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Friday, 24 April 2015

"EMERGENCY EXITS: Migration-Art-Identity" by Persefoni Myrtsou

The original publication of this text appeared in Greek in the journal Faros Alexandroupolis as part of Persefoni Myrtsou's graduate work, entitled "Contemporary migration biographies. Life and work styles of Greek female and male artists”. For reference to the original text, please contact Persefoni Myrtsou: myrtsou@hu-berlin.de. This was written as part of the graduate program "Art in Context", Berlin University of the Arts (Institut für Kunst im Kontext - Universität der Künste Berlin, supervised by Professor Wolfgang Knap). It was translated from German to Greek by Persefoni, and from Greek to English by me. Persefoni notes: "As I waded through [the German text], I felt the need to make some additional comments, in appreciation of the [Greek] readers of Faros Alexandroupolis, with which I wish to share some extra personal thoughts that did not fit within an academic work". 

I got to know Persefoni from another art installation of hers - you can read about it in this link. Her recent work struck me as a very insightful contemplation on the concept of homeland, whose importance cannot be underestimated among diaspora communities around the world. Greek heritage may be shared in global terms among Hellenes, but their concept of Hellenism is more often than not influenced by locality. What follows is the journey Persefoni took to formulate her own concept of 'homeland'. 

In Greek, the terms "migration" and "migrant" are connected mainly with the experiences of Greeks in terms of labor migration, thus the experiences are mainly perceived as negative ones. In the context of this study I intend to use the term freed from its negative connotation and to use it for any more permanent than temporary human movement, though without overlooking the weight it often carries in the collective memory of Greek society.

When my grandfather Constantine Mirtzos (our name would later morph into Myrtsos due to state negligence in transcription) and my grandmother Persefoni Christodoulou, both born in Ainos in Eastern Thrace, were expelled as refugees in Turkey and sent to Greece in 1923, they were given - according to the Treaty of Lausanne that regulated the population and property exchanges between Greeks and Turks - a piece of land in the village of Agioneri (also known as Vourlantza), located near Thessaloniki. Before the population exchange, my grandparents had never even heard of this place, nor did they know anyone there. So they decided to live in Thessaloniki, where they had some relatives. They still had to travel to Agioneri where my grandfather had set up a small grain mill in the fields, and a dairy products business with his brother, Anastasios.

From the beginning Agioneri was a cursed place for my grandfather and grandmother. According to the population exchange, this village was defined as their new home. This place had to replace their idea of “homeland” which they had for their own village in Turkey. Clearly it was impossible to replace Ainos, a place that they were forced to abandon. Neither in their memory nor in their heart, nor in their bodies. My grandfather Constantine was able to work for a few years. Later, the work situation at Agioneri went awry, his body gave up, he left and remained constantly sick until his death. Although I did not meet him, because he had already died before I was born, I do not think anyone knew exactly what disease he was suffering from - to a certain extent his diseases were exaggerated by my grandmother, who adored him tremendously - but I think deep down inside, the pain of leaving his homeland ate him away. I did not get to know him, but I got to know to my father and my aunt, his children, who inherited the same disease: they hated Agioneri, and  its people. They believed that the village was the source of all the family’s ills and there is still silence about the family’s past, much of which is probably ignored by them all.

The refugee culture of the Greeks from Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace significantly changed the composition of Greek society, mainly because the concepts of migration and “prosfigia” (which roughly means “being expelled from your home” - in modern Greek, it means 'the state of being a refugee') were introduced into the collective subconscious of the people. After 1923, the feeling of homesickness and nostalgia for the so-called “lost homelands” became two central motifs in the Greek language. As I stated above, in my family there is a mystical tendency to avoid making clear references to the past. In this way, I too neglected our family’s past. For me Turkey, namely Eastern Thrace, where Ainos is located, represented an eerie place. For my grandparents, their place of origin was something whose memory was very painful. So they decided not to talk about it. In this way they tried to live a normal life in Greece without mourning what was left behind. My personal perception of migration has been influenced very much by the story of my grandparents. Sometimes I feel an inexplicable desire for homing, as well as the need to redefine my roots. I think this is something I inherited from my family.

For me the fact that I made an effort to learn Turkish, which was somehow the key language in which my grandparents were born into and raised by, as well as my constant visits to Turkey, were an indirect means of a personal effort to understand this remote past. My experiences in Istanbul, where I stayed for three months, were for me a forced landing in reality. Today’s Turkey is connected with my family’s past only in an imagined way. In fact, rationally speaking, Turkey is now simply a neighboring country of Greece. In present-day Istanbul, whose population composition has changed fundamentally due to the internal migration of the last 20 years, mainly from Eastern Turkey and areas of the Black Sea, I was nothing more than a stranger, coming from a country located more west than Turkey on the global map composed from a western perspective. So my experience as a migrant artist in Turkey canceled a romantic and naive side of my personality, which was almost bordering on orientalism. 

The road to the roots: a journey into the de-mystified past
According to Nicolas Bourriaud, plants which are radicant, such as some types of ivy, continue to grow and create new roots in the new soil they are transplanted, although the original root has already been cut. The trunk of the plant remains the same, but it morphs through the transplanting process in the new soil. If one understands this idea metaphorically in the context of human migration, it seems purposeful for someone to be able to transplant their culture to a set of new geographical, cultural and social situations. However, at the new point where it has taken root, there is always the risk of a violent degeneration of the root of the plant (and respectively, of the personal culture of the individual), perhaps because if the transplant does not assimilate, it might throw its root out of the soil and it will thus wither (and respectively the person may drop out and/or be evicted directly or indirectly from the community). In the migrant model of life, the personal culture of each immigrant tries to root in a new place, and is always influenced by this migratory transplanting process.

My personal reservation concerning this process was the family’s silenced past. In this way somehow, I decided to make a real journey back to my “roots”: a trip to Ainos.

Thracian land, en route to Ainos, 29.10.2011, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

In October 2011 I traveled with my mother by car from Thessaloniki to Ainos in Eastern Thrace. This trip was exactly the reverse of what my grandfather and grandmother did 89 years ago. My father could not come with us because of work, or so he claimed. I decided to record our trip with a camcorder and a photo-camera. As an artist I thought such a record would be excellent material for a future artwork. In my mind I constantly had two questions: is this trip an allegorical return to the “homeland” or an attempt towards a symbolic appropriation of space (in the sense of a personal colonial exploitation of the space) as a greedy artist, who wants to use the history and her relationship with this place for the purposes of her work? What is the real significance of this journey to the village of my grandparents’ origin? Am I travelling as a visitor? As a tourist? As an heir?

The day we traveled to Ainos was a national holiday in Turkey. We found out later that the 29th of October was the day of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the year 1923 (in Turkish: Cumhuriyet Bayramı). In the same year, the population exchange took place, the one in which my grandparents left Ainos. In the central square of Ainos, a big celebration had been organised  - much like our own ones in Greece - with flags, grandstands, and children from schools reciting poems about Mustafa Kemal and Turkey, and all these in the predominant presence of military forces, which probably had to do with the location of Ainos at the border of the political map of Turkey.

The central square of Ainos, 29.10.2011, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

At the end of the feast we walked around for a bit. There were a lot of people in the village, mostly from Istanbul and Edirne, who were probably originally from Ainos and had travelled especially for the holiday. After a while, we sat down in a restaurant to eat. We ordered meatballs, rice and shepherd’s salad, my mother asked for Ayran, and I had a Coke. The well-dressed waiter asked us where we were from and what we were doing on a day like this in Ainos. I replied in Turkish that we were from Thessaloniki, but my grandfather and grandmother were from Ainos, and we had come to see their place of origin. The fact that we had come on the day of the holiday was coincidental. He stared at us silently for a while. Then he sat down next to us and began to chronicle his own story: his own father came from Thessaloniki, or from a village near there, during the population exchange - I didn’t understand him very well as he was speaking rather fast and my Turkish was quite rusty at this point. He himself had never travelled to Thessaloniki: “It is that damn hard to get the EU Schengen visa thing”... On my cellphone, I happened to have a background photo of the promenade in Thessaloniki. I showed him the photo. He asked me to send it to him by MMS, and I did so.

Central road of Ainos, 29.10.2011, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

The oldest remaining houses of Ainos, 29.10.2011, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

The (happy?) coincidence of the national celebration and the conversation with the waiter could make a beautiful scenario for a nostalgic film, similar to "Politiki Kouzina" [“A touch of spice”, directed by Tassos Boulmetis in 2003]. However these events revealed a very obvious truth: Ainos is not a “home” for me, like Thessaloniki is not a “home” for the waiter. Ainos is nothing more than the imaginary topography of my family’s past, whose visible signs are gone. This trip was for me a solution to my very personal concerns regarding this invisible past. This trip helped me to clarify my personal and artistic position and responsibility towards this village, which had taken on mythical proportions in my childhood and later in my adult mind.

Ainos is located on the political border between Turkey and Greece, which divides the river Evros (in Turkish: Meriç). Ainos is one of the entry points for many undocumented immigrants into Greece and at the same time the European Union. Recently I traveled to Alexandroupolis with a German delegation as a translator and I had the opportunity to talk to the guards, who describe in gruesome detail the efforts of immigrants to cross the river. In their attempts to enter, many drown, as their means of transport is extremely dangerous. Sometimes they are perceived by thermal cameras installed on the Greek side and they are sent back. Once they cross half the river and manage to get out alive, they are on “European” soil. If they get caught, they are identified by FRONTEX, the European border police - this identification is relative, since most come without any official documents - and they are then kept for some time in the notorious detention centers for immigrants, known in Greek as centers of “hospitality”. Once the lengthy identification process is finished, they are released on the condition that they return within one month to the country of their origin. (Bear in mind that the text was composed in 2012, so regulations concerning the EU migration and asylum policies may have been revised.]. Why would anyone return?. Most travel to Athens in order to find a way to get into another European country, and their tracks are usually lost. Thus, this place, which my grandparents yearned for, is today a tomb for many people with basically the same story to tell as my grandparents: people who were forced to leave their homeland or were expelled from it. These modern migration stories relativised the story of my grandparents. On this very real basis, it felt right to act artistically.

Panorama of Ainos, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

The highest point of Ainos is dominated by the ruins of a Byzantine castle. From the castle one has a panoramic view of the natural border created by the river Evros. Next to the castle ruins I set up a camping tent and shot some black and white analogue photography. I chose the castle for this artistic action. Through the Byzantine aesthetic of the ruins, I wanted to situate the photograph in space and time.

The Byzantine castle of Ainos, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

Panorama of modern-day Ainos from the castle, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

The operation of setting up a tent in Ainos is invoking an ostensible and simultaneously naive contemporary repatriation. Black and white film photography was deliberately chosen, since such aesthetics allude to the one and only photograph of Ainos that I found in the family archive - I found the very same picture on the Internet later. This photo was probably distributed among many of the residents of Ainos at the time before or after the exchange. In my own photograph the item that confuses the romantic landscape of the old is the modern camping tent. The tent is the simplest and cheapest that can be found in its category on the market. Moreover it is a one-person tent. By selecting this particular kind of tent, I wanted to give a personal and collective interpretation of this work. On a personal level, the tent is a temporary form of accommodation in the space: just like an archaeologist who is trying to leave no trace at the place she was studying, I try to discover signs of my family’s past in modern-day Ainos. The choice of a cheap tent as the key item of the picutre is an act of self-sarcasm referring to my personal need for “repatriation” - an idea inspired by a nationalistic rhetoric, which has been the scourge of modern Greek identity - and to the discovery of my now-proven bogus roots.

The black and white photo that I took while in the castle, photo: Persefoni Myrtsou

On a collective level, the tent, installed on the border of this area between Greece and Turkey, becomes a report on the living conditions of refugees, living a precarious life forced on them, and the undesired uprooting many of them experience. Some months ago, a journalist in Berlin told me that this action alludes to the global "Occupy" movement, which also symbolically incorporated camping tents in their actions. How would it be to “decentralise” such actions and organise them in places like Ainos, exactly on the Greek-Turkish border, instead of Wall Street in New York, the Bundestag in Berlin or Syntagma in Athens?

In conclusion, the fundamental objective of this project was to create a bridge between the two stories of refugee phenomena that have occurred in this very same area: one story from 1923, and the other from the present day. The river Evros appears on the right-hand side of the picture. Greece is discernible beyond the river. The country, which was regarded as a place of exile, while it became home for my grandparents and for many other refugees after 1923, has been transformed today into a graveyard and, in the best case scenario, into a transit station for another prosperous country in “Europe” and at the same time into the first station of hope for a better life.

Selected  Bibliography
Anderson, Benedict, 1983, Imagined Communities, Verso, London 2006
Auge, Marc, 1992, NonPlaces. An introduction to supermodernity, Verso, London‐New York 2008
Bourriaud, Nicolas, 2009, The Radicant, Lukas and Sternberg, New York 2010
Brewer, David, 2010, Greece. The Hidden Centuries. Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to
Greek Independence, I.B. Tauris, London‐New York
Chambers, Iain, 1994, Migrancy, culture, identity, Routhledge, New York und Oxon 2005
Charim, Isolde, Auer Borea, Gertraud (Εκ.), 2012, Lebensmodell Diaspora. Uber moderne Nomaden,
Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld
Hikmet, Nazım, 1925, Die Luft ist schwer wie Blei, Dagyeli Verlag, Berlin 2000
Hirschhorn, Renee (Hg.), 2003, Crossing the Aegean. An Appraisal of the 1923 compulsory
population exchange between Greece and Turkey, Berghan Books, New York und Oxford
Kristeva, Julia, 1991, Stangers to ourselves, Columbia University Press, New York
Mahn, Churnjeet Kaur, 2009 “Romance in Ruins, Ethnography and the problem with Modern
Greeks, in Victorian Studies, Vol., 51, No. 1
Özkirimli, Umut; Sofos, Spyros, 2008, Tormented by History. Nationalism in Greece and Turkey, Kataniotis, Athens [Edition in Greek]
Said, Edward, 1979, Orientalism, Vintage Books, New York 
Todorova, Maria, 1997, Imagining the Balkans, Epikentro, Thessaloniki [Editon in Greek]
Ζαφείρης, Χρίστος [Zafiris, Christos], 2008, Μνήμης Οδοιπορία, Ανατολική Θράκη [A wayfaring of memory, Eastern Thrace], Epikentro, Thessaloniki [title translated by Persefoni Myrtsou]

Just as Ainos is not a home for Persefoni, Wellington is not my home either. Waxing lyrical about Wellington will not make is any more part of the topography of own family. But not all the visible signs of my family's past are gone. Apart from my mother's grave, our former family home (below) is still in the same state that it was when we sold it. 

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