It's been one of the most turbulent weeks in the modern history of Greece. The nation's position within the eurozone remains precarious following the results of Sunday's referendum when Greek voters chose to reject the austerity terms of an EU bailout. Their decision follows a week of last minute talks, banks closing their doors, the imposition of capital controls, and non-compliance on the country's IMF payment deadline last Tuesday. The so-called "Grexit,” equally feared and desired by different camps, seems all the more real as an option following yesterday's "no" vote.
For now anti-austerity protests have given way to voter celebration, occurring alongside new questions about how to salvage Greece’s place within the EU. And all of this is happening at breakneck speed, with a deep and immediate impact on people’s daily lives—including the arts and its role as a political interlocutor.
Via the Guardian
In advance of Sunday's "no" vote, I initiated a transatlantic conversation with artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos, who is currently based in New York. In our conversation, below, Tsivopoulos reflects on the state of the arts in Greece as well as on his own work and how art can respond to its political context. We try to the best of our joint ability as arts practitioners to make sense of the situation, which affects us both.
Our dialogue takes place in the light of this economic and political setting, but also in the knowledge that Athens will be one of two sites for the mega-exhibition documenta 14 (set to open 2017 in both Greece and in Kassel, Germany). In a time of debt and national crisis, does reality supersede art, or can we make history while debating it?
Held every four or five years in Kassel since 1955, documenta was founded as a site to rekindle international cultural relations and to inspire a post-war generation of young German artists, poets, and writers as to “what inheritance they must nurture and what inheritance must be overcome.”
Last year, documenta 14's lead curator Adam Szymczyk and his curatorial collaborators announced that Athens would be added as a second host city in 2017, highlighting its unique position at the edge of Europe, which makes it one of the first ports for immigration from the neighboring continents. Under the heading “Learning from Athens” the concept of documenta 14 postulates Athens as a geographical site, not just for debate leading up to the exhibition itself, but for an exhibition occurring concurrently with Kassel.
History may be about to take a turn, and this could be a game changer for documenta’s makers and collaborators both logistically, and perhaps over time, conceptually. Szymczyk spoke to German Zeit magazine on Friday, re-iterating the premise of documenta to “learn from Athens” as well as pleading (to a German audience) not to vilify or, as he put it, "infantilize” the Greek position. He re-asserts that whatever may happen, documenta in both Kassel and Athens will be a platform for artists and curators to discuss current events. In light of Szymczyk’s resolve to comment directly on real-time political events in the arts, it begs the question whether documenta 14 will override individual artistic concerns, or help fuel any grassroots actions. Perhaps the exhibition will become the test site for this debate.
The current acute crisis in the European Union has dominated public attention and it will likely continue to influence the working context for both documenta and the Athens Biennale, OMONOIA, set to run for a whole two years from October 2015 until June 2017.
Stefanos Tsivopoulos, History Zero, 2013 Episode 1, Arri Alexa 2.35:1, Dolby surround 7.1. 2K transferred on media player. Three episodes, 11 minutes each. Total duration, 33 minutes. Courtesy the artist
BdS: Stefanos, in 2012, your participatory performance lecture Castoriadis Marathon referred to the Greek economist and psychologist. The work cites his views on the ecological crisis, the extreme inequality of the division of wealth between rich countries and poor countries, the near-impossibility of the system to continue on its present course. In a way you prophesized today's events in 2012. What moved you to make this work, and other pieces like it that respond to these political issues?
ST: The Greek crisis was established when the word "Grexit" appeared in the months ahead of the national elections of May 2012. It was at the time that Golden Dawn came third party and Syriza second. Things were unravelling and there was lots of civil unrest. In my mind, Castoriades' prophetic thought gave shape and words to the deep class divisions, the income inequality, social injustice, and even more importantly to the lack of collective imaginary, that were dominating the Greek society. Castoriades Marathon was conceived as a participatory performance that I presented together with other works for the first time in Elefsina a port town, near Athens. Elefsina in the 80s used to have 60 percent of Greece's heavy industry. Fast-forward 30 years, the place is a destroyed landscape, a battlefield between labor unions, industrialists and the political establishment. I found in Elefsina the perfect showcase of what contemporary Greece is: a place, in which all contrasts, divisions, and conflicts erupt and the results are obvious to see. Castoriades Marathon was performed by citizens of Elefsina, who voluntarily responded to my call. Other works included Geometry of Fear, a single-channel video about the empty Greek parliament shot during the transitory election period between May and June 2012 in which Greece was without government.
Stefanos Tsivolpoulos, Eleusis (2012), (Part 1), single channel video installation, Arri Alexa 4K transferred on Blu-ray disc, 16:9 color, stereo sound. Duration 38 min, (Part 2), synchronized triple channel video installation, Arri Alexa 4K transferred on Blu-ray disc, 16:9 color, stereo sound. Duration 13 min, (Part 3), single channel video installation, Arri Alexa 4K transferred on Blu-ray disc, 16:9 color, stereo sound. Duration 9 min. Courtesy the artist
BdS: Aside from the more current debates the initial brief of documenta refers to Athens being on the edge of Europe and the first port of call for many migrants. When travelling to Athens, the presence of homeless migrants is immediately present in the city, precariously juxtaposed with the lives of many ordinary Greeks under apparent financial pressure. This is a topic you have touched upon in your work in various ways.
ST: I think Greece's geographical and cultural position has been historically identified in the crossroads of West and East. I believe that is very true to this day and that it should reflect on its policy towards immigration too. Greece should open its borders to immigrants from everywhere and build an open society that goes beyond nationalist barriers. I am the son of immigrants. My mother is Iranian and my father's family lived in political exile for years out of Greece. I have been living and working outside Greece for a long time now and every time I revisit my country I feel like a newcomer. This distance creates a relationship of known unknown with Greece. All personal questions and soul-searching about cultural identity and origin are reflected in my work, mainly by referring to issues of cultural displacement and political and economic mobility.
BdS: Athens has been described as one of the new hotbeds for art. It seems that a mixture of established collections committed to contemporary art and a financial and infrastructural crisis in society make for the kind of backdrop which fuels debate in the arts. How do you view the impact the general crisis has had on the cultural sector in Greece?
ST: The situation is slightly more complex. On an institutional and state level, things are bad. There is no financial planning from the state to fund contemporary art activities now or in the future. The inaugural opening of the new Athens Museum of Contemporary Art will be delayed further because the officially elected director was removed from her position because of infrastructural problems. The Thessaloniki Biennial, which operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, was not sure that it would open its 5th edition until two weeks before its scheduled opening on June 23.
There isn't anything like an established arts council in Greece that can act as mediator and build partnerships between state policies and private funding. Yes, at the moment there are a couple of collectors who are resuming the responsibility of the state acting as an arts council and they're doing a great job! They revitalized the local scene, commissioned Greek artists to do new productions, something that never happened before. They bring artists from abroad and organize shows in Greece.
At the same time several new artist initiatives are sprouting all over the city contributing to a developing and vivid scene. We also see artists forming lots of art groups, and communal, participatory projects are more common than ever. Overall there is a sense of solidarity in the Greek scene in a way that I haven't witnessed in the commercially established art centers. What the art scene of Athens is lacking in my mind is consistency and structure. For example, several art initiatives do not have a long term plan and the lack of money shortens the projects. I also want to believe that committed art lovers and collectors will continue investing and helping Greek artists in 5 or 10 years from now, and that's not just a fluke. I truly think it's a powerful moment for the arts given the magnitude of the crisis, but we also have to think how all this translates into foundational work for the future and not just our 15 minutes of fame.
Stefanos Tsivopoulos, I Rebel, Therefore we Exist, 2012, multi-facetted video installation, image Courtesy the Artist
BdS: The cooperation between documenta in Kassel and Athens was conceived when the knife-edge situation we have seen develop over the last few months didn't exist. In fact, there was no Syriza then. The situation has only changed recently with the currently collapsing and seemingly endless negotiations around the Greek national debt mountain, and the renewed threat of a "Grexit." Do you think art can deal with events of such magnitude in real-time?
ST: While I'm writing these lines, the news-feed of the Guardian reports on the "Shock Referendum" called by Syriza to decide upon the creditor's bailout to Greece, a precarious new condition with unknown effects. This situation is beyond my grasp of understanding and I feel both as a citizen and as an artist totally powerless. Right now I don't think that art can succeed in being even relevant with events of such magnitude. I can't even start thinking what the role a powerful institution like documenta Kassel can create for itself by working in Greece now. That doesn't mean that we as artists and citizens of this country and Europe shouldn't try. Documenta's relevance for Greece depends a lot on whether we as local community can take advantage of it. If documenta 14's motto is "Learning from Athens," we Greeks should also claim our right in "learning from documenta." Perhaps as a society we need a documenta now more than ever.
Stefanos Tsivopoulos represented Greece in the 55th Venice Biennale 2013 with his film and archive installation History Zero. His work continually reflects on the ideal of archives and questions of historical truth. His works are shown in major institutions internationally. He was born in Prague but lives in Amsterdam and New York. Current exhibitions of his work are at the Kunsthaus Zurich and MACBA, Barcelona.
(Image at the top: Photo: Nils Klinger, Courtesy documenta 13 01)