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Rage on stage: Turning Athenians into Romans

December 20, 2008

 

by Nikolas Kosmatopoulos

Three scenes as a prelude to Greek riots:

Scene no.1:

Around 2000 people are gathered in front of the Greek parliament following a call to a sit-in by the open assembly of the occupied Law University. The atmosphere is serene, people’s chats and scrolls are often accompanied by slogans against police brutality and state violence. Police forces are not in sight. Suddenly a young man takes off half of his clothes, and bends his naked upper body in such a way as to simulate a human being in chains, humiliated: his hands bonded behind his back, his knees folded, his head hitting the floor, his exposed back revealing a tatooed crucified Jesus. In this position screams comes out of his mouth, which is only 3 cm far from the ground: “How does it feel to live an entire life bent like this, how does it feel?”. The relaxed atmosphere is changing at once. People and journalists gather around the young man, a crowd of 15 others follow him suit and uncover their upper bodies, taking the same body posture. The crowd is shocked, electrified, speechless. Heavy silence, reflection, a sudden applause. One girl, part of the crowd, screams back to the bystanders: “Don’t applause, just follow us and see how does it feel by yourself”. Kids with school backs undress… Within seconds, divisions of riot police appear from all directions heading to the spot. The silence is gone, slogans against police vibrate the air allover the parliament. The crowd turns the back to the spontaneous performers and heads towards the police forces angrily. They attack them verbally, demanding they leave immediately. The police retreats in order to re-deploy only meters in front of the ad hoc “stage”. After moments, a new performance takes place: A riot police in full gear is approached by a student with long hair. The student bends in front of him on his knees, remaining there for at least an hour. The police officer fails to look the young man in the eyes and soon both of them are joined by two more “actors”: a 10-year-old Roma child, having his face covered all up with Mallox, the anti-teargas liquid cream, and his right hand dressed with a huge boxing glove, with which he occasionally hits the policeman’s shield. A TV reporter joins in extending his camera so close to the scene, almost intercepting the looks of the youngman and capturing the empty look of the officer. 

           

Scene no.2: Hours later, students and workers and employees and intellectuals are gathered in the main aula of the Law School to attend an open assembly and organize their next moves. In the midst of the discussion, the coordinator of the assembly asks the latter if they would agree to a request by a French filmmaker to film the procedure. After clarifying that the French man is not working for any mainstream media outlet, the assembly grants him permission. Scenes are taken mostly from the rear part of the hall, since at least on soldier present expressed fears about his showing in the film and having to deal with the consequences later.

Scene no.3: Some hours later, same day, a spontaneous call has brought around 300-400 protesters in the heart of a recently gentrified neighborhood in Athens. It’s Saturday night after all, and this initiative aims at staging a march through the crowded streets of this and some neighboring similar night spots: posh, loud and “cosy” places are mushrooming in this district of Athens. They want to bring the issue of police brutality, state violence and a vision for a different way of “fun” in the ears and the minds of careless out-goers. They scroll through the streets and small alleys, passing by cofee shops and restaurants. “Drop the drinks and take to the streets” is once again vibrating the cocktail glasses on the tables. “One like you and us has been killed by the police, how can you celebrate?” they open the doors of the posh places and shout to the people sitting in. Some of them carry long wooden sticks, causing fear to many bystanders but actually using the equipment only to break down bank facades and ATMs. The march passes by most of Athens’ Saturday-night-out places and in a route that actually surrounds the Acropolis they end up in another recently genrtified place, Gazi. A place where posh and expensive clubs have exostracized many of its former inhabitants, poor people, many of them with Turkish roots or even self-identification. Few clients take up the challenge and follow the call by the protesters. Finally, a group of 50 people is surrounded by the police some kilometres further and arrested.         

These scenes talk legion. Certainly and at a very first reading, it tells us many things about things we already knew: about police tactics and urban gentrification in Greece, as well as the internationalization of the riots out of it. Still, what is also revealed by the incidents is a central parameter of the clashes in Greece, which has been totally ignored by all analyses sofar. In Europe and elsewhere, commentators found refuge to easy categories that perplex than enlighten things: unemploymet is rising, youth has no chances, corrupt state politicians. Economistic thinking is easy and preferable for one is able to “explain” complex situations through a parade of statistics: 20% of the population under the poverty line, 30% of youth unemployment, 700 Euros is first salary for most of the university graduates etc. Occassionally this clear-cut vision of “the problem” is accompanied by an even more simplified explanation of “the reaction”. Blind violence, looting and destruction that is. The conundrum is easily solved and it is neatly portrayed in “rational” circular frameworks that fit all. Economic deprivation leads to blind violence by youth that have no other ways of channeling their alienation. The follow-up discussion about how to deal with this violence is irrelevant here, because the whole hypothesis is placed on shaky ground.   

The first and major problem with this way of thought, which is not suprisingly shared by Marxists and Keynsians and Hayekians alike, is that it considers economy where everything starts from and quite predictably where everything shall end. The second problem is that all analyses take as their departure point the fact that Greece is a “society” and therefore one can start explaining using some givens, which may not be scrutinized. “Social ties” for sociologists, “social contract” for politicals scientists and “social welfare” for economists are more that empirical questions, they are ready-made answers. The third problem that by complication relates to the first two is the issue of the “stage”, i.e. the performativity of all sides involved. In simple words it means that notions like “government” or “justice” are not taken for granted but negotiated and performed by different actors involved.   

Now, taking a step back from theoretical deliberations, one can drop a sober look on contemporary Greece. Some months ago, when i was leaving Greece, i serioulsy doubted that there is something called a “Greek society” to start with. This label is more than a euphemism; it is rather a dystopia, a curse. There was nothing at all, no definitional box that could unite under its aegis an expanded sense of “not-belonging-together” or of disenchantment, no matter how nationalist observers or meticulous social scientists would invest in “sociological imagination”.

Eager to enjoy a minimum of promised commonality, a people retreated under the attack of a savage neo-liberalism and a raging postmodern hopelessness, they found refuge in clanging on every tosted bone of make-believe societal coherence: the Olympic Games, the Euro football championship, the Eurovision song contest. The “stage” was the place where society was re-created: The Flame, the Cup, the Song were the elements that sought to make Greeks feel Greeks. Through “staging”, the country was turned into a collective addict of fake success, boosted by a constant making-up for the upcoming show, and resulting in an orchestrated exercise in self-deceit, which finally turned the contemporary Athenians (mostly) into Romans, and subsequently a crambling democracy into a mediocre mediocracy, where the “spectacle” or the “stage” became the sole societal glue: the “society” was organized around the Collosseum.

But unfortunately the show was horrible and ugly. It reminded partly to the ones delivered by aged rock stars, who have nothing more to offer but to re-invent their old glory with a little help from their drug dealers. Only loaded with excesive vanity and nostalgia for lost glamour, their self-deceit is backed with narcotics. What a nasty coincidence it was to discover that the “national heroes” in the Olympics for example were indeed taking steroids and had to undergo humiliating ordeals of control and exclusion by expert committees. Like the old rock stars, this age-old “democracy” was undergoing constant lifting operations that left the patient uglier and uglier. Ironically the huge mirrors set up beforehand in order to maximize the effect of the “stage” were now only depicting a magnified ugliness of self-deceit that didnt work out. As a result, it all turned into a mirrored spectacle of disgust, the “Greeks” found themselves in a state of continuous degradation of their sense of taste. The Collosseum was boiling.

However, not everything looked that bad. TV, ATM and CCTV made sure that the Collosseum holds and that the audience is kept under spectacular surveillance. Media, money and a plethora of “micro-stages” produced another quality of “society”: A “society” of interface, not of interaction, a society based on screens and images transferred through screens. Interface instead of interaction was the constituting element of the new “society”. Trust and confidence was denied to the “nebenmensch”, the neighbour, the colleague, the fellow passenger. This denied trust was however generously granted to other (inter)faces, the persons, the voices, the characters behind the screen: the star journalist, the invisible banker, the unidentifiable chatter, the knowledgable “expert”. This “society” learned to trust the ones afar and disallowed confidence in the ones so close. Intimacy was outsourced, while proximity was problematized. A “society” up-side down. Or, more precisely, inside-out.

“Social” positioning came to be understood increasingly as a parameter to be measured according to the position of the spectators to the “stage”. The closer one gets to the main stage, either geographically or mentally, the better for him.  Accordingly, the setting up of a number of micro-stages followed suite, where dissatisfied audience can probe their own theatrical uniforms, imitating the big ones on the major stage in posing, prosing and poisoning each other through non-charismatic performances. For that reason, they were by implication involved in guaranteeing that all micro-stages are intact and that the market for all kinds of charlatans’ clothes or masks is up and running: department stores, reality shows and cheap money.

Still, as we already noted, the show was by far not a success, talents were rare and performances fake. After the humiliation by the “national heroes” in the Olympics, a number of other volunteers tried their fate on the stage: In the middle of the Collosseum the “government” was of course next, in other stages around others: ridiculed retards, reinvented celebrities, recycled mafiosi. The stage was open, the show could go on despite blatant disenchantment of an audience that could not grasp basic rules of this newly introduced thaterical style: stupidity as virtue, scrupleness as charisma, hollowness as skills and so on. 

As things are, every “stage” demands performers. The “government“ were delivering one of the lousiest shows ever and the feeling that these ugly and untalented band was only hijacking the stage was expanding rapidly. Compensating their lack of charisma with an overload of superficial arrogance couldn’t last long. Even the least demanding audience longs for a minimum of skills in choreographing “deceit”. The bands of hijackers on all stages proved unable to offer that. Their performance was one without flair or melody and annoyingly disenchanting. Their faces were banal and utterly ugly, their words boring and stupid, their visions immensely torturing for every spectator. What kept them on the stage so long was the sheer effect of surprise. It is not by coincidence maybe that the touristic seld-depiction of Athens is the following one: “Come to Athens and get surprised”. The audience couldnt decide whether this new style of performing was actually pure trash or a call from tomorrow. Surely fans of Dada or surrealism were even amused by this.

Nevetheless, the audience proved to be less tolerant in new theatrical experiments. Especially when other staged performances and self-designated stars brought them disturbing memories from the past the feeling of disgust took off. Greedy priests, lawyers-draculas, ridiculed retards were all mixed up on the stage and delivered a macabre show, making it difficult for many to discern whats the story after all, which are the distinct roles. When the retards turned greedy and the priests draculas it was time to revolt. But although many couldn’t stand looking anymore, the audience was not exrpessing doubts on the necessity of the Collosseum as such. It was not patience though. Most of the disenchanted ones were solely silenced or disciplined by another set of ugly protagonists on the stage, the cowboys of the far East, the armed guards of the Collosseum, the police force. They were often there, present among the audience, strolling through the corridors to make sure that all eyes are piously focused on the “stage”. Everyone was forced to stare on the stage(s) where a bunch of dreadful figures were violating every basic aesthetic principle of this audience, who when it comes to tragedy and theater at least, is well-versed throughout the history.

Thus, the bodyguards forced all, nolens wolens, watch the lousy shows running. Often, the bodyguards would feel an overwhelming need to imitate their masters on the stage and thus the whole performance would take on grotesque dimensions. What was devastating was not anymore that the main stage was occupied by a bunch of ugly caricatures. It was the dreading scenario of spreading this show as an ideal type to all kinds of retarded individuals who considered it a piece of cake to deliver their own show. They are not to blame actually, since the epidemic was only made possible through the massive lowering of performanc standards. Now, ugliness was invited on the stage, it was made to golden standard.

However, this band of lousy actors and nasty hijackers, along with their depressing followers, seemed to have forgotten the basic principle of every stage: the show must go on! The „Government“, as most thing “social”, is more than anything a matter of performativity, not only of performance. One shall not only be a good actor, but also able to define what does it mean to be a good actor in general.

The mise-en-scene of this band of hijackers proved to be only sheer misery on scene, an insult to all with most basic knowledge of taste, theater or even thrill. Uncharismatic, ugly and utterly ignorant of basic acting skills, the hijackers outraged the most patient of the spectators. The audience couldnt take it any more. Comments and protests against the band were onipresent. As a result, people chose different attitudes. Some were busy in facilitating their own show as a somewhat more qualitative version. Others turned their back on the stages and left the Collosseum. Some decided to actively express their disgust as conscious spectators who pay their ticket and are demanding.

Unfortunately, what was even more outrageous with the lousy protagonists was that they proved to be „bad losers“. They couldnt take boos. Instead, the band of hijackers decided that the problem lies with the audience, since it is simply unaware of the new, quite basic method of instrumentalizing deceit „on stage“: ugliness or pure aestethical violence that is. This band was delivering a lousy show and the audience was revolting out of sheer disgust. When some of the latter disapproved of the show, the epidemic of bad loser attitude on the stages fired back: The raw violence was the answer of the hijackers to the booos by the public. A self-appointed cowboy shot a protesting spectator in the heart. A cop killed a teenager.

Now, suddenly, everything was perceived on a new quality. It became clear that the lousy hijackers are not only threatening the audience’s aesthetics, but also and mainly their very existence. It took not much for the rest of the audience to revolt. Having experienced the fundaments of the stages surrounding them, it was not surprising that the first thing to do was to destroy these. However, not all protagonists were easily assessed, since other blood thirsty bodyguards were surrounding them, the disenchanted audience decided to attack and destroy -what else?- the obvious threat: the plethora of devices and instruments that would endanger a self-deceit on a micro-stage of such an unprecedented bad quality: ATMs, department stores and fancy shops. This revolt is not a revolt of a hungry people (although the looting by immigrants mostly shall be considered partly as such), it is primarily a revolt of a disenchanted audience who couldnt tolerate ugly creatures shooting back on them, while being unable to run the show altogether. The spectacle was not legitimized anymore, ugly, sinister creatures should be embattled. 

But it was even more than this. It was actually a counter-stage after all. Being forced on the audience position for years now, the eyes fixed on a depressing show, delivered by the ugliest and the less charismatic, the new self-declared protagonists decided to make the destruction of the previously set micro-stages their own performance. And of course it doenst look great. It looks violent and radical. But what to expect, since for years now, what is „beautiful“ was mostly defined as the glampse of the fake, the shining of the made-up superficiality, the brutality of hijacking hidden behind the facade of pluralism. When „beauty“ has lost its meaning and “intimacy” has changed destination, the only wake up call seems to be a revolt that destroys the tools of self-deceit: glass vitrines, screen interfaces and magnifying mirrors.

Who can blame the Neroes in an ugly Rome?                 

 

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