Julian Lennon: I Wait for Things to Tell Me What to Do

June 5, 2015

Liverpool-born Julian Lennon had his exhibition, Horizon, opening this week at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York. A portfolio of 15 large photographs shot during Lennon’s traveling through Kenya and Ethiopia. It is an awareness-photography series, associated with his involvement in the Water and The White Feather Foundation initiative for Africa.

Walking into the gallery, you can’t miss the editing work that went into developing these breathtaking landscape images, as if Lennon wants to make sure that we are mindful that he is the outsider, the westerner who is looking in. Having a soft spot for outsiders (accepted or not), and for the honesty related with accepting and acknowledging one’s place in the world, I arranged a discussion with Lennon.

Pappos: “I was obsessing over how alien the landscapes in your photographs are. The Secret Way could have been an artist’s interpretation of an exoplanet. It is extraordinary. Being there must have been extraordinary.” 

Lennon: “Absolutely. The Secret Way is a large photo. If you notice at the top of the rocks in the background, you can barely see, there are hand-dug churches with practically no communication to the rest of the world. That was extraordinary. Life changing.”

Pappos: “Religion is present. Reverence caught my attention because of the two priests of sort. They have a scolding and protecting, a biblical magi-like stare in their faces. They stand out from the crowd.” 

Lennon: “These are the leaders of the community. NGOs and charity organizations work with them. Here we were with Scott Harrison of Charity: Water, and it was reverence, indeed. The handoff of a water well. The long white clothes you see, the cotton wraps and long scarves, they protect from heat and cold of the desert. They have a natural insulation for both. Scott was honored with such a scarf. It is a ceremonial piece. Water-work is the message. Awareness is at the heart of the series.”

Pappos: “Behind Closed Doors is the most difficult image, for me. The girl is looking at you as if she is judging you.” Lennon nods. “She is judging you,” I go on. “With all the colonial and cultural damage Europe carries for that part of the world… Kenya’s self-indulgent Happy Valley set of the twenties… I can’t help but speculate that with Horizon you are trying to find and trigger Hope, your signature photograph, through darkness or even rejection.”

Lennon: “I constantly try to look at things in a unique way. As we are all unique,” he says apologetically. “Back home, over a 30-inch screen, I went through 5,000 images and narrowed them down to 124, and then down to 15, and every time I would re-look at something I would see it somehow differently. Even with shots I took from years back. Especially shots I took years back. Re-observing and curating can help you pick up hope, highlight and spread empathy.”

Prior to our meeting, I researched Lennon’s older series. Shooting portraits is his strongest competence as a photographer. 

Pappos: “Considering your past and present work there is something Helmut Newton around it. There is ridiculous glamor in the photos you took of a Princess in Monaco, while getting dressed to get married, but, if look carefully, you spot bewilderment, clumsiness, even traces of shame in her expressions. With your current show it’s the other way around, zoom-in the awesomeness of the landscape, go through despair and drought, and you may find hope. Am I off?”

Lennon: “You are not off. I was petrified when I shot Princess Charlene of Monaco. Same when I shot Bono. I wanted to go beyond the obvious. What’s behind all this… With Horizon, it is understanding and alertness. I try to do that in all the work I do: music, documentaries, and photography.”

Pappos: “Your subjects are spread. You could be judged for that. It takes balls to be a flâneur.”

Lennon: “I grew being watched and judged. My upbringing was different. I mean, everyone’s upbringing is different. We all have our baggage. Certain parts of my life I lived in a fishbowl.”

He has been observing, while he’s been observed — can one really be a true stroller if one is constantly watched? 

Pappos: “Still, a form of luxury. Strolling does not require drive, a determination.”

Lennon: “When you fight, especially something natural, most likely the results will be affected. And you don’t gain emotionally. I wait for things to tell me what to do.”

Julian Lennon’s Horizon, March 12 – May 02, Emmanuel Fremin Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001

Only God Forgives: The Professional Democrat and the Rise of Demopublican Dystopia

January 21, 2014

The Democratic Party has reached the point of no return in distancing itself from the common people. This trend has been in the works for two decades, but today’s political landscape suggests a Wallshington-funded power race between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley, one that spurs a Demopublican dystopia.

“How many professionals are there in your New York office?” Ex-schoolmates often asked me in ’00s. And by “professionals” they meant MBAs, as opposed to the administrative assistants, accountants, librarians, PowerPoint experts and other staff who, peers would giggle and say, “work nine-to-six, next to small stuffed animals, to support us.”

And then they’d quickly add: “You know I didn’t mean that in a bad way.” But MBAs didn’t hang out with “nonprofessionals,” didn’t lunch with “support.” The only three things that we had in common were: the firm, New York and the fact that we were all, or almost all, Democrats.

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I was first baptized a “professional” in grad school. I accepted the term as if I earned it, an accolade deserved after years of grinding homework and deadlines. I never questioned what it really meant or insinuated, where it came from and, most interesting, why and how it implied I was different from others. Were they unprofessional? See, in the early ’90s, I was full of conviction. A war and a recession had just ended, and people like me were about to fix America’s bottom lines. There was fresh air coming from Washington, too. We watched the Clintons (young and smart) parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and we saw ourselves in them.

Indeed, barely unpacked in the White House, the President right away took up with our most adored heroes—getting photographed in a golf cart with Bill Gates or in a squatting position to pat Spielberg’s rugrats—as if issuing a license for a decade of fun. And it was fun. It brought e-mail, e-trade, free trade, start-up IPOs, genome breakthroughs, and many another HBS leap, all endorsed by Goldman or ex-Goldman Washington stars—and, of course, Clinton.

“You can’t get away from the fact that globalization makes us interdependent,” Clinton said, “so it’s not an option to shed it.”

The tech rush of the ’90s, aided by an everything-is-fair-in-finance attitude (leading to the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act reduction of regulation on derivatives), generated new wealth. For the first time since the Kennedy administration, being a poster child for the Democrats meant being a hip and smart “professional,” bi-coasting between finance and technology hubs 40,000 feet above Roseanne labor-class Democrats in the Midwest. Inequality galloped.

Craving a piece of the tech bonanza, like many Europeans in the ’90s, I moved to San Francisco with hopes to dot-com the world and run it. Well, that plan didn’t work out, clearly, but the man who did run things, Clinton himself, began to frequent my adopted city. First, he made sure that Chelsea settled in at nearby Stanford. Then, perhaps, he kept coming back to escape the old-school Monica Lewinsky-obsessed D.C. Northern California provided a refuge from that, a land of think-different entrepreneurs and Gore confidents (e.g., John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers—a VC firm that later employed Al Gore—, Wade Randlett) who networked for shareholder, trade, recruiting and immigration non-strings-attached policies. Sometimes the President simply strolled in San Francisco. I remember photos on the shelves of my bakery in Chinatown: Clinton hugged by the barely English-speaking staff. “Immigration needs to be open,” he asserted. “It needs to be nondogmatic and nonbigoted.”

He wanted, he said, the children of bodega workers to have an equal chance of going to a university. And why not? Why shouldn’t they be “professionals” too? But could they, really? As income in the working class was increasing, its relative wealth was, ironically, decreasing. Catch Roseanne reruns and witness the belittling of Dan Conner (Roseanne Barr’s sitcom husband), his near emasculation, as his children weigh support jobs for “professionals” in big cities.

After ruling Democrats shunned the Conners in the ’90s, they turned into Demopublicans in the ’00s. While Bush was busy spreading democracy with bombs in the Middle East, back home a financial orgy was unfolding. Top Democrats, who the previous decade had started the subprime slippery-slope (Clinton-Raines’ welfare-minded lending that enticed minorities into mortgages—sold on the bipartisan homeownership fairytale—as social programs were cut to balance budgets), silently watched their rock star of the ’90s, Alan Greenspan (a macroeconomic-chameleon from an Ayn Rand acolyte to an anthropology-minded theorist) smile at the dizzying complexity of financial products (Frankenstein-structured CDS—Credit Default Swap—on CDO—Collateralized Debt Obligation) that even he did not comprehend, all the while “professionals” were trading them in unprecedented volume.

All that despite a series of derivatives fiascos that had already exploded on Greenspan’s watch (Orange County, Procter & Gamble, LTCM). But stately Democrats moved on to the loftier endeavors of motivational-speaking and aid-campaigning around the world as their Learjet hosts showered them with tens of millions in consulting fees, Oscars and Nobel prizes. Funny enough, if the Democrats’ passion was now the world (not just America anymore), they had a short memory for the antiwar and anti-American protests they bumped into during their conference-jet-setting in Davos and Zurich: When it came to remove Bush from office, they Xeroxed his foreign policy and then some. In January 2004, David Kay, head of weapons inspection in Iraq, quit by announcing that no WMD could be found, but John Kerry not only didn’t endorse an immediate withdrawal, he went on to attack Bush for not being effective enough in his Middle East combats in the first place.

The next Democratic president was not Bill Clinton’s wife—though it was a close call—but the transparency-promising Barack Obama, who quickly raised status anxiety among white young “professionals” to new heights. Mingling laidback sophistication with Reaganesque glitz, film producers, hip-hop moguls, and British fashion editors, Obama turned Greenwich Village brownstones into a salon for industries and issues close to the heart of $40,000-a-plate Democrats. Suddenly, movie ratings were on the same table with gun control, immigration and health care. It became easy to confuse the party’s ideas and values with the false humility of local “professionals”: “I have to walk around the Village with a utility bill in my purse for ID,” complained a devotee of a princess turned fashion designer who prefaced Nancy Pelosi’s inauguration speech. “Police close off the streets for heavyweights every other week, and it’s two years before the next election!”

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But it was not just starstruck “professionals” who grew the gap between the Democratic Party and folks. A complicated relationship between budget, taxes and corporate law laid the foundation for Democrats and Republicans to both behave evermore alike. Between colossal bank bailouts on both Bush’s and Obama’s watch, New York’s Democratic Senator Schumer (who makes it possible for 740 Park Avenue Republican billionaires to be taxed at 15 percent), and the years-of-concessions Volcker Rule (already challenged by positioning proprietary trading as hedging necessity), one can hear various Democratic outcries: Hillary giving Republicans a piece of her mind on reproductive rights and family planning; Obama expressing his opinion about gay marriage, or his “no patience” (whatever that means) for Russia’s anti-gay laws; and a smug stance that shut down the government for two weeks over Obamacare. There were not only eye-catching headlines offering hope, but also theories about whether there might be more to these samples of Democratic showboating. Could Wallshington be quietly pushing agendas (e.g., OTC interests) into the less regulated shadow-banking space of hedge funds (moving fast into the $5 trillion “repo” space)? Or possibly into the realm of anonymous Bitcoin-like cryptocurrencies (J.P. Morgan’s recent filing attempt), those very markets where regulation should have been tighter to start with?

This catch-me-if-you-can risk engineering in American politics peaks at the concurrence of traditional Republican sectors, like defense and energy, with those “sexier” Democratic precincts of entertainment and high-tech. The result could well be a playground for robots, drones, and Iron Man-type army exoskeletons (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit—TALOS). Google (which recently bought military robot maker Boston Dynamics), Amazon and the Pentagon are currently caught in a three-way books-and-bombs skirmish that can make the distinction between NSA- and Google-tailing immaterial. Worse, Amazon’s future domesticated robots could legitimize the Pentagon’s dirtiest jobs, like unmanned killing raids in the Middle East and beyond. Big Demopublican Brother will soon be able to spread imperialism and provincialism by remote control–much like the Internet spread tolerance and defiance. Oh sure, people can stem any top-down agenda, theoretically, but as attention spans shrink (a high-tech side effect), we mechanically “favor” selfies of “professionals” in Google glasses who follow Clinton’s Bush-congratulating tweets. Who could blame us for not being able to distinguish corporate from grassroots, war from fun, and, one hopes, “professionals” from “support.”

Published at Huffington Post, January 2014.

Debauched Sci-ethics in Dennis Iliadis’ New Film, Plus One, May Launch a New Genre

October 25, 2013

I wasn’t 20 when I walked into Iliadis’ bedroom. It was during one of the raucous parties that he threw with his brother at their bachelor-pad of a home in Athens; their father being the prime playboy then. Drinking, making out, and vomiting were part of the scene, but what gripped me the most was a framed photo on Iliadis’ desk. There, Iliadis posed buck-naked on a motorbike; blond curly hair and torso thrown on the tank; ass just slightly up in the air. I remember studying this half-Botticelli, half-Pirelli-calendar photo realizing that there was more there than I could work out.

After the parties slowed down, Iliadis made movies. Tough ones: Hardcore and The Last House on the Left had both commercial and critical success—a damn rarity. Once in a blue moon we’d run into each other in random places: airports, barren New York streets, Greek celebrations. Iliadis—always a beautiful girl by his side—would be as elusive and stern as the characters in his films. “Are you a sex addict?” he asked me, seriously, in a church in New York, moments before the resurrection of Jesus. Bitch, I thought. “Comes with the territory,” I mumbled. But film directors can ask anything.

Last month, I went to the screening of his new feature, Plus One, in New York. The film starts out with a vicious fencing match that turns into a fervent mix-up which ends the relationship of the protagonist, David (Rhys Wakefield), with his girlfriend Jill (Ashley Hinshaw). To fix things, David goes to a party where the world, as he knows it, comes to an end: a smashing meteorite creates a time dilation. Suddenly, partygoers coexist with themselves of 20 minutes ago. To make things even more frantic, every five minutes a meteor aftermath lets the replicas (i.e., the kids in the recent past) to move closer in time to the kids in the present. As the time gap starts to shrink (15 minutes, five…) the original and past characters are on a head-on collision into a spacetime singularity. Under these circumstances, the partygoers start acting in different ways. Soon, they, and we, doubt who and what is real or present. Everything becomes relative.

“This was an intense, ambitious, mind-screwing ride,” I tell Iliadis at our catch-up dinner. “Plus One kept me processing.”

Iliadis nods. “Yes. It makes people react,” he says.

He is right. Plus One asks questions. Maybe lush ones, but still stimulating. How would you react if you ever faced yourself? How could you react?

“Time travel works,” I say, genuinely.

“Tell me more!” he encourages me.

“Well, we live in apocalyptic times. We spot new planets every week or so. We have traveled in time. Sergei Krikalev traveled 1/48 of a second into the future.'”

“He did?” Iliadis asks.

“He spent two years in space. Look him up,” I say. “Of course your plot is way, way more complicated. By crunching that 20 minutes of time gap, Plus One swings between the grandfather paradox and a potentially collapsing multiverse. Which brings up good questions. How you coexist with yourself? How do you deal with that?”

“People have a hard time accepting philosophical questions when they are wrapped in, say, a keg party, or in suspense,” Iliadis says. “We are conservative that way. It’s a shortcoming, I think. I love to clash things.”

“For me, Plus One is less a sci-fi, and more a sci-ethics film. I see time as the ultimate exploration, the ultimate experimentation. Time is what gives us regret,” I say, smiling. Iliadis smiles back, and I can’t help but psychoanalyze him. Could Plus One be the famously non-committal bachelor’s (now happily married with children) way of looking back at his partying days with regret? “The harsh lights, the almost exfoliated faces of your actors, the women objectification, they all contribute to a frost portraying of the Instagram generation,” I say.

“You think so? You noticed that?” Iliadis gives me his ambiguous lines.

I elaborate, “One could say you judge them. You judge their privileged provincialism. Most of them end up being savages. There were scenes that I had a hard time watching. These kids turn out to be stunningly narrow-minded.”

“That’s not correct,” Iliadis says. “There is darkness but it’s mixed with love. The young girl’s reaction, the scene on the sofa, is juxtaposed with the horror. There is a mix. There is hope.”

I tell Iliadis that I was intrigued by David’s (the protagonist) effort to work the time travel situation and get back with Jill. “David is self- and short-term centric during a momentous event. There’s manipulating behavior that could be generation-specific.”

Iliadis plays with his phone for a moment. Then he shows me a photo on its screen that ranks illegal downloads. Plus One tops the list, beats Hangover III.

“Wow!” I’m dumbfounded. Who is manipulating whom, now? “You are sitting on a new hybrid. A new genre. You know that?”
He makes his Gioconda smile.

“Will you pose naked for me on a bike?” I ask. I remind him of the photo I saw, years back, on his desk.
“My mother took that photo,” Iliadis says.

“Really?” I laugh.

“She was a free spirit. She spent time in Brazil.”

“So, let’s time travel the shot,” I say heartily. “Find the original and we re-shoot it now.”

His body language shows hesitation. “I’d need some work out time to remake that photo today,” he says, and his shyness breaks through.

“I want you to pose the way you are. You’re an artist. Working out for it would be silly.”

“I’ll have to look at my old boxes to find that photograph,” Iliadis says.

“So, it’s a go,” I say.

“Maybe.”

+1 is now available on iTunes and VOD.

Published at Huffington Post, October 2013.

Patmos, Payne and Paradoxes

September 24, 2013

Is there a God? Life after death? An apocalypse in store for us? Age-old questions crossed my mind on the ferry approaching Patmos, the Aegean island reined by a thousand-year old monastery, a fortress that summits the island’s stony landscape and local life. Patmos is mentioned in the Book of Revelation. John the Apostle was here when he got visions he logged in the Apocalypse. The cave where he allegedly had his prophecies is on the road from the port to the main town, a snaking lane swimming in churches.

Albeit its despotic ruling Patmos is a destination for nonconformists. Writers, artists, eccentric thinkers and scientists, lots of them openly gay, have been flocking the island for decades. Their symbiosis with the doctrine makes Patmos somewhat of a paradox. Why leather sandals and linen scarves wearing provocateurs (few A&F and Havaianas around) nest under the grand monastery? Are they spellbinded?

As a gay man and a scientist, I have issues with orthodox churches and spells, but I am also attracted to paradoxes. So when I was invited to the 3rd International Film Festival of Patmos (IFFP) last month, I welcomed the opportunity to understand the magnetism between creativity and canon. Leaving the fun of the Cycladic islands behind — Patmos’s Chora has one and a half bars — I checked into my hotel and started watching people who watched movies. The setting was out of Cinema Paradiso but the crowd was different. Monks (who launched the festival), artists, locals, vacationers and media people squeezed together to experience art under the stars.

“Patmians make 50 percent of our audience,” Steve Krikris, IFFP’s Artistic Director, told me. “Patmos doesn’t have a theater. The festival is their only opportunity to get together and watch films, and admission is free. Remember that the locals had a terrible winter, financially. They need outlets like this festival. And they’re grateful.”

“I picked on that excitement,” I said.

“We have a beautiful audience,” Steve said modestly. “The rest 50 percent is insiders and fancy world travelers.”

“Quite a combo,” I said. “Hamish Bowles or Aga Khan flanked by the local baker and a priest as they watch Before Midnight…Study their body language and you got some serious marketing research.”

“That’s Patmos,” Steve said shyly. I could see him putting at ease monks, sponsors, actors…”The island is perfect for mixing and networking,” Steve went on. “This already happens but down the road the semiotic diversity that you spotted could help distributors make decisions.”

“Let’s talk about the program,” I said. “What’s the festival’s underlying theme?”

“Yes, we were careful. We had to be both edgy and mild so locals, experts and travelers would all be interested. We looked for social and human films. Films about character development, like Alexander Payne’s films. And injustice. We included No, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Angels’ Share, Little Land, Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey. IFFC is a response to what is happening to Patmos and Greece. And to the world.”

I was infected by Steve’s tender empathy. “Right here, right now, this makes perfect sense,” I agreed. “But when you are a small festival you can go anywhere.” I point up at the monastery. “There are plenty of beautiful islands where you can expose locals to art without permission from their guardians.”

“Interestingly enough we welcome the constraint you refer to,” Steve said carefully. “This year we sponsored young filmmakers to make eight shorts titled Life in the Borderlands. Residents of the island are their subjects. Borders engulf social and personal boundaries too. One short is about a monk who left his career as a ballet dancer to join the monastery. I think it’s an amazing story for Greece.”

“For anywhere,” I mumbled, wondering why do I need to segment the open-minded from the dogma? Science has beefed up its research for evidence of God since I left Stanford. “Many, many years after you left campus,” I told Alexander Payne, rolling my eyes.

Payne smiled. His Greek is limited but he has a good accent from his mother. “Foreign languages are the only thing I’m good at,” said the director/screenwriter (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) who hasn’t made a single bad movie. My turn to smile. Payne was back from a long hike on the island with his girlfriend, Grace, but under their sweat and dust they still projected American health and stamina. We ordered cold drinks. It was sunset.

“I have to bring up Election,” I told Payne. “I was in New York when it opened and word of mouth spread like fire. People went: What was that?”

“The high school film?” Payne asked perplexed. It took us a few to pin each other’s humor. “No, seriously now, it’s the movie I get the most compliments for. I didn’t know New York responded so well. I wasn’t there.” Checking with Grace, “Were you?”

“Oh, yes!” Grace said. “There was buzz.”

“In a way Election exposed us,” I said. “Whether people identified with Broderick or Witherspoon the story reminded us that deep-deep down, somehow, something didn’t go exactly as planned for lots of us to end up in New York.”

Grace nodded. She went to school in my hood in New York. “Election was a Greek tragedy played out in a high school,” she said.

“It’s set up as a Greek tragedy from its very first minute,” Payne intervened. “The voice-over says: You can’t fight destiny because it’s going to happen anyway, and all you’ll accomplish is to suffer.”

“So Woodyallenesque,” I said.

“So Aeschylusesque,” Payne corrected me.

True. We were in the Aegean. Why the middleman? But then we Greeks have been making it and screwing it up 3000 years now ’cause we can’t stand each other. I brought up Payne’s long-term workmates, his forever-writing-partner, Jim Taylor and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who was also at the festival. They work splendidly together — from scripts, to movies, all the way to the Oscars. What was Payne’s secret to teamwork?

“Well…” he paused, “I wish I could say something profound here but I think that partnerships are basically luck. Sometimes just laziness. Sometimes you are just too lazy to bother to look for something different. Yes. Laziness.”

I stare at him. There was no trace of slugging in his eyes. No trace of bullshiting either. “What happened those 7 years between Sideways and The Descendants?” I asked. “Were you hibernating? Downtime? Just lazy?”

“I was writing,” Payne said. “I wish I made movies, I wanted to make movies, but you need a solid story. I took the time to write a different kind of script, something more visual, something that finally didn’t play out and I worked on The Descendants. You know, it’s all about the script in the movies. And good casting. The rest…” he waved his hand dismissively.

“That simple, eh? So why the push for black-and-white on Nebraska?” Payne’s new film to be released in 2013. “Couldn’t someone accuse you of showing off there?”

“No. It’s not bells and whistles. I fought for that. Black-and-white is pretty much all I watch. Don’t get me wrong, there are many shitty black-and-white films, but there are spectacular ones too.”

He is one of the five or so independent filmmakers that work with studios. Something that allows Payne to bring mainstream audiences to indie work. Now he has reached the point where he can make something as close to as possible to his vision. Nebraska’s budget went down, but black-and-white was nonnegotiable. Cannes-praised and with no box-office-cast, Nebraska narrates a father-son road trip. 25 years after I left Greece, finally reaching equilibrium in my relationship with my father; what more could I want from a movie? So here I am, in Patmos, under the monastery, eating up Payne’s vision, Payne’s way of registering the world, his “internal modeling” according to cognitive scientists who suggest that our souls exist after death because we pass our very models to the world through our sayings and actions, knowing that when all is said and done there’ll be much more of Payne’s soul around than of mine, as there’ll be more of Aeschylus’ than Payne’s. My ego hurts. I need to man up and suck it up. Take from Payne’s models, abstract them and pass them on, just like he takes from mine.

“I’m curious about what’s next in the pipeline, but actually I have a suggestion,” I said to Payne. He gestured encouragingly. “Circling back to where we started, in Election there were two small accidents that changed the lives of your protagonists.”

Payne was interested but lost. “What accidents?” he asked.

“Broderick misses the garbage bin and Witherspoon falls from the chair while fixing a poster. In a way these mishaps trigger things that change everything in their lives.”

“Right on.” Payne said, nodding.

“There are presumably minor accidents that can change the lives of millions,” I went on. “Chaos theory can arch stories that take us from the micro to the macro, from human to society.”

“I like the chaos theory amplifier you bring up,” Payne said. He turned to Grace and asked if she had seen the film I mentioned as a proxy. “Let’s watch that,” he prompted — even though it’s in color. We talked about the screening of Nebraska in New York. I can’t wait, but what I really can’t wait to see is a Greek story from Payne. A Greek amplifier. He is considering working in Greece, his way of giving back. My way of giving back: stay up all night and hike to the cave of the Apocalypse at dawn.

The pink color was breaking behind the hill as I approached the site. Dogs, chicken and birds appeared and disappeared between the rocks. One second their eyes stared at me, and then they were gone choreographing some rural magic. I hadn’t sensed such vibe since I got lost while driving in Trinidad and Tobago. Reaching the cave I felt a sudden fear, and I got it: instigators who come to Patmos long for the preserved mysticism of orthodoxia as others may long for Buddhism or Kabbalah—now way overexposed. I don’t know how gray Patmos’ magic feels to its regulars, I don’t know magic, I don’t think I believe in magic, but I can tell it is primitive, worth their hike.

Published at Huffington Post, August 2013

Costa Manos’ Global Ease

May 27, 2013

Take a stroll on the second floor of the Benaki Museum in Athens and Magnum photographer Constantine Manos’ exhibition will take you to a world of lost slowness. His peripatetic years in rural Greece among napping herders and thick fishermen are captured in “A Greek Portfolio / 50 Years Later,” an astonishing collection of an ease gone. Or is it?

American born Manos belongs to the fraternity of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Robert McCabe, Bruce Chatwin, travelers who spent time in Greece and credited its light for making everything around it relevant. But this is a universal fact, light makes space and time relevant indeed—Einstein proved it. These wandering men detected an ease, an inertia, which is a tricky business: moved us from special to general relativity, gave gravity its geometry, spacetime its curvature. Follow Manos’ later work “American Color,” and you’ll see the sweeps in the shades of the outliers as they orbit parlors and malls. His work relates you to the seemingly irrational. Forces you to wonder what bothers you with queerness, and when you look long enough you might simply say: “nothing.”

The timing of “A Greek Portfolio” in Athens is apocalyptic, inertia has never been more relevant. After 5 years and a number of rescue packages, Financial Times states that “the sufferring of innocent Greeks must be blamed not only on the excessively fast fiscal cuts, but on the choice to keep protecting the already privileged while shifting the brunt of the burden onto the slenderest shoulders.” Inertia is everything but aged and knows no boundaries. Manos’ second and much larger homeland, the U.S., suffers from another gravitational side-effect: time dilation. Clocks attached to massive bodies tick slower. Two weeks ago, the U.S. affirmed that conflict with Al Queda and associated forces (whatever that means) would go on for another decade or two. Days later, Obama worried that a perpetual war on terror would be self-defeating. Ουδέν μονιμότερον του προσωρινού Greeks say. Nothing is so permanent as the temporary.

Visiting Manos at the studio he shares with architect and painter Michael Prodanou in Provincetown, MA, I witnessed how little was irrelevant to them. Frame after frame, they walked me through the exact light that had to be in place to seize a precise spacetime. Art was countersigning science.

Constantine Manos “A Greek Portfolio / 50 Years Later”. Duration 22.5-25.8.2013. Benaki Museum, 1 Koumbari Street Athens, Greece. (+30210 3671000)

Published at Huffington Post, May 2013

Chasing My First Line — From Personal, to Artistic, to Civil Disobedience

March 21, 2013

A couple of years ago I was offered the chance to salvage the original Beatrice Inn furniture, the nautical-looking sofas that Paul Sevigny used in his infamous Manhattan club between ’06 and ’09. When I mentioned this to Anthony Haden-Guest, a man who defies categorization, he asked me, “Have you seen Visconti’s film The Damned?” Anthony—a British philosopher, art critic, cartoonist, and author of The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night—brought a smile to my lips. I was a Beatrice regular and, sure, I had worked hard to put some of the habits I picked up there behind me, but The Damned? Visconti’s decadent take on Hitler’s SS? Wasn’t the old chap stretching it a bit? Plus, by saving those sofas, I was preserving nightlife history, a piece of the bunker that depicted New York’s downfall during the last decade.

“What if they end up in MoMA someday?” I asked Anthony, with a nervous laugh.

“You may be surprised,” Anthony replied, leaning conspiratorially over our apple cider. “I was offered pieces of furniture from Studio 54 and I didn’t keep them. If I only knew then what I know now,” he muttered before cracking up. Anthony went on about the edgier side of America. He talked about the ’70s porn industry and how it affected American culture, and about the impact Deep Throat had. “How gay clubs became sex clubs, became dance clubs, and so on, until everything became…” He waved his hand uncomfortably. “Sounds like Beatrice continued where we left off. The fact that people smoked in the Beatrice is by itself a time capsule,” he explained.

I smoked at the Beatrice. I recall the first time I walked down its steps, in 2006, and how I immediately sensed a thrill that something spooky was about to happen. Beyond the cigarettes, the drugs, Joy Division playing in the background, the hookups and alcohol excess, there was an air of make- believe in that low-ceilinged basement. Lighting up, I felt like a Greek stud in a Marlboro commercial. Freaks, geeks, and even Upper East Side jerks were free to fabricate their own foolish images. Twenty-year-olds danced their asses off to Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols—I mean, who does that today? And where? That first night, my friends and I were hooked. The Bea became our living room, and any downtown elite, whoever that was at the time, would just have to come lounge with us. Passing Angelo, at the door—“There’s a private party tonight”—you felt confident enough to dance with, hit on, or pick up anyone. Royal sidekicks slouched with hustlers, bankers with hipsters, athletes with dealers. Within a season we were the new elite.

Somehow Anthony’s comparison started to make sense. Under Nazi-ish petit-bourgeois photos on Bea’s walls—Hitler’s personal art collection was full of postcard-like paintings—we, like the poorly-educated SS in The Damned, believed “morals are dead. We are in the elite society where everything is permissible.” We sniffed for simplistic escapes and partied like it was 1979. By 2007 I lived at the Bea, and interestingly enough, had convinced myself that people liked me for who I was and that swapping sex for drugs was just a byproduct of the new me. Tennis players and screenwriters were welcome to after-party in my apartment around the corner. How convenient was that?

By 2008 we were so busy making deals with the devil that when “Lehman Races Clock” hit the headlines, those of us with white-collar jobs skipped dinner for more booze. A new kind of acting-out took over: “Fuck 48 Wall,” I said when Citi traded for less than a buck. “The ship’s going down anyway. Cut another line.” The Bea became our version of Hitler’s bunker in its last days. Suddenly excess, status, and even debauched sexuality were issues for the recession-scarred West Village brownstoners. Police raids became routine, and the Bea closed for good, ending a run that took it from euphoric pride to shame, like the Third Reich itself.

My hangover was brutal. Soon after Beatrice closed, my firm laid off people and—surprise—I was one of them. Friends started moving out of New York as if it were 9/11 all over again. The Fed, Bush, Goldman, Bloomberg, Murdoch—pick whichever conspiracy theory you favor—turned having fun with the excess they enabled into sin. You learned to be silent about the recent past. Running into an ex-Bea-regular you lacked only a secret handshake. “Were you giggling with the Olsen twins?” a film producer asked, laughing in my face. “I never went there, and feel a little antipathy to that scene,” an editor e-mailed me after I pitched a short piece about the bunker. “Chasing cocaine-fueled bliss behind velvet ropes breeds decay and separation,” explained a Middle Eastern Studies PhD candidate to me mid-recession. “It’s high school hell all over again.”

Did cocaine soothe my personal descent? You bet. But it was part of my rebirth too. Once sober, I was done with my white-collar past. All I wanted to do was to write about New York’s separation pathology, and why I was so intrigued by it. To get perspective and try to understand myself, I traveled to Greece, where I grew up. And it was there that I saw what genuine social separation really meant. Union members, immigrants, tax-evaders, priests, and Nazi-sympathizers—real Nazi-sympathizers—beat each other up outside factories and theaters. This was a different hell, one that made me forget the Beatrice or, better, made me see my homeland as a giant Beatrice, made me want to grow up and try to understand how come 19th-century tribal lines were still drawn by third-generation politicians.

So I turned to artists. Betting on their clinical process, I determined to comprehend Greek pain. Primal Matter, the latest work of choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, and recently staged in New York, showed a consummate but crumbling ruler—performed by Papaioannou himself dressed in a black suit—grappling, objectifying, abusing, and getting abused by his absolute counterpart: a frighteningly perfect, stark-naked human Kouros played by Tadeu Liesenfeld. In EMPAC’s asphyxiating studio, the body friction between these performers jetted toward us, the audience, before rebounding back to them with an energy so palpable that I sweated the actors’ pain, petrified in my seat. Primal Matter is not an explicit reflection of today’s Greek struggle, but of course it’s all there. Dressed as a conspicuously affluent Greek, Papaioannou looked as though he were coming back from a night at bouzoukia, resembling the ghost of Athens’s 2004 Olympic Games. He found himself confronted with both the ancient Greek spirit and the perfectly ripped Northern African immigrant. Liesenfeld transformed Papaioannou from a mere custodian into a codependent Nazi-like abuser. But Primal Matter mirrors other global touchstones as well. At various points during the show, I read Papaioannou, under a table, as a lifeless Damien Hirst formaldehyde-suspended lamb; as a handicapped Bowman in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, lying in bed and reaching out to touch Primal Matter’s representation of the monolith, a wooden door; and as a contorted Dalí figure, fisting Liesenfeld’s armpits and crotch.

The staging was a wonder, and after an effective blackout finale, it brought home the realization that intelligence is a fatal disease. The suited man kills both the animal and the human spirit. And I wasn’t ready to give up on Greece or mankind—yet. A few days after the performance, I met Papaioannou for dinner at the newly reopened Beatrice Inn, now an upscale restaurant co-owned by the editor of Vanity Fair. “So this is where it all happened,” said Papaioannou, referring to my old Bea days.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, and elsewhere.” I laughed and got us drinks. “First things first, I’m crazy in love with Primal Matter,” I said, quickly changing the subject like a coke-dry drunk.

“Did you really like it?” Papaioannou asked, his eye wrinkles betraying skepticism. We rarely know where we stand. We switch from being highly predatory to being brotherly. “I’m so thirsty for validation from thinking people,” Papaioannou added, paying me back for my excitement over his work.

“For a fifty-year-old—”

“Forty-eight!” Papaioannou corrected me.

“What you guys did was a freak show. Technically, balancing two bodies by a single calf is paranormal. I was suffering watching you. We all were. We were seated practically next to you.”

“You felt that?” he asked. I had grabbed his attention. “Because what you experienced hit right back to me. It was like there was no ventilation. In Greece we had high ceilings; there was a release. It’s as if EMPAC closed a circle. It was too much.”

Once we were seated, I tried to engage him in a discussion about the symbolism of his work, and about abuse and disobedience in Greece. “Theorize as much as you like,” Papaioannou said, busy reading his menu. “Will you order for me?” He asked, looking up. “Do you do that?” His face revealed a faint suggestion.

I leaned in an inch closer. Sometimes I hate artists. It’s as though they’re not even trying. Papaioannou’s work is not that different from his life, his restless performance similar to his no-strings-attached being. He never denies. Never confirms. Then again, maybe his silence is a necessary part of the knack that made him an avant-garde choreographer. Will I order for him? Do I do that? Here’s what I do: “How about we dissect Primal Matter on the original Beatrice sofas, which I now own?” I asked with a wink and smile. “You’ll be the middle act in my next article, between my personal hell and civil disobedience.”

“You can put me in any act you like,” Papaioannou said.

Was he already drunk, indifferent? Making fun of me? How about I put you upside down? I decided to ask Papaioannou, “What do you think about what happened at Terrence McNally’s play in Athens?” This fall, deputies of the far-right political party Golden Dawn, together with Greek Orthodox priests, turned violent outside a performance of McNally’s Corpus Christi, a play that portrays Jesus and his Apostles as gay men. Protesters beat up audience members, and Golden Dawn had everyone involved with the play charged with “insulting religion” and “malicious blasphemy.” “I’m brainstorming with Greek-Americans about bringing the Greek Corpus Christi to the US,” I added.

“Are you doing this as an artistic effort or as a political statement?” Papaioannou asked.

It was a fair question. “Both,” I said.

I wanted to know what Terrence McNally, one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, thought about this work causing such a stir in the Athens and Greece of today. In his bright, curtains-wide-open Greenwich Village apartment, Terrence at the age of 74 looked like he had nothing to hide. His husband, Tom Kirdahy, an activist-lawyer in his late 40s, joined us, giving off a warm Terrence-guarding air. Over coffee, Terrence discussed his need to live an open, honest, integrated life, and told me how saddened he was about the general suffering and upheaval brought about by Corpus Christi in Greece.

I politely countered that what I knew of his work—including Master Class, Corpus Christi, Golden Age—involved suffering and fatalism in the most dramatic fashions. “So where is the light?” I asked Terrence. “Where is the hope for gay and other marginalized people in places like Greece?”

“I never thought I was bad for being gay,” Terrence replied. “We are all sons of God. We are all divine. With Corpus Christi, I wanted to include myself in Christ’s story. I wanted to see myself in the eyes of God. Why couldn’t those men be gay too? God is everywhere. God has a gay gene too.”

“Terrence fought his war for social justice by writing plays,” Tom said tenderly, defending his husband. He was right. What made Terrence marginal in the 1960s also made him enduring.

I asked the couple to sit on their sofa for some photographs. They worried whether the weekend sweaters they had on were good enough for me. They are a beautiful, inclusive family. They welcomed me into the photos. Halfway through the shoot, Terrence placed his hand on Tom’s head and I felt jealous. With this single act, he was protecting his protector. As if this role-reversal turned one man into the other. Terrence seems the artist closest to God in the sense that he doesn’t accept God is here while I may be over there. For him, there’s no heaven or hell; there’s no separation. He works and lives as if God is in all of us.

But what has to happen before all people learn how to live like Terrence and Tom? Until we realize that we are all divine, minorities in Greece will continue to live in terror. We are going to need some social martial arts in order to survive.

Seeking a social blueprint for Greece, I went to see How to Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary about the early days of AIDS activism. Ten minutes into the film, as startling as it may sound, I saw something bigger than AIDS. France’s exceptionally well-told story includes a change-the-world message. “Movements build on each other,” France told me over coffee. “Feminism, ACT-UP, Pro-democracy, they all leveraged each other. Go around the world and you’ll see.” Bingo! This is just what Greece might need right now.

To collect transferable grassroots practices, I had better understand my newly discovered heroes. Where did their courage come from? How did they fight so many uneven battles in the face of social stigma, sickness, obsolete clinical trials, drug access, and exorbitant costs? How did they win so much, both clinically and socially? In awe, practically star-struck by their game-changing achievements, I met Jim Eigo, who introduced How to Survive a Plague in Athens. He provided the fundamentals: “We were very organized, we became scientific experts ourselves, and we were self-funded, so we owned no favors.”

“How did you fund yourselves?” I asked him.

“Peter Staley, coming from Wall Street, helped a lot on that. Artists donated their work for auctions, too. We were very active,” Jim said. “I joined ACT-UP by accident. I was passing outside their meeting and felt the passion, the energy, how vibrant people were in the room. I remember telling myself that this is where I belonged. We were arrogant—we needed to be—but we were not violent. We used the power of our bodies. We were considered toxic at the time. They used gloves to arrest us. In a way we said: Deal with this, deal with our bodies on the street. This was powerful. This is the power of civil disobedience.”

“We were lucky,” said Peter Staley, the daredevil poster boy of ACT-UP who climbed walls and debated CEOs on national TV. “Think about it. We were young, dying, and the media loved that. The question was how to sustain that interest. Well, we were very creative. I mean, gay people are creative,” he said, smiling. “You can’t recreate conditions, but movements have definitely learned from us. Occupy Wall Street did.”

“So far, so good,” I told Peter. “There’s international interest in Greece. There is lots at stake, both financially and symbolically. And we are creative, if not gay.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “But we did our homework,” he said in a scolding way. “We were realistic. We knew exactly what we were asking for.” There was still so much assurance in the way he talked. And that’s when it hit me that the common denominator for all those rebels was one thing: confidence.

“Taking control was an aphrodisiac,” Charlie Franchino, who joined ACT-UP in 1987, said to me. “There was a sexual energy in those meetings that had to do with us getting power.”

“Helping each other, helping the guy next to you became instinctively stronger than self-preservation,” said Michael Barr, another early ACT-UP member.

“I donated my own lymph node. These things come easy when you believe in the cause you’re fighting for,” Mark Harrington, ACT-UP’s intellectual firepower, told me.

The more I talked to them, the more I saw the attributes of a 19th-century romantic movement that fought unfair and uneven wars. I left each meeting ready to live and write differently. I felt like a kid again, wanting to re-read The Mutiny on the Bounty. I romanticized standing up for social justice the way one should. In Greece we are fighting for survival, but I’m not sure how much we believe that we are fighting for justice too. We’ve had too many years of silent convenience, of looking the other way when it came to tax reporting, public-sector productivity, and racial profiling. Visconti’s damned were not only the abusers but also those who turned a blind eye. Regaining our purity seems a prerequisite for solidarity in social causes. Going public with our past will take guts, but can also mark the beginning of a powerful bliss.

Published by Naked But Safe, March 2013.

How I Ended 2012

January 16, 2013

“How To Survive A Plague,” David France’s documentary about the early days of AIDS activism, blew the roof off any I-can’t-change-the-world—or my homeland, Greece—beliefs of mine. Ten minutes into the film, as startling as it may sound, I saw something bigger than AIDS. Whether the enemy is social stigma, sickness, drug access and exorbitant costs, or today’s Greek law-making, finance, tax and unions’ corruption, firepowers like Peter Staley, Mark Harrington and Jim Eigo (featured in the documentary) could simply hand me a manual on how to win uneven battles. Sold, I thought. Continue reading “How I Ended 2012” »

Terrence McNally’s Golden Dawn

January 7, 2013

Some artists never lose their boyish looks. Jonathan Franzen, John Dowd, Terrence McNally—all these men seem to retain those adolescent smiles. As Terrence McNally shakes my hand by the fireplace of his Greenwich Village apartment, his stray-dog eyes instantly accept me. I sense his reassuring look.

“My husband, Tom, is a good lawyer,” Terrence says proudly, if shyly, about Tom Kirdahy, who’s in the kitchen fiddling with their espresso machine. “I mean, he’s the good kind of lawyer. He does pro bono work for people with HIV. I mean, he is a good lawyer too,” Terrence adds hurriedly.

“Tom is a good, good lawyer,” I say. Tom turns, smiles, and asks if I want coffee. They are both excited about the panettone I brought for our get-together. It’s the first weekend of December, but it feels like Christmas.

Two nights ago, I saw Terrence’s new play, Golden Age, on Broadway. Naturally, I have a list of notes to bounce off one of America’s most award-winning playwrights. How, for instance, does Golden Age connect to Master Class, one of his classics? But Terrence and Tom’s Sunday is all booked up. They have friends in town for the premiere, and Terrence is already working on a new project, so I get straight to the point. “Let’s talk about Greece and your play over there, Corpus Christi,” I say as Tom hands me a double espresso.

In October, Greek Orthodox priests and far-right wing protestors turned violent outside Hytirio Theater in Athens where Corpus Christi was staged, a play that portrays Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas. Terrence and Tom have been following the uproar and are keen to hear about my latest discussion with Laertis Vasiliou, one of the play’s producers and actors. “Christian Talibans” (Vasiliou’s words) vandalized the theater and bullied the audience. The production froze and, to make matters worse, Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus together with a parliament member of the far-right political party Golden Dawn filed a lawsuit for “malicious blasphemy” and “insulting religion” against everyone involved in the play. Vasiliou calculated that they needed about 5,000 euros just for court fees, assuming they got free representation. Considering the money he put into the production that never took off, Vasiliou claimed he was broke. But, more importantly, he alleged that this lawsuit against freedom of speech and artistic expression took Greece back to the dark ages.

Tom instinctively lists a couple international organizations that may help me direct Vasiliou to alternative funding for this lawsuit.

“I was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a Roman Catholic,” Terrence says sympathetically. “But I never thought that I was bad for being gay. We are all sons of God. We are all divine. With Corpus Christi, I wanted to include myself in Christ’s story. I wanted to see myself in the eyes of God. Why couldn’t those men be gay, too? God is everywhere.”
“Corpus Christi is full of love, suffering, and forgiveness. Terrence, you are obviously religious,” I say.

“Well, most people who crusade against my work have not seen it,” Terrence explains.

“Corpus Christi was playing at Hytirio theater, but it also took place just outside the theater, on the streets of Athens,” I tell Terrence. “In a video link that I will forward to you, a young man, Panagiotis Demos, describes how on his way to enter the theater, he stood still and chose not to fight back while he was pushed and punched by fanatics including Greek Orthodox priests.” Demos’s stillness challenged my fight-or-run predisposition, my DNA. It is heartbreaking footage which reminds one of Terence’s actual play: ‘You can come no closer to Me than your body, Simon. Everything else you will never touch. Everything important is hidden from you.’ “And it gets better,” I go on. “With Vasiliou being sued for blasphemy, just as the High Priest sued Joshua in Corpus Christi, your play is being replayed on a national level. You say that that most people who fight your work have not seen it, Terrence. So how can we change that? In Greece? Today? Demos was lucky. He could have been sent to the hospital or even killed. Which makes me question when your faith, your tolerance towards the ignorant, should switch into fight for survival. How many more martyrs, how many more Harvey Milks and Matthew Shepards, and hundreds, thousands of bashed gay people around the world should be victimized before we have to admit that Jesus did die in vain? I respect you but I don’t have your faith. When do you say: enough is enough?”

“It’s somewhat unfair of you to ask me these questions,” Terrence replies. “My life today, my city, my work, are all so different from the circumstances you describe. I am shocked and saddened by what’s going on in Greece. It’s a European country whose laws threaten freedom of speech.”

“Then you have to think back,” I say, almost interrupting Terrence. “Maybe Greece is about to go through its own Stonewall. Maybe we can learn a thing or two.”

Terrence pauses long enough for Tom—introduced as “the politico in the family”—to come to my aid: “When Terrence wrote Things That Go Bump in the Night in 1964, he was savaged by critics for being frank,” Tom says. “But this didn’t intimidate him. He didn’t stop. He pressed on. That was Terrence’s fight.”

“I had to be honest as an artist,” Terrence tells me, though his body language addresses his husband. “Even more important than being a good artist is being honest. Not to live a secret life. That’s the only way I can be an authentic person. God is in all of us. God has a gay gene, too. I’m 74, and I’ve been fought a lot, and I’ve been thanked a lot. At some point, the mayor had to step in and protect my life. He had someone walk me to the subway. We had AIDS funerals while people protested against homosexuality in the background. Then there was a mother who approached me crying on Mother’s Day, of all days. She was living with the fact that she never accepted her son before he died from AIDS.”

“That’s a tricky one,” I whisper.

“We’ve come such a long way since 1964,” Terrence says. “AIDS, as harsh as it may sound, helped gay rights.”

“But it is 2012,” I say. “One should not have to go through hell to get equal rights.”

“No, one should not. But I’m afraid AIDS made people come out. We don’t all have to be Larry Kramer, but he made a difference. You help one person come out, you have a success. And it takes one person to start change.”

“Well, that’s part of the problem in Greece,” I tell Terrence. “Very few people are out. There are barely any role models.”

“It’s puzzling, really,” Terrence says, nodding. “Greece had Kakogiannis, Diamantidou, and Melina Mercouri. During the junta, Melina lived with Jules right over there,” Terrence says and points through the 12-foot-window of their living room to the building across the street. “We were in each other’s place all the time. Melina was tireless. She’d work for 12 hours on Illya Darling, and then she’d go to Brooklyn to speak to Greeks about freedom. She was brave; she was full of fire.”

“A remarkable woman, no doubt,” I say. “Did you stay in touch with her in the 80’s, when she was part of the political establishment in Greece?”

“Yes. I visited her there,” Terrence replies. “We were very close.”

“Melina was bigger than life. For sure. Yet she looked the other way when the very government she was part of, supported by yellow presses like Avriani and Klik, cemented populism, homophobia, sexism and lifestyle-obsession in Greece. The ’80s, I guess…”

“I didn’t see that when I visited her. I did not notice homophobia. Then again, I stayed in a 5-star hotel. I don’t know what people said behind my back. I am sure things are different now. Socially, politically, economically. There is struggle.”

“The characters in your plays are prone to suffering,” I say. Terrence blushes; he and Tom laugh. “And forgiveness.” I add, embarrassed, as if I just insulted a national treasure.

“Gay people have so much to contribute,” Terrence says. They hug me goodbye. Their wool sweaters smell of soap. “We are neighbors. We should get together at the Italian bistro.”

In their elevator, I’m smitten yet unsatisfied. Fuck forgiveness. We are at war back home. While I cross Washington Square Park I’m all-out with Terrence’s words. “God is everywhere,” he said. “Give the man the benefit of the doubt, you little punk! Give the man the benefit of wisdom,” I mumble to myself. Summarizing the last 30 years of Greece’s madness is like trying to explain Higgs’s boson, the God’s particle. Terrence’s words surface again: “We are all God. We are all divine.”

How could Golden Dawn be God, Terrence? Fine. They practice separation without knowing it. They don’t see “one.” So, how fair was I to my country over espresso and $50 panattone? Maybe Golden Dawn is our ‘AIDS,’ a trigger for action and social justice. Perhaps we needed to hit bottom after a 30-year greed-and-trash plague to help ourselves. I take out my phone and bring up the invite for a ‘How To Survive A Plague’ documentary screening. This will be good.

Published by OUT.com, December 2012

Fear & Loathing: The Crisis in Greece Has Seen the Far-Right Soar, Along With Homophobia

I was at a bar in Gazi, the gay-friendly neighborhood of Athens, when my friends started talking about Ilias Kasidiaris, the spokesperson of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, who had slapped a woman on live TV. My gay compatriots had gone to university, had jobs (most of them), and voted liberally—or so they said. Still, they chuckled over Kasidiaris’s half-naked photos, his street-fighting body, tattoos, and tight black T-shirt.

“Have you seen the neo-Nazi swastika on that shirt?” I asked them. “Have you read about Golden Dawn’s immigrant abuse? The anti-gay statements on their websites?” I yelled, partly dumbfounded, and partly to be heard over Despina Vandi, a Greek singer, belting out her hit “Suffering” in a club-beat remix.

“Whatever.”

“Relax.”

“You’re so American…”

With unemployment at 23%, unprecedented crime, immigrant bashing, the first Greek slum emerging in Aspropyrgos (a suburb of Athens), paramilitary organizations popping up—and just as European negotiators were heading to Athens for yet another exasperated round of negotiations to avoid national bankruptcy—I was scolded for my political correctness.

“I’m suffering, I’m suffering,” Vandi kept pleading through the club’s speakers, and I wondered if it was not merely our financial doomsday that had made Golden Dawn attractive, but some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Were we perversely attracted to our offenders?

“Gay bashing has not happened…yet,” Grigoris Vallianatos, the Larry Kramer of Greece and the grandfather of Greek gay activism, his words, told me a few days later at an Athens hotel. “But that does not mean that the Golden Dawn can’t strike at any moment, the way they did with immigrants before Xenios Zeus swept anyone with dark skin.” He was referring to a law enforcement raid that alarmed human rights groups. “The American embassy is running overdrive to deal with their tourists’ arrests,” he added.

I told Vallianatos about my night out in Gazi.

He smiled. “First of all, it’s the Golden Dawn’s moment. Given the chaos that previous governments left Greece in, it was easy for extreme nationalists to pick up phrases from ancient Sparta and the Greek Orthodox Church and sell them to desperate or fed-up people—not that far from your friends in Gazi. Are they out?”

I had to think about this. Although my friends lived gay lifestyles, none of them were out to their families. Or at work. “To some extent,” I answered.

“Of course they’re not,” Vallianatos said. “There are absolutely no role models. No one’s out. Racism and homophobia are constitutional here because the church is behind every state expression. Our constitution begins with: In the name of the holy and con-substantial and indivisible trinity.”

“So you’re saying that the fear of the queer, foreign, you name it, comes from the church?” I asked Vallianatos. “I believe it grows from hunger and anger,” I added.

“The hypocrisy of our organized religion supports both fear and hunger,” Vallianatos explained. “Christodoulos, the late, insanely popular archbishop, backed LAOS, the first far-right-wing party in parliament, and argued that condoms don’t protect kids from HIV. At the same time, monks in Mount Athos staged the biggest financial scandal ever in Greece while they ran gay sex tourism in the monasteries.”

“Come on…” I replied.

“Go to the aphrodisiac hospital at Syngrou and see the monks there waiting for their HIV prescriptions,” Vallianatos said.

At an Athens coffee shop not far from the Golden Dawn’s headquarters, I met Paola Revenioti, a famous Greek transgender activist, prostitute, and poet who fought in the queer wars in the ’70s and ’80s by launching the first gay magazine (Kraximo) and staging the first Gay Pride in Athens.

“Nobody will ever come out in Greece,” Revenioti said. “Because before globalization, everybody was more or less gay.” That got my attention. “When you Americans came up with all these terms—gay, top, bottom, bi—Greek men stopped fucking each other because they didn’t want to be labeled,” she said.

“Of all people, I’d expect you to value fraternity and identity, and call things by their name,” I said.

“Camaraderie here is different,” Revenioti said. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud. We just talk a different talk. The first two words a foreigner learns in Greece are: malakas and poustis. Both have different meanings than they did originally. Poustis meant ‘faggot.’ Poustia means ‘snitching, fraud,’ as well as ‘pleasure’ and ‘intensity.’ ‘I’m so hungry I’ll eat a like poustis,’ guys say all the time. ‘How does a poustis eat?’ I ask them. ‘With pleasure. They know how to enjoy it,’ they answer. Greeks always liked fucking guys. They just can’t talk about it.”

“What about the guys who used to get fucked? Can they talk about it?” I said. “Coming out is important for self-respect. It is self-respect.”

“Are you out?” Revenioti asked me.

“Yes.”

“Here? In Greece?”

“Yes–” I took a moment. “Though I didn’t come out until I left Greece,” I said timidly, as if being caught cheating on an exam.

I got in touch with a paramilitary expert who asked to remain anonymous. He named a half-dozen Golden Dawn “cousin” organizations, some with even more hard-core mantras, that were initially established as gyms or hiking clubs, fronts by right- and left-wing fanatics to “arm, train, and brainwash 20-year-olds that some kind of apocalypse is coming,” he described.

“Who are these kids? They can’t just be uneducated,” I said.

“They are repressed. They are so submissive that they ask Mihaloliakos [the head of the Golden Dawn] before they get a girlfriend.”

“Could there be self-hating closeted homosexuals there?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? The first thing a person attacks in another is what he perceives as his own shortcoming,” he replied.

He introduced me to a twenty-something-year-old who used to belong to one of these groups and now writes about the broader ethnic front under a pseudonym.

“I believe in nationalism,” he told me, invoking numbers and theories: 6 million immigrants among 10.5 million Greeks, crime-tourism from Romania, arsons by foreign spies.

“Are these documented?” I asked.

“Don’t be naïve. They’re covered up.”

“Let’s talk about what I found on your party’s website,” I said—“ex-party,” I apologized. I began reading: “People with alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy (and other conditions) must be sterilized. Homosexuality is a socially degenerate state. Natural selection, sterilization, and euthanasia are the right choices when combined with legal guarantees, responsible medical monitoring, and bioethics.” I stopped for a reaction. Nothing. “Do you endorse any of the above?”

“I’ve no problem with what people do in their homes, in their beds. I just don’t want them to provoke me.”

“How do gay people provoke you, exactly?” I asked.

“By advertising their homosexuality in public,” he replied.

“So a gay couple kissing in public is sexual provocation, but a straight couple doing the same is not?” I said.

“For me. Communists feel the same. Anyway, the things you cited need updating. Intellectuals must join the ethnic front.”

My ultimate fear.

Yannis Triantafyllou, author of The Last Greek and a member and ambassador of the Golden Dawn, joined the party when he was 17 to “protect the honorable.” He seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, and for 20 minutes he went on about the damage Greeks have inflicted on Greece since World War II.

“History would be a wonderful thing, if it were only true—that’s Tolstoy,” I said. “Your party uses violence against immigrants and women.”

“I am against any form of physical violence. I believe in the violence of the argument,” Triantafyllou replied.

“You believe in bullying?”

“Traitors like Kaneli [the woman Kasidiaris slapped on TV] have turned Greece into Uganda. They should be intimidated.”

“It sounds as if you’re not very fond of Uganda or Greece,” I said. “According to your stories, we made our bed. So, why the nationalism?”

“In Golden Dawn, we still believe that Greeks come first.”

“The head of your party does not recognize someone who’s born here as Greek. He wants Greek blood for a few generations,” I said.

“I’m working on the Golden Dawn’s makeover.”

“Are all Greeks equal?” I asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Gay Greeks?” I said.

“Absolutely equal,” Triantafyllou replied. “Though they shouldn’t have children, because nobody asked the children.”

“As opposed to straight couples, where children are consulted?”

Triantafillou smiled. “You’re challenging me,” he said, and signed his book “with respect and synchronicity around fairness.” He talked briefly, nostalgically, about how the high school we had both attended—though we didn’t know each other then—had deteriorated. I recalled nostalgia’s original meaning, which differs from homesickness; it means the comfort of a familiar pain, the welcoming of pain. The art of suffering, often self-inflicted, goes back thousands of years here. Ancient Greece, Byzantium, Orthodoxia—all of which battled each other — have dramatized our psyche, the way seduction has shaped public and private lives in France, or sensuality and spirituality those in Brazil. I know I want to change my providence, but I don’t know how.

Published by OUT magazine, December 2012

The Art Market’s Dead Reckoning

October 12, 2012

It was brunch time on a sunny Saturday in New York’s West Village. Julian Schnabel, the celebrated artist and filmmaker, was holding court at Sant Ambroeus’ main table. The larger than life artist, dressed in one of his signature pajamas outfits, was surrounded by seven friends. Schnabel introduced “Paolo!,” his “favorite waiter,” to the crammed table. Rula Jebreal, the stunning Italo-Palestinian journalist was squeezed to his left, and folding chairs were added so Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson could fit in. Power-agent Bryan Lourd stopped by. He dangled a baby over eggs crostino so the artist could cradle the newborn for a second or two. Downtown fixtures gave greetings while the artist nodded behind his sunglasses. Schnabel “had” the room. Nothing could upstage him.

Then this happened: A modest-sized limo pulled up outside the restaurant and Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis stepped out. They quickly approached the restaurant’s host and ordered two coffees to go. Within seconds, Schnabel managed to squeeze out of his jam-packed table (not an easy task given the artist’s frame and nailed-to-the-ground furniture), and shook hands with the guy who altered the rules of leverage buyout and his wife, the president of MoMA. The greetings lasted less than a minute, and the Kravises walked out.

With its telling nuances, the above scene merely captures stereotypes of the different pecking orders within the art world today. Of course, for all the establishment-envy between artists, agents, curators and patrons, there are counterpoints. Every so often, creativity, along with radical statements, turn rebel art players into brands and redefine what art is. It is this emotion-driven risk taking—at odds with risk management or market research that are valued in more traditional sectors—that has added to the complex and often amusing relationships between the art marketplace and its sponsors.

So far, at least. If you browse art headlines today, you are likely to run into FBI investigations, high-profile forgery-claiming lawsuits, suspicious accounting practices, top prices surpassing pre-recession ones, and, for some, an end-of-the-world competition between nonprofit museums and galleries. Replace the word “art” with “banking” and the headlines still stand. Is the art world turning into and against its own patrons? And if so, how can one take sides in a war between nine-digit worth hedge funders and eight-digit worth art insiders? Could the graffiti read, “clean up your business or someone else will do it for you,” or are today’s lush news just the latest stage of the art world’s businessasusual? To take a position, one needs to understand how things got so inflated, suspicious, and toxic as to make regulation a possibility.

During the last few years, technology has pushed art closer to show business than ever before. At a grassroots level, YouTube users recorded artists who recorded themselves working next to unmade beds in Brooklyn, so that fans in Istanbul and Sydney could “comment,” “like,” and “follow” them, real time. Within such an era of technology-backed popularism[1], brand-making “institutions” like the Tate Modern or the Gagosian needed to rise above the non-stop supply of pictorial stimuli to attract the average-metropolitan Joe, oversaturated by artistic spurs and visual anarchy.

To succeed in this, heads of museums and galleries adopted a “go big and fun,” “Disneyland” strategy that could have come straight out of a Harvard Business School textbook. If YouTube and social media were the new popular ways to make brands and sustain existing ones, then the art market’s big leagues would have to stage Mitterand-grand-like projects for “followers” to upload. For a few years now, they’ve been doing exactly this: offering bigger events with bigger shows in bigger spaces. Hundreds of thousands of people walked, literally, under Louise Bourgeois and Olafur Eliasson’s colossal pieces, while Damien Hirst was shown simultaneously in a dozen or so Gagosian galleries around the world. A shock-and-awe era was established. Millions of white-collar couples with their toddlers, made Saturdays out of MoMA or West Chelsea, instead of checking out the latest Marvel movie. Whether streaming artists working in Berlin or dancing during Guggenheim’s Friday night DJ sessions, the art world bet on the experience, the packaging of art.

By the tail end of the financial crisis—if we are in fact at the tail end of this crisis—the top of the art market has eaten up popularism and then some. Size, spectacle, and ubiquity via Airtime and Vyclone, or whatever the latest “it” outlet is, rival talent, taste, and intellect. To seal the deal, this shift from connoisseur-picked art to “celebart”—easily recognizable art—didn’t go overlooked by the new-new-rich. The bigger and pricier the pieces, the more the media coverage and opportunity for spotlight, the easier for the status-anxiety-driven fund managers to pull out their checkbooks.

Of course artists and their surroundings can go big and loud for purely creative reasons. But what are the consequences of this armsrace that has made art trade a show business? Popularism is not necessarily, not always, anathema. Sure, there is the dread of simplistic and addictive “followship,” but even if they might not all stop by for the right reasons, the five million people who visit the Tate Modern every year could well be better off than they’d be hitting the local pub—health-wise, culturally, even politically. Perhaps. If what the art shows lose in depth they gain in height, for real, then the obvious question is, just how sustainable is this go-big-and-everywhere strategy? Putting the controversy of its cultural efficacy aside—along with issues of necessary resources, maintenance, and storage—there are signs that this popularity contest has brought some conformity to the art world. As museums get more commercial and 50,000-square-foot galleries become less traditionally so, the top echelon of the art world gravitates towards a small web of living and breathing mega-artists, like Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons, in mega-spaces the size of White Cube and AGO. Beyond the obvious risk of grandiose monotony, this emerging “gallereum” phase—a co-competition for shows and artists between museums and galleries—can make artists and their audiences dangerously complacent.

“I am a big Bob Dylan fan,” John Elderfield, the legendary ex-chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, said. “And we [Larry Gagosian and I] go to concerts together,” he confessed when explaining why he moved to the Gagosian Gallery, a career move that shocked many.

“Oh, say it isn’t so,” stare-and-church-art aficionados blogged, while others, including David Ross, chair of MFA Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts in New York, applauded Elderfiled’s move as a sign of today’s dynamic and changing art world.

Mixing work and fun or swapping custodians with players are not art-unique phenomena. In the name of the next big thing, different sectors have experienced fraternities and rivalries that crossed nonprofit and commercial lines. In the late 90’s, when Craig Venter announced that he would decode the human genome using a fraction of the time and cost of the equivalent public project, he launched a race that benefited genetics stakeholders all around. Airbus (an EADS subsidiary), Boeing, Virgin Galactic, and NASA have all run for the gold within aircraft, satellite, and aeronautic systems. So far, so good: competition and cooperation can complement one another.

But what about when things get just too comfortable in the old-boys club? Marketmakers becoming marketplayers can yield unfair advantages and make hell break loose. Indeed, mixing complex speculations with commercial and retail activities brought the world to its knees. The US Congress pondered if the Fed was just too close to Wall Street and whether Henry Paulson, ex-Goldman Paulson, and Timothy Geithner did everything they could for the taxpayers when it came AIG and other institutions.  In the midst of finally understanding the conflicts of interest and lack of transparency that led to a global recession, a cryptic art market seems to either have learned very little from its patrons’ shams or to have turned itself into the patrons’ total bitch that tolerates, and even adopts, shady white-collar practices.

“Think about it,” I told Ann Freedman, a grande dame of the art world and the owner of a prestigious Upper East Side gallery. “The buyers of six out of the ten most expensive paintings ever sold, four of those sales made within the recession, are either unknown or unconfirmed.”

“Oh, please,” she said waving her hand incredulously. “Our culture of sublime and secrecy is long-standing. Way before bond traders and oil money got into the game.” She opened a folder and began to read out loud an excerpt from a 1940’s (nineteen forties) article about “understandings” and “considerations” in her space. “Facts and figures must be kept secret at any cost,” she read and looked up. “Even back then. Especially back then,” she said with staged self-deprecation before continuing to read: “The price of painting sold may be concealed because, one, concealing prices could protect other works by the same artist; two, the painting was sold at a very high price, and the dealer does not wish to be accused of cheating; three, the client intends to reveal to his friends that he paid much more than he actually did (a snobbery of wealth, or a means to demonstrate solvency); or four, the client wants to pretend that he paid much less than the real price (a snobbery of connoisseurship).”

Was she telling me that the Morgans and the Rockefellers corrupted her world way before Greek shipping magnates and Hamptonites made them dance?

“Do you know the difference between being private and being secretive?” I asked her.

“Do you know the difference between lying and bullshiting?” Freedman replied, with a keep-your-sophisms-for-Greece stare. “I have seen it all,” she went on, referring to her tenure as the head of one of New York’s most renowned galleries. She came across offshore shelter companies, IRS, or the lack of it, closets of all kinds, secret funds that spouses were not supposed to know about. “All common practices. Everybody knew…” she said with an understated nostalgia that made me recall my business school professor ranking “creative” accounting practices: “Hollywood, art deals… next stop mafia!” he’d said half-joking.

“The difference between privacy and secrecy is a fine but fundamental one,” I insisted. “It is key when provenance is the elephant in the room in forgery-related lawsuits and investigations.” I added, stepping into her world’s ultimate taboo, the speculation currently played out in courts and blogs about the authenticity of works attributed to some of the biggest masters, Rothko and Pollock included.

Freedman did not object, not in principle. Yet, “You can’t protect anonymity if you can trace the money,” she said, amending her concession. “You have to build shelters.”

Anonymity and closets stand out indeed, amid today’s chaos of accusations surrounding the genuineness of pieces that challenge masters’ catalogue raisonnés, experts’ opinions, and dealers’ intentions. With an “open source” art force growing—from real-time art sharing to the increasingly uninhibited, often downright “out” lifestyle of some new young ultra rich—secrecy seems archaic, expensive, and frustrating. So when the assumed identity of the anonymous owner of debated art changes from a Middle Eastern princess to a closeted sugar baron to the son of a Mexican painter[2], one has to suspect the “structuring” of provenance. Dead reckoning has already begun. As research has commenced from a false premise, any expert’s assessment—if there is any assessment left in today’s litigious climate—is subject to cumulative errors.

Privacy, on the other hand, distinguishes between incomplete and false information, protects facts, and highlights what is known versus what is unknown, so that experts can make the best out of available intelligence. If capitalism and art continue to sleep with each other, then art whizzes should consider authentication as part of a risk management-backed valuation exercise—at the very least, they should call up their art management compatriots with MBA’s. Most business investment decisions are done in the absence of complete information, and decision sciences have optimized how to make the most out of such situations. Using decision analysis and real options to combine provenance, forensics, and connoisseurship (experts’ subjective judgment—even “blinks” for Malcolm Gladwell’s fans), specialists can assess art in ways that value expectancy and optionality.

Interestingly enough, certain institutions already seem to have taken the first steps in this direction. Calder and Lichtenstein’s foundations, along with the Noguchi Museum, have placed their cataloging work online and call them “works in progress,” reported Patricia Cohen, a New York Times journalist so consumed by the authentication saga that she has covered everything from the 1929 da Vinci disputes to the memoir of “redeemed” art con man Ken Perenyi.

“You determine if your work is fake or not with the data we present,” Alexander Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson and the chairman of the Calder Foundation, said, according to Cohen.

“What we are presenting is a combination of completed research and research pending,” stated Shaina D. Larrivee, project manager of the Isamu Noguchi catalogue raisonné. “We have the ability to remove artworks if new information comes to light.”

Acknowledging unfolding events and the possibility of further research findings, like the above foundations do, allows for assessment processes that offer expected values and contingent investment opportunities. This paradigm is at odds with the pursuit of absolute and irrevocable rulings from foundations such as Dedalus, Motherwell’s foundation. Jack Flam, its president, which also includes ex-MoMA, now-Gagosian John Elderfield, not only permanently and irreversibly marked art as forgery, but also adopted an “If one of the paintings is wrong, then they’re all wrong,” position, Cohen reported. This summer, ARTNews described at great lengths the criticisms and wars that the above stand sparked among the foundation’s own art historians and beyond.

Whether the business surrounding the arts will adopt practices that will engage uncertainties as issues that need to be assessed and managed—versus to be hidden or exploited—time will tell. Actually, Phillips’ flirting with the idea of auctioning of the infamous Red, Black & Silver painting, tagged “attributed to Jackson Pollock” rather than “by Jackson Pollock,” can provide some indication. On that note, if the industry is indeed betting on the experience of art, then provenance, which is often linked to artists’ personalities and biographies, adds to the elementals around their work. Becomes part of a story that can have many interpretations, as art does. Becomes art.

No matter what happens at Red, Black & Silver, we are indeed at the verge of a correction. The last recession, or recent CERN findings for that matter, made it clear that there is little irrevocability as there is little perfect information. We have to learn to live with uncertainty. For no matter what type of regulation is introduced, risk will never be completely eliminated. The question is, how should we do this? Well, here is how we should not: trends that promote technology-backed congruence, as well as those that maintain old-school secrecy, are not only unsustainable, they are wrong. They breed dead reckoning. The good news is that in the long run technology promotes transparency, which stymies secrecy. With some luck and time, they will wash each other out.


[1] A demand for everyone to “follow” everyone else and everything from everywhere according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman.

[2] According to Felix Salmon from Reuters