The Soft Power Lectures (5/6): Thoughts on the European Geography of “Above” and “Below”

The Soft Power Lectures (5/6). Photo Michael Pappas

The fifth performative lecture of the Soft Power Lecture series took place at Panteion University and was introduced with the sentence: "Maps as we read them put the North at the top and the South at the bottom. Let's think about what that might mean." We sent "local observer" Vassiliki Grammatikogianni and photographer Michael Pappas to report back to us from room G3 at the Institute of Anthropology. Here's what we received back:
Thoughts on the European Geography of “Above” and “Below”
by Vassiliki Grammatikogianni

The phantom of the generalising stereotype was awakened in Europe with the outbreak of the economic crisis and the comments about the “lazy Greeks” and the “hard-hearted Germans” by some members of the press and populist politicians. In Europe’s collective awareness southerners are dismissed as “slackers” and “frivolous”, while people from the north are said to be “cold” and “authoritarian”.

Of course this is to be expected in times of crisis. It is always the “others” who are responsible for all the bad things that happen to us. And so we get out our stereotypes in order to shut the “others” out of our lives and out of our future. The northern Europeans do not want to pay for the lazy, unreliable southern Europeans, and the latter in turn do not want foreigners to impose their will on them and threaten their national sovereignty. During these years of crisis, nationalist movements and calls for secession have gained supporters, and politicians in the member states and within the European Union itself do not seem to be in a position to act effectively against it. The gap between the rich North and the impoverished, deeply indebted South has already been established and thus the future of a united Europe is uncertain.
Can art and culture be successful when politics has failed? Can they bridge the gap by overturning the conservative stereotypes, according to which the “superordinate” North undervalues the “subordinate” South? Can art present Europe in a new way and thereby form the new cultural identity of young Europeans?
The transnational art project ACTOPOLIS (a project of the Goethe-Institut Athens and Urbane Kunst Ruhr) has set out to find an answer to this question. It is an art project which aims to bring together eight cities that have been hit by the crisis (Mardin, Ankara, Athens, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Bucharest and Oberhausen), with the goal of realising their dreams of tomorrow in a creative act.

The Soft Power Lectures (5/6). Photo Michael Pappas

The Temporary Academy of the Arts (PΑΤ) is implementing the ACTOPOLIS Project in Athens with a series of lectures about the South entitled “The Soft Power Lectures”. Within the framework of this lecture series the ΠΑΤ visited the Panteion University and during a lecture on the subject of Anthropology and Art presented the students with a video lecture on the subject “Thoughts on the European Geography of ‘Above’ and ‘Below’.”
The narrator Jordanis Hatzigiavousoglou points to the map of Europe with the North on top and the South down below, and challenges us to think about the way we look at the map and what it might mean. He says, for example: “In the attempt to trace back the explanations for the ‘ones up there’ and the ‘ones down here’, it is not difficult to ascertain that the expression ‘up there’ sounds positive, while ‘down here’ has negative undertones. We use ‘up’ and ‘down’ as indicators for differences in quality regardless of what we are actually describing. Whether it is the economic development of a country or the educational standard or even the artistic talent of a painter […] The North is in fact/by its very nature/really and unavoidable superior to the South, in every respect. And this is thanks to an uncontested economic, social, cultural and political superiority, which it has admittedly fought hard to establish itself, but which at the same time has nonetheless been offered to it as a gift. And there is also in any case an exclusively geopolitical version of this natural superiority of the North. When we finally stop sucking the lollipop of great geopolitical significance which Greece supposedly enjoys as a result of the geographical location of the country, perhaps we can also finally recognise what is obvious. We need only think of the famous Dorian Invasion or the belligerent Indo-Europeans who flocked southwards from the North, and afterwards attempt to think of any kind of important historical migration which took place in the opposite direction. Yes indeed: there isn’t a single one.”

The Soft Power Lectures (5/6). Photo Michael Pappas

The author of the video lecture, Panos Sklavenitis, then skilfully turns away from the maps and hands the topic over to the speaker. He examines not only anatomical differences, for example “that because of the cursed Mediterranean sun southerners are smaller than the inhabitants of Central and Northern Europe”, but also the differences in “intellectual stature”.

With his eye on the motto of the Documenta, “Learning from Athens”, the next question is: “What can a simple person teach a genius? I believe that it is in part the intention of the organisers to approach the ‘others’, who are less able not only by nature but also as a result of their geographical location, with a curious joviality. In order to support this argument, reference is made to the book Die Heimat der Wölfe – Erlebnisse einer Reise by the German travel writer Heinz Kleistheller. In this German travelogue the author relates: “These squalid farmers present a sad picture in their boundless subservience. They lack even the modicum of decency we would expect of the very last representatives of humanity. You must never make the mistake of trusting them. Do not be deceived by their toothless smiles. They are capable of anything except honesty. It is very amusing to observe these apes against the background of their history. Above all because they themselves have not the slightest idea of what it is.” On the subject of the traveller’s obligatory visit to the Acropolis, Heinz Kleistheller goes on to write: “It seems very surprising that our poets, philosophers and Germany’s intellectuals in general allowed themselves to be dazzled by this pitiful chicken coop of a place […], what pathetic rock in the middle of a slum. Left to its fate, it moulders away beneath the merciless sun. A ruin such that when visiting it you will certainly need to be extraordinarily perceptive in order to recognise its magnificent past. […] It’s not my place to decide, I know, but I would advise that in future Europe should keep well away from the dangerous representations which claim that Greece was the well-spring of Western civilisation. We should search for our roots in the important cultures of Egypt and Sumer instead, reconsider their interaction with the Roman Empire and leave this ridiculous Hellenism out of it.”
Of course the entire content of this video lecture is pure invention. The lack of historical preciseness and the fact that there are no German travelogues of this nature is intended to break down the stereotypes which we persist in reproducing. With this provocative tale of the South the artists aim to track down – admittedly in a very extreme way – the false behaviour patterns which are hidden away inside us all. These behaviour patterns are even racist on occasion. “We also look down on those who live south of us,” observed one young student.

The Soft Power Lectures (5/6). Photo Michael Pappas

In order to remain united, Europe must not only get to grips with the economic crisis – that is even perhaps the least of its problems. Instead, the European identity of the citizens of Europe needs to be cultivated, equally and side by side with their national identity. In order to achieve this, Europe must abandon the bones of contention and the sins of the past and look to the future. Deep-seated conservative stereotypes must be resisted in order to establish a new cultural system of values. And here the role of art will probably be decisive in European integration.

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