Introduced through a conversation between the artistic duo VASKOS (Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis) and curator Nadja Argyropoulou
My militant dandies
All strange order of monsters
Hot on the tail of the woodvine
We welcome you to our procession
Words be quick
Words resemble walking sticks
Plant them they will grow
Watch them waver so
I’ll always be a word man
Better then a bird man”
Nadja Argyropoulou: I am thinking through these last lines from “Curses, invocations”, the poem in the composition of “An American Prayer” that lent a title to your work. Morrison’s affair with what he called “the divine mockery of words” is deep and complicated; partly a sign of his time (the ‘60’s revolution against dogmas and authorities, the cry against WASP dominance, political injustices, the Vietnam war); partly a testimony to his studies and voracious reading habits (film, theatre, Artaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the Beats, Symbolism and Surrealism, Plutarch, Greek mythology, Freud, Nietzsche, Huxley, Cocteau, aboriginal myths).
You are also committed to language, its ability to make and unmake, to create and destroy worlds. All your work – in visual arts, performance, publishing, even activism – stems from an almost labyrinthine move, a procession in and with poems, writings, plays, lyrics.
So I thought we should immediately address the elephant in the room, or rather the starry signs of self-censorship on your naked bodies, the masking of your genitals that we see in a scene of “My Militant Dandies”: what is the language or lack thereof that is thus invoked?
Vassilis Noulas: We thought a lot about whether we should even include this scene in our short movie. We considered possible institutional reactions, restrictions by social media platforms – fb, Instagram and the rest-, even the state of public discourse, which at the moment is in the throes of sexual scandals, power abuse, the Greek #metoo moment and its sad debasement through current political debates and the polarization created by political parties, the frightening triumph of moralizing principles…
Kostas Tzimoulis: And we resisted. We went ahead with this slightly surreal ritual of domestic intimacy, the small, familiar gestures of coffee-drinking in the kitchen spiked by ”acting” (an awkward, spasmodic mime) and the unromantic, non-sensual nakedness of a couple’s routine. Our art deals a lot with this experience of the un-heroic.
NA: And we talked about all this and mutually decided to embrace the ”masking” of the bodies, to star-strike their ”offensive” parts so that we can draw attention to the ridicule of the new conservatism that is upon us, to the hypocritical, violent agencies that push us towards conformity, to the fear that is instilled in us by various authorities, including certain intellectual ones that coerce us into complicity, domestication.
It feels as if we are in an age of the pseudo-political and words have been drained of their meaning, co-opted by reactionary agendas, exhausted by the literal and the illiterate.
You have made very irreverent, disturbing work, plays that engaged with pornography, vice, horror, cruelty, and you presented it in small apartments and on big institutional stages. What are your ceremonies of resistance?
VN: We feel a little like the 60’s and 70’s progeny. We are perplexed with a younger generation’s apathy or its hasty reaction to side with one popular idea or another. We feel strangled by the small suit, the enclosures that political correctness is creating, even though we belong to minorities – artists, homosexuals, independent workers. I guess we have mostly addressed our kin, both in the context of the underground or vis-à-vis the wider, free thinking, educated audiences of the bigger institutional spaces. Come to think of it, we have never engaged with the theatrical routines of the middle-class, middle-taste kind. Maybe this is the real battleground. Yet we believe that by being openly, vocally present in the social field we always risk confrontation, rejection, criticism.
We always felt that provocation is a vital, organic part of the arts so we can in no way see it as a ”tool”. We have decided to test the limits of language and this is how we ‘embody’ provocation: to put words to the test of performativity, to go for the gaps that are generated in this process, to highlight the moments of uncertainty, to build our own genealogies and invoke their spirits, their wor(l)ds, so that we can throw them against our own experiences and expectations.
KT: Our work is a kind of open dramaturgy where questions and answers are enacted one into the other. Things are carefully planned and thought through but performed un-hierarchically. This short movie, for example, considers the paradox in the verse “my militant dandies”. Dandyism is guilty of detachment -the ivory-tower effect – and militancy often results in extremism, in the perils of absolutism. We think that dragging the two together offers a generative clash, a way to queer their meanings and suggest another. Maybe the artist is this other meaning, born out of a semantic paradox.
NA: Fission, the multiplication of identities is a strong characteristic of your work. VASKOS is a process of dividuation, coming from and leading to multifaceted art projects, various cultural entities, many activist initiatives: nova melancholia, The EIGHT, the occupancies of Embros and Green Park the Performance Biennial NO FUTURE and more.
There is also friction in all of this, things rub off on each other like those bodies-in-heat in Embiricos’s poem, “Odos Fillelinon”.
This movie enters through the mundane pissing-scene – an allusion to both territorial demarcation and an-all-too common bodily function of release. Then it moves to a de-romanticized use of poetics: I revel at the verses and trans-references that pop-up and submerge in “My Militant Dandies”. It feels like one has to go on an Alice-type of hunt.
First Anthologia Palatina 12.126.5-6, and quoted by Ann Carson in “Eros: the Bittersweet”:
“When I look at Diophantos, new shoot among
the young men,
I can neither flee nor stay”
KT: The lover that is pulled between acting and not acting… splitting desire. The “glukopikron” (bittersweet) of Sappho that touches on contradictions and impossible choices. “My Militant Dandies” is constructed around a binary system: red and green. We thought of symbolic cultural constructs rooted in our childhood. Indians and cowboys, outlaws and sheriffs, good and bad, love and hate, life and death. The two colors somehow make the characters.
NA: And then the Himalyan song that Vassilis sings in the bathroom and echoes the red desert winds that blow in Morrison’s lines, the “order of monsters”:
“The sky is lead and our faces are red,
And the gates of Hell are opened and riven,
And the winds of Hell are loosened and driven,
And the dust flies up in the face of Heaven…”
VN: You had a fruitful hunt! Indeed this is a poem I encountered in a story by Rudyard Kipling – “At the end of the Passage” – translated by Kosmas Politis.
I found reverberations of this bloody, apocalyptic vision in Morrison’s poetry.
NA: I can go on and on: “The gifts” by Miltos Sahtouris are called forth with the verse, “Today I wore a warm red blood”, that we can hear in your work.
Or verses from “A Little Death to Raise a Smile” (Petit Mort Pour Rire) by Tristan Corbière so beautifully translated in Greek by Kostas Karyotakis:
“Fly swiftly, slight painter of comets!
Grass in the wind will be your hair,
And from your gaping eyes will flare
Will-o’-the wisps, that sad minds inhabit…”
And then Morrison again in “Dawn’s Highway”, the eerie tale of his possession by an Indian’s spirit: “‘Indian, Indian what did you die for?’”/Indian says, ‘Nothing at all’”.
The sound scape of your work complements the visual in a process of polyvocal confabulation, co-authorship, where many things come together: words, objects, encounters, ghosts. I enjoy how your authority is broken and incomplete as you/we are being sent from one voice to the other.
VN: This is our modus operandi. Continuous transformation. Many are invoked as we move through every part of our house: Nikos Karouzos in “Romantic epilogue”, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, the Queen, and also “Gloomy Sunday”, sung by Diamanda Galas and my mother in previous plays of Nova Melancholia.
It is an open process of visitations and inhabitations. Even the clothes we use are family heirlooms or remnants of previous performances.
If you listen carefully, from the beginning of this video we lay a stream of words, like a constant murmur made out of the titles and numbers of works at the ACG Art Collection. They act as doors to self-portraits that are dragged into a flow of blending identities, into a ritual of joyful mourning and transmutations. They become a kind of a metronome in the work. They are there but under; they are apparitions that you asked us to conjure.
KT: And then this purposeless domestic flanerie is grounded in the scene of the bed, where the tender green body is surrounded by incense and card-postals, images of art works from museums around the world, mementos of trips lost to us who now reside into the pandemic dystopia, exotic mirages in the alter-wild of our home deserts. There is no direct way to read the personae that we become in this work as there is no one way to feel an artwork.
When we dress up and perform, each of us may read things differently: You commented on Morrison’s traumatic upbringing by a father serving as an official in the army; we also pulled the soldier figure in “My Militant Dandies” out of previous works and concerns with militarization.
The swirling, trance-like dance at the end of the movie is a more optimistic move – it alludes to how we often feel like conduits, connecting things chthonic and of the air.
NA: This feels like a centrifugal, rather than a centripetal, move. The imaginary is what tends to become real. And, as in every work you make, there is a Proustian recourse to the workings of memory; memory assembled through fractures, via the contrast of intimacy and alienation; memory triggered by the unexpected appearance of what was hidden in plain sight.
“What is missing the first time is probably not understanding, but memory”: this is the preface to your latest book -“VASKOS presents Ivory Towers” – quoted from Marcel Proust’s “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower-In Search of Lost Time” .
I feel that “My Militant Dandies” recalls almost all of “An American Prayer”, through forgetting it as a whole.
VN& KT: It is quite moving what you describe and it makes a lot of sense.
Your invitation to consider Morrison’s ‘curses and invocations’ felt both untimely and urgent to us. The conservative turn is now wide and occupies the whole horizon. The dynamics change, circumstances guide us in how we shift our attention and responses. Ceremonies change. We thought what you said earlier about Kafka’s “Burrow” and his own metaphor for the invading beast. We try to adjust and find ways to penetrate the boundaries that are always drawn between legal and illegal, sacred and profane, accessible and prohibited. It is an ongoing, unheroic struggle. Each time we find a way in, we reveal it to the ‘enemy’ and the hole quickly closes on us. We insist. We play it again, we perform as many.
NA: Well…Kafka’s unfinished line salutes Morrison’s premature ending, “But all remained unchanged, the—”.
My Militant Dandies
HD video, 14’ 34’’
created by Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis
sound: Vassilis Noulas and Kostas Tzimoulis
song set in music and performed by Vassilis Noulas
Work commissioned by curator Nadja Argyropoulou for the project: “Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin”