Tomorrow, the fourteenth edition of Documenta opens its iteration in Kassel, Germany. On the ground, we asked artists in the exhibition, curated by Adam Szymczyk along with a team of nearly twenty curators and advisors, to choose another artist or artists who, in the early moments of the show, immediately stood out in their minds. Documenta 14 in Kassel is open to the public from June 10 through September 17, 2017; the exhibition in Athens opened April 8 and runs through July 16, 2017.

Clip from Eva Stefani, Acropolis, 2002/04, Super 8 and 16 mm, color, sound, 25 minutes.

  • Antonio Vega Macotela, The Mill of Blood, 2017, steel, wood, and glass, 16 2/5 x 29 1/2 x 29 1/2". At Westpavillon (Orangerie), Kassel.

  • Antonio Vega Macotela, The Mill of Blood, 2017, steel, wood, and glass, 16 2/5 x 29 1/2 x 29 1/2". At Westpavillon (Orangerie), Kassel.

Rosalind Nashashibi, In Vivian’s Garden, 2016, oil on canvas, 23 2/3 x 35 2/5". At Palais Bellevue, Kassel.

Moyra Davey, Skeletal Buddha (detail), 2017, 112 C prints, tape, postage, and ink, 11 4/5 × 17 3/4" each. At the Neue Neue Galerie (Neue Hauptpost), Kassel.

Works by Miriam Cahn at documenta Halle, Kassel.

The Unholy Trinity, poster designed by women at a workshop in Koitta, Bangladesh, 1986, and printed at a screen printing workshop at the Eidgah Women’s Centre, Sargodha, Pakistan, 1991, 18 x 27". In Lala Rukh's collection of posters, flyers, screenprinting manual, and other materials relating to the Women’s Action Forum, Lahore (1980s–90s)
. At documenta Halle, Kassel.

Clip from Eva Stefani, Virgin's Temple, 2017, Super 8, color, sound, 2 minutes, 50 seconds.

Vivian Suter, Nisyros (Vivian’s bed), 2016–17, oil, pigment, and fish glue on canvas and paper, and volcanics, earth, botanical matter, microorganisms, and wood. Paintings: 67 × 90 1/2" each. At the Glass Pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, Kassel.

Miriam Cahn, rennen müssen (March 21 and September 17, 2016), oil on canvas, 110 1/5 x 78 3/4". At documenta Halle, Kassel.

R. H. Quaytman at the Neue Galerie, Kassel.

Clip from Artur Żmijewski, Glimpse, 2016–17, digital video transferred from 16-mm film, black-and-white, silent, 20 minutes. Part of Documenta 14, at Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (“Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Hall), Athens.

  • Guillermo Galindo, Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper, 2017, remains of fiberglass and wooden boats, lifebelt and paddle from Lesbos (Greece), goatskin, metal tubes, elastic band, scrap metal, harpsichord strings, piano strings, and metal. At documenta Halle, Kassel.

  • Guillermo Galindo, Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper, 2017, remains of fiberglass and wooden boats, lifebelt and paddle from Lesbos (Greece), goatskin, metal tubes, elastic band, scrap metal, harpsichord strings, piano strings, and metal. At documenta Halle, Kassel.

In the prelude to the opening of the 57th Venice Biennale, we asked artists exhibiting and being celebrated around the city to choose something to highlight on Here are some of their selections. The biennial is open to the public from May 13 through November 26, 2017.

Cinthia Marcelle, Chão de caça (Hunting Ground), 2017, grating floor and stones, and Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado, Nau (Now), 2017, HD video, 44 minutes. For the Brazilian Pavilion, Giardini.

Geoffrey Farmer, A Way Out of the Mirror, 2017. For the Canada Pavilion, Giardini.

Guan Xiao, David, 2013, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 4 minutes 43 seconds. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Arsenale.

Hassan Sharif, Hassan Sharif Studio (Supermarket), 1990-2016, mixed-media objects, heaps, books, boxes. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 58 minutes 10 seconds. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

Rear: Franz Erhard Walther, Wall Formation 'Memory Base (Three Quotations)', 1983, dyed cotton fabric and wood. In “Viva Arte Viva” in the Arsenale.

The pigeons of Venice, San Marco.

Today, the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale opened for early viewings. On the ground, we asked artists showing in “Viva Arte Viva,” curated by Christine Macel, to choose another artist who, in the early moments of the exhibitions, immediately stood out in their minds. The biennial is open to the public from May 13 through November 26, 2017.

Sheila Hicks, Scalata al di là dei terreni cromatici / Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands, 2016-17, mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers. In the Arsenale.

Raymond Hains, La Biennale éclatée, Hongrie, 1968, Plexiglas relief. In the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

Olafur Eliasson, Green light – An artistic workshop, 2017. In the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

Sung Hwan Kim, Love before Bond, 2017, mixed-media installation. In the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

McArthur Binion, DNA: Study: Zero, 2014, oil paint stick and paper on board. In the Central Pavilion, Giardini.

Mark Bradford, Medusa, 2016, acrylic, paint, paper, rope, and caulk, dimensions variable. In “Tomorrow Is Another Day” at the US Pavilion, Giardini.

Sheila Hicks, Scalata al di là dei terreni cromatici / Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands (detail), 2016-17, mixed media, natural and synthetic fibers. In the Arsenale.

Shimabuku, The Snow Monkeys of Texas – Do Snow Monkeys Remember Snow Monkeys? (detail), 2016, mixed-media installation, text, cactus pots, HD video, color, stereo sound, 20'. In the Arsenale.

Claudia Rankine and John Lucas, untitled, 2017, two-cent stamps, dimensions variable.

The New York–based Racial Imaginary Institute examines the idea that race is a construct for all of us. Spearheaded by the poet, essayist, playwright, and 2016 MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine, the institute plans to host exhibitions, performances, lectures, and talks. It is an antidote but not a rejoinder to the new administration in Washington, DC, because, as Rankine notes below, “Trump is not the beginning of this; he’s just a blatant manifestation of it. It was in the air for a long time.”

Here, she discusses her plans with managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler.

LAUREN O’NEILL-BUTLER: Where does the institute currently stand?

Claudia Rankine: We have a curatorial team, which seemed to make sense since what we want to do is curate events. This team includes Casey Llewellyn, Beth Loffreda, Monica Youn, LeRonn Brooks, Meg Onli, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Sara’o Bery. And we have an advisory board. Right now, we are getting ready to launch our website, which will be our online home.

LOB: Will it be a roving, mobile space before you set down roots?

CR: Yes, until we find the space. We have had a number of people offer space to us. It’s been lovely actually. Tilton Gallery and Howl Gallery down in the East Village. The Brooklyn Historical Society as well, for talks, and things like that. We are also partnering with the Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania. The rush to find a site is no longer as immediate because we’ve had people come forward.

LOB: You mentioned that you want the institute to be among the galleries in Chelsea.

CR: Yes, it’s still what we’re looking forward to doing, but it’s an expensive endeavor, so it’s a step at a time.

LOB: Is is there an intention to appeal to people in the New York art world specifically?

CR: It’s not a question of location but it is a question of being in dialogue. Culture drives a lot of things, including our understanding of who we are. It’s certainly the gestalt that tilts our perceptions of self and other. I think it’s important that we not be missed, and placement is important to me. It would have been easier for me to bring it to an academic space. I would have had more access and things would have moved much more quickly, but then we would have been inside an elite and closed space, and it would be harder to enter the mainstream, which is basically where we want to be. I mean, what would be lovely is if one of these galleries just had an extra space that they would let us use as an extension of their own programming…

LOB: I’m imagining a visitor looking at Robert Ryman paintings, at Dia, for instance, and then maybe stepping into the institute to hear a dialogue on whiteness that could affect their perception of the whiteness of those works.

CR: Exactly, so that you could have a framing. One of the things I love about Toyin Ojih Odutola’s paintings is that she is asking us to think about what it means to color a colored person or a black person or a white person. I went to her recent show at Jack Shainman and there was Prince Charles, in black pen and pencil, but still as presented as white as you remember him. How that whiteness traveled through this black surface was interesting to me.

We are bombarded with images of whiteness all the time, but not framed as whiteness. Instead they are framed as normality, as American life, as suburban life, as extreme wealth, but never as this thing called whiteness. What does it mean to make work that has that conversation as part of its making?

LOB: You’ve talked about going into an art bookstore and asking to see the books on whiteness, and no one could find them for you.

CR: The person working there looked at me like it was crazy. He was like, “What are you talking about?”

LOB: But if you had said blackness he might have pulled out several books.

CR: Exactly. That white thing: White people aren’t considered “white artists.” And that means that what they do is transcendent. This is art of the highest order. Yet, there are many books on whiteness—by Richard Dyer, by Nell Painter, and more.

Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Treatment I, 2015, pen ink, gel ink, and pencil on paper. 12 x 9”.

LOB: Whiteness is also being manipulated by the so-called “alt-right” as well.

CR: The way American culture has made words like white supremacy, white dominance, and whiteness such a non-thing contributes to why there’s so much surprise about our new administration. Because now you actually have people in the administration who are white nationalists and no one knows what to do with that. The campaign to keep all of this silent and to transform it into a state of normalcy, rather than the state of whiteness, has worked.

LOB: What would you say to someone who thinks this is intrinsic to capitalism?

CR: It would make me feel better if I could think that this was really about the economy, or capitalism writ large. But I don’t think so. The KKK was real. It was formed immediately after the Civil War—immediately. The black codes were real, and they were formed with the intent of keeping people of color out of the economy and destabilizing their ability to have any kind of normalcy in terms education, housing, and other aspects of their lives. So while I would like to believe the rhetoric around capitalism and the economy driving all of this, I just don’t. A good example is the people who are on the Affordable Care Act who say they want to keep it but who also want to get rid of “Obamacare.” They understand that the ACA is useful to them, but they don’t want anything that is proximate to blackness near them. That’s not about the economy.

LOB: When did the institute begin for you?

CR: Basically, when it occurred to me that we as a culture have no practice talking about race. The minute race comes up, everybody is armed and defensive, and all social graces disappear, the camps are formed. So at that moment, instead of responding to what was coming at me, I just thought, “Why don't we take a minute and talk about why we don't know how to do this?”

I did a call for people to write about why they do or won’t write about race. And those essays became the book I then edited with Beth Loffreda and the artist Max King Cap in 2014, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. The idea that Beth and I had at the time was that we would go on. We weren’t calling it an institute, but we were asking, “Why don’t we have a kind of online collection of art and response and dialogue around this?” We were thinking it would be like Siskel and Ebert or something where we’d be like, “So such and such a film just came out, and how does it address race?” Or, “I saw this show, and she was doing this with race.”

Around that time, I published Citizen. I had no idea that it would become such a public book. It meant that many things I was moving ahead with got put aside. And that lasted longer than I anticipated. Suddenly 2014 was 2016. But then things started to quiet down, relatively speaking. And then I thought, wait, this might be the time for us to start this again.

It didn’t happen in response to Trump. Because Trump is not the beginning of this; he’s just a blatant manifestation of it. It was in the air for a long time.

LOB: Is there a mission statement?

CR: Yes, here goes:

Race is one of the prime ways history lives in us.

Our name “racial imaginary” is meant to capture the enduring truth of race: It is an invented concept that nevertheless operates with extraordinary force in our daily lives, limiting our movements and imaginations. We understand that perceptions, resources, rights, and lives themselves flow along racial lines that confront some of us with restrictions and give others uninterrogated power. These lines are drawn and maintained by white dominance even as individuals and communities alike continually challenge them.

Because no sphere of life is untouched by race, the Institute gathers under its aegis an interdisciplinary range of artists, writers, knowledge-producers, and activists. It convenes a cultural laboratory in which the racial imaginaries of our time and place are engaged, read, countered, contextualized and demystified.

LOB: What kind of shows are you envisioning?

CR: We’re depending on the kindness of strangers. People are loaning work to us for the shows. At this point, we’re asking artists to make pieces for us with the considerations I just outlined in mind. We’ve also had many people come to us and say, “This is my work, it might be of interest to you.” Some of us are artists too so we are making work thinking about it.

I can show you a piece that I’m working on. I’ve been trying to think of a thing in our culture that we all partake in, and yet which always lands in the same place. For me, blondeness is one of these things. The minute you think blonde, you’re going to think white. Even if you see it as freedom, if you see it as beauty, if you see if as youth, it creates its own lexicon around whiteness—so whiteness is freedom, whiteness is beauty, whiteness is youth, whiteness is desirability. I’m also fascinated by blondeness as something that is used in white supremacy as a signal of purity, but now it’s been taken up by everyone, and in a way that doesn’t even pretend to suggest that I was born this way. And so I made these stamps. We’re going to start mailing them out.

And I hope this is what artists will do—think about extending their practice in a way that is in dialogue with how whiteness functions in the culture.

LOB: The institute’s audience is everyone.

CR: Yes, and if that weren’t the case then I could have stayed in academia. It was the academic institutions that created the false histories, language, and science around whiteness, race, and blackness. That allowed the justification of dehumanizing and killing populations. Even when it was then debunked as fabricated, it didn’t matter. It was already in the water. And that was that.

Sometimes people ask me, “Why aren’t you angry with white people?” But I think it’s not individuals. It’s the culture itself. People are born into this. I also think that people believe in their goodness and they think they’re good people. They don’t identify as a community of whiteness because that’s part of how whiteness is constructed. White people are individuals. They don’t belong to the community of whiteness. So to speak about a community of whiteness is appalling to them because they’re individuals, they’re good people.

There’s a fantastic critic named Robin DiAngelo. She’s responsible for the phrase “white fragility,” which is the sense that people are so sensitive to being called out that their responses will go everywhere from tears to murder. She says that what white people should do is begin from the place where they know they’re racist. That is, if white people could just accept the fact that they’re racist because they’re part of a racist culture, and that they belong to a group that has been bred on internalized dominance—that’s her phrase—then we could start to have actual discussions about what’s going on.

View whiteness, inc., an artist's project by Claudia Rankine and John Lucas in Artforum’s Summer 2016 issue here.

Tricky, “Brand New You're Retro,” 1995.

FOR MANY PEOPLE, 2016 was the year that a fantasy of progress contorted into exasperation: “I can’t believe it’s 2016 and people are still racist!” This feeling of belatedness is always beginning to give way to the evident fact that the passage of time alone, in either personal or collective historical life, is not enough to fix catastrophes. For a wound to heal, its cause has to stop. Thus transatlantic slavery, to give an important example, keeps insisting on its unhealed historical reality. An optimistic astonishment that a Black president was just as capable of presiding over drone bombings and lethal police as any other is now mirrored in the astonishment that not every single one of Trump’s outrages originated with his presidency, with many repeating the forms of oppression established by former US presidents. The disaster has already happened, and this is all aftermath.

For all the comparisons to European fascist dictators, a very uncomfortable truth is appearing in wider view: The USA is a white supremacist state since its foundation; the USA is white supremacy in action, alongside its allies, like my home country of Britain. Previous presidents have invoked an inhuman humanist ideology even while killing, imprisoning, disabling, and impoverishing millions. Trump’s shit feels new because he does not pretend to believe in the things these other presidents pretended to believe in: due process, checks and balances, careful paraphrases, inclusion. Because all these things have comfortably coexisted with horror, my anxiety at their collapse feels complicated, like I thought I’d pulled up all the roots of my habitual attachment to the present social order but find them still there, springing back like weeds, a truth about myself. Yet, despite the apparent novelty of all-American fascism, Trump’s shit feels old because it is old. Capitalists have been eating us alive for a very long time.

These monstrous times are primarily creations of the white imaginary: If “Jihadi Obama,” as the frog people call him, can be president, why not an elderly Hitler-cosplay kleptocrat? If Black people can rise up with the demand that the police stop killing them, the red hats ask themselves, why can’t white people rise up with the demand that they be allowed to kill whoever they like? When and where the glossy surface of capitalism frays, the apocalyptic and communal tendencies that are its contradictory engine get exaggerated. At all moments of capitalism, even without a Trumplike goblin to fan the flames, it rolls along at a frenetic pace of death-production, trapping people in poverty, labor, and disease.

If goodness is a category that cannot comfortably include the perpetrators of genocide, mass incarceration, and slavery, then there has never been a good president, although some do more violence than others. Some people have known this forever, but knowledge is complicated and doesn’t proceed naturally from either identity or experience.

What once appeared to me as ancient history giving a shimmer of interest to the family tree—the camp, the ship, the plantation—lately reveals itself as a continual unfolding in the present and the future. No one is inherently safe from the violence of capitalism, and whiteness is a violently upheld dream that safety is real. What once appeared as to-come—the fascist dystopia—in fact lies behind and all around us. Some people are smart or hurt enough to have known since forever how nothing has ever stopped happening, that the genocides and exclusions are ongoing and as urgent as when they were first enacted. How are the rest of us to grasp this gridlocked time? To understand the nature of capitalist society we must understand its foundational and ongoing violences. To understand our relation to the governments who issue our passports and regulate our lives, we collectively reencounter a deep and long-ago pain, as if for the first time. Though it can feel apocalyptic, this pain or fear of pain is not the end of the world, because there has never been a world: The image of a coherent world, a supplement to the ideology of whiteness, is upheld in the violence of the border, the nation, even the law. Let it go. In place of a world there is the disorganized and proximate texture of the everyday; there are close friends and closer enemies. There is the particular body. There is this room.

In an atmosphere of delirious threat, the newspapers report the President’s every move, from drone bombings to tweets, as if it were an extraordinary and never-before-seen phenomenon. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” abound, new terms for propaganda, and retroactively reveal a truth that you could learn in a high school classroom: that news, like history, is partial and partisan and has always been so. Everything that seems self-evident can be turned slightly and, in this altered light, appear as its opposite. And there is always the everyday shrug, the gaze that trains itself on the minute and pressing difficulties of everyday life, that get bigger and bigger the broker you are.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling of past and future, of better and worse. Last summer I was panicked by the Brexit referendum vote. All the various forms of dispossession that are my possession, my inheritance, loomed large in my head and just like in childhood I was delivered back to a fear of imminent apocalypse. I spoke to myself sternly: Go to Black neighborhoods where helicopters circle above and residents can be stopped by police at any moment for a list of infractions that include “furtive movements”—go there and say that you’re worried that there’s been a fascist coup. Go to Aleppo, to its ruins, and say you’re worried about the apocalypse.

Go anywhere and tell them that you think something bad might be happening. Everyone already knows, but it’s nice to be together and talk. I tell myself I won’t look at the news today. I have to work. In a cafe near Prospect Park, two strangers at a nearby table are in an intense discussion: “This atmosphere of white supremacy…” is the fragment I overhear. I get an email from my lawyer: “…the problems that some Iranian clients are having, which is a very sad reflection on the values of our country.” I go to buy a phone-charger, the salesman tells me he’s Pakistani but has been here for twenty years. “So you’re American now,” I say, making small talk. “After this week, I don’t even know any more,” he says, and we both laugh, for no reason at all. On a Facebook thread some people in London are horrified that an anti-deportation protest might disrupt train schedules. My friends are sad and afraid.

Environmentalists make much of the long historical time in which the full expanse of human life from the earliest peoples up until now has all taken place in the blink of an eye. In this long time, we are still reeling—a word that means both a dance and the preparation for a fall—from the catastrophes of transatlantic slavery and colonialism. This atmosphere of aftermath has been theorized by Christina Sharpe as in the wake of the slave ship. This prevails literally as our presence here, which comes after the slave ship, after the Holocaust, after the settler colony, and so on.

It’s too late and he just got started. It is too late even though we only just got started. It is too late even though many of us are young. It is too late, but it has been too late for a long time, and everything that happens is fated to happen belatedly, after its time, after its proper use. And yet we will go on finding belated uses for all the things rendered useless by their wrong time.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK.

Andreas Angelidakis, Antonio Negri, and Paul B. Preciado at the opening of the Public Programs of Documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, September 14, 2016. Photo: Stathis Mamalakis.

ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE MOMENT: Greece is at the center of a convulsion in global capitalism. Athens, the birthplace of democratic ideals, experienced one of the earliest documented economic crises in the Western world, in the fifth century BCE. Even now, as an early warning sign of things to come for the European Union—and the epicenter of the biggest refugee crisis in history—Greece is a natural case study. Adding to the fracas is the inauguration this April of one of the world’s largest art exhibitions, Documenta 14: “Learning from Athens (Working Title),” directed by Adam Szymczyk.

Szymczyk proposed the concept for his edition of the Kassel, Germany–based quinquennial after attending the opening of the fourth Athens Biennale, in October 2013. Titled “Agora,” it took place in the city’s former Stock Exchange building and largely eschewed the exhibition format in favor of an open forum for the exchange of ideas. “I am trying to figure out a way to move to Athens,” he said at a tavern later that night amid a euphoric, rowdy crowd infused with copious wine and raucous rebetiko.

Initiated in 2007, the Athens Biennale has inhabited any number of evocative unoccupied spaces, from structures built for the 2004 Summer Olympics to a former gasworks, now a municipal cultural center called Technopolis. “Nobody could foresee the crisis in 2007,” said cofounder Poka-Yio. “The name, ‘Destroy Athens,’ was like a premonition.” Last summer the no-exhibition model of the Athens Biennale reached its apex in “Omonoia,” intended to unfold over two years in a series of meetings, or “synapses,” under the leadership of Massimiliano Mollona, an anthropologist specializing in labor politics. At the inaugural conference it was already apparent that art-world habits of exclusivity conflicted with desires to promote social change. Later an anarchist group running a refugee squat refused to collaborate, among others, thwarting the biennial’s attempt to incorporate political and community groups around the city.

View of Athens Biennale — Agora, November 23, 2013. Photo: Neil Cummings.

It was clear by last summer the format was not working, and Mollona resigned, followed by biennial cofounder Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, leaving Poka-Yio to pick up the pieces of an ambitious show with few resources and appoint Whitechapel curator Nayia Yiakoumaki as new director of research and international networks. The next edition, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” will open in April 2017 as an exhibition cocurated by and around the work of Romany artist Delaine Le Bas and her family archive, displayed in the suggestively decaying Bageion Hotel and other vacated ruins around the central Omonoia neighborhood. “From postwar depression and civil-war damage to a society of false prosperity, the buildings are emblematic of what’s happened in Greece over the years,” said Yiakoumaki.

Spaces left empty by the crippled economy are an open invitation to artists and curators, who have filled in the gaps with DIY residency and exhibition programs, often financed through crowdfunding. Creative collectives are proliferating. Daily Lazy—currently comprising artists Stelios Karamanolis, Irini Miga, Tula Plumi, and Yorgos Stamkopoulos—began as a blog with nomadic exhibitions and will soon launch a space in the basement of the café-bar Εφημερίδα (Newspaper). “Like it or not, Greeks have had to reinvent themselves and find new means of working and exhibiting,” said curator Christopher Marinos. Sited in a former parking garage owned by artist Vasilis Papageorgiou’s family, Enterprise Projects alternates between studio and exhibition space. Founded in 2012 by artists Paki Vlassopoulou, Chrysanthi Koumianaki, and Kosmas Nikolaou, the storefront 3137 Office showcases collaborative projects, most recently “After the explosion…you hear the light,” a series of discussions and exhibits focused on revolutionary art practices of the 1970s. Many Greek artists have returned from living abroad, including Georgia Sagri, who spearheads Ύλη[matter]HYLE, “a semipublic, semipersonal space that aims to bring together art, politics, and sciences” in an apartment building populated mostly with the brass plaques of former tenants.

Foreign creatives are moving in, attracted by the mild climate and low cost of living, with the idea that they can somehow withdraw from or at least mediate their participation in the commercial market. Documenta has injected a sense of excitement into this system, and the anxious political situation offers plenty to talk about—or, more cynically, to be “inspired by,” most famously for Ai Weiwei, who followed his controversial work about asylum-seekers on Lesvos with an exhibition last summer at the Museum of Cycladic Art. German artists Lukas Panek and Paul Makowsky found the premises for Super—opened in October with “Free Drinks”—on a real-estate website before ever setting foot in Athens. Around the corner, French architect Matthieu Prat resides in an unfinished building as a collaborative design experiment called Kassandras, initiated in a 2016 workshop with students from Prague’s Academy of Art, Architecture, and Design. Currently he and British artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos are working with residents of the Eleonas refugee camp to design a communal space with tables for playing távli (Greek backgammon), a game that is common across the Near East.

Yiannis Pappas in “As One” at the Benaki Museum, March 10, 2016. Photo: Cathryn Drake.

Public funds have disappeared along with the market. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) has sat empty since its completion in early 2014. First the pristine white elephant caused rancor in the art world after the firing of founding director Anna Kafetsi, seen by many as a casualty of the Piraeus Bank president’s spouse’s desire to control the $35 million structure. The retrofit of the Fix Brewery building, truncating the impressive horizontal lines of Takis Zenetos’s original modernist structure, has been roundly criticized too. Current director Katerina Koskina has braved the troubled waters, and last October finally succeeded in mounting a show, “Urgent Conversations: Athens–Antwerp,” which intertwined the collections of EMST and Belgium’s MuHKA. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance and principal player in the 2015 negotiations over the Greek debt crisis, attended the opening with his wife, artist Danae Stratou, who contributed the immersive 2004 video installation The River of Life. Critic Margarita Pournara, in the newspaper Kathimerini, noted however that it was hardly cause for celebration: Only a portion of the building had opened, more than a decade late, and the collection will not be accessible for at least most of next year while Documenta uses its spaces. Culture minister Aristides Baltas was sacked just a couple of days after appearing at the show’s inauguration and replaced by actress Lydia Koniordou.

Private foundations such as Cypriot collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste and the Neon Organization, founded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, are taking up the slack in arts funding. This includes mounting major international exhibitions in places like the cash-strapped Benaki Museums, taken over last spring by Marina Abramović’s “As One,” a showcase for young Greek performance artists organized by Neon. The annual grants awarded by Outset Greece, a program sponsored by Neon, have been the driving force behind most recent local activity. It provides support for Radio Athènes, a new nonprofit launched by Helena Papadopoulos; State of Concept, founded by curator Iliana Fokianaki, which hosts projects with emerging artists and curators from Greece and abroad; and curatorial duo Locus Athens, whose show “The Thickness of Time” is currently reanimating the spaces of the former foreign press club with films by six artists and a revival of its vintage bar.

Into this dynamic milieu landed the spaceship Documenta, greeted by many with enthusiasm, while others viewed it as a mission dispatched by an alien race to study a troubled, once seminal civilization. Almost immediately, a group of young artists expressed skepticism in a declaration stenciled on city walls: DEAR DOCUMENTA: I REFUSE TO EXOTISIZE MYSELF TO INCREASE YOUR CULTURAL CAPITAL. SINCERELY, THE NATIVES.

Left: Dear Documenta graffiti. Photo: Cathryn Drake. Right: Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk (right) at Learning from Documenta. Photo: Giorgos Sakkas.

In September, the writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado kicked off the first events of Documenta 14’s public program, “Parliament of Bodies: 34 Exercises of Freedom,” in a former Greek Military Police headquarters used for interrogation and torture under the junta in what is now called Freedom Park, a block away from the US embassy. Amid modular seating designed by Andreas Angelidakis to evoke the ruins of the Pnyx, artists, academics, and activists have been presenting lectures on subjects such as international arms trading, conducting digital-detox meditation sessions, and even leading a “Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens.” The Apatride Society of the Political Others, an ongoing forum for disenfranchised peoples—such as those compelled to migrate across the borders of gender or nations—recently gathered the heads of local immigrant organizations to air concerns, for example, over the inability to get citizenship for children born in Greece.

The Greek press responded with scathing reviews, questioning its relevance to a nation searching for practical solutions as the refugee crisis reaches critical proportions and camps have become ghettos with unacceptable living conditions. Stefanos Kasimatis, a political writer for the mainstream Kathimerini, made fun of a session on ecosex led by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle as promoting “masturbation al fresco” and argued that the Documenta curators express aversion to the very capitalists who pay their “fat salaries.” As always, but especially here, art is unavoidably politics: While the German-funded Documenta 14 aims to give voice to subjugated populations, Angela Merkel is teaching beleaguered Greece a lesson and German corporations are snatching up Greek companies, including newly privatized airports and a major phone company. “The criticism is that they are not really dealing with the Greek issues, what’s happening now,” explained Neon’s director, Elina Kountouri. “What got them into trouble is the title, Learning from Athens, which created a lot of expectations.”

View from Documenta workshop at the Polytechnic School, sculpture commemorating student deaths on November 17, 1973, by Memos Makris. Photo: Cathryn Drake.

As it happens, Documenta is learning how to navigate the tricky realities of a country that has suffered centuries of colonizers and untrustworthy governments. “The most controversial point is the fact that they are occupying historically loaded spaces,” said Elpida Rikou, cofounder of the anthropological research study Learning from Documenta, established by professors of Athens’s Panteion University. During former President Barack Obama’s visit in November, violent protests exploded on the street outside of Documenta’s workshop at the Polytechnic School, located just inside the gate demolished by government tanks in 1973 to crush the student uprising against the CIA-backed junta. Last month Preciado fielded concerns at the think tank’s panel “The Politics of Curating,” characterizing the very production of the exhibition in Athens as an act of protest. “There is a struggle between the institution of Documenta and the project of Documenta 14, and this is not a smooth relationship,” he explained. “We are learning what Athens means beyond the city itself as a cultural question for Europe today,” he added, “and we won’t be able to fully understand it until we go through the whole process of making the exhibition.”

“So far the most important thing Documenta is offering the city is this engagement in the conversation, even argument, between people who are trying to answer all these questions,” The Breeder’s George Vamvakidis concluded. “Even the bad reviews and criticism are positive because it’s energy being circulated.”

Indeed, Athens is a gregarious organism bursting with connections and contradictions, fermentation and disorder. The street corners and cafés are still the best place to get news—and that is why, to learn anything true, you must stay a while. This much we know: The revolution won’t be funded, and this spring Documenta will mount a spectacular exhibition throughout city museums and archaeological sites. “Everyone is triggered by Documenta and is programming around it,” Yiakoumaki says. There will still be much more to discover in the open city—and there may be a new government, and even currency, by then too.

Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Athens.