THE OPENING DAY OF “OMONOIA,” the fifth Athens Biennale, was typical for the ancient city: Traffic was disrupted by the latest in a series of anti-austerity demonstrations at Syntagma Square—this time the pharmacists, followed the next day by the farmers. It was an auspicious backdrop for the inaugural forum, “Synapse 1: A Laboratory for Production Post-2011,” a series of panels organized by anthropologist Massimiliano Mollona debating alternative solutions to capitalist problems like “precarious work.” This edition of the biennial builds off the last, titled “Agora,” where a series of performances, debates, and workshops held in the former stock exchange responded to the big question triggered by the economic crisis: “Now what?”
There was a full house at the 1930s National Theater New Rex, where presentations ranged from occupations of factories and cultural institutions to sharing networks and alternative currencies, all observed by buff male laborers (most of them scantily clad to distraction) who looked down from a trompe l’oeil ceiling mural by Yiannis Tsarouchis. “We are all living out of thin air,” biennial cofounder Poka Yio admitted, “apart from a few artists who can make a decent living.” Citing Hito Steyerl, Angela Dimitrakaki made the case for art to be associated with production rather than public good, rendering it as work rather than an occupation from which one is not expected to make a living. “We had to find a common language and try to understand what is the intersection between art and politics,” Mollona explained. “We don’t want art that functions like politics, and we don’t want a political art. So we are trying to understand whether artists can help set up the framework of the biennale itself—or if the biennale can only work as a container of art.”
The debate got heated somewhere between the “Alternative Economies” and “Rethinking Institutions” sessions. Professor Leo Panitch ditched his scripted lecture and angrily chided the assembly for not addressing the real world, with the reminder that “in this country alone on the face of the planet a left party has been elected to power.” (A few days later, a leftist coalition took over in Portugal.) “We have been living in an anarchist moment,” he continued, “the reason being the failure of socialism to exit us from capitalism.” Another professor, Robert Meister, argued that “capitalism perpetuates and accumulates past injustices,” and he compared the ruthless tactics carried out by the banking sector to terrorism. “The answer is direct action and politicization, and there is no better place to start than Athens,” he concluded. Hillary Wainwright added hopefully: “Defeat and failure can be valuable motivators.” Performance artist Georgia Sagri, a pivotal figure in the founding of Occupy Wall Street, sat in front taking notes.
“Bridging the big divide between politics and art is not easy,” Documenta head Adam Szymczyk said during a break outside the theater. Someone else suggested that we should all be hanging out at a café drinking coffee on such a gorgeous day. “This opening is very different from the first biennale, ‘Destroy Athens,’ which was very social, with lots of international dealers, curators, and collectors,” noted the Breeder’s George Vamvakidis. “It seems like the outcome of the theme—to destroy all preconceived models of the biennial.” Just about the time we started to enjoy ourselves, biennial cofounder Xenia Kalpaktsoglou came out and herded everyone back into the session with a mock warning: “I will not give you notes to catch up!”
The Documenta team was in full force all week, including Paul B. Preciado, the recently appointed curator of public programs, who lectured at the Benaki Museum conference “The Inclusive Museum” about the exclusionary nature of museums via Foucauldian taxonomic hierarchies. The previous week had seen the launch of Documenta’s iteration of South, a publication started by curator Marina Fokidis at the now defunct Kunsthalle Athena. The biennial mounted the play “Magda Goebbels,” by George Veltsos (“not suitable for viewers under eighteen years old”), at the theater that evening, but I headed to Atopos for artist Georges Jacotey’s somewhat more cheerful channeling of Lana Del Rey, in Lana, Tears of Emotion—“I’ve realized, suddenly, I had to become cold, stone cold to survive”—followed by a spirited party in the courtyard of the gorgeous neoclassical mansion, surrounded by a neighborhood full of bordellos, attended by all the pretty young Greek artists.
By the time I arrived at the Bageion Hotel the next day, a general planning assembly was breaking up. Wendelien van Oldenborgh, one of the artists in town to feel out possibilities for producing work for the biennial, seemed impressed with the ambitious proceedings: “There were so many different voices and people, and conflicts broke out but never escalated—it is such a courageous effort.” It marked the first of a ten-day program of workshops and performances hosted in various rooms of the elegantly decaying hotel on Omonoia Square that will serve as an exhibition space and incubator for grassroots groups to exchange ideas. Partnering with the municipality of Athens, the team had begun months before by mapping all of the independent political and artistic movements acting within the urban fabric: “It is a city that is exploding with experiments,” Mollona told me.
At the moment, there are few places where politics and daily life are as closely related as they are in Greece. Artist Katerina Kana and I zipped across town by scooter for sushi near Syntagma, within earshot of yet another protest: “I like this way of overthrowing the whole art institution and clearing the table, like rebooting the system,” she said. “We can’t continue the same way: just another show, object, fair.” We headed around the corner to the Embassy of Cyprus for the opening of “Plexus,” curated by Stamatis Schizakis and Tina Pandi, who work for the National Contemporary Art Museum, currently waiting for the funds to open its massive new building, the beautifully retrofitted Fix brewery. The show was a radiant and thoughtful meditation on the way grids appear in natural and digital objects through work by Efi Spyrou, Petros Moris, and Bia Davou. A few days later a bomb ripped through the building next to the embassy, blowing out its windows and closing down the exhibition until further notice.
Next stop was the Breeder, where Andreas Lolis was showing hyperrealist objects in marble. The only presence in the first room was a “wooden” ladder leaning against the wall; downstairs was an installation in which bamboo canes made of marble had been planted in a field of dry, cracked mud, recalling Alberto Burri’s “Cretto” series: a poetic metaphor, evoking Greece’s situation, for a rich culture rendered useless in the context of deprivation. The biennial party took place that night at Romantso, a café bar–cum–creative startup that has revived a neighborhood filled with Indian and Bangladeshi shops and cafés. Mollona leaned against the entrance surrounded by a group of artists among the crowd sprawled out on the street on the unseasonably balmy evening. The intention to make it an early night was sabotaged by dance-crazy curator Pádraic Moore and a great DJ, starting with ’80s dance music and moving on to an electronic midnight.
The week had begun on Monday with the opening of “Psi” at Fokidos 21, a convivial project that is emblematic of the underfunded yet fecund activity in Athens these days. Returning from a few years in London, artist Sofia Stevi began inviting artists from abroad to stay and produce shows in the apartment where she had grown up. Curated by Stevi and Pádraic E. Moore, this show comprises vivid, geometric wall paintings by Navine G. Khan-Dossos interpreting texts by writers on personal ideas or images: Europe has become an unfashionable idea in these days, Marco Pasi writes. Distrust and malaise roam around, hearts have grown cold. The shows are put together with collective contributions, as are the parties, always packed with young artists and curators. “I don’t know what will happen,” Stevi said by way of goodbye, referring to both the future and the evening. “I often find myself dancing on the table by the end of the night.” The biennial week ended on Friday evening with the opening of Eleni Bagaki’s lush contemplation of her own extremities, “Crack, Crack, Pop, Pop,” at Radio Athènes, the new nonprofit foundation founded by former dealer Helena Papadopoulos. Later the crowd moved en masse to take over a local taverna and finish the week in Greek family style.
Embodying a new model for art production in the making, “Omonoia” will occupy the city for two years and culminate with the biennial’s sixth edition, which will coincide with the opening of Documenta 14: “Learning from Athens.” As Szymczyk concluded at the conference: “Greece is emblematic of what is and will happen in Europe.” At the front line of what may be the impending implosion of capitalism, the country is once again a theater for debate about the state of things to come. To be sure, the homeland of philosopher-performer Diogenes is not a bad place to practice rising from the ashes of our disasters. If nothing else, we can certainly say that the Athens Biennale is performative. “Later you will say, ‘I was there,’ ” Yio said, like the enthusiastic leader of a revolution. Power is action. Be the change.