In 1979, philosopher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard argued the concept of “grand narratives” and the way they defined storytelling in modern times.1 For the most part, grand narratives are used to effectively promote dominant ideologies and largely shape what is later documented as “official history.” However, every narrative we encounter, whether visual or textual, or of any other medium, is the result of someone’s choices and has been adjusted and/or edited several times before being presented as an integral structure. This is especially the case for artistic representations, where public engagement relies on what is presented as a valid and cohesive body of information. For example, when a film reaches an audience, it is not the full version that was originally compiled, but a shorter, more coherent production. Such practices are expected and considered acceptable in the film industry, and art in general, but we should probably wonder if every story is being treated this way. When it comes to narrating history, how many scenes don’t make it through the montage—in other words, into the dominant narrative?
From December 2019 to February 2020, viewers had the chance to see a pastiche of samples of what Greek reality looked like nearly fifteen years ago, without any smoothing of the rough edges. The exhibition a.O.–b.c. An audiovisual diary, where the initials stand for “after Olympics–before crisis,” was organized by the curatorial team of State of Concept gallery in Athens and was held both at State of Concept and in several exhibition areas in the Athens School of Fine Arts. In an effort to map this interspace through a series of contemporary artworks brought together in one place for the first time, it was described as a “diary.” The selected timeframe aimed to mark the period between the end of the 28th Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 and the day in 2010 when then-Prime Minister George Papandreou announced that Greece was entering the International Monetary Fund support mechanism, in order to avoid bankruptcy. The story presented in the exhibition unfolded through all types of artistic expression with an intentional focus on audiovisual documentation, in order to showcase the overwhelming feeling of transition to the digital age that dominated the country in the early aughts.
Just a few years before the 2004 Olympic Games, in 2001, Greece had adopted the euro as its currency, thus enjoying unprecedented economic privileges and growth, which were consequently recklessly exploited by all administrations. Politicians continuously stole public money for private use, banks loaned money without asking for explanations or guarantees, the church got richer and richer, and anyone who had access to European funds found a way to misappropriate them to their own benefit. Those in power, however, needed to ensure that the country’s public image remained spotless because of the prestigious upcoming event that was essential to making a strong impression on their European associates. Thus began a fast track for Greece’s Europeanization, which required a rather intense polish of its Western-looking aspects and an equally careful construction of a coherent, desirable, and credible image for domestic consumption.
Attempting to deconstruct what had been established as an unquestionable truth, the exhibition curators (Iliana Fokianaki with Electra Karatza, Maria Adela Konomi, Lydia Markaki, and Vicky Zioga) sowed the seeds of doubt through a series of artworks not meant to be seen so much individually as interrelatedly, like details from a bigger picture that were stitched back together after the fact. The overall structure of the exhibition mirrored the pretentious effort of a nation to advertise its identity as a cohesive and solid entity, despite actually oscillating between dream and nightmare, Eastern and Western identity, financial crisis and Olympic extravaganza. The proposed patchwork-like narrative matched the confusion and the disarray that were hidden for years behind a well-polished public façade designed to divert people from the real issues. Ultimately, what appeared to be a room full of scattered memorabilia directly reflected the fragmented sociopolitical situation of a fully contradictory era. As a result, the visual layout of the exhibition became structurally part of the discourse. The selected curatorial methodology for the entire exhibition aimed at mimicking the status quo at the time, which in reality was as incoherent and multifaceted as the proposed setting.
This was an intricate group show with more than eighty participants from all over the country, aiming to map a significant and socioeconomically complex, while also suspiciously overlooked, period of time. Visitors came across a multitude of disciplines and means of expression in the form of a retrospective bricolage. There were paintings, small sculptures, videos, prints, audios, banners, photographs, and a variety of artifacts, all somehow projecting lesser-known aspects of an otherwise highly documented time. All the fragments from the post-Olympic era invited the audience to reconstruct them conceptually, in order to make sense of the scattered narrative. The exhibition examined many challenging, yet widely unaddressed issues, such as the Greek identity and nation, the Olympics, late-capitalism decay, state corruption and violence, East-West oscillation, religion as dogma, the fetishization of ancient Greece, impoverishment, over-tourism, gentrification, the concept of periphery, racism, and economic instability, to name a few.
Among others, the exhibition featured several films that the audience may have never seen at the cinema or at a public screening before, addressing taboo topics for Greece, like gay identity in relation to Orthodox Christianity and the Ottoman Empire, or aspects of the (still) stifling patriarchal character of the Greek family. Other media artworks focused on the urban environment and architecture (especially of Athens), aiming at deconstructing their alleged connections to the aesthetics of ancient Greece, while showcasing footage from contemporary riots and protests against austerity. Apart from the audiovisual pieces, there were also other presentation formats. These included an installation of banners, each featuring a black cross meant to mimic a church’s death or memorial announcement, with words like “solidarity” written on each, commenting on the church’s lack of support of the people and the overall absence of such values in the current society.
Aiming for a holistic approach, this ambitious project presented scenes from a spectacle2 that lasted more than five years, marking “a radical shift in the way that Greece perceived itself, and in the way the world perceived Greece,”3 as curator Iliana Fokianaki states in the exhibition’s catalog. This showtime that began with the country’s integration into the eurozone and its commitment to organize the 2004 Olympic Games (spending 8.5 billion euros) was meant to end ingloriously when the curtain came down, along with the economy, in 2010.
Dealing with a staged spectacle calls for a corresponding approach; that is, the semiotics of cinema. According to theorist and philosopher Guy Debord, “the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification.”4 In this case, a palimpsest of fragments that were left out of the abovementioned spectacle were used to showcase different aspects of the Greek identity and propose an alternative narrative, which hasn’t been officially promoted due to its lack of cohesion. a.O.–b.c. presented a mélange of scenes that could only be found in the uncut version of history, since they were not in line with the desirable public image and were finally discarded, both by the media and the government in power. This is a rather characteristic example of how culture can be used as a tool for communicating paternalistic ideas, which end up becoming postulates, i.e., how “reality emerges within the spectacle,”5 rendering it real.
The seemingly disruptive story that unfolded here, and the way it was handled, only reminds us of the fact that, since all narratives are more or less constructed, they should always be approached critically. During the postmodern era in particular, where representations often balance between reality and fiction and “fantasy is potentially as real as history,”6 it is essential for spectators to stay alert. By realizing that in every story there is someone else selecting the displayed scenes and producing the montage, we may be able to reflect on the proposed grand narratives and ultimately deconstruct them. Hence, such initiatives that aim to highlight social ills through artistic production offer an opportunity to fill in the blanks of an allegedly perfect scenario, as well as reflect on aspects of history that have been left out of the dominant narrative.
The original version of this theory can be found in Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979).
The word “spectacle” here is intended to be read as both the term introduced by Guy Debord, and as a structural reference to his well-known 1967 book The Society of Spectacle, where the narrative is purposely presented in fragments resembling the scene cut.
Iliana Fokianaki, a.O.–b.c.: An audiovisual diary (Athens: State of Concept, 2019), 7.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 2.
Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 3.
Kevin Walsh, The Representation of the Past: Museums and heritage in the post-modern world (New York: Routledge, 1992), 114.