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Art as Solace

How Greek artists and cultural institutions are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis

Almost six months down the line since the first widespread outbreak of the coronavirus, the current situation is in many ways as uncertain as it has ever been, with the bigger picture seeming to shift and fluctuate on an almost daily basis. In many ways, the decentralised, digitised, dematerialised and transient trajectories of contemporary art practice would suggest that perhaps the artworld is by its very nature better equipped than most other sectors to handle the restrictions imposed by quarantine, if not the inevitable financial implosion expected to underline this period of commercial inaction and uncertainty.

Production still from ‘Traces of Antigone’, 2020, directed by Elli Papakonstantinou, written by Christina Ouzounidis. With the support of the Greek Ministry of Culture, and the Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet), the Embassy of Sweden in Athens. Under the auspices of UNESCO & The General Secretariat for Family Policy and Gender Equality

Visual artists, at least, certainly seem to be better positioned than their counterparts active in other cultural spheres such as theatre, live music and cinema, which until a mere few months ago have traditionally relied on cramming together as many paying spectators as possible within a limited space to ensure business continuity.

A much wider picture of this situation is still waiting to properly emerge, and while clarity on any subject still feels as scarce a commodity as antiseptic hand-gel, it seems pretty certain that the art infrastructure will not be able to avoid disruption over the long-term, beyond the temporary closure of museums, galleries and other such spaces that is only now beginning to lift. The real question is to what extent this situation will take its toll on the many interconnected machinations that enable the continued production, transportation, exhibition, selling and buying of art.

Screenshot of Google Arts & Culture homepage accessed in June 2020

Is the contemporary art bubble – which has been steadily, if shakily, expanding across two decades of terrorism, war, financial crashes, and an insidious rightward political shift in the face of a collapsing neoliberal superstructure – finally ready to pop?

In Greece, while most live cultural and recreational events have been cancelled or postponed due to a rigorous (and largely effective) state of lockdown, a slew of online events has been organised to take their place, filling in an otherwise very keenly felt void, providing something of an overview of how the Greek cultural scene continues to abide in the face of the enormous challenges it is facing.

Many commercial art galleries in Athens and beyond have turned to using online viewing rooms to provide an alternative way of displaying art and circumnavigating the cancellation of new exhibitions. This online solution enables institutions to provide a mobile, dynamic, and convenient way to see art in the place of the traditional gallery-going experience. Such initiatives have been taken up by a range of cultural organisations, both public and private, beyond the commercial gallery sector.

Google Arts & Culture, for example, has taken up the lead on an international scale, featuring content from over 2000 leading museums and archives worldwide through a virtual presentation designed to replicate the museum-going experience, using cutting-edge technology to display extremely high-resolution images of artefacts. Viewers can, for example, zoom in on a photograph of a painting to the point that they will be able to discern individual brushstrokes.

As part of this initiative, Google has partnered with the Acropolis Museum to bring its iconic collection of ancient artefacts to a global audience, powered by Google Street View. Visitors to the Acropolis Museum page on the Google Arts & Culture website platform can, after an introduction to the museum, navigate their way through two of its most famous galleries, the Parthenon Gallery and the Archaic Gallery, as well as access information about a number of the artefacts on display. The Museum of Cycladic Art is offering a similar online programme, making their holding of ancient art available through its website with high-resolution photographs and extensive information.

While, in theory, this functionality promises a highly convenient and free alternative to the museum-going experience, free from the hassle of crowds and queues, and one in which you can get ‘closer’ to the artwork on display than would be conceivable in real life, it, of course, can only remain a simulacrum, a mere shadow, of the experience of encountering art ‘in the flesh’.

Institutions have had to become canny about these sorts of online displays in a very short amount of time, realising that while they cannot provide a viable alternative to the real-life experience, they enable users to benefit from the unique characteristics of the digital medium itself. By allowing the digital viewing platform to evolve as a unique concept in its own right rather than simply being a virtual imitation of external reality, curators, museum directors, gallerists and artists are finding new and engaging ways to satiate a growing appetite for creative content among a culturally deprived audience.

Greek director Elli Papakonstantinou provides one example of the ways in which local practitioners are taking a proactive approach, rising to meet the many challenges presented by the lockdown. She formulated a new performance specifically tailored around the Zoom videoconference platform, which has emerged as the communication option de rigueur. The piece, entitled Antigone Test, is based on the play Traces of Antigone by Christina Ouzounidis, and will be performed by an international cast in English, Greek and Swedish, with English subtitles. Described as an “immersive digital experience inviting the audience to search for Antigone in the liquid rooms of the mind, and will explore ideas around what ‘digital theatre’ and the ‘theatre of confinement’ might mean for a contemporary audience.

Likewise, the Athens Digital Arts Festival, an annual international festival for digital arts, is presenting a series of live digital art broadcasts through the ADAF online channels for adults and kids under the theme Singularity Now, featuring live video art and animations, video documentation of performances and installations, and tributes to artists and art currents, while the Thessaloniki International Film Festival is streaming short films online for free through its project Festival 2.0, with new entries being uploaded every few days which can all be accessed on the Thessaloniki Film Festival YouTube page.

Video as a medium has emerged as a strong contender for the most effective way to share art and culture with as wide an audience as possible in the most accessible and direct way – unless otherwise restricted by authoritarian censorship laws that remain an unfortunate reality in many regions, most people can easily access video-sharing websites like YouTube or Vimeo from their personal phone or laptop.

The Benaki Museum in Athens, for example, is currently hosting a new online project called Close Ups – a series of videos showcasing individual items from the museum’s collection. The project aims to provide a greater sense of context by presenting the items alongside a recounting of their histories and those of people they are linked with. Specialists from across a variety of fields will discuss such objects as Black glaze pyxis, a bust of museum founder Antonis Benakis and an Augsburg cabinet.

In a lateral development, Onassis Stegi in Athens and Onassis USA have partnered to present ENTER, a collection of newly commissioned works by artists from all over the world, who were given a total of 120 hours to create an artwork that was then uploaded on the Onassis Foundation’s website.

“The thought behind it,” explains the introductory text on the Onassis Foundation website, “is that we need to include and understand the present, to learn from it, to narrate and banish it, at the same time creating a digital time capsule, which will preserve the memory of this period for future generations.”

While a sense of democratic common ownership seems to be encoded within the medium itself, video is also defined by its nature as an edited sequence of images that have been selected, and reflect the perspective of, the individual or collective that arranged them as such, setting up an intriguing discrepancy between a subjective viewpoint and an objective drive towards documentation that will continue to come to the fore as a primary concern over the coming years.

Having already been played out in postmodern film and the blurring lines between fact and fiction documentary cinema, these issues will now need to be more fully addressed in the way in which institutionalised images are broadcast as pertaining to a particular ideology or worldview. Whose ideas are to be reflected, and whose voices need to be heard? These are all questions we will be grappling with as the artworld slowly, but surely, begins to shift more decisively into the online realm, creating new opportunities for a truly open dialogue around the questions that truly matter.

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