OPEN CITY - stepping in from the edge

The nexus between art and politics is always a zone for debate and the politics of the art world being so confusingly intricate, revealing a miasma of court intrigue, invite an even more potent discussion.

This article discusses the current approaches to artistic events in and around the politically divisive ‘green line’ with the emergence of new attitudes and approaches under the ostensible purpose of healing and recovery.

The title ‘open city’ as in the case of Rosselini’s film, is used ironically. The ‘green line’ dividing Cyprus and running through the city of Nicosia, demarcating the ‘dead zone’ is a controlled separation manned by UN troops. This zone has recently become the focus of funded international curator initiated art projects. It is now a zone for cultural enterprise. One such exhibition is scheduled for May 2005.

For over 30 years the agenda of Cypriot politics on both sides embraced a policy of subversively promoting a form of well considered racism, implementing the state’s desire for control over the individual, a form of control which Foucault refers to as ‘biopolitics’. This is an intense legacy which is conveniently overlooked by both visiting and local artists who do not appear to be really interested in engaging in the local dynamics but more so in the process of documenting their ‘social’ work in a well funded catalogue. After all, it appears that some artists have consented to use spaces which have been provided by the UN although the legal owners of the same spaces are not permitted by the UN to visit and maintain their property. How can this be so? Since when do artists have greater rights over the use of a properly than the rightful owner and since when is this a healthy basis of reconciliation and dialogue? Is trespassing legitimate in the name of art?

My article might be read as a dramatic response but in any region affected by the legacy of war or unresolved conflict, the experience of reality does becomes essentially ‘dramatic’. The emotion of existing in a ‘peripheral’ zone, a zone of unresolved grief and anxiety of division imposes upon the individual a sense of urgency that cannot be expressed within the realm of subtlety or the refinement of security. “The emotions” are immediate, still unresolved and difficult to curate. Curators who approach the subject of the division as the core element or starting point of their proposal must be willing to undertake the responsibility that comes with it.

The subject matter of a divided city is a very appealing theme that guarantees the participants to be taken more seriously on the international art platform. In the case of the proposed exhibition “A River, a Bridge and a Dead Zone” 1It appears that this was the working title, the exhibition is now entitled Leaps of Faith curated by Katerina Gregos and Erden Kosova, May 2005, the participation of four Cypriot artists was left last, obviously this was a compulsory component legitimizing the funded proposal but considered not a really serious one that required thorough research. Cypriot artists who have a history of bicommunal collaboration and friendship were not even approached. There were no visits to studios, instead some artists were directed to a cafe where they were given the opportunity to present images of their work within the confines of a very brief encounter. Is this a sound and honest method of generating a dialogue of social and political openness?
Ms Gregos and Mr. Kosova also state in their pre-event statement that they wish to avoid politics of the ‘cyprus issue’ content in their exhibition preferring to focus on the socioeconomic instead. Then why did you both choose the ‘green line’ as the site of the show, a military zone which IS the politics of Cyprus? Why didn’t you opt for Ledra St? Ledra Street is Nicosia’s main shopping street which is divided by the green line, an area of focus right now because of its imminent removal of barriers and thus opening up the street to all Cypriots.

This lack of sensitivity and understanding of the local political dynamic is a surprise for me as Erden Kosova, judging from his discussion with Suzana Milesvska -'Periphery resistant- Different registers of engagements with reality’ indicated a much more substantial approach to the politics of art as the following statement from this interview would indicate:

Socially and politically engaged practices from different corners of the world are usually considered as part of the same art discourse and cultural background, and often interpreted as being in opposition to formally and aesthetically determined art. However, the completely different political contexts mean that social and political issues in art never play the same role in different art communities. (full text published on

The participation of international artists and curators is a bonus and much needed for the Cypriot contemporary art scene but again unfortunately few Cypriot artists will have the opportunity to engage in meaningful interaction with these artists and curators beyond viewing their work. Pre-empting Manifesta 6 which will be held in Nicosia, September-November 2006, an unprecedented number of proposals have been submitted from curators desiring to succeed in creating shows which hopefully will act as satellite shows to Manifesta. This is not a negative, however when inappropriate proposals which impose on local politics a deliberate misinterpretation to suit international funding bodies with their own political agenda, then we must protest.

By imposing upon the ‘dead zone’ a concept of “openness” through a few quick art exhibitions is a process of political demeanor and when we consent to relegate to this temporary display of culture the authenticity of meaningful collaborations and contribution, we participate in the shallowness of overt opportunism, a feature already visible in the development of contemporary art in this country. These events do not really resolve nor address the pertinent issue, they are a hollow gesture towards a process of reconciliation and certainly not a situated critical approach. In essence funded shows, as such, are merely yet another source of personal gain and kudos for a few well connected and resourceful individuals self justified by cliché politically correct artspeak that is mainly for the consumption of politicians and those administrators in charge of disseminating euros for culture. The raison d’etre – it all looks good on paper.

I support bicommunal collaborations and welcome projects initiated by genuinely interested international curators but the emphasis should be on sincere research which will foster in them a true understanding of the local dynamics. Only then could an exhibition leave a legacy of interaction and sharing beyond the duration of the show. Otherwise it becomes an expensive personal project which isolates and exploits rather than engender meaningful change through dialogue. Unfortunately, this takes time, commitment and a genuine interest which does not pay well. We have had international curators propose such projects. I personally know of one very thorough and excellent proposal. Unfortunately this one was accepted then rejected. This proposal, made by a London based curator, was one of the first, submitted well before the decision to stage Manifesta in Cyprus, and was based on a thorough two year research and on first hand experience of the complexity of issues not only in Cyprus but also in this immediate region. It was acknowledged by our cultural ‘administrators’ as a strong and pertinent proposal that deserved realisation. Serious discussions and meetings were held and possible dates were discussed so why it has been suddenly shelved, in favour of more entrepreneurial projects, is totally perplexing. Well, not really perplexing, more frustratingly predictable.

What is vital at this stage is an initiative of reconsidering memory, a process of recalling events and attitudes, an understanding that what colours today’s political and social understanding could and most likely have no relation to the integrity of the initial event. It is within this context that culture has a vital role, after all culture is an inherent part of a society and should be the object and subject of ordinary politics. An isolated ‘in-house’ art event curated abroad punctuated by sporadic quick visits to Cyprus cannot even get close to stimulating a meaningful discussion with and participation of the Cypriot people. It is merely ‘art for art’s funding sake’ – a banal exercise reinforcing the vacuum of elitist attitudes which are already firmly entrenched within this society. And this is also an area where the cultural dichotomy exists.

The issue which needs to be examined is that those ‘in charge’ who have access to most of the funding fountain are not taking the emergence of this new wave of colonialist attitudes in the cultural scene seriously, In fact, in many cases, they are active collaborators. Unfortunately, there exists now in Cyprus, a trend in both some young cultural employees and certain well established cultural figures, a preference for politically and socially inert work by young artists, ‘happy and light’ work as one selected international curator described it. Work devoid of a social and political commitment characterised by the apparent docility of non-engagement. These preferred artists staunchly entrench themselves in the ‘safety zone’ of opportunism and shallow optimism in the hope of being catapulted into the international artist arena. This merchant mentality has its roots in Cypriot history.

The materialism of Cyprus reflects an old style materialism focusing on objects as its prime reality. These art objects are complete in themselves, without the sense that material objects can be processes or structures rather than things. There exists little or no interrelationship beyond the object. The abundant absence of a serious committed approach is clearly evident, all is justified in the race of success and stardom, self-valorisation has become the norm and the commodity of the green line projects pay well right now.

A substantial collaboration with meaningful and potent intertextuality which can overcome physical separation and historically entrenched codes of conduct is necessary. Superficial spot lighted events and gestures do nothing on a communal level but please a few. Art does become a convenient alibi in the desire to ‘give voice’ but only when it receives substantial financial backing otherwise the ‘dead zone’ is laid to rest amidst the vacancy of 30 years of political propaganda. How can art become an effective tool for ‘giving voice’ when the current cultural practice owes its form to a top-down tradition of control, a control which openly exercises preference for a few artists whose work engages in the latest trends usurped from contemporary art texts and is politically noncommittal. Ageism, gender bias and socioeconomic position are criteria which inform the selection process for participation in international exhibitions of any note. An opportunity to give other serious artists, who do not comply with the above criteria, the scope for real and substantial engagement in cultural matters is usually denied.

This is not art as active and socially engaged democracy, it is inert seduction whereby the real issue of democratic accountability is ignored and in which the reality of prejudice and discrimination refuses to diminish. These issues are the important ones and these are the issues which are not being addressed. There exists an avoidance of challenges which can broaden the public’s sense of cooperation and participation within a interdisciplinary cultural exploration. This is avoided at all costs because it would create a context for unpredictability, impetus and interest which might not be controlled by the existing reigning figures of culture.

The wound of division, although initially exteriorly militarily imposed has become an interior process of fragmentation and social dismemberment which under these conditions cannot be “presented”. A comprehensive reconstruction of the interior body needs to be at least attempted to be explored and understood. Art exhibitions are only a small part of this process and when properly approached, they can be a powerful part but only when the administrators of culture allow others to step in from the edge.


  1. It appears that this was the working title, the exhibition is now entitled Leaps of Faith


Helene Black is an artist and a founding member of NeMe