This is waste wilderness.
Art is “not a hobby—it’s why we wake up every morning,” as artist Naeem Mohaiemen recently put it to his graduate advisers, explaining the year he took off from writing his PhD dissertation in order to finish two films for documenta 14. The academy sighed in disbelief.
In October 2016, as we have finished editing the third issue of South as a State of Mind, documenta 14 has continued to manifest itself in diverging ways in both cities that host it, Athens and Kassel. But what is it? What is the exhibition—in which nothing has been exhibited so far, to the bewilderment of some who demand visibility, and now? Much has happened over the last two years, since the project of documenta 14 began to take shape. While doing it, we have collected a rich and historically well-founded critical, theoretical, and artistic vocabulary to challenge and perhaps eventually replace the worn, politically and aesthetically compromising and compromised received terms of a large international exhibition (or LIE). Instead of continuing to explain that this documenta 14 is not another readymade biennial, triennial, quadrennial, or even quinquennial (despite the fact that it has been happening in a predictable five-year rhythm in the city of Kassel since the 1970s), we decided to focus our attention on languages—near extinct or near forgotten, suppressed or newly conjured—that better correspond to what is at stake here than the usual lexicon of art events, spectacles, LIEs, and other commodities. We have noticed, to our astonishment and with joy, that other modes of address are possible. From within this space of possibility, which can be found in the underworld of the upper world, we work on documenta 14: artists, writers, curators, editors, and all those who have joined the endeavor in many roles and in many ways and whose names you will find in this issue.
The terms we have been looking into have proven to be efficient tools received from multitudinous traditions of resistance—methodologies and techniques of the self (and of its abandonment) that enable us to rethink the present in order to transform it. And thus, among others, we have been engaging with the work of Italian artist and political activist Tina Modotti (1896–1942), and specifically her series of photographs documenting the work of Indian revolutionary and agronomist Pandurang Khankhoje (1886–1967), who taught innovative corn-breeding methods and founded a series of free and cooperative agricultural schools and farms in Mexico in the 1920s and ’30s.
Antiauthoritarian, transdisciplinary approaches have been important in the preparation of documenta 14’s public and educational programs. One case in point is Polish architect, urban planner, artist, and pedagogue Oskar Hansen (1922–2005). His Open Form practice offers a way toward making art and architecture in dialectical relation with both the human and nonhuman environment, but it is also an exercise of transforming one’s own subjectivity, always in relation to others. In our research, we have also looked back to the powerful work—powerful as only those deemed powerless can become—of Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal (1931–2009) and his Theater of the Oppressed, as well as his proposals for deschooling society. Too, we read and learned from Mexican poet and artist Ulises Carrión (1941–1989) on strategies of evasion and elision; his insistence on “good manners” in critical redeployment of “gossip and scandal”; and his poetic rigor in estranging the familiar, as when he writes:
A novel, by a writer of genius or by a third-rate author, is a book where nothing happens.
There are still, and always will be, people who like reading novels. There will also always be people who like playing chess, gossiping, dancing the mambo, or eating strawberries with cream.
In comparison with novels, where nothing happens, in poetry books something happens sometimes, although very little.
This “very little” is precisely the time and space that we have been given, the time of documenta 14, which has begun not least, if not first, through this magazine, which is not just for “people who like reading novels,” but for anyone and everyone. Carrión writes:
In the new art you don’t love anybody.
The old art claims to love.
In art you can love nobody. Only in real life can you love someone.
Not that the new art lacks passions.
All of it is blood flowing out of the wound that language has inflicted on men.
And it is also the joy of being able to express something with everything, with any thing, with almost nothing, with nothing.
With almost nothing, with nothing, we decided in the current issue of the magazine to look into “the wound that language has inflicted.” This wound is our concern when writing and reading (which are just two possible inflections of producing what Rasheed Araeen succinctly named in his project for documenta 14: Food for Thought), and this wound’s presence in people’s lives is the concern of documenta 14. For example, this language-as-wound was on our minds during a recent launch of the second issue of South as a State of Mind in Norway, where we screened and attentively watched and listened to Lost and Found (2016), a new film by Susan Hiller that deals with, in her words, the “unacknowledged, uncanny ghostliness of recorded sound that makes no distinction between the voices of people long dead and those of the living.” The voices, themselves fragile monuments to peoples, cultures, and languages on the edge of complete eradication, enshrouded us in their strangely material and haunting presence.
This language-as-wound, as a stubborn and opaque presence, was also addressed at the inception of 34 Exercises of Freedom, which opened documenta 14’s Parliament of Bodies at Parko Eleftherias (Freedom Park) in Athens in September 2016, when Spanish artist and activist Daniel García Andújar presented a small book he made for the occasion. Following the hermeneutics of suspicion artfully applied by Victor Klemperer in his LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947) to understand and disarm the language of the Nazi regime at the time of its making and after its demise, Andújar devised his own LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii (2016) as a tool for disentangling the knot of language, image, and architectural politics of the Greek military dictatorship (1967–74). In his introduction to the book, Andújar writes, “Language is never innocent. Architecture is never innocent. Images are never innocent. They are openly involved in a body-to-body fight with history.” He adds, “Take out Diogenes’s lamp and stroll the park in full daylight to search for an honest language.”
Diogenes’s daytime stroll with a lamp in search of an honest man (or, as Andújar has it, an honest language) is reflected in the pedagogy and writing practice of Lucius Burckhardt (1925–2003), a Swiss landscape theorist, critical urbanist, and painter of watercolors that assisted his reflection on the man-made environment and artificial (which is: all) landscape. Burckhardt taught at the University of Kassel between 1973 and 1997 following the principles of “strollology,” a form of active and peripatetic reading of our surroundings and our time that he invented. He worked together with artist and writer Annemarie Burckhardt (1930–2012), his wife, whose work Der falsche documenta-Katalog (Fake catalogue of documenta, 1991)—a book in the form of a pillow, or a pillow in the form of a book—made documenta lawyers humorlessly demand withdrawal of the publication from the public domain. Together, Annemarie and Lucius Burckhardt continue to be an inspiration for documenta 14.
In January 1970, in his Journals of Resistance, the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis noted: “The composer, Jani Christou, has been killed in an accident. The news shatters me. A blind, mad death.” Christou’s score for Epicycle (1968) introduces the continuum as a principle for organizing the participation of actors in a piece over a period of time. In March and April 2016, the first working sessions with artists invited to participate in documenta 14 took place at Prevelakis Hall at the Athens School of Fine Arts, located on the campus of the Athens National Technical University. These semipublic sessions, which involved the documenta 14 team working with artists on their projects and presentations of their existing work in talks and performances to the students and members of the faculty, were informed by Christou’s rules for the continuum—an attempt at orchestrated improvisation.
While working on documenta 14, these and other figures show us complex and disparate ways of being and help us navigate the darkness and complexity of experience that we are immersed in as we move forward, stumbling and erring.
In August 2016, during a trip to northern Norway, where we were to give a presentation of the documenta 14 South as a State of Mind at the Sámi Parliament, the poet and artist Synnøve Persen led us around the small house in the tiny village of Máze where she and her fellow Sámi Artist Group artists and activists had famously lived and worked and agitated from 1978 to 1983. In one of the narrow studios downstairs, a slim stack of books lined a dusty shelf: one spine stood out to us, its black type asking Dam a River, Damn a People? We gingerly pulled the thin publication off the shelf (a kind of answer). The cover featured a faint black-and-white photo of a Sámi reindeer herder lassoing reindeer bulls in the snow before the spring trek; the author was Robert Paine, and his subtitle read: Saami (Lapp) Livelihood and the Alta/Kautokeino Hydro-electric Project and the Norwegian Parliament. The lean book with the decisive title was the 1982 newsletter for the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).
Around the time that Persen and her fellow artists arrived in Máze in the late 1970s, determined to create a Sámi art and live a Sámi life on ancient Sámi land, the Norwegian government unilaterally decided to dam the nearby Alta River. This would have flooded the entire area, putting Sámi villages and hamlets and the land necessary for their reindeer herds, their very way of life, under water. The proposed dam project activated the Sámi artists, and they became activists: huge demonstrations against the project culminated in a famous hunger strike outside the Norwegian Parliament in Oslo in 1979. This political moment, a kind of opening, and the events that preceded it, brought together Sámi activists and Norwegian environmentalists for the first time, spurring both movements on. While the hydroelectric plant on the Alta would indeed be built, though in much smaller form, the Sámi-Alta activism would lead directly to the formation, a decade later, of the Sámi Parliament in Kárášjohka, sanctioned by the King of Norway.
Then as now, there in the Arctic as elsewhere, environmental exploitation has been married to colonial violence and the oppression, displacement, and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, suggesting Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s pedagogical reminder: “Here is a lesson: what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing.” In the neocolonial, neoliberal present, global capitalism continues much the same violent work (against land and peoples simultaneously) that the long sixteenth century and its defining colonialism began: capitalist modes of production and the need for cheap or free labor—achieved by the power imbalances dictated by class, race, and gender—continue to be as reliant on ecological violence in order to produce value as they ever were.
And yet if neoliberalism, imperialism, colonialism, Western expansion, resource extraction, and environmental destruction are nearly always led by violence against Indigenous peoples (who often see no line of demarcation between themselves and the lands they inhabit and live off), so have environmental movements often been preceded by their example, in an activism and prescience that couples social and ecological justice. Consider the Sámi activism in the late 1970s against the Alta hydroelectric project; consider, at the very time of this writing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s enormous encampment on their reservation in North Dakota in the United States, in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline that would tunnel underneath their lands, destroying their ancient burial grounds and endangering their source of drinking water. Echoing the title of the IWGIA book from 1982, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (a descendant of Mary Big Moccasin, who lived through the Whitestone Massacre in North Dakota in 1863) has stated: “We are the river, and the river is us.” The movement at Standing Rock has drawn hundreds of tribes and environmental groups in collective resistance to yet another instance of violence—in a nation founded on them—that is both environmental and colonial at its very root.
“If Auschwitz and Hiroshima were demonstrations of genocidal tendencies unfolding within the logic of modernity, then the ecocidal character of the global social project is now also beyond doubt,” notes Gene Ray in his essay in this issue, titled “Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot.” His careful, sensitive thinking through the relationship between ecological and colonial genocide, and the way that theoretical discourse can be expanded and deepened by Indigenous knowledge, speaks, at once plainly and poetically, to the main lines of thinking we were engaged with as we edited this volume of South as a State of Mind, which concerns the constant correlation among nature, capital, power, and language.
While there has been increased attention in recent years in the fields of contemporary art and political theory on what has been called, broadly, the Anthropocene, this concept is not without its own imperialist blind spots and failures (also a kind of violence). As Nabil Ahmed writes in his essay on political geology in this issue, “Among the epistemological fallacies—and dangers—of the concept of the Anthropocene is that it renders the human abstract in the process of geologizing human agency, what Donna Haraway might call an example of the ‘god trick.’ The Cameroonian philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe describes a ‘negative moment’ as an instant when ‘new antagonisms emerge while old ones remain unresolved.’ In contemporary times, emergent ecological crisis is a paradigmatic negative moment with regard to the unresolved dark twinning of capitalism and colonialism.”
And it is this dark twinning that we are focused on here. The contents of this issue of South are documents of language or of hunger or of both. Why “language or hunger”? Consider the mouth a border, a boundary, a threshold: to swallow or to speak. Emptiness or language. On one side, inside, one feels physical hunger, a void; on the other side, outside, one puts forth language (into another void, perhaps). Consider these lines from the book of Ezekiel: “1. Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ 2. So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this scroll.” In the Psalms, the words of God are described as sweeter than honey: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”
Thus language—being born with one, or finding it again, or creating one anew, a kind of lexicon—can be a means of nourishment, while hunger can be a kind of resistance. The hunger strike, for example, used by so many of those persecuted for political reasons: the Sámi in Oslo in 1979, the Irish hunger strikers in 1980 and 1981, the Manipuri poet and activist Irom Chanu Sharmila’s long hunger strike from 2000 to 2016 against the Indian government’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Chelsea Manning’s recent hunger strike in an American prison to agitate for gender-affirmation surgery. The list is endless.
Consider too the way that, in colonial violence, two types of dispossession often lead the way: the taking of Indigenous land and the banning of Indigenous languages. In an introduction to her poetry in this issue, Persen writes about how, at the age of seven, she was taken from her family and sent to a Norwegian boarding school—like almost all Sámi children, and like Indigenous children across the colonized world, from Canada to Norway to Australia—where North Sámi, her language, was banned. She notes:
[W]e were put into boarding schools, away from the Sámi language and culture, and were only permitted to use the Norwegian language. This was a ruthless assimilation policy that wiped out our identity and self-perception. In the course of twenty years in the Norwegian education system, I learned neither to read nor write in my mother tongue. ... It gave one a feeling of emptiness, an inner anonymous space, a feeling of being a stranger in one’s own life. It was only when I grasped my mother tongue myself, and made the first hesitant attempts at writing, that I became able to write poetry. Then suddenly I had something to say. It was like going on an expedition into oneself, listening to the words which were stored there, and the incommunicable communication which lies in every culture.
Ecology has as its Greek root oikos, meaning the entire habitat, house, or family—an interdependent ecosystem. (Economy has the same root.) We know its definition now as the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment, the interdependence of humans and their institutions. And this is what the work that follows weighs. The writings and artist projects in this volume of South as a State of Mind—poetic, critical, allegorical, or all simultaneously—articulate the necessity of language and lexicon while considering consumption and hunger as political and aesthetic facts and fields. “Coming to terms with environmental violence requires reframing the language of claims and rights, as the victims are oceans, rivers, and forests, the dead, and the poor with limited access to justice,” Ahmed writes. If, as he declares, attentiveness to environmental violence is necessary for the “formation of an anticapitalist political ecology at once structural, social, psychic, and environmental,” an awareness of the role that language plays in this formation, as complicity or resistance, psychic or structural, is equally important. Language or hunger—a kind of border. A question (for you), also.