The Spleen of the Periphery

– Catastrophe is a recurring figure in Greek history, says Angela Melitopoulos, the artist behind the solo exhibition opening tonight at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017 (still). Installation with four video channels and 16 sound channels.

Greece right now is an intersection, a land of passages, where various wars are criss-crossing: economic, strategic, racial or sexual warsfought with non-violent weapons, says Angela Melitopoulos about Crossings, her comprehensive video and sound installation opening today at Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Originally created for Documenta 14 in Kassel 2017, the work relates a number of parallel stories from present-day Greece – a country engaged in a dual struggle since 2015, with debt and migration as the main battlefields. We meet a range of characters who all face situations where their living conditions are being changed or threatened by external factors.

We meet refugees from camps in Lavrion and Lesbos, arriving in Europe to escape armed conflict. We see the residents of Skouries in northern Greece considering their future in a region increasingly polluted by the mining industry. And we witness how the young people of Athens dream of a stable future further away from the margins of Europe.

The themes are familiar to Angela Melitopoulos, whose breakthrough work Passing Drama from 1999 is about the collective memories of the many political refugees deported from Turkey to Greece in 1920 – including Melitopoulos’s own family, which suffered through forced labour during the Nazi regime and numerous turbulent relocations since then. In a sequence from this work, a family member describes the experience of crossing national borders by saying that history often unfolds so strangely that it is like a fairy tale. But, he adds, “the story told here is almost too real”.

This is often the case in Melitopoulos’s multi-media works, which cut back and forth between past and present, political realities, references to psychology and philosophy and literary parallels in works that seek to delve deep beneath the surface of present-day Europe.

Angela Melitopoulos.

Melitopoulos was born in Munich in 1961 and studied art at the Düsseldorf academy under professor Nam June Paik. Her works have been shown at illustrious venues that include Generali Foundation in Vienna, the Berlin biennial, the Antonin Tapies Foundation in Barcelona, and Manifesta 7 in Paris. Since 2013, Melitoupolos has been professor at the School of Media Art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Kunstkritikk met Angela Melitopoulos for a talk about how geography and migration affects the human psyche and our potential for insight and awareness – all against the backdrop of a European continent locked into a permanent state of crisis.

Your work Crossings connects quite a lot of different stories from different locations around Greece. At what points do they connect?

Looking back at Crossings, which was filmed in 2016 and deals with the situation in Greece at that time, I think all of the different themes in the work has to do with transitions that are on the edge of the law. I am looking at this through three different angles: The debt crisis, the migration crisis and the problem of extractionist companies like mining.

In each of these three themes you have what I would like to call an asymmetric power relationship, and the thesis is that this situation is a continuation of a civil war. A war fought by other means: means that are no longer part of a military conflict, but have become the affair of politicians, scientists and bankers. It has moved into a phase where you can talk about a non-bloody war based on these asymmetric power relations of debt. Crossings is composed on the basis of different crisis poles that overlap and meet or interlink, producing what Deleuze and Guattari call a deterritorialised situation: something that you are not accustomed to living in. A radical change of lives. A chaos.

Could you tell me about the three themes: the debt crisis, the refugee crisis and a story about a gold mine?

Yes; the main theme is the debt crisis in Greece after the European Union’s memorandum in 2015, but also how this relates to so many other crisis situations. In Greece, one of the most hotly debated conflicts even before the 2015 event of the memorandum was a conflict that went on in Northern Greece in a location called Skouries. A Canadian mining company was – and is still – working in an open pit goldmine in the middle of an area that is very densely populated, causing ecological problems. It is a long story that has led to the most acute protest movement in Greece in the last ten years, increasing in scope after 2015 when the debt crisis allowed what they call ‘fast track programmes’ imposed by the European Union to push for permission to do this gold mining.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017 (still). Installation with four video channels and 16 sound channels.

I’ve worked with Angela Anderson for a long time, documenting and observing the anti-mining struggles in Northern Greece. We have been working with a sort of activist form of documenting, which means that we do not take the position of a neutral survey. We have been looking at Eldorado Gold, the mining company, but we were looking at it from the position of the people who are forced to endure this mining project. That means the inhabitants of the area who have been protesting against the mining project for a long time and who have created an incredible knowledge base that helps us understand how this mining industry is actually taking power within Greece. The industry is allied with the mass media in Greece and invests a lot of money in that to make the media show how the mining industry is a positive thing for the country, when they actually act as criminals towards the environment and in their dealings with politicians.

In Crossings you have people talking about how they cannot go on living as they did. In Skouries you have people who are farmers and who have been living there all of their lives. They are now confronted with the crisis, with not having enough money to leave, and at the same time with the fact that they must leave the place once the gold mine is active because of pollution. Even now, the people face the fact that their parents are dying very early due to very high cancer rates. In a very near future, they know that they will become migrants themselves, so they are very interested in the migrants that come from Syria and other places.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017 (still). Installation with four video channels and 16 sound channels.

There’s a junction, a solidarity and a communal thinking which is interesting insofar as it allows for a much higher amount of information to be processed. This is also an interclass movement where all kinds of people from this area are talking to each other. It’s not just an intellectual discussion; this is a discussion that involves the entire population of the area. It allows this extraction business of Eldorado Gold to be seen from a multitude of angles, and it forms collaborations between people who would not collaborate under normal circumstances. But here you have an incredible amount of analysis and activism working together to give the real picture of what these extraction companies are doing and how they intervene in a weak state.

And how does this connect to the part of Crossing that is filmed in a refugee camp?

While we have the people of Skouries, who may be forced to leave the country, we also have the migrants arriving from war zones outside of the EU. I worked with Oktay Ince, a Turkish activist who is looking at the Kurdish movement in Turkey over time. He engages in aform of video activism that is concerned with documenting and testifying to what happens there, so I invited him to Greece to show some of his films. I was in a Kurdish refugee camp in Lavrion – a camp that has existed since the 1990s – when the first big wave of Kurdish refugees came to Greece due to the destruction of Kurdish villages on the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

The Lavrion camp is connected to another topic: the ancient silver mine of Lavrion. Lavrion is located 60 kilometres from Athens and was the slave port of ancient Athens, so in ancient Athens the triangle between extracting silver, slavery and war was already established. So when people think of the democracy in Athens as the first example of the political form that we all support and believe in as a positive, one should remember that it was and still is based on war, slavery and mining. The money of Lavrion is what financed the democracy of Athens, so there’s a part in the film about the silver mines: we see an archaeologist taking us through this incredible landscape from the mountains to the sea, a landscape full of ancient technology of mining. So the history of mining in Lavrion connects again to the archaeological history of Skouries, because the Eldorado Gold company not only want to establish a new open pit mine; they are also located in a place of ancient mining activity. Skouries is the birthplace of Aristoteles, so he was born in a mining area.

This establishes a connection to Lesbos where we filmed the refugee camps; Aristoteles also lived shortly near Lesbos. And there’s the theme connecting the camp in Lavrion with the camp in Lesbos. We made some specific workshops with migrants in Lesbos and a schizoanalyst called Paula Cobo Guevara. She developed a kind of workshop with the migrants, aimed at making a cartography of affects. You can be affected by landscape or by a lot of other things. This was a very elaborate way of trying to approach people in such difficult circumstances and allow them to speak about their own experiences in different ways.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017 (still). Installation with four video channels and 16 sound channels.

So we have people coming towards Greece who are actually carriers of a contemporary conditions of war, coming into a county where wars are carried out by other means, through debt crises or extractionism. The main narrative in Crossings is concerned with showinga situation where many crisis moments overlap. Where war, migration, the control of mobility and war through other means meet. Where people are thinking about leaving the country while others are struggling to arrive there. This creates a tension that people have to live with and within.

How are all of these different, yet interconnected, themes composed into one work?

The work is arranged as a composition of 15 films that run in parallel, one, two or sometimes three at a time in the installation, which consists of four video channels and 16 audio channels. I have one screen per location: Athens, Skouries, Lesbos and Lavrion. The themes kind of cut across all four channels, though. The sound speakers are hung to create a special soundscape that moves around the room. The sound is arranged so that it indicates where to look and which screen to focus on, but it also leaves you free to look in the direction you choose, which means that the viewer will be a bit more active than in other video installations.

That is very important because the movement of the spectator, the active change you make as someone who is in the installation also triggers a different attentiveness in yourself. So you’re actually composing within the composition as someone who sees it.

I know you have also been working with a composer, Pascale Criton. Can you tell me about that collaboration and about what kind of role the music plays in your work?

Pascale Criton is a French composer who works with microtonality in her compositions. Her work is very important to the piece, because she opens up our sense of listening. You usually have a certain harmony in a sound, like an octave in a tone, but in microtonality you have more than that. This expands our habitual way of listening to things. It s very closely related to what Guattari calls chaosmosis, which is a contraction of chaos and osmosis. It is a situation where things can be reordered or go in a different direction while also merging at the same time.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017. Installation view, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, København. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

The overarching idea of the work is to answer the question of where to go in a situation such as the one in Greece in 2016? Where are we heading to in such a situation? To answer this question is to ask other ways of talking about things, just as her music forms a new genre. In my work in general, I am always looking out for new audio-visual time-based formats that can be used to look at our present time or our history in a new light. We already know familiar movements from e.g. postcolonial Great Britain of the ‘90s, where postcolonial thinkers would claim that a certain kind of poetry is necessary, offering a new language in which to rethink history and our present condition. So new formats play a big role in my work – and for Pascale Criton and the other participants in the work.

And so the composition of the piece mimics the disrupted narratives of the people in it?

Yes, exactly. My work in general is partly inspired by the concepts of Felix Guattari, who is interested in the production of subjectivity or how we think as an area that is related to the production of economy. As you know, he and Deleuze wrote about schizophrenia and capitalism, about a symptom of a split, of a schizo-type of condition within our production of subjectivity at the same time as capitalist forces are working on the continued deterritorialisation of people.

In Crossings we meet refugees who are actually carriers of the contemporary condition of war, coming into a country where wars are waged by other means through debt and extractionism. They are kept in situations that verge on the limits of the laws that should protect the dignity of human beings. This affects us on a wider scale as a globalised world: we no longer look at these people as persons who have a knowledge of what it means to be in the real war, who can analyse that or give a report about that. Instead they are kept away from us. Greece right now is an intersection, a land of passages, where various wars are criss-crossing: economic, strategic, racial or sexual wars. A territory that is the site of dual experimentation as regards the forces of debt and control over the mobility of refugees and migrants.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017 (still). Installation with four video channels and 16 sound channels.

Back in 2006, I did a project called B zone. This was after the Yugoslavian war, and I was looking at this stretch of geography between ex-Yugoslavia and Greece. People in that area would tell me they felt like what was done there politically was a form of experimentation. “B zones” are the areas where you can try out different ideas and “A zones” is where you take the results of those experiments to implement them. I think we can say that Greece’s debt crisis problem has the quality of a “B zone”. They do not do the same thing to Italy now that they did to Greece back then. Greece will be in debt for the next 50 years, which means that people will never be able to build their own life. From 2015 until recently, Greece did not even have a sovereign government because it was under the rule of the memorandum.

I think it is a contemporary condition of our subjectivity in a sense. For example, the young people in Greece – and in many other places – do not have proper conditions for thinking about their own future. They cannot predict their life in the future because they’re doing crisis management all the time. So what does that mean? It means that you have to be alert all the time. You can’t build continuity in your life or in your work because it is disrupted all the time.

What has been your starting point for the research into these four areas we visit in the work?

I look for locations or places that have different layers of history to them. For example, I can remember discussing Lavrion with a Turkish sociologist back in the ‘90s. He told me about the port of Lavrion and when I visted Athens in the ‘90s for another project, I went there. At that time, I found the Kurdish refugee camp already there, so I got this idea that there are some geographical points which are always the site of the same kind of history in a sense; I call this the “spleen” of a place. Maybe it’s because it’s on the edge of Europe on the border towards the Near East, maybe it’s because of the criss-crossing of various cultural migrations that cause a certain kind of events in a given place.

It’s an exemplary situation of Greece and the country’s position within Europe.Historically, the country has always had to endure this kind of catastrophe. Catastrophe is a recurring theme in Greek history – even historians talk about it as a structural aspect of Greek history. They tend to think of it as a symptom related to being on the margin of Europe, but I don’t want to think too much about it being a structure, because we have to focus on the future.

Even in very early works of mine, I was looking at the relationship between geography and psychology. I believe those two are connected in a sense. I believe that we think with our feet and that movement affects the activity of our brain. When the body moves in a space it creates thought and thinking. In modern culture, we tend to think the opposite is true: that we think of something and then we move. But through my studies and my work I claim that the physical movement comes first, and then there is thinking. That we sense the environment and that sensing makes us reflect.

That is also why I am so interested in the topic of migration. Not just as a theoretical topic of people who come into our land to get citizenship. But as people who experience a certain world in a specific way that I think is relevant for us. In the work of Deleuze and Guattari, we talk about different sets of thinking in people who have different regimes of mobility. So if you’re staying in one place and know that place very well, your thinking is somehow formed within that. Whereas if you’re living in an unstable, disrupted reality – like the people of Skouries or the refugees in Lesbos – you have a different kind of knowledge. And that is a knowledge that can help build a future.

Angela Melitopoulos, Crossings, 2017. Installation view, Giesshaus, documenta 14, Kassel.