Life Doesn’t Take Breaks But Humans Do – An Essay by Eleni Riga


“How do you continue your scholarship after the Coronavirus epidemic?”

This is the phrase I picked up on the other side of the line from my friend Aristides in the Bronx and I took a break to reflect on this, realizing that no matter how big this change is, I do continue because ultimately life doesn’t take breaks. 

To give you some context, I am one of the Greek professionals Stavros Niarchos Foundation is supporting this year to work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. More specifically, I work at the department of Adult & Academics Programs directed by Pablo Helguera. In this context, I had the opportunity to propose a research trip and a public program. My tickets for Guatemala had the date May 30, 2020 and I had already set my meetings to interview art professionals on the performance art movement in the public space in the 2000s, a movement which was a response to the violence of their civil war (with a study case on Octubre Azul Festival curated by the talented Rosina Cazali.) I have been following the shift to corporality and performativity from the late 70s to the late 90s in Latin America and I have encountered numerous examples in Guatemala missing consistent documentation. What a sensation would have been to actually travel there for my research!

It might have taken me a few weeks in New York to accept the fact that “How are you?” is not an invitation to open a conversation at the elevator but a way to say good morning but I was finding my ways to be both authentic to myself and create a sense of belonging.  Moreover, I was deeply enjoying the city and the numerous connections it was offering to me. I remember this new sensation after I moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, enjoying the mere fact I existed. I have lived abroad before in beautiful cities such as Paris and Lyon but this was strange, I felt energized, rooted, harmonious. Maybe it was the loud Mexican radio station at the supermarket, the texture of Ethiopian food, the flirty atmosphere at the bars and the easiness of meeting people at art openings, or, simply, I was getting along with the city! All 5 boroughs included!

By the end of March, all programming, collaborations, trips were canceled leaving me wondering what am I doing here anymore?

I am on the phone again, at the other side of the line is my former classmate Fatima Sy working for Raw Material in Dakar. “Just be present, honor your collaboration, honor your colleagues”. And so honoring my friend, I decided to jump with stubbornness and resilience to the care of the archives, online educational tools and conversations not simply because I wanted to be productive but because I still deeply care about art.

Photo: Beatriz Meseguer/ ©2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

This genuine feeling of “being all in this together” has sparked not only conversations but actions of solidarity and auto organizing both in New York and in Athens. For example, a new artistic alliance was formed in Athens in response to the Coronavirus stimulus check and its systemic exclusion of many art professionals from the art chamber in Greece.  I feel we finally come of an age where we can discuss, negotiate and effectively organize. Same thing happening with art workers and art handlers unions in New York bringing together the people that are furloughed or laid off and the people who will eventually have the same fate. 

It is a crisis in the sense that those who were comfortable before will no longer be and decisions have to be taken. Now that the system is tremendously exposed and broken, there is an opportunity for growth for better or for worse. Being a part of this constitutes a moment of constructive criticism not about the usefulness of art itself but of the institutional forms we have been invested in. Art has nothing to do with usefulness but we do.

Eleni Riga is an independent curator, art critic and co-founder of the art & research platform hd.kepler. Currently she works at the Adult & Academics Programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Previously she worked as Director of Contemporary Art at Eleusis 2021 European Capital of Culture where she established the artist residency on installation art “Initiator” and as a curatorial assistant at documenta 14 in collaboration with Pierre Bal Blanc. She has collaborated with many institutions in Greece, France and Switzerland such as Kadist Art Foundation, Palais de Tokyo, Festival Antigel etc. Riga has curated the performances Axis Mundi (2020), Astrorythmes  (2018) and Going where we come from (2018) and the exhibitions Attention is an Exercise: It’s about Sharing, Practising, Tending (2018), Fragiles Nets (2018), Remediate the Everyday (2015) among others. She holds a master in curatorial studies from Université Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne and has previously studied Communication, Media and Culture at Panteion University in Athens. She is above all a woman, a daughter, a sister, a person from the  South.