(Not) Being There: Presence, Absence, Institutional Space, the Politics of Place
by Toby Lee — Harvard University
September 15, 2010 – 00:01
BEGINNINGS & ENDINGS We begin with a video created for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The Festival opens with a journey-collage through the history of cinema. In the ceremony hall, this video is projected on three large screens surrounding the audience. A train takes us through various cinemascapes, coming to a stop in front of the Olympion, Festival headquarters, in Thessaloniki’s main square. A journey through time ends up at place.
PLACE For the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009, a ceremony is organized to honor key figures from the Festival’s history. As awards are given to people representing vastly different periods of this history, it becomes clear that the Festival’s institutional history is fractured, discontinuous. The ceremony closes with a commemoration of Nikos Koundouros’ The River, which received top honors at the inaugural festival edition 50 years ago - not only in the same city, but in the very same building, in the very same hall. Place does what a disjointed historical narrative cannot - it grounds the institution, stitches together a coherent identity.
ABSENCE The same year, 200+ of the most prominent filmmakers in Greece decide to boycott the Festival. Unhappy with state agencies and national film policy, the filmmakers choose the high-profile 50th anniversary edition as the site of their protest, refusing to participate and to attend until new legislation is passed. Their protest takes the form of an absence - not being there - while the local Festival public accuses the absent filmmakers of trying to undermine the city of Thessaloniki. The filmmakers insist that it’s about the state; for the local Festival public, it’s about place.
PRESENCE Months later, the filmmakers take their protest to the Greek Film Center. This time, they decide that the best way to protest is to occupy the Center - they gather at the Center’s headquarters, they enter, they fill the space with bodies. Apart from this, they do little more. Their protest lies in their presence, being there.
SPACE In these various configurations of presence and absence, we sense a deep underlying investment in space and place, in being or not being there. But there being what? Apart from the products, practices and discourses generated by cultural institutions, there’s also something at stake in institutional space. The international film festival exists as event, exhibition venue, market, discursive center, but it also exists as a space: as institutional space, as a space of the state, as particular locality. And we define ourselves - as professionals, as citizens, as publics - within and against these spaces.