Phoebe Giannisi, born in Athens, is the author of six books of poetry, including Homerica (Kedros, 2009) and Rhapsodia (Gutenberg, 2016). She also holds a PhD in Classics from Lyon ΙΙ-Lumière published as Récits des Voies. Chant et cheminement en Grèce archaïque (Grenoble: Editions Jérôme Millon, 2006). Her work focuses on the borders between poetry and performance, installation, theory and representation, and investigates the connections of poetics with body and place. A 2015–2016 Humanities Fellow of Columbia University, Giannisi is an Associate Professor at the University of Thessaly.
Selected group exhibitions include the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark (2011), Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest (2010), the Lyon Biennale (2009), Guggenheim New York (2013), Bauhaus Dessau (2015). In 2010 she was co-curator for the Greek Pavilion of the 12th International Architecture Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia). In 2012-13, her poetic video/sound installation about the Cicada, TETTIX, was exhibited at the Museum of National Art (EMST), Athens. In 2015 she exhibited her work project about Goats AIGAI_O at the Angeliki Chatzimichali Museum in Athens (with Iris Lycourioti). In October 2016, she presented her performance/lecture Nomos_The Land Song at Onassis Center, New York.
Phoebe Giannisi spoke to Reading Greece* about the way her poetry evolved over the years, noting that for her, “making poetry means admiring language; being moved by, meditating on, listening to, searching through language”. She comments that a crucial question posed in poetry is “in Socrates’ words, to know oneself, the poetic self, that speaking voice in a poem”, adding that “poetry is but a response to stimuli, which touch, permeate and agitate the body”. Asked about the meeting point between poetry and the natural world in her writings, she explains that that “the so-called ‘natural’ world is [her] window to poetry”, that “the bodily senses are mediated by their expressiveness through constructed language, which means poetry or philosophy, the first ax that dug this world”.
She concludes by commenting on the current literary and artistic production in Greece, noting that “nowadays art in Greece witnesses the advent of many significant and positive elements”, that “a new form of art is thus happening, claiming the “commons” in general, against discriminations, and connected to practices of care for the other and for the weak whether it is human or nonhuman”. “I firmly believe that poetry is a field of freedom that constantly redraws itself and its boundaries. Poetry is not just a subject but a way, poetry is a becoming […] Yes, poetry can be a revolutionary therapy since it is written with no usable value whatsoever”.
From Sea Urchins in 1995 to Rhapsody in 2016. Have there been any recurrent points of reference in your poetry? And, in turn, how has your poetry evolved over the years?
When I, or everybody, do attempt a flashback at my life or my work, I am conscious as everyone that such recast is different depending on the moment it takes place; for this reason it is false and true at the same time. So I can only say that I came up today (July-September 2017) with the following landmarks:
As a child I was an ardent reader of prose and mythology. But then, in my teenage years - my years of ephebeia - Elytis woke me up poetically arousing a physical excitement, and causing the experience of a kind of loss in poetic intoxication (to use Baudelaire’s words: “il faut toujours être ivre”). Nowadays many Greek poets despise Elytis exactly for the laudatory construction of Greece that is attributed to him, but the creative misinterpretation of the father, is a prerequisite for “ephebe” poets, if we take Harold Bloom’s theory. So I do not deny my initial love for him, given that the excitement and transformation in the teenage/erotic body during the summer has since become for me the emblematic condition of the poetic moment, the moment that throws straight into poetry. Elytis then has been interrelated with modern Greek prose writers along with Ritsos, Arthur Rimbaud, and Federico Garcia Lorca; that was a lyrical-epic era.
Later, and under the influence of E.X. Gonatas, that I was visiting in his small house in Kifissia, as Eva Stefani has filmed in her Episkepseis, I turned to poetic prose in small form, published in the literary journal Black Museum (issued by a group of friends, university students, during the 1980s). I started writing poetry anew early in the 1990s and published Sea Urchins (Black Museum, 1995) and Ramazan (Black Museum, 1997), echoing surrealism as imprinted in Greek poetry, mainly Engonopoulos, Empeirikos but also Andre Breton, as well as Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, with a flood of natural images and industrial ruins. Poetry was coming as a flow, and I think I owe much to the recordings of Embeirikos and Engonopoulos reading their own poetry that I was listening.
There followed Loops (Nefeli, 2005), written from 1999 onwards, with the consolidation of the erotic element, leading to other paths still attached to Andreas Embeirikos and Matsi Hatzilazarou which is a tremendous erotic female poet, and Miltos Sachtouris, whom I met at his late years, visiting him every week at his small house in Kypseli.
Since the early 1990s I have also been an ardent reader of Marina Tsvetaeva, which I literally love in her entirety; I cherish for Marina a kind of worship such as the one that is attributed to heroes, to rock stars. I buy her books in all the languages I can understand, and suck them. Tsvetaeva is a phenomenon that affects me always, the same way love and motherhood does, pulling me up and helping me realize and accept my feminine side as a kind of power.
In Homerica (Kedros, 2009, German Edition translated by Dirk Uwe Hansen), I started more consciously working on my poetics, using the first person of the poem as a mask, in order to multiply the voices, by inserting mythical figures of the Greek antiquity, while also elaborating the syntax along the lines. However, I mostly focused on rhythm, creating small waterfalls, since my poetry was mainly heading towards vocalization; poems were written in one breath and took their final form through resounding repetition. I read again Homer, Iliad, which opened up to me as a revelation after years of tackling with Odyssey, Ancient Greek Lyric poets such as Ibycus or Alcman or Anacreon, Pound, Eliot, Rilke, Hölderlin, Derek Walcott. My familiarization with the work of the major contemporary German poet Barbara Kohler opened me to understand modern poetry as a field of constant artistic research. At that time, the revelation of how important voice and sound are, reshaped therefore my personal poetics and led me to insert in the book a CD, The CD was composed by the series of in situ recitations made in a two-day solitary wandering in Pelion’s mythical places related to the poems content: I wanted to add to my verses the specific moments’ atmosphere transferred by its sound. That was my way to include the poetic haecceity, the perfect individuality of the moment as sensed through the place, to re-interpret the term introduced in Mille Plateaux by Deleuze-Guattari.
At that point, focusing on animated place, I turned to research on the poet/singer’s animal aspect, as we read it in ancient Greek poetry: cicadas, goats, birds, the nightingale are archetypal figures for poets. This turn led me to create poetic works researching in other fields such as philosophy, biology, ecology or ethnography and using multiple media.
For Tettix (Gavriilidis, 2012) I exhaustively read Plato’s Phaedrus, Archilochus, Hesiod, Sappho, Ann Carson, Jesper Svenbro, Bakhtin on polyphony and Mille plateaux by Deleuze and Gauttari. I was thinking that the cicada’s metamorphosis /ekdysis of its shed is an emblematic image for the multiplicity of a poet that starts singing. I tried to transform poetry first into an installation (Tettix, National Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012, curated by Stamatis Schizakis), and after into a book. I have then delved into the subjects of polyphony and reading, body and writing, along with lust, summer and the sound dimension of space. Τhe crafted element of handwritten composition was inserted to the project, and the book identity became hybrid with the inclusion, translation and editing of texts of other writers as well. For the installation I created a video poem and audio that took the form of sound “paths” with mixing of recordings, recitations and music. In Tettix, I tried to experiment with polyphony not only by the form of the installation, but also by the creation of a performance with several readers together trying to mimic the polyphonic sound of cicadas inside the landscape.
For my last published work, Rhapsody (Gutenberg, 2016) I returned to the simplest form of the book, binding different and various in form and content poetic projects together. I include miniscule poems, prose poems, songs, philosophical thinking, and a new genre I named “bodily philology” i.e. a poem/essay that can be performed as a lecture, commenting on other poems.
Within this flow, my latest project (Chimera, under publication) became even more complicate, more chimerically diverse, since for its elaboration I tried to come closer to the goat, the female, the mother, the sacrificed Other, the animal, the nomad, the continuously moving or the marginalized being, the one that lives “outside” a given community, and speak in sympathy with their unheard voice. For this project I followed a group of Vlach shepherds, that are still practicing transhumance with their goats, from Thessaly to Pindos Mountain, and I am deeply grateful to them for letting me in. This archaic kind of stock raising with its violent but also symbiotic part made me better understand life’s complicate aspects.
Chimera was thus a multilayered research on the poet’s identities, shifting between the bucolic, the tragic and the comic as genres. Inside the project we hear bucolic poets, travelers, ethnographs, folk songs, goats and shepherds talking to their animals, along with Papadiamantis, Krystallis, Christovassilis or Derrida. This project took also the form of an installation (AIGAI-Ω, together with Iris Lycourioti), with its video and audio sections. I also created AIGIS, another reading device, a map-dress made from handwritten goat skin. Chimera/Aigai-Ω has also served as a basis for several performances, each of them different from the other.
Brian Sneeden describes translating your poems as “a transformative experience,” noting that they “require a certain capacity for surrender – both in terms of how one experiences language and its perceived boundaries, but also in regards to the boundaries of English, which does not draw quite as easily as Greek from a vocabulary steeped in so ancient a history”. How would you comment on that?
If I understand well the question, Brian, who just finished the translation of Homerica (to be published in the USA in October) refers to the untranslatable, in a level that concerns the relationship of the Greek word to the depth of history.
The truth is that for me making poetry means admiring language; being moved by, meditating on, listening to, searching through language. Above all it is a very attentive effort to hear, being an eavesdropper and a thief, like the god Hermes. I am looking for the poem of the living oral word articulated by people who still know how to make it vibrate. And I try to remember it – but I always forget it. I gather the words like fruits and I devour them. I contemplate the word. I research its etymology. I search for the meanings in the dictionary, and I read the ancient quotes that have been found and contain it. The fragments of texts circle me. I try to rip the language of others, like a cicada that extracts the juice of a tree with its sucker, which is both an embolus and a tongue, and metabolizes it through the erotic desire into a song created by its own musical instrument. I guess the same goes for all languages; yet this is my own shore. I cannot really feel any other language even if I understand them, since I am born inside that specific one, and I am lucky since it draws from the Homeric and the Sapphic. My place is my language, and my language is my place.
However, when I write, my words are simple, far from being pretentiously poetic. Just the opposite; I believe that an intentionally poetic language that uses of specific words is fake and empty. It pretends to be poetry but it is not; and unfortunately in Greece this pretentiousness is traditionally identified with ‘Poetry’, with a capital P.
Instead, if language is poetry, then the unattainable limit would be the almost incomprehensible that can move the recipient, and here I quote Alkman that claimed: “οἶδα δ ̓ ὀρνίχων νόμως πάντων.” Which means, “I know all the songs/melodies of birds,” the songs of the greatest singers, those who live in the sky, between us and the gods, who are radically different from me and whose language I do not understand (or do I actually understand? Alkman does not make it clear), “the singers up there” who belong to a different species; yet given that they are the prototype singers, they can sing better than me, our difference may not be radical and maybe then no difference is radical. Poetry is a becoming. If one pushes the reasoning to the extreme, then the poem is only a song, a music, that you experience or feel through its charm even if you don’t understand it. This is of course an impossible work. But as the proverb says, “walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking”. We walk our language wherever it may take us.
Your work lies at the border between poetry, performance, theory, and installation, investigating the connections between language, voice, body, place and memory. What is the binding thread?
I cannot answer this question the same way as one of my readers. So I will speak in terms of my poetics, which I have been exploring theoretically, and which feed my practice. A crucial question posed in poetry as far as I am concerned, is, in Socrates’ words, to know oneself, the poetic self, that speaking voice in a poem, to which Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus answers offering two alternatives: I am either a simple being or a complex one, as Typhon or Chimera. Rather than answer with the identity of the one, I answer, as I cannot do otherwise, with the identity of the multiplicity, the Chimera. As it turns out, the complex being constitutes my poetics, a multiple body composed of various “μέλη”, parts, songs, kinds and media.
The living body is definitely in the center of this activity: poetry is but a response to stimuli which touch, permeate and agitate the body. I am referring to the simplest stimuli, the contact with other beings, with the earth and the place, with the everyday, with life, with memory, with others’ poetry, with what comes from the outside, triggering emotion. Inspiration is a kind of inhalation of the other, that is returned to the outside by a construction made with feeling and thinking. Every part and every species that compose the Chimera has its own autonomy, yet all function evenly as a network.
As I grow up, I have come to realize that for me poetry, writing and vocalization constitute also a form of therapy. As Eleni Stecopoulos aptly puts it in her book Visceral Poetics, poetry is a kind of healing practice, it has to do with illness, it is visceral, sympathetic, it is a form of care in order to be. For me, the practice of handwriting as well as writing itself is such an activity, just like oral recitation is a ritual of healing. More and more consciously, as I practice poetry, I invent a ritual that makes me forget. The cicada that metabolizes the juice is such a vain momentary effort that heals pain without curing.
“The dense minimal poems of Giannisi explore with arresting directness the relationship between language and the elements of the natural world with a language which is always subtle and inornate, skillfully bare,” as Haris Vlavianos aptly put it. What is the relationship between art and the urban landscape? Where does poetry meet the natural world in your writings?
Already from my early writings, one could easily discern a quest to utter the experience of a relationship, either enthusiastic or mournful, to the natural element. Is it a kind of return to the archaic? Is this a kind of celebration to beauty? Or is it rather a kind of grief, a desperate attempt to bring the being out of oblivion?
This “archaism” should not be dissociated from language and representation. The so-called ‘natural’ world (along with the questions this term poses in the 21st century in relation to the construction of the natural as part of the cultural) is my window to poetry. But the bodily senses are mediated by their expressiveness through constructed language, which means poetry or philosophy, the first ax that dug this world.
Svenbro writes about the first samples of writings, the inscriptions put in verse on ancient Greek statues, where the first person was used to refer to the object bearing the inscription: “Mr. Brugmann accepts the hypothesis that the Greek ‘ego’ is descended from an Indo-European noun, eg(h)om, meaning Hierheit, “hereness”.” (p. 73, Phrasikleia). I consider this etymology of the ‘I”, “ego”, as related to locality, to “hereness”, a very appealing interpretation, so suitable that it looks fake, for my work. If the “I” is nothing less than a ‘here’, then the voice in poetry expresses nothing but this ‘here’, yet through the multiplicity of subjects, those Others, that dwell ‘here’ at that very moment. Place and language together, language as a place.
If science answers a question that has been formulated, then art responds to questions that never arose, to a kind of a call. In poetry, this is the call of the Other. In the urban landscape, the Other, different but also similar, is related to the human and the social. The urban space renders the human multiplicity; an immense and living complex environment, with its own built typology, its patterns of repetition and ritual, its singular events. Urban space offers the vital perspective of meeting different subjectivities, carrying a polyphony of their own myths and voices.. That’s why situationalists reflect on the city as the primary place for the theater of life, where everyone can playfully participate. City wandering and oral dealings with people enrich experience in the most surprising and joyful way; they also reveal human pain, social inequalities and struggles. Last but not least, the urban space is also the area of publication, where the poet returns to the public what may have been created somewhere in the loneliness, outside.
How would you comment on current literary and artistic production in Greece? Could art offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
Nowadays art in Greece witnesses the advent of many significant and positive elements; first and foremost, the introduction of practices and activities which move beyond the scope of consumption, outside the usual institutions (museums or galleries), not losing nevertheless their visibility to the audience; and second, these practices are in direct communication and contact with international currents and tactics. Some of them are in a way mimetic. Others take place through the creation and implementation of platforms or groups that intensify the sense of belonging and through the existence of networks they help the development of new kind of symbioses. We all experience the emergence of social and earth issues following the onset of neoliberalism and frantic capitalism, often vis-à-vis vulnerable social groups, natural resources and groups of animal populations. A new form of art is thus happening, claiming the “commons” in general, against discriminations, and connected to practices of care for the other and for the weak whether it is human or nonhuman. I believe that all the aforementioned changes are for sure a reaction to a totally scaring social and environmental reality for the entire world, ruled only by the economy of profit. And these emerging art practices constitute a remarkable victory on the part of social imaginary.
At the same time, due to the spread of new media, questions arouse again about the role of art, about the medium itself, about art actors, about the importance of representation, production and reproduction. Fields and their respective boundary limits seem to be confused, as we definitely face a significant turn into the unknown, just like a wave amid the turbulence of winds blowing from all directions in the ocean, to use Homer’s words to describe Nestor’s turmoil.
Recently, we experience in Greece a kind of productive explosion, both cultural but also poetic. I will leave aside Documenta that has just closed its doors, a lot has already been said on the issue. But in case somebody follows social networks alone, here, he will be sure to witness a major boom: exhibitions, readings, editions, actions, festivities, most of them in public spaces. Yet, is this boom for real? It’s difficult to discern between what is real and what is media made, because the internet is a scene where we are all showing our narcissistic aspects and alternate as stars. In a way we haven’t been used to until now and for which the oldest ones as me feel a little intimidated, yet remain unable to abstain from using, we are shifting in between the roles of the actor and the commentator, the viewer, in order to become visible on the net. For many contemporary thinkers virtual reality of course has actually become THE reality, and one can no longer differentiate. But while the web universe constitutes a powerful and active part of our daily life, as well as an integral part of the public space, it co-exists with the other reality, that of being inside our bodies and the physical space of their co-existence.
As for poetry, In Greece, a lack of the bodily dimension has been the fact for several years, since it has been abolished from the lyrical/heroic era of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis,). This lack created a reaction, the urgent need to get the poetic speech out of the closet so that it is loudly articulated among people that are physically present. Amid the welter of the potential, arises the opposite need: to meet in person, to see, touch and hear each other, so that the speech, our thoughts and feelings are also physically dispensed and shared. Early in 2000 in Bar Dasein, the poetry now group, which was later transformed in [frmk], fervently initiated the institution of public poetry readings and discussions. I personally began to associate myself with the urban space presence, public practices and the questions they raised, during the 1990s and through my participation in the Urban Void collective of architects and artists; yet, the public poetry readings of 2000 enhanced the personal meetings in between poets themselves and their public. Although not so far back, such readings were then shocking the poetic status quo and received no publicity whatsoever from institutional critics. Nevertheless the initiative of these collective public readings that started at the period, led also to the creation of groups and collectivities, that also publish in their own magazines, and this changed the public image of poetry in Greece.
Younger poets, who came to the forefront after 2010, are very glad to discover this dimension, which arose directly from the previous enclosed use of poetry, and I think this is actually quite promising. We should of course realize that what is unfolding in Greece now or a from a decade ago, with a newcomer’s enthusiasm, constitutes common ground because it has been taking place for many years elsewhere, so that what is important is not just the fact that it is happening but how it is happening. In the US, for instance, there is a long and very sophisticated tradition. Last year I followed in New York some poetic events that amazed me such as, for example, a performance by Julie Ezelle Patton, that improvised on two poems combining voice, dialogic reading and jazz music; a breathtaking experience. I also attended poetry readings and discussions in bookstores of a very high quality and with a very strong participation from the audience that we couldn’t imagine here in Greece, for the moment at least. We should thus continue on this way of public space performative readings and discussions, by elaborating on the obvious as much as we can. To use Heraclitus’ words, this kykeon may exist as such as long as it remains restless. So let’s contribute to this end and blend and mix its ingredients by our constant contribution in order to savor it.
In recent years the interest of foreign readers in Greek poetry has been rekindled, with an increasing number of Greek anthologies being translated in English. What is it that makes a national poetry appealing to a foreign audience? And, in turn, to what extent do Greek poets incorporate foreign influences in their work?
Nowadays the interest in Greek poetry abroad has been renewed, and anthologies have crucially contributed to this end. It’s something that Greek poetry certainly needs, given that it is written in a language unfortunately read by very few on a global level, which, however constitutes its measure. Translations communicate the work to other languages and readers. In this framework, the anthologies that have been published play an important part in further publicizing the translation and spread of new Greek poetry, which has always tried to be kept updated, to be in touch with international trends, ever since the era of Papadiamantis.
Τoday, the internet allows for and incredibly facilitates the diffusion of the contemporary production in poetry; it’s much easier than in the past to single out poets in larger numbers and from a variety of origins. Often too much information is drowning our creativity, but, except that, nowadays there is this great chance, the chance for a poem to be re-transformed through new hands, through other people, through a different language. I personally feel extremely grateful to this incredibly generous stranger, the translator, who hosts me in his/her language and distributes my work anew to his/her audience. So Ι take here the opportunity to thank all my translators in other languages, and mostly Dirk Uwe Hansen who translated and published Homerika in German (Homerika, Reinecke & Voßm 2016), Brian Sneeden, who continues now in English, and all the editors of poetry anthologies, such as Karen Van Dyck, Thodoris Chiotis, and all other “ambassadors” (πρόξενοι, a beautiful word in Greek).
The above said I’m still afraid that the interest in Greek poetry may be exhausted on the basis of mere thematics, so that it can meet the criteria of broader consumption and easier readership. In other words, there is the risk of a new marginalization, an exoticism, through a logic of the type: “let’s see what those indigenous Greeks are doing now amid the crisis”. And this puts Greek poetry in the position of having to respond, just to fit the preconceptions regarding the specific question, respond to the bulimic and neocolonial request to represent through its poetic voice those others facing a social problem, but which is at the same time global. Have we become poets due to the crisis, and just for the crisis?
But to use Marina Tsvetaeva’s words, the relation of a poet with time is far from linear. Poets, she writes, are always inside time by no following it. There are poets that live AFTER their time, and others who live BEFORE, who transfer a thing or a way of the future or the past to their poetic present, not just in terms of thematics but of language as well. Τhe quest for the ephemeral, for the easily consumable, for what lives entirely WITHIN its time, resembles some newspaper readers, Tsvetaeva says, and has nothing to do with poetry and its aims.
I firmly believe that poetry is a field of freedom that constantly redraws itself and its boundaries. Poetry is not just a subject but a way, poetry is a becoming. Since an early age, I revolted against that unique poetic meaning that we had to learn and to search for in the texts of literature at school. My insistence on the plurality of meanings, my understanding of poetry as a becoming, has always been my motivation for new readings; the same goes for my writing. Yes, poetry can be a revolutionary therapy since it is written with no usable value whatsoever.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Knut Fleckenstein is Member of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands/ Social Democratic Party of Germany) and Foreign Affairs Coordinator of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. Fleckenstein spoke to Angeliki Spanou in an interview with Nea Selida newspaper about the impact of the German election on the EU and Greece, stressing that SPD concentrates on bringing back social justice to Europe, securing stable growth and overcome austerity driven policies.
The election in Germany will influence all of the Eurozone and the EU, isn’t that so?
Yes, the elections in Germany will have an impact on the Eurozone and the EU: in the case of a change of government, we would not concentrate on austerity policies but bring back social justice to Europe.
Is the result of your elections important for Greece? We are talking too much about the political landscape in your country...
There won’t be a revolution either way. However, a victory for Martin Schulz would mean a German chancellor who really aims to boost investment, e.g. in education, infrastructure and innovation. To promote jobs, secure stable growth and overcome austerity-driven policies is more important to us than it is to Merkel’s conservatives.
What is the secret of Angela Merkel? How does she still manage to persuade the majority of German society (according to polls)?
In turbulent and uncertain times, people tend to prefer what they already know. Germany has weathered the crises of recent years relatively well, albeit sometimes at the expense of third parties. It is not usually easy for citizens to realize and fully understand these complex relations.
Is there any possibility that Mr Schauble will not return as Minister for Finance in the next German government?
I assure you that I will do my best until Election Day.
In Greece we were talking about the "Schultz effect" some months ago. What went wrong with SPD?
It is difficult to answer this question before the German Election. But if the polls are correct, I can think of three reasons: First of all, generally speaking, people tend to prefer “what they already know”. Secondly, Angela Merkel systematically refuses a public debate with Martin Schulz. That makes it difficult for us to clearly present our position. In addition, and probably understandably so, the media still focuses on Merkel; she was the one who, for example, attended the G7 summit. In contrast, Schulz doesn’t have such a public and media-effective mandate. However, I think it is more important to analyse the result after the election - nothing is decided yet.
Will the SPD be part of the next government? Is this related to the percentage you will gain?
If Martin Schulz will be the next German chancellor, of course; if Angela Merkel remains chancellor, I seriously hope that she will build a government with the liberals. Our campaign shows how difficult it could be to win an election if you are part of the government. I believe that Germany absolutely needs a strong opposition.
Some analysts say that SYRIZA is ready to make a turn towards the social-democratic parties of Europe. Others maintain that it is stuck in the political contradictions of a party that used to identify itself as part of the "radical left” and yet has governed Greece by submitting to the demands of the country’s lenders. Where do you think SYRIZA belongs or should find itself in the future?
I do not want to and I should not interfere in SYRIZA’s internal discussions. They should figure out their positions and define where this will lead them in the future. However, I personally welcome a rapprochement with the social democrats.
Dimitris Christopoulos is Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at Panteion University of Athens and the President of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). Christopoulos was elected in this position on August 2016 by the 184 member organizations of FIDH during their 39th Congress in Johannesburg. He had chaired the board of the Hellenic League for Human Rights from 2003 until 2011 and served as the Legue's Vice President from 2011 to 2013.
FIDH is an international human rights NGO, founded in 1922 and federating 184 organizations from 112 countries with the aim to defend all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights as they are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his first speech as FIDH President, Christopoulos highlighted:"The issue at stake is the core of politics: the struggle against inequality, the struggle for altering the power structure in favour of the weak, in favour of the rule of law, in favour of our own vision for a just world."
Professor Christopoulos spoke to Rethinking Greece* about the emergence of a "post-fascist" style of governance in many countries; the importance of a total reconfiguration of EU political structures; the negative effect of the economic and refugee crisis on political and human rights in Greece and Europe and the need to persist on the project of relocation and resettlement of refugees within the EU -instead of creating buffer zones in the periphery. Finally, he stressed that we must remain vigilant and fight back for human rights, especially at a time when cynicism is disguised as realism and human rights are viewed as a luxury.
As FIDH president you have a global overview of the state of human rights. What would you consider the most important issues facing the world today?
This is a question I should have got used to answering but nonetheless, every time I face it, I do not have an easy answer. What I would say is that along with old fashioned authoritarianism, which makes the lives of citizens and human rights defenders unbearable, in our days we witness the emergence of a ‘new’ governance style that I could call post-fascist: it is not traditional fascism, yet it shares with it the basic premise of far-right ideology, which is a genuine disregard for universal human dignity. This is what unites completely different or even opponent political regimes.
So, you believe that this is not a localized trend but a universal one?
I argue that if we regard this drift as something relevant only to underdevelopment and retardation in a classic Orientalist stereotyping approach, things could get worse. A historical recipe for the success of such ideologies is that you think that “it can’t happen here”; and when it happens, it’s already too late. The damage is done and you need triple the amount of work to pick up the pieces. See what is happening in Turkey: we are talking about long lasting events that come to determine the nature of a regime, not conjectural changes.
Yes, but one could argue that Turkey was never a full democracy.
Indeed, but what would you say about Austria, where the extreme right candidate got 49% of the vote? How about Trump’s USA and Putin’s Russia? What about Poland? Of course, we are all relieved with the result of the Dutch and the French elections, but if the message we get is that “no worries, things are going well”, then I am afraid that our complacence is not far from stupidity. I wish I could be more optimistic, but what I see is, on the one hand, panic – after Brexit for example – and on the other hand, naive enthusiasm, like after Le Pen’s defeat in France. If we really want to move forward, panic and enthusiasm are not good advisors. We really need to see what makes people turn to these post-fascist solutions. We really need a total reconfiguration of political structures in the EU for example. Not simply “reform” them. The term “reform” today has been so extensively cannibalized that it is actually better to forget it.
Let’s talk about Greece then, which is really undergoing severe reforms. Has the economic crisis in Greece had a negative impact on human rights?
That the ‘crisis’ has contributed to the downgrading human rights standards in Greece is no novelty. The FIDH has already documented that in a report made jointly with the Greek League for Human Rights in 2014. If I might summarize it, I’d say that you can’t expect to shrink social rights without touching political rights and then, finally, violating individual ones. This is what happened in Greece. Cuts in education and health for example, lead to downplaying the role of the Parliament in decision making: laws passing with presidential decrees and emergency procedures have trivialized the role of the legislature in favour of the executive and the institutions of Greece’s creditors.
At the beginning of the crisis and up until 2013, social protests lead to abusesby the state: shutting down Greek Public television and radio in June 2013 has been the most illustrative example of this. Have things changed since then?
Yes and no. The main difference is that the fatigue of Greek society is such that people do not protest as they used to. “Crisis” is not seen as such anymore in Greece. It has become the new regime, the new normality governing our lives. What was once exceptional became the norm. At the beginning we regarded crisis as a V: you are up, you go down and then up again. Now, crisis is perceived as an L: you go down and then you continue down on this line. The generation of my students or my children does not view the current situation as a crisis: for them, that is life. Salaries of 480 Euros, unemployment at 20%, no prospect of a pension; these things are simply regarded as normal; harsh to admit, but true. Things will improve, but they will not be good.
You do not seem to be very optimistic...
I am a realist who hopes and works to change things acknowledging how hard this is. I stand for ‘Hope without optimism’, the title of Terry Eagleton’s last book. Hope is an existential position of fighting back for our rights. Hope is not naive voluntarism. It must be a vision and a strategy. Otherwise, we lose.
In 2015, in the turmoil of the financial crisis, Greece starts to deal with another crisis, that of the refugees. What has been its impact on human rights?
The impact differs according to the time period. In 2015, the Greek policy of letting people in was the only solution to face the humanitarian crisis. It would have been impossible for Greece to do otherwise without considerable casualties in terms of human lives and rights. Yet, now things have changed. After the closure of the Balkan corridor and the adoption of the “Common Statement” between the EU and Turkey on managing migrant flows, the islands in the Eastern Aegean have become a buffer zone, so that people won’t make it to the North of Europe. Unfortunately, the Greek government has accepted this.
You have strong views against the EU-Turkey statement on migrants and refugees.
I know that as long as Germany is convinced that the only solution is this “deal” with Turkey, Greece will have a hard time dealing with the issue. On the other hand, the situation is unbearable. Despite the enormous sums spent in Greece on the ‘refugee question’, the results are poor. On the one hand, the Greek administrative chaos has become a nightmare for all those working in the field. On the other, this chaos is in convenient complicity with the political objective of the EU, which is to stem the migrant flows. As FIDH President, I am convinced that such “deals” that externalize refugee and migration management to the EU periphery create very toxic precedents. The rich ask the poor to contain the poorest. And then the nightmare begins. See what is happening in Libya. We found a failed state with an absolute disrespect for human rights to do the dirty job of keeping African migrants and refugees out of Europe. How shameful...
What else could be done?
The dominant EU discourse wants to persuade us that there is no other viable solution. “We are not that proud of it, but what else can we do? If more refugees come, then right-wing extremism will rise”.
Yet, as I keep on saying, if we keep out refugees and migrants in order to avoid the rise of the far right, we ourselves become the beast we are fighting against. What could be done is what timidly started in the summer of 2015: relocation and resettlement within the EU so that all member-states carry a proportional responsibility. This is European solidarity. This is what solidarity to persecuted people means. This is what taking rights seriously means.
Nation-states can both uphold and undercut human rights, so a wider political order is needed to guarantee those rights. What is the role NGOs such as FIDH can play in that political order?
When Marx wrote that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” he did not mean that we should not interpret the world. He meant that only if we are able to interpret the world we might be able change it. The role that organizations like the FIDH have in this process is to provide tools for understanding and change. That is why I insist on both our vision and our strategy. It is not only about moral principles. Fighting for rights is an ongoing political project for human emancipation and peace. Otherwise, “no justice, no peace”: old motto...
After one year as FIDH president, do you believe that human rights overall are in retreat around the world? What do you perceive as the biggest threat against human rights today?
There once used to be a narrative: things would get better and better. According to this narrative, the world would always move forward, in the right direction. It is like a classic Hollywood scenario: some suspense, but at the end the good guy wins. This is the essence of liberal or communist determinism. Well, history is nothing like a happy end movie. History is by definition full of open questions that might turn into nightmares. And particularly in fluid times of transition such as the one we are living in.
Some would argue that we can learn from history, but I am afraid it is not so simple. If we could learn from history, we would have learned already, but this is not the case. The biggest threat against human rights today is the very idea that rights do not matter anymore, that what matters is effective governance that provides security. This is what unites Trump with Putin for example. This perception regards rights as an unreasonable luxury. Human rights defenders are treated as internal enemies or, at best, as Don Quixotes. The biggest threat and challenge to the global movement for human rights is this cynicism disguised as ‘realism’; fighting back for human rights, as we say in the FIDH, means deconstructing this narrative. We are neither Don Quixotes, nor victims. Human rights defenders are protagonists of history.
*Interview to: Ioulia Livaditi
Germans feel that crises do not affect them, Axel Troost said, interviewed by Kaki Bali for the Sunday edition of Avgi newspaper (10.09.2017). Troost, member of the Bundestag and deputy chairman of Die Linke (The Left) Party, has an active interest in Greece, manifested in his frequent articles and his paper “The facts about Greece’s policy: What Greece has actually done to deal with the crisis”. On September, 9, die Linke with European United Left/ Nordic Green Left European Parliamentary Group (GUE – NGL) organized an event tittled “Solidarity against Austerity! - Solidarity with Greece” in which Troost and Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giorgos Katrougalos, among others, participated. In his interview Troost analyses the stakes of the German elections and the ability of Left to formulate its own proposals for overcoming global crises, or forge alliances at European level.
We have the feeling abroad that nothing is changing, that people in Germany don’t see an alternative to Angela Merkel, and that they don’t wish for any other alternative. Is that true?
Unfortunately, there is no mood for change. People realize that there are many crises around the world: political crises (Trump, Brexit, Turkey…), military crises (North Korea, Ukraine, Middle East), financial crises (Southern Europe), the migrant flows etc, but still, they do not feel the crisis in their daily life. The situation in Germany appears good, given that with the high tax revenuesand the low interest rates, the Government has attained unexpected surpluses with which it can finance other needs. In the opinion of many Germans, Chancellor Merkel and her Government are keeping the crises away and guaranteeing their well-being. On the other hand, it is not that easy for the people to comprehend the crises, because there are so many crises and conflicts that can hardly be rationally explained, and people have to decide according to their personal feelings and the development of their personal living conditions.
What do you expect from the 2017 federal elections? What do you wish to change and how will you convince the people?
We wish to achieve a better result than the 8.6% achieved in 2013 so as to be the third Party in the Parliament again. Therefore, if there’s a coalition government again, then we will be the biggest Party in Opposition. There are people in Germany who suffer because they are unemployed, they have bad jobs, they suffer old-age poverty. Τhere are also many people who are unhappy because they have to reorder their lives according to social pressures or employer demands, and wish to be emancipated. We work for social justice, for a strong community of solidarity, and last but not least, we are the only Party in favour of Peace and Disarmament.
When Martin Schulz was declared SPD candidate, an intense discussion began regarding a “red-red-green” governing Coalition (SPD, Die Linke, Die Grünen). Is there any point to this discussion today, just before the election?
Martin Schulz was the surprise pulled out of the SPD hat. As former Speaker of the European Parliament, he came from abroad (and not from the Federal Government), on whom many people projected what they wished to see, a different another SPD of which they had great expectations from. In opinion polls, the SPD had reached 10% and thus a “red –red –green” option then seemed a feasible one.
Subsequently however the SPD lost in the regional election and is now lagging as far behind the Christian Democrats in the polls as it did before Schulz’s nomination. In terms of polling average, the “red-red-green” Coalition (the Social Democrats, the Left and the Green Party) appears to secure about 40% of the vote, while the Union (Christian Democrats) and FDP around 48%, so the numbers do not add up. The SPD could still perhaps close that gap with an aggressive election campaign for the “red- red- green” Coalition, but neither Schulz nor the rest of the SPD leadership seem committed to do so, given especially that only but a few remain committed Leftists in the SPD. Moreover, many of the Green Party would rather be in government the Union than with “Die Linke”, with which they have problems.
Supposing that the voters give you the chance, would you be ready to participate? And under what conditions?
If there was to be a “red-red-green” majority (SPD, Die Linke, Die Grünen) then we would seriously negotiate such an alliance. There would be obviously be no agreement to be in government at any cost. An important condition for us would be the reintroduction of a wealth tax, which has not existed in Germany for the past 20 years. We would not agree to any military interventions of the German armed forces. We would also introduce improvements to social benefits and pensions.
Global problems, such as wars, migration, injustice, changes in employment due to digitalization etc. demand global solutions, and Internationalism was always a part of the Left. Can you see the Left formulating its own proposals for overcoming global crises, or striving to forge alliances at European level?
The Left has always been talking and arguing about these issues, and still insists that we need a different international financial order, a different policy for Peace, for the Environment, for Growth. To this purpose, there many and varied approaches that need to be further developed by all Left Parties together with social movements, NGO’s and other allies. Ideologically speaking, Neoliberalism has lost its charm some time now but continues to be strong, whilst lately there have been more and more authoritarian and nationalist political approaches. This is a challenge for us; I am all in favour of international cooperation and also believe that we are in need of institutions that would replace the neoliberal ones. I believe that Europe should play an important part in the solution of global problems, but this could only happen in the near future only through the EU.
The EU is in deep political and economic crisis but I don’t think we should break it down in the belief something new would emerge from its ruins that could meet our expectations. I believe that instead we should reform the EU. It is very important that we restructure the Monetary Union so that the common currency unites rather than divides Europe. To this end, I have, along with others, elaborated very specific proposals that I am willing share and discuss. An exchange of opinions has to a point already begun. Instead of austerity we propose a European Investment Programme, a common lending policy, the decrease of economic imbalances from countries with surpluses such as Germany, the strengthening of the EU’s social dimension and the democratization of the EU with an upgraded European Parliament.
Read also: Restart Europe Now: Re-seeking employment, solidarity, prosperity, A Europe built on solidarity is possible; What Greece has actually done to deal with the crisis: Common beliefs and their refutation, Syriza wollte Einschnitte mildern Interview mit Axel Troost (26.4.2017)
F.K. & A.P.
Yiorgos Chouliaras is a Greek poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator. Born in Thessaloniki, he studied and worked mostly in New York, before returning to Athens from Dublin. He has worked as a university lecturer, advisor to cultural institutions, correspondent, and Press Counselor at Greek Embassies in Ottawa, Washington, DC, and Dublin. His books include: Iconoclasm (Thessaloniki: Tram, 1972), The Other Tongue (Athens: Ypsilon, 1981), The Treasure of the Balkans (Athens: Ypsilon, 1988), Fast Food Classics (Athens: Ypsilon, 1992), Letter (Athens: Ypsilon, 1995), Roads of Ink (Athens: Nefeli, 2005), and Dictionary of Memories (Athens: Melani, 2013).
He was a co-founder of the influential Greek literary reviews Tram and Hartis and an editor of literary and scholarly publications in the United States, including the New York-based Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora and the Journal of Modern Hellenism. He has been an advisor to cultural institutions, including MOMA, the Cultural Capital of Europe, and the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, and has helped organize hundreds of literary & scholarly meetings, exhibitions, concerts, and other cultural events in major museums and academic institutions in North America and Europe.
In 2014, he was awarded the Ouranis Prize of the Academy of Athens for his alphabetical anti-memoir Dictionary of Memories and his work in its entirety. His poetry in translation has been published in major periodicals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, World Literature Today, and Modern European Poets, and in Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, Japan, and Turkey among other countries. He has been elected President of the Hellenic Authors’ Society and to the Board of other literary and scholarly associations.
Yiorgos Chouliaras spoke to Reading Greece* about what changed and what remained the same since his first book Iconoclasm in 1972, noting that “writing is a conspiracy of immortality, a failing effort to cheat death by slipping messages to the future”, and that “no language can sustain itself without literature and there is no life without language”. He also comments on the so-called generation of the 1970s, explaining that “it was a generation of poets who grew up writing in times of constraints and frustrated expectations” and that “initial abstention from publication was coupled with renewed commitment to writing”.
As for the role of the Hellenic Authors’ Society, he notes that it “remains engaged, collectively and individually through its members, in events of major cultural significance and Greek interest whether inside or outside the country, and as a representative of Greek authors in European and international initiatives”. He concludes that “the complex – rewarding as well as frustrating, utopian as well as dystopic – relation Greeks have to their past remains of paradigmatic interest to those struggling to make sense of their lives” and that “as a country of the imagination and a widely recognized point of origin, Greece is a place where you can discover yourself and the world”.
From Iconoclasm in 1972 to Roads of Ink in 2005 and Dictionary of Memories in 2013: What has changed and what has remained the same in these forty years? How are notions of love, memory, and death dealt with in your writing?
Nothing has changed, though everything has. Continuity is established through discontinuities. This is the case for individuals and their history as well as history at large. Moreover, there are two types of memory: What others remember about us and what we forget about ourselves. The fact that death is possible at any age is a simulation of immortality as you grow older and this event becomes more probable. With symbiosis equally impossible and necessary, love remains a guiding principle, as long as love of others and love of things, also called curiosity, somehow modulate love of one self. Keep trying, keep failing, fail better, Beckett suggested. Do not approve. Do not disapprove. Prove. Search for the kind of humor Kafka demonstrated. Avoid insincere seriousness in any serial of yourself. Be self-sarcastic. The tragedy of human life is that it is a comedy. Do not imitate yourself. Keep fighting with and against those icons, images, words that could be your friends. Someone else may be better suited to write your autobiography. Are you post-modern? I was asked in an interview in the U.S. No, I’m post-ancient, I said.
Writing is a result of reading, which is a result of writing. Both skills are learned and, in that sense, unnatural, though, as with all skills once learned, it becomes impossibly difficult to imagine what it was like before you came into them – in part accidentally and by imitating elders in the tribe, but also through schooling, in schools or outside them. No one is born a writer, as one person’s life is too short to invent writing, even though we seem to re-invent the wheel every day. Writing is a conspiracy of immortality, a failing effort to cheat death by slipping messages to the future. Written words set up islands in the vast archipelago of the spoken word. This is why poetry must always pretend to return to its oral origins. Listen to the music of what is being transcribed. Even if people imagine that writing is a hidden way to reveal yourself, it remains the most revealing way to hide oneself. Poetry, as a womb of all writing, issues the stuff angels and demons are made of. This involves words and numbers, love for which is a precondition of creation, even when it must be tough love. Writers continue to write to the extent no one, including them, grasped that first poem they wrote. No one stood under it. The immateriality of speech is the kind of material we make.
“Literature is not, as it should be, just consolation and recreation or entertainment of the soul. Literature, as a utopia, is also criticism of a real topos.” What was the contribution of poetry and literature in general to the formation of the Greek nation? What role is literature called to play nowadays?
Greece was generated by poetry. Despite any hyperbole, this is historically grounded on distinct ancient and modern instances. Carried along by Aristotle’s student Alexander, Homer’s epics created and selected bonds among Greeks from Ithaca to Asia Minor and from islands in the south to Macedonia. This is how nations were formed before nationalism. Much later, by assuming the exemplary role of a bard from whose verses the national anthem was derived, Solomos imagined a reincarnation of Greece as a modern state. At the same time, Byron expended his life for the place that made him a poet, he claimed, while his comrade Shelley, who never visited the country, proclaimed that “we are all Greeks.” Poetry became what I have described as “a regulating discipline,” with Cavafy and two Nobel laureates broadly defining Greece’s share on the modern map of world culture. Comparisons for offspring of renowned parents only lead to disappointment, however, while poetry is generally regarded as in retreat in destitute times, in Hölderlin’s formulation. A strategy of measured expectations is called for. Regardless of the quality of what may be produced now, it could never compare favorably with the distilled best of what came before. Literature is no exception. All the same, no language can sustain itself without literature and there is no life without language.
It has been said that you belong to the so-called generation of the 1970s. What makes this generation different from what preceded and what followed it?
This was a generation of poets who grew up writing in times of constraints and frustrated expectations. The military dictatorship repressed promises of political normalization and social perforation coming up after the civil war, the only extended one in a European country after Nazi defeat. A process of postwar “cultural reconstruction,” as I have called it, was blocked, even if it was very difficult to have access to outside trends already before the junta years. Initial abstention from publication was coupled with renewed commitment to writing. There was a range, from direct protest to the development of allusive writing that could escape the censors’ radar. Surrealist poems appeared as allegorical as folk songs. It was a Western version of an East European experience that further confused the compass regarding East and West or North and South. Younger writers started to become visible, surfing on the same wave, though quite differently among themselves. This is why I was critical of such a notion of a “generation” that corresponded only to publication synchronicity and became an excuse to ignore previous writers. Once the wave passed, however, it no longer appeared fair to criticize underdogs, even if I personally prefer cats, as they seem more independent.
During the 1970s and 1980s, you co-founded and edited major literary magazines, such as Tram and Hartis. How would you comment on current literary and artistic projects in the era of online communication?
Indispensable as they are, books are better suited as an end rather than a beginning of a process that includes periodical publications, both print and electronic now. Periodicals reflect the vitality of a cultural moment. Incomplete as all revolutions, the electronic revolution is the kind of blessing and curse that literature & the arts cannot stay away from. It’s still early though, with few projects exploring the possibilities of this medium or message that has not been decoded. It still is as if people were filming theatrical performances thinking they were making movies. Yet, involvement must be encouraged. I know there is fragmentation. I know there is trash. But I refuse to assume the position of older people criticizing younger people for the kind of music they listen to. They have the right to be wrong.
What is the role that the Hellenic Authors’ Society is called to play especially at times of crisis? What about the prospects of Greek literature and the new generation of Greek writers in this respect?
The Hellenic Authors’ Society was established after the collapse of the dictatorship, with Odysseas Elytis as its first honorary president, to bring poets, prose writers, essayists, translators, and literary critics together in defense of freedom of expression and in support of their creative and professional interests. These objectives are always current, while the Society, as the principal association of Greek writers, remains engaged, collectively and individually through its members, in events of major cultural significance and Greek interest, whether inside or outside the country, and as a representative of Greek authors in European and international initiatives. At the same time and with very limited resources in crisis conditions, the Society must address existential questions in the very mundane sense that health insurance, pensions or taxes affect the very existence of writers in pernicious circumstances. This is not a simple set of issues to be dealt with by an elected Executive Board of unpaid volunteers who must also balance conflicting demands of encouraging the election of younger writers as new members, but in accordance with a peer review process required for their election. It must be added that, although writers may continue to write under trying circumstances, the contemporary impact of their presence in a national setting and internationally depends on the kind of support they receive as individual creators and as members of their associations.
Though also conceived as a disorder, bipolarity makes the world go round. People may be familiar with this particular condition from celebrated instances that include George Seferis, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. There is a textual connection, in fact, considering that the word “diplomatic” in the sense of international relations evolved in the eighteenth century from “diplomaticus” in modern Latin titles of collections of international treaties, where the word referred to documents and charters, from Greek “diploma,” which originally meant paper folded double. Such a double or twin predicament could describe diplomacy, as those exercising it must represent their country wherever they are accredited, while also presenting the host country back home. Poetry is a country of the sounds and meanings of words. Poets are those who try to represent it to an outside audience. Writers live in a language (or sometimes in more than one), which is their home and exile simultaneously.
In 1986 you suggested that “modern Greek culture may be considered paradigmatic… [representing] the fundamental impulse of modern cultural life…” How would you comment on the modern Greek experience 30 years later? What is Greece’s place in world imagination today?
We constantly rewrite the past in an effort to get ahead of the future. The complex – rewarding as well as frustrating, utopian as well as dystopic – relation Greeks have to their past remains of paradigmatic interest to those struggling to make sense of their lives. Moreover, much of the crucial vocabulary for thinking and acting these things through – from politics to physics or metaphysics and from theory to practice – first evolved in Greek or in subsequent interaction with it through neologisms. As a country of the imagination and a widely recognized point of origin, Greece is a place where you can discover yourself and the world. The gift involved in this is immeasurable. But so is everything that goes with it, as out-of-size gifts tend to make life difficult.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Marsa Makris has studied theatre directing and acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory, in New York. She subsequently pursued filmmaking studies at the University of California Los Angeles.
Her filmography includes short fiction films “A minor parallax” (1986), which won the second prize at the Drama short film festival, “Against the wall” (2003), which won best prize for original soundtrack at the Drama short film festival, and “Dry cleaning” (2005). Makris is mostly known for her short fiction, "To Tameno"/ “Offered boy” (2002), about a young monk discovering the real world, which was officially selected for the 56th Cannes film festival-2003, as well as at the International film festivals of Ismailia, Tehran, Alpe Adria Cinemay, Bilbao, Fajr, while it was also the Greek Film Centre’s entry for the European Academy Awards-Felix.
"To tameno"/ “Offered boy” (2002)
Her first feature film, “Ierosyloi” (Sacrilege), co-produced by the Greek Film Centre & ERT (Greek National Broadcaster), has just been completed. In "Ierosyloi"/ “Sacrilege”, the two protagonists, a beautiful woman (played by Loukia Michalopoulou) and a sick bed-ridden man (played by musician and performer Blaine Reininger), share their common life, caged in a large and decaying labyrinthine penthouse, cut off from a crazy and threatening surrounding world that they spy upon through the window's grilles and slots. Together they fall into a world between fantasy, history and reality. Fear, anger, illusion, ridiculousness and wonder interchange constantly in a frantic psychological twist of obsessive faith and the need of salvation. They are “The Beauty and the Beast”, but with the absence of Love. The third protagonist is a Byzantine icon of St-George, which was stolen by the male protagonist and hidden in a secret spot inside the apartment.
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* Makris describes the difficult journey of filming "Ierosyloi"/ “Sacrilege”. She notes that confined characters provide both the filmmaker and the viewer with a variety of opportunities to explore all kinds of extremities and aspects of human existence. Asked how she works with the banality of objects and banality in general, she underlines that the placement of banality in a wider context helps one to contemplate the priorities and necessities in life. Makris also stresses that a cardinal point in her work is the sense of ambivalence, both in life and art, because “in the end, it is the question, the enigma that feeds imagination”.
Loukia Michalopoulou, Blaine Reininger, "Ierosyloi"/ "Sacrilege" (2017)
Self confinement and its repercussions on the state of mind is a recurring theme in cinema. How does it function in your film?
I guess the attraction to the confined-cornered, as I prefer to see them, characters, provides both the filmmaker and the viewer with a variety of opportunities to explore all kinds of extremities. It may have to do with the exploration of those underlying aspects of human existence that have always been present throughout time, aspects which we prefer to regard as primitive in our anxiety to disassociate ourselves from them.
Fear, obsession, oppression, fixation, delusion and a perpetual search for love, justice, catharsis and liberation are the recurrent themes in the crossings from darkness to light and vice versa, where we have to dig in, if we want to make any sense of it all. In the case of "Ierosyloi"/ “Sacrilege”, it is the paranoiac nature of all characters involved in the narrative, through their relation to faith, history, love, family ties and even public space that are in a sense left deserted in the empty shell of a life, full of objects and symbols that try desperately to articulate a coherent story. Pairs and opposites, at the same time eating their guts.
The apartment, the universe of the characters is a jumble of banal and rococo artefacts in a way that becomes familiar to the viewer. How do you work on banality?
There is only one way, Comedy... Self sarcasm also helps. There is a representation of quite some bits and pieces of our Greek history, arrangements of contemporary urban abandonment, as well as 'cute' female elements creating an interesting chaos in the film setting. I believe that the placement of banalities into a larger context creates a canvas worth experiencing. In any way, I think it makes you wonder about the necessities and priorities in life.
Ersi Malikenzou, Olga Damanis, "Ierosyloi"/ "Sacrilege" (2017)
What is the influence of the Byzantine iconography in your films? How does the intertextuality of visual arts manifest in "Ierosyloi"/ “Sacrilege”?
For better or worse, Byzantine imagery is a big part of who I am. Besides aesthetics, this influence also affects the way I “sketch” my characters: as almost two dimensional characters, without the emotional burden (or mess) of contemporary western narration. I try to avoid manipulating viewer feelings and I find this a very Greek way to go.
In my short film “To tameno" / "Offered boy”, I believe that we have also achieved a deep relevance to iconography. However, in this film I tried to incorporate a sense of Mediterranean rococo-baroque and a vivid palette of electric colours in the imagery, that I think work well in underlining the delirium of the main female character and the constant fluctuation from dream and time confusion to a so-called reality. Even though part of the plot is the "rescue" of an icon of St George, it is to the very end of the film that clearer Byzantine aesthetic elements emerge again.
Loukia Michalopoulou, "Ierosyloi"/ "Sacrilege" (2017)
As in Offered Boy, religion, ranging from faith to fixation and delusion, is a central element of the plot. Would you like to elaborate?
There is a great paradox in our relation with God. Our nature contradicts the basic principle of faith and the teachings of organized religions, loving and respecting God’s greatest manifestation, Life. I find it fascinating to plunge into the muddy waters of ambivalence. We are complicated beings and as far as telling a story about it, the challenge for me is to arrange parts of this sort of inherent madness, as an allegory, a metaphor, whatever...
Let's say it is the big framework, where the drama of my characters is not the sacrilege against a religious artifact or ceremonial purity, but rather our crippling inability to selfless love and offering to each other. It's never boring; it may be right, it may be wrong. In the end, it is the question, the enigma that feeds the imagination.
"Ierosyloi"/ "Sacrilege" (2017)
Your film was supported by the Greek Film Centre and the National TV Broadcaster ERT. Based on your experience, what was the effect of the economic crisis on Greek Film production?
I am thankful for their support. However, we have actually received the minimum possible. I am reluctant to say how much that was. There was also the time when the National broadcaster was shut down by our benevolent leaders of the time.
The initial approval from the Greek film Centre, which is the one major pillar of financial support for cinema in Greece, was announced while the second pillar (ERT) operated in a zombie like state. Then we had to wait again... It was an unforgettable nightmare. Of course that changed in the summer of 2016, when ERT once more provided invaluable and necessary support to many productions including ours, allowing us to move on.
Loukia Michalopoulou and Marsa Makris on the set of "Ierosyloi"/ "Sacrilege"
Apart from the aforementioned support from the Greek Film Centre and ERT, it was through the miraculous and crucial gesture that was offered by three major companies from abroad that provided us with top of the line equipment, which was necessary to maintain an aesthetic standard. However, all that would not have been enough if it wasn't for the extra support provided by some younger friends in the filmmaking industry of Greece and without of course the collaboration of other artists that added their personal creative forces for the realization of my personal vision. Anyway, the truth of the matter is that Greek Film production is a painful story and was long before the recent crisis of the country.
Ιerosyloi/Sacrilege, 2017, 89'
Dir. Marsa Makris
Scr. M. Makris & Vangelis Hatziyannidis
Mus. Nikos Xydakis
Pr. Greek Film Centre, ERT SA, with the support of Arri-Rental,Thales-Angénieux, Luma-Tech, Authorwave
With: Loukia Michalopoulou, Blaine L. Reininger, Ersi Malikenzou, Yorgos Kontoyannis, et al.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also: Greek Cinema 2017: New and Upcoming Films
Nectarios Santorinios, Deputy Minister of Maritime Industry & Island Policy and MP for the Dodecanese with SYRIZA, spoke to Greek News Agenda* on the need for an insularity clause at the national and EU level to ensure the equitable development of island regions, the government's effort to modernize the current institutional framework in order to tackle issues such as the islands' connection to the mainland, transport, accessibility to public services, and supply of goods. Santorinios further mentioned several government projects such as the Special Development Plan for North & South Aegean that will finance major infrastucture projects, or the target to achieve water autonomy for all islands by the summer of 2018.
Historian Ruggiero Romano and other thinkers, such as Spyros Asdrachas and Angelos Elefantis, viewed the Aegean archipelago as a dipersed city. Insularity is a salient morphological feature of Greece. What are its specific characteristics in Greece?
The blend of characteristics that make up insularity, a concept sometimes grueling, other times redeeming, are essentially small size, long distance from places of supply of goods, seasonality in social and economic life and vulnerability to environmental challenges.
At times when insularity is experienced as redemption, the islands become pioneers of extroversion in trade and interaction with other cultures. During tougher times, insularity is experienced as isolation from current developments, like for example from the digital era.
The view of the Aegean as a kind metapolis, the promise of a different kind of city, is based on island features, such as their encirclement by the sea, the arid, dry landscape, the clarity of the sky and the seasonality of their visitors. We must keep in mind though that a major characteristic of urban centers is that they function as melting pots, merging various civilizations together. In the Aegean islands, however, one can find different cultural elements like costumes, dances, products and folk speech that have been preserved in time, precisely because of the lack of connections with the mainland or the neighboring islands.
Stratos Kalafatis photography project "Archipelago" was originally commissioned for the Greek participation at the 10th Edition of the International Architecture Exhibition in Venice 2006 ("The Dispersed Urbanity of the Aegean Archipelago")
What are the main challenges insular countries like Greece have to face? How have are they been dealt with so far from a policy point of view?
The challenge all island regions face is depopulation. The same applies to Greece, of course. Especially in times of economic recession, this trend is widening. Fortunately, we are essentially talking about islanders, people who have a particular emotional connection to their homeland, even though they travel more often than most of us; however, we cannot rely on this connection to curb the phenomenon of depopulation.
What we have to do is respect it practice the islanders΄ longstanding demand for equal social treatment: this is both a challenge and a mission for the ministry of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy. The islanders’ particular living conditions require special considerations from the part of the state. That is why we are talking about an insularity clause that would ensure that any law of the Greek state or the EU must be adjusted so that it can be applicable to island life.
What is the European dimension of the issue of insularity? EU cohesion policies are designed for land territories and Greece is a country with 277 inhabited islands. How can island regions be developed on an equal footing with land regions?
In the Treaty of Lisbon, the objective of strengthening economic and social cohesion is described as: “The EU shall aim at reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions. Among the regions concerned, particular attention shall be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions.”
Postcard: The port of Hermoupolis on the island of Syros
Therefore, cohesion policies based on modern tools and indicators, such as the human development index, the social welfare index and the regional competitiveness index are key for the equitable development of island regions.
Another defining factor for linking the Greek islands to the European commerce flow are trans-European networks. In Article 170 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007) it is mentioned that, “the Union shall contribute to the establishment and development of trans-European networks in the areas of transport, telecommunications and energy infrastructures.”
Furthermore, in article ΙΙΙ-144 of the Draft Treaty Establishing a Constitution For Europe (2003) it was mentioned that “Within the framework of a system of open and competitive markets, action by the Union shall aim at promoting the interconnection and interoperability of national networks as well as access to such networks. It shall take account in particular of the need to link islands, landlocked and peripheral regions with the central regions of the Union.”
One big concern for smaller islands is infrequently serviced lines during off-season periods. What are the solutions you propose?
At present, through state subsidized lines, the so-called "nonprofit” lines, we ensure - although at a great cost- that each island will have a stable, and as much as possible frequent connection to the major ports of the country.
However, this policy is under review and the institutional framework is being modernized along the following axes: Improving accessibility through better interconnection with the mainland, optimizing the design of the coastal routes in order to reduce the cost of nonprofit lines, striking a better balance between passenger and freight traffic, strengthening commercial and tourist activity and promoting combined transport.
The Valetta Declaration, adopted this March, mentions “equal growth for islands and insular regions.” What are Greece’s goals as far as insular policy in the EU after the Maltese Presidency?
The objective remains to create a common framework for island policy at the European level, in accordance to Article 175 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union for “reducing disparities between the levels of development of the least favoured regions” such as islands, as that will lead to the adoption a separate package of actions to tackle the issue of insularity.
Fields that call for direct developmental interventions are education, health, administration, entrepreneurship, basic infrastructure and the transport of islanders.
What are your plans and priorities for this year?
For the current period, the Government's plan is focused on promoting economic and development opportunities for the islands. More specifically:
The Special Development Plan for North & South Aegean, with an initial budget of 50 million by the National Investments Programme, is going to finance major infrastructure projects for the islands.
The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Islands Policy collaborated with the Ministries of Development, Infrastructure and Home Affairs, to create a dedicated unit that will support the municipalities of small islands in designing and completing infrastructure projects using the NSRF, the National Investments Programme and other funds.
On the initiative of the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Information, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Islands Policy, a program to improve public administration in the islands and make islanders’ access to public services easier is being implemented.
For a better balance in the supply of goods, a collaboration has been launched with the University of the Aegean to prepare a study which will set down ways to reduce the cost of transporting people and goods to and from the islands.
The Ministry of Energy, in cooperation with Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Islands Policy has introduced the innovative concept of “energy communities” in a draft bill currently under consultation. We aim to promote such projects so that islands can become energy self-sufficient.
However, the most important and urgent task is achieving water autonomy for the arid islands. By the summer of 2018 we plan to have a desalination plant on each island, providing sufficient drinking water for the needs of the island so that water tank become a thing and local communities start examining more advanced forms of water supply for the future.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi & Nikolas Nenedakis
The top international sailing event in Greece, the Aegean Regatta is organised by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy
Sotiris Walldén studied economics in Sweden and France and has a Ph.D. from the University of Athens. From 1996 to 2014 he was an official at the European Commission, mostly dealing with enlargement. He has also served, inter alia, as secretary-general at the Ministry of National Economy, as counsellor to the foreign minister and as a visiting professor at the Panteion University, Athens. Today, he teaches a post-graduate course at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is the author of a large number of books and articles, mostly on the Balkans, EU enlargement and Greek foreign and domestic policy issues. Active in the anti-dictatorship resistance (1967-1974), he has since militated in parties and organisations of the Greek Left.
Sotiris Walldén spoke with Greek News Agenda* on the Greek debt issue, austerity policies, the SYRIZA government agenda, EU enlargement fatigue, and the current crisis of the European project:
You have recently noted that the Greek case is the most vivid expression of a course of Europe that is untenable and that the rise of a radical left party (Syriza), that remains pro-European, is probably the best of possible options for the country. Can you tell us more?
The Greek crisis was the result of bad economic management during the 2004-2010 period, but has its roots in long-standing structural problems of theeconomy and society. However, the crisis was precipitated and aggravated by external factors: the world financial crisis and deficiencies in the construction and management of the Eurozone.
Equally importantly, the medicine administered by the country’s lenders as of 2010 in the form of unprecedented harsh austerity had disastrous effects on the economy, the social tissue and on the democratic political system. The measures imposed were inspired by the neo-liberal philosophy and national egoisms prevailing in Europe. These have had negative effects, albeit less acute than in Greece, practically throughout the continent: high unemployment, pressure on incomes, increasing inequalities and insecurity as well as curtailment of the welfare state.
Unavoidably, the above mentioned policies generate reactions, and these have as a rule been hijacked by anti-European, xenophobic, extreme right forces. In the case of Greece, while we have witnessed the rise of a thuggish quasi-Nazi party, protests have mostly turned towards a pro-European radical left which is now in power. This, in my view, should be cause of relief, and not only for supporters of the left.
The present government is of course itself a product of the crisis: it came to power riding on a populist wave, it lacks experience, it carries remnants of mentalities from the time it was a small leftist group, and it has committed a number of mistakes, including the grave one of miscalculating the power of the German conservative establishment. It has an awkward populist right partner in government. And its ambitions are crushed under the programmes imposed by the lenders. On the other hand, SYRIZA is firmly pro-European and has a progressive social agenda, similar to the one of European social-democracy. Its people have not been corrupted by decades of power.
The alternative to the present government would be a coalition of the two parties that ruled the country, in alteration or together, during the last forty years; parties that bear the bulk of the responsibility for leading us to catastrophe. Their cadres are identified with corruption, clientelism and arrogance. The main opposition party, conservative New Democracy, is an incoherent mixture of neo-liberals and far-right populists. Their credibility for bringing the country back to a sustainable economic and political path is close to zero. And, of course, the New Democracy agenda is no choice for progressive citizens.
It is in this sense that I do believe that SYRIZA is the best of existing alternatives. Having said this, I also believe that the present government is far from satisfactory. To a large extent this is due to the imposed policies, but time for the government is running out and there is no room for complacency. Among other things, I think it should aim at disentangling from its unseemly junior partner and associate with forces of the centre-left.
Regarding the debt issue and IMF’s stance, you have referred to the risk of a ‘compromise’ with Berlin at the expense of Greece. Does current Greece's strategy to regain access to international bond markets create room for optimism regarding end of memoranda?
A compromise at the expense of Greece was already reached. This was the essence of the deal by which the IMF agreed in principle to participate in the third programme, once Athens accepted to adopt what amounts to further austerity measures. The Fund’s attitude is an extreme case of hypocrisy and opportunistic horse trading with Germany. It started out by declaring the Berlin line of demanding from Greece exorbitant primary surpluses ad infinitum as unrealistic. Greece cannot sustain further austerity, it rightly pointed out. Then it settled for a deal that does just that, extends and increases austerity. Clearly, a deal with Mr.Schäuble, be it wholly at the latter’s terms, was assessed as more important than consistency, let alone care for the Greek people.
Regaining access to international bond markets will by definition facilitate the country’s exit from the quasi-colonial state under the memoranda. In this sense the government’s strategy to that end –and the first successful step that was recently made- is welcome. Nonetheless, a so-called “return to normality” under the present quasi-permanent straitjacket of austerity, is highly fragile and probably unsustainable in the medium term. As I see it, only a substantial lightening of the country’s debt burden would allow a recovery based on solid economic, social and political foundations.
It has been argued, as far as policy implementation is concerned, that, under the current circumstances, Syriza cannot put forward even a moderate social democratic agenda (regarding e.g, welfare state policies) and that unavoidably its governance will further enhance and legitimize austerity policies and neoliberalism. What is your view?
I am afraid I will have to agree that a social-democratic agenda, however moderate (as long as we do not mean a disguised neo-liberal one), can hardly be implemented under the draconian measures imposed on Greece by its lenders. Indeed, I suspect that Berlin also has a party-political aim in mind in its strategy towards our country. This is one of the reasons why the main battlefield for a policy change has to be at the European level.
Does this mean that SYRIZA has no margin to implement a progressive policy? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Of course, SYRIZA does not need to “legitimise” austerity and neoliberalism, as long as it makes clear the circumstances under which it has no choice but to comply and provided it avoids triumphalism when it succeeds in implementing the diktats. More importantly, there are quite a few areas and policies where a government of the Left could and should make a difference: some aspects of education and health system reform, cleaning the media landscape, fighting corruption, foreign policy (notably vis-à-vis the Cyprus issue and Macedonia), civil rights including Church-State relations, etc. Unfortunately, the government’s record in these areas is at best mixed. True, SYRIZA faces many constraints: the pressure from the economic policies it has to implement, its partner in government, its own inexperience. Nevertheless, it is progress in such areas that will largely decide whether or not the SYRIZA experiment, quite unique in Europe, will be a success –against all odds.
You have noted that undeniable negative effects of the EU enlargement “are rather the result of its instrumentalisation by the prevailing extreme neoliberal response to globalization”. What exactly has happened with the EU’s enlargement agenda during the last decade?
An inclusive European project was part of the vision of its founders. The EU “belongs” to all the democratic European countries and peoples that wish to be part of it, not to some selected few. Hence, I believe the 2004/2007 enlargement had to be done. So has the completion of this process with the Balkans. Excluding countries from the European process is a dangerous open-ended venture and we Greeks strongly oppose the “Europe of the fittest” concept which was behind the aborted 2015 Schäuble plan for Grexit.
On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the fact that a majority of Europeans have turned against enlargement, past and future. Part of this opposition reflects ethnic prejudice, isolationism and xenophobia, currents that merge with anti-migrant opinion throughout Europe. These should be resolutely combatted.
Nonetheless, just as Euroscepticism, “enlargement fatigue” has its roots also in real problems. People rightly realise that enlargement was used to deepen the neo-liberal model of governance. Lower wages and taxation of capital and the rich, less labour market regulation, weaker trade unions in the new member states were all used to put pressure on the European social model. Integration brought benefits to large firms, but contributed to lower incomes, more unemployment and insecurity, less social protection for many workers in the incumbent member states.
Defending social and regional cohesion in the context of enlargement was simply not part of the EU enlargement agenda. On the contrary, negative effects were often labelled advantages, in line with neo-liberal concepts on competitiveness. As a result, a growing number of Europeans have come to see enlargement as the Trojan horse of globalisation, a globalisation which they have experienced mostly in its negative dimension.
Then there is the issue of democracy. Its derailment in Hungary and Poland as well as institutional dysfunctions in Bulgaria and Romania are evidence that the quality of these countries’ democracy should have been scrutinised more closely before they were admitted into the EU. Also, authoritarian trends in some Western Balkan countries (not to mention Turkey) would definitely have to be arrested before these countries join.
On the other hand, anti-democratic currents, populism and xenophobia are not the privilege of “new” member states or candidates. These are Europe-wide and global trends, the deeper causes of which are related to global developments, but also to the specific way Europe and the West have been addressing modern challenges. It would be grossly unfair to attribute these problems exclusively to the enlargement countries.
Also, with respect to the Western Balkans and Turkey, the EU has a part of the responsibility for their democratic backsliding. All too often, the EU has recourse to double language, pretending the European course of candidates solely depends on their fulfilment of democratic criteria, while in reality other, less noble, reasons are behind “enlargement fatigue”.
Be it as it is, the EU’s enlargement agenda is in my view stuck. Its narrative is artificially kept alive for geopolitical reasons, a largely irrational anti-Russia crusade and concern over the refugee waves. However, further enlargement seems unlikely. This is unfortunate with respect to the remaining countries in the Balkans, but a revival of the policy can only be conceived within the framework of broader policy changes in the EU, changes that should undermine Euroscepticism.
Would you like to comment on the “potential future state of the EU” as presented in the European Commission’s five scenarios?
In recent decades the policy of major member states has been to deprive the Commission of any leading role. This is a key symptom of the deepening crisis of the European project. The Juncker Commission has attempted to regain some of the territory lost by its predecessors, but was repeatedly reminded of its limited relevance. The ‘five scenario’ paper simply reflects this sad state of affairs; the Commission refrains from taking a position on the future of Europe and merely presents possible options to the member states.
In my view the method of focusing the debate on options along a unidimensional axis of “more or less Europe” is deeply flawed. Faced with the present widespread Euroscepticism, this method unavoidably excludes the option of “more Europe” from the realm of realism. Yet, “more Europe” is a prerequisite for overcoming the present crises and successfully addressing global challenges. The relevant question is, however, “more Europe to do what?” and “in what way?”. As long as people understand more Europe to mean more austerity, more insecurity, more inequalities, more bureaucracy, more German hegemonism, Europe will have no future. If, however, instead of putting the cart before the horse, we formulate a clear project and vision for a Europe based on development, solidarity and democracy, then the need for “more Europe” will appear natural and will regain legitimacy. Unfortunately, this is not the approach of the Commission paper, nor of most European leaders.
*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis
A vibrant capital in the midst of economic and migratory crisis, a metropolis of contrasts, a cultural hub in constant flux, Athens’ many facets are what make it one of the most interesting cities in Europe. A few days after the end of the Greek leg of Documenta 14 - "Learning from Athens" (8.4-16.7.2017) Greek News Agenda and Grèce Hebdo* interviewed sociologist Nikos Souliotis, Research Fellow at the National Center for Social Research (EKKE).
Nikos Souliotis spoke about Athens’ modern cultural identity, its new public and private cultural infrastructures, how social life in city has changed after the 60’s, the transformation of the city center through its rehabilitation and the development of cultural and leisure activies in the 90’s, the "labour division" between public and private funding for culture, and what kind of impact can major cultural events, such as Documenta 14, have on Athens:
What is the imprint of culture in Athens life today?
The crisis has hit a large part of Athens and Greece´s cultural industry, while public funding for culture has shrunk. Yet, lifestyle and urban dynamics associated with Athens, such as the transformation of the city centre through entertainment and culture, have not changed much when compared to what was happening fifteen or ten years prior to the crisis. At the same time, Athens remains closely linked to globalized culture, without however being in its avant-garde. A new element in Athenian life is the multiplication of artistic initiatives coming from below, promoted by well-educated young artists with a cosmopolitan outlook. These initiatives often have a socio-political orientation, which was less the case in the years before the crisis. Their emergence coincides with that of social solidarity endeavours; these represent efforts at self-organization, following the weakening of public structures of support.
Another important element marking Athenian cultural life today is the strengthening of the role of private cultural foundations, either through the funding of cultural activities - often projects by young artists - or through the establishment of new metropolitan infrastructures. Finally, it should be noted that Athens has the sad privilege of attracting international attention because of the crisis; hosting Documenta 14 for the first time in the Greek capital is a typical example of this.
During the 1960s, Athens basically consisted of an agglomeration of families resettled here from the countryside. What does the Greek capital represent today? What does the way that leisure and entertainment have evolved tell us about the changes in the organization of life and social relations in the city?
In the first decades following World War II, the population of Athens tripled as a result of the great migration from rural areas to the capital. This demographic transformation was also the cause of a cultural transformation in the city. The new populations that settled in Athens gradually adopted urban lifestyles, which were themselves changing due to economic growth and rise in consumer spending. There were, however, other elements that ran against the shaping of urban cultures, such as social class divisions, cultural and social links with places of origin in the provinces, and the relatively limited number of cultural infrastructures in Athens.
Things changed a great deal since the late 1970s. The rural exodus was now over and there were new generations that were Athens born-and-bred, who developed an identity-based interest in Athens, its city centre, its history - or at least in the idealized images of the Athenian past - and in the relationship between Athens and other metropolises of the Western world. This interest has played a fundamental role in the “return” of the middle class to the city centre since the early 1990s. The cultural transformation of the city centre has brought about two trends: the rediscovery of the Athenian past and attempts to associate Athenian cultures with trends in European and American metropolises. Going through media articles of the 1990s, it becomes evident that the city of Athens is increasingly compared with international capitals in terms of culture, lifestyle, entertainment, etc., a pattern that is still valid today.
At the same time, since the 1980s, the public and private sector have continued to add to the city's metropolitan cultural infrastructure, the latest three significant additions being the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Onassis Cultural Centre, and the National Opera and National Library at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center complex. These institutions play a fundamental role in shaping and reshaping Athenian cultures; they constitute public spaces that "educate" the public and contribute in the development of a collective consciousness. They also make it possible to better integrate Athens into international cultural flows, thanks to their capacity to host demanding events. However, these centres also increase the centralization of cultural production and consumption, creating a kind of control over artistic opportunities that did not exist before. The relationship between public and private sectors is fundamental in this respect.
The construction of the new facilities of the National Opera and the National Library. Source: Athens Social Atlas
In fact, in Athens and generally in Greece, as far as culture is concerned, there exists a particular “institutional order”: the state monopolises antiquities, identified as an important area of national identity, while private agents and members of cultural elites have invested symbolically and materially in other cultural fields (popularization of science, modern art, contemporary art). This division has its historical roots in the Greek Diaspora of the 19th century and continues to persist, in more or less different terms, to the present day. It is, in fact, impossible to understand the cultural life of Athens from an institutional point of view without taking into consideration this division of labour between the state and the private sector. Naturally, there are no impregnable boundaries; yet there is a strong tradition that explains why, for example, the state delayed the creation of a Museum of Modern Art and a Museum of Contemporary Art, and why we are witnessing today the birth of new private cultural institutions like the Onassis Cultural Centre.
Another development that should be mentioned is the relative shrinking of class divisions in culture. The National Centre of Social Research recently completed a survey under the scientific direction of Dimitris Emmanuel, based on 2,500 questionnaires about cultural consumption in Athens. This study has shown that while upper classes are more likely to consume goods of so-called "high culture" (classical music, jazz, experimental theatre and dance, alternative cinema etc.), what we call “pop culture” (international and Greek popular music, commercial cinema and theatre) is addressed to all social classes, with the partial exception of the most disadvantaged strata. One reason for this is that after decades of social mobility, the social structure of the city changed as the working class shrunk. Moreover, in Athens you have places that function as "melting pots" frequented by people from different social classes sharing common cultural experiences.
The escape to the suburbs began at the end of the 70's and has not stopped since; at the same time we are witnsessing a boom of cultural and entertainment activities in the otherwise "decayed" centre of Athens. Would you like to comment? Is this a precursor of gentrification in Athens?
All this has undoubtedly transformed and is still transforming the centre of Athens, giving the city a cultural verve and nightlife that has been almost constantly changing for the past two or three decades. But can we say that this is gentrification? With this term we usually mean a process of transformation of a neighborhood, often through the establishment of cultural and entertainment activities, which is followed then by the influx of new, more affluent residents. These new residents are usually middle class and their presence increases rental and real estate values, which in turn, leads to the exodus of the area’s original, poorer inhabitants. Researchers, such as Thomas Maloutas and others, studying the housing market and demographic movements in decayed downtown neighborhoods in Athens, have not found evidence of a massive resettlement by new middle class residents. Thus there is no gentrification process, in the strict sense of the term; there is a process of economic reinvestment and reintegration of certain neighbourhoods into urban mobility, but typically gentrification describes something else that is not found, at least not to a large extent, in the centre of Athens.
So, since we don’t have gentrification, how has the growth of entertainment (bars, restaurants, cafes) and cultural activities (theaters, galleries, cultural venues) changed the centre of Athens? What has been the impact of the economic crisis?
The economic crisis has unevenly affected cultural and entertainment activities. As a recent statistical study carried out by a Panteion University scientific team (V. Avdikos, M. Michailidou, G. Klimis, A. Mimis) revealed, sectors such as publishing and media were severely struck. In contrast, entertainment, bars and restaurants, as is visible in downtown Athens, carry on. There are three reasons for this: Firstly, Athens increasingly attracts more and more tourists as a result of the rehabilitation of its historic centre, a growing offer of cultural activities, and the geopolitical turmoil affecting tourism in neighbouring countries; Secondly, as statistics show, in times of crisis, local consumers do reduce their spending in entertainment as much as they do in other areas, such as clothing. This shows the psychological value of entertainment and its importance in maintaining a social life. Finally, entertainment offers entrepreneurial opportunities during a crisis: to open a bar or a cafe, you don’t need specialized knowledge and you can rely mainly your own resources (personal work, personal networks, etc).
Can a major international exhibition such as Documenta influence the identity of a city like Athens?
Documenta is a large-scale event that embraces the majority of important cultural spaces of the city, attracts international visitors and provides visibility for Athens. However, I do not think that an event, however important, can change the cultural identity of a city. Cultural identity depends on more structural conditions, such as the existence of local artistic scenes whose products can be exported abroad, the involvement of a more or less broad public that is educated and interested in culture, the availability of public and private funding for cultural activities and the existence of cultural infrastructures. An event like Documenta can work as a catalyst when some of the above structural conditions are met, but this is as far as it goes.
One should address with certain realism the cultural impact Documenta had on Athens. In general, such exhibitions could have symbolic and /or organizational impact. From an organizational point of view, Documenta has created a precedent, in the sense that it has shown to the international artistic world that Athens has the infrastructure to host such a big event. This is important, but it should not be overestimated. From a symbolic point of view, I fear that the impact is more limited. Documenta came to Athens under the slogan "learning from Athens". This interest in "learning" from Athens is related to the crisis, rendering the Greek capital as an almost exotic or experimental space in socio-political terms. In fact, Documenta’s interest in Athens is part of a wider international interest from journalists, researchers and activists who visit ‘Athens of the crisis’, write about it etc. From this point of view, there is nothing original in Documenta’s concept of “learning from Athens”.
What we should comment on is the way in which Documenta integrates ‘Athens of the crisis’ in its symbolic strategies. According to organizers, choosing Athens as the second site for Documenta 14, utilizes the "tension between Athens and Kassel" in order to create "a critical space for the design of a collaborative, artistic and activist project beyond the nation-state and enterprises". For Documenta 14 itself, this is important because it renews its artistic-cultural identity by referencing resistance against neoliberalism, as Documenta 11 did, when, from a postcolonial perspective, it included non-European cities in its programme. Athens also provided a framework for creating site-specific art.
My point is that Documenta utilizes “Athens of the crisis” in artistic and identity strategies that are addressed to the international art world and not to local society. Documenta’s interventions in local social life are insignificant from the point of view of the inhabitants (one can see for example the small Documenta restaurant which offers free meals at Kotzia square, in a city where various organizations have been offering thousands of free meals since the beginning of the crisis). In addition, although several Documenta works have a socio-political content, they employ, like a good part of contemporary art in general, an artistic language inaccessible to the general public. In fact, I think that if there is a symbolic impact of Documenta on Athens, it concerns mostly young Greek artists: because of the crisis, Greek artists have fewer opportunities to travel abroad and Documenta was an opportunity for them to attend a major contemporary art event and to get to know international trends right here in Greece.
*Interview to Ioulia Livaditi, Magdalini Varoucha / Translation from French Ioulia Livaditi, Magdalini Varoucha
Yiorgis Yerolymbos is a photographer and architect with a Ph.D. from the School of Art and Design of the University of Derby, UK. His photographic work has been published in a number of books on landscape and architectural photography. His work focuses on the interface of nature and culture as it can be exemplified in contemporary topography. He photographs landscapes under transition, places that have sustained changes in the face of modernisation and optimisation of land exploitation.
His research interests include the process of beautification of landscape in contemporary photography, the construction of identity through lived-in space. In 2008, supported by a Fulbright scholarship, he travelled the US by car from East to West and back focusing on the American landscape and how its visitor-user perceives it. He has participated in the Venice Biennale of Architecture twice: in 2012 with large-scale works of the city of Athens and again in 2014, with landscape images of Greece. In 2013 his photographs were included in the main exhibition Everywhere but Now of the 4th Biennale of Thessaloniki, curated by Adelina Von Fürstenberg. Since 2007 and for a decade, he has been the official photographer of the construction of Renzo Piano’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC). He recently presented his work in MoMA, New York.
Yiorgis Yerolymbos views the 20th century Greek city as a museum for the next generations and tries to give to the world his whole self while photographing. He spoke with Greek News Agenda* about his work on the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, architectural photography, photography in Greece, Athens’ image and the Greek urban landscape:
You were asked to capture the work at and the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center? How would you describe this experience?
It was an incredible experience and granted me the best decade of my life. I enjoyed it enormously, and had fun while working. I had the opportunity to meet thousands of people and make friends for life. On its heyday, we had more than 5.500 people in the construction site of all nationalities and backgrounds, people from India and Pakistan, from Germany, Italy, Albania and Poland; I worked with every single one of them, and consider myself very fortunate to have done so, I was somehow a privileged spectator of a closed environment which was not accessible to the general audience due to safety reasons. As you can understand, a construction site is always secured; one cannot enter without clearance, and has to wear a helmet, a jacket or special shoes in order not to step on something. It is a protected environment and I was privileged to be one of the very few witnesses of its day-by-day changes. They were so fast to take place, ephemeral in a way that they could not be found the very next day. The photographs taken are the only proof that they ever existed.
What does a building like the SNFCC add to the image of Athens?
I would say the world for a number of reasons, but most importantly, I think that Renzo Piano’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center adds a modern contemporary building to this city that already had enough ancient ones to demonstrate.
In Athens, as one easily imagines, there is no lack of ancient locations and sights to visit. What was missing was a building of contemporary architecture of the highest level, a signature building if you like. And, before the Niarchos Centre, we could only find that in power buildings of restricted access. For example, the Ethinki Bank's Mario Botta building in Kotzia Square or Walter Gropius' the American Embassy. So, I would consider the Niarchos Centre as the first signature building by a star architect that belongs to everybody and it is there for everybody. I think this is quite significant at this time and age.
What led you into photography? When did you realize that this is what you want to do with your life?
I was trained both as an architect and a photographer. I chose to become a photographer for two main reasons. First, being that with photography you to get to visit other people’ s worlds, which helps one enormously to broaden ones horizons. You find yourself in a environment of constant learning. For example, you get to an oil refinery to take photos, you meet the people there, you understand the process and you spend time with them, and this is a rare opportunity that very few people have. Again, you have a privileged point of view. Whatever subject matter you approach, you find yourself in multiple worlds so to speak, thus enriching your experience. Secondly and most importantly, I wanted to have a chance to see the world. It may be incredible, but the quality of world-seeing that photography provides is unparallel to any other profession, one could argue, and I think I am intitled to say so as photography has taken me everywhere in Greece, although I am pretty sure I have missed some parts (Amorgos comes to mind...). I have seen my fair share of the world precisely because I had to photograph it.
What is photography for you? What do you express through architectural photography?
Somebody far more intelligent and far more eloquent than myself gave the very definition of what photography is. It was the great Robert Adams, one of the photographers from the New Topographics movement in the 1970s, who said "what photography traditionally tries to do is to show what is past, present and future in one shot". For a photograph to work you need ghosts of the past, the daily news and prophecy. So I think this is what makes a photograph interesting. In a successful photograph, you recognise the updated information of the current world, and at the same time you trace the past and from a proposal for the future. It goes deeper than the visual surface and that is, to my mind at least, what makes photography interesting.
As far as architectural photography is concerned, architectural photography is exactly what the title describes. It is photography of architecture and at the same time the architecture of photography itself, a structured photograph if you like and it is precisely this that takes a lot of time to reach. You need follow a very slow and careful process, you work with a tripod, you need to have a big view camera, and take your time; and through this process you methodically compose your photography. You look at the world in a completely different pace and you give it your whole self. And this puts you, at the end of the day, in an extraordinary position to appreciate the world far more than the average person who shoots thousands of photos a day and then moves on to the next point of interest.
If I have to photograph a monument, it will take me hours and hours to set everything, to look at it, to take my time and as a result I start to experience it differently. That is what architectural photography offers, in my view.
What are your thoughts regarding photography in Greece?
We really have photography of the highest level in Greece and there are fellow photographers whom I highly appreciate. If one would like to point out a problem is that photographers they will go as far as their own strength and means go, there is no institution to support or back them up. Artists of the medium will have to do everything by themselves and unfortunately the same applies to all kind of art in our country.
And this is not the case abroad, for example, all the established photographers that we know from the US or Germany enjoy the support of a number of institutions that help an artist to advance his or her work beyond his or her own reach; museums, galleries, collections that support the work and help an artist to get to the next level.
We, also, experience the same problem in education. The education system in photography, for example, is a very poor one and therefore only you have to be really exceptional to survive once you left school. Unfortunately, most of the people in photography once they earn a degree, they find themselves in a position were they have to make a living by doing something else, and practice photography as a hobby instead of a full time profession. I am afraid that the same applies in the overwhelming majority of the creative, so to speak, professions. We are alone. So if somebody has the determination and the strength to go down a lonely path, fine, we hear from him. If not, that is pretty much it.
What does the Greek city mean to you? How would you describe it?
Well, it depends really. I recently had the opportunity to describe Athens as a frozen wave, seen from a distance. If you go up the hill on Ymittos or Lykavitos, the city resembles like a huge wave of cement frozen in its current form. The city has sped basically towards all directions: it knows no barriers, no limits; and you can literally see it everywhere. It expands. There is no planning or anything of the sort. To be frank, the city is as important to me as it is to most fellow Greeks, it is our chosen habitat. The majority of us, we are people of the cities; half of the country’ s population lives in Athens, one million lives in Thessaloniki and most others live in the major cities around the country. And although we do not value Greek cities, it would be fair to admit that it is just the outcome of our own actions. We the people are responsible for the way Greek cities look like. It is our doing, our making, like looking into a mirror: it is us, whether we like what we see or not.
In the Greek urban landscape there are elements that characterize it and attribute to the Greek particularity and make it special. What is Greek particularity for you and where do you find it?
I have been a landscape photographer for the last 22-23 years and I had the opportunity to visit every single part of this country, so I would say an extraordinary diversity found within short distances. Our planet is beautiful everywhere, but the one thing I believe can be particularly distinct in our country is the variety of our landscape in such a small part of the world. For example, if one drives from Athens to Thessaloniki, one will experience mountains, lakes, and seascapes every 50 kilometres, to experience the same in France one would have to drive for a day and a half to see the scenery change. The same applies in the US, in Kansas, for example, I drove for 3 days through cornfields, 3 days of driving in flat. From the valley of Thessaloniki where everything is also flat to mountain Olympus which can be found only 30 minutes down the road, to Iliki Lake and to the Pindos mountain range, this diversity in such sort distance is literally amazing. It’ s an exceptional characteristic that inspires travelling and makes this country an attractive destination to visit again and again.
The tension between Greekness and modernity is an important aspect of the Greek urban landscape. Typical examples are architects Dimitris Pikionis and Kyriakos Krokos, whose work has references to the Greek architectural tradition that tries to emerge through the modern waves. How do you feel about the contemporary discourse between Greekness and modernity? How does Greek modernity exist in the urban landscape and where can it be found?
In many people's view, there is no clash between modernity and locality; Greekness is the subject in hand. It was actually one of the founders of the international style, the modern movement, and Bauhaus' director Walter Gropius, who argued that the modern movement in architecture celebrates locality. The more successful a modern style is, the more it transcends, celebrates the local elements and features.
Now, where can Greek modernity be found in the urban landscape? Should we refer to the very successful example of Thessaloniki’s new sea front? We should be reminded that there was a huge battle at the time when plans for the new sea front were unveiled, and most of the people initially thought of it as too western, too modern, by arguing that the Byzantine past of the city has not been celebrated. Both the architects and the architectural community responded by saying that Thessaloniki had already enough of beautiful Byzantine architecture and is, certainly, in no need to add more. What it lacked, on the other hand, was a contemporary public space.
In short, we don’ t need to create everything in the form of the Cycladic house. We can experiment with new styles and ideas and, having said that, it was Le Corbusier who was gravely impressed by Cycladic architecture and used it to create the international style. So, I would go back to my point that modernity and locality, when applied successfully, intertwine. They become one interesting new form that pushes the envelope forward. Otherwise we go round the same thing again and again without really going anywhere.
What does the human-altered landscape mean for Greek Modernity? What in particular characterizes this man altered Greek landscape?
The human-altered Greek landscape is a landscape in an interim phase. It is stuck in the middle. It’ s not a pure landscape, pristine and beautiful, and it’ s not an urban environment either. For every single illicit cement structure to house a rent-a-bike or rooms to let facility our institutions were unable to stop it on time, or fix it afterwards. It seems we are bound for ever to live in an environment cement "skeletons" will be a permanent part of our landscape. This can, also, be found in our cities, everywhere around the country you can see these leftovers marring the landscape. I would say that the foremost characteristic of the human altered landscape in Greece is precisely this - stuck in the middle, in an interim phase, it doesn’ t go back and doesn’ t go forward. It is there, in many respects and works as a metaphor for what we experience right now in every single aspect of our lives.
The urban landscape has changed. In the 70’s we already had a plethora of apartment buildings emerging. The apartment buildings are a distinctive feature of Athens. How do such buildings shape the image of the city?
They do so and, possibly, in a very constructive way, as far as I am concerned. What do I mean by this? It has been argued by a number of architects and historians among whom, Jean Sauvaget and Aldo Rossi that has said that architecture represents the petrification of a society. In a few words, architecture freezes time and what can one discover of the construction of that era is the circumstances and values of that era. For example, Paris is the petrification of the 19th century and the same can be argued about London for example and the Victorian period. Equally, Athens will be the petrification of 20th century.
How did these buildings come about? Constructors approached small homeowners and offered 2 or 3 apartments for their land, on which they would built apartment buildings making a profit from the sale of the rest of the apartments. In the course of time this period ended and now, Athens and every single Greek city have frozen in a time period that reminds us of the 60’s, the 70’s and the 80’s, working, so to speak, as a living museum of that particular time frame. People will be visiting Athens in 200 years time to see how people lived in the 20th century, in the same way that we visit a medieval city in Italy.
We are used to seeing Greece projected abroad through photography in a romantic way. In your work, it’s a different case. You show that great projects exist but also continue being built. We see imposing buildings, great architectural buildings that stand out. How does all this happen? What makes you project Greece that way?
Frank Gohlke famously said that “where we live is far more important than where we visit”. You go to a mountain, you take a shot of a beautiful landscape and then you go back to a small alley in Pagkrati or Kypseli or anywhere in the suburbs and you don’ t appreciate that as a landscape. You look at a mountain or cove and that is the only landscape you acknowledge as important, your everyday surrounding are pale in comparison, or so you think.
Truth is that landscape is where we live, not where we visit, and it is the most important landscape of all exactly because we are shaped in it. So, if it looks like a environment consisting of cement buildings in an alley with a few or no trees at all, then this is the defining landscape for us You don’ t have to disregard it or throw it away. And that, I think, explains to a large extent why I photograph Greece in a way different to romantic portrayals: because I don’ t visit it, I live it, it is mine as I am hers, I am not a visitor or a tourist, it is my home.
We have reached a point in our recent history where we constantly complain about literally everything: we think ourselves as the best, we blame others for our shortcomings and I honestly think I had enough of this attitude. Considering myself a person with love of country - defining such a person as somebody who wants his country to be better, not necessary recognizing it as such- I would like to see it to a cleaner, more structured and lawful, a better place for everybody to come and visit time and time again.
And in that respect, I point my camera towards our county's best parts. I want to show it as the dynamic, interesting and diverse country that I hope it is, that I wish it to be. I photograph multiple aspects and visit many of its parts, even the now so interesting ones, which can disappoint at times, but insist that if we look at it in a more constructive way, we will appreciate it more and eventually take good care of it. That is why I photograph what I consider interesting architecture from exciting young Greek architects that I consider worth promoting: as many of my photographs are published in international magazines, I would love to do my part for the world to see that this country produces interesting architecture and art of the highest quality.
*Interview by Veroi Katsarou
More Yiorgis Yerolymbos Interviews: Uncube; arcspace.com; lovegreece.com; Bookshelf: Orthographs - The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center