What does this country kill in you?
On April 23th 2010, the Greek prime minister of the time, George Papandreou, announced the official submission of Greece to a programme of international financial aid (that is still in force) from the remote, border-line island of Kastellorizo, idyllically staged for the occasion. Moved by this significant announcement, on the 20th of May, I set up a performance-installation at the maritime promenade of Thessaloniki, in front of the emblematic monument of the city, the so-called “White Tower”. It is worth noting that, in the recent Ottoman past of the city (Thessaloniki had been attached to the Greek state only in 1912), when this monument used to serve as a prison and a place of torture, it was called “Red Tower”, or “Tower of Blood”.
To briefly describe the first version of a work that I would develop during the next two years, I had enacted the persona of a “tsoliás”, a “National guard,” lying in a “coffin” made of cardboard. The participants were invited to respond to the question “what does this country kill in you?” Although they have been invited to also vocalise these responses, in their great majority they had offered manuscripts, drawings, and other objects that were placed next to my body, as grave goods or written dirges. At the end of the piece, I took off the “tsoliás” dress; threw collyva (a wheat-based food that in the Balkans is traditionally offered to the dead) at the spectators; poured red wine with honey and spices on the ground; read out loud people responses; ripped and burnt all my personal belongings; coloured my face and hands with ash; packed the grave goods that had been offered me in the coffin, that was now my luggage, and walked to the edge of the seafront where I stood in stillness, waiting for darkness.
Things have been radically different during the final version of this work, on the 28th of June 2011, at Syntagma square. This is the central square of Athens, situated right in front of the Greek parliament, which has previously been the palace. It takes its actual name (Syntagma=Constitution) by the Revolution of 3/09/1843 that forced the King Othon I to approve a Constitution. In May and June 2011, Syntagma Square had been occupied by citizens manifesting against the new set of austerity measures lanced by the government. On the 28th of June 2011, in the Greek Parliament, the “Medium-Term Economic Program” was about to be voted, proposing a new set of austerity measures. In the square, thousands of people were assembled in a 48-hour protest against the new measures. Given the specificity of the occasion, the description of that day seems to be a particularly hard task. The images produced have been used and abused by the media; or, worse still, they have been turned into aestheticised advertising clichés such as the Time’s campaign the Protester: Person of the Year 2011. Yet for me that day’s images have been committed to memory like tears of a misty glass, through the distorted view of my tear-gas affected eyes.
Thus, let me focus on the soundscape. I can still recall the flash-bangs, intermittent, menacing; the ambulance sirens; the numerous human voices singing, shouting or screaming, chanting slogans or speaking, or drowned out in an unstoppable cough; there was not only tear, but also asphyxiant gas. Some moments, Syntagma square gave the impression of a battle-field. There is one image that remains anchored in my mind: in the middle of a square full of gas –the colour of the air altered, the cityscape oddly pale– I am wearing a mask, and so is the person in front of me; he is playing percussion with a manic stubbornness; we dance, like frantic zombies, or weird birds navigating a lethal fog; breathless.
6:00 p.m. Things seemed to be slightly calmer. This time there were three of us. Again, dressed like the national guards that stand at attention in front of the Parliament, on the left and the right side of a cenotaph, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. Unlike them though, we were wearing oxygen masks and covering our faces with maalox, a white antacid that offers protection against tear-gas. We stepped down the stairs in the direction of the lower part square. Looking at our action, most people demonstrated overtly their approval through full praise and applause. We reached the centre of the square and stood there, mirroring the guards. We took turns to lie in a “coffin,” our simulacrum of the cenotaph. There was lying our own ‘grave goods’. Next to the “coffin”, people could read a set of instructions that invited them to document their own losses and then place these offerings inside.
Now, from the perspective of lying prostrate on the floor, the soundscape of the riot seems to us like a sort of enveloping dome, while the faces of those approaching the ‘coffin’ take a somewhat oval form, as if they are being filmed from a low angle. The sounds of police stun-grenades and of human voices raised in anger or despair interweave with the sound of songs performed somewhere behind us, in a series of concerts put up in support of the demonstration.
Our actions are inserted in, and at the same time dispersed among, everything else that is taking place; and still we have the feeling of a sonic vortex or aspirator around us. In the midst of the hubbub, protesters pause and write something down, or draw a picture; some of them come to hug us, silent. More tear-gas. People are asking for Maalox; we share the bottle; people spread the liquid on their faces, or swallow it.
8:00 p.m. More stun-grenades; the situation seems to be getting out of control. More gas. Protesters starts fainting. Somebody falls into the ‘coffin’. The ambulance stretcher needs space to pass through. We quickly put people’s responses in our ‘luggage’ and we stop. The show must not go on; in this case, in both senses of the word end, the “ends of performance” lied susp-ended
During the days that followed the performance, the aforementioned approval left me an almost disquieting feeling. My intention -and this of my comrades- with this work was to create different reactions and reflections, keeping a great space for ambivalences and irony, rather than imposing a concrete, predetermined meaning; and this dissonance in the feelings of the audience seemed to be always the case in the previous versions. However, within the context of this protest, the feed-back of the great majority seemed to be so overtly identified with what they had perceived as the meaning of the action, apparently a sort of “patriotic” act for the moribund homeland, that it was felt as an almost totalitarian lack of discourse. To put it in other terms, people’s connection with their precarious reality was in this context manifested so strongly that the aesthetic act could only function as a literal affirmation of this precariousness, losing any possibility of indeterminacy.