Debts, unemployment, eviction, tax refunds – the crisis is omnipresent in Greece. Or so it seems in a country that is officially stagnating, where people’s fear of the future is part of every conversation, where people are desperate for jobs and facing cuts in their lifestyles on a daily basis. With this picture on my mind I travelled to Patras, where I was invited to curate an exhibition in the course of the Re-Culture III Festival, with the overarching topic “risk”. And what else than connecting Greece’s precarious situation with this topic? With the intention to exemplify that art is more than the finished product and that artists play a vital role in community engagement, I put together the concept of “zukunftsspekulation” – or at least I intended to seed the chance of change in the depressed Greek’s state of mind…
Once in Patras, I encountered a totally different atmosphere. I didn’t perceive a country in resignation, depression or poverty. Many families and companies face reductions and are forced to save, no doubt about that, the restaurants, cafes and shops were buzzing nevertheless – the Greeks aren’t hiding away in their homes. No. They are facing those precarious times by going out and getting through rough times together. It even seemed like they were growing closer as a community. What is more, their generosity was heartwarming. I was touched and impressed by the joy and unquestioned giving, sharing and exchanging of goods and services by each and everyone.
And I was experiencing this firsthand at Re-Culture III, the cultural festival in Patras. The festival could attract over a hundred volunteers, who were organizing the exhibitions and hosting numerous international artists and curators. Everyone did a great job in acquiring workforce, sponsors, artists and curators to work together on a meaningful event that took place in two locations, which usually remain empty. Art and the art market are factors that certainly cannot rescue an economy in decline, but the festival demonstrated that it has the power to become a vital part in people’s lives, even if it’s (just) in reference to occupation. And I’m not talking about occupation in terms of employment (as they were all volunteers), but in terms of activity, of engagement with the community and of relevance, experience and getting the chance to make new acquaintances. It was a joyful festival, with its various hickups of course, but the volunteers and visitors seemed to appreciate the breath of fresh air in Patras.
What is more, everyone learned from each other – that’s maybe what Adam Szymczyk tries to demonstrate with his decision to stage documenta 14 partly in Greece after all. “Learning from Athens” is what he calls it and after being in the country, I have a better understanding of what the title could imply. I learned that we, the “wealthy Westerners”, really are pretentious (even though I’ve always tried to fend off this attitude) in terms of knowledge superiority. My inititial concept was to bring a glimmer of hope to the Greeks, to make them believe that change and risk can be good. In hindsight, I learned that Greek people really do not need to get informed about this – they master the act of finding ways out of the valley themselves perfectly.
Concept and works of the exhibition in Patras:
In order to make decisions – be it personal, monetary or political – one is always confronted with a certain amount of risks; after all you trust in a positive outcome. Threats and chances lie in a pan: Options are analyzed, weighed, and speculated with. At the same time one faces a mighty valley, where you can either remain at its cliffs, run back, or venture into the future.
If you decide on the latter, one will automatically be drawn into confronting fate and challenging failure. Profit and loss, hope and disappointment, happiness and pain, criticism and consensus are not mutually exclusive in this process – it rather sparks tensions that continuously hovers between intensification and relief.
The exhibition zukunftsspekulation aims at becoming the stage of this tension, on which the thematic heat – seething, for example, in economic, ecological, political, social, emotional areas – comes into play. Starting point of the works is their socially relevant context and the conditions under which they arise. The artists do not aim at THE finished product but on the commitment and participation of the viewer. They deal with circumstances in the world that affect them directly; they integrate their personal situation. The specially conceived works, thus, consist of social and functional interventions that define themselves by the reinforcement of socially relevant projects. Its themes revolve around the speculative nature of art and the financial market, ecology, education and politics, and their (positive and negative) side effects onto the future.
BENTEN CLAY and Vassiliea Stylianidou try not only to reflect on the phenomenon of “speculation”, moreover they provide alternatives, solutions, and a glimmer of hope for the future and a possible way out of “the valley”.
RE-CULTURE III (8th of November to 28th of December 2015), a cultural festival in Patras, Greece, that is to connect to the success of the previous two years, offers together with its overarching theme of “Risk” a suitable platform for the exhibition zukunftsspekulation. With the aim of integrating contemporary art and culture into society, of making it accessible to a wide audience and of inviting visitors to participate, the festival constitutes a futile breeding ground for the selected projects. Finally, the common goal is the focus on open education, on a stronger involvement of art and culture with the Greek society, and to accommodate all festival visitors with common reflection, discussion, and commitment.
BENTEN CLAY is the German collective of the two artists Sabine Schründer and Vera Hofmann, as well as the global ‘Company’ with focus on the long-term project “Age of an End”. With it they investigate phenomena of the present time, such as the limitation of natural resources, manifestations and mechanisms of power, and uncontrollable factors of human endeavor.
Billboards are defined as large outdoor advertising structures, found in high-traffic areas and typically designed to catch the passer’s attention quickly and effectively. Greece’s landscape is adorned with these billboards, once the sign for a healthy economy, now the remnants of failed capitalism. As turnover in retail trade has dropped drastically since 2009, advertising companies that own these billboards have suffered greatly from the economic crisis, as have those advertised in an attempt to reduce advertising expenses.
But what happens to a billboard if this specific function gets lost; if its message is gone? What do they mean in a country where the purchasing power is declining incessantly, where advertisement seems redundant and consumerism a wish for the future? BENTEN CLAY photographed these many billboards found on the streets while on a road trip throughout Greece. Worn by time and negligence, they became detached spaces, empty surfaces, anonymous places. The photos of the project “blank” are orbiting a condition which is marked by economic depression, uncertainty and wasteland.
BENTEN CLAY´s participative installation opens up possibilities for transformation and the reclaiming of mental and physical territories. In coloring books comprised of 146 black and white photographs, visitors are invited to perceive these blank spaces afresh. They get the chance to re-appropriate the blankness, to give this kind of emptiness a new meaning, to leave a message, or to solely beautify the landscape in a child-like, meditative fashion.
The coloring books will become the «Patras Edition», as part of a long-term project. Follow its progress on http://www.bentenclay.com
For Vassiliea Stylianidou the artistic process involves a constant renegotiation of public and private history as well as public and private spaces. Stylianidou´s work deals with the limits inherent in systems of order and discipline such as architecture, family, nature, power, gender, and language. Her work strives to create a richly associative model for a new (impossible) historical revision that challenges the viewer to re-cycle and re-construct the present within one’s personal history.
“SUSTAIN YOUR DEBT / RE WRITE THE CURRENCY (THIS IS NOT A STRIKE)“, 2014
Peiraiki-Patraiki (Πειραϊκή-Πατραϊκή) was one of Greece’s largest textile producers, with a production that was said to be able to cover the Hellenic coastline twice over. At a time it was Greece’s second largest employer with about 10,000 workers. It was the stage a collective consciousness was inscribed as it “dressed, turned out and set to order” the Greek society, its products became synonymous for the integration of Greeks into the Western “modern” world. However, in the early 1980s Piraiki Patraiki was nationalized and closed down. Subsequently, the company’s name stood for large scale, long-term unemployment.
With “SUSTAIN YOUR DEBT / RE WRITE THE CURRENCY (THIS IS NOT A STRIKE)“, Vassiliea is incorporating the company’s most iconic product – the school uniform ‘Laura’, which was mandatory in Greek schools until the PASOK government in the 80s. Each one of the fabrics will bear a letter, all of them together creating the phrase “ΑΠΕΡΓΙΑΣ ΕΡΓΟΝ” (“LABOUR STRIKE-LABOUR”) with which she is connecting the debts that are perpetually piling up by unpaid (artistic) labor/production to the realities of Greek’s society. A society that is threatened daily by the consequences of an economy in crisis.
In a series of conversations with economists from Berlin and Greece, Vassiliea is exploring the possibilities of coining a ‘new currency’, with which the precarious conditions of artistic, mostly unpaid, labor can be measured without using the conventional monetary system. In this project, which kicked off after she indebted herself by not being able to pay the material for her installation (“PRODUCTION! PRODUCTION! PRODUCTION! The Design of the Debt!”, 2013), Vassiliea intends to find positive solutions to clear her (and the economy’s) debts. “How can we create a new currency, a new coin with exchange value from the reserve of that accumulated debt which originates in the accumulation of unpaid work?”. Her goal is not to find a utopian solution but rather to suggest a model with which to value and exchange (unpaid) work and (accumulated) energy with something different to money.