An interview with Macklin Kowal


For the last year a typical Athenian studio on Praxitelous Street has been hosting the independent platform, Sub Rosa Space. There you can access the work international performers, such as the renowned Scandinavian conceptual artist Roi Vaara, as well as new artists experimenting with different aspects of this paradigm “that precedes art, is not yet art or something beyond it," as Macklin Kowal, founder of Sub Rosa Space, says about performance.

The convergences of critical thought and action (if we could even accept that they were separate in the first place) and the performativity of politics are the core questions of this new space, which will likely offer an expanded focus on the Balkans and the Middle East in the future. But how has a Californian founded a space dedicated to performance in the historical centre of Athens, while also doing his doctorate on contemporary ultra-right nationalism at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki?

How did you end up in Athens? What is your background?

I came to Athens for the first time in the summer of 2015, and I found myself returning regularly until I moved here in the fall of the following year. An academic conference brought me here for that first visit--a colloquium on dance theory held at the Hellenic Cosmos. I had been a dancer and choreographer in my native San Francisco, and had recently completed a more theoretically oriented Master’s degree in Performance Studies at New York University. I came to discuss my latest research project: a query into the embodied poetics of debt in the choreography of Greek artist, Lenio Kaklea.

Yet I encountered much more than I had expected: dialogue--staged within the conference and also more broadly within Athens--on political action, power, forgiveness, and grace. These dialogues were shaped by the political and cultural landscapes of the city at that time. This was the eve of the bailout referendum, and there was a palpable, percolating energy amongst artists, activists, and intellectuals. You could feel that something was happening, that something was going to happen. I kept returning to Athens after that first visit. I wanted to see what these dialogues and these energies would give rise to. I wanted to not only witness these processes, but participate in them as well.

Knowing also that I wanted to complete a PhD, the thought occurred to me to do my doctoral work in a Greek university. I did some research and it struck that there would be a viable match with some professors at Aristotle University. And so, in early 2017 I registered as a PhD student in their Department of Political Theory. My doctoral studies, along with my direction of Sub Rosa Space, account for my work here.

Macklin Kowal at Sub Rosa Space. Exhibition Moved: Work by Emeline Depas. Photo by Alexandra Masmanidi

Why did you decide to open up Sub Rosa?

Opening Sub Rosa was more of a gradual process than an isolated decision. Previously, the space itself had been a friend's painting studio. When she left Athens in the fall of 2017, I asked her very impulsively if I could take over the lease on the space. At the time, I had no idea how I would use it. Its character was just so striking--a studio on the third floor of a high-rise, an oddly shaped interior with windows on either side, at eye-level with the urban landscape. I just knew that it had to remain dedicated to art practice, whether that would be my own or the practice of others. It functioned as my private studio for a time, though I felt that I wanted the space to function in a public manner. Then, a colleague from San Francisco--a painter and performance artist--came to visit Athens in January of 2018. We decided to host an exhibition of his work in the space that month, and this launched what would become Sub Rosa Space. Though I organised some visual art exhibitions in the months that followed, it struck me that I should draw more deliberately from my perspectives as a performance practitioner and theorist. That accounts for my own training and work, after all. It struck me, additionally, that though the Athens performance scene is quite robust, it is also quite diffuse. Performances were taking place in various locations, but there wasn't an independent space dedicated exclusively to performance art. And so, I decided to shift the space's focus in this direction--at once drawing on my own background, and attempting to offer something that seemed to lack within the community.

What does the name refer to?

Sub Rosa is a phrase in Latin, which means "Under the roses." Figuratively speaking it refers to something discrete, something done secretly. With the name, I'm alluding to broader histories of performance and performance art--where actions have taken place by word of mouth, without permission, under self-organised and often tenuous conditions.

A space about performance is quite generic. How would you narrow your focus point if you had to describe the character of Sub Rosa? Are questions of gender or queerness important?

Sub Rosa is a space for artists who question power as both a political and aesthetic question. It is a space for artists who deal with themes of likeness, of distinguishability, of the place of the subject in relation to authority and power. That is not to say that the work is severe or overly serious; we invite and encourage all manners and spirits of working, so long as they are undergirded by a rigorous line of politically and aesthetically minded research. It is also a space that questions the formalist relationship to performance as medium. Through their work, the invited artists constantly question why performance--a medium predicated on immediacy, testimony, and witnessing--must function as the site where the creative process will be staged.

Several of the artists have used performance to prod the politics of representation that are endemic to proximal fields within the arts: namely, visual art and dance.

Sarah Johnson and Matteo Rovescatio, for example, each presented pieces that expose the desire of the visual artist to impose and reproduce himself in the objects that he interprets--whether in still life, portrait, or landscape. Rovesciato emptied an entire can of shaving foam, an action that took five very long minutes. He then recited a poetic couplet (perhaps an interpretation of meaning for the mass of white foam on the floor before him) and the performance ended. His piece exposed the potential for violence that accompanies the act of imposition onto surface, as well as the potential for that violence's erasure when its resultant objects are granted the grace of interpretation. Johnson opened her performance with speech on the poetics of capture that are respective to photography. Then, she sawed in half a model for a still life, bound herself in ropes, and then dragged herself across an oil slick on the floor. Her piece contemplated the processes by which the positions of author and subject can collapse and enter into a fluid state, typified by pain. Andrew Champlin, meanwhile, presented a performance that deployed the formalist vocabulary of ballet to create a series of dynamic, sculptural tableaux throughout the space. All the while, he questioned the imperatives of ballet to reduce the outward appearance of a dancer's effort or pain. His piece asked how this legacy might be repurposed when the dancer's body is repositioned as a work of art itself, distinctly concerned with suffering and bound to a poetics of masochism.

These examples are some of the most striking that come to me. They represent the political and formalist spirit that typifies the space. And indeed, the ethics of feminism and queer art making do typify much of the work we present. As a curator, I take these values as a given. While they can and do refer to subjective positions, I prefer to think of feminism and queer as ethics--as manners of doing, that insist on certain perspectives. In the case of feminist ethics, this might concern equity as redress for inequality in the context of patriarchy. In the case of queer, this could concern an exalting of alternative, non-normative modalities of action and aesthetics. Where feminism and queer could overlap, in an ethical position, is in the insistence for a broader range of gender expression--in art and in daily life. In the context of Sub Rosa, I would say that it is a space that encourages these ethics, encourages a queer and feminist approach to broader questions of political, aesthetic, and formalist import.

Matteo Rovesciato, Lavorando per l'uomo invisible, operetta in atto unico. Performed at Sub Rosa Space. Photo by Alexandra Masmanidi

What are the challenges of performance today? Which directions of it do you find most interesting?

I think of performance as an act of testimony, of insistence. It requires a testifier (the performer) and a witness (the audience). It's an alternative to Kantian models of art. In Kantian terms, art concerns the judgement of a consolidated object--a complete, rendered form that lacks agentic voice and is judged according to a one-sided power dynamic that favours the audience. In contrast, performance--at least, in the terms that I am proposing--could be thought of as para-art: that is to say, as prior to art, not yet art, or beyond art. It suspends the moment of objective consolidation and extends the moment where the body of a performer is still vested with the agency of speech, of self-disclosure or self-exposure. Little matter whether that body is the fleshy body of a human, or otherwise conceived. Performer and audience, testifier and witness, encounter each other and affect equally that scene of encounter. It is a medium that concerns the exchange of power, the potential of division as well as the potential of communion. In this sense, performance offers an alternative to the Kantian hegemony of art. Today we hear calls for that hegemony's dislodging, that it be taken down from its pedestal to make way for diversified modalities of creation--modalities that espouse anti-colonial, feminist, and queer process. And as I would say, performance has always offered the potential to do so from a formalist perspective. This is its enduring potential.

Its challenge, then, is to understand its radical potential and to harness it to present, pressing issues.

Present times are marked by extreme polarisation in the sphere of politics. Ideological extremism pervades society and is attended by rhetoric that is sensationalist and often nonsensical. The result is discursive gridlock. Arguments are simply so outlandish that they cannot be reasonably and legitimately challenged, and the fact that they are so fundamentally wedded to ideology makes that their critique is often interpreted as attack. Performance can intervene into this situation by appropriating the various discourses that pervade the political realm and repurposing them in aesthetic terms. Performance practitioners can take the outlandish, seemingly impenetrable things that politicians or other public figures say. They can analyse their content for what they would suppose as a legitimate system of logic, and use that logic to frame some specific scene of encounter--some specific scene of testimony and witness where performer and audience are both vested with agentic power. In other words, performance can repurpose the absurd and impervious words of today's politicians and displace them to scenes that are fluid and dependent on mutual participation. This will shed light on what it would actually mean to share space within a discourse that would otherwise preclude ideological diversity. By repurposing and exaggerating, we can challenge and deflate.

In my opinion, today we face a major paradigmatic (if not epistemic) crisis as concerns the ways that we speak in public. Performance must intervene, performance must stage deconstructive scenarios that expose what is at stake in the ways that our public discourse would have us think.

In other words, satire. We need satirical performance. We need a lot of it.

You are doing your PhD at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. What is it about and does it connect with your practice at Sub Rosa?

I am doing my PhD in the Department of Political Theory. My thesis focuses on contemporary far-right nationalism as a discursive and performative phenomenon. That's to say, my research looks at the ways in which current rhetorics of national pride, racism, xenophobia, and the like, function as sites of collective identification and also effectuate action within the political realm. The approach is decidedly theoretical, conjoining my previous work in Performance Studies to the methodology of discourse theory--an approach that weds post-Marxist theories of hegemony to post-structuralist thought and psychoanalytic theory. In Greece this approach is associated with such scholars as Yannis Stavrakakis and Alexandros Kioupkiolis. In my thesis, I am looking at specific case studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in continental Europe, and I will likely conclude the thesis with a chapter on performance artists who are satirising today's situation in their work.

In a way, my research attempts to do what I propose contemporary performance artists do: examine current trends in political discourse for what they suppose as an aesthetic and performative system. Though my research underscores much of my thinking about performance, I am not curating work that aligns directly with my interpretation of world affairs. I curate work that I recognise to sit on a broader continuum of politically minded and formally rigorous practice, and I am most eager for that work to expand my own perspectives on what potential performance bears in present times.

It may be interesting to me, in the future, to curate works that fit more squarely under the rubric of my own research. However, I might want to do this as an independent event outside of Sub Rosa, or as a small festival within the broader season of Sub Rosa's activities.

What is your experience of running Sub Rosa so far? Do you have a vision of how you would like the space to evolve in the future?

The experience of running Sub Rosa has been rewarding and challenging. I delight in offering a platform for artists to experiment, and am always humbled when their work exposes potential for the space that I would not have otherwise imagined. I recall, for example, the performance of Lucia Bricco. In her piece, she installed calico fabric over the floor and spent the better part of the performance crawling under it, as if in a cave. The audience's gaze was transfixed on her, though her body was obscured by the fabric. She managed to create a situation where she could afford herself a private experience while also being on display. I would have never thought it possible to create a space of privacy in a setting such as Sub Rosa, which otherwise feels so bare and exposed.

From a logistical perspective, it can be very challenging. I am the space's sole administrator, and as such there's a constant threat of burnout. As we've grown programatically, though, an interest in our space is expanding. We are fortunate to have the support of some fabulous interns, and I hope that with some structural shifts in the space's organisation, we'll eventually be able to support a proper staff.

From a curatorial perspective, I'm eager to expand the range of Sub Rosa's invited artists. Up until now, I have curated performers that I know personally or who come with the reference of a colleague. Basically, I would like to expand the scope of the invited artists with sensitivity to what work I feel would make an important and timely intervention in Athens--regardless of whether or not I know the artist personally. I am particularly eager to work with artists based in the Balkans, the Near East, and North Africa. These regions are beset by similar issues facing Greece (namely the subjection to foreign political influence and the privatisation of resources), and are marked historically by shared legacies of imperialism (i.e., the Ottoman Empire). I would like to create a forum in which artists from Lebanon, Cyprus, Serbia, Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond could come to Sub Rosa, present their work, and enjoy substantial dialogue with artists here. I would like to create a mobile platform for Sub Rosa, as well, whereby Athens-based performance artists could travel to these countries and present their work.

Nina Alexopoulou, The Candy Piece. Performed at Sub Rosa Space. Photo by Alexandra Masmanidi

How do you finance the space?

At present, my work as a translator finances the space. Additionally, I have savings that I occasionally dip into in order to offset certain costs associated with the space. This is not a sustainable model. I am currently in the process of incorporating Sub Rosa as a nonprofit association. While that process is quite cumbersome, it will at least allow me to apply for grants within Greece and the European Union, and also solicit individual donations.

Do you feel part of a local community? How does the locality affect the identity of the space and its program?

I feel very integrated into the city of Athens. My life is very much situated here and the programming of the space responds, in a broad sense, to what I see as the needs and desires of the city's artistic community. Our audience appreciates the fact that we offer a platform for performance in a casual, intimate setting. As I've been told and as I sense, the Athenian scene enjoys serious work as well as the opportunity to engage directly with artists on a collegial level. Sub Rosa offers that by design.

In terms of feeling part of a community, I feel most connected to other cultural workers with independent initiatives in the city. This is due to the fact that our interests and struggles are very much aligned. We want to create platforms that highlight independent art practice in Athens and also highlight Athens as a destination for artists from abroad. I feel very connected, for example, to Und.Athens and its founder, Kiriakos Spirou, and to Platforms Project and its founder Artemis Potamianou. I feel connected, additionally, to my colleagues who are running independent art spaces in Athens.

What do you think of the local art scene?

The Athens art scene is very complex. Though I have only lived in Athens for a short while I have definitely seen several waves of change within the cultural milieu. As a foreigner operating an independent art space in Athens, people often ask me if I came here because of documenta14. I tell them, as is the case, that I did not. By sheer coincidence documenta was in its very early phases when I arrived in Athens to live, and what prompted my coming here was a very dynamic first encounter surrounding that dance conference in 2015. In any case, I have seen the impact that documenta has made. A huge number of foreign artists have established residence in the city following documenta. This has shifted the demography of the artistic scene considerably. Some of these artists maintain full-time residence here, while others maintain a part-time residence here while working abroad. In conversations I have had with Greek artists, some say that they delight in how this shift has brought a cosmopolitan flair to the Athenian art scene. Others have criticised the phenomenon as sheer opportunism that exploits a low cost of living without substantial investment in local infrastructure. In any case, with any mass movement of artists into a city there is the risk of over-saturation. But I find that amongst the foreign artists who are really committed to being in Athens, there is a strong movement to self-organise and produce opportunities for themselves and their close colleagues. In a way, this seems to convene with a spirit of independent initiative that, as I am told, is a typical to Greek society. In practical terms, the risk of such initiatives is exhaustion--at least, if they are designed with longevity in mind. In political terms, the risk of such initiatives is an unwitting promotion of individualism: the privileging of the individual's desire and determination at the expense of collective identification and action. And yet, I sense that we are witnessing a revived move towards collective association in the Athens art scene today--amongst Greeks as well as foreigners. Many talented people are eager to share their resources. The challenge is to find viable methods of harnessing this desire to professional initiatives, and to do so in a way that empowers the collective experience of artists and the community. Currently, I think we are witnessing a new phase, typified by the desire of artists and cultural workers in Athens to share what they have--whether material, intellectual, or otherwise--to help to sustain a more enduring art scene here. It's thrilling to behold, and thrilling to be a part of.

Sarah Johnson, It's in the Upper Room. Performed at Sub Rosa Space. Photo by Alexandra Masmanidi

Tell us about your next events.

Our next events include performances by Karin Verbruggen (19 April) , Federica Peyrolo (3 May), Myriam Laplante (25 May), Eleni Tsamadia (7 June), and Alex Romania (29 June). Verbruggen will present a performance and installation that problematises the legacy of humanism as a tool for discussing ecological crisis. The work of the other artists is still in development, and more information will be available soon on our website and various social media platforms.

What is the most interesting artwork you have seen recently?

I was deeply struck by a performance of Georges Jacotey in 2018 at Glam Slam, a performance art cabaret organised by Fil Ieropoulos and Foivos Dousos. His performance was so formally simple and yet so exquisitely executed. With bold, almost grotesque makeup on his face and his body nearly nude, he swung a hula hoop around his hips and sung--at perfect pitch--Lana Del Rey's When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing. Like much of Del Rey's work, the song offers a strange and glamorous rendering of mid-century Americana. Jacotey's performance, though, took the song in conjunction with the other elements of his performance to offer an image of America as a mythical idea that every individual on earth has some relation to, has some idea of. Rendering his body so abject, he conveyed a monster's desire to identify with America. It was if he was saying, "I dream of you too, America, however much you might not have expected me to. And it's your own fault that I do so, because you and your culture are everywhere." It was so clear a proposition, and so expertly performed.

Which are your favourite places in Athens, for art and generally?

In terms of art spaces and initiatives, I greatly appreciate State of Concept and A-DASH, as well as the work of Cheapart and the artist, Fil Ieropoulos. I admire the work that ILiana Fokianiaki does at State of Concept, where the program conceives of art as a means to discuss issues of political import and also champions voices that are marginalised in the broader context of the art world. I appreciate A-DASH and its founders Eva Isleifs, Zoe Hatziyannaki, and Catriona Gallagher for what they offer as a comprehensive residency to artists--inviting them to create original works that intervene in the A-DASH space. I admire Fil Ieorpoulos and his various initiatives to empower young artists within discourses and practice of queer art. I admire Cheapart and its founders Giorgos Georgakopoulos and Dimitris Georgakopoulos for their abundant enthusiasm to meet and uplift new artistic talent in Athens.

In terms of places in Athens, my heart belongs to Anafiotika. Whenever I take a walk in the city, I find myself drawn there--as if summoned by a powerful and alluring force. I will leave my house and without even thinking about where I'm going, I'll end up in Anafiotika. Walking through its narrow streets, I feel connected to a sensibility of urban life that is so distinctly different from what we experience in our daily routines. Taking in the stunning views of Athens's outlying mountains, I am reminded of my native California and its similar landscape. In Anafiotika I feel, at once, somewhere so different and somewhere so familiar.

Lucia Bricco, Le Tre Capre. Performed at Sub Rosa Space. Photo by Bryony Dunne