Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ryan Stander: Topos/Chora

Last summer, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus had a novel idea, an artist in residence program. Photographer Ryan Stander spent the season with the archaeologists, (as we would now say) "embedded" in the team. The fruits of this project are now on view at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks, N.D. During preparation for the exhibit, I was invited to contribute an essay reflecting on Stander's work. I picked one photo, a kind of self portrait, and wrote about it. The exhibit is now on-line and you can read my reflections here. I am honored to have been invited on this project, a rare example of interdisciplinary collaboration between art, archaeology and the theory of both.

Thinking about the photographic landscape comes at an opportune time for me, as I get ready to start a mapping project this summer in collaboration with Todd Brenningmeyer at Maryville University. Using a combination of balloons, kites and survey, we hope to document a series of urban forms across Boeotia, Phocis, Eleia and Karpathos in Greece. Our idea is to produce aerial digital images with limited topographic survey (G.P.S.) Using the topographic coordinates as anchors, we will geo-rectify the aerial photos and digitize the wall elements visible within them. As a result, we use the photographs to investigate general landscape issues, but also as the base for new urban maps. Many of the sites we will be surveying are situated in difficult and rocky mountain tops. Traditional survey would be extremely strenuous. This will be an experimental season. If our process works, we might just take the show on the road and create a permanently nomadic field project.

I am receiving immense inspiration from my colleague Scott Wright who teaches painting and photography (and a fantastic art history course on Art and Jazz). If you look at Scott's work, you'll note the interface between aerial photography and landscape painting. Scott is also artist-in-residence at the Wohlsen Center, a new organization at F&M devoted to ecology and sustainability. Ryan Stander (see his blog, Axis of Access) has introduced me to the New Topographics school of photography. Just this last week, Scott and I started an informal reading group to deal precisely with issues of ecology and landscape art.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stella: Athenian Agora

Last year, I learned that one could watch Greek movies and old televion shows online. And I poured over Το μινόρε της αυγής (The minor key of dawn), the 1983 TV series whose soundtrack I had loved for many years. Then, I moved on to classic b/w movies and came across Stella (1955), directed by Michalis Kakoyannis and staring Melina Merkouri. Filmed in Athens, the urban scenes include powerful references to historical topography and archaeology. I have watched the film a couple of times and made a mental note to do some research on the monuments and urban vistas. I thought I might be the only one paying attention to those subtle details until my copy of the last Journal of Modern Greek Studies arrived in my mail. The October 2009 issue is devoted to the Marshall Plan, but it includes Artemis Leontis's review of Yannis Hamilakis' celebrated Nation and Its Ruins and Argyro Loulaki's Living Ruins, Living Conflicts. Leontis' essay is titled "Archaeology in the Neighborhood: Views of the Ancient Agora and Other Ruins from Outside the Gate" (JMGA 27, 2009, 417-432) and it includes the first scholarly citation of this blog (THANK YOU!!!)

I was thrilled to discover in "Archaeology in the Neighborhood" that I wasn't the only person to have noted Stella's importance as a mid-century text. Leontis points out the contextual role that archaeology plays in the movie. This is simply a brilliant set of observations. For better or for worse, Melina Merkouri was made famous through Never on Sunday (1960). Jules Dassin, director and Merkouri's husband, plays a naive American philhelene "Homer Thrace from Middletown, Connecticut" (where Dassin was born) who tries to reform a prostitute from Piraeus. For the longest time, I have wondered whether Dassin or Merkourci knew of Homer Thompson, who was excavating the Athenian Agora through the 50s and 60s. Dassin's Homer, I suspect, might not only refer to the ancient bard, but also to Homer Thompson. Two years later, Dassin directed another movie with Merkouri, Phaedra (1962), which strikes a clear archaeological chord. Merkouri plays the wife of an Onassis-character who falls in love with her son-in-law (played by Anthony Perkins). Perkins and Mercouris first meet at the British Museum in front of the Elgin marbles. It's a beautiful movie (soundtrack by Mikis Theodorakis) that never reached the popularity of Never on Sunday. But Stella is truly the intellectual forefather of all these films, and it introduces the archaeological motif. As Leontis shows, the American excavations of the Athenian Agora bear witness to the films' plot. For those readers that are either archaeologists or modern Greek specialists, I urge you to see Stella immediately and look out for the ancient monuments (the Theseion), the Byzantine churches (Saint George; Holy Apostles) and the excavations (Agora). You can see the movie here (with subtitles). But before seeing the movie, you must read Leontis' observations:

"Evidence of the Agora excavations' uninviting feeling for Greeks who witnessed them appears unexpectedly in another Greek source: Michael Cacoyannis's classic film Stella, released in 1955. In it, the Agora is the backdrop, and Stella's apartment, the scene of extramarital drama, sits alongside the excavation site on the Plaka's western edge. At the time of the filming, the American School's 'big dig' was at the point of completion, having removed, along with all the extant homes, 250,000 tons of dirt and debris from post-classical remains. The reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos was in progress, but barely visible, as it had just reached ground level. A vast expanse of mounds and trenches loomed darkly behind Stella's apartment. The site makes several cameo appearances from different angles, the most important of which comes at the film's turning point, about 52 minutes from the opening credits, when Stella's abandoned boyfriend Alekos retraces his steps from his asphyxiating upper-class home home in Kolonaki (Lykavitos's Church of St. George can be discerned behind him as he descends) to the Roman Agora. Passing the Gate of Athena Archegetes, he follows a narrow street, opposite the Church of the Holy Apostles, then turns into Stella's alley and heads up her steps. When Stella does not answer the door, he walks to the other side of the building and calls up to her windows. Stella pushes her lover Miltos away and peeks through the blinds, watching as Alekos steps back blindly into the road, with the excavation site spread out behind him like a vast grave. Both Stella and the excavations become mute witnesses to Aleko's accidental death by a passing car." (p. 420)

Thinking about the Athenian Agora, Nikki Sakka's, "The Excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: The Politics of Commissioning and Managing the Project" (in Singular Antiquity) and Craig Mauzy's, Agora Excavations, 1931-2006: A Pictorial History (2003) are great essential prerequisites.

Movies like Stella invite revisiting. On the one hand, they offer fantastic historical evidence of an older more beautiful Athens before its unchecked concrete expansion. On the other hand, they reveal central motifs of self-presentation and domestic anxieties. Overshadowed by Italian neorealism, the golden age of Greek cinema is both lightweight and provocative. In addition to the archaeological subtexts, Stella has an extraordinary sophistication in its set design, directed by painter Yannis Tsarouchis. One day, I would love to read/write a comparative study of the exterior urban scenography and the interior rooms. Tsarouchis uses a technique that is evident in his paintings, aligning the characters with objects of great poetic depth. Watching Stella, note for example the role that interior lights play, how they align with characters. Note the role of doors opening and closing, especially doors that also carry mirrors. One could write an essay about electrification, light projection, Greek domestic space, and the technicalities of film. The film would have originally been projected by a bright light source from the back of a movie theater. Keep that in mind as bare light bulbs illuminate the interior spaces of the nocturnal scenes. This reminds us of the bare lightbulbs of Tsarouchis' interiors. From a psychoanalytical perspective, the Tsarouchis' bare lightbulbs are the technical shame-inducing machines of homosexual desire. With Manos Hadjidakis' soundtrack, and Iakovos Kambanelli's original screen-play, we are in the company of high aesthetics. I would love to know how Tsarouchis, Kakoyannis and Hadjidakis may have interacted with the Agora excavations. Unfortunately, Melina Merkouri, in all her admirable Elgin-marble activist, has left us with a very superficial scenario over the conflicts of foreign archaeology.

My mother, my uncle and aunts grew up in Plaka, all born around the time that the Americans began the Agora excavations. I once asked them how the excavations affected the life of the neighborhood. My uncle pointed out how grateful the neighborhood was for the employment that the excavations offered, especially after World War II when much of Athens starved. My mother, who was a little younger, remembers using the excavations as a playground, literally climbing in and out of pythoi. Having just seen Anne McCabe's paper "A Middle Byzantine Neighborhood in Athens: Recent Excavations in the Agora" (see 2010 AIA annual conference), I suddenly visualized the 1930s excavations as a playground of subterranean wells and storage jars. And suddenly remembered Luigi Pirandello story "The Jar," beautifully dramatized in the Tavianni brothers' Kaos (1984).

All these thoughts and allusions bring us back to Yannis Hamilakis and his discussion of pre-modern archaeology (in Nation and Its Ruins, and in Singular Antiquity), to Gregory Jusdanis' "Farewell to the Classical: Excavations in Modernism," Modernism/Modernity 11:1 (2004), pp. 37-53 and to Hamilakis' response. William Caraher is working on an essay on dream archaeology, namely the use of dreams in predicting site locations (see here). Dimitris Plantzos is also working on non-archaeologists' archaeology (see "Displaying Modernity," and other postings in (pre)texts). Between Hamilakis, Leontis, Jusdanis, Caraher and Plantzos, I sense a thrilling new vibe. I'm staying tuned for the fruits of these insightful observations that are derailing archaeology into meta-positivist directions.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ruins: Feedback

The last couple of postings on punk archaeology have produced some wonderful comments on Facebook that I cannot resist from sharing. Thanks to my supportive friends. You make blogging a satisfying endeavor (one always wonder if anyone is reading out there).


"Kostis, hard to put into words the emotions this evoked for me, especially since I spent my teenage years running around with a bunch of kids who (thought they were) punk and hanging out in ruins too. Since I grew up in Salt Lake, they were not these nineteenth-century East Coast Gothic-tinged ruins, but, still. I often wonder if the same deep melancholy I got in those spaces, the heavy and intoxicating sense of past lives, ordinary and mundane, their loves, deaths, celebrations and Thursday night dinners, was somehow related to my interest in archaeology. Ruins have the ability to conjure a certain type of melancholy that is like nothing else in human experience, I think. Did you know mourning over ruins is a major theme in Arabic poetry? One of my favorites:

At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.

Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?

-Ibn Arabi

Thanks for this, and I spent a long time looking at the photographs you linked to, as well."

Stephennie is a friend from UPenn Art History. She is professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas, Austin and specializes in Syria. We've recently reconnected thanks to the power of Facebook.


Pogue Harrison on the sight of ruins:

"One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases an unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against -natural or geological time- ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them." Robert Pogue Harrison, The dominion of the dead 2003: p. 3.

Omur is an old friend from UPenn. He is a specialist in the architecture of the ancient Near East and professor of archaeology at Brown University. Among his many specializations, Omur is especially active in archaeological theory. See, his Theoretical Archaeology Group here.


"Hey Kostis. Are you familiar with Jeff Brouws work? As a photographer he follows the in the New Topographic lineage looking toward the landscape as cultural product/artifact.

Ryan is an MFA student in photography at the University of North Dakota. His work explore the nature of place/space through artistic and liturgical lenses. Ryan discusses his work and process on a great blog, Axis of Access. Last summer, Ryan was the artist-in-residence at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project in Cyprus. His work in Cyprus is currently exhibited in Topos/Chora: Photographs of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project at the Empire Arts Center, Grand Forks. It was an honor to be invited to write an interpretive essay for Ryan's exhibition. I've never met Ryan in person, but the blogosphere has brought us together.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Camden: Whitman, Smith, Vergara

Walt Whitman spent the end of his life in Camden, N.J., not far from where Patti Smith spent her childhood. While growing up at Germantown, Philadelphia and then Deptford, N.J., Smith would visit the Whitman Hotel in Camden and imagine that her poet hero once inhabited the spaces. Whitman's trajectory of American poetry extends to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, both from Paterson, N.J.; interestingly enough, Williams was Ginsberg's pediatrician and wrote the introduction to "Howl." From Ginsberg, the trajectory continues to Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, an inheritance that neither musician undervalue. The celebration of the every-day, even if it smells of sweat and dirt, is central to Whitman's Amerian tradition. This is what architect Louis Sullivan called the "physiology" rather than the "physiognomy" of American life. Sullivan, who coined the "form follows function" equation was himself not a reductivist; his functionalism was "physiological" not technocratic. If American life has been suffering economic ailments, its physiology is evident not in the great skyscrapers of the spirit but in its ruins of its post-industrial cities.

Patti Smith is not alone to bring us back to Whitman's Camden. Camilo José Vergara, the Chilean-New Yorker photographer has devoted his career in documenting America's fallen urban condition. His American Ruins (1999) was a landmark publication, appearing at the same time that a California school of sociologists (Edward Soja and Mike Davis) turned Marxism's attention from the superstructure to the base, from a functionalist view of the city to a consideration of space. Vergara's photographs have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions since then. But I would like to highlight one particular project, Invincible Cities, where Vergara turns his attention directly onto Camden. Vergara has been producing what he hopes will culminate into "A Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto." Invincible Cities offers Camden as a case study. An interactive database allows the viewer to navigate through Vergara's photographs across space and time.

Vergara has been photographing the American ghetto since the 1970s. His perseverance matches Jacob Riis, while his methodology combines the sociologist's lens with the documentary rigor of Bernd and Hilla Becker. Invincible Cities takes Vergara one step further. I suspect that Patti Smith would find Vergara's lens a little too literal. Walt Whitman might protest the slickness of the digital colors (he would prefer the texture of male sweat). Even if sensibilities differ, Camden needs revisiting and Vergara has let us perform the very kind of scholarly voyeurism that could lead into action if not the transformation of our civic psyche.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Hospital Ruins: Patti Smith

Rebecca Solnit's ruined hospital experience reverberates in Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, which, last week climbed to the 7th spot in the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were regular visitors to Coney Island at a time when the side shows were still surviving. They saw Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus at Hubert's on 42nd St., which closed in 1965. They also visited a small museum with body parts and human embryos in jars. Robert Mapplethorpe became obsessed by the idea and sought to find some of his own specimen. The search lead them to a ruined hospital. The experience seems straight out of a magic realist novel. Patti Smith writes,

"He [Robert Mapplethorpe] asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the Old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island [picture left]. On a Sunday we traveled there with our friends from Pratt. There were two points on the island that we visited. The first was a sprawling nineteenth-century building that had the aura of a madhouse; it was the Smallpox Hospital, the first place in America to receive victims of contagion. Separated only by barbed wire and broken glass, we imagined dying of leprosy and the plague.

"The other ruins were that left of the Old City Hospital, with its forbidding institutional architecture, finally to be demolished in 1994. When we entered it, we were struck by the silence and an odd medicinal smell. We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass." (p. 68)

On the walk back to their home, "... just as we turned the corner to Hall Street, the glass jar slipped inexplicably from his hands and shattered on the sidewalk, just steps from our door. I saw his face. He was so deflated that neither of us could say anything. The purloined jar had sat on the shelf for decades, undisturbed. It was almost as if he had taken its life. 'Go upstairs,' he said. 'I'll clean it up.' We never mentioned it again. There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn't speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness." (p. 69)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hospital Ruins: Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit helped me articulate some threads of Punk Archaeology in her essay "Abandon," in A Field Guide of Getting Lost (New York, 2005, pp. 87-109). Solnit describes her own discovery of punk at the age of 15, "Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation, though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche." Solnit's revelation was more than a musical discovery, it was a shift in incorporating the city within the realms of the natural wilderness. Punk directed Solnit and thousands of other youngsters in the 1980s to connect the surrounding post-industrial decay and the inner self. After all, isn't that one of culture's primarily roles, to negotiate between exterior and interior worlds? In the 1990s, selected neighborhoods went into choreopraphed reinventions. New York got Dinseyfied and hipsters became just marketing demographic. Attention shifted from archaeological realism (a desire to see things as they are and adjust aesthetics accordingly) to historicist melancholy (a desire to relive earlier generations' angst through self-fashioning). Such developments make the 1980s seem like a distinct cultural period, where punk and archaeology united.

Reading through Patti Smith's memoir made me re-read Solnit's essay (read tomorrow's posting). There is one particular detail that unites the two experiences, namely the incorporation of hospital ruins into a search for meaning. Solnit begins her essay with an adventure that, in retrospect, seems like a classic punk pursuit, searching for abandoned buildings and seeking to incorporate them into aesthetic life through photography, music and film.

"The most beautiful thing in the abandoned hospital was the peeling paint. The place had been painted again and again in pastels, and in the years of its abandonment these layers flaked into lozenges and curled scrolls, a different color on each side. The flakes clung to the walls like papery bark and piled up like fallen leaves. I remember walking down one long corridor illuminated only by light from distant doorways. There the paint dangled from ceiling and walls in huge wafers, and my passing stirred the air enough that some came drifting down down in my wake. The movie we made there was was too grainy to show such delicate details, but I remember one passage in it where I was coming down such a corridor and the shafts of light behind me were so strong on either side of my neck that my head seemed at times to detach from my body and hover above it. I had become its haunting wraith.

"That was when I was twenty, half my life ago, and a boy my age made the most politely democratic proposition I ever received: would I like to make a move with him in the ruined hospital near my San Francisco home? I would, we did, and we spent the next six years together in amazing tranquility and stayed close for a few years thereafter... It was the early 1980s, and looking back I can see that it was a sort of golden age of ruins.

"Coming of age in the heyday of punk, it was clear we were living at the end of something--of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of cities. The Bronx was block after block, mile after mile of ruin, as were even some Manhattan neighborhoods, housing projects across the country were in a state of collapse, many of the shipping piers that had been key to San Francisco's and New York's economies were abandoned, as was San Francisco's big Southern Pacific rail yard and its two most visible breweries. Vacant lots like missing teeth gave a rough grin to the streets we haunted. Ruin was everywhere, for cities had been abandoned by the rich, by politics, by a vision of the future. Urban ruins were the emblematic place for this era, the places that gave punk part of its aesthetic, and like most aesthetics this one contained an ethic, a worldview with a mandate on how to act, how to live." (pp. 87-88)

The image at the top is a photo by Camilo Jose Vergara, who will be the subject of a post later this week. The photo, "Henry Horner Homes, 2051 W. Lake St., Chicago, 1995" was featured in Vergara's recent Slate article, "American Ruins: Nature is Taking back These Buildings," (Jan. 15, 2010).

Monday, February 01, 2010

Lancaster: Architecture of Faith

Although I am bursting with topics to blog about, I have been quiet on OBS mostly because I have been setting up another blog, a blog for my class "Lancaster: Architecture of Faith" (F&M, ART 271). Inspired by Bill Caraher's Public History Internship Program, I decided to turn my seminar loose in the blogosphere. I set up Lancaster Architecture over the weekend and made my students submit all of their research on the blog. This reaffirms our commitment to public knowledge, but it also lets the students share their work (both text and image) in real time. Knowing that their research is made instantly available to the public, including the communities that they are writing about, will elevate accountability and rigor. You can visit the blog here:

So far, the students have only met once. The postings to-date reflect their first assignment. Each student had to visit 5-6 churches/synagogues/mosques and report on history and architectural condition. The numbers at the beginning of each entry comes from A. Hunter Rineer, Jr.'s catalog, Churches and Cemeteries of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Lancaster County Historical Society, 1993). Within the first two weeks of the class, the students will have reported on over 100 buildings. Already, this will be the largest record of Lancaster's religious architecture available. After the first two weeks, students will focus on individual case studies and issues.

For more information about the class, see earlier postings. The class syllabus is posted here.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States