by Katherine Poseidon
For one week in the beginning of May, the streets of Athens between Monastiraki and Gazi were dotted with strange-looking pairs of people in headphones, one carefully following the footsteps of the other. The experience was part of the performance piece by Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven called No Man’s Land. Without knowing what to expect beyond being told by a friend it would be a ‘tour’ of Athens through the eyes of a migrant, I booked a ticket for the first day of performances.
The performance began at the Monastiraki metro station. I handed over my ticket, and was given a pair of headphones, a mobile phone and a piece of white paper with just a name printed on it: Sedqi. He would be my guide.
Around fifteen of us put the headphones on, lined up at the top of the escalators in the metro station, and held our papers in front of us, like drivers waiting for passengers at an airport arrivals terminal. As we stood there, the headphones cancelled out the noise around us except the hum of the metro – trains arriving, crowds coming up the escalators, some pausing to stare at us and wonder and others hurrying past, well accustomed to ignoring any irregularities around them.
Very gradually, I started to hear music. Dido’s Lament, by English composer Henry Purcell –“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” As the aria got louder, I noticed some of the members of the crowd appeared to be singing along. These must be our guides, I thought, and indeed they were. Slowly, one by one, someone came out of the crowd, stopped in front of each of us, the ‘audience’ members, smiled gently and motioned us to follow them.
Sedqi was among the last to come and retrieve his guided, me, and so I got a good look at most of the other guides as I waited. They were men and women, probably from about 20 to 60, and appeared to be from all over the world. Each pair disappeared out of the metro station, and Sedqi and I did the same. I followed him down Ermou as my headphones told me a story – I was expecting to hear his story, but instead, I heard a Greek-speaker, recounting words that could have belonged to many of us. All possible versions of the story, versions of a life of an immigrant.
I followed Sedqi from Monastiraki, through Thissio and past Gazi, listening to words interspersed with music – sometimes, somehow impossibly sad. Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang filled my ears while we paused outside the Thissio metro station and Sedqi turned to face me, looking into my eyes but never saying a word. Later, he danced toward Kerameikos to the Balkan beats of Gorgan Bregović and finally offered me a mandarin orange – all without saying anything.
Eventually, he led me back towards other pairs from our group, into an empty lot across the railroad tracks in Gazi, where we each entered a tiny room. The door closed and the lights went off, but Sedqi had come inside with me. He lifted off my headphones and sang a final tune – the first and last time I heard his voice – before he put my headphones back on, and then he was gone.
The conclusion of the performance saw the participants stumble out of the little rooms, blink in the sudden brightness and try to come to grips with the experience. In Athens, immigrants are an ever-present part of the city, but the piece reminded us that Athens is the background of their lives and stories, just as it is for us. At the end of the performance though, Sedqi went back to being anonymous before I had a chance to thank him or find out anything about him and his own story – which I found the most difficult part of the piece.
The artist, Dries Verhoeven, brought the performance to Athens after Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, but the piece was adapted beautifully to a very Greek context, in which Verhoeven believes “conditions are urgent enough to demand a moving, poetic and meaningful response to the question: what can a multicultural environment mean?”
No Man’s Land was in Athens as part of the Onassis Cultural Centre’s first Fast Forward Festival, ‘the theatre of the future,’ that explored new trends in performance art, which push the boundaries of art and the lines that divide the theatre, audience, and public space. In addition to No Man’s Land, the festival included other pieces that brought attendees into Athens ‘in an attempt to engage directly with the current socio-political realities.’
For additional information about the performance visit the Onassis Cultural Centre website.
Photos courtesy of No Man’s Land and Stavros Petropoulos.