The Parliament of Bodies. Architecture: Polemos, 2017. Andreas Angelidakis. Meeting of the Parliament with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, documenta 14. Kassel

Fragment of a conversation with Paul Preciado: “We have to understand where we are located and try to act from this position”

“We have to understand where we are located and try to act from this position” The art residencies program, Capacete (Rio de Janeiro), has invited, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut, Latin American artists for stays working on documenta 14 (in Athens and Kassel), among them Jota Mombaça. In the Greek capital, the artist was in conversation with theorist Paul B. Preciado, who led the public programming of this documenta entitled Parliament of Bodies.

On the 23 of May, I met with Paul B. Preciado in Athens, precisely at the venue of The Parliament of Bodies, for a conversation about his last book, Testo Yonqui, as well as his new theoretical projects, the concept of somathèque, the idea of a “nonexistent existence” of certain bodies and political subject that disrupts normalized forms of social existence, the political dimensions of his juridical transition and, finally, his work as the curator of public programs for documenta 14. For this occasion, I chose a fragment that focuses on the complexities and contradictions of his work at documenta and on the possibility of a continuity of the Parliament of Bodies beyond the scope of this mega-exhibition.

J. Mombaça: During many of the public programs I’ve followed, I saw people from the Greek art scene bringing tough critiques on documenta’s presence here in Athens, as well as many tense debates concerning the topics of the presentations proposed by this Parliament. So, on one hand, I was thinking: maybe The Parliament of Bodies can be a space for the articulation of this institutional self-critique, and, beyond that, an open space for the voices and forces of contestation that surrounds this event and the topics discussed here. But, at the same time, one cannot present such a space just as an open space, without acknowledging its limits and its continuity within the colonial apparatus as part of one of the most imposing art institutions of the occidental world. In this sense, I want to ask: 1. What does The Parliament of Bodies have the capacity to do?; and 2. What can it not do?

P. Preciado: Projects are not invented from scratch. The Parliament of Bodies is the continuation of other projects that I have been working on before, such as the Oral Museum of Revolution, in the sense of creating a place where activists, artists and critics can experiment with the languages of social and political change, a place of memory but also a place of transformation and construction of a collective future. I see it inscribed within a tradition of politization of art institutions. Likewise, projects are always situated, in this case the project emerged directly from the democratic crisis of Europe, and from the experience of living in Athens during the failure of parliamentary representation of OXI referéndum of July 2015 and the so-called summer of migration. As you can imagine opening up a documenta public project, a German institution, in Athens in the middle of the debates about the Grexit was not an easy thing.

But it would be ridiculous to reduce the difficulties of the Parliament of Bodies to the fact of being documenta in Athens. I won’t say that The Parliament of Bodies could be wonderful if we removed it from documenta as an institution, as if it would become the utopian paradise of heterogeneity and multiplicity of methodologies, etc... That’s why in the creation of it I was very much informed by this idea of societies, as the “Sociétés des Amis des Noirs”, in the 18th century… Because I constantly think that what we are trying to do here, both with documenta 14 and with the Parliament of Bodies, is something radically opposed to what is culturally and politically happening in our time, but I don’t see it from a naive perspective… That’s why I’m interested in this group of friends that in the late 18th century, in a moment of climax of European colonialism, within the boom of the transatlantic trade and the plantation economy, right before the French revolution and the Haitian revolution, decided to meet among themselves and create this society of friends of the black people for doing theater and publishing books… to transform political imagination, to think what at the moment was unthinkable. If we want to change politically the most important thing we have to do is to start imagining the unimaginable, inventing new languages, new social technologies, new institutions.

The conditions in which we have developed this documenta betwen Athens and Kassel are extremely complex and contradictory, but what is most interesting about it is that it’s revealing, it’s clearly exposing these contradictions at the heart of two locations, two discursive and political sites, that are traditionally in opposition to each other in such a way that they both complement each other and therefore, they silence each other… Because if you listen to the German saying “the Greeks are lazy and they are spending our money” and then the Greek saying “the Germans are responsible for all the problems of our culture and economy”… Maybe there is something in both arguments that converge… Let’s say: on one side, the patronizing hyper-colonial language…on the other, the self-victimizing narcissistic language. Both positions somehow feed and cancel each other…they refuse critical agency, they share a nationalistic rhetoric that ignores the global conditions of oppression and struggles today. So I think that what is interesting – and also difficult – about this documenta is that you have to stand right at the meeting point of these contradictions… You cannot step out and just say “no, no, art has nothing to do with it”. You have to stand right there. As our artistic director Adam Szymczyk would say documenta embodies all the complexities and contradictions of art institutions in the neoliberal regime. So the tensions that you see here at The Parliament of Bodies are most visible because this is the discursive public space of documenta… but I also see it in the exhibition all the time, as well as in the city of Athens… For instance, today there are all these anarchist posters on the streets…

J. Mombaça: Fuck off Documenta…

P. Preciado: ...which I can understand… Nevertheless it is not a very productive critical position. It is taking the hermeneutics of suspicion up to the level of excluding any relationships, any possibility of action. Maybe if I were a Greek anarchist myself I would be like “yeah, Fuck off Documenta” because I remember the time when I was a punk lesbian… and I thought that they was no possibility for action in art institutions or at the university outside of heteronormative narrratives… The big change in my life came when I realized that we all are entitled to public institutions and public universities and that therefore saying fuck off to the institution or fuck off to the university is in reality a way of preventing the institution from being transformed by queer, trans, anarchist, anti-capitalist, or anti-colonial criticism. The fuck-off strategies preserve the institution within its own normative limits, protecting it from critical change. We might say that I move myself from saying fuck off to the institution to fucking with the institution.

One has to acknowledge where we are located, each of us, and try to act from this position… For instance, at the moment Adam Szymczyk invited me to curate the public program of documenta 14, precisely right after I had been fired from MACBA after the scandal with the sculpture of Ines Doujak, it took me a little while to answer. I didn’t say “oh, I’m jumping on this”… I mean: no, it was like: “What am I doing in this? Why? In this institution...” But I came… I was not so interested in Kassel, to tell you the truth, I was very interested in Athens, in looking at Kassel from Athens. I wanted to act right here, from this position, and the experience has been extremely difficult… I would say that this is the most complex institutional project I have ever done in my life, for also one of the most interesting. For me the challenge of the program, to put it in terms of Eve K. Sedgwick, has been to move to from a “paranoic reading” to a “reparative” one. But sometimes I have the impression that the strength of the contradictions and the amount of forces that are collapsing one after the other in Athens (austerity measures, migration policies, failures of democracy, scarcity of free critical media, attacks on participatory non-governmental cultural projects, institutional racism and homophobia...all these together with a vivid proliferation of critical social movements that lack institutional and media spaces) makes it very difficult to act institutionally … So nothing is gonna be solved in one of the meetings of the Parliament of Bodies. This is a slow process. Clearly many of the times we gather here we experience frustration, there have been hyperbolic acts of racism... words of misogyny, of transphobia… I still remember one of the film directors that I invited to the 34 Exercises of Freedom, a very sophisticated film director indeed, when he was asked by a participant of the Parliament “why there are no more trans people in the films in Greece?”, he just said: “oh, I could give an eye of my face to be able to film a trans subject”… I mean (laughing)...I remember that some of us in the Parliament answered “please, keep the eye on your face… We don’t want your eye and we don’t want your camera”… I think that after this debate he changed his mind, his way of thinking about the representation of sexual and gender minorities in his films. This is just one example of many discussions we had here. There has been a lot of criticism from both the right and the left about what is happening at Parko Eleftherias...The building used to be the headquarters of the military policy during the years of dictatorship and it was the site of torture and interrogation. Today it still belongs to the ministry of defense and it is a symbol of national struggle and liberation. But the problem is to whom these sites of memory belong? Who can narrate history? Who can foster memory? We have spoken here about feminist and queer political representation, about sex-workers rights, about indigenous knowledges, about anti-colonial struggles, about African contemporary movements, about the Arab spring, about the memory of the Biafra War...The right wing and the left wing in Greece sometimes agree with each other to say that we are “de-sacralizing these torture chambers”… And they ask why we are speaking about sex work, about Turkey, about queerness if this that doesn’t have anything to do with the Greek history or reality, they argue that none of these issues apply to Greece or makes any difference for the so-called “crisis”…But, is this true? On the contrary, we think that we need a new grammar to think history, not from the point of view of the nation-state, but from the vantage point of the emancipatory struggles, a more complex history that brings together the languages of resistance to colonial, patriarchal, fascist, capitalist powers.

My impression is that some of the languages that are being openly brought within this Parliament of Bodies in particular– let’s say: transfeminism, queer, indigenous issues, anti-colonial thinking, as you saw many thinkers from Africa coming to the space... All those languages are so strange to both the cultural and the academic mainstream life of Athens that we cannot know what is happening yet… For instance, it made a real difference when the people from CAPACETE arrived in the space because, suddenly, for the first time, I had the opportunity to understand how things were really going, because you can listen to these languages in a different way… Before your arrival, sometimes I was here myself almost alone in the middle of an audience that couldn’t understand why I was saying “stop! this is too racist”… Nobody would follow me in these situations… So when you guys arrived it changed.

Now it seems to me that we would need years to trigger a deeper transformation. For me one of the problems is that the time of documenta is the time of the show, the time of exhibition and exhibitions are fakes. Their time is made for consumption, their time is not made for institutional transformation or political challenging, and that’s why for instance we wanted this space to be open earlier… The started the public program 8 months before the exhibition. The space had to open up to that heterogeneity and complexity… And then one thing is documenta as an institution and another thing is my own voice as a political agent… Sometimes we are both in a troubling position, I mean: I trouble documenta and documenta troubles me… But what I’ve been trying to do here is precisely move away from both the scale and the time of the exhibition by doing something that is quite reduced in scale, and expanded in time, because it is by endlessly working and resisting and bringing back subaltern voices and non-hegemonic languages that things will transform… It’s not gonna happen in 100 days of the exhibition. And it will have to continue after this 100 days… The question though is “how” and “who could take it over”… Maybe it will be CAPACETE, maybe it will be other people, maybe “the societies” of the Parliament, maybe the different collectives of the city will re-appropriate this space (not just the physical space, but the space of the Parliament of Bodies) and claim it… Instead of letting it go back to become again a neutralized white cube. In this particular case, it is very difficult because of the symbolic and political meaning of this particular building. It doesn’t have to be here, it doesn’t have to be this, but Athens needs a space where new political and artistic languages can be discussed, a place for institutional experimentation.

Paul B. Preciado is a philosopher, curator, and transgender activist, and a leading thinker in the study of gender and sexual politics. He is the author of Testo Junkie. Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics (2013) and Pornotopia (2014), for which he was awarded the French Prix Sade de l’essai. He was head of research of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) and director of the museum’s Independent Studies Program (PEI). He is currently Curator of Public Programs of documenta 14. Preciado lives and works in Athens.

Jota Mombaça is a non-binary queer, born and raised in the Northeast of Brazil, who writes, performs and carries out academic studies about the relations between monstruosity and humanity, anti-coloniality, redistribution of violence and visionary fiction.