Athens Documenta Diary, Day 5: Good Vibrations at the Odeion

What exactly is an Odeion? Today, my final day in Athens, I visited four buildings with this name: the Odeion of Perikles, the Odeion of Agrippa, the Odeion of Herodes Atticus and the modern Odeion of Athens (also known as the Athens Conservatoire) which is one of the major venues for documenta 14. In general these could all be described as spaces for the performance (and in the modern case, rehearsal and teaching) of singing and instrumental music, as these buildings are testament both to the significance of the musical arts to ancient Greek and Roman society, as well as to the key role that modern avant-garde music plays in documenta 14. Yet in their notes to the Odeion as a venue, the organizers of documenta 14 not only acknowledge this role, starting from the ‘willfully mystic and modernist Greek composer Jani Christou’, but also expand from it as follows:

Early in documenta 14’s days in Athens, Christou’s idea of the “continuum” provided the experimental framework for working sessions between artists, curators, and the documenta 14 team. “Metapraxis”, another methodology that Christou pursued, “is concerned with breaking through the meaning barrier of a single medium, whatever that medium may be. Whenever that happens, that is music.” In considering the practices of composers like Christou, Pauline Oliveros, and the Scratch Orchestra of Cornelius Cardew, as well as of a new generation of artists, documenta 14 collectively attempts to reconsider “use”.

Just focusing on the works on display at the Odeion, as far as I could see, there were at least four ways in which they could be understood as reconsidering the scope of music in terms of its “use”. Firstly the use of music to show its close affinity with language is apparent in Susan Hillier’s eerie and heartbreaking film The Last Silent Movie about endangered and extinct languages. Reversing the traditional dynamics of the silent movie, the work comprises solely the sounds of these languages being spoken, their translation in subtitles (into English on one side of the screen and Greek on the other) and the rest is black. Many of these languages, in our ignorance, sound like music, with one (I can’t recall the name) as series of whistles. In another film-work, Peter Friedl’s Report – commissioned for documenta 14 – has untrained actors memorize and try to recite passages from Kafka’s 1917 story A Report to An Academy about an ape turned man. As the speakers stumble over their words, in a variety of tongues, sounds and noise seem to take the place of the clarity of language.

Another expanded use of music is in the many manifestations of visual scores and methods of notation and transcription on display at the Odeion in terms of political action. Not only are the scores of composers like Christou, Oliveros, and the Scratch Orchestra incredible visual documents, but they also enact specific political gestures as well, from the documentation of ‘The Scratch Cottage’ of 1971 that literally built a temporary and communal structure as part of the composition process, to Oliveros’ blunt, yet powerful, ‘score’ for Pauline’s Solo:

Listening to this space I sound this space. Listening to the energy of all who are present I sound this energy. Listening to my listening and your listening I make this music here and now with the assistance of all there there is. I dedicate this music to a world without war.

This politics is expanded into two other uses, that articulated at the level of the instrument itself and that which expands into broader spaces of everyday and exceptional acts of inclusion and exclusion. The former ranges from the whispers of Pope. L to the re-purposed furniture and appropriated ‘Exedos’ instruments of Nevin Aladağ and Guillermo Galindo. While the latter is manifested in the intense noise concert film of Ben Russell, the outside tent and setting of Sami artist Joar Nango, the interplay of the mundane and exceptional in the photographs of Akinbode Akinbiyi and even in the Edi Hila (perhaps the most continuous presence in the whole of documenta 14) series A Tent for the Roof of a Car with their ghostly vacated spaces of displacement and faceless bureaucracy. Finally, Beatriz Gonzalez’ cunning Interior Decoration showing the former Colombia president Turbay singing with a group of ladies in a series, repeated sequence on a curtain rail neatly encompass the political interplay of space and music.

It is this last concept of the expanded “use” of music that stretches to the building of the Odeon itself and also to the ancient Odeion buildings of Athens. In describing the Odeon as a site for documenta 14, the guide notes how the architect Ioannis Despotopoulos envisaged a whole complex of national theater, congress center, museum, library and open-air theater. Yet even though such ambitions were left unrealized, the building still ‘is situated amid its unrealized relations’. You could even make the case for documenta 14 remaking the Odeon in terms of this idealized plan.

The expanded use of the music hall was also apparent in two of the ancient buildings. The Odeion of Perikles was first and foremost a concert hall, but at times it was used as a law court, a grain dispensing station, a place for the cavalry to gather, a lecture hall for philosophers and a rehearsal space for theatrical productions for the aligning Theatre of Dionysus. In addition, it became a prominent site for promoting what Johanna Hanink has called the Athens ‘brand’ by displaying first the original tent of the defeated Persian king Xerxes as a backdrop and then the stone scene-building was recreated to the precise dimensions of the tent. As for the Odeion of Agrippa, during the mid-2nd century CE its roof caved in and this was the impetus for the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The result of this, however, was for this newly open musical space becoming the site for philosophical lectures as well as impressive facade, displying colossal snaky giants and fishy tritons, in an open-air environment.

The expanded use of these ancient sites beyond the concert context not only relates to the modern Odeion and the expanded us of music at documenta 14, but also to some of the pit-falls of the use of sound without a building to somehow ground it. While the soundscapes of postcommodity at the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum and Benjamin Patterson’s frog-orchestra at the gardens of the Byzantine and Christian Museum are subtle and intriguing expansions, they miss some of the intensity of enclosed space, which is maintained in wonderfully different ways by the intense intimacy of the violin in Ross Birrell work, which you have to listen to on headphones amid the hushed silence of the Gennadius Library. The garden of the library continues this intimacy and silence in the tomb-walk of Banu Cennetoğlu.

But it really is the Odeion and its works that kept me coming back again and again to relish in the ways in which the enclosure and exposure of space related to the expanded use of music in the exhibition and beyond. I have visited the Athens Odeion on all but one of my days in Athens and each time I have enjoyed the experience of the sound of students rehearsing, both singing and playing instruments, in the upper level mixing both with the musical projects at documenta 14 as well as the everyday noise of a place in use, by students, visitor and workers in the cafes to the skateboarders at the back end of the building. Earlier today I also enjoyed one of the Chorus walking tours of the Odeion, which further developed my feeling that this was my favorite space at the whole of documenta 14.

As you know, the work that I have ‘seen’ the most at the Odeion and at documenta 14 as a whole, is Social Dissonance which, while not immediately seeming to be a music piece, could be included in any one of the four categories I have been discussing the Odeion works. Mattin and his performers use the audience as an orchestra and the voice’s of individuals and groups as instruments for the set duration of an hour. The score itself is a highly charged political document (see my earlier post on it here) and the use of phone video, live streaming with Kassel and uploading onto YouTube and replaying the performance in the space the next day displays the tension between enclosure and exclusion.

My fifth and final visit to Social Dissonance was my very last moment at the Athens stage of document 14 and it also happened to act as the culmination of my own ‘score’ I set myself back in preliminary post:

  • to find the meeting points of ancient ideas, sites, institutions and venues of ancient Athens and contemporary art
  • to talk to people, both visitors as well as Athenians working at documenta 14
  • to spend my time here in Athens alone, looking closely, experiencing multiple times 
  • to be open and direct about my experiences here

During this my last Social Dissonance performance something strange happened. (Here, you can see for yourself around 33 minutes in):

Following a moment of collective actions that followed simple bodily and vocal directions and imitations, I interrupted the moment with a brief monologue about the different experiences I had had at this work before now and encouraging the audience to revisit the piece multiple times. I ended with the fiction that I had been part of the performance for the whole of its 58 day run so far and that the reason people should go more than once is so that we can do better with their feedback. In one quick move I had turned an open and direct description of my experience of participating in this work multiple times into the fantasy of me sharing the role of the performers who had been there, every day except Mondays, since the opening, when I had only been there, as a visitor, a measly 5 times. I felt like I could create this fiction because my repeated participation in the work had prompted the performers to meet after one of the performances and ask me for my feedback. At the same time, I also knew that I told this lie as part of my day of exploring the ancient Odeion sites of the city, specifically the case of the Odeon of Agrippa. Now, this site was used for a performance for a documenta 14 by Prinz Gholam (which I did not see as it was not repeated during my time here), but the history of the collapsed roof and the repurposing and expansion of the building to be a site of philosophical lectures, but also to accommodate its flamboyant facade of colossal snaky giants and fishy tritons. No longer limited to the role of a music hall, the Odeion of Agrippa become an ostentatious open-air site that both paraded the individual intelligence of eloquent philosopher but also was able to generate an different type of community among their audience. This is not in the same way of projecting a civic image unified against the Persians as worked for Perikles’ Odeion, but still it must have generated its own model of social cohesion.

Beyond Athens, take the example of Apuleius lecturing in the theatre in Carthage. His speeches (Florida) show him generating civic pride and cohesion through the very fact that they as Carthaginians are willing to sit and listen to a philosophical lecture. This single fact proves their collective intelligence. Furthermore, unlike the more frivolous entertainments of tight-rope walkers and even theatrical performances, the philosophical lecture unites the audience and speaker in a shared pursuit of rational inquiry. Of course this is still a rhetorical ploy used by the speaker, but the philosophical underpinning of dialogic teaching is not compromised in the process. In some way, this camaraderie generates good vibrations between performer and audience that have the effect of making the latter feel closer aligned with the beliefs and role of the former. I think that something like this was happening to me today in my final ‘performance’ of Social Dissonance. The more I participated in this work, the more I became assured of the value of the work, to the extent to which when a participant criticized one of the performers for her aggressive attitude, I would feel caught up in the slight and want to come to the work’s defence.

In short, suggesting that my fellow audience members participate multiple times so that ‘we get better’ was not just the fantasy of my being a performer in the work, but actually what could be one of the purposes of the work: that I was ‘getting better’ at abandoning my individual narcissism by becoming more closely part of the collective ‘we’.

This was the closest I have come to the experience of repeated viewings (if that’s the right word for a performance in total darkness!) of This Variation by Tino Sehgal last year in Paris. At the moment that the performers are singing The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, both the sense of grounding stemming from knowing the song and sensing the collective energy for the performers makes you feel part of something in a way that all powerful artwork should do. I am sure that my daily visits to Social Dissonance grounded my whole Athens documenta 14 experience, allowing me to be open to the unexpected and challenging aspects of the artworks while at the same time teasing out connections with the ancient sites.

Well, that’s your lot from Athens. I will be going on a short holiday from Minus Plato (for the next 10 days) but when I return my aim is to continue to reflect on Athens and documenta 14 from a distance. In the meantime, consider taking the roof of your own Odeion and see what expanded music and good vibrations come from it.

[Once again, apologies for the lack of images, my technical problems are still there. I will aim to rectify this in future posts – I have lots of photos of Athens to share!]

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