The city-port or the city-channel

by Katerina Koskina

… Cities also believe they are the works of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.
Italo Calvino

The Port City Safari programme, held between September 2007 and November, 2008, functioned as a platform for exchange, artistic quests and cultural communication, which is also the cities’ archetypal function. The place where the sea tries to expand and the land fights back, the meeting point of the two elements, the port-city may be the most suitable spot for finding an answer to some question. It is there more than anywhere else that the promotion of ideas encounters the defence of values. For what is a port-city if not a gate open to economic, commercial and cultural exchange and communication? More than other commercial and social centres such as railway stations, it is a gate which, due to its proximity to water, always leaves an open passage or horizon; and it is only by crossing these that we can understand concepts and acquire experiences which make up –and delineate– ‘here’ and ‘beyond’, ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘me’ and ‘other’, or similarity and difference.

Contemporary art is now expressed through a complex ‘global’ vocabulary of references, and functions itself as a gate for exchange and communication through the nomadic character of today’s artistic community and the multifarious approaches to art creation and the appreciation of artworks. Contemporary art often employs unconventional venues, borrowing foreign symbols and places to express itself, creating a sort of new cultural turism.

In Greece, contemporary art production rediscovers its relation to the historical and cultural identity of the land. As a country most of whose territory is surronded by water, her history, her economy and her civilisation are inextricably associated with sea ways. From antiquity to this day, port cities, large or small, have defined the economic and cultural life of the entire country. As a result of this, the country’s artistic development of the last ten years could not stay long away from the sea.

After the first symbolic ‘return’ to the subject of perpetual travelling (which describes the adventure of art as well as that of life) by Jannis Kounellis at the port of Piraeus, the way to the ports seems to have opened up for good. Starting from Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city where the marine commercial activities are now reduced, the port emerges as its new artistic hub. The first art exhibitions were held in some old warehouses in the mid-1990s, and now the port hosts the most important cultural events, such as the International Film Festival, and houses permanently the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Museum of Photography of the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Cinema.

The 1st Biennale of Thessaloniki (2007) –whose pertinent title, Heterotopias, borrowed from Michel Foucault, is not irrelevant to the subject of the Port City Safari– comprised venues all over the city, but its true ‘heart’ was at the port.

Athens, too, after years of ‘incarceration’ within its walls, now seems to be opening up a front towards the sea. This year for the first time both of the city’s major international art events –Art Athina, the contemporary art Fair, and the second version of the Biennale of Athens– are to be held in Faliron, by the sea. This new orientation seems to be gaining support from major institutional devotees, too: a large 160,000 sq. m. site between Kallithea and Delta Falirou was chosen for the erection of the new National Library and the National Opera House, to be designed by Renzo Piano and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Participating in the Port City Safari activities with his work “AMPs”, the Greek artist Zafos Xagoraris presents an aural version of the dialectic relationship between the city and the sea. With this work the artist enables the city to listen to the sounds and the silences of its boundaries. The boundaries here are determined by the change of surface (land/water), by organisation (centre/dock) but also by function (commotion/desolation). Xagoraris achieves the exchange of sounds in places where normal human interaction is difficult or impossible, such as at national borders, geographical boundaries, war zones or ‘green lines’. So where man fails to function as a free social being or is prevented from doing so, the artist proposes a connection of the two places via art: one might say that in this way he manages to get the phrase of Roland Barthes, who states that “the city is a discourse, and this discourse is actually a language”, to echo as the retort from the city.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972); translation by William Weaver

Exhibition organised by The J. F. Costopoulos Foundation aboard the cargo vessel IONION, moored at Piraeus Harbour

Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres” (Conference, 14 March 1967), in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, No 5, Oct. 1984, pp 46-49

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Ed. Du Seuil, série Lettres Nouvelles, Paris 1957