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We have to organize pessimism!

Striking and beautiful title for the foreword note of the artistic director and president of the Athens Festival 2011, Yorgos Loukos. I read these words and then, I read the programme and then I try to understand. I thought the words would announce something else. But they do not.

It is striking that in these “difficult” (the word is weak) times in the history of Greece, people can still “organise” art, put up large scale events and festivals, invite – and pay?  performances coming from abroad. When you know that some greek theatres, greek companies have not received any subsidy from the Ministry of Culture since a loooong time, when you know that it is getting difficult to get any money for any project, isn´t it a little strange and even indecent to have such grand names and such an “elite” programme in 2011 in the Athens festival?

I know life does not stop because a country is declared by eurocrats as “bankrupt” and by the way, who is the country and who are the eurocrats? I know people continue to go out and enjoy and spend money and drink endless “frappe coffees” and smoke their cigarettes! Life goes on! And art as well. And this is wonderful news. It does give hope and it seems people are “organizing pessimism” in their own way. But sometimes I stop and think to myself – how is this possible? I do think – even if again I can be criticized for this and judged as politically incorrect : is this really necessary? Don´t misunderstand me: I do think art is absolutely necessary – and at all times. But maybe it would have been thoughtful, interesting, intriguing, educational (?) and sincerely more striking to give out other options, at least THIS TIME. This time when people are talking about “war”, feel at “war”, some speaking of harder scenario-versions like “the junta” coming back. Yes, if I was the artistic director of the Athens festival, I would do other choices. More radical ones. I am probably an anarchist, an idealist but I would bring up radical change and show something else, something more subversive, for sure some obvious “cheaper” options and curate events, bring ideas and performances which would break the tradition of the expensive, big names, luxurious theatre companies. I would definitely go for the upcoming generation of greek artists and “distribute” the budget if I had it – whatever it was – to the creative forces of the country.

But what do I know? Sometimes I feel criticism is so easy….

Sometimes I am very greek, sometimes I really feel alienated from this country.

When we sat down to plan the 2011 Festival on paper, it quickly became clear we had another difficult year ahead of us. The third year of a profound crisis that has shown no signs of letting up; which extends beyond the economic to society, aesthetics and human relations; which has confronted contemporary Greece – and we are not alone – with a crisis of identity and orientation. What part can art and culture play when you’re walking the tightrope of circumstance? What can you look ahead to, how optimistic can you be?

We are convinced art brings people closer together, that it can immunize us against the barbarism by providing a tool for seeing things anew. And today, more than ever before, we uphold the philosophy the Athens and Epidaurus Festival has espoused since 2006 in theatre, music, dance and the visual arts – a rationale whose key concepts are eclecticism, a spirit of adventure, openness and acknowledging the public’s need for real art, its thirst to commune with the new and the unfamiliar.
We have insisted on the fundamental principles of a programme which allows Greek audiences to connect with landmark figures; with artists like the incurable theatre visionary, Ariane Mnouchkine, or Sylvie Guillem, whose genius gave her the courage to cross over from classical ballet into contemporary dance; with historic institutions like the Bolshoi and the Filarmonica della Scala, and with new ones like the Bridge Project, a collaboration of the Hellenic Festival with New York and London which received a rapturous reception the year before last and is returning to Epidaurus with two big names from Hollywood –Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey – who will be meeting off screen and on stage in Richard III. (picture from the performance)
The Festival will once again be staging works by groundbreaking artists whose subversive approach helps make their art go further. The Iannis Xenakis Tribute clearly falls into this category, with its homage to a multifaceted composer and visionary who left his mark on the latter half of the 20th century, as does the most recent work from that reviver of the theatrical idiom, Romeo Castellucci. So, too, do the acerbic “American in Europe”, William Forsythe, the enfant terrible of video art, Doug Aitken, and Maguy Marin, whose latest offering, Salves, invokes Walter Benjamin, aptly adding to his insights: “Acting on our pessimism and our fears, we so escape the pervading anxiety crushing us and rendering us powerless, miserable and weary”.
Our commitment to young artists is even more pronounced this year; it has to be, because if we get to see the world afresh, it will be through their eyes. They include Kharálampos Goyós, the genre-busting new media pioneers drog_A_tek, and performers like Markellos Chrysikopoulos and Jeremie Rhorer, who have dedicated themselves to contemporary readings of the Baroque.
Finally, as we have done every year, we have tried to register the Festival on a broader chronological continuum through the engaging of memory. Hence our tributes marking the tenth anniversary of the death of Iannis Xenakis and the bicentenary of the birth of Franz Liszt, our homages to Odysseus Elytis and Nikos Gatsos a hundred years after their birth, and our tribute to Gustav Mahler on the centenary of his death.
Yorgos Loukos
Chairman and Artistic Director
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