EDUCULT Talks: with Eleni Palles
Eleni Palles has lived and worked in Vienna for several years now. After studying architecture, she studied scenography and the art of illusion. In an interview with EDUCULT, she talks about arriving and living in Vienna, the challenges she faces, her interdisciplinary work and the possibilities art offers in initiating social change.
EDUCULT: Let’s start with the first round of questions: Why are you in Vienna?
Eleni Palles: I came on Erasmus in 2008. It was clear to me that I wanted to see something after my studies in Athens, I always wanted to go abroad and was very curious. There was only an Erasmus location in Vienna. I was already there once because a cousin of mine lives in Vienna. I always liked the city and had a super-fine time on Erasmus. I was at the TU and enjoyed how international it all was. Then I finished my diploma and decided to come back.
You did your diploma in Athens and came back afterwards?
Yes, I started to work and then I started to study scenography here at the academy of fine arts. My graduation is now three years ago. Since then I have always worked on the border between architecture and art.
You liked Vienna very much – what did you like?
That it was different from Athens. I think it’s a pleasant city, I think the culture is very friendly; it’s a good mixture of east and west, or south and north. My first introduction was of course my cousin. I had already had a good arrival, dear people, who I knew.
Via Erasmus you found your way to Vienna, where you studied at the TU – how did you feel when you came here and successively joined the business? Did you feel accepted? Did you find a connection?
Immediately. I was sort of looking for jobs in architecture in English and that was quick and easy. It’s very international, there are enough offices and people who are or work internationally. I didn’t start with German, but it made me learn well. In the beginning I was afraid, but that was never a problem. It wasn’t that my German was too little in the beginning.
Why is it that you speak such wonderful German?
I have perfected it since then. If you live somewhere, it’s easier for you to learn – books can also help. I wanted to speak German immediately and I know that it is exhausting for locals when you have to repeat things but you just have to start and then it works. You miss a few things in the beginning.
You had family connection here, which probably made it a little easier. But have you immersed yourself in a Greek community in Vienna? Do they have their own scene?
I know enough Greek people in Vienna, but I wouldn’t necessarily be friends with anyone for that reason. In the last few years more Greek people have come, many artists, I have many musician friends. There have been Greek communities for years, but I’m not that involved. For me this is too much nostalgia.
You didn’t have to hold to the Greek community because there were no other contacts. You were accommodated in international offices and oriented yourself differently, in a rather cosmopolitan way.
Yes, and that was also possible. Fortunately, architecture is its own language. With law, that would be different. The profession helped me to make good progress internationally.
What made you decide to go to the academy and study again while you were already highly qualified?
Scenography and the art of illusion in space have always interested me. Athens didn’t have its own university for it. I met two girls who studied it and I was fascinated by the potential of explicitly studying art. I didn’t know what studying art could do. It was wonderful, a completely different track from architecture. I had to unlearn a lot again.
What do you bring with you culturally, what makes you special in this business? Scenography doesn’t exist as a study in Athens, but is there something that you not only have unlearned, but also want to contribute that gives you a special position as a Greek woman in Vienna?
There is no study of one’s own. Those who do this have studied painting or architecture. I don’t especially know, but I am at the intersection between many things that I might try to combine, many interests and disciplines. I have come to unexpected results several times. Maybe it’s not a classical stage design for an opera, it’s a light installation for a performance with a live musician, other results are created. These disciplinary overlays are very positive and can lead to results that you can’t define beforehand.
Your personal characteristic is that you are curious and try to bring disciplines together – does that also have something Greek about it?
I don’t think it has anything to do with nationality. It has nothing to do with Greek. The attitude of a person who decides to start over or dive deeper is different from that of a person who is afraid. I am not afraid to fail, I have nothing to lose.
I assume you still have close ties to your homeland. Can you estimate how you will be seen by them?
My sister and mother still live in Athens, we are very close. Of course we miss each other, but they are both happy for me. They can understand that I can do my thing differently here. With the other friends, there is sometimes a huge question mark, because you can’t always explain art. Many people want to give a word or a title to what I do.
Pinned, that’s what she’s doing now.
Or a price. There were always such drawers. I didn’t move away because of the crisis but there are many people today who are looking for something else, there are economic reasons. I am often asked, what is it like? Are there jobs? Can you work? There are also such questions.
What is on your mind at the moment, what are you working on, in which projects are you involved?
Before the summer I had an installation in the Natural History Museum together with my colleague Anna Lerchbaumer. It was a mixture again, Anna is a video artist, and also has a past in architecture. The right medium for our themes was video and sound. The themes were future, environment, design, fiction as a method to ask certain questions. We have both stayed on this track where we want to continue working with fiction as a method. That’s what I meant before, you throw everything in and then you see what it becomes, maybe a performance, maybe a sculpture. You don’t have to know.
May I ask you political questions because you have mentioned Greece and the crisis. How do you experience “Austrians” in relation to a country like Greece, which has gotten into existential problems? Do you discuss this much? What is your perception of how it is understood from an Austrian perspective and how it is negotiated politically?
The truth is, in Vienna, the artists and people I surround myself with think politically, but also critically. Unfortunately, I don’t know the results of the election in Vienna. I don’t come into contact so often with people who are very radical. I was also surprised then, where are these people, because I don’t know them. That is perhaps a pity. One can separate, but one must continue to engage, either they separate from us or we separate from them – I don’t know why this dialogue no longer exists.
You are surrounded by people who are like-minded and have open, liberal attitudes. When you look at the results of the elections, you see that there are completely different people – people with whom neither you nor your friends and colleagues deal?
Vienna is a different situation than the rest of Austria. That is what I mean.
You are in a Viennese milieu where the right-wing populist, right-wing radical, xenophobic mood does not reach you, you do not feel it?
No. Friends of mine who come from Tyrol or Salzburg also say that Vienna is completely different. This was also seen in the elections. Perhaps because people in a big city come into contact more with other nationalities or refugees and are therefore not so afraid. I only live in Vienna and cannot explain the results in the rest of Austria.
If you go shopping, take the tram, you feel fine and not under pressure. You have no negative experiences?
When you talk about the separation between the Viennese milieu and others, how do you assess this in Greece? Do politics work differently there? Do you still get anything out of it?
Yes, in Greece right-wing populism is on the rise just like in other countries. People are afraid of the other, the new. I think fear has no nationality. That always happens in times of crisis. Everyone needs a scapegoat or a reason why you feel bad. In Greece now it’s the refugees or the migrants or the homeless. There is a crisis all over Europe, you can see that in every country.
How do you assess your profession? Can what you do to relativize the growing divisions in society, create liabilities – or is it a small segment of your own in which you make your stories, but it has little to do with the big and the world? Do you have ambitions in this direction?
I think nothing is too small. That’s exactly the role of art and culture. Nothing is small, that I’m there and I’m not trying to stay in one dimension is a big deal. Making connections between nationalities, between disciplines, arts. I work with people from Austria, from Luxembourg, from the USA, one of my last works was with an artist from Iran, there is no filter. I wouldn’t say that I make political art, but that’s how it is perceived. This kind of art and working together is political and can bring about something.
What is your motivation to work with people who have fled from Iran or Afghanistan?
I don’t see the nationality in that. Ali Reza (Daryanavard) found me through another acquaintance and told me his idea. I find him to be a very talented and an interesting person. You can immediately see that this exchange is good. I first see the person, the artist and the exchange. If I didn’t like him or his arts, I wouldn’t do it. I look beyond this nationality.
Exactly. I talk to the person and if it fits from the head or the desire, then I have no filter because of the nationality.
Recently a report on the social situation of the artists has come out, coincidentally. It says that many artists are not doing well and that no sizeable funding is flowing into the arts. Do you see what you do sufficiently appreciated in society and politics? Or could improvements be made?
The unconditional basic income for artists would be great for a city like Vienna that thrives in large part due to its art and culture. Because that’s exactly their strength, I think it’s a pity if people can’t do their art or only half because they have to work somewhere else. I see that as an investment. In Austria it’s much better than in other countries. It is also a good example for many cities in Europe with its art, education and universities. If Mr. Kurz wants to talk business, he could sell it as a prototype or model. Culture is sold in Vienna. He can also see it as an investment, if he likes.
Coming back to Greece once again: How do you assess the situation of artists there?
Of course there is less for art. There is still art, the artists simply can’t help themselves. I know many who try abroad, try to become more international and communicate their work to the outside world. There are enough good artists and in Athens there is currently the possibility of making art more flexible. You could find better places to make art. There is currently an unofficial track, but that’s exactly the point.
An informal sector.
Exactly. I am going to spend this winter in Greece. I missed a lot of things, I see it sporadically when travelling and when I hear from my friends. I am curious to discover and see more for myself.
There have been huge stories about the Documenta where some of them took place in Athens and others in Kassel. Do you see solidarity there, has that brought anything? Was it possible to draw attention to the Greek art scene? Do you have the impression that this is perceived differently in other countries?
That has achieved a great deal. The artists didn’t become well- known, but they got attention, the city got attention and criticism was also necessary. Yanis Varoufakis spoke of “Crisis tourism” on the other side. There were always both sides of the debate. I definitely found it very positive that these institutions, these titles and the art market were questioned. A lot of interesting discussions started there and I thought that was important. Whether it brought something for Athens – it certainly has positive and negative aftereffects.
What would the negatives be?
Gentrification. They cleared the city from settlements beforehand. There were 2 or 3 important settlements where artists were working. It was a good opportunity to clear them. It was clear it would happen, but it was a good opportunity.
Certain initiatives to destroy and change enacted by the city administration.
The positives are international attention?
That buildings were brought to life, many people visited and liked Athens, with or without art. Dialogues about what art can or can’t do. The modern art in Athens in the center and not the antique, 2000 year old things. The collision is always important to me. It’s so far away. We have to shout or bounce again and again, you can’t avoid the conflicts.
The Greek city councillor in Vienna, Maria Vassilakou, is important in her field; do you take particular notice of her?
Yes, I think Maria is extremely clever, she is certainly inspiring. She has worked a lot for the city. I met her once, she immediately wanted to speak Greek, because she misses it and I wanted to ask immediately at which point Vienna, although it is not my city, will become my city, for which one fights so much. When does one become so passionate for the city? She also came to Vienna at a very young age, so it is also her home now.
So I am hearing that she is not exactly a figure of identification for you, but an inspiration.
Inspiration, yes. If you manage to get into the politics of a country as a complete foreigner, that’s admirable, I have respect for that.
Applied to you, this means that you would like to achieve a certain standing in your scene.
Yes, but I don’t want to define it through the art.
What are your prospects for the future? Where will you be in 5 years?
Five years is very far away.
Or in 3 years? You define the horizon.
I want health for myself and my loved ones. I don’t want anything material. If you have enough people around you, love and health – the rest can always happen. I am always optimistic about what can happen. My career doesn’t matter. If it fails, it fails, but the main thing is that there are people who can support me psychologically. Art is not a profession where you can say that you want to open your own office or museum. Art is a process, you try it again and again, one piece works, one doesn’t.
So you don’t have a plan to take you anywhere?
Most of my works are in collaboration with other artists or experts. I wish to have a good network, a good constellation of people with whom I can exchange intellectually.
You mentioned this at the beginning: Return yes or no. Would it be a return? You see yourself as cosmopolitan. Is there this fixed point at all where you say “here I am at home, here I belong? Is there a place?
The place is again made by people. I wouldn’t have anything to do in Athens, I would be a tourist if my family or friends weren’t there. I wouldn’t come back for the place, but I’m glad that I now have the luxury of spending a few months in Athens for research. That makes me very happy. One goal would be to be able to combine this with my work again and again, to spend more time there. I would rather not move back, but if there is an opportunity where a part of my work is not connected to the physical place, I would like to have that.
It could also be that they find wonderful human connections in Prague, Oslo or San Francisco. Then you would go there. Because it is the people that make you feel.
Yes. I now have a lot of people I love in Vienna, a lot of people I love in Athens. A third place would be difficult, but I am not saying no.
Thank you very much for the interview!