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Making art in Athens

They say recessions are good for creativity. With the latest general strike taking place in Athens only last Thursday and news of food queues cropping up on a regular basis, how are the arts faring in the city that gave us Sophocles and Phidias? I went along to the cutting-edge Athenian district of Ghazi to find out.

Just a stone’s throw away from Syntagma where last Thursday’s anti-austerity demonstration took place, the converted gasworks that gives the district of Ghazi its name dominates the surrounding cityscape just as its iconic sister landmark the Acropolis does on a considerably grander scale to the south-east. Now revamped as the arts space Technopolis, this complex of rehabilitated boiler-rooms and pumping-stations holds everything from contemporary art exhibitions – the Athens Photo festival is on here from 19 October to 5 November – to hip meet-markets: kind of a more eclectic take on London’s Tate Modern. But I’m still taken aback when an older man approaches me and with typically Athenian no-strings-attached charm invites me to check out the performance going on in an alcove in the courtyard. It’s the Photography as Performance exhibition, he explains, and he, Demosthenis Agrafiotis, is its curator.

Scraps of slogan-bearing sheets of paper are scattered over a performance artistI follow him outside where I see what I assume to be a group of performers tearing up photocopies of sinister-sounding slogans and scattering the pieces over the lone, prone figure of a girl while another girl reads dramatically from inside a chimney flue. As it turns out, at least half the people in the theatre space are spectators who’ve been invited to take part in the performance. Disregarding a few sheepish smiles from the more introverted among them, they go at their task of destruction with the gusto you’d expect from an expressive Greek audience as willing to lend their support to the arts as they are to politics.

Demosthenis, who curated the 2nd Thessaloniki Biannual Festival of Performance Art, explains the thinking behind his attempt to fuse the somewhat disparate art forms of photography and performance. “The idea was to bring people together to make a dialogue with photography, a dialogue between action and image, and to introduce energy to static,” he says. This is the third year he’s held the exhibition and each year more artists are involved.

A performance artist lies in the middle of the floor, creating an obstacle
But getting funding remains a problem, he tells me. “It was very easy three years ago to mobilise galleries. Galleries now are not so happy to organise exhibitions because the financial situation is not so certain.”

"Equilibrium" by performance artist Andreas PashiasGetting arts funding in a country with a national debt of €330 billion is one thing, even for an established curator like Demisthenis, but what about the act of making art – and living off it? Performer Andreas Pashias, who shows his work Equilibrium later that evening, talks about the challenge of creating art in Greece’s current economic climate. “They do say times of hardship inspire the arts and in a way it’s true,” he says. “As an artist you have an incentive to confront what’s happening around you, the sociopolitical or economic factors in your everyday life … But the bad thing is that you can produce art that doesn’t make you filthy rich and when you don’t even have money for lunch you can find it difficult to invest, to make a performance. So there needs to be a balance, which we haven’t found yet.”

The fall of paper on performer Amalia’s head slows, the drama is winding down. The audience disperses with smiles, a new warmth between them after their shared experience of taking part in a live, impromptu work of art. The future of Photography as Performance may be uncertain, its present and that of all the arts in Greece less than lucrative, but as a means of bringing people together it’s a shining success.

Photography as Performance runs until 28 October.

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