Dilemmas of participation: some notes on refusal, (dis)engagement, and contemporary art institutions

Dilemmas of participation: some notes on refusal, (dis)engagement, and contemporary art institutions.

Aris Anagnostopoulos

1. radical indifference. In October 2016, when documenta 14 finally surfaced in public and media attention peaked, I asked a member of an occupied, self-managed theatre in Athens: “what are you going to do about documenta?” The answer was clear and assertive: “Nothing,” he said. “What do you mean nothing?,” -“I mean we are going to keep on doing what we always do, the same shows, the same parties, our normal function. Like documenta does not exist.” He then went on to explain that whatever you do “about” documenta, even if you criticize it heavily, the art behemoth will be able to assimilate it and use it to its own advantage. Even negative attention, he concluded, is positive advertising for such organizations, so a better course of action is to wait it out.

There are two things that I need to point out in this short sketch: one is the word “assimilate” (afomoionomai), which is the same word used by radical grassroots activists when they tried to make sense of what happened to the groups and collectives of the 2006-2012 cycle of contention after the rise of the party coalition of the left-wing SYRIZA and the populist right-wing ANEL to power. This assimilation process may be clearly portrayed in our context by the fortunes of a poster criticizing documenta that came out in April 2017 right before the opening of the exhibition. The poster reproduced the original “Learning from Athens” poster, but with the letter L in “Learning” scratched out, making it read “Earning from Athens.” A lot of these posters were taken down, especially in Exarchia, a neighborhood in Athens known for its occupied buildings, social centers and anarchist activity, because it was thought that they were actual documenta posters. Conversely, there were many among those who apparently got the joke that were convinced that this is a humorous creation of documenta itself, in order to promote controversy and stimulate criticism. They attributed to the institution of documenta 14 the ability to assimilate critique and use it to its own ends, the ability to employ self-criticism and self-mockery as instruments to expand its audience base.

Most of the grassroots groups and activists, among a good percentage of the Greek public, greeted documenta 14 with a degree of marked indifference. Grassroots activists maybe issued a few posters, and wrote a handful of critical texts, but otherwise they paid no real attention to the presence of this large art exhibition. For several months, during the preparation of the exhibition in 2017, the Prevelakis hall of the National Technical University of Athens (the locus of a 1973 student rebellion that is retrospectively seen as the first popular rebellion that toppled the military dictatorship of 1967), at the heart of Exarchia, a neighborhood in the eye of frequent police crackdowns for its plurality of occupied spaces and counter-culture events, was the headquarters and open studio for documenta 14. The “semi-public” events, as dubbed by Adam Szymczyk on their first iteration, took place some steps away from the occupied social centre of the autonomous groups and only somewhat further than the Gini teaching hall that was squatted for refugee housing. Sharing the same entrance to the technical university yard, art crowds, activists and refugees frequently met but rarely paid attention to each other. documenta 14, despite its artistic director’s early pronouncements, did not pay any attention to the corporeal presence of refugees next door. For most of the activists involved in this, however, documenta was, as some of them told me, “the least of their worries,” faced as they were with the notable ebb of the political activism and grassroots organizing that peaked after the December 2008 riots and during the memorandum years (2010-11). Others attributed this indifference to tiredness: “the movement is exhausted after all these years, they have neither the energy nor the presence of mind demanded to face something like this.”

documenta 14 being the least of the worries of people involved in grassroots organizing in Athens resulted in very few occasions of participation (as in the example discussed below), but also very few occasions of criticism by these groups and people. This would perhaps not be noteworthy if documenta 14 did not make it its outright goal to engage radical dynamics developing during the so-called Greek crisis with an outright radical and anti-capitalist discourse. [1] I am trying here to delineate the marked indifference with which the (imagined) radical subject comprising groups and artists that should theoretically be a privileged interlocutor to documenta’s programmatic political vision reacted to it in the end. As a preliminary descriptive statement, it suffices to say that the people I am referring to here belong to the varied constellation of groups and initiatives in the city that put solidarity and collaboration outside state-regulated institutions at the centre of their activity and self-definition. [2] There is a common language, with varied inflection, as well as common referents in those groups, but neither me, nor them, understands this milieu as a unitary, coherent subject. Many amongst those groups would describe themselves as participating in a collective subject imagined as “the movement” or “the milieu” (o chóros – literally, “the space”), but their political activity and organization points rather to a politics of fractional loyalties, groups and networks, rather than a unified political subject in action or in thought.

2. the economy of attention. This indifference is not, necessarily, a failure on the part of documenta 14 to engage potential publics successfully, neither is it an unpolitical act on behalf of those who refuse to engage it; although it characterizes a wide variety of people and groups, it does not, and will not, constitute a ‘subject’ in itself. Inactivity, in this case vis-a-vis documenta, is not necessarily inertia, as Agamben rightly asserts. Rather, it is an operation that de-commissions, inactivates a specific endeavour in order to divest attention and energy elsewhere. [3] Giorgio Agamben, along with Maurizio Lazzarato, have proposed, in their own readings, inertia and laziness as an antidote to individual over-exhaustion brought about by neoliberal politics of entrepreneurship in a late-capitalist context. [4] However, both authors have attempted in their own ways to re-institute a concept of resistance to their readings and identify a new subject that emerges through this exercise, be it a late-capitalist Bartleby or a post-spectacle Marcel Duchamp. I propose that the concept of refusal may be much more fruitful in examining such cases, because in its heart it conceives of politics as something that may develop a new existential politics, one that neither opposes nor commissions, but instead invents new uses of the world. [5]

In this context, refusal to engage with a public event of such magnitude is primarily a refusal to take sides in a pre-determined binary choice: engagement or non-engagement. It is a refusal to take sides, for or against, and a desire to ask a different question altogether. The political import of such realization is based, I believe, in a well-founded experience of late-capitalist politics as they transpire through mass media and lately social media. For several years the understanding of mass media, especially by people participating in social movements, was an instrumental one. Media were understood as dire manipulators in favor of elite networks of power, and perhaps rightly so, as media bias in recent years has been something of a received knowledge. The social media revolution transformed the way news are is received, but also transformed the notion of public political debate towards more molecular forms of everyday friction and its accompanying new machines and subjects. What transpires as the common denominator, however, is the gradual realization that our own activity, either positive or negative, is the one that supports this system of images and words. This fact delineates a new ethics of political activity, whereby (re)action itself is the vector of value and identity, and the content of this reaction, positive or negative, tends to become irrelevant at best (plainly obvious in social media platforms with their already delineated array of reactions, from a simple “like” thumb to an angry emoticon). This new transformation of the public sphere, hailed by some as the late incarnation of a democratic utopia, bears the “normative bourgeois character” and dubious emancipatory claims of its older incarnations. [6] In the gamut of affective responses to current public events, refusal to engage becomes a non-entity, something that escapes codification, escapes the logic of the discourse itself; but it can also become a willful effort to avoid “entrapment.” [7] into an institutionalized logic of taste and individual preference.

This codification of ethical, and therefore political, commitment in social media capitalism, reflects the development of what is already called attention economy. The predictable trend in the digital age is the transformation of individual attention into a measurable commodity or a currency. [8] At the same time, individual attention spans are seen by business developers as limiting factors in the development of products online, whereas in the past the limit was access to information itself. [9] In the new digital era, as Davenport and Beck argue, time as labour gradually becomes time as attention. [10] To refuse attention to a dilemma perceptibly imposed from above, even if the content of this seems close to one’s political convictions, such as in documenta 14, may therefore be to negate the investment of attention to it, to free up time potentially invested in other forms of socialization, community building and care – such as the practical solidarity to the refugees occupying Gini hall, during the documenta introductory events.

3. refusal or resistance? Refusal, in the simple definition of Carole McGrannahan, “is to say no.” [11] It is a willful, generative movement away from one thing and towards another, very much akin to the decommissioning envisioned by Agamben. In this respect, refusal, inactivity and dis-engagement should be carefully discerned from what was perceived, both by the organizers of documenta 14 and its left-wing detractors, as “resistance.” The preference or alliance of the documenta 14 team with the politics of resistance from below was evident both in the programmatic declarations carefully phrased by its artistic director [12] and in early assessments of the program and artistic direction. [13] Yet, resistance, as Abu-Lughod points out, is a concept that over-inscribes institutions such as the state and their power to determine the discursive universe of the political. [14] Theodossopoulos posits that this notion of resistance is a form of exoticization that presents resistance as something that comes from a “world exterior to power” [15] and reduces social action into “static images of homogeneous, undifferentiated resisting subjects.” [16] Perhaps even resistance is complicit in a repetitive re-evaluation of power, by instating a vicious cycle of repetition that is overdetermined by the power of all-encompassing forces to determine what is conceivably disputable. This resonates with fears of political assimilation as expressed by politicized individuals after the rise of SYRIZA-ANEL to power, marking an understanding of the politics of resistance as open to the hegemony of one dominant institution over the multitudes of molecular struggles and resistances. Simultaneously, it cuts a deep fissure that can lead to critical positions in the attention economy, as it develops and solidifies mainly through social media. Refusal is a stance of “avoidance rather than active opposition” and in this it escapes theorizations of resistance. [17]

Contrary to what other voices may assert, [18] it is obvious in this case, as in others, that refusal does not always constitute a communal subject by itself. [19] To simply ignore documenta 14 did not constitute any subject in itself in the sense that we are used to conceive political subjects, as collectivities that consciously act in positive ways. On the other hand, however, it may set the stage for a reconsideration of what is thinkable as political subjectivity in hyper-linked spectacular capitalism.

The two characteristics of its new conception of subjects of refusal are the potentiality of subject-making and the element of hope. [20] The first characteristic urges us to reconsider an understanding of social and political action as expression. This means that there is a quasi-ethnographic and archival insistence on political subjectivity as something recordable and open to classification and ordering. Refusal urges us to look at ways in which subjectivity is vectored through a sense of potentiality, that which is possible to happen, a dynamis in the Aristotelian sense. It may be useful here to think of the analogy of smoking: non-smokers do not constitute a coherent political subject because they are not united through a unique signifier (smoking), but by abstinence from it; and this abstinence is not an active refusal by itself, but may result from the simple fact that they never took up, or found any pleasure in, smoking. On a commonsensical level, smokers do something that defines them, whereas non-smokers do not. This absence of a unique identifier, however, is precisely that which opens this latter group of people to a variety of possibilities that are not open to the former. And these are not only possibilities that pragmatically lead to a healthier life, for example, but also possibilities to exist outside biopolitical orderings, to see them as fields of indifference; possibilities of imagining life otherwise.

To bring this analogy over to contemporary art institutions, the element of refusal here may open up a dynamis (potentia) that points to another way of doing things. As Carole McGrannahan notes, “refusal is hope that things will be different” and this activity is exactly a “refusal to be aspirational in the right way.” [21] This is the element that, I believe, inscribes the refusal to engage within a utopian potential and effectively distinguishes willful distancing, or “calculated passivity” (Weiss 2016: 352) from ignorance or conspiracy-minded abstinence. Whether complete refusal to engage, as in the examples I have mentioned so far, or in finding creative ways to say no to the demands of art institutions, as in the example of LGBTQIA+ refugees I will mention below, refusal points to a potential of organizing and doing things differently.

Refusal refers both to an ethnographic (non) subject and an ethnographic potentiality. [22] It questions the ethnographic presumption of a subject that becomes its unitary self through some sort of activity. A variety of actors, including, in this case, this anthropologist, have refused to define themselves as a coherent whole, as a subject either in favor of, or in opposition to, documenta 14, even when the presence of the exhibition forced them to position themselves in relation to it. Refusal offers a third way out, an unlocking of the impasse, but also points to the heart of the matter: which is that any sort of engagement, either positive or negative, can become part of media campaigns for large institutions and events, and may in fact strengthen their presence. This, in fact, is a question that came up in many early discussions of our research group learning from documenta: by critically studying documenta, did we not help it to gain a much larger significance in Greek public life?

4. what potential for refusal in the art world? As I have already hinted above, and the interlocutor I cited at the beginning of this article seems to understand, contemporary art institutions have an increased potential to incorporate artistic refusal. documenta itself, in its previous iterations, provides some examples where curatorial shrewdness has undermined artistic refusal to participate. In documenta 13 (2012), the New York based artist Kai Althoff sent a hand-written letter to the artistic director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, detailing candidly the artist’s reasons for opting out of the exhibition at the last moment. [23] It was a long, heart-wrenching admission of artist burnout and fragility, that Christov-Bakargiev decided to exhibit in a glass vitrine at the Fridericianum museum. This curatorial decision turned the act of refusal and abstention back into the logic of the exhibition and artistic production. Simultaneously, it showed that the logic of curating had already shifted from the artwork as an object to the artist and the process. [24]

Sometimes this comes at a later date from the original act of refusal, as in the example of Charlotte Posenenske, an artist who had officially withdrawn from making art in 1968. Posenenske waged a sharp critique against modern art, and documenta 4 in particular for taking up revolutionary airs and using artists as “cultural alibis” for imperialist wars, such as the Vietnam War. [25] Despite her outright abandonment of the art world, and her critique of documenta, her works were exhibited posthumously, scattered in various rooms, in documenta 12.

Art institutions therefore have the capacity to work through individual refusals by reframing them and re-inserting them into an archive of contemporary critical art. This capacity resonates with an understanding of latest developments in the economy of attention, whereby the medium, and not the message, is really what matters, as well as assimilation anxieties of people active in the radical milieu as they surfaced in the crisis era.

Still, attention has been turned recently to a series of pragmatic refusals that have introduced the question of work into contemporary art. [26] Contrary to a perception of artistic creativity as entitlement, as privilege, based on personal talent and solitary epiphanies, these movements re-install the question of art as work and its dependence on networks of people and power relations. From artistic boycotts, to art strikes, occupations or blockages of art institutions, these events are a manifestation of what Szreder calls “productive withdrawals.” [27] Not surprisingly, institutional responses were quick to present such withdrawals in a negative light as indicative of a laziness amounting to ethical pusillanimity. Rather than choosing to disengage and refuse participation, art workers should stay and fight, these opinions argue, trying to change art institutions from within. [28]

I find Andrea Fraser’s thought on this dilemma much more fruitful, as she reconsiders stark divisions of institutions, the art world, and real world artists. She argues that to believe that the art world is distinct from the real world and that institutions act separately and indifferently to the artists they exhibit and represent,/ is to disavow the artist’s role in the establishment and perpetuation of the conditions within which these institutions function. [29] Indeed, this is a valid argument for the reconsideration of the social role of the artist, sounded from a practicing artist with a critical outlook towards art institutions. The question posed by documenta 14, however, in a way reverses the position from which this critique is phrased: what happens when an exhibition of this size decides to unite those distinct fields (of the “art world” and the “real world”) and venture into political activity from below? I could offer, as a provisional suggestion to resolve this conundrum, that critique in itself is historical, and therefore contingent to the social, cultural, and economic conditions within which it is waged. Perhaps an ethnographic consideration such as those presented in this volume brings to the fore the specificity of the effects that this critique has in particular contexts, and allows us to break free from a prescriptive understanding of socially engaged art to a descriptive one. In other words, breaking the dilemmas that emerge from programmatic conditions of political action – what should be done, and by whom – to a more careful attention to what subjects actually do, and the reasons why they do it.

Within the Greek context, the institutional counter-argument for engagement, rather than abstention, resonates ever more deeply, since artistic work is seen by many as a privilege of moneyed elites, and rarely as real work invested by precarious workers in an ever deepening economic and social crisis. There is a pervasive, popular understanding of art as surplus enjoyment, an activity that is so closely connected with personal expression and the enjoyment of creativity, that up until recently, there was a reluctance even among art workers themselves to discuss creative work as work in its own right. In this light, the refusal to engage with art institutions, and especially when these have a radical agenda, is often seen as middle-class privilege at best, and elitism at worse, even by people who may share the same precarious work conditions as those who refuse to participate.

This deep fissure in the political import of art work was, to my knowledge, first manifested in the public debates that ensued in the occupied building of the National Opera of Greece during the December 2008 riots in Athens. The public assemblies that lasted for a number of days gave an opportunity to a variety of cultural workers to debate the issue of exploitation in the art world, fair salaries, and the nature of artistic creation as work. The reactions of many participants, art workers themselves, were to defend their work against any definition as productive labour that can be quantified and appropriately salaried. The “special” status of artistic creativity, they claimed, was precisely this inability to be quantified and its freedom from monetary equivalents.

This very debate resurfaced almost ten years after, during the gatherings that led to the invigilators of documenta 14 denouncing publicly the difference between the salary promised by documenta and the one actually paid by the private human resources company that employed them. [30] Many invigilators, especially younger artists, felt that monetary demands were essentially below their function as a helping hand to one of the world’s largest art institutions, and voiced their opposition to political organizing to pressure the institution to pay up. Several invigilators saw this happy voluntarism as the expression of a self-servitude characteristic of privileged individuals that want to make their way up in the art world and want to stay on documenta’s good books. [31] Yet others saw the leftist politics of the most politically organized fraction as aesthetically displeasing and irrelevant to the essence of artistic creation.

Given that recognition is for most struggling artists a currency that ensures survival in precarious working conditions, refusal becomes an option that is not always available. [32] As in other contexts, similarly in the Greek art milieu, the dilemma of refusal, especially when it comes to large art institutions, is posed in very stark moralist terms that often overlook the realities of precarity in artists. In Greece, precarity is rather the norm for artists of all ages, who make their living through other activities rather than through their art. [33] And yet, most discussions that reach the point of the economics of art, and touch upon strategies of recognition and subsistence, inevitably move towards the dilemmas posed by large funding institutions like the Niarchos Foundation or Onassis Foundation. [34] The questions often posed in such discussions are whether artists should “sell out” by getting funding from such behemoths, contrasted with maintaining a measure of artistic integrity by doing things on their own means, which, most will accept, are so meagre as to actually influence artistic content.

The interesting point here is that the artistic director of documenta 14, both in meetings with invigilators, and later on in public announcements, [35] effectively made a distinction between documenta the company and documenta the creative team. It was left to be assumed that the company was responsible for the short-changing of such workers, and not the artistic team, whose purpose was to explode the assumptions and typical function of the exhibition from the inside. The company was further criticized for its exploitative nature in the production of value in art. [36] I think this is interesting because it implies that the institutional critique that Fraser had so aptly subverted in 2005 has managed in the intervening years to expand even further the field of art into society, and re-fold the distinctions and discourses within the institutional once more. This creates a far more complex field, in which engagement or disengagement acquires a different status that can perhaps be subverted only by radical acts of refusal.

5. dilemmas of (non) participation. In the context of the so-called “Greek crisis,” perhaps the refusal of several groups and collectives to engage with documenta 14 was a decision made, or forced by, a feeling of having been “over-coded” [37] by a variety of people, institutions, and media. The reactions of politically organized groups and initiatives, as well as the mass demonstrations, especially between 2010-2011 and leading up to 2017, led to an increased attention by international media and journalists, as well as a varied crowd of activists, social scientists, political analysts, NGOs, and other institutions. This engagement continued with the outbreak of the “refugee crisis,” around 2015, which brought an even larger number of activists, humanitarians, and journalists to Greece, and became a popular theme for social science graduates, a fact that was not entirely lost to socially active individuals.

The feeling of being over-coded is a two-pronged beast; besides feeling a constant sense of hyper-surveillance, there is also the feeling that one is being under-represented, or misrepresented. [38] Research or inquiry, and their corollary publication of research findings, irrespective of whether this research is social scientific, journalistic, commercial or state-initiated, becomes an invasive practice that aims to misrepresent communities and individuals for the sake of profit or the career advancement of those who wage it.

The theme of documenta 14 was conceived at a time when mass protests and political reactions of the Athenian public were still resonant. The stated purpose was to learn from Athens, meaning to learn the art of resistance, political organization, and democratic representation. But Athens, and Greece, in 2017 were already much different than the Athens and Greece that have given birth to the concept and idea. Many of the hopes and expectations of social change that were slowly building up from the riots of 2008 and peaking towards 2011 were disappointed, if not outright crushed, by 2017, when documenta 14 took place. The context was so different that it threatened to shift documenta 14 into a past voice that claimed an already lost revolution. [39]

This time lag, however, that rendered documenta 14 a reminder of a previous era even before it began was a critical factor for the engagement of yet other groups that felt marginalised by the resurgence of national discourses prevalent in the referendum era. Groups like LGBTQIA+ activists that had painstakingly asserted their presence in the first decade of the 00s and during the crisis years, felt that their participation in major art events such as documenta 14 was part of their political action to increase visibility for their cause. For some queer groups and artists, joining documenta 14, even with critical inhibitions, was a sure-fire way to ensure institutional visibility and open safe spaces.

Yet, this engagement was not always straightforward. Nor was refusal and distancing a clear-cut option. Rather, there were different degrees and styles of (dis)engagement adopted by different groups and individuals. During the early months of 2017, a local activist acting in solidarity with a group of LGBTQIA+ refugees in Athens alerted me of a proposal made by the artist Roger Bernat to the group to participate in his work “The Place of the Thing” for documenta 14.  At the time, members of the group were somewhat ambivalent with taking part in this work, especially since they found some of the statements made by the artist problematic at least. The artwork consisted in a replica of the oath stone found in the ancient Agora, where presumably the trial of Socrates took place in 339 BC, carried to Kassel and buried in the Thingplatz in Landau (Wolfhagen). [40] Simultaneously, the artist entered a “fictional pact” with a community of people that would form around the object to ensure its “theatrification” and the creation of “fictions of valor” (sic), created by the community through its mobilization. [41] In practical terms, the artist approached several collectives and groups in Athens and asked them to organize performances focused upon the replica of the stone. It is interesting to note that the artist included a phrase in the introductory statement on his artwork that read: “within the framework of their [those responsible for the project] participatory device, indifference, unwillingness to take part, even non-participation contribute to meaning just as much as the self-mobilization of the ‘mobilized’ collective.” [42]

Since, therefore the artist remained open to activities of refusal and saw the failure of the project as a potential development, it was somewhat surprising to see his negative reaction when the replica passed on to the LGBTQIA+ group of refugees was “abducted” and never returned (Bernal 2017b). The refugee group had thought about its involvement long and hard, and there were many debates within the group, expressing different opinions as to the degree of engagement. The final result, the abduction of the stone, is documented in a short film posted by the collective on their Facebook group. [43]

It was evident, by the title of the performance, “#rockumenta,” that the collective understood that it was not dealing with an artist independently of the institution in which he was preparing his work. Although the communication was primarily with the artist himself, the questions they posed as to whether or not they would participate at all, touched upon the institutional aspect of the work, besides its problematic aspects. The collective was fully aware that in participating, even in this disrupting way, they were risking being associated with documenta 14. And this indeed happened in the end, as some people did assert that their performance was commandeered by documenta, and that they actually, despite their intentions, participated in the exhibition.

Initial discussions had produced a text addressing documenta with demands that had to do with the issues refugees face in Greece. Participants who opposed this argued that this should not be an action that saw the exhibition as an agent that could solve their problems. Instead, the group went on to use the documenta platform as a springboard to make itself more visible and present the hardships and dangers of being an LGBTQIA+ refugee in Greece at the time. It effectively succeeded in doing so, as it attracted the attention of artists, journalists, and activists from around the world, it strengthened its social media presence and it secured the donation offered by the artist that was more than essential at that specific point.

6. epilogue – to pull the carpet under one’s feet. The ethnographic study of art poses similar dilemmas to a researcher, who is actively involved in studying a big art event as documenta 14, in the sense that the central epistemological tenet of anthropology is the practice and philosophy of participant observation. For anthropology, participant observation is not a “fly on the wall” objective recording of events, but one where the ethnographer is actively involved in shaping her field. How does participating actively in the projects of documenta become inscribed in the very outcome of documenta, and how does this involvement become assimilated or not into the workings of such an art exhibition? Is refusal to participate a remedy to all this? Or are there instances of refusal while inside the process that qualify the multiple layers of art institutions – and in general art as it is inscribed in late capitalism – in a way that brings out the dilemmas posed by participation itself? Simultaneously, refusal questions the very foundations of ethnographic research. To summarize in a rather naive form, what is there to study when nothing is happening? What do we look at when we have made documenta 14 our primary signifier and in other minds this is simply a void?

This discussion does not aim to identify refusal as an action that points to an “anti-systemic” authenticity, nor do I feel that people who refuse to participate in documenta or engage with documenta partake in an identity that is somehow more connected to the “real” art and “real” politics. I bear in mind Mc Granahan’s dictum that refusal may not be “about” domination and class struggle, but an effort to “stake claim to the sociality that underlines all relationships, including political ones.” [44] Indeed, most of the instances of refusal to participate were not, on closer inspection, personal decisions based on a sense of identity or personal ethos, but on the contrary, references to group obligations, to social relationships.

I was more interested here in identifying the dilemmas that institutional affiliation poses for active subjects in political action and the production of artistic work. Such dilemmas were also posed to myself, as a researcher participating in a non-institutional research project on documenta 14. Engagement, or distancing, critical or otherwise, are played out as dilemmas of participation, some of which have been outlined here. Rather than pose refusal and disengagement as trans-historical forces at play, I aimed instead to historicize such actions and reactions, by reading them alongside contemporary art’s re-introduction of refusal as artistic practice, in the context of documenta 14’s focus on the current crisis.

Aris Anagnostopoulos is an anthropologist, historian and writer. His research focuses on the poetics and politics of the past. He has done ethnographic research in several archaeological projects in Greece and has published extensively on Ottoman heritage in Crete. His experimental fiction invents writer personas to investigate issues of memory, archive, gender, science and artistic production.


[1] Adam Szymczyk, “14: iterability and otherness – learning and working from Athens.” The documenta 14 reader (Kassel: documenta and Museum Fridericanum 2017).

[2] Stavros Stavrides, “What is to be learned. On Athens and documenta 14 so far”. Afterall 43 (2017): 66.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, “Art, Inactivity, Politics”. In: Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, and Sven-Olov Wallenstein (eds) Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), 139.

[4] Tim Christiaens, “Neoliberalism and the Right to Be Lazy: Inactivity as Resistance in Lazzarato and Agamben.” Rethinking Marxism 30, No. 2 (2018): 256-264.

[5] Carole McGranahan, “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction,” Cultural Anthropology, 31, No. 3 (2016): 319–325.

[6] Erica Weiss, “Refusal as act, refusal as abstention,” Cultural Anthropology 31, No. 3 (2016): 357.

[7] Weiss, “Refusal as act”, 356

[8] Cristian Marazzi, Capitalism and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy, (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2008)

[9] See for example https://www.nngroup.com/articles/attention-economy/

[10] Thomas Davenport and John Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the new currency of business, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2001), 28.

[11] McGrannahan, “Theorizing refusal”, 319.

[12] Adan Szymczyk, “14: iterability and otherness – learning and working from Athens.” The documenta 14 reader, (Kassel: documenta and Museum Fridericanum, 2017).

[13] Teemu Takatalo and Niklas Karlsson, The Holobiont Research Project #2. North//South Convergence Pre-Project Final Report, 2016, 8. http://www.holobiont.net/northsouth-convergence.html

[14] Lila Abu-Lughod, “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women”. American Ethnologist 17,  No. 1(1990).

[15] Dimitris Theodossopoulos, “Introduction. On de-pathologising resistance.” History and Anthropology 25, No. 4 (2014): 417.

[16] Theodossopoulos, “Introduction”, 418.

[17] Elisa Sobo, “Theorising (vaccine) refusal. Through the looking class,” Cultural Anthropology 31, No. 3 (2016): 342.

[18] McGrannahan, “Theorizing refusal”, 321; Audra Simpson, Mohawk interruptus: political life across the borders of settler states, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 107.

[19] cf. Aris Anagnostopoulos, “Delusion street: Commemoration and monumentality in post-Ottoman Iraklio, Crete.” History and Anthropology 30, No. 3 (2019):  256-275.

[20] McGrannahan, “Theorizing refusal”, 322.

[21] Carole McGranahan, “Refusal and the gift of citizenship.” Cultural Anthropology 31, No. 3 (2016): 338.

[22] McGrannahan, “Theorizing refusal”, 319.

[23] Cited in Andrew Russeth, “Kai Althoff: ‘There Is No Reason Really Why My Things Are Exhibited in a Museum and Others’ Are Not’”. Art News, 2016. https://www.artnews.com/artnews/news/kai-althoff-there-is-no-reason-really-why-my-things-are-exhibited-in-a-museum-and-others-are-not-6746/

[24] Gregory Volk, “Letters from documenta. Art in America.”, 2012 https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/documenta-1-58903/

[25] Nanne Buurman, “De-commissoning documenta?  Politics of (Dis)engagement in Historical & Theoretical Perspective.” Presentation at the conference “Learning from Documenta – Closing Event”, October 4-7, 2017, Athens, Greece.

[26] e.g. Sara Wokey, “Art, Work, and Refusal”, The New Inquiry, 29 November 2011. https://thenewinquiry.com/art-work-and-refusal/

[27] Kuba Szreder, “Productive Withdrawals: Art Strikes, Art Worlds, and Art as a Practice of Freedom.” E-flux 87 (2017). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/87/168899/productive-withdrawals-art-strikes-art-worlds-and-art-as-a-practice-of-freedom/ (last accessed 12 March 2020).

[28] Szreder, “Productive Withdrawals”

[29] Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum 44, No 1 (2005): 284.

[30] The invigilator’s demands were published in various progressive and left-wing sites in Greece, e.g. https://tvxs.gr/news/ellada/kataggelia-ergazomenon-sti-documenta-14-learning-athens-onoma-kai-pragma?fbclid=IwAR0zzVBsURDKhjNuLNOevvqDFA75boNwCl9YqGN1OCRv8jhHgQ_eBC5-oGo

[31] Such was the position of more sympathetic to d14 coverage, that presented the whole issue as a misunderstanding, e.g. http://politicalcritique.org/world/2017/documenta-14-misunderstandings-problems-and-solutions/?fbclid=IwAR04rletKzeFfT3JN0k4Pn0QfwJ8hnMDqN4Tt6KW5dkcsWJcCY3B2fMJJMI

[32] Joshua Vettivelu, “When We Are Welcomed Into The Fold, Where Do We Keep What Is Left Behind?” C Magazine 33 (2017): 8.

[33] Look, for example, at Fani Bitou, “Zei kai Ergazetai” [Lives and works] in Eleana Yalouri, Apostolos Lampropoulos, Elpida Rikou, Aksia [Value], (Athens, Nisos Editions, 2018): 138-144.

[34] See the presentations and articles in the online magazine Marginalia https://marginalia.gr/afieroma/idrymata-politismoy-mia-eisagogi/?fbclid=IwAR1QIqU9ffh8uJsULsRbdMuRFzTQJx8MMLSqMOFmiAHsM7IWqPldA3NrCpo

[35] Adam Szymczyk, “Statement by the Artistic Director and curatorial team of documenta 14,” https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/statement-by-the-artistic-director-and-curatorial-team-of-documenta-14/7013  (last accessed 12 March 2020)

[36] Szymczyk “Statement”

[37] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Unbecoming Claims: Pedagogies of Refusal in Qualitative Research,” Qualitative Inquiry 20, No. 6 (2014): 811.

[38] Tuck and Young “Unbecoming Claims”, 814.

[39] It is my feeling that this was amply clear to the curatorial team, especially after the “exercises of freedom” in the months leading to the documenta opening, and pushed towards a more generic art exhibition, with token artworks that referred to social liberation during the crisis.

[40] Thingplatz was a type of outdoors amphitheatre built for the performance of Thingspiele, participatory theatrical performances very popular in 1930s Germany (see also the website of the artist http://rogerbernat.info/en/shows/the-place-of-the-thing/ )

[41] Roger Bernal, “THE PLACE OF THE THING (D14/ 1)” (2017) http://rogerbernat.info/en/shows/the-place-of-the-thing/  (last accessed 12 March 2020)


[43] https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=263576050783139

[44] McGrannahan, “Theorizing Refusal”, 320.