Sustained: Learning from Artworking (and Artwashing) in Athens

Sustained: Learning from Artworking (and Artwashing) in Athens

Despina Zefkili

When Eleana, Elpida and Apostolos wrote to me in December 2019 to inform me about the prospective publication of a special issue of FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, focused on the Learning from documenta project I wasn’t excited. Documenta14 was for me a thing of the past, a thing I wasn’t interested in revisiting. Actually in a few retrospective round tables that I have been invited to recently, looking back at the last decade of the Athenian art scene, I found myself avoiding the word documenta entirely.

“This is not about you!”

I remember one of the curators of documenta14 shouting this phrase to a panel I was co-moderating in December of 2017. The panel discussion, “The Politics of Curating,” was organized by Learning from documenta. At the same moment another documenta curator sitting next to me was expressing his discomfort that many local artists (none of whom I knew) kept bothering him to look at their portfolios, not having understood what “this was about,” obviously. Leaving aside the emotionally charged aspect of these incidents (although documenta14 had never hidden its interest in affect), they nevertheless highlight the key issues of the so-called “documenta effect” on the local art reality. These issues have to do with colonialism and power relations concerning legitimation and representation (a mega-institution moving to a minor art scene and supposedly renouncing its role in writing history and wanting to be treated by the local artists in a peer to peer manner), new tensions in the local-global debate, networking (the most common argument for the positive impact of documenta), sustainability and exhaustion (have the networks created by documenta or the effect it had on the local institutions it chose as collaborators actually improved the conditions of the precarious Athenian artists and art workers?).

An urban myth says that during documenta 14’s learning from Athens period (that is the two preparatory years before the exhibition started) there was a dinner party in Athens where members of the curatorial team were eating, with the soundtrack of their meal provided by recordings from the radio station broadcasts organized by the students of the occupied Athens Polytechnic in 1973, during the uprising which is considered to have opened the way for the fall of the Greek junta. I was nοt present at the dinner but judging from the attempts by some of documenta’s artworks to re-activate local history, such a fetishistic, de-contextualized and romantic visit to the traumatic past does nοt seem so improbable. In the summer of 2014 another dinner party had been thrown in a restaurant in downtown Athens, where Adam Szymczyk gathered some of the leading local art professionals to unofficially announce his intention to host the next documenta in both Kassel and Athens. For many of them this was the first and last time documenta14 engaged them in a dialogue, besides some party talk. Some of them were asked to provide information and know-how on specific areas of interest to foreign artists who were interested in doing similar projects of their own. These voices, of the active practitioners (theorists, artists, curators) in the local art field were not the main interest for the curatorial team in the process of learning from Athens. documenta chose instead as its main interlocutors public art institutions in the city, in a move that was meant to symbolize its support of a more general “public” in the arts. Notwithstanding this gesture, due to the specificities of the Athenian art scene (where the state has no interest in contemporary art whatsoever), documenta did almost nothing to support local art production.

Sergio Zevallos, Educación Cívica, Performance (2016), Exercises of Freedom, documenta 14, (April 8–July 16, 2017).  Courtesy documenta 14. Photo by Stathis Mamalakis

On the other hand, documenta’s relation with the Athens Biennale, possibly the most precarious and the most influential contemporary art institution within the local art scene, was a more complex one, showing the limits of documenta’s willingness to collaborate with those who had a strong voice of their own.[1] What started as a mutual, publicly declared interest in finding a way to collaborate, with the two institutions sharing the same building for their offices, ended in a divorce, or as Poka-Yio, Founding Director of the Athens Biennale, wrote ”a white marriage”.[2] The first face of the 6th Athens Biennale (2017) Waiting for the Barbarians, which could be read as a critique of the exotic and paternalistic gaze of documenta14, included a series of performative gestures employing techniques of over-identification. These included, for example, a queer pseudo-nationalistic cabaret, the inauguration of the Nick Boricua Museum Athens, a temporary museum dedicated to the eponymous imaginary Greek diplomat and one of the primary instigators of the Puerto Rican revolutionary movement against the Spanish Empire, conceived by the artists Alexis Fidetzis, Panos Sklavenitis and Kostis Stafylakis, and the collaborative project Klassenfahrt, an alternative bus tour which “kidnapped” foreign visitors who came to Athens during the documenta14 opening and drove them to less visible parts of the city’s suburbs, in order to challenge the stereotypes that often influence artistic interest in exotic territories. Indeed, certain members of the documenta14 team interpreted the Biennale as a xenophobic gesture, rather than a critique of their own paternalism.

Although not revealing similar tensions, documenta’s attempt to collaborate with the public art institutions in Athens has been in many ways an ongoing power struggle. It has also uncovered certain pathogenies associated with the weak local institutional structure, which possibly saw documenta as a patron/philanthropist and were unwilling to challenge, and negotiate, the terms by which it framed local art production. Moreover, documenta has accidentally exposed the problems caused by not having written our own strong local art history ourselves, which allowed for misrepresentation. Even though documenta14 defined itself as an apatride or “stateless” exhibition, this mega institution moved an important part of its structure to Athens for two and a half years, supposedly ‘learning from it’ in the process, so the local voices it chose to amplify and those it chose to keep silent do matter. Certain members of the documenta team subsequently used the tactic of self-victimization in relation to the local art practitioners who expressed criticism, while, at the same time, accusing them of taking documenta too personally. They also intentionally, and publicly, misinterpreted the local arguments regarding the terms of representation of art in Athens, and of the framing of the local history, as a mere complaint of the local scene about the number of the Greek artists included in the exhibition.

Ross Birrell, The Athens–Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes (2017), Ride from Athens to Kassel by four riders and five horses, Dionysiou Areopagitou, Athens. documenta 14, (April 8–July 16, 2017). Photo by Giorgos Belehris

This defensive attitude on the part of documenta’s staff was present, for example, in “The Politics of Curating” roundtable mentioned above, when Paul Preciado (documenta 14’s curator of public programs and part of the panel) and documenta 14’s curator-at-large Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (who was part of the audience), failed to answer questions on the tactics documenta 14 has used to become familiar with the local context. Instead, they used an audience question as to why there was not a single Greek curator in the documenta team to focus the debate on the fact that the local art scene was taking documenta too personally and was obsessed with how many Greek artists will be included, framing the debate in terms of the bipolarity of inclusion/exclusion.

In the opening of the exhibition in Athens I asked Szymczyk his opinion on the criticism about documenta14’s relationship to the local art scene. He told me “We didn’t come to Athens to make discoveries but to speak from Athens. It’s a great place from which to speak and the directionality of the title I saw in this way. To learn from Athens out. It’s not a transport. We are not transporting, we are more transmitting, amplifying. It’s like you put a speaker and they can hear you further away. Let’s see. Maybe they hear us in Kassel.”[3] Two and a half years earlier, in my first interview with Szymczyk, his view on “Learning from Athens” had been the following: “There is a special content in this moment in Athens and that’s why documenta is asking its hospitality. This moment that Athens is experiencing should not stay in Athens”. [4]

So, learning from Athens started defining a place and a momentum, which could of course be used as a reference point and as a symbol. This is why documenta came to Athens and did not go to Lagos. Considering the different forms of cultural politics implied in the use of the term “from Athens” in these two quotes, and having seen the exhibition, you could understand that “from Athens” has become a cliché. By the opening of the exhibition Athens had become a place from where documenta could be heard louder. The “from” in Learning from Athens defined a perspective on something happening somewhere else, more than a perspective which extracted information from the place itself. Athens as cultural raw material to be harvested by documenta’s curators in search of global authenticity to build their brand. In the same way, the image of Greece as a nation revolting against the European-driven austerity measures that dominated the news when documenta14 had first announced its concept was replaced by the image of a compliant, reformed state, brought back to normality after having submitted to the austerity prescription, as well as that of an important link in the chain in the plan to restrain the instability that the resulting migration wave might cause in the European front.

Performance by FYTA during the The Athens–Kassel Ride, documenta 14, (April 8–July 16, 2017), Dionysiou Areopagitou, Athens.

Everything that’s Interesting is New

Twenty years before documenta came to Athens, in 1997, another iconic exhibition had set the standard for how contemporary art would be contextualized in the city. If you ask Athenians of my generation working in the arts what was the first exhibition they saw that made them interested in contemporary art many of them will answer Everything that’s interesting is New, The Dakis Joannou Collection. That exhibition curated by Jeffrey Deitch for Deste at the School of Fine Arts in Athens (along with the Guggenheim Soho and the Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen) attracted much attention, as it was the first large scale exhibition of contemporary art in the city presenting artists from the U.S., who looked into personal constructs of self-identity and sexuality and, the fusion of abstraction and representation, the artificial and the real.

Apart from introducing to the local audience a specific canon of contemporary art of the times, the exhibition canonized the presence of DESTE Institution, founded by the mega-art collector Dakis Joannou to house his important collection of contemporary art and organize exhibitions, as the main institution of contemporary art in Athens. In the coming years DESTE moved to its then permanent premises in the bourgeois area of Neo Psihiko and was the first art space in the city to combine contemporary art with a hip restaurant, fashion and lifestyle events and an art shop. DESTE definitely left a mark on the framework in which contemporary art would be seen in the city in the long term. Although it organized exhibitions touching on social and political issues during the 90s, these explorations were presented in a clean-cut, bourgeois environment, equally appealing to the then booming lifestyle media and art magazines, young artists and curators returning from their postgraduate studies in London and a new wave of art collectors. That was an approach much different from the reception of these issues in the post-1989 Eastern Europe, for example, or in countries where academia and other disciplines were involved in the dialogue about contemporary art, and research-based and archival practices were thriving.

Rebecca Belmore, Biinjiya’iing Onji (From inside) (2017). Marble. Exhibition view: Filopappou Hill, documenta 14, Athens (April 8–July 16, 2017). Courtesy documenta 14. Photo by Fanis Vlastaras.

The formation of the Athens art scene in the 1990s and ‘00s was characterized by the leading role of commercial galleries, which filled the gap created by the absence of public institutions and independent initiatives. Drawing, craft-rooted work, big sculptural installations and graffiti were the main canonical art forms, and there were many similarities between the dominant aesthetic of emerging art production in Athens and that of the Dakis Joannou collection. Commercial galleries were at the same time the only spaces for experimentation and dialogue. As a result, they tended to establish the main evaluative criteria. Research-based and interdisciplinary projects that sought to re-negotiate historical legacies and local sociopolitical realities, which were common in the neighboring countries of the so-called periphery, were rare in Athens. The majority of the art produced back then in Athens seemed more concerned with referencing to the dominant aesthetics of the global mainstream art scene than the local context, although as we said Athens clearly possessed specific local characteristics that an artist might have engaged with.

Energy and Sustainability: “the Southern Perspective”

When Documenta came to Athens the reality was very different than it was in 1997. There were fewer galleries and they were far less influential. At the same time, artist-run project spaces (which barely existed in the ‘00s) were very active around the city, EMST (National Museum of Contemporary Art) had for years presented an agenda of contemporary art much different from DESTE’s, and a new generation of artists coming from different interdisciplinary backgrounds shared a new interest in collectivity, ethnographic and historical research, use of sophisticated computer programs, archiving and data processing along with a new interest in craft.

The EMST was closed at the time, lacking the money to pay for its long awaited move into a new, permanent space in the old Fix brewery, while new private institutions like mega-collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos’ NEON were funding the majority of the independent exhibition production in Athens (mainly exhibitions produced by non-profit and artist-run spaces and freelance curators). When documenta proposed an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist theme focused on the concept of a “trans South,” and spoke about commons and collectivity, it did not bring something new to the local discourse. Numerous local movements, activists, cultural occupations and collectives were already exploring these questions, while the Athens Biennale, had in the last two versions, AGORA and OMONOIA, already set out to explore notions such as the emergence of alternative economies and the performative in the political. It was no surprise that foreign institutions (like documenta) largely addressed Athens through the conservative prism of what political philosopher Nikolas Sevastakis has called “the ethnoromanticism of the crisis,” to describe the dominant current of cultural resistance to the conventional, westward evolution of the country and the supposed loss of national sovereignty [5]. Documenta and other foreign observers were keen to exhibit local artworks which expressed a kind of dramatized mourning and encouraged populist connections between the past and the present and superficial anti-German rhetoric, abolishing the subtle nuances of recent political events in favor of a slogan-based activism.

By the time documenta opened in Athens, the scene had already changed, foreign visitors, official and unofficial, strolled through the galleries, trendy hangouts and the occupied spaces of the city and bought cheap apartments in decayed neighborhoods waiting for gentrification. AirBNB property investors calculate that Athens will be the place to be, the next privileged site of alternative exotic tourism of catastrophe and survival. [6] As often happens in places experiencing major sociopolitical crises or changes, the development of a certain global discourse around them is linked with a process of exoticization or idealization. Two years before the opening of documenta anthropologist Massimiliano Mollona, who was the artistic director of the 5th Athens Biennale, “Omonoia,” had called Athens a workshop of creative ideas and had argued that he had never before seen such a nonconformist, flexible institution as the Athens Biennale, where things are done and re-done so quickly. It is a new way to think about art, he had said. For Mollona, the flexibility and sustainability of such an institution is an example worth noticing, especially now that the model of state funding for the arts is collapsing in central Europe.[7] On the occasion of a talk at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens in 2015 Chris Dercon, the then-Director of the Tate Gallery in London, implied that it does not matter so much that EMST had not been able to open, since the city had the biennial, documenta and NEON. Instead, he presented Athens as a paradigm of the flexibility of the museum of the future. The international congress “Synapse 1: Introducing a Laboratory for Production Post-2011” which inaugurated the Athens Biennale explored issues such as the Commons and cooperativism and touched on the precarity of creative jobs, the ideologies behind ‘smart cities’ and the exploitation of voluntary work by large, successful institutions. Nevertheless, one could not ignore the fact that the symbolic capital of the Athens Biennale itself had been largely based on the voluntarism of ‘forever young’ local art practitioners. An institution prized by the European Cultural Foundation for rethinking the idea of the biennale was, nevertheless, unable to provide reliable funding for its participants. Moreover, South as a State of Mind, a magazine that was founded by critic and curator Marina Fokidis in Athens in 2012 and became the documenta 14 journal from 2015 to 2017, gained its symbolic capital through the voluntary participation of writers. These examples show that the complexities of the local situation are often ignored when one assumes that economic and cultural “crisis” necessarily produces creative subjects and ‘creative cities’. The narratives of contemporary urban centers as ‘energies’ are largely invented, drawing instead on forms of unpaid labor and conforming to the regulatory demands of large urban development projects. The concept of Athens in Crisis was part of a New South experiment, intended to demonstrate a paradigm of “creative sustainability”. This new south, though, was based on power relations and stereotypes which re-localize and re-regionalize the world and its subjects in order to maintain the existing status quo. Power relations and institutions have been of interest for practitioners living and working in Athens long before the crisis since. As mid-career art professionals working in Athens were perpetually oscillating between amateurism and professionalism, between giving away our labor for contemporary art and badly paid jobs that, so frequently, had little to do with our professional abilities and interests. The dilemmas we confront every day, involving questions of survival and acquiescence, are linked with the larger, difficult reality of labor and the complex relation between menial and immaterial, voluntary and remunerated work. [8]

Two prevailing stereotypical images of Athens have been reproduced in years following the Greek economic crisis and during the preparation for documenta14. On the one hand we encounter an image of Athens as a gigantic palimpsest of misery: a frozen city with no money for electricity where ancient ruins coexist with the ruins of a failed neo-liberalism, where houses have been turned into steppes, and where their residents wandered inside their homes wrapped in coats for warmth, and a special kind of cockroach attracted by the cold filled them, as Paul B. Preciado, Curator of Public Programs of documenta14, had described it. [9] On the other hand, we have the image of Athens as a workshop of creative energy, where everyone wanted to come, live and learn inventive survival strategies in times of crisis. Foreign curators often celebrated the creativity of the city, not only in terms of art production but also in terms of finding do-it-yourself ways to support art activities without funding. While SYRIZA’s left government had claimed a paradigm shift for Europe proposing a progressive anti-neoliberalism front based on solidarity and democracy against the tyranny of austerity politics, Athens had been portrayed as a body of resistance that can educate, and teach a novel way to make art without money, through alternative economies and communitarian practices. The problems this image created, viewed through the lens of a European landscape of precarity, of cuts in funding for cultural programs and the humanities and the establishment of art as an unpaid hobby, are obvious. The emphasis that was placed only on the positive aspects of characteristics such as flexibility, sustainability, performativity, resourcefulness, creativity, informality etc., which lately have become fixed points of reference for both local and foreign institutions and the art scene, has to be problematized.

Freedom, Exhaustion, Withdrawal, Adjustment. [10]

The period that began with Deitch’s ‘Everything that’s interesting is New’ coincided with Athen’s preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games, and the emergence of a new middle class anxious to enjoy the fruits of capitalism. While this economic shift widened the art field and art education to incorporate a new class apart from the old Athenian bourgeoisie, the climate of (economic) euphoria along with the characteristic excess of the fin du siècle atmosphere, oriented art production, to a large extent, towards market imperatives. The interest in collecting contemporary art was thus coincident with, and informed by, the introduction of new forms of capital in a period of economic and cultural excess. When the first Athens Biennale was inaugurated in 2007 I was looking critically at the entrepreneurial spirit manifested, among others, by the Biennale’s sponsor, Deutsch Bank, and the close relationship between the art presented in the Biennale and that shown in the leading galleries of the time, along with the legacy of DESTE. I was writing about the danger facing emerging artists who were likely to adapt their work to the dominant aesthetics of the gallery system in which the evaluative criteria depended on the market. [11]

More than a decade later, amidst the Greek economic and institutional crisis, newly established and dynamic institutions have started dominating public space and drafting cultural and educational policies. In the current situation there is little interest in encouraging independent artistic production, as was the case with public institutions or private funding in the past. Instead, the goal of the new mega-foundations in Athens is to absorb cultural production entirely, using it to burnish their own corporate identity and hosting it in their own polished spaces or in venues associated with traditional middle-class culture. Art production and public space are branded in terms of mass entertainment and controversial issues associated with social groups or political demands around public space are either ignored or incorporated into the agenda of the institutions, but are “smoothed” (instrumentalized), the antagonisms are repressed. [12] Moreover, the fact that the growing number of non-profit, alternative spaces and ventures in Athens are almost entirely dependent on three private institutions has created a new hegemonic reality and encouraged a kind of cultural oligarchy that needs to be addressed. Looking back to the ‘00s through the prism of today’s reality it would be useful to explore the differences between the democracy of an art field counting on a few private mega-institutions (mainly ΝΕΟΝ, Onassis Foundation and more recently Stavros Niarchos Foundation) and the market-driven democracy of the ‘00s.

34 KLASSENFAHRT, (April 11, 2017), 6th Athens Biennial “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Athens, Greece.

Theofilos Tramboulis argues the financing of local art production in Athens by a few strong private institutions takes place in the context of the deterritorialization of the cultural product, which is increasingly related to time parameters (residencies, performances, time based works), instead of the organic relationships that develop within the space of an independent art venue on the long run, and thus creates ephemeral, consumable and alienated elites. [13] Another important factor to consider is the large number of foreign art-workers coming to Athens and opening artist-run spaces, galleries and other institutions (a legacy of documenta 14). How long will they last, how will these new spaces connect to the local art reality and in what terms will they build an audience? Although some of these initiatives were not connected to documenta and their opening in the same period was coincidental, as Macklin Kowal, Founding Director of Sub Rosa Space, states in a private interview, they still carry “an unspoken mandate to relativize the city in the wake of German legitimization,” and, what is more important, a “mounting commitment to a properly local discourse, a sense of its necessity, a sense of its power”. He is interested in spaces that examine and theorize the Athenian context, and which are oriented towards an endemic discourse. Examples include TWIXTLab and the Laboratory for Urban Commons, as well as ViZ Laboratory for Visual Culture, which “has an international focus, but works quite prudently to question how Athenian perspectives can bear on practice arriving from abroad,” and 1927 Art Space, which “has numerous initiatives that propose a distinctly Greek vision of post- and neo-coloniality”.

Whether or not its related to documenta per se, the post-documenta cultural field in Athens appears more self-conscious and critical. The growing interconnection between artistic dialogue and other practices, such as anthropology or queer feminism, has left its mark on the works produced by artists in Athens and the discourses around them. At the same time, more systematic claims around gender and labor issues are being articulated, an important fact given that the professionals in our field have internalized the normality of unpaid work in the arts (this textual contribution is no exception), which is difficult to eliminate, and the professionalization of the field is postponed indefinitely. documenta14, as well as certain policies of the local private institutions, cannot be seen as separate from global strategies of art-washing. Indeed, the current conservative, neoliberal, and xenophobic political agenda goes, paradoxically, hand in hand with the ostensibly open-minded and sensitive cultural management politics of the European Union, ostensibly oriented towards strengthening the common values of European civil society during a period in which democracy is facing a profound crisis around the world. Art workers, especially freelancers and artists, have to constantly negotiate their position since their sustainability is based on this kind of institutional support. Τhe definition of independent spaces and work is less clear than ever before. Institutional critique has to be (and is being) reinvented through different practices. Artists-run space Okto/Eight is an example of building targeted, self-organized communities of cultural exchange touching upon urgent sociopolitical issues of our time, while artist duo FYTA have constantly exposed problematic aspects of institutional support and inclusivity (especially in relation to the queer-ization of institutions).

Freedom, a movie and a publication curated and directed by The Temporary Academy of Arts (Elpida Karaba, Constantinos Hadzinikolaou, Yota Ioannidou, Glykeria Stathopoulou, Despina Zefkili), 2018.

PAT–The Temporary Academy of Arts, an educational and artistic project inaugurated by Elpida Karaba in 2013, is concerned with how to organize a para-institutional, temporary and flexible practice that, in spite of these characteristics, seeks to secure payment for the precarious subjects involved in its activities. The funding of a self-organized educational program such as the Temporary Academy of Arts by private organizations or by international organizations that regulate cultural policies, make the project vulnerable to an anti-capitalist critique, but at the same time also allow it to exist. PAT operates within this contradiction, paying particular attention to reflection and self-criticism, playing with irony and employing strategies of over-identification and over-affirmation, as well as shock tactics. Often, in the context of activist art practices associated with philanthropy in the social field, PAT’s practice is seen as coinciding with an elitist approach available only to those aware of the contemporary art context as organized by the dominant cultural institutions, and therefore functioning as a reformist rather than a revolutionary undertaking. PAT is temporary and mobile and tests various models of self-organization and individual responsibility, as well as questions the limits of its own practice. The purpose of the academy is not pedagogical in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to bring contemporary art and new forms and processes of artistic production into contact with a neutral, unified general public (because such a thing does not exist). Neither does it want to be linked to a network of educational and emancipatory community actions or organizations that promote a humanistic ideal of care, and transfer responsibility for care from organized society to the philanthropic feelings of individuals. On the contrary, PAT endeavors to challenge this role by trying to give voice and impetus to other claims related to art and extending beyond it and which do not depend on the good intentions of an inspired mentor or an institution of a philanthropic bent. [14]

The Temporary Academy of Arts, Soft Power Lectures, Performative Interviews in a coffeehouse at Omonoia Square, Athens, March 18, 2016.

Activating the concepts of “energy” and the “South” as quasi-empty signifiers, PAT organized a series of Performative Lectures called “The soft power lectures” (2016-7) as part of the Actopolis Project, initiated by the Goethe Institut, which was extended to south-eastern Europe and the Ruhr region in Germany. The Soft Power Lectures, a series of lecture-performances, co-curated by Elpida Karaba and Glykeria Stathopoulou, in collaboration with artists Panos Sklavenitis, Sofia Dona, Constantinos Hadzinikolaou and myself, focused on the topics of the South and its precarious, creative and sustainable subjects and aimed to explore how a city and an academy can exercise soft power in order to hegemonize the discourse around the city and everything surrounding it. On the occasion of the Freiraum program, organized by the Goethe-Institutes of Europe, PAT produced the three-part film-essay Freedom (2019) problematizing the way that many socially engaged art practices and products initiated and supervised by cultural policy institutions end up in ineffective proclamations of awakening and superficial identification with unprivileged subjects’ and end up disempowering rather than empowering, and minimizing the conflicts that exist in the social world. [15]

This text was written a few days after the announcement that the 7th Athens Biennale “Eclipse” and the biennials to follow, will be organized together with Onassis Stegi, one of the dominant private institutions in the city. The Athens Biennale is a do-it-yourself institution, an experiment to institutionalize art differently. During various phases of its existence it has been financed by private or state (European) sources and realized thanks to communal, voluntary labor by local artists and critics. It was occasionally supported, but was never actually adopted, by the Ministry of Culture or the Municipality, even though it influenced many local art practitioners and especially AGORA (2013) which was the main inspiration and driving force which drew documenta14 to come to Athens. From its inauguration to its partnership with the Onassis Foundation, the Athens Biennale is a case study par excellence to help us understand the stakes, expectations, frustrations and possibilities of the local art scene. And from its inaugural desire to “Destroy Athens” in 2007 and the attempt to create an “Agora” in 2013, to its current interest in articulating a “Black Lens” to engage the varying perspectives and artistic practices percolating within the African diaspora, it can teach us a great deal about how the European and global (art) world sought to make use of Greece over the last decades. It can also enhance our ability to “learn from” documenta 14 and our (Athenians working in the arts) relationship to it.

Despina Zefkili is art critic, member of the Temporary Academy of Arts (PAT, and senior editor of Athinorama, the city guide of Athens. She is interested in a critical understanding of art and its structures in a wider sociopolitical context as well as its educational aspects. As a member of PAT she is currently working on Waste/d, an ongoing art and pedagogy research project on social and artistic potential in times of extended crisis, and has worked among others for “Soft Power Lectures”, “Freedom” and “Towards a History of Contemporary Greek Art: An Agreement Without Principles”, Contemporary Greek Art Institute, 2017. She has published articles on the Athens art scene in various books and magazines including “On One Side of the Same Water” (Hatje Cantz), “The Way between Belgrade and Prishtina” (Stacion Center), Art Papers, Third Text, Ocula and has reviewed exhibitions for Frieze, artnet, Flash Art, Art info, and South Magazine. She has presented papers in conferences such as Humans of the Institution, Amsterdam and “Institutions, Politics, Performance” Green Park, Athens. She was a member of the curatorial team of the fourth Athens Biennale AGORA (The Non-Serious Lectures). Together with Vangelis Vlahos she co-curated the exhibition “Archaeology of Today?” at Els Hanappe Underground and co-edited Local Folk from 2004 to 2008, a free press publication focusing on a critical view of local art production and a dialogue with other art scenes.


[1] Different parts of this text have appeared in talks in 2017, following invitations by PAT (The Temporary Academy of Arts), Humans of the Institution/Amsterdam, Learning From Documenta and Radio Athènes, and texts for Art Papers, Athinorama, Ocula and Third Text.

[2] Poka-Yio, “ANTI-anything,” in ANTI, Athens Biennale 2018, (Athens: Athens Biennale, 2018), p. 32.

[3] Adam Szymczyk In Conversation with Despina Zefkili, Ocula, (June 2, 2017). (accessed March 25, 2020).

[4] Adam Szymczyk, “Why in the next years all the world of art will talk about Athens, Interview by Despina Zefkili,” Athinorama, (October 16, 2014).

[5] Nikolas Sevastakis, Phantasmas of our Times, The Left, Critique, Liberal Democracy, (Athens: Polis, 2016) p. 83.

[6] Elpida Karaba, Glykeria Stathopoulou, “PAT–Soft Power Lectures,” in Actopolis, The Art of Action (Athens: Goethe Institut/ Urbane Künste Ruhr, 2017) p.11.

[7] Massimiliano Molona, “Athens is a workshop of creative ideas and the Athens Biennale wants to be their incubator, Interview by Despina Zefkili,” Athinorama (October 2, 2015).

[8] Karaba, Stathopoulou, 2017

[9] Paul B. Preciado, “Who is the Greek Dept. Keeping Warm?,” in Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, translated by Charlotte Mandelle (South Pasadena CA: Semiotext(e), 2020), p.146.

[10] The title of this chapter is borrowed from a phrase in “Freedom or Artistic Freedom in the times of cultural policies (a script scenario)”. This is the script of “Rosa,” the last part of Freedom, a three-part film-essay curated and directed by PAT–The Temporary Academy of Arts in 2019. “Rosa” was written by Elpida Karaba, Glyeria Stathopoulou and Despina Zefkili. The other two parts were made by artists Constantinos Hadzinikolaou and Yota Ioannidou and the accompanying publication by Oblos, the self-publishing house of artist Yiannis Papadopoulos. The project is part of the Freiraum program, organized by the Goethe-Institutes of Europe.

[11] Despina Zefkili, “Do we need a Greek scene?,” Local Folk #2 (September, 2005), p.3.

[12] Elpida Karaba, Glykeria Stathopoulou, Despina Zefkili, Towards a History for Greek Contemporary Art: An Agreement without Principals, (Athens: PAT/OMBLOS, Iset, 2017), p.32.

[13] Theofilos Tramboulis, “Privatizing the Private: The Institutions and the Deterritorialization of the Cultural Project,” Marginalia #11,, (January 29, 2020), (accessed March 25, 2020).

[14] Elpida Karaba, Glykeria Stathopoulou, Despina Zefkili, “PAT—The Temporary Academy of Arts, Was that a Pat or a Slap?,” ANTI, Athens Biennale 2018, (Athens: Athens Biennale, 2018), p.148.

[15] Elpida Karaba, Glykeria Stathopoulou, Despina Zefkili, “Freedom or Artistic Freedom in the Times of Cultural Policies,” (a script scenario-long version of the film Rosa), in FREEDOM Rosa/Henrieta & Ivan/Yves, (Athens: PAT/OMBLOS, 2019), p.7.