Documenta 14 learning from Athens: the response of the “Learning from documenta” research project

Documenta 14 Learning from Athens: The Response of the “Learning from documenta” Research Project

Eleana Yalouri and Elpida Rikou

Learning from documenta: The Athens Arts Observatory has been an international two-year research project inspired by the central role documenta, one of the most distinguished exhibitions of contemporary art, attributed to Athens. In the year 2017, documenta 14, entitled “Learning from Athens,” moved partly from its original hometown of Kassel, Germany, to the Greek capital. Our project’s first aim was to critically observe, document, better understand, and discuss aspects of documenta’s presence in Athens, its preparation, its opening and completion, and its aftermath. In doing so, the project took into consideration other artistic, economic, and socio-political developments going on in Greece and elsewhere in the world. Our research team consisted mainly of anthropologists and artists, with other collaborators from various disciplines, such as art history and theory, cultural theory, and history. Our research focused on the broader process involved in documenta moving to, and “learning from,” Athens.  We sought to ground our research in the specific political and cultural context of Greece today, which is defined by a range of factors. These include the emergence of a thriving contemporary art scene, as well as the dislocations produced by the so-called “Greek Crisis” (itself part of a larger “European Crisis”), which is rooted in rapid global change and upheaval.

We considered this research project an occasion for important methodological experimentation and theoretical innovation: anthropological ways of working were combined with artistic interventions in order to open up a central space for public debate revolving around important issues of art, culture, and politics. “The Athens Arts Observatory,” the subtitle of our project, referred to the platform of public debate that we initiated and signified our intention to critically discuss the exhibition as a historical event and a sociο-cultural phenomenon that has acquired epistemological, political and topical significance in a period of “crisis.”

Anthropology’s relevance in this project became increasingly obvious to us—not simply because of d14’s engagement with topics of interest for anthropologists, such as community and ethnographic projects, queer theory, colonialism, and other relevant subjects, but also because of its central aim to learn from an “other,” “Southern” city in crisis. In the meantime, the Athens Biennale (ab 5 to 6), which was originally planned to run in parallel with documenta 14 (but eventually took its own way), showcased grassroots projects in arts and in politics, and its organizers invited Massimiliano Mollona, an anthropologist, writer, and film maker to act as its program director.[1]

All this suggested possible new perspectives in the relations between art and anthropology (see also the introduction to this issue). It also indicated that the present circumstances call for more systematic research into methodological and epistemological questions regarding the ways one can do anthropology (and art) today and into the ways research questions can be opened up to public debate. At the same time, they suggest that the time is ripe to experiment with the close relationship between theory (stereotypically linked to the social sciences) and practice (often linked to the arts) without reproducing such binary oppositions.

The Complexities of Doing Research on documenta

Research on an exhibition of the caliber of d14 has proven to be a complex process. The first level of complexity has to do with documenta both as an international institution (or event) with a wide spatio-temporal scope and as part of wider and complex contemporary art phenomena. The second level of complexity is related to the specific endeavor of “Learning from Athens” and documenta’s arrival within a specific socio-cultural context–namely, the Greek capital–and at a specific historical and political conjuncture. A third level of complexity has to do with our team’s engagement with the project and our team’s multivalent and cross-disciplinary character. We will here attempt a more analytical approach to these complexities.

The Spatio-temporal Scope of documenta: Contradictions and Paradoxes

Documenta itself, and documenta 14 in particular, constitutes a complex phenomenon. Documenta is a powerful institution in the domain of art and cultural production worldwide, one with a long tradition involving multiple subjectivities and social relationships. It is also an event developing in time and expanding over multiple geographies. It operates on a grand scale, both in terms of platforms and venues and in terms of artists, publications, archives, events, broadcasts, and the ambitious curatorial themes it addresses. Previous documentas engaged with issues as broad and varied as “aesthetics and politics,” “post-colonial globality,” “formalism and historicity,” and “alternative ontologies.” D14 addressed equally big issues, such as the relationship between power and knowledge, colonialisms and otherness, displacement, austerity, democracy and fascism, and queer strategies. Therefore, doing research into documenta means trying to deal with a whole range of paradoxes and “contradictions of contemporaneity.”[2]

The large scope of the exhibition, and the heterogeneity of its content, is one aspect of its complexity, which has also applied to other exhibitions of this kind. We are experiencing what has been termed “the era of the biennalization” of the art worlds. This era has been met with “optimists” on the one hand, who see in the biennials the “embracing of a democratic redistribution of cultural power,” and by “pessimists” on the other, who see in it a “new form of cultural hegemony and re-colonization.”[3] While some see this phenomenon as a truly global one, opening up spaces for reflection and cross-fertilization in settings that promote innovation in art and self-reflexivity in forms of cultural display, others regard it as the ultimate proof of the cookie-cutter banality of a culture industry intensified by globalization.[4]

These are attitudes that reflect to some extent the polarity of responses we have encountered, and have even been subjected to as documenta 14 researchers, throughout documenta 14’s presence in Athens. Framing our research within the debate over more general trends in the contemporary art world globally (but also beyond it) may help us understand both the contradictions and paradoxes entailed in the phenomenon “d14,” as well as the response it garnered in Athens and beyond.

Large-scale exhibitions have often presented artworks as “mission statements” for all types of socio-economic and political conditions and injustices in the world. For example, d14 has been described by its chief curator as “the equivalent of the international art world’s conscience, with each edition mirroring, witnessing and fiercely commenting on its time.”[5] Such references to “conscience” (and maybe guilt?) bring out the relationship (and maybe collision?) between aesthetics and ethics, which may have some bearing on the simultaneous emergence of “humanitarian art.” Such references may also reactivate a longing for restitution, redemption, and latent religiosity in art. Paradoxically, this yearning has long been criticized and problematized by art theorists and artists of the previous century, who denied the stereotype of artists as enlightened figures and the attribution of an almost theological aura to art, which could be accentuated by a “difficult” theoretical language and an affective curatorial stance.

Other examples of contradictions and paradoxes include powerful large-scale exhibitions’ decisions to take an anti-establishment stance. For example, Paul Β. Preciado, the director of the public program of d14, pointed to the paradox of having to work for documenta, which he described as “a neoliberal cultural industry,” while at the same time refusing to see himself “as a director of sales and development.”[6] Other d14 curators and artists tried to distance themselves from this large-scale institution for which they have worked, especially around the time of the recent documenta budget deficit issue, by prioritizing “the value of culture” over “the value of money.” Such instances have made some people wonder if it is at all possible for documenta to reconcile its avowedly leftist commitments with the role of a powerful institution in shaping the canon of art in Europe and beyond.[7] This has also made it hard for some to see how this large-scale international exhibition operating within the EU political economy can resist perpetuating its cultural logic.[8] Official statements by d14 have attempted to distance the exhibition and the curatorial team from the German state.[9] But one cannot ignore documenta’ s instrumentality in the cultural politics of the German state, especially given that documenta relies heavily on German public funds.[10] The interconnection between the political and financial aspects of such an international art event on the one hand, with a variety of state, public, and private interests on the other, was particularly highlighted in discussions that followed the revelation of documenta’s budget deficit with the closing of the documenta 14 exhibition. Ιt is worth noting that certain relevant public statements attributed the problem of the deficit to the move of documenta 14 to “problematic” Athens. [11]

Coming to Athens

Such conflicts, contradictions, and paradoxes related to broader trends in the contemporary art world globally can be further understood and evaluated when “tested” from Athens. This brings us to the second level of complexity of our research project, i.e., the fact that documenta 14 conveyed particularly loaded messages involving a city “in crisis.” This is not just any city, but one that is a paradigm for difficult histories and troubled relationships (in Greece, Europe, and beyond) and is enmeshed in stereotypical categorizations and polarizations such as “the South” and “the North,” “the East” and “the West,” “Greece” and “Germany.” Athens symbolizes not only “the cradle of Western civilization” but also the dysfunctional economy that has allegedly put Europe under strain. Thus, the very title of the d14 exhibition–learning from Athens–caused controversy, as it contained an ambiguous message. Despite the official curatorial concept (or even because of it), one could not help feeling that the idea of learning from this particular city could either be interpreted literally or with a hint of sarcasm. To the regular question, “so what have you learned from Athens?,” d14 curators systematically replied that “learning is unlearning.” That statement was familiar to us from our own readings of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who originally introduced it,[12] as well as from our own anthropological conviction that learning about “others” presupposes “unlearning” or breaking with conventional practices and stereotypes. Its use in this specific context, however, made us (and others) wonder if that was also a position that took a generic and “safe” approach to the “difficult” specificities and complexities of the Athenian context; an approach which, by engendering a generic and ambiguous stance towards Athens through the lens of a global mapping of a shared contemporaneity that could have been experienced anywhere, entailed the risk of its remaining unconnected to its social everyday relevance to Athens.[13]

It has been noted that documenta 14 acted as a mirror, which brought to the fore a number of contradictions and paradoxes concerning not simply documenta and the international art world at large, but also forces driving contemporary Greek cultures embedded in long and complicated histories and relationships.[14]

The presence of an art institution of the caliber of documenta in Athens was bound to provoke a great number of different reactions. For example: mistrust associating d14 with the left-oriented governing SYRIZA party, because of d14’s leftist pronouncements; allusions to d14’s involvement in Greco-German politics; fears that d14 might act as a catalyst in the local contemporary art scene; career aspirations, visions, or romantic attachments to documenta leading certain curators and artists to defend documenta 14 locally; opinions questioning the artistic quality of unconventional contemporary art; or even complete indifference towards the presence of documenta in Athens.[15] Such reactions can only be understood when seen in the context of specific historical and contemporary political, financial, and socio-cultural dynamics that have been informed by, and have also informed, developments in Greece and internationally ever since the establishment of the Greek nation state.[16]

In Greece, contemporary art has been traditionally neglected by cultural policies which have favored ancient art, while individual entrepreneurs have played an increasingly central role locally in defining contemporary art with the establishment of foundations, sponsorships, etc.[17] Since the economic repercussions of the Eurozone crisis began to be felt in Greece, the Greek contemporary art scene has thrived. On the one hand, some long-established and some more recent private institutions form a specific category of [non-profit] foundation based in Athens that is playing a significant role in the shaping of the cultural life of the city and the country alongside the market and the state.[18] On the other hand, numerous projects have sprung up, some of which are linked to community-based initiatives exploring the broader connection between the arts and social reality, proposing artistic interventions, and hosting talks and conferences on topics related to art, art institutions, public space, politics, economy, etc. At the same time, several individual artists from Greece and abroad demonstrated a prolific activity in Athens, mostly related to these issues. Some think that Greek art is entering a flourishing period of creativity born out of financial unpredictability and collapse and say that “Athens is the new Berlin,” in reference to the vibrant contemporary art scene that emerged in the German capital during the 1990s.[19] It was for this and other reasons that the hitherto “peripheral” Athenian art scene came under the spotlight of documenta 14. The presence of a powerful contemporary art institution, addressing and seeking to liaise with mostly public institutions locally, was bound to shake things up.

For Adam Szymczyk, “Athens is one of the most interesting cities in Europe,” which “had been pretty much wasted in the last 10 years.”[20] In an interview he gave on German Radio οn April 7, 2017, the chief curator of d14 said:

Naturally one could accuse us of not engaging sufficiently with the local art scene. We weren’t that interested in the Athens art scene, but rather in the city as a living organism. And that goes beyond contemporary art. Athens does not stand on its own, it also stands for other places in this world…Lagos, Guatemala City.

The stated interest in what Szymczyk terms a “city as a living organism,” however, may fade away when the city is approached as an “allegory” or “emblem” standing for generic and monumental issues of global relevance, such as dispossession, austerity, migration, democracy, and fascism.[21] And if for d14 the choice to come to Athens was “to think and learn from a city suspended between cultural clichés of bygone days and harsh everyday life,”[22] the question remains as to whether Athens as an allegory may also run the risk of producing yet another cliché distanced from the complexity and specificity of a city grounded on people’s experiences and social practices.

Team Work and Its Complexities

The third level of complexity of our project is related to our own engagement with it. We approached d14 as people who work on and with art and live and work mainly in Athens (while addressing an international audience and international collaborations). Our project began as a response to the presence of this important cultural event in Athens. But this response was far from homogeneous. Three members of our team were employed by documenta 14, one as a venue coordinator, two as members of the d14 chorus. One of the latter also collaborated with Capacete, a group of artists participating in the public program of d14.[23] Other members of our team preferred to distance themselves from d14 and clearly stated their resistance to it. Some of them collaborated with other art initiatives commenting on documenta, while yet others decided to abandon our project altogether, either because they did not wish to be associated with documenta in any way whatsoever or because they were sympathetic to it and did not wish to engage in any critical assessment of it. Ιn that sense, the project became more than just an ethnographic project requiring the ethnographer to better understand documenta from within. It involved people with multiple “belongings” in and outside documenta, requiring them (and the project as a whole) to work with and without documenta and causing ideological, ethical, and emotional dilemmas regarding the positioning and stance of each member as a subjectivity and as part of a team. It was in this context that we established the Athens Arts Observatory, a platform for public debate and dialogic opportunities in which we ourselves were engaged and exposed. The discussions took the form of seven round-tables on topical issues, which allowed different opinions to be voiced in public, sometimes revealing latent controversies or unexpected alliances between various social actors.[24] Thus, they also provided valuable research material, which was later discussed and analyzed by the research team.

All these decisions regarding degrees of involvement in or distancing from documenta, and the commotion they caused, also became points of reference for discussions concerning our own involvement in institutions and institutionalization, and the ethics and methods of doing anthropology of, with, and against institutions. Such developments and discussions helped us problematize the multivalence of “the institution,” which is not simply a vague and impersonal structure, but a process constituted by collectivities and subjectivities we related to as students, professionals, or simply friends, and by relationships and dynamics informed by, and informing, historical, financial, and socio-cultural developments. More importantly, it made us realize the extent to which we are also involved in these processes and the impossibility of doing research without taking this factor into consideration.

Our team’s heterogeneity was not simply related to the different feelings, experiences, and ideological stances of its members towards documenta. Given that our team consisted of artists and anthropologists as well as researchers from other fields of expertise, this project made us confront the different (converging, diverging, or conflicting) established methods, canons, and traditions of research in each of these fields. It forced us to seriously consider the variety and differences in trends and attitudes within each of these fields and sparked discussions about critical issues: the use of visual materials produced either as a record of our research and the public events we organized or in the context of ethnographic films, art videos, installations, and the project’s fanzine; moral, legal, epistemological, and political issues revolving around notions of copyright and property ownership when it comes to “public art”; codes of ethics in anthropology and art regarding the use of the camera and the researchers’ conduct towards “the other”; notions of professionalism, freedom of research, and “the poetic license” of art.  At the same time, it offered the occasion for experimentation on the relationship between the visual and the discursive and between theory and practice. Eventually, we realized that in any cross-disciplinary venture disciplinary boundaries might be hardened rather than neutralized, while each discipline’s “discipline” might accentuate differences rather than encourage osmosis. The concepts “anthropology” and “art” themselves were also invested with different meanings as they shifted and crossed boundaries between disciplines, making it clear that we need to rethink the terms we use within our fields of research. Last but not least, through their diversity and fluctuations the dynamics within the team exposed some of the very things we were hoping to research outside. In some sense, then, the project was almost too successful in “finding” all the reactions, all the things that Athens “learned” from documenta.

Our desire to define and analyze the specificity of our experience with the help of anthropology combined with our artistic practices has defined our approach and characterized our main contribution to the debate. From anthropology, we know that commitment to the grounded experience of human social practices helps us think differently and transcend stereotypes and generic thinking, without, of course, losing sight of the importance of theorizing.

Our research team therefore focused on the anthropological practice of participant observation, which allowed us to record responses to documenta’s presence at several levels, from the official to the personal. The members of the group systematically attended documenta 14’s events and held discussions with members of the Greek and the international art world, both within the formal context of documenta 14 and otherwise; they spoke with the visitors of documenta, as well as those who stayed away because of indifference, skepticism, or opposition; they built an archive of relevant publications and other sources relating to the history, the socio-political and cultural background, and the various active choices of the institution. A platform on Facebook allowed the team to exchange bibliographies and other materials even when we did not meet in person.

We had the chance to revisit and present this material and the issues it raised in the 5-day closing event of the project. That event comprised workshops running throughout the morning and feeding into discussions and papers presented in the evening. Along with the project as a whole, the closing event led to collaborations and the production of work across diverse fields of research. Above all, it helped us reflect on the ways artists, anthropologists, and other practitioners and intellectuals work together, and on the shifts occurring in each one’s ways of making and thinking.

Overall our acquaintance with documenta 14 made us all realize that anthropology engaging with art and vice versa did not merely provide an occasion for innovation or experimentation with forms. It became clear to us that working between art and anthropology is entangled in epistemological, political, and personal quests. This led us to rethink the social relevance of our own work and to revisit old questions in anthropology and social theory concerning the relationship between agent and context, power and the autonomy of the work of art, ethics and the limits of art and anthropology wishing to learn from, with, or without “the other.”

Elpida Rikou has studied sociology (Panteion University, Athens), anthropology (D.E.A., Université Paris V-Sorbonne), social psychology (D.E.A. and Ph.D, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) and visual arts (Athens School of Fine Arts).  She has taught at different universities (Universities of Crete, Thessaly, Athens and Panteion University) since 1998. She has also taught Anthropology and Contemporary Art in the Department of Theory and History of Art of the Athens School of Fine Arts from 2007 to 2017 and from 2011 to 2013 in the Postgraduate Program (Master in Fine Arts) of the Department of Visual Arts of the same schoolShe is the editor of Anthropology and Contemporary Art (a collection of texts of British and American anthropologists and art theorists published in Greek by Alexandria in 2013) for which she has written the introduction and of the translation in Greek of Marc Augé’s book Pour une anthropologie des mondes contemporains (published by Alexandria in 1999), for which she has also written the introduction. She has co-edited with E.Yalouri and A. Lampropoulos a volume with the work of artists and theorists on value (Αξία) and with P. Panopoulos a volume with the work of artists and anthropologists on voice (Φωνές/Fones) as well as the translation in Greek of Alfred Gell’s book Art and AgencyShe has published articles in scientific periodicals, edited collections, art catalogues, and newspapers. She is the coordinator of several art projects with an interdisciplinary character (i.e. TWIXTLab, the international research project Learning from documenta with E. Yalouri, Value/4th Athens Biennal , project “Fonés”, etc.) in which she is also a participant as an anthropologist and visual artist. 

Eleana Yalouri is an assistant professor at the Department of Social Anthropology at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. She has a BA in Archaeology (University of Crete, Greece) an MPhil in Museum studies (University of Cambridge), a PhD in Social Anthropology (University College London), and conducted postdoctoral research at Princeton University, USA. She has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, and a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. Her research interests include theories of material culture, cultural heritage, and the politics of remembering and forgetting; anthropology and contemporary art; anthropology and archaeology. Her book, The Acropolis. Global Fame, Local Claim (2001), discusses the modern life of the Athenian Acropolis and the ways in which modern Greeks deal with the national and international features of their ancient heritage. Her edited volume, Υλικός Πολιτισμός. Η Ανθρωπολογία στη Χώρα των Πραγμάτων (Material Culture. Anthropology in Thingland) (2012), offers a systematic review of theories and ethnographies in key fields of material culture. Her current research projects involve collaborations with visual artists and art historians exploring the borders between contemporary art and fields of inquiry dealing with the material culture of the past or present, such as archaeology and anthropology.

* The “Learning from Documenta” logo in the featured image for this essay was designed by Io Chaviara.


[1] “Athens Biennale,” (accessed February 4, 2018). Mollona eventually resigned from this post.

[2] Andrew Stefan Weiner, “The Art of the Possible: With and Against Documenta 14,” Biennial Foundation, (last modified August 14, 2017).

[3] Thierry De Duve, “The Glocal and the Singuversal,” Open! Cahier on Art and the Public Domain 16 (2009): 45.

[4] Monica Sassatelli, “The Biennalization of Art Worlds: The Culture of Cultural Events,” in Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, ed. Laurie Hanquinet and Mike Savage (London: Routledge, 2015), 277–89.

[5] Helena Smith, “‘Crapumenta!’… Anger in Athens as the Blue Lambs of Documenta Hit Town,” The Guardian, May 14, 2017,

[6] Paul B. Preciado, Presentation at the round table on “The Politics of Curating,” organized by the Learning from documenta project, Athens, January 11, 2017.

[7] Andrew Stefan Weiner, ibid.

[8] TJ Demos, “Learning from Documenta 14. Athens, Post-Democracy, and Decolonisation,” Third Text Online. Critical Perspectives on Art and Culture, (accessed February 4, 2018).

[9] See also Rachel Donadio, “German Art Exhibition Documenta Expands Into Athens,” New York Times, April 5, 2017,

[10] Documenta is financed by the State of Hesse and the City of Kassel, which are its shareholders, and is also supported by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the Federal Cultural Foundation. Also, German officials, like the then German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, referred to documenta 14 as a potential artistic bridge between Greece and Germany, which might also form the basis for a political entente between the two countries. (accessed February 4, 2018); see also: Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, ibid.

[11] (accessed March 3, 2018).

[12] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-314.

[13] As Papastergiadis notes, “mediation requires more than just familiarisation with and representation of known and knowable differences as its task is not to discover a mode of address to redeem historical damages, but rather create an understanding of new social possibilities by allowing each partner to go beyond their own certitudes and participate in collaborative knowledge-making that is not just the sum of their previous experiences.” Nikos Papastergiadis, “The Role of Art in Imagining Multicultural Communities,” Paper presented at the ExTra Final Event & EMC Annual Conference, Athens, 23–26 April 2009, See also Maria Nicolacopoulou, “Documenta 14: The View from Athens,” Ocula, May Issue (2017),

[14] Giorgos Tzirtzilakis, “Ένα Ατελές Λεξικό Για Την Documenta [An Incomplete Dictionary for Documenta],” Aυγή [Avgi], July 17, 2017,

[15] See also Despina Zefkili, “‘Exercises of Freedom’: Documenta 14,” Third Text Online. Critical Perspectives on Art and Culture, (accessed February 4, 2018).

[16] For two articles that highlight the historical and socio-political parameters of this event locally, see Stavros Stavrides, “What Is to Be Learned? On Athens and Documenta 14 So Far,” Afterall 43 (2017),, and Iason Athanasiadis, “Athenian Panopticon. How Can Athens Inspire Documenta to Challenge Our Understanding of the Global Moment?,” ArtReview, April Issue (2017),

[17] Myrsini Zorba, Πολιτική του Πολιτισμού. Ευρώπη και Ελλάδα στο Δεύτερο Μισό του 20ού Αιώνα [Cultural Policy. Europe and Greece in the Second Half of the 20th Century] (Athens: Patakis, 2014); Nicos Souliotis, “Cultural Economy, Sovereign Debt Crisis and the Importance of Local Contexts: The Case of Athens,” Cities 33 (August 2013): 61–68; Eleana Yalouri, “Afterword. Hellenomanias Past, Present, and Future,” in Hellenomania, ed. Katherine Harloe, Nicoletta Momigliano, and Alexandre Farnoux (London: Routledge, 2018), 311–24; Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, “Contemporary Art and ‘Difficult Heritage’. Three Case Studies from Athens,” in Contested Antiquity, ed. Esther Solomon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Forthcoming).

[18] Nicos Souliotis, ibid.

[19] (last accessed March 3, 2018].

[20] Stephen Heyman, “In Athens, an Unexpected Greek Renaissance,” Travel and Leisure, May Issue (2017),

[21] The idea of Athens as an “emblem” was used by Paul B. Preciado at the round table “The Politics of Curating,” organized by the Learning from documenta project that took place on January 11, 2017 at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences, Athens.

[22] Maria Nicolacopoulou, ibid.

[23] “CAPACETE Entertainment’s residence program,” Transartists, (accessed February 4, 2018).

[24] The round tables were organized around the following topics: the politics of cultural exchange between Greece and Germany; the politics of curating; the Politics of Learning; the politics of art-making; emerging subjectivities; and critical commentary of specific documenta artworks.