Fifty years of Dimitria. An attempt to “collate” and epitomize events, people and moments from the history and archive of the most important cultural event of Thessaloniki.
The archives are our excavation sites, a type of archaeology of the modern world. You enter them with awe, a mask and gloves, with no idea of what you may encounter. I spent a dusty spring digging through the city’s archive due to the Dimitria Jubilee – a persistent drilling in time through the layers of the city’s cultural history.
All sorts of archives and their paraphernalia – albums, posters, photographs, press releases, videos, indexing, notes, budgets, balance sheets, reports, artist participation proposals, regulation plans – filed away or scattered around, official or amateur, public or private, on shelves, in basements, in files and plastic bags, invite me to a unique treasure hunt: I follow the trails that lead me to new clues, that invite to re-examine the previous trails, which illuminate or overturn, which demand I become, like Petzikis used to write, a “welder”.
A radiant cradle of culture!
Access to the archive materials and their creative “interrogation” allows for a large number of loose ends to peak out from the complicated mess of string that is the archive, each of which is a possible attempt to record history, and the exciting, uninterrupted, fifty-year journey of an event that was instituted in 1966 by the local committee of the Greek National Tourism Organization committee, as “a permanent artistic institution aiming at both at serving and promoting the eternal values and ideals of Hellenism, as well as making the Macedonian capital a radian cradle of the great modern cultural visions and achievements of our people”, as noted by the President of the Republic at the Time, Stefanos Stefanopoulos, in the album of the first event.
Stories that compose a small philosophy of cultural management: From the cultural elitism of an event for few people to the expression of a need for popular resonance from the mid-’80s onwards, and from the goal of reviving Byzantine Thessaloniki to its incorporation in the European Festival Association (1995).
Or foreign policy, with advertisements (in the ’70s) as well as programmes in English (from the ’90s until now).
Furthermore, small stories of PR policy: how we came from (300,000) flyers, written in Greek and English, dropped from the sky by two military aircraft to announce the opening of the first event in October 1966 to the 2004 website and social media.
Or a journey through the modern graphic design history of Thessaloniki, through the covers and design of the programmes. From Svoronos’ peacock to the geometry of Cizek and the meta figures of Beetroot.
Or the stories of publishing “Gulliverisms”: From short tomes to the publishing extravaganzas of the early 2000s, both now collectible.
Stories of greatness: From events that barely numbered in the double digits in the early organisations with performances being repeated (out of necessity and due to audience requests – more than 15,000 people attended the 6 performances of the Bucharest Opera and its ballets in 1970) to events numbering in the triple digits in early 2000, running at the same time, forcing the audience to plan an attendance strategy. The overall number: over 2000 central or parallel events in 49 years.
Or the enlargement: from clearly Greek in the early organisations and the subsequent (from 1968 onwards) inclusion of artists and groups from abroad, mainly from eastern Europe at first, to the geographical explosion – overall participating artists originate from more than 30 different countries, from New Zealand to Canada to Japan.
Or the expansion of the subject matter and field: From the initial fixation on music and theatre, to the inclusion of a plethora of artistic and cultural forms, from rock operas and outdoor visual installations, to pantomime, shadow theatre and coiffure festivals. And from the theatre of the Society for Macedonian Studies and Rotunda in the first organisations, to more than 100 different event points throughout the city, both outdoor and indoor. As well as to the promotion-reclaiming from oblivion of what used to be unfamiliar buildings of the city: Alaca Imaret Mosque, the Abattoirs, Villa Petridis.
Or, lastly, the lists recording the cultural activities that came about through the institution of the Dimitria (for example, the Visual Walks, the Ethno Jazz Festival, Dimitria in the Schools, the reforming of locally produced opera, etc.), underlined notes on the names of artists that were promoted through the Dimitria, as well as all those names, the Chick Coreas, Wayne Shorters and Helmut Newtons of this world whom it would have been difficult to meet otherwise.
Here, in the rift of time
Gradually, I begin to abandon the threads as soon as I record them. I observe that my rate of browsing is constantly decreasing. The photographs, often faded, even more often without captions, invite me to play a peculiar game of ‘guess who’. They demand attention to detail, to the known-unknown backgrounds behind the known-unknown faces – the history of each time recorded by the suits, poses and expressions of those photographed. Stories recalling personal experiences, distant memories. Polite, welcoming archivists, abandon their desks and accompany me in leaving behind my “objective” view, they share with me their own experiences and memories. Personal testimony/interpretations are spliced into the fragmented archival narrative.
Decision: the product of the original (nowhere near exhaustive) research is a simulation. Regardless, the narration of the “mystery”, fragmented, does not entail a solution to the puzzle. There are many digits left, perhaps forgotten in boxes and basements, or perhaps they decomposed long ago. We submit to you, dear explorers, a visual archive, in order to transform it into an experiential workshop that will recall your own personal experiences and memories of the Dimitria, those that compose and renegotiate our cultural identity, those that make us all the great living archive of a socio-cultural history that has lasted 50 years.
A small echo of our times: often those in charge, in their notes included in the annual programmes, mention the financial difficulties of the organisation, the surrounding conditions that made them doubt its realization in some years. (It seems as though) Kostis Moskof responds, in text he wrote for the 33rd anniversary album of the 1955 Dimitria: “The Dimitria are a breath in the year, a celebration of mother Thessaloniki. I wish this celebration was a daily event, a quality cultural product, that it dominates our every moment by participating in its own way in the struggle to further humanize life”.
This is more or less how the archive, our condensed personal experiences, becomes in turn the archaeology of our future.
Research, Text: Marina-Emilia Kontou