Commoning and Learning from Athens, Documenta 14 (2017)

Performative Occupations, Instituting and Infrastructures


  • Sevie Tsampalla Exhibition Research Lab - Liverpool School of Art and Design, John Moores University


Documenta, large-scale periodic contemporary art exhibitions (biennials), commoning


The paper focuses on Documenta 14, Learning from Athens (2017). Documenta is a large-scale international, periodic, contemporary art exhibition which takes place every five years in Kassel, its permanent home since 1955. In 2017 the exhibition was also staged in Athens, a city which Polish curator Adam Szymczyk saw as a relevant vantage point from which to speak about crisis, austerity and resistance against them. The move followed the attention that Athens has drawn in the past decade as a site to learn from everyday struggles and collective art practices amidst ongoing crisis; particularly in occupations that house migrants and refugees, commoning practices based on sharing, cooperation and solidarity, provide collective grassroots responses to austerity, anti-migrant policies and shape new forms of social organization. Documenta 14 closed its doors by performatively declaring itself as a commons. Its public program had inquired about the commons as a political concept in relation to struggles in migration and commoning in relation to negotiating the boundaries of identities and art institutions. The move to Athens could even be seen as a gesture towards instituting in the commons, since the curatorial team called for solidarity with the city’s organizations. Among the envisioned institutional alliances, which ultimately never materialized, was the Athens Biennale, a biennial receiving scarce state support and considered a resilient model experimenting with collectivity. Moreover, by prioritizing partnerships mainly with public institutions, in order to support them as common goods, Documenta 14 pointed to the commons as a savior of the public, rather than as a way to redefine its boundaries, creating a gap in its horizon as a Documenta instituted in the commons. By examining Documenta 14 and commoning in relation to the context, the scope and lastly the instituting horizon, the paper thus argues that the gaps between the performative claim of Documenta 14 as a commons and the potentializing of commoning by the exhibition remain significant.


Sevie Tsampalla, Exhibition Research Lab - Liverpool School of Art and Design, John Moores University

Sevie Tsampalla is an art historian and curator, interested in intersections between art, exhibition making and urban commons. She is a PhD candidate in Exhibition Studies at Liverpool John Moores University, researching biennials and commoning. She initiated urban interventions in Athens and Brussels, as co-founder of the collectives Reconstruction Community and AAA and has curated exhibitions in artist-led spaces (Trophy Room, Liverpool; Pianofabriek, Brussels; AirSpace gallery, Stoke-on-Trent; Castlefield gallery, Manchester). As assistant curator for Liverpool Biennial (2016) and cluster-curator for Track, a citywide exhibition by S.M.A.K. Museum of Contemporary Art – Ghent (2012), she worked on performances, installations, conferences and publications.


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