For when is it that we are learning? : Performance Biennial in Athens
Whoever learns about solidarity in Greece these days will be taught one almost grammatical rule in order to make sense of the local world: solidarity is not charity, and neither has it to do with philanthropy. This also surfaced in one of the roundtable discussions held at the self-organized Performance Biennial in Green Park, Athens throughout June and July, 2016 between activist Christos Giovanopoulos and New York urban scholar Miguel Robles Duran. While there is significant political-historical reason for Greek solidarity workers to insist on this differentiation, the concept of solidarity and wider self-organized practices need to be constantly questioned in order to test them in all their bearings.
The Performance Biennial – titled No Future – radically opened up this discussion by tying up art making and curating to practices of social action as they are found throughout Athens these days. As announced on the website, the entire event including its preparatory meetings were open “to whoever wants to join, help or simply be present.” Also, resisting institutionalized ruptures between art making and curating, the website speaks of “self-curating” through assembling. Or, rather, it attempted to give meaning to the grassroots notion of assembling by charging it here as a self-curatorial practice. This assembling does not only refer to the event but also to the place where it was held.
Indeed, the particular space of Green Park is at the core of this approach, I would argue. The building, facing one of the two large parks in central Athens, and seemingly hidden behind a jungle of graffiti, has been reactivated since June 2015. It had been sitting empty since 2007, when the restaurant running it closed down. Adjacent is a garden, separated from the larger park by a fence, but open from the street. Despite the elegant design of the ballroom inside, and the friendly scenery of the garden illuminated by string lights during the event, reactivating the place on an informal basis has been a continuous effort. The building’s infrastructure was first found completely stripped, with no working power or water. While the re-installed wiring was repeatedly found sabotaged, for its current use of the building Green Park has managed to continue tapping into the resources of the park.
The wider park is known a nightly destination for homeless people (including Syrian or Afghan refugees), drug users and is a place for cruising. Green Park’s garden houses a few improvised shelters on its perimeters, and flashlights lighting up in the dark indicate certain unclarified activities in the background. However, the reactivation of the building coincided with the increase of refugees to the city in 2015, and Green Park turned into a somewhat intimate space where refugees came from the densely packed Victoria Square to charge their phones, relax in the building, or say prayers in the garden. As the Performance Biennale began using the space, the participants of the event blended with the other users of the garden and categorizing people along identitarian lines became an impossibility.
This queering potential peaked for instance during Sunday’s performance Garage No Future by Vicky Kyriakoulakou, Fanis Katechos, Lina Rokou, Tania Stylianidou, and Rafael-Anargiros. While the audience was watching an uncanny dance performance inside Green Park, the garden door offered a highly peculiar view on two car drivers/mechanics, wearing helmets and overalls, who exhausted themselves by pushing and pulling – in slow motion – the full weight of an idle car. Who could tell how ‘real’ and ‘performance’ were being blurred here? The performance became an open door to a confused world ‘out there’, and the audience took the role of enacting this perspective.
The “Durational Round-Table-Marathon,” later that day in the garden, took another starting point. As one of the various high quality discussions at the Performance Biennial, it put academic and artistic discussions between brackets. It was a conversation that simply included too many panel members and which lasted far too long to be called ‘orderly’ or ‘functional’. The inclusive and meandering public debates that followed, while the chair of the session had already left to catch a last train, further troubled the straightforward proceedings of the discussion. This session then turned into an informal drinks and music session in which the day was evaluated in all kinds of ways — this decentralized approach one way I feel that the self-curatorial practice should be understood.
This all took place in a city that is clearly suffering from a situation of stasis and what is commonly referred to as a crisis. However, Athens is also a ‘thriving cultural field’ in which the 5th Athens Biennale has been gathering many artists around the topic of grassroots movements, politics and cultural production, and in which documenta 14 is preparing its 2017 dual program in both Athens and Kassel. By calling the event the Performance Biennial its initiators managed to let it serve as a mirror to this kind of large undertaking, and to let it clearly question the politics of inclusion and exclusion that come with it. It also offered a different perspective on the roles of host and guest, something that turns out to be controversial with respect to documenta’s presence in the city.
Titled No Future, the program took the radical step of rejecting the troubled future that is available to many in Greece and beyond. But this simultaneously brings up the question of what the value is of reflecting on a program that explicitly challenges the future “based on normative regulatory culture and a capitalist imaginary [that] embraces a drive for ongoing progress, improvement and expansion.” If – like I suggested before – the evaluation is embedded in the here and the now and in the collectivity of the event, and the future that we are presented with is only offering neoliberal (im)possibilities, how would the practice of reviewing avoid these dynamics?
This also adds another layer to documenta 14’s program title “Learning from Athens.” If the future is foreclosed by debt, then what exactly is the use of such ‘learning’, and how or to whom would that learning be available?