Lyra player, singer, songwriter and theoretical physicist "Chainis" Dimitris Apostolakis is a founding member of Chainides, a Cretan music group formed in 1990 by a group of friends, most of them students then at the University of Crete. The group's name comes from the world 'chainis' meaning the fugitive rebel in Cretan dialect. The group are inspired by the vast legacy of traditional Cretan music and their lyrics are in the Cretan Greek dialect. Their discographical debut, titled "Chainides" released in 1991 was warmly received by the public.
Over the years, Chainides have collaborated with several well-known musicians and singers, performed extensively in Greece around the world and recorded 11 studio albums. In their live performances, Chainides blend their own compositions and songs with new arrangements of themes and songs from traditions such as those of Turkey, Afghanistan, Bulgaria and the wider eastern Mediderrenean region.
Chainides' latest album "Pera apo ta synora" (Beyond Borders), was released in 2014 with the participation of legendary lyra player Psarantonis and traditional music group Mode Plagal, based on the lyrics of Lorca, Borges, Sultan Abdal, Rilke and Pushkin and blending Cretan music patterns with motifs from flamenco to rock and jazz.
Chainis D. Apostolakis, along with Psarantonis, Chainides and modern dance troupe "And yet it moves", re-interpreted the 17th century Cretan poem Erotokritos as a mixed spectacle with music, acrobats and references to medieval folk festivals. The performance was first presented in 2014 as part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and has been re-run every summer since. His most recent endeavour is the publication of a collection of short stories called "Ftou xeleutheria gia olous!" (Everyone get free!, 2015).
Chainis talked to Greek News Agenda* about how Cretan music has evolved through the years, the anthropological and geographical uniqueness of Crete, the tradition of Anogia, the forgotten role of the lyra player as a master of ceremonies and how Erotokritos was the last European epic saga to be sung by the people.
One of Chainides' biggest hits is 'O Akrovatis':"The Acrobat" (1994), Lyrics & Music: Dimitris Apostolakis: "Everybody, take a look at how the acrobat tries to balance Everybody, take a look at how the stranger doesn't get dizzy. Take a look at the acrobat; even if he falls he laughs and never cries. Take a look at the bird of the desert that has a bleeding wing. It's still flying against time, even if it's going to suffer the shot of death. When time is against you, the price you pay in order to fly is to be left alone. Everybody, take a look at me, I'm asking for nothing else. (look at me) that I have broken wings on my back and I am trying to keep the balance like an acrobat. The day has passed and you still are not there, don't cry my beloved one."
Why do you think Cretan traditional music has remained alive for so long and is still evolving?
I consider labels like “traditional” to be tricky. Let´s start from the beginning. In the old days, people played instruments and sung without knowing that what they were playing was Cretan music. In each village there were musicians and enthusiasts that sung and danced all kinds of music: rizitika from the Lefka Ori mountains of western Crete, syrta from Chania, kontylies from eastern Crete, rembetokritika or tampachaniotika -as they are called- from the urban north coast of Crete, songs from Kalamata and Smyrna and religious psalms, without knowing what kind of music it was. They just knew them as tunes.
Furthermore, because of the rugged terrain of Crete, each small region had its own instruments. For example, in the times before and after WWII in eastern Crete, you could find groups (zygiés) who used a violin and a guitar, or a lyra played with a bow with bells and a daouli drum. In western Crete you had the lute and violin, played differently from the eastern parts of the island. In the north coast cities you could see boulgariá, an instrument like tabmouras or saz. In central Crete you had lyras escorted by mandola or mandolin. The mandolin was a fundamental instrument, played along with askomandoura, a type of bagpipe and a daouli drum. That is to say, people played whatever was available.
After the 70s and 80s you have a stylization of Cretan music. If you play pre-war recordings to young people involved with music now, they will not recognize it as Cretan music. When I met the first woman who sang Cretan songs, Lavrentia Bernidaki, sister of the great lute player Giannis Bernidakis or Baxevanis, she told me that in their group, Andreas Rodinos played viololyra (an instrument that’s a cross between the violin and the lyra), her brother Giannis played the lute, and they also had an accordionist and a clarinet player. This combination of instruments would be considered unthinkable in today's Cretan music.
In the last couple of decades there’s an ever increasing number of young people playing lyra, lute, mandolin - it’s crazy! However, especially during the last decade, and perhaps because Cretans feel that they are being culturally besieged by fundamentally different ways of life, Cretan music has become self-referential. While thousands of youngsters are playing and singing it, Cretan music became very extroverted, very masculine, it lost its female element, its introspectiveness and diversity.
So, you are saying that Cretan traditional music has been homogenized.
Yes, it has been homogenized and standardized. This "return to tradition" that everyone welcomes with joy is not a return to self-reflection. It is a chauvinistic, narcissistic return; I believe in what the poetess Katerina Gogou said, that “our roots are not there for us to return to them, but so that we can grow branches”. I would add that tradition has deep roots in a specific time-space, so that its branches can potentially spread across multiple places and times. Also, I believe that tradition is what can be paired to something else. The sterile, obsolete version of tradition that is displayed as an exhibit in a folklore museum is doomed to perish. In reality, what remains of tradition is only what is necessary, and the necessary is always a product of composition; and composition could never contain similar things. Good compositions are made from something that we consider our own, and something that we consider foreign, things that are opposed but yet complementary.
There is, however, something special about Crete that relates to why this very old music is still being played, isn’t there?
Yes, of course there is. Crete is one of the last quasi-closed societies. Why? First of all, because it is surrounded by sea, and therefore has a very definite geographical boundary, and secondly, on account of the land: Crete has three huge mountain ranges, with hundreds of peaks over two thousand metres high, and an impressive biodiversity, ranging from chestnut trees to palm trees. This gives the island self-sufficiency in food, but at the same time, an extremely uneven terrain. Due to this ruggedness of the land, always interrupted by mountains, allotments in the lowlands have always been small, and since there were no large farming plots, there were no feudal lords, so Crete has been a relatively classless society. This anthropological and geographical uniqueness makes it one of the last places in Greece where the continuity of musical expression has never been interrupted.
And of course Crete has some amazing people. Look, Cretans are a war tribe in decline. So, in the absence of wars, they engage in displays of masculinity, in displays of wealth, in illegal activities and so on. But nevertheless, there are minorities of Cretans who are real poetic warriors. There are people with soul, with self-denial, amazing warriors and citizens, in the sense of assuming responsibility for all; with all the hospitality, the openness towards diversity, the eternal enthusiasm, the self-abnegation, all this wonderful graceful exaggeration. This is unique. Truly unique. But these are minorities, as they always were, only now these minorities are even smaller.
What about the village Anogia in particular? It seems to produce an endless string of talented musicians.
I have collaborated with many musicians form Anogia. When I was learning Cretan music, several years ago, I played at weddings and festivals in Anogia, so I have played with Psarogiannis Xylouris, brother of Nikos Xylouris and the best lute player in Crete - along with Markogiannis. I’ve also been collaborating in albums and performances with Psarantonis for 15 years. Psarantonis is the greatest lyra player alive now, he is a narrative gravitational centre, he lives like a lyra player should. Quite a unique person.
I have worked with many other musicians from Anogia as well. It is a very beautiful village, people have a special sense humour, are quick-witted and they support each other, they have strong social bonds. For example, when a new lyra player makes his first appearance, half the village will show up to support him. They have a strong sense of solidarity. However, Anogia, like Crete itself, is not excluded from the nationwide and global decline. Do not forget that at this point in time, the entire world, from Western liberal democracies to Arabic theocratic regimes, lacks meaning. Right now there is no vision in the world. People cannot dedicate their actions. They cannot give meaning to existence. What kind of vision for the future do we offer young people? Most suggest trying to find a job to make money, but that is not a vision. That is the common meal of the prisoner. So the world is at an existential impasse. Neither Crete nor Greece can be excluded from that.
"The Tiger" (2000), Lyrics & Music: Dimitris Apostolakis, First version: Psarantonis: "I have a ravenous tiger within me which always waits for me and I for her, I hate her and she hates me, and she wants to kill me but i hope that she will become friendly with time. She has her teeth on my heart, her claws on my mind and for my own sake I fight for her And she makes me hate all the good things in this world so that i can sing to her with the deepest of sorrows. She forces me to cross mountains, valleys and chasms in order to embrace her in the wildest of dances, And when, at cold nights, she remembers her cages she lends me her pelt to wear. And when sometimes we lie drunk, almost in peace, so that each one can sleep, this still silence is like the one before the storm, like the final moment before she attacks."
You mentioned living “like a lyra player”. What is the role of the lyra player in Cretan music? How does the concept of ‘parea’ (gathering) and revel fit in the whole picture?
There are tons of lyra players around, but no one lives like a lyra player. No one expresses the objective of their role, which is to be a narrative centre of gravity. Something similar to what bards-narrators of Homeric epics were; in ancient Greece, there were thousands of them, wandering from place to place and narrating the epics while playing their instrument. Later on, the bard-narrator became a lyra player in Crete, and the lyra player became a rapper in New York.
Now, this narrative centre of gravity is basically lost. And along with it we lost the ring, the turf were musicians would play out their role. In the older days in Crete, the lyra player sat in the middle and the people around him danced. The lyrics (mantinades) were improvised, in a give-and-take between musicians and dancers, it was a whole theatrical undertaking. Now the lyra player is up on stage, separated from the people dancing below. The whole of Europe is plagued by the death of ceremonies, big and small. Christmas for example, was the celebration of nature’s new seed and was associated with the passage of time, but at the same time many people -consciously or unconsciously- were swept away by the river of the ceremony, experiencing the joy and deep mourning at the same time.
Of course ‘parees’ are still going strong, you can see “parees” forming spontaneously and they are often more successful than organized festivals. For example, in October during “rakokazana” celebrations, all hell breaks loose. But I rarely go to these things anymore; I miss this sacred weight of mourning. Up until some decades ago in these ceremonies, celebration was intertwined with mourning, birth with death, yin with yang, creation with destruction. The joy did not emerge from the prosperity and the abundance of meat and cakes. It was basically borne out of frugality, and the fact that everyone was present in the celebration, all the living along with all the dead and all the unborn. Joy sprung as flowers grow from dung, it came through death. And the people who took part in these celebrations were like sacred dancers balancing on the rope between the tragic and the ridiculous - a sacred intermediary between the primitive and the divine. This is lost now. Revels have lost their ancient, eternal weight, and therefore have lost their lyra player - Hierophant.
Lyra players no longer improvise, they play with a kind of exaggerated high energy that says we are here, we are the best men, our land is the best, so there is not room for anything else; in essence the whole thing becomes self-indulgent. Of course there are resistances. Crete is an amazing place. Even by imitating ceremonies, at some point, some people may manage to create actual ceremonies. I believe that with so many young people playing music today, something new will be born; something will spring up. At all times and places around the world, anything of beauty, spiritual works or artistic creations, have been products of a small but grand ‘holy minority’, as Shelley called it.
How has Erotokritos, the romance poem composed by Vitsentzos Kornaros in early 17th century Crete, influenced Cretan music and lyrics?
Erotokritos, up until recently, played the role that Homeric epics played in antiquity. This means that people knew Erotokritos by heart and sang it in gatherings, while doing agricultural work, when they were alone and felt longing, and everyone had a particular passage they liked. Lines from Erotokritos were also used as maxims, proverbs and generally the poem served as a value system. Just like the Homeric epics valued beauty, bravery, and honour, Erotokritos valued beauty, courage and wisdom.
Moreover, these poems share another distinctiveness, in that just as the Homeric epics in ancient Greece sustained the Greek language during the so-called ‘dark centuries’, Erotokritos passed the language to the newly established Greek state. For a language to be spoken it must be realized poetically and epically. This is the method of the epics. We should not forget what Borges said, that the highest kind of literature is poetry and the highest kind of poetry is the epic, because, like he said, only in an epic poem can a happy ending be justified. Erotokritos was the basic living manual of every Cretan, every shepherd in his sheepfold had a copy of Erotokritos.
Psarantonis and I learnt Erotokritos from the oral tradition. We are the its last narrators and we had the pleasure of presenting it in a performance with the group Hainides, many musicians, as well as the exceptional modern dance and acrobatics team "And yet it is moving." So I learnt this poem from listening to people reciting it; it is the last epic poem in Europe that up to at least 20 years ago was being sung by the people. For example, Nibelungenlied, the German epic poem, has not been sung for ages. That is what Erotokritos was and its function in Crete. It incorporated all of popular wisdom and was thus embraced by ordinary people.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Erotokritos - The Dreary Tidings: Lyrics
“Eλλάς” (Hellas or Greece) is a project that presents the crisis affecting Greece in the past years through the eyes of six authors, cartoonists and illustrators: George Botsos, Petros Christoulias, Thanassis Dimou, Michael Kountouris, Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) and Thanassis Petrou.
Under the high patronage of the Greek Embassy in Rome and with the collaboration of Katerina Fragou (founder of Iris Literary Agency), the project was presented last year by Giuseppina Frassino for Tricromia gallery (Rome, Italy) in an endeavor to explore the crisis from an economic, social and political point of view.
The idea of the exhibition was to portray the crisis in pictures, hoping that through the Greek case one can understand the future of every European nation. At the same time, special tribute was paid to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that has become for many people, a symbol - like Greece- of freedom and courage.
Greek News Agenda* spoke to Katerina Fragou** who provided an insight to the project’s concept and future plans, as well as to the six participating artists*** who shared their views on how feasible it is for an illustrator-cartoonist to communicate the case of Greece abroad, taking into consideration the cultural differences between countries.
Can you provide an insight on how the “ελλάς” project came to life? What were the aims of the initiative; any plans for the future?
Katerina Fragou: The initial idea came from Tricromia, the Italian gallery in Rome and its owner, Giuseppina Frassino. Tricromia specializes in comic illustrators. Giuseppina Frassino asked me to help her find important comic illustrators occupied with the crisis and the problems it created in Greek society. She also suggested that, in case they happened not to have works on the crisis, she was willing to commission artworks. In Greece however, we lived in times of immense change for years and the crisis was, and still is, abundantly portrayed, especially in works of cartoonists.
The Italian gallery aimed to give food for thought to Italian society, which was in a similar situation.
The idea was to have a travelling exhibition or to present similar shows in other countries in galleries, museums or embassies. Judging from my contacts around the world, people in other countries are curious to see how we survive in Greece with all the problems we are facing.
We use to say that “a picture is worth a thousand words”; however, the work of illustrators and cartoonists is a bit special, as it involves political -often satirical- messages touching on delicate social problems. Judging from your participation in the “ελλάς” project, as well as from your overall working experience, how easy is it for an illustrator/cartoonist to communicate the case of “Greece” abroad, given the different cultural backgrounds between countries?
George Botsos: I tend to turn around the saying; the opposite could really be true: "a word is worth a thousand pictures". Words and images can be the source of infinite combinations and, moreover, our main field of inspiration. When you communicate visually, you are able to express a whole "text" in a single gesture, to tell a story with a "silent" symbolic movement. That is why for my contribution to the "Ελλάς" exhibition I've chosen to communicate without words, in the form of a triptych synthesis, using the universal language of comics, trying to surpass the possible different cultural backgrounds of our foreign audience.
To communicate the "Greek case" through artistic expression is totally different from a political or economic analysis. An illustrator-cartoonist is not striving to persuade through his work, but to send a message that is both intellectual and emotional, sometimes ambiguous in an aesthetically appealing way. If a creator is able to express his ideas about "Greece" in an interesting, original way, his Greek origin can work only as a “plus”.
Petros Christoulias: The task of communicating the case of Greece to a foreign public is not easy. Society is not compact - neither in Greece or abroad - and an artist deals with diverse audiences. Despite the difficulties however, an image can carry a message in a more abstract way, generalizing the situation that it tries to depict. This way it can be more effective than a thorough documentary.
I used this approach when I was "drawing the crisis" as an abstract confusion of inked lines and motives. In the first image, the symbolic representation of the gloomy atmosphere is sitting like a heavy cloud over Athens and its people, while in the second image, a high wave threatens to gulp down a symbol of Greece’s positive face, that of its ancient history and culture.
Thanassis Dimou:"I admire the ability of political cartoonists to do this job and to encapsulate reality, but I have not practiced this profession myself. Humor, however, is a way of handling the reality that one is faced with, while comics and illustrations generally offer readers a creative escape. The language of sketches is global and this is its strength".
Michael Kountouris: My cartoons rarely come with words or captions. In order to describe or comment on people or a situation, I opt for symbols and images, making sure they are clear and intelligible to the public, both at home and abroad. The same rule applied to the 'ελλάς' exhibition: the cartoons I chose with which to take part in the exhibition were such that that pictures and symbols could be understood by the Italian public.
With over thirty years working experience in the field, I can assure you that it is much easier to talk about the crisis –whether economic, political or social - with a sketch than it is to deal with it in everyday life.
Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup): Yes, it’s true… you just described my daily life in the satirical and political newspaper “to Pontiki” where I’ve been working as a cartoonist for the past twelve years. Every day, togetherwith my colleague journalists, we are up against deadlines. For this reason, we have several meetings at the newspaper so as to discuss our reports, what happens in Greek parliament or abroad etc. Then I also need to be informed about what other newspapers or portals report. Finally, all this information needs to be transformed into a satirical sketch. With one cartoon, you must report and comment on a political or a social situation. Not only do you have to describe the story behind the report but you must communicate your thoughts, your point of view about what is happening.
Every nation lives with its own preconceptions. All around the world, people tend to believe that their country is a little bit better than others; and all around the world, there is a core national narrative regarding “the superiority of our race”. We have to bear in mind that this type of prejudice may exist, when we wish to communicate our country and our messages abroad. You have to respect other cultures and keep in mind that everyone loves their country, customs, traditions and way of life as much as you love yours.
It is not so easy to communicate your work around the world if you come from a small country like Greece. Other people don’t understand your language and something like that is a huge obstacle. But the problems we are faced with nowadays, such as the financial crisis, nationalism, immigration, poverty etc are global. So, if you want to communicate something clear about these issues, you also discoverways of arousing the interest of people around the world.
Thanassis Petrou: I took part in the exhibition, more as a comic book artist rather than a political cartoonist. A political cartoon is the art of the ephemeral: it comments on the daily social and political life, and it is often difficult to be understood, not only by the foreign but by the Greek public as well, if it refers to events that took place a long time ago that might be forgotten. For the “ελλάς” exhibition, I tried to create works that could have wider reading and be understood outside a narrow Greek context.
The different cultural background between countries is not that different between creators, because we have all seen and studied the work of foreign artists for many years, so there is proximity in our expression and aesthetics.
Unfortunately Greece, for years now, has been at the heart of developments taking place at European level, so both publishers and the public abroad expect to see works commenting on the crisis we are experiencing. From my own personal experience, having published a series of comics in France and reading the comments and reviews that followed online, it was made clear to me that audiences are looking for associations with the crisis in anything to do with Greece, even in works that do not directly relate to the crisis.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
**Κaterina Fragou was born in Athens, where she studied French Literature. She lived in Paris for 15 years, where she also studied Comparative Literature. In 1995, she established Iris Literary Agency in Athens, undertaking the translation of works from all over the world into Greek.
She is working on making Greek literature known abroad, whilst working at the same time as a translator and an editor. She also organizes exhibitions.
***Authors- illustrators – cartoonists (in alphabetical order):
George Botsos was born in Athens, in 1960. In 1983 he graduated from the Department of Political Sciences of the University of Athens. He published his first comic in “Babel” comics’ magazine (1987). This was the beginning of a long lasting collaboration with Babel, in which he presented 60 short comics. His comics have been published in magazines in France (L’Echo des Savannes) and Italy (Dolce Vita).He has also been working as a freelance illustrator for books and magazines (such as Marie Claire) and as creative director for advertising agencies. Since 2000, he has been teaching the art of comics and is director of the Sketch-Comics-Cartoon department of AKTO Art & Design College.He has also written and illustrated eight books for children and exhibited his paintings in several solo shows.
Petros Christoulias was born in Chalkida in 1979 and studied Fine Arts at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He works as a painter, comic creator and illustrator of children's books. The comics he has written and illustrated have been published in magazines and websites and have received many awards. He has also been involved in animation projects. He has participated in almost 20 collective comic expositions in Greece and an exposition on his book “Trenches” was held at the Greek National Library. He has also participated at the festival La Storia in Piazza, at the Palazzo Ducale in 2011 where he received honours in “conflicts war balloons” for “Trenches”. In 2015 he participated at the collective exhibition “Ελλάς” at Tricromia gallery in Rome and in the Ravenna festival. All of his books have received different prizes.
Thanassis Dimou is a graduate of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens (2000) and the “Theatro Technis K. Koun” Drama School (2001). Since then, he has collaborated with the National Theatre of Greece, the National Theatre of Northern Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and many important repertory theatres in Athens (Theatro Technis, Theatro tou Notou, Praxis, Porta etc.) in works of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Goldoni, Moliere, Kleist, Chekhov, Durrenmatt, as well as in contemporary Greek and foreign plays. He also works as a cartoonist and recently wrote and illustrated the “Winter’s tale” (based on William Shakespeare) for which he received the National Award for Children’s Book Illustration (2009).
Michael Kountouris was born in Rhodes, in 1960. Since 1985, he has been working as an editorial cartoonist in Greek newspapers and magazines. He currently works at the (“Efimerida Ton Syntakton”) newspaper; he also cooperates with Courrier International and Caglecartoons. He has taken part in many solo and group exhibitions in Greece and abroad, such as The Hague Sculpture-GIANTS (The Netherlands, 2004), “G20” (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburg, 2009), “Ελλάς” (‘Tricromia’ Gallery, Rome, 2015), ‘Fifty-fifty’ Gallery (Düsseldorf 2016). He has received awards in various cartoon contests at the United Nations, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Iran, Greece, etc. As a children’s books illustrator he has been awarded with the Illustration Prize of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY, 2002) and with the First EBGE Prize on Graphic Design and Illustration (2006). Since 2011, he has been working on innovative projects regarding the use of cartoons in education (Educartoon).
Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) is a caricaturist who collaborates with “to Pontiki”, as well as other major newspapers and magazines in Greece. He studied Political Sciences at Panteion University and obtained a PhD in Cultural Technology and Communication from the University of the Aegean. He has published 13 books with comics and cartoons. His Phd is about the History of comics in Greece. His graphic novel Aivali, which deals with the violent expatriation that took place during the war in Asia Minor between the Greeks and the Turks, in the wake of World War I,received the prize of the best comics and of the best scenario at Comicdom Athens 2015; It has been translated into French and Turkish and is the first graphic novel that is the subject of an exposition at the Benaki Museum travelling all over Greece. In 2015, he participated in the exhibition “Ελλάς” in Rome and in the Ravenna realistic comic festival “Komikazen”. In 2016, Aivali was presented in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and Ayvalik.
Thanassis Petrou was born in Thessaloniki in 1971. He studied French Literature in Thessaloniki and Paris and has a Master’s in Sociolinguistics. In 2002, he won the first national comic prize of “9” magazine while he started to work for the magazine. In 2005, he completed his studies in comics with distinction (AKTO Art & Design College). He has published comics and cartoons in major magazines and newspapers in Greece and has participated in festivals in Greece and other countries. Since 2012, he has been teaching Sketch, Comics and Cartoons. In 2015, he participated in the group exhibition “Ελλάς” at Tricromia gallery in Rome and in the Ravenna festival. He has illustrated and, in some cases, written scripts for comic books, such as: The Marathon battle (Patakis, 2015), Actors (Cartoonark, 2013, which received the Mention of EBGE Prize on Design and Illustration), Giousouri and other fantastic stories (Topos editions, 2012, which received the Best Comic Prize in Comicdom Athens 2012), Pararlama and other stories (Topos editions, 2011) and The corpse (Jemma Press, 2011, which received the first Cover Prize in Comicdom Athens and the prize of the best comic in EBGE Prize on Design and Illustration; in May 2015, it was published in France by Steinkis.
Thomas Tsalapatis (1984) studied theatre at the University of Athens. His first book of poems Το ξημέρωμα είναι σφαγή Κύριε Κρακ [The Dawn Kills, Mr. Krak] was published in 2011 and received the National Literary Award for best new writer the following year. His second poetry collection titled Άλμπα [Alba] was published in 2015. He has also published a Greek translation of poems by W.B. Yeats and writes for various papers and journals.
Thomas Tsalapatis spoke to Reading Greece* about his two poetry collections, the themes his poetry touches upon and the binding thread between poetry and theatre. He discusses the role a poet is called to play nowadays noting that “it is a poet who will propose a new (and every time anew) way of handling language and words, and thus reality” and commenting on the necessity of poetry for the debunking of stereotypes.
Asked about the extraordinary burgeoning of poetry during the economic crisis, he comments that “the crisis itself constitutes a major disruption in the superficial historical continuum of the last forty years in Greece; a landmark of events, triggering a change of perspective and even mood”. He concludes that although “it’s too soon to talk of a new generation of Greek poets, let alone identify many common traits”, it is undeniable that “poetry has come to the fore claiming the space it deserves, the intensity of its own nature”.
You have published two collections of poems that have received rave reviews. How do you define your poetry? What are the issues your poetry touches upon?
I believe that, in reality, poetry itself – each poem – amounts to its definition. Every poem, if it be worthy of itself, seeks to present a personal version of the phenomenon. A literary, scientific definition would seem to me very restrictive, almost suffocating. For me, poetry constitutes a field identified as such by its creator. It’s a field that may encompass everything, all forms of speech, even if they don’t directly evoke poetry. From the moment the writer decides to define his work as poetry, it is poetry. This does not necessarily mean that the work seeks to draw qualitative value from the label. Poetry is not a value, it’s a state. Thus, by incorporating something into this state, what you are asking is to be judged on the basis of its recorded history. The only restriction to poetic freedom is its attainment.
I am not really sure as to the themes of my poems. You only identify them after the poem is written. So, in retrospect (as regards both my books), I would say violence, time, humor and the absurd are the keystones (and not necessarily themes). Yet, interpretation lies with the reader.
“A poet is the manager of darkness that illuminates the black light. Poetry constitutes the underlying cause and at the same time, its accomplishment and its negation”. What is the role a poet is called to play nowadays? Is there a way to debunk the stereotypes that are usually associated with its image?
I believe that the role of a poet remains the same throughout time. It is a poet who will propose a new (and every time anew) way of handling language and words, and thus reality. The limits of the world are defined by the limits of our language and I believe that a poet is the key-holder of these limits. Stereotypes have always existed and will continue to exist. It is a way of getting things over and done with quickly. Especially when it comes to states of emergency – like poetry – these stereotypes act as a parody, almost reassuringly, as regards the state of emergency. We are thus faced with the paradox that the more – in number and intensity – the stereotypes are at a given time (including those who embody stereotypes, either as attitudes or texts) the more necessary poetry becomes.
Encore, the new production of Attis Theatre, based on your poetry, premieres on November 25th. Where do theatre and poetry meet? What is their binding thread?
The relationship between poetry and the theater is as old as are both art forms. Poetry, which began as an oral genre, carried the theatricality of narration and recitation, while the theater, as something detached from ritual, has always been defined by textual abstraction which brings speech close to poetry. In fact, realism in theater has only been a short interval (lasting about a century and a half) in the history of theater. What Theodoros Terzopoulos and Attis Theater have proposed has been the re-invention of set limits, through body and breath, through the actors. Poetry maintains a privileged relationship with this kind of theater.
You have said that “poets of the 1930s are the only ones that could be described as a 'generation' constructing what is still considered today to be the dominant narrative of a more sophisticated bourgeoisie”. Could you elaborate on that?
The poets of the 1930s were the only generation (possibly with the exception of that of the 1880s) that formulated a concrete narrative for viewing the present, the past and Greek identity. This narrative, including the symbols it employed in poetry or painting, the way it approached tradition and so on, has remained intact to the present and is still expressed in various forms. Those poets had a key role in the “programming” of this generation. Our contemporary aesthetic sense, to a great extent, originates in and incorporates that generation. Thus, the poetry of the 1930s has survived to the present, even indirectly: "We are the interwar years, I tell you, incurably the interwar years” as the great poet Byron Leontaris wrote.
Karen Van Dyck, editor of Austerity Measures, has characterized the new generation of Greek poets as “multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational”. How would you comment on current literary, and more specifically poetic, production in Greece?
The truth is that there has been an increase of worthy poetry books over the last 10 years; new and quite different voices, initiatives in novel directions, diverse ways of approaching contemporary poetic tradition. I believe it’s too soon to talk of a new generation of Greek poets, let alone identify many common traits, given this great variety described by Karen Van Dyck. Yet, and despite definitions, poetry has come to the fore claiming the space it deserves, the intensity of its own nature.
Since the crisis began in 2008, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares. How do you respond to those that talk about a “poetry of the crisis”? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
The crisis itself constitutes a major disruption in the superficial historical continuum of the last forty years in Greece; a landmark of events, triggering a change of perspective and even mood. This obviously does not mean that it has affected all writers (let alone in the same way). We cannot however deny that the crisis remains present – even through its absence – in all these writings. The young people who began publishing their poems in the midst of the crisis did so concurrently with the rising popularity of Facebook, Twitter and public discourse through the social media. This has, in turn, affected the whole process of writing and reading and thus all these young poets; and even if poetry itself has not been affected, the terms governing its propagation certainly have. A new book or a poetry event has become much more easily accessible. Literary critics (who in most cases presented books rather than reviewed them) are being bypassed. There has been a shift vis-à-vis the power, the speed of information as well as the extent of poetic noise produced.
All things considered, poetry remains a proposal for a new way of viewing reality. And this demand for a fresh approach can be easily applied to other fields as well, that is to art, human relationships and politics.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
George Prevedourakis (1977) is the author of three collections of poems: Στιγμιόγραφο (Planodion ed., 2011), Κλέφτικο (Panoptikon ed., 2013) and Χαρτάκια (Panoptikon ed., 2016). He has also translated poems by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which were included in the History of Clouds and other poems collection published last spring by Panoptikon Editions.
George Prevedourakis spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest collection of poems, Χαρτάκια, ‘a series of untitled, brief fragments and meditations’ resembling ‘the ambiance and feeling of an empty room’. He comments on how the notion of time is imprinted on his work, noting that it has treated time as ‘the fleeing moment’ in his first collection, a ‘series of moments-incidents’ in his second and an ‘empty signifier’ in his third. He also talks about Kleftiko, a transcription of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, as well as his translation in Greek of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’ s poems and how he was fascinated by the latter’s ‘elegant, cosmopolitan wit, playful spirit and persevering, all-embracing social criticism’.
Asked about whether poetry can act as a political paradigm, he comments that “once we decide to communicate our writings we should do it foremost as readers-citizens and not as a bunch of uninformed, detached and uninterested, self-proclaimed priests of some obscure religion, that are in a state of privileged communication with God himself”, concluding that luckily, “our current psychological state, where despair and/or determined anger, fear, confusion and/or passive withdrawal are most probably the prevailing sentiments” is adequately represented by an abundant number of contemporary poets.
Your third collection of poems titled Χαρτάκια was recently published. Could you tell us a few things about the book?
With Χαρτάκια I wanted to produce a work that closely resembles the ambiance and feeling of an empty room. The book consists of a series of untitled, brief fragments and meditations, with the notion of time comprising the predominant axis around which these fragments revolve. I approached this material in the same way that one processes a long, yet interrupted synthesis. In other words, my aim was not to present a series of short poems that stand autonomously from one another —though some of them unintentionally do. My principal intention was to take the minimalist form to its extremities, to condense the already condensed, in a non-linear, abrupt manner, while also conveying an intact and coherent gesture to the reader. I don’t know if I have accomplished this rather ambitious goal, yet I have the impression (or perhaps the illusion) that with this small book my initial objective has been met. After all, it was the room I was interested in, not its decoration.
In his review, Antonis Psaltis wrote that “five years after capturing and recording the moment as the eternal imprint of the presence of time in ‘Στιγμιόγραφο’, the question in ‘Χαρτάκια’ seems to shift as to whether the current, inconceivable and increasing speed allows for integral moments”. How is time, in all its forms, imprinted in your work?
I suppose that time must have been a personal obsession of mine, even before I had the slightest desire for writing, let alone publishing, poetry. A somewhat commonplace obsession, I must admit, yet obsessions are to be followed and carried out meticulously, to the degree that one, literally, collapses upon them. In Στιγμιόγραφο (Planodion ed., 2011), as the title suggests, the main focus was placed upon the fleeing moment, trying to seize and depict the instantaneous within the instant, in an almost ‘photographical’ manner. In Kleftiko (Panoptikon ed. 2013), time is rather dispersed and extended, stretched out of its original proportions, engulfing a series of moments-incidents. Lastly, in Χαρτάκια, I’m treating time as an ‘empty signifier’. In reality though, it is time that treats me as such. A gesture of inadequate and futile retaliation had to take place, and, up until now, it has.
Your second collection of poems Kleftiko is a take on Allen Ginsberg’s Howl set in Greece amid the crisis. How was the title inspired? How does ‘kleftiko’ fit in the context of modern Greece?
The title was inspired instantaneously, as most things that get inspired usually do. I was looking for a three-syllable word that would directly lead the reader to ‘Ουρλιαχτό’ (the Greek translation of Howl) while also suggesting a series of other meanings, open to interpretation. For example, the title functions as a hint to the gesture of ‘μεταγραφή’ (transcription), given that I kindly yet unreservedly robbed poor old Ginsberg’s Howl (parts I+III), America and Aunt Rose framework, rhythm and form so that I could put into words my own, personal howling. In addition, Kleftiko is a part of the Greek folk music genre (indicative of the flamboyant, long-winded form and articulation of these particular poems). Kleftiko is also a traditional recipe for cooking lamb, but perhaps this is completely irrelevant.
In relative terms, Kleftiko has fitted quite comfortably within the context of modern Greece; it has been widely read, critically praised and/or refuted, while, to my surprise, it has interacted with other arts; theater, music and, lately, even film. One cannot complain.
Although I was never a devoted ‘fan’ of the great Allen Ginsberg, the idea of a meta-writing/transcription of Howl has been occupying my mind since the early 00s, when (according to some, at least) we were supposedly enjoying ‘the long summer of our content’. My points of reference, the imagery and the material which comprised the background and the basis of this book, derived rather from the sociopolitical setting of my puberty (i.e. the 90s) and not from the blurred, violent and disturbed scenery that we’ve become accustomed to calling ‘Greek crisis’. Hence, I would have written this book even if the entire issue of our current misfortunes had proven to be a major hoax, a flick played out for a short time, instead of the aggressively metastatic cancer it proved out to be.
How challenging was it for you to translate Hans Magnus Enzensberger, one of the greatest living German poets?
Η.Μ.Enzensberger once stated that he is the “saboteur’ of his depression”. Having logged countless hours in exploring and translating his poetic work over the past 6 years (a work that spans the course of more than 7 decades) I could say that translating Enzensberger has become my own, highly effective antidepressant. Furthermore, as I am sure you know from your own experience, translation is a process that teaches humility and cultivates a dual sense of respect: you have to respect the writer but also the reader. In other words, there isn’t much room for your private experimentations, the borders and the setting cannot be twisted in accordance to your personal taste and beliefs. Additionally, a certain kind of mutual trust is gradually established between the poet and the translator. As commonplace as it may sound in the face of H.M. Enzensberger I have discovered a true friend and a faithful companion.
Having been acquainted with his works since my late teens, when I was a student in Britain, I was instantly fascinated by his elegant, cosmopolitan wit, playful spirit and persevering, all-embracing social criticism. I translated few of his Lighter than Air poems back then, more as an exercise, with no real intention in publishing these translations. It was almost ten years later (with his History of Clouds collection) that I began to steadily plunge into his work. To my surprise, I realized that his poetry has never been systematically translated into Greek, besides a wonderful translation of some of his younger works that was published way back in 1978, along with some scarce poems found in literary magazines and websites. I therefore chose to provide the reader with a detailed illustration of his works and not a “best-of” type of anthology. Enzensberger is a protean poet, constantly changing angles, methods and forms. As mentioned above, I had to respect and pay dues to my ‘friendship’.
History of Clouds and other poems was hence published last spring by Panoptikon editions and it includes 109 poems from 4 different collections; History of Clouds (Die Geschichte der Wolken, 2003), Lighter than Air (Leichter Als Luft, 1999), Kiosk (Kiosk, 1995) and Music of the Future (Zukunftsmusik, 1991). A second anthology focused on his earlier works, titled The Defense of the Wolves and other poems, is currently on the making, covering the time period 1957-1980. I sincerely don’t know what will become of me once I’ll have completed this 2nd anthology. It’s hard to look for alternatives once you’ve thoroughly translated a poet of such magnitude. Let’s just hope I won’t start popping pills in order to accommodate my frustration.
Your work has been included in Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, which features some of the most daring new voices in Greek poetry “that mourn the fall, damn the greed, and pound a drum for change”. Can poetry act as a political paradigm? Is it in the capacity of poetry to be ‘politically militant’?
I am very suspicious of those who pound a drum. Usually they are the first ones to conform and willingly pound the same drum for others. At the same time, one does not necessarily need to be “politically-militant” to acknowledge that we are in a state of sociopolitical (and hence, ideological) war, one should not even be considered “political” if he/she chooses to occasionally remind us of that fact. Nonetheless, highlighting and diving into the inherent contradictions and adversities of our times is one thing. Writing within the safe and predefined confinements of dominantly constructed fanfares is another. Literature walks hand in hand with history, ideology and desire, all these are known. Reading, writing and publishing poetry may very well mean that you are unconsciously or intentionally joining a foreign legion of some kind; it never presumes, however, that you are a member of an armed militia charged with the divine duty of ideological safekeeping and guidance.
Simultaneously, we are constantly ideological, drenched in the waters of our times, shaped and fashioned by the circumstances of our era. I believe that once we decide to communicate our writings (be it furious confessions, existentialist prayers or mere letters to a honeybee) we should do it foremost as readers-citizens and not as a bunch of uninformed, detached and uninterested, self-proclaimed priests of some obscure religion, that are in a state of privileged communication with God himself.
On a final note, and since you’ve mentioned this anthology, I would like to congratulate the translator and editor Theodoros Chiotis for his excellent work; some of his translations are even better than the original and I can honestly say that this applies for the samples of my work included in this volume.
Writing about the ‘generation of the crisis’ (poets maturing in the 2000s), Vassilis Lambropoulos notes that in the verses of this generation “political hopes have inspired no emancipatory visions”, while it characterizes their poetry as “the poetry of left melancholy”. How would you comment on that?
With all respect to Dr. Lambropoulos, I find the term ‘left melancholy’ rather mild and problematic in describing the harsh reality we are experiencing in the last 10-15 years. And I consider the application of this term into the modern poetic field, even more problematic. One does not have the luxury to comfortably sink into his/her melancholic sentiment while living amidst a collective (and often interpersonal) collapse. To paraphrase William Blake: “the crushed bee has no time for melancholy”. There is a sense of warmth and serenity attached to melancholia, attributes totally incompatible with our current psychological state, where despair and/or determined anger, fear, confusion and/or passive withdrawal, are most probably the prevailing sentiments. Luckily all this range of emotions is adequately represented by the abundant number of contemporary poets along with a subsequent variety of psychological maladies that overwhelmingly transcend the sphere of melancholia. And if I may add, some of them are right-wing, if not in theory, then definitely, in praxis.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
The temporary exhibition activities of Greece’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST)recently restarted with the opening of the exhibition “Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp” that will be running through January 29, 2017 at the Museum’s permanent home (the historic FIX building).
Greek News Agenda* had the pleasure of interviewing EMST’s Director, Katerina Koskina** on the key message she wished to convey through the exhibition, together with the co-curator of the show, M HKA’s Director Bart De Baere.
Katerina Koskina also spoke to Greek News Agenda about upcoming events and the highly anticipated full operation of the Museum which is expected by November 2017 and shared her views on how the crisis has affected the country’s arts scene, as well as on how important EMST’s opening is for the evolving cultural image of Athens.
How was the idea to curate “Urgent Conversations Athens – Antwerp” developed and what is the key message you wish to convey through the exhibition?
We wanted to open the Museum’s temporary exhibition program in its new building with an exhibition that would express and signify the ideas of dialogue, exchange and collaboration. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (M HKA) has been a great partner. “Urgent Conversations: Athens – Antwerp” has been developed bottom up, each time starting from a work of a Greek and a Belgian artist, that resonate, searching a notion that arises from this resonance, then adding a third artist from elsewhere in one of the two collections.
As such, the exhibition was structured around 22 notions, with the work of three artists in a dialogue around each notion in every case, in total consisting of more than 70 works from 66 artists. The key message is that dialogue is the fundamental element of culture and that art allows for reviews and reassessments of previous issues, redefining them and making them current. Thus, it proposes alternative solutions and ways of communication, detecting sensitivities and triggering peaceful actions.
What comes next? Can you tell us more on the Museum’s main plans with regard to upcoming events, activities and collaborations (2016- 2017)?
Our future plans include the collaboration with documenta 14, our project empty pr(oe)mises, the national participation at the 57th Venice Biennial, the opening of the exhibition of the Museums’ permanent collection, the traveling of the exhibition Urgent Conversations Athens – Antwerp to Antwerp in April, and of course the continuation of our full schedule with educational programs, conferences, temporary exhibitions and parallel events.
Tell us about the museum’s permanent collection. When is the full operation of the museum to be expected; what are the prerequisites in this direction?
The EMST permanent collection has a core of important works by Greek and international artists which is constantly enriched with new ones, especially with donations from artists. Most of the works focus on multicultural, identity and social issues.
Our full operation, which is expected by November 2017, depends on many factors, especially administrative. In collaboration with the authorities we are trying to solve them and meet all the prerequisites that will ensure the implementation of the museographical study and the smooth operation of the Museum.
We need more personnel and of course money, which we are making an effort to find from the private sector as well.
You have a long experience in the Arts field, having organized, directed and curated several projects in Greece and abroad over the past 25 years. Can you give an insight on whether (and to what extent) the crisis has affected the art scene in the country, both in terms of artistic creation and in terms of the art market?
From my point of view, the crisis made things more difficult but on the other hand, more creative too. It forced us to look into different directions, to reinvent ourselves and led us to synergies, cooperation and funding in goods. We cannot do things alone anymore. We have to be a chain, in creativity and in new ideas.
I am an optimistic person and I want, even from the dark, to look and find the bright side of every situation. I am not saying that things aren’t difficult but we cannot -and we should not- just sit and wait. We have to take action. That is what we did with the Museum. We took action and things moved at a moment that most people believed they wouldn’t.
In your view, how important is EMST’s opening for the evolving cultural image of Greece and especially for the city branding of Athens?
The EMST’s opening was received with immense joy by the public, as they had been waiting long to see its renovated spaces. We are very happy that the Greek and international audience has now the opportunity to visit the Museum, the heart of which beats for contemporary art.
Greece is known internationally for its important antiquities. It has been a bet for us to develop an interest for contemporary art as well, to be extrovert and play a role as a capsule for the arts, the combination of their different forms, the dialogue between antiquities and contemporary art and to be a destination in the City, for its citizens and visitors.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
Born in Corfu, she studied French Literature at the University of Athens, as well as History and Philosophy of Art at Paris I-Sorbonne University. In addition, she studied Museology at the Ecole du Louvre and has a PhD in Art History.
From 1988 to 1992, she worked at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi as a Special Advisor for visual arts. She was the Greek Commissioner at the 23rd Biennale of Sao Paulo in 1996 and at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, and the Director of the 3rd, 4th and the 5th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art (2011-2015). From 1992 to October 2014, she was Curator of the Alpha Bank Art Collection. She has also been Artistic Director of the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, Athens, until the end of 2014 (1992-2014), President of the Board of Trustees of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (from December 2008 until January 2015), member of the Artistic Committee of the Athens METRO (from 1998 to 2011) and Artistic Consultant to the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games/Athens 2004 S.A. from 2000 to 2004. She is a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the Greek section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA Hellas).
Katerina Koskina has organized, directed, curated and co-curated many group and one-man shows, while she has contributed essays to several books and exhibition catalogues, as well as articles in newspapers and art magazines. She has been awarded as “Cavaliere dell’ Ordine della Stella d’ Italia” and “Chevalier dans l’ Ordre national de la Legion d’ Honneur”.
Read also: EMST: “Urgent Conversations Athens – Antwerp” (by Greek News Agenda)
Watch video: EMST- A Museum for Contemporary Art (Katerina Koskinas’ interview to ANA-MPA, June 2015)
Visit: EMST’s official website
Nancy Fraser is Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School for Social Research and one of the world's leading thinkers in political and social theory. She has been Einstein Fellow of the city of Berlin, and holder of the “Global Justice” Chair at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. She works on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought.
Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange - the book in which she and Axel Honneth debated the question of redistribution versus recognition - has become mandatory reading for all those interested in social justice. Her recent publications include Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (2008), Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (2013) and Contradictions of capital and care (New Left Review, 2016). Her current research includes a book-in-progress on Abnormal Justice i.e. on "how the struggles for justice are organised, or rather, disorganised, in a period in which we can not count on a grammar of justice that can be recognised as hegemonic".
Professor Fraser is also an active public intelectual that regularly participates in open seminars, discussions and gives interviews (Public seminar; Dissent; openDemocracy; Eurozine; The Guardian; Monthly Review), while she has recently co-signed together with major intelectuals an open letter to European leaders and European institutions to avoid additional austerity measures, deliver humanitarian aid and restructure Greece's debt.
Professor Fraser was recenty in Greece, invited by the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, in order to deliver the 10th Annual Nicos Poulantzas Memorial Lecture. The lecture, under the title “Crises of care: The contradictions of social reproduction in the era of financial capitalism” was given at the Athens' Goethe Institute, on 7.12.2016, with an intoduction to Nancy Fraser and her work by Maria Karamessini, Professor in Labour Economics and Economics of the Welfare State at Panteion University.
Nancy Fraser spoke to Rethinking Greece* about a viable Left vision for the 21th century, the EU project, the question of solidarity both internationally and in Europe and the crisis of neoliberal hegemony in the world. "Anti-austerity in one country is impossible", says Fraser commenting on Greek politics, adding that "a setback here or there does not mean the end of the Left project". She also gives her insight on the recent US election and the formation of reactionary populism along with "progressive neoliberalism", as well as on the issue of social movements becoming "interest groups" deprived of their anticapitalist, radical roots. Fraser also stresses the importance of thinking about social reproduction and social protection internationally and in terms of global finance as well as on the need to consider "non, or post-capitalist possibilities" when tackling these issues:
The social movements that developed in Greece after 2011 seem to have died down after the signing of the 3rd memorandum in 2015, Podemos in Spain has not been able to fulfill their electoral potential and right-wing nationalism is on the rise. Do you think that the European Left has lost its ability to inspire popular movements?
I think that these things develop in fits and starts, not in a smooth line. So I wouldn’t assume that a setback here or there means the end of the Left project. We had all the Occupy and Indignados movements throughout the world, and I would say that Spain and Greece were really the only countries, at least in Europe and North America, who managed to develop something out of those movements: people found a form to institutionalize, at least temporarily, those energies, instead of letting them totally disappear. That is a positive, but it is a different matter as to whether a government can deliver the full set of demands and aspirations of the participants in those movements, or more generally, of the citizens.
The sad part of the Greek experience was frankly, the failure of the Left in other European countries to mobilize in solidarity and to put pressure on governments to change the EU policy, and to insist that the Troika back-off and give Greece some room to breathe. I don’t think there is much that could have been done within one country. We used to talk about “socialism in one country”, well anti-austerity in one country is not easy to do when you have a whole transnational structure of investors, European bureaucrats and Central Banks bearing down on you. So I think that for the long term, the only real answer is a broader, international solidarity among the Left. And that will take some time, for sure.
The other thing I would say is that we are all struggling to figure out what a viable and attractive Left vision and project is for the 21th century. Most people have given up the idea of anything like the command economy in the Soviet sense. There is a lot of interest in de-growth and the commons, solidarity and social economy. But I don’t think yet any of this adds up to a real viable project for the Left. The most important thing is that there is now a major crisis of neoliberal hegemony: in country after country, in waves, people are rejecting that. They don’t necessarily have a viable and defensible project for what to replace it with. This is the beginning of what would be a long process. These things don’t get solved quickly.
What to you think Brexit and the recent vote in Italy could mean for the future of the EU project?
It does seem that the EU project is quite shaky at the moment, and one possibility is that the elites will decide to soften their austerity policies and do more Keynsian type spending. There is even a chance that Donald Trump will do something like this in the US. It is one of the ideas he campaigned on, whether he’ll follow through I don’t know. So there might be a softening of the current austerity regime, but the big question for me is the relocation of manufacturing from the European and North American core countries to the semi-periphery. I don’t think that’s coming back, so this does mean that there is a big question mark over the issue of jobs, and I am talking now about jobs that have some security and that pay a decent wage.
The biggest challenge for whoever is in power, whether it’s an chastened European elite that has been neoliberal and decides that their project is in danger and they are going to shift ground a little bit, or whether it’s a Left or Right populist party, is going to be jobs and social protection of various kinds, support for social reproduction. That requires a tremendous amount of spending, deficit spending. And the question is, first of all, how to get out from under the control of the Central Banks and bond markets who drive the interest rates up to the sky. One idea for the Left, that is very important, would be to think about some new way of organizing finance. Credit is necessary in any economy, of any complexity, but it doesn’t have to be a profit making industry. So one idea that some people have been developing, is to think about how to transform finance into a public utility, like electricity for example. You could have some democratic way of administration, where you allocate credit and loans for projects without trying to please shareholders and investors.
All these things are connected: finance, jobs policy, taxation and what’s going to be the distribution of taxation. Because in the last 20-30 years there has been a major ‘tax strike’ of the wealthy and the corporations, who are paying virtually no taxes. In the US and many northern European countries there has been a huge turning upside down of the arrangements of the social democratic era, when corporations paid significant taxes. They don’t any longer, and that’s part of what neoliberalism did. So, that creates tremendous constrains on what governments can and cannot do. They lack the revenue. They can’t squeeze it out of the ordinary people who then go on a ‘tax revolt’ and vote for right-wing parties that promise no taxes. And when they try, in any one country again, to significantly raise taxes on corporations, then you get the flight of capital elsewhere and the race to the bottom. So, that’s another indication as to why one has to think internationally about these questions.
Some analysts claim that Donald Trump won the election because the Democratic Party put too much emphasis on identity politics (race, gender) and not enough on economic issues. Do you agree with this assessment?
Partially. I think in this election, in the immediate situation, the voters were faced with the choice between two options, which I would call reactionary populism and progressive neoliberalism. On the Trump side, the populist part was where the people say they want a government that protects them, that does what it can to ensure that they have stable jobs, income and family life. In my mind, this is a completely justified and legitimate expectation. But that was entwined with the reactionary part, this tendency to scapegoating: it’s the fault of the immigrants, of the Blacks, of the Muslims, of the gays, of the feminists. So you had mixed together legitimate claims for social protection, social security, economic wellbeing with all the scapegoating.
Then on the Clinton side, what I call the progressive neoliberalism side, you have on the contrary, positive claims for the inclusion of Blacks, Muslims, gays, LGBT, women; demands that you should not organize the social world on exclusion and subordination. That is the progressive side, but that does not get linked not to anything like the social protection policy that the Trump side had. It gets linked instead with the dynamic sectors of our economy, which are finance, information technology, media and entertainment, and which support a policy of so-called free trade, open borders, all the free trade agreements and the deregulation of finance.
So, these are two strange groups. If you want to think about it on terms of redistribution and recognition, you could say that on the Clinton side you have progressive recognition and regressive distribution, whereas on the Trump side, you have regressive recognition, plus something closer to a quasi social-democratic interest in social security and social protection. And that is a big re-alignment of politics. Because in a New Deal era you had something like a progressive element on both redistribution and recognition. Now those things have split apart.
I feel that the way Hilary Clinton run her campaign, especially in later stages, was focused, almost exclusively, on a kind of moral condemnation of Trump’s individual badness: He says these things about women, about disabled people, about Muslims, he is a person of prejudice and of ignorance. She made the whole campaign about him, and in the process tarred the base of his supporters, calling them “a basket of deplorables”. I don’t believe that all, or even a majority of Trump’s supporters are racists and homophobes. They are very frustrated, they are not maybe politically well educated. US political culture is poor, there is not enough of a Left voice that gives people any sense that there are other possibilities. Given what was available to them, it’s quite understandable that they voted the way they did. Clinton thought that she could run a campaign exclusively on a highly moralized version of recognition. And, as it turned out, she got a lot of votes, but the way our system works, that wasn’t a winning strategy.
Do you think Donald Trump’s victory signals a shift of the electorate toward right-wing nationalism?
Like I said in the beginning, things are very much in flux now, this it is not a settled matter. It could go into a much more right-wing and nationalist direction, but it could also go into a more left direction. In the US we can see that in the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which came very close to getting the nomination away from Hilary Clinton. She had every bit of the bureaucracy, of the machinery of the Democratic Party behind her, she was the anointed successor to Obama; everybody thought this was a foregone conclusion. And this guy comes out of nowhere and suddenly inspires millions and millions of people. That to me reflects the spirit of Occupy, not just the young people in the squares, but the broad support beyond the squares that Occupy got, which was 60%-70% nationally according to the polls at the time.
This shows is that there is a body of sentiment in the country that at some level agrees with the Occupy language on the 1%. That was very powerful language, it rung a bell. People knew what that meant, and they felt very strongly that that was true and should be changed. Sanders’ version of that was to use the word “rigged”. It’s a “rigged” economy, a “rigged” political system. That was another way of saying that there is a deep structural unfairness in the society, something that really resonated.
Later, Trump copied this language from Sanders and started himself talking about the rigged system, adding the phrase that ‘no one could fix this better’ than he could, because he knows how it works from the inside. He talked about how the people who run the banks, the government and the big corporations are “killers”. This is an amazing way to talk about the corporate elite. It’s true, but no one says these things. Overall, I think it’s highly likely that Trump as president will end up disappointing many of the people who voted for him, and there will be another battle over this, this is not the end. This body of sentiment is inchoate, it’s not fully formed, and it can be articulated in a number of different ways.
You have written about how the emancipatory claims of the feminist, anti-racist or LGTB movements have been hijacked by neoliberalism and redefined in market terms. Can you talk more about this?
I am from the 1968 generation, and I participated in the New Left and in the movements that grew in a very immediate way out of the New Left, including early second wave feminism, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In that period, there was a kind of ethos in the atmosphere that everyone was anti-capitalist. And everyone understood that whatever the issues, whether it was foreign policy, or gender subordination, or racial oppression, they were structural issues that had to be addressed at the root. And the root had to do with capitalism. As the New Left faded, that atmosphere shifted and then what happened in the US is that the normal political culture re-asserted itself. The normal political culture being interest group pluralism, meritocratic individualism and the idea that individuals differ in their talents and some can go further than others. This is the norm, we have a culture of voluntarism that says that how you well do in life is of a matter of your will and how hard you are willing to work, to save money etc.
So this culture does not change, except in very special periods, almost revolutionary, or crisis periods. But in the normal periods, that is the mindset and every issue gets filtered through these assumptions. It takes an almost heroic effort against the grain, uphill, to challenge that and to develop and maintain a worldview that really insists on the deep structural roots and tries to relate specific experiences and injustices to the deep structural issues. It’s not surprising that in the US, under these conditions, the drift in every social movement over the last 30 or 40 years has been toward a form of liberalism. Liberal feminism, liberal anti-racism, liberal LGBT politics… These are about removing barriers that hold people from advancing. From advancing up the corporate ladder, even up the military ladder. One of the first LGBT claims, before marriage equality, was gays in the military. And of course these are just claims, but in many of these cases people are taking for granted that we live in a hierarchical society, and don’t challenge that hierarchy, but just seek to remove some barriers so that the talented Blacks, the talented women, the talented Muslims and gays and lesbians can also rise.
We call them social movements, but I don’t think they are social movements, I think now they are interest groups: they are not really in the streets very often, only occasionally. One exception would be the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which is new, and it is a real movement that potentially has a much more radical orientation and agenda. But I think that feminism has become normalized in the US.
Basically what has happened is that these movements, or interest groups, have succeeded in winning the battle for “right thinking”. People know that they are not supposed to say the kind of things that Donald Trump says. So we have on the one hand the ideological, cultural shift in values and you have a lot of the media reflecting that. In television shows, in Holywood films you often have feminist twists in a vulgar sense, or there are always Blacks in positions of power. That’s going on in one level, but the real situation of the mass of African-Americans or Latinos, or of women deteriorates. Under the new economy, the relocation of manufacturing jobs was an especially severe blow for African-Americans. So it’s not like their material situation is better, I would say it’s worse than before the civil rights movement. The living situation of everybody was worsened, except for the 10% say of people who are doing well.
So, the ideological victory of the so-called social movements is a quite complicated affair in itself. It’s obviously positive, but because it is perceived, rightly so to some degree, as being part and parcel of neoliberalization, openness to the world, cosmopolitanism and sophistication, it gets read by people who consider themselves the losers of globalization and neoliberalization, people suffering in the Rust Belt or other areas that are declining, as a insult, that they are being preached at, looked down on and neglected, while others are being favored.
Social reproduction work (taking care of children and the elderly, maintaining the household etc), is devalued (not paid/underpaid) and at the same time absolutely necessary for capitalism. You have identified this as a structural contradiction of capitalism that is becoming even more acute now. Do you think this issue can be solved within capitalism?
I would say first of all, that capitalism has shown a surprising capacity to re-invent itself in many forms and I don’t think we can exclude the possibility that it will do that again. But, through what form, and what new political alignments or other forces would create that, that’s a little unclear. During the New Deal/ social democratic era, there was a provisional solution, although it didn’t work for everybody. It was premised on exclusions of various kinds, but you could say for a significant number of working-class people in the wealthier countries of the capitalist world, there was a way of balancing paid work and unpaid social reproductive activity. So that was a provisional solution, at least for some.
If you think along those lines, and how can we do something like that, but in a way that overcomes the exclusions and injustices that were built into it, then you would have to think in terms of a global regime. I don’t mean a sort of world state, I mean something like what the EU is saying about harmonizing social policies, but not just within Europe, much more broadly. Because now, one of the ways that neoliberalism tries to deal with this problem is to import migrant women to do very low-wage, precarious and highly supervised intrusive domestic work for the professional managerial middle class and upper middle class. So it has to be something global, it cannot be premised on anything like a male breadwinner / female homemaker model, it has to include no-heterosexual families, it was to overcome the racial/ethnical divisions of labour that assign the dirtiest and least well-paid forms of care, like working in nursing homes to people of colour.
I think that is the best that capitalism could do and I don’t know if it can do it. But I think we could adopt an agnostic view. Meaning, this is what we need to have, we will keep an open mind, if capitalism can give it to us, so much the better, if not, too bad for capitalism. I think you don’t have to decide now how it’s going to be. You can push for this, and as movements grow and radicalize they will start having to think about what are the obstacles to this. Global finance is going to be one and there is also an ecological question that is very pressing, because one thing is clear: if you try to universalize something like the high-carbon footprint consumer’s lifestyle of the European and North American middle classes to the whole world, it would be completely ecologically unsustainable. One would have to think about how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and then again see whether there is a form of capitalism that could be invented. It doesn’t exist now, no one even knows exactly what it would look like. We’ll see. But in the meantime, we should also be thinking about non or post-capitalist possibilities too.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Popi Gana started her career as an editor and book cover designer. In 2012 she founded Εκδόσεις Μελάνι [Melani Publications] renowned for the elegance and high quality of its publications. Since then, Melani Publications has published more than 360 titles including poetry and prose, both Greek and foreign, philosophy, sociology, biographies and children’s books.
Popi Gana spoke to Reading Greece* about her decision to start Melani Publications, noting that “the publisher’s role is that of a mediator that connects authors with their readers, while also offering new novelists and poets the chance to be heard and receive the recognition they deserve”. Asked about contemporary Greek literature and its prospects abroad, she comments that “the problem lies not so much in the quality of our literature as in the difficulty of the language, and the likelihood of finding sufficient and skillful translators – not to mention some tendency by foreign publishers to be on the lookout for folklore and the ‘exotic’”.
She also discusses the effects of the ongoing economic crisis on the Greek book market, publishers as well as reading preferences, noting that “the greatest threat is for only a few publishers to survive, who will, more or less, have similar things to propose”. She talks about “the lack of a coordinated and target-oriented state book policy”, concluding that “a more substantial role to be undertaken by the state, besides opening and equipping libraries, should be in the field of education, in the creation of new readers, who, in turn, will support bookstores and publishing houses”.
Having been an editor and a book cover designer for 15 years, how did you decide to cross over into publishing? Tell us a few things about Melani Publications, your publishing venture.
I have indeed worked as an editor and book cover designer for many years. Both these multilayered roles offered me the chance to delve into the book production process. I regard them as years of apprenticeship. I have always loved books and the more I worked in the field, the more intense my desire became to have a decisive role in more areas, to choose the titles myself and support the books I liked. So, Melani Publications came as the natural next step.
I started in 2012, with a book by former Foreign Affairs Minister Michalis Papakonstantinou, Βαλκάνια, η άγνωστη γειτονιά μας [Balkans, our unknown neighborhood]. Since then Melani Publications has published over 360 books, including poetry and prose, both Greek and foreign, philosophy, sociology, biographies, children’s books, all chosen one by one. I strive to always have a suggestion at hand, an invitation to readers for a new discovery that will add to their lives.
Melani Publications has a reputation for the elegance of its publications as well as for promoting new poets and novelists. Do you feel vindicated by your choices?
I’m glad that you mentioned the elegance of our publications. From the very start, I was of the opinion that aesthetics play a major part, as book covers are conducive to readership while they also offer enjoyment to readers, who develop a special relationship with the book-object. Yet, my main concern has always been the content. The publisher’s role is that of a mediator that connects authors with their readers, while also offering new novelists and poets the chance to be heard and receive the recognition I believe they deserve. I get immense satisfaction every time one of my new writers is shortlisted or is awarded a prize, which means I’ve done my job well.
What about contemporary Greek literature? Does the new generation of Greek writers have the potential to attract readers both in Greece and abroad?
Contemporary Greek literature, whether prose or poetry, has many and varied talents to display, and it certainly appeals to the Greek reading public. Besides, apart from major foreign titles, Greek literature records higher sales in our country. As for abroad, the problem lies not so much in the quality of our literature as in the difficulty of the language, and the likelihood of finding sufficient and skillful translators – not to mention some tendency by foreign publishers to be on the lookout for folklore and the ‘exotic’.
In the 14 years of its operation, Melani Publications has published more than 360 titles. How has the crisis affected the Greek book market and publishing houses in this respect? Has there been a shift in reading preferences due to the crisis?
The ongoing economic crisis has affected the Greek book market and publishers in multiple ways. In recent years we have witnessed the closure of many bookstores, which in turn means fewer retail outlets for publishers, as well as uncollected debts in many cases, which are unlikely to be ever paid back, creating black holes in our budget. Our margin of choice is becoming narrower, as we all strive for titles that would guarantee high sales. Diversity and pluralism are affected the most, given that reduced earnings make it much more difficult to go for more challenging or experimental choices.
The same goes for readers, who have become more hesitant in trying new things and choose more carefully how they spend their money; it takes a lot of effort to convince them that a book is worth buying. There is, however, a shift in reading preferences. In an effort perhaps to understand and interpret the crisis, there are many readers who opt for books on Modern Greek history either as disciplinary study or as a basis for fiction.
Yannis Baskozos has characterized the period 2009-2014 as the five lost years for books since the crisis that hit the book sector has been complex and multifaceted. Yet, what are the prospects ahead for books? Could digital books offer a way out?
Those five years have indeed been very difficult. However, we are still in the midst of the crisis and the book sector continues facing difficulties. I don’t believe that books will ever become extinct; they have survived through economic crises, wars, disasters. Not everybody will manage to get through and our greatest concern is to maintain enough variety on the market. The greatest threat is for only a few publishers to survive, who will, more or less, have similar things to propose. Those who persist are still enough and I sincerely hope that we will go on without further losses. As for digital books, they are undeniably a good alternative on account of their lower cost, but the digital book market share in Greece is too small so as to make the difference, at least for now.
It has been argued that what the Greek book market lacks is a concrete and purposeful state book policy. What should be done at a governmental policy level for the promotion of Greek books?
The lack of a coordinated and target-oriented state book policy has always been a problem in our country. There have been initiatives in the right direction from time to time, which were however always disrupted by change of leadership, government etc. The recent abolition of the single price system for books was a detrimental decision and a case of government policy to be avoided. A more substantial role to be undertaken by the state, besides opening and equipping libraries, should be in the field of education, in the creation of new readers, who, in turn, will support bookstores and publishing houses.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Katerina Malakate (1978) is the author of two novels, To Σχέδιο [The plan] (2016) and Κανείς δεν θέλει να πεθάνει [Nobody wants to die] (2013). Her blog diavazontas (online since 2009) focuses on books, reading and writing. In 2013, together with Agis Athanasiadis, she opened Booktalks, a book store/café. Her short stories have been included in four collective works.
Katerina Malakate spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest novel Το Σχέδιο, a ‘what if’ book, which explores ‘the frustration and sorrow of seeing your life being destroyed by the political choices of others’. She talks about the various subjects her books touch upon - death, love, the way society survives through stereotypes, freedom of will, human relationships - while she comments on Greek readers and editors and explains her decision to embark on a bookstore like Booktalks.
As for the new generation of Greek writers, she notes that “what makes this generation special is the reading”, the fact that “writers my age read more that they write”, while she comments that “in troubled times, literature has emerged that is of the highest quality” concluding that “we have yet to see what comes along”.
Το Σχέδιο [The Plan], your second book, was recently published and has already received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.
The Plan is a classic “what if” book. What if there was a referendum in 2011, Greece chose to leave the European Union, and a fascist regime took over. The situation is bleak, but what matters most is how different people react in such horrible circumstances. It’s the frustration and sorrow of seeing your life being destroyed by the political choices of others.
It is a violent book, but it contains no acts of violence. You could read it as a page-turning political thriller. But if you go deeper, other themes emerge: family bonds, the way writers and artists can make a difference. And of course books. I am an avid reader; the “books of others” creep up in my books, and make them better.
Death seems to be a recurrent theme in your books. What is it about death that you find so appealing? What other issues do your books touch upon?
Death is one of the major themes in literature. Only through art can we begin to understand its enormity. But there are other subjects that concern me as well: the way society is built and survives through stereotypes, freedom of will and to what extent there really is such a thing, relationships between people. And love, as the only way of moving forward.
You blog diavazontas focuses on books, writing and reading. Do Greeks read? Has there been a shift in reading preferences due to the crisis?
I have been a book blogger for eight years now. I can assure you, there are really brilliant Greek readers out there, and Editors that really love literature. In Greece we read the very best of international literary production, and we have some of the finest translators.
For the last three years I have been hosting a radio show about literature at Amagiradio, which is quite popular. There are people that do care about books. The question is: are they enough? I cannot answer this really. Probably not. In the average Greek home there are no book shelves. Then again, literature is art. We must not confuse it with mass culture products; we should not expect the same results.
In 2013, together with Agis Athanasiadis, you created Booktalks, a book store/café. How did you embark on such a venture? What books can we find in Booktalks? And what about your Reading Clubs?
We were both book bloggers. We had never met. Then, four years ago, we finally made our acquaintance. It was maybe the second time we got together that we started telling each other about the dream: a bookstore like Booktalks. The timing was awful: Greece was deep into the economic crisis. Yet we ventured. I like to say it was meant to happen.
In Booktalks we focus on literature, both Greek and translated. You can find the latest releases and of course the classics. We do have non-fiction books and some poetry, and- of course- a really well stocked children’s book section.
Our Reading Clubs are our pride. We have one that focuses on the classics and meets every month and one that keeps track with the latest production and meets every fortnight. We also hold regular meetings every Saturday between 11 am and 2pm with people that care about books, readers, writers, translators and want to talk about literature.
Many authors present their books in Booktalks. And there are children’s book reading on Saturday mornings.
“If we once manage to be referred to as, let’s say, the generation of 2010, we may have won an important bet for the continuity of literature”. What is the binding thread of this new generation of Greek writers? Would you agree with those arguing that this new generation is too multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational to actually be called a generation?
It is true, the new generation of Greek writers reads in many languages, writes both in Greek and English, is influenced by a million different things, and there is a lot of diversity. But what makes this generation special is the reading: writers my age, read more than they write. That is what sets us apart and might land us a title “the generation something”, if such a thing still exists in literature.
Greek literature in crisis or rather Greek literature of the crisis? Could the crisis spark off literary production in Greece despite the odds? What do you deem to be the prospects ahead?
That, we do not know yet. History shows that in troubled times, literature has emerged that is of the highest quality. Or rather, when some time has passed since the crisis, really important works of art occur. We have yet to see what comes along.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Christos Armando Gezos (1988) is an author and a poet. In 2012 he published his first poetry collection titled Ανεκπλήρωτοι φόβοι [Unrealized Fears] for which he received the State Literary Award for Debuting Author in 2013. His first novel Η λάσπη [The mud] was in the short list of the Athens Prize for Literature for the Best Greek Novel of 2014. His third book, a short story collection titled Τραμπάλα [Seesaw] was published in 2016 by Melani Publications.
Christos Armando Gezos spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book, which forms the third part of an informal trilogy aiming to depict life as it really is: “a pendulum that moves from pain to hope, from life to death, from boredom to despair, from tears to laughter”. He explains that his personal experiences are usually the starting point of his writing, noting that the flexibility of language in its many incarnations has allowed him to depict the many different micro-realities that exist.
He describes poetry as “an extract of sadness, a refined melancholy flowing thick and hot through the cracks that open up in moments of deep intensity”, while he characterizes prose as “a more cerebral pursuit allowing your feet to plunge into waters of many different hues and temperatures”. He explains how estrangement in its various forms is imprinted on his work, while he comments on the main challenges that lie ahead for literature concluding that “it is important to assimilate the historical developments that are changing the world, whilst not denying their timelessness”.
Your first short story collection, Τραμπάλα, was recently published. Tell us a few things about the book.
Τραμπάλα, which consists of 10 short stories, is my third book, following a poetry collection titled Ανεκπλήρωτοι Φόβοι [Unrealized Fears] (2012) and a short novel H λάσπη [The Mud]. Τραμπάλα essentially completes an informal trilogy focusing on a common attitude towards life and reality: an overwhelming fear fueled by the certainty of death and, more importantly, by all the things that may precede death; the desperate awe man feels standing helpless against the world and himself. What I wanted to achieve specifically with Τραμπάλα is a more balanced representation, to depict life as I think it really is: a never-ending spectrum of emotions and situations, a pendulum that moves from pain to hope, from life to death, from boredom to despair, from tears to laughter.
My heroes are often obsessive, led to extremes either because of their inherent sense of self-destruction or as a result of the restrictions imposed on them by nature and society. Ambivalent, bitter, fully aware of the difficulties of the world, conscious of the wounds that have formed them so far, with a painfully acquired maturity that allows them to make the next step, no matter how uncertain and shaky it may be.
The Mud is a novel about a man who tries to define himself in relation to the world against all odds, both real and imaginary. Do you identify with your heroes? To what extent is your writing experiential?
Whilst my personal experiences are usually the starting point of my writing, I don’t want them to be the endpoint, so as not to restrict the scope of the text. What I want to do is to use my own experiences as elementary components of human experience everywhere, so as to write stories that other people may also relate to.
I have some dark sides which I choose to illuminate from certain angles and with a particular intensity, sometimes with neon red and others with electric blue. To build the body of the text I sometimes have to cut parts of my own body, some of which I glue together as they are, and others I work on like clay to give them a new shape. In the end, I may end up either with a flower or a Frankenstein.
Both your language and the techniques you employ (e.g. lack of paragraphs and full stops) is quite daring. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
For me language is not an end in itself; rather, it is determined by the story you want to narrate. In The Mud I opted for long sentences and a scarcity of punctuation in an effort to depict the protagonist’s troubled psyche and suffocating emotions. The same goes for some of my short stories where I wanted to leave a similar imprint. Yet, in others, narration is more sober and down-to-earth. There are so many stories, so many micro-realities for you to create, so many people that think differently, live differently, suffer differently, love and die differently. That’s why the flexibility of language in its various incarnations is so valuable and admirable.
Your writing seems to walk the line between prose and poetry. What does each form of writing constitute you? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
For me poetry is more like an extract of sadness, a refined melancholy flowing thick and hot through the cracks that open up in moments of deep intensity. Prose is a more cerebral pursuit allowing your feet to plunge into waters of many different hues and temperatures.
Octavio Paz has described poetry as a death leap that breaks the boundaries of existence and takes us to the other side; in other words, poetry digs deeper and so it’s easier to discover the truth, albeit in forms that work more on an emotional level. Prose – through narration, plot, characters and time spread – constructs a more tangible reality, while it dissipates and dilutes pain, thus giving the writer greater freedom of intellectual and linguistic expression.
As for inspiration, it can literally come from everywhere. A scene on the street, a memory, a random flash through the mind, a song, a poem, a movie, a news item on the internet, words uttered by a passerby.
“I feel privileged that being ‘rootless’ gives me the chance to mentally travel in various places and take advantage of what I write”. How are the notions of ‘homeland’ and ‘roots’ imprinted on your work?
A lot of the poems in Unrealized Fears refer to estrangement both at social and interpersonal level, and as I realized later on following comments by readers and critics, they were (or could be) the imprint of unconscious concerns about my national identity. This was an issue which I then felt didn’t bother me but, along the way, in The Mud, it became more evident, but again it remained in the background, more like a footnote to the hero’s existential reflection while swaying between two homelands. And this is the way I want it to appear in my texts, outside the restrictions imposed by the quest within a framework of national self-determination: in a way that will reflect the fluidity and staggering of all people, their relentless march forward, all of them similar to each other but simultaneously and inevitably strangers.
In a recent interview, you have noted that “we are going through a period that all arts are faced with an unprecedented disillusionment”. What are the main challenges that art and, more specifically literature, are confronted with nowadays?
I guess the major challenge literature is faced with nowadays is adjustment to the completely different landscape that the digital era has introduced. There are many consequences, positive and negative, both in terms of theory and practice. The internet and smartphones have influenced current reading patterns, the time devoted to reading and memorizing abilities. Social media have familiarized unsystematic readers with written language, while they have expanded the boundaries of what we have come to understand as literature. It is no coincidence that on the occasion of Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, many people wondered whether we’ll see the prize being awarded to a blogger or someone who posts on Facebook.
In any case, I believe that in the long run the balance will be positive: everyone will be able to read whatever they want from the comfort of their house, even free of charge, download masterpieces and listen to great music. It’s a diffusion of culture into daily life. As for artists, the major challenge is how to avoid crude and non-creative repetition (not in the sense of saying something new, which is not possible, nor is it the issue), which becomes more difficult given the accumulation of intellectual production over the centuries. It is equally important to assimilate the historical developments that are changing the world, whilst not denying their timelessness.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Read also: Interview of Christos Armando Gezos to Grèece Hebdo (in French)
Alexandros Psychoulis, Greek artist and Associate Professor at the University of Thessaly, showcases his new work in the exhibition "Collective Dizziness Protocol” running at Zina Athanasiadou Gallery (Thessaloniki, November 18- December 10, 2016).
Alexandros Psychoulis** spoke to Greek News Agenda* about his new work which deals with the idea of symbiotic bliss based on his research of the “tsipouroposia” custom (the consumption of tsipouro in taverns) in his home town, Volos, as well as the new Postgraduate Program "Post-Industrial Design: Design and Artistic Practices for the Production of Everyday Life" which he co-directs with architect Zissis Kotionis, at the University of Thessaly.
He also shared his views on the relationship between collective and individual happiness and the reasons why one chooses to become a visual artist.
How did it all start? When did you realize that you want to become an artist?
My father was a chemist and a painter; my mother also painted, as a hobby. Together, they ran a gallery in Volos. Painting was like a game for me. When I realized, later on, that I could also study painting or become a professional artist, I felt I was a lucky man. To this day, my involvement with art is nothing but that game of my childhood years. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve tricked everyone and that I’ve never grown up.
You are show great diversity as an artist, as you’ve experimented with various artistic practices, from painting to theatre. After all of these years, would you say that you can now identify with one particular form of art?
I was always one of those people that wanted to try everything, whose parents and teachers usually try to admonish by telling them: "Don’t do many things, focus on one and do it well." If this advice is not merely an ideological construct, it is certainly a dull recipe. I never tried to prove that one can do a lot of things and do them well, but that everything – that is, "many" things – is one: That different artistic expressions are under the surface associated with the same rules.
I consciously use a different discourse depending on the subject I am exploring. Different subject matters lead to different media. I walk this path with determination, telling myself that I have a commitment towards others, my students and children who enjoy digging, full of guilt, into different things. I hope that, someday in the future, parents will say: "If you want, go ahead and do many different things; you do not need to become a virtuoso, but to tell your own stories in the most honest way."
Can you tell us more about the concept of your new work "Collective Dizziness Protocol"? What was it that sparked your interest to explore this issue?
The starting point of this exhibition is the participation and the subsequent observation of a particular culinary tradition, that of “tsipouroposia”, namely the consumption of tsipouro in the taverns of Volos (the so called “tsipouradika”). It is a unique banquet experience that brings people to a state of camaraderie, tranquility and brief happiness. But not always; in order to have the above results, nine conditions must be met, which I first elaborated in detail, by watching and analyzing the types of this ritual as it evolved in the city, in the course of a hundred years. What cannot be expressed in words is approached with drawings, paintings and sculptures.
The idea of collective happiness is interpreted and attained in different ways across cultures throughout the world. In your view, how important is collective happiness for the Greeks and how is it related with individual happiness?
Starting with the second part of the question, I would say that happiness is never a personal matter. Happiness that cannot be shared is at the same time misery.
One will find that people all around the world pretty much congregate in gatherings that unwind and bring bliss to participants as they collectively take a step beyond their daily reality. If we look at "tsipouro adulation" as a relatively new "ritual" and take a leap comparing it with the tea ceremony in China and Japan - rituals whose roots go back many years – we’ll be faced with two completely different cultural approaches. For instance, in the Japanese tea ceremony, the objective is to reach a "symbiotic bliss". In the “tsipouroposia” in Volos and not only there, one will realize that the result is the unconditional identification in mind and spirit with the others.
Whilst the Greeks are part of western society and culture, they will never give up, on account of temperament and inherited wisdom, their blissful gatherings in the name of overproduction.
You are also an Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture in the University of Thessaly. Was teaching a conscious choice through which you felt you can express yourself, as well as to give-and-take things or one of necessity as a means of earning a livelihood?
I began teaching at the University of Thessaly at the age of 34 – that is, quite early in my life. However, I recall having already begun feeling not so “young” anymore. What I’m saying is that my approach to life had begun being utterly “rational”; the time of questioning had faded, my rage had subsided.
So, I thought that if I started teaching at the University, I could “steal” some of the students’ anger. But things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Times had changed for good. Both my students and I had to create the mood for change in academic terms and not to expect it as a natural impulse.
You are co-director of a new Postgraduate Programme on "Post-Industrial Design”. Does such a thing exist in Greece today, and if so, in what form? What is, in general terms, the relationship between design and fine arts?
In a discussion with the architect and writer Zissis Kotionis, who also teaches at the University of Thessaly Architecture Department, we concluded that – contrary to what happens with industrial design – having a postindustrial approach to design is something that could have a huge range of applications in Greece.
You see, postindustrial design focuses on small scale of production; it redefines the model of production of traditional techniques and is inspired by them so as to even arrive at a singular object, the “transcendental” or “non-utilitarian” object, what we recognize as a work of art.
Despite being one of the most prolific contemporary artists, with many solo and group exhibitions in Greece and abroad, you have stated that “there is no such thing as a career in Greece for visual artists”. What do you mean by that, does it relate to the crisis? If this is true, what are the motives for one to become a visual artist?
The idea of a career as a visual artist in Greece has always seemed like a joke. The Greek state has always been promoting and capitalizing on our ancient Greek heritage, but not contemporary art production; fortunately we’ve never had in Greece the so called “Art Stock Market”, which operates with celebrities.
The crisis simply added the final nail to the coffin even of those artists who had some commercial success.
In Greece, you don’t get involved with Art so as to have a career, become rich or famous. You know this as a fact from the very beginning. From an early stage you look at the future and see the difficulties rising like a mount. If you can give it all up, you do so. If you can’t - if you believe that this form of expression is the only thing that makes you happy- you go on. You become a visual artist because you cannot do otherwise.
* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou
** Alexandros Psychoulis was born in Volos in 1966 and studied Painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts. He is also an Associate Professor of “Art and Technology” at the Architecture Department of the University of Thessaly, Greece and co-director of the new Postgraduate Program "Post-Industrial Design: Design and Artistic Practices for the Production of Everyday Life.
In 1997, he was awarded the Benesse Prize for his work “Black Box”, with which he participated in the 47th Venice Biennial. The exploration of virtual reality territory has been up until now the central drift of his work, which consists of installations, animation and painting, while in his most recent works the element of manual work is also present. He has presented many solo exhibitions such us: “God’sNails” (a.antonopoulou.art Gallery, Athens, 2012), “Under the shadow of Ailanthus Altissima” (Zina Athanassiadou Gallery, Thessaloniki, 2010), “Body Milk” (a.antonopoulou.art Gallery, Athens, 2003) and “There’s no place far enough for you to escape from images and the pain they caused you” (Deitch Projects, New York, 1998).
He has taken part in many group exhibitions, the most important of them being: THE LUMINOUS INTERVAL, Guggenheim Bilbao (2011), THE ARK, Old seeds for new cultures, 12th Biennale International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (2010),Expanded Ecologies/ Perespectives in a Time of Emergency, National Museum of Contemporary Art EMST, Athens, (2009), Transexperiences, Greece (2008), 798 Space, Beijing (2008), Exploring cultural means to combat global homogenization, Foukoutake Hall, Tokyo University (2008), MASQUERADES/ femininity, masculinity and other certainties, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (2006), Positive Charge, State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessalonikι (2006), BIDA Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (2005), Body Works Art Centre of the Municipality of Nicosia, Cyprus (2004), BREAKTHROUGH!, Greece 2004, Contemporary Perspectives in Visual Arts, Alcala, Madrid (2004), ϋber MENSCHEN, "Synopsis 1- Communications" Contemporary Art Museum, Athens (2000).