“Berlin is not only Berlin, it is also the symbol of the division of the world and what is more a ‘universal point’, the place where reflection on a unity that is simultaneously necessary and impossible happens in each person that lives there, and who, in living there, experiences it not only as a dwelling-place, but also as the absence of a dwelling-place.”1 Maurice Blanchot’s words from his essay “The Name Berlin” (1964), first published shortly after the Wall was built, may express the experience of the creator of works such as Betatest (2005-06) and Case Study (2007-08). Drawing attention to the author’s biography would be of no interest if this biography was not inextricably related to this city-symbol and everything it stands for. The united Berlin in the 1990s was the baptism by fire for all those, such as George Drivas, who lived in the city under the condition of division, or rather under the condition of a promise that this division was to end eventually. No reference is made to the small personal dramas of the people in this divided city –psychological idealisation is totally absent from Drivas’s filmic essays anyway– nor to the social and political examination of the consequences of this division, but rather to the semiotics of division itself, to contemplation of the unachievable unity, what according to Blanchot, “[…] calls into question the intellectual security and the possibilities for communication”.2[…]In the case of Drivas’s work, the repetition of patterns in the picture (the same building, interior or person seen often and from many different angles) and the use of static images only (to fend off the illusion of motion established by twenty-four frames per second due to the absence of moving images) creates in the viewer the impression of a narrative flow that freezes in the memory, referring us to an aesthetic that Thomas Y. Levin described as “recalibration of eventhood.”5 Drivas’s films resemble concentrated scenes originating from a surveillance camera’s or other tracking equipment’s image database – only nominally, of course, as they are perfectly structured and highly poetic photographic compositions. […] […]The image of each place functions merely as reference. Motorways, hotel rooms, airports and stores, the areas in which Drivas’s camera usually moves, bring to mind Marc Augé’s essay on an anthropology of supermodernity, which is defined by examples of non-places where the contraction of space, the acceleration of history and the elimination of differences anthropologically define their subject, man without memory, either historical or personal memory. According to Augé, in order to enter these non-places, which lack identity and history, we are “required to prove our innocence”.8 In the face of the self-referential, distanced, lonely, fragmentary non-places of supermodernity we must assume the same attitude as that of the characters in Drivas’s films, elegant angels without an identity, on which all trace of location and time is lost.
In this urban mapping of modern experience anonymous figures –as is often the case in Drivas’s films two persons unknown to each other– face each other and the places in which they move in fleeting encounters. How effective is this meeting? And thus how charged or indifferent, on an emotional or even existential level, is it?
Perhaps ultimately the erotic element, which is often implicit in many of Drivas’s films, refers to this constitutive condition of simultaneous presence and absence, which informs this relationship with the other? Characters especially in works such as Close Circuit (2005) seem to flirt with the idea of a promising erotic passion but to constantly wonder whether this is actually possible, remaining in a state of indeterminacy until literally disappearing at the end of the film, effectively corroborating their self-negation. Indeed, the viewer often
wonders if the film is a love or a detective story, and if it is ultimately the solution of a crime or a reception of erotic passion. Yet, unfortunately for us, the mysterious, implicit crime, if there is any, is the fact that we cannot know whether it was or was not about love![…]Blanchot conceptually captures in “The Name Berlin” the paradoxical reception of the other, of the foreign, the beyond, and defines it as a statutory condition of signification, which remains fragmented although this does not mean that it is partial. Perhaps the “strangeness” [étrangeté] to which Blanchot refers, conceived not only on psychological or sociological terms but rather as a philosophical discourse, as the discourse of the fragment, of small, subtle details in a fully organised and controlled whole, may be the reason why Drivas’s work is an exemplary commentary on the supermodern experience and of the investigations of contemporary art, beyond any claims to universal, equalitarian, totalitarian discourses.
Sotirios Bahtsetzis is an Art historian and independent curator
1. Maurice Blanchot, “The name Berlin” (1961), in The Blanchot Reader, ed. Michael Holland, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995,
p. 266. 2. Ibid.
5. Leighton 2008, p. 39.
8. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso, 1995, p. 102
The films of George Drivas initiate infinite allusions to memories and souvenirs, even if they don’t quote anything in an explicit way. His images have the power to evoke more than the plot, opening up possibilities for the spectators that extend far beyond the narrated events. Like a puzzle, where the single pieces are different but if connected to another form a whole picture, the following paragraphs have the purpose of presenting single bites of the whole atmosphere
given by the films.
The films concern single spots of a story; they are like frozen moments, cut out from a much longer process which started in an indistinct past and continues into an unknown future. The beginning is not clearly defined, and the same applies to the conclusion, in the sense of any explanation of the plot. The end often remains open, it is only alluded to, and all the questions which accompanied the narration are not completely clarified. Does the story continue in the mind of the spectator? Yes / maybe / maybe not.
Drivas proposes an end indeed, an apparent conclusion to the stories he tells and documents. But this end is not absolute and definitive. It is far more the entrance to a labyrinth, to a situation which could continue endlessly, in the same way it began and was narrated. The architectural details, the light, the movements could change and be different, but not the perpetual cycle of actions, identical to themselves every time, a labyrinth from which it is difficult to find an exit.
Happy End (2004) begins with an end: “After everything was over, they started all over again”, a happy beginning, which comes together with a situation which has already happened, in the past, closing and completing a perpetual loop.
The soundtracks underline the circularity of the images. They are noises, clatters, music which reiterates incessantly. In some cases they remind us of human voices, of the wind, of the bark of a dog (see: Off Duty, 2005). But the sounds just graze the images without having any relation to the objects shown: the level of the sounds moves independently by comparison to the level of the images, reinforcing the effect of trance produced by the pictures.
_WITHOUT A FACADE
The architecture of the films echoes the effect of a labyrinth. Architecture is not used to provide visual familiarity, it is not used as orientation, and it doesn’t help us to recognise what is up and what is down, or provide a physical order of the actions.
The buildings have no ground level, the framing doesn’t show architecture rooted on the ground, with a main entrance, a main façade, a street in front of it (see: Happy End, 2004). The possibility of orientation never exists. The images look towards the sky, they cut off lines, pieces of buildings, of windows, of roofs. It is impossible to become orientated, to understand buildings as three dimensional objects, to recognise the same house twice. Never do we see a reassuring picture which shows the entirety of an edifice. It is not a kind of calm, three-dimensional architecture.
Drivas picks in fact from the full three-dimensionality of a building only some secondary information, not really finalised to meticulously describe the architecture in its entirety.
The exclusively external spaces of Happy End contrast with those shown in Closed Circuit (2005) where all the actions occur in interior locations. Bob Miller’s hotel (see: Closed Circuit) is a panopticum, a prison of lines, openings, balconies, doors. Every detail is similar to the others. It is a protective shell, or a jail, a cave, an intestinal space. Like the underground of Jay Lee (see: Closed Circuit). The filmed architecture is always fragmentary, fragmentised. It is an intersection of lines, shadows, lights, crossing angles. There is no trace of a spatial continuity in the pictures. It is architecture without a body.
And the fragments, the pieces of architecture which are cut out from real buildings form new imaginary places. It is astonishing how the real space can turn so suddenly into something un-real. The architecture becomes oneiric material: looking at the films, the viewers enter a dreamlike space. This fundamental passage from real to surreal is reached by the use of details.
Small, meaningless details gain in fact great significance: the plot is often motionless, the viewers have the feeling that something has happened, or is still happening before their eyes, but nobody can understand it. We all have the sense of being right in the middle of a twisting cyclone, without having noticed the way and the moment at which we entered it.
To finally understand the story, to rationalise, to become conscious again, we –as external observers– cling to the smallest details, charging them with over-dimensional meanings. We need the details to feel protected, entering again a comprehensible situation. But in this way, an echo of significances is produced in addition to the ones proposed by the story, finalised to increase the entropy, the destabilisation, the curiosity, the sense of waiting.
Nevertheless, the architecture chosen as a subject / object / background for the actions contrasts with the story represented, even ironically. The stories are narrations without a defined spatial or temporal location, they have no connection with the city where they take place (East / West Berlin in Beta Test (2006) is maybe the only example of contact and interaction between plot and surroundings), they could happen everywhere, they could have already happened years ago, or be a future projection – remember the labyrinth. But the locations which Drivas chooses for his films don’t touch on the same concept: from one perspective they are filmed in pieces, disorienting the Cartesian sense of space. But on the other hand, they are places with a perfectly recognisable identity, they are Tempelhof airport, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the dome of the Reichstag, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Alexanderplatz (see: Beta Test, or Closed Circuit). And in Happy End it is possible to identify the Columbus Circle, or Times Square. They are architectural icons. And if compared with the dry plot of the stories, these places don’t have the same objectivity, they are not completely free of connotations. The spectator will recognise some pieces of buildings already seen in the past. Suddenly, in his memory, he will start to reconstruct connections relating the story back to the real world. The alienation produced by the series of lines and architectural surfaces is broken unexpectedly, if only for a brief second. Suddenly, there is a stronger relation between spectator and place.
AM I TOO LATE?
But although this sudden relation with the location of the films, an even stronger uncomfortable feeling emerges. Why is nobody there? The places which are full of persons, noise and movements in the memory, are empty, completely lacking in reassuring whispering and another human being passing by in Drivas’ creations. The effect is disconcerting: what has happened? Where is everybody? And the necessity to give an answer opens up new possibilities. New scenarios develop over the space of the film, widening the possible variables as if in a hall of mirrors, multiplying the probable answers to the questions posed by the narrated and documented stories. And the one who gives us information and who visually documents the stories – does he / she / it know the events (see: Beta Test, Case Study, 2007-2008, Closed Circuit)? Am I –as a spectator– aware of the fundamental actions which could make it possible to understand the whole story? Do I know them or not? Or am I simply too late, and so I have missed them? Why do I have a sense of anxiety? Maybe because I’m sure it must be something else, beyond the simple plot, which would permit me to understand the actions and the relations between them. And this “something else” must be really important.
To discover the not-shown information, the spectator tries to look for it behind the plot, to gain back a whole control over the story. As Drivas wrote about his works, it is the fact of concentrating on the not-shown, on elements which normally could be considered of secondary importance, which gives an additional value to the plot. In this way, minor information is charged with new meanings; it unexpectedly sets things in a new light and creates new significance.
From one point of view there is the story, the movements of the characters, the texts, and the documentation of the actions. On the other hand, there are the things unspoken, the pauses, the silences, the details. It is not only the plot which transmits data and feelings, but far more the space in-between. The spectator will reflect on this gap, and find new significance in it. The technique of photo-still speaks directly to the more abstract functions of the mind, stimulating series of connotations –remembrances, dreams, desires…– much deeper and touching, if compared to the prefabricated output coming from the pure story. It is necessary to pay attention to the emptiness, to concentrate on the personal interior world.
In Driva’s films the spectator has the usual role of a passive recipient of the stories. But the spectator is also reserved (or is obligated to) a strange, somehow displeasing role, that of the objectively active. Are we, as spectators, controlling an experiment? (Maybe we also planned it, but we cannot really remember.) The characters of the stories don’t feel as if they are under observation, they are distant, they believe they are alone. Spectators watch the stories from the outside as voyeurs: the observers register private scenes, maybe forbidden, surely not addressed to an open public.
The topic of the big eye which sees everything is maybe the most immediate connotation for the works by Drivas. The camera and photo settings also underline this aspect: the characters are filmed behind their back, they don’t have to notice our presence, the camera is hidden behind something (see: Closed Circuit, The Decision, 2007). It seems that the one who films, or documents, is spying on the characters, and wants to remain hidden from their view.
In Drivas’ last films (especially in The Decision, Closed Circuit and Case Study) there are clear protagonists, who populate the space (the Models, or Mr / Mrs. A or B). But contrary to the first films without defined protagonists, the general feeling is one of increasing emptiness and isolation: all the accidental persons who populated the scenes have completely disappeared, and there are no more unplanned passers-by that could give the picture a sort of truthfulness, a sense of safety. Now the one who watches or spies is the only “other”. Even if he probably doesn’t want to. Rebelling against the forced voyeurism which is imposed in our lives today? And to re-pose an old question – who observes and who is observed? In the present daily media control, do we become –as the ones who documented Drivas’ experiments– objects of observation ourselves?
What am I looking at?
The room where the projection takes place is a real room, and the space narrated by the film is also a real space. But the projection itself is no longer real; the bi-dimensionality of the screen is only a bridge to enter the three-dimensional narration behind it. But what happens if the film suddenly becomes a mirror? In the sense that the film is no longer a window to look through to other realities, but the reflected image of the subject who is looking at it? In the empty space of the unsaid, the un-shown, of the standby, I –as a spectator– can find myself 1:1. I become immersed in the film, and emerge again in my feelings / thoughts / ideas / fears. The projection (the screen) becomes a mirror, a utopian space which is at the same time very real to me. It is like Alice, who entered through the looking glass into a new world, and so through into the reflection of reality, which was real for her at the moment she was experiencing, but which was far away from any truth.
Considering this new point of view, who is actually real? Model # 1 and Model # 2 of Beta Test (who are addressed by the narrator with “it”, just like objects), or me, as a spectator? Who is the copy? The characters who act in Drivas’ films seem to be holograms, but inside their story they are perfectly real. And at the same time, they become a projection of the spectators who look at them, who see and recognise in the characters a reflected image of their own needs and fears. The models / characters are simultaneously real for their story, and a copy (or reflection), in the sense of actors in an unreal plot added by the external spectators, who reflect on them.
For Heraclitus everything flows, nothing stays still, and nobody reads a book twice in the same way. And Drivas’ films exemplify this concept: considering his works as a mirror, they reflect a different context every time; it is not the plot that is the important focus, but the pauses in-between. It is not the action or the conclusion, but the stasis, the thoughts which stay for a second before being substituted by other thoughts. And above all, what the real spectator sees, feels or remembers inside the pauses, by means of his reflection. The spectator finds a link with his private dreamlike world using the free-spaces which the film leaves open. We can speak of a spiral movement, which starts from the film, and afterwards generates uncontrolled phenomena in the mental space of every viewer.
Over the last two decades the documentary image has experienced dramatic developments. Moreover, numerous video artists have turned to what is called the docudrama, distancing themselves from the classic cinematographic experience. George Drivas evolves in this area, creating stories based on extant recorded images. It is interesting to note that he consciously chooses to sign the ‘documentation’ of his works, rather than appearing as the director. His videos are structured by a succession of moving stylized photographs, exploring spaces, urban life and human relationships. Unexpressed feelings, deficient communication, loneliness and failed love affairs are the basic subjects intimated by his works. The city, as a field of action, has an important and symbolic role to play, whilst the architecture of buildings appears constantly in all the works, commenting on the relation between urban architecture and the city’s inhabitants.
The leading figures in Drivas’ works have no names and do not address one another. The story is presented with sub-titles, the personages as A and B. The characters are always in motion in public spaces and give the impression of being under surveillance, their movements recorded, seeming to have undertaken some mission, suggesting that they are two programmed anonymous beings playing a game or trying out a programme. As the story unfolds, the protagonists appear to acquire a will of their own and attempt an escape from a pre-ordained course. The end, however, remains undefined and open.
Case Study is a part of the trilogy Social Software, wherein three different stories are treated, taking place in Berlin, between two people. In Case Study, Drivas has captured areas of Berlin’s environs, built up in the 60s and 70s, and expressing the modernistic utopian vision of a better society. Through the chill modernistic architecture and poetic empty spaces recorded by the artist, the heroes reflect an uncertainty, an attempt at self-definition, and a need for communication in a modern urban landscape. Social Software is, besides, the term used by a programme made to assist communication among people.
Globalization, our planet being increasingly interactive and borderless, is both a liberating and a tyrannical experience. It is a spectacular story of the human ability to gain freedom and to loose it at the same time. The work of George Drivas is a cinematic meditation on the contradictions and the paradoxes of globalization; a visual critique of its revolutionizing politics, its transformative economics, its pulverizing social impact and its apocalyptic aesthetics. Drivas exposes particularly the dark side of globalization and the new alienations that it creates, mostly that of space and time, but without denying its positive potentials and contributions to the human journey. As a genuine child of the globalization generation, he revels in its bright sides while rebelling against its darker ones. The backdrop is Athens, Berlin, New York and the language English. What else?
Globalization is changing drastically the space and speed and consequently the nature of human activity and interaction. Its spatial transformation is the most conspicuous. There is no longer only one way, through the well-defined territorial state, to experience the world. Its liberating potential is evident in the promise of de-territorialisation to enable people, both individually and collectively, to pursue their destiny without artificial constraints; ethnic, cultural, religious or other. It promises to liberate people from any early-life baggage and the often mono-dimensional and provincial confines of family, nation and any location where one grows up. It promises to get rid of all the seemingly arcane social and ideological constructs which humans developed from early days in order to respond to the loneliness and purposelessness of their existence, and which eventually, as the world started shrinking, often became obstacles rather than agents for security or happiness.
Globalization promises a world of unlimited opportunities, where free individuals operate in a neutral environment and on a single level-playing field unobstructed by the constraints of all sort of traditional borders, whether physical, mental or psychological. It promises a truly democratic and egalitarian world run by individuals and for individuals. Nations, religions, states and the pyramids of privileges they have built for themselves through the erection of various types of borders are on the defense. Traditional forms for achieving order are questioned. But are humans up to this challenge? And is this what they really want?
The spatial transformation of human relations brought about by globalization at the same time nurtures new alienations. De-contextualized humans and landscapes become cold and amorous units, individuality is ironically crushed under the weight of numbers with decreasing loyalties other than to themselves, and freedom proves once more elusive, blocked by myriad forms of digital surveillance and new dependencies. The absence of borders becomes a nightmare from where one can never wake up as there is nowhere to escape to.
The abstract heroes and landscapes of Drivas’s work, most compellingly in “Beta Test” and in “Case Study”, reveal the dark side of globalization; a re-conceptualization of humanity as a virtual mass of colorless and soulless individuals and as a grim digital re-incarnation of the early primitive man who found comfort in the confines of a cave fearing almost everything outside. “Safety is happiness” proclaims the narrator in “Happy End”. The irony is clear. Multiple virtual realities breed not necessarily more healthy interaction but also more alienation, hence, fear. Safety for whom and from what?
In most of Drivas’s movies, the heroes die, go missing, are never seen again, or never meet again “truly” and always without any consequence, like they never existed “truly”. Drivas captures the essence of the dark side of globalization: the philosophical reductionism of humans to simple biological units, without past or future. The machine, the ironic symbol of both economic liberation and social alienation of the industrial era, is replaced in the era of globalization by the electronic software. The dislocation may be different but the alienation experienced by the lack of stable ethnic, social, political and economic references remains haunting. And yet, there is no return to something that has changed for ever. Romantic escapism to an imaginary past is not possible. Even if globalization would roll back, the human journey can only move forward.
The second major transformation of globalization is time, or rather speed. It is the ever accelerating speed of human interaction that generates an enormous density of relations which overpower the traditional gatekeepers of the era of the nation-state and break the traditional barriers of the international state system. The threshold of density of human activity which is required to overwhelm the old world may be a moving target but the impact of the speed of human interaction is without doubt the strongest wind behind the sail of globalization. Yet, the seemingly ever accelerating speed of borderless human activity generates new alienations too. Individuals today are trapped in speeds they cannot always master. Drivas’s cinematic approach of still images, black and white colors and archetypal man and woman heroes is a wonderful metaphor for the human effort to keep pace with human activity without loosing the story of the human journey.
So what about the liberation of globalization? The challenges today are twofold. First, the perennial search for order, an essential condition for freedom, requires the peaceful management of change and of the ever-present competing values and interests among individuals and human societies. History teaches us that this can be done through some form of public authority, whether local, national, international or transnational. And a public authority which is both legitimate and effective. The former demands transparency and accountability, the latter that decision-making is taken at the level of the problems and challenges which are faced by the world today.
A major question today is what level of authority is appropriate for the era of globalization. And we need to think big. While the local and the national will not go away, and they must not go away because they are needed too, a new additional target may be needed, at least regarding the core of globalization. This could be the construction of both legitimate and effective mechanisms of global governance. Not a global government. But the necessary global structures of authority to address the contradictions and the paradoxes of globalization. Democracy, therefore, would also require processes that enable dislocated individuals to participate in the decision-making process that affect them. Global governance could be the answer to the inevitable alienations that emanate from the unprecedented transnational movement of peoples, capital, information and ideas that define our world today. But just one answer, not the whole answer.
The second challenge is to invent new and common narratives for humanity which can capture both the speed and the borderless nature of human activity and speak for both the opportunities and the challenges of globalization. Global governance is not only a matter of social and political engineering; of constructing new cold monsters, global institutions, structures and powers. It is also, and perhaps above all, the story of new ideas which are global where needed and local where appropriate. New bridges between the ever-present parochial and the elusive universal. A global narrative that can bring together the disparate readings of human history with the more universal visions and ambitions of the future. It is not about supplanting the national with the transnational. It is about making more space for the global and the transnational in the collective conscience of the humans around the world. It is about balancing thousands of years of human history with the ones to come. We need a common narrative that re-invents the “other” in a way that the reality of the blurring distinction between the “domestic” and the “foreign” acquires a story that is not “in between” but at the centre of the human story.
Drivas’s work is an observation, a comment, not a verdict. His latest work, the “Decision” emphasizes the critical junctures we are in by stressing the enormous difficulties we have when facing the future through a blind man’s wanderings around Athens. We are blind, no doubt. Humanity has always been blind facing the future. But we have a lot of clues. The work of Drivas is one piece among the billions and billions of pieces which make up what we are, giving clues and insights about who we are and how we experience ourselves and reality. “Speak responsibly then. Even if just a yes or no. The decision is yours”.