ABSTRACT: In this essay I revisit the overarching themes and the curatorial approach of one of the main exhibitions of Action Field Kodra 2015 visual arts festival (hereby referred as AFK) in Thessaloniki, Greece and discuss its social and political context in view of the financial, political and social crisis. Some of the underlying questions examined are: How can an art festival articulate a statement on the pressing issues of its time addressing local as well as global concerns? Can we contrive artistic responses and curatorial practices to generate new patterns of social interaction and collective meaning? Is theory an appropriate tool for deciphering and communicating these ruminations? How is the ‘body’ used in art and theory both literally, as primary matter and metaphorically, as a concept in the time of crisis? To further substantiate this study, the essay discusses the curatorial concept and strategy, illustrated with some of the artworks featured in the exhibition.*
This essay revisits the overarching themes and the curatorial practices of one of the main exhibitions of Action Field Kodra 2015, Kodra Fresh. I will focus on the social and political context of the exhibition in view of the financial, political and social crisis which has been ravaging the country these past years, looking at it by means of aesthetic and theoretical analysis. Some of the underlying questions are: How can an art festival articulate a statement on the pressing issues of its time addressing local as well as global issues? Can we contrive artistic responses and curatorial practices to generate new patterns of social interaction and collective meaning? Is theory an appropriate tool for deciphering and communicating these ruminations? Moreover, how is the ‘body’ used in art and theory both literally and metaphorically in times of crisis? How can bodies ‘speak’ about what they experience and how can art further visualize that ‘speech’?
Kodra Fresh is an annual exhibition featuring young and emerging artists who have recently graduated from the Schools of Fine Arts in Greece and abroad, an exhibition I had the chance to organize and curate in its two last editions (2014-15). An Open Call delineating the concept of the exhibition invites artists to submit their applications and the curator of the exhibition, in collaboration with a team of art professionals, chooses the final participating artists and artworks. The festival’s central concept for its 2015 edition was “Error”; in the light of the unremitting economic, social and political unrest in the country, exhibitions and events of the festival attempted to reconsider through contemporary artistic practices the financial crisis and its social and political impact. Parallel to the festival, groundbreaking events shook the country and the rest of Europe; referendum on austerity measures, ‘Grexit’ or ‘Graccident’ (accidental Grexit), capital controls, and a whole range of unprecedented shifts turned this period into one of the most tumultuous and troublesome in modern Greek history. In this context, the introductory text of the festival set the theoretical framework thusly:
At a first glimpse, the signified of the word, is negatively charged. Nevertheless, by approaching the signifier, positive concepts are automatically generated, including correction as a need for reintroduction, change as a prerequisite for evolution, response to unpredicted parameters as a means of expression. Starting from the aforementioned theme, the structure of Action Field Kodra 2015 was developed on the basis of models for tackling crises that result from an erroneous process. “Error” defines a condition which is terminal but not stagnant. It may be the milestone of a deviation or a change of course and therefore redefines the entire reference framework of a society, of its activity and concerns, its artistic creation and initiatives.1
Art Festivals in the Realm of the Real
Embodying Crisis: Problematizing the ‘Error’
“The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none.
Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again.”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
In the beginning of the 20th century (1915–1917), Sigmund Freud argued in his lectures at the University of Vienna about the value of errors, that is, those recurrent actions or omissions that are regularly seen as symptomatic, superfluous, or simply useless. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was first published in 1901, and A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1917. In both monographs, the father of psychoanalysis attempts, using numerous examples, to prove that speech, writing, hand, memory, or typewriting slips—to name only a few indicative categories with which he engages—must be dealt with as symptoms of important mental processes. As he puts it:
We know not only that they [errors] are psychic acts, in which we can recognize meaning and purpose, and that they arise through the mutual interference of two different intentions, but, in addition, we know that one of these intentions must have undergone a certain suppression in order to be able to manifest itself through interference with the other. The interfering intention must itself first be interfered with before it can become interfering. […] But errors are compromise formations. They mean some success and some failure for each of the two purposes. The endangered intention is neither completely suppressed nor does it […] come through wholly intact.2
Errors as symptoms of an unintentional or intentional repression in all their possible manifestations—such as in expressions of conflict, competition and eventually synthesis or compromise—echoed for many decades a part of philosophical (or otherwise) contemplation.
Carrying such concerns over to the field of contemporary art we immediately find ourselves in travelled paths; improvisation, experiment, deflection and the preconscious intruded into the artistic adventures a long time ago, apparent already in the movements of modernism (dada, surrealism, fluxus, abstract expressionism, and, of course, later on, in performance, new media, glitch art, etc.). However, this proclivity that artistic creation has, according to the historical context, each time reformulates its rules and frame of reference. Approaching the topic from the field of Art History, Pepi Rigopoulou is correct when she argues that “if we examine the movements of the second half of the 20th century more broadly, we will ascertain that many elements, like the mask and the doll, man and wife, […] the usage of the body, […] the mechanical, ritualistic, political, the scandalous and grotesque element (and more), repeat basic traits of the artistic creation of the early 20th century.”3
Under this thematic umbrella, Kodra Fresh was organized as an exhibition experimenting with the notion of the accident, the slip, the discontinuity. Titled “Happy Accidents”, Kodra Fresh formulated an incongruous artistic constellation, a series of audio-visual studies on conflict, irony and interference as structural elements of artistic creation. Nineteen artists were featured, approaching with sensitivity – yet sarcastically – stereotypes and standardization, representation of the self and its malfunctions, psychological mechanisms of pleasure and transcendental faith, contemporary visualizations of the body and deformation (as for instance in Spyros Procopiou’s paintings).
In AFK 2015, for the first time, the traditional senior and graduate students’ exhibition was accompanied by a pilot project that had a rigorous educational character. The project was the result of a close collaboration with distinguished emerging artists, who are best known for deploying innovative approaches in their respective fields. It was actualized in cooperation with Athens Video Dance Project (AVDP), and the visual artist and performer Fotini Kalle. A three-day intensive workshop on videodance—a hybrid medium combining dancing and cinematography—, a scheduled projection of international videodance artworks, and a four-hour masterclass on the art of performance (both theory and practice) were the result of it.
Forms of living art engaged with the human body are deeply concerned with power relations and the subsequent deviations from them, for the body has always been the site of desire as well as abjection, vulnerability, trauma, transformation, violence and annihilation; surely no art form can demonstrate a more powerful affinity to the questions of Error and Happy Accidents considered in the context of socio-political antagonism. Thinking about the crisis in a multi-faceted manner, one can immediately realize that the body is a collective, primary subject under attack; impoverishment, cutbacks in the public health system and the rise of extreme political ideas, increasing violence in the public space, all pertaining to the aftermath of the crisis, threaten the very idea of bodily existence.
In addition to the parallel program which was entirely dedicated to bodily artistic practices, the opening evening hosted Thodoris Trampas’ performance Two Worlds. The artist, by using his body in a choreographic struggle for balance, tried to overpower the weight of a big piece of ice. A rope, fastened on the ceiling, held the two “bodies” that were tied to its ends. After a while, as the performance unfolded, Trampas shattered the ice, releasing in this way his body from the counterbalancing forces, while also delivering it to inescapable gravity. Hence, oscillations as well as swinging were terminated. A system of relationships that demonstrated the interdependent reliance that keeps us accountable for our actions—and also for the actions of others—was mapped and deconstructed through the force and intensity that the body alone can release in live action.
Body and Power Structures: On the Verge of Aesthetics
“That logic of the bodies that are found in place in a distribution of the communal and the private, which is also a distribution of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, I have suggested to call it ‘police.’ Politics is the act that rends police’s order […] Politics begins when a breach occurs in the distribution of spaces and abilities—and inabilities.”
Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator
In Yolanda Gail Devers, 1992, Giorgos Nikas presents a video projection and a two channel audio installation. He focuses on the finishing moment of the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the Barcelona Olympic Games. Using archival material from the photo finish, Nikas concentrates on the instrument that is used in track and field sports to ensure the legitimacy and accuracy of the competition and of the athletes’ performances. The leading athlete from the U.S.A., who fell a few meters before the finish, gave the win to the Greek athlete. The viewer is embosomed by the American broadcast of the competition from one of the audio channels, and the Greek broadcast from the other. This “happy accident” that filled the Greeks with national pride had the reverse effect for the American people. By transliterating a sporting event into an artistic idiom, Nikas matches two fields against each other, that is, sports and art. How disputable is the objectivity of either success or failure? The perspectives of the viewers and of the acting subject are intertwined so as to shake the manifold scheme of “error”, in a space as strict and measurable as in sports. The bodies of the athletes, an ideal subject for accurate measurement, comparison and evaluation in the commercialized and spectacularized global sports arena, are thus transformed into objects of artistic detournement. Even in the case of such an extremely standardised bodily performance, a simple rearrangement of the video and audio representation of the event in question, reveals the versatility of roles, positions and expected reactions.
Thinking about the body, the social field and power relations in contemporary artistic practices naturally invites us to consider Jacques Rancière’s emblematic writings, specifically regarding our initial question of collective meaning and knowledge production through social interaction initiated by artistic gestures. In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière explores the relationships developed between the artist, artwork and spectator. Already in the beginning of his study, he acknowledges that the field of modern art is the space where reigns the principle of “[blurring] the distribution of roles” and of trespassed “boundaries” of what hitherto were distinct fields of knowledge and technique.4 By focusing his polemic on critical art and tradition, the French philosopher points out three different directions that such a tendency may follow: the first appertains to a form of “consumerist hyper-activism” or even “outsize[d] artistic egos.”5 The second, often hand-in-hand with the first, is articulated based on a broader, postmodern reality of “a constant exchange of role and identities, the real and the virtual, the organic and mechanical and information-technology prostheses.”6 For the third alternative, Rancière holds the challenge not of impressing or riveting the spectator but, on the contrary, of problematizing “the cause-effect relationship itself and the set of presuppositions that sustain the logic of stultification.”7 Puzzled primarily by the means of theatre and performance, Rancière makes a claim for an artistic practice in which the spectators “play the role of active interpreters” and “develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story.” After all, as he argues, “[a]n emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.”8
Taking all this into the realm of the socio-political, if late capitalism seems to have incorporated the subversive demands of the historical movements of the past—during the 60’s and, mainly, that of May 1968 in France—it did so by spreading the illusion of the individual’s limitless ability to ‘play’ both in isolation as well as with the world around her/him. Clearly, this propensity was linked to the identitarian political issues of that period. However, decades later, the outcome of those encounters seems at least unsettled. The promise of limitless individual autonomy and self-determination in western democracies in turn begot two counterbalancing powers: the left-wing melancholy—which has profoundly influenced the ambient nostalgic syndrome—and the revived right-wing frenzy.9 Both trends seem shockingly relevant to the current Greek status quo, but also to the European one; while left parties and movements have either become miserable governmental managers of neoliberal austerity policies or downscaled to a state of inertia, far right ideologies and populist rhetoric are undoubtedly on the rise.
Shifting back to theory again, the origins of Rancière’s proposition are to be found in his previous studies, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987) and The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2004). In these two works he outlines a definition of aesthetics with which he establishes the foundation of politics as the “delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise.”10 Who speaks, who is listened to, who is visible and who is not; they all comprise organic parts of the current aesthetic and political regime. For Rancière, the hope for emancipation and for art’s subversive power is traced in the redistribution of the roles and the disordering of the hitherto allocated positions. The radical subversion of how we conceptualize the notions of spectator as passive recipient in contrast to the agencies of action and speech are at the core of his proposal. After all, as he explicitly contends, “[t]he arts only ever lend to projects of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible.”11
Nevertheless, what really defines artistic creativity is its interpolation as the third factor in the transmission of the supposed knowledge, narration, or feeling between agent and spectator. The presumption that calls for the form as the vehicle of a smooth transmission of a specific message from the former (transmitter) to the latter (recipient) is unwarranted and unjustified, as this third factor comprises the undecidable, which is what will eventually determine the personal spiritual adventure for both transmitter and recipient.12 The idea of noise and the parasite, dominant in Michel Serres’ book The Parasite, is clearly echoed here, as noise and interference were a recurrent pattern in many featured artworks.
For instance, in Saul Sanchez’s video Hier, bleib, nein, a German shepherd receives orders from an unknown person we cannot see; we only hear his steady, authoritative tone. The stable camera records the animal’s reactions, who completely ignores the orders. It walks around, rests, stands, always in perfect non-conformity to both the synchronicity of the order’s articulation as well as its content. The loud orders in German dominate the dark projection room but remain untranslated (there are no subtitles in the video), with no meaning whatsoever for either the video’s protagonist or the viewers. They are but noise to their ears.
Evita Pagona presented an installation consisting of three paintings and one video. In her portraits, she explored representation at the brink of magical realism by presenting in an intense atmospheric fashion persons with mental and sleeping disorders (Dysania), trapped in a distressing idleness, unable to respond to external stimuli—persons hermetically sealed in their troubled, alien internal world. The Sequence video was a composition of sound and image coming from the public speeches of two persons, both leaders of their groups: the fundamentalist ecclesiastical representative and the extreme racist/fascist Greek political party, Golden Dawn. The declarations of hate they articulate were mixed together. The images of the speakers succeeded one another and the correspondence between face and voice was breached. Who speaks, what does he say, and who is listening? Who can manage to escape in this general tumult? Who can react? Speech and image are thus deconstructed and reconstituted within an eruption of musical rhythms and driving visual effects; positions are disrupted, faces as active subjects and passive recipients are walking on tightropes in an insecure balance. The distinction between validation/document and mythmaking is now indiscernible. Without anticipating a rearrangement of the positions, the installation questions this certainty, spreading the scent of a forthcoming possibility. Will the still recipients manage to stand against this cascade or will they remain boxed into their careful frames?
In both examples, bodies find themselves amidst a dysfunctional communication system, albeit articulated in very different terms. What is most interesting, not only about these two cases but also about the majority of the featured artworks, is that artists managed to demonstrate through such incongruous ways that a different configuration of objects, images and sound displayed through art can showcase bodies in distress while at the same time invite visitors to participate, acknowledge and instantly share their condition.
I have tried to delineate the curatorial concept and approach as well as some of the featured artworks in Action Field Kodra 2015, using them as an example of how a medium scale art show can handle timely concerns without being overwhelmed by them. In my opinion, it would be more than arrogant and pretentious to claim that an art event can do much more than that. Nevertheless, in our case, the focus on active participation and new collaborations, the flexible curatorial concept, and an unflinching commitment to the promotion of young artists and experimental art forms, created a space for a very open process of shared creativity where the ‘body’ of the exhibition, the bodies of the performers, those of the visitors and all kinds of participants came together and produced knowledge, experience and new meanings. However implicitly, most of the artists attempted to respond to these critical times, avoiding straightforward references which could easily lapse into clichéd imagery. We witnessed the body in deformation, in trauma, in challenge and suffering, in indifference and disobedience. Visualizations of liminal conditions, such as the deep crisis we are experiencing right now, tend to withhold smooth interpretations. Nonetheless, the body, as a clear index of human existence, undergoes this transitional and, at times, traumatic process, and artistic practices seem to be a very appropriate means to communicate this process.
I would like to conclude this brief analysis by citing Pepi Rigopoulou’s words in praise of artistic creation: “[…] the language of images has a driving rhythm and an irreconcilable inscrutability, which discourse struggles to catch and subjugate without ever completely accomplishing it.”13
*Parts of this essay were initially written for the AFK 2015 exhibition catalogue (upcoming publication) of which the author is a co-curator. Those parts were translated from Greek to English by the team of interpretit (http://www.interpretit.eu/).
1 Excerpt from the AFK 2015 curators’ text written by the author, Dimitris Michalaros and Panagis Koutsokostas (Main Curators/Coordinators).
2 Freud, Sigmund, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Translated by G. Stanley Hall. New York: Horace Liveright, 1920, 54–55.
3 Pepi Rigopoulou, Το Σώμα: Ικεσία και Απειλή [Body: Appeal and Threat]. Athens: Plethron, 2008, 329. She returns to the same topic, this time with a different articulation, on pp. 541–542.
4 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 20–21.
5 Ibid., 21.
7 Ibid., 22.
9 Ibid., 37.
10 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Continuum, 13.
11 Ibid., 19.
12 Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London and New York: Verso, 14–18. As he characteristically puts it, “[i] is the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between them excluding any uniform transmission any identity of cause and effect” (15).
13 Pepi Rigopoulou, Το Σώμα: Ικεσία και Απειλή [Body: Appeal and Threat]. Athens: Plethron, 2008, 116.