Spectators in a Ghost City
If one were to envision the city of Famagusta through the literary style of Italo Calvino, the resulting description might read like the paragraph below:
“At the end of three days moving southeast along the seacoast, the traveler sees from afar the city of Famagusta stretched along the shore. The city seems to be rising out of a golden sandy beach where concrete buildings meet blue waters and reach up into the blazing sun. As the traveler approaches he cannot but notice that the city is silent and in a standstill, the streets abandoned and the buildings empty. Wild plants and vegetation have taken over the streets, names on panels have been erased and the city is since long, evidently deserted. If one were to look through the buildings’ open windows and doorways, they would observe laid tables, beds unmade, curtains blowing, all but covered in dust, lives frozen in mid action. The traveler will be transfixed by the sight of Famagusta, drawn to her void, lost in her oblivion, fascinated by her macabre spectacle, and mesmerized by the repetitive sound of the sea waves. He might wonder and ask for answers but he cannot stay. The traveler will depart and continue his journey in other joyful places and as he does the waves will wash away his footsteps, leaving the city once more silent and emptier and his memory of Famagusta erased”
And yet this is not fiction, nor theatre or performance. This rare “visible city” exists in reality and is situated in the east coast of Cyprus. A cosmopolitan and thriving city, once inhabited by the different ethnic communities of the island, Famaguσta used to be a popular destination as one of the important ports in the Mediterranean Sea. It has been occupied by the Turkish Army since 1974 and for the past forty six years Famagusta has been completely enclosed, devoid of human presence, abandoned, inaccessible, sealed behind fences, barriers and guarded by soldiers; until October 2020, when against UN resolutions a part of it was made accessible to visitors, through a specified path, where people were allowed to take a close up look, experience the city-time capsule, almost as a spectacle, retrace the past, revisit their lives, or simply as it happens in many sites in the world where ruins attract tourists, take a seemingly insignificant selfie.
The Cyprus presentation at PQ23 places the ghost city of Famagusta at the center of its curatorial concept as a truly rare space. The history and politics of the conflict that led to the present status quo of the city are long and complex and a deeper engagement expands outside the scope of this artistic exhibition. However, we turn our attention to the space of the city itself and pose the challenge: how can we begin to understand places of conflict through their material memories? How can we connect with them through scenographic methodologies and ultimately envision their possible futures as we take part in this history-in-progress?
As the past decades have shown, performance and scenographic practices are not exclusive to the theatrical stage. They also belong to alternative/ real life spaces (often including their own narratives and politics) proposing “Space as Author” and “Space as Dramaturgy”.
Understanding the often conflicted and complex geopolitical narratives associated with such spaces while respecting human trauma, and going beyond the aesthetic fascination of ruins, we propose a process of reversed scenography. How can we experience real places as dramatized spaces and therefore, how can we learn and create alternative narratives to the pre-existing ones?
The Cyprus curatorial team proposes the use of scenographic methodologies as thinking processes, a political act, negotiating real spaces of conflict and artistic practices. Fragments from Famagusta, video archives from today and before 1974, experimental sculptural maquettes, acoustic environments and performative practices are used to connect this rare city with the Prague Quadrennial 23 visitors.
Our proposal/provocation unsettles the role of the artist and the viewer as we address issues of appropriation, spectacle, voyeurism and the role of art itself in the face of human trauma that expands beyond Famagusta and echoes other ghost spaces in the world.
We do not wish to provide answers, conflict resolutions or solutions but in looking to the future, we examine the alternative of negotiating such rare spaces of conflict by the means of artistic practice, even though art practices often seem minute in the face of economic, political and strategic dynamics.
We attempt to connect and communicate through empathy, the poetics of scenographic arts and a utopic vision of the future.
A personal confession
The initial idea for the Cyprus participation is best captured at the first draft of the curating concept sent to PQ, when it was still an intention, before even the amazing Melita Couta joined in with her enthusiasm, inspiration, inquisitive mind and knowledge, to make it a reality.
And this is how it looked:
“…help us envision what the world and theatre could look like in the post-[seclusion] future.”
Imagine a city that was abandoned in a rush.
Plates on tables. Forks and spoons. Curtains blowing. Beds unmade. Stores looted. Books thrown off shelves by military defacers.
Now imagine a city like the above that has been refused the right of people’s presence for over forty-five years. Secluded.
Nature has taken over. Time has taken over. The environment is a blended design by people and by nature. Streets growing with trees, homes covered with layers of dust, rain, a film of time over the objects abandoned there. Barriers of all sorts demonstrate themselves here: barriers of time, space, opinions, points of view, histories, military crimes..
This space exists as a surreal set for a left behind life performance. Hints of people not there anymore. Ammochostos. Its Greek name meaning sand-hidden. A ghost city since it was invaded in 1974.
Then imagine how Memory still fights for the right of identity. In a city that has been deprived the right of physical presence, no footsteps on its ground, of people that have been deprived the right of their homeland.
“This is a unique moment to use our art, imagination, creativity, and ability to create environments …”
We wish to explore the RARE opportunity of creating virtual links between the Ghost city of Famagusta, Cyprus and the heart of Europe in Prague and beyond via performance design. How can the ghost town and all its connotations become an in-person experience for someone in the heart of Europe? How can this give audiences an opportunity to “envision specific, bespoke worlds, environments, layouts and scenarios for the imaginative and imaginary lives of communities…” of present and past?
“Theatre and performance, in physical, virtual, or blended spaces, have the power to instigate a positive outlook for a better future and envision specific, bespoke worlds, environments, layouts, and scenarios for the imaginative and imaginary lives of communities. They can foresee and anticipate events and developments, whether political, social, ecological, or technological. Participants and audiences are given an opportunity to live through these events vicariously and in so doing to try living in the future. These possible futures will hopefully challenge our preconceived ideas and habits, push the limits of what we think is possible and permissible. At other times, they will serve as a warning, outlining looming dangers and threats that otherwise societies in their daily worries, concerns, and frustrations, may ignore, neglect, or play down.”
[Quoted texts from https://www.pq.cz/exhibition-of-countries-and-regions/]
Influenced by our previous participations in PQ and how this feast of Scenography has evolved
with impressions and sounds of Emergence in Ammochostos still lingering in my mind from the previous PQ programme
fresh from the inspirational provocations shared in Performance design futures, an amazing Conference which was organized by CYCSTAT in Nicosia Cyprus, with an exceptional list of utterly inspiring guests from all over the world, who generously broadened our conceptions of performance design
and with the PQ symposium still resonating,
Melita and I delved into researching and talking about the initial idea, with the precious support of Harris Kafkarides. How can this place, which had been denied the human presence for so many years, be viewed in the eye of scenography, how can it speak and become witness, how it can become dramaturgy, enclosing all its stories and history?
Space, human space, environment, violence, abruptly put on hold, taken over by nature for 49 years.
Materials, references, histories, stories, perceptions… Future?
Mixed emotions, contradictory wishes, incomparable parables, allegories, and proclamations, right and wrong, rightful and unwarranted… Famagusta stands there to question human logic in war and uncontested will to move forward. Our concept uses materiality as a bridge to provoke envisioning the future of this time-capsule, a frozen but once thriving cosmopolitan city.
Rare as precious
Rare as of high value
Rare as difficult to find
Rare as something to cherish
Rare as unusual
Rare as extraordinary
Rare as singular
Rare as uncommon
Rare as unique
Rare as unlikely
Rare as unthinkable
Rare as inconceivable
Rare as isolated
Rare as out of the ordinary
Rare as unheard of
Rare as unimaginable
I confess to being in love with the idea of Ammochostos, Famagusta, Varosi, the city, its inhabitants, its stories, its art and history.
I also confess to an enormous need to envision its future. With respect to its history, with regard to its right to, once more, have human presence as its ensemble.