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Bouchra Khalili, vista de la instalación The Tempest Society, 2017, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) © Bouchra Khalili/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017. Foto: Stathis Mamalakis
documenta 14 (Athens): A Crowd Facing the Crowd

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is an ausstellungsmacher (an exhibition maker). He comes from a background in biotechnology. Together with Solvej Helweg Ovesen, he is running the exhibition programme of Berlin’s Galerie Wedding. Ndikung is also is the founder and the artistic director of Savvy Contemporary, a space founded in 2009 in Berlin that focuses on the complex interactions between non-Western and Western cultures. Savvy has become one of the most important radiation points of the city. It “radiates” in a two-fold sense; in the first instance, it condenses the formations that emerge when highly relevant academic voices are met with a large spectre of cultural practices—ranging from highly visible to invisible. Further, radiating in an almost literal sense, Savvy Contemporary’s research pays much attention to sound production and the possibilities of its distribution by means of radio. This was manifest in a project carried out for documenta 14, based on the reflection and the practice of the radio format titled Savvy Funk. Every Time a Ear di Soun. Ndikung is also part of the curatorial team for documenta 14. One of the 14th edition’s most risky moves was to split it in two, holding the exhibition and programme in both Kassel and Athens. Obviously, this was a provocative move given the nature of the relationship between Germany and Greece, not only in recent times, but also over a longer period of time—for instance, if one thinks about the very construction of the History of Art as a discipline, and the processes of extraction of artefacts by the North from the South. documenta in Athens was a very polemic project. In this conversation, we unfold some of the more controversial issues, but we also discuss a few highlights that went unnoticed in the press.

Lorenzo Sandoval: I would like to start by talking about the inaugural performance of the documenta 14 (Athens edition). In my opinion, it was a great statement in many ways. At the beginning of the press conference, in the darkness, a performance by Jani Christou took place: it was the improvisational piece Epicycle. When the lights went on, we saw that the ensemble was composed mostly of documenta’s participating artists, staff, and curators. After the performance, a speech revealed the many voices involved. This opening presentation went beyond classic ways of organizing a press conference; it did not disclose the very expected information about documenta, but the ways in which vagueness and uncertainty transformed the event into an artwork itself. Everyone there was temporarily defined as a performer. In my view, that was one of the many risky moves taken by the team. It made me think about the structure of governance in such an enormous project. Questions related to public infrastructure, commons, and democracy are at the centre: How did the team work together? Which kind of structures did you create for that matter? How did you decide the formal and polemic approach of this event?

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung: First, I would start with how and what I personally understand such a performance could possibly imply. It was indeed, in the real sense of the word, a cacophony, a kind of jamboree of words and expressions, which I must say kind of represents a lot our way of working: the multiplicity of voices, a polyphony. At the same time, despite all the kinds of dissonances that exist within that space of expression, some kind of multilog-space was created in which we could produce, share and challenge knowledge systems all at once. I think that accompanied us over the past years.

When I was invited to join the team of Adam Szymczyk, I knew very early that I had some things in common with a lot of the other curators, but we had distinct positions and that was fine and respectable. Somebody told me during the opening days that one of the distinct things of this documenta, and what makes it different from many other editions since Catherine David, is that one could recognize the multiplicity of voices; it wasn’t singular to its artistic director. I think that was Szymczyk’s aim. I think he was trying to bring this collective of voices, of expressions, of ways of being together, and when they came together, they sometimes harmonised, but also clashed or relayed friction. But in that point of clash, there is something very energetic that comes out of it. In that point of tension there is something very dynamic, as you see in Jani Christou’s Epicycle. It starts with a whispering; a few words that bit by bit then develop into something else. Epicycle, which was first written and performed in 1968 in Athens, derives from the astronomic system of a circle contained within a larger circle. Its extremely open form, with regards to duration, number of performers or type of performance, was at the time criticized as a mode of "self-cancelation" of the composer, as it included sounds, gestures, images or anything enacted by the performers and even the audience.

So this multiplicity, these different voices were very important. You could break Jani Christou’s Epicycle into a few things: the repetition, as occurs in music, the idea of reiteration—you come up with something small and then as you repeat it, it becomes bigger. But in particular, Christou’s idea of the continuum strongly influenced us. Then there is Christou’s idea of metapraxis. What kind of sound is produced by the cracks of a medium? How do you mediate certain things?

In the process of working together over the last three years, bringing ideas from different parts of the world—geographically, but also conceptually—different epistemologies, bringing in quite a wide variety of beings, of ways of being; I think that set the base for this documenta. I remember one of the things Adam talked to us about in the very beginning was that he wanted to curate in relation to the concept of conduction by Lawrence Butch Morris. The idea of conduction as a method of composing while conducting. So, these two acts: not the conductor staying there and interpreting something that has been written, but the conductor standing there and through his movement generating the piece itself: conduction, improvisation, and composition all at the same time.

In a sense, you are taking something from somebody and you are giving what you have. That is, in the classical state of the press conference, you would have the curators standing up there, and every other person, artists, etc would be sitting down to listen. No, we gave away that kind of privilege or right. It was about sharing that privilege. I think that was what we were trying to do.

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documenta 14, rueda de prensa/press conference, Megaron. Foto: Pernille Albrethsen/Kunstkritikk

LS: I think it worked very well, especially when you were able to see a crowd facing another crowd. It put the press and the team at the same level, visualizing a play of powers as well.

BSBN: Yes, a play of powers, and a play of the gaze: who is gazing at whom? On the one hand, you on the stage, you are the one gazed at. Why don’t we reverse those perspectives? This doesn’t mean necessarily acquiring that position of power and exercising that power, but neutralizing those positions of power.

LS: In a way what happened was like breaking a mirror and then going through it. In that sense, during the performance you did not know in which part of the mirror you were in at that time. That produced a sort of instability or ambivalence, both as a listener and as a speaker. During the Q&A session, after an intervention by Paul B. Preciado about the crisis of democracy, you agreed with him and went even further, underlining the fact that this crisis is actually deeper than politics and has to do with a crisis of humanism. This idea is present in many works—for instance, Manthia Diawara’s The Opera of the World. The perspective of the project is quite sensual yet also straightforward, moving beyond deconstruction and complaint. As such, what are, in your view, the proactive proposals of documenta?

BSBN: I do acknowledge the importance of democracy as a form, as a way of being, but I don’t think it is a singular form. I don’t think that the crisis we are facing now can be reduced to a crisis of democracy, because democracy also breathes within a lot of connotations, which doesn’t go that well in certain parts of the world because of what democracy has become—how democracy was sold to some of us. It is not a singular way. If you go around the world killing people in the name of democracy, then it becomes democrazy, as Fela Kuti once put it. We should be careful about that. It is the same with humanity; one can have the same discussions about it.

I want to point out a difference between the human and being humane. The argument I was trying to make was that it goes beyond the fact that structure that idea of what democracy can be. It has to do with the way we want to live together in this world, as humans and, of course, in relation to non-human beings. Take into consideration that some of us at some point in history were not even considered human. What I am trying to say is that we are experiencing rather a crisis of humanity. That is the point. To come to your question, I do not think that an art exhibition actually has the role of giving answers or solutions to problems. I don’t see it that way. I see exhibition-making as having the possibility of posing questions that have not been posed before, or finding better ways of posing the right questions.

Having said that, I actually think that if you look at most of the works, you can see that some answers are given, and from multiple perspectives, languages, accents, epistemological basis and socio-political and socio-economic realities. One thing becomes evident, which is that to be able to live together on this planet, we need to share our privileges and need to be more considerate towards one another, and towards mother earth. As they say, "this world is not my home, I am just a passer-by". We need to give space for others. If we get to that, we are better off in this world—in the sense that if we acknowledge other people’s humanity as well, then we too become more human. Take the example of Manthia Diawara’s piece, which I think is a pledge for being humane. The right to seek refuge in moments of extreme crisis is a basic human right. Also, it is a reminder of the fact that so many of the ills that people are facing today, and that push people to take such risks to seek refuge a yonder, are also because of the irregular but entangled relations between the West and the non-West over the last century. It is not a lamentation, but a call. And I think that this is very important to state. It is a call for unity, it is a call for standing together, it is a pledge for humanity. You see that in many of the artworks, like in Bouchra Khalili’s piece, where there is a kid who says "we are not interested in art. What we wanted to do was to transform our suffering into beauty". I think that it is the result: it is not a lamentation, but it is transforming the ills of the world into something that we can live with. The question is how do we live with those things? How do we deal with trauma? And that is something you can also see in the work of Pélagie Gbaguidi. How do we deal with those traumatic things that have been haunting us until now? How do we live with the ghost of history?

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Manthia Diawara, An Opera of the World, 2017, vídeo digital, BALI-kinos, Kassel, documenta 14. Foto: Fred Dott

LS: I would like to connect those ideas with the next question. One of the main critical threads that one can find at documenta 14 (Athens edition) is the voice or the multiple voices, as you were saying before. This idea of the voice can also be linked to the notion of the spectrum as an immaterial frequency of sorts. The work with and about sound is at the core of the whole project; how voices and spectres are related to it and are very present. After the press conference, I visited the Conservatory, where sound tangles all the artworks there. With all this in mind, the question about the role of the score stayed with me throughout the rest of my time in Athens. In what ways is sound able to go into political realms?

BSBN: We have to acknowledge the fact that we live in a time when we have failed and are still failing to see. We have forgotten how to see. The question is now: how can we learn how to see by hearing? How do we learn to see by listening? How do we sharpen our other senses? Everything is broken down and reduced to the sense of sight. We tend to see just in the most reductive ways. There is a huge seesaw, a pendulum between invisibility and hyper-visibility. Either you are super invisible, as in the case of the refugees whom nobody really cares about, or they are hyper-visible in the way they are portrayed in the media, as bodies without any agency, as victims. How can we learn how to see again then? I think one of the possibilities of learning how to see again is through listening. When Rudolf Arnheim talks of the imaginary of the ear, the image of the ear, so to be able to visualize something in his theory of the radio, he is thinking about what you can see by listening. I think sonority becomes very important.

If we look at the works of somebody like Guillermo Galindo; he says every writing, since man lived in caves, has been a document not only of vision, but also poetry, coding, stories and so and so forth. But sound has also been recorded in those writings. That is something a lot of indigenous languages around the world have inherited: not only with text, but also with the memory of the orality and the body, through the sense of touch, like feeling certain marks and singing from them… a great number of other forms of packaging of knowledge, like the quipus that Cecilia Vicuña is showing. So the question of how objects become and encode a kind of a history of knowledge. Sound, too, has that possibility of being a carrier of knowledge and of histories beyond wordings. The pledge, in my opinion, is to shift the focus from just seeing to a wider idea of perception: for this perception to happen, we have to use a multiplicity of senses. This is a call for one of the most primal of senses, which is the sense of hearing, specifically listening.

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Cecilia Vicuña, Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens), 2017, EMST—National Museum of Contemporary Art, documenta 14, Foto: Mathias Völzke

LS: In that sense it has a very strong political component: sound creates a direct place for communication, understanding, or conflict. For instance, if one thinks about the practice of active listening.

BSBN: Of course! When Pauline Oliveros conceptualized the idea of deep listening, one of the things she said was: how do we situate ourselves in the world through the sonorous? I think that is really beautiful. Not only with what I see in front of me, but with what I hear, what I feel. Sound produces those waves and you can really feel it. It is a physical experience. That is why deaf people can go to a discotheque and dance to sound because they can feel the waves. Once I did a lecture about how sound influences subjectivities and spaces, and that is basically what I was talking about. Think about the question of the migrants: before we see them, let us listen to them; let us listen to their silence, because that silence in itself is the bridge that is going to impact our subjectivities and the space we exist in.

LS: I would like to remark on one more point in relation to the notion of deep listening (of sounds and silences) that you are introducing. Sound is actually something that entails a more complex understanding of space. Human sight just covers about 120 degrees, but hearing reaches almost 360 degrees. In terms of perception, this means that sound is a more situated practice, more aware of the surroundings.

BSBN: For sure! Since you are talking about physics, let’s think about what happens with light and with sight. You can see the very strong limitation in relation to the kinds of media you can see through. There is a possibility of certain media to reflect, so you can see yourself. Sometimes light can break through a certain medium—not the reflection of yourself, but the refraction. But that’s the furthest you can go. In most of the cases, light cannot go through. But sounds often do. Sounds often have the possibility of going around or through these media. The person across who I cannot see, I can hear.

LS: Maybe we can go back to the question of the score because it seems key for documenta. The score always has an anticipatory element intrinsic to it. It creates the conditions for something to happen. In this sense, what are the constellations set out by the team to navigate the time and space to come?

BSBN: I think there is a huge difference between anticipation and predictability. The anticipation of the times to come… we are in the middle of it, we are in a kind of genealogy of history. The time has already come. The interesting thing about the score is that before it translates into music, many things can happen. That space of transformation, of transcription, maybe even translation, is very important. So, what are we trying to do in there? We are trying to navigate that space. It is also about raising awareness of that history. The scores we are showing are unconventional scores. From Sedje Hémon to Cornelius Cardew, from Guillermo Galindo to Jani Christou, the idea of music notation is deflowered and basically freed from any normative corsets. Pitches, melodies, rhythms are portrayed by crooked or straight lines, circles of all sizes, geometric and non-geometric forms, colours of varied hues and much more.

Again going back to the quipus; by showing them we are acknowledging a loss of different knowledge forms because of colonial practices. We are anticipating that if we continue in this way, much worse will come. It is the same thing when we look at Susan Hiller’s work. Hiller’s work is called Lost and Found (2016), which is a collection of languages in the process of getting lost or which are already lost. In that space of anticipation, the question is what can we do beyond rising awareness? So again, it is not a lamentation, it is not trying to be predictable, but it is pointing the finger at what it is happening; it is acknowledging, and using poetry—that form of compressed language which is itself an artform—to be able to talk about certain things, and to point out certain rhizomatic relations.

I can put it in another way. We speak of the context of the South, which is not supposed to be reduced to geography, but a state of mind. But I would like to look at this from a very different perspective: if we look at Kei Miller’s book, titled The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, it is a conversation between a scientist—who is a cartographer, of course representing all that is power, all that is Western knowledge, all that is economy and the creation of geography, and a particular take on what is today called history—and a Rastafarian, who represents everything other than that. Putting it in a reductive way here, the cartographer says in this book: “my job is to find the way and make things orderly” and the Rastafarian answers: “no, your job is to make visible those things that didn’t have to be even seen. Your job is to make flat all that is high”, which shows this kind of power mechanism. If I have to push it, I would say that the South is the position of the Rastafarian, who represents all these other knowledge systems. It is that other end of the power gradient.

LS: Power gradients make me think of various artworks referring to fascism, such as by Roee Rosen, or the room organized by Piotr Uklański, which includes his own artworks alongside others by McDermott & McGough.

BSBN: I would like to start answering this question by being self-critical in a way. I understand why they are being shown, and in the interest of a collective enterprise, I can defend them at any time. But personally, I prefer nuance rather than upfront imagery. I prefer poetry rather than prose. I prefer reduction rather than spatiation. I think you understand what I mean by that.

LS: Absolutely. I think those artworks are important because they show the possibility of something that could happen. That’s why I was reminded of the idea of anticipation in the exhibition in the first place.

BSBN: Yes, no doubt. But it is true, it is kind of a warning signal. At the same time, I do think that there is a tendency of repetition bringing up the possibility of celebration, and also there is something about the repetition of violent images that then perform violence themselves.

LS: Another recurrent element of documenta 14 deals with a practice that is situated. However, the relationship with Athens has been quite complicated at many levels. It has already been criticised by local cultural agencies and international media. I would like to ask you about the strategies that you think could have been presented differently. For instance, when I have talked to Greek practitioners, questions related to the way the history of Greece was approached emerged. As they saw it, relations with the city’s cultural life in particular were somehow superficial, that the curatorial team did not go deep enough.

BSBN: Yes, the critiques have been there, and they are sometimes understandable. But I would have to say the following: I think a lot of our colleagues moved to Greece to be able to situate themselves there, and also worked with a lot of Greek colleagues to be able to understand it—but there are limits to that. How much can one understand in those very few years? There is always a tendency of navigating within a certain surface, no matter how deep you dig. And we tried to dig very deep, but that’s it, and one can see that in many instances in the publications, performances, lectures, walks and exhibitions that make up documenta 14. documenta is all these things and not just the exhibition, which I think some critics need to realise. There is another thing related to power: people confront documenta as an institution, and the people who make documenta. A lot of bad blood arose from the very onset, as people refused to believe that the individuals who temporarily hold positions within the institution are actually NOT the institution. There is a genuine interest of many individuals in this process, though many individuals are invested in the process and are part of this institution, they are also individuals. And then, the third confrontation was against the state. Many people wanted to see documenta as a German state project, so they blocked it off early on.

Regarding the issue of reaching out: we reached out to so many people, but the further you reach out, the more people actually feel distanced from the process. The idea was not to come to Greece and create a Greek pavilion or do a survey show on Greek art, because documenta is not meant to be a national show. It is not. We are interested in the history of Greece, and its entanglements to other places e.g. Germany, as well as the contemporary situation, the economic, the political, the social, and the psychopolitical discrepancies that are happening in Europe today, which are visible within that space of Athens. But again, as somebody who comes from Cameroon, as much as I respect Athens, I have to say Athens is also not the end of the world. To me, Athens became a mirror on which I could see the rest of the world, a reflection, a symptom of many things that have been happening in the world. Athens became a prism through which I could see the world; through which light could go and break into different levels. And I could see a lot of things happening in the world that were reflected in that space, which are resonances of colonial, capitalist and neoliberal economic agendas. That is why in my very first article in South magazine, I wrote about the fact that there is an element of déjà vu, because a lot of the things that are happening in Athens today—especially the austerity measures imposed—happened to us in Cameroon, in Argentina, in México, and other places. The question is: how can we, as thinking bodies in our time, situate ourselves within Athens, acknowledge that, but also be able to go beyond that. So, and I repeat myself, Athens is very important; it might be the cradle of European civilization, but we have to look further South, and that’s why it was important to bring in a project like Learning from Timbuktu. Athens again, in my opinion, serves as an entry point into many other histories, into many other geographies and so on and so forth. The critique is sometimes legitimate, but I think people should also look at themselves. They should also stand in front of the mirror and look at themselves. Who is criticizing and for what reasons, are questions we should ask. I honestly must say that I think the metier of the art critic is in a serious crisis, and it is this metier that is bathing in extremely shallow waters and sometimes priding itself with superficialities and mediocrities.

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Ibrahim Mahama, Check Point Prosfygika. 1934-2034. 2016-2017, 2017, performance, Syntagma Square, documenta 14. Foto: Mathias Völzke

LS: I would like to address some of the projects that did not appear in the press. They were very relevant and went beyond the temporality of the very first days. However they were not reflected or reviewed accordingly, either due to the lack of information or because they were not meant to be known. This was the case of the collaborative work by Ibrahim Mahama, who used a big part of his budget to invest in a squat he was working with, or Elpidos 13, the Victoria Square project, which was started a year ago and will continue for at least one more year.

BSBN: That’s a very important point. When the Parko Eleftherias was opened, Georgia Sagri did a performance: 20 plus hours of dancing. A guy was drumming and she was dancing. And she said something like "you have to find moves or move to be able to talk about freedom". We have to find all the forms beyond language to talk about that, to talk to the body. Again, coming back to this idea of the body as a site of discourse: how can we instigate the body to think about freedom? Thinking about the documenta process, I think Ibrahim Mahama, like many others, did an amazing work engaging with the history of Athens, the architecture and many micro-political projects within Athens. From stitching performances at Syntagma Square grew various possibilities of congregating and sharing time, knowledge, and conviviality. The stitching becomes a process of healing or of mending the world, people coming together from many parts of the world… these jute sacks that have been all over the world, jute sacks that carry so many different stories and that have markings on their skins, putting them together and stitching them. There are so many layers in his work.

We need not discuss here about the technology of power and the media, right? A lot of these things were happening over a very long time… an artist like Hiwa K, who went to revisit the places he lived 20 years ago when he came to Greece, working and talking with refugees and with the community, but also tracing a route that was taken by the Arabs when they brought knowledge to Europe and helped secure what is now known as Greek philosophy. Many artists were engaging with local communities while producing formidable social sculptures, like Rick Lowe and the community he has gathered at Elpidos Street with this long term project.

LS: I was really interested in the engagement of that project, which involved working closely with the neighbours, organising a series of meeting for local people, using their space, founding a journal that somehow mediated their conflicts in relation to migrations issues, among other things... The weekly newspaper was called One to One, and they talked about the dialogue between one individual and another, but also about one community to another. I found it really well articulated, but I have not read anything about it in the press.

To finish the conversation, I would like to talk about the first session of The Parliament of Bodies at Parko Eleftherias, just after documenta’s opening. There was a performance by the Mandela Girls and a talk between Paul B. Preciado and Nicole Lapierre, who also appeared in Manthia Diawara’s An Opera of the World. The conversation addressed the issues around migrants, who are commonly treated as victims. Lapierre proposed to think of their stories as heroic instead. One persistent thread of the conversation addressed the question of how to produce other kinds of narratives. This seems to be one of the shared standpoints among the curators in the team. There were many different approaches, some dealing with fiction, with micro-historical practices, collectiveness in historical writing, and meeting points in between history and stories. There were a few dealing with the idea of an epic frame, like Manthia Diawara’s film, or the impressive work presented by Bouchra Khalili. What do you think about the relevance of bringing back the scheme of the epic and the challenge of the heroic in a cosmopolitan way?

BSBN: I think it is a very complicated question. I’ll start from my own position: we should start eliminating the idea of the hero. The hero has become Hollywood, the idea of the alpha male, the lonesome warrior or cowboy. It is the idea of Descartes: I think, so I am. We have to start by eliminating that, and go back to the we, the collective. We have to go back to commonality, to the commons – not communism, but communality. Looking at society, at togetherness.

The epic is present in a lot of works, but you remember in Antonin Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double, there is a chapter called "No More Masterpieces", and I am very sceptical of the epic or the masterpiece. Though there were quite a few epic works.

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