The House of Arts and Letters is due to open its gates at 109 Syngrou Ave in November 2010. The building boasts exquisite architectural grace aspiring to become a new cultural hub with a dynamic presence at the heart of the capital. Mr. Christos Karras, Executive Manager of the House of Arts and Letters provides some answers in an interview with ΑΩ magazine just before the long-awaited introduction of the House onto the city’s cultural scene.
What is the House of Arts and Letters?
The House will be an open modern space aiming to rise above the boundaries set by the small ghettos of our local cultural scene. The dynamic presence of the building is immediately evident from the minimalist façade based on one sole architectural concept: a surface that is both solid and translucent and which conciliates, in a highly radical manner, two of the most principal elements of Greek culture, light and marble. However, behind this façade an entirely new voluminous concept reveals itself; a magnificent oval shell at the centre of the building provides the facilities for theatrical performances. The two elements interplay with space and perspective.Through different illuminations - with either natural or artificial light - the building can literally transform itself.
Thus, I can’t help but consider, to an extent, the building as an architectural metaphor of our cultural agenda: modern, dynamic and impossible to confine to a fixed shape, familiar and yet compact. Moreover, the reference to marble and light bears its own importance as it alludes to the main aspect of our programme which relates to modern Greek culture and its often intricate bonds with the overly-discussed concept of “Greek character” - expressed by the President of the Onassis Foundation, Anthony Papadimitriou as “Art approaching the Greek character."
How will this Greek character manifest itself at the House of Arts and Letters?
To begin with, I would like to mention that we have not set out to prove either the validity or the relevance of a theoretical approach to Greek culture. We aim to offer the rostrum to younger mainly Greek artists identified by rather divergent artistic strategies, rather than blindly submit to any specific programme.. I would also like to point out that we are in no way obsessed with nationalistic elation, thus we are not attempting to formulate an essentialist concept of the Greek character which would either exclude diversity or authenticate cultural elements as bearing a national identity.
Hence, having outlined the concept, that which remains is the notion of the experience of creativity under Greek social and cultural conditions. This is an experience which can be imbued by a multitude of elements and lead to an immense variety of approaches to art. Some may wish to see tradition through a modern eye while others may want to deliver a critical speech on perceived social or political flaws; some may be fascinated by the place and the surroundings, while others by the language and the social strata involved.
Of course, Greece does not develop in isolation; especially, when it comes to the younger, remarkably active generations, there are many common experiences to be shared by Finnish, Japanese, Cameroonian, American and Greek artists. Nevertheless, there is a “site-specific” element, as it would be referred to in contemporary art terminology, and this is the element we aim to approach through the work of younger creators.
What is the orientation of your programme?
As you may have already gathered from what I have said so far, the main body of our programme addresses modern, and more specifically modern Greek, creativity. Within this framework, we also aspire to present prominent artists from abroad, often through collaboration with Greek artists, as we consider it an integral part of our mission to offer the Greek audience new, inspiring experiences.
Our programme for the period from November 2010 to May 2011 includes about 25 productions of theatre, modern dance and events for all ages, as well as about 40 music events. Of course, the music events are usually held once, whereas theatrical performances can run for extended periods. It could be said, therefore, that theatre and dance account for approximately 80% of the programme content. In this context, Greek proposals amount to 75% of the total. There is also the exhibition programme of plastic arts featuring three proposals at around the same time.
At this point, I would like to mention that the first substantial work of the House of Arts and Letters will be The Athens Dialogues, a conference of seminal importance for civilization. It is a considerably ambitious plan developed by the Onassis Foundation in cooperation with a network of acclaimed institutions, such the Universities of Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, and other local institutions such as the Institut de France and the German Archaeological Institute amongst others. The plan in question features various innovative aspects. Firstly, it is a work in progress as this conference is just the first, albeit very important, stage. The Dialogues will then continue to take place online through an e-journal, and are most likely to lead to a second conference in the future. Secondly, it approaches classical Greek thought through more timely concerns, for example Identity and Difference, Quality of Life, Science and Ethics, Stories and Histories. Thirdly, it is formulated through an interdisciplinary approach, given that speakers are not limited to Hellenic Studies only but come from both social and positive science fields. I recommend you visit the website of The Athens Dialogues, www.athensdialogues.org.
After all, it is important that the first extensive work of the House of Arts and Letters is in the field of Letters, the second pillar of our programme.
Which field does the term “Letters” cover?
Letters cover a wide field. Indeed the programme includes literature-focused events but does not end there. In cross-thematic and interdisciplinary circles and through the participation of literary figures, historians, scientists, intellectuals and every other specialty under the umbrella term “public intellectuals”, we will attempt the enactment of a space for public dialogue fully integrated into the general strategy I described earlier, and directly related to current matters concerning society and citizens at present. We believe in this way we can contribute to strengthening critical thought and promoting an open, conscious and liberal attitude towards the historic moment in which we are living.
Do you believe that in times of crisis, art and culture are of special value and position or do they constitute a luxury?
In times of crisis, art and culture are a necessity! Art’s biggest contribution lies in its very nature as a sphere of human activity which, without hovering over history and the specific social processes of each era, creates a space for emotional, mental, technical and fictional freedom. This type of freedom is, in my view, absolutely imperative if we are to achieve social progress.
It has been repeatedly expressed that the crisis we are currently experiencing in Greece is less financial and more social and cultural. However, I am not sure that what is meant with such a phrase is always clear. I do believe, though, that such thinking is somewhat justified and that the spheres of cultural activity can substantially aid our attempts not only to perceive the components of the crisis but primarily to foster the voices that will challenge us to get over it.
On a more practical level, it is obvious that the crisis in the public sector causes numerous complications but, viewed from a different perspective, it emphasizes the importance of the contribution of the private sector to our country’s cultural world. In the current predicament, I estimate that various bodies, like the Onassis Foundation (and more specifically, the House of Arts and Letters) can play a vital role.
In terms of spaces, what does the House consist of?
The House boasts a modern infrastructure, both in terms of building and technology. It includes a 900-seat amphitheatre, a 200-seat hall for smaller-scale productions, lectures and other such events, an exhibition space of around 700 m², and a number of smaller areas for various events. There are, of course, all the necessary ancillary areas to support its operation, and there are also a number of other areas, such as a bar and a restaurant, which complete the visit to the House.
In what way do you think the House of Arts and Letters differs from all the other existing cultural bodies?
Initially, I would say that we do not determine our identity by means of comparison with other bodies. I believe that our identity will reveal itself immediately and explicitly through our cultural choices and programme. Thus, in reply to your question it suffices to say that we aim for the House to be an open, modern space with a programme covering a wide spectrum of media, trends and art forms. We have often discussed, on an internal level, the various models that inspire us, and we have agreed that the space should ideally be analogous to the Barbican in London.
What is your target audience?
We aim to attract an assorted audience. We would like the House to be a meeting point for both those who would generally choose Bios and also the regular attendants of Athens Concert Hall and the National Opera. It should be the quality of our programme that initially arouses the audience’s curiosity and then gains its loyalty. In any case, we will do our best to make it easy for anyone to visit the House; not only as far as promotion and information is concerned, but also in terms of price and ensuring tickets are kept at the lowest possible rate.
Who does the team that surrounds you consist of?
I am very fortunate to be working with a team of exceptional professionals. Mrs. Afroditi Panayiotakou, Executive Vice President of the House of Arts and Letters and Communications & Marketing Manager, possesses valuable experience in her field of expertise in Greece adding, however, an international angle. Mrs. Nancy Dimakou, Financial and Administrative Manager, combines managerial experience with a deeply artistic nature which allows her to grasp the cultural sector’s whims and in this way keep us discreetly on managerial course. Our programme partners - Katia Arfara (theatre and dance), Marilena Karra (visual arts), Katerina Oikonomakou and Manolis Pimblis (Letters) - are responsible for shaping our programme, always in collaboration with the President and the Board of Directors of the Onassis Foundation, as well as Yiorgos Loukos’s substantial contribution to the Arts and Yiorgos Babiniotis’s to Letters. This wealth of experience in each individual field fuses in perfect harmony to form the concept of the House. Each and every member of our team makes an outstanding contribution and I would like to mention at this point other individuals without whom the operation of the House would not be feasible: Yiannis Koutsoupis (technical building services), Lefteris Karambilas (technical theatre services), Antigoni Neta (stage director), Costas Apollonios (IT), Costas Louris (box office), Evangelos Constandis (audience services), Theofilos Nikolaou (accounting manager), Dimitris Chokalis (accountant), Alexandra Chrisanthakopoulou and Christina Cosmoglou (administrative support).Of course by the time this interview is published I am sure that there will be more worthy people in our team.
I would also like to mention that it is our pleasure to be working closely with Mr. Anthony Papadimitriou, President of the Onassis Foundation, and other members of the Executive Committee; Vice President Yiannis Ioannidis and Secretary Marianna Moschou. Their contribution is not limited to inspection but is highly tangible and substantial.
How will the House of Arts and Letters relate to the Scholars’ Association and the Onassis Foundation scholars?
When our programme is announced, you will see that there are already many prominent scholars participating, which to my mind proves two things: firstly, that the Foundation does a very good job at “investing”, given the number of the scholars who are distinguished in their specific field to date, and secondly, that the intent of the House of Arts and Letters to cooperate with this talent pool is evident. Apart from these individual partnerships, we have come to a mutual agreement with the Association that the House will host a number of Association events each year.
When is the House expected to open its doors?
The House will commence operation in November 2010 and then, there is nothing stopping it!
Will we be surprised?
Definitely but without obsessing with it. Anyhow, we want to keep surprising ourselves!