Interview South of no North

“América Invertida” (1943), Joaquín Torres Garcia
“América Invertida” (1943), Joaquín Torres Garcia

Marina Fokidis and Solange Farkas talk about the multiple meanings of the South, beyond geography

ARTE!Brasileiros interviewed Solange Farkas, founder and director of Southern Panoramas Festival, and Marina Fokidis, founder and editor of the magazine, South as a State of Mind, which has temporarily become the documenta 14 journal until the opening of the event. They talked about what the concept of global south means in a world which is in a constant state of becoming. Fokidis is a guest speaker of the IV ARTE!Brasileiros International Seminar which takes place alongside the São Paulo Biennale

Generally speaking, the South still appears as a part of the world which has either been exploited by, and/ or which lacks certain qualities or attributes of its “other”, the North. In any case, the North is still the axis, the reference point through which the South is defined and defines itself. Can this way of thinking be overcome? How can we create an idea of the South which is not a faulty version of the North, but rather, defined on its own terms? Would that be a “new state of mind?” How could such a state of mind be defined?

Solange Farkas: I believe that people have been been attempting this for many years now. The Southern countries, through its thinkers, artists, activists and researchers from different areas, have been seeking to identify themselves on their own terms since their independence. Here we refer to different forms of independence, such as independence from the Soviet bloc or from nineteenth century imperialism, to develop autonomous thinking that responds to the actual conditions of the South, that is in dialogue with our unique features and needs. The anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, for example, is a representative figure of this autonomous thinking that could only emerge from the South.

Marina Fokidis: That brings to mind the name of a punk music group in Greece of the late 80’s. They would call themselves South of No North and are most likely inspired by Charles Bukowski’s book of short stories of the same title, yet, in my opinion, they were giving a different meaning to the title. Refusing to be defined by a measure that favors the North, they chose to define themselves as a punk group that comes from an independent, fictional South, one that does not need a North to exist and be discussed. Of course, this is a utopian idea. As the world stands now, the North/West is still the axis of the South/ East, but how much longer will this continue? Even humans are the axis of “machines” but how longer will this be true? We do not know. We understand our times as a precarious moment in history, a turn. We might not always trust philanthropists, humanists, intermediates and “do-gooders” and all those outsiders who want to control the idea of “South” by restricting it geographically and conceptually as much as possible.

There is no need or room for more appropriation by the northern gaze. Nevertheless, neither do we want to promote the idea that the South is the only place where things of value occur. When we initiated the magazine in 2012 and came up with the name South as a State of Mind, we were thinking of the notion that the South is a meeting point for shared intensities but not strictly in geographic terms. Not strictly as a set of regions that share common colonial pasts. We wished to take a step forward and see what it would be like if the South became just a state of mind, a thinking process derived from the legacies and histories of the global south. However, it does not stop there; it even develops  into paths that are still undefined.

Our idea was no longer to promote or shape a collective identity, but rather, to be open to unexpected dialogues between different regions, areas and neighborhoods – between family, friends and strangers to become friends. We came to think of the South not as a place in the world but as an idea! To quote Greek-Australian theorist Nikos Papastergiadis, who greatly influenced the beginning of our publication, we thought of South “as a space where people meet to imagine the possibility of other ways of being in the world. A ‘little public sphere.” So we founded the magazine as a tool for exchange – a dialogue that would produce and keep producing a mutual understanding of the world. Then…the whole world could be part of this state of mind if it wished to do so.

cover of the magazine south as a state of mind, publication founded by marina fokidis and now functioning as the journal for documenta 14 cover of the magazine south as a state of mind, publication founded by marina fokidis and now functioning as the journal for documenta 14 | Copyright: Zeitschrift South as State of Mind
documenta 14 will take place simultaneously in Germany and Greece, so in order to see the whole exhibition, the visitor must  “migrate”  as  well,  taking  a  journey  between  the  two countries. How do you think this dislocation can be made meaningful rather than representing just another iteration of globetrotting art professionals, which goes hand-in-hand with the “biennialization” of the art world and cultural tourism? How to avoid the risk of falling into “social crisis tourism” on the one hand, while grappling with the Greek tourism industry, which insists that the country and its islands remain an idyllic holiday escape, seeming to be intentionally in denial of the gravity of the migration problem, on the other?

Solange Farkas: This is certainly a good question for documenta 14. Let’s see how they will tackle it, but there is no doubt that documenta has the institutional weight and instruments to address this issue. One way to distance itself from this is to adopt a more sober view of the injustice and inequality plaguing the world at the moment.

Marina Fokidis: I believe that the fact that documenta 14 is shared between two locations, Athens and Kassel, is a historical event, and it is happening for the first time since 1955. Of course, there have been different forms of substantial exchange with other locations in the past, most notably during documenta 11, which was under the artistic directorship of Okwui Enwezor, in which four major platforms for conferences and workshops in different regions – Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa preceded the opening of the exhibition. Yet, what is different about documenta 14 is that not only is it about or informed by multiple locations, but that it is actually taking place in two locations that happen to be under completely different sociopolitical and economic conditions – even if they are both situated in Europe.

There are already two operational places from which documenta 14 speaks. Two cities different in scale, economic state, cultural habits, and much more. Since the  inception  of  documenta  14,  the  artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, made sure to organize two artistic offices, and split his team between the two locations. I believe this very “sharing”, together with the working title Learning from Athens is the focal point,   the essence, the “theme,” if you will, of this  edition.  Learning  from  Athens  is  understood in its symbolic sense of course. Athens serves as a metaphor for the foundation of the modern sense of democracy and its lack thereof. Szymczyk’s idea to share documenta 14 between the so called North and South - together with all the difficult political, social and cultural negotiations and implications that had to take place for  achieving such an an endeavor- seem to  me  the  most  accurate  answer  to  your  concern about a meaningful dislocation. This multiplicity of locations for such an established institutional event as documenta   actually works here   as criticism of the idea of “bienalization,” while it also shakes the authority of the one and only mega institution.

Through this edition of documenta, Szymczyk wants to reconnect the “exhibition” ( the whole project ) with the notion and the reality of the “urgency” that triggered it in the first place. Athens – as a sister city to Kassel, was one of the possibilities where this could occur. I believe that the long and organic operational coexistence of the two locations – through the vehicle of a mega show like documenta and its many years of organizational process - has been already offering Athens a certain kind of visibility which goes beyond its clichés. Maybe documenta 14 is shedding some light – in different fashion than that of the the media during all these years of crisis - on the grey cement space between the Parthenon and the Port of Piraeus leading to the beautiful islands. And this might be the way for a mutual understanding of diversity as well as of likeness in attitudes, styles and voices, within Europe, even throughout the South and definitely within the world. documenta 14 does not want to force “migration” (which might not be the right word for the practice of art globetrotters), or voluntary cultural travel, to be more precise. The events, exhibitions, and project of documenta 14 will be structured in such a way that visitors will not feel like they miss out if they cannot travel between the two spaces. Of course, it will be bliss if all visitors had the opportunity to be present in both places (and metaphorically between them, as well). Efforts are being made to make this as easy as possible. Yet, what is more important than seeing everything, for the visitors that will visit both places, is to be able to see the “world“ from different positions, bottom up and top down and not exclusively top down. A more precise hint for answering your question can be found in the words of Adam Szymczyk, who said “the two projects, realized in different ways while learning from their respective places and from each other, will form two pictures that could never be superimposed to form a single image. Nor will the two shows be possible to be grasped from a single vantage point. By asking documenta visitors to take route a similar to that of its makers and to take their time, allowing a break in visibility while journeying between the two locations, my hope is that the exhibition will again engage in a process of cultural transformation”.

This year’s Berlin Biennale, curated by post-internet collective DIS, has been harshly criticized for its supposed lack of concern for the social or political events that are taking place in Europe today and for its professed denial of artivist practices that are currently in fashion. Setting its eyes steadily in a speculative future shaped by technology, the Biennale and the art it presents, are accused of failing to engage with both the past and the present, ignoring historical, social, political and cultural differences across the world. Instead of enabling a multitude of temporalities and  epistemologies  to  coexist, they are said to bind progress once again to the hegemonic Northern paradigms. On the other hand, the art from  the South might feel overly “social” - in the sense of a kind of “socialogization”, and therefore bound to a local sociopolitical reality which is constantly denouncing or commenting on. Are these two “types” of art really opposites? Is there a middle ground or a dialogue possible here?

Solange Farkas - Yes, there are possible dialogues, no doubt. The issue resides not in the types of art practiced but in the speeches that organize, value and validate these different practices. It doesn’t matter if they are different but that they are thought of in relation to different networks. The issue may have another dimension, more prosaic on the one hand, and more complex on the other: artistic production reflects pressing issues of certain societies, so in a sense, it is natural that in certain regions artistic production and curatorial thinking do not occupy themselves with a certain sociology. On the other hand, it is a bit scary that this happens, since curators and artists of these regions still live in a violently unjust and unequal world.

Marina Fokidis: One can say that this question might also contain its answer. There have been many rather harsh reviews of the last Berlin Biennale and very few quite positive ones. I think that the Biennale as a whole was pretty tight – and solid. To me, the issue was that the mood was wrong, veritably wrong and thus quite successful. It is not easy to present the wrongness – the raw wrongness, and not a rehearsed version of it. It is a brave gesture, as well. I saw the last edition of the Berlin Biennale as an ode to the “void.” The mental, cultural, social and sentimental void. It reminded me a bit of the same feeling I had when I saw one of the first films by Jim Jarmusch, Stranger than Paradise where the three protagonists oscillate among different landscapes in the US, without exchanging many words or expressing their feelings.

The annoying silence of the characters is not due to the beauty or the impact of the landscape, but rather, because they have nothing to say about the world as it is developing. Because they feel empty. Under this scope, this Biennale might not have ignored the past and future of the social and political present as many thought, but, in fact, engaged with it, in public, in the same way that many engage with it in private, in front of their computer screens. Circulating between the horrible daily news concerning despair, dispossession, wars and deaths, and at the same time gluten-free diets and crossfit forums is often the way in which several practitioners who are critical of the Biennale use their information to shape their activism and get busy with turning the world into a better place. This is may be a larger problem than that of this edition of the Berlin Bienniale.

Of course, it is very important for different cultural temporalities, and different problematic histories of injustice to be represented in these mega shows. Yet, since this is becoming the norm, almost a requirement for a successful exhibition, it loses its relevance. It is an automatic gesture that renders itself numb the moment it hits the ground of an exhibition hall. In between all these necessary exhibitions that include strong debates about migration, exploitation, historical injustices while getting the funds for their existence from multinational companies, rulers of authoritarian regimes, or multinational corporations, (because there is no other way) , a project like the Berlin Biennial is a a project like the Berlin Biennial is a useful interlude, a kind of a wake-up call, despite its weaknesses.

Brazil has long been called “the country of the future.” The sentence is often completed with the words “and will always be,” however. It seems like the South is in a permanent estate of “becoming.”   Rather than just a question of spatiality, the divide between North and South seems to be a matter of temporality too, or in fact, temporalities. If the North seems to have already arrived already at the so-called post-contemporary (which is the theme of the ongoing Berlin Biennale, entitled “The Present in Drag”), the South seems to be still very much at odds with modernity (which has not been properly historicized yet), and overly occupied with history and its rewriting to the extent that it seems unable to devise a future - which so many believe it is best equipped to create.

Solange Farkas: In my view, this phrase “Brazil is the country of the future” is outdated; it is an old cliché coined during World War II. Different temporalities coexist in the South, just as they do in the North. Here, these differences are less homogeneous than in the North, but we transition through parallel contexts that express (or synthesize) different temporalities, some closer to Northern patterns, others less  so. With regard to the invention of the future, the South may have more potential - conceptual, affective - but it is necessary to expand and refine our autonomy before this is possible.

Marina Fokidis: I think the North and the South, the East and the West all have indeed arrived at the post contemporary. We are all interdependent. Maybe this is expressed differently, in different regions - “expression” is often influenced by the surrounding environment, politics, society, landscape, the sun, light, weather…I think it is not about the “autonomy” of South at that point. The whole world is in a constant state of becoming. Perhaps the “South” as a state of mind might play an important role in this phase – towards a better world.

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