The most forlorn sights are found at Sofokleous, Evripidou and Eschilou. It’s these streets, named after the three grand Greek authors of tragedies, where the homeless, junks, thugs and prostitutes run amok. It would appear that the trash hasn’t been collected in quite some time and the houses look like they’re about to be demolished. You might feel the urge to think this ‘tragic concurrence’ has some sort of meaning, but of course it doesn’t, per se.
Partly because of their ancient roots, concepts like ‘tragedy’, ‘drama’, ‘catharsis’, ‘epic’,… have found a ready market among journalists reporting on the Greek debt crisis. The entire mythology of Ancient Greece has been looted to embellish newspaper articles and the commentary of talking heads, which often offered little help to anyone trying to gain insight into the complex machinery behind the appearance of actuality. The lion’s share of current ‘journalism’ only serves to feed the endless cycle of news products, even though this obscures the distinction between real and fake, opinion and information, economics and politics. Panta rhei. Words (when repeated often enough) shape the perception of the world and in doing so influence that world. Aware of this manipulative power, choreographer Mariela Nestora decided recently to never again use the most often applied word of Greek origin – ‘crisis’ – to discuss the worrisome situation in her country. “The word ‘crisis’ stands for a break in the continuum. It’s something that is out of the ordinary. In Greece, we have entered a new continuum. This is not just a wordgame I’m playing; it’s about taking reality at face value. The more we keep on regarding the current situation as an exception, the more time we lose readdressing our ways. We have to learn how to live again. I’m not talking about survival. I’m talking about how to live now, in this new condition.”
She prefers latte over espresso and loves political theater more than contemporary dance. No-one’s taste has as much influence on the Athenian scene of performing arts than that of the programmer of the private art centre Stegi, funded by the Onassis Foundation. Although even Katia Arfara’s weeks count only seven days of twenty-four hours, she is responsible for the composition of the only international program running for an entire season, as well as the distribution of production budgets to local artists, which are scarce indeed. Apart from this concentration of power, what else is wrong with Stegi? At first glance it produces and presents artistic work of high quality from both Greece and abroad. Arfara seems very capable when talking about the local artistic tendencies, like the emergence of documentary theater, the contemporary understanding of the classical choir, the staging of novels, and so on. The private institution’s stability, however relative, seems a breath of fresh air compared to the National theater, which traditionally would change directors with every new government and likewise would change its artistic course. Besides, artists have always functioned in service of power – even though they would often turn biting the hand that feeds them into a game. In this ambivalent relationship, big business is taking over from the nation state, which has been crippled by debt. Nowadays, Families like Onassis and Niarchos seem to not only compete as shipowners, but as philanthropists as well. With their private foundations they build schools, organize tombolas for retirees and food supplies for the poor. In the meantime, they also found art centres. Small elite groups decide on their own which societal needs are being met and in what way. Who controls Stegi, for that matter? Katia Arfara, of the Onassis family? Slightly annoyed, she answers that she works in complete independence. The large amount of political theater throughout the season surely proves this, doesn’t it? In spite of this, the program fails to break away from the expectations of the ‘women with the pearl necklaces’, as one artist supported by Stegi whispers. The motives of the sponsors, who want to give their national and international prestige a boost, or want to buy off their moral debt, limit the influence Arfara’s taste could ever have, and confine the space for artistical experimentation and risk.
‘They ask us a lot, festivals in Europe, if we’re doing political theater. I’m always a bit confused when I get this question. I’m not sure how I would define political theater, or even the political in general.’ Christos Passalis of the player’s collective blitz theater group, one of the only internationally touring Greek companies, thinks that the political power of his work lies mostly in the way it originates: ‘Paraphrasing Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote on the politics of cinema, I would say we’re not doing political theater; we’re doing theater in a political way… Actually, I hate politics. It feels like watching a football game. You are shouting but you cannot really change anything. It feels powerless. So I’m doing my best in fields where I have some power – not in terms of force but in terms of influence.’ He later adds: ‘Maybe theater can change the way three spectators perceive the world. Like it happened to me after watching a movie by Tarkovsky or Godard. In Greece today, the way you can perceive reality is one of the most important issues. People are constantly talking about Europe, or money. You hear these two words everywhere. Of course, it’s dramatic; people are homeless, losing their jobs. The fear is overwhelming. Power always needs fear to succeed…’
Choreographer Polini Kremasta pays five euros per hour for a chilly studio on the edge of the city in order to, together with a dancer and a sound artist, look for a way to manipulate sound as an object, all without any prospect of ever premiering. Improvisation sessions are followed by discussions about the placement of contact microphones or the timbre that certain sound effects have. Abstract, formal experiments of this nature – disregarding their artistic qualities – seem uncanny in a country crippled by its numerous urgent problems. What in god’s name is the relevance of research like this? In fact, that is a dishonest question. As it happens, there is no fundamental difference between an artist in Athens and his colleague in Brussels. ‘The Jungle’, the refugee camp in Calais, is only a couple hours away from the latter. Furthermore, doesn’t the imperative question for societal relevance have a spermicidal effect? Contemporary dance, because of its high level of abstraction, often comes off the worst when compared to theater. Kremasta’s experiments could be interpreted as a form of resistance which, beating stubbornly against the tide, serve to develop a completely useless expertise.
Michael Cacoyannis Foundation
Privatized performance arts exist here in different scale and form. Between the wealthy giants and the vast precariat lies a middle class of theaters that can barely survive. Their aim is often to support the artistic experiment. However, the means that they have to resort to out of necessity, often surpass that aim. How many pieces of yourself can you sell to the devil before there’s nothing left? The Michael Cacoyannis Foundation finds itself confronted with this question almost daily. The MCF may be a foundation, but it is clear that it doesn’t play in the same league as the Onassises or the Niarchosses of this world. After all, Cacoyannis was not in the shipping business, but rather a cineast whose modest claim to international fame was the movie Zorba the greek. Financial tightness forces the centre to uphold a certain ‘creativity’ and a sense of undertaking, but doesn’t this weaken the artistic operation as much as strengthen it? For instance, the MCF is forced to reserve a lot of room in its program for popular, low risk work (and this while Athens counts dozens – some say ‘over a hundred’ – commercial theaters, large and small, to entertain Yorgos Public). Moreover, the time and work needed to support their artists is wasted on negotiating sponsor contracts and promoting Cacoyannis’ oeuvre world wide (which brings in money through copyright deals). Bios, another middle class theater, faces a similar problem. It survives by running a trendy bar, organizing parties and renting office space to the promising young talents of the creative industry.
What to do when the government, voluntary or not, pulls back from public affairs more and more? What forms of financing do the oganizations and artists have to look for? Isn’t the crowd here too poor for crowdfunding? Is there any way to produce thrilling art when you have to curry for the favor of the audience in advance? Is going for a patron even an option? Do enlightened examples exist that still work out of the interest of art, and not self-interest, that, whether large or small, still dare to invest in experimental work and discourse, and are prepared to guarantee a large amount of independence? Where to find these heroes and the expert commissions who help them command the influence of their personal taste. Financing one’s art with income from one or several other jobs (if these are at all in supply) is another option, but not a very sustainable one. Externalizing production costs en masse by registering artists as ‘working unemployed’ is not at all possible in a country where the social welfare system is being destroyed.
The traveller who hopes, secretly, to catch a glimmer of elegance or extraordinary authenticity in the performances produced with little or no means, will have a hard time finding it in Athens. Few do more with less. As Swiss visual artist Thomas Hirschhorn put it: ‘Less is less.’ Every so often, modest budgets line up with modest ideas. The absolute low point is brought to us by two girls who try to be creative on stage with tiara’s. Sometimes artists have big ideas but not nearly enough time or money to bring them about, and this leads to grave mistakes somewhere between conception and realization. Some try to contain the damage with drastic, pragmatic choices. Argyro Chioti, of the Vasistas Company, makes a resolute choice for a large cast in favor of an extensive scenery. Mariela Nestora primarily produces solo work because she feels research time is more important than extra manpower, let alone a set. And yet, more often than not, choosing is losing. Maria Gorgia’s performance At the Edge of the Springboard is a rare exception to the rule, as she sees fit to turn her minimal means into a strength. Her theatrical dance solo externalizes the inner delusions of a depressed Jane Doe, by using the body of the dancer (the extremely concise Sania Stribakou), the space incorporating the body (the white-washed basement of the artist run presentation place Banglades) and the objects on scene (such as a book, a telephone and a desk chair) and charging them with an almost unbearable tension. Influenced by a simple soundscape the space mutates throughout the performance. The walls of the basement seem almost porous when the sound of a distant storm give sudden way to a close downpour as Stribakou tries to catch the imaginary drops with her mouth. The present objects lose their conventional meaning. When confronted with the body of the dancer the desk chair turns into an obstacle and the book reveals a human physiognomy. Gorgia barely needs anything to mould a nearly psychotic imagination into being. Behind the superficial appearances of the objects, uncountable worlds lurk.
From stage to page
The absence of a decent, critical and theoretical discourse has a larger impact on the quality of the art scene than a lack of production means could ever have. It’s not like the local performing arts shone in artistic relevance ten years ago only for the European austerity measures to end it all. Even back then there were few art critics worthy of the name. Even back then the majority of lecturers at academies seemed to live in the first half of the twentieth century, or in the fifth century BC. Even back then artists barely took the time to reflect on their own work. The arrival of dramaturgs is a very recent and for the time being a largely marginal phenomenon and what is left of the departments of art sciences at universities is heavily confronted with a braindrain. Three years ago Mariela Nestora tried to turn the tide with fromstagetopage.wordpress.com, a blog for Greek choreographers to practice the building of a discourse, but the initiative died prematurely. What Athens’ situation shows us, is that everything threatens to become flat and monotone without a discursive community to distinguish quality, to develop a jargon, or to try and embed the produced work within historical and international contexts. Forms and strategies with few artistic relevance are allowed to thrive, while worthwhile propositions can easily be reduced to shreds with little or no consequence or historical value. A discourse not only looks back. A movement ‘from stage to page’ also implies a movement in reverse order: theory and criticism actively shape potential future work. The fact for instance that the Greek world of dance is still haunted by modernist ideas about freedom, authenticity and emotional expressiveness, as Konstantina Georgelou claims in a framing article on Nestora’s blog, illustrates the impact of the lack of discourse.
The economical myth of the survival of the fittest goes like this: scarcity generates competition and competition forces creativity. The fit distinguish themselves from the weak. Governmental intervention threatens to disturb the ‘natural’ selection mechanisms of the market. In a healthy art scene communities of peers make the selection, based on artistic and substantial criteria. Artistic wealth, moreover, forms out of interaction between individual talents and stimulating environmental factors. Both propel each other onwards. Decent art education, pointed art criticism, diverse art organisations, all of these can as of now barely survive without governmental support. In Athens there is almost no breeding ground. Apart from the sad fact that this ensures that talent is spilled like seed on the ground, this lack of breeding ground has a centrifugal effect. Some of the so called ‘strong personalities’ have fled the Greek archipelago in search of places with perspective, places like Brussels for instance. And so poverty breeds even more poverty. The Athenian owl has come to murmur some wisdom in your ear: it’s inconceivable how much easier it is to break a positive spiral than to turn a negative one.
One of the many squares that in 2011 saw themselves occupied throughout the world was the Athenian Syntagma. For three months, the square was an outlet for the copious amounts of righteous popular wrath unchained by the drastic austerity measures the Greek vassal government enforced. It became a place of enthusiasm and hope as well. Greeks of all walks of life practiced criticism of the system, united and planned. Mariela Nestora recounts that many continued on this path after the occupation. Greek society, including the performing arts scene, saw a wave of local, collective initiatives. Civilians founded coöperatives, neighbourhood commitees and associations. Artists formed new collectives; they re-opened the abandoned Embros-theater in the centre of the city; they organized a meeting with the international theater network IETM; they experimented with collectively produced choreographies and collectively directed theaters, and so on. Evidently, today, little is left of all these ways of self-organization, away from government and private sector. Why? Nestora doesn’t seem to know. Why were these small communities not strong enough? What made the mutual bond between these people so fragile? Perhaps the resistance was too caught up in the idea of temporary crisis instead of focussing on a continuum with open horizon? Did they channel their hope on a short-term solution or enlightenment? Like anger, enthusiasm fades quickly. Or do distributed horizontal forms of sociality have a need for some sort of connection with a communally controlled, legitimate vertical authority to be effective and lasting? An analysis of what went wrong exactly seems highly necessary if ever we can take the next step in search of an answer to the question: how to live in the new continuum?
The Free, Self-Managed theatre Embros
Tonight, the core-team of Embros holds the first in a series of four or five meeting in which they will reflect on their approach. The current situation is no longer viable. Hidden tensions complicate the decision taking process: an organisational sclerosis looms. Almost four years ago the abandoned theater was taken over by the artists of the Mavili Collective. Together these precarious workers were stronger than they were on their own. Just like their counterparts, the squatters of Teatro Valle in Rome, they sought an anti-systemic alternative which could align their artistic work and the environment in which it would come to be politically. Was it possible as an artist to not be in service to the powers that be? To not sell your soul to the devil as an organisation? Apparently the primarily artistically oriented collectives changed, over time, into primarily politically oriented groups. These groups would dream of an ‘Institute of the Commons’ as a counterweight to the privatized art institution. Embros was to grow into a refuge that could be used by a local community of artists and civilians by diverse (even non-artistic) activities. The theater would be managed by that very same community, by means of a democratic ‘general assembly’. Occupiers that had been there since the beginning deplored this evolution. In the eyes of dance theoretician Steriani Tsintziloni the place degraded into a ‘free stage’, which diluted the artistic potential. The alternative organisation method used in Embros was seriously flawed as well. In theory, ‘the community’ decided about what went on in the theater; in practice, a small group of doctrinal anarchists aged forty and fifty was in charge. In theory, the decision making processes were ‘open’ and ‘horizontal’; in practice, the meetings were branded by strong hierarchies and a fear of interference and recuperation. During this current meeting these structural weaknesses show themselves rather quickly. An elderly, angry man, dominating the debate from a to z, seems like the uncrowned emperor of the ‘general assembly’. It is shocking to see how little this group is grounded in the ways of group discussion, even with its long service record: there’s no trace of self-control and respect for others. After a while my helpful translator – an outsider as well – turns around and mutters: “They’re still discussing how they should discuss.” Hopefully, somebody soon will have the courage to suggest that it is time to make way for a younger generation. Maybe the next generation will succeed in aligning radicalism with agility of mind.
There is no conclusion.
Thanks to Danae Theodoridou.