Culture | April 14, 2019
Once a community space and café in the centre of Alserkal Avenue, Nadi Al Quoz's Zen-like décor was replaced with industrial and electrical elements – a conveyor belt, a heap of white stones, a soundboard with wires and knobs – as a result of Rhodiola, a programme-based commission developed by artist collective 3 137, who also manage an artist-run space in Athens. Comprised of Chrysanthi Koumianaki, Kosmas Nikolaou, and Paki Vlassopoulou, the group was tasked with developing a project around the idea of maintenance, Alserkal’s thematic for 2018-2019.
The title highlights this from the outset, taking its name from a plant that typically grows in the colder regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, and is mixed in as an ingredient in vitamins. In Russia, the rhodiola root is used in traditional medicine to combat stress and supposedly promote cognitive clarity. On the wellness market, it is sold as an herbal supplement that offers a range of benefits, from heart health to reducing fatigue and boosting athletic performance.
Unfolding over six weeks (18 March-30 April 2019), Rhodiola was an extensive, ambitious project. To put it together, 3 137 operated, in a sense, as curators – but more so collaborators – inviting 24 artists, collectives, writers and cultural practitioners to participate in or create works for the programme. The result was a series of screenings, workshops, performances, and exhibitions that took place in a physical space or are accessible online at rhodiola.ae. Inspired by the idea of the radio, one could think of Nadi Al Quoz (now completely deconstructed) as the main station, the initiatives were divided into “Waves”, each bearing a concept that traced back to the overarching theme of maintenance.
Alserkal Arts Foundation collaborated with Athens-based artist collective 3 137 to curate ‘Rhodiola’ in March 2019. The programme-based commission took inspiration from radio frequencies, coming to life across five “Waves”
The project was similar to a previous initiative by the group entitled Babylon Radio, as artist and former Alserkal Resident Nikolaou points out. “Back in 2014, we did our very first programme in Athens, but on different scale. We invited people from local collectives and developed a community radio, which was very fruitful for those we engaged with. We were very happy with that project, so when we started with this commission, we decided to go back to the radio, then incorporate the concept of maintenance as a way of thinking, and deconstruct these two ideas,” he said.
Using Warehouse 90 as the physical centre of these activations, the commission considered the space as a site for ‘active pause’. The project included Anastasia Douka’s industrialist installation, screenings curated by Filipa Ramos’, and a soundboard that played a series of radio shows produced specifically for Rhodiola. “It’s a place to slow down, stay, and chill while being surrounded by several different actions that you can observe or think about (the installation, a film, or radio booth),” Vlassopoulou said. “Ultimately, it puts you in a situation where you can be aware of the energy needed to get things done.” An activation took place, every ten days, whether the release of a new radio show online or the screening of a different film.
Beyond its conceptual framework, the key to understanding Rhodiola is to look at it as a big collaboration. This commission-within-a-commission style is very much in the vein of 3 137’s practice. Founded in 2012 by the three friends Koumianaki, Nikolaou, and Vlassopoulou, the artist-run space “operates as a meeting point for exchange and collaboration with other artists who are mostly based in Greece,” explains Koumianaki. “We wanted to invite young artists to organise and curate exhibitions that they may not be able to do on their own. Back then, there weren’t as many artist run spaces in Athens as there are now.” Over the years, 3 137 have been putting together exhibitions, dinners, and performances. “Recently, we have started looking at more research-based projects,” she adds. These projects vary, from the immaterial (GABRIELA) to the more art historical (After the explosion… you hear the light) and even towards publications. All this to say that they hardly work on their own (though each artist does have his/her own individual practice outside of the group).
In as much as their collective draws in various individuals, their programme aimed to do so as well. “For us, what is important is to create temporary gatherings. We want to bring people together. We’re artists, not curators, and the programme is our common artistic practice. The point is to create things together that make sense for the group, but also the local community. This is part of our practice in Athens, and I hope it's been reflected here,” says Vlassopoulou. This was seen in the choice of the radio as a starting point, as it is commonly seen as a democratic medium, but also allowed the commission to go beyond borders with a website.
At its core, Rhodiola’s collaborative nature spoke to the potential of artists coming together to produce a project that ties them thematically, but still enables them to maintain the autonomy of their practices and express their own concepts. While the public was free to experience these works individually (catch a screening or listen to a show), they could also trace the ideas that exist within the Waves (by diving deep into the website), which consequently opens up new dimensions to Rhodiola.
Wave 1 | AC/Scaffold
Looking at the programme in detail, each “Wave” explored the many permutations of the notion of maintenance, starting with Wave 1 AC/Scaffold, which focused on infrastructure, labour and the consumption of resources through Anastasia Douka’s installation/intervention OROBORO, referencing an emblem of infinity, a snake swallowing its tail. An isolated conveyor belt sat inside the warehouse with an array of ceramic items (plates, bricks, pots) surrounding it. Douka loaded them onto the belt, after which they inevitably smashed to pieces as they hit the floor. As the programme continued, other participants of the project regularly sent off pieces to the machine for their destruction, calling to mind the repetitive and futile tasks undertaken in everyday life.
Wave 2 | Cookies
For Wave 2, Cookies, most of the elements existed in the digital realm. The section’s title offers wordplay through its multiple meanings – a simple snack or computing term referring to data used by websites to track or identify users. Here, the idea of the radio comes to the fore, with artist collectives producing shows specifically for the commission, which were released and made available on the Rhodiola website for the public to listen to. The shows, which mainly centre around the idea of the sustainability of artistic practice and initiatives specific to each collective, include Non-understandable Art and How to Understand It by Karachi-based Vasl Artists’ Association, Undone by the APART Collective from Slovenia, and Once Upon a Time by Athens-based Enterprise Projects. For Vasl’s hour-long piece, the collective presents a fictional conversation between an art collector and artists to interrogate how art and its purpose is perceived by those who purchase it. Meanwhile, APART’s recording focuses on the idea of collectivity, in both a sociological and artistic sense.
A radio show by NGO Riwaq from Palestine titled Cultivating hope: Dreaming and making of Palestine, which considers the role of architectural restoration in rebuilding society was also released online. Amirah Tajdin of Bedouin in Furs had a live session about contemporary romance, the recording of which were added to the online archive afterwards.
Wave 3 | Dentist
The third Wave, Dentist, turned its attention to the body, or rather the representation of the body and the self in the physical and virtual sense. “You need to go the dentist to maintain your teeth, but also to create a perfect smile. We wanted to play with the idea of lifestyle, of how we present ourselves on the Internet and social media,” says Nikolaou.3 137 set up a Vitamin Service table, on which vitamin supplements were displayed. These ‘cocktails’ targeted specific issues and needs, such as ‘High Performance’, ‘Stress’, and ‘Happiness’, all of which were been formulated by Irene Karouzaki and Dimitris Nikolaou, family members of artists Koumianaki and Nikolaou. The vitamin servers donned a set of androgynous outfits by sustainable fashion designer Christina Christodoulou under her brand It’s a Shirt. As part of this Wave, Rhodiola hosted a talk with Dr. Heather Eade, a naturopath, who discussed the concept of integrative medicine and how the structure of the current health system can be improved to fit the needs of wellness. Building on the idea of maintenance, Eade answered questions about mental and physical upkeep. The talk is available on the Rhodiola website.
For the vitamin servers, the curators commissioned a set of androgynous 'uniforms' by sustainable fashion designer Christina Christodoulou under her brand It’s a Shirt; photo by Nikolas Leventakis
Wave 4 | Snooze
The penultimate Wave continued this thread of well-being, shifting towards rejuvenation and meditation. Under Snooze, writer and curator Filipa Ramos hosted a film programme entitled A Sea of Sound – Visual Songs for the Ocean that ran throughout the length of the commission. Ramos is the co-founder of Vdrome, an online platform for visual artists and filmmakers to showcase their work. For Rhodiola, she selected a series of films that are screened inside Warehouse 90. Artist Eduardo Navarro conducted his workshop What is the Point of Being a Turtle? wherein participants were asked to roleplay as these slow-moving creatures as a form of meditation. Humorous on the surface, the participatory and performative intervention is part of Navarro’s practice, as he finds ways to develop new understandings of our world through unconventional measures. Online, a soothing sound piece by Raja’a Khalid mimics audio meditation guides, where a voice takes listeners through positive maxims before offering a hit of bitter reality.
Eduardo Navarro's workshop What is the Point of Being a Turtle? asked participants to roleplay as turtles as a form of meditation
Wave 5 | Sunscreen
The fifth and final wave, Sunscreen, comprised commissioned texts that investigate the maintenance of systems in corporations, societies, and within the art world. In a series of vignettes, New York-based writer Rahel Aima envisions the fallout of solar superstorm in her fictional piece Aurelia Equatorialis. Curator Tom Clark presents his essay Dependencies, exploring infrastructure (or in a sense, power dynamics and structures) in the context of art, looking at the relationship between institutions, curators, and artists. Meanwhile, miss dialectic’s A Day in the Light of MD takes the popular essay Wear Sunscreen (further popularized by Baz Luhrmann via spoken word song) as a starting point to look our own daily practices and issues of personal maintenance.
Rhodiola was commissioned by Alserkal Arts Foundation and ran 18 March - 30 April 2019 at Warehouse 90, Alserkal Avenue, and online at rhodiola.ae