From the Vision to the Nail in the Coffin, and the Resurrection: Dimitris Athiridis on “exergue – on documenta 14”

By Antoine Thirion

A teenaged girl is texting her boyfriend from her bedroom, seeking compassion: “I’m just in a really bad place right now.” The boy responds: “Oh, what are you doing in Germany?” 

Many can relate to this fierce meme which appeared on social media following the silencing of voices in Germany condemning Israel’s destruction of Gaza. Recently, the finding committee of documenta 16, the next edition of the German mega-exhibition held in Kassel every five years since 1955, collectively resigned because of the “unchallenged media and public discrediting” of one of their members, Indian writer and curator Ranjit Hoskoté, who had signed a 2019 anti-fascist statement which the widely despised German culture minister Claudia Roth described, with her usual nuance, as “clearly anti-Semitic and loaded with Israel-hostile conspiracy theories.” 

As the supervisory board is currently tasked with restructuring the documenta selection process, the fear is that the freedom traditionally granted to the exhibition’s artistic direction will be drastically constrained in order to prevent any new national “scandal” the likes of which occurred around documenta 15 in 2022. That edition, curated by Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa, saw selected artworks removed following accusations of anti-Semitic content, which eventually led to the ongoing overhaul of the exhibition’s governance structure. And all this followed on the heels of yet another “scandal” surrounding documenta 14, the reasons of which were different, but also very much a product of their time: the decision by artistic director Adam Szymczyk to hold overlapping shows in Athens and Kassel, which occasioned a hailstorm of political and media establishment criticism for a €5.3 million budget shortfall.

A 14-hour-long film about curating an exhibition may sound like an ordeal, and yet what Greek filmmaker Dimitris Athiridis has achieved with exergue – on documenta 14 is without a doubt one the most compelling, nerve-wracking, and timely films of recent years. Aptly premiering at the Berlinale in February, the filmis the definitive making-of record of the German quinquennial’s 2017 edition. Over three years, Athiridis followed Szymczyk’s attempts to organize documenta 14 in both Athens and Kassel as the Polish artistic director scouted across several countries, brainstormed with a team of excellent curators (including Hila Peleg, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Pierre Bal-Blanc, and Paul B. Preciado), spoke with some of the most relevant contemporary intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers (including Douglas Gordon, Hiwa K, Ben Russell, and Narimane Mari), negotiated with institutions, installed the works, met with politicians, answered the press, and went through the most exciting to the most dire times.

Through its jumbled structure and precision in depicting the curatorial discourse, exergue – on documenta 14 is the opposite of the story of a shipwreck: it is a successful attempt to salvage what demagogy savagely tore down. At once complex and welcoming for an audience unfamiliar with the art world, it relies as much on its protagonist’s wit and charisma as on the relevance of his artistic choices, which only proved to be strengthened by the global events that shaped its context. It’s very much a process-driven film, where the idea to bring documenta to a country notoriously enslaved by debt, reverberating in the one eventually looming over the organization of the event, allows the film to take on monumental proportions in a quiet and unassuming manner. 

The astonishing level of access that Athiridis managed to obtain brings us to reflect upon what’s generally allowed to be public and what’s condemned to stay private, on transparency and opacity in the handling of political and cultural matters. And the tremendous efforts to piece together the continuity of documenta 14’s elaboration subverts the ways by which the future is blocked and times are pre-empted, be it due to censorship or financial debt. It’s not the least of this film’s achievements to bring to light, as in any exhibition, works that have been condemned to oblivion, and to do justice to things that have been repressed.

Cinema Scope: On the documenta 14 official team list, you appear as “cinematographer.” Did the film originate from you, or from a proposition of its artistic director, Adam Szymczyk?

Dimitris Athiridis: When I met Adam in 2015, I had this idea of making an observational documentary about him as artistic director of documenta 14 in the making, and I asked him. It took him five seconds for him to say yes, and I started following him. I was not commissioned by him or someone else. It’s a funny thing, actually: this “cinematographer” title is an honorary one I was given later. I “joined” this team and started following them at an early stage, before the team grew to 200 members; there were only around 20 people at that time. And I spent so much time with them, all day, from the morning until late at night, sometimes in tavernas and bars…It was like a way of life, following a mission. One could call it assimilation, in anthropological terms, but that’s how I understand observational filmmaking. So, I was there as an unofficial artistic team member; it was OK, since I had Adam’s permission. It only posed a problem when they started installing and put security at the venues. I didn’t have a badge because I wasn’t from the press. I asked, “How do I get in?” and I got a team card, which was honorary. 

When in Athens, because I’m a local, many artists or curators were asking me for tips about things they needed: where to find materials or a film crew or whatever, some information about a space. I noticed that Bonaventure’s title was “curator-at-large,” so I gave myself the title of “curator-at-small.” Adam always said that everybody can be a curator.

Scope: You have many titles. At some point early in the film, he calls you a souffleur, because you correct him on a Greek word.

Athiridis: There was a moment when Adam, while giving an interview, wanted to mention the Greek term Methexis (to refer to how audience participation becomes part of the tragedy), and instead said Metohia. I usually don’t like to intervene when I film, but since he was giving an interview, I thought this term should not be recorded incorrectly. I did it automatically, you know. I only did it once or twice during the two years, and I was unsure if something like that would be in the film. But what was interesting in the end was not my intervention, but Adam’s swift response to it, as he gave it back to his interlocutor as an example of participation, not a souffleur response, as I was breaking the fourth wall. The discussion was about the audience of documenta, who Adam preferred to think of as participants rather than passive spectators.

It was also an essential moment in establishing the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Filming Adam posed some difficulties. He was doing his job and had a million things in his head; I didn’t want to bother him, ask questions, or make him have to think about me. He is very gentle, but not particularly expressive; he’s always very composed, and I couldn’t tell if he was accepting my presence and what my limits were because nothing was planned, nothing was staged. I just had to be there, where he was.

If there was a meeting—and there were lots—with many curatorial team members in very small rooms, I had to be there early and take a seat at the table and keep quiet and still to be able to film. I was trying to avoid moving around and making myself too present, or it would be annoying or intimidating for them. When I film, I always try to look people in the eye so they see a person looking at them, not a camera, so they forget about the camera and see me. Filming people at such a proximity is a matter of relation and trust. After a while, they got used to me.

Scope: Did you have any prior connection to the art world?

Athiridis: Very little. I had a vague idea about what documenta was. My previous two films were character-based narrations; I always like to start with characters instead of issues. But when you film a character, their work, their world becomes the background, the context, which cannot be ignored. Characters are the best vehicles for issues. I don’t research and meditate about what film I want to make next. I prefer to be open, and the story comes to me—out of luck, you meet someone. This film also started in a peculiar way. Adam came to Thessaloniki, which is my hometown, in June 2015. The team of documenta 14 scheduled one of their early meetings there because they still lacked an office in Athens. Everybody flew from different places in Europe for the opening of the Thessaloniki Biennale to get acquainted with the Greek art context. One of documenta’s curators, Marina Fokidis, is a friend of mine. She said she would meet with the team in a taverna one night, and told me to come by. I wasn’t very excited, but it was a hot night, and at 11 p.m. I felt like going out.

When I got to the taverna, the team was around a big table. I took a seat, and Adam was at the other end. Those were the Grexit days—there were a lot of discussions about whether Greece should stay or leave the European Union, Varoufakis and Tsipras were going to the Eurogroup negotiations, and there was a heated climate. Adam was asking questions, but also seemed very informed and knowledgeable about the Greek situation. And he seemed to care. The next day, I googled documenta and realized I had met this charismatic character who wants to do something interesting, which is the start of every good story. He wants to do a documenta in Greece: let’s see what he’ll do and how he’ll do it. That’s how things started. 

Of course, for me, this long journey was also like a learning curve to the art world. I didn’t know much about documenta or the art world, but I guess I know some things now. And Adam is such a good teacher. All of them were, actually. Which is a way to answer why I am making films in the first place: because I want to explore something, to learn something, and to tell the story. 

Scope: You must know a lot about curators by now.

Athiridis: If you study rocket science for some time, you get to understand a bit of rocket science. Perhaps it was good that I didn’t know the art world, because in a sense, I was fresh, I didn’t have any preconceptions about what is important and what isn’t. I know some things about the world, and some things about people. And curators are definitely interesting people. Some things may have felt odd, but I tried to understand them. Their use of language, for example: it might feel pretentious at first, but then you understand that it’s not easy to bring a certain complexity into language. Sometimes it’s poetic, theoretical, or full of references; sometimes, they conflate many different things, and you need to understand what they mean. What curators do is complex—you must have very different capabilities to deal with art, aesthetics, history, politics, theory, artists, and money, manage a career, and be the moving wheel of art production between reality and irreality.

Scope: You may not have known much about the art world, but what did you think about Szymczyk’s idea to bring documenta to Athens?

Athiridis: Of course, it was crucial timing. Greece was a black sheep of Europe at that time, and Adam intended to bring Greece into a different light and expose an obvious inequality axis in Europe itself. Is there something to be learned from Athens?

The first chapter of the film is called “The Proposal.” Directors at documenta are appointed according to an initial curatorial proposal by an independent finding committee, and the double location was instrumental to his proposal and to his appointment. He spent almost all of the first year as artistic director trying to communicate this proposal and bring it to other people, to create the team, find partners and people to work with, and see what kind of discussion and responses it could generate in Greece and abroad. 

The first chapter reflects what first interested me, which were his aspirations. There were many exciting things about it. Adam wondered how a mega–art exhibition could respond to the urgency of the challenging times we’re living in. And not only from a Eurocentric point of view, or from the established art world: he wanted documenta to symbolically assume the guest’s role, not only that of the host. What if documenta was not a relaxed, well-established institution, and became a stranger, not always welcome, without a “home” in a foreign place? What responses would this movement activate for the institution or the artists? There was a phrase in his proposal that art is “a cognitive extension of our existence,” which intrigued me, as it almost translates into a spiritual goal. So, there was a political dimension and an existential one, and a charismatic character, which created so much space for storytelling. Somewhere, there was a wish for a change, for a better world. I liked his proposal, and I wanted to follow his way of implementing this. 

Scope: At the end of the first chapter, you’re showing some of the suspicion coming from Greece about this project: accusations of “parachuting a cultural institution” leading to privatizations.

Athiridis: There were many different reactions to documenta coming to Athens. Some thought it was an excellent opportunity to cooperate, be open, and learn from documenta, like the Athens School of Fine Arts. Some tried to take advantage of it, and some were fundamentally critical, or even hostile, and saw it as a colonial invasion. But this was always the problem with the world of ideas, especially on the Left. The scene you’re referring to was filmed in an early public presentation by Adam in a grassroots art-squat with the local art crowd, many of them academics. So, Adam is talking about the need to respond to the global situation, and the question is, who will respond—documenta? Adam replies that documenta doesn’t exist as a body, which is actually true. And, of course, he did not enjoy being identified with a German institution. He was carrying his own ideas and will to do things.

In Greece, they considered documenta to be a massive institution with tons of German money and an excellent organization, but the reality was different. When there’s no exhibition, documenta is just a few people: one CEO, one CFO, and seven lower managers, who have nothing to do with the artistic part. Each documenta iteration is shaped by the will of the art world and expressed ad hoc by the selected artistic director and his team; the institution follows. After documenta 14, there was some restructuring. They understood that times had changed and needed a different, more competent administrative structure, but there wasn’t one at that moment. So documenta is an institution, and this is an engaging discussion: what is an institution, and, in that particular case, a public institution? 

Documenta was not always a public institution: it became one mainly for funding reasons. Documenta is a GmbH, a formal institution funded partly by public money. Still, other layers—the informal institutional layers, the players involved—make it more interesting. It is something different for the city of Kassel, for which it is a touristic, lucrative festival that happens every five years; another thing as the German flagship of cultural politics; and, of course, for the art world, it is historically the most important international exhibition, almost the place where the contemporary idea of exhibition, as we know it now, was born. It is a momentous place for artistic dialogue and experimentation.

So, much of this institution is formed by an unconstituted tradition rather than a solid corporate directive and status. You can only organize artistic ideas around a corporate body by risking the freedom of art. Adam meant that there’s no documenta body there to respond, other than the artists and the curators themselves. 

Scope: What about the collective that followed Szymczyk in the artistic direction, ruangrupa?

Athiridis: Ruangrupa’s documenta 15 was a different story, a very interesting one too in terms of controversy. I can find analogies and similarities with documenta 14, and it could be an intriguing topic for a filmmaker, but they were a collective. One character and one documenta is enough for a filmmaker.

Scope: So documenta 14 is the last character-based documenta.

Athiridis: Could be, I don’t know. The question is, what is this character, and what can he do? Everybody refers to the different editions of documenta as Okwui Enwezor’s documenta, Catherine David’s documenta, or Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s documenta—it’s very personal, as the artistic director theoretically has, or had, complete creative freedom to implement his vision. The role of the artistic director or curator as we know it today was almost invented by Harald Szeeman with documenta. He was the first to set the concept that the product is not the artwork only, but the curatorial concept, the exhibition itself. Then, the curator began to have a more influential role in this industry. Ruangrupa took quite a different direction, as a collective, to show possibilities unfamiliar from Western thought and practices. After documenta 15, what is at stake and at question is the limits of this artistic freedom; perhaps, in a way, documenta 14 was the last documenta in this tradition of curatorial authorship.

Scope: If the issue of access was never really formalized, didn’t it pose numerous problems about when to be allowed in a room or what stays off the record?

Athiridis: Talking about access in documentary filmmaking is a fundamental issue. It means a lot to me as a filmmaker, but it also reveals a lot about the subject, the person who gives the access. I believe Adam liked the idea of an artistic process, the film, happening inside and outside of documenta 14. Furthermore, he always expressed the idea of the publicness of the institution and encouraged open procedures, within the team and public dialogue.

I also like to think of documentary filmmaking as a “public institution”—for example, as journalism is, but with a different approach. So, allowing a filmmaker in the process also brought some transparency to what is considered public. And to withstand such exposure means you have nothing to hide. I began to film when I felt that there was some connection. I don’t have a producer’s reflexes to secure permissions and signed releases, which, of course, is good business practice, but you don’t build relationships with contracts. I had the initial permission from Adam, and the artistic director’s choices are not questioned.

But from that point on, I had to build each new relationship individually. I always asked whether filming was OK, and then I turned on the camera. “I’m here to make this documentary. Is this OK with you?” I didn’t get signed releases because I wanted them to trust that I could not do anything without their consent, which I would get later. So, it was a relationship based on mutual trust. Asking someone to sign a contract is what a producer would do, but then people’s attitudes change. They feel obliged or constrained; they might not be as comfortable or be themselves anymore; they might self-censor what they’re saying or not saying. If you don’t have a contract, you’re just a person, and you know you don’t have power over the situation. For a filmmaker, one must endure a state of vulnerability, like in any relationship. 

There were very few moments when someone said they would prefer not be filmed. It was mostly when curators and artists would meet. I would always tell the artists I was making a documentary about Adam doing documenta 14, and ask them if they minded me filming; 95% said no problem. Some people were shy because it’s a very crucial moment for them, of course, to have this conversation with the person who will commission your work. Obviously, I respected that.

Scope: I understand that there was an understanding with curators and artists, but I would expect distrust from people in administrative positions.  

Athiridis: I was mainly with the curators and the artistic team. Of course, I was introduced to Annette Kulenkampff, the documenta CEO, and she was very kind and she saw me as part of the artistic team. But I wasn’t in administration meetings with her, except at one or two moments when they negotiated venues. There was no distrust, of course, because I was filming a portrait and an artistic process, not a “scandal” in the making. People were and felt innocent. 

I followed them for two years, and it was all about art and the obstacles of creating this exhibition. The scandal and the media outburst only happened four days before the exhibition’s closing; no one was prepared for that. While filming, I was trying to understand and to analyze the mechanisms of this apparatus. It was constructive that much of Adam’s research was this exact thing: how to understand and potentially change the current model of art production within the mega-exhibition context concerning politics or funding. 

Scope: At what point was a production involved?

Athiridis: When I started this project, I really believed in it, and I hoped to find a producer to support it. I eventually found Faliro House, and I’m very proud and grateful for this collaboration. In the beginning, I started to invest my own money and kept telling myself that I couldn’t stop, because if I stopped and waited until the funding was secured I would miss something fundamental. These were the early stages of Adam’s research journeys, which were important to follow. It really is a process—that’s why they give artistic directors three years to plan a documenta, not six months. Adam isn’t a curator who picks up artists from catalogues, he likes to travel to find and meet artists. So, in the beginning, I committed myself to this project. Then, I was fortunate to meet Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, who liked and supported this idea because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to continue and finish it. Again, it is about instinct and trust and commitment, both for Christos and me. We go to the open and we don’t know what will happen, what we will find, and what we can bring back.

Scope: Did you always work alone, sound and camera?

Athiridis: Yes. I wish I had somebody, but there was no room for anybody else. What to do when you go in a car or a tiny meeting room? There is no space for a film crew. People were not there to be filmed by me, they were just doing their jobs. So, I had to be quick and agile: set up, pack and unpack in seconds, with no time to wait for me. When they say go, they go; they don’t wait for the filmmaker to pick up his things. You have to be very fast. 

Scope: This commitment you’re talking about is what led you to capture some of the most significant decisions of that documenta when they started to form in the curators’ minds. You were there when Szymczykand French curator Pierre Bal-Blanc started having this idea to move the collection of the EMST museum in Athens to the Fridericianum in Kassel, a eureka moment that had numerous consequences.

Athiridis: The EMST, the unopened Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, posed a difficult question for Adam and the team. It was the most adequate place to host documenta in Athens, but wasn’t available for political and financial reasons. There were a lot of discussions about how to address this problem. It just happened that the solution came up while I was filming. A eureka moment on camera, exactly—that was just the filmmaker’s luck!

Scope: What was your shooting schedule?

Athiridis: In the morning I used to go to their office. I had a very good relationship with Eleanna Papathanasiadi, the office organizer in Athens, and I always asked her about the next day’s schedule, where Adam would be. I never called him on the phone. Let’s say I would decide which stories to follow. There were a hundred venues, artists, topics, and events, so I had to choose which ones were the most interesting or available to me. I understood that documenta is also a laboratory of research and experimentation by the artists and curators, so there were always parallel stories going on: historical research on the Gurlitt case (the Nazi-looted art collection), the 1948 currency reform of Germany, or the Public Program organized by Paul B. Preciado, which was another show by itself, etc. So, I made a schedule, followed what I wanted, and just showed up. I was just there. I knew the schedule of the meetings and what issues would be discussed.

The challenging moment came when I had to put a lapel mic on Adam. That was not easy, because you needed to go under his shirt, in public sometimes. It was a very intimate moment indeed, as I tried to do it in a “by the way” manner. Adam was really stoic. He hated it, of course, but he got through it. Adam doesn’t speak very loudly, and without a lapel mic, I would have to stand very near to him, which is even less ideal. I remember at some point there was a meeting, and I didn’t have good sound, so I said, “Look, Adam, if I don’t have your voice, I feel like a motherless child.” He understood and accepted it. Capturing sound is a challenging problem in these situations. I used three different sources that came to the camera, and had to set up really fast. It’s not always the best sound work, but at least there’s sound. 

One other concern was the length of these discussions. The curatorial team would meet every three or four months in Athens or Kassel, and this was 15 to 20 people. These meetings would usually last three to five days for one discussion. And these were like ten-hour days, so it’s like 50 hours of discussion. And you must be there all the time, otherwise the discussion can become irrelevant. It’s different than going for one day and showcasing how these people talk: you have to understand and give a proper account of a decision-making process that could last days. You have to be there. During the editing, you have to reconstruct this long process in five minutes for the viewer to understand.

So that’s how we ended with 800 hours of observational footage, plus the 200 hours of archive material we had to go through before the editing started. My initial idea was to make a two-hour film, but I didn’t constrain my filming because of that. I kept filming as long as I felt something was important to film. I wasn’t trying to construct a story based on a script—there was no script. I felt compelled to film. And that was what motivated me; nobody needed me or called me.

Scope: How long did you work on the edit? What was your method?

Athiridis: It took us one year to see the material, log it, and think about it. Editing is like the magic moment of filmmaking. Filming is okay—you go hunting in the woods, you also pick different fruits and vegetables, and then you go home and have to cook. Because now you know what you have, but you need to know if you can construct a story with these elements and how much you miss from the plots. The material is our only guide as to whether we can tell a comprehensible story or not. I made exceptions for some archival material that I like. After spending one year reviewing the material, we started editing sequences. 

After one year, I went to Christos and I said there was more than a two-hour film. It’s enormous; stories are streaming out from everywhere. Something was happening, and it kept growing. At one point, we had a five-hour rough cut and had only gone through one-third of the significant material. I felt, and I was sure, that this could be a very long narration, like a series or something, and he said, “I like it, do it.” It takes more than one “crazy” person to begin an endeavour.

Editing is the moment of truth. That’s when I think of how I will tell the story. It went pretty fast, although we had some difficulties with the transcriptions, because we had to make long transcripts for every scene we wanted to work on.

Scope: So you edited on paper from the transcript?

Athiridis: Yes, it’s paper-edited first, and then we used the material. A 60-page discussion would have to be reduced to half a page, where everybody had to have their point of view presented and the scene’s premise made clear. It’s like a written script in the end. But it’s a way to tell the story without using other devices like voiceover narration or interviews. If it’s just interviews, then it’s easy: you put a microphone, start asking specific questions, and compress the needed information. However, I like stories that carry themselves, and I primarily use observational material.

Then I work with the cinematic tools: the editing, the transitions, the loose associations, the music, and the rhythm of the film. I’m not a purist in the sense that I don’t know if it’s observational or direct, I only believe in good narration, not in cinematic dogmas…but I prefer fictional narrations. In the case of documentary narration, I practice “facting” or “faction”—that is, facts narrated as fiction. That also helps me express how I felt or saw things, as I take full responsibility for my subjective perspective. I do not like to practice manipulative, so-called “objectivity.”

Storytelling is like taking somebody by the hand and walking them through the story. I try to feel that hand. When I was young, I remember an English teacher coming to our house to teach my older brothers. I was too young to learn English then, but after the lesson, she would sit down and tell us about a film she had seen the day before. She narrated it so well I almost felt like I was living it. I was just four or five years old; I didn’t even know what cinema was. But she had a way of telling the story that was producing visions. Then I started reading books, and I felt the same. Then I wanted to go to the cinema.

Scope: With this relation to narration, this epicness, the travelling involved, and the questioning of Europe’s foundations, it’s hard not to think that this film is a kind of odyssey.

Athiridis: I really didn’t have any preconceptions about what it would become. The material itself was generative; it’s not like I decided that I wanted to make an epic 14-hour film. But anyway, everything that has to do with documenta is monstrous in size in some respect. The multidimensional, transhistorical subject matter needs space and time. Otherwise, it would be a simplification. Yes, I heard critiques that it could be shorter, but I don’t feel that way. People can binge-watch simple stories about drug lords killing each other while they sell tons of powder. It depends on the narration. 

When we started editing, I knew the story I wanted to tell or write. I like to use the term “chapters” because, in my view, it relates more to writing than to a film. I started with the text. Writing is more creative than cinema, in the sense that you can travel in time or space without spending money. You cannot do the same with cinema; it is expensive, and you have to stress your creativity, especially in documentary narration. I started to put out like five or six chapters, and then I knew I had a start. Then I went to the end because I knew how it would end, with the 14th chapter—which is a bit separate from the rest.

I would like to discuss it, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it. For me, it’s a very exceptional thing. Making this film was a huge effort, physically and mentally. George Kravaritis, the first editor I worked with, told me that Soda Kazuhiro did these epic films and then later decided he would only make films with four days of observation material. You can make films like that. This last chapter is actually taken out of only four hours of filming, and it’s like one film by itself. It requires acute observation and focus.

Scope: The ratio is 4:1, whereas the rest is around 800:13.

Athiridis: Exactly. It’s my way out, also where I want to go next. I’ve done this long film once, and I don’t know if I have the energy and the capacity to do it again. It was too much. Sometimes, I was filming from nine in the morning to midnight, and I lived and edited that material and information in my head for nine years.

Scope: Could you talk a bit about your editing guidelines? The chronology is very jumbled, and more or less each episode seems to be driven by a musical theme. 

Athiridis: I have some background in music from my parents and brothers; music is essential to the way I relate to emotions and rhythm. I watch the footage and try to sense how people speak, the content and the rhythm, and how I felt at the moment of filming. I prefer to have the music beforehand instead of putting the music after. Music helps connect and cut various observational materials, to find some sort of equilibrium between them. It’s like a connective tissue to move forward and choreograph the editing. As for what you mention about going back and forth in time, I’m not really crazy about this idea, you know. I don’t use it as a device to create suspense. It’s a film about a so-called disaster that is already known. Everybody knows what happened and how it ended. I did not want to climax to a known disaster, so I brought up the issue right in the beginning, and then we know what we were talking about. So, the jumbled timeline is not about creating drama, but rather avoiding it. 

As strange as it may sound, I mostly use non-linear time to help the viewer understand the correct order of events. In an observational documentary, you cannot do exposition in the same way as in fiction, so you have to be creative with the materials you have and make sure that viewers understand. You can plant information which raises a small question, then give a clue, and everything becomes clear. It’s like little puzzles that put everything in viewers’ minds so they eventually understand by themselves. Because otherwise you have to explain, and I didn’t want that. There is a certain mental satisfaction when we understand by ourselves and feel like we’re participating in a reverse montage process.

Scope: Some of these editing principles seem to be mirrored in Szymczyk’s curatorial ideas. There’s a sequence where they have to cut the budget and they set some rules, one of which being that if an artist proposes the same artwork in Athens and Kassel, they should just keep one location only. Szymczyk agrees, but also says it’s at the cost of losing the idea that a double presentation could create echoes or déjà vu—that a viewer going to both places could see the same thing in a different context. The film seems to move similarly by reusing some footage at very distinct moments.

Athiridis: Perhaps I was influenced…there were a lot of very good influences from documenta 14, and it is only natural. Adam was constantly making invisible correlations and playing with time and place nuances, which is also clever narration from him. There are many things in the making of documenta 14 and in the making of this film about documenta 14 which are similar in the sense of a very long process. 

Scope: During those two years of filming, so many defining moments of the last decade happened, in Europe and outside of it. Not only the negotiations around the debt, but numerous terrorist attacks, the Trump election…

Athiridis: These events were just contemporary to what I was filming. It’s in the film, but in the sense of the epochal context and how it relates to our story, not only as the zeitgeist but rather the “jetztzeit,” a moment of time ripe with revolutionary possibility and how this is perceived by Adam, the artists, the curators. It’s still a character-based story. Very few individuals have done documenta exhibitions and were tasked to express their contemporaneity; barely 11 people altogether have reached this climax of curatorial stardom. He’s one of them. I wanted to tell his story. Not his personal life, even though, of course, by the end you know a few things about him. I kind of love my characters and I relate to them, but I don’t also feel the need to make hagiography. Like everyone, they have weaknesses, they have charm, they make mistakes, they have courage, and they do all kinds of things. 

In the end, I was disappointed because what happened to him was character assassination. I felt that this fierce war against him was unfair. Imagine seeing your face in all the newspapers and TV journals. Character assassination is a weapon used really often these days. We can see more and more how this weapon is used to neutralize opinions or actions. And I don’t mean cancelling or cancel culture which comes from the bottom: character assassination comes from the top, from the power. They can “kill you in two days,” make you lose your job, and ruin your life.

Scope: Were you surprised about how far that “assassination” went in Germany? 

Athiridis: In the German language, debt is not only a financial term. There is something more, I think, as debt and guilt have the same root: Schuld. So, debt produces guilt, and a certain sentiment within the language, a moral judgment. It’s very bad to owe money, to go bankrupt—it means that something went very wrong in your life. But the extent of the scandal coverage and the sensational use by the media was really a matter of circumstances and very bad timing. 

Two weeks after the closing of documenta, there were general elections in Germany. So, the deficit scandal of documenta 14 was weaponized in a war between local politicians as the former mayor, as every mayor of Kassel is the head of the supervising board of documenta. The new mayor obviously didn’t want to assume his predecessor’s guilt and accountability, so he charged Annette Kulenkampff and Adam with it. If it wasn’t for the elections, maybe, you know, things would have gone differently. Most documenta exhibitions bring deficits, this time it was a little bit more, but it was only natural because it was a double project in two cities. And financial reports are publicized many months after the exhibition, not during the exhibition. Nobody took the money in their pockets, and on the other side, nobody apologized when they were found innocent. Such scandal coverage, a campaign to discredit something, can be understood only as a total reaction to documenta 14 itself.

Of course, Adam prompted such reactions, both locally and internationally, as he raised some serious questions about the institution, its relation to Kassel, about the economy of the exhibition and its dependencies, etc. Recently, the documenta institute in Kassel was holding a symposium about documenta’s future after the anti-Semitic scandal of documenta 15, and its current crisis setting a finding committee for the new artistic director, and one of the questions that was raised by the organizer was, “Who owns documenta?” But that was a question asked by Adam, and his answer was there in the book of documenta 14, the Reader. It was titled “Exergue.” I believe people should read it again.

Scope: So, for you, this is the meaning of exergue.

Athiridis: Exactly. It is a term that derives from Greek. Etymologically, it means what is outside of the work or coming from the work or the essence of it. It is used also to describe the inscription on a coin below the principal part of the design. This is a way to consider Adam’s contribution to documenta—he put his stamp on this coin, let’s say. And his own stamp, his own exergue, was this question: who owns documenta? Because documenta cannot be owned by politicians or the market. They would not know what to do with it, and it would not be documenta anymore. 

Scope: He paid a high price for this. At some point during the last episode, someone tells Szymczyk not to worry, that in four years, all will be forgotten—but that turned out to be pretty optimistic. 

Athiridis: I believed that, too. It is not unusual in art history that some work is recognized in later times. I really thought that documenta 14 was great; for me, it was a mind-blowing experience. I was disappointed that it didn’t have such a warm welcome from the critics or the art magazines. And it hurts me that when documenta 14 is mentioned, they always refer to the deficit as if it were the only thing. That is really disappointing and unfair. I believe documenta 14 should be revisited.

Scope: Without talking in detail about the last episode, the film seems to end at first with Szymczyk introducing Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) in a small cinema in Kassel. It feels relevant to finish that thread of his journey in a small theatre, within a sheltered ciné-club atmosphere. 

Athiridis: It was really how it happened. After a mega-exhibition with one million visitors, he ends up presenting a film in a small cinema for ten people, and he speaks about “the individual and very private appreciation of a work of art, as art does not act on masses but acts upon individuals.” That’s somehow contrary to his initial belief that art has a soft power and can change the course of things in society.

Scope: He says that he wanted a confrontation with politics, and he got it.

Athiridis: Yes. I think this is a larger issue about soft power, which he discusses at some point in the film. I am not so sure that soft power exists: it just exists as a manifestation of hard power. Art and culture thrived after WWII. It’s how documenta actually started. They gave this soft power to art, culture, and academia to rebuild Germany and to put the country back in the European context. It was instrumentalized metapolitics, but now more influential metapolitical content is created through media and social media. “Marketing” techniques have evolved so much that art’s soft power is becoming minimal. It cannot stand up to this confrontation. It exists on a different level, I believe, intellectually and spiritually. It can give hope, but you cannot balance poetry with hunger. That was also a question for me doing this film—how to talk about art not only on the aesthetic level, but also about the emotion of it, how it moves inside us.

Cinema is always about emotions. In this film, there are emotions in the sense of drama and people who are fighting, struggling to overcome obstacles, and the usual emotions like fear, anger, anticipation, frustration, joy, etc. But there is a certain intellectual emotion that I was trying to capture. Something like the product of the intellectual or aesthetic process, which can also be manifested and felt in your body. What you feel when you read a poem or conceive an idea or invent something is also an emotion. I tried to speak about that. And Adam was very inspiring.

athirion@cinema-scope.com Thirion Antoine