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Curator Talks: Poka-Yio & the Athens Biennale

In Team C-print, we all wanted to attend the 7th Athens Biennale and had you asked us last fall about one art event where we wished to be, unanimously the answer would have been Athens for the biennale. For our first feature of 2022, we speak to Poka-Yio; founding director of the Athens Biennale and artistic director of AB7: ECLIPSE, tracking back the realities and challenges of bringing forth an international event of this scale in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

Billy Bultheel, Athens, Song I-IV, 2020-2021. Multidisciplinary Installation (performance, music, video, sculpture), 40'00''. Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned and produced by the Athens Biennale. With the support of the Flemish Fund and the Assistant Grant from the Swedish Arts Grants Committee. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: The 7th Athens Biennale: ECLIPSE is described as a “ritual to escape darkness”. For two months this last fall, the exhibition, impressive in scale and quality, showcased more than 80 artists and occupied several locations all around the city of Athens. The digital dimension of the exhibition was also notable. What goes into organizing an event of such magnitude and during the pandemic in an Athens that has also been steeped in a financial crisis for the larger part of the past decade but is, as you note, a metropolis on the rise?

P-Y: It took 2+1 years (due to the double postponement) of extremely hard work of a devoted core team. Another key success element is the partnership with Onassis Culture. At this edition the pandemic added the thriller element over the whole endeavor. Should we proceed with performative pieces as planned? What about its digital footprint? Will there be actual visitors at all? It has been an equation with many variables. The Athens Biennale historically has been operating under very precarious conditions in Athens and it was probably the first time that we could have worked undistracted from external factors and focused on the pure artistic vision and execution. The pandemic kept us on our toes until the closing of the exhibition. On the other hand, there is Athens itself, the main protagonist. Being that kind of upcoming “prima donna” Athens managed to act as a buffer for Covid-19 and attract thousands of international visitors for the AB7: ECLIPSE.

Poka-Yio. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

Deborah Joyce Holman & Yara Dulac Gisler with contributions by B Covington Sam-Sumana, FALSE PRPHT & Suutoo, Untitled (in rage), 2021. Sound installation, 20’24’’. Courtesy of the artists. Commissioned and produced by the Athens Biennale. With the support of Prohelvetia. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: The co-curators Larry Ossei-Mensah and Omsk Social Club, each contribute with their distinct take on the themes and topics ECLIPSE brings forth. Elaborate on the choice of the co-curators.

P-Y: Larry and Omsk did not know each other before being asked to join me to undertake the task of co-curating AB7:ECLIPSE. It was a bet and it worked out surprisingly well, especially when considering the different backgrounds and references they have. The working hypothesis has been whether focusing on diasporic and queer, historically marginalised, voices could provide an alternative to the ominous future ahead of us. Using immersive techniques and a dramaturgical walkthrough since the first edition of AB, we have been constantly stretching the perception of what the curatorial canon dictates. Therefore, this duo seemed an excellent choice to tackle the issues we set to explore, and be open to do it in a more free and experiential way.

The room of the Greek-Serbian Friendship Company as found at the Schliemann-Mela Hall. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: In AB7:ECLIPSE works of artists from the African Diaspora are showcased and as is stated in the biennale presentation, an aim is to employ the use of a “black lens” as one of the biennale’s frameworks. Tell us more about the role projects such as the AB7 have and ought to have in inclusive artistic representation and providing a platform for a cross-cultural discourse.

P-Y: This is a tough question, and I am still working my mind around whether artistic platforms should be expected to do this or that. Representation is often Tokenism under disguise. Undoubtedly the larger the platform the biggest the social impact, yet can we make any difference on a larger scale or are we preaching to the converted? And then again, I will raise an issue that has just started to surface; entitlement. Who is entitled to address certain issues is under constant and fierce negotiation. In the immediate future we should not be surprised if the current champions of certain political and social agendas are called-out by the very same communities they support. There is a bloodthirsty fast realignment of social and cultural capital, a process that was long due and mandatory, and this inevitably will not happen smoothly.

Miles Greenberg, Late October, 2021. Video, colour, sound, 20’00’’. Courtesy of the artist. Installation view at the 7th Athens Biennale 2021 ECLIPSE. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: The main venues of the Biennale are centrally situated, disheveled buildings such as the former department store FOKAS and the former Santaroza courthouse. Having lived in Athens, it was inevitable for me not to overlook the choice of venues as laden with symbolism. It is as if the derelict sites confront the visitor with the history and the reality of the Athenian setting and thus provide an additional dimension to the viewer’s experience. How did you go about your choice of venue and what do these choices signify?

P-Y: That’s so true. In a city with almost zero available cultural spaces each edition is a challenge, especially when it’s a strategic decision not to use the same buildings. We choose buildings after a thorough location scouting. Several criteria must be met. The size, location and proximity are just the obvious ones. Then we need to combine the theme and atmosphere of the exhibition into a narrative that is interwoven with the buildings. We do not use them as blanc-neutral backgrounds though. These buildings are like sleeping Titans that are so eager to share their stories with us when you reanimate them. FOKAS department store has been closed for a decade while Santaroza for almost 40 years. The voices of the former inhabitants of these “haunted” buildings still echo. A combination of light, sound, smell and even temperature ultimately forms the artistic direction of the exhibition. The walkthroughs of the AB7 exhibitions since its inception, are distinctive. They form a timeline, a dramaturgy in space, in which the artworks and the audience interact with the architecture and even more importantly, interact and participate in the lived memory of the building, its history.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Aquaphobia, 2017. Video HD, 4’45’’. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: Visitors of the AB7 and the website cannot overlook how “tech-forward” the biennale is both in terms of the works exhibited, the events organized, and the possibilities provided for digital interaction. What caught my attention, amongst others, was the Extractor Game Night of Simon Denny and ECLIPSATRIX EXUVIA by Huntrezz Janos. What can be said about this aspect of the biennale?

P-Y: Digital interaction is not a fad. Our experienced life is foremost a digitally experienced life. I remember a dinner amongst curators just a few years ago during which when I mentioned that there is hardly any curated content in major exhibitions that reflects our digital life, I was almost scorned by the hardcore between them because the digital element was deemed trivial. I curate for the digital native although I am GenX. This doesn’t only apply to the chosen works but also for the blending of the works, and their sound, in space and the way they are juxtaposed.

Our own personified social media timelines are exercises of curated content. The leaps and contrasts between each post, their relevance, or lack of, are what makes today’s viewers so extremely advanced in decoding signs. Today’s viewers make complex and quick editing like sluicing for “gold” through such a content cornucopia. The major insight of the last years working in large scale projects is that we do not address to audience or viewers or even visitors anymore but to users. Our public is a user and we better curate our interaction with it by building open-ended sockets for it to plug in. We need to understand that we have to partly let go of our artistic solo-authorship and co-author our work with the users. In the future, exhibitions might act more like applications and the curatorial work will be the UX. Very young artists like Huntrezz Janos (born in 1996) have already been acting in the Metaverse long before it became hype. That is why we had such a great response from 18-24 years of age. We are living in a visual culture, a digital visual culture that is.

Christoph Draeger, Black September, 2003. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Lokal 30, Warsaw. With the support of Prohelvetia. Photo: Nysos Vasilopoulos

C-P: It is notable that AB7 offers a broad platform to the public for digital interaction with the themes of the biennale and I am thinking of the Rituals Future Teller, Almanac and sonicEclipse that are available on the AB7:ECLIPSE website. How did the idea to include these interactive experiences come about and what can you say about their impact within the biennale setting?

P-Y: Following your previous question and the relevant chain of thoughts, the interaction we aim to build precedes way earlier than the physical exhibition opening and stretches long after it closes its doors for the public. During a series of creative workshops, we devised these rituals. Future Teller is a digital oracle, a divination machine that we too use. Although we built it from scratch by compiling hundreds of images and their meanings, Future Teller is surprisingly insightful for its contemplative potency proving that you only need to concentrate your thought to create magic. Almanac is a much more straightforward compilation of diverse material from the participants of AB7:ECLIPSE. By getting to know them before the exhibition you have the possibility to enter each one’s complex individual world.

Such a massive exhibition is actually a docking hub for travelling in different worlds. It is up to you, the viewer-user, to choose how deep you want to dive into these worlds. It is like researching before travelling, some prefer to learn about the destination and some to be taken by surprise. The depth and width of the experience changes accordingly. Then sonicEclipse became our lunar gathering ritual. Every full moon we released a soundscape by different audio artists that became like a remote party, especially during lockdown, and also a summoning and countdown for the opening of AB7:ECLIPSE. A biennale is 50% the actual exhibition and 50% its ripple effect. It’s like the readers of this interview, they are so far, yet so close. They may have missed its 50% but they are able to appreciate its other 50%, the consecutive circles a cultural event produces long after its formal ending.

Corina Wahlin

Images courtesy of the Athens Biennale and Nysos Vasilopoulos


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