all · feelings · now

Am I arrogant or am I shy?

Arrogance is a cover-up, a defence mechanism, based on the desire to appear knowledgeable or in some cases superior to the other person. It is based in insecurity and a fear of being seen as stupid, ignorant, foolish or what have you. Often this person has been cruelly judged and put down earlier in their life. Arrogance is often seen in shy people. It is almost the extention of the shy.

I guess I can say that I have both in my life. I have been arrogant at some times without me noticing or experiencing this as such (it is never us who see that).. I have been shy as well – very much when I was little. I could not think of approaching people I did not know and ask them for anything. I remember my mom giving me some few coins to go and buy bread and I would come back with the coins and no bread. I did not dare ask the baker even….

As for arrogance I think it is later on, almost to repair the moments when I was shy? I would not be able to talk to people and would pretend not to see them, not to be interested even (which was not the case). So depending on the period of my life I would be seen as very cold or very arrogant. or both. Which I can really say that I am not. I am interested in people and I love to talk to them and I think it is always worth sharing some words with them. But often the first step is complicated.

Confidence in the contrary and I can say I have been that (and I am that most of the time) comes from knowledge, experience, and a desire to be of service. I have been really confident in very different environments and have been able to “swim” through quite some different situations, countries, cultures… I have for example worked in the European Commission so at times, I have been in meetings with the commissioners, politicians from different countries, “high ranked” or “elite” people. I was at ease. After that period in Brussels in the Commission,I have also been working with theatre many years and I have met and talked and sat at at the same table of immense artists like Pina Bausch, or other french actors like Michel Piccoli …) and so, I have been trained to be more confident as well.

But we are never the same in this life. Are we? We get through different periods, experiences, and moments. Life brings things and events we do not expect. I must admit that now, I am returning to some shyness or arrogance. I am not sure where I stand. I am forthcoming but also protecting myself from the injuries that I might get from people´s behaviour. I am more and more sensitive for sure. And this is not helping neither confidence nor arrogance for sure !

art · feelings

une si petite différence, ou pas?

Je me retrouve à nouveau confrontée à une chose qui me fait vraiment réfléchir depuis des années. Côtoyant de très pres le milieu artistique, travaillant avec eux, pour eux, la première chose que je dis quand je me présente lors d´une réunion ou les gens ne se connaissent pas  – je dis souvent avec un air dépité un peu comme pour m´excuser – “Je ne suis pas une artiste, mais….” Drôle de facon de faire et de dire, et je me suis souvent posé la question du pourquoi ? Donc je vais jeter en pâture le mot qui vous vient à l´esprit là tout de suite – et dire de but en blanc ce je pense : je suis “frustrée”. Oui je peux dire que je suis frustrée – artistiquement! Refoulée. Intériorisée. Je ne l´étais pas auparavant -pour autant que je me souvienne – mais à force de persuasion de mon entourage, et de cette société avide d´étiquettes, et de rôles et de boîtes dans laquelle on se met ou bien of course on nous met, à force donc, je le suis peut être devenue. Je travaille pour les artistes, je leur donne les moyens de produire leurs oeuvres, je les aide pour ceci et pour cela, et en ma capacité de producteur, j´ai appris en faisant, et par la force des choses, que ce domaine (la production artistique) le job est assez extensible finalement. On nous demande notre avis. Tous les avis sont intéressants, et même si on n´est pas artiste on est potentiellement public … Mais, je viens d´apprendre a mes dépends, qu´il y a un “mais”. Il ne faut jamais tirer l´élastique jusque dans la zone “artiste” – car au fait, je vous l´ai déja dit non? Je ne suis pas artiste.

Aujourd´hui, je me sens demande pourquoi. Pourquoi les environnements sont si imperméables. Pourquoi les artistes pensent comme cela (et les autres aussi). Pourquoi ils plantent des barrières ostensibles devant votre nez, et si jamais vous vous permettez quoi que ce soit qui est jugé de leur royaume, de leur domaine, de leur capacité, ils vous remettent à votre place d´une facon ou d´une autre. Et je le dis, car je le pense, les artistes sont MAL éduqués. ON leur apprend leur art, ou bien ils apprennent sur le tas. Ils souffrent, galèrent, et bossent non stop. C´est leur vie qui est en jeu a chaque création – comme un enfantement. Et donc par ce fait, je pense qu´il pourrait être plus sensibles a ce que les autres font, art ou pas art, création ou créativité. Mais peut être que je n´ai pas encore rencontré des gens assez éveillés, assez sensibles, pour être ouvert a une petite possibilité pour moi d´être admise dans le cercle privé des artistes.

Mais sans doute est ce mon sentiment, et ma fragilité, et mon hésitation qui fait tout….

A moi de m´assumer et de me lancer peut etre….

Mais il est difficile de changer de case…

all · art

“We Come Bearing Gifts”

Created in 1955 by artist and curator Arnold Bode, Documenta sought to advance the cultural reconstruction of Germany within the postwar European order. Reoccurring every five years, it has since unfolded into a periodic forum for contemporary art. When Adam Szymczyk was appointed artistic director of Documenta 14 in November 2013, he proposed calling the exhibition “Learning From Athens,” opening it first in the Greek capital and then in its traditional home in Kassel. Four years later, with the Greek exhibition now underway and the German edition about to open, iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis share their views on the show, its development, and its implications.

iLiana Fokianaki: In the beginning, when it was first announced that Documenta 14 would be held in Athens, I believed there was a purpose to the experiment. How would a rigid institution be transformed by its curatorial team living and operating in a city of crisis? I thought that the moment one performs such a “move” there must be a particular reasoning behind the relocation, as well as the selection of the location. Two years later, and with the exhibition now open, I am still unable to answer the question of “why Athens?” At the same time, I am starting to feel numb towards what has been presented as a mutually beneficial idea for both guests and hosts, maybe even more beneficial for the Athenian hosts.

Yanis Varoufakis: To begin with there is a sinister parallel with privatization. In 2015, fourteen regional airports, extremely lucrative ones as Santorini, Mykonos, and so on, were sold to one German majority state-owned company as part of the Troika’s privatization drive. Recall that privatization became all the rage in Europe with Margaret Thatcher. Yet Thatcher would have never approved this kind of privatization. Why? Because her argument for privatization was that it enhances competition. Well, you do not enhance competition when you give all the airports to one company; this is enhancing monopoly!

So from a neoliberal point of view this was not a neoliberal privatization. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about Fraport, a state-owned company. Effectively, the Greek regional airports were nationalized, but by a different nation! And let’s take a look at who paid for this privatization/nationalization: the announced price was 1.2 billion euros, which was presented as an influx of capital into cash-starved Greece. But Fraport purchased these airports with loans from Greek banks, which were either recapitalized by the Greek citizens or guaranteed by the Greek state. So it’s like me coming to buy your house, but having you pay for it. Or, rather, making you guarantee the loans I get from the banks, in order that I can pay you for your house. If I fail to repay them, you’ll act as my guarantor. You would laugh if I proposed this to you. It is nothing short of preposterous! But in Greece and in the EU this is presented as substantial privatization, as a gain for the country and proof that Greece is being normalized. Yes it is normalized, but as something worse than a colony.

I gave the example of Fraport because we have a similar phenomenon with Documenta. Documenta supposedly came to Greece to spend, but instead they sucked up every single resource available for the local art scene. The few resources that Greece’s private and public sectors make available to Greek artists, like the Aegean Airways sponsorship, went to Documenta. The Athens municipality gave Documenta a building for free. Many hotels donated rooms for free. Buildings at the Athens School of Fine Arts were made available for free, and now the graduating students have nowhere to host their degree show. The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) did charge Documenta, but the amount was ludicrously small—a token. And, as Greece’s private and public sectors were handing out all the resources normally available to Greek artists and art institutions to Documenta, its artistic director had the audacity to say out loud that he is not interested in the local art scene but is only interested in Athens. This mindset and practice transposes the Fraport mindset and practice from the world of airports to the art world.

Documenta did bring some resources from Germany but, overall, it has been an extractive process. Documenta took a great deal more from Athens—from both its private and public sector—than it gave. Adding the veneer of a left-wing narrative against neoliberalism to a purely extractive neocolonial project that’s framed as a gift to Greece is adding insult to injury.

iF: This is why the analysis of the institution, the power relations it embodies, and the theoretical proposition it offers interest me more than the exhibition itself. Primarily, a well-branded German cultural institution like Documenta represents the imperium, but also capital, since inclusion in such a show adds commodity value to the artwork. This creates a dynamic that is, a priori, not neutral. So to look at it through the current political spectrum of the EU: a politically, financially, and socially charged binary is created by deciding to bring this German institution to, not just any financial periphery, but to the very periphery that embodies the other half of this binary: Greece. Not to mention the Second World War, which makes it a historically charged binary as well.

So the institution carries an exhibition with a mandate. And the exhibition denies (or chooses to ignore) this binary. Through this exhibition, the institution claims that we are amidst a political and economic war, manifested in Greece’s referendum and the bodies that filled the streets, events that deeply influenced this edition of Documenta. It claims to offer a public service to its audiences. To quote Paul Preciado:

One of the difficulties (and beauties) of making this exhibition was the decision of its artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, to collaborate only with public institutions in Athens. In conditions of war, the institutional interlocutor of the exhibition can be neither the establishment, nor galleries, nor the art market. On the contrary, the exhibition is understood as a public service, as an antidote against economic, political, and moral austerity.(1)

However, anyone who lives in Greece today is aware that the notion of a public service is a joke—and by extension, the establishment itself. As is the notion that the state-funded institution, as a physical space or even as a metaphor, can be an antidote to economic, political, and moral austerity. Any mildly progressive Greek will tell you that the public services represent and promote these austerities, under the umbrella and the absolute fetish of a national identity. A national identity that has been built by fetishizing ancient Greece. I found references to this glorified past—“the origin of civilization”—in many of the opening speeches and curatorial texts, but also in some of the works. It reminded me vividly of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour, with all the Anglo-Saxons coming to Italy and Greece to find the roots of Western civilization, doe-eyed and in awe of the ancient ruins.

On the other hand, if you examine the idea of “a public service” as a gift, then we are talking about a blind spot—coming from, hopefully, good intentions. But, as we know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Because in fact claiming that you are offering a service (as a gift), when operating from within a mega-institution, positions you immediately as a benefactor. Even more so when this institution represents all that we have described above. Adding into the mix the veneer of a left-wing narrative against neoliberalism makes it even more problematic. What valid political claims can we actually make as cultural practitioners when operating within, and being fed by, a capitalist structure with very well-defined power structures and power centers, in terms of enabling discourses and artworks? A performative element of a left-wing narrative was also quite apparent in the decision to situate the Documenta team in Exarcheia, which is known as an anarchist neighborhood.

YV: There is nothing new to that, and we know this well. Near the coast of Attica there is an awful island called Makronisos, an island of exile on which thousands were tortured and many died during the 1940s civil war. There are tourist trips now to Makronisos, which even offer an inmate’s menu. I have no doubt that there is a lot of demand for this type of tourism, where you get embedded into the context of others’ suffering. In Brazil they also have “favela tours,” as I think they call them, in which tourists experience “life in the favela.” This is not too different from how most Greeks see Documenta 14. They see how art tourists, including the Documenta curators, come to live in their disaster zone for a while, smell the Exarcheia smells and hear its sounds, before catching their free Aegean Airways flights to Kassel to do their proper business.

iF: Greece differs from all the countries of the European south, since it is the only one with no heavy industry, and this has also contributed to the crisis. It is also a country with a political history of constant upheaval, with the shortest history of modern democracy in the European Union (from 1974)—elements that very much explain its failure to achieve the financial stability and prosperity of other countries that entered the EU in the 1980s.

Since the reinstatement of the Greek state in 1821, Greece has been under the wing of the Franco-German axis, with a German king appointed, with the tragedy of Asia Minor in the 1920s where the French, the English, and the Russians meddled in the conflict with Turkey, then a dictatorship that ended during the Second World War, and then the civil war that lasted until 1949, induced by the British, who had a stronghold in the country and basically did not want the Communist wave to spread down to the south. After the Communists were expelled from the country, murdered, or sent to concentration camps, the conservatives—amongst them former collaborators of the Nazis—ruled with some help from far-right-wing paramilitary groups that murdered politicians such as Nikos Beloyiannis, who was immortalized in a Picasso sketch of the time, and Grigoris Lambrakis, whose story is portrayed in Costa-Gavras’s 1969 film Z. And then after such a turbulent political ride, we ended up with a second dictatorship in 1967, which gave birth to what today is the neofascist party Golden Dawn. Since the reinstatement of democracy in 1974, we have tried to generate a healthy economy through a corrupt political system, through a supposedly socialist government that undertook a failed project and built a maze of bureaucracy. Instead, we ended up with the 2004 Olympic Games, which brought to the surface a somewhat “hidden” financial crisis, which accelerated in 2009 and is still deepening. This is the backdrop against which the announcement of Documenta 14 in Athens was received with intense criticism but also praise. During the press conference, Documenta’s CEO Annette Kulenkampff called the exhibition a gift to Greece.

YV: No gift to Greece from Germany is possible. Full stop. Ever! Why? Any sentences that begin with “Germany does X” or “Germany gives X” or “Germany takes X” are wrong and the thin edge of the racist wedge. Because there is no such thing as an anthropomorphic Germany (or Greece for that matter, or France) that can act, give, or take away. There are many, many Germanies. There is Wolfgang Schäuble’s Germany, the Germany of German DiEM25 members,(2) the Germany of working-poor Germans, of German bankers, etc. So that statement by the CEO of Documenta should be further interrogated with questions such as: “Which Germany? The German state? German capital? Particular donors?” There are many interests that feed Documenta financially.(3) So I would need a clarification as to what type of gift. Otherwise, I find the statement offensive and inaccurate. If the gift came from Schäuble, for example, let’s remind Kulenkampff that Schäuble got a huge gift from Greece, because over the last five to six years Germany—the federal state of Germany—has been borrowing from the markets at zero percent interest, whereas it should be 3 percent. This amounts to hundreds of billions of euros, and this is due to the Greek crisis, which forced the European Central Bank to push the interest to negative or zero rates, and the savings to the German federal government from the Greek crisis are stupendous. So if we want to do a proper accounting as to who is gifting whom, let’s do it, but let’s not come up with insupportable generalized inaccuracies.

iF: There are of course the complaints by the locals, accusing Documenta’s artistic director of not involving the Greek art scene, not representing it, not consulting it.

YV: I disagree. I don’t believe they had any obligation to consult anyone. I am an internationalist. I don’t believe in borders. I don’t believe Athens belongs to the Athenians exclusively and that anyone from Kassel or Venice or New York needs to get permission from the Greek authorities or local art scene to be here. I do not even believe this is necessary even as a gesture of courtesy. I do not believe in these mechanisms by which one secures legitimacy to do things in any European country. If this were so, DiEM25 would not have come into existence. We inaugurated DiEM25 in Berlin without the permission of anyone in Germany, except of course our German comrades. I don’t think we had any obligation at all to get permission from the local authorities to be there and present our ideas.

My problem is not that Documenta did not contact Greek society through official or unofficial channels. I am quite happy when people, of their own volition, decide they want to come over to Athens and do things. My criticism is of how they did it. And the mind-set which they brought to this place. I fear that their mind-set here is inimical to internationalism.

iF: The binary between north and south Europe is a profitable one for a “classical” institution such as Documenta to exploit. Athens is just the place to experiment, after its seven very public years of financial chaos. Now there is the fetish of the crisis. This might even unintentionally reinforce the narratives of austerity. Referencing the Greek financial crisis so intensely appeals to all the precariats of the art world and to the middle- and upper-class museum directors and art lovers who are all very curious to see what a country that does not play ball with the EU can become. It is a voyeuristic desire to consume the crisis and the suffering of others, which is nothing new.

Of course, within the strict confines of the five still relatively prosperous neighborhoods where most of the venues and artworks are situated, this has not really been achieved. In fact, most visitors have asked me the same thing I have been hearing for the past seven years: Where is this supposed crisis? The precariat of the ecology of the art world seems to be part of the problem, as Sven Lütticken argues in his new book Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice after Autonomy: the structural revolution of capitalism occurred through an economic but also cultural transformation. So to declare the Greek referendum and the events that followed it as the raison d’être for the exhibition in Athens,(4) when Documenta collaborated closely with those who supported the “Yes” campaign (including our current mayor, Giorgos Kaminis), is problematic.

YV: The point is not that they came but rather how they came to Athens, whom they went to bed with (metaphorically), and how they used a seemingly progressive left-wing critique of what is happening in Greece to willingly or unwillingly propagate the very process that is causing the country’s crisis. In the name of seeking solutions they became part of the problem.

iF: According to Documenta’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, Athens operates as a paradigm or a metaphor. Athens stands for the Global South, which I find intriguing but also problematic. I fear that the Global South—as it is recognized by cultural practices, political discourse, and social theory—can become a grouping of the Other, thus generating a continuation of “othering.” The curatorial statements use an anti-neoliberal rhetoric, which is very pro-internationalism, to underline unity and the expression of multiple voices. They question notions of origin and nationality; they talk about the global white patriarchal forces that wish to crush minorities, indigeneity, etc. So this institution presents an exhibition that claims to unite the precariats, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and the indigenous of the world: “We (all) are the people” read the words on the poster Hans Haacke produced for Documenta 14—against all these nationalistic neoliberal powers. So Athens is the metaphor for all that, and is in this case compared to Lagos or Guatemala City.

YV: This is why I like Schäuble! He put it very succinctly when in some press conference he suggested that Greece is to Europe what Puerto Rico is to the United States. When Jack Lew, the American treasury secretary under Obama, criticized Germany for its insistence on austerity in Greece, Schäuble suggested that the US (or “the dollar zone,” as he put it) and the EU trade Puerto Rico for Greece! Your depiction of this mind-set, according to which Greece represents the Global South, is accurate and is shared by Germany’s federal finance minister.

iF: The problematic aspect is that this discourse—“all the others are the same”—smells like First World didactics. This approach of “let’s unite or group the precariats” under an anti-neoliberal, or liberal, narrative—doesn’t matter which—becomes a priori dangerous. And this is a real problem, because we should be united in recognizing difference. Of course, on the other side of this you have the nationalists and the neofascists, and I wonder where to stand between these two positions—one position that hastily groups all the precariats, indigenous, and minorities together, and the other that claims “we are undeniably unique and incomparable.” However, I wonder if I’d like it if I were a citizen of Lagos or Guatemala City and someone compared my condition to that of an Athenian.

YV: On the one hand, Athens actually looks like Paris if you compare it to Lagos, though it is degenerating quickly. On the other, the trajectory of countries like Nigeria isn’t necessarily pushing them toward desertification. The great difference is the static versus the dynamic. Countries like Nigeria have a dynamic which may lead them either to disaster or to development, whereas the Greek dynamic is one that I call “Kosovization,” of turning Greece into a protectorate, just like Kosovo, where young people all leave and the place is a real estate opportunity, with pensioners starving and northern European pensioners enjoying cheap old folks’ homes by the seaside. So maybe Nigeria and Lagos have advantages compared to Greece and Athens. At the dynamic level, not at the static.

I also find it remarkable that Documenta’s narrative in Athens is anti-neoliberal. Speaking from my 2015 experience, I had the terrible task of negotiating with creditors whose objective was not to recoup their money. What I was proposing to them was consistent with neoliberal policies, because the crisis was at such an advanced, deep stage that it took a finance minister from the radical left to propose Reaganite and Thatcherite policies: cut your losses, reduce tax rates when both employers and employees are bankrupt, etc. Indeed, when you have low tax revenues and companies and households that are bankrupt, banks that are bankrupt, and actually a state that is bankrupt, and you have very high tax rates, it is not a left-wing economic policy to increase tax rates. It is just madness, from both a left-wing and a neoliberal perspective. So I was proposing to supposedly neoliberal creditors—the International Monetary Fund, Mario Draghi’s European Central Bank—substantial reductions in tax rates, which is what neoliberals supposedly advocate. Remarkably, they would not only turn these policies down, but try to portray me as recalcitrant. Why? Because they were not even interested in neoliberal policies, they were solely concerned with a nineteenth-century-style power play—a postmodern version of gunboat diplomacy. In this context, the critique of neoliberalism that Documenta is trying out in Athens is totally out of place. In 2017 Greece, neoliberalism’s failure is evident in the rejection by neoliberal institutions of neoliberal policies! A delicious paradox that Documenta is utterly blind to, because if they were to talk about the real tragedy unfolding in Greece today, an off-the-shelf critique of neoliberalism would not suffice. They would have to dig deeper, and thus run the risk of discovering the role of the German-led policies combining authoritarianism, large loans to bankrupt banks and governments, and savage burdens for the weakest of citizens in places like Greece but also Germany. Such a “discovery” would risk upsetting Documenta’s sponsors, who remain untouched by the (irrelevant) off-the-shelf critique of neoliberalism.

In short, coming to Athens to talk about “neoliberal powers that wish to destroy Europe” is to miss the point spectacularly. It is like the Greek Communist Party which, stuck in the 1960s and ’70s, blames all of Greece’s ills on American imperialism, while having nothing to say about the Troika, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, or Frankfurt. Like the Greek Communist Party, Documenta ignores the fact that Greece is the most brittle part of a European monetary union set up by the Franco-German axis. A union so terribly designed that it led to a massive, inevitable crisis and, moreover, to the denial of that crisis once it erupted—a denial that took the form of toxic new bailout loans for the bankers and austerity for the majority of the people. When Documenta comes here and talks about neoliberalism with no mention of Deutsche Bank, Société Générale, the awful Troika process, the Eurogroup, etc., it is choosing to be irrelevant. It is choosing to fight the last war against Europe’s Deep Establishment in order to avoid exposing the latter’s current war against decency and rationality. If I were the Troika, I would be very happy with the Athens Documenta. It would add legitimacy to my endeavors by sending art tourists to a disaster area of the Troika’s making. I would not be in the slightest upset by its critique of neoliberalism as long as there is no critique of … the Troika! As I intimated above, neoliberalism is not even being practiced by the Troika. What the Troika is practicing in Greece is punitive illiberalism.

iF: But this is presented as financial “aid,” as doing Greeks a favor by first tolerating us and then saving us. This is also the case with Documenta. I recently had a visit from a group of master’s art students from The Hague to the gallery where I work, and they were troubled by Rasheed Araeen’s work in Kotzia Square, Shamiyaana—Food for Thought: Thought for Change, 2016–17, which is basically a communal cooking and eating ritual that happens twice a day. While the artwork was taking place, an invigilator was trying to explain to a hungry Greek pensioner that he had to stand up and give his seat to the students, because this was not a food bank but an artwork. I am sure the artist had the best of intentions, but sadly it fed into this narrative of solidarity, and “helping the crisis situation” in a locality that cannot understand this artistic discourse, or the simulation of a communal kitchen and free food being distributed under the auspices of an artwork. This is a recurring problem of socially and politically engaged participatory art practices. This narrative of aid, of solidarity can become quite dangerous, when in fact there shouldn’t be aid but a mutually understood exchange. Of course there was a lot of money spent on this exhibition, but in Athens the expenses were mostly for its production, for the salaries of the staff who moved here, their transport, stipends, etc. The institution did give jobs and know-how to locals they hired as employees—and we can debate whether they were paid handsomely or not, or whether they received German-level salaries, etc., and indeed there was an incident with invigilators that, through the intervention of the artistic director, was solved. While I know of people who were not paid well, I also know of some people who received good salaries. And the decision to come here generated revenue, the staff did rent apartments, did spend money in this country: no doubt about that. I am assuming they spent more than anticipated, to be fair.

Nonetheless, to go back to the beginning, in 2015 at the Moscow Biennale you commented that Documenta 14’s arrival in Athens was “crisis tourism.” I must admit that I thought this was hasty. I wondered why you made that statement so early on, without “proof of presence” yet. I wonder whether we can call it crisis tourism, or even cultural imperialism, because I really do not think that we can call it cultural colonialism.

YV: I called it disaster tourism I think, but crisis tourism is the same thing. The distinction between the two is vague. When you have, in a peripheral country, the kind of disaster that we have, this is part and parcel of the neocolonial policy, which brought about the crisis.

iF: So, in fact you do consider it a neocolonial practice.

YV: Absolutely. There is no doubt about it. It is nineteenth-century power politics, or gunboat diplomacy, utilizing the financial sector. The people of Greece elected a government to challenge the terms of a loan agreement whose policy framework had already failed and the creditors arrived by private jet before unceremoniously telling the new finance minister that “if you insist on renegotiating our loan agreement we are going to close down your banks within weeks.” Think about it: in the nineteenth century, if a government had insisted on resisting their will, they would have sent gunboats or troops to Piraeus and started bombarding. Is today’s version significantly different? Our situation is not even neocolonialism. It is pure colonialism.

iF: However, in the case of British colonialism, it was done with much more violent means.

YV: I’m not sure if the means were more violent, just more inefficient. Violence is unnecessary, inefficient today. As Bertolt Brecht once said, “Why send out murderers when we can employ bailiffs?” Similarly we can ask: Why use Panzer tanks when you can use a button to close down all the ATM’s of a stricken nation? This is the undercurrent: the subjugation of a people and a government to the imperatives of creditors who wanted effectively to use the state’s unsustainable debt as a means by which to get their hands on particular assets. Like the airports, the ports, everything with value. Which is currently happening. When cultural organizations from the core come to the periphery, where the disaster is taking place, under the circumstances we are discussing, this is disaster tourism. And neocolonialism. It is exactly the same story.

iF: I generally question the sovereignty of the Greek state throughout the last fifty years. The way you have publicly portrayed the events from March 2015 onwards suggests that this sovereignty barely exists now, with the referendum offering more proof. The theme of Documenta 14 is “Learning from Athens,” and there was a decision to include historically charged spaces, such as the Museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, as well as the Polytechnic School of Athens, where the uprising of November 17, 1973 took place. But when it comes to why Greece is in this financial and political state today —this was blatantly omitted from Documenta. I think that the elephant in the room when we talk about the Greek financial crisis is the why and the who, and these were missing from the exhibition.

YV: You are spot on. There has been no attempt to understand the political and economic history of Greece. But I find it unproductive to try to push this line forward. My conclusion is that the best way to deal with it is this: any attempt to nuance the narrative on Greece feeds the trolls—those who want to say “ha, the Greeks want constantly to excuse themselves for their failures, they want to shun their own responsibilities and refuse to modernize; they demand their right to be premodern and to be fed by European money.” That is what you get the moment you bring forward the argument of how we fell into the net of the crisis: you lose the argument. The only thing you can say is, “Folks, imagine if we had not entered the Euro in 2000. Would Documenta be taking place in Greece today? No. Why? Because there would be no crisis.” The moment you say this they cannot continue to play the game of blaming the victim.

iF: It is the classic narrative that emerges, both in the cultural field and the political field, when one raises the kinds of issues we have discussed: the marginalization of opinion, the dismissive attitude towards the “complaints” or “rantings” of the Greeks. Funnily enough, it was Preciado who called this phenomenon the “pathologization of all forms of dissidence.”(5)

YV: Oh, the story of my life. I also felt that when discussing this crisis. How do you stop yourself from becoming the raving loony, the sole voice of dissent? We are in a situation that resembles the late Soviet era. In 1983, the USSR still had the capacity to enforce a unitary narrative through its media, a narrative of a “single party line everywhere.” But, at the same time, there was a major disconnect between that unitary dominant party line and what people actually thought. It is similar in Greece today: the state is happy with Documenta, they think it will bring tourism in, but when I talk to people on the streets about it, they reject it with venom. The only way of avoiding becoming the lone enraged dissident is to connect with public opinion.

iF: Public opinion has been vividly demonstrated by the myriad graffiti. Yet, I am not sure that the majority of the public rejects it with venom, the reason being another form of disconnect: the general public does not even know it’s here. The realization of the exhibition was such that unfortunately it will fail in what most of the small local art institutions were hoping for: to breed a new, larger audience for contemporary art. Documenta’s undelivered message will be ours to realize, in politics and in art.


originally published on the excellent


(1) Paul B. Preciado, “The Apatride Exhibition,” e-flux conversations, April 10, 2017,
(2) DiEM25 describes itself as a “pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats” dedicated to the “repair” of the EU. See
(3) Documenta has never published detailed financial accounts of expenses and incomes, just a general figure for total expenditures. But it surely receives more than just state funding. In fact, an official announcement from the office of Documenta states that “the business plan for documenta 14 covers a five-year period. During this timeframe, documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH receive 14 million euros from the City of Kassel and the State of Hessen, both of which are shareholders, and 4.5 million euros from the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes). The remaining 18.5 million euros needed to finance documenta 14 must be raised by documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH in the form of proceeds from the sale of admission tickets, catalogues, and merchandise and through sponsors, additional funding, and grants.” As Artforum reported on March 22, 2017, Ms. Kulenkampff has requested more state funding. See It is unclear whether this funding will be put toward the current edition of Documenta.
(4) Preciado, “The Apatride Exhibition.”
(5) Ibid.

iLiana Fokianaki is a Greek curator, lecturer, and writer based in Athens and Rotterdam. She is the founder and director of State of Concept, Athens, co-founder, with Antonia Alampi, of the research platform Future Climates, and curator of Kunsthal Extra City, Antwerp.

Yanis Varoufakis is a Greek economist, academic, and politician who served as the Greek Minister of Finance from January to July 2015, when he resigned. Varoufakis was also a Syriza member of the Hellenic Parliament for Athens B from January to September 2015. In 2015 he co-founded, with Srećko Horvat, the pan-european political movement DiEM25.


The puzzling way that writing heals the body


In 1986 the psychology professor James Pennebaker discovered something extraordinary, something which would inspire a generation of researchers to conduct several hundred studies. He asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time.

They were told to let go and to include their deepest thoughts, even if they had never shared these thoughts before. Four days running they did the same thing. It wasn’t easy. Pennebaker told me that roughly one in 20 students would end up crying, but when asked whether they wanted to continue they always did. Meanwhile a control group spent the same number of sessions writing a description of something neutral such a tree or their dorm room.

Studies have shown expressive writing can reduce the amount of times people visit the doctor (Credit: iStock)

Then he waited for six months while monitoring how often the students visited the health centre. The day he saw the results, he left the lab, walked to his friend who was waiting for him in a car and told him he’d found something big. Remarkably, the students who had written about their secret feelings had made significantly fewer trips to the doctor in the subsequent months.

Ever since, the field psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. The studies that followed examined the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines. In a small study conducted in Kansas, for example, it was found that women with breast cancer experienced fewer troublesome symptoms and went for fewer cancer-related appointments in the months after doing expressive writing.

There is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds

The aim of the study wasn’t to look at long-term cancer prognosis, and the authors are not suggesting the cancer would be affected. But in the short-term other aspects of the women’s health did seem better than for those in the control group who wrote about the facts surrounding their cancer rather than their feelings about it.

But it doesn’t always work. A meta-analysis by Joanne Fratarolli from the University of California Riverside does demonstrate an effect overall, but a small one. Nevertheless, for an intervention that is free and beneficial, that’s a benefit worth having. Some studies have had disappointing results, but there is one area where the findings are more consistent and that is in the healing of wounds.

In these studies brave volunteers typically do some expressive writing, then some days later they are given a local anaesthetic and then a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. The wound is typically 4mm across and heals within a couple of weeks. This healing is monitored and again and again, and it happens faster if people have spent time beforehand writing down their secret thoughts.

Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it could have health benefits (Credit: iStock)

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system.

But there is a curious finding which suggests something else might be going on. Simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it also makes wounds heal faster, so perhaps it’s less to do with resolving past issues and more to do with finding a way of regulating your own emotions that makes a difference.

After the first day of writing most people say that churning up the past has made them feel worse. Does the stress cause people to release stress hormones such as cortisol, which are beneficial in the short-term and could enhance the immune system? Or is it the improvement in mood after several days of writing that brings the benefits for immunity? So far, no one knows.

Whatever the mechanism, despite several decades of research showing it works, it’s rarely used clinically. You could imagine a situation where people booked in for surgery are given expressive writing instructions in the preceding weeks, but very few studies have used clinical populations with real, surgical wounds, rather than giving healthy students artificially-induced wounds. Also, it works better for some people than others, all depending on how well they engage with the process. What’s more, the effect is short-lived, so you’d have to get the timing just right. Writing about your feelings doesn’t boost your immune system for life. If the same people are wounded again a few months after an initial study, they don’t heal any faster than anyone else.

But now new research from New Zealand suggests it’s not essential to do the writing before you are wounded. It can work just as well if you do the writing afterwards. This opens up the possibility of using expressive writing not just when surgery is planned, but for real-life injuries which of course we can’t predict. Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham and her team in New Zealand took 120 healthy volunteers, and made them write about either a distressing event or how they spent the previous day. They did this either before or after a punch biopsy on their upper arm. The people from the expressive writing group were six times more likely to have a wound that had healed within 10 days than the people in the control group.

We’d need to have more studies conducted with real life patients, but maybe one day when we’ve had an operation, we might be told to go home with instructions on expressive writing. As Kavita Vedhara told me in the BBC’s Health Check, the effect is “short-lived, but powerful”.


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