The Hegelian pitfalls of the Documenta14 criticisms

by Akis Gavriilidis

 

Recently, while in Cyprus, I spoke to a doctoral student who had just returned from Athens, where, as he informed us, he had visited several events taking place there in the framework of the Documenta14 exhibition. Among these, as he said, a performance “in a building close to Omonia square”. After one or two questions, it came out that this performance was actually not part of Documenta, but a sort of a “counter-event” staged as a satire, under the title dokoùmena (ancient Greek for “things believed/ seen as”, a title which obviously parodies the name of the institution)[1]. Our friend apparently mistook it as being part of the official program.

But was this really a mistake? If so, in what sense?

Documenta consists in a series of artistic works shown during a certain period of time throughout the city.

Since long, everybody knows, and expects, that artistic works (both generally and even more of this particular institution) will not conform to conventional views about the beautiful and the sublime, but are likely to subvert, undermine, or otherwise question the traditionally accepted limits between art and non-art. This being so, the surprise and scandal effect from such subversion does not function in the same way as one century ago. News and internet posts are full of anecdotes about cleaners mistaking material exposed as artworks at museums for garbage to be disposed of, or inversely about visitors mistaking real garbage for exhibits.

Under these circumstances, the subversion of subversion risks to be read as just subversion, not as a second-degree subversion. When a performance meant as a parody coincides in terms of all its practical coordinates (content/ time/ space) with what it intends to parody, we shouldn’t be surprised if a spectator cannot ­–or don’t really care- to make the distinction. This is what happened with our friend: he knew that, in Athens, at that specific day, a series of artistic events were to take place in the framework of Documenta; he saw one, and quite naturally considered it as part of Documenta. As far as he was concerned, he was right: in order to tell the difference, he ought to have meticulously read the catalogue, or to have been a close friend of the performers’.

But even if he did have this inside knowledge, what difference would this make? Works of art are public, and addressed to the public; that is, to anybody, or better to those who have no particular title to see and understand them. In the eyes of someone with no particular title, this work was indeed part of Documenta, even if in an administrative/ curatorial sense it did not belong to it.

 

This is of course a general problem of every parody: as it constitutes a form of identification, every step it makes towards success is simultaneously a step towards failure. The more faithfully it imitates something, the likelier it is for it to just remain unnoticed.

This is true not only for artistic attempts at criticizing/ challenging Documenta, but also for textual/ analytical. Besides, many performances combine both elements. This is the case with a research program at Panteion University entitled “Learning from Documenta”. Here too, the title parodies the very slogan of the institution (which was “Learning from Athens”), but this only creates the impression that the program is an accessory to, or an accretion of, the main event. A hypothetical “emancipated spectator” has no way of telling whether the title is sarcastic or whether it testifies for a serious intention to draw positive lessons from the event.

On the other hand, the sarcastic, if not polemical, intention is quite clear with a blogpost under the title The “anti-systemic” System goes postmodern. Clear, but also self-defeating as much as –if not even more than- the previous cases. Not only because it uses the childish binary “system/ anti-system”, but also because it is trapped in an essentialist exercise of discerning who is the “real” anti-systemic and who is “just pretending”. This metaphysics of authenticity is testified also by the use of the most metaphysical punctuation mark of all, the inverted commas used around anti-systemic (probably out of anxiety that the reader might not discern the irony). But also by the use of the “p-word”, which in Greece has come to be read by all, right-wingers, left-wingers, centrists, and anarchists alike, as a synonym for relativism, superficiality, even imposture.

 

Of course, the problem of any such discourse posing as the expression of “genuine” radicalism as opposed to fake, is its being premised on the illusion of some pre-linguistic or meta-linguistic level, where the purity and clarity of identities is assured. But there is no such thing. The declared intention of Documenta to challenge or criticize the present order of things may be “just words”. But then, so is the intention of anybody else to challenge Documenta itself. The authors of criticisms, parodies, or counter-lectures, do not have access to any other means of convincing us than words. Unless we know them personally, (sometimes even when we do so), it is impossible for us to tell if they are more or less sincere than Documenta; we can only take their word for it.

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“Words”, in the pejorative sense, are usually opposed to “acts”. But these supposed “acts” (including, and especially so, works of art), are no less discursive facts. It is only through discourse that they can be communicated to us, produce a meaning, and affect us.

This is equally true about an “intervention”-intrusion carried out yesterday by one as yet unknown anarchist group calling themselves “Masterless strike” [Adéspoti kroùsi]. According to their electronic statement claiming responsibility –but, precisely: this already says it all!-, the masterless strikers stormed the offices of Documenta in Athens, (and more precisely in Exarcheia, as the statement takes particular care to note both in the text and its very title[2]), wrote non specified slogans on the walls and induced non specified material damage.

The reasons provided for this strike are alleged violations of labor legislation by Documenta at the expense of its employees. Ηοwever, this is only one part, arguably not the main one, of their statement. To begin with, as already alluded to, this is not a self-sufficient “hard fact” or a “pure act” opposed to “words”, but was only performed in order to enter discourse and be subsequently communicated to others; without that, it would be pointless and practically inexistent. But, on top of that, the very text of the responsibility claim does not limit itself to labor or sociopolitical issues, but goes on to make bold esthetic statements about what –or, better, where– is art. The brochure follows a rhetoric climax where Documenta’s claims of being “antisystemic” and “underground” are fiercely rejected as a “mask”, and urges these foreigners who want to “give us art lessons” to “learn through action that art does not serve systemic purposes and processes”. Then, it closes with the following slogans in capital letters:

 

NEITHER ΙΝ GALLERIES,

NOR IN MUSEUMS

ART EXISTS IN THE STREETS AND IN ANARCHY

SHIT ON ART BOSSES

 

But the action not only makes claims about art; it also seems to involuntarily (?) imitate/ parody itself an artistic performance –as it consists in modifying a given construction, delivering it to a different use than the one it was destined to, and in painting on its walls. So it too is a gesture that pretends to clearly delimit the borders between the discursive and the non-discursive, but in practice only prolongs and extends these borders by annexing new space to the discursive.

 

In the absence of any extra-linguistic foundation capable of assuring a privilege to the words of A as compared to the words of B, anybody who comes out saying “don’t believe them, things are not the way they seem”, does little more than adding to the general suspicion and mistrust. Which sooner or later will turn against themselves, since, precisely by virtue of the traditional modernist claim for a universal validity of utterances, a reader who gets convinced that words do not tell the truth is bound to sooner or later apply this knowledge to the very words of those who say that words do not tell the truth, and so on ad infinitum. So bringing up this point amounts to a tautology; it does not produce any new knowledge or practice. Unless it is just a policing knowledge or practice, in Rancière’s sense: a practice of unambiguous classification and taxonomy, fueled by the desire for purity and for doubtless borders between “real” artists or radicals and pseudo- ones.

But identities are never clarified this way. Because, unlike what a Hegelian (or a pseudo- Hegelian 🙂 ) dialectic would have us believe, two negations do not produce an affirmation; they only produce a double negation. Questioning a questioning will not lead to clarity; more often than not, it will lead to the spreading of questioning.

 

I readily admit that this is also true for my criticism of the way others are criticizing Documenta’s criticisms. The very phrase I used in the title, “Documenta’s criticisms”, can –and should- be read in both ways: criticisms addressed towards Documenta, but also addressed, or enabled, by Documenta towards others.

This is the condition in which any discourse and any practice is always already involved in. There is no other possibility for a “higher level”, for another space free of pitfalls.

This is a problem only for ultra-modernists who are panicked by what they perceive as a vertiginous and disabling abyss in such a condition. The rest of us know that these pitfalls not only do not cancel or block speech and action, but are precisely a condition for their possibility. They do not render speech and action meaningless, but are precisely what gives them a meaning. Or rather, several meanings.

Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για acts not words

[1] In a presentation text, this event is qualified by its organizers as “The grammar for an anti-neoliberal artistic front against neo-colonialism”.

[2] Exarcheia is a neighborhood considered by friends and enemies alike as an “anarchist stronghold”, so the decision of Documenta to establish their headquarters there is framed as one more offence, intrusion, and blurring of borders.

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