Syndrome of the Present

‘Syndrome of the Present’ is a research-driven art project that brings together artists and scholars from different geographies and disciplines. The project stems from the necessity to examine the potentiality of art in times of change, what art can become and what it can do to respond to the conditions that have shaped and continue to shape present time. Syndrome of the Present developed around a series of questions about the essence of sovereignty and the boundaries of the political act, the threshold between political theology and religious politics, political imagination, aesthetics vs rhetoric, the constitution of the ‘non-citizen’, and the dispersion of information and propaganda through the evolution of media.

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The project’s current stage, unfolding over the years 2018 to 2019, consists of four travelling seminars taking place across site-specific geographies: Thessaloniki (GR), Izmir and Istanbul (TR), Amsterdam (NL), and Recife (BR). These locations retrace a historical past in which a messianic fever emerges parallel to catalytic developments in scientific and philosophical understanding. Two protagonists come forth: the self-proclaimed ‘messiah’, Sabbatai Zevi, and Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher commonly believed to be the ‘first man in Europe without religion’. By unfolding the propositions, controversies and narratives surrounding these two figures, the seminars provide fertile ground for drawing parallels with the contemporary global events in the socio-political sphere.

The project’s narrative begins with the heart of Europe at the 17th century, where the cornerstones of present conflicts were sown. The 17th century is famous for the religious reformation that led to the sovereign state, democracy, citizenship and constitute human rights in response to decades of religious wars. This century was accompanied by outbursts of messianic and scientific development, economic and cultural progress — signs that the world was expected to change for the better. Today, however, it would seem that we are heading backwards and progressing towards a state of internal war; the democratic sovereign is under attack, citizenship is replaced by consumerism and human rights are fully disrespected.

In the forthcoming period, the project will manifest a series of public events, culminating in a series of exhibitions in 2019. To read further about the project’s participants, click here. To read about forthcoming and previous events, click here.

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We are currently witnessing the acceleration of several simultaneous phenomena. The influence of eschatological political movements is mounting whilst attracting a considerable number of followers to their ranks, the sovereign state is under attack from left, right and within, while state of emergency declarations have become a part of daily life. The continuation of the distraction of the Middle East and north Africa are depressingly normalized; waves of refugees are escaping from devastated situations in their homelands, trying to find a liveable place in Europe, while xenophobia, Islamophobia and prejudice are their welcome reception.

The systematic weakening of the state’s democratic structure is happening in parallel with the remarkable resurgence of interest in religion, which has become one of the defining global issues of our time and has an inescapable hold over us. The intersection of neoliberal and theological thought are gaining global momentum, the nature of human sovereignty and its propensity to generate catastrophic violence is escalating. Nationalism, ethnicity, religion, gender, and race are manipulated by the political or other power elite, through advanced media algorithm they divide society and turn people against each other. Schism, conflicts, and displacement are more apparent now than in the last 70 years, while food, information, and goods are produced in larger quantities than at any other moment in human history.

A paradigm shift or a crises, presents also a moment of possibilities: the destruction that leads us to face the crises also opens doors to re-imagine a future where equality, dignity, wealth, justice, mobility, and education are equally shared amongst each one of us. One way to accomplish this is to look back, to see what was imagined for us by learning the turns of history. The 17th century has been formative for our contemporary reality in many ways: Europe’s religious wars ended with the Peace Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which exiled religion from the supreme power. Secular sovereignty inverted the monarchical paradigm: the people appropriated the king’s power, turning the sources of political authority upside-down. Tolerance “as a government-sanctioned practice” in Europe’s Christian countries was institutionalized at this time. The sovereign ruler and the (national) territorial state became the “administrators of tolerance” in the early modern era and promised to secure peace within their states. Westphalian secularization meant the beginning of Europe’s institutionalized religious tolerance and freedom. However, it also sowed the seeds for the modern grand myth of nationalism and its authoritarian suppression of heterodox movements and accounts.

Two 17th century protagonists, the ‘Messiah’ Sabbatai Zevi and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, constitute a time tunnel in the project, establishing links between past and present, creating a perspective for insights into contemporary events. Both protagonists were excommunicated from the Jewish community; Sabbatai converted to Islam, creating grounds for clandestine religious communities — the Dönme — while Spinoza abandoned Judaism and became the first man in Europa without religion. Both protagonists represent reformation in which various religions, cultures and heritages overlap and coalesce. Rather than in spite of, but perhaps because of these pluralistic encounters, both protagonists offered a revolutionary worldview and were ahead of their time in their attempts to redefine the intertwinement and hierarchy between God, man and society (state).