Nomads of Mykonos
by Pola Bousiou
Healing a split: Between their desire for autonomy, rebellion, and aloneness, and their need to belong to a collectivity
The past: a space of dynamic marginality
Antonis protects Johnny’s ashes under his hat. As the sun sets, a large circle of about forty people hold hands around a fire. Some never met Johnny. Mykonos is their common link: their annual pilgrimage to the same beach, shared sunsets and joints, shared lovers.
Mykonos, a site of emergence, has evolved into a spatial fetish. From a communal space – a Deleuzian space of ‘dynamic marginality’ – Mykonos is reduced to an empty signifier of an already commercialised local ‘bohemia’ (cf. Wilson, 1998: 124): a semiotic distortion via consumerism and unavoidably the end of an era for the Nomads of Mykonos.
Johnny’s ashes were scattered in three places around the world. First in Bali, where his last partner performed a ceremony under the full moon, spreading his ashes over the ocean from a fishing boat. Second, and much later, at Laguna Beach in California. And third, in Mykonos, another ‘beach farewell’ took place.
What is ‘home’ for Johnny? The notion of home has been symbolically turned into a versatile dispersed identity signifier; home has been transmuted into alternating homes; ‘home’ has been semantically and ontologically reconfigured into “the place you get to, not the place you came from” (Monette, 1991, quoted in Fortier 2001: 409).
Home becomes the site of emergence rather than a physical entity. Mykonos metonymically stands for this type of ontological nomadism. Drawing semiotically from its ancient counterpart Delos, whose myth of emergence entails a spatial restlessness, Mykonos also acquires an idiosyncratic fluidity. In mythology Delos, the island of Apollo, had been condemned by the gods to be an island in constant movement. Mykonos, as a signifier of a cultural nomadism, shares this quality. Mykonos – and, by extension, the Mykoniots d’election – signifies mutability for the space/group. Mykonos acts as a ‘site of emergence’, a ‘home’ that is not necessarily place-based.
A nomadism in situ
Mykonos’ topos stands for a way of life that affectively ‘collectivises’. Ultimately one transgresses – beyond locality and the group itself; the ‘group’ is never formulated as a group; its ‘members’ are never consistently there. Mykonos’ liminal space thus epitomises the Nomads’ conundrum of belonging and non-belonging.
The Greek roots for the word ‘utopia’ stand for a fantastic space of non-topos. Since ‘topos’ denotes some bounded identifiable space, the u-topos denotes the transcendence project. But, Bauman argues, in post-modernity we already inhabit the boundless u-topos, so there is no desire for transcendence, utopia. “The ‘u’ of ‘utopia’ bereaved by the ‘topos’, is left homeless and floating, no more hoping to strike its roots, to ‘re-embed’” (Bauman, 2003: 22).
What is hidden behind this denial of any collectivity or group identity? I would argue that it is an ontological resistance to any collective nomenclature that stabilises or stereotypes the self. A form of Nietzschean ‘nomadism’ in situ (cf. Deleuze, 1985: 149).
But ultimately, what is hidden is a deeply involved – yet impersonal – affective community with fluid and non-committed membership. The Nomads of Mykonos keep returning to a series of alternative affective groups largely to heal a ‘split’: between their desire for autonomy, rebellion and aloneness, and their need to affectively belong to a collectivity.
A liminal corporeality
There was an aesthetic passion – rather emotionless – for the perfect body (as if the body lacked individuality and was purely for display, victim of the gaze). The Nomads of Mykonos learn to exist on the gaze; their whole life is a performance. They do not survive on emotional relationships but on the gaze. They live in a ‘liminal corporeality’. The Nomad/Monad, as the object of the public gaze that keeps his performance visible in the tourist space as cosmopolitan, traveller, adventurer, is turned into the performer of his own biography. For the neo-Nomad, there is no ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage. There is no motivation behind self-performance besides the desire for visibility. The Mykonos Nomad is not unlike a contemporary ‘emotional anorexic’.
A rock ‘n’ roll museum
Bauman’s identity metaphor of the tourist and his alter ego, the vagabond, reminds me of groups like the Nomads of Mykonos. Their once glamorous marginalisation is now becoming obsolete in a tourist space where every otherness is semiotically consumed irrespective of content. The Nomads are only one display in the rock ’n’ roll museum of Mykonian unconventionality. The museum hosts other unconventional categories: uncompromising locals, gays, cosmopolitan eccentrics, global adventurers who migrated there, aspiring to no special status. In the winding Mykonian streets there is no real mixing anymore; there is no immersion in the other.
The present: a liminal space-myth
Mykonos’ space-myth developed as a sign of liminality. Places like Mykonos which carry the image of their ‘marginality’ exploit it to build their cultural status. This ‘marginal’ image is due to an antithesis: Mykonos attracted both status quo and ‘fringe’ cultures alike. More importantly, what Mykonos reflects is a constructed ‘otherness’ specially tailored for the Athenian bourgeoisie; Mykonos is close enough to Athens to be both its anomie and its extension. Among other things, the island was chosen to perform the role of the ‘anti-structure’ against the organised life of the centre. Mykonos, in the modern Greek context, was the catholic signifier of an aesthetic ‘otherness’, of an unrestricted, disorganised, hedonist, marginal and glamorous lifestyle. Different groups appropriated Mykonos’ myth of ‘otherness’ in different periods. These gradual appropriations always revolved around the themes of marginality and desire manifested in conspicuous extravagance: i.e. excessive drinking, drug taking, sex and partying. Reputedly, marginal and cosmopolitan identities were, and still are, highly fetishised in the discourses of ‘modern’ Greeks. Mykonos, in the aforementioned context, represents an ‘amoral’ space. For readers familiar with it, its sign invokes strong feelings, either positive or negative.
Mykonos’ sign acquired a ‘classless’ connotation, mainly as an internally employed logic of distinction rather than as a reputation. Systems of classification based on social position were replaced by alternative criteria such as beauty (physical and body capital) and level of deviation from a ‘proper’ bourgeois prototype. All this happened mainly during the 1970s and 1980s, before Mykonos’ ‘liminal’ sign became a simulacrum of alternativity.
There was also a romantic element involved in projecting ‘marginality’ onto the Mykonian space; its visitors traditionally simulated marginality. They performed a self, supposedly liberated from the social constraints of modern urban life, by converting into ‘locals’, ‘hippies’ and so forth.
The reader should try to visualise the densely packed Mykonian settlement as an all-encompassing aesthetic forum that displays these different zones of identity in between traditional households, Orthodox churches, souvenir shops, fashion retailers and fast food outlets. Mykonos tour guides usually provide an extensive list of clubs and restaurants which leads the ‘consumer’ to the legendary Mykonian nightlife, an essential part of cultural sightseeing. As shrines to a local system of spatial fetishisation, Mykonian haunts (bars and clubs) act as semiotic references for the unsuspecting visitor who maps the Mykonian Hora and its culture accordingly. The reader can imagine the ‘protected’ settlement of the Hora as a series of open doors that create a feeling of ‘intimacy’.
The constant ‘entering’ and ‘exiting’ creates an endless motion of the masses in the labyrinth-like inner Hora; the local tourist tradition dictates ‘strolling’ or rather ‘parading’ in the Mykonian streets, dressed in one’s loudest garments, with a generous consumption of alcohol.
The building of a liminal place-myth
‘What time is this place?’ By employing this rhetorical question, Lynch argues that the establishment of the tourist/romantic gaze has in turn created images of places connected with particular times and histories (Lynch, 1973, quoted in Urry, 1990: 126).
The sense of time in Mykonos is not singular, since what is enacted is both a ‘traditional’ back-drop and a cosmopolitan and eccentric ambience. This aesthetic and cultural mix gives the visitor a spatial and temporal sense of déjà-vu, a sense of familiarity later exploited in favour of a local myth of otherness.
Left impoverished after the war, Mykonos, an infertile island, had little to offer but the islanders’ hospitality and tolerance. The first modern visitors admired the simplicity and repetition of the all-embracing whitewashed stonework. The locals decided to ‘respect’ visitors’ tastes and preserve everything ‘as it was back then’. Moreover new houses were built in the old style. This slowly created a ‘staged’ vernacular. This spatial performativity, reflected in the actions of the locals and in the habitus of the whole exogenous community, created what Urry calls a ‘post-modern vernacular’ where the representation of time in space is faked to create a picture of authenticity. Mykonos’ later notoriety was acquired through an aesthetic capital which reputedly derived from its ‘inherent taste’. The place-myth remained faithful to the romantic gaze by constantly recreating a local vernacular architecture. Timelessness defines the island’s performative space.
Lawrence Durrell is largely responsible for the semiotic acquisition of Mykonos’ space as timeless with no definite style – haphazard and harmonious at the same time. Mykonos, the ‘miracle’ of modernist architecture, ‘has so little history to intimidate one’ (Durrell 1978: 231). Yet, Mykonos – due to its overdevelopment – suffered a semantic mutation: from a romanticised ahistorical rural landscape to a cosmopolitan ‘metropolis’ that semiotically works as a rurban space constantly expanding through sophisticated contemporary architecture contiguous with the picturesque signs of the vernacular. The prevailing discourse is one of a historical catastrophe due to the vandalising of the romanticised Mykonian landscape by invading visitors and greedy locals.
What type of spectacle then does Mykonos offer the tourist gaze? Mykonos is a polysemic place that bombards the tourist with conflicting signs. It’s a full and exciting aesthetic kaleidoscope. As a polythetic sign, it can also afford to invoke different desires and perform different spectacles for different groups. For Greek tourists, for instance, Mykonos’ image may signify cosmopolitanism, a ‘cultural quality’ they themselves feel deprived of. Mykonos performs for them the ideal, miniature mapping of a cosmopolitan city with its subcultures, hedonism, transculturalism, multi-neotribalism; in short the object of desire for their hungry ‘gaze’ is the boundless element of the post-modern space. On the other hand, the tribestyles of the 1990s, groups such as gays, ravers or aesthetic simulators of the hippie style, satisfy their desire through identification with diverse bodies of spectacle that ‘democratically’ coexist in the polysemic space: Mykonos’ clubbing, alternative communions with ‘old’ friends, or fetishisers of the special (metaphysical) properties of the island’s natural setting. The discourses on what the Mykonian spectacle consists of may also, in many cases, overlap. Yet each tribestyle strategically occupies different parts of this small tourist island. Their performative distinction game is conspicuously displayed through a set of ‘distinct’ aesthetic preferences which are, in turn, spatially re-presented, thus overtly demarcating Mykonos’ territorial map.
The tourist, confused in the narrow cobbled streets of the maze-like Mykonos ‘city’, engages in the most ‘significant’ act: voyeurism. By satisfying every anticipation, the polythetic Mykonian sign locates the tourist in the place-myth. Strolling around the central arteries of the town only to watch where the ‘others’ go, she is part of the parade, part of the spectacle, without realising it.
Once upon a time, in Mykonos, the streets were clean and the explorer/tourist walked barefoot, enchanted, seeking to catch up with ‘local’ time and forget his own, taking pictures of old ladies at their looms. Nowadays, the picturesque old ladies are a scarce spectacle for the tourist gaze. Those that still exist simulate the image of the ‘Mykonian woman’ and enact weaving by displaying the old loom without actually using it. Some women still knit caps near their windows and sell them during the summer months, especially around sunset when tourists return from the beaches. For a moment the eye is enchanted: what time is this place? Greece in the 1950s, or further back? Next to the window with the old lady knitting is a small chapel with its door modestly open. With just one glimpse, time can change here and now. The next snapshot is of Pierro’s. Soon after sunset its fame will transform the Mykonian neighbourhood: laughter and extravagant clothes, leather, boots, beers. What time is this place? The 1980s, I’d say. Youth, subcultures and all that. Tourists do not bother to explore the many short cuts of the town. There is nothing ‘left’ to discover. They have already decodified their own haunts. Some will end up at Pierro’s, some at the Irish bar, some at the Scandinavian, some will exhaust themselves ‘celebrity’ spotting. Some old-fashioned romantics visit Mykonos off-season, admire the architecture, talk to the locals. They will perhaps find cheap accommodation in the freaks’ camping site on Paradise beach. What time is this place? Definitely the 1970s.
Zygmunt Bauman. 2003. Utopias with no topos. History of the Human Sciences 16 (1), 11-25.
Gilles Deleuze. 1985. Nomad thought. In The new Nietzsche (ed.) David B. Allison. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Lawrence Durrell. 1978. The Greek islands. London: Faber and Faber.
Anne-Marie Fortier. 2001. Coming home: queer migration and multiple evocations of home. European Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (4), pp. 405-424.
Paul Monette. 1991. Half-way home. New York: Avon Books.
John Urry. 1990. The tourist gaze: leisure and travel in contemporary societies. London: Sage.
Elizabeth Wilson. 1998. Bohemian love. Theory, Culture and Society 15 (3-4) pp. 111-127.
This text is included in Pola Bousiou, The Nomads of Mykonos: Performing Liminalities in a ‘Queer’ Space, Berghahn Books, Oxford and New York 2008.
A previous version of this text was also published in The Dispersed Urbanity of the Aegean Archipelago: 10th International Exhibition of Architecture Venice Biennale: Greek Participation, FUTURA, Athens 2006.