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.