The second issue of South as a State of Mind as the magazine of documenta 14 goes to print almost exactly one year before the inauguration of the exhibition in Athens, and fourteen months before the scheduled opening of its second and conclusive iteration in Kassel. In line with its concept as originally proposed in 2013, documenta 14 is being conceived as one exhibition comprising 163 days in a trajectory of two distinctive, partially overlapping timelines, from April to September 2017. As such, documenta 14 will encompass two locations that are emblematic of the extreme and polarized states of Europe, and perhaps the world at large, today. Since early 2015, when we began the process of shaping the documenta 14 South, and, alongside it, the curatorial work on the exhibition, the course of political events forming our future has seemed at times nebulous. Simultaneously, however, these events have become strangely predictable, and no longer as abstract and distant as they once appeared.
The continuing military and political involvement of the Western powers and Russia in Syria has produced a bloody, all-too-conceivable stalemate—a favorite figure of warmongering international politics. In parallel, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sub-Saharan Africa continue. These wars, often the result of Western policies since the colonial era or more recent military intervention, have produced millions of refugees fleeing their untenable violence; people compelled to risk their lives and the lives of their children crossing the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to end up in Greece with little chance of finding refuge. Instead they find themselves trapped in a crisis-plagued state, where they currently face the threat of immediate relocation to Turkey, a consequence of the “one in, one out” swap deal between Germany and Turkey that brings—albeit in strangely distorted form—the memory of the Treaty of Lausanne and its forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
In the meantime, the economic and social conditions in Greece have been deteriorating further still, as the nominally left-wing Greek government has implemented a string of austerity measures (with the tacit compliance of the neoliberal opposition) mandated by the EU and its attendant international financial institutions. Fully oblivious to any idea of social and economic recovery, such measures and the politics they produce have engendered indifference, frustration, despair, and, at best, rage.
Are we exaggerating? In Germany, the rise of right-wing populism (in the guise of the AfD party, or “Alternative for Germany”) and extremism (organized around the fear of the “other,” conflating local Muslims and new refugees with terrorists) is apparent as never before in the country’s postwar history. Similar nationalistic, xenophobic forces in democratic disguise have been coming to the fore across Western Europe (see: Austria, Denmark, France, Switzerland) and in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc (consider Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński), while Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, following the annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine, begets specters of the Cold War. The politics of the until recently marginal European parties that profit from all forms of populist resentment parallel the lack of new political initiatives from the former “main” parties that could be founded on ideas of solidarity and a commons.
All of these very troubling developments have taken place over the past two years, corresponding with the time in which documenta 14 has been in the making. As a team working on the project in Athens and Kassel, we feel acutely the pressure under which we operate. As we recently began to welcome in Athens the first participants invited to join the endeavor of documenta 14—artists from all parts of the globe—we also understood that as long as at least a limited freedom of movement is granted to individuals (while being fully aware that few enjoy this privilege), there is the possibility of working together toward scenarios that offer strategies against the dominant modes and modalities of passivity, control, terror—and the deterioration of social bonds that is taking place in all areas of life. Nevertheless, while the nation states organized around the flows of capital keep self-adjusting their strategies to benefit the one percent, what was once a looming shape of things to come is now a bitter reality knocking at the door (if one has a door).
“People are living with the danger of death all the time, so they want to tell their story,” Charif Kiwan, spokesperson for the Syrian filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara, noted in a recent interview.1 Late last year we decided to make the platform of the documenta 14 website available to the collective of anonymous filmmakers for its regular Friday releases of new films—“emergency cinema,” as they accurately term it—made in Syria by its self-taught and volunteer filmmakers. We believe that the struggle for the “right to a dignified image”2 that the collective has been carrying out since its inception in 2011, in the wake of the popular revolution in Syria, should be supported. While it is not clear what contemporary art can do in order to change the increasingly indefensible and clearly unsustainable state of things, we hope to be able to provide some possible answers through the works produced for documenta 14 or presented within its framework. The very first responses from the artists who visited Athens in early 2016 were clearly driven by a sense of the political, social, and ecological urgency of this historical moment. Likewise, we hope that the second issue of the documenta 14 South testifies to this need to address the real—without, however, falling into the pitfalls of direct representation, which remains a politically dubious term, if we consider the cul-de-sac of contemporary democracy ceding what needs to be done to political representation itself.
Words and images can be put to the service of critical inquiry; silence and masks, while withdrawing the claim on self-evident truth, can help give sharp contours to political statement. Through poetic elision or dramatic mise-en-scène, in a public performance of storytelling or by retelling a personal story in private, an epic dimension can be restored amidst the contingencies of shattered everyday life. A series of recent artists’ visits that took place in documenta 14 work spaces in the art schools of Athens and Kassel, including semipublic encounters with students and faculty, is one stage of the process (the magazine is another) of situating the artwork, both discursively and physically, in a space we would like to designate as both poetic and social—and that is political—at the same time. The discussion of social and political meaning that artifacts, rituals, and poetic acts may have for communities weaves a red thread through this issue of South, indicating possibilities for contemporary works of art that go beyond the aesthetic, mercantile, or merely intra-artistic critical function. In both the magazine and the exhibition of documenta 14, we will continue working toward bringing these meanings into public and critical consideration.
Masks as resistance; silence as resistance. Both, perhaps paradoxically, as means to act and to speak, as modes of political and aesthetic participation. Consider recent images of anticapitalist protestors wearing Guy Fawkes masks filling the streets of London in November 2015 as part of the “Million Mask March”; consider, too, a language without remainder, as Georges Bataille describes: “I have sought to speak a language equivalent to zero, a language amounting to nothing, a language returning to silence.”3 In this second volume of the documenta 14 South as a State of Mind, we explore and don masks as both historical and contemporary means of occlusion or subversion that are often employed to resist the ways in which our bodies are unequally accorded or denied basic rights in the dehumanizing nexus and global economy of citizenship, geography, race, and gender.
In parallel, we examine silence—one of the many masks of language—as a response to the empty authority and authoritarianism of so much communication, a long linguistic and historical flood of nationalistic propaganda, neoliberal preaching, and the movement of capital. Indeed, if silence and masks can be metaphors for and figures embodying aesthetic and political protest, they are also ways to assert and expand both subjectivity and collectivity. As the contributions to this issue of the documenta 14 South demonstrate, masks and silence are often where politics and aesthetics, political resistance and cultural production, meet and blur. In contemporary art practice and intellectual history, silence is usually associated with reduction, refusal, and withdrawal; conversely, we survey silence as a necessary aspect of language, one less concerned with modernist compression, the aesthetics of the white page, and artistic withdrawal than as a means by which to propose the political act of listening and a kind of radical reception. To be silent suggests not only resistance but recipience and recognition. As Stathis Gourgouris observes in his essay here, “One listens to the universe, before anything else.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that “the spectacle is language,” as Giorgio Agamben has noted. “This means that an integrated Marxian analysis should take into consideration the fact that capitalism (or whatever other name we might want to give to the process dominating world history today) not only aimed at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings, of that logos in which Heraclitus identifies the Common.”4 Resisting this alienation, and attempting to locate a commons—in language as in life—often leads to silence or its invocation, which, paradoxically, can lead to the flood and factoring of language—as here, in this very publication.
See (or hear) Barbara Casavecchia’s resounding essay “Taci, anzi parla,” which takes its title—“Shut up. Or rather, speak,” in English—from Italian art critic and activist Carla Lonzi and her “Diary of a Feminist” from 1978. Casavecchia’s text surveys a group of Italian women artists and art writers from the 1960s and ’70s that redefined language as something “textual, corporeal, performative, political, and oblique.” Lonzi’s admonition—and its implicit admission that summons of silence are married to the act of speaking up—is one heard in the surrounding pages, which are filled with voices speaking about and through the bright and dark masks of language.
As in the first volume of the documenta 14 South, the singular voices featured here speak to each other in a conversation that transcends the limits of place and time. In her poem “Fragments for Subduing the Silence,” the twentieth-century Argentine modernist Alejandra Pizarnik writes: “The girl lying in the sand nestles into me with her wolf mask. The one who couldn’t stand it anymore and begged for flames and whom we set on fire.” Her spectral, lucid lines evoke the story of Dzunuk’wa, the cannibal, the subject of so many of Kwakwaka’wakw carver Beau Dick’s masks. As Candice Hopkins describes in “Outlawed Social Life,” her history of the potlatch and Dick’s work, “There is a story about a community of people who decided to do something about Dzunuk’wa, so they captured and killed her. To ensure that she wouldn’t come back to life, they built a large fire to burn her body. At the moment that her body was scorched and black, she transformed into a swarm of mosquitoes.” She writes that the transformation of Dzunuk’wa is “like the potlatch itself—a practice that survived because of its own transmutations during the apex of colonial violence and control.”
The story of Dzunuk’wa—with its layers of colonial and gendered violence—evokes, in turn, the titular “Draupadi” in Mahasweta Devi’s short story. As Devi’s translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes in her foreword here, “Draupadi” first appeared in the story collection Agnigarbha (Womb of fire); the protagonist is based on a heroine of the Indian epic Mahabharata. In the earlier epic, Draupadi “provides the occasion for a violent transaction between men.” As an “enemy chief begins to pull at Draupadi’s sari,” Spivak writes, the “Idea of Sustaining Law (Dharma) materializes itself as clothing … Draupadi is infinitely clothed.” Devi’s story insistently and nakedly subverts this moment: Draupadi is stripped and gang-raped, “her political punishment by the representatives of the law. She remains publicly naked at her own insistence.”
To remain naked when the authorities would have you covered (so as to mask their own violence): this can also be a kind of resistance. Thus our exploration of masking in this issue does not linger in the metaphoric realm only but also broaches such objects and acts as cultural-political facts. For many First Nations and indigenous peoples, masks have long functioned not as the aesthetic artifacts appropriated (via theft and study and display) by Western ethnographic museums but as political tools used in ceremony. Clémentine Deliss and Frédéric Keck talk about the urgency of remediating ethnographic collections in “Occupy Collections!” while Maria Thereza Alves, Jolene Rickard, and Hopkins consider issues of provenance, repatriation, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony within the context of colonialism and neocolonialism in “Fair Trade Heads.” Elsa Dorlin, meanwhile, offers an updated reading of Frantz Fanon’s seminal Black Skin, White Masks, considering the colonized subject, vulnerable bodies, and violence (self and other).
Continuing the examination of the vulnerable, transformable, ever-disguisable body—now human, now animal, now cutting and other—is Mariana Castillo Deball’s artist’s project for the magazine. Perforated pages from daily Greek and German newspapers offer the outlines of human-animal hybrids, strange in their symmetry. Echoes of this work—with its themes of exile, transfiguration, the border-like tracks of history, and writing and paper—are to be found once again in the portfolio of poems by Pizarnik. “The little paper doll: I cut her out of green and red and sky-blue paper,” she writes. “They set you in the middle of the road, little wanderer … my images leave imprints, without sound, without color (not even white). If the tracks of night animals etched into the inscriptions on my bones—If I rooted into the place of memory the way an animal padding along a mountain ledge could suddenly make the slightest misstep and fall—I speak of the irreparable.”
From Athens—under the steady silence of its sun—we write this, thinking of violence and repair, and of the many bodies (withholding or receptive, adorned and resistant, often displaced and transforming) and voices that populate and mask this volume of South as a State of Mind. Among the disguises that fill this issue—from those of the Zapatistas in present-day Mexico to those by the Greek surrealist photographer Nelly in the 1930s, to the First Nation masks of animallike gods made for centuries, to the horseshoe crabs found in South Asia for the past 450 million years—we consider one more: the mask and many transformations of the publication itself. “Body writing,” as Mustapha Benfodil writes from our pages. Books turned against themselves (“This is thinking”), as the mysterious Elena Ferrante writes of Carla Lonzi. The publication—language itself—is the great mask. We wish you good reading.
1 Charif Kiwan in an interview at the New School, New York, quoted in Melena Ryzik, “Syrian Film Collective Offers View of Life Behind a Conflict,” New York Times, October 18, 2015. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/movies/syrian-film-collective-offers-view-of-life-behind-a-conflict.html.
2 Abounaddara quoted in Christy Lange, “Emergency Cinema,” frieze, March 18, 2016. Online: https://www.frieze.com/article/emergency-cinema.
3 Georges Bataille quoted in Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Silence in Middle Eastern and Western Thought: The Radical Unspoken (New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 166.
4 Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 81.