by Yanis Varoufakis
30th April 2013
Imagine a dreamy landscape, under open wide skies and near a pristine ocean, far away from urban sprawls and highways. Imagine that it is strewn with refrigerator-sized rocks on which an ancient people carved and painted the faces of their contemporaries as they knew them, the faces of ancestors or spirits that they imagined, drawings of now extinct animals, depictions of the first white settlers, their ships, their campsites. Imagine that these petroglyphs went back fifty thousand years, making the painted faces on those rocks the oldest paintings of the human face on the planet. Imagine that there were ten of thousands of these painted rocks and that the climate in that vicinity was such, over the eons, that allowed them to be well preserved. Imagine that the whole area is a hundred thousand times the area of ancient Delphi or of Stonehenge. Imagine further that the survivors of these proud indigenous people are still around, using them as a historical and spiritual record which works its miracle of binding them to an ancient tradition that the rest of us can only study through archaeology.
Now, imagine that this dreamy landscape, that treasure gracing humanity in its totality, is being ripped apart by a multinational company that drills into it with reckless abandon, utterly disrespectful of its meaning and singularly interested in the gas and oil deposits underneath. Imagine that you are standing by, looking helplessly on, as monstrous bulldozers demolish these petroglyphs in their thousands, often only in order to turn them into landfill with which to pave roads so that their trucks can drive over. Imagine that the government is oblivious to the pleading indigenous people who are begging it to stop the cultural carnage. Imagine that the directors of the said company also sit on the board of directors of that state’s main newspapers, making it impossible for journalists to alert public opinion to the crime being perpetuated.
Well, stop imagining. All of the above is happening now at Burrup Peninsula, on the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia.If it were happening at the Louvre or at Stonehenge or on the Acropolis hill, we would all have been up in arms. But because it is happening at a remote corner of Australia, against the heritage of a people that we Europeans have almost eliminated, very few of us know about it. Time to end the silence. And to raise our voices so loud as to shame the Federal Government of Australia to act immediately – or else face the same global damnation that the Taliban faced when they brought down those ancient Buddha’s.
For a highly informative radio podcast-program the Burrup petroglyphs, click here: ABC Radio National, Late Night Live with Philip Adams, 29th April 2013
Over the past 300 years, humanity has succeeded in pulling itself up by its bootstraps, establishing wondrous scientific projects and creating the technology and production lines that allowed us a glimpse of a bright future liberated from want. Nevertheless, the same path has led us to the edge of a precipice from which we are staring into a hideous abyss.
The key to rapid growth was a word beginning with C: commodification – the conversion of goods into commodities and their mass manufacture for profit. With the determination of an unscrupulous invader, for 300 years the market has been colonising more and more realms of human activity. It created new assets, like ingenious new forms of debt, and it fully conquered the Manufacture of Things. Then, more recently, it penetrated areas that it was ill equipped to treat with the due respect. It crossed several bridges too far.
Commodification entered the microcosm, altering the DNA of organisms in order to claim property rights over creations of age old evolution, of magnificent rain forests and of long lived communities of farmers. Soon commodification will take over the moon, even the sun, if it can. Once its greatest weapon, property rights, could no longer be secured by strong fences, but rather required innovative, complex contracts, humanity entered new, treacherous, uncharted territory.
Two great thinkers and their great errors
In 1991, humanity was taken aback by one surprising major upheaval. The collapse of a non-market, authoritarian type of industrial society the death of which proved that markets for well-defined, material, things are indispensible. For colourful clothes, decent cups of coffee, desirable cars, gizmos that open up new landscapes of pleasure. It unveiled Marx’s error: “To each according to her needs” makes for a grey existence and, moreover, requires that someone else is entrusted with the role of second guessing what these individual needs are.
Alas, at the moment of the market’s final triumph, in 1991, rumours of history’s passing were greatly exaggerated. The vengefulness of markets was biding its time. It unleashed itself 17 years later – in 2008. Capitalism, the ultimate C-word, came belly up 2 years ago. State power came to its rescue but what we now have, in our exciting post-2008 world, is not capitalism. Arguably we live under a new type of regime: Bankocracy or to greekisise it, Trapezocracy.
Just like 1991 unveiled Marx’s error, 2008 exposed Adam Smith’s folly. The great C- process, the commodification drive, gave rise to a sorry litany of other C-words that have darkened our prospects and browned our planet. Three Cs that capture our collective shame:
The past two years have destroyed our fig leaves. From now on, business as usual would be a fast track to a multifaceted ruin. Today, society is breeding a troubled generation.
- The Generation of the 10s, created by 2008 just like the Generation of the 30s was created by 1929.
- A generation with nothing to look forward to but a Browning Humanity
- A Crisis of Our (Collective) Making which cries out for a collectively argued and implemented solution.
On the present confluence of the current economic and environmental crises
This is the juncture we find ourselves at today.
What kind of solution can we fashion?
How can we rise to the occasion bringing about catharsis?
Are our best laid plans likely to prove catastrophic?
I submit that yes we can, as someone once said relatively recently, before going back on his word. But not unless we tackle some awful demons first.
Let us be more precise on Adam Smith’s error that 2008 revealed. Yes, markets are indispensible for producing and distributing things. But they are awfully bad at creating and distributing ill defined assets. When humanity leaves to the market assets like real estate, human labour, collectively produced knowledge, finance, debt, our genetic make up, rivers, lakes, the atmosphere, the great oceans, the environment in general, we are courting catastrophe when leaving all that to the markets to nurture and to value.
And when society tries to overcome ‘market failures’ by creating more artificial markets, it elevates the problem onto a higher level where it becomes more problematic, more dangerous, more pernicious. The end result, as the present moment in history shows, is both inefficient and illiberal. We have ended up living in a world in which nothing pays like grand failure. Wall Street and the City of London are just only one possible example.
Do we need to say more? The utter stupidity of a world that spends its time, energy and money borrowing to the hilt to ‘buy’ houses in order to sell them again at ‘profit’ is quite self-evident. Nothing needs to be added. Except, of course, to point out that this type of activity has traditionally led whole societies (and in 2008 the whole planet) to a crisis of its own making which (A) condemns whole generations of real people to their societies’ scrap heap and (B) renders the possibility of reaching an agreement on Climate Change and other environmental challenges more remote than ever, on the flawed basis that at a time of crisis other concerns take priority.
Commodification and unfettered financial markets pushed finance’s share of US income from 6% in 1971 to 42% in 2007. It also inflated the value of derivatives from 70 trillion in 2000 to almost 700 trillion in 2007. The planet was just not big enough for the world of free market finance!
The result is that, once that bubble blew up, the planet’s physical needs were no longer considered important enough. Saving the banks took priority!
PHARMACEUTICAL PATENTS and GENETIC CODES
The TRIPS agreement of the mid-1990s, standing for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, bundles together Films, Music, Software, solar technology, Pharmaceuticals & Genetically Modified Organisms or Seeds. Thus it grants the multinationals the right to charge high mark-ups, regardless of whether the product is a DVD, the formula for a life saving drug or a seed that was previously bred by generations of Polynesian or African farmers before it was slightly modified in the lab. Look at the incentives of it all, that word economists love: Our institutional setting is
• Telling multinationals to ignore malaria and to invest in tooth whitening, since mark ups are more likely to come from the latter. It is motivating pharmaceutical manufacturers to indulge in disease-mongering in the West while turning a blind eye to diseases that kill millions in the South
• It is rewarding life saving innovations by egging monopolies on to restrict their dissemination! It is ensuring that solar technology inventors maximise their rewards by restricting the utilisation of their new solar technologies.
As Dr Spock would have said in Star Trek, “It does not compute Captain!”
Until the 90s most medical research was conducted in Universities. Today 70% has been privatised. The new commodity is the ready-to-recruit patient. An Eastern European or jobless American who becomes a guinea pig in exchange for either money or treatment. A process of commodification which created a system where a private doctor makes more money recruiting a patient for a trial than treating her. A Business Model from Hell.
Climate Change: The way forward?
Do you know the one about the bus that is falling off a cliff? Of all the passengers, only one does not panic. Guess who it is: The faithful economist touchingly convinced that, well before the bus hits the ground, the laws of demand and supply will have equipped everyone with a parachute.
If we were to discover that a Comet is heading toward Planet Earth, and that it would devastate us in 30 years, would we leave it to the market to provide a solution?
Would we utilise mechanism design and game theory to engineer a new market that would ‘incentivise’ entrepreneurs to do something about it?
Or would we scramble NASA, the Russian and Chinese scientists, the world’s nuclear arsenals to do something about it?
Well a Comet of sorts is heading toward us. Climate Change, the Acidification of the Great Oceans, the Increasing Toxicity of our Air and Water; the list is endless. We need a proportionate response. One that does utilise the markets where possible but one that transcends them in crucial ways.
Humanity, to put it frankly, needs a new Human-Genome cum Apollo cum Manhattan Project the purpose of which ought to be to produce technological solutions that are sorely missing. All sorts of gizmos will result from it and markets will make good use of them. But the basic business of saving humanity cannot be left to the markets. It is not merely a matter of regulation of markets. It is a matter of bypassing markets and creating alternatives to them where needed.
Why bypass markets? Indeed many claim that the solution to global warming ought to be market-based. Most of my economist colleagues argue, for instance, in favour of an Emissions’ Trading Scheme. That is, for the creation of a Market for Bads, as opposed to goods. The idea is also called cap-and-trade. The number of permits to produce CO2 is restricted and goes down year by year. That’s the cap. The permits can be sold, hoarded or used. That’s the trade. The permits can be, for instance, sold by government or the EU in an ascending clock auction, where prices rise, say by a dollar an hour, until enough bidders withdraw, so that the number of permits sought is less than the number on offer. This is, I submit, a recipe for disaster!
Why? Because we will be creating a new derivatives market. Bankers, like Goldman Sachs, will be feasting in the creation of new private money backed by the taxpayer. Meanwhile no one will be able to predict the prices of these new bads and the derivatives founded upon them. Bubbles will inflate. They will burst. They will re-inflate. Every time there is an auction, headlines will appear like ‘State to run out of electricity because supplier has no permits’. ‘Carbon permits force manufacturer offshore’.
With every such crisis the public will turn hostile. A mighty new alliance will appear against such controls over pollution: An alliance between, on the one hand, the oil, coal and car giants and, on the other, broad swathes of disaffected people who hate government and hate the banks. This is precisely what happened in Australia in 2010: Mining companies stoked public anger against banks to form an alliance to overthrow Kevin Rudd, the hapless PM who had backed an ETS.
Market based solutions to climate change will create a Tea Party in every country, a regressive coalition on every continent. The only way of greening humanity is by means of a Grand Human Genome – Apollo – Manhattan Project. One that will produce the technology necessary to tackle climate change, the oceans’ acidity, malaria, HIV and all the scourges that must be made history. A Multinational Scientific Project in the context of which each country will participate according to its capacities and to the sensitivities of its electorate.
This is exactly what we would have done if we spotted a menacing Comet on a collision course with Earth. We must do likewise now. Such a large scale project will have amazing spin offs that markets can then develop into profitable lines of useful products and fancy gizmos. But its running and the knowledge that it produces must and can only be a public good whose value is incalculable.
Taxation will have to be part of the project, both funding it and also helping reduce, in the meantime, our wasteful activities. Rather than an ETS, we must implement carbon taxes starting at say $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide in 2010 and rising in equal steps of $5 per tonne per year to say $40 per tonne in 2016. This is a clear price signal. It kills uncertainty. It prevents more bubbles.
Liberalism versus Genuine Freedom
Some liberal-minded readers may well ask:
Is this narrative not a direct threat to the idea of private property? And thus to liberty?
As I mentioned before, 1991 proved that free trade in things is indispensible. However, the private property analogy breaks down when we go from things to ill defined assets. It is not just that markets of ill defined goods are inefficient. It is also that they are illiberal.
Consider a patent on seeds or the genome or medicine. TRIPS (and the current regime of property rights) treats as equally inaliable your property rights over your mobile phone as those a multinational over a recipe for an HIV drug that has the power to save millions. The point here is that the status quo is not merely allowing one to enjoy a recipe one created but it grants one the right to prevent others from alleviating suffering. I do not think that liberal or even libertarian principles can support this.
And what about the accusation that I am proposing central planning? Well, here is an idea I poached from Thomas Pogge (Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University). One that proves that collective agency need not mean central planning of research. Pogge suggested and is experimenting with the Health Impact Fund. A fund toward which many concerned governments, charities and NGOs may contribute with a view of attacking, say, malaria. Pharmaceutical companies sign up to it and extract from it a percentage of its funds that is analogous to their effectiveness in alleviating suffering from malaria.
Who measures their effectiveness? The medical community on the ground does! Notice how the companies, for the first time, have an incentive to minimise malaria-induced suffering, rather than secure monopoly power that cannot give them enough profit given that malaria sufferers have next to no spending power.
Humanity’s two mortal enemies
None of this will, naturally, be easy even if perfectly sensible and true. Two dependable foes can be counted upon to stop any progress in looking after Nature and Humanity in a reasonable manner. One goes without saying:
Special, vested interests
Pharmaceutical companies, the energy industry, car manufacturers, etc. etc. An avalanche of lobbying is sure to snow under any politician who adopts these ideas.
The second foe may surprise you:
Economics and economists!
My assertion (which, given that I am writing this as a practising economist) is, this: Economics is to the world what derivatives were to the financial sector: Highly toxic theories whose evolutionary fitness is inversely proportional to their capacity to illuminate really existing capitalism.
If you look closely at any complete economic theory, you will discern an Inherent or Systematic Error at its heart. Adam Smith, economics’ founding father, saw it clearly when trying to square a theory of value with a theory of growth. He understood that it could not be done while retaining enough complexity in the analysis to render the theory relevant to a growing market society.
Of course, what passes today as economic science has little to do with Adam Smith, emerging as it did some time after the 1870s. It began with an audacious strategy of bleaching the individual agent of the last morsel of psychology, ethics, politics or ambiguity. Why? As the price for creating mathematical models which might, at last, tell a consistent story about values and growth. Poor Homo Economicus ended up a pathetic creature unable to resist the slightest chance of a net utility gain. A Foole who did what he wanted and wanted that which he did.
The resulting narrative prioritised preference satisfaction and eclipsed any other virtue. Was it a price worth paying? No, not even by its own criteria of ‘closing’ the mathematical model. The bleaching of values did not even procure determinate multi-agent models moving along time’s arrow. We ended up with massive indeterminacy unless we impose axioms, such as freezing time or assuming that the economy contains only one person – a Robinson Crusoe economy; axioms that would not even hold in Plato’s world of rarefied, timeless ideas.
What is, however, remarkable is that this most peculiar of all theoretical failures proved exceedingly powerful in shaping the agenda. As the theoretical cat chased its tail ad infinitum, a reinforcement, feedback mechanism ensured that the less we economists had to say about really existing capitalism the greater our discursive and political power. And since nothing succeeds like success, our new power reinforced our pathetic theoretical endeavours.
Have you ever wondered where the financial engineers, Fed Chief Alan Greenspan and the rest of the powers-that-be got the audacity to make the preposterous assumptions behind their financial mathematics and macroeconomic models prior to 2008?
My answer is: They found that courage in this curious reinforcement mechanism. Almost in a bid to anger my colleagues, I have reached the conclusion that economics is a major impediment to any rational scientific program that can successfully combat humanity’s woes at every level: from medicine to reversing our planet’s browning.
The cynic knows everything about prices and nothing about values. Thus Oscar Wilde famously identified a blindness to values and a slavishness to market prices as cynicism.
Today, it is sensible to identify Wilde’s definition of cynicism with a suicidal tendency on humanity’s behalf.
Less humourfully, but equally insightfully, the philosopher Kierkegaard suggested that Evil seeks Nothingness because Being is itself a kind of Good. To stop large scale Evil today we need:
At the level of political practice
• Freedom from markets of ill-defined assets (such as clean air and water, land and its uses, human capacities and capabilities)
• Strengthening of collective agency at a global scale
At the level of theory
• To overcome the tyranny (and the extreme poverty) of preference satisfaction
• To restore critical reasoning, genuine values, and a modicum of virtue that economics has done so much to expunge from the public debates that matter
vitalspace.org is committed to playing its small part in this common sense campaign against well funded agents of collective stupidity.
[The above is a modified version of a presentation in the context of a conference held in Athens, held on 14-16 october 2010 at The Eugenides Foundation, on Greening Humanity: Science, innovation, ethics and the green economy, organised by the Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation of the University of Manchester]
Text by Sozita Goudouna written for the exhibition catalogue of the participatory art project: IT’S TIME TO OPEN THE BLACK BOXES! by Danae Stratou.
The principal characteristic of a Black Box is that its inner components or rationale are not available for inspection. The majority of its available datum is held in a inner situation away from facile investigations. Its opaque colour disallows the observer to see its inner workings and codes. The inquiry is focused upon the Box that has no immediately apparent characteristics and therefore has only factors for consideration held within itself and hidden from immediate observation. In neural networking and in heuristic algorithms, a black box is used to describe the constantly changing subdivision of the program environment that cannot easily be tested by the programmers.
The black box can be seen as a simulation of the human mind, consciousness or psyche. In this case, how could someone test the ways and methods, in which a black box monitors the changing social and political environment, in the context of a social crisis. A black box is a liveless, inert, static object without a voice, unable to verbalise its reaction towards this changing environment. But what if there was a way to enliven its operating system, what if it consisted of a pulse rate, as an organism of a society, that might be set up to explode.
The mechanism of explosion would be connected to threat and terror, notions related to emotion, to the unexpressed and the pre-lingual, but that can also be seen as cardinal factors for affecting change. Threat and Terror are often caused by unknown grounds, in all cases, however, anything connected to terror and threat is, at least potentially a source of the feeling of the sublime. Terror, is either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime. Terror and the sublime go together and are even inseparable.1
Danae Stratou investigates the delicate balance between terror and the sublime by creating a global monitor of pulsating words and meanings. The installation consists of a meticulous structure of one hundred interrelated Black Boxes, that contain one Message, one Word, one Sound and a special Number. The structuring of one hundred boxes with screens, creates a complex spatial environment within the exhibition space that entails unique formal and technical qualities intrinsic to the artwork. Each box contains a word with a timer that is followed by a countdown (or, in some cases, a count-up), or a flatline, depending on its meaning.
The site of meaning shifts from an inner, formal structure to the shared presence of work and beholder. The Black Boxes are associated with the creation of an almost “architectural” construction that the viewer must enter in order to experience its spatiality and substance from within. Each word appears for a few seconds and then reappears in a cyclical sequence, the ending marks the beginning of a new cycle. This repetition is best understood as discovery and experimentation, a process that allows for new experiences, new affects, and new expressions to emerge. By repeating we are able to affirm the power of the new and the unforeseeable.
The repetition of words is infinite, a repetition that offers the possibility for reinvention of meanings. To repeat is to begin again and as such, repetition becomes a form of creative activity resulting in transformation.2 The messages inside the Black Boxes are segregated in five divisions, determined by diverse statistical facts, measurement units and trends, population, economic growth and geographical factors. The viewers are invited to decode the conceptual content of the composition. The different divisions represent “negative” and “positive” factors, however, these values are often interrelated. The causes and effects of the economic crisis are expressed with words like bankruptocracy and their corresponding number is in a scale beyond human reach (600,000,000,000), connected with the sound of a ticking bomb, akin to an alarm that alerts us to some lurking threat. Elements that threaten the environment, outcomes of the economic crisis and threatening state of affairs are also “negative” factors that are connected with similar sounds.
In reverse, we find concepts and values that we want to preserve, natural elements that we want to protect, like love or freedom, words that have humans as their measure, thus are connected to the sound of a heartbeat in a flatline. The diagram provides information on how these operational units are organized as a temporal mechanism.
Danae Stratou’s interactive installation fills these Black boxes with observable elements, despite their immateriality. Elements that enter the imaginary space of the boxes and supply them with notions, concepts and feelings, both idealist and pragmatic. A set of different outputs that emerge and become observable as they express the public’s opinion and emotional expanse. One hundred Words linked in their indeterminacy, created by a public dialogue, expressed as respiration, as a heart beat or as a bomb mechanism, depict a threshold between one reality and another, that is yet to be experienced.
Terror is seen as the outcome of this transitional moment, whereas the black box records the moment that oscillates between our two stages, between our past and our future and is able to determine the facts of our personal and social life. Like the audio recording device in the cockpit of an airplane or helicopter, that in aviation records the conversation of the pilots during a flight, so if something goes very wrong, investigators can use the black box recording to determine what happened. (By engaging into an inquiry into the cause of a plane crashing, where the plane is caused to become wreckage).
And if someone were to determine what had happened after seen the wreckage, the process of network synthesis from the transfer functions of black boxes could be traced in the form of a game of words. Words that have to be protected or Words that threaten the public, a synthesis of pulsating immaterial words, that have their meaning questioned from the banality of current affairs or endorsed by hope for change and for another future. Death, Consent, Unemployment, War, Crisis, CDS, but also Trust, Freedom, Peace, Humanity.
By breaking open the sealed containment of the black box we stop guessing. The boxes start to be defined only in terms of their function and of their word. Their meaning is revealed and despite the shocking effect, the terror that was provoked while hidden, is challenged. The operating system is disclosed, the underlying structure, mechanism, and dynamics of fear and terror balance themselves in relation to notions that have to be protected. Threat and protection are both secured and trapped in the Black Box, while the sound of time points to their potential to activate freedom and change.
1See Edmund Burke
Text A) ΕΝΟΙΚΙΑΖΕΤΑΙ – ΠΩΛΕΙΤΑΙ: FOR RENT – FOR SALE (link)
An art historical/critical text by Susan Handler, art critic/socially-engaged artist
In the photographic series The State of Greece: Ενοικιάζεται – Πωλείται: For Rent – For Sale, interdisciplinary and socially-engaged artist, Triada Samaras, captured the dramatic social impact of the economic crisis visible on the streets of Athens, Greece the summer of 2012. Utilizing the language of visual symbolism and the written word, the viewer can read in her photographs the toxic plague that is thriving and destroying the country.
Framing the self-portrait photograph of the artist, Samaras, in Ενοικιάζεται – Πωλείται #2, in the photograph is the column layered with advertisements, the crumbling cement, and the corrugated patterned material. These components clearly denote that the viewer is in an area where trade cannot prosper. The streets of Illisia, Athens are reflected in the large exterior mirrored glass, while the word ENOIKIAZETAI is plastered repeatedly on the glass.
A hexagram is drawn directly on a window on the faded gold colored building. The blinds are closed. This is a complicated symbol that represents the dynamics between fire and water, as well as the sexual balance required to maintain life in the universe. The closed blind is interesting due to another symbolic translation of the Hexagram as as the sun shedding its rays on earth. On this Athenian street, in this building, the sun cannot reach the interior of the home.
Reiterating the dis-intregration of the home, the artist infuses herself in an upward triangular manner out the foundation frame of the photograph. From a pagan perspective the triangular Goddess represents the three personas known as the Virgin, the Mother, and the Crone. The upward triangle of the Hexagram represents half of the intimate embrace of male and female energy. Both are required for a healthy balanced community, however only the female triangle is portrayed standing alone, in the shade. The Sunlight represents her clothing, however she stands in the shade, and without her clothing this woman stands bare to the changing forces of harmful energies that plague her country of heritage.
c. Susan Handler
Text B) WHAT IS HAPPENING IN GREECE TODAY? Text by Yiannis Zaglaris, Writer/Commentator
Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix, 1830 (Link)
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN GREECE TODAY? What is happening in Greece today is not something different from what has happened many times in the past not only in Greece, but also in many other countries. People are fighting for more freedom against governmental measures imposing more slavery. Since the barbarians who rule the world have established an inhuman equivalent between freedom and money, people fighting for more freedom means fighting for more money. From time to time various governments from all over the world have shown directly an inhuman face to the people they rule over. They have minimized payments -except those provided for their own pockets- increasing at the same time all kind of taxes strangling the market. With this attitude they achieve two aims: 1) They spread terror to the folk, so that no one dares to raise the standard of revolt against their injustice and 2) They prove that there is only one rule in the market. Money. No other rules are accepted. Some time thereafter governments, return to the previous situation showing a more human face. They grant several financial facilities, subsidies, loans, etc. and they hold elections. The folk feel flattered. They may vote for the party of their own preference. So life continues to go on. Will it continue to go on towards the same direction without reversal, without DEUS EX MACHINA to be revealed after what is happening in Greece today? From What is Happening in Greece Today?
c. Ioannis Zaglaris, Athens 2011. (Trans. From Greek by Triada Samaras)
Landscapes of pleasure? Laboratories of the future? Or the ruse of suburban post-romanticism?
by Yanis Varoufakis
Division of Political Economy
University of Athens
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
The University of Texas at Austin
1. Sanctuaries from war and crisis
For some, the voguish assumption that the rural is ipso-facto humane, whereas the urban is inherently oppressive, seems natural. That was never my view. Nevertheless, my mother’s accounts of the ghastly winter of 1941 implanted in me the idea of the countryside as a sanctuary at a tender age.
Mother’s stories often began with the horse-drawn carts doing their morning rounds in the streets of Athens, collecting the corpses of those who had died of hunger the night before. It was then that my grandmother apparently managed to evacuate her children to the Northern Peloponnesian countryside for a few, short weeks. Away from the cesspool of grief and disease that was occupied Athens, mother forged lyrical stories out of the small pleasures that they had enjoyed in the countryside. Those stories, which she lovingly recounted, came back to me when a new wave of Athenian escapees abandoned our troubled city, following the nation’s recent Great Depression, to ‘return’ to their ancestors’ untended lands, hoping to become a successful version of Jean de Florette.
Cities magnetise with the promise of waged employment, social mobility and an escape from what Karl Marx dared describe as the “idiocy of rural life”. As long as there is a state that provides basic infrastructure, and the overall economy is growing, urbanisation is synonymous with poverty alleviation. However, as soon as capitalism goes into a major spasm, as it did in 1929 and then again in 2008, cities crush their weakest citizens mercilessly. Then, all of a sudden, the countryside, where home production is a tad easier, begins to appeal again. Greater access to land and a sense of community, imagined or real, attract.
Back in 1991, Australia was badly hit by a recession that marked most of the Anglo-sphere. Up on the Blue Mountains, not far from Sydney, unemployed workers and exasperated shopkeepers got together to create an alternative monetary system, which I ventured to investigate. Work was rewarded in a communal currency whose units corresponded, roughly, to an hour’s toil. Bits of stamped paper, or coupons, were paid to handymen, carpenters and piano teachers who would then use them to pay for groceries at the local store, for farmhand labour employed in their vegetable garden, even for fuel at the local petrol station. Coupon recipients would, in turn, use them to command the labour of cashiers, drivers, employees, painters.
Upon witnessing this circular income flow, which bypassed the recessionary capitalist economy, it hit me that the community had sponteneously enacted John Locke’s principle that value ought to result from blending one’s labour with the land, along with implements previously produced. The community grew, as dejected Sydney-siders flocked to the mountain, enticed by a communitarian oasis flourishing within the desert of failing capitalist labour markets. Alas, it was not to last. This impressive laboratory of rural, market-based solidarity failed for two reasons. One was its success: as the number of associates rose, and greater value was generated within the impromptu monetary system, some who craved to move on began to demand payment in dollars and, thus, the bonds of trust began to loosen (in a manner that Ibn Khaldoun would have fully recognised). The second reason was that Australian capitalism exited its slump, luring the rural ‘apostates’ back into the fold of suburban normality.
The world at large is, in our days, dazed and perplexed by the never-ending crisis that began in 2008. From London to Yokohama, from Sao Paulo to Athens, and from Jakarta to Penzance, we are constantly told that recovery is on its way. However we know it in our bones that nothing makes sense anymore in terms that most had taken for granted until 2008. Never before had we grasped as powerfully as today the urgent need for a fresh set of socio-economic arrangements. And, yet, never before had we, collectively, felt so pessimistic about the prospect of genuinely radical change.
At previous historical junctures, similar realisations led some to board ships like the Mayflower and set course for an imagined terra nullius on which to build their utopias (usually at great cost to the natives). Today, with Google Earth confirming that the planet is virtually fully booked, and that mega-cities are expanding like raging bushfires, all we have left, in terms of spatial possibilities, are inhospitable steppes and a few rural pockets that are being partially de-populated due to urbanisation. Are these potential landscapes of genuine pleasure? Can alternatives to our failing market societies be blueprinted and tested there? Will rural communities become the laboratories of socio-economic arrangements that give us more elbowroom to choose our projects and partners, to become the agents we have the potential for?
2. The country-city dialectic
Romanticism portrays rural communities as the loci of benevolence, reciprocity and consensus. Avant-guard ruralists, resembling a Gainsborough or a Constable, are averse to complexity, as they celebrate the agrarian landscape. Urban modernists, on the other hand, rejoice in complexity and look beyond the idyllic depictions of rural scenery to discern backbreaking work, unbearable domination, conflict, exploitation, debt-bondage, even David Ricardo’s source of all evil: economic rent.
The reality of rural life is, of course, an untidy mixture of serfdom and independence, of freedom and quiet desperation. Even in the Middle Ages village communities provided peasants with the power to resist the lord’s iron will in ways that the landless proletariat lacked once the Dark Satanic Mills had absorbed them. Nevertheless, the peasantry remained outside the State and subject to its alien power, as to be a peasant was to be a non-citizen. It was only in ancient Athens, for a brief moment in history, that this ‘fence’ had been breached. For under the Cleisthenes reforms peasants became citi-zens and, thus, the Attic countryside was poli-ticised. However, once the fragile flower of Athenian democracy was crushed, the countryside fell permanently on the wrong side of the fence ruthlessly dividing the Polis from the a-political landscape.
It took the Enclosures in England and Scotland to break down the village community and to give a ferocious twist to the city-country dialectic. Fencing off the land, in the process of evicting the peasants, was paradoxically the violent move which brought down the barriers that kept peasants a-political. As they congregated in the nearby villages, turning them into slum-cities, they set in motion the process of becoming modernity’s citizens. At first, they entered civic society as a mass of isolated, almost lost, souls. Their dislocation created two of capitalism’s driving forces: commodified (fenced-off) land and a (property-less) working class. A longing for the countryside would act both as industrialisation’s shadow and the source of future romanticisms.
In the new urban spaces, the former peasants remained outside the state. Winning the franchise was a long, hard-fought struggle. However, the entitlements, the vote, the freedoms they secured; all these political goods came at a hefty price: the devaluation of the political sphere to which they were being admitted and the acceptance of a vicious autonomy of the economic sphere (over which they had no control) from the political sphere (over which they had gained some control). Feudal juridical privilege and political monopoly of the gentry was thus replaced by the monopoly of economic advantage. Their citi-zenship was bought at the expense of its devaluation, not to mention the lost access to the ancestral lands.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, the fenced off land acquired a brand new feature: a price! Having been fully commodified for the first time in history, it was ripe for its own industrial revolution; a process that led almost seamlessly to today’s industrial scale farming, genetically engineered crops, horizontal drilling (that extracts from the land not just crops but natural gas as well), etc. Fences erected on a green and pleasant land begat modern cities and transformed the land into a rural version of the factory. The country-city dialectic had entered new territory.
3. The liberal individual
During that Great Transformation, and while the former peasants struggled to carve out new spaces and identities in the cities they were forming, the inevitable ideological cover of the whole enterprise was taking shape. It came in the form of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s unsuspecting hero. Crusoe’s solitude and rational deployment of available resources became the model upon which the bourgeois thinker modelled himself. Crusoe was not just a shipwrecked survivor but, potentially, a colonial farmer striving to tame nature and the natives; an army commander caught out behind enemy lines; a former banker that left the rat race, seeking solace in organic farming; indeed, all valiant entrepreneurs or modern consumers who deploy their means in a manner that best serves their ‘sovereign’ ends. So, while the vast majority of ‘individuals’ formed a mass swarming the factories robot-like, and the land was farmed under increasingly Taylorist rules, the liberal mindset fantasised that we are all different versions of the splendidly solitary Crusoe, doing our best to assign limited resources to competing uses. An archipelago of isolated selves in an ocean of trade and industry.
The Great Irony behind the Great Transformation was that liberal dreams of selfhood were erected on a gigantic metaphorical fence, not dissimilar to the Enclosures that disconnected the masses from the rural landscape and became the metaphor for negative liberty, for instrumental rationality, for institutionalised racism, and for the definitively male Homo Economicus. Robinson Crusoe reflected all these at once, simultaneously isolated, marginalised, solitary and at the centre of 19th commercial society, not to mention Mrs Thatcher’s ‘enterprise culture’ later in the piece.
The latest transformation of the liberal individual happened as the 1970s were passing the baton onto the 1980s, with the ‘liberation’ of Wall Street from the constraints the New Dealers had placed it under, as well as by the Big Bang that turned the City of London into an autonomous state within (a powerless but increasingly authoritarian) state. As financialisation was sweeping everything in its wake, the financiers’ misleading rhetoric (of ‘riskless risk’, ‘new paradigms’ and some fictitious ‘great moderation’) had a counterpart in the cultural realm: it was a postmodern romanticism terribly enthused with the marginal but ever so coolly indifferent to exploitation, alienation, inequality. Idyllic landscapes gave their place to the pleasures of the shopping mall, rural retreats were judged on their resale value, Richard Branson celebrated brands at the expense of industry, Nature was reduced to a playground of former radicals seeking green credentials.
So, when this juggernaut crashed into reality, sometime in 2008, all that seemed solid melted into thin air. The credit crunch chewed into the fantasies of the new paradigm according to which finance could achieve anything but hard work and collective action were for suckers. On the ashes of the old promises of a shareowners’ democracy, of a global village, of new vistas of gratification and of an emergent developing world, an unperturbed Establishment achieved a cruel, self-serving Restoration: self-defeating austerity, only partially mitigated by loose money from our central banks, reflated some bubbles but left everything else deflated. Before the long winter of our discontent had shown any propensity to retreat, the constant chatter about recovery ended up with enriched macroeconomic indicators and impoverished citizens.
Six years have passed since the crash of 2008 but the veil of gloom refuses to lift. Saving the jolly blip of the Occupy movement, and the few moments when citizens seemed determined to hold the powers-that-be to account, the world has returned to a sadder version of its pre-2008 self. We still flock the shopping malls, only with far less of the mindless joy of yesteryear. Like pilgrims who have lost our faith, we resemble the lost souls that, once upon a time, fenced off the land, flocked into the towns to turn them into slum-cities. Only this time, we are better dressed, housed, educated. Still, we train the same empty gaze upon a material world with which we no longer have a human connection.
As the 2008 crisis constantly shape-shifts, metamorphosing into new forms of depravity, our ‘centre’ has been displaced and our ‘margins’ have lost their postmodern appeal.
5. Rural sanctuaries or soothing illusions?
In economic terms, one recession looks quiet like another – at least on my profession’s diagrams. Alas, ‘our’ recession is one of a kind. The world does not surprise itself very often. It did so once in 1929, then again in 2008. The Grapes of Wrath were overcome, after a decade of rural dustbowls and factory wastelands, by industrial scale warfare. What if, as one preys and hopes, nothing of the sort disrupts our misery now? What if the price we must pay for keeping a modern Great Depression under wraps is permanent, slow-burning crisis? Might the answer be in escaping to utopias, like the puritans once did? And if so, where would our Mayflowers take us to?
Sir Thomas More set his Utopia (or, more precisely, Eutopia) on an island perched in the middle of the Atlantic. Robinson Crusoe came later to encapsulate, on just such an island, the archetypal liberal individual’s perfect sovereignty (and less than perfect autonomy). But what about us? Should we stay put and fight against a sick yet impermeable socio-economic order? Or should we seek sanctuary in hitherto undiscovered pockets of potential self-government somewhere in the sticks? Are such sanctuaries to be thought of as permanent homes or as laboratories in which we manufacture the blueprint of an alternative to late capitalism, before importing it back into mainstream society, like an anti-viral developed from Amazonian raw materials that saves humanity from a lethal epidemic?
Speaking personally, I must confess that when I get to sit still for a while on the veranda of our hilltop house on the isle of Aegina, overlooking the Aegean and surrounded by olive trees and ancient vineyards, the temptation to escape into rurality is immense. A mischievous flight to rural life seems momentarily possible as the ultimate form of liberty: freedom from the market, and a wormhole that leads billions of light years away from the subterfuge that masks our harsh realities. However, just as quickly as these thoughts emerge, they are punctured by sobering reminders that rural dreams bring out what is foolish as well as what is natural in humanity. A little touch of pastoralism always tickled a relationship that badly needed to be organic without coming even close to being organic.
Is a capitalist-free zone possible in the countryside, courtesy of the green surroundings, the clean air, the sparser population? Can we, at least, forge capitalism with a human face more readily there than in urban centres? I submit not. Rural areas today are either industrial farmlands in cahoots with heavy industry or they are eager to become precisely that. The ancient dialectic between the city and the countryside has long ago turned into a dialectic between big industry and industrial farming; with the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy a splendid case in point (and the best example of the unholy alliance between oligopolistic heavy industry and entrepreneurial farmers).
But what about unspoilt, hitherto un-commodified rural areas populated by refugees from the cities whose purpose is to create new communities on new principles? One only needs to pose the question to turn pessimistic about the answer. Utopias of the past have little encouragement to offer the careful student of their histories. Might technology make a difference, as the Internet now offers the new utopians an opportunity to remain grounded in a broader humanity while struggling to work out different socio-economic arrangements locally? Might a modern Jean de Florette survive the vagaries of rural life, as his connectedness to the world at large provides a rare balance between access to the stream of new knowledge and the leeway to try out new social relations of production on relatively cheap land and with hand-picked partners?
In the past twenty plus years I have witnessed several budding utopias. One was the Blue Mountains community that I mentioned in the introduction. Another was a Seattle-based, self-proclaimed ‘boss-less’, multi-billion dollar worth, video game company that tried to emulate the principles of spontaneous self-government within a corporation. However disparate they might have been, these experiments had one thing in common: fragility and a capacity to swing in a jiffy from realms of free association to dominions of small-minded despotism; from seamless efficiency to chaos, and even collapse.
During the Middle Ages, the Nazi occupation, the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s or the Great Recession more recently, sanctuaries have proven of colossal importance. Mother’s tales convinced me of that long ago. Whether rural or urban, a ‘space of one’s own’ (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf) can be a godsend. However, the hope that such sanctuaries will function as the laboratories of a more decent future may tragically turn out to have been nothing more than the ruse of suburban post-romanticism. Hardly a threat to make Wall Street functionaries, or other purveyors of human misery, tremble in their Wellies.
 I am referring, of course, to Claude Berri’s 1986 film.
 “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” K. Marx and F. Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter 1.
 The great difference between China and India, or Nigeria, or Brazil for that matter, is precisely that: Whereas in China the state installs the sewers, the running water and the electricity grid before houses are built, elsewhere urbanisation yields slums which act as poverty traps for their dwellers. Slums may then develop, eventually, into middle class loci, but it takes centuries for this to happen, as the history of Birmingham and Manchester reveals.
 Khaldun, the 14th century historian and philosopher of history, described vividly the dialectic between the city and the surrounding countryside, depicting the decline of regimes as the bonds of solidarity weaken following economic success. See Ibn Khaldun (1967). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series XLIII. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
 See John Barrell (1980). The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
 David Ricardo was one of classical political economy’s giants. He defined economic rent as payments to an economic agent that exceeded the minimum necessary to keep her producing. That ‘excess’ was considered a waste, from society’s viewpoint; a ‘leakage’ from the collective effort to mechanise (and, implicitly, to urbanise) production. Thus, landlords, who collected the bulk of economic rent, were for Ricardo the villains of the piece; putting the brakes on progress and thus impeding the emergence of the Good Society.
 Negative liberty is defined as freedom from interference. It is as if the self is separated from ‘others’ by a fence and is, therefore, deemed free to the extent that ‘others’ do not trespass into his or her well-marked territory. Robinson Crusoe is thus fully free to the extent that his will is not subject to constraints imposed by ‘others’. See Isaiah Berlin (1969). ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, reprinted in Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press
 To be instrumentally free means to be efficient in your deployment of your available means in the pursuit of given, current and sovereign ends. In this sense, instrumental Reason has no capacity to pass judgment on the reasonableness of one’s desires. It can be defined starkly, mathematically, as a form of efficiency; as a fence diving the Kingdom of Reason from the unchartered territories of muddled, barbaric reasoning. Robinson Crusoe is, in many ways, instrumental rationality’s apotheosis (just as Friday is the ‘other’ whose rationality remains suspect).
 European colonists, upon disembarking on a distant shore (e.g. in Africa, in Australia, in New Zealand) would immediately fence off land that they sought to appropriate and persecute native ‘trespassers’. The Fence which helps define instrumental reason and negative liberty (see the two previous notes) also proves an effective colonial instrument; a bulwark of the racism that was institutionalised shortly afterwards.
 A hyper-rational automaton that does as he pleases and likes what he does.
 More recently, I looked at an organic farm in the Peloponnese, run by an assortment of wonderful, well-meaning escapees from all over Europe. Sadly, that experience did little to shift my pessimism.
Written in greek by Alexandra Koroxenidis (art historian). English translation: Maria Christou
Upon the Earth Under the Clouds: this is where humanity has always dwelled on this planet. We all share the earth as our common place of origin and the sky stretching like an infinite roof above is the reminder of our shared mortality.
How does this abstract, and to some extent “non-realist”, conception of human dwellings fit in with today’s world? Within an era in which phenomena such as overpopulation, displacement and the sense of perpetual present as well as parallel temporalities, both brought on by technology, create new demands on spaces and places, on the one hand, and a different experience of space on the other? Moreover, how does this relate to the visual arts and installation art in particular? What does the relationship between art and space reveal about the nature of art itself, and, finally, how and why does a work of art activate space and the viewer’s spatial perception?
These are the questions raised by Danae Stratou’s work, both by Upon the Earth Under the Cloudsi, conceived for the Old Oil Mill of Eleusis within the context of the Aisxylia Festival 2017, and by the body of her work (from the first, large-scale, Desert Breath in 1997ii to more recent works such as It’s Time to Open the Black Boxes in 2012, which used sculpture and video).
Danae Stratou consistently returns to the themes of space, place and to how people physically experience them. She travels to often far-away places to create her works of art and spends time there in an effort to gain a sense of the prevailing character or atmosphere, searching for the genius loci, which she then always connects to a more abstract, all-embracing sense of place, for example place as a shared origin.
Space as a divider (Cut – 7 Dividing Lines, 2007), space as a boundary, space as a link connecting human beings to their body as well as nature (Breathing Circle, 2008; Soul Forest, 2007). Space as a journey, space as a destination, space reflected by water, another fundamental element of her work, space as defined by the horizontal line of rivers (The River of Life, 2007), space occupied by the rise in population or changing shape depending on whether it is viewed from near or afar (VitalSpace – Istanbul, 2010). The body of her work demonstrates a persistent exploration of space and man’s place in it iii.
Sometimes space signifies interiority and existential issues; other times, a sensitivity towards more political or social issues. Whatever the issue reflected upon, it is always placed within a wider context, often relating to origin, destination and the primordial. It becomes part of a wider context related to the ties forged between man and the environment he lives in (space, nature), the relationship between people-citizens and, ultimately, the quest for a single truth, a common human condition that bridges differences.
But why should space preoccupy today’s artist or viewer? Space and place are connected with contemporary, imperative issues. As the American philosopher Edward Casey points out, the concept of place was subordinated to the concept of time, but, in the 20th century, the concept of place resurfaced thanks to phenomena such as the obliteration of local characteristics because of globalization, or the threat of war. These have spurred a return to the concept of place and localities, not necessarily out of a sense of nostalgia but as a neediv.
These are some of the reasons why space and place are the concepts through which the present text tries to approach Danae Stratou’s Upon the Earth Under the Clouds. Of course, the use of those terms requires a basic definition. We shall confine ourselves to the following observation: because of science, western thought has viewed space as a more general concept that encompasses place. However, the notion that place precedes space also exists. It is a view supported by Aristotle, by the ancient Greek Pythagorean philosopher Archytas of Tarentum (428 BC- 347 BC) and, more recently, by philosophers such as Gaston Bachelard and his contemporary Martin Heideggerv. Heidegger’s “philosophical topology”vi highlights place as the concept from which thought and human existence originate.
A number of spaces – conceptual and real—meet in the installation Upon the Earth Under the Clouds to create what is ultimately a unified whole and an all-encompassing, ancestral, “primal” perception of place. Groups of clay potsvii are positioned at the same height to form a uniform surface, creating a pathway through the Old Millviii. The clay pots are similar to the
amphorae frequently used to bury small children in greek antiquity ix. In the installation, the pots, which, as receptacles, are spaces themselves, are filled to the rim with water so that they reflect the sky and create a sense of luminous, liquid flow through space.
[…] the sea and water as a signifier of freedom, as a kind of salvation, but also as hope, works conceptually both at the beginning and at the end of the path—both are concurrent.
Among the spatial dimensions of this installation are the space within and surrounding the work, the space through which the viewer moves and the space defined by the artwork itself. There is the location of the installation, which is the Old Mill, which in turn belongs to Eleusis and the rich history of the place as an industrial and manufacturing centre. A sacred city in ancient times, Eleusis was the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries and is associated with the mythological place/dwelling of Demeter and Persephone. In the myth, place is also perceived as a transition, a journey from the Upper World to the Underworld, a journey that is connected to the circle of life, of both man and nature, in other words, place/dwelling as it relates to origin. Place as a point of origin is underlined by the clay pots, which are receptacles of life (clay pots were used in antiquity for the storage or transportation, most often, of wine and olive oil) as well as death, of the human body and soul.
At the same time, the reflection of the sky on the water in the clay potsx brings the heavenly, metaphysical space (without any religious connotations) close to earth and earth close to the clouds. It underlines the relationship between above and below, the earthly (through the horizontal layout) and the heavenly (through the mental vertical line created between the sky and its reflection)xi, the familiar and the uncanny, freedom and boundaries, mortality and immortality, earth and nature as something that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar: one is a precondition for the otherxii. Besides, place has boundaries, in the sense that it creates a relationship between interior and exterior, it divulges and it hides, it reveals the finite and the infinitexiii.
In Upon the Earth Under the Clouds, the element of repetition references infinity and chaos (and, in a sense, the “sublime”) but, to the extent that repetition breeds familiarity, order too. There is a geometrical element (for example the uniform shape of the pots or the strict horizontal line of ground and water) but also the organic layout of the pots. A meeting takes place, a union of apparently opposite or different dynamics, a characteristic that reoccurs in Danae Stratou’s work- one could even argue that the tranquility and harmony of her art, the sense of inner strength, arises from this reconciliation, the acceptance and deeper understanding of the conflicts of life and existence. Beginning and end meet: the sea stretching across from the Old Mill could be the beginning of the installation, the beginning of the flow that passes to the ground only to return to the sea once again. Of course, if one follows the recommended path, one will enter the installation from the far end of the plot of land that houses the old industrial complex and exit, having made his way through the installation, before the sea and the open horizon. However, the sea and water as a signifier of freedom, as a kind of salvation, but also as hope, works conceptually both at the beginning and at the end of the path—both are concurrent.
The sea is also the “place” that makes a voyage possible, both man’s travels and the migrant’s journeyxiv, the journeys of people who sought a better future in Eleusis and shaped the rich anthropogeographic history of the area over time. Indeed, as the idea for this installation was developed over the past two years, the outbreak of the war in Syria added a new, more specific socio-political aspect to a work that was already moving towards concepts of origin, destination, place and migration. Through this development, the artist linked in her mind the journeys undertaken by people who were either forced from their homes, their “places”, or left voluntarily with the adventure of man as defined by his own mortality and the circle of life, as narrated by the myth of Demeter and Persephone.
The clay pots denote human presence (the travelers/migrants), bodies moving together in one direction. They also denote the concept of community. The visitor follows the path the clay pots create. As the path (and man himself) does not have a final destination, the question raised – a question that resonates throughout the installation – is where man belongs, how he constructs his identity, the relationships he builds with his environment (places and space) so as to experience the familiarity which he needs in order to live. In the modern condition of constant movement and a way of life that shifts the sense of stability and home, what security and “integration” may mean seems even more timely.
[…] every human experience materializes through place and place exists through being experienced.
At this point, the thoughts of Martin Heidegger, although expressed within an entirely different political and historical context, are timelessly pertinent. In “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”xv, Martin Heidegger discusses the inherent homelessness of man. According to the German philosopher, man as mortal is always on a journey towards his own being, is constantly in search of his essence and, by extension, his homelandxvi. As mortals, all human beings (who, as the Eleusis installation declares, live upon the earth and under the clouds) remain homeless: “nowhere do we feel at home except when moving towards our own being, our true homeland”xvii. As to where that “being” is, the answer can be found in “dwelling”, the way in which humans learn to dwell, which in turn means forming ties of familiarity and orientation— ties with the place – and living in a way that can reveal the essence of things, that is, their truth. For through truth, the unfamiliar becomes familiar.
The connection between this and the work of art is significant. The work reveals that which is unfamiliar, threatening, unknown. Like all knowledge, this revelation encompasses something liberating, given that becoming reconciled with the unfamiliar is the first step in the process of familiarization, the achievement of a union, which an important element in the artist’s work.
The part played by place and space – or a work of art that activates these dimensions – in this search for home is found in the vital relationship of man with place and space: place is the way in which man learns to dwell, in other words to exist, to form ties of familiarity. Dwelling, not in the narrow sense of residing in a building, is by definition connected to space, earth, the “being” of humans. One defines the other. Moreover, dwelling exists upon the earth, beneath the sky, in relation to divinities and mortals: this is Heidegger’s “fourfold”, the unity that is interwoven with the essence of man. Dwelling is poetic, in that it reveals the truth, discloses that which is hidden, that which according to Plato elevates something from non-Being to Beingxviii.
But, a true work of art also “opens up the Being of beings”xix. This happens in part because space and place are not a means of expression but the concept of the work itself, a part of its nature. The work of art “opens up the Being of beings”xx, “allows earth to be earth”xxi.
Therefore both space and place and the work of art which is by its very nature connected to space and place, activate, among other things, the unfamiliar and the familiar, pave the way to the truth, and are therefore absolutely interwoven with the being of mankind.
Even though Danae Stratou is not an artist whose work is characterized by the metaphysical dimensions expressed by concepts such as Heidegger’s fourfold, many aspects of her work, and this installation in particular, seem to come even more alive when viewed through this philosophical prism, that is from the perspective that every human experience materializes through place and that place exists through being experienced. The correlation between the familiar and the unfamiliar (the uncanny) and the questions around “being”, the relationship between man and place and space and, mostly, the belief that every human experience occurs in a space (conceptual or physical) are underline her reasoning.
The sense of place and space also passes through the human body. According to the phenomenological approach of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, place and body cannot be disentangled from one another: the body is never outside a place and place cannot be perceived without the body, whilst the body itself is a placexxii. Man perceives place through his body, orients himself with reference to his body, for example he may be behind or in front of something, to the left or to the right, as these directions are determined by his body. This corporeal experience of space permeates the work of Danae Stratou; the viewer is invited to follow or imagine a path through the space (even in photography installations) and therefore to activate his body.
Another element that suggests corporeality, albeit in a more indirect way, is the sound “felt” by the viewer before entering the principal installation. This audio composition, which is heard in the “preamble” to the installation before its entrance but not along the path winding through it, is a mix of the sounds of the pottery wheels used to manufacture the installation’s clay pots, in the ceramics workshops in Crete, together with the sound of water and the breathing of the people sculpting the pots. Imperceptible and three-dimensional, the sound acts as the pulse of the human body, attesting to the corporeal, the human labor, the work of art, which encapsulates the material and the immaterial, art which is also perceived through synaesthesia.
Throughout the history of installation art, this corporeal and therefore empirical, experiential relationship, the interaction between object and subject arising from the movement through space and the activation of the space by the work of art, was also a “political” argument. It supported a political role for art, particularly in the ‘60s; minimalist sculpture is a characteristic example of art finding its voice in the phenomenology of Merleau-Pontyxxiii, particularly with regard to the demand for an art that engages the viewer more critically and “interactively”, in a way that the viewing object and the subject viewed become indistinguishable.
«man as mortal is always on a journey
towards his own being»
If in the ‘70s installation art, the “sculpture of the expanded field” as Rosalind Krauss called this new, innovative claim to space by artxxiv, was considered revolutionary, what is the modern day “subvsersive” incarnation of this medium?
The original political edge seems to have lost its dynamic at present, despite installation art having flourished since the ‘90sxxv. At the end of that decade, Nicolas Bourriaud in L’ estethique relationelle (Relational Aesthetics) spoke of an art which is only activated through the participation of the viewers, social action and collectivity whilst seeking “micro-utopias” rather than large scale collective subversion.
Art in space, art that enters the social field, interactive art, digital art, all of these trends reflect an expanded perception of space that is also invested with a political overtone. Whether, in the current circumstances, art can fulfill that political goal and to what extent the incessant use of “political” as a term has weakened the meaning of the term, is a complex matter.
Danae Stratou’s work falls within that need to create the sort of art which affects society. Let it be noted: the artist ensures that the production of every one of her works of art involves the community and the workers in it, creating employment for people and making them the co-creators of a work of art. Moreover, she turns to current social and political themes, which she absorbs through a historical context, thus highlighting the thread linking past and present.
This consciousness of history, of origin, the focus on matters that have always preoccupied humanity is an opening to knowledge, acceptance and understanding. That opening, the release of action and willpower through the awareness of the human condition, is possibly the beginning of all political action, but also the essence of art. The vastness of space, the importance of place, the way human beings perceive their environment not as something external to them but as part of their existence are issues that the artist conscientiously explores and handles in such a way that viewing a work of art becomes an experience addressed to all the senses and sparks critical thought.
i The title comes from a phrase spoken by the main protagonist in Filippos Koutsaftis’ documentary Agelastos Petra (Mourning Rock), (2000), a documentary that inspired this installation.
ii The work was created by the three members of D.A.S.T. (one of whom is Danae Stratou) in the Sahara Desert close to the Red Sea and is one of the largest pieces of land art.
iii Even the creative platform VitalSpace, founded by the artist and her collaborators in 2010, is conceived as a space, open to dialogue and an exchange of ideas concerning art and social issues. Vitalspace.org
iv Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place, University of California Press, Berkely, Los Angeles, London, 1998, preface, p. xiii.
v Edward S. Casey, “How to get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” In Senses of Place, ed. S. Feld and K. Basso, 13-52. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996, p. 16.
vi Jeff Malpas, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, explorations in the Topology of Being,p. 6
vii The clay pots are designed by Danae Stratou.
viii This installation is the first time a new section of the Old Oil Mill is used in its entirety. Unlike previous exhibitions using the same space, the artist does not spread her work in the interior of the main buildings, with the exception of a ruin that is used for the first time.
ix Excavations conducted by archaeologist P. Papaggeli in Eleusina showed that children in greek antiquity were buried in clay pots.
x After sunset, the sky is still conceptually reflected. This is aided by hidden lightening inside of the pots.
xi In his later writings, Piet Modrian connects the horizontal element to earth and the vertical to spirituality. www.pietmondrian.info/mondrian…/mondrian-at-a-glan… ( accessed last, May 2017)
xii It is probably no coincidence that in most of her work, Danae Stratou places natural elements within boundaries, in clear, geometrical frames. Water, for example, takes the shape of a perfect, straight channel, a clearly-outlined wide fissure. One could argue that this gesture of “taming” nature reflects the desire to render the unfamiliar familiar, to bring it closer to man’s capacity to perceive reality.
xiii Jeff Malpas, Heidegger and the Thinking of Place, explorations in the Topology of Being, MIT press, 2012, p. 2.
xiv Of course, the issue of refugees and migrants is raised without any distinction being made between these two categories. However, in contrast to other works by the artist in which dialogue as a contemporary, often socio-political aspect of reality is more evident, here it is referred to indirectly and within the context of a more general exploration of identity (in the existential sense of the term, not the identities of political correctness).
xv The title of a lecture delivered by Martin Heidegger in Germany in 1951, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between man and space. The lecture appeared one year later in the records of that meeting and was published in 1954.
xvi From the preface by the philosopher Gerorge Xiropaides, Κτίζειν, Κατοικείν, Σκέπτεσθαι (Building, Dwelling,Thinking), Plethron, Athens, 2008.
xvii As above, pp. 16, 17.
xviii Martin Heidegger, Η προέλευση του έργου τέχνης (The Origin of the Work of Art), Dodoni Publications, Athens, 1986, (from the preface by Yiannis Tzavaras), p. 14.
xix As above, p. 65
xx As above, p. 65
xxi As above, p. 17
xxii Edward S. Casey, Τhe Fate of Place, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1998, p. 236.
xxiii Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A critical history, Routledge, New York, 2005, p. 50.
xxiv Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded field”, October, 8, Spring 1979, pp. 30-44.
xxv Good examples are the exhibitions, as of 2000, in the Τurbine Hall of ΤateModern. Tate.org.uk.