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Review of Alexis, a Greek tragedy

9 Jan

Alexis, A Greek Tragedy, a new production by the Italian group MOTUS presented in Under The Radar Festival,is in many ways a theatrical essay on the character of Antigone and its projection into contemporary questions of social dissent. Its premise is simple: who is Antigone today? As we are told in the play the group Motus conducted workshops exploring that question when they heard of the shooting of 15 year old Alexis Grigoropoulos by the police and the subsequent widespread rioting in the centre of Athens in 2008. The group set on a trip to Greece in search of Antigone and collecting information on the events. This quest fed into their workshop process and the result was the creation of Alexis: a documentary theater piece including footage of the riots and the neighborhood of Exarchia (where the shooting happened) interviews with residents and intellectuals of the area, personal thoughts of the group’s journey, rehearsals of scenes from the tragedy interspersed with comments in the artistic process itself, explorations on how facts from the actual events can influence the performance of Antigone. According to its creators, Alexis is a call to action. Oddly, the performance (created in 2010) feels already outdated and surpassed by the reality outside the theater hall: the massive worldwide protest movement makes Alexis seem like a thing of the past (slightly reminiscent of those 1970s experiments at getting the bourgeois audiences out of their comfy seats, only the bourgeoisie has now become the 99%) where action is talked about as a concept while theatrical action itself is absent.

Tragic action-social action

Antigone is focused around the burial of Polynices’ corpse. The statesman Creon has prohibited the burial on the grounds that Polynices is an enemy of the state and Antigone defies his decree and buries her brother on the grounds of familial and religious duty. The dead body and the act of burial trigger a conflict between different sets of responsibilities (to the family and to the state) that a citizen carries in a democracy. In the course of the play the two poles of the conflict (Antigone, Creon) become increasingly fixated in their viewpoints bringing about equally personal and civic catastrophe. In between those two extremes there is a physically present chorus of elderly who maintains allegiance to Creon while trying to inspire some moderation in him, as well as an invisible implied chorus, the body of citizens, who, we are told, support Antigone in her action but are too afraid to speak up.

One would expect that a contemporary attempt to grapple with the figure of Antigone – given especially her popularity in explorations of civic disobedience- would thoroughly dig into the dynamics of the conflict between her and Creon, the significance of the tragic elements (i.e. tragic action, chorus) and the play’s structure (how the characters shift in the course of the play) beyond the easy and overused binary symbolism Antigone=resistance/ Creon=tyranny. It becomes therefore shockingly surprising to see how little thought and exploration of the actual tragedy has gone into Alexis: beyond the premise “who is Antigone today” and few text excerpts, there’s really not any committed engagement with the tragedy itself,its ideas, questions, characters or dramatic structure. As a result, the investigation of who Antigone might be today becomes very problematic insofar as the play limits its interpretation of the tragic character of Antigone to a generic and generalized symbol of resistance stripped of any context. Questions of allegiance and responsibility to civic and private obligations, as well as the character traits that make the tragic heroes hold on to their beliefs beyond self-doubt, give way in Alexis to a romanticized/idealized depiction of dissent, seen as a virtue in and of itself, and an a priori demonization of the state as a mechanism of oppression. What in the tragedy is structural (the state becomes increasingly repressive) in Alexis is essentialized (the state is by definition repressive). In the Greek context where Motus’ production is set, both notions of repression and dissent are a lot more complicated as the former is usually accompanied by extreme lawlessness while the latter, when it is not pure state-sponsored violence, is often lacking in ideological foundation.

With the same ease that the play appropriates Antigone as an unproblematic symbol of resistance, it uses the dead body of Alexis Grigoropoulos as a “stand-in” for the dead body of Polynices. A parallel is drawn between Creon’s proclamation that the warrior’s body is to be left unburied “a feast to the wild birds” and the Greek police’s reaction of shooting and then abandoning the boy’s body in Exarchia square. Here the performance misses a very crucial point: Polynices’ dead body is heavy with meaning: he is a disenfranchised heir to the throne, who came back to claim his rights and now he is proclaimed an enemy of the city; he is a brother, a citizen and a leader and the sum of these conflictual roles and responsibilities render his burial a crucial political issue (in Greek tragedy the personal and the political are always conflated). By contrast, what was tragic about the shooting of Alexis Grigoropoulos was the complete lack of meaning. The shooting was pure accident – the term accident here used in fully existential terms to denote a life being lost at the flip of a coin: the boy, a middle class teenager from the suburbs of Athens who was in that evening hanging out with his friends in Exarchia square, provoked the police, an exchange of insults ensued, the police car followed the kids who threw some empty cans at them, the policeman came out, fired and shot the kid dead. It is precisely the complete accidentality of the event (so reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault shooting at the Arab in The Stranger), the ultimate absence of any serious reason, motivation, meaning, politics or ideology behind this clash between citizen and authority, that caused an unprecedented rioting in the city: it was as if the shooting signaled the eruption of bottled feelings of lawlessness, lack of governance, meaninglessness experienced among Greeks for years, generalized feelings that actions don’t matter and don’t make a difference because no one is ever held accountable even if a life gets lost so absurdly in the middle of the street. The riots that erupted were riots of despair, anger and not protests of change, destructive and hopeless. This in fact was more of an anti-tragedy, closer to the world of Camus’ where meaning is lost, than to the world of tragedy’s multiple negotiations of meanings and significations that are equally valid for their defenders and are worth dying for.

This is why Motus’ exploration of who Antigone is does not go too far (despite rather shallow attempts such as “Antigone is the protesters” or “Antigone is the Exarchia square that still resists”): in forcing their own rather narrow meaning and oversimplified binaries (protesters vs.state) onto reality the performance misses the far more rich and productive complexity of the actual social conflict. A good look into the reality (not only of Greece but anywhere in the world where indignation boils) will reveal the diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, interests and motivations of protesting, the messy, unclassifiable and conflictual collective as all collectives are in such moments of profound social change. Such a look might have engaged the group into a deeper exploration into finding what are the intricate relations between leader and led that tragedy may be able to illuminate in the dialectic relationship between heroes and hero and chorus. Not doing so and imposing premeditated meanings on such a crucial historical moment instead, is, as one reviewer rightly notes,an indication of irresponsibility. While Alexis raises interesting and provocative questions, it seems that the performance as a whole misses the opportunity, artistic and intellectual, to go deeper into the intersections between tragedy and life.

A laboratory of social change

22 Jun

For several weeks now the movement of the “Indignados” – the ‘outraged’- has taken over the public squares first in Spain, and subsequently in Greece and other European cities. Very interestingly none of the major newspapers and agencies gave any attention or coverage to the movement despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people peacefully manifest daily demanding a better life. As usual the manifestations attracted the interest of the media only when there was trouble- clashes with the police, and massive tear gassing of the demonstrators as in the case of Athens on Wednesday June 15th. Yet what needs to be stressed (and mainstream media shy away from) as a small number of writers have accurately observed, is the importance of these movements in putting forward new ways of conceiving and practicing democracy, new concepts of communication and collective action.

In a recent article in the Deutsche Welle, two academics engage in a very interesting discussion of the radical shifts in the European political imaginary with their starting point being the coverage of the Greek “indignados” in the German press:

Demonstrations in Syntagma square in Athens, June 2011

“The media reproduction of the movement in Syntagma square is a of a purely exotic nature in Germany.” says Vassilis Tsianos. “This exoticization has to do on the one hand with a Greek peculiarity which is the great love for uprisings. On the other hand it has to do with the fact that in Germany people cannot comprehend the intensity and dimensions of the social changes currently happening in Greece. The result is the dominance of an exoticizing gaze which often contains racist elements as we saw a few days ago when Ms. Merkel made the remark that the Greeks are lazy and should be working more.”

Simon Teune adds that the lack of coverage of such demonstrations in Germany is also due to a type of political fatalism among Germans: “In Germany such manifestations around economic and social issues like in Greece and Spain, are not taken seriously into account because there is a belief that the decision-making in such matters – privatizations or lowering of wages- are incontestable and there are no alternatives”.

Both Tsianos and Teune agree on the imaginative and social power of this movement. Looking at its role at a European level, Tsianos says that:

“In this moment, the Mediterranean is a vast social and imaginative laboratory of social reconstruction and of a new relationship to politics that has no relation to existing political parties or the existing political system. Presently Europe experiences an immense democratic challenge that comes from the Mediterranean.”

Source: Deutsche Welle
Translated from the Greek by A. Stathaki

Redefining art in a changing world: “artivism”

14 Mar

From February 18th to April 2nd at the Sorbonne in Paris, the Master’s program in Cultural Projects in Public Spaces organizes weekly meetings/discussions on artivism: a concept that explores the intersections between art and politics in the public sphere. According to the organizers

“artivisme is the art of activist artists. It is at times art without artists but with militants. Art that is engaged and engaging, that seeks to mobilise us, to make us take a stance, to propose tolls of action and transformation. Just as the queer proposed the existence of a third gender beyond the male and the female, similarly artivisme suggests that there is a third term between aesthetics and politics”.

While the concept of socially engaged art is not new, it is interesting that it reemerges in public debate and in major institutions at this particular time of major political shifts and economic anxiety in a European social context characterized by depression and insecurity. In that sense it is a very hopeful response, and by no means the only one, that seeks to re-define the role of the citizen/artist.

Click here for more information.

View video [in French]:
Qu'est-ce que l'artivisme ? by artespacepublic

Book overview: Barcelona plays

1 Dec

The Barcelona Plays- a collection of new works by Catalan playwrights, published by the Martin E. Segal Theater Center in 2008 is only one of the many interesting volumes that the Segal has published to complement its really diverse and crosscultural work in promoting international theater and bridging research and practice. This particular collection includes plays by Josep M. Benet I Jornet, Sergi Belbel, Lluisa Cunille and Pau Miro all set against the Catalan capital, whose life and identity runs through the collected works as a common underlying theme.
Unlike your average tourist’s perception of Barcelona, the city here is a stifling, dark, rainy environment of cruel, disfunctional and often abusive relationships between families and lovers. From this somber background, emerge the portraits of young whores and lonely dying citizens [It’s raining in Barcelona and Barcelona, Map of shadows], failed parents and awe-inspiring foreigners [Strangers]; young artists in search of identity [Salamander]. While thematically the plays vary a lot, there seems to be a common theatrical language: the brutal confrontational relationships and the quick and abrupt speech [you will find very few lengthy monologues in the plays] are undercut by a poetic sensibility that gives the plays their particular theatricality: the characters who grow and who confront one another across time and space in Belbel’s Strangers; Lali’s collection of poems on candy-wraps in Miro’s It’s raining in Barcelona; or the apartment with the many rooms and as many lonely inhabitants in Cunille’s Barcelona, Map of Shadows. In all of those settings, people seem to be put together and must live together: rarely in all of the plays do we know how, why and when all the people came to live together under one roof. Thus the focus is placed on characters who are engaged in a battle of dealing with their bond to others – primarily family and lovers, of trying to identify in relation to these others. In that sense in particular that the plays differ drastically from, say, a Chekhovian or a North American dramaturgy: the question is not about individual fates and dreams crashed or shaped by one’s choices, surroundings and the others. Rather what is at question is a bond, the umbilical cord, that one cannot live with and cannot live without, and the constant struggle to live with and break free from the ones one is most tied to as their fates, choices and even identities are intertwined.
What is particularly interesting in this theme that runs throughout the plays in the collection and in the poetic-realistic style by which it is expressed, is whether it may open the discussion to explore the presence not only of a Catalan but of a Southern European- Mediterranean dramaturgy.

Lek, absurdity and contemporary Albania’s cultural inertia

27 Sep

By Ekphrasis Studio

Carl Jung, the renowned psychologist, has claimed that “we inherit the greater part of our belief system at a young age”. This system is supported by cultural practices and shapes us up to the point when we decide to examine and/or challenge it. In Albania, cultural and economic isolation produce a cultural inertia – a resistance to change- manifested in one of the most regular daily exchanges, that of money transaction: the “lek” [the national money introduced in 1926 by King Zog and revaluated by Enver Hoxha in 1965] despite its transition from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is used as ‘new’ while comprehended or communicated as ‘old’. The result is the use of two names [‘old’ and ‘new’], two values and two different types of writing which leads to communication clashes not dissimilar to the theater of the absurd:

A man asks a shopkeeper for 200 lek of cheese, and the shopkeeper struggles to
fill a small container. The man then ‘corrects’ himself by saying “2,000 lek”, to
which the shopkeeper responds, “Oh, I thought you meant 2 lek!” The shopkeeper
then fills the container with ‘2,000 lek’ worth of cheese, and the man pays 200 lek.

Subject to this cultural inertia, Albanians have for decades resisted the ‘new’ face-value lek and have created an un-real experience where 1 is not 1, but is 10. The result is that on a daily basis the consumer must try to decipher if the price talked about is ‘new’ or ‘old’. Conventional logic, where presumably one means what one says, in this case is subverted: there is no conflict when both money users speak the false price, but the consumer who speaks the true number written on the lek is likely to cause confusion. What inevitably ensues is a distrust of language as a means of communication surrounding the use of the lek with its additional ‘new’/‘old’ reference, extra decimal spaces and large numbers. This is particularly true if viewed from the point of view of a foreigner who, witnessing a casual exchange, experiences something akin to watching a piece of absurd theater – the theater of the ‘old’ lek:

A buyer walks into a shop with no prices listed. “How much are the potatoes?” she asks.
“Six-thousand-five hundred-and-fifty-five old lek.” She then pays 655 ‘new’ lek, and
continues on her way.

The ‘old’ lek is still referred to as such by government officials, media outlets, educators, and virtually every business in Albania, let alone by the people. Why such a cultural resistance in allowing language to evolve on this issue? There are several obvious reasons: time, in many ways is stuck in Albania and while many changes occur very quickly, others do not. Many people still live as they did decades ago, and most cannot freely travel to compare the local state of time and place with that of elsewhere. Old mentalities and ‘norms’ still reign supreme. Even today, Albanians remain isolated from the world, as well as within their country. There are visa issues, transportation issues, even a ban on the use of motor boats. The lek is also isolated in that Albania does not produce much to give it value, nor is it a major global currency, thus relatively
unimportant and somewhat idle, along with unemployment rates ranging from 12%-30%.
These social conditions together with culture’s self-reinforcing cycles [to go back to Jung] supported by family, education and social life, result in the recycling of absurd communication patterns such as those surrounding the ‘lek’.

Talking about each other

3 Sep

By Aktina

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Anthony Lane offers a review of Fatih Akin’s latest movie, Soul Kitchen (Slice and dice, p. 86). I am not so interested in engaging with his analysis of the movie which I find to have largely missed the point along with the film’s humanity. I am most interested in something he mentions in passing which I found disquieting. Writing about the way the Greek- German hero of the movie and his brother deal with the “craziness that befalls them, seem[ing] both settled and sketchy”  he makes the following, comment, in parentheses:

There could be a simpler reason for this: they are Greeks, and it would be a miracle if Akin had got under their skin. Given the depth of hostility between the two nations, it’s a miracle that he even tried. (p. 87, my emphasis)

For one, the comment on the assumed hostility, parenthetical and out of any political-cultural contextualization as it is, amounts to no more than a easy generalization that only serves at reproducing an old stereotype that ignores the richness and complexity of the two nations’ relationship. In addition, it denies art one of its most valuable qualities: the capacity for empathy. If it is a “miracle” that Akin “even tried”, by the same token and given the vastness of cultural differences in the world, it is “a miracle” that i.e. men make movies about women, Americans about Iraqis and so on and so forth. Leaving aside my personal view that Akin gave a great portrait of the young Greek Germans avoiding the pitfalls of folklore or stereotypes, I find that such comments should be examined twice before being  inserted in a context that cannot at least provide enough argument to support them. Innocent or parenthetical as they may be comments like that do carry an ideological weight.