A Conversation with Marina Fokidis
Prior to convening online for this interview, we last spoke with Marina Fokidis at the end of her curatorial course in 2020 at the Salzburg Summer Academy of Fine Arts. The virtual space she created for it was the spatio-temporal dimension where our collective met. Our process began there, from the ten rhetorical questions we developed together with other class members.
We approached this interview in an informal tone—as we used to during our meetings last summer—by saying something about the locations we were speaking from, the weather, an update about the Covid-19 restrictive measures in our country, the political situation, etc. Marina made an effort to humanize the communication in the “non-place” of Zoom, erase its atopical character, and remind us that we are speaking from different places, not just geographically, but also different socio-economic conditions due to the vantage point to locality.
We asked: is there a way to feel that we are all in this together, even through our screens? The creation of networks of empathy, solidarity, and love is certainly central to Marina’s curatorial practice. We led the conversation via discussions concerning her projects, especially those that focus on the potentialities of art in enabling social change. We spoke in-depth about those that imagine and propose alternatives in situations of crisis and diffused—subjective or collective—suffering
Echoing the title of one of her articles recently published in Flash Art. This is: Marina Fokidis, “We Are All in This Together. Aren’t We?”. In Flash Art, Vol.331, Summer, 2020. Available: https://flash—art.com/article/we-are-all-in-this-together-arent-we/
Let’s begin with a question regarding Kunsthalle Athena, an independent art space and online commissioning space you ran between 2010 and 2015 in Athens. You started it during the beginning of the Greek economic crisis, one that is not dissimilar to the situation today, a situation in which a health crisis is followed by an economic one. What is the role of non-profit art spaces in a time of crisis? Do they have to mirror the situation? How can they provide a sense of community during such crises?
I believe that art in itself cannot change the trajectory of the world or prevent global hazards. However, it can often influence and predict the future in many ways. All arts, poetry, music, literature, theater, as well as visual arts (especially the practices that are not exclusively connected to the art market or commissioned with the purpose to sell), can provide a platform from which we can imagine alternative ways of living. We can even possibly test them—performatively, at the start—until they become a habit.
By preserving art as an open place for pure imagination and speculative thinking, we might be giving a chance to good ideas and plausible solutions to come and find their way into “real life,” ideas that are vital for societal changes to occur. That may be the process under which arts could maintain a political strand and influence society on a substantial level. And for sure, not through the mere representation of what is already happening in the broader world, so as to satisfy the voyeuristic gaze of the few that frequent the art spaces.
Having said that, I deeply understand the importance of the art market for the sustainability of artists and art professionals. Yet, on the one hand, there is a distinct gap between the radical consumption as well as the speculative investment practices that have penetrated the art market, and the ways that the non-profit and public institutions are working (or should be working) on the other. During times of uncertainty and crisis, it often occurs that the rich players grow even richer and the financially weaker ones, in that case, the younger artists, public institutions, and younger galleries, get impoverished. In these times, unfortunately, the small percentage that holds the largest part of this world’s capital speculates on the market in various ways and renders the process of selling and buying art into an exclusive money-making mechanism. This is where the field of art becomes something different than what many of us (artists and cultural workers) know and trust.
Even so, this is not a reason to cease our struggles. The gap between the commercial and the political and a more sensitive character of the visual arts is widening unapologetically as the whole planet is being tested on multiple levels. The hyper-commercialization of contemporary art is becoming more and more evident to a large percentage of the spectators and followers who are starting to seek refuge in more experimental practices. The institutions and the practices that are not primarily driven by profit are re-surfacing again stronger than before, and I hope this wave will last for longer than expected. “Real” culture and art (and not their easily consumable simulacra) is maybe among the most needed remedies to re-imagine our lives and move forward beyond the dead end in which we keep finding ourselves.
In our case, Kunsthalle Athena emerged during the severe financial Greek crisis (which started circa 2009), at a time when we did not have many “real-life” opportunities. We did not have the possibility to work, as most of the job placements were redundant, all of a sudden, due to the lack of money and the collapse of the country’s financial system. We could not really see a future. Precarity was blocking all views in the manner of a heavy mist, and it was fast becoming the norm. In response to this condition, we decided to predict our future through a courageous and absurd gesture of opening a new not-for-profit arts platform. Kunsthalle Athena became the place where we could be with each other and discuss our urgent problems in various manners and forms. We started with zero budget and somehow continued with zero budget to maintain cultural freedom. One concrete decision we followed since the very beginning, for example, was not to accept minimal public funding in exchange for state funding under the auspices of the state. We decided that if we cannot be state-funded sufficiently enough to cover our urgent operational needs, that it was better not to take public money at all. This proved to be a successful strategy. It revealed to us the “currency of love” and what its capacity meant on a concrete operational level. It—the currency of love—meant simply, let’s help each other to open and sustain a cultural platform in the shape, color, and form that we felt was needed at that moment. And as for day-to-day living, each of us did what we could freelance, along with our work in this experimental Kunsthalle.
The currency of love is what sustained our program. We created an international, interlocal network of empathy and resonance, which somehow outdid (momentarily) the monetary exchange. It was art that gave us the chance to think differently and share in ways we have not thought of before. We did what was less accepted in a time of a rupture that left us dispossessed. We founded a new independent and autonomous “institution” (based on the value of love) which has set a paradigm in Athens ever since. In a way, we suggested concretely that love, as an investment, has the potentiality to be medicinal, to provide sustainability to produce culture, to overcome conflicts that arise from financial lack and misery, and to enrich all of us in an unforeseen manner. At the end of the day, even within monetary logic, love proved to be the strongest currency, which is reflected in the question, “How many euros or dollars would you give for one (solid, long-lasting) love?”
Another important conviction we have had since 2010 when Kunsthalle Athena was founded was that locality matters a lot in the process of “instituting.” We formulated a site-sensitive approach that allowed us first to comprehend and hear deeply the location in which we were based: the neighborhood, the city, the country, etc. Then we started looking to the rest of the world, from this particular vantage point, and growing in the form of an onion, layer upon layer upon layer. What is important, though, was that our program was not a representation of the current condition from which our locality was suffering. We did not become a “poornographic” agency. We avoided providing sensational content and forming an illustration of misery to make it fast within the market of “political” institutions and exhibitions. At that particular time, we were surrounded by “political” exhibitions and art practices thematizing and illustrating the “suffering Greece,” and this was exactly what we wanted to break from. Selling ourselves and our surroundings (as well as any other critical contrition in the globe) just for some additional fame was not the political path we wanted to follow. In our case, we understood the institution as a metaphor for living life where crises and solidarities occur and reoccur as a continuum. We tried to offer an exodus from the most restrictive ways of grasping reality. During our five years of experimental existence, we invited artists, scholars, and activists to reflect together within the spectrum of “states of exception”—like the one we were in—and dance along with their rhythm. To create, to think, to discuss, to imagine future scenarios with an open-end… We tried to leave behind traces that might be useful for the “non-present” (bodies, spirits, ghosts, ancestors, descendants). Above all, we wanted to offer a “free zone” where participants and spectators could express and be expressed, mingle, and relate to the context and with each other in uninterrupted ways and unforeseen manners. And we believe that this really happened. In addition, the journal South as a State of Mind that came out at the same time from the same team was and still is the extension of our institution in print.
Similar to the Greek financial crisis (and other crises around the world), today, it is the collective body that is suffering, not only the subjective body. It is evident that we are undergoing a pandemic that threatens the health of oneself and humanity as we know it. Besides that, democracy is in great danger as well. Imagine if a really malicious government decides one day in the future to use, for reasons of pure domination, these “reparatory” techniques such as the mandatory lockdown, the inhibited control, and intrusion in one’s day-to-day life and medical records that are seemingly vital for containing a virus, but are at the same time a violation of basic human rights.
Arts practices and art institutions should be providing notations, scores, guidelines about ways to resist and overcome these situations in solidarity while preserving democracy as much as possible. We feel that with Kunsthalle Athena and South as a State of Mind and many other similar institutions around the world, we managed to shape a score as such.
In an ethics of sustainability and in a dialogue with the territory, what legacy should locally-led initiatives—or conversely international cultural events—leave behind? How can these two types of initiatives avoid replicating the colonial dynamics of exploitation and exoticization of the area that hosts them? In particular, regarding Documenta 14, as a curator based in Athens and one independent from Documenta, did you feel any responsibility in terms of representing a local perspective at such an international art event?
This is partly what I am discussing above in terms of Kunsthalle Athena. We followed, of course, a very similar code of ethics with documenta 14. We—its artistic director Adam Szymczyk as well as all of us on the team—did not intend to exoticize Greece and its conditions. So, the invited artists were not the type of practitioners that create a kind of negatively sensational work (for example, photos and films superficially documenting the refugee crisis that was at its peak during the years of preparation of Documenta 14, or other miseries as such). This is for the media to cover.
For us, the idea was to create awareness about the situation on the ground and open up a space for learning (while unlearning) empathetic relations and a-chronic parallelisms to occur. The representation of the local perspective is in itself a perplexing and maybe problematic task that should be generally avoided—participation of the locality, yes, but not representation. There is a great short film that I would like to bring into the conversation in terms of this problematic task of local representation. It is called The Vampires of Poverty and was directed in 1977 by Columbian filmmakers Carlos Moloya and Luis Ospina, the latter of which died prematurely about two years ago.
As an exhibition model, Documenta forms a great occasion for our kinship to gather, and this is its most important factor for me. We gather to think, to research, to learn, to share, to exchange, to love; from its preparation to its end and in the form of a continuum, of low tides, over a five years cycle. Of course, we all know—and remember—the situation that bodies create when in proximity: a kind of “methexis” (the unaccountable factor of communication) that operates between the words and the gestures. It is a mutual understanding that takes place beside the main act, in the corridors of the buildings, within the backstage of coexistence.
In those days, I was reading again a classic that usually people read when they are 15 or 16 years old, but rarely in Europe—Chinua Achebe’s debut novel Things Fall Apart, first published in 1958. It depicts pre-colonial life in the southeastern part of Nigeria and the arrival of Europeans during the late 19th century. There, I read a very interesting passage: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” This book should have been much more widely read in Europe for many reasons. It is one more score that guides us towards the understanding of the perplexing idea, “living in common.” Instead, in my generation, the bestsellers among young adolescents were the books of Jules Verne, who had a radically different approach in life to the aforementioned. Tour the world in 80 days, as Vernes suggests, and then what? What does this “epidermic” experience of the world bring to those who can afford to go around the world in such a short timespan? These books seem to me as a crypto-colonial kind of education that formulated generations over generations in the West and the North.
But back to Documenta now…! Large-scale exhibitions are important occasions to meet—and re-evaluate—reality. Because of their occasional and recurrent nature, they test the time, the zeitgeist, the relationships, the everydayness again and again and again. They are like incomplete institutions in a state of constant making, and this is what makes them special. Every new edition exists because of the previous ones, and none of them are disconnected from each other.
Our basic statement in Documenta 14—a valid call for team members like me that live in Athens—was “learning from Athens.” It implied deep listening and essential exchange, and the way this manifested has transiently shaken the foundations of the institution of Documenta. Why? Because it was really meant to be a structural exchange from the very start and not the representation of a noble will to exchange. It also reflected the growing rupture between Southern and Northern Europe (that was very apparent when we started our Documenta), as well as the never-ending discrepancy between the Global North and the Global South.
In our edition, Kassel was neither the sole observatory from where to approach and see the rest of the world, nor the unique space where people gather and actions take place. Documenta 14 unfolded from two vantage points and was broadcasted into the public simultaneously from two locations! So, the task and the concern for me was not to represent the local perspective. Athens was Documenta 14 as much as Kassel was; it did not need representation. The non-local core team and the artistic director of Documenta 14 installed themselves here in Athens four years before the exhibition and, along with the ones that were here already, we started working and even presenting content regularly, years before the official openings, via the magazine South as a State of Mind and our public program called Parliament of Bodies. The percentage of Greeks working in the overall team in Athens, ended up being more than 80%. Also, the public program hosted societies driven by scholars primarily based in Athens.
A kind of funny and “worth mentioning” anecdote is that, at the very beginning of the preparation process, we received a message, a stencil outside our offices and many other places in Athens, that read: “Dear Documenta, do not exoticize us to raise your cultural capital.” We took it seriously, and we also felt very good about it because this was not at all what we were planning to do. Exactly the opposite—to de-exoticize Greece from its various legacies as a tourist haven and a cradle of Western civilization to start with, as well as more recently as the black sheep of Europe due to the financial crisis.
Athens became a Documenta 14 additional hosting platform with equal capacity and importance as the one in Kassel (the home of Documenta), where various knowledge(s) and practices from all over the world were shared, not only with the local audiences in the two locations, but also with a really broad public that Documenta attracts. And this is what I believe we managed to do: build a strong and long-lasting network of friendships among practitioners and the public from many different locations around the globe.
Regarding what has remained, in particular in Athens: I think the very notion of a guest leaving something concrete or material behind, be it a newly built building or a newly established organization, can also be read as a colonial gesture in itself. This works only if such an intrusion to the local structure comes out from a local invitation based on a local need and a mutual interest. In our case, we decided to work primarily with the existing public (and not private) institutions like the State Fine Art Academy (ASFA), the National Museum of Contemporary art (EMST), and a few other smaller ones. Through our initial preparatory meetings with Athens art-professional and practitioners in 2015, we realized that the fragile economy of the public institutions (as a result of the financial crisis) was one of the main issues in the Greek cultural sector. Thus, we established close collaborations with those institutions and shared content while channeling the funding of Documenta 14 in ways that will be beneficial for the locality in the long run. This resulted in main refurbishments of some premises of the institutions that hosted Documenta 14, the formation of an accredited course series in the Fine Art Academy led by international artists that moved to Athens while preparing their work, the presentation of the EMST collection in the most central venue of Documenta’s Kassel leg, and many more.
So yes, ideas, scores, guidelines for practice of radical exchange, beyond borders and national restrictions, in solidarity, and collectivity is what remained in Athens after Documenta 14 ended. The city became a destination for many younger and upcoming artists and cultural professionals. A whole bunch moved to Athens and shared all their resources with their local colleagues to found (all in collaboration) independent art spaces, open studios, and other forms of knowledge-generating platforms. What we tried to do with Documenta, in one way or another—to initiate a series of collaborations that could restore justice, at least partially, while providing a more equal access into contemporary arts (between Germany and Greece in our case)—is now endorsed by independent and younger art practitioners and not by the public institution domains as we were imagining back then. It is these younger creative forces from all over the world who are rendering Athens into an idiosyncratic hub of global contemporary art and discourse today.
Let’s stay on the notion of networks and, in particular, the networks you created through your magazine South as a State of Mind. You have used the notion of “the South” as a long-term exercise in hijacking or inverting oppressive definitions and narratives of communities in order to create a sense of “coming together”, resistance, and self-definition. How have your strategies evolved since you founded South as a State of Mind in 2012?
South as a State of Mind was not necessarily an attempt to redefine a geographical and historical cluster, namely that of the Global South. There have been continuous efforts, struggles, and research that cover this domain, and we have been largely informed by them. The journal was prompted primarily by the need to unlearn rather than assert. It manifested through the wish to re-examine and criticize predominant ideologies, beliefs, and habits such as the prevailing Western logic. It re-discussed the ways they have colonized the whole world, literally and metaphorically. So, South as a State of Mind had a task to bring to light the ideas that derive from southern mythologies and to offer to people from different—literal or metaphorical—”Souths” a chance to renegotiate the southern attitude, partly to define it, and partly to invent it in the post-crisis world.
Opening up an unexpected dialogue among neighborhoods, cities, regions, and approaches was our strategy from day one and still is now. After our first five issues in which we announced and shaped our conceptual line, we opened our door to documenta 14 and allowed the new editors to shape the journal according to their needs while maintaining the same ideological line. At present, we are continuing as an amalgam shaped by everything we adopted along the way. South as a State of Mind is both a publication and a meeting point for shared intensities. Throughout the first edition (almost ten years ago) and even today, we are governed by the same aporia: “What if things were different?” Until things do become different, we will keep asking.