Featured People: Athens Biennale

Athens Biennale co-founders Poka-Yio & Xenia Kalpaktsoglou. Photo ©Spyros Staveris

The Athens Biennale is one of two ground-breaking cultural initiatives in Europe to be selected for the 2015 Princess Margriet Award for Culture. In the face of severe austerity measures that have left Greek society reeling, the Athens Biennale has demonstrated the power of self-organisation and building common ground through culture in the face of challenging political and economic circumstances.

The Athens Biennale was conceived as a not-for-profit organisation in 2005 by three cultural change-makers who wanted to challenge the emerging Greek contemporary art scene: Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, a curator; Poka-Yio (also known as Polydoros Karyofillis), an artist; and Augustine Zenakos, an art critic.

From the very beginning, the Athens Biennale team has re-imagined the traditional model of the art biennale as a collective space for cultural debate and grassroots organising – encouraging wider civic engagement and solidarity at both national and international levels. Their model challenges what they call the ivory tower of contemporary art to create new values that are responsive to the volatile intersection of culture, economy and social-political conservative backlash, rather than simply reiterating existing cultural values.

The most recent edition of the biennale AB4 (Athens Biennale 4) took place in 2013 and was installed in the old Athens Stock Exchange building, which closed its doors to trading in 2007. The biennale was called Agora, which means “marketplace” in modern Greek, but which, in ancient times, referred to a gathering space that had overlapping social, commercial, and political uses.

The biennale was organised according to a radical structure: instead of a single curator, the exhibition was organised by some 40 people who responded to an open call put out six months before the start of the biennale. In the end, a team of more than 45 people from various different disciplines were involved to various degrees in the creative formation of the biennale.

The diversity of this new curatorial body gave shape to a new sense of public involvement and interaction in Athens and wider Greece. It was comprised of curators, theorists, artists, practitioners of media and communications who came from Greece but also from all corners of Europe and the world. The result was an electrifying example of networked culture in practice – of collective action. What they proposed was an event rather than an exhibition that became an ongoing active public event that reflected public actions in the streets of Athens at that time. By choosing the former stock exchange building, they created both an allegory and an analogy. A symbol of financial exchange, a place where trading in stocks and shares once took place turned into a place that was used to exchange and build on new values. The biennale successfully emulated a public Agora – a place for the commons. At a time of immense economic upheaval and uncertainty in Greece, it provided a creative and timely new model of a biennale that does not follow the traditional import-export model favoured by most international biennales, but one that is formed through a durable dialogue with the local context – addressing global issues through a lens of locality.


From awe to anger: the emerging economic crisis in Greece

Since the concept of the Athens Biennale was first conceived in 2005 in the optimistic afterglow of the 2004 Greek Olympic Games, the economic and political situation in Greece has changed beyond all recognition The financial crisis of 2008 brought with it crippling austerity measures that have led to sweeping cuts in wages and salaries, rising unemployment and the reduction in spending for public provisions such as health and education, causing a rapid and massive deterioration of living conditions across the country.

In fact, the Athens Biennale team understood that the socio-political situation has changed dramatically more than four times in a distinctive way during this period of crisis. From awe to anger, to fear, to despair, to numbness, to depression, Greek society has been struggling to come to terms with an unprecedented intoxicating situation that corroded not only the external tissue of the Greek public sphere but has traumatized the core of a whole generation depriving it of a viable foreseeable future.

The Athens Biennale has evolved over the past decade in an organic way to respond to the evolving political and economic crisis, and to rethink the role of the audience away from spectatorship and towards political participation. Since the first Athens Biennale (Destroy Athens) was held in 2007, the model has evolved to challenge the spectacle of contemporary art more and more – and to call upon the tools of art to address some of the most urgent issues facing the country.

The Athens Biennale also offers an alternative economic model for culture in the face of paralysing economic cuts in Greece. The organisation does not have any regular state funding and it relies heavily on a diversified pool of support from other institutions, private sponsors, donors, European funding and ad hoc funding from the state. This has led the Athens Biennale to become a more flexible “guerrilla organisation” that provides a pioneering alternative economic model for contemporary cultural practice (one that, as they say, “proposes a different economic reality from the reality determined by neoliberal policies”).


Biographies of two of Athens Biennale’s co-founders

Curator Xenia Kalpaktsoglou co-founded the Athens Biennale in collaboration with artist Poka-Yio and curator/art-critic Augustine Zenakos in 2005 (who since 2011 has left the curatorial team to focus on his career as a journalist). Independently she has curated exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has contributed to various publications and artists’ catalogues. From 2006 until 2008, she was the director of the DESTE Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art, Athens.

Artist Poka-Yio is a fellow co-founder and director of the Athens Biennale. Born in Athens in 1970, he studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts. In 1999, he founded the A-Station, Athens Centre of Contemporary Art, which he directed until 2005. He has curated and participated in several Greek and international exhibitions and has carried out three solo exhibitions. Since 2002, he has been teaching at the Athens Cultural Group. He has been a journal editor (1998-2004) and a member of ILIOS music group (1992-1996). 
You can read an in-depth conversation with Poka-Yio about the 4th Athens Biennale here.


Further resources

  • For more information, visit the Athens Biennale website here (available in Greek or English) or their Facebook page here
  • For an overview of all four editions of the Athens Biennale, please visit the Biennial Foundation website here.
  • Or read this informative article in the Journal of Art and Politics, which gives a historical overview of the evolution of the Athens Biennale.
  • For an insightful analysis of the 4th Athens Biennale, read the following article in the European Journal of Media Studies.