Stefanos Tsivopoulos in conversation with Katerina Gregos

Katerina Gregos: For the majority of the artists of your generation, video/film is but one of the media they employ. You have opted to work exclusively in this medium. What led to that decision? What is the attraction of the medium for you? What do you consider its advantages as well as challenges?

Stefanos Tsivopoulos: It started in a simple way while still at the academy with a simple Hi8 digital camera but it developed very fast, coinciding with the development of the “camera industry”. With almost every new project, I could use a new, “better” camera, better software to edit the material, and so on. For me digital video was the back door to enter the “secrets” of cinema and film —a way of making and learning things by myself. I didn’t use any cinema ‘textbooks’ but learned largely by trial and error. Along the way there where good and bad results but it helped me a lot to personalize the medium by becoming a “one man band”, i.e. script writer, director, producer, cameraman, editor, sound man, etc., and to develop a personal rhythm and attitude towards the treatment of the moving image. In general this process has changed the way I thought about art. The immediacy and directness of the medium is its greatest attribute but at the same time its greatest weakness as it doesn’t always allow for deep reflection and elaboration.

KG: Your work deploys and deliberately conflates several filmic and televisual strategies: the documentary, docu-fiction, as well as cinematic elements, for example. How do you relate to each of these genres and situate them within your own practice, and what are the elements you borrow from each?

ST: I mainly relate to images and visual language as form and less to genres. Whether cinema, documentary or docu-fiction, images tell their own stories and that’s mainly what I have been concerned with in my practice in so far. The strategies you’re referring to are mainly those of imitation, representation and exposure. Cinema and television often conceal their techniques in favour of privileging the message, whereas in many of my works the process or technique by which television is constructed becomes the content. I am thus mainly concerned with the structure, or language if you prefer, of the moving image and how the language that is so constructed gains credibility. I’d like here to draw attention to what I find fascinating in moving image and image-making in general: the aura of authenticity. Whether cinema or television, documentary, fiction and/or other forms, image making and the moving image in particular is concerned with the way the dramatization, documentation, or even the historicisation of events, creates an aura of authenticity. Media industries are mainly concerned with whether the medium can dictate the message and not the other way around.

KG: When you say you mainly relate to images, what kind of images are you referring to and why?

ST: Yes. I should perhaps replace the word ‘images’ with the word Image with a capital “I”. Image stands for the surface of things, the representation of events and the representation of a visual environment. Mainstream media, mainstream cinema, television, even documentaries, etc., deploy a rather one-dimensional format of story telling, which is identified easily. The strategy is a monoform, to borrow Peter Watkins’ term. The hegemony, or dictation if you prefer, of this ‘monoform’ has created a contemporary vocabulary of image making that is very interesting to investigate. It is as if you were wandering around in an artificial landscape with plastic trees and mountains made of cardboard. Whether you make a documentary or cinema the differences are very small, in my opinion. It depends on the way you charge the film with this aura of authenticity. In my early works all this was the main topic of research.

KG: If media (TV and commercial cinema) are ‘monoform’ as systems of communication (Watkins cites rapidly editing pictures, displacing the viewer from one subject and image to another, and the ceaseless barrage of visual and audio information directed towards the viewer in a one way ‘mono-linear’ push as examples of monoform) what is the artistic antidote from your point of view and from the point of view of the ‘artist’s film’ as a distinctly separate genre?

ST: I would say it is a multiform, if I may call it like this, which is, to a certain extent, the nature of all art as well. The work of Watkins is great both in terms of its oeuvre and importance and he is an inspirational figure for many artists. He does not set preconditions in the way he does cinema or, rather, in the way he treats moving images and narratives. The intentions with which an artist constructs images and narratives are crucial. I’m always asking myself whether the decisions I take for my films are usually based on what I want to say. So the antidote is not really one single recipe. When I talk about a multiform the antidote is the artist’s method and language and there can be as many antidotes as there are artists. However, to come back to what you call the “artist’s film”. What we call ‘artist’s film’ engages a very wide scope of aesthetics, techniques and articulations. However, there is a conflict that arises from the nature and history of film as a mass public spectacle on the one hand and the nature of art that is more exclusive, detached from the masses on the other. Or perhaps one could call this a conflict of hierarchies. Video, however, is a very democratic, liberating and powerful tool because of its immediacy and the broadness of its output. It changed the way artists do art, it changed the way we look at images and that in turn has changed what we can expect from art. From political ads to war coverage to Youtube videos, to the leaked drone footage in Wikileaks, to film, it’s all part of a democratic medium that has democratized the world and art as well. Aesthetics is only part of what makes an artwork. I see it as a way of occasionally highlighting certain aspects of a work but not as a method. I do not indulge in aesthetics. I go with the flow of things and my videos or films are mainly in tune with my ideas. When aesthetics help me to carry the message in a more clear way then I do see aesthetics as content. I think in the end it’s about striking the right balance.

KG: The film-maker Isaac Julien once said something about this distinction between film in media versus art that struck me. He said that in the over-saturated media world that we live in sometimes video art is looked to as representing an ethical position. Do you agree with this statement?

ST: In contrast to spoken language, which we are adept at using in order to articulate or communicate an idea, the same cannot be said of the language of video or film. The medium has a power of its own to dictate the message. It is my impression that we cannot control exactly the meaning or the message of art especially when art enters the realm of every day life, so it will be contested and challenged as well. I do agree that video art can be this area where an artist can find a niche to express a deep research and a dedicated work related to the moving image. However I do not think that video art as a medium could represent an ethical position in its totality, but it is an area where different ethics can be contested.

KG: What of the question of filmic aesthetics? To what extent is having a distinct visuality important to you? So many artists today are fearful of creating beautiful images because they mistakenly associate aesthetics with superficiality. How would you describe your relationship to aesthetics, and particularly to the aesthetics of film and documentary, which you filter and interpret in your own way?

ST: Well, that’s a big question for me, as well. I think I’m at the crossroads between art and cinema at this point of my career. There are certain concepts in the arts that I’m hesitant to come in terms with. For example, as you mentioned, issues of distinct visual identity and/or aesthetics vs. content. Even though they might be valid issues I do question their importance.

KG: In the last two years your work has, however, shifted away from the analysis of media strategies of representation and cinema research and is now focusing on the relation of images to what you call “the economy of a history”. Can you elaborate more on this idea, also in relation to the current work for the Greek Pavilion?

ST: Yes, indeed it was about how but now it is more about why. How do we produce images, and why do we produce images? Images as one of the highest valued commodities have their place in providing evidence for both history and economy.

KG: Your work has also dealt with history, past history as well as history ‘in the making’. We live in increasingly a-historic and amnesiac times. Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian, pointed out the dangers of this by saying that ‘history alone provides orientation, and anyone who faces the future without it is not only blind but dangerous, especially in the era of high technology’. How do relate to this comment as regards your work, which is both historically and technologically aware?

ST: Well, I believe the way we understand and interpret collective history is largely dependent on personal history. When I first moved from Greece to the Netherlands to study art, first at the Rietveld Academie and then at the Rijksakademie, I was struggling to define – culturally and historically – what it is that I do. Where does it belong? The simple question was, am I a Greek artist or is being ‘an artist’ enough? And what does it mean to be a Greek artist in the 2000s? What did it mean to be a Greek artist in the 90s, the 80s etc? I realized the impact of politics on the way art and cultural production was taking place in Greece. Politics has been interwoven with the history of art in Greece ever since its independence in 1821. I started going back into the past looking for history, my history, my country’s history. I simply wanted to understand where I stood as an artist and the process led me to the reading of history. One of the first things I researched into were the early images that I was exposed to as I was growing up in a small town in Greece. There were two types of images. On the one hand we had the Greek National Television (ERT) that was heavily affected, shaped and stigmatized by the kitsch aesthetics of the Greek Junta of a decade earlier and was responsible for the birth of national television in Greece. And on the other hand I had my grandfather’s images from the years of his political exile in Czechoslovakia. When the Greek civil war ended in 1949 the defeated communists fled to countries of the former USSR. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a toddler looking at pictures of Brezhnev or going with him to the communist festivals of KNE (Communist Youth of Greece) that were full of vivid images, banners, posters, young people involved passionately in politics. These were my first images. These hints about my past, which to a certain extent is part of a collective past, is a by-product of history, I would even say of European history. Along the way I found out that many people, and especially artists of my generation, shared similar stories and this was when it became very interesting. I always thought I had a slight detachment from the traditional social fabric of Greece as my mother is Iranian and I was born in Prague. Nevertheless the political times, and incidents that followed my parents in their lives, the exile and cultural exclusion, proved crucial in shaping what I have become today as a person and as an artist.

KG: And what of the relationship of history and politics in your work? Chris Marker once remarked that he was passionate about History and that politics interested him only insofar as the latter is the cross-section of the history of the present? Do you feel that you relate to this point of view?

ST: My work started as a search, an investigation into all the aforementioned issues but not really knowing what exactly I was looking for. It was not clear in the beginning and it’s not completely clear yet now either. But there are hints and clues and that’s what makes my search more consistent and specific, bit by bit: mainly by asking questions about history. For example the work Untitled (The Remake) (2007) is a very good example of that approach. I was interested in exposing the mechanisms, technological, aesthetical, and political, that dictated the historicisation of certain images which propagated the political message and power of the Greek Junta. I jumped into a huge subject and a big taboo for Greek society. A public historical and political discourse, one that takes into account the benefits of the reading of even the darkest pages of history, is lacking support in Greece. The work was my first serious attempt to claim a new sequence of images, a new narrative, from my confrontation with a historical ‘Master’ narrative. I worried a lot about whether the result was artistically successful or not. But only now I realize that the significance of this early work is precisely in its rupture with an untouchable and rigid scheme of historical representation, and to engage with what Guy Debord calls unconscious history. There were other works that followed such as the Lost Monument, (2009) about the political and financial aid (intervention) of the United States during the Greek Civil War (1945 –1949), in line with the so-called Truman Doctrine. Later, in 1963, a Greek-American organization decided to donate a 4 meter bronze statue of the American president Harry S. Truman to the Greeks. The statue was installed in downtown Athens near the Greek parliament. I once bumped into it and I first thought he was a Greek politician, but when I read the carved marble inscription I realized, much to my surprise, that the biggest statue in Athens was of an American president. I wanted to read more about its history and found out that the statue’s sculptor was Felix de Welton, the sculptor of the five marines raising the American flag in Iwo Jima. That’s when I decided to make a work about the monument itself. I’m trying to connect the dots and in this effort, which is ongoing, a very interesting picture starts to emerge. It is about revisiting our collective memory or our collective amnesia, where new reinterpretations provide new history. And here I am reminded of a very interesting quote from Chris Marker: “We do not remember, we rewrite memory as much as history is rewritten.”

KG: Many of your works refer to contested political moments, but to what extent do you actually consider your work to be political and how do you understand the term from your point of view as an artist?

ST: What I define as a political work is one which can potentially generate a political and social discourse and inspire audiences not only within the strict framework of art institutions and art in general. In that respect I do not consider my work political even though it deals with political moments from the recent history of Greece. However this doesn’t mean that the work cannot potentially create a political discourse in future times. For example the artist or the curator of the future may find certain works political, capable of generating a political discourse. But that’s something we can never tell.

KG: Research is a very important part of your creative process. How do you go about conducting your research, particularly—as you say—as so many incidents of recent Greek history have been edited out of the history books and collective memory, or deliberately ‘forgotten’, to suit the political status quo and the national mythology. What is your relationship towards and view on this so-called “archival turn” that has been so prevalent in much recent contemporary art practice?

ST: In regard to the “archival turn” I believe artists sense that we have hit a wall. As I mentioned earlier, it seems there is nothing left to be seen. Everything has been exposed. We do not need more new images. What we need is new vision. I feel as if this palindromic movement between different times, past, present and future, is like the automatic movement of the camera as it tries to focus on a flat wall. That’s what happened to me. I felt that in order to see where I was standing I first had to take a couple of steps back. Dealing with archives and history calibrates our sense of the present and eventually gives purpose and guidance for what is to come. Yes I do believe that history (not only Greek history) has been edited and appropriated but that on many occasions this has not necessarily happened deliberately. I was once in a discussion with an old worker from the Greek National Television and he was mentioning the thousands of hours of film footage from the 30s, 40s and 50s that was either neglected, until it simply vanished, or was sold to television broadcasts of different countries because its importance was either not acknowledged or there was no money to maintain and make available such delicate material. This was a revelation because I thought there must always have been a “deliberate reason” behind such constructs as national mythology but this proved the opposite. It revealed a significance that went beyond politics, reflecting, rather, a lack of culture and education.

KG: So what about the work for the Greek Pavilion at the Venice Biennale? Is it grounded more in history or in the present moment of crisis?

ST: History Zero, is different from previous works. It is a film in three parts and a small archive. The film was conceived in the summer of 2012 while I was in Athens and working on another project. I stayed there for almost four months and that was the longest I had stayed there in a long time. The centre of Athens is perhaps the area where the effects of the crisis are most visible. The challenge for me was to make a new work not about the crisis per se but to question what crisis is, where it is generated, and to ask whether there is a way to resist by adopting a different view of the crisis. The work questions the value of money, and the archive is a collection of examples of alternative currencies where the value of money is contested. So the work has a very strong anthropological and associative look through the stories of three completely different individuals, an old demented collector of contemporary art, an immigrant who collects scrap metal, and an artist who collects images. Through seemingly realistic daily routines, I wanted to set a series of questions about how their stories and collections can be interconnected and how the actions of one affect the lives of the others.

KG: If, as in the words of Robert Bresson, the practice of film-making is about making visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen, what is it you would like to make visible most in this work for Venice and in your work in general?

ST: I think what Bresson actually meant is a withdrawal from what’s expressed through form. Actually I don’t think an artist has the power to make anything visible, unfortunate as that might sound; nowadays everything is already there to be seen. What art can do is to empower people to see in different ways, in new ways, and give the opportunity to viewers to rethink for themselves what is already there. There has been a lot of exposure to images and I wanted through this work to embrace what is concealed. In History Zero the three separate stories never meet directly, they only “meet” in the viewer’s mind or memory. I’m mostly interested in this aspect of interconnectivity and that all actions do have meaning and affect each other’s lives. The work deals with this greater aspect of “what is at work”, what makes the world move. Many would argue that it is money or the constant fluctuation of value. I think in essence it is something else. And I’m very happy if this something else remains invisible and has no name.

This interview was originally published on the catalogue of the exhibition Stefanos Tsivopoulos History Zero, Greek Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennial 2013.

Recalling the archive – on Amnesialand by Eva Scharrer

We do not remember, we rewrite memory as much as history is rewritten.”
(Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1982)

Are archives places of remembering or rather of forgetting? Does their content tell the truth or just one’s story? Whose story? Is the so-called collective memory dependent on visual imagery, and in which direction do these images reflect our memory – forwards or backwards? In Amnesialand (2010), his latest work originally conceived for Manifesta 8 in the region of Murcia in southeast Spain, Stefanos Tsivopoulos takes a photographic collection found in the public archives of the port city Cartagena as starting point for a poetic investigation on the questions of memory and forgetting, on the role that images play in the construction of history, and their relation to reality and historic truth.

The installation consists of two parts: An image dies when the gaze that lights on it has disappeared (2010) – a slide installation on three projectors of 120 archival photographs of early 19th century interiors – and the film Amnesialand (2010) that is composed of archival material from different resources and Tsivopoulos' own video footage shot in the region. It is accompanied by a script combining fictional and factual information in form of a dialogue between a female and a male character that speculate about a mysterious event that is said to have caused a state of collective amnesia.

Rich of minerals and close to the shores of North Africa, Cartagena was once the region's main resource and trade port. Throughout 2500 years, Phoenicians, Romans, Carthagineans and Spaniards have been mining in this district for silver, lead, zinc, copper, tin, iron, and manganese. The digging for metals reached its height during the industrial era, when in 1840 mineral fever hit the region and produced a booming Bourgeoisie, still visible in some of the city's decadent buildings. In the 1980s the productivity came to an end, but the ongoing exploitation of natural resources and human labour had taken its toll. As a consequence of the long-lasting mining activities, the mountainous landscapes in the region known as La Unión are strongly transformed: numerous spoil piles and pits extend for many kilometres, leaving a deserted and almost forgotten cratered landscape full of toxic mining waste – an archaeology of mines, and a living memorial to the natural catastrophe that took place here.

The visual evidence that we have today of the region's heydays goes back to almost a single resource: the Casaú Collection, an archive of 7000 negatives taken by a prominent Cartagenan photographer between 1910 and 1940, who documented the life and wealth of his hometown over this short period of time. Casaú not only captured every public event from religious processions to bullfights, from military parades to baptisms and communions, he also portrayed – supposedly on demand – the city's rich bourgeois buildings and interiors. Interestingly, the interiors were photographed without their inhabitants. Pure documents of now-passed wealth, they today appear as memento mori of the industrial age – preserving the subject in the face of its coming annihilation. They remember, as the male voice states in Tsivopoulos film, not the past but the absence of a future. These negatives on glass plates, in the narration of the film, carry on their surface the imprint of the Event – an event that, by nature, has not and cannot be pictured and that is situated somewhere in the past of an imaginative, sci-fi future scenario. Cosmic Radiation, amplified by the constant growth of toxic waste and radioactive debris, had caused the auto-ignition and destruction of all digital data and archival material containing metal. The loss of all visual memory – this is the Event.

The cryptic dialogue unwinds while Tsivopoulos' camera slowly scans the corrugated landscapes with its toxic lakes contaminated by heavy metals and abandoned post-industrial ruins. Though these images depict destruction and decay, they are nonetheless of haunting beauty. Sometimes, the traces in the landscape even resemble earth works of the 1970s, though they are born out of a very different spirit – ignorance and greed – rather than being made to think about the earth and our relation to it.

Like the interiors, the former mines are deserted, and just like the old photographs, they are symbolic leftovers of the industrial past. Neither the interwoven segments of historic black-and-white film at the beginning, nor the glass plates that are presented to us towards the end, document the mining itself, or the exploitation of human labour in the mines. The workers and their labour may be absent in these images, but the dust on the negatives is metallic, we are reminded, while a gloved hand carefully brushes them off and wraps them up:

Dust of the very mines, turned upon itself. "Born in the hour of the Workers' Light, upon their far flung upward way". That light, we now know, is not passing backwards through time to redeem us. It is the metals themselves, blowing backwards by our Amnesia, gridding the dimensions of the Event by the labour of our hands and minds, which we mistook for the future. The metals control us, even now.

The film’s narration is interspersed by lines of poetry by Maria Cegarra Salcedo, a poet born in La Unión, and images of spinning minerals – new video footage based on another photographic estate from Cartagena’s archives. As in his previous works, that often reenacted historic events on the basis of archival material, Tsivopoulos reflects on history and historical memory as a narrative construction – a construction mediated by images that have been edited and re-edited, and deprived from images that were never taken or that are lost. Blurring fact and fiction, past and future, Tsivopoulos is less interested in extracting the truth from these narrative constructions, but rather in interrogating the possibilities and qualities that lie within them, in examining the technologies that are used to create and to broadcast them, and in our relationship toward this imagery – with all its physical and psychological implementations.

With Amnesialand, however, his focus has shifted from the technological mechanisms towards the political, social and economic aspects that determine the production of images. The Casaú plates were, at their time, produced as commodities without any particular artistic or journalistic value, but with the sole purpose to reflect their owners’ wealth and power. Being the only traces – in terms of visual media – left from a period of economic and social expansion, they have now become archives and are regarded as documents. It is the ambiguous status of these images, the shift from commodity to archived evidence of historical truth that is on question here. In the light of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, they symbolize the critical transition from the subjective aspects of political economy towards an objective value: a reification of history written in neglect of the work force that actually produced it – or rather, its commodities. What does this tell us about our notion of historic truth, a truth largely dependent on visual evidence? And what does it tell about the notion of archives per se, and specifically of the archives and databases of the digital age that are, in turn, the result of immaterial, mostly voluntary labour? Are these less corporate controlled than the archives of the past? Who organizes and controls the image production and archives that once will become the visual evidence of our present? What is their commodity value and who owns it? And can digital memory ultimately replace human memory?

While posing this questions, Tsivopoulos places his own documentary footage within the realm of historic reenactment and fiction – and, yet again, in that of commodity – leaving it up to a future viewer to speculate about what has happened in and with these images, and why. By consciously undermining the documentary value of photographic images – exposing their unreliability and vulnerability as documents, but at the same time highlighting their evocative power as images through their aesthetic value – Tsivopoulos still uses images to tell a story. A story that, true or not, is worth to be told, as it stands in as a case study for the current social, political, economical and environmental phenomena around the world. La Unión and the mining history of Cartagena serve as metaphor – a scaled reflection of the condition of the world we still live in now.

Originally shown in the Casino of Cartagena – an environment that could not be more perfect to represent the region’s short decades of wealth and gaudiness, as depicted in the archival slides – Amnesialand created a kind of mise-en-abyme, a mirror cabinet where the past closed in with the present and future – or vice versa.

Eva Scharer is a freelance writer and assistant curator at Documenta (13)

On the Surplus Value of a Dream by Syrago Tsiara

The Greek pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is hosting History Zero, by Stefanos Tsivopoulos, a film in three parts accompanied by an archive of texts and images. The film depicts the experiences of three very different people, with very different conceptions of the value of money, and explores the role of money in human relations and the political and social dimensions of either having it or not having it.

The archival material accompanying the film contains examples and testimonies of alternative, non-monetary exchange systems. The archive focuses on the ability of such models to erode and throw into question the homogenizing political power of a single currency, pointing to ways in which, in difficult times, societies can by-pass a monetary economy altogether and use a system of exchange based on goods and services.

History Zero comes at an especially critical historical time, when Greece and the other countries of the European South are suffering more than anywhere else from tectonic shifts in the international distribution of wealth and power. The threat from emerging economic powers such as China and India, has lead to the subversion of labour relations, the rapid impoverishment of the population and widening inequality between regions within Europe. History shows us, however, that every crisis creates the opportunity for new meanings to emerge in our relationships to each other and to our environment. It is precisely on this cusp, at this time of rupture and change, that the narrative of History Zero is situated. It attempts to see our relationship to money poetically, putting it in a broader philosophical perspective, beyond the usual moralising recriminations about corruption, clientelism, consumerism and illusions of prosperity. At the same time it proposes dynamic ways to reaffirm solidarity, cooperation and coresponsibility in response to the present crisis and envisioning the future.

History 1

An elderly art collector lives all alone in her museum-like house surrounded by works of modern art. Suffering from dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, she has a very peculiar, personal way of organising and attributing meaning to objects, based mainly on touch. Her favourite activity is making origami flowers. But instead of paper she uses one, two and five euro banknotes. As her fingers turn them into flowers their monetary value is replaced by their value as colour, material, and shape. From time to time the old lady, dissatisfied by her creation, throws the flowers into a rubbish bag and starts on new ones.

History 2

A young immigrant from Africa wanders around in the streets of Athens pushing a supermarket trolley and collecting scrap metal. For him, finding and collecting this discarded and worthless material is the only way to survive. In his hands, scrap iron becomes ‘gold’. It is hard, tiring work. An accidental find, a garbage bag full of banknotes, folded in the shape of flowers, changes his life. He abandons the supermarket trolley, takes the bag of money and leaves.

History 3

An artist wanders around the centre of Athens seeking inspiration for a new artwork in the confusing landscape of the city. He observes and records street scenes at random with his iPad. He sees the city and the people through digital representations as fragmentary, random images. A snapshot attracts his attention: an abandoned supermarket trolley full of scrap metal. A perfect objet trouvé!

It could be transformed into the central piece of his next exhibition.

History 0

History 0 has a different form and narrative. It is an archive of texts and images about alternative economic systems which manage to avoid the use of a single currency, such as communities which invent their own money, adapt the dominant economic system, or organise self-managed associations for the exchange of products and services in order to deal with the severe problems of survival during a recession. Focusing on historical and contemporary applications of alternative social experiments, the archive stands as a clear political statement. It intentionally covers a wide range of cultural and anthropological records. It starts with a display of contemporary models of local exchange systems (LETS), then goes on to a system of cash transfer using pre-paid mobile phone minutes that is evolving as a form of alternative currency (Mobile Money) in parts of Africa. It then takes us to the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation in Japan which is organised around the exchange of services to elderly people, and learn about the experiment of zero rupee notes in India invented by activists as a way of fighting widespread corruption.

Each unit of the archive presents a selected anthology of textual and visual documentation resulting from the study, collection and processing of historical and anthropological material. The units are organised museologically, the heterogeneous material handled with equality, thus activating the viewer’s perception, critical approach and interpretation.

The archive is at the centre of the installation. It is the zero point which implies not the end, but a point of departure, of upturn: the beginning of something new. It reinforces the alternative thinking and the concepts negotiated by the film, providing material which feeds into the intellectual experience of the work. It occupies a key position directly opposite the pavilion entrance, and is thus both the starting point and the finishing point of the visitors’ walk through the separate sections of the work. The arrangement of the films in three different rooms around the archive is designed to enhance the flow back and forth between the stillness of the archival information and the movement of the cinematic image.

The politics of memory

The appropriation of traces from the past and their transcription into a new narrative somewhere between documentary and fiction is a constant of Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ work. For him, documentary and fiction are not bipolar opposites but related intellectual spheres that contribute dialectically to the construction of a reality effect. In Remake (2007) he explored television news as a technology for the creation of this reality effect in the period of the Greek dictatorship (1967–74), and in Amnesialand (2010), he focused on the way socio-economic mechanisms shifted the interpretational framing of images from a commercial product to a historical testimony in Murcia in south-eastern Spain at the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, in The Public Library of Borrowed Knowledge, presented at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York in 2011, he displayed a series of academic books and photographs from the socialist Czechoslovakia of the 1960s, taking advantage of the opportunity for the re-signification of material which he borrowed from his father’s library.

In his recent work The Future Starts Here (2012), an in situ installation in an abandoned oil factory in the city of Elefsina in Attica in southern Greece, the artist’s intention was to demonstrate the political functions of both memory and oblivion. Combining video, performance, and objects, with textual, photographic, televisual, and cinematic archives he created a mosaic of images from the history of labour protests, industrial development and de-industrialisation in modern Greece. Through fragments of the past, material and human testimonies, he composed a poetic manifesto, commenting on the causes of the crisis and how to transcend it, based on material surrounding its creation and decline.

Whatever field of research he chooses, Tsivopoulos’ work draws on the past, on collective and individual memory, on the particularities of place and discourse in the public domain. His methods have much in common with those of the historian, searching for material traces of the past through thorough archival research, detecting and bringing to light available visual resources, written and oral testimonies, and investigating his subject by means of a comparative and interdisciplinary approach.

However, Tsivopoulos does not merely aim at visually transcribing an established —or even an alternative— narrative of the past. He rather focuses on the ways the past is visualized and acquires the régime of truth. He treats visual documents as constructions mediated by collective representations, as images that from their inception, structurally incorporate diverse connotations and interpretations which mould to a great extent not only our perception of “what really happened” but also how we define our present and plan our future. He is therefore interested in the ‘imagined’ and mediated memory of the past as constituting the contemporary consciousness of the Diaspora and the formation of subjectivity in a state of displacement and dislocation, without an ideally structured frame of reference.

History Zero

The display of archival material, with the alternative ways of thinking and making political choices it implies, is gaining ground in contemporary art. This is not just to do with an artist’s intention to restore visibility to the traces of forgotten human experience through their actual physical presence, but to propose, with the fervour of Hal Foster in his seminal work An Archive Impulse in 2004, ways of seeing things which undermine the values attributed to them historically. In this context we could reflect on the self-cancelling banknotes, included in History 0, invented by the German economist Silvio Gessel at the end of the 19th century, which lost their value within a month after twelve stamps had been pasted onto them. Are they any different from the flower banknotes made by the elderly collector?

In this, film and archive are parallel and complementary conceptualizations of the central topic of History Zero which is the complex, ever-changing and class-determined relationship we entertain to money, and the mechanisms by which value is attributed, added, and taken away. Useless scrap metal acquires the value of gold to the poor immigrant, banknotes acquire the decorative value of paper flowers in the hands, and mind, of the rich old collector, while an accidental discovery by the artist could obtain irrational surplus value.

The film, as a living archive of the future, records the discontinuity, the ruptures and the complexity of the present economic regime and the contradictions of human experience within it. It establishes new spaces for the imagination and for memory in which three mutually exclusive states of mind take shape. Each story contains an element which must be subverted in order for the next story to take place. The reversal of the collector’s ‘logical’ relationship to objects permits the ‘salvation’ of the immigrant and the realization of his dream, but only when he reverses his survival strategy. For the artist, the “resignification” of his chance find, his objet trouvé, asserts modernist artistic practice as assuming power over meaning. Constant conceptual reversals and transgressions of meaning thus make it possible for the film sequence to continue.

The archival material attempts to restore the fragments of the story to an even, linear continuum. But does not the archive itself contain an inherent arbitrariness? What else can we expect from this collection of heterogeneous and fragmented material, but the establishment of new conceptual connotations? If we want to go one step further, film itself can potentially be inscribed in the wide repertoire of choices for the use, fetishisation and devaluation of money which the archive contains. Both archive and film share in the liberating power implicated in dementia or paranoia as they try to see the world through different eyes, as indeed art does overall. For Michel Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge, the act of constituting an archive is the measure of governability and control, since the one who takes such an initiative, when conditions permit, controls the meaning of ‘real’ scientific knowledge. If this is so, then for contemporary artistic practice, archiving is like scraping off the ‘evident’ hermeneutical sediments, the established conceptualizations and cultural inscriptions through which subjectivity is constructed.

In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida returns, in 1995, to Freud’s realisation in ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad’ of 1925 that there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory itself. The effective democratization of societies can be calculated in relation to the degree of their participation in the formation and interpretation of an archive. From this philosophical perspective an international art exhibition like the Venice Biennale can also be seen as a constantly evolving and growing archive of artistic choices, a palace of encyclopaedic knowledge, according to the approach of this year’s curator Massimiliano Gioni, of emotional and technological memory, a Pantheon of experiences, dreams and reflections on the human condition, persistently being re-inscribed, erased, and broadened. Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ History Zero attempts to record its own trace in this field of active accumulation, going to the core of the concept of value.

Can the surplus value of a dream be calculated?

Syrago Tsiara is director of the Contemporary Art Center Thessaloniki (CACT)

Stefanos Tsivopoulos and the Fiscal Unconscious by Gregory Sholette

Think of capital’s endless mutability. Fixed machinery, cost-saving technologies, credit card accounts, immaterial financial instruments, hyper-fast digital trades, commodities that are useful, useless, or ridiculous, even productive labor itself is according to Marx a type of commodity and therefore capital, but what really comes to mind first when we try to visualize this frustratingly abstract yet inescapable thing? No doubt all that is solid capitalism melts into air, and yet our image of capital itself always starts with a fixation on cold, hard cash. Call it bread, bucks, dough, Benjamins, lettuce, greenbacks, smackers, loot, loonies, leptons, quids, coppers, silvers, Massari, moola, or pineapples, the money-form of capital generates more lexical permutations, more absurd monikers than it could ever possesses as a medium of financial investment. Paradoxically, many street names for commonplace currency invoke a state of triviality, baseness, or an absence of intrinsic value. The Russians call a thousand rubles shtuka (штука), which means a unit or “thing,” in Latin America Lana can mean both money and a peasant, the word cash for Germans is synonymous with mice or coal (die Mäuse, die kohle). Lucre is usually preceded by the adjective filthy. Slid “under the table,” stashed in “slush funds,” or used to facilitate the type of monetary arrangements better kept out of sight, money is treated with a mixture of fascination and embarrassment.

Money may indeed be dirty, but it does not prevent us from endowing it with a magical, Faustian agency. Sex, drugs, guns, contraband, even “friends” are attainable through its agency. In the right quantity it can be used to save a life, or to end one. But money as a form in itself has vulnerabilities. Coins exposed to human sweat handily tarnish, dent, eventually actually losing their face (though not their value). Bills are scribbled upon, folded over, torn, stained by food, drink, and bodily fluids. They eventually disintegrate as a consequence of human contact. Human time is directly encoded on the surface of money. A bank note’s barely readable inscription exudes traces of history with a small “h.” We wonder, who signed this? Under what circumstances? And from where is its value drawn? Cash is the ultimate archive. By contrast capital appears disconnected from human desire and indifferent to social memory. It is unsoiled. And yet everything cash can do capital accomplishes just as well, and in fact more effectively, on a vaster, more combustible scale. Ponzi schemes, toxic mortgages, credit default swaps, economic blockades, money laundering rackets, even coup d’états and the mass destruction of people and property are financed by intangible investment assets. The economic stability of entire countries now depends on gaining control over capital’s circuitous fungibility made all the more evasive by its digitized essence (no wonder cyber warfare has replaced terrorism as the number one threat facing the nation-state). But just as everyday life becomes more saturated by this grammar of finance, so too our existence visa vie the political economy appears progressively more baffling and mysterious.

Enter “History Zero,” a new video work by Stefanos Tsivopoulos. Part documentary, part narrative film “History Zero” begins with a parable about forgetfulness and wealth before ultimately focusing on the ongoing financial catastrophe in the artist’s birth country of Greece. Selected by curator Syrago Tsiara to represent his nation for the 55th Venice Biennale Tsivopoulos addresses capital’s paradoxical identity as both tangible artifact and immaterial overlord, but does so without preaching or lecturing. Tsivopoulos’s story is like a sailor’s knot in which relations between a young, an old, and a middle-aged character are entangled by accident through the disposal of a specific quantity of Origami flowers made out of paper money. The video opens with a wealthy art collector suffering from Alzheimer’s disease disinterestedly tossing “wilted” paper blooms made out of Euros into a trash bag. The video cuts and we see a precarious African immigrant gleaning scraps off the streets of Athens who recovers the bag full of cash-blossoms. Cut to act three as a ruminating middle-aged artist (perhaps it is Tsivopoulos himself?) actualizes the mysterious link between art and money when he manages to sell a pile of urban refuse to the wealthy demented collector as a significant work of contemporary art. Are we witnessing the death, rebirth, and final demise of art as it is transformed from fantasy into medium of exchange, and then back into a privileged object of useless contemplation?

Or is this the story of the life, death, the rebirth of art as a realm of fantasy beyond the reach of commodification?

Today, capital’s contradictions materialize fully unconcealed within the world of contemporary art. Theorist John Roberts argues artistic production is being subsumed directly into capital’s “new cognitive relations of production.” Artists have become handlers of a sophisticated cultural apparatus that does not so much produce objects of fine art, but instead generates networks, exposes social relations, and embraces the redundancy of artistic labor itself. But in a dialectical flip Roberts points out that “the capital-labor relation has become a transformative and experimental space of opportunity for the new art.” 1 In a sense, by no longer obscuring the bond between capital and culture —a link that has long been held as either nonexistent or simply distasteful― contemporary art opens up a singular space of self-critique. This is not a question of choice. Art cannot help but reveal its internal relationship to the ongoing global financial crisis and the precarious conditions of labor today, conditions brought about by thirty years of neoliberal economic deregulation. Perhaps this explains why the mainstream art world is now infatuated with practices rooted in collective production and social relations, even as its aggregate financial value that reaches into the billions of Euros is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer bank accounts?

Stefanos Tsivopoulos addresses these developments almost as if reinterpreting Marx’s famous formula M-C-M (money-commodity-money) as M-M-M (memory-money-memory). The three episodes of “History Zero” do not resolve the artist’s inquiry into art and capital, but rather keep it in suspension. And there is an encore. The final section of the video offers a visual archive of evidence about survival not from within political economy, but below, besides, and apart from its uncompromising discipline. We find images of metal coins reworked as portraits by homeless unemployed men or “hobos” in the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s; informal systems of cash transfer using pre-paid mobile phone minutes that are evolving in parts of Africa; and assorted “local currency” systems haunting “History Zero’s” archive. It’s a theme Tsivopoulos has explored before. In his 2012 installation “I Rebel Therefore We Are” the artist activated more than just paper documents by arranging manufactured products, workers’ uniforms, even unspent rocket ammunition as an homage to French writer Albert Camus, the fallen Catholic intellectual who once acknowledged that “a work of art is an act of confession.” Tsivopoulos seemed intent on finding divine intervention within overlooked and everyday objects. Glistening glass tubes filled with raw industrial materials. Slabs of cast cement turned into projection screens. Archival photographs borrowed from a local trade union digitized —their pigments, silver and gelatin, replaced with invisible strings of ones and zeros. In Tsivopoulos’s art light illuminates matter as much as matter in turn reanimates memory. It is a world in which things rule, not people. And things nowadays appear to be taking up arms.

“I Rebel Therefore We Are” and “History Zero” are as much vows of intent as they are reports about the political archive and the transmutation of capital. For coiled-up within the artist’s sprawling accumulations of inert matter and archives of discarded assets something that we once described as the truth lies in wait. It is always about to strike. But this neither intoxicates the artist, nor does it stop him. He goes on sifting for clues, his amateur archeology intent on revealing moments of sentimentality, nostalgia, melancholy, as well as memory, resentment, and resistance. And then he moves on.

Gregory Sholette is an artist and writer.


1. John Roberts cited in Sholette and Ressler, It’s The Political Economy, Stupid, Pluto Press, 2013, p 66.