Katerina Koskina
Director of the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art
President of the Board of Trustees SMCA

Art in troubled waters

Upon hearing that a major art event like the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art will take place in the present conditions, a legitimate question is raised: how can it be, amidst the current economic recession and crisis, with society under intense pressure and people disdaining everything and themselves being treated with disdain, that there are funds available to spend on such an ambitious art event? The answer to this question is that difficult times call for alternative and creative solutions that both educate and entertain –especially when offered for free– while also fostering and cultivating critical thinking. Furthermore, culture is recognized as a fundamental right in Europe, which is why both the European Union and individual member states have established special programmes and initiatives for the diffusion and protection of culture and the promotion of citizen participation. There is also an additional reason: art means freedom of expression, it is a necessity and a universal language. The Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, feeling vindicated by its previous editions, being creative, resolute and optimistic about its future, is holding its fourth edition in 2013, with an even broader programme. The Biennale focuses, on the one hand, on its strategic goals connected to Thessaloniki and the study of art, and, on the other, on the geographical and geopolitical region that has served as its axis of investigation: the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean –this cradle of civilizations, this field of conflict and contrasts, this mosaic of individualities with common features and emphatic differences in fundamental spheres that include religion, tradition, the rule of law and social behaviors, this region of subversions and claims, which is also a place of cultural and religious dialogue concerning the coexistence of people, this land of exchanges and loans, which is also a destination for recreation and tourism, this ark of timeless values, intellectual and technological accomplishments, this birthplace of (not exclusively) Western civilization– is currently undergoing yet another phase of transformation. Its southeastern part is on fire, and its northwestern part reels under intense economic pressure, experiencing great social upheaval, all the while the vision of a united Europe seems more precarious than ever. The reason for this, as everyone seems to agree, should be traced to the conflicting interests, diverse histories and diverging values, mindsets and inequalities of the peoples of Europe. How probable is it, then, given that the aspiration of a united Europe is challenged in the prosperous North, that one can find this unity in the volatile Southeast, when we are well aware that the peoples living in this part of the Mediterranean are divided in even more ways compared to the differences collectively setting them apart from the North? The Mediterranean, our “shared pond,” is a place whose destiny has always prescribed to a large degree the destiny of other, non-Mediterranean peoples and states, which also trace their roots to the Mediterranean.

In the environment outlined above, art, a fundamental means of expression for humanity, is also being transformed, regrouping its underrated powers, redefining its role, articulating its own arguments and raising its own voice.

When we approach this relatively small region, we realize that in this volatile, burning environment, despite the struggle to satisfy even the bear necessities of survival, protection and freedom –needs that should be treated as inalienable rights and top priorities– art acquires a more direct and potent role compared to the past. In Central Europe, under more auspicious conditions, art reflects on its past and broadens its vision with modern theories and an outreach to new markets; In the East (in Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus), despite many difficulties, art is strengthening its interactive relationship with the Western canon; and in the Southeast, acting literally in a battlefield, art articulates a new discourse, becoming aware of its social power in other spheres that go beyond tradition and embellishment. This live palimpsest has been the theme of three consecutive editions of the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art. Yet our investigation has not been limited to the geographical entity of the Mediterranean; it extends beyond this region, because the Mediterranean is an idea that cannot be strictly defined by its geographic coordinates.

The artists participating in this year’s main and parallel programme of the Biennale raise their own “voice” on issues that include alienation, violence, equality, the relationship between the present and the past, the new communication landscape, the structures and behaviors in the urban environment, the lines connecting and separating the “old” from the “new.” Those issues concern humanity in general, but are particularly acute and urgent in the present juncture in the Mediterranean.

Art challenges, awakens and reveals the dangers emanating from the elimination of the fundamental values of civilization, from the destruction of cultural heritage and democracy; Art keeps us alert to the destruction of nature, to the crimes against humanity perpetrated both by powerful interests and by our collective negligence and indifference. Keeping abreast of current events and taking advantage of the new communication technologies can broaden this dialogue, raise the awareness and mobilize the public. Besides, art is ideally and uniquely placed to propose a new model of life, one that will not be submissive to powerful interests but will instead promote the notions of creativity and poetry, and allow the dissemination of ideas and the establishment of tolerance and mutual respect, energizing civil society and cultivating the public. Moreover, art is a political act, because it stimulates critical thinking, affects society, foresees and promotes innovativeworks and ideas. As Michelangelo Pistoletto1 put it in a lecture he gave in Thessaloniki during the 3rd Biennale, the Mediterranean is a suitable field of research and a part of the world that meets the requirements for the establishment of a genuinely multicultural society that is based on solidarity and allows “the culture of otherness” to thrive.

Establishing what might be seen today as a utopian society, one that will transform its internal differences into a tool for the revision and reevaluation of its core values, giving prominence to its conciliatory and participatory aspect, is exactly the goal of this Mediterranean dialogue with artists, theorists and organizations inaugurated by the SMCA in 2011. This dialogue will continue at least until 2015, and hopefully will go on for many years after. The selection of the Greek and international partners, artists and participants in this dialogue was made with a view to establish in the city of Thessaloniki a workshop of observation, action, dialogue and fermentation of ideas, that will promote the modern, dynamic identity of the art in the Mediterranean. This identity can only be genuinely multicultural and cosmopolitan in nature. Thessaloniki wishes to dedicate its powers to this effort and, being conscious of the indelible marks left on its urban fabric by the various historical and cultural influences of its centuries-long history, to promote the role of the arts as a catalyst of positive change. The effort to redefine the character of the city calls for an open vision and requires collaboration with citizens of the world, who want to see the Mediterranean coming under the spotlight – only this time, it will not be as a battlefield of interests that victimizes the people at great cost, with scores of dead, refugees, muzzled artists and intellectuals and a citizenry divided between apathetic and enraged members.

 

1Michelangelo Pistoletto, “Art in the service of promoting a policy for a Mediterranean without conflicts”, Meeting of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament, Symposium of the 3rd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Ed. SMCA.

Biography: 

Art Historian-Museologist, President of the Board of Trustees of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece, since 2009 and Artistic Director of the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, Athens, since 1992.

She studied French Literature at the University of Athens, as well as History of Art, Archaeology, Modern Greek Literature, and Philosophy of Art at Paris I-Sorbonne University in Paris. In addition, she studied History of Art and Museology at the Ecole du Louvre. She has a PhD in Art History.

She worked from 1988 to 1992 at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi as a Special Advisor for visual arts. She has organized directed, curated and/or co-curated group and one-man shows and contributed essays to several books and exhibition catalogues. She was the Greek Commissioner at the 23rd Biennale of Sao Paulo in 1996 and at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, and the Director of the 3rd and the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2011 and 2013.

She is a member of ICOM, and of AICA Hellas. From 2000 to 2004 she was Artistic Consultant to the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games/Athens 2004 S.A.
Since 1998, she has also been a member of the Artistic Committee of the Athens METRO. Since 1992 she has been Curator of the Alpha Bank Art Collection.

She has been awarded as Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia for her work.