Kassel Documenta Diary Day 2: Finding Athens at Gottschalk-Halle

In The Illogic of Kassel, Enrique Vila-Matas never warms to the role he was invited to play at dOCUMENTA (13), as ‘Writer in Residence’ at a Chinese restaurant on the edge of Karlsaue Park. He spends the majority of the novel attempting to escape this role, including the invention of a fictional writer to go there in his place. One concrete way that Vila-Matas finds to make his job more palatable was to offer a talk as part of the group Critical Art Ensemble on the topic of “Lecture to Nobody”. Here is the moment in the novel when this opportunity arises:

A short time later, I believed I saw a certain hope for my apparent dark future as a man confined to a polylogical Chinese restaurant. Among other things, she told me that a group called Critical Art Ensemble had found a recondite space far beyond the Kassel forest and was planning a series of lectures during the hundred days Documenta lasted. Talks, she told me, which probably no one will attend and no one will hear, given the remoteness of the place. I immediately realized that this space could be an ideal spot— obviously better than the blasted Chinese restaurant— to give a talk on any subject related to the avant-garde and the art of the new century. I asked her to try to get me invited as one of Critical Art Ensemble’s hundred speakers, for suddenly nothing fascinated me as much as planning a talk that would be delivered beyond a forest, entitled “Lecture to Nobody.”

When the day of the talk eventually comes around, the author discovers, to his dismay, that it has been moved from the edge of the forest to a conference room of the Ständehaus in the centre of Kassel, at which point he feels like he must reject the title of the talk completely. In the lecture he ends up delivering, Vila-Matas describes his collaborations with contemporary visual artists Sophie Calle and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, but then something strange happens to make him deviate from his script:

Although in fits and starts, I was delivering a lecture, and figured I’d filled about half my time, when I suddenly started to feel an indescribable emotion: given the excitation of my mood, I was communicating to everyone my great enthusiasm for this glorious moment of contemporary art.

Something equating the shifts that happened to Vila-Matas here, from the planned “Lecture to Nobody” for Critical Art Ensemble as an escape from his solitary role, to a discussion of past collaborations with visual artists, to an emotional and enthusiastic praise for the contemporary art that he was encountering in Kassel, happened to me today at documenta 14 and has had a significant impact on this present blog-post.

I spent my evening with three Athenians, one of whom I had met back in Athens, and who were all currently living here in Kassel, with their lives uprooted from the social dissonance of their homeland to the orderly mayhem that is documenta. I was mildly complaining about the fact that I had to go back to my hotel room and write a post about what I had seen that day and lamented the fact that I had to exchange our group conversation for this solitary practice of writing. In this way, I felt like Vila-Matas and his resistance to his role in the Chinese restaurant. Why should I write in this public, yet lonely way?

The conversation moved on somewhat from my solipsistic grumbling to a general nostalgia for Athens and Greece, both the city which was their home, but also the place from which they could leave to spend their usual summers with friends on the beaches of a tiny Greek island. This nostalgia then came to bear on documenta itself and how we all missed some of the works that we had encountered there and were struggling in some ways to find works that inspired is in the same way here in Kassel. One work that came up in discussion was Rick Lowe’s community-based Victoria Square Project, which we all agreed was a deep and careful example of social sculpture that engaged an audience far removed from the art community we were seeing in droves here in Kassel. Sure there were community focused projects here, such as Narrowcast House, but the simple effectiveness of Lowe’s collaboration was seemingly missing.

It was at that precise moment that I discovered my version of Vila-Matas’ Critical Art Ensemble escape from writing this impending post. Inspired by Lowe’s project and the presence of my Athenian friends, I suggested that we all go back to their apartment and spend the night, into the early hours of the morning, working together on a blog-post, wherein I would type up the conversation we were having, following it wherever it led us. Given the topic, and the fact that it would be posted in the middle of the night (in Europe at least), we could, in good faith, call it “A Blog-Post for Nobody”, which, like Vila-Matas’ planned lecture, would be the internet equivalent of delivering a talk at the edge of the forest. At the same time, the process of writing it as a collaborative text, would release me from my position in the Chinese restaurant.

Back at the apartment, all was going well, the words and wine were both flowing, and we were all excited about this strange stream of consciousness text we’d composed. Then disaster struck, around 2:45am, when our energies were starting to fade. While about to save the draft of what we’d written so far, someone spilled their wine on the computer we were using. It was a disaster – not only did the computer not start up again, but all that we had written had been lost. We were understandably miserable and we all said our goodbyes and I trudged back to my hotel, tired and depressed that I’d have to come up with something to write about on the dynamic between the Classical and Contemporary Art at documenta 14, without the original collective conceit of “A Blog-Post for Nobody”. Again, I found myself following Vila-Matas’ trail, in how this shift paralleled that of his talk from the outskirts to the centre of Kassel.

Like the author, I had some ideas that entailed tracking over some previous projects at the heart of my interest in the interaction between my role as a Classicist and that of contemporary artists. I thought about writing about my collaborations with William E. Jones and Paul Chan, in terms of how the ancient philosophical texts of Heraclitus and Plato, can be re-situated within key components of access, dissemination and contamination in contemporary digital culture (the algorithm of the Google-Image Search and the text-image of the celebrity meme) and how documenta 14 in Kassel was doing something comparable with the works in Athens. That by having artists show works in both places, this dynamic of the source and its manipulation, from Athens to Kassel, was very much emphasized by curatorial decisions.

At this moment, however, about 15 minutes ago, around 4:20am, when I was about to post these somewhat dry comments. It was then that I had my revelation. I knew what I had to write and it wasn’t about any artwork I had seen nor about the general themes of Minus Plato as a blog – the Classical in Contemporary Art. Instead, I knew what I had to do. I had to somehow make the case to my Athenian friends that there were in fact works of art here in Kassel, that could indeed sooth their nostalgia. At the same time, I knew that, given how late it was and how tired I was getting, there was no way I would be able to describe these works adequately and weave together a compelling argument. All I needed to do, I thought, was to offer an emotionally impassioned plea to them and they will discover these works for themselves during their time in Kassel. So, this is what I wrote, like Vila-Matas, not “A Lecture to Nobody” but a communication of my enthusiasm for this glorious moment of contemporary art.

“You will not believe what happened to me this morning. I visited Gottschalk-Halle at Kassel University, expecting to spend 30 minutes or so on the four works installed there: Bili Bidjocka’s The Chess Society, Angelo Plessas’ Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood 6, Bouchra Khalili’s The Tempest Society and La farsa monea by Israel Galván, Niño de Elche, and Pedro G. Romero. However, 2 hours later, I stumbled out of the darkened building blinking into the light, my heart swimming and my eyes welling with tears. I said to myself “This is it, I have found Athens. I have found Athens here in Kassel!”. Even now I am still overwhelmed by this emotional experience and I would struggle to offer you detailed description of what I saw there and why it transported me back to Athens. Pictures and videos too are useless to do justice to the experience. Instead, So you must go to visit Gottschalk-Halle for yourself (and tell any other people you know who have been to Athens to do the same), then think about what you loved about the works you saw in Athens, such as Rick Lowe and the Victoria Square Project, and then send me an email (minusplato@gmail.com) and together we can write a truly collaborative post, rather than the ramblings of a lonely blogger in his Chinese restaurant on the edge of town.”

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