Eleusis Capital of Mysteries and Culture
An article by Franco Ungaro for Il Manifesto, Italy
'All that men had to do at the mysteries of Eleusis was to look', wrote Albert Camus, thus capturing the extent and quality, the intensity and the audacity of the gaze necessary to confront the Mysteries. It is the same type of gaze nourished by wisdom, curiosity and risk that animated the inaugural ceremony of Eleusis 2023 European Capital of Culture designed by the artistic director Michail Marmarinos and directed by Chris Baldwin which took place between 4 and 5 February.'
Thus starts the article by Franco Ungaro for Il Manifesto, Italy which also includes a conversation he had with Chris Baldwin.
And here is the interview Franco had with Chris in English language:
The mysteries of Eleusis and the myths connected to them have been the main source of inspiration for the event on the sea? What do you think was your particular approach to myths and mysteries?
I very much like making a contribution to the development of useful, fascinating and even helpful myths! Of course, there is the work of Joseph Campbell and his books The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. But what is really interesting about his work and many others is the fact that he sees myths as the creation of human collective imagination. They serve various functions (Metaphysical, Cosmological Sociological and Pedagogical/Psychological) and tell us something about phases or forms of societal development. But for me, they are deeply political in a contemporary sense. This is why we see politicians turning to myth as a political tool as they can be a way of communicating the revolting idea that ‘things have always been like this and so cannot change’. So we have to choose carefully what to do with myths. Do we use myth to say, “it’s all decided, nothing to change”, or can we use myth to create a common, shared space or moment in which something radical, some kind of symbolic rupture, can occur?
We looked backwards but only to look forwards - not in a way to suggest that the future is determined by what has already happened. That would be profoundly reactionary approach. Both I and Michail Marmarinos (General Artistic Director of 2023 Eleusis) were conscious that while the past is all around us there is no one single past. There is an ancient past, the sacred sites, the echoes of classical times, the whispers of myths and stories which are rooted here but now ‘belong’ to the whole of mankind. There is a past from a slave’s points of view, from women’s point of view and from the industrial workers' point of view.
These ‘ancient Greek’ myths are ubiquitous now and seen as a cornerstone to European civilisation. But while Greeks do experience a sense of kinship with their ‘ancient ancestors’ this phrase holds its dangers. George Seferis, in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963 said, ‘I do not say that we are of the same blood (as the ancient Greeks) – because I have a horror of racial theories – but we still live in the same country, and we see the same mountains ending in the sea’. And he stressed the continuity of language – which is why we allowed ourselves to quote a few words from Homer in the sea-based event. To some degree, these ancient Greek myths were rediscovered from the 1820s onwards as they had a contemporary socio-political use for helping a newly independent nation in the process of identity building.
In Elefsina there is a more recent past which folds into contemporary life; the post-industrial past with its particular buildings and landscapes. Industrialism required people, and workers. And as a result, a vibrant working-class society developed which has its ancestral roots in various other places altogether yet made Eleusis their home during the 20th Century.
So, there are various pasts which looks different, indeed are different, depending on from where and how you look. Being aware of these pasts should remind us that transformation is a continual, never-ending process. Transformation is with us today, now, as we speak. Maybe we have forgotten, are even encouraged to forget, that we human beings can intervene as individuals and societies and use our collective will to make an impact on these transformation processes. Of course, these processes are both political and cultural. Despite the fact, we have political forces telling us that ‘the future is history’ as Masha Gessen so eloquently puts it, this is clearly not the case. Our contemporary decisions can and must impact upon our collective futures – indeed our future on this planet depends on this sense of collective agency.
For me the European Capital of Culture initiative in general, and 2023 Eleusis in particular, is about examining the way we intervene in the processes which are transforming our lives. In the past, we looked to join political parties and trade unions to help us. And these are still important in our day-to-day lives. But we are increasingly looking to the arts and culture too. We want to experience, witness, and participate in the kind of artistic and cultural projects which help us in our desire to see how our places, cities and communities can be transformed.
The mysteries of Eleusis are the stories of Elefsina, its harbour, life and dreams. Hopefully that the idea of mysteries also acts as a metaphor for the idea of social transition. Through these myths, we were able to introduce many other voices from the past and the present. Before the show at the seafront processions arrived in the city from Eleusis and Athens and even from countries far across Europe. They each brought embedded stories, told us something about modern Eleusis, modern Greece, and modern Europe. And after that moment we came together for the show at the sea. Then the audience was invited to see, hear, listen, and taste even, twenty-one other modern 'stories' told through cultural happenings along the coastline. Multiple voices, multiple stories and perspectives, no dominant voice. In this hyper-saturated world of information, I hope that the evening caused us to slow down for a moment and see with fresh eyes how beautiful this place is, how rich the voices are, and feel proud that an audience from around Europe and the world wanted to hear these stories too. We seem to have been successful to a large degree as 300,000 people watched the show and events online across the world.
Elefsina is a place which requires you to listen, to look and to enter into dialogue. It struck me over the last year, while I was in Elefsina, that we live in a hyper-saturated world of information, where the globe spins fast and is beamed into our phones and devices using images from every part of the world, from the past and the present, through words and slogans, through micro-short musical motifs which worm their way into our heads. All this makes us dizzy, maybe this makes us numb, immune to the vulnerabilities of ourselves and to one another. This hyper-saturated world of information has not simply impacted on the speed with which we live our lives, walk down the road not looking at what is around us, but has also impacted upon our empathy for one another. Our ability to be empathetic depends on having time to listen and to breathe. Elefsina is both a place where there is no time (yes, we are all in a rush like everywhere) but also a place where time is slower - it gives you a chance to see that things were not always like they are now. Maybe this is to do with the ever presence of the sea, or the classical ruins or even the ex-industrial buildings being given a new life as we speak. It allows you to see that we came from what happened before and that the future can be determined, to some degree at least, by the choices we make today. Elefsina is very conscious of its past, both ancient and more modern. The weekend events encouraged us to see that 'things can slow down' for a moment - allow us a chance to breathe in the sea, the landscapes, the streets.
I have not seen the previous Opening Ceremonies that you have directed. What is the difference between the Eleusis ceremony and the others? What did you find and create so particular in Elefsina?
May I first say that there are always similarities in one’s initial approach to a project of this nature. But then, as fundamental questions are answered the particularities and different paths start to become defined. In Wrocław, Poland (2016) the question was how to reassert Wrocław as a European city. Yes it ‘belongs’ to Poland now. But surely an open and welcoming, multicultural city which recognises and celebrates the legacy of German and Jewish cultures is going to be a city more at psychic calm with itself. A city where generations of its own citizens came from elsewhere, and thousands were deported yet again after the war, has something important to share with other Europeans. In Kaunas, Lithuania (2022) the conversation the city had was more to do with its wartime secrets and trauma, its colonisation by the USSR, and its demand to be a city where people can now live in a free and independent European state free from domineering neighbours. The Russian attack against Ukraine occurred days after the event I directed in Kaunas and Lithuanians are generally very conscious indeed of what is at stake at present. All these themes and preoccupations are present in the Kaunas opening event and went on to play a central role throughout the year 2022.
With Elefsina the story is somewhat different of course. There was no urgent reckoning with the past to grapple with in the same sense as Poland or Lithuania. Rather, if the past is to be settled it is to do with the need to hurry along, to provoke a cultural-economic transformation in the way our economy above all no longer endangers wellbeing but rather is the source of wellbeing. Culture asks the big questions. And these opening events are often the moment when the biggest questions of all can get asked in front of the biggest of audiences.
So despite their differences and similarities between cities and countries, we begin with the same questions. How can we use these moments to structure some kind of important public conversation? How can the large public arenas be used for forms of entertainment which are not void of content but places where we can touch upon interesting and relevant social issues? Each city has a different question to pose to a European and local audience. But this question about performance as a forum to air important social content occupied one of the most famous sons of Elefsina almost 2500 years ago - Aeschylus.
Do you think that the event you directed can contribute to the social and cultural regeneration of Elefsina? Why yes? Why not? What is the role of art and culture in the processes of change in the cities?
Yes, I guess I do believe that the event I directed, but only as part of a much bigger, cross-sector initiative, can contribute to wider social change. A transition has begun in Elefsina by the very fact that so many buildings built to make various goods (paint, olive oil, soap, alcohol) have fallen into ruin. The communities of working-class families have had to face, like countless others across the continent, the end of a 20th-century industrial model. And like so many communities they often find social solidarity in short supply. Is this transition, to use your words, a regenerative one? That is a political question which can only be answered politically. It can be regenerative. It should be regenerative. And culture, as a social forum, as a conduit for social debate, has a fundamental role to play in any participative democracy and in any regenerative social process. When a city wins the title of European Capital of Culture it has already demonstrated to an international jury the existence of a strategic and financial plan for culture to be employed as part of a bigger vision for regeneration or development. A European Capital of Culture is not a one-night event – although it may comprise, to some degree, of events it is actually a process. Elefsina was nominated as the European Capital of Culture in Greece by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sport back in December 2016. So the process has been in action for some years now which is particularly noticeable in the transformation of various abandoned industrial buildings into new, local cultural spaces.
Another very interesting case study of a European Capital of Culture is Wroclaw (Poland) in 2016 for which I was one of the artistic leaders. The title of European Capital of Culture was awarded to the city in the middle of two decades of extraordinary political and social change and development. And as such culture was seen not simply as a tool for rejuvenation (although this was a critical part) but also for social healing and historical reckoning. It’s worth describing this in a little more detail when thinking about how European Capitals of Culture can be interesting and potent phenomena.
Wrocław had been Breslau until 1945; a German city with a Protestant cathedral in which Protestant music had been heard for 600 years on all religious occasions. A thriving Jewish population was integrated into every aspect of urban life. Yet in the 1932 elections the Nazis received 44% of the votes cast, the third highest total in Germany. In the final few months of 1945, 85% of Breslau was destroyed by war, as much by Nazi destruction as by the Soviet army. The expulsion of Germans from Breslau did not begin in 1945 but in 1933 when the Jews were driven out. However, in the three years after the war, almost the entire German population was expelled, ethnically cleansed, from both the city and region and uprooted Poles, from the east and other parts of Poland, colonised these lands. It is these complex events, with ramifications stretching across many countries, which became the basis for Wrocław’s European Capital of Culture and the development of everything in the projects I directed - The Flow Quartet.
The history of Poland in the twentieth century has been one of rebirth, virtual annihilation and again rebirth; a story of a multi-ethnic nation becoming one of the least ethnically diverse countries in Europe as a result of the atrocities committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. The Second World War, the Holocaust and mass deportations removed entire communities from their villages and towns and left many devoid of their ‘communities of memory’. This was compounded even further by communist rule between 1945 and 1990 which officially prohibited the remembrance of certain major traumatic events while using others as unifying elements for national commemoration. German crimes and occupation were commemorated in plaques and statues in almost every Polish city and town yet the loss of the Polish territories in the eastern borderlands and the transportation of thousands of Poles to Siberia could not be discussed until the mid-1950s or even later. These complicated events in Polish history became a central metaphor in Niebo, one of the performances I directed, in December 2016 as the closing ceremony of the European Capital of Culture.
Given this history, it is interesting to note that in 2011 the then Mayor of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz, stated in the bid for Wrocław to become ECoC that,
We consider the question of Wrocław’s future much more important than those of its past and present. Our growth has been possible thanks to quantitative reserves; they have, however, been largely exhausted. The next stage in the city’s growth must be based on a qualitative change. This must involve mobilising civic, social, professional, and creative activity. Through an increased public participation in culture we want to build a stock of public trust necessary to strengthen our social development… We are aware that the expected economic advancement of our region is bound to bring along the phenomena well-known to the cities of Western Europe: an influx of immigrants leading to a greater social, ethnic, and religious diversity. We want to pre-empt the emergence of intolerance by developing an inclusive culture.’
As you can see from the example of Wrocław, when political, social and cultural synergies coalesce around some common ground there can be the potential for extraordinary and significant social discourse and development.
How does this impact on Elefsina? The city is now a living, breathing metaphor of the twentieth century’s apocalyptic relationship with the environment. The massive oil refinery is not the only symbol of our global inertia to move away from what is killing us all. Cement factories, oil factories, paint and chemical plants were all built here. And, of course, as a result many humanistic and creative things also happened. The city generated jobs, economic growth, and a rich community life for many immigrant newcomers. But that period of development is over now, and the city is beginning the long journey of redefining its torrid relationship with the sea, air, and soil. A plan to remove the multiple sea wrecks around the bay is being progressed, industrial sites are being transformed into cultural and community centres. The sea is increasingly seen to have its own dignity, its own oxygen, be its own complex ecological system of which we humans are simply part rather than masters. For if the sea breathes, we breathe. That transition is not just a socio-economic one. It needs to be value driven. And cultural practices have a significant contribution to make in this regard.
Drones have been used to shoot the event and therefore new technologies? Do you think this choice was effective? Why? For who?
There is a fundamental question here about the use of technology in such events; not just in the event itself but in their planning and development too. I find this really fascinating and exciting. In the case of Elefsina, I was aware from the beginning that there was not only a deficit of indoor spaces but even outdoor spaces for large crowds to gather. This is often the case with coastal cities as half the mass of the place is actually water! And all roads lead to the water. Early calculations suggested that between eight to twelve thousand people could watch a show safely from the waterside. In other words, about fifty percent of the local population could come to participate in the event if they wished. But what would they see? And what if people from Athens, only 21 kilometres away, also decided to come? If the show was in the sea it would, by default, mainly happen on the horizon level – meaning that audiences four or five rows back from the shoreline would see very little. We, therefore, knew we had to raise key objects as high as we could (using cranes) but also make sure multiple large LED screens could feed images to an audience further away from the shoreline. And that image feed was also an opportunity to bring perspectives about the place to the eye of the onlooker. That is where the drones, underwater cameras, and cameras on long arms, all became storytellers in their own ways – adding ideas and views otherwise out of reach to us.
What was the biggest obstacle you encountered and what was the most beautiful discovery you made while working at Elefsina? If you had to repeat the event what would you change or improve?
The obstacle was clearly the fact that anything at all attempted with water becomes a thousand times more complicated. It takes more time, is more dangerous, there is legitimate concerns raised about security for work. But such obstacles can be motivations for creativity and innovation. Therefore, the show was designed as a hybrid event from the very start. In other words, it was an event which was to work for a live audience by being integrated with TV coverage. I never wanted to see it as one show for live audience and simply streamed for TV audiences across various national and international platforms. I wanted the live event to be augmented by the presence of cameras and technology. So, one obstacle which needed overcoming was our own expectations of what live event and what TV coverage meant. I was also aware from previous experiences that working on the sea comes with enormous risks (weather, health and safety, technical failure) we also should film rehearsals in the run-up to the event. By making sure that even the rehearsals had the performers in costume we gathered enough recorded material to make a TV version of the event should Saturday night be suspended for one reason or another. Plan B, C and D were not considered backup plans but rather folded into Plan A. I became really very excited about these possibilities because of making productions throughout the Covid pandemic months and learned a lot of new ways of mitigating risk and increasing creative possibilities at the same time.
I made a lot of beautiful discoveries in Elefsina. Multilingual teams. Interdisciplinary teams. But one discovery was working with many brilliant technicians and technology specialists – people who think utterly differently to me but who complement and make possible the wildest of ambitions. There is a special person called Antigoni Neta who was able to knit together sixteen boats moving in all weathers with a 10-tonne sculpture being raised from the seabed by a gigantic crane, encourage thirty musicians on boats supported by dozens of technicians, one hundred and twenty Chore singers to enter at the right moment in the right light on a pier. She did this with charm and excitement in her voice from a control room behind the audience. What a discovery!
What would I change if I started again? Probably everything. Why repeat what you did before? You can avoid stupid mistakes because of experience – but you should never try to simply repeat a formula you think will bring success.
Can you tell us something about your next projects or ideas that you would like to realize?
I must admit to adoring the debate at the centre of these large cultural initiatives. And I intend to stay part of such initiatives where I can be of some use. Being involved in events is not what interests me. I like the opportunity to participate in something which contributes to making culture more essential. Such occasions are mighty opportunities for conversations about what it means to be a city in Europe or even a city or region on our planet. With the climate emergency, all of us will experience huge migrations of people in the upcoming decades. But this is nothing new to us. Europeans have continually migrated during the 20th century as empires collapsed and others tried to take advantage. Mass movements of people have often been the result of forced actions as we know only too well if we look at Greek history and the Asia Minor catastrophe one hundred years ago. These big cultural projects can be creative carriers of public debate. And Teatro de Creación, and more recently Citizen-Centred Dramaturgy, are a series of techniques and methods which I have developed over the years to be practical tools for going about such work. How can we use cultural practice to structure a public conversation? How can the large public arenas be used for forms of entertainment which are not void of content but places where we can touch upon interesting and relevant social issues? I am being invited to discuss how I might contribute to these processes in various forms. But my next immediate task this week is to write an article on colonial myth-making as hegemony in the context of Brexit and Russia’s war against Ukraine for a Balkan social science journal.