In November, I was in Athens for a few days to give two lectures at the Athens Biennale . Biennales or Biennials as they are called in English, are contemporary international art exhibitions/events that take place in cities around the world. They last for a few months and are chock full of lectures, performances, discussions, workshops, as well as the exhibition of contemporary art. The original and most famous Biennial is in Venice, founded in 1895. The Venice Biennial is so grand that nations have pavilions to showcase their national talent, hence there is a British pavilion, a Chinese pavilion, etc etc. At this point, however, its gone beyond Venice and there are dozens of biennials held around the world.
The Athens Biennial had a unique identity in contrast with the other biennials due to the highly politicized context of Greece, its financial collapse, and Athens as the symbol of the origin of the imagined urbane, humanistic, and democratic West. Moreover, the Greek financial crisis divorces the Biennial from the machinations of the international art market, making the Athens Biennial even more unusual.
My good friend and frequent collaborator, Noel Theodosiou, is a close friend of Poka-Yio, one of the founders of the Athens Biennial. Noel introduced me to Poka in the winter of 2012, thinking that he would find both my doctoral research and the sitcom alluring due to the prolific anarchist movements and radical activist groups in Greece.
At the point when I skyped with Poka-Yio,it was uncertain if 4th Athens Biennale was going to take place due to the crisis in Greece. An event of this magnitude requires funding and resources. Considering the desperate straits of much of the Greek population, it seemed unlikely that the Greek state and non-profit art institutions would possess the discretionary funds for this event.
I was eager to go to Athens for a number of reasons. Having resided in an anarchist, squatters community in Amsterdam, Athens was generally held up as one of the centers for anarchist political organizing (the others are Oaxaca and Chiapas in Mexico, and Barcelona, Spain). The images of street fights in Athens between the police and young, tall, skinny men wearing bandanas, gas and ski masks to protect themselves from tear gas with the background of smoke filled empty streets intrigued me. I also found the news coverage of the Greek ‘riot dogs’ quite amusing.
I was also curious about the daily life of Athenians. Were these protests and riots a constant disruption or were they just a part of daily life that, depending on one’s social class and political beliefs, one either attended or ignored? I had already experienced daily life during a deep economic crisis, having lived in Uruguay and Argentina during their crisis from 2001-2002. Were there similarities between the crisis in Athens and in Montevideo or were the histories and cultures of these two cities too different to compare?
I also imagined that it must be quite difficult to hear so much negativity about one’s country as destabilizing the euro and the economic cohesion of Europe as a whole. Especially since during the summer of 2012, it felt like the entire world had its eyes on Greece and whether the Greek voting population was going to vote for or against austerity. Should poor and middle class Greeks be further punished by austerity due to the irresponsible behavior of the financial elites? What would have been the consequences if the Greeks had voted against austerity– both for themselves and for Europe?
Going back to the Biennale, despite my doubts, I was pleasantly surprised by an invitation for a proposal in June 2013. I suggested that I conduct two presentations, the first on the main arguments of the dissertation interspersed with clips of the sitcom and the second on xenophobia in radical social movements. I felt quite pleased when I heard that the curatorial collective had accepted my proposal and, amazingly, found funding for my visit.
I’ve never attended a biennale before so I did not know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if a biennale was a super-sized versions of the scenes that I’ve witnessed having spent lots of time in art spaces in the U.S, the UK, and the Netherlands. In the international art spaces that I’ve participated in, everyone seems to dress the same uniform of arty hipster and act equally distant. Apparently, to adequately perform the role of ‘artist/hipster,’ its not permitted to behave with enthusiasm and positivity.
Luckily, the Athens Biennale was its own pocket of wholehearted sincerity, bypassing the cynicism and petty competition that pervades other artistic milieus. It was held in the former stock exchange of Athens, a gorgeous, abandoned building located downtown, considered seedy due to the selling of drugs and the presence of migrants and sex workers. Inside the Biennale, there was a lovely cafe area, serving wonderful coffee, drinks, and food. The building was divided up. Talks and performances and temporary art installations took place in the main exhibition hall. There were separate closed off rooms for workshops and discussions. Upstairs there were several floors exhibiting a ‘permanent’ collection of contemporary art.
There was a magical energy to the air that I can only attribute to the fact that entire event was a collective endeavor of hundreds of volunteers, fueled by passion rather than prestige and money. I absolutely adored the team of people who invited me and arranged for my participation: Poka-Yio, Annita Apostolaki, and Katerina Tselou. In this space, I witnessed an inspiring intellectual engagement and vibrancy of discussion that was especially rare and impressive given the dire economic climate.
I gave two presentations which were wonderful experiences. The Q&As were lively, in which many people in the audience commented and asked questions. I learned later that such active Q& As were unusual and that after most of the presentations, the audiences reacted with silence. It made me quite happy that both the content of the presentation and my style opened up discussion and encouraged people to talk.
I had especially strong reactions after the second presentation– the title of which I changed to “The logic of homogeneity in radical social movements,” in order to focus on the ideals and practices that lead to homogeneity since xenophobia as an ideal does not exist in these communities. I was even invited to give a talk at at an occupied theatre in Athens! I would have loved to have done so, but I was back in London the day after the second lecture. Here is an excerpt from the invitation:
“It was great to hear your experiences and work at the Athens Biennale talk on Saturday! Thank you for sharing. As someone who participates in a self-organized space in Athens, it was refreshing to hear/participate in an open discussion on these real issues, on the homogenizing of even these kinds of spaces… What troubles me is how to openly addressing these issues of “homogenizing” in squats/activist dialogues and helping to deepen relationships, as opposed to excluding participation based on miscommunications and unaccepting attitudes. ..I feel it vital for such a discussion as the one you started at the Biennale to happen in a squat which displays these issues and create spaces for such an open and self-critical discussion.”