European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Interview with Alexis Alatsis

Artistic Director of Patras 2006

Alexis Alatsis, Artistic director of Patras 2006


Patras 24.2.2006

Interview by Hatto Fischer

Question / Introduction:

We had just an interesting discussion about your background and you working for the Olympic Games, maybe we can start of there. What was your role then?

Alexis Alatsis:

Well, there is a common misunderstanding about the fact that during the Olympic Games many different institutions were involved, the main institution, of course, was the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games Athens 2004 in which I had the responsibility of the section culture. So I was a section manager for culture.

Which means that we were responsible for all the events organized by the Organizing Committee, in the beginning even for the opening and closing ceremony; after some time of cooperation with the team of the opening ceremony, we split and they created their own department and we kept the department for culture which was responsible for all the events in the venues and some events in the city of Athens and all the program of the Paralympics in the concert hall of Athens, the Megaron. Which is completely different than what the city of Athens did, as of the mayor, and of what the Ministry of Culture did called Cultural Olympiade which was a program of four years, of cultural programs. We concentrated our activities for the torch relay and for the Olympic Games themselves during these fifteen days of the Olympic Games. We had all the program of the torch relay in Greece with 75 concerts, I believe, and we had all the programs within the venues and the city of Athens during the Olympic Games and in the Megaron, in the Athens concert hall for the Paralympic Games, that was our responsibility.

(So)… after the end of the Olympics I was asked by the former artistic director if I was interested to work for Patras Cultural Capital, and this was in October 2004, and I started working on the program in October 2004 for Patras.

(And what else?)



(after phone call) It would be interesting for us in view of your vast experience with the Olympics in the framework of the IOC and now Patras 2006 which has a different framework, how would you make a comparison between the degrees of organizational skills required?

Alexis Alatsis:

Well those are different questions, because one is the kind of organizational structures (….) that are put together, (to) in order to achieve all these goals, and of course the Olympics are a huge organization, it is an organization that has the primary role to organize the Games themselves, (I mean) the sport events themselves, and all the financial and organizational part of the Olympic Games, where culture unfortunately doesn’t have that big role, it is much more (….)a sub program of the whole thing, and (….)it is completely different because a European Capital of Culture is supposed to have culture as its centre. It has to have the cultural events during the whole year as the main and only goal.

(and so)

But the fact is that those kinds of organizations such as ours, the cultural capital are not to be compared, logistically, are not to be compared at a budgetary level nor at an organizational level because we are still right now February 2006 37 persons working for the Cultural Capital here in Patras, and in Athens 2004 we were at the end something like 4000 people working every day for the Olympics. So it is something completely different, and the budgets are completely different, and of course the participation of the private sector is completely different, because the sponsoring of the Olympic Games are a huge amounts of money (…) due to the fact that the Olympic Games are mainly a television event and so (….) only the Rights for the broadcasting of the Olympic Games could cover at least ten (…)European Capitals of Culture. (…)

Well, there are some similarities that have to do with the fact what I call the

Greek illness to achieve those goals very often (last minute) in the last minute which is a problem of mentality and it is very difficult from a historical point of view to analyze why Greeks function like that. They do. So let’s take it for granted that Greeks have this mentality to let things slowly go their way and to really accelerate and achieve the goals of all of these kind of events in the last moment. It has a positive side and a negative side. The positive side is that it works and it gives to the Greeks a kind of national pride that even though they are always too late they can achieve those goals. On the other hand, this way of doing things raise tremendous costs. (so) Because if you do things last minute, it means all the people are working incredible a lot  in the end; you need extra (extra) outsourced (mmmh) forces to accomplish what you want to do and so you have to pay them and so the cost is always exploding at the end. It happened in the Olympics and it happens right now in a sense in the European Capital of Culture even if the Capital of Culture does not have the possibility to extend its budget. So we have to work here in the same way but within a very closed and defined budget.



You used when becoming the artistic director the metaphor of ‘Baustelle’, construction site, I have this association to Walter Benjamin, and do you mean that because I know you have that educational background.

Alexis Alatsis:

It is interesting because I (…) feel still very close of some texts of Walter Benjamin and the concepts of Benjamin, but ‘Baustelle’ in the sense of construction site has for Patras another meaning to me, because I consider that the European Capital of Culture, the year of their implementation is becoming more and more not only in Greece, everywhere, a construction site for the future.

In the philosophy in the way that it is implemented now to see, to understand this year as a starting point, and not as the end of a way. So for Patras especially since we had all these delays, it can only be the starting point. It cannot be the end of the way.

It is not only the problem with venues, or the problem with infrastructures, we had it again in Thessalonica. We will have it probably in all the big institutional events that we organize in Greece. Many things that depend on constructions and on public funding are too slow.

It is not about this anyhow. I was talking about construction site because I was thinking of Patras has the chance to use this year as the beginning of work that has to be done in Patras, culturally, and for the whole region.

I believe in dynamics, that is, if this year really puts the foundations of this work, it is up to the city, up its people, and up to the politicians to continue it.

So I don’t accept the responsibility of doing everything that is needed in this city.

I take the responsibility to say we have to create the starting point, we have to create the demand of the way after this year.

So if the people really feel like that and demand that this construction site continues, so it will be a success, it will be a very important goal achieved.



You mentioned in our preliminary discussion of cultural capital cities all being construction sites, you mentioned the huge discrepancy between application file and implementation process. Would you like to expand on that?

Alexis Alatsis:

Yes, I think this happens a lot with many (many) institutions, European institutions which have to deal with precise events, with a precise duration in time, so what happens is that there are some preliminary criteria that are very well known.  There is this law that everyone signed in the European Union accepting what are the goals of a European Capital of Culture, in 1999 I mean and which gives some very clear direction, some clear criteria, and in trying to fulfill these criteria, each city has to present a concept.  The problem is that if they were honest most of them, lately, would immediately say that the concept is the utopia of a 100% and the maximum that can be achieved during this year should be realistically speaking put somewhere between the 30 and 60%. So to judge the success of the implementation of a concept we should see where in-between of this 30 to 60% of the goals or the promises undertaken by the concept will be fulfilled during this year.

In Patras we have, of course, an additional problem, due to all the delays created by the Olympics, created by the fact that Patras knew since 1998 that it would be the European Cultural Capital in 2006  and then at the latest point 2003 where the second application was approved by the EU Commission, they didn’t do anything, and I mean all of them, I mean government, I mean the city, I mean anybody that was involved in this process because they were under the pressure of (success) succeeding with the Olympic Games. And all the forces, the budgets, the infrastructures were all concentrated on the Olympic Games. So the real work started October 2004 which is too late, which is definitely too late.

And then, as if it was not enough, we had all this internal restructuring of the organization itself with a new organizational chart, with a new law concerning the implementation and then the departure just in the beginning of the year of the artistic director which of course creates much more problems because then you are already in the implementation period and you loose the main horse that supposed to, you know, guide and to really guarantee the implementation.


Question: So what are your priorities? I think when listening you mentioned something of culture also in relation to utopia and starting a process, to creating a dynamics. Could you expand more on your concept?

Alexis Alatsis:

Of course, first of all, I (was never) never agreed(ed) with the program that was made before, I agreed with some parts of it, but I did not agree in the way that it was trying to fulfill the criteria of the European Union, and of the institution of European Capital of Culture.

Why? Because I did not see at all the European dimension in some of the circles of the program. And that cannot remain like that.I have the power to change it by the law, I can decide the artistic program, of course I am under pressure but I do not have the natural time that a new artistic director would have to try to make all the changes that are needed.

But still, even starting by the third circle poetry and music, I am trying to do all the possible changes to include much more this European dimension, by inviting important streams, artistic groups and personalities of all over Europe to be in the program, and not only Europe, but mainly from Europe and to try to say that it is not only about booking some important names, it is about what you do around an event. So this is a change of mentality.

Because the program was approved by Patras 2006 till the day of the departure of the artistic direction was (about) just about shows, performances, books, additions, exhibitions but it was never about what you do around all these things, how you create the dialogue, the European dialogue, the European exchange because of these events.

I can give you a very simple example, if you invite a very important young choreographer to present its own work because you see what this choreographer is doing has a very important impact on what is happening in the contemporary dance scene in Europe. Just to show his work is for me the easiest thing to do. To try to convince him when he comes here to get in a dialogue with the local artists, to get to know what is happening in the city or in the country where you present the European Capital of Culture, to give him the chance to talk to the audience, to have a dialogue with the audience, to give him the chance to be in the same part of the program with other European creators and other Greek creators, in order  to create the space for the dialogue, you cannot force the dialogue, but you can create the space, you can give the chance. If you do this, you have accomplished your own duty as an artistic director.

You cannot force people to dialogue between themselves, but you can create the framework and within this things are possible. And you have of course, this is a part of the communication politics of an institution like that which here in Patras has big problems, that is something that we don’t deny, you have to communicate in a way that makes people feel that they are concerned. If you don’t achieve this, you have very, very great trouble. Then you do another festival and the European Cultural Capital is not a festival. It is about (….I don’t know) the changing of the role of culture within one’s city’s life.



(Insofar as) When one sees what other cities have done, especially in Poetry that you mentioned, as did Cork 2005 with all the Irish poets, I think also Antwerp did something, and we have this ECCM exhibition of “20 years of history of European Cultural Capitals” with Spyros Mercouris as curator, it might be very interesting to start here also a construction site in terms of archive to see what happens in these various fields.

For me two questions are related to that then, (telephone ring) one is do you see something like cultural governance being possible, by that I mean the rule of a city through culture, and the other question is about the European dimension, Cultural Rights in Europe, and specially the cultural premises of a future Constitution: do have you something like that in mind?

Alexis Alatsis:

Yes, I must say because we used to talk nowadays a lot about the crisis due to the fact that two countries rejected by referendum the European constitution draft and  I believe the only crisis that we have in Europe is the crisis that all the things and all the talks are concentrating on the legal and financial dimension of the common European space. And it is something that the people in Europe cannot follow, even those that by their governments or by their parliaments accepted the European constitution because many of them have a feeling that it does not concern their everyday lives.

Because the Everyday life, if we want to talk about a common European space, we cannot deny that could be, (as) how we could say,  the firmaments of a common social life in Europe is culture. It is not an artificially united culture or it is not a dictated culture, it is the fact that we have many cultures, we much more cultures in Europe even if the European Union could be some day 30 countries, we have much more than 30 cultures. Within every country we have much more cultures. So the fact is that these cultures are the richness of Europe, the diversity of cultures are the richness of Europe.

If you look at these cultures from the outside being American, or being Asian, you can much easily discover the European character and the European common characteristics that exist in Europe, but the people in Europe could only be aware of this fact if culture is not just some (I don’t know, some, some) additional (I don’t know) luxury thing (….)that has to be taken care of. But it is really understood as not only the heritage, but the living, central strength of Europe. Because Europe could have this pride to say the main characteristic of this continent is its cultural strength, (and) its cultural impact on the whole globe because this cannot be denied.

When we have a discussion about European unification we should definitely start by saying if we concentrate all this discussion on the common currency, the laws that have to do with trade and things that have to do with  security, (pauses) with insurances, with whatever you want, even things that have to do with good European (standards) standards like on environment or on the way that Europe is conceiving its own strategy towards the rest of the world, still, there is a lack of discussion on culture and what role culture actually nowadays has for the everyday life of each European citizen. The European Cultural Capitals are the best institution to have this dialogue, to start this dialogue. So to answer to your question before, yes, there is a chance and the chance would be, but of course a city cannot do by itself; a city needs partners and needs other people. So this is what we try to do with the congresses, for example, we try to say this is a space where this dialogue can start and lets start and lets give the possibility to the people and to the networks to continue this dialogue,     to transport it to the next (you know) Capital of Culture, (next)and if we really achieve these goal to make people understand that those themes are important, those themes have to do with their daily lives,  it is not only about shows, it is not only about artists, about it is what culture is in everyday life.



Are you a film maker?

Alexis Alastsis:

No, I am not a film maker; it is a misunderstanding but theater director


Question: If you could make theatre play about Cultural Capital Cities, who would be your main protagonist? The European Commission?

Alexis Alatsis:

No, the European Commission would like a very interesting Kafka parsonage which would appear somewhere in the scenes repeating many times interesting views on how things have to be done and on the other hand, saying yes, but don’t ask for more money because this is something else. I think the main protagonist would be a choir, the people of Europe with thirty different languages that would each one be present on the stage and would be asked by someone else what are their dreams on culture in Europe, what are their expectancies. (what are) And I believe that this choir could say in the end the same words like in the Greek drama.


(background comment by Spyros Mercouris: wonderful)





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