Author : Kiblind Magazine
We are sentimental travellers. We can’t help it. Every new city that we visit sets our emotions flowing, and invariably ends up stealing our hearts. And when it came to our trip to Thessaloniki, the one overriding emotion that we were left with was that of admiration. Admiration for the people, for the city, for Reworks – the festival that we went there to cover -, and for the rich cultural scene that we had just glimpsed. But above all, admiration for the city’s sense of life, an art of living that no amount of rush-hour traffic could ever spoil. Yes, it’s fair to say we loved Thessaloniki. Indeed, perhaps this is why they call it “the city of love”. This somewhat clichéd epithet – which we owe to Alexandros Thanos, Deputy Regional Governor for Tourism & Culture in the region of Central Macedonia – turned out to be surprisingly close to the mark.
Yet on paper, at least, Thessaloniki has always faced an uphill battle. The composition of Greece is such that it is the city of Athens that enjoys the largest share of the population, the bright lights and the fame that goes with it. Thessaloniki isn’t the financial centre of Greece, and neither does it have the touristic pull of the country’s capital, its islands or its southern regions. Tucked away in the northeast-ish corner of the country, the capital of the Central Macedonia region is neither the best known nor the most transcendent of Greece’s cities. And so, in a country that has been in the throes of economic turmoil for the last ten years, it would have been easy to travel to Thessaloniki with the preconception of a helplessly abandoned outpost. But that would have been to do Greece’s second city a great injustice.
Thessaloniki’s delightful location means that it long since became south-eastern Europe’s gateway to the Aegean Sea. This geographical stroke of luck saw the city emerge as a significant transport terminal serving a large section of the European continent, and thereby provided it with a platform to become economically independent. Also thanks to its location, Thessaloniki has always been home to a rich blend of populations, religions and traditions. This has created not only a vibrant atmosphere, but the ideal conditions for the production of art in all its forms. And while it may have received most of its international recognition for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, it is the city’s more general sense of dynamism that has seen it emerge as one of Greece’s main centres of contemporary culture. A process that has naturally been encouraged by the enthusiastic presence of young people, in what is the country’s premier student city. Yet like the rest of the country, Thessaloniki has been hit hard by the years of crisis. And Greek cultural life is another predictable victim of the recent hardships. But from the ashes of disaster have risen a fresh philosophy, new structures and recalibrated ambitions. As Argyro Barata, coordinator of the Reworks Agora project, puts it: “Athens will always be the centre, but Thessaloniki has its sights set on tomorrow’s culture, and the city is often the birthplace for exciting new artistic scenes.” Well said, Argyro.
On arrival, we find ourselves gently ushered towards the field of photography. To tell the truth, the city of Thessaloniki has always had a bit of a penchant for the discipline, as its Museum of Photography plainly demonstrates. And who better to bring us up to speed on the current state of affairs than Kosmas Pavlidis, the founder and director of Stereosis, a photography school that has trained a new generation of artists who currently making their mark all around the world? We meet him at his baby’s headquarters, hidden away on a charming little street in the centre of Thessaloniki. “The street was dead, and Stereosis was just a hangar that we had to completely rehabilitate.” Kosmas slowly reveals to us the strange habits of urban life in Thessaloniki, shattering our preconceptions. “Streets live, die and are born again. That’s how it is, and nobody knows why.” In any case, you can’t help but be impressed by the renaissance of this particular street, Zefxidos, presently lined with cosy terraces and leafy tea rooms bathing in the soft sunlight of an Indian summer. “To begin with, there weren’t even streetlights,” explains Argyro. It is a sentiment that was subsequently echoed by urban planner Vivian Doumpa: “There is no gentrification here, strictly speaking; a buzz builds around certain streets, then it fades away. Bars open, do great business for three years, create that buzz, but then go bankrupt.” For its part, Stereosis has never relocated. Refusing to be taken in by passing trends, it has instead chosen to commit to its neighbourhood for the long term, by displaying its works and leaving its doors open to the public.
“We decided very early on to set up street exhibitions. That’s our philosophy: photography must be seen. Stereosis isn’t the sole reserve of students, it has to be accessible for everyone.” Kosmas Pavlidis would appear to be driven by a reassuring obsession with bringing artistic works to the attention of as many people as possible. It is a vision shared by the Reworks Festival, which – that very evening – brought one end of Zefxidos to life thanks to an open-air stage installed in the middle of a crossroads: “The city is a key component of the festival; Reworks has to occupy urban spaces and allow local residents to perform.” Just like Stereosis, Reworks sees the city both as a setting for the distribution of art and as a hub for artists. And just like Kosmas Pavlidis, who points out that photography has changed the city’s image, Argyro Barata is convinced that “Reworks has been a game changer for the electronic music scene in Thessaloniki”. But of course, we wouldn’t write that without finding out for ourselves. Enter young duo Tendts, who are Thessaloniki born-and-bred. These friendly brothers emphasise the importance that the festival has acquired in the city: “Reworks has become even more important since the clubs started closing down. It’s a means for young artists to see new horizons and new ways of doing things, but also to have the opportunity to get their own music heard. It brings hope and motivation to the people here, to create something. And all the more so since the crisis.” Stuck between the bouzouki – a traditional Greek lute – and a recent history that has edged more towards rock music, Thessaloniki is now in the process of witnessing the fusion of music genres, the emergence of diversity and more solidarity between labels. On this regard, we are told that the crisis has not had an exclusively negative impact on cultural life in Thessaloniki.
Written like that, it certainly looks a bit jarring. No, the crisis is not a cure, sent to cleanse life in Greece. No, in no way has the crisis has not lent the country a helping hand. Yes, Greece is still suffering the effects of it, and will continue to for some time yet. And yes, the field of living culture has been hit particularly hard, with public funds being channelled instead towards the conservation of heritage and the country’s many archaeological museums. But it cannot be denied that something is stirring in the wake of the crisis. Kosmas Pavlidis discreetly explains to us the relationship between cause and effect: “There’s clearly not enough money to divide up, so instead we’re forced to share it between the different structures.” The Greeks, as they say, have had to make the best of a bad situation. From being blighted by friction and mutual suspicion, with everyone intent on defending their own territory – Argyro Barata’s words, not ours! -, Thessaloniki’s third sector has now developed into a mutually-supportive network to the benefit of all involved.
While the Stamp Festival, based on the concept of the cooperative economy, may be the most tangible illustration of this progression, it is indicative of a more generalised tendency for everyone to take one another’s hands in moments of financial crisis. “Groups, labels and distributors have all grown closer since the crisis,” enthuse the brothers from Tendts. “The clubs may be gone, but we’ve got bars, little places all around the city to stage concerts, where we can go and see good music for free.” Thessaloniki, it would seem, is coming alive. “Everyone is in the centre, meeting up all the time. Which means that we never stop working together, swapping equipment, sharing venues, etc. Maybe that’s the reason for that constant feeling that things are happening.” Kosmas Pavlidis is visibly proud of the journey that his city has taken since Stereosis was set up in 2004, a journey punctuated by the outbreak and survival of the crisis: “There was very obviously an artistic boom around 2012, made up of loads of little things, some of them ephemeral, some of them not. Nowadays, structures are in it for the long haul.” And all that we can hope for them is that they make it.How then, as poor defenceless foreigners, could we resist the winds of change blowing through Thessaloniki? Resist this fierce desire of the people to get back on their feet, to use culture as a means to overcome the crisis and to come together to turn it into a force for good? It’s all so exhilarating. It may sound like the speech made by a runner-up in Miss Universe, but there really is only one word to describe what we saw and heard in Thessaloniki: admiration.
There was nothing else for it. We took a seat on the terrace at Fragile Bar, gazed into the distance, and pondered how Thessaloniki’s path had been one that we too would like to tread from time to time. And so our hearts had been stolen, once again.