The worlds of George Drivas concern the immediate future of a contested society, keeping their roots in the present, or even the distant past

George Drivas

Somewhere in Between

Text: Efi Papazachariou
George Drivas

The first Greek artist to decisively marry cinema and video art, George Drivas set off on his prolific path at the start of the new century, ready to forge a bond that would create a genre somewhere in between. A missing link that could have been left a tightrope of an idea – with the artist balancing high above, constantly yearning to reach his destination yet always enjoying the fulfillment of an endless adventure.

Even in his inaugural work, he was a pioneer. George Drivas’s genius balances the silver screen and video art masterfully – and thus unknowingly joined a group of international artists who posed similar questions – as they discovered later, when they met and collaborated. “In a way, I merged two art forms I love, entirely spontaneously,” explains the artist. “In my artwork I always look for articulation; for the ability to utter a type of liminal language between art and cinema. I’d say I move in the grey (and often elusive) zone between them. I liked video art because it often deconstructs the aesthetic norms of the moving picture. But in it, I was missing a more formulated narrative structure – something that would keep my attention as a spectator for longer. At the same time, cinema has always been a huge source of inspiration. My beginnings, my aesthetic preferences, references or influences, are primarily there,” he stresses.

“It’s just that very often I found cinema too cohesive for my tastes and almost entirely predictable in its general structural function – so I wondered about its limits, its essence and potential, entering into a constant, permanent confrontation with it. So as I made my first pieces I sought a poetic-artistic removal through cinematic language. It was as if I wanted to add what I was missing to each art, creating a genre somewhere in between.

The inspired combination of the director’s gaze and that of the visual artist, as well as his urge to speak about the new world that was dawning faster and faster on the horizon through the digital explosion, creating a new form of society and a new form of authority, have stayed with him through the years, digging ever deeper into his soul. Because the creator speaks of the visible through the invisible; of reality through fantasy. Or the opposite. The choice belongs to the audience.

The worlds of George Drivas concern the immediate future of a contested society, keeping their roots in the present, or even the distant past – in artworks such as “Laboratory of Dilemmas”, an impressive and revealing labyrinthine minimalistic installation that beautifully represented Greece in Venice’s 57th Biennale, which was curated by Orestis Andreadakis. The piece builds itself around the dilemma posed in Aeschylus’s “Iketides” – which is so relevant today: Should we help the downtrodden Stranger in need who is begging for Hospitality, even if it’s at the expense of the Native? “I took an emblematic work of Ancient Greek literature and changed it completely, but I kept a part that was important to me, to see what it can say for the world today. And thus, ideally, it can start a dialogue, not just on what is national but on what is contemporary, international, shared,” he notes. “That it was so enthusiastically received by audience and critics, and warmly supported by the international press, leads me to believe I achieved this. And though I initially disagreed with the logic of national representation in Venice, I concluded that it may be an excellent opportunity for us to ponder on what national representation is or could be today. I’d say that the Venice Biennale can be a global conference of ideas, of equal stature as a UN conference. What can art do to participate in a wider global dialogue? How can it pose critical sociopolitical questions, perhaps functioning as a philosophical essay? The precondition is that we can’t be afraid to pose questions nor to propose artforms that transcend a narrow sense of ‘pleasant’ art as ‘entertainment’ – not that this should necessarily be frowned upon,” he stresses.

Socially aware, is deeply interested in issues brought to light by the crisis and the pandemic. He is worried about the war, refugees, the destruction of the environment, holding authority to account, inequality, racism, humanity in an increasingly authoritarian system. His work reflects his concerns. The more complex the situation becomes, the more authority expands and freedom contracts, the more complex and able to inspire deep emotions his work becomes. Experimental, minimal, black-and-white or colored, his unique “films” are stories that bubble without bursting. Their strength is within, piercing our unconscious like a drill and putting us on high alert. These stories are set in grey cities, stern geometric buildings, cold futurist surroundings, looping digital soundscapes, and perpetual silences. They are stories without heroes – at least not as we know them. These individuals wear faces that never reveal a single emotion. They glide through space in somber suits, trench coats, workwear, lab coats. They state their intended purpose with reductionist words rather than with their expressions. These stories could be fragments of a bigger one – self-contained pieces that people can put in their own order, or even find an ending to.

But George Drivas does not want to place his work within a set framework. He prefers to be filed under the wider family of the moving picture – to be a moving image artist. “In my creative process, the cinematic means of production and direction is not an end in itself but often a necessity imposed by the medium I have chosen to work with – and, of course, the size and complexity of each piece,” the artist explains. He projects them onto one or more screens, usually part of bigger, impressive art installations that can span the verdant labyrinth of a park or the white halls of a museum.

“As I start producing or pre-producing each piece, I follow an academic, linear process in its conception, scripting and planning to often end up, through decomposing and recomposing it, only using certain absolutely necessary elements – certain excerpts, essentially, of a ‘complete’ film product. And I use these to (re)create its final form. Maybe the more I direct, the more of an artist I become,” he smiles.

George Drivas landed in Berlin for his studies at the end of the last century – back when the flame of freedom that was lit in 1989 was still burning on the demolished Wall. The flame that united East and West, taking down the wall of shame. Youths from across the world swarmed to witness this miracle, contributing to the birth of the multicultural metropolis that is Berlin today, inhabited by every race on earth and every type of human – and full of art, innovation, color and restlessness, as well as social inequalities and difficulties. So many images influenced this moving image artist as he traced his steps on the troika of cinema-photography-painting, which defined the source of his inspiration “in this exact order and without end.”

Of course, technological advances influenced his work from the get-go as well. “It may be a source of inspiration, but technology can also be a great difficulty or even a trap” – he warns. And he means this literally. “The way one wields the ‘weapon’ of technology can free or enslave them – or even become fetishistic. Whenever I use any new potential granted by technology, I try not to be carried away but always maintain a critical stance, or maybe a dialogue with it. These days I am researching, and trying to integrate into my work, the potential of artificial intelligence algorithms to produce images on their own. I wonder, what types of ‘artificial’ images can they give me and how will they influence me in the process of creating my own images? We function entirely and inevitably according to a series of artificial factors – so it becomes virtually impossible to tell if it is really us creating those factors or the factors themselves, now ‘independent’, creating us. In my early work, machines are liberated and become self-governed, posing questions and concerns that transcend any distinctions between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘human’. Just how much do we differ? How much in control are we of the machines we create? How do they differ from us? Or how can they control us? How differentiated are we from any ‘artificial factor’? Any mediation – be it technology or a machine – influences and defines the essence of our personal history – essentially, our very existence. And, by extension, the societies we live in. Nobody can exist beyond language; beyond a certain system of thought; beyond a certain technological capability. And, of course, we don’t all share the same technology. We don’t just produce technology; every second, we are the technology we can have. Wholly, essentially, inevitably,” he declares.

At present, he is working on a new project, “Kaizo” – which he will be ready to show soon. “It is comprised of a single-channel video, an interactive website, and a series of photographs,” George says, explaining that Kaizo are video games hacked by enthusiasts to ramp up their difficulty, so they can be played forever, with very little chance of winning. “In my artwork, two individuals who are avatars (the digital versions of two people) are wandering in empty physical-digital space, a hybrid metaverse (an online world we can enter), trying to progress to the next stage – though they get lost, return to the same place again and again, and their story starts again. Through the website I have created, the viewer will be able to influence the way they see the story and essentially re-edit my work.”

Boasting more than 150 national and international exhibitions in every corner of the planet, as well as awards and distinctions, George Drivas’s work – including the exquisite “Empirical Data” (2009) – also adorns the permanent collection of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST). In fact, two years ago, he saw his name shortlisted for the Eye Art & Film Prize – the visual cinema award of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

After two decades of creating and wandering the world non-stop, which moments truly defined him? “My first solo exhibition, “undocumented” at the EMST in 2009 was especially important to me. It was at Rigilis Street back then, in the building of the Athens Conservatory. Though an exhibition I will always remember is the group exhibition of Greek artists titled “In Present Tense” (2007–2008) organized by the EMST once again, this time at the Athens Concert Hall. Essentially, it was the first time I showed my work in Greece, as I still lived in Berlin,” he responds without hesitation, as if putting his hand on his heart. “Thinking about abroad, very important to me was my big solo retrospective at the Galleria Nazionale d’ Arte Moderna in Rome and, of course, when I represented Greece in the Venice Biennale. The experience of national representation, especially so done individually, was breathtaking – whatever that may entail. The responsibility, the obligations, the difficulty of this venture on so many levels… not just artistically but in a practical sense, as a full production. On the other hand, the recognition I received, and everything that ensued, made me see art in general, as well as my own work in particular, on an entirely new level. Venice was perhaps my biggest bet as a creator, in the biggest art arena in the world.”