ATHENS WAS COLD, the coldest it has been in some thirty years—so cold, in fact, that it recently snowed. Without the blush of warm air, the city’s usual statement piece—the Acropolis, high on its hill—had assumed the gelid, distant role of a winter palace, icily lit at night and dull in the afternoons, abandoned to an uncharitable background of gray sky that darkened, occasionally, into fits of frigid rain. While the rest of the world was undergoing its hottest winter on record, Athenians bundled up and trudged on, and you might have mistaken them for New Yorkers—sniffling, bound in parkas—or their distant northwestern neighbors, the Germans, who were, culturally speaking, everywhereish in the city at the moment, since Documenta 14 has partially relocated from Kassel to Greece “to learn from Athens,” so the slogan goes, and was, about seventy days before its official opening, very much under way with a rapidly paced series of public programs curated by the philosopher Paul B. Preciado.
For the bitter week after the Inauguration of Donald Trump, Preciado invited the philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi to conduct a three-day symposium on the “Destruction of Europe.” Like other events in Documenta’s series, it was held at the Parko Eleftherias, a former police-run prison where, the artist Andreas Angelidakis told me, Communists and people who identified as LGBTQ—“basically anyone who was different”—were tortured by regime goons from the late 1960s till 1974, when the Greek military junta ended. Set back from a main road on a hill of sparse trees, the ex-prison is nondescript and could be mistaken for an old park administrative building, were it not for the barred windows. Inside, it is open, without ornamentation, and a plain paneled roof gives away nothing of its past life.
Many of the Documenta venues were chosen for their distinct relationships to Greece’s both recent and distant political and cultural past, including the shuttered Athens Polytechnic, which sits adjacent to the Archaeological Museum and was the site of a student-led uprising against the regime in 1973 that left twenty-four dead. The Polytechnic remains an active site for spontaneous and frequent anarchist demonstrations against the police, and when I visited the area several times in the week, I invariably found heavily armed riot cops guarding the square out front, backed up by a bulletproof bus of reserve troops. Greek antifa graffiti was scrawled across the walls of the old university behind them (MORE FEMINISM / LESS BULLSHIT). A recent demonstration left a small kiosk and three buses burned, and the cops eyed everyone who was visibly under fifty with maximum suspicion.
At the ex-prison, where Bifo spoke, Angelidakis installed a movable set of brick-printed cushions that acted as a so-called parliament of bodies for various monthly talks and performances that Preciado has organized around the notion of provisional “societies.” The nonexistent Society for Necropolitics, for example, was credited with sponsoring Bifo’s talk, which began with a long, introductory discussion of the ways power identifies possible and “potent” futures “within the texture of the present.” The Italian philosopher, with a twisty shock of white hair poised atop his head, sat on a cushion with a microphone before him while two cameras broadcasted his lecture on the internet. Each night was crowded and, in the Q&A, feisty. He lectured in a sprinting manner, seemingly driven by a frantic need to get it all out even at the expense of sound logic. (He could not stop removing, and then putting on, and then removing his black sweater.)
He talked for a long time. On the first night, he explained that the lecture was prompted by a recent conversation in Kassel where he was asked, “Is it”—it being the Big Its of Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, Rodrigo Duterte, Brexit, Frexit, Italexit, Spexit, global populism, the crisis of Europe, etc.—“fascism?”
“Yes and no,” he said.
From there it was power, potency, and possibility: a three-pronged analysis of the present through which he attempted, over three days, to answer the question put to him in Kassel. Power, he argued, is that which identifies the “potency” of one possible future entangled in the present and “pulls it into being.” For better or worse. The awkward sexual politics of these words was strangely ignored.
He was particularly interested in the crisis of Europe—and the attendant crisis of Euro-American ultra-nationalism that is threatening to destroy the EU. On the second night, Bifo concluded darkly that the EU is, in fact, already over. Predicting that Le Pen would win the next French election, he said that “we are living in a corpse we must crawl out of.” Bifo followed a number of threads, from the sexual identification between Putin and Trump (men of “potency,” they revere each other for their rhetorical ability “to create”), to Barack Obama as “the most interesting intellectual of the past ten years” for his “philosophy of impotency,” to a lengthy genealogy of the difference between the Protestant gothic of the north (“realism,” “flatness”) and the Catholic baroque of the south (“arbitrariness,” “the fold”).
This last distinction was the principal thrust of his winding symposium, which led him to conclude that those who are looking might see in the present’s entanglement of futures a better one than these current fascists are offering, and that, in seeing it, might “pull it forth.” What would that future be? For him, it is “baroque communism,” which would stand against the baroque capitalism of Trump and May. (Bifo sees the emergence of this form of capitalism in Nixon’s decision to unpeg the dollar from the gold standard. Long story.) “Baroque communism,” like its brother form of capitalism, is based on a high degree of economic arbitrariness, a kind of “why not?” Why not?
We should not despair, he said, and we should always be prepared to be wrong about everything, the bad and the good. “In the coming age of darkness,” he insisted, “we must remember to make our bodies viable to the light.”
By Friday, the city vibrated with a new energy—mostly nightlife, but also some other unnamable thing—and more cops were out than I could have imagined. Up near the national park, some masked anarchist groups had black bloc’d a square or two and were preparing a demonstration, their black flags unfurled on arm’s-length wooden poles they waved to passersby. I wanted to see what they would say and do (they were all so friendly and handsome!) but couldn’t stay as that evening the Toronto- and Athens-based artist Chrysanne Stathacos was hosting a performance-lecture at her ancestral home farther up the hill.
Stathacos told a small crowd about her family’s struggles to survive in Greece from the nineteenth century on, beginning in Crete and continuing through the Nazi occupation. It was her friend Jorge Zontal’s birthday. Zontal was a founding member of General Idea, and he would have been seventy-three had he not died from AIDS in 1994.
If the word is crisis, and it is, then Athens, where that word was invented, is a good place to consider its implications and trajectories—though the city did not factor directly into the Bifo’s discussion of Europe’s futures. I suppose it was meant to be there, somewhere, in the texture of his argument, waiting to be unlocked by present minds. In any case, it seems—and as Documenta’s presence attests—to be a useful city from which to imagine possible outcomes, not least because of the influx of Syrian refugees and the cash-poor streets, resulting from German-imposed austerity measures, that are producing such extreme tableaux—food lines, camps, occupations, anarchist movements, a renewed promise of communism—across the city.
In the original Greek, κρίσις is decision-time. The political-financial-national-intellectual crisis is expanding, but it was difficult in Athens, where arguably it appeared years before anyone was willing to notice, to accept Bifo’s goofier arguments, like when he paired the possibility of a communist future with a need to reenergize the intellectual poetry of a “global Silicon Valley,” in which engineers work with artists, poets with computer programmers, to disentangle that future from an entangled present. Whatever that might mean. It seemed to me that the future we wanted was entangled somewhere in the squats and occupation theaters, in the artists and people of Athens, and waiting for those who are fighting for it to cut it from the Greek fabric, not Silicon Valley’s.
I returned that final evening to my Airbnb, on the seventh floor of a narrow building with a wide view of the Acropolis, near Monastiraki station. I wasn’t sure what to do. While I waited for the decision to come to me, I drank a beer with a friend on my terrace, where we stared at the Parthenon and Erechtheum and thought about how things once got so bad here that, at the end of the second and beginning of the first millennium BCE, writing was lost for four hundred years. How far we are from then, and how far we still have to go. We left for a small bar along the crowded street, where European music videos were projected above dancers on a blank white wall.