media actively participate in the construction of this “space of appearance,” bearing the double potential of surveilling mass gatherings, but also of functioning as acts of counter-surveillance [36] by virtualizing and expanding the bodily claims of assemblies in time and space. This thought adds one additional level of complexity and responsibility to our act of documentation, as it charges it with the potential to virtualize the social body of the line, by re-assembling it on the different (visual) fields of sociability and knowledge. Thus, the venture of “documenting documenta,” the attempts to publish Let Them Eat Art, and the persistence of the issues engaged through this case study, remain significant and carry the potential to raise critical discussions on topics concerning the politics of documentation, art institutions, the differentiated vulnerability and (in)visibility among subjects in a hierarchical social field and our political accountability towards them.

On Commoning the Artwork

Reflecting on my ethnographic engagement with Shamiyaana, I think that the events described highlight some crucial topics that can contribute to a broader critical discussion and understanding of public, participatory and socially engaged art, which has been at the center of documenta’s ventures both in Athens and in Kassel. Documenta 14 visited Athens with the intention of learning from it. This endeavor, which faced a great deal of criticism for being neocolonial at its core, was presented in many instances as a horizontal act of inclusion and commonality. As we can read in the editor’s letter by Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, in the sixth issue of the South as a State of Mind magazine:

[. . . ] documenta 14 sees itself as a theater of actions—a performative, embodied experience available to all its participants. Moreover, while thinking about the seemingly immutable spectacular order, in which documenta 14 is perceived as an “exhibition” conceived by its “curators” for an “audience,” we believe it is possible to think beyond that narrow definition, toward other models and modes of production of meaning that would entail producing situations, not just artifacts to be looked at. [37]

Similar thoughts are elaborated in many other instances, as in Adam Szymczyk’s remarks in the documenta 14 Reader, stating that: “documenta must be considered an autonomous, commonly owned, transnational and inclusive self-organized artistic undertaking,”[38] or in the closing announcement of the exhibition, where it is stated that: “documenta 14 is not owned by anyone in particular. It is shared among its visitors and artists, readers and writers, as well as all those whose work made it happen.”[39]

This commonality of ownership seemed to fail in the Shamiyaana’s case study discussed in this paper. Both the persistent assembly of impoverished people who claimed the artwork as a soup kitchen, and our act of documentation, as two politically charged events, led to an intensification of the curatorial team’s claim of authorship and possession over the uses and the public image of the artwork. This claim was doubly manifested. Firstly, by the selective inclusion of visitors inside the platform, and, secondly, through the obstruction of filming this event. The differentiated distribution of tickets to visitors produced a temporal and spatial fragmentation in the flow and participation of the public which operated contrary to the core concept of the artwork. Instead of facilitating more horizontal, collaborative, and diverse social relations, Shamiyaana ended up reproducing dominant social hierarchies and, in many cases, producing antagonism between subjects of vulnerable social groups. On the other hand, by ensuring that the majority of the audience was prevented from coming into contact with the line, a different order of relations was established: one of “safer” and more “gentrified” interactions that did not create any unwanted discomfort to the core art audience, something which would probably lead to an unfavorable public image for the artwork.

The politics of image-making played a crucial role in documenta’s attempt to prohibit our production and screening of a research film on this topic, through what felt like an instrumentalization of copyrights as a means of censorship. This persistent deterrence of a counter-discourse to be produced about Shamiyaana highlights some crucial internal contradictions in the artwork’s and the exhibition’s claim to be open, public and horizontal. The closure imposed on the circulation of information restrained any possibility of a collective knowledge-exchange in response to the dialectic relation between Shamiyaana and Let Them Eat Art. Furthermore, it became indicative of a process and politics of selective knowledge-production from (but not with) Athens, as performed in this particular artwork of the exhibition. By prohibiting the broader circulation of counter-narratives about Shamiyaana, the emergence of a critical and openly public dialogue was avoided, and a monopoly of knowledge and authorship regarding the artwork was claimed by the exhibition and the artist.

Taking the above into consideration, I find it important not to let this issue be de-politicized or remain hidden from the public sphere, and to pay more critical attention to the ways in which forms of sovereignty can be enacted through artistic practices, even ones that intend to be public and non-hierarchical. As I have argued, our ethnographic research is not the only factor that contributed to this venture. Rather, it is the agency of multiple actors and the persistent assembly of vulnerable bodies which foregrounded the events of exclusion and involved both the artistic and anthropological interventions in a contested field regarding the politics of exclusion, ownership, copyrights and knowledge circulation. As researchers we were implicated in an ethical/political nexus of documentation, testimony and accountability. Ultimately, documenta’s attempt to prevent our research made apparent the broader social mechanisms and conditions through which this artwork became institutionalized and at the same time institutionalizing, extending the exhibition’s and the artist’s authority on the public space of Kotzia Square and its field of visibility. In this context, it is important to contemplate the potential of visual documentation as an act of counter-surveillance, to reveal and destabilize modalities of power and authority during events of social and political injustice, and to reconfigure the political “space of appearance.” In this sense, the corporeal assembly of the line, virtualized in the scenes of our film, the screenshots displayed in this essay  and the topics discussed and analyzed here, still bears the performative ability to recall the emergence of political agency through vulnerability, and the claims of visibility and inclusion.

Through the critical consideration of power relations that I attempted in this paper I wanted to highlight what is at stake in reimagining the modalities of the configuration of open, critical, participatory and commonly owned art: an art that acknowledges that every encounter is contaminated by relations of power, that disrupts hegemonic social categories and is unconditionally open to multiple and oppositional publics; that doesn’t reproduce possessive relations that privilege the artist as the main author, and instead allows a plurality of images and counter-discourses to circulate; and that, finally, is open to critical engagements and alternative interpretations, or even the deconstruction of its very core, by remaining constantly reflective towards its political performativity, and open towards multifaceted, plural performances of horizontal collective ownership.

Grigoris Gkougkousis studied Social Anthropology in bachelor’s and master’s level at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences. His research interests lie in the fields of digital anthropology, queer and affect theory, social movements, and critical media studies. His recent work focuses on the intersections of digitality and queerness, through a digital ethnography of geosocial dating networks for men who have sex with men, with an emphasis on GPS technology, the politics of online self-representation, digital embodiment and desire, algorithmic control and platform capitalism. He currently is a Contributing Editor for the American Anthropologist journal.


[1] For an analysis of alimentary art practices, see Francis Maravillas, “The Unexpected Guest: Food and Hospitality in Contemporary Asian Art,” in Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and World Making, edited by Michelle Antoinette & Caroline Turner (ANU Press, 2014), 159-178.

[2] Claire Bishop, Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel, 2006).

[3] Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods and Mathieu Copland (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002).

[4] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics,” in Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Claire Bishop, ibid. ; Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics ibid.

[5] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, pp. 18-21.

[6] In the 1970s the artist moved away from the sole use of symmetrical structures, which in previous decades had earned him recognition as one of the most important figures of British minimalism, towards a more politically engaged art-making that addressed the racist stereotypes and exclusions embedded in the London art scene. For more information on the artist’s life, career and political art, see Courtney J. Martin, “Rasheed Araeen, Live Art, and Radical Politics in Britain,” Getty Research Journal, no. 2, (2010), pp. 107-124.

[7] Christopher Turner, “There is an element of optimism in my work. An Interview with Rasheed Araeen,” Apollo: The International Art Magazine, (January 27, 2018). https://www.apollo-magazine.com/there-is-an-element-of-optimism-in-my-work/.

[8] Christopher Turner, “There is an element of optimism in my work. An Interview with Rasheed Araeen,”; Hettie Judah, “’My life has been a struggle against the establishment’: artist Rasheed Araeen” The Guardian, (January 16, 2020).  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/16/rasheed-araeen-interview-restaurant-shamiyaana-stoke-newington.

[9] Christopher Turner, “There is an element of optimism in my work. An Interview with Rasheed Araeen”.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rasheed Araeen, “Mediterranea,” Third Text, no. 21 (2007), pp.661-675.

[12] Rasheed Araeen, “Shamiyaana. Food for Thought: Thought for Change,” (web page), last accessed March 2020. https://shamiyaana.com/.

[13] Hettie Judah, “’My life has been a struggle against the establishment’: artist Rasheed Araeen”.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics.

[16] Ibid., pp.30-33.

[17] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, no. 110 (Fall 2004), pp.51–79.

[18] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, pp.18-21.

[19] That is also the core concept in participatory art since the 1960s. See Claire Bishop Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, p.12.

[20] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, pp.14-17.

[21] “Kotzia Square,” documenta 14 (web page). http://www.documenta14.de/en/venues/15317/kotzia-square

[22] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[23] I’m using a pseudonym to protect my interlocutor’s identity.

[24] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London: SAGE Publications, 2007), p.49.

[25] This declaration seemed rather unsettling to our interlocutors, who felt the need to defend both our right to film and their willingness to participate in our project, as otherwise it seemed like our shared conversations inside the platform were also being copyrighted.

[26] Our early claim to screen the film in the context of the Learning from documenta Closing Event, for research purposes, received only a late, informal, positive response through oral communication on the day of the event. The whole history regarding the screening permission ended in an unfortunate manner one year later, in June 2018. At that time we managed to set up an interview with Araeen in London, which was cancelled just four days before the scheduled date. While we were assured by documenta that the artist had received our film. He informed us that this was the first time he had watched it and, for that reason, he didn’t want any further conversation with us.

[27] Grigoris Gkougkousis and Herbert Ploegman, Let Them Eat Art (Unpublished).

[28] Sara Perry and Jonathan S. Marion, “State of the Ethics in Visual Anthropology,” Visual Anthropology Review vol. 26, no. 2 (2010), p.100.

[29] Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and
translated by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[30] Jasbir Puar, “‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory,” philoSOPHIA vol. 2, no. 1 (2012), pp.57.

[31] Ibid., p.57.

[32] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[33] Ibid., p.139.

[34] Ibid. p.79.

[35] Ibid., p.80.

[36] Ibid., p.94.

[37] Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk “Editor’s Letter,” in South as a State of Mind, 6 [documenta 14 #1]( Fall/Winter 2015). https://www.documenta14.de/en/south/12_editors_letter.

[38] The documenta 14 reader, edited by Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017), p.41.

[39] “documenta 14, April 8-September 17, in Athens, Kassel, and beyond, has reached more people than ever before”, documenta 14 (web page). https://www.documenta14.de/en/news/25596/closing.