This decade, 2008-2018, in Greece, and elsewhere, has been a decade of crisis. During the last years we have witnessed, in horror, reactionary politics, neo-nationalist ideologies and racist stances becoming normalized. The 6th Athens Biennale ANTI is focusing on this reactionary turn in politics, society, media and culture. It offers an uneasy screenshot of this present moment and highlights our entanglement in social media and the performance of our digital selves. The exhibition deals with forms of polarization and antagonisms and criticizes intolerance, fascism and hateful trolling.
We wish to share with you our opinion regarding the Twitter flame war between the artists Luke Turner and Daniel Keller. In August 2018, two and a half months before the opening of ANTI, we were catching up regarding a proposal for an art project that we have been expecting from the artistic trio LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. In an email, we got an unexpected ultimatum by Luke Turner asking us to expel the artist Daniel Keller from the Biennale on accusations of supporting anti-semitism and fascism. These extreme accusations against Keller (who self-identifies as a politically active leftist of Jewish decent) of course alarmed us. We immediately asked for evidence and researched the case.
The evidence provided by Turner was a thread of tweet exchanges between him and Daniel Keller. The thread shows a heated Twitter debate between two artists who each claim to belong to the same progressive front. While these tweets depict opposing opinions on how to deal with fascists, trolls and anti-semitic cyber bullies, they do not suffice to prove that Daniel Keller is either enabling anti-semitic ideas or sympathizes with reactionary networks. Expelling Keller on these accounts would neither solve the problem of disagreement over diverging tactics, nor be the right choice for an exhibition that deals with these precise conundrums. In our view, it is crucial that these discussions about such urgent issues as fascism go beyond a flame war on Twitter, which the different parties involved are clearly not primarily entertaining because of their political projects against the alt-right, but for personal purposes exploiting the attention economy of the internet.
Strangely and inadvertently, the way this opposition played out exposes the current forms of ANTI, which we are addressing in the Biennale, in the most illustrative way. The extent to which social media have short circuited argumentations and given preference to slogans and accusations over actual debate, and thereby indeed aided reactionary politics, is precisely the conundrum the Athens Biennale addresses in its 6th edition.
We want to take this opportunity to put our values forth, values of which we are adamant. We will not succumb to blackmail and threats. The Athens Biennale and its curators will not expel an artist based on unfounded accusations. Accusations of anti-semitism and fascist sympathies should be supported by hard evidence, and not be based on disagreement over tactics. We will not endorse the false tagging of someone as anti-semite or fascist. The facile way in which premature conclusions attain a consensus, where more diligent debate should be taking place, is deeply troubling. Turner is cynically and strategically drawing blurry links between events that do not necessarily relate to each other in order to target a fellow artist who identifies as progressive. We made a statement on 4th September: http://athensbiennale.org/en/news/a-statement-from-the-athens-biennale-regarding-the-keller-turner-issue/. We have the responsibility to resist unfounded demands to silence other progressive voices. We have a responsibility to resist disinformation disseminated online, and instead foster actual debate within the spectrum of anti-fascism. We believe that giving voice to different, progressive, positions, is the best way to tackle fascism, which is so urgently needed in our time.
Lastly, we must not forget that the Athens Biennale is and has been a space of debate addressing the most urgent issues of our time for and with a large and diverse public. For each edition, the exhibition attracts tens of thousands of visitors who are not part of the art world. Considering the current political situation in most parts of the world, and the particular context in Greece, ANTI is an urgent and crucial offering of diverse progressive voices, dealing both with tactics of how to deal with the immediate present, and pointing to possible futures.
Further accounts of the story:
When we decided to keep Daniel Keller in the show, Luke Turner immediately used libel against the Athens Biennale. He employed the epitome of online hate speech against the Biennale, using slander and defamation. Turner emailed institutions supporting the Biennale using the email subject line: “Athens Biennale Withdrawal, Antisemitism & Fascism.” Clearly, this unnuanced and defamatory subject line was not intended to tackle fascism, but to harm those that are fighting at the same front with different tactics.
In attacking the curatorial team of the 6th Athens Biennale, Turner attacked exactly two of the Greek artists, Poka-Yio and Kostis Stafylakis, whose work has criticized the rise of neo-fascism and anti-semitism in contemporary Greek society.
Since late 90s and early 00s, Poka-Yio has been reflecting upon the xenophobic sentiment against immigrant flows in Greece. In his 2005 solo exhibition “Fuck Off, Thank You, Good Bye,” Poka-Yio showed Athenian neighborhoods being taken over by neo-Nazis. Before the politicization of the Athenian art scene in the late-00s, Poka-Yio’s work showed how middle-class anxiety over security can foster the rise of fascism. Since then, his work has continuously opposed the emergence of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.
Kostis Stafylakis has systematically opposed the dissemination of anti-semitic rhetorics in Greek society through the various stages of the financial crisis. His work “Threnodies” (2011) functions as an alert against anti-semitic statements made by public Greek figures, and deals with how particular fractions within the Greek “aganaktismenoi” (indignant) movement have been reproducing such rhetorics. Moreover, Stafylakis’ “Black Circle” project (2009-2013) has addressed the appeal of neo-fascist Third-Positionism to parts of the Greek Youth. He has written extensively on how mimetic strategies, overidentification and parafiction can interrogate such ominous social tendencies.
By attacking the Athens Biennale, a progressive organization that has repeatedly challenged reactionary culture, Luke Turner is deliberately normalizing slander as a tactical tool to sabotage other voices. We take pride in running a small, independent organization that is one of the last stands of progressive political art in the region.
With the exhibition, the public program including talks and panels as well as the accompanying book, we intend to offer a wider and deeper engagement with these issues than we believe can be achieved on social media, at least in the way they are currently configured and utilized. If we can’t achieve depth of debate and actual conversations in art, where can we? We believe that in art, we can still find strategies that go beyond the algorithmic, visual and political regimes weaponized by populist and fascist agendas. We need to discuss the strategic misuse of the public sphere and the deliberate flattening of actual conversations that is currently occurring in social media—strategies that have indeed been employed by the alt-right and aided their awful current popularization. We hope that we can together create more profound understandings and tactics against some of these most urgent issues of our time.
We are all active witnesses. It’s up to each one of us to oppose the advent of a new cyber Middle Ages.
Stefanie Hessler, Kostis Stafylakis, Poka-Yio