Art Meeting Anthropology: Affective Encounters

Art Meeting Anthropology: Affective Encounters

By Eleana Yalouri

Three years have now passed since the closing session of the Learning from documenta research project (hereafter Lfd).[1] The time that has elapsed has made it easier for me to digest, reflect on and evaluate the Lfd experience and the after-effects of what I consider to be the most challenging research project I have ever been involved in. This distance in time has also compelled me to re-think more generally the relationship between theory and practice, as well as reconsidering aspects of anthropology, art, academia, institutions, and their relevance, when they engage with, comment on, and/or interfere with ‘the real’.[2]

As co-ordinators of this project Elpida Rikou and I have already written two introductory papers on the background, the aims, the difficulties and the scope of Lfd.[3] So I consider this new opportunity, offered to us by FIELD, an occasion to revisit our research experience in a way that also highlights the dynamics and the affective charge which accompanied it; and which hopefully justifies, or at least explains, to others, as well as to ourselves, the time, and the emotional and intellectual investment our team put into this project, with all its costs and benefits, during that three-year period in our lives. In what follows I will therefore present a more personal view, situated in the nexus of sociopolitical and theoretical developments as well as the affective tensions within which Lfd took place. Ways of knowing have an affective aspect, which is often left unaccounted for and disregarded in the interpretive frameworks and meaning-making processes of research process. We were systematically forced to recognize this aspect. I will begin with an account of the background to the encounter between Learning from Athens (hereafter Lfa) and Lfd, between art and anthropology, before I move on to an incident that highlighted and indeed influenced, aspects of this encounter. I will end with a reflection on the relationships, juxtapositions and inter-weavings that have influenced our work and, to a large extent, this special issue.

Art Meeting Anthropology?

In 2017 d14 came to Athens with a theoretical approach, a bibliographical background, and a range of interests such as “the refugee crisis,” “the queer,” “colonialism,” and “decolonization,” shared by many of us scholars, practitioners, artists, social scientists, and others involved in Lfd. Moreover, many of us were familiar with developments in art and anthropology that opened the way to mutual encounters and interactions around these topics. Back in the 1990s art historian Hal Foster discussed the tendency of artists to use the realistic idiom of fieldwork in their quest to ground their art in real bodies and real places in response to the conceptual and text-centered art of previous decades. He described that tendency as part of an “ethnographic turn” in art, in which artists left the isolation of their studios to engage or even identify with the cultural “other,” and in order to produce art which acted in this “other’s” favor.[4] Several art projects have followed this trend. The explicit mission of d14’s Learning from Athens (hereafter Lfa) to learn from a “city in crisis,” and Adam Szymczyk’s desire for “an action” taken “in real time and in the real world” [5] gave the Lfa project certain ethnographic undertones with the d14 chief curator taking on what has been described as “the role of a curator-ethnographer,” [6] and the d14 team wishing to become “immersed in the city” of Athens. This echoes the classical ethnographic approach where the anthropologist needs to be distanced from her/his own cultural context and system of knowledge in order to learn from or, rather with, the other culture. [7] But despite these ethnographic elements, the Lfa project diverged from, rather than converged with, anthropology as a discipline historically defined by its ethnographic method. It is also quite likely that many of the d14 curators and artists themselves would reject situating their artistic projects within “the ethnographic turn” tradition and might even dismiss “ethnography” altogether as a methodological relic of colonial logic.

Anthropology was featured as an idiom in the wider context of d14’s identification with “the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist front of a ‘trans South’”.[8] But d14’s perception of anthropology as evidenced at the Athens National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), as well as in other venues in Athens, seemed outdated and conflated with the underpinnings of colonialism, as if anthropology had remained static since the time of Franz Boas (1858-1942). [9] Moreover, d14’s commitment to “real time” and “the real world,” was not in tune with the perspective of contemporary anthropology, in which any commitment or claim to ethnographic realism has been unsettled by the 1980s movement of cultural critique embedded in the postcolonial critique of history and the “crisis of representation”. More importantly, despite its quest for “the real,” d14 adopted an approach defined by the formulation of generalized statements and the critique of big issues, concepts and developments, which often distanced it from the grounded, everyday experience that anthropologists are committed to in their efforts to transcend stereotypes and generic thinking. For example, even though d14 conceptualized Athens as a simultaneously real and metaphorical site [10], Athens as an “emblem” or a “symptom” [11], eventually became more important in the overall d14 curatorial approach than Szymczyk ‘s stated interest in Athens as “a living organism”.[12] The concept of “queer” itself, which was central to d14’s conceptualization and especially its public program, aimed to create an “anticolonial symphony of Europe” [13], which at times generalized and levelled, rather than, promoted the different aspects of the queer as “a radical critique of regimes of the normal”.[14] In attempting to give “visibility to dissident, heterogeneous, and minor narratives” [15], it adopted a realistic idiom which seemed to classify difference or “Otherness” as an assumed identity that bore traces of primitiveness, marginality, authenticity, and so on [16].

At times, d14’s agenda acquired a restitutive character. For example, Preciado’s impression of Athens as “a city paralyzed and in a state of emergency” [17] went hand in hand with d14’s stated intention to cur(at)e the city by activating spaces closed or deserted due to the recent economic crisis. Contemporary art has often been considered and approached as a form of collective curing, especially under the influence of a shamanistic ethos and the presence of artist-shamans like Joseph Beuys, Henri Michaux and others, who with their healing or transformative powers, offered a connection with a lost world driven out by capitalism. The public program of d14, organized around the former premises of the headquarters of the military dictatorship at Parko Eleftherias, echoed such tendencies. On the one hand, this approach was intended to purge traumatic local memories through the power of art and by resorting to different kinds of (artistic) rituals,[18] while on the other it attempted to liberate human bodies from toxic technology and the contemporary way of life with specific events and activities.[19]

Following more general developments in the art world, where curatorial and artistic practices have sought to discover “new emancipatory potentials” for art [20] and liberate it from neocolonial prejudices and other hegemonic discourses, d14 set out to unsettle dominant, colonialist ways “of being and thinking that continue to construct and dominate the world order,” and to contribute to a reinvention of democracy [21]. However, despite its aspirations to “learn from below” [22], d14 seemed unable to transcend its privileged position in the dominant socio-political and economic apparatus linked to the Western canon.[23] This became very clear in statements made by its curators. d14 chief curator Adam Szymzyk, for example, described contemporary artists as “people without roots and people without a place who can basically act from a position a little bit similar to many other people who are simply violently displaced by circumstances and also dispossessed”. [24] d14 public program curator Paul B. Preciado on the other hand likened his own gender transitioning to the experiences of migrants and refugees.[25] Rather than underscoring solidarity, sympathy or empathy, such weighty but undertheorized statements contain misplaced and asymmetric comparisons in terms of ethical scale and highlight the ethical dilemmas that arise when art is inspired by, οr likened to, the traumatic experiences of people who may have no desire to be appropriated by contemporary art’s “cultural gold rush” of inspiration and novelty.[26]

Affective Encounters

I entered the Learning from documenta project with a rather romantic attitude. My motivation to engage with this research project came out of my enthusiasm for the work of a new generation of artists in Athens, whom I had encountered and collaborated with over the years. Their works and projects around issues of mutual interest had helped me revisit ideas and topics I had worked on in the past, and had opened up for me new, fresh ways to rethink or reconsider them and, eventually, “unlearn”, to borrow d14’s term adopted from Spivak, conventional ways of approaching them. A number of anthropologists, some of whom were our external collaborators in the Lfd project, had also emphasized in their work the potential for collaborations between artists and anthropologists and the importance of approaching art, not simply as an object of study, but also as an interlocutor and collaborator, opening up new ways and means of doing anthropological research [27].

My encounter with d14 tended to challenge that original enthusiasm, as contentious rather than harmonious (trans)disciplinary exchanges ensued, and these were exacerbated by “resistances,” and criticism from both sides. The latter also highlighted the differences between the fields of art and anthropology, as well as the need to consider the frictions and complications of “exchange” and “collaboration” more generally [28]. They also often directed attention away from artworks, which was what most interested me, towards discussions revolving around the socio-politics of curating and art institutions. I have often wondered about the impetus behind these developments and the answer may lie in two paradoxes that run through the Learning from Athens and the Learning from documenta projects respectively.

The first paradox arises out of the ambitious, or maybe utopian, notion that a large, impersonal institution can embrace the local and the marginalized without retaining some critical self-reflexivity regarding its own implication in the unequal power relationships that define this encounter. The second relates to the difficulties inherent in a project attempting to make an anthropological study of an institution, whose representatives turned out to resist the idea of becoming the subjects of our anthropological enquiry. The first time that Elpida and I met Adam Szymzcyk to present the concept of the Lfd project to him, he smilingly asked whether he was “the anthropos” of our anthropology, thus indirectly revealing on the one hand his perception of d14 as his own artwork, and on the other, an awkwardness about and/or suspicion of the prospect of becoming the subject of our research.[29] It appeared at this time that the Learning from documenta project had aroused scepticism and reactions similar to those the Learning from Athens project had triggered in Athens, a city marked by a long history of the Western “crypto-colonial gaze” [30], and where sensitivities run high after years of recession and austerity. Both of these reactions were somehow responding to the “learning from” part of the two projects (and its obvious correlation with the power/knowledge nexus) and were pointing to the sensitive relationships resulting from the intersecting gazes and asymmetries between observers and observed [31].

In hindsight I recognize my naivety in assuming there would be an affinity between the spirit of Lfa and that of Lfd just because they had a shared bibliographical background and mutual theoretical and thematic interests. I thought this affinity would also allow participant observation, which assumes an engagement with the subjects of research and their active involvement in the research process. But why would or should documenta welcome us with open arms and share inside information with us? Secrecy is power and the skilled revelation or concealment of secrets is part and parcel of an (art) institution’s magic ability to enchant or surprise, at the same time as being a strategy for concealing one’s limitations. Occasionally, Lfd members, who were also employed by d14 (one as a venue co-ordinator and two others as members of the d14 chorus) were half-jokingly called “spies” by some of their d14’s employers or colleagues, putting them in an awkward situation.[32] The secrets of documenta were not for us to unravel or to discuss in public.[33] This might have also been the reason why some of our public events, which we established as a platform for public debates and opportunities for dialogue on topical issues, and to which documenta was invited, caused controversy. That was especially the case with the round table “Politics of Curating” that we organized at Panteion University in January 2017. So, I will now turn to some examples from this event, which I believe could provide a basis for a situational analysis of some broader issues concerning the modes and relationships of learning discussed in this paper, while at the same time highlighting the affective nature of encounters, which shaped the development of Lfd and its relationship with Lfa.

All of the round tables we organized as part of the Lfd public events program focused on a number of pre-circulated questions, which had concerned us in our research. In that sense, these events were not simply a means to make our research public, but also constituted a significant research tool by means of which we could share questions, test assumptions and broaden discussions beyond the Lfd team. The questions we formulated for the round table on “The Politics of Curating” revolved more generally around the shaping of contemporary curatorial practices, their implication in local-global dynamics, and the ways in which d14 had responded to such developments. One of the issues discussed in the media at that time related to the impact this mega-institution might have on contemporary art production locally and on emerging community-based art initiatives in a country where cultural policies have neglected contemporary art. Therefore, one of the questions addressed to Paul Preciado and Katerina Tselou, assistant to the d14 artistic director and curatorial advisor, concerned the channels and practices through which documenta 14 had learned about the local art scene and had chosen its artists and (in the case of its journal South) its authors. In her response Tselou pointed to the need to (re)define what we meant by local, who was local and who was not.[34] Preciado on the other hand claimed that coming to Athens to select local artists would be a colonial way of seeing things, whereas he had wished to move away from ideas of nationalist belonging.

Another discussant in the round table, art theorist and artist Kostis Stafylakis, reacting to Preciado’s response, counter-argued that, through its discourse and performances, documenta 14 had, up to that point, reproduced rather than challenged Greek nationalist narratives, while he also noted d14’s “total mistrust towards local production of thinking and debates”. The discussion was already heating up by the time it was opened to the audience. Contemporary art curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung one of the d14 collaborators, sounded particularly disturbed by what he described as “a process of judgmentalization against d14 before it even happened”. “[The d14] process,” he said, “has to be watched and followed in order to avoid some kind of epistemic violence talking from too short experts to create final statements” [sic]. Ιn that respect he was refusing to accept that there could be immediate reactions and responses to the d14 activities which had taken place up to that point, even though this did not amount to a generalized judgment on what documenta and its public program could do.[35] “We are getting,” he continued, “into a loop with this anthropological gaze of looking and studying something that is itself not even there, expecting to have a kind of finality”.

From that point onwards it felt as if the whole debate was being narrowly perceived in terms of art versus anthropology, or more specifically, of Lfa versus Lfd, while in reality the round table featured discussants coming mostly from the arts, with only two from Lfd. Preciado himself, following on from Ndikung’s remark, repeated that the anthropological framework of the discussion was channelling epistemic violence, making the d14 curatorial team feel like objects of study and not allowing any productive debates to take place. Preciado had already referred earlier to the complexities and challenges of working as a d14 public program curator in and against the context of a neoliberal cultural industry and institutions, and to the struggles involved in staging the d14 exhibition in both Athens and Kassel. Now, he was assuming the role of “the other,” whom colonial anthropology had abused in the past (and was apparently abusing again). “Nevertheless [I can take it]’, he continued, “being myself historically trained to this as a feminist transgendered person and this is the position, I have been in all my life”.

Our intention was to initiate a discussion between d14, us and others, who had already voiced different views on the d14 project and on the politics of curating more generally in published papers and in the social media. It looked like our questions had brought up matters that had inadvertently touched a nerve. Eventually, it became increasingly evident that the round table had revealed a wide range of latent controversies or unexpected alliances between various social actors (artists and curators included in or excluded from d14, intellectuals, journalists with different ideological agendas and so on) and had offered a channel through which pent-up anger and frustration could be released and manifested. Preciado argued that documenta, like any mega exhibition, was a technology of production of value and legitimation and this was what had created a power struggle which had to do with the question “Am I included, or not?” He said that, ever since he had arrived in Athens as a curator, everyone was coming to him with a portfolio wanting to be included in documenta. “The exhibition is not about Greek artists, but about the transformation we are creating here within the Greek society,” he said. Ndikung also commented that ‘It’s good to talk about Greece, but documenta is bigger than Greece”. Such comments revealed the difficulties entailed in and contradictions arising from the juggling required to treat Athens as both a metaphorical and a real site and the risks entailed in a project which wanted to learn from a city without, however, wishing to listen to criticisms emerging from it. In the context of these comments, it can also be understood why an earlier comment by Paul Preciado that “the public does not exist” and that the d14 public program acted as a performative machine with the capacity to construct the public caused indignation among members of the audience. The idea of “a constructed public” sounds different when it is heuristically approached and theorized than when it is propounded by a functionary of a major international art exhibition. In the latter case it takes on a more literal connotation and risks sounding condescending, especially when criticism by “the public” is not being heard or considered, bringing to the fore a tension between Athens as “a state of mind,” i.e. as an intellectual ideological concept, and Athens as a pragmatic, complex, and critical “reality”.

Several objections followed, with people from the audience and from the round table claiming to be offended either because of the way Greek artists were mispresented or because of the way anthropology and/or Lfd was being misperceived. Stafylakis’ perception of d14 as an orientalist project, that was striving to address locality as a sentimentalized precariat, further fanned the flames the discussion had ignited. Preciado censured us for the way in which we framed our questions and he declared himself disturbed by the theatricality of what was happening. Ndikung described the whole event as a process of othering, while Adam Szymzcyk accused us of having staged “a people’s court”. As Apostolos Lampropoulos noted, it felt as if d14 members were responding to an ideological critique with a judgement of intention, which allowed no further discussion. Moreover, it felt like d14 had appropriated anthropology’s self-criticism as formulated since the 1980s, and presented it as its own, while at the same time assuming the role of the defender of the human rights of minorities and the world’s oppressed in which they included themselves. As one of the coordinators of the discussion I found myself in the extremely difficult position of trying to manage so much anger and to allow voices to be heard, while remaining impartial in the face of criticism of both my discipline and the reputation of Lfd.

I have often wondered ever since if things could have been different. And, if so, how? Was it only the content of the interventions at the round table that caused so much friction? Could, for example, a different setting or form, have offered “a different vibe” and rendered that public event frictionless or less controversial?[36] Certain discussants’ interventions in the round table were criticized by members of the audience as “theatrical performances,” which, allegedly, did not conform to the codes of politeness and the “well-tempered” discussions [37] expected in an academic setting, such as the one in which the event was being hosted. But members of the audience also “performed” in reacting strongly to discussants’ positions, defending documenta or protesting against it. The academic idiom which d14 seemed otherwise to celebrate, did not quite work in this context. So, could these affective interventions have been made more acceptable, had they been expressed through an art form (e.g., performance) in an artistic space? I have also wondered if the whole tension was due to a matter of cultural mistranslation. A colleague from the U.S., who has conducted anthropological fieldwork in Greece and who attended the event, wondered at the time if a discussion in Greek “might have looked discursively different”. She noted that “one should appreciate the forms in which discussion may take place in Greece, where people may argue and clash and then go out for a coffee together. It is not a personal attack, but a different form of interaction, not always recognizable by those not immersed in the local culture”. In that sense, it may not be a coincidence that, with regard to the same round table, Katerina Tselou said she had not felt she was being “accused”. In any case, at that point it felt like the anthropological prerequisite of working with the subjects of research had been abandoned once and for all. Had our encounter with d14 not taken the tempestuous course it did, we might have had a chance to evaluate its approach to and perception of “the field” of its investigation (Athens), along with our own epistemological and aesthetic disciplines, methodological and ethnographic assumptions quite differently. On the one hand, d14’s reluctance to become the subject of our study and on the other, the intense reluctance of several members of the Lfd team to allow the Lfd project to be misperceived as part of d14 (despite or even because of rumors that our project was keen to bask in d14’s reflected glory), constrained the development of our research and the possibilities of working with documenta.

Overcoming or Reproducing Epistemological Borders?

Learning from documenta had been designed as a project between art and anthropology and it therefore addressed questions regarding our method, its principles, the reasons why we should talk about method and how structured and fixed all of these things were. And while questions of method were for us mediums through which to explore new ways of doing research, the same questions were often posed by the documenta staff as ways of remonstrating with our project. “What is your method?” was the question addressed to us by d14 members at times of controversy, a question which implied some doubt as to that method’s scientific merit. That recurring question, apparently demonstrating a keen desire to establish Lfd’s academic probity, was puzzling to me when coming from members of the artworld who themselves, at least to my mind, were open to challenging norms and conventions, allowing flexibility of method, or even working “against method” [38].

Researching an exhibition of the caliber of documenta was a difficult enterprise to begin with, given its complicated subject matter and its broad scope: How could one study a major international institution and event, which had such a wide socio-temporal range, embracing a vast multiplicity of subjects, discourses, ideological positions, artistic methodologies and forms of epistemic knowledge? And, furthermore, how to undertake this investigation in the complex context of contemporary local and global art phenomena with tools deriving from both anthropology and art? Lfd members regularly visited d14’s venues and attended its public events; they spoke with members of the Greek and international art world, and with visitors to documenta. But given both the lack of access to inside information regarding d14, as well as “the elusive” character of documenta itself, [39] it often felt as if we had to study it through its shadοw, through its reflection or outline, shaped by surrounding discourses and activities that occurred beyond or around the event itself. This constantly slippery subject posed a number of challenges for us in approaching “the field” as a complex ensemble of mirrorings and interrelations between people, institutions, things and emotions.

A series of discussions, along with a workshop entitled “Art and Anthropology research kit” gave the Lfd team plenty of feedback and ideas with which to expand the project’s theoretical and methodological tool kit. The aim was to engage with methods and skills derived from diverse fields of knowledge, such as anthropology, visual/digital/video/sound art, art history, photography, design, dance and performance studies, and combine them in our research. The challenge was to try to go beyond the boundaries of our respective fields of expertise, not only to become (better) acquainted with new ideas and ways of doing things, but also in order to rethink the terms we normally used within our respective fields of research. This also gave us the opportunity to move towards a collaborative research model distinct from the dominant single-research model we are used to following [40].

The needs of the project, as well as the individual interests of its participants, distanced it from an exclusively anthropological and/or art-based approach, so the approach was expanded to cater to art theorists, historians and cultural theorists. Interestingly, however, at times the project continued to be presented as exclusively “anthropological” and, above all, to be criticized as such by d14 members. But even within the Lfd team, which had been aiming to transcend epistemological borders, these boundaries were occasionally reproduced along with their respective stereotypes, such as the relationship between the “avant-garde/beyond canon art” versus “conventional/normalizing academia (or social science)”. The project’s multidisciplinary character brought together people adhering to and conditioned by different epistemologies and brought each of us face to face with our own clichés, and the different established methods, canons and traditions of research in the others’ respective fields of expertise. It also presented ethical, legal, political and epistemological dilemmas, brought about by different circumstances and related to questions such as the use of the camera, copyright ownership, the relationship with the subjects of research, or the public aspect of our work and its limits. These dilemmas often accentuated divergences rather than encouraging convergence between the members of the team, thus troubling notions of collaboration as egalitarian, creative and so on.

To start with, our research project involved people with multiple allegiances in and outside of documenta, which changed overtime. This created a constant condition of fluidity which transformed us, our relationships, the form of the project and the stance we took on it. One member of our team eventually also worked as a venue coordinator for d14, another two worked as members of the d14 “chorus” (a component of the d14 educational program), and others collaborated with other initiatives commenting on documenta. Some of the original Lfd members decided to withdraw from our project altogether because they were sympathetic to d14 and did not wish to engage in any critical assessment of it, probably not sharing the view that a critical inquiry can be compatible with sympathy. While others left because they were too critical of d14 and did not wish to be associated with it in any way. These multiple anchorings required individual members (and the project as a whole) to work with and without documenta and raised ideological, ethical and emotional dilemmas regarding the positioning and stance of each member as a subjectivity and as part of a team.[41]

The vexed issue of institutional funding and its role in establishing a project’s identity was another significant variable that shaped our encounter with d14, and the profile of our research itself. Despite Lfd receiving financial support for certain public events, it never became a fully funded, bona fide institutional research project. This meant that some of our original ideas, e.g. having a weekly radio broadcast and a TV program running in parallel with the research project as a way of making it public and of conducting research, did not materialize. This was also affected by the relationships certain media outlets and journalists wished to maintain with d14, or the total indifference they showed towards it. It also meant that some of our project’s dedicated members were inhibited by their financial responsibilities. This was one of the reasons why some of them took jobs with documenta, which had become a significant employer in the domain of the arts and humanities at a time of crisis, and consequently offered a prestigious opportunity to those aiming to build a career in the arts.

Throughout the project concessions were made on all sides to accommodate the different aspirations of Lfd’s members. Some, for example, opted for a more public and/or activist agenda, others wanted to maintain a more discreet research project profile that might have also allowed for a different engagement with documenta itself. There were times of acute tension and different affective responses regarding the ideological repercussions of d14’s ambition to “learn from Athens,” not all of which I shared nor even gave credence to. This was probably partly because d14’s presence did not affect me in the same way it did other members of the group, who were part of the local art world and enmeshed in dynamics shaped by the presence of this major art institution. The anger that had fuelled the accusations of epistemic violence made by both sides was part and parcel of a process of learning that involved observers and observed, as well as conceptions of ethnographic authority regardless of any proclaimed desire for inclusion. But at that time it did not allow the necessary distance to treat our experiences as part of the research material. And it certainly did not make the coordination of the project as a whole an easy task. It was becoming clear that bringing anthropology and art together was not just about idyllic convergences and happy creative encounters, but also about friction and intense emotions, which came at a cost, but also had great value in forcing us to recognize our own blind spots, rethink our theories and method(s) and unlearn our presuppositions [42].

Our project’s title, “learning from documenta,” was, for all that, a response to or a reflection on d14’s “learning from Athens,” and was indicative of the project’s nature, which was attentive to the projections, reflections, reversals and re-significations that usually take place throughout a research project. In our case, the project also became an occasion for self-reflection on the sociopolitical implications of our work, our roles as academics, artists, teachers, and/or students, etc., the impact of our own involvement with institutions and institutionalization, and the ethics of doing ethnographic research into, with and against institutions.

One such occasion for example, occurred during the final session of Lfd’s closing event. This was taking place at the National Technical University of Athens, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Greece, a place loaded with symbolic and historical meaning connected to the resistance to the junta. The general area of Exarcheia, where the university is located, is known for its alternative and radical politics, graffiti-covered walls, and squatted buildings, as well as for the clashes that take place periodically between the police and anti-establishment groups, which have often escalated to include Molotov cocktails and tear gas exchanges. We were informed that one such clash was about to take place around the time of the last session on the closing day and we were therefore compelled to look for an alternative venue. Repeated efforts to locate such a place at other universities’ premises or in the grounds of the foreign schools of archaeology that had supported the event academically, were unsuccessful. Following that last-minute development, the only alternative venue we managed to find was Spinster, the bar we had booked for the conference party in the city-center of Athens, where we quickly moved projectors, microphones and all the necessary conference equipment. Academic discursive practices are connected to particular places of “serious” discussion and shifting to such an unconventional place forced us to think about the forms of sociability and the kinds of exchanges that might result from such a transition, as well as the role of anthropology and art beyond academia and academic spaces. It opened the way to imagining possible new locales for such encounters by forcing us to problematize the borders between a bar and a university, an academic encounter and an informal gathering of friends, drinking practices and academic discussions, physical and mental proximity and distance. It also worked for the owner of the bar, who was so convinced that ours was a perfect ‘Spinster’ event, that he dropped the price!

It is this last memory that I choose to keep in summing up the Lfd research experience itself. It boldly underscored the fact that learning/unlearning processes are about acknowledging and valuing the unexpected, about accepting disavowal and dissidence, and about being forced outside one’s comfort zones. Gayatri Spivak describes unlearning as an act of weaving invisible threads into a pre-existing texture. I like to think of Lfd as one such act of weaving, perhaps entangled in powerful webs of knowledge and patterns of action, but also creating possibilities for twisting, transforming or unravelling normative textures of thinking and making. Even if this only amounts to taking one small step at a time.[43]

Eleana Yalouri is an Associate 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) and a PhD in Social Anthropology (University College London), and has carried out postdoctoral research at Princeton University. She has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology of University College London and a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta. Her teaching, research interests and her publications in periodicals and edited volumes include the following issues: theories of Material Culture; Issues of national identity and the representation of the past; cultural heritage and the politics of remembering and forgetting; theories of space and the social construction of landscape; Anthropology and Art; Anthropology and Archaeology. 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.


Many thanks go to a number of people with whom I shared my thoughts on matters presented in this paper and/or who commented on different versions of it. Elpida Rikou, Apostolos Lampropoulos, Eleni Papagaroufali, Giorgos Samantas, Sophia Grigoriadou, Aris Anagnostopoulos, Konstantinos Kalantzis, Chrisy Moutsatsos.



[2] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

[3] Eleana Yalouri and Elpida Rikou, “Documenta 14 Learning from Athens: The Response of the Learning from documenta research project”, in The Art of Research Practices between Art and Anthropology, edited by Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, special issue FIELD. A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism #11 (Fall 2018); Elpida Rikou and Eleana Yalouri, “Learning from documenta. A research project between art and anthropology,” in documenta. Curating the History of the Present, edited by Nanne Buurman and D. Richter, special issue On Curating 33 (2017).

[4] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996).

[5] Adam Szymczyk, “14: Iterability and Otherness–Learning and Working from Athens,” Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), p. 26

[6] Efthymios Papataxiarxhis [Evthymios Papataxiarhis], “Δημιουργικές συγχύσεις, παραγωγικές αυταπάτες: ανισοτιμία και αμοιβαιότητα στην αθηναϊκή documenta14” [Creative confusions, productive delusions: inequality and reciprocity in the Athenian documenta14], Σύγχρονα Θέματα [Synhrona Themata] 145-146 (2019), pp.54-71.

[7] Adam Szymczyk “14: Iterability and Otherness–Learning and Working from Athens”, p. 19.

[8] Despina Zefkili, “‘Exercises of Freedom’: Documenta 14,” Third Text. Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture (2017).

[9] For example, some well-known photos of Boas posing as ‘the wild dancer’ for a diorama of a Kwakwa’wakw community ceremony (, were evocatively located in a corridor connecting two rooms featuring displays on 20th-century totalitarianism. The first was dedicated to the Symphony of Sirens (ca. 1922) by avant-garde Russian composer and theorist Arseni Avraamov and was accompanied by gunshots and metallic droning. Τhe second featured Piotr Uklanski’s installation critiquing Nazism.

More straightforward references to anthropology in the exhibition included, for example, anthropologists’ role in digging up Sami skulls and disturbing the souls of the deceased (

There were also occasions where anthropology’s role was underplayed, e.g. in the exhibition of Tsimbumba Kanda Matulu’s paintings at the Benaki Museum where there was no mention of them having been commissioned by anthropologist Johannes Fabian to illustrate Congolese history as remembered in the national collective memory. Fabian was invited to a discussion at the launch of Gordon Hokey’s Summoning Time: Painting and Politikill Transition in Murriland!, which took place at the “Parliament of Bodies” event in Kassel. But again, his anthropological agenda was only highlighted through a question addressed to him by a member of the audience, who wondered whether “Tsimbumba Kanda Matulu was forced to do what he did in order to fit the agenda of an anthropologist?” ( ) [61:10]. Ι thank George Samandas for pointing me to these links.

[10] Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, “Editor’s letter” South. As a State of Mind 6 (2015), p.6.

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

[12] 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.’


[14] See Peter Rehberg’s essay in this issue


[16] Thus echoing Foster’s scepticism vis-à-vis “the ethnographic turn”.

[17] Paul B. Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus, translated by Charlotte Mandelle, (London: Fitzcarraldo editions, 2020).

[18] See e.g., the ritual of “blanketing” intellectuals and political figures during the opening event of the d14 public program ). See also the performance by Georgia Sagri, who waved a piece of cloth as a symbol of resistance while dancing, or who, according to d14’s official site, was “spiraling out of control like a contemporary bacchante”. Her dancing, which was seen as “coupling political [and] social praxis with ancient rites” sought to reconcile “[us], the audience, viewers, citizens” with the specters of the past and lead them to “a space of freedom where [they could] imagine that which has yet to come.” (

See also Epitaphios II by Angela Brouskou, a performance presented as being in dialogue with Pericles’ Funeral Oration and addressing “the concept of public grief and its expression, death, the end of sexual and family relationships, everyday crime, political and socio-political turbulence, violent displacement and existential dead ends, or simply time’s passing with no return.”

For a different kind of ritual during which the artists “were married to the Earth, Sky, Sea, Soil, and many other natural entities,” see


[20] Panos Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials,” Communication, Culture and Critique, no. 7 (2014), p.79, quoting Von Osten, 2010.

[21] Adam Szymczyk “14: Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens”, in Documenta 14 Reader, (Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2017[2016]), pp.30-31.

[22] Ibid., p.33.

[23] See also Panos Kompatsiaris, “Curating Resistances: Ambivalences and Potentials of Contemporary Art Biennials,” Communication, Culture and Critique, no. 7 (2014) on the ambivalences and contradictions of large-scale art exhibitions, operating both as brands and proclaimed sites of resistance.

[24], 28.00’ (accessed April 20, 2020). See also Grigoriadou and Samantas in this issue.

[25] Paul B. Preciado, “My body doesn’t exist,” Documenta 14 Reader, pp. 124-125.

[26] Francesca Recchia, “Aftermaths?: dOCUMENTA (13) in Kabul,” Afterall no. 40 (2015), p.1.

[27] See e.g., Contemporary Art and Anthropology, edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2006); Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice, edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2010); Anthropology and Art Practice, edited by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture (London: Routledge, 2013); George E Marcus, “Affinities. Fieldwork in anthropology today and the ethnographic in artwork,” in Between Art and Anthropology. Contemporary Ethnographic Practice, pp. 83-94.

[28] Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, “The ethnographic Turn–and After: A Critical Approach towards the Realignment of Art and Anthropology,” Social Anthropology, vol. 23, no. 4 (2015), pp. 418-434; Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, 110 (Fall 2004), pp.51–79.

[29] Thus echoing Ortner’s reference to the dynamic of people “pushing back” as “we push” them “into the molds of our texts” (Sherry Ortner, ”Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal,” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 37, no.1 (1995), pp.173–93, cited in Konstantinos Kalantzis, “‘Fak Germani’: Materialities of Nationhood and Transgression in the Greek Crisis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History vol. 57, no. 4 (2015), p.1042.

[30] Michael Herzfeld, “The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-colonialism,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 4 (2002), pp.899–926.

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

[32] Thus recalling the classic suspicion about anthropologists (see Peter Loizos, “First Exits from Observational realism: Narrative Experiments in Recent Ethnographic Films,” Rethinking Visual Anthropology, edited by Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), pp.81-104. Konstantinos Κalantzis, Tradition in the Frame: Photography, Power, and Imagination in Sfakia, Crete (Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2019), pp.14-20.

[33] See also Elpida Rikou this issue.

[34] This and subsequent references to the round table are taken from the transcription of the consensual recording of the event.

[35] This point was also addressed by Apostolos Lampropoulos at that time.

[36] “The vibe of the space” was raised by Apostolos Lampropoulos during our search for a space that could accommodate the event.

[37] Toby Miller, The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture, and the Postmodern Subject (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1993). I thank Toby Lee for suggesting this reference to me.

[38] To quote Paul Feyerabend’s 1975 book Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.

[39] Sczymczyk described documenta as an “elusive and haunting apparition,” “a phantom of sorts that is never to be precisely located, existing in and between documenta’s thirteen consecutive iterations that have taken place since its inception as a paradigm-setting contemporary art exhibition in 1955 in Kassel.” Adam Szymczyk, “14: Iterability and Otherness–Learning and Working from Athens”, p. 24.

Also, the coordination of the ethnographic work of students who participated in the project was undertaken by Aris Anagnostopoulos, who has considerable experience in ethnographic research. Together with Alexandra Siotou, he also took on the educational aspect by offering seminars on ethnographic research and writing, attended also by the artists of the Lfd group. The seminars took place as part of the Laboratory for Anthropological Research Group (, at the department of Anthropology, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.

[41] See also Eleana Yalouri and Elpida Rikou, “Documenta 14 Learning from Athens: The Response of the Learning from documenta research project”, in The Art of Research Practices between Art and Anthropology.

[42] Nora Sternfeld, “Learning Unlearning,” CuMMA Papers 20 (2016).

[43] Ibid.