The Independents: Kunsthalle Athena, Interview with Marina Fokidis
Near East, Issue 1, Istanbul, June 2014
Marina Fokidis is the Founding Director of Kunsthalle Athena & South Magazine.
The word Kunsthalle is German. Germany isn’t very popular with Greece at the moment. Why did you choose this name?
The name is a combination of one German and one Greek word – the latter refers to Athens and the ancient goddess Athena. An obvious reason for this choice was, of course, the marketing gimmick – combining German and Greek words at a time when relations between the two countries were at an all time low. I vividly remember going to Berlin in 2010 and being looked down upon as a thief or corrupted brat – even by intellectuals and artists friends. They couldn’t help it! It was a horrible feeling to be perceived as such. At the same time, in Greece everything seemed to be Germany's fault. Greeks could not accept the revelation that a sustained period of heavy corruption and scandal, combined with European politics, had driven the country to a sudden (and officially un-admitted) bankruptcy. They had to blame someone else and Germans fit the bill. A whole set of conspiracies were circulating, including the possibility of a new war and the colonization of Greece. It was hard. Greeks were like children who had been living on borrowed money, unable to pay it back when suddenly asked to. They thought they would never have to settle their account. Since then things have changed. Germans – at least the ones I know – are starting to realize that it is not about theft, and that Greek debt is not held by individual tax-payers. Greeks are also beginning to accept their responsibilities and understand Germany’s support.
This said, the most important reason to name our institution Kunsthalle Athena was the advantage of using a word like Kunsthalle. This is a term that is totally recognizable in today’s art world. It is like opening a kebab shop and naming it McDonalds! You use a brand name that will draw a lot of people to your place and then serve fresh meat instead of crap. It was a branding method and a hijack of an institutional term: What is an institution in the 21st century? What does it represent? How can it function under the designation and model of the Kunsthalle, which was invented more than a century ago? Our strategic abuse of branding is a useful tool with interesting precedents. We saw it happen, largely, with biennials and it has since become a trend among smaller institutions. There is Kunsthalle Lisbon, Kunsthalle Sao Paolo, Kunsthalle Detroit and so on. It is very convenient for all of us!
Are you supported by the government?
We have absolutely no governmental support. We were founded just as the crisis broke. It was a deliberate decision not to apply for state funding. In Greece today (2013 is even worse than the 2010) an individual or institution should take an active social and political position. To my mind, when hospitals need money for medicine, when pensioners cannot pay for rent or healthcare due to severe cuts, and when there is a huge rate of unemployment and the parks are full of newly homeless people (including whole families) it is ridiculous to demand money for art and culture. I know many people do not agree with me. There is a whole economy based on cultural funding, of course, and we are short of polemics against this. To my mind, during situations of extreme urgency like this one of state bankruptcy, you either forget art and become an activist, or you practice culture as activism. It is a stance.
Our position was not to ask for state money even though we know that the culture budget is, unfortunately, ring-fenced – i.e. separate from health care. We do not want to be part of the ultra-corrupted sphere of art institutions that soon will rot. We also don’t want to pay lip service to the new theory that Greece should initiate a set of money generating cultural institutions. We have a strong objection to this last point, so beloved of neo-liberals. The moment one initiates an art institution with the aim of generating money you can forget about genuine culture. Look around – what is happening with all these “boutique institutions” is horrible and ultra-boring. It’s the Wallpaperisation of art.
What role can art play in addressing the economic and social upheaval that has attended the financial crisis?
The crisis in Greece is extremely severe and I do not really think art can play an important and active role in helping or resolving the problems. News can, activists can, political commentators can, etc. When art tries to ‘address’ the situation it becomes a shallow illustrator. This kind of art only takes advantage of problematic situations and creates a ‘political’ product to be consumed. There is nothing I despise more in my field than pseudo-political art; illustration with no intention to change the world, only to make petty cash from catching a trend. It is really sad to see.
On the other hand, of course, genuine artists are political and sensitive beings who absorb their social environment and express it in their oeuvre through creative and complex means. So often, when there is turbulence in a place great works emerge from there, only to be discovered at a later time. The ones that pop out immediately, as illustrations, fall away.
The Greek art scene has the potential to overturn our reputation as corrupted and uneducated. Usually, in times of crisis the international art world becomes interested in the wounded topography! Greece is now in focus. Exhibiting good and work around the world might be an reply to fucked up European politics.
We hear so much about problems in Athens at the moment, but developments are exciting?
There are many exciting things happening in Athens. Most importantly, young people are coming to understand the depth and size of corruption on political, economic and social levels. The youth no longer want to rely on their parents’ generation, who have driven the country to its current state. They do not want money for nothing or a permanent position in the public sector. They know all this is severely fucked up. They have new ideas, they are becoming autonomous, and they are collaborating for a better living – even if there is no monetary future.
Another important trend is that younger people have lost faith in topographical centralization. Greece is so much about its magical landscape – beautiful villages and islands are so easily accessible. There are lots of younger people moving out of Athens, creating new job opportunities for themselves. In the beginning they were more about new farms and producing biological products. Now we see rock festivals and other urban cultural habits being de-centralized. Soon we will have art centres emerging in previously unlikely places. Greeks are starting to understand their real wealth and opportunities, and are abandoning northern hegemonic patterns.
It was very funny when I went Art Basel this year, to take part in its conversation program. At the train station I ran into two Greek collectors, who were raving about the building, and the European rail network. “Isn’t it civilization”, one of them asked me, “to be able to reach Milan in a few hours, or France, or Germany? We live in the third world” he concluded. I reflected on this for a moment – for the first time – and the right answer came to me: Who wants to spend all their time commuting between all these big European centres? Why this is more civilized than being able to be commute – within one hour – between the islands of Hydra, Aigina, Spetses and the Cyclades? What about being able to visit beautiful places in Peloponese throughout the whole year? Maybe this is the Greeks’ problem – caught up in the “Western model of progress” they never understood their own possibilities. Now the brave and clever ones are starting to. Let the rest commute between the European big cities until they get it!
You also edit a magazine called SOUTH that looks at the (global) south as a state of mind. Why did you start the magazine?
SOUTH as a State of Mind is a bi-annual arts and culture journal published in Greece and distributed internationally. Possessed by a spirit of absurd authority, we try to contaminate the prevailing culture with ideas that derive from southern mythologies such as the ‘perfect climate’, ‘easy living’, ‘chaos’, ‘corruption’, and the ‘dramatic temperament’, among others. Through our twisted – and ‘southern’ – attitude, expressed through critical essays, artist projects, interviews and features, we want to give form to the concept of the South as a ‘state of mind’ rather than a set of fixed places on the map. Our contributors from the – literal or metaphorical – ‘South’ renegotiate the southern attitude, partly to re-define it and partly to invent it within the post-crisis world.
Back to Athens. What is your favorite place to relax in the city?
My favorite place is a small corner of the Filopappou hill – in the historical centre, near my house – where there is a marble seating area. I call it a living room. It’s the most secret and stylish place, designed in the style of Dimitris Pikionis. It combines, in the form of a mosaic, marble and other material used in previous buildings and monuments – and overlooks the Parthenon. I often go there to relax and contemplate, to get displaced from reality. Since it is only 15 minutes walking from my home it has become a usual ritual. I was very impressed when I recently discovered that in the summer of 1989 Van Morrison and Bob Dylan once sung a set of four songs here.