Today, we explore sounds of the international art exhibition documenta 14. This is a sonic tale of two cities. That’s because in 2017, the highly respected exhibition that originated in 1955, in Kassel, Germany, extends its reach to Athens, Greece. Athens opened first and Kassel a month later.
Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk gave his ambitious idea a name: “Learning From Athens.” He and his curatorial team invited more than 200 artists from to present projects in both cities. We set the tone with an excerpt of a quatrain from the Fugue Art Project, that Syrian born violinist Ali Moraly played during opening ceremonies in Athens and Kassel. Moraly fled from the war in Syria in 2013 with his suitcase and his violin, his recordings and memories.
Violinist Ali Moraly describes his work as an echo, a dialogue with music. You might consider the encounters we’re about to share as a dialogue with documenta 14. To consider how art addresses today’s global concerns—the economy, national identity, migration and more—I seek out the work of these artists: Nigerian Emeka Ogboh, Pakistani Rasheed Araeen, American Rick Lowe, Norwegian Joar Nango, Nigerian Otobong Nkanga, and American William Pope.L.
Notes from Cathy Byrd:
In this episode, we share the latest in the series we’ve been curating from field recordings captured on our recent expedition to Europe and Scandinavia. Our experience begins in Athens. Politics and geography have a lot to do with the fragile economic and social conditions here. Athens has become a beacon on the world map—a waypoint for refugees en route to Europe—fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in crisis.
Arriving a month after the press preview, I navigate the city on my own. It’s like a treasure hunt to find venues using documenta’s map. Many artists have already moved on to Kassel to prepare for the second opening. I meet the Athenians who guide visitors, manage community projects and spark public programs.
In Athens, documenta 14 occupies more than forty sites. My first stop, and my favorite: The Conservatoire—the oldest music school in modern Greece. A friendly team watches over all the spaces in the city. Organizers gave them a special title: they are called invigilators. Here’s how one explains his job and introduces the synthi 100, centerpiece of an interactive installation by The Contemporary Music Research Center. CMRC was founded in 1979 in Athens to develop electro-acoustic music and sound practices in Greece.
I enter the darkness of the conservatory’s raw-concrete auditorium to experience Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh‘s multichannel sound installation The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017). On the front wall, a real-time LED shows world stock indexes. I walk among speakers that encircle the space to capture the sound of women singing. I learn is this is a particular polyphonic song. The choir intones on the effects of crisis, on loss and yearning, on pain and the will to survive.
An inner courtyard is where I discover that Norwegian-born artist Joar Nango has brought the far north to Athens. Reindeer pelts cover the ground inside a makeshift tent. Gongs, wind chimes, tubes of neon light and shrouded speakers hang from the trees. This organic installation evokes the lifeways of reindeer herders in Nango’s home country. I will meet the artist in Kassel. In the meantime, I wander through his encampment, recording fragments of the arctic soundscape that Swedish sound artist Anders Rimpi designed for the project.
The next morning, I walk to Kotzia Square to meet artist and scholar Rasheed Areean at the site of his project. Born in Pakistan, Areean has lived in London since 1964. Food for Thought. Thought for Change has taken shap as a multi-colored food tent where locals and visitors can enjoy a free lunch daily. I join one of the luncheon parties. Our plein-air dining room is a tented platform where we sit on folding chairs around a wooden table. The server brings us fresh water in a silver pitcher, a basket of bread and a plate of freshly prepared food. An organic farmer is the source of all the produce. Naturally, I turn on my recorder…
After lunch, I walk over to the Victoria Square project space. Only two years ago, Victoria Square served as a temporary refugee camp. It’s one of the city’s most diverse communities. American Rick Lowe, a community activist who sparked the transformative Project Rowhouses in Houston, Texas, began immersing himself in Athens from the moment he arrived—walking the the city, meeting with community members, hanging out to play dominoes with residents and inviting local artists, activists and architects to join him in a roots-up community-building process. All the activities drew the attention of at least one travel writer. The Victoria Square Project made it into the 2017 Lonely Planet guide as an Athens Attraction!
Fast forward to Kassel where the Whispering Campaign project of American artist William Pope.L insuates itself into parks, public squares, cafes, restrooms, and exhibition halls. In fact, Pope.L placed his whispers in more than 40 venues in Athens and Kassel. Texts read in whispers emanate from visible and hidden speakers and ambient performers revolve around the relationship between the two cities. They are part art-historical time loop, part spy narrative, and part stream-of-consciousness dialogue between the artist and himself, read in English, German, and Greek.
In contrast to the ephemeral Whispering Campaign, one documenta artist has created a project you can hold in your hand. Nigerian-born artist Otobong Nkangaessentially launched a transcontinental start up, with one foot in Greece and the other in Germany. Her project Carved to Flow engages with both communities. The product? Handmade organic soap. I meet project team member Lena Heubusch in Kassel, on the sidewalk near the one of the exhibition venues. The outfit she’s wearing is designed with a shelf that curves around her waist, allowing her to introduce the marbled soap’s rare qualities.
In one last sensorial experience, we’re introducing the project that Nigerian artist Emekah Ogboh created for documenta in Kassel, involving 50,000 bottles of craft beer, billboards, a television commercial and a radio jingle!
After interviews with Africans in Germany, Ogboh created a recipe for a craft beer. Available at documenta and in local markets, Sufferhead is a stout that comes in a black bottle. The name is taken from a political hymn by Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s pioneer of afrobeat music. Ogboh intends for Sufferhead to spark conversations on the politics of race, concepts of nation, and migration.
His project seems to sum up the world of issues revolving around race, culture, the economy, politics, and migration that are central to artmaking and activism in the world today. We’re thrilled to share this tale of two cities through the sonic dimensions of documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel.
Sound Editor: Guney Ozsan | Sound courtesy of Fresh Art International, Arian Kulp, Anders Rimpi, Emeka Ogboh and documenta 14 | Photos courtesy Fresh Art International, except where noted
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