by Savas Patsalidis*

Katia Arfara. Photo: Elina Giounanli

When the Onassis Stegi (the word means “Roof” in Greek), opened its doors in 2010, something changed drastically in the artistic landscape of Athens. From the very start, Stegi offered space for courageous, restless and daring Greek artists to showcase their work and for international collaborations to flourish. From the outset, Stegi has been the venue in which the boundaries between science, art, society, education, learning and politics could be renegotiated; and a space for actions, interventions and ideas that shape and shake society.

The impressive building of Onassis’ Stegi, situated in down town Athens, is a powerhouse of cutting-edge works ranging from theatre and performance to dance, music, digital and contemporary art. Its construction started in 2000, exclusively financed by the Onassis Foundation. Photo: Nicolas Mastoras

Through the years Stegi has proved to be a real powerhouse that brings cutting-edge artworks from all over the world. It is no exaggeration to say that, at this moment, Stegi is one of the most well-connected and innovative artistic centers in Europe.

At the helm of its very active theatre and dance department sits Katia Arfara, a researcher, writer, teacher and curator with a BA in Classical Studies, a BA and an MA in Theatre Studies from Athens University and a PhD in Art History from the Sorbonne University in Paris.

Katia Arfara has been actively involved in the creative process of major projects, introducing in Greece a highly diversified range of artistic vocabularies and aesthetic forms, while provoking interconnections between local and international practitioners. Besides her teaching record, fellowships and awards, Dr Arfara regularly contributes to the theoretical discourse on the contemporary performing and visual arts as a scholar. Her essays, at the crossroads of aesthetics and politics, have appeared in numerous languages (including French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Greek) and in various journals and critical anthologies.

As the Head (2009-12), the Artistic Director (2013-18) and, currently, the Curator for Theatre and Dance at Stegi, she initiated and curated numerous interdisciplinary events and festivals, such as the Fast Forward Festival (which began in 2014), which commissions socially engaged public artworks. Her work as a curator reflects her desire to transgress cultural and social boundaries and, thereby, to connect the local with the global, by creating space in-between. The Fast Forward Festival exemplifies her vision of glo-c-alism.

This interview was conducted in May 2019, following the year’s edition of the Fast Forward Festival (FFF).

Katia, you are on the curatorial team of one of the most important and active cultural centers in Europe. How would you describe the position of Onassis Stegi in relation to local and international theatre life? Do you think its presence has brought any change in terms of theatre practice?

During the ten years of Onassis Stegi’s existence, we became active partners of global networks by commissioning and co-producing international projects in theatre, dance and performance. On the other hand, from the very beginning, we placed a strong emphasis on the support of the local scene by producing new works and supporting a wide range of artistic trends, paying particular attention to hybrid, devised and post-documentary practices.

Video 1

X Apartments in the second edition of Fast Forward Festival, 2015, Athens

Moreover, by installing a system for the promotion of Greek artists abroad, we contributed significantly to the visibility of the local theatre scene in Europe and beyond. Stegi’s productions, such as Late Night (2012), by Blitz theatre group, and Clean City (2016), by Prodromos Tsinikoris and Anestis Azas, toured all over the world and are still on tour. The most important aspect of our work, from my point of view, was that progressively, in the local projects we initiated, it became possible to find partners who were willing to co-produce works with us. That was a sign of trust and mutual respect that encouraged me to move forward.

Clean City (2015-16), a widely travelled production of Stegi. Photo: Christina Georgiadou

Yes, it is indeed a sign of trust, and rightly so. What are your feelings after six years at the helm of Fast Forward Festival? Was it worth it? How difficult was it at the beginning?

The Fast Forward Festival operates at the intersection of art, science and social practices. It attempts to connect not just spaces but also epochs and times, heterogeneous fields of knowledge and social networks, distinct mediums and artistic practices from Greece and all over the world.

I initially conceived it as an interdisciplinary platform that could open a critical dialogue with the city and its sociopolitical urgencies, using new media and new forms of art which escape classical formats. At the heart of the FFF lies the attempt to re-integrate contemporary art into the fabric of civil society; a connection which has been damaged by years of austerity and precarity. Artists from both the visual and the performing arts are invited every year to undertake research in Athens and work closely with various communities and experts for an extended period. At the same time, the FFF explores critically neighborhoods whose social identity continues to undergo constant transformations, while maintaining a critical position which avoids stigmatizing spatial rhetoric.

This site-specificity does not restrict the circulation of ideas and thoughts into a delimitated cultural space. The festival wants to transgress dichotomies such as local and global.

X-Apartements, Stegi’s first commissioned urban project for the FFF2, in 2015. Photo: Stavros Petropoulos

The X Apartments, our first commissioned urban project for the FFF2, in 2015, with local and international artists from both the visual and performing arts, revealed to me the endless possibilities of curating socially engaged art in public or semi-public spaces. By co-curating this ambitious project on the complex phenomenon of shared city space, I realized how powerful art can be, not to change the world, but rather to question our preconceptions and prejudices, offering new possibilities for coming together.

In the following editions of FFF, we started to commission more and more site-specific projects, expanding and deepening our collaboration with diverse communities, social networks, public institutions, scientists and grassroots organizations.

FFF 5 (2018). All that May Bleed, based on six scenes from Sophocles’ tragedies with the participation of amateur actors over 65, directed by Markus Öhrn, from Sweden, and presented at the Reading Room of the National Library, Athens. Photo: Kiki Papadopoulou

From the title I understand the word “Forward.” Why “Fast”?

The Festival unfolds in a hybrid space that transgresses binaries such as visual and performing arts, in order to familiarize the audience with interdisciplinary forms of artistic production through what I call an “expanded spectatorship.”

It’s a festival that looks into the future by digging the multiple layers of our present and re-imagining our past. It works silently under the surface, for extended periods of research, and, then, re-emerges into public life for an intense period of just two weeks.

The Festival requires an engaged spectatorship, it needs the quick mobilization of the audience, their curiosity, their flexibility, their openness.

The title of the Festival signifies, in a way, the direct, urgent manner in which it reflects upon current sociopolitical issues. In reality, it slows down the velocity of cultural production and invites artists to take their time to investigate, explore, reflect; urgencies can also make time for reflection. Ambiguities are inherent in this festival which tries to escape categorizations and solid frames.

From what you are saying, and from my experience of certain FFF events, the average theatregoer does not really feel at home at the Festival, in the sense that they are very much challenged by the relationship developed between the actor and the viewer. What kind of audience attends these experimental works?

Video 2

Ηomes. A documentary of Alaska Films that examines the traumatic experience of forced displacement. Written and directed by Leonidas Konstantarakos and Stavros Petropoulos. Produced by the Onassis Stegi, FFF 4. Documentary Film Festival, Thessaloniki, 2019

After six years, the festival has developed a loyal audience. They are mostly people who attend our artistic program throughout the year. On the other hand, the Festival opens, every year, to new communities, according to the themes and the areas that it explores. These communities are not necessarily familiar with Stegi or with the contemporary art world. This encounter with audiences from diverse cultural and social backgrounds is really important for the ongoing dialogue that Onassis Stegi and the FFF want to foster with the city as it increases its inclusivity and reciprocity.

To open up our inquiry a bit, most of the works hosted by FFF could be categorized as experimental, avant-garde, alternative, etc. Do you think these terms are accurate to describe the ideological character of these ventures?

Sanctuary; Brett Bailey’s surrealist rendering of the history of contemporary Europe was part of FF4 programme, in 2017. Photo: Andreas Simopoulos

I maintain that terms such as “hybrid” and “interdisciplinary” are more appropriate. The element that connects the fragmented narrative of the FFF is precisely its in-betweenness—between old and new media, fiction and nonfiction, the ordinary and the extraordinary. It is within this intermedial, shared space that the FFF tests the limits and the potential of art’s social function.

One of the things that characterizes site-specific, devised, documentary works, etc. is their temporary/ephemeral character. They do not last. They manage to express the zeitgeist of the era, but they do not leave much behind for future scholars to study. Or do they? Let’s look into the lasting qualities of all these works. This is something that interests me personally because I am also involved in the study of these works and, many times, questions like this buzz around my head.

You are touching the important question of dissemination of public artworks. Coming from the academic world and being myself a researcher, I struggle, each time, to find ways to share all this accumulated experience acquired from working on site-specific projects. From the beginning, I have invited a film crew to document all site-specific events, making interviews with the artists, the research team and the audience. We have rich material from each edition that we share through short documentary films.

Dries Verhoeven’s Phobiarama, in FFF4, 2017. Photo: Kiki Papadopoulou

Of course, if you want to study each project you need to adopt a cross-disciplinary methodology: exploring the archival material (pictures and recordings) and the various sources used during the research period (which is as important, incidentally, as the final “presentation”), but also undertaking interviews with the artists, the research team and the key partners for each project (such as, for example, the archeologists who worked together with Hikaru Fujii in his project The Primary Fact, in May 2018).

Each project needs to be approached from different angles and perspectives, in order to be explored in all its “layers.” I don’t think that is an easy task, but it’s interesting, as it challenges the dominant methodologies of academic research, especially in the performing arts field.

In the site specific Piraeus/Heterotopia, FF4 (2017), the Japanese “architect of theatre” Akira Takayama helped the participants rediscover the refugee history of Piraeus with the aid of smartphones and apps. Athens, 2017. Photo: Vagelis Lainas

It surely does challenge many “givens.» As things are now in Europe, and in many other places on the planet, I wonder whether there is any room left for alternative theatre to make a difference? What do you think?

Given the prevailing models of artistic creation in Europe, these hybrid forms of theatre practice have a limited presence in Europe. Few artists escape from the stage, from the dominant system, and take the time to investigate alternative models of artistic production.

Moreover, the performing arts institutions that encourage these alternative practices and invest in extended periods of research and projects with low income and limited number of audience are very few nowadays in Europe.

At the same time, and this is, perhaps, a sign of hope, contemporary art events such as biennials and art fairs are focusing more on performance and dance. This “performative turn” can potentially contribute to the expansion and the broader visibility of hybrid performing arts practices, thereby, subsequently, “contaminating” theatre and dance festivals.

Park Fables, by Chto Delat, in collaboration with Anton Kats, was an FFF5 project on the fertile ground of “Pedion tou Areos,” one of the largest public urban parks in Athens, in an attempt to find new ways to activate it. Photo: Georges Salameh

I do hope, myself, to see an increasing support of these projects. They are so much needed. I mean, there is so much talk about “political theatre” nowadays, and these projects are deeply political. At the same time, I feel that whatever theatre does is in its own way political. What do you think differentiates current political theatre from earlier political theatre? What is political for you?

I think that the meaning of political theatre changes from era to era. In the current times, I consider political the theatre that operates at the intersection of aesthetics and civic practices creating poetic spaces of freedom, proximity, criticality and imagination that is not unlike the process of community building.

Video 3

FFF 2, Toneelhuis, FC Bergman, 2015

In my opinion, public projects are inherently political as they interact directly with the social fabric, challenging key terms of theatre practice such as “liveness” and “nowness.” At the same time, they urge spectators to think of their differences and particularities, both as individuals and as citizens living together in contemporary multiethnic societies—in other words, to think politically.

FFF6 (2019). In The Wild Hunt, by Thomas Bellinck, human hunting stories of today unravel. Photo: Georges Salameh

The Festival you curate encourages us to move “forward.” Can you tell me where is this “forward”? What is there to meet? What kind of “tomorrow” does a Festival of this kind dream of?

There is no linear approach of time, as there is no linear approach to a festival’s hyper-dramaturgy. The FFF is conceived as an open platform where various artistic mediums and fields of knowledge can interact with each other in order to potentially built new forms of togetherness and imagine collectively a common future.

Raqs Media Collective from India participated in the 6th edition of FFF with Pamphilos, in 2019. Photo: Georges Salameh

I would like to end this most interesting conversation Katia with a question that also relates to my job as a critic. Nowadays, everybody can call himself/herself a “critic.” Do you think this proliferation is a good sign for the future of the dialogue between critics and artists?

I like to consider the critic as the mediator between artists and the audience. A “good” critic is someone who has the critical tools to analyze a conventional or an atypical performance. He/she needs to be open to explore new practices and curious to discover unknown fields, undertaking the risks of misunderstanding and failure. The reception of the intermedial projects of the FFF reveal the lack, in Greece, of this hybrid criticality that embraces the transgression of established genres.

Video 4

FFF4, Phobiarama (2017), by Dries Verhoeven

In my opinion, the current era, and the blurring of boundaries in aesthetic categories, oblige critics, as well as academics, to rethink their analytical tools from a wider perspective. 

*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavartparallaxi, and thegreekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Dimitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2019 Savas Patsalidis
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Inter-national Crossings: Interview with Katia Arfara
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