Nina Felshin


Political Topography- Visual March 2011felshin (1)

Nina Felshin


The ability to approach nature in terms of science, evolved as human civilization freed itself from a nature dominated by magic and superstition. As several critics argue, nature was no longer overlaid and obscured by alien connotations, by the imposition of religious or moral meanings. This new scientific view was later joined by an aesthetic view, which, gradually, included new perspectives amounting to definitions and redefinitions of man's reaction to the world.

"Political Topography" refers to the way landscapes-defined in the broadest sense to incorporate both the physical contours of the natural or built environment, the aesthetics of form, and the imaginative reflections of spatial representations-connect to politics. Shifting through different approaches to landscape, "Political Topography" attempts to deal with and possibly explain some of the links between spatial organization and politics from a cultural point of view. The central concern is not the description of landscapes in themselves but how politics operates through them. Nevertheless, such a series of studies can prove vital to understand how different systems and processes made marks in its physical appearance of the landscape following the path of "Global Landscapes" pursued last year.

-Penelope Petsini, PhD (photographer and photo theorist)



Not long after I was invited to participate in the 2011 Visual March to Prespes by artist and Assistant Professor Yannis Ziogas, Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Western Macedonia, I was asked to respond to the concise, well-formulated, and open-ended statement above about political topography, the theme of this year's march.  I wrote a brief essay on the subject (see attached) months before I arrived in Greece. My observations were based on personal experience and understanding of the term as it applies to the "real world" and what it means to me in terms of art practice.  The statement above also served as a textual and conceptual framework for the students.


What the Visual March offered was a much more dimensional way of thinking about the concept.  I have since applied the tools I acquired during the Visual March to other "political topographies," particularly that of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.   A project such as this encourages critical thinking in relation to creative activity, but also to the world at large.


I came away from the experience last summer with what I would describe not so much as a  "sense of place" but just how complex it is to construct or create one.  It is not simply about a location-a landscape, the built environment, a region, its culture and/or the people who live there.


A sense of place emerges from a contextual framework that includes the dominant and critical histories of the area and that of the larger whole of which it is a part, the natural environment and how it influences or is impacted by historical and contemporary events, the inhabitants and their individual and collective memories and, often overlooked, the individual baggage to which each of us is attached. In other words, one's perception is, to some extent, determined by one's own contextual framework.


Works of art that evoke the political topography of a given locale reflect some of the same interrelationships mentioned above.  In its specific sense, topography (from Greek τόπος topos, "place", and γράφω graphō, "write") refers to the relief or the shape of the land, which indeed plays a dramatic role in the Prespes area.  But in its broader sense, as the statement above suggests, it refers to local detail in general, not just relief or terrain, but also the natural and constructed environment, as well as local history and culture.  This approach to subject matter derives from postmodernism's collapsing of disciplines and the concomitant introduction of interdisciplinary curricula in institutions of higher learning in the 1970s and 1980s.


The conceptual underpinnings of the 2011 Visual March were informed by two historical events both of which involved travel, albeit in opposite directions, over the same terrain in the Prespes area.  The first is the Greek Civil War (1946-49), the American intervention in which is regarded by some analysts as the beginning of the Cold War.  The second is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991which marked the end of the Cold War.  Defeated Greek communist rebels who weren't imprisoned fled the country in the late 1940s.  Some 40 years later, in 1991, illegal immigrants fled Albania into Greece after the fall of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism in the region, which caused dire economic consequences.


Most of the 2011 Prespes art projects were site specific and existed in the landscape from which they drew their content. In a sense, they gave presence to an embedded absence. The outdoor projects were ephemeral and over time most of their material form would return to the earth.


They were executed during the five-day period prior to the beginning of the Visual March in late June 2011.  In preparation, students had familiarized themselves with the previous years' events via the website, hiked in the mountains and around the lakes, participated in a seminar about natural materials and engaged in many related activities. They made proposals in response to the preparatory activities and the thematic statement (above) about the notion of political topography. Those whose proposals were accepted proceeded, but on a shoestring budget that ruled out the purchase of materials. The statement was brief and general enough to allow individual imagination to take flight.  No one could hide behind high production values as happens all too frequently with many seemingly ambitious but conceptually weak contemporary art works.  The work had to stand on its own, both literally and figuratively.


The first works we encountered were near the mountain campsite.  "U+TOPIC Narrations," included a performance by its creators Kiki Stoumpou and Maria Papalexiou.  Many sheepskins with the fleece still intact were distributed on the ground, one after another, suggesting movement halted by tragedy. Kiki and Maria, dressed in black, the color of mourning, performed a simple dance that emphasized the path-like distribution of the skins.  During our hikes we passed herds of sheep protected from prey-bear, wolves and wild dogs- and humans by aggressive herding dogs.   The skins also evoked death or defeat - a "trail of tears" that referred to the plight of migrating peoples. As such they served as surrogates for human presence or, perhaps, human remains.


In actual fact the deployment of sheepskins referred to the trails used in the late 1940s by fleeing communist rebels at the end of the Greek Civil War and then again in the 1990s by illegal immigrants from Albania.


Additionally, the skins connote warmth, a necessity for migrants' survival during the cold, snowy winter months in Prespes.  Another association is that of sheep as followers, animals that can be herded or led, like human beings in times of war, conflict or other adverse circumstances


The skins served as screens on which to project content. While the associations and symbolism were rich and many-layered the aesthetic transformation seemed insufficient. The performance added a human presence, but the two components did not seem as integrated as they might.  The videotape, seen several days later, successfully documented the process of acquiring the skins and filled in the blanks about the significance of lambs in Greek culture while it clarified the contemporary symbolism.  The strength of "U-TOPIC Narrations" was its conceptual underpinnings and potential for multiple readings.


The three-episode work called "Cube" traced the route of migration of the Greek rebels and Albanian immigrants.  It was a collaboration among seven students: Penny Korre, Dionysis Protogeros, Givi Koutselou, Katerina Kontou, Evi Charalambidi, Anastasia Mikrou, Irini Morou.  Each part was sited in a different location: In the mountains, not far from the first campsite, was an open cube construction made of twigs and branches. Centered on the ground inside the structure was a cluster of verdant vegetation.  At a distance it seemed to merge with its woodsy surroundings.  It suggested a shelter for weary travelers on the one hand, while on the other its delicate construction evoked vulnerability, impermanence, and transience-all conditions that define the migratory experience.  The verdant vegetation inside connoted the presence of life and, therefore, perhaps, of hope.


The second "episode" was a small, very beautiful, hut, also made of found wood.

It was built near the lake, adjacent to and embracing an old gnarled tree, which served as a partial support and camouflage.   The hut's construction emphasized the windswept landscape of which it was an integral part. Being less visible from afar protected it, symbolically speaking at least-perhaps from unwelcome others.  The occasional red strands of plastic or yarn [?] that were threaded through the structural members of the hut signaled human presence-the hand of the artist, perhaps? I was reminded of birds' nests I've seen in New York's Central Park, where nature and culture often cross paths, in which colored strands of plastic or fabric are incorporated.


The successful fusion of form and content coupled with a graceful relationship to the natural environment lent poetry to these structures. The third part of the piece was the burial in Psarades of discarded clothing left behind by immigrants in the mountains. Or were the articles of clothing, like the sheepskins in "U-TOPIC
Narrations," surrogates for human presence-in this case, for immigrants who shed their dirty clothing or, perhaps, died along the way?


Two additional works were sited across the lake from the village of Psarades at the edge of the Great Prespa Lake Greece shares the lake with Albania and the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). There was nothing in the landscape to distinguish one country from another. They share the same lake and the same mountainous landscape. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to consider the meaning of national borders in the context of political topography. It is noteworthy that both projects addressed vision in imaginative ways.


"Diary of Shadows" by artists Asteris Kanousis, Yannis Selimiotis, Fivos Thanos was sited just above and back from the rocky shore of the lake. It consisted of a large, unprepossessing cardboard box construction held together with masking tape and oriented towards Albania and the FYROM, which could be seen in the relatively near distance.  The box looked like discarded trash, something you might pass without stopping to investigate.  The small circular hole cut into its front turned it into a camera obscura, enterable through a smaller box.  It evoked a hiding place/shelter from which a very cramped inhabitant could observe the borders, the sky and the typically changing weather conditions-upside down, of course- but not be seen by others.


It suggested transience in several ways including the material impermanence of the structure itself and of the changing weather conditions as underscored by the camera obscura.  To take it one step further, it also drew attention to the potential fluidity or seemingly arbitrary nature of borders, as evidenced by the shared topography of the three nations.   While "Diary of Shadows," succeeded conceptually, its aesthetic form and its relationship to the site lacked poetic transformation and sensitivity.


The title of Leonidas Gkelos' project, "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" refers to the biblical text that means we come from dust and will return to dust.  It might also refer to the fragility of the environment.  The piece was sited on a hillside across the lake from Psarades.  Like "Diary of Shadows," the view from its site encompassed three countries whose topographic features appear to be identical, at least in the Prespes area. The piece evolved out of a series of abstracted paintings of the four elements, to which eye tracking software was applied.   The resulting graphic configuration of the exercise was the basis of Gkelos' deployment on the hillside of white-painted rocks and indigenous natural elements. According to the artist the methodology and resulting design is meant to evoke the political topography of the area in which the natural elements become a metaphor for the cultural similarities of the region. The rich process that underpins this work does not reveal itself to visual perception alone, thus underscoring the importance of discourse in understanding content in much contemporary art.


One of the most important aspects of the Visual March are, clearly, the spectacular hikes that took us up and through the mountains and forests and near the lake. For the most part the weather was beautiful, even dramatic, changing frequently in the course of a day.  Intentionally or not "Diary of Shadows" underscored these conditions.  A bright sunny sky with cumulous clouds overhead could quickly turn into a cloudy, windy day, punctuated by brief showers or drizzle.  And then, unpredictably, change again.  This is typical for the Prespes area.


We traversed former battlefields and hiked the same terrain as the escaping communist rebels and Albanian immigrants.  Of course we were properly dressed and shod and could turn around if we got tired, even avoid the longer, rougher hikes.  Being observant and listening to our expert comrades enriched the context of the Visual March as a whole and provided a broader frame of reference for the students' art projects.


The Visual March was about far more than hiking and engaging with art.  For me, it was also about the meals eaten together, the conversations among students, teachers, participating guests, and others with specialized knowledge, as well as those outside the immediate group such as innkeepers and their families, restaurant staff, outdoor vendors, etc.

It also included workshops, the inspiration for which was drawn from the natural environment. During the course of the march we could engage with a fellow hiker, a man who created hand-made musical instruments out of indigenous materials and with the artist Maria Gregoriou, who conceived and led a natural dyes workshop. We observed how pigments were extracted from local plants and used to color raw sheep wool.


A very successful, and wholly spontaneous project evolved out of artist Georgia Gremouti's cumulative experience of the Visual March. Gremouti, a member of the organizing committee and a participant in the educational activities of the 2011 Visual March had helped her friend Maria Gregoriou with the natural dyes workshop.   Her own project demonstrated the nature of artistic imagination, creativity and process-oriented art. Unlike the students she had not conducted research over a period of time but rather responded to what she experienced during the previous days of hiking and observing.


As she hiked and considered the feet of less well-shod migrants, the idea for a felt-making workshop evolved.  She had brought along some raw wool from Athens and acquired more locally. She also used the dyed wool from the natural dyes workshop.  I lent my foot to the workshop and therefore became an active part of the process of making wool boots.  Dyed and natural colored raw wool was carefully shaped around my foot.  Threads of the same wool were gently wrapped around the shaped wool and this loosely bound form was moistened with water. I donned rubber boots and joined the group in a hike to the other side of the lake.


The wool-booted foot remained inside the rubber boot for several hours, the sweat of my foot adding to the mix. When the rubber boots were removed, the wool boot clung to my foot-a perfect, custom-made shoe, densely packed for use on a mountain trail.  This natural and indigenous product was warm, tough, comfortable and beautiful, with deep indigo and red dyes subtly muted by the natural wool.  The process required the help of several others, including guest artists and students. The product likes its ingredients would eventually be recycled.  Ashes to ashes, dust to



Along these lines, one of many memorable activities took place during the course of an afternoon and early evening near the first campsite in the mountains.  A huge kettle of soup was cooking under the supervision of a man who grew up in the area and had experienced the Greek Civil War firsthand as a child.  His son - an international mountain climber and leader of some of the Visual March hikes - and a student were assisting him.  It took around four or five hours for the white bean soup to cook. During that time, students, teachers and others conversed with each other and in groups, both formally and informally.


I was reminded of contemporary American artist Andrea Ray's Desire, 2008, an installation I presented at Wesleyan University's Zilkha Gallery in the spring of 2008, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris.

One of its three parts, The Gift, consisted of a simple plywood table surrounded by matching chairs. Embedded in each place setting was a speaker that amplified individual voices of guests at an earlier recorded dinner party at the home of the artist.  It referenced the dinner parties that writer and activist Marguerite Duras gave on rue Saint-Benoît for her activist, artist, and writer friends during this period.  Duras often served a homemade soup.


Like a gathering of friends or colleagues around a dinner table, a memorable soup is the result of bringing a variety of ingredients together, resulting in a sum that is much greater than its parts. By the time we ate the very delicious soup, the chill in the air was no match for the warmth of the occasion.


Before leaving the area I bought a large bag of the locally grown white beans and several small bags of herbs -my only purchases in Greece- at an outdoor stand across from Agios Achillios, the island in the Small Prespa Lake on which I and other participants stayed.  The island is reached via a pedestrian bridge.  Three generations of a family operate and live at the inn.  A member of the youngest generation attends the University of Western Macedonia and participated in the 2010 Visual March.  When I met her she was in the process of transforming an out building into a dining room that promised to be a very creative environment as well.


Research is at the heart of critical art practices such as the Visual March.  And process and participation is frequently part of the research, usually leading to some form of articulation that others will encounter and experience.  Whether it takes a physical form, or results in a film, a temporal performance, or an event such as a meal, a choreographed conversation or something else, the success of this kind creative activity can be measured in part by its ability to change a conversation, to enrich one's perceptions or to contribute to an existing discourse.  The overall approach of The Visual March is bound to sharpen one's critical thinking skills for use beyond the immediate environment.  One could say that it provides the tools to take this show on the road.


Φωτογραφίες από τις διαλέξεις που έδωσε η καλεσμένη επιμελήτρια από τη Νέα Υόρκη Nina Felshin στα πλαίσια της Εικαστικής Πορείας προς τις Πρέσπες 2011



Τελευταία Ενημέρωση στις Τρίτη, 23 Σεπτέμβριος 2014 19:27
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