Maëlle Gross and the Wandering Definition of Home

22/05/2017

Swiss artist Maëlle Gross is exploring issues of borders, identities and myth through her latest project in the Athenian neighbourhood of Kypseli. Developed as a walking exhibition, Going Where we Come From is a guided walk around the neighbourhood with visits to shops and private apartments where five artists where invited to present their work. I met Maëlle for a coffee on a sunny Sunday afternoon on Agiou Georgiou Square in Kypseli, and discussed how this project came to be, and what were her discoveries while working in a diverse and often overlooked area like Kypseli.

Interview by Kiriakos Spirou
Photo: Filira project website by Maëlle Gross. Screenshot by the author.

When did you decide to do this project and what made you choose Kypseli for it?

I started working on this project five years ago. My dad’s family is from here, but when they left after the civil war, they completely cut ties with Greece and Athens — so my dad has very few memories from his childhood, mostly from visits here to see his family. So I decided to come back with my dad and do small documentary videos about him and me looking for our family’s house. We didn’t find it at the time, because it was very hard for my dad to keep going. When he came here the first time he froze, but we came several times, just the two of us. Soon I saw how difficult it was for him, so after a while I decided just to put it on the side.

A year and a half ago I was doing a residency, a completely different project, and by chance I found a text about nostalgia, where I found out that a nickname of nostalgia was “the swiss illness”. This was coined by Johannes Hofer, a doctor from Basel, and it refered to the melancholia and depression of Swiss troops (we’re talking about the 17th century)going abroad as missionaries, and never came back. Now we call it depression or melancholia, but at that time they called it nostalgia, or the Swiss Illness. And then this clicked with the the story I have from my childhood, from my grandparents and from my dad. So I decided to get rid of it, and applied to do a residency here. The only permanent residency I found was Snehta, so I applied — and soon I found myself on Drosopoulou street for a two-month residency, with the plan to do videos and performance work for two months.

First I typed in Google “how to get rid of your Swiss Illness”, and then I made a list of all the advice I found, which I then performed: to have a daily routine, to find your house back... I did all that and a video installation. At the same time I had applied for an award from the City of Geneva, the Creation Award, but I got no answer. And the day before the opening in Kypseli I got an answer that I got the grant, but the exhibition was already on! So I called them and asked them what I could do, and they said I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it remained within the same field. Around that time I met Myrto Katsimicha, she was the gallery manager at State of Concept at the time, and Olivia Fahmy, who’s a curator at Tunnel Tunnel, a non-profit gallery in Lausanne. I met them both in the same month, and then we began discussing how to reflect on this big subject of immigration, borders and identity.

In Switzerland there’s a great festival called Far, and last summer its theme was immigration. So we both went there, Olivia and I, and we saw that for example they took an Iraqi guy and asked him to rehearse for ten days, and in the end perform in front of an audience; he was drawing the borders of Iraq, and then the borders of Switzerland. We thought that was so didactic... So we decided to see how to work with this subject without objectifying and exoticising the people themselves. Another thing was that when I was here for the residency, the colours in my exhibition were super pop and it was lit all night, so people from the neighbourhood we coming and saying how nice it was, but they never came in. So I realised that the white cube is kind of frightening to people who are not really into art, and most of the time the artist is kind of the link between the subject and the audience. Also, the audience which is most of the time coming to these spaces is already agreed with a certain code. So I wanted to see how I could challenge that and make really good art without all the institutional wrapping.

After a while, the idea came to do a walk for the spectators, but they would have to be alone. For me that was one of the key conditions right from the beginning: that you have to be by yourself to do the walk, and walk from one space to the other. One of the things I like is daily routine, and how we can combine art and people’s daily routines. But somehow to do that without gazing at people, but to combine them in a smooth way. And the only answer I got so far was to hang out with these people a lot — to build a real relationship with the communities, the people of Kypseli.

We decided that it would be in Kypseli because my family’s house used to be nearby, at the end of Drosopoulou street. It’s destroyed now, but it was there. Also, I had alreade worked here for two months [because of the residency at Snehta], and I realised that this place is a good example of what’s happening in the world on a broader scale. Kypseli is a very multicultural neighbourhood that used to be super bourgeois, but isn’t anymore. A lot of artists are coming here as well, and also the African communities, the Arab communities, everybody is here. For me it was a good starting point, to then speak about something broader.

What kind of art works and artistic practices do you incorporate in the project?

Photography, videos and installation.

And what kind of curatorial strategies did you use to place the artworks in the context of the everyday life of the people who are hosting you?

The project is actually curated by Olivia Fahmy and Myrto Katsimicha. I mean I’m the head of the project, but I invited the two curators to work with me on this; they could choose the artists, I would unlock the different spaces. So basically the artists didn’t have much choice as to which space they could use. We did the choice for them. And we decided we would not add any device in the spaces, each artist had to work with the space as it is, using the computer in the space, the screen of the space, the walls as they are... Anything that they could find in the space.

And what was the reaction of the locals when you started working with these artists and curators?

At first some of them didn’t really get it. So they were participating more because they were trusting me. For example, one guy, after we had three tsipouros in the afternoon he said “OK, what do you want from me Maëlle?” So I tried to explain what I wanted to do and he said “Don’t explain, I trust you, just tell me what you want me to do.” Later they started to be interested, and now they really get it. With Stelios Kallinikou for instance they really clicked, but in other cases they were a bit surprised, they didn’t get it. So it was really worth it to work for five months in advance on this, to make them feel that they’re not being used but that we’re working together. And I think that’s the most important thing.

And how does it work? Do you give the visitor a map and they explore on their own? Is it guided?

So the visitors start from To Mirmigi, which it’s a solidarity network space in Kypseli where I used to work as a volunteer for a while. You go into their office, and they give you an audio player. You can choose one of the four languages we translated the work into, and then you have a guide from Kypseli who will guide you through the area, but you can never speak to him at all. The guide will be always at the front, they will unlock and the spaces for you, and at the end they will say thank you and goodbye in their own mother tongue, and will just leave. But you will not have a clue what you’re going to see or where you’re going to go, you only receive all the information as a pamphlet at the end. So you don’t know who’s the artist or what the work is called and so on.

In the meantime, as you walk around you’re listening to the audio piece on your headphones. The audio is one hour long, and it’s made of interviews I did with people from the neighbourhood, old people, young people, African, Arabs, Greeks and so on. I decided to put everything in the first person and in the present tense, so that you don’t know who’s speaking. The audio includes musical interventions by Theodore Pistiolas, who’s a composer and also a local.

So what was your intention behind this approach of not explaining, not giving information from the start? Does it have to do with the experience of the visitor?

I think that most of the time we have this bad habit of reading before looking at the work. And there’s a kind of fear of being wrong, to look at something in a wrong way. And I want to propose that maybe we can actually do it the other way round, that you can experience it, and not care about whether you know or don’t know the artist — and at the end, does it really matter? We give you all the explanation at the end of your walk, because it’s really something you have to experience first. It’s also really important to be alone, because when there’s two of you, you always want to check on the other, what are his reactions, does he like it? Instead you should be asking yourself those questions, and be present the whole time. And that’s why I wanted people to be alone on this walk.

And what kind of spaces did you choose? Are they private apartments? Shops? Galleries?

No galleries at all. So To Mirmigi is the solidarity centre where you start, then you go to a building entrance to see Nikos Ventourakis’s work. And then it’s in the street, where Gilles Furtwängler decided to put stickers everywhere near the cinema close to the end of Drosopoulou, and then you go the local ethiopian restaurant where we’re showing a video by Gabrielle Le Bayon. Then you continue all the way uphill to reach Kanari Square, where you will find Roxy, it’s a billiards and café that used to be a cinema as well. Here you will find a video by Luc Andrié. Then you go to a private house owned by Giorgos, who’s left his dinosaur collection in the staircase, and that’s where Stelios Kallinikou has placed six of his photos. In fact a lot of people think that the dinosaurs are part of Stelios’s work! And then you visit another flat, where you have to go out on the balcony, where Myriam Ziehli has installed a series of silk prints. Here you sit down with your guide for a glass of water, then they take you down in the street and leave you there, in the middle of nowhere.

The aim of this project was really to create bridges throughout this community, throughout this little world that never crosses our path. We are all sharing the same neighbourhood. So we did the opening at the ethiopian restaurant, and it was full of hipsters and artists, we were there all night and it was really crazy to see that mix. I was also working with the Kongolese community, so I invited them as well, and we ended up with a really weird mix of people. It was a lot of fun to see!

And how do you see this project in relation to your artistic practice in general? I understand it’s a continuation of your residency at Snehta, but are these issues part of your other work? And do you usually work as a facilitator of other people’s work?

Not at all. Normally I’m mainly interested in working with identity, and mostly gender. I’ve worked with a pole dancer, a body builder, a shaman, and followed them for a really long period of time. And it’s the first time I did a work that is not visual, that it’s a sound piece. So I guess it’s a big shift from what I’m doing normally. But for me it was important that I can’t speak about these issues by myself. I think it was really important to take it more broadly, you’re not going to see immigrants in a boat or something like this on this tour. It was really important that every artist has another sense and another way of looking at the issues of border, identity and myth in a broader way. I had to include all these different ways of looking at it, and not just a first-level reading so to speak.

So are those the concepts on which the project is based? Borders, identity and myth?

Identities, yes.

Lastly, was there something new that you discovered on this project? Perhaps something that has to do with how these people relate to their own identity while being immigrants in Athens?

Regardless of whether they’re Greek or immigrants, most people here feel very isolated. I really get this feeling that everybody has their own small world and it was sometimes difficult for them to feel connected with the whole. As a very down-to-earth example, the ethiopian restaurant has a very thick curtain so that you can’t see anything from the street. They’re really creating their own small world: it’s very dark inside, and there’s an ethiopian Youtube channel playing all the time. So they’re not in Kypseli anymore, they’ve isolated themselves into another world. Then Giorgos has put up signs at his house that say “Maybe Paradise” and “This is Giorgos’s Territory”. So it’s really about “this is my hood, this is me”. The same goes with Roxy billiards, the same people everyday, hanging out with each other. And I was surprised, because in other big cities in Europe it’s not like this, if you go to London everyone’s going to have ethiopian food at some point, or chinese food or korean food. It’s more widespread and they share with each other. In Athens, one of the artists said that during our project it was really the first time he went to an ethiopian restaurant in Athens. And for Myrto the same. This is saying something else as well, about how we’re dealing with the other nationalities here. Maybe it’s not that common to share with other cultures.

The exhibition Going Where we Come From is curated by Myrto Katsimicha (Greece) and Olivia Fahmy (Switzerland/Egypt), invited by Mäelle Gross, and coordinated by Gross and Alice Francillon.

Participating artists: Luc Andrié, Gilles Furtwängler, Stelios Kallinikou, Gabrielle Le Bayon, Nikolas Ventourakis, Myriam Ziehli.

The exhibition is running from May 19th to June 10th, from Thursday to Saturday: 4 pm to 8:30 pm (last departure at 7:45 pm). Individual departure every fifteen minutes from the office of To Mirmigi, 60 Eptanisou Street, Kypseli, Athens. Audio guides available in Arabic, English, French and Greek. Possibility to register online for Saturday walks only. For general inquiries, please contact the team.