What smells like teen spirit?

16 November 2011: guided tour of the exhibition “Teenage Angst – Part II” with curator Apostolos Kalfopoulos; selected readings on curator Jean Clair’s practice 

As critics and curators, we often lose sight of how telling the logistical aspects of curating a project can be with regards to the particular socio-political context in which it is realized, owing to the fact that such concerns are rarely recorded as part of the official exhibition narrative.  What remains of a project is usually what is put on display, erasing the trials and setbacks that might have drastically altered its outcome for better or for worse. In presenting “Teenage Angst” ­– a two-part exhibition project fully conceived, developed and realized in house by DYNAMO project-space as part of the parallel programme for the XVe Biennale de la Mediterranee – DYNAMO Founder and Director Apostolos Kalfopoulos reminded us of this fact by outlining some of the practical challenges that the project faced from its inception, due to the particular situation in Greece earlier this fall.

“Teenage Angst” was organized as a nation-wide open call addressed to teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18, who were invited to submit some form of production related to their personal passions. The open call was sent to schools throughout the country; but despite being funded by the General Secretariat for Youth and presented as part of an international biennial, it was met with a great deal of obstacles and suspicion from both teaching staff and students. The open call was circulated at the beginning of the fall term, at a time when the economic crisis in Greece hit the educational system so hard that there were no schoolbooks to speak of. Nominations to teaching posts were delayed, and most students were involved in nation-wide protests against reform measures. A number of peripheral educational authorities who were in post at that time refused to promote a project that was not directly sanctioned by the Education Ministry, while many students, in squatted schools that members of DYNAMO visited in order to promote the open call were met with great suspicion due to reasons ranging from the fact that students are not accustomed to such project, to the possibility that members of Dynamo could be covert police forces trying to infiltrate the squatted schools. After a great deal of exchange and discussion primarily orchestrated through social media and aimed at building trust with teachers, parents and students alike, DYNAMO managed to collect 150 applications from all around Greece.

From out of these applications, 50 were retained and later divided into two exhibitions of 25 participants each. Most of the submitted work consisted of crayon and pen drawing with the occasional video or photograph. In collaboration with the participants, DYNAMO selectively framed and installed the material in its white cube space alongside a few custom-made installations, including a blackboard, a display case filled with hand-painted Converse sneakers, and a desk covered in drawing materials and knick-knacks assembled into rainbow-colored clusters. Aside from a short wall text outlining the project’s working process, the works were accompanied by a series of open-ended lists detailing the participants’ fav bands, movies, books, etc. After the openings of Part I and Part II – the first of which featured a performance by local teenage band “Chinese Basement” – the participants attended a workshop with Thessaloniki-based artists, which provided them with tools and information to help them develop their practice.

“Teenage Angst” initially raised two fundamental questions or perhaps concerns for me, which Apostolos addressed during our exchange. The first concerned how the participants might feel about being put on display: in other words, whether they self-reflexively understood that the project was aimed at exhibiting a certain dimension of their youth culture as opposed to simply displaying their works. Based on his research, Apostolos explained that one of the characteristics of youth sub-cultures is that they construct their symbolic system consciously, but not strategically. The latter does not emerge out of a specific conceptual agenda but is nevertheless produced with absolute consistency. In this way, the critical distance between these two distinct display situations would not apply in terms of the specific object.

Which led to a second question regarding the choice of the rather conventional white cube display mechanism, that first struck me as being somewhat at odds with the subject of the exhibition, seemingly calling for a more immersive or participatory environment. As Apostolos clarified, the choice was deliberate and carefully considered. Given that the works were not the outcome of a “mature” practice, they risked inviting the public’s condescension. So rather than simply pinning them up half-hazardly as they arrived, DYNAMO strategically framed certain pieces as a means of lending a calculated authority to these works, while contributing a few choice installations as scenographic markers inciting viewers to immerse themselves in memories of their youth. According to Apostolos, the approach paid off. The public immediately connected with the exhibition and the participants along with their friends felt so at home that they hung out in the space on weekends. In this way, despite being conventionally hung, the exhibition naturally invited a more participatory response.

From there, our conversation segued into a discussion around different curatorial approaches, namely focusing on Apostolos’ own practice, informed by research-based approaches that combine various fields of inquiry from the arts, humanities and natural sciences into their exhibition projects – hence, the suggested readings around the work of renowned French curator Jean Clair (“The many colours of black bile: the melancholies of knowing and feeling” by Aris Arafianos and “Esprit de Corps” interview between Jean Clair and Lauren Sedofsky). This discussion became an opportunity for us to collectively acknowledge an unspoken local reticence to affirm a particular position or approach, driven by a fear that it might limit already scarce opportunities. In some ways, it was a startling revelation – ironically not all that different from the incapacity for self-reflection mentioned earlier, in a local scene that produces much in the absence of criticism – but also hopefully the beginning of a useful process.

We would like to thank Apostolos Kalfopoulos for his generous time and openness as well as highlight the amazing work of DYNAMO project-space


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