History Zero was born in Exarcheia
by Stefanos Tsivopoulos
History Zero was born as an idea in Exarcheia Square the summer of 2012. For those unfamiliar with the historical Exarcheia Square, it is: a hotbed of political activity, a bulwark against state power—and now an entire zone of Athens where police and those of the wrong political persuasion just don’t go.1 I was living in the Exarcheia neighbourhood at that period working on a large-scale solo show in Elefsina Greece, titled The Future Starts Here. That period was politically and economically one of the toughest. In mid-May 2012 the crisis and the impossibility of forming a new coalition government after elections led to strong speculation that Greece would have to leave the Eurozone. The potential exit became known as Grexit. A second election in mid-June ended with the formation of a new parliament that included a neo-Nazi party for the first time.
History Zero started as a poetic and philosophic observation of the crisis. The challenge was not to make a work about the crisis per se but to question what a crisis is. Where is it generated? And is there a way to resist it by questioning the value of things?
Time, culture, science and war are just some of the factors that change the value of things. But even on a social scale when a thing is passed from the hands of one person to another, value fluctuates. Clearly, value is not something of its own existence: we, the people involved, create it. I like to define value as a projection of our deepest emotions, fears, hopes and aspirations. However, there is no better way to explain the relativity of value than the way we value money.
Aristotle gives a good description of it in his book Nicomachean Ethics: “money constitutes in a manner a middle term, for it is a measure of all things, and so of their superior or inferior value, that is to say, how many shoes are equivalent to a house or to a given quantity of food. As therefore a builder is to a shoemaker, so must such and such a number of shoes be to a house [or to a given quantity of food]; for without this reciprocal proportion, there can be no exchange and no association; […] this is why money is called nomisma, customary currency, because it does not exist by nature but by custom (nomos), and can be altered and rendered useless at will.”
From Exarcheia to Venice
I received the news that I would represent Greece at the 55th Venice Biennale on February 3, 2013. I’m writing the date and year because most of my colleagues participating in the same biennale received the news back in early 2012. That left Syrago Tsiara, the curator of the Greek pavilion, and I slightly fewer than four months to research, produce and present a brand new show of the highest standards. Until that moment History Zero was just an idea and no work had been put into it.
The centre of the Greek pavilion is occupied by an archive—Alternative Currencies. An Archive and A Manifesto—dedicated to various models of alternative, non-monetary currencies and exchange systems. The archive is presented in 32 wooden panels forming a rotunda of six metres in diameter and six metres high. Some of the archives’ subjects are:
JAK Medlemsbank/JAK Members Bank — banking without interest is the purpose of this bank, located in Sweden. It began in 1965 as the Land Labour Capital Association for Economic Enlightenment, an organisation concerned with the negative social impacts of interest and aiming to promote interest-free financing.
Grameen Bank and Microfinance in Bangladesh (grammeans village in Bangali) has grown to become a widespread tool for economic empowerment of the poor. The philosophy behind the project is that small loans provide both the means and the initiative for individuals in poverty to start small enterprises or agricultural initiatives, enabling them to better their financial position in a permanent way.
Rolling Jubilee is a project of Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, which seeks to build a global debt resistance movement. Rolling Jubilee’s goal is to buy debt from hospitals and other lenders that would otherwise be purchased by debt collectors, and then abolish them. The project began last November. Although their target was to raise $50,000, they’ve already generated over $500,000 for debt abolition.
Rather than simply documenting these models, Alternative Currencies. An Archive and A Manifesto stands as a political statement proposing a reformation of the economic global establishment towards autonomous communal patterns and forms of survival and resistance. “The most graceful and promising approach to empowering our communities and ourselves is through voluntary, entrepreneurial activities that can liberate the exchange process and reclaim the credit commons. Only popular control of credit and competition in currencies can transcend the money problem. A new economic order is precisely what is needed at this point in history.”
The space around the rotunda is divided into three equally sized rooms each screening one of the three episodes of the film. The filmHistory Zero depicts the experiences of three distinct individuals in the city of Athens: an African immigrant who wanders the streets of Athens pushing a supermarket trolley and collecting scrap metal to sell, an artist who observes and records street scenes at random with his iPad to find inspiration in the confusing landscape of Athens, and a demented art collector living alone in a museum-like house and consumed with creating origami flowers using euro banknotes.
History Zero questions the value of money and the role money plays in the formation of human relationships, adopting an anthropological and associative look through the seemingly realistic daily routines of these individuals. I wanted to set a series of questions about how their stories and collections can be interconnected and how their actions contest the notion of value.
For example the demented collector in Episode 3 is not interested in the financial value of her expensive artworks (at least not anymore) but she does find emotional value in them. She doesn’t find monetary value in a 500 euro banknote, but uses it as paper for her origami flowers.
In a similar fashion the artist in Episode 2 finds “art-value” in a supermarket trolley full of rusty scrap metal, whereas the African immigrant of Episode 1 sees a different value in the same trolley and its contents.
The three characters of History Zero engage in a continuous fluctuation of value, passing it from hand to hand in a circular movement, a metaphor for the way value oscillates on a daily basis around the world. Engaging the power of our daily actions with solidarity, cooperation and co-responsibility might be a response to the crisis.
South of South
South of south is Africa. This is where most of the minerals of the world are mined amid civil wars and social unrest and from there they are shipped to China. China’s cheap labour turns them into affordable commodities and sells them back to Europe and the United States.
Wars and famine force thousands of Africans to flee their countries every day by boat and other means for the shores of Europe, in hope for a better future. For several years now we’ve seen them selling fake Gucci bags together with African artefacts in the streets of Athens.
Some collect scrap metal from the city’s streets in supermarket trolleys. One hundred kilos of scrap metal sells for 15 euro. On a good day it takes 16 to 18 hours to collect such a quantity. Most scrap metal consists of parts of cheap commodities, made in China with minerals that were extracted in Africa.
I would like to close with a quote from Marcel Mauss’s book The Gift:
A wise precept has run right through human evolution, and we would be as well to adopt it as a principle of action. We should come out of ourselves and regard the duty of giving as a liberty, for in it there lays no risk. A fine Maori proverb runs:
Ko maru kai atu
Ko maru kai mai,
Ka ngohe ngohe.
“Give as much as you receive and all is for the best.”
Born in 1973 in Prague, Stefanos Tsivopoulos lives and works in Amsterdam and New York. He studied fine arts at the Superior Academy in Athens, the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam. Solo exhibitions include the 55th Biennale di Venezia Greek Pavilion (2013); ISCP, New York (2011); Heidelberg Kunstverrein (2010); Smart Project Space, Amsterdam (2010); and Art Forum, Berlin (2009). Group exhi- bitions include Manifesta 8, Murcia (2010); Witte de With, Rotterdam (2010); BFI Southbank, London (2009); ev+a, Limerick (2009); Athens Biennale (2007); and Thessaloniki Biennale (2007).
Installation view: Stefanos Tsivopoulos, History Zero / Greek Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale, 2013 Courtesy of the artist, Kalfayan Galleries and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani
Photo by the artist