HALFWAY THROUGH THE ECLIPSE
On the 7th Athens Biennale.
“I have lived many lives inside this body. I lived many lives before they put me in this body. I will live many lives when they take me out of it.”
― Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater
Level I: Befriending the Metaverse
Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world, but my point of impact with the space has been grounded in sensoriality: anything but historically grandiose. The clusters of buildings organized into the sweaty decadence of forty urban municipalities, the pungent streets brightened by Mediterranean sun and the sounds of cars together create a machinist acoustic pollution that penetrates the smog hovering over the city. Despite the dystopian feeling of abandonment, I felt quite welcomed, and a receptionist called on me in my double-window-on-the-Parthenon-highway hotel room just three minutes after I had checked in, to be sure that I was comfortable. It was hard to tell, however, as the windows were locked to avoid the intrusion of insects and animals in the room, to quote the stickers on the pane. I wondered about how the contents of this warning, an attempt for human-self preservation, is a cause of the crumbling of our only-habitat. What could have been the outcomes of this cohabitation? As I clashed with the ruins of Athens’ metropolitan dream in that sterile environment, I felt trapped and a call to explore more deeply. I left my luxurious room in search of encounters.
I wish I could say that something extraordinary had happened during my stroll, but that would be a lie. The majority of the people that I crossed on my path towards the Biennale were dark-eyed men, who gazed at me with curiosity and whose facial traits casted the crossroads of their heritages. The majority of the women that I saw were janitors for public infrastructures or rushing bodies, carrying plastic bags containing groceries and where the dimension of their hands revealed their employment in physical labour. Of men and women both, I had the impression of their suffering from the Greek capital’s continuous torsion between romanticization, economic crisis, and the unrelenting refugee emergency that has vexed it for a decade. Quite contrarily, the past years have seen Athens become possessed by artists and creatives chasing affordable life solutions and a pleasant climate, and who now contribute to a reshaping of its social texture: gentrification.
Arriving near Arsaki Arcade, the venue of the press conference, the faces of the people around me began to feel familiar. I could understand the language of their greetings and their style, manifested through accurately chosen aesthetics: I must have arrived at my destination, where the ceremonies of the international art tribe would shortly be inaugurated. While waiting in a composed line for press accreditation, we moved aside many times to allow the usual inhabitants of the arcade to pass through; our bodies were impeding their daily errands, the first collision between universes. I began to perceive the differences between the scores of bodies being moved by urgency, rather than by forces of regulation. Bodies bursting against borders, bodies encrusting barges, bodies sloping from an aeroplane taking off, bodies dancing and making polyamorous love, bodies with two heads and multiple limbs that are irrationally blessed with survival mechanisms and desires. What was the point of conjunction, the double-ended portal between them and us? I found myself wishing that the Biennale would give me some pathways of approach to follow, as for ECLIPSE, a community of around 80 names from different cultural heritages, identities, ages and practices had been called on to infest Athens with plural cosmologies, and to represent some of the many worlds that are still in the shadows.
Gimmick II: Synesthesia
The press conference opened with acknowledgements by the City Mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, and the Director of Culture Onassis, Afroditi Panagiotakou, followed by the Artistic Director Poka-Yio inviting the curators Omsk Social Club and Ghanaian-American curator and cultural critic Larry Ossei-Mensah to expose the background to their pre- and intra-pandemic curatorial choices. Not everything needs to be similar in order to work well together and for alliances to forge, and that is the principle of coexisting: Omsk Social Club’s creative practice encompasses methods of Live Action Role Play (Larp) and Real Game Play (RGP) to induce and intrude states of fiction or yet-unlived, unrehearsed reality. On the other hand, Ossei-Mensah uses contemporary art as a vehicle for redefining humanity, her symbolisms, and the world surrounding. Brought together by the magnetism of the (super)natural astrological conjunction of the eclipses, these two artistic approaches plot with methodologies, rituals, beliefs, and marginalized communities - Black bodies, queer existences, digital souls, diasporic beings - to enhance a new, contemporary symbolism of reality to be smelled and sensed. The eclipse-as-a-method is a game of shielding for the shedding of light.
Gimmick III: Chain of trust
The curators’ intentions of unraveling of a post-art world, where the sharp definition between the potential charge of art in its many forms could interfere with the given of what the racist, homophobic, predatory, extractivist social reality is, set my mind on receiving the art on-show as a mechanism of realization and not merely of imagination; a way of pointing a finger at the less-evident paradoxes and powers within our social structures, and of adjusting behavioral trajectories. Joy to my ears, which only deepened as the two curators continued elaborating on their methodology of pluri-minded work: “It was a process of learning how to be together in extraordinary times, cohabiting and transcending the many realities within the material world. We choose to trust and learn from each other.” The press conference terminated with the performance Miss by the Kosovan Astrit Ismaili, who embodied Kosovo’s transition from Yugoslavia to independence with their alter-ego Miss Kosovo, acting also as a testimony to intense bodily experience and transformation. The political diva in a breathtaking pink dress immediately felt captive, harnessed by videos and Instagram stories taken by the numerous white male public, her image losing its power in the game of representation.
Beyond the initial disturbing feeling of witnessing a process of fetishization, my pores were wide open and ready to trespass the doors of the three venues: the former Department Store Fokas, the former Santaroza Courthouse on Justice Square and the Schliemann-Mella Hall, all of them carrying the brokenness of phantoms of political liberation and wishes for economic wealth in their architectural bones.
*The Metaverse I
As I walked into the main venue, the former Department Store Fokas that has lain disused since 2013 and which I now found full of arty journalists, I was flashed by the white surfaces as they alternated with mirrors and fading fashion advertisements. Those that integrated with the artistic display created a disturbing, representational-libidinal mechanism between what is normatively accepted as desirable, and what is not; symbolic values and values of exchange. Following the suggestion of Penny Rafferty, the spokesperson from Omsk Social Club, I began my Biennale experience from the vertex, climbing to the last floor and being immersed in a gaming room where sculptural nature-culture assemblages and a tarot deck by Jonas Schoeneberg (TRANCE2TRANCE2TRANCE, 2021), along with soft narrative segments by OSC, guided me through an exploration and explosion of the rooms inhabited by the constructs of the self. In my descent to each floor, I then got lost in a maze of tangential realities funneled by the use of technological devices; I questioned all of those places in the world where the virtual is the prerogative of technocracy, and where the technological industry arguably applies new forms of colonialism. I passed through the post-apocalyptic live simulation Ritual (2020) by Theo Triantafyllidis, the downloadable and embodied ritual masks and dances ECLIPSATRIX EXUVIA (2021) by Huntrezz Janos, the 3D animation and irrational juxtaposition We Are In Hell When We Hurt Each Other (2020) by Jacolby Satterwhite, the astrological-tech prediction app Endymion (a Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever) (2020) by Valinia Svoronou, the narrative twist of the sci-fi movie Timotheé (2021) by The Critics Company - and this but names a few. Together, they manifested a stronger alliance with the digital fabulation in order to shape visions and claim representation; still, I was left without a feeling for any alternative behaviours that I could bring beyond that space.
Standing for a while in the corner(ed) installation by Ndayè Kouagou’s Are we always? #2 (2021), I repeated to myself the question that he had posed to the public in his video piece Good people TV – episode 2: Should you be open (2021): “Where can I feel comfortable in this changing world? The only place where I feel comfortable is in a corner, so I brought my own. Will you feel comfortable in my corner?”. I then stood in front of Tomashi Jackson’s video work We're All Gonna Go! (2019), in which she embodies historical and contemporary characters as an inquiry into territories of political and civic participation. Seeking a moment of reflection, I sat on one of the animal chairs Thron (camel, elephant), (2020) by Nuri Koerfer, accompanied by the sonic, semiotic emotional compositions by Happy New Tears. Scattered between the floors and regulating a temporality beyond borders, there was the cryptocurrency time-installation by NASCENT Temporal Secession: Timezones 1-3 (2020), which quantified Time in Energy Time (the transactional time), Healing Time (keeper itself of time), and Machine Time (the global consensus regulator).
As I browsed Fokas, overstimulated by the acoustic interplay, the neon lighting and the sheer quantity of artists, I admitted a sense of struggling to feel deeper cohesion between the artworks. Overall, they had been grouped very homogeneously in threads of ideas related to the interests of the curatos, causing the simplification of the messages carried by them. As I left the venue, my impact with the outer environment was destabilizing and the moment felt empty and suspended, an interval between intense states of excitement.
*The Metaverse II
I crossed the street and reached the second venue, the former Santaroza Courthouse whose façade was partially layered with the ongoing ethno-mathematical mural Ta Nea Xysta (2021) by Navine G. Khan-Dossos. The inside was gloomy, and very violent in my mind’s sense of a place of punishment or a dungeon. The floor’s compacted soil and the walls’ rough stones could barely hold the sticky-taped labels of the artworks. In accord with the dolent atmosphere, the artists on-display engaged with me in a less playful dimension. Ana Mendieta’s Esculturas Rupestres (1981/2019) and Judy Cichago’s Women and Smoke, California (1971-1972), powerfully induced in me a solemn need to carve and sense the land with my body, while Suzanne Treister’s SURVIVOR (F) to The Escapist BHST (Black Hole Spacetime) (2016-2019) invited me to meet the mystical phantoms of the cyberspace, and Victoria Santa Cruz’s Me gritaron negra (They Shouted Black at Me) (1978) and Doreen Garner’s They Known But To God: The Dug Up, Dissected, and Disposed for the Sake of Medicine (2017) brought me to affirming my own historical guilt and communitarian power of self-affirmation. Emanating from the basement, the mechanical heart of the Biennale, Athens, Song I-V (2021) by Billy Bultheel haunted the pace of my cranium with body-industrial speed, the velocity of flesh vexed by globalization. I left behind my shoulder, crashed, consumed, and having soaked up too many true stories told quietly, confined to the caves of primitivism, colonialism, fragmentation.
As I made my way to the final stage of the Biennale through Justice Square, a woman in high heels proudly wearing the same purple badge as I, asked where she could find the former Department Store Fokas. I advised her to follow those wearing the same ornament. We were the only ones walking around, and the venues were all in a linear trajectory.
*The Metaverse III
Schliemann-Mella Hall welcomed my already-exhausted body with a sound landscape by the duo Primitive Art. The building kept all its fatiscence as a crime or disaster scene, and an artwork was allocated as a resumed corpse to each room, their temporality coming moving between time-space ghostly. I found the installation Black September (2002) by Christoph Draeger particularly current; it documented and recreated the kidnap and murder of the Israeli Olympic Team by the terrorist group Black September at the 20th Olympiad 49 years ago in Munich. I dropped a tear at a jingling of keys in Iris Touliatou’s Emotional Infinity (2020) which, contrary to her intention to evoke the sound of a lover returning home, reminded me of the many states of existential loneliness dictated by the individualism of late-capitalist society, now fostered further by the pandemic. I then found myself caught by the need to engage with a transgenerational sense of belonging through Toumarine’s Salacia (2019), a commemoration of wicked activists’ histories, and was surprised to recognize Ayesha Tan-Jones in The New Elementals (2021), a Greek sci-fi autofictional work that gives a perfect representation of their body in continuous transiency; I had admired their dance moves at a rave in Berlin the weekend before. In another room, I feel pitied by an old Greek man’s improvised diner occupying one of the rooms of the Hall, as the humble flowers ornating the table didn’t offer much of an invitation to taste his handmade food that was only too real. The old man felt so offsite as he looked at us timidly, although he had probably belonged to that structure long before the art institution had even thought of appropriating the building. I thought of the Biennale as the intruder: thinking to give him the chance of earning some money, and yet having nothing to do with him and vice versa - not even an economic transaction.
Interval III (ongoing anger)
The next day, I felt motivated to find points of connection between the complexity of perspectives and the visual stimuli given to me by the Biennale and the city, and I drove outside of the touristy city center of Athens. There, I visited some autonomous art spaces and spoke with a couple of organizations carrying similar struggles to those reclaimed by the Biennale, but here along with a desperately-needed processuality for community building. When I asked if there had been the will from the institution to intertwine realities, they hesitated, No, not really. I don’t know why I felt surprised; it is only a few people amongst many who hold themselves accountable for shifting behaviours and for sustaining connection/s with the fragile, and it can be observed that “philanthropy” mostly cares for its own interests. After witnessing the number of shops closed and the buildings in ruins inhabited by the homeless, children, and mothers sitting on the sidewalks waiting for a chance of recoupment, I too felt much more comfortable with returning to the venues of the Biennale, where they won’t be allowed inside the display of the metaverse, despite this claim for a post-art world. Connected with habit and privileges, this feeling of comfortability was deeply unsettling.
Level III: Game Over
The 7th Athens Biennale: ECLIPSE is a body that refuses to choose or to be imprisoned within one singular identity. Many existences cohabit and collide in the frame of this biyearly institution. Nonetheless, when I asked myself about what prevails between the pluralization and the reduction in dispositive, I must admit that the conceptual, architectural, bureaucratic structure appears to oppress and reduce the lives that try to find their ways through coexistence and overlaps of stories and meanings. Although the Biennale made me feel secure in my beliefs and belonging and asserted my partaking in the “right side” of knowledge within its decolonial and queer walls, the institutional frame protects the discourses from intersecting and breathing with the outside of the tribe of the art world. We might say that this is the curse of endeavours as such, in carrying the power of delocalization of discourses and the neutralization of conflicts; something very much situated and persistent.
Gimmick IV: Vastness
May my criticism not discourage you, however, from digging the intentions and positions of ECLIPSE, which undoubtedly stand for those of us who befriend and hold the multiverse; for those of us who have started the process of recognition, decolonization and assimilation. History is slowly moving toward the vastness and not narrowness, we are still halfway through the Eclipse.
This stream of consciousness was redacted while listening to sonicECLIPSE.