The Democracy of Hunger at Open Show Studio, Athens

By Stephanie Bailey

Taking over Sofia Touboura’s independent project space, Open Show Studio, for a one week programme of live poster painting sessions, sound performances and general hanging out with whoever chooses to stop by, George Kakanakis’s The Democracy of Hunger is definitely not an exhibition – Kakanakis prefers to see it as a stockpile of propaganda materials, evidenced in the posters exhibited within the 2-floor space.

The ground level floor is occupied with phrases such as “FACTS ARE FLIGHTS OF STAIRS DOWN INVISIBLE CORRIDORS”, “YOU BELIEVE IN REASON AS IF IT WERE REASONABLE”, or my personal favourite, “WHEN EVERYTHING HAS BECOME LANGUAGE IT IS BECAUSE ALL HOPE OF UNDERSTANDING IS DEAD”, penned by the so-called Believers, presented onto roughly handled notebook paper stuck onto cardboard and pinned to the wall. There is a typewriter installation, too, with a story written by The Believers. Nearby, visitors are provided with the option to type messages onto pieces of paper and to post them onto the wall. In the basement, where the sound performances and poster painting takes place, The Rank and File have scrawled their comments and criticisms on society, from “YOUR MELANCHOLIA IS A LUXURY”, “THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD IS NOT OUR FUTURE”, and “OUR WOUNDS ARE DESPERATELY OPEN EYES”. With music blaring, poster-sized sheets of paper are being attacked with spray paint, pencils, photocopies and anything else that might come to hand, while visitors wander through the situation. No, this is definitely not an exhibition.

Looking at the way Kakanakis has overtaken the space, it is clear he has a lot to say. Having visited the space on the day the Democracy of Hunger opened, I couldn’t resist getting into the mind behind the project, and sat down with the artist for a rapid fire question and answer session that left more open avenues than concluded points. I have a feeling this is exactly what Kakanakis would have wanted.

SB: Where did you grow up?
GK: I’m Greek but grew up in New York and came to Athens 12 years a go. It was a family thing, plus New York was kind of shitty at that time. I was living mostly in the lower east side. I hear it’s become more upscale now, which is alright.

SB: Where did you study?
GK: I studied at the New School for Social Research and pretty much studied performance art and cinema, but my background is with theatre performances. With this group I’m involved in now, the Erasers, we do this thing called live cinema. We take up to around twelve mini TVs and video cameras and we film performances on the spot, edited and projected in real time. For us it’s like making a movie in real time, and we tour doing stuff like that.

SB: What put you in the direction of film, cinema and performance?
GK: I got bored with theatre. I mean the theatre that I studied was not classical theatre it was performance art. In New York I was influenced by performance artists like the Wooster Group or Richard Foreman, but when I moved to Greece, Athens was ten to twenty years behind and it was before the internet, too, so you didn’t have access to information about things happening abroad unless you travelled so I got bored with theatre, especially in Athens, and started to do my own visual work. Then I hooked up with these other guys who now make up the Erasers.

SB: Going back to before you started at the New School for Social Research what kind of influences did you have?

GK: That’s a lot of names, I mean obviously I really liked the stuff the Wooster Group was doing and Reza Abdul who was doing stuff at PS1 in New York and various places, Richard Foreman, off the top of my head, and then I guess it was growing up and being 15 when the whole punk thing was happening in New York city. That was really a big thing for me and continues to be an influence; CBGB’s, seeing the Ramones and all these other bands when they were really saying something and doing something, like the Stooges. That would be one influence, and then, I don’t know it’s a lot of stuff, like small pieces or fragments from various sources.

SB: Do you see yourself as an artist?

Actually, I don’t and it’s not because of the cliché of not wanting to be called an artist and all this bullshit. I don’t know how I would define myself. The key word is communication, and that’s why I jump around a lot. I do posters, I do stuff on the streets, and then I also write text for magazines, I play music, the Erasers, which is the live movie making, then I get into my own personal things.

SB: Did you set out to be an artist or set out to become something else?
GK: I think what basically drove me and still does is communication. My thing is direct communication, as direct as possible. What we do with the Erasers is kind of performative in a way. Doing the live cinema, even though it’s a visual thing, there’s a performative quality to it, you know, being on stage with the live cameras moving around.

SB: So you didn’t set out to be an artist but more to communicate. How does this work in relation to the Democracy of Hunger?

GK: In the context of this show I stated in the press release that this is not an art exhibition; it’s a stockpile of propaganda. This idea of The Believers and The Rank and File, are groups that I sort of hide behind to say or do things. The Rank and File are everyday people like you and me, while The Believers are a bit more serious in what they have to say. I like signing things through these groups because I write some of the phrases you see around here on the streets with those tags. It would be very cool if someone else would write a phrase or a word on the street and tag themselves as The Rank and File. Anyone could be The Rank and File or a Believer.

SB: Where did you get the phrases from?
GK: Most of them are mine, and others are stolen from readings of various books or movies, like snips taken from dialogues in film. I can honestly tell you that out of the one hundred sentences I have, I could not tell you which were from other or mine. They are things that I read and pick up; I keep them in my mind and at some point, they become functional.

SB: And you bring them together to create a narrative?
GK: Well that’s really something that I kept from the theatre. What I enjoyed studying and continue to enjoy is the concept of narrative and communication and the spaces and blanks that you as a viewer could fill in, so you would become more active as a participator. So for me there is a narrative, though I’m not sure what people in the theatre might think, or what the audience might get out of it – that’s what I like.

SB: In the context of Athens, what narrative emerges? There is a definite sense of protest and politics in some of the posters.
GK: I mean, it’s quite political, but I am political – everyone is political to a certain degree, some more some less, but I try not to make the work political or didactic.

SB: What capacity does our generation have to be political? Today people tend to take a political position that places them in this kind of strange ‘in between’ political existence of action and inaction…
GK: Yes I know and that’s kind of bullshit but I don’t have an answer to that. I mean, I despise and hate abstract art for instance. It has no meaning to me, it says nothing; it’s like a piece of furniture and a nice thing to look at but I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t know if that could be a political statement. But for me things need to have a meaning, or at least the possibility of meaning.

SB: This brings up the notion of what is more important in art, aesthetics or the content behind it…
GK: Obviously, I mean I don’t know if that is obvious, but to have some kind of balance between form and content is what everyone seeks. But I didn’t start out thinking if these things look nice, because all the works in here started off as ideas which came from the street. I mean I have this one piece, which reads, ‘LET THEM TAKE XANAX’, which is a reference to the phrase, ‘let them eat cake’, and I originally wrote this on throwaway pieces of wood and I put them in front of a couple of drug stores. Then those phrases they move into the Open Show Studio space and then they will go out into the street again.

SB: Do you have documentation of these street works?

GK: That stuff I kind of documented, but only for myself. I didn’t bring them into this show because it feels valueless – the purpose of those works was to be done on the street and to be seen by passers by. I did this one for The Rank and File that was for outside a bank near to where I lived in New York. I put it next to a cash machine. It read, ‘BREAD AND BEER’.

SB: How will the context change by these works moving into a gallery space?

GK: I don’t know, we’ll see. Some people will be pissed off because they’ll think that it all started from the street and now it’s in a gallery and has sold out. I haven’t done this exhibition for personal gain, which is something I wanted to write in the press release, but then I thought, it is what it is and people will read it as they want to.

SB: But why does art have to sell out by moving into a gallery space?
GK: That is the opinion of Athenian reality right now as far as politics is concerned. I’m sure that people who are friends of mine, who I share ideas with, will think that I’ve sold out.

SB: But doesn’t that shoot the concept of a political act – such as writing slogans and placing them on the street – in the foot? Does the setting matter if the message is there?
G: Well when you talk about this you slide into a political discussion. My opinion is that you attack all fronts – if it’s in a street, in a gallery, in an apartment, but that’s just my point of view.

SB: But that brings into the idea of art’s role today and its purpose; shouldn’t art reflect reality and in turn does that reality not inherently include political thought?

GK: Definitely.

SB: And then it brings into the definition of politics; are we not all inherently political creatures?
GK: Absolutely. We are inherently political. But I tend to shy away from this kind of conversation. Political discussion should be done in close circles, or between friends, or not discussed at all and just done on the streets. I wouldn’t say this is what it is to be political; it’s just what I believe in. I think I try to speak about politics when I do things in my daily life, and I say it to the degree of whatever these posters are. The rest is just a lot of old fashioned political discussion, which could be interesting if it was done in some kind of forum, but there is no forum for it.

SB: Could this one week show be a forum?
GK: It could be, but I don’t want to be grandiose. It would be cool if people came and saw the stuff, then we could talk, and that’s the thing; to talk. This is a big problem in Athens, I mean, ok there’s no budget, the economy is shit, and the whole package, but between people doing things and not, pretty much at this point right now, we either somehow work together, or we slide into complete isolation.

SB: This concept of isolation and communication brings to mind the Facebook phenomenon and the internet, and the fact that you isolate phrases into posters like status updates, or invite people to write their own and ‘post’ them into the space all touch on the way we communicate today…

GK: The whole thing with the internet is that everyone uses it – I use it. But in my opinion, at this point it is the largest propaganda machine that exists, and I’m sure I’m not the only one saying that. And the really fucked up thing about it is that it is abstract propaganda, because you go from click to click, from page to page and there is a narrative that has been structured for you to follow.

SB: But it is also like an abstraction of reality, as well…
GK: It is, and it’s ingenious, because it is structured in a way that deals with the way that we deal with reality and narrative now, because we deal with reality in a broken way and with narrative through a broken structure, which is what the Internet is. There is no linear narrative on the internet; it’s just from one link to another link. So whatever this one week show is, there is a possibility of bringing people together to talk.

SB: The concept is reminiscent of Beuys’s Bureau for Direct Democracy; did you have that in mind?
GK: That was a definite influence. There are a lot of names and things that influence me but I try not to talk to them. I try to give as little information as possible because I think when people read an interview and hear all of this background information, such as the influences of the Situationists behind the entire show, they come with these perspectives in mind.

SB: But wouldn’t that be directed towards an art audience, what about for a non-art audience that often want to know more about a show in order to understand it better?
GK: That’s cool, but I don’t know. It’s right what you’re saying but I like it when people come in and talk about it on a one to one level. I really like that, and honestly, most of the valuable feedback I’ve ever had has been from people who have nothing to do with the art world. It’s all connected in a way, really.

The show continues until 3 November.