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Condemned to Roam, Without Repose / Documenta 14

“We will fail. But we will try.” Wandering through the streets of Athens, I read these words in the much-leafed-through pages of my About Documenta 14 pamphlet. The words rightly address the difficulty of harnessing coherent, critical agency amid such a mega exhibition. Pursuing a politicized reading of our present moment and its attendant histories, Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk cited “unlearning” — a play on the working title “Learning from Athens” — as a way to enter into an exhibition that attempts to sidestep any hegemonic narratives and allow space for manifold approaches and multilayered, unfolding interpretations.

And yet, from the word go at the press conference, where Jani Christou’s Epicycle (1968/2017) was performed by the participating artists and the curatorial team, who hissed, wailed and stamped their feet like a group of wild, untameable animals (being conducted by a white man), it was difficult to glean any clear methodology.

Spanning four main venues — the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), the Benaki Museum – Pireos Street Annexe and the Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) — with additional performances and happenings taking place throughout the city, the exhibition offers hundreds of works to write about.

Originally founded in 1871 as a musical institution, the Athens Conservatoire (Odeion) features projects by artists who deal with sound or reconsider its use-value. Susan Hiller’s video work The Last Silent Movie (2007) draws visitors into a pitch-black space where, sitting in old-fashioned cinema stalls, they listen to archival recordings of extinct and endangered languages. Understood only as variants of noise, pitch, tone and vibration, a constellation of dying communication is mapped, the supernova before the ultimate silencing of these minority groups. In Nevin Aladağ’s Music Room (Athens) (2017), performers play musical instruments constructed from furniture: stools as drums; sofas plucked as guitars; chair cellos; metal tables adorned with bells to shrill effect. She references tarantism, mainly practiced by women who “dance away the pain of any poison.” Yet as people observed the performance, no one danced, choosing to soak up the experience with passive eyes rather than active bodies.

Archival materials from the Scratch Orchestra are presented nearby (an example of Documenta, true to form, offering up hidden histories but making them feel didactic and dry, boxed in vitrines). This musical community, representing varying levels of expertise, formed in 1969 in London to perform music “from scratch,” often based on written instructions and graphic scores. Daniel Knorr’s performative installation Materialization (2017), in which a mountain of detritus from the streets of Athens is pressed, object by object, into books for visitors, feels like an overliteral and sentimental spectacle of what we might “take away” from Athens. More subversive are the instruments made (and played) by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo, also comprising discarded matter. These odes to border crossings use plastic combs, water bottles and boat parts to reference how Mesoamerican peoples saw instruments as talismans for movement between worlds.

Nigerian Emeka Ogboh’s The Way of Earthly Things Are Going (2017) wraps an amphitheater-of-sorts within a sonorous landscape, transforming data into musical scores from documents about financial crises from 1929 to the present day. A real-time LED display of world stock indexes runs simultaneously, its bright red and green digits charting the world of finance, which feels jarringly stark amid the ambient sounds. Performances at the Conservatoire abounded, including Haitian choreographer Kettly Noël’s Zombification (2017), in which puppets made from hessian bags and ropes have mirror-panel visages reflecting the viewer’s own face; these voodoo figures move as zombies within a bamboo-stick installation, seen as “nonfolkloric figures responsible for current, real, globalized violence.” And they’ve got our faces.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a former brewery that was abandoned in 1982, has only recently reopened after a long-term reconstruction project. Nigerian Olu Oguibe’s Biafra Time Capsule (2017) reflects present-day narratives of displacement through books, photographs and magazines representing the human tragedy experienced by Biafra during the 1960s Nigerian civil war. French filmmaker Michel Auder’s Gulf War TV War Untitled (1991, edited 2017) depicts him filming his TV while constantly changing channels. I was reminded of my own 1990s childhood, when I sat and stared and flipped past the static between stations, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to news reports on George H. W. Bush’s “Operation Desert Storm” in Iraq to easy-to-watch commercials.

Chilean Cecilia Vicuña’s sculpture Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens) (2017) suspends thick masses of knotted red wool from a circular metal frame. Reminiscent of umbilical cords, blood or even matted hair, quipu was originally an Incan system for recording events with knotted strings. Here, the poet Vicuña symbolically suggests the joining of word, narrative history and flesh as we imagine the bloodshed of past regimes, including Chile’s Pinochet, which resonates with today’s landscape of war and brutality.

On Pireos Street, the Benaki Museum seeks to investigate untold, unfinished or overshadowed histories. Israeli artist Roee Rosen fictionalizes the life of Eva Braun (Live and Die as Eva Braun, 1995–97), writing texts that place the reader in the subjective position of Hitler’s wife. This does two things: make us see Braun as human, and reminds us that we too are emotional, fallible and capable of committing evils. The standout work is Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s somniloquies (2017). A seventy-minute film of hazy, indistinguishable body parts, as if seen through squinting eyes in a dream, is overlaid with 1960s recordings of the world’s most prolific sleep-talker, American musician Dion McGregor. His descriptions veer from being cruel to intriguing and sometimes funny, as extreme sexual scenarios are interspersed with the sounds of snoring. Though the histories we amass in our dreams are often lost to the night, here we experience a half-open window onto that world.

Projects at the Athens School of Fine Arts (where one could also visit the studios of students) supposedly address notions of creativity and educational experimentation. Photographs, magazine articles and texts about Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s dance deck (on the hills outside San Francisco), where innovative dance pieces and improvisations took shape in the 1960s, reinforce current rereadings of the history of Minimalism, inserting dance and movement into the story. Artur Źmijewski’s film Glimpse (2016–17) is a staged documentary depicting the refugee camps of Berlin and Calais. The artist paints men’s faces white, marks their clothes with crosses and gives them new shoes. Although Źmijewski raises important questions regarding the place of art in the world and its impact on our reality, his work here feels both patronizing and exploitative.

The first chapter of Documenta 14 in Athens poses an open-ended question regarding what art can be during times of economic and humanitarian crisis. What it doesn’t answer is what art can ever really do, or where the agency of this exhibition lies (and the subsequent use-value of its €37 million budget). In an open letter about artist and refugee evictions as implemented by the city of Athens, written by the local activist group Artists Against Evictions to Documenta 14 visitors, they urge: “You say you want to learn from Athens, well first open your eyes to the city and listen to the streets.” The exhibition is complex and obfuscated, just like the world in which we live, and at times it’s hard to tell what is happening and why — again, an excellent reflection of our times. But we need more than a mirror image. Culture can do more, has done more, and should strive to stimulate social change. By reflecting a complicated world within which we’re already becoming lost, it feels as if the many voices of the artists in the exhibition drown one another out. We are left “condemned to roam, without repose.”¹

by Louisa Elderton

¹ from “Conversation,” a poem by Olu Oguibe, quoted in Documenta 14: Daybook
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The End of an Era / Girls

Each Sunday during its run, since 2012, I watched Girls by myself, beginning in a college dorm and then in several dinky New York apartments. Girls has been a private phenomenon that defined the better half of my twenties, and this Sunday it came to a sobering and surprising end.

The finale is so intimate as to seem small, but it is as epic and poignant as the last episode of The X-Files. Indeed, Girls always made ostensibly insignificant emotions seem vast, affording viewers the chance to experience being at once individually validated and invisibly adrift in a sea of other people’s feelings — both real and projected.

My evolution alongside the series began in part as a comical venture. It provided an arena wherein I could laugh at the foibles I saw so forcefully in myself, which was followed inevitably by a healthy dose of self-hatred as a result of my identification with the characters. It allowed me to indulge my aspirational tendencies and fall in love with what I wanted more than anything — a glamorous emotional legibility.

When Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) began to exhibit signs of anxiety and depression, everything changed. What was once a self-deprecating diversion became deadly serious, and my solo viewing of Girls became claustrophobic as the series progressed. It instilled the fear that my “artistic” self-regard, my masochistic inhabitation of my own thoughts, is destructively bereft of meaning, that it is all a cliché. As I found myself empathizing with the vain but sincere Marnie (Allison Williams), or harboring jealousy toward Hannah’s growing success as a writer, I worried that I was at best morally bankrupt and at worst the millennial stereotype at the center of so many Girls think pieces.

At the outset of the final season, I asked both my best friend and my beleaguered therapist why I found the show so moving, and neither could provide an answer. In approximating my own answer, I understand that I cannot speak to the social truths of the series. Girls was not created for me — a gay man with no lived experience of the rightfully female-centered issues Dunham explores with regard to gender, sexuality, illness, professional advancement and violence. I can only offer a provisional and personal guess about the show’s significance.

It comes down to the ability of Girls to depict and imagine loneliness in a way that no other television show has. Girls presents a beautiful and heart-wrenching parade of broken dreams, false starts, and small triumphs that are at once distant and as close as your own skin. In this way, Girls invited you not to identify with its stories, but rather to position yourself in proximity to them with an unflinching abandon.

by William J. Simmons

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Review /

Franco Mazzucchelli Converso / Milan

The church of San Paolo Converso, whose west end has been newly inaugurated as an exhibition space by Franco Mazzucchelli’s (b. 1939) intervention, has served numerous functions since its sixteenth-century construction: a storage depot, a concert hall, a recording studio and also currently an architect’s office. Here, the artist’s monumental polyethylene inflation swells into every cavity of space: a model of soft sculptural critique more than fifty years on from his first inflatables.

San Paolo’s side chapels and sanctuary, so clearly delineated when their crisp baroque curves are exposed, are now muffled and shrouded by the opaqueness of the material, undermined of functional relevance: the definition of mediated, restricted experience. White lines segment the structure, aerated by a large industrial fan into a throbbing, almost larval body, whose motion and dimensions shift and distend with the introduction of real human bodies within. This was always the public space of the church, a chapel for lay worshippers walled off from the convent next door. Consequently, Mazzucchelli’s “riappropriazione” of a public space with a long history of appropriation comes across less as an assault on an institution per se than as an embodiment of our collective uncertainty about how public spaces should function in a world where experiences have turned increasingly inward.

Wriggling through the compromised building’s structure to a vantage point at the top, the inflation fails to threaten the original frescoes by Giulio and Antonio Campi. These works of illusionism were once designed to extend the real experience of architectural space into a heavenly projection beyond; yet in the context of this exhibition their form and meaning are distant abstractions. Mazzucchelli’s interventions were always rooted in a spirit of collective socialization, toward a colonization of space free from class, gender and racial distinctions. Now, as we look around at one another in search of new meanings, encased in our collective shroud, we are left to question our augmented reality.

by Alex Estorick

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Game State /

Locomotion in an Open World Game

Open world games are about exploration. At first, the space between two locations is unfamiliar to the player, so one must travel between them in order to experience it. This is rather the point. Essentially, these games intend to open up this space and simulate its traversal—quite different to transit in our daily lives, which we aim ever further to truncate, reducing our commute wherever possible.

But it is also in video games that we find the loading screen, the placeholder for travel. Somewhere between exploring and loading, there is a zen state of being.

Desert Bus (Absolute Entertainment, 1995), for the SEGA CD, has you drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas in real time. Despite never having an official release (although ROMs circulate online), it is perhaps the best-known “anti-game.” To call Desert Bus an open world game would be a joke—it couldn’t be more linear. It is comprised of one encompassing environment, without loading screens between areas. Every inch of the drive looks largely the same, throughout its marathon, single-sitting play-through.

The game’s intentions are clear—do nothing for eight hours—questioning the very nature of video games and why we play them at all. But Desert Bus is actually very much a game about doing something, doing one thing—namely, driving the bus. And, perhaps more importantly, never not driving the bus. The vehicle’s wonky alignment requires constant player input. Merely allowing the bus to stall, by taking your finger of the acceleration button, will result in your being towed back to Tucson, again in real time. Its limitations create a remarkably narrow field of possibility, and its unforgiving system, coupled with its intentionally broken mechanic, create a simple but profound tension, mounting as you get closer to Vegas. When you’re seven hours into your drive, keeping the bus on the road is as high-stakes as it gets in gaming. Underestimating its own systems and rules, Desert Bus answers the very questions it poses: In trying to illustrate how boring and pointless games are, it creates a tense and exhilarating experience. As a game about nothing, it is fundamentally broken.

Perhaps the best-known open world games are the Grand Theft Auto series, in which driving has always been integral. It’s one third of the name after all. Here, time behind the wheel isn’t downtime, and even cruising for the sake of cruising will invariably result in an unfolding drama. However innocuous the intention of the drive, pandemonium is almost inevitable.

But unlike Desert Bus, the Los Angeles of GTA V (Rockstar Games, 2013) is a living, breathing, pulsing world. Far more than a mere backdrop, it is the figure of action itself. To put the landscape back in its place and appreciate it in a more leisurely fashion, the player must take to train hopping. By positioning oneself in a boxcar, and allowing the camera to drift naturally, you can observe the game’s perfectly rendered textures and its diminishing light particles in a way not afforded in the automobile.

If Desert Bus is about doing nothing for the sake of it, of exploring the potential for boredom the medium affords, then Final Fantasy XV (SquareEnix, 2017) is about doing nothing in order to postpone the doing of something potentially more boring.

Ostensibly, you take the role of a certain Prince Noctis, off on a stag-holiday road trip with his best friends, before he is to be married off in order to forge peace between two kingdoms. The reality is closer to a J-pop band doing odd jobs for strangers. In an effort to undo all the work which has been made in the open world role-playing game genre in the last decade, Final Fantasy XV finds new ways to automate boredom and twist it into purpose. Even the frivolous, fun stuff is a joyless graft from another era: tedious fetch quests and frustrating fishing challenges.

And this is where the game succeeds—as an exercise in putting off responsibility and deferring obligation. For a game rooted in the idea of a road trip, you have surprisingly little control of the vehicle itself, no more than you have of the eponymous desert bus. This is seemingly so that you choose the auto-drive function and let Noctis’s lackey take the wheel. Every system you engage with, from how the characters level-up, to the in-game currency, and the day-night cycle, or how driving the car itself works, all encourage the player to auto-drive between remote points. Some drives can take up to eleven minutes, which is a lifetime in video game terms.

During these long drives, the characters occasionally chat amongst themselves, but more often they are found to be doing nothing. They stare idly at their smartphones, or gaze out the window at the hyperreal patchwork landscapes of the American south, complete with muscle cars and diners. As they do nothing, you are invited to do the same. To make a sandwich or check email, glance occasionally at the TV, as they glance out the window. Distance times between locales are stated beforehand, enabling the player to plan accordingly and find the most efficient way to do nothing, whilst the game plays itself.

Whilst Desert Bus is accidentally and unbearably tense, Final Fantasy XV has somehow stumbled upon the perfect mechanic for sightseeing, meditation, and achieving a sense of calm in a digital realm.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a new column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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Every Time a Ear di Soun / Documenta 14

Released in 1984, the video for Queen’s single “Radio Ga Ga” places the medium of radio in the semiotic ecology of early modernism. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics, complete with references to the “wars of worlds” and the “old time stars,” not to mention the video’s borrowing of imagery from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), create an unmistakable aura of nostalgia around radio’s cultural position.

Despite Freddie’s assurances that radio’s “finest hour” is still to come, to pop fans of the 1980s — increasingly accessing music and information via television, and exposed to the seemingly inescapable logic of MTV — radio was already becoming a medium of the past. Yet a funny thing happened on its way to obsolescence. Not only did radio survive the 1980s but, in an age of podcasts and the unhinged rantings of Alex Jones, the medium has arguably adjusted more seamlessly to the digital age than broadcast television (certainly more so than MTV itself). And so the idea of a radio program to accompany the resolutely forward-looking project that is Documenta 14 may not be as incongruous as it might have seemed back in 1984.

From April 8 to September 17, 2017, under the curatorial guidance of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Documenta 14 presents a staggeringly ambitious series of works for radio, titled “Every Time a Ear di Soun,” to accompany the exhibitions in Athens and Kassel. Including contributions from thirty artists, the project expands Documenta’s partnership between Greece and Germany to radio stations in Cameroon, Lebanon, Colombia, France, Indonesia and the United States, playing a mixture of new and archival material excavated from the participating stations’ vaults.

Ahmet Ogut, Nástio Mosquito and Olaf Nicolai have all contributed new work, while a commission from Aslı Çavuşoğlu juxtaposing radio as a news medium with fortune telling charts the relationship between medium and information. Natascha Sadr Haghighian is also set to collaborate with the composer Nicolas Bussmann on a project in which news broadcasts are sung, thus blurring the line between radio’s twin lineages, information and entertainment. Ndikung has spoken of the importance of foregrounding the physicality and materiality of sound itself, and of the ways music exists as a modality of information regardless of any accompanying textual factor. To this end, musician Satch Hoyt will also be participating in the project, with Africa and its broader sonic environment set to feature in his contribution. Such cultural and physical geography is, no doubt, the crux of a Documenta more geographically dispersed than any previous iteration.

Whether or not “Every Time a Ear di Soun” constitutes radio’s finest hour remains to be seen, but the recognition by the Documenta curators of its continued importance in the twenty-first century does render Freddie Mercury’s mellifluous prophecy a good deal more plausible.

by William Kherbek

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Tala Madani La Panacée / Montpellier

For Tala Madani’s first solo show in France, Nicolas Bourriaud has selected seventeen paintings and one animated film, all about the “presence of light and the patriarchal théâtre de la cruauté.” With a grotesque and caricatural approach, Madani develops a male-dominant imagery. Her cartoonish style and loose, expressive brushwork render her figures fumbling and clumsy. Men run wild in a world of homo-social fraternity, of secret societies.

They appear at times aggressive, ludicrous, inconsistent and vindictive within darkly comic and uncomfortable mise-en-scènes. Often balding and paunchy, they engage in absurd activities and scenarios that fuse playfulness with violence and perversity. They are presented in their most primitive form, dominated by sexual impulses and inhabiting a universe defined by ritualistic behavior, buffoonery and debauchery. Madani seeks to “subvert a particular overflowing masculinity, a certain type of masculinity that is deflated.”

Light as an artificial and special effect is central to many compositions, as in her ongoing Rear Projection series (since 2003). Her figures are the source of light, projecting content from their “solar anus” onto the canvas. According to Bourriaud, “[it reminds] us of a searchlight whose purpose is to leave nothing cloaked in darkness. It’s a police dragnet, a crime-fighting tool, an aggressive raid. In Madani’s work, light never shows anything; rather, it blinds the viewer like a spotlight: too bright, it impairs the gaze.”

The majority of her paintings depict men playing with their anuses, penises or bodily fluids in childlike fashion. Concentrating on the unapologetic baseness of human behavior, Madani reveals the externalization of an internal process: excretion as both economic symbol and allusion to death.

by Timothée Chaillou

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