The Parliament of Bodies: Some Thoughts

Documenta14’s public program, The Parliament of Bodies assured us that it would provide creative approaches to the dissemination and curation of ideas on art, activism and education. In calling for an ‘anti-fascist, trans-feminist, and anti-racist coalition’, the intense three-day opening to the parliament’ at Friedricianum, Kassel, implied the desire to activate a space that moved beyond the institution and escaped the confines of the familiar black hole of art world shit-talk. Inviting engagement from its participants that played with forms of storytelling, performance and performativity, there were significant attempts made by the curator of the program Paul B Preciado, and his team to escape the traditional, and so often inconsequential arrangement of ‘expert’ passing knowledge on to an ‘audience’.

Paul B. Preciado, left, curator of public programs, and Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of Documenta 14 in Eleftherias Park in Athens. Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Finding ourselves at the parliament last minute on behalf our collective iQhiya, Sisipho Ngodwana and myself felt obligated to present something that expressed our confusion, bewilderment, and frustration around Documenta14’s adoption and discussion of the current European rhetoric around economic southness, referring to the growing wealth divisions between EU nations. This ‘south’, who has been hit hard in the past number of years includes the ‘PIGS’, as they are fondly known- Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, who find themselves in precarious economic positions, and whose governments are in the process of responding using increasingly fascist strategies.

With Greece particularly having experienced unforeseen and incredibly catastrophic financial underdevelopment in the past ten or so years, the only hope for some kind of national healing has been German loans, whose conditions have included tragic austerity cuts and the privatization of basic services (many of which Germany is invested in). We know from history that this set of circumstances is a looping cycle, and a step toward further loss and further debt. That said, it is important to note how and why Europeans are able to recognise these processes as neo-colonialist, and as a marked moment of the creation of a new south.

Fridericianum, Kassel

It is no mistake to cite these terms in making talking about the current situation, but in Documenta14 as a whole, in the South journal publication, as well as their ongoing theme of ‘Learning From Athens’ (as the ‘south), we are encountered with an incredibly limited context- Europe, America, and ‘the immigration issue’- in order to begin to unpack and creatively approach the problems of Europe, which as it stands, can never be divorced from the rest of us.


The elephant in my room was this awareness that it was Europeans themselves who created the hierarchy of ‘north’ and ‘south’, it was them who invented capital driven nation-state colonialism, and now, it is them who speak with the loudest voices about the damage that these power dichotomies cause to them.

iQhiya, The Portrait, 2016, performance, Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA)—Pireos Street (“Nikos Kessanlis” Exhibition Hall), documenta 14, photo: Stathis Mamalakis

Our intervention, entitled Fresh Off The Boat, took the form of a fake press conference, in which we presented the idea for an exhibition of artists from the actual global south, using our collective’s whatsapp group as a playful way to talk about the ironic exclusion of voices from the south in the ‘south’ dialogue, as well as suggesting that more informal sites for communication are actually potentially more viable for active activism.


We feel perhaps that an acknowledgment of positionality is missing from debates around the extremely difficult neo-capitalist system in Europe. This acknowledgment comes with the conveniently forgotten truth of having to situate Europe historically- and now- within a global system of oppression and exploitation, as an entity that has historically caused pain through the underdevelopment of black people, involving the deracination of existing cultures, the creation of gender and construction of ‘family’, and control over the education of colonised subjects. These infrastructures are still at play now, and render European knowledges and social constructs that cause pain as the epistemological north…


… The title ‘Fresh off the Boat’ alludes to the historical relationship between Europe and Africa, in an attempt to contextualise what is rarely framed as, but is of course a global conversation. 


– iQhiya, from ‘Fresh Off the Boat’.


The idea that our struggles are inherently connected through networks of epistemological and economic oppression, and that many traditionally colonised nations are hundreds of years ahead in organising and strategising modes of activism in these conditions was not the central interest of this parliament, who as opposed to the singular bodies it attempted to represent, often seemed to be a re-articulation of familiar oppressive ideology packaged more attractively.


The question of why, in Documenta, we are ‘learning (too heavily) from Athens’, rather than also from the first transdisciplinary university institutions of north Africa, or from the creative art educational approaches of early 1960s Kenya, or from the current video activist groups in Sao Paolo Brazil, say, or from any number of other spaces was tangible in the air, and the absence of knowledges from these ‘other’ spaces felt dramatically present.

Grada Kilomba | Photo: Divulgação

Grada Kilomba tackled these issues using an unexpected form, beginning her intervention by stating that there are no new stories, or ideas, or things in this world, and so she had decided to re-tell an old Greek story. Narcsissus, the famous legend of vanity was told by Kilomba in the dark room, accompanied by a humorous tongue-in-cheek projection of an all-black cast, playing the roles of Narcissus, Echo, and Nemesis. Towards the end of the tale, she turned the legend on its head, creating a hugely political metaphor of whiteness’ self-obsession and narcissism as the centre of black self-hatred, and in doing so, was able to re-introduce to us the narrative of global racism, a system of which we are all undeniably a part.


Vaginal Davis then played with the performative nature of a lecture in a personal exploration of the ‘black freak’ as articulated in cinema, with the help of Audre Lorde, in ’No One Leaves Delilah’. The lecture, which looked at moments of film from the west, explored white obsessions with the sexual (and otherwise) ownership of the black physical body, and made connections to the artist’s own strange and deeply queer teenage film production, offering in the end affirmation and complexity to the perpetually misplaced bodies of black queer folk.

Dr Vaginal Davis and Professor Jose Munoz(NYU) in a serious discusion on ART and Beauty.

I felt that these were the moments to grab, in which the connections- sexual, economic, cultural and political- could be made between current anti-immigration fueled hyper-nationalism, and the history of global colonialism including slavery, and the continued exploitation of the global south. As Kilombo stated, we need not look for new information, but rather opportunities to weave together a widely contextualised understanding of what we have to see as a global crisis.

Thomas Eller & Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung Skype, 2012 Inkjet on Hahnemühle paper, Dibond 39.37 x 59.06 x 3.94 in (100 x 150.01 x 10.01 cm)

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s talk, entitled An Alignment of Contested Bodies and Spaces: On Alterity, Asynchrony, and Heterogeneity did exactly this, beginning with a contemporary reading of WEB Du Bois (whose question ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? had littered the program in relation to issues in which its context was of no relevance) and the development of his writings, most particularly his notion of the ‘colour line’, which was shifted significantly by a visit in the 1950s to a post-Holocaust Warsaw Nazi death camp.

W.E.B. DuBois (center) is seen in a detail from a group photo of the 20th Class ReUnion of the Class of 1890, June 28, 1910 in Tempest Knob. Credit: Harvard University Archives, HUPSF Class of 1890 (PA 1)

In acknowledging the complexity of Du Bois’s process of understanding oppression, Ndikung’s exploration began to unearth ways of oppressing, and how at the root of ‘otherness’ is the negation of a subject’s humanity. His intersectional approach provided a more radical mode of understanding capitalism’s origin in, and new constructs of ‘othering’- othering as racializing, feminising, sexualizing, infantilizing, and so on. Roping Oreyonke Oyewumi’s writings into the mix, he had me captivated as he began to articulate not only the failure of the global capitalist project as whole, but the failure of its form and sensibility, and how the western preoccupation with visuality and text as modes of ownership, has contributed to the erasure of histories of spaces and people that could not be articulated within those forms.  

Artist, Alfredo Jaar, presents to the audience in Miller Theatre, Columbia University, October 1, 2009


The talk helped me to breathe easier for a few hours, until I broke down later that evening following a lecture from Alfredo Jaar, who articulated his practice through the use of a Powerpoint which flashed through hundreds of pictures of dead refugees, refugees being beaten or shot at, and the infamous picture of a tiny lifeless Syrian child washed up on Greek shores shown over and over and over again. His lecture entitled ‘It is Difficult’ felt like a performance of all the power dynamics I struggled with over the few days, and I remember looking around the room at so many white faces, entranced and horrified by the hi-res images, before I felt sick and walked out, discouraged by everything.


In my view, conversation is an action- an essential, challenging and fun part of a project of production and experimentation. We should be training our listening skills, our jokes and our storytelling skills, because ultimately it is these actions of conversing that are fundamental in any process of making. There is a sense of trickery when conversation is curated such that it is rendered useless as we see so often with art-based panels and conferences. While what was on offer at the parliament included some really exciting modes of engagement, and relevant and radical content, the space made me anxious again that the art institution has the power to swallow all potential that operates within it, before this potential can escape its white walls. Conversation does have the power to mobilise; it can be key in solidifying, dismembering or imagining new ideology but conversation can also just be a way to do nothing, and to make nothing.




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