Anger, resistance and hope. Interview with Katerina Gregos

April 14th, 2014 – , .
Published in Metropolis M website.

ML: The exhibition No Country for Young Men, which opens at BOZAR in Brussels on March 26, 2014, is the first of its kind since the outbreak of the crisis and the largest presentation of contemporary Greek art to take place outside Greece for a decade. How long have you been working on the exhibition? Did it take long to do the research or could you rely on your existing knowledge of the art scene in Greece?

Katerina Gregos: I worked on the exhibition for about a year. Being Greek myself, I already know the Greek art scene well but of course I engaged in further research (in Greece as well as abroad) as I have been away from Greece for more than 7 years now and many new things are happening in the country in recent years in terms of artistic production.

ML: Was this project something you proposed, something you had in mind for a longer time?

KG: I knew that BOZAR was preparing a ‘Focus on Greece’ because of the Greek Presidency of the European Commission and I proposed the show to them. It seemed to me quite strange that, though the crisis is now entering its seventh year, that no exhibition in Greece or abroad had until now addressed this issue. It also seems inconceivable to me to do something on Greece right now and not address this most crucial issue.

ML: As you outline in the press release, the focus on the seven-year Greek crisis has mainly been on the economic, financial or political aspects. The humanitarian disaster is largely ‘ignored’ by the press. Can you give a concrete example of a work that for you brings this humanitarian side of the crisis to the forefront?

KG: The photographic series by Alkis Konstantinidis The Years of The Crisis (started in 2010 and still ongoing), for example, has consistently documented the effects of the crisis: he shows both the soup kitchens, the plight of the migrants, the protesting pensioners, the unemployed, and the increasing homelessness in his work. The Collective Depression Era (comprised of artists, writers and photographers) – who have a satellite exhibition at the Atelier Bouwmeester across the road from BOZAR until May 16 – are consistently looking into the social and humanitarian parameters of the crisis both in the public and in the private domain, through image as well as text; these are two of several examples.

ML: Would you agree that within the European, but also global, discussion of the financial crisis, the focus has been one-sidedly on the monetary side of things? It seems that the dominance of an economically driven way of thinking, making politics, doing the news, creating policies, has culminated in an extremely narrow view of what is happening globally at the moment.

KG: This is precisely the thrust of the neo-liberal project, putting down everything to finance, productivity, incessant growth, numbers – and prioritising the free market and economic figures at the expense of human beings. Christian Marazzi has very correctly called this ‘the violence of financial capitalism’. Greece is simply the most extreme example of the enforcement of the neo-liberal agenda right now. The political status quo and the financial elite of course focus on the abstract side of things because probing the humanitarian and social narratives does not suit them politically. The more abstract something is, the easier it becomes to push through tough measures. It is true that Greece’s economy and public sector needed major ‘restructuring’, how that is being done however, is an entirely different story….One thing that is for certain (until now) is that the crippling austerity measures enforced by the troika have paralysed the economy, resulted in a massive drop in quality of life for a large segment of the Greek population, decimated essential components of the welfare state such as the national health service, as well created new class of poor people. The conditions of material deprivation that one now encounters in Greece are inconceivable for a European country.

ML: It is interesting that you will focus in the exhibition on more positive developments as well, to what you call, more imaginative, poetic or allegorical responses to the current situation. Can you describe the atmosphere and scene on the ground in Greece? How would you typify the moral amongst young artists, writers, curators? How has the crisis affected their options for art production?

KG: It varies from collective depression and anger to acts of resistance, social inventiveness, and solidarity depending on one’s situation. In a sense it is also a paradoxical situation because while the situation is very bad – and does not appear to be improving, despite the proclamations of the government that we are moving ‘in the right direction’ – we are also seeing a sense of social cohesion, of collaborative, bottom-up, and grass roots projects that did not exist before when things were good and individualism was more prevalent. I cannot speak on behalf of all the artists – but in general there is a very great dynamic and momentum in the art scene in Greece right now and many artists are self-organizing. I would say it is indeed a moment of intense introspection and creativity. The crisis has not necessarily affected the notion of production directly because artists in Greece have never really had a strong framework for support, especially from the public sector. Most of them subsisted by holding other jobs in any case, so in that sense the crisis has affected their livelihood, rather than anything else, since many of them have now lost these jobs or seen their salaries reduced. When I asked them a similar question, the answer I’ve been given is “Well, we didn’t have much before (the crisis), we don’t have much now”. The material conditions for artists in Greece have always been difficult.

ML: You did not want to create a typical ‘national exhibition’ showcasing ‘the best off’. You write that No Country for Young Men will bring together a group of around 30 artists, from different generations, working with various media and living in Greece as well as abroad, who are relevant not because of their nationality or artistic status, but because of the relevance of their work at a very crucial historical and political moment. Does this mean that in a non-crisis ridden situation, you would have made different choices? Are there key artists from the Greek canon that are not in the show?

KG: If it wasn’t for the crisis, I am not sure I would make a ‘national’ show. They are mostly rather dull, generalizing affairs. I am doing this show because something very dramatic is happening in Greece and it is important to raise awareness of this in the rest of Europe – as our collective existences are intertwined. At the same time, the crisis has spurred an extraordinary creativity in the country which is, to me, is extremely relevant at the moment. The ‘Greek’ crisis is not something that concerns only the Greeks, it is but an example of worrying economic and political trends that affect or will affect other European countries. It could be seen, also, as a pars pro toto for the global picture.

ML: No Country for Young Men aims to be a lively, kaleidoscopic, sometimes explosive but also poetic visual patchwork that reflects Greece’s turbulent times and generates a sense of urgency, vitality, affective and emotive power, the press release states. I imagine that the exhibition design by Danae Giamalaki plays an important role in creating this, what you call, visual essay. Can you say something about his plans and ways of achieving this?

KG: The exhibition design has intervened in the rather ‘precious’ space of BOZAR’s Antechambres in a very confrontational and intrusive way, breaking the monumentality of the space by creating two main closed ‘tunnels’ which intimate the sense of claustrophobia and the dead-end situation that many Greeks feel today. This has allowed for the space to be broken up into smaller rooms each one of which revolves, loosely, around a specific theme: there is one room that focuses on financial, economic or fiscal issues and how these affect the Greek population; there is a room that focuses on the social dimensions of the crisis and the troubled Greek public sector; there is a room that focuses on the question of the role of the artist in times of crisis and artists who are trying to resist it and are applying their own brand of resistance in different shapes or forms – whether symbolic or through direct action; and there is a room that is more existential and focuses on the psychological consequences of the crisis and how it affects the inner world of human beings. And there is also some humour in the show, because humour is and has always been a major strategy of survival and resistance for the Greeks.