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Thursday, 16 February 2017

GR80s

"Until then, there was just a low class of urban dwellers. In the 80s, the western world middle class culture was created, which is why the 80s were the 'womb' of the post-junta era, even though the dictatorship ended in 1974." http://www.lifo.gr/print/print_feature/130598 
Image may contain: one or more people and close-upWhile in Athens last weekend, I visited the highly publicised GR80s exhibition (see: http://www.gr80s.gr) being held until mid-March at the former gasworks of Athens (aka Technopolis, one of the hippest art and music centres in Greece: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technopolis_(Gazi)). GR80s is an exhibition about the 80s decade, consisting of 18 thematic units that try to describe the zeitgeist  of the time, through pictures, posters, news clippings, music, videos, various artefacts collected from that time period, as well as a few short texts that briefly summarise the decade, according to the curators. GR80s has been given great prominence in the media, and since it opened a few weeks ago, it has been received with great acclaim.

Image may contain: indoorI lived through the 80s in NZ. In 1978, my parents bought a fish and chip shop in a kind of dormitory suburb outside Wellington, and I started high school, where I wore a school uniform. That's about the time when my mother first started spending money on clothes for her children - she used to make a lot of our clothes before that. Mother would also send parcels (by sea) of our used clothes to her sister in Athens, adding a few household goods in them (the basic potato peeler in particular). Some time in the early 80s, my aunt (who had found a job as a cleaner in a factory in the highly industrialized suburb outside Athens where she lived) told her not to do that any more because she could now buy a lot of material goods in Athens. We kept in touch with most of our relatives in Greece, mainly by letter, but occasionally we would call them. We never expected them to call us because we always thought of them as not being able to afford to do so (even though international phone calls in NZ were also considered expensive). We understood poverty in the same sense that we had seen it during our last trip to Greece in 1974: all our Greek relatives had a roof over their heads, and lots of food, but they didn't have a lot of material goods; some of them worked while others didn't; and they didn't really have much contact with the world beyond their borders.


Image may contain: one or more people and people standingMeanwhile, my whole family worked in our shop on a daily basis, for almost a decade, with the kids going there after school. One minute I'd be serving a customer, the next I'd be doing my homework. Life wasn't hard in the sense of hardships: in the case of my family, it was all about hard work. Our money visibly went into the accumulation of goods. We renovated our house and bought an apartment in Crete, we wore nice clothes and were given presents of jewelry by our parents, we read teen magazines, listened to vinyl records and cassettes, watched US and UK TV series and rented videos. We (but not our parents) went to discos and ate out occasionally at the 'exotic' restaurants that had recently opened in Wellington's restaurant scene, including Greek ones.

No automatic alt text available.I did six years of free studies at university, finishing with a Master of Arts in 1990. I had gone on to post-graduate research because I had had trouble finding work before that with my arts degree: the NZ public service had stopped taking on employees, office work was getting harder to find, and ESL classes were no longer being subsidised, all due to a change in the political system: from safety net socialism, NZ was moving towards self-sustained capitalism (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogernomics). I was in the situation of being overqualified for most jobs and unqualified for others. But I still had to find something to do even though my studies did not lead to any particularly sought after qualification at the time. With my savings, I decided to do my OE (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overseas_experience). I arrived in London where I started my journeys through Europe which would eventually land me in Greece in 1991.

Image may contain: one or more people and indoorI was surprised at what I found in Greece: people weren't poor like we remembered them 17 years before that. Many people under 40 had done some kind of tertiary studies, and most people were working, albeit with much lower salaries than what we were used to in NZ. Cafes and tavernas were often busy nearly every night of the week, and full at the weekends. Prices were much lower here than what we were paying in NZ for similar services. So there was still plenty of food to eat, and everyone had a roof over their head, mainly in the form of apartments in Athens, while our relatives in Crete lived mainly in detached houses. They all wore nice clothes and my aunt would joke about the potato peelers my mother used to send her: Athens was full of supermarkets by that time and most people owned a similar potato peeler.

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This all made me wonder: what if my parents had stayed in Greece instead? How different would their life be, had they stayed here? Would it have involved just as much hard work as what we were used to in NZ? Would we be just as comfortable, like most of the Greek side of our family? With the benefit of hindsight, our personal lives all seemed to be going down the same path, despite coming from different directions. Both my mother and her sister could rightfully be described as coming from the peasant class in Greece. They had left their villages and entered menial labour in NZ and Greece respectively: ie they had both entered the urban working class. From this rapid rise in societal class emerged the middle class of Greece, which was practically non-existent before the 80s: you were either very well off, or just making ends meet. My aunt remained working class but my parents differentiated when they bought a business which moved them into the SME (small medium enterprises) class, and their income level rose to allow them to afford a more comfortable life: ie closer to the middle class of society. My aunt stayed poor, but living frugally all her life, she was able to help her children (who also remained in the working class) to build modest homes with her savings, while the children from Kiwi side of the family all entered the middle class as university graduates. We had arrived, so to speak.

No automatic alt text available.The Greek 80s were a time of great hops and simultaneously great change in Greece, the decade of out with the old and in with the new. The Greek 80s are often regarded as a highly misunderstood decade because of their emphasis on mass overconsumption and the rise of populism - with the implication that the political decisions taken in the 80s are 'responsible' for the present day crisis that Greece is going through because they surreptitiously paved the way for its arrival, ushering in the great catastrophe that Greece experienced in 2010 when the effects of the crisis became evident as the bubbles began to burst all around us. We are now seen to be living with the consequences of that decade's thinking. Greece was left unguided as she entered the western world, with EU entry in 1981. Had she (or her partners) realised that she needed a bit more help (and a lot more monitoring), perhaps it would not have gone so horribly wrong. EU entry gave Greece - and the Greeks - the chance to renew their identity, and to a certain extent, we did just that: we became very vain. Vanity's consequences led to our eventual economic downfall, which then led us to an identity crisis (a similar one that the UK and the US are in right now).

No automatic alt text available.By the time I arrived to Athens in September 1991, Greece was swinging: no one was really poor, and most Athenians had embraced materialism to the point that the poor and frugal life of the past had been eradicated. No doubt many treasures were lost in that decade, as people threw out their old (read: vintage) home furnishings to replace it with more modern items. The 90s signalled an awareness in modern thinking, but not a rise in webification which was happening throughout the rest of the western world. In the 00s, wealth was out of control which imploded in the 10s with the economic crisis (but those decades are for another discussion). In retrospect, I would say that the main difference with Greece was that she was constantly coming, but never really arriving.  Things have speeded up now, given that Greece finds herself in a similar situation now as NZ was in the 80s (as I describe above) - but we are still not there. We have not quite arrived yet. But GR80s shows us that we actually have come a long way: we did not quite get there, but we are ahead in the game of working out who we are and where we are going.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, living room, table and indoorGR80s is fully bilingual in Greek and English, and uses multimedia audiovisual resources, with some real-life, real-time re-enactments from that decade, in the form of a fully functional home, complete with ringing doorbell, a TV playing shows from the time, a telephone from which you can hear conversations with an 80s ring to them, and real life actors pretending to live in the house, and uttering the punchlines of the era through their unscripted dialogue, which the public are also invited to take part in (once they realise that the couple in the house are actors - my daughter caught onto this before I did). I could tell you a lot about what I learnt from that exhibition, but I would only be regurgitating someone else's words (which you too can read here: http://www.gr80s.gr/index.php/en/exhibition by checking the list of the thematic categories covered), so I've gone one extra step and translated what is being said about GR80s in the Greek press, which is raving about it as nothing short of brilliant. The blue highlights in the texts below are my own.

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"So that's what the 80s were like" by Dimitris Politakis (02/08/17 - click here for the Greek original).
We may find its stereotypes choking, but it was the last decade that was looking forward.

No automatic alt text available.I've thought about popping in to see the exhibition a couple of times to gaze, with the distance of time, at the various totems and fetishes of the era - almost all of them utterly and painfully familiar - but I haven't been able to visit this great exhibition about the Greek '80s. The truth is that it keeps me tripping over and it prevents me from confronting something that inevitably resembles an entertainment mausoleum for the whole family (for the old to remember and the young to wonder), something between a vast theme park and a little train of horrors, from which several skeletons step out along the way, which had experienced the great glories of 30-35 years ago, between the period of the Metapolitefsi [the Political Change that occurred in Greece after the Papadopoulos dictatorship] and the "dirty '89" (I always liked that term, it had a Clint Eastwood vibe to it). I have a personal issue with the '80s. I am not bothered so much by their impression on society but on me personally. I clearly have my origins in them, and since then. There is a world inside of me that never experienced mobile phones and the internet (the fresher generations can't even begin to conceive this, as such a fact cannot be digested in any way).  

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It has nothing to do with nostalgia, it's just that one recognizes a place of origin that is more important than that which any surname can imply. I find it quite impossible to imagine that I could have gone through pre-puberty and adolescence (ie years of an endless and agonizing expectation) in another decade, as it seems inconceivable not to have spent my childhood in the '70s, in the alleys, streams and spaciousness of suburbia, and then home for lunch, a bit of school pseudo-homework, and "Little House on the Prairie" on TV. In other words, imagine that I was a teenager in that premature '80s Change and had got into trouble with some ragbags and political youth groups, or in the '90s ... hmm. Now that I think about it, the '90s passed by me like a brutally stretched, prolonged adolescence (like a teenage fixation, if we analyse it pathologically), but that's why they seem - despite looking like they were so much more FUN - less significant, cloudier in relation to the' 80s, where I think I remember everything.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and indoorWhat has however remained with me is not so much the performances of the epoch - the café-disco-tutorial lessons-shoulder pads-gaiters phase, and the like - but a lasting impression: those evenings when I returned home with the trolley bus, that there is a future out there for me, a long and undeclared one full of exciting surprises and twists. It was not just that I was a teenager and I saw before me seven lives and a few more, it was the last futuristic period before the odometer was reset and postmodern relativism swept it all away and the carousel started turning with all kinds of revivals, recycling, remakes, remodelling and rebooting. Who would even think to organize a festive exhibition in the '80s about the Greek '50s? No one! That past was a thankless, gray and dimly lit universe without neon and fluey hues, and only someone who is paralyzed by nostalgia would dare to say that it was better 'then'. In the '80s, despite the permanently unstable political climate and the various premature 'births' that would eventually give birth to the successor of the Change, there was a widespread impression of a path towards prosperity and reconstruction, without any pending bills, misunderstandings and collective illusions.

Perhaps more interesting would be a corresponding exhibition on the taboos and totems of  the '90s, related much more to the current quagmire, not only as a genealogy of the Crisis, or as the first seed to be sown of the suffering that we are now going through, and our absolute inability to finally agree not just on the easy parts, but also on more difficult issues. Poor and arrogant, we triumph, as undignified losers...

My photos of the exhibition

"Why are the '80s an absolute minefield for history?" by Kosta Katsapis, Historian at Panteio University, Curator of the GR80s kiosk "Working class culture and workers' demands" (02/02/17 - click here for the Greek original).
Fragmentary studies for this critical period are strictly necessary.

No automatic alt text available.Braudel once said that "the secret object of history, its deeper motive, is the interpretation of synchronicity." Therefore, each palpation of the historical past can only be related to the questions raised by the present, the doubts and insecurities that are formed in the present time. The '80s are not only an exception but they are the epitome of the above finding. The '80s are indicated in the context of the economic crisis as the matrix of "evil", and at the very same time, the last period that deserve to be remembered as the "years of innocence". This contradiction should not be a cause of worry, since the '80s are, at any rate, synthesized from both the contradictory developments and no other time period that existed before or followed them (the most charismatic political figure of the same period, the cosmopolitan intellectual, yet at the same time an unrefined populist, being Andreas Papandreou: he was the Great Contradictor).

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The 80s saw politicization reaching its apogee while party affiliations began to organize the personal life and social relations of the individual, in the most outrageous way by today's standards: take, for example, the case of the "blue" and "green" cafés (see photo inset). This however incubated pluralism and the explosion of individualism that would prevail in the next decade. It vindicates the political struggles of many decades; it therefore constitutes as sovereign, legitimate and legitimized the oppressed left narrative, while at the same time it chops off its foundations, enabling the layers hitherto excluded from prosperity to enter mass consumption and the Western lifestyle. Therefore, the history of the 80s is an absolute minefield, a fact that is due not only to fragmentary studies which up to now have been carried out on this decade and make this previously uncharted territory substantive, but also because of the strange peculiarity of the period, which allows different kinds of - and often diametrically opposed - approaches, evaluations and (unfortunately) certainties.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and indoorTherein also lies the major difficulty that has had to be overcome in order to set up the GR80s pavilion about "Working class culture and workers' demands." In the beginning, as is common, a question is posed: what is the difference between 'populist' and 'working class inclusion' in the '80s? The answer might seem easy, but the phenomena are quite deceptive. Already during the '80s the concept of a working class culture became a privileged field of ​​conflict between those who reminisce in or fantasize about a lost purity, and those who see the authenticity of the populace's soul in marginal, heretical and provocative manifestations of daily life, at least among the mainstream intelligentsia, for example in the skiladika [low class cabaret style music joints]. In this context, it was decided that the pavilion should take into account not only the secular synchronous approaches which have their origin in academic environments, artists or generally among the intellectuals (eg the film "Rembetiko" or the TV series "The Minor Note of Dawn"), but also in the debate about working class culture that is now regarded as largely obsolete and has disappeared from the public eye, the one that is regarded as "bothersome". And it is annoying precisely because it reflects the ongoing progress made by the (until then) grass roots layers, in terms of civilization, of prosperity, integrating, sometimes inelegantly in our own eyes, in a clumsy way or with notoriously bad taste, the symbols of a culture which for them composed a charmingly attractive terra incognita.

No automatic alt text available.Therefore, the authenticity of working class culture (if ever it existed) is aimed at being identified not in the intellectuals of the universe, many of whom have (if they do at all) a marginal relationship with working class neighborhoods and their realities, nor in the often excessive and equally constructed obsessions of lovers of marginal cultures. Conversely, if there is some kind of working class culture that is able to be an exemplary model for understanding the 'lay' people and their culture in the '80s, it can probably be traced in the place where, day by day, a hybrid reality is shaped, where the past coexists with the present - that place where the heavily populist identities feel secure enough to move away from the culture of need and its often pre-modern values ​​and to integrate new consumption patterns, survival strategies and behaviors: behaviors which with a fair amount of malice would be accused by "koultouriarides" [a disparaging way to refer to pseudo-intellectuals] as a vehicle of the enforcement of kitsch and the bad taste which (supposedly) is often associated with the 80s.

Image may contain: indoorTo solve the puzzle, it was decided albeit informally but very obviously to focus on a suburb whose development largely reflects the progress of the working classes towards prosperity or, in sociological terms, "upward mobility", which characterised the '80s of - in Papandreou's terms - the "disadvantaged": the suburb of Gerakas, which is a kind of unexpressed case study for the pavilion "Working class culture and workers' demands," ​​a suburb where the "honest toiler" - as the hopeless romantics would call them - lived during the period under consideration, namely former internal migrants, public and private employees, workers and the self-employed. Many of them movingly kept records of their everyday life and even more movingly and with abundant kindness responded to the call of GR80s for cooperation. Without them, it would not have been possible to set up the pavilion. (The author publicly thanks Despina Daliani and Athena Manzano, and the members of the association "Gerakas' source" for their trust and valuable assistance on this matter.)

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More articles on GR80s in English:
http://www.ekathimerini.com/212863/article/ekathimerini/life/the-1980s-anatomy-of-a-watershed-era
http://www.ekathimerini.com/216042/article/ekathimerini/life/rewinding-to-the-era-of-analog-politics
http://www.ekathimerini.com/215939/article/ekathimerini/life/athens-show-revisits-politics-arts-lifestyle-and-technology-in-80s-greece

And more in Greek and other languages:
- 'I was there' - a photoset of the GR80s opening night:  http://www.lifo.gr/guide/culturenews/i_was_there/130758
- GR80s series of articles on LIFO (most widely read print and web magazine in Greece): http://www.lifo.gr/topics/view/93
and http://www.lifo.gr/tags/%CE%94%CE%B5%CE%BA%CE%B1%CE%B5%CF%84%CE%AF%CE%B1+%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%85+%2780 (don't miss out on seeing the 80s house: http://www.lifo.gr/articles/urban-life_articles/130450 )
- French interest in GR80s: http://www.liberation.fr/planete/2017/02/02/la-grece-des-annees-80-une-expo-antidote-a-la-crise-a-athenes_1545785

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