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 !

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.

all · earth · future · life

“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate

Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”

But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).

Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.

Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:

Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.

The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:

The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.

How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.

Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted living. Neighboring trees, scientists found, help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees. If this weren’t remarkable enough, these arboreal mutualities are even more complex — trees appear able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives.

Art by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Wohlleben ponders this astonishing sociality of trees, abounding with wisdom about what makes strong human communities and societies:

Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.


A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.

One can’t help but wonder whether trees are so much better equipped at this mutual care than we are because of the different time-scales on which our respective existences play out. Is some of our inability to see this bigger picture of shared sustenance in human communities a function of our biological short-sightedness? Are organisms who live on different time scales better able to act in accordance with this grander scheme of things in a universe that is deeply interconnected?

To be sure, even trees are discriminating in their kinship, which they extend in varying degrees. Wohlleben explains:

Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries… What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.

These relationships, Wohlleben points out, are encoded in the forest canopy and visible to anyone who simply looks up:

The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié

But trees don’t interact with one another in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species. Wohlleben describes their particularly remarkable olfactory warning system:

Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Because trees operate on time scales dramatically more extended than our own, they operate far more slowly than we do — their electrical impulses crawl at the speed of a third of an inch per second. Wohlleben writes:

Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.

The upside of this incapacity for speed is that there is no need for blanket alarmism — the recompense of trees’ inherent slowness is an extreme precision of signal. In addition to smell, they also use taste — each species produces a different kind of “saliva,” which can be infused with different pheromones targeted at warding off a specific predator.

Wohlleben illustrates the centrality of trees in Earth’s ecosystem with a story about Yellowstone National Park that demonstrates “how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us”:

It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.

Art by William Grill from The Wolves of Currumpaw

This interconnectedness isn’t limited to regional ecosystems. Wohlleben cites the work of Japanese marine chemist Katsuhiko Matsunaga, who discovered that trees falling into a river can change the acidity of the water and thus stimulate the growth of plankton — the elemental and most significant building block of the entire food chain, on which our own sustenance depends.

In the remainder of The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben goes on to explore such fascinating aspects of arboreal communication as how trees pass wisdom down to the next generation through their seeds, what makes them live so long, and how forests handle immigrants. Complement it with this wonderful illustrated atlas of the world’s strangest trees and an 800-year visual history of trees as symbolic diagrams.

Text BY MARIA POPOVA – originally written/published on the excellent

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à mes amis sauveurs de République 15 jours tous les 5 ans!

J’ai voté blanc, je passerai les 5 années qui viennent avec plus de sérénité que le quinquennat qui s’achève. Pas de frustration. Pas de risque de trahison pourvoyeuse de mauvaise bile, je n’attends pas grand chose de monsieur Macron et je ne peux avoir que de bonnes surprises, car après tout sa jeunesse plait au monde, son ardeur surprend et il peut aussi réussir dans quelques domaines. Qui sait. Si les plus désavantagés de nos concitoyens en tirent avantages, tant mieux. Dans le doute je voterai quand même activement aux législatives de juin pour qu’il ne puisse pas faire TOUT ce qu’il veut.
Pour finir: à mes amis sauveurs de République 15 jours tous les 5 ans, vous qui trembliez si sincèrement devant le danger fasciste, le retour d’Hitler, la peste brune, l’ouverture des camps pour musulmans, les casques à pointes sur les champs Elysées et la presse muselée, puisse le bruit de vos genoux qui tremblent tous les 5 ans être remplacé par le tapage de vos pas dans les rues, les jours de mobilisation contre les raisons qui font grandir le vote FN. Sinon, rendormez-vous, sereins, avec au coeur la certitude du devoir accompli.
FN 2002: 5 millions de voix. FN 2017: 10 millions. Rendez-vous en 2022 pour l’ultime sauvetage de la République devant l’immonde Marion ? Elle sera séduisante celle là, attention.
Retrouvez tout le texte (ceci n´est qu´un extrait) de Bruno Gaccio – publié sur facebook sous le titre Guy Carcassone nous avait prévenu en allant sur: