Can the old and the new live together? Should tradition or the familiar have to make way for progress and the uncertainty that comes with it? Addressing current global sociopolitical issues (with a backdrop of ongoing refugee crises, rising nationalistic and partisan politics, and the economic issues of Greece and the EU at large) the work deals with the anguish and confusion of individuals and social groups when called upon to address similar dilemmas. Presenting viewers with the arguments, the onus is on action. With a classic yet efficient plan, artist George Rivas turns the Greek pavilion into an allegory of today’s scientific, geopolitic and demographic issues with a clear allusion to migratory flows.
Part of a collection of interactive pieces presented at the Biennale, George Drivas’ Laboratory of Dilemmas draws on the structure of ancient Greek drama and is presented on screens and as audio through an installation divided into three parts: the Upper Level, the Lower Level/Labyrinth and the Screening Room. The narrative and installation are based on Aeschylus’ theatre play Iketides (Suppliant Women), written between 463 and 464 BC and the first known literary text to reflect on the issues of a persecuted group of people seeking asylum.
The Suppliants, having left Egypt to avoid marrying their first cousins, arrive in city of Argos and seek asylum from its King. The King’s dilemma is central to the play: help the foreign, thus inciting war with the Egyptians seeking to reclaim the Suppliants, or deny them the asylum they seek and in doing so, break the laws of Hospitality and violate the principles of Law and Humanism, leaving the Suppliants at the mercy of the Egyptians who may destroy them for their actions.
Having gone through many stages, a surprising discovery is made in the project’s final stage. A group of new cells is discovered within their cell culture, different from what they have been investigating. These new cells are vulnerable outside the cell culture and displayed a tension to organize with the old cells.
Should the researchers allow the two cell populations to organize themselves in hope that through their interactions the new cells would be able to survive and thrive, providing the researchers the opportunity to further study and improve the existing culture? Or should the Professor prevent the new cells from organizing themselves, thus isolating and condemning them to extinction in fear that they would dangerously corrupt or even destroy the existing culture.
The installation presents the dilemma between saving the “Foreigner” or maintaining the safety of the “Native.” Through the installation’s structure Drivas causes visitors to slow down and let the allegorical meaning of the experiment sink in. Anyone rushing through the installation will miss Charlotte Rampling’s cameo in the closing video (as the people who entered the installation with me did). The story is presented piecemeal through multiple video and sound sources inside a Labyrinth. Entering into the pavilion, viewers meet a dark, dimly lit entrance and leading up a flight of stairs to the Upper Level. A raised corridor along the perimeter of the space, viewers look down into a dark labyrinth revealed from above.
Reminiscent of footage of the Dharma Initiative from the television show Lost, six small screens are spaced along the bannister showing 1–2 minutes excerpts of found footage on loop, paired with commentary and notes from an unseen director. The experiment born of the Laboratory reimagines the King’s dilemma as a medical discovery lost since the 1960s. Never completed for unknown reasons, excerpts and found footage from an old documentary reveal details of the experiment, the Greek professor who envisioned it, and his disagreements with his fellow researchers.
Descending from the Upper Level, the viewer witnesses the cause of the dilemma, the discovery of the new cells. Descending from the Upper Level in to the Lower Level/Labyrinth, viewers begin their journey through the maze they viewed from above. According to director notes, video recording was no longer allowed after the discovery of the foreign cells. The audio guides viewers through the labyrinth as they listen to the discussions between the Professor and his fellow researchers as they debate what to do with the new cells.
Somewhat disorientating, with few lights, mirrored surfaces, and open walls, viewers journey through the labyrinth listening to audio excerpts from the documentary. Like the documented cells, viewers need to organize themselves to make their way through the experiment successfully. Internal thoughts mix with those voiced by the researchers. In the video clips the Professor describes the layout of the lab, which mirrors that of the installation’s Labyrinth, as encouraging spontaneous interactions (calling to mind the offices of tech companies like Apple). The same happens in the installation itself, but the Labyrinth has wayfinding arrows (though subtle) which somewhat counteract that.
At the end of the labyrinth, viewers come to a small screening room. Presented there on a large screen is a film dramatization, based on the director’s notes, of the research team debating how to address the dilemma of the new cells within their culture. The professor, fellow scientists, and official representatives of the laboratory discuss how to address the new cells, according to the Professor and the findings of the other researchers. Everyone present has their say, whether they’re directly involved or not. Arguments are presented in quick procession.
The original ending of the conversation was not recorded by the director, cutting the debate at its most critical moment, restarting and creating another loop. The dilemma remains open and unresolved, leaving interpreation and resolution to the viewer and releasing them both from the experiment of the narrative and the installation itself. Addressing contemporary sociopolitical issues and offering a wandering experience with unique readings to every visitor, Laboratory of Dilemmas goes further with the theme of this year’s biennale, Viva Arte Viva, than many of pieces in the main exhibition. It presents itself in an original and perceptive way, asking viewers to reinvent the world as much as the biennale’s theme asked artists to and in a way that is more engaging and thought-provoking.
The project is funded by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, and curated by Orestis Andreadakis, with The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) appointed commissioner of Greece’s national participation. One of thirty proposals, the work was selected by an advisory committee, appointed by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Laboratory of Dilemmas
May 13–November 26, 2017
Commissioner: National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST)
Director: Katerina Koskina
Curator: Orestis Andreadakis
Producer: Fenia Cossovitsa
Production Design: Elias Ledakis
Director of Photography: Claudio Bolivar
Editing: Christos Gakis
Costume Designer: Eva Nathena
Production: Blonde Audiovisual Productions, Athens