In his 2009 publication The Radicant Nicolas Bourriaud describes the contemporary artist by means of the metaphor of the radicant. Borrowing this term from an organism that grows its roots and adds new ones as it advances, the French curator writes: ‘To be radicant means setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them the power to completely define one’s identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing.’1 The contemporary artist does not depend on one single root for its growth but advances in all directions. The radicant becomes a nomadic, rootless subjectivity: the immigrant, the exile, the tourist, and the urban wanderer are the dominant figures of contemporary culture. This is in opposition to the radical, whose roots are deeply anchored in a particular soil, and whom the curator associates with the modernist artist. The root becomes the core of identification at the very moment its actual reality is fading. Bourriaud’s narrative seems deeply embedded in a particular discourse on globalisation that in the face of today’s developments turns sour.
Alongside these botanical metaphors of radicants and radicals, the epiphyte and parasite spring to mind. An epiphyte is a plant that harmlessly grows upon another plant or organism (such as a tree) and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. Epiphytes differ from parasites in that they grow on other plants for physical support and do not necessarily negatively affect the host. Alongside the radicant and radical, these botanical classifications seem to form restless metaphors for the trembling self in our current society. What might the relationships between these terms mean and what might they become in the face of the parachuting phenomenon? Might they help us in addressing the complexities associated with an outsider, in this case the artist or curator, arriving in a new context?
To parachute or to be parachuted into a specific context. The first associations that spring to mind are of either friendly helping troops or the less friendly invasion. Despite good intentions, the “outsider” is received with scepticism. In an interview between Renzo Martens en Artur Zmijewski, Martens states somewhat cynically: ‘First you witness a bad situation, but then the artist comes to create beauty and kindness. Artists create beauty where there is ugliness, they create truth, poetry, democracy, and so on, where there is none.’2 Martens hints at the superficial engagement of the parachuting artist, often invited by another parachuted curator. Instead, Martens argues for actually showing the systems of exploitation and who in fact benefits from these endeavours through his own reversed gentrification project with the Institute of Human Activities.
In addressing the complex question of the parachuting curator and the parachuted exhibition, matters of ethics and etiquettes stand at its fore. Through this panel discussion, we tried to discuss the stakes, responsibilities and relationships between guest and the host. The case of documenta 14 taking place simultaneously in Athens as in Kassel sparked strong debate. If Athens is the epicentre or embodiment of the economic, political, social and cultural issues of contemporary Europe, what can we learn from documenta in Athens? Where do we stand between the more parasitical approach (as witnessed in the much quoted Varofakis statement: ‘Doing documenta in Athens is like a rich American taking a tour in a poor African country’) and the epiphytic approach (departing from a more positive or hopeful approach of rethinking our differing positions to come to a mutual relationship)?
Through the voices of different experts on the topic we tried to discuss the parachuting phenomenon, with each guest zooming in on different aspects of this complex issue. Forms of more long-term engagement became apparent through the practices of curators Erin Gleeson and Nat Muller. Gleeson, co founder and artistic director of SA SA BASSAC in Phnom Penh, Cambodja, focused on three different formats or relationships: parasitism, commensalism and mutualism. Her own practice focuses more on a slow and long term approach that resonates with Nat Muller: an independent curator who has been working in the Middle East for the past fifteen years. Discerning the different points of entry and gatekeepers, balancing between intentions, desires and ambitions, she questioned: how do you avoid difference on display? How can you speak freely? And which and whose narrative do you tell?
For Haco de Ridder, Senior Project Officer International Relations at the Mondriaan Fund, who organises the yearly orientation trips of the Mondriaan Fund questions of responsibility as a gate keeper were addressed. Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, co-founder of the Athens Biennial, spoke from the position of both host and guest. And last but not least, Hendrik Folkerts lay out the working method of documenta in Athens. Balancing between more practical issues and discursive approaches, one thing is clear: this panel discussion stands in what – by now – we could call a tradition of rethinking our relationship to our own position within this particular debate.