Postcard from Athens
Protests in Athens, December 2011
‘Athens is the new Berlin.’ This hopeful phrase, constantly repeated by visitors to the 3rd Athens Biennale, and by the artists who have moved to Athens to take advantage of the cheap rents and cultural climate, may or may not be true. There are many contenders for the title – Buenos Aires, even Warsaw – but what is indisputable is that Athens is the leader in EU econ-disaster tourism.
Matias Faldbakken, Untitled (Young is better than old) (2008), installation view of ‘MONODROME’, the 3rd Athens Biennial
A recent trip to Athens revealed: empty office buildings replete with derelict storefronts, even edging upon city’s main square; manned police barricades separating the haute-bourgeois Kolonaki district from the anarchist Exarchia quarter next door; junkies everywhere, clusters of them nodding outside the National Archeological Museum, almost outnumbering the sprinkling of tourists heading in; a charming nativity scene on in a central square, one of the few on display, only left unmolested because of 24/7 police protection. These scenes are merely the visible manifestations of the country’s alarming underlying economic statistics. Youth unemployment is currently approaching 50%, while Greece’s health has also been affected by the economic crisis. According to The Lancet, ‘Suicides rose by 17% in 2009 from 2007 and unofficial 2010 data quoted in parliament mention a 25% rise compared with 2009.’ Also in The Lancet, ‘an authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection (HIV) by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.’
But these statistics distract from the fact that, until recently at least, Greece was a middle-class and middle-income country. This isn’t yet ancient history – much remains. When I was there in December, I saw trendy new cupcake chains situated next to Starbucks in the rich coastal suburbs; elsewhere, fashionable couples are moving to the fraying Omonia Square (where the nativity scene was guarded by the police), to live amidst the desolation. And for those who still have jobs, Greeks work very hard: the average work-week is 42 hours, compared to just under 36 hours for Germans. But the economy is continuing its downward spiral, and the end of the decline is not in sight, not even after potential default. The big money, as everyone believes, is parked in London, waiting for the inevitable fire sale of assets that is surely coming.
Greece, though cut off economically, politically and even geographically, is not isolated culturally. In this respect it is still part of Western Europe and there are many continuing conversations. A tantalizing fragment of a conversation overheard in a taverna: ‘The tragedy of Vyner Street is…’ In the same taverna I spoke to a Greek museologist who said, ‘I just wish I could live in a more typical country, without out social problems.’ I asked her to elaborate on these problems – did she mean the junkies? ‘No, I mean our personal relationships. There is a hardening, of everyone out for themselves, and an inability to admit they are in trouble.’ She told me the final stages of this cycle is a drawing in and a personal isolation caused by having no money. And though a lack of money is sometimes associated with artistic and musical dynamism, as with the ’80s downtown scene in New York, this is not obviously true for Athens club culture. A musician told me that, ‘Before the crisis, I would was more careful about what gigs I would take, now I will do any job for the money. This is true for everyone I know.’
Greek cinema is the art form that is currently attracting the most international attention. Dogtooth, the 2009 film about a strange and isolated family living on a country estate, was nominated for an Oscar last year. This year’s Academy Awards entry from Greece is Attenberg (2010), about a girl who interprets life through watching David Attenborough (which she pronounces Attenberg) wildlife documentaries; the soundtrack includes New York no-wave band Suicide. Both films are oblique commentaries on the crisis, turning a knowing and sceptical eye on the Greek family unit, but also out on the wider world. But to me the most memorable feature of Dogtooth is the dance scene, an eerie, melancholy and ironic reinterpretation of Flashdance. And the Greek surprising genius in dance was very much on display at the closing night party of the Athens Biennale, as seen in the moves of biennial co-curators X&Y and team.
A visit to Athens, a city dominated by the Parthenon on the Acropolis above but in a country now ruled by an unelected, technocratic government, with default looming, may seem like to a trip to the past: to the Great Depression; fin de siècle Vienna; the ancients under the tyrants; Weimar Berlin. But of course, it is none of these: it is a visit to our future.