Rehearsals for an Island

A version of this article appeared in issue 114 of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art:

Aural Lighthouses festival, Santozeum, Thira, Santorini, May 18–23, 2015; and The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close, staged as part of the 14th Istanbul Biennial Public Program, various venues on the island Kastellorizo, Greece, September 7–13, 2015.

Two Greek islands – Santorini and Kastellorizo – located respectively in the Cycladic and the Dodecanese archipelagos of the southern Aegean Sea, each became the stage for shared activities, workshops, performances, installations, and lectures spanning a week in May and September 2015. The burning sun at the start and the end of a long, turbulent summer did little to dispel the atmosphere of impending doom and anxiety, which colored both events, for all their idyllic setting. From the sovereign debt crisis to the refugee crisis, Greece had become a byword for economic, social and political upheaval. Aptly reflected in the title of the Kastellorizo program, drawn from a poem by Frank O’Hara, violence was in the air.

These two unrelated events had several things in common, apart from their island location. Each came under the umbrella of a bigger art event: in the case of Aural Lighthouses, the year-long PSI (Performance Studies International) Fluid States – Performances of Unknowing festival and, in that of The violent No!…, the Public Program of the 14th Istanbul Biennial with its overarching theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.” The satellite programs on Santorini and Kastellorizo were organized by private non-profit art institutions, both coincidentally founded in 2010: the London-based Fiorucci Art Trust, which runs workshops, residencies and artist-led festivals often staged on remote islands (such as Stromboli, for the annual Volcano Extravaganza), and Santozeum, a private museum and exhibition space in Thira, Santorini, which has its own residency program for visiting artists and scholars, who are housed in a modernist 1950s villa overlooking the volcanic caldera.

In both instances, the week-long program of activities brought together local and international artists, curators, writers, arts patrons and academics. They had been invited to respond to the chosen themes – disaster sounds for the Aural Lighthouses festival and “saltwater” in Kastellorizo – but also to the island settings, their layered history, myths, archaeological vestiges, geological features and natural wonders like the Blue Grotto on Kastellorizo and Nea Kameni, the central volcanic islet in the midst of the Santorini caldera. Participants went on boat trips to explore the barren, lava-covered shores of Nea Kameni or to harvest salt at the island of Rho, close to Kastellorizo, and on field trips to archaeological sites such as Akrotiri, famed for its wall paintings, reproductions of which are temporarily exhibited at Santozeum, or Paleokastro, Kastellorizo’s ancient acropolis. Spread over a week, the programs unfolded in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere, leaving plenty of free time for individual forays, location scouting, field recordings, filming or photographing, and testing out ideas. The resulting artworks, performative lectures and interventions were open to the local community and other visitors, free of charge.

The two events differed mainly in their focus. True to its name, Aural Lighthouses as imagined by Santozeum’s founder and director Ileana Drinovan privileged listening, audio projects and sound installations, which progressively filled different rooms at the Santozeum museum, one of which had been turned into a radio broadcast station – an aural beacon of sorts. In contrast, the multi-media works that made up The violent No!… curated by Fiorucci Art Trust’s artistic director Milovan Farronato appealed to all the senses, not just hearing, and were presented at various, more or less spectacular indoor and outdoor locations on Kastellorizo.


The Aural Lighthouses festival on Santorini had a distinctly more academic flavor than its Kastellorizo counterpart, reflecting Drinovan’s background as a researcher. The festival was at once a symposium, an expanding exhibition of sound sculptures and installations, and a platform for live art and experimental music. These different strands were connected through the theme of catastrophe and disaster sounds, loosely inspired by Bernie Krause’s pioneering work in the field of acoustic ecology and the concept of “biophony” that he coined. Soundscape ecology, as he conceives of it, consists of three interrelated components: geophony (non-biological natural sound, such as that of the wind, the waves, earth’s movement); biophony (the collective sound that non-human animals produce in a given environment); and anthrophony (human-generated noise). The sound installations, compositions and performances presented alongside the symposium talks, which often had a performative or aural dimension to them, tended to lean towards one of these – admittedly interconnected – phonic modes.

Animal sounds embedded within a wider, and often threatening, sonic environment cropped up in a number of the works, notably in Alyssa Moxley and Ramona Stout’s Still Here (II) (2015). Both artists were living in Santorini at the time, where they co-founded the Kinisi festival of sound. This collaborative project, in its second iteration, attempted to convey by means of radio transmitters placed in locally found salvaged cages how alarming the island’s soundscape might appear to a captive bird, sensing magnetic fields that its owners would not be able to detect. The birdcages themselves were installed all around an enclosed, cell-like space, physically impressing the bird’s entrapment upon the visitors.

The numbing hum of a swarm of bees emanating from three plain brown paper bags displayed on a plinth, in German sound sculptor Timo Kahlen’s Bags of Bees (2009), was equally unnerving. Kahlen’s piece alluded to an incident, related to him by Indian author Suzanna Arundhati Roy, where Indian workers fought armed police forces by hurling bags of swarming bees at them. Four additional sound works by the Berlin-based Kahlen were broadcast at Radio Free Santorini as part of Aural Lighthouses. Catastrophe and the song of the goat, whose ritual sacrifice is linked to the birth of tragedy, were the subject of a talk and a deep listening session led by queer theorist Marco Pustianaz, based on selected excerpts from the Cryonic Chants project and other collaborative audio works by Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Chiara Guidi and ambient sound artist Scott Gibbons, all featuring live animals. Part of the Tragedia Endogonidia serieos s, produced between 2002 and 2004, the Cryonic Chants famously vocalized discrete letters and phonemes chosen by a she-goat, which were woven into an electro-acoustic composition.

What Krause thinks of as “geophony” was embodied by several other sound pieces, including Rock II (2015) by Petros Babasikas and Chrissoula Voulgari of the Drifting City Athens design collective, working with instrument maker Sébastien Seixas. This “sentient sculptural assembly” was made up of three concrete blocks, whose porous surface and dark ashen color recalled the volcanic lava and pumice stone found on Nea Kameni. Wresting on makeshift wooden crates, each sculpture was fitted with resonators meant to respond to human presence. (The piece did not work properly when I saw it installed at a nearby brewery.) Another instance of geophony, Alyssa Moxley’s half-hour performance on the Santozeum rooftop was titled The Voice of the Sea (2015) with reference to infrasonic waves generated in marine storms. In it, she played the guitar through an effects pedal and used exciters attached to shallow metal pans filled with water to create fluctuations on the water’s surface. The green-tinged image of the round metal pans projected onto a screen in front of the performer likewise suggested the sea.

Riffing on Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environments (1965), splotches of black and ultramarine watercolors, meant to conjure volcanic lava and the sea respectively, were applied to slides in experimental filmmaker Julian Hand’s live light projections. These formed an added visual layer in the interactive laboratory opening up to visitors a confined space in which, the previous day, Gabriella Daris danced for three hours in a long-durational performance titled Dancing Tubes Interventions (2014/2015). First performed for camera at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge as part of a Metzger retrospective, the piece saw the slender dancer clad in a white leotard respond to the movements of twin plastic tubes suspended from the ceiling and animated by an air compressor in Metzger’s kinetic sculpture Dancing Tubes (1968/2014). Air also featured in Jordan Lacey’s four-channel immersive sound installation (Sonic discourse on the concept of) Rupture (2015) set up in a dedicated room of the Santozeum amid reproductions of the Akrotiri wall paintings. Their looming presence endowed with a hieratic aura the humble, man-made sounds emanating from ventilation shafts and exhaust fans Lacey had recorded to evoke the “raw energy of anthropogenic noise.”

Conceived as a “library of siren candidates” for future emergencies, Curtis Tamm’s spatialized sound performance Tympanic Tether (2015) mixed animal (birds, bats, herding goats), inanimate (crumbling rocks, shorelines, wind in the telephone lines) and man-made alarm sounds (ambulance, fire truck and police sirens) to beguiling effect. The hour-long piece was composed entirely of field recordings taken around Santorini in the course of a month-long residency at the Santozeum, during which Tamm explored the island together with fellow artist and anthropologist Hermione Spriggs. Their impressions of the place and Tamm’s proposal for an aural warning system were summed up in an evocative text written by Spriggs, read out in turn by participants in the Aural Lighthouses event as part of the performance. Appropriately for a festival devoted to the sense of hearing, the text was accompanied by a map of the island, tilted round so as to draw out the ear-shaped form of the volcanic caldera.


Staged on the remote Dodecanese island of Kastellorizo, huddling the Turkish coast but far removed from the epicenter of the Istanbul Biennial and Greek to boot, “The violent No! of the sun burns the forehead of hills. Sand fleas arrive from salt lake and most of the theatres close” owed its somewhat unwieldy title to a stanza from poet and art critic Frank O’Hara’s Ann Arbor Variations. The poem was read out one evening by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev to a small gathering of artists and guests of the Fiorucci Art Trust, whom the curator of the 14th Istanbul Biennial had “drafted in” to contribute to the public program with a series of interventions, readings and activities responding to the genius loci and the biennial theme of “SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms.”

Fittingly, the weeklong course of action conceived by Fiorucci Art Trust’s Milovan Farronato began with a boat trip to harvest salt, which can be found in abundance on the neighboring island of Rho. The hand-picked salt brought back from Rho was used the following evening to season fried whitebait, a traditional Greek dish that Athens-based artist Dora Economou prepared and served at the open-air fish market. The symbolic fish fare, of which everyone could partake, attracted local people and visitors alike, including the Syrian refugees awaiting boats bound for Rhodes and Athens on the island. During the meal, Economou read from a personal travelogue mixing memories of places visited over the course of twenty years with enigmatic prophesies and recurrent images of erupting volcanoes. A visit to the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii prompts the narrator to liken a circle of beautiful and still women depicted in a wall painting to “Lot’s Wives turning into tears of salt;” she herself later weeps “rivers of salt.”

Salt was also present in Brazilian artist Lucia Koch’s synaesthetic intervention at the dilapidated Old Hammam, currently undergoing restoration work led by conservator and PhD candidate Fotini Chalvantzi, who specializes in the history of Kastellorizo. Revisiting Turkish Delight (2003) – a site-specific installation she first made on the occasion of the 8th Istanbul Biennial at the Cağaloğlu Hamamı – Koch glued glass bowls lined with colored filters ordinarily used for filming onto the perforated dome, imbuing the inside of the diminutive square structure with a soft golden light. Visitors were encouraged to rub their skin with salt and rosemary in a cleansing ritual designed to reactivate the disused space ahead of its eventual reopening. As luck would have it, on the day set for Koch’s interactive piece open to all comers, the island’s water supplies were temporarily cut off, making it well nigh impossible to steam up the tiny space in such a way as to not only reveal but show the colored light shafts to best advantage.

The nine participating artists availed themselves of public spaces and scenic spots across the island. They were spoiled for choice. Irena Haiduk’s new film Seductive Exacting Realism (SER), snippets of which were screened as a teaser on the final evening, was shot at one of the secluded Plaka beaches reached by boat from the main harbour. SER’s trailer shows alluring images of four bronzed young women sporting black bathing suits – Haiduk’s idea of “sirens” – lounging on the sun-baked striated rock surface polished by the waves, in contrast to the rugged red cliffs behind. Few locations could possibly rival the Blue Grotto, one of the island’s natural wonders, which Koch set out to capture on film. This sea cave is accessed through a shallow opening letting enough light in to give a measure of its vastness without dissolving its mystery. The grotto and its swimmers reflecting the water’s electric blue color, made more intense by the engulfing darkness, put the Brazilian artist in mind of the Gruta Azul strip club in her hometown of Porto Allegre.

In a morning’s worth of location scouting, artist and filmmaker Gabriel Lester lighted on a vacant site overgrown with thistles and strewn with rubble, metal scraps, and a discarded TV monitor, from which he drew the substance of his whimsical performance Seeker (2015). Looking the part of a prospector in his panama hat and matching white top and shorts bearing a question mark pattern, Lester regaled the audience seated in this open air theatre with stories of how, as a child, he would bury objects in the ground in a bid to communicate with the future. He went on to present individual audience members with “artworks” in the shape of rusty nails, bottle caps, forks, bits and bobs retrieved from the earth with the aid of an assistant wielding a metal detector to the post-apocalyptic sounds of Bebe and Louis Barron’s pioneering electronic music played on a laptop.

Used as a natural backdrop in several pieces, including Lester’s performance, the island of Kastellorizo appeared as a character in its own right in Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s beguiling shadow play Rehearsal for an island (2015) inspired by Turkish puppet theatre. In lieu of the traditional lead character Karagöz or his Greek counterpart Karagiozis, Çavuşoğlu’s shadow play featured modular cardboard renderings of Kastellorizo and of a boat trying to reach the island – a scenario that took on an added poignancy in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis gripping this tiny outpost of Greece, situated a mere mile off the Turkish coast. The artist called on the participants in the program to take turns animating the cardboard pieces casting shadows on both sides of a white screen set up in the middle of a public square and to generate the rousing sounds accompanying the shadow play.

Cairo-born Anna Boghiguian, who spoke in Arabic to some of the refugees sleeping rough in and around the harbor as they awaited the next ferry headed for mainland Greece, addressed their plight directly in her spoken reflections on the subject of swimming. This segued into a workshop in which the artist invited those present to draw a representation of Kastellorizo reflecting their feelings about the place on the last day of “The violent No!…” which coincided with the annual celebrations to mark the island’s independence from Italy in 1947, on 13 September. The festivities on the day began with the usual military band parade converging on the harbor in mid-morning and ended with a procession livened up by Lubaina Himid’s colorful, vaguely Cubistic masks and headpieces donned by some of the participants in the program, followed by a public feast bringing the week’s shared activities to a close.


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