Eirini Linardaki: Occupying Public Spaces

In Dialogue with Eirini Linardaki

The artist in Radiator Gallery, interactive magnetic collage artwork

For Greek based artist and activist Eirini Linardaki, who had been born and raised in Athens than moved and resided in France, cognitive diversity is at the forefront of her art projects. She sees her strength in building networks with different voices which help create an environment where diverse Ideas matter more than individual achievement. Through diverse social engagement methods, she aims to show that art is activism. She strongly believes that art can create direct channels for feeling and understanding within public spaces and communities, building trust and hope.

You are based in Greece and work internationally on socially engaged art projects. Tell me a bit about what brought you to this approach.

When I returned to Paris, I felt like everything was too calm. I liked the challenges I faced in Africa and the hope I had to make a difference through art. Since then, I have created more projects, some more challenging than others, but always fulfilling this drive to create through a challenge for change.

I grew up in Athens and then moved to France when I was 17, where I lived for 20 years. I had the chance to go to Liberia twice to conduct an art project – I was invited by a friend who was settled there, she had created her own non-profit, promoting local cultural projects and was collaborating with Handicap International on raising awareness for youth with disabilities in Monrovia through art. I got on a plane and flew to Liberia, without having any idea of what the art scene, or life was like in a country devastated by civil war. When I walked out of the plane, I had to walk between two rows of men in military clothes holding automatic rifles. I was in shock from day one. I met my students, who became friends, who carried me in the most remote and wonderfully decrepit corners of the city and I always felt safe in their company.

We conceived an art project using fabrics because several of my students were seamstresses. It turned into collective performance and filmmaking, with the aim of raising awareness to the invisibility of people with disabilities. It was the first time for me that art became a form of social defense, and not merely a form of expression – Art was activism, action pointing out to the needs of a minority rather than a form of communication. I experienced that feeling of awe that comes with discovering new landscapes, behaviors, and culture that altogether eventually drove me to travel more and meet new communities with new challenges.

Theirland, activation of sculpture from 2006, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art

Experimenting with the magnetic drawings at the Lower East Side Girls Club, New York

Let’s take a look at your Occupy series, starting with Occupy #1 which took place in New York.

Occupy #1 came as an idea when I went to see a play in a repurposed building. While I was walking around the building, I felt it would be way more interesting if it were not empty. This thought stayed with me when I went to visit the gallery of the Greek Consulate in New York. Aside from the opening, there were not many visitors at the gallery space, but the Consulate was bustling with people arriving for a visa, or a certificate. I called the cultural attaché of the Consulate and asked her how many visitors the offices have, and she told me they had about a hundred each day. I asked her if she would trust me to create a residency project within the offices, bringing together the administrative staff and artists who would then exhibit in the premises of the Consulate. I thought it would be interesting to bring in non-Greek artists who use ideas and esthetics inspired from Greece in their work. It was like a two-way game between local and political, public art and public space, which in this case was a nation’s public space within a space. It was a good opportunity to gather and collaborate with several artists whose work I admired to create a meaningful exhibition project.

We presented the idea to the Consul General, who was a person of my generation and had similar cultural references regarding what an occupation represented. In Greece it was a popular form of protest for students to be heard, but also a path to empowerment. I believe it is also a tool for change, and it seemed to me that we needed to bring forward a new paradigm of how we choose to show our art and to create cooperative models.

I also presented the project to the French Institute in Paris, which is part of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and supports cultural projects outside of France. I proposed Occupy as a project through which I was looking into creating a new way of investing in local networks, rather than exporting artists and artworks, as a way to create new synergies with cooperation and projects that will continue to exist in local initiatives. Most importantly, as many artists who work internationally, I came to realize that everywhere I went, there were strong groups and networks of artists that could support each other, and their communities. If only we changed our cultural policies to believe in these existing ties and strengthen them, they would deliver the change we all aspire to be part of.

Occupy #1 took place in February 2020 and was very intense because we were working with the staff of the Consulate at the same time as visitors were applying for visas and certificates. It gave a glimpse at the real life of an administrative representation and how through this procedure artists came to bond with the staff. It was truly touching to see how easy and smooth the installation was. At the night of the opening, two countries’ representations were present both from the cultural and administrative sectors. Crowds walked through the offices, talking with the artists and staff. It was a first experience for all of us and a wonderful surprise how well the concept resonated with the different audiences.

Julien Gardair finishing up his installation at the ground floor lobby of the Greek General Consulate of Greece in New York

Installing Song Xin’s work in an office of Consulate and removing an old print

You are currently working on Occupy #2 which starts as a working group you have curated and planned for 2021. What would you like to share about that project?

Occupy #2 has a different approach. It is conceived for a group of artists and curators who are trying to survive in isolation during our global crisis. We constituted the core art group associated with the project by observing their practices and research and how these have a bonding and structuring role in the art community. We aim to demonstrate that artists and curators are full time researchers and that our research body should be recognized and valued as such and, ideally, funded independently from artistic production. We are joined by a network of collaborators, such as art spaces, residencies and other structures that can bring their resources and expertise to our group, think together of ways to help, activate and inter-connect networks.

In 2020 Occupy works essentially through dialogue, creating a time and space for exchange in our research group and community building. Through interviews at the beginning of our project we focused on the challenges and issues that surfaced in the different environments where our participants live and work: Athens, Heraklion, Paris, Marseille, Montpellier, New York, and Jerusalem. We discussed socio-political change and activism, community based and public art projects – how hierarchy in different art communities changes in our time, accessibility for artistic minorities, and how artists become citizens.

The group prepared a series of open round-table discussions online where those themes are explored with guests and collaborators from all over the world. The talks are taking place between October and December 2020. In 2021 we will present the body of our research that links the developments in our society in the last ten years with the evolution of the art world and the themes that we have covered in our exchanges.

In Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, American artist, writer, and educator Suzanne Lacy defined new genre public art as being activist, bringing the artist into direct engagement with the audience, while addressing social and political issues. How do you see your work in that context?

Guillermo Gomez-Pena, to whom Suzanne Lacy refers in her book, suggests that artists
are “media pirates, border crossers, cultural negotiators, and community healers”. Since I was raised in a working-class family in a strong activist environment, I consider that artists are part of working-class but also transgressors of boundaries in a way that can inspire change. Public art is a form of connecting directly with our audiences, bypassing the paradigm of art directors and elite art customers, while exposing the artists to public and direct criticism. An artist needs to be humble in their approach and direct in the expression of their idealism when morphing into defining public space and engaging with an audience. The definition of an artist’s role as an activist is how they define and choose their communication method with a community. Suzanne Lacy says that when “public” begins to figure prominently in the art-making equation, the staging area for art becomes potentially any place – from newspapers to public restrooms, from shopping malls to the sky. It seems to me the essence of what community engagement is, finding the space and method of communication.

During the quarantine months in my city, I noticed that my neighbors, especially the elderly citizens continued to read the local newspaper, connecting them to small and big news of their community without the stress of television. I created a small project for them, called Love from a Distance – we got by email drawings from families addressing the elderly members of our society, and then we published them weekly at the local newspaper- making my elderly neighbors and citizens of my city the subject of an ongoing public art project, the center of attention of all the families that participated. It started because my children made drawings for my parents who, as many grandparents were alone and felt isolated. Then the project spread beyond our city, as other families joined, when The National Herald, the Greek-American community newspaper participated in the project.

Collage from the Monster Series, 2019 – 2020

Your work reflects a strong faith in the power of art to change thinking patterns and behavior. What is your take on that art/activism view and what are you aiming for people to take away?

I remember showing Rothko’s paintings to a group of teenagers from a small provincial village in Greece who hadn’t had the opportunity to see art before. It was so obvious to them how the painter had created a direct path of communication between his feelings and them. I want all of us to be more open to listen and to feel, and art can help us do that. Above all else I want us to learn how to listen to those who cannot speak.

As a feminist I believe in the tenet that the personal is political. My personal experience has been shaped by being in a career which has impacted in a multifaceted way on my artistic approaches and motivations. One of my sons has a significant speech impediment that has created difficulties in his expression of ideas. And I have seen him struggling to express himself. Since I became a mother, I have acquired experience on other accessibility issues. As such, I am deeply committed as a professional to create work that is accessible to an audience with diverse needs but to also raise awareness amongst my colleagues in curatorial practice for including these considerations in our work ethics. 

Occupy #2 teams and collaborators

All photos courtesy of the artist

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com

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