Art in the Time of Corona: Reporting from Athens

Normally frenetic in its energy, Monastiraki Square lies completely empty save for a few pigeons

I have no idea what day of lockdown it is. I haven’t been keeping track. Before all of this I was preparing for a show that was due to open in early April and I was already somewhat isolated in my studio. So although in some ways not all that much in my everyday has changed, of course absolutely everything has. And there’s really no getting used to this because every day brings uncharted territory and emotions that go along with it. In Athens mid April, the scent of bitter orange blossoms beckons you outside, but this year the reality of needing a permit to be out then comes crashing down on you.

On that note, it is certainly a strange moment to be giving a report on the art world here, when the world at large is at a standstill. As elsewhere museums and galleries remain shuttered and exhibition calendars are on hold. Like the Olympics and Wimbledon, major events of the summer season have been called off. The DESTE Foundation’s annual project at its Slaughterhouse space on Hydra island -this year featuring Jeff Koons- has been postponed for 2021. Likewise, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation made the difficult decision to cancel its generous Summer Nostos Festival. As I write the situation remains uncertain. I spoke with several cultural producers to get their take on how fellow Athenian art institutions are coping.

The gates of the National Garden remain closed because as the sign says "We are staying home"

The EMST, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which finally opened to the public in its permanent abode -after 20 years since its inception- enjoyed all of 2 weeks of operation before having to close its doors. As other museums around the globe, it attempts to engage the public through social media. The initiative “Creative at home” calls for children to download educational leaflets about a featured work or artist in the collection, and then uploads their artworks made in response.

So too other organizations both big and small have moved their activities online in an effort to maintain and build community. The Οnassis Cultural Centre in Athens urges us ‘to stay home but insists on our going out’ via the Foundation’s YouTube channel. Through #snfccAtHome the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center makes literary readings, lecture series, jazz concerts and more available on their website. ARCH circulates a weekly newsletter with links to media “that may offer a welcome distraction or intentional pause.” Among the selections I notice Manu Dibango on Spotify, a tribute to one of the greats the coronavirus has already claimed. Victoria Square Project—Rick Lowe’s social sculpture originally realized for documenta 14 in collaboration with fellow artist Maria Papadimitriou—which serves as a community center in the multi-cultural downtown neighborhood of the same name, regularly posts “creative and interactive ways to stay in touch” and holds weekly online coffee hours. Mum Social Club, the creation of Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos, artistic director of Art Athina—which itself she tells me is adding a virtual element of programming—moved its activities to Zoom, hosting live cooking workshops (‘Let’s make a curry!’) or even ‘Comfort Pottery,’ for which a clay kit could be delivered to your door! 

Sync’s Curatorial Fellowship 2020 Spring edition had to be cut short since their Fellow had to leave Greece in advance of the flight ban. The culminating event scheduled for late March will take place in the next few months “in an either analog or adjusted digital format, pending developments.” 

The Athens School of Fine Arts is continuing classes via distance learning. Professor Poka-Yio meets with the 12th Laboratory of Painting and Expanded Media over long teleconferences. As he
says students today are “hyper-connected,” so for his Lab it is business as usual with participants
uploading their work in video and performance.

As co-founder of the Athens Biennale and this year’s artistic director, Poka-Yio also tells me that work towards the 7th edition entitled ‘Eclipse’ scheduled for September is proceeding full-speed ahead. Co-curators Berlin-based Omsk Social Club and NY-based Larry Ossei-Mensah (ARCAthens’ Pilot Program Fellow!) were in any case due to be meeting remotely at present time.

Onassis AiR which began its programming in September 2019 is also trying to forge ahead with some “semblance of normality,” according to director Ash Bulayev, chiefly for the sake of its participants and the financial support that artists and cultural workers need especially in this moment. Current Greece-based residents are continuing their research and mentorship sessions have moved online. The spring session international participants have been pushed to summer for now. Onassis AiR also just issued their open call for 2020-2021.

Similarly, ARTWORKS, the non profit organization that runs the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship Program gave their existing open call a small extension and looks forward to a next batch of 80 Fellows in the fall. In response to the pandemic they have partnered with the New Centre for Research & Practice to give their Fellows access to this valuable resource. Part of their studio visits will be held virtually for the next couple of months. And although they would prefer that not all their activities go online, they view this as an opportunity to ascertain the added value of digital practices for optimizing programming. Co-founding program directors, Marily Konstantinopoulou and Dimitra Nikolou also greatly emphasized the importance of the financial assistance their Fellows receive which is the core of the SNF Artist Fellowship Program.

That being said, the overriding concern here is the viability of the cultural sector and particularly contemporary art, which traditionally has not been a priority in a Ministry of Culture accustomed to privileging archaeological sites and museums. The position of a General Secretary of Contemporary Culture in the Ministry was created just last year. Ash Bulayev expressed how a crisis like this one really puts into sharp focus how at risk the visual arts in Greece are right now. In light of the lack of a concerted policy, no central committee or arts council as it were, he fears complete collapse. 

On April 2nd the Ministry announced a series of measures to support contemporary cultural production in the face of the pandemic.C ompared to the financial support and handouts that other European countries have been unveiling in recent days, a meager 15 million euros will be available for everything from film to theater, dance, visual art, books, design, animation and gaming. As independent curator Evita Tsokanta remarked, these measures are of course welcome but are what a ministry of culture should be doing anyway to support the arts and don’t constitute a package of emergency support as a fitting response to the complete halt of activity.

For artist Augustus Veinoglou, founding director of Snehta Residency, the current situation has served to highlight the uncertain ground on which many individual artists and independent initiatives in fact tread. Dozens of artist-run DIY spaces that have come to be in the wake of the decade-long financial crisis in Greece are very much at the heart of the contemporary art scene here. Officially however they have no representation. With no acknowledgement of their existence at the level of the Ministry, they are left without access to support. He feels this may be a turning point for all of these creative producers to come together to find a voice.

To this effect, the Facebook group ‘Cultural Workers Alliance Greece’ was just created by independent curator Myrto Katsimicha as a platform to unite in the face of challenges as well as opportunities. In addition to sharing links where makers with 3D printers could be connected with medical personnel in need of masks, discussions regarding the urgency of petitioning the government were already well underway. As artist Irini Bachlitzanaki commented, “the challenge is to map out the terms and conditions under which cultural workers in fact earn a living, and to work out if and how they can be subsidized.”

On a lighter note, Maria-Thalia Carras, co-founder of locus athensa curatorial duo who after 15 years of nomadic activity opened their first space, TAVROS, at the end of 2019—remarked on how the program they had scheduled for spring curiously enough was about self-recovery through breathing. Taking in the unusual quiet of the streets of Athens in recent weeks and the sounds of birds amplified, she suggested we can also look at the silver lining and how we are allowing nature to take its rightful space and breathe. For her this has highlighted how as cultural actors we constantly feel the necessity to produce. The current situation is a period of being able to take a break (a breath) and just be.

A field of chamomile has overtaken the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which hasn't seen visitors in weeks.

Iris Plaitakis is Assistant Director of ARCAthens. A visual artist and museum educator with an academic background in archaeology, she has worked at the Tate Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Acropolis Museum and the Lalaounis Jewelry Museum. Since 2009 she has also taught art history on-site for U.S. university study-abroad programs in Athens. She was a founding member and co-director of the artist-run non-profit Lo and Behold, a platform for contemporary art activities in Greece and abroad.