THE ART of Bill Balaskas stands out for its coolly detached irony and playful insider’s understanding at once. I have interviewed him with great interest in his ideas throughout the years of the Greek financial crisis, chiefly because his university studies in economics in his native city of Thessaloniki have given a powerful impetus to his art, through which he continuously unravels the different facets of the crisis and how it has affected Greece’s socio-political structure.
His outlook is unique, combining a silently discerning humour with a blaringly intelligent effort to shed stark light on where things stand for him as a citizen of Greece but also of the world. Since 2005 he has been based in London and working across different media, while also regularly exhibiting internationally and in Greece, most recently at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, in Athens, and the Thessaloniki Biennale.
Today Balaskas’ focus continues to be fuelled by his economic studies-inspired intellect, but has now taken off from his home country to address issues in Europe at large, and the problems of insecurity, confusion and conflict faced by its citizens and leaders alike today. He says: “Over the last few years I have shifted my focus from Greece itself to the wider cultural origins of the crisis – still using Greece as a case study but expanding my outlook by looking at how things are happening in other countries, or in general in the European socio-economic system.”
Balaskas has been very busy. Last year alone, he participated in 16 international exhibitions in venues including BOZAR (Brussels, Belgium), Le CENTQUATRE (Paris, France), TENT (Rotterdam, The Netherlands) and the John Hansard Gallery (Southampton, UK). He received a glowing review about his latest work in “Frieze” magazine and was featured in “Le Monde” newspaper, which chose “Parthenon Rising (II)” as the best work of the exhibition “Passé Simple, Futurs Composés” in Le CENTQUATRE. He was invited to talks in renowned institutions, including Oxford University and had his book “Red Art: New Utopias in Data Capitalism” published by Leonardo/ The MIT Press published. He is currently participating in the exhibition”PUNK: Its traces in contemporary art“, where he will be presenting a new version of his work “ECANOMIE” as of March 26th, alongside notable artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger, Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin and Tony Oursler.
His success could be said to stem from his very polite, friendly and down to earth nature in combination with a sharp, passionate professional focus, but also that through the fact that through his thematic messaging he manages to touch a nerve on such a broad level. His works immediately and creatively relates to what people’s daily lives are coloured with, very much because of the constantly changing political and economic landscape.
Which takes us to his fascination with, and interpretation of, spectacle. “Spectacle is one of the most prominent manifestations of how the system has been dealing with the crisis itself,” he sustains, and indeed, one could agree that spectacle, or optical illusion, diversion tactics and other such politically motivated and media manifested quackery, is an aspect of the status quo that more and more people around the world today are waking up to, and want to see exposed for what it is.
“The crisis has become a huge spectacle that is being used not only by political institutions and politicians but also by economic players,” Balaskas says, adding that: “always, ‘spectacularization’ is a very good strategy to make citizens passive, and to make us forget about the essence of the problem, to make us focus on the appearance, or surface of things.”
His preoccupation with spectacle was also brilliantly revealed in 2010, when he presented a video centred on Greece’s most spectacular cultural inheritance, the Parthenon. He visited the ancient monument during the night of the August full moon, the only night of the year when the Acropolis is open to the public during night hours, and produced Parthenon Rising, a video showing the Parthenon as it was lit by camera flashes from all the photos that were being taken of it by the hundreds of visitors. He had described his idea at the time as a way of showing the symbol of Greek heritage as a celebrity walking the red carpet, being lit by the flashes of admirers’ cameras.
His current focus on the wider issues faced in Europe on a socio-political and economic front were expressed in his latest exhibition in August 2014 of the work ‘Ou La Mort’ (Or Death). The work is made up of an old French typewriter from 1967, a key moment in French but also European history, just before the events of 1968, from which Balaskas removed all the keys necessary for writing ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, the slogan of the French Revolution.
Relating to the piece, Balaskas explains: “actually the title of this work is the second part of this slogan. I have written the slogan on a piece of paper, which is exhibited just opposite the typewriter. When the audience sees this they think, ‘the slogan can only be written once and cannot be written again, because all the keys have been removed’, but on the other hand this impression is completely false as it’s not the mechanism of the typewriter that has been affected; it’s just the keys that have been removed. So, it is on the one hand a comment on the fact that Europe is losing its path, losing its understanding of what it means to be part of one common family; and, on the other hand, it’s also a comment on this fake, surface, spectacular image, that is telling us that some things are possible and some things are impossible – as in, now it’s impossible to be thinking about universal rights, equality, or freedom for all the citizens of Europe.”
Balaskas is planning to exhibit his newest works in Art Brussels in spring 2015, with Kalfayan Galeries, with the theme again focussing on the political and even moral aspects of the European crisis. He says that his new works will be looking at “the fact that we have lost hope as citizens. People are constantly feeling unsafe right now in Europe, on so many levels.”
His upcoming works include a series of custom-made sleeping masks, all of which feature the phrase: “The leadership has failed”, embroidered on them. Balaskas explains that: “This is one of the last phrases that Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said before she died”.
“Luxemburg said: ‘the leadership has failed, so we need to reinvent it and we have to come together to do something new’. But I’m purposely ending the phrase there and placing it on a sleeping mask to accentuate the fact that we are quite passive about the situation, because there is a whole elite that has failed us via its cultural, political, financial and other leadership. However, on the other hand, we don’t see yet what has come, how we can replace the previous status quo. So instead of that, we are in a passive situation and we go back to sleeping. To some extent, I don’t think we are quite ready; but, at the same time, we are not quite willing as well to actually address the situation, so I’m playing with that ambivalence.”
When asked whether he intends to keep his creative bond with Greece strong, in terms of his focus as an artist, Balaskas says that his rapport with his native land will inevitably always remain, and that he can see positive aspects emerging in the country.
Balaskas says: “I can genuinely say that, as an artist, Athens is a more exciting place to be than London. However, I also see a great deal of the negative elements of the past resolutely remaining there and really wanting to survive.” Those aspects are perhaps better addressed by taking a cooler stance, and that usually requires some distance.
Culture, 2013, Mixed-media installation (neon, 1000 metres of cable, socket). Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki.
Bill Balaskas is currently a PhD candidate in the programme of Critical Writing in Art & Design of the Royal College of Art and he holds an MA from the same college. His works have been widely exhibited internationally, in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions. He has received nominations for several awards, including the AUDI Art Award for the most innovative young artist in 2013. In 2012, he represented the UK in the London Cultural Olympiad and in Maribor, the European Capital of Culture. Furthermore, he has presented work in special curated sections at Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Cologne and Art Brussels, amongst others, and his works have been regularly featured in major international publications such as Frieze, The Art Newspaper, Le Monde, Domus, Third Text and Espoarte. In addition to his artistic practice, Bill Balaskas is an awarded writer as well as an editor for the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (The MIT Press). In the last few years, he has given public talks about his work at the University of Oxford, the 11th Sharjah Biennial, Tate Liverpool, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Central Saint Martins and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
* Introductory photo depicts artwork: It’s a real shock! Ink on Graph Paper, 21 x 29 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki.