The first issue of South as a State of Mind in its new, temporary role as the magazine of documenta 14 arrives more than a year and a half before the exhibition is scheduled to open, in Athens in April 2017 and in Kassel two months later. It was produced during several months of a palpable worsening of the ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis in Greece. The former included the near-collapse of the banking sector and the establishment and dissolution of the new left-wing government, under conditions created by European-imposed austerity programs that have produced one of the worst modern depressions ever recorded in a developed country. The humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, has been escalating, with the displacement of four million Syrians fleeing civil war, as well as those escaping the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa, all imagining a possibly better life on the European continent. This is the largest recorded global displacement of people since World War II, and for many of the refugees entering Europe, Greece is their first stop. In this state of emergency, the magazine, through the voices of its diverse authors—among them artists, poets, scholars, architects, and filmmakers—becomes a manifestation of documenta 14 rather than a discursive lens through which to merely presage the topics to be addressed in the eventual exhibition. Through its journal, documenta 14 has already set off on its journey, amid dramatic events and developments affecting entire nations, if not continents, destination as yet unknown.
The idea of a bi-located documenta 14, shared and divided between Athens, where it has become a guest, and Kassel, its birthplace and home since the inception of the exhibition in 1955, was born of distrust toward any essentializing and reductive concepts of identity, belonging, roots, and property in a world that is visibly out of joint. Major international exhibitions are supposed to cater to the expectations of the audience, neatly divided into the lay and the professional—but in fact these expectations are created and projected onto the audience, considered as a near-monolithic receiver of contents. In this way, they follow the economic (read: corporate) and political interests that constitute and produce the “exhibitionary complex” (per Tony Bennett), an apparatus correlative to the art world that strategically presents itself as self-evident, transparent reality—supposedly the only reality available to us.
Instead, documenta 14 will attempt to deliver a real-time response to the changing situation of Europe, which as a birthplace of both democracy and colonialism is a continent whose future must be urgently addressed. To do so means to engage with its neighbors, those nearby as well as those that are more remote. Therefore documenta 14 is also a plea for imagining and elaborating on the possibilities of a different, more inclusive world, one that appears unattainable in the light of current political and economic developments and the unmasked violence they bring about. Rather than declare itself an island, a platform, or a forum for speculative thinking and utopian divagations, documenta 14 sees itself as a theater of actions—a performative, embodied experience available to all its participants. Moreover, while thinking about the seemingly immutable spectacular order, in which documenta 14 is perceived as an “exhibition” conceived by its “curators” for an “audience,” we believe it is possible to think beyond that narrow definition, toward other models and modes of production of meaning that would entail producing situations, not just artifacts to be looked at.
South is one such situated response. Its contributions might be thought of as thinking tools that reveal ways out of the suffocating passivity so often projected onto our artists and thinkers, which presupposes that they are no more than isolated and egoistical commentators, seldom interpreters and even more seldom acting subjects in the world they are attempting to articulate. Trying to think through a world in relation requires a “worldmentality” (to gloss Manthia Diawara) that allows one to exceed worn ideas of territory, state, and identity as fundamental concepts of our world—the very concepts that, in fact, often safeguard the perpetuation of injustices. The diversity of contemporary and historical writing in this issue addresses, at times, states of misery, a condition that affects many but is rarely the subject of theoretical and political interest, perhaps because it is linked to ideas of individual suffering and shame and thus borders on the unspeakable.
The lightness with which misery is dismissed or postponed as an issue of politics begs for a reaction. This issue of South was written and edited in this light, which is simultaneously illuminating and blinding. And it is perhaps in this light, and not at dusk, where some provisional ways out of our present circumstances are to be found. We feel that, as unstable the local (and global) conditions are at the outset of the project and as uncertain its future, it is worth trying to think in solidarity, with Germany and Greece conceived as simultaneously real and metaphoric sites where such thinking is urgently necessary. In this process, we will insist on “learning from Athens” not as from the cradle of Western civilization but as a place where the contradictions of the contemporary world, embodied by loaded directionals like East and West, North and South, meet and clash.
Possession and dispossession, displacement and debt—it seems that the stories that condition our present are inextricably born out of the stories that conditioned our past. Even if “History (with a capital H) ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together,” as the Martiniquais philosopher Édouard Glissant once noted, we have chosen to begin in this first issue by going back, in part, to some of the historical staging grounds of Western hegemony, which we believe might help us understand the often-abstracted powers structuring our present, as well as the ways in which the practice of democracy and the ideals of freedom have always been inexorably tied to their denial. Thus does this first volume of the documenta 14 South work against the politics of forgetting—forgetfulness of the history of colonialism and mass enslavement and displacement that brought us here, to our collective contemporary world; and forgetfulness of the dissident histories and peoples that have often been left out of the Western canon.
“Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity,” Hannah Arendt notes, ever drily, in “We Refugees.” “Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved—and most of us had to be saved several times—we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine.” We were told to forget—a line that reverberates strangely, ineffably, in the shadow of some unnamable authority. But why? As Françoise Vergès writes for us in her lucid memoir of growing up amid the resistance movement in Réunion, the French island territory in the Indian Ocean, “Forgetfulness is not just a psychological mechanism; it is the result of economic and political choices. In its logic, there is no need to do away with inequalities and precariousness.” To remember, then, is to move simultaneously backward—reclaiming and documenting marginalized or erased histories—and to move forward in the direction of social justice, all while adjusting the canon to accommodate new records of memory, art, and struggle. Indeed, as Vergès ascertains: “In the current process of decolonization, memories of itineraries of the enslaved, migrants, and refugees are reactivated against new politics of forgetfulness. Memory here is not the realm of subjective fleeting thought but a source of images, texts, and songs that constitute a counterhegemonic library for present battles.”
It is that counterhegemonic library for present battles—filled with essays, images, stories, speeches, diaries, and poems—that we have tried to assemble here, and that we see as our guiding vision for the next three volumes of South as a State of Mind as well as for the documenta 14 publication program as a whole. This first volume examines forms and figures of displacement and dispossession, and the modes of resistance—aesthetic, political, literary, and biological—found within them. Explored in parallel are misery and its representations, from misericordia to miserliness, each linked in a shared economy at once fiscal and metaphoric. New essays by Aristide Antonas, Angela Dimitrakaki, Peter Friedl, Paul B. Preciado, and Vergès, among others, consider dispossession’s place within performativity, state violence, architecture, sexual politics, and protest. Linda Nochlin, in an essay on Courbet, describes the injustice of the nineteenth-century social order as figured by his paintings, or, as she notes, “the difference between the legs of misery and lack and the legs of mastery and possession.”
And yet if this first issue is invested in the nascent grounds or bare surface of colonialism and racial capitalism, we find some of our contributors going further back, underneath it even, gleaning the very underground of empire. In that darkness, our writers examine the archaeological and infrastructural (consider Antonas’s essay “The Construction of Southern Ruins, or Instructions for Dealing with Debt,” as well as Kaelen Wilson-Goldie’s ardent exploration of an archaeology museum in Beirut and the legacy of Sufism in the Middle East); the oceans and seas as mass graves for the enslaved and displaced (see Diawara’s reminiscence of making a film at sea with Glissant, with whom he traced the Middle Passage); and the under-the-skin of the biopolitical (the subject of Preciado’s treatise on “Sperm, Sovereignty, and Debt in the Eighteenth-Century Utopian Construction of Europe”). All these histories—and, in turn, their legacies—constitute a collective debt that continues to circulate and grow.
The intensity of our present political conditions and the challenges of our global economic world order cannot be overstated. (“Am I exaggerating? Perhaps I am under-exaggerating,” poet Bhanu Kapil writes in our pages.) And yet the means of protest are rich, diverse. The collective of voices here, and the often dissident and marginalized histories they limn and draw from, offer an alternative cartography and chorus to the dominant artistic canon. In so doing, we believe that they might offer us the means to imagine and delineate alternatives to our untenable present and unclear future. “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot,” writes Audre Lorde. We hope so.
Finally, in accord with our interest in leaving the exclusive role of host behind, we are in these pages hosted by South as a State of Mind, the magazine founded by Marina Fokidis in Athens in 2012—and we would like to thank her for her generous hospitality here. As the editors of the four documenta 14 editions of the magazine, which will be published biannually until the opening of the exhibition in 2017, we are guests only. We imagine the South of documenta 14—both the journal and the imagined spaces it invokes—as a place of research, critique, art, and literature paralleling the years of work on the exhibition overall, one that will help define and frame its concerns and aims. Writing and publishing, in all their forms, will be an integral part of documenta 14, and we believe that this magazine will herald that process.