New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
To say that the widely exhibited and published artist and poet Demosthenes Agrafiotis is prolific is an understatement. He is also prolifically experimental: exploring the relationship between art and techno-science, his interdisciplinary works combine the written poem, poetry, painting, photography, multimedia, performance, and new technologies as an art form. Conveying his message through this cross pollination of media is many times not a lone pursuit, as the Agrafiotis thrives on collaboration with other artists and technicians. Unsurprisingly, he has written essays dedicated to the analysis of different forms of art as cultural phenomena.
Last October, at Poets House, a romantically situated artistic enclave on the river in lower Manhattan, Agrafiotis screened two experimental videos and read from his latest publications, Maribor (2009), and Chinese Notebook (2010) together with San Francisco author and poet, John Sakkis (author of Rude Girl), translator, together with Angelos Sakkis, of both books from Greek into English. The first video, “24,pideo,voetry” celebrates of the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet as the most important cultural innovation of “collective character”; accompanied by sound effects, music, and photos, the irrepressibly moving letters initiate a rediscovery of their essential shapes – no longer noticed as we use them for everyday communication. The second video, “Chinese notebook”, is based on the book.
Corresponding from Athens, Mr. Agrafiotis explains some of his aesthetic and conceptual philosophy to the Greek News.
GN: When did you first know that you wanted to be a poet?
DA: At the beginning, as an adolescent, I was a reader of poetry, but had no feeling of becoming a poet. In 1969, when I was 23, and a student at the University of Wisconsin, I started the adventure of poetic writing…. by the end of the 1970’s I began to realize the difficulties of writing poetry as a cultural endeavor as well as a personal exploration of so-called “reality”, but by the end of the 1980‘s I had the impression that my books of poetry could claim the title of “esthetic objects” on the international horizon. Today, I declare myself to be a poet and “inter-media” artist. I have no better terms to refer to my activities for the time being.
GN: Was your family artistic? Did they encourage you in the arts?
DA: No. No encouragement for the arts, but my mother, Panagio, was a popular healer who specialized in orthopedic accidents, produced creams for burn injuries, and treated psychological troubles. And she was an excellent singer of demotika, traditional songs. I was not specifically programmed for the artistic life.
GN: You describe yourself as an “experimentalist, combining poetry, painting, photography, multimedia, and performance with the written poem”. What inspired you to play with these combinations?
DA: At first I practiced photography and poetry as artistic expressions, but then the question of the relationships between image/word, writing/picturing, forms/discourse, became central. Since that time I have not stopped exploring their dichotomies, using specific types of technical support such as paper, book, canvas, video. In every case the arrangement of noise, sound, music, letters, words, and images — moving or not, and with or without new technologies — leads to an artistic work of interdisciplinary character…. the challenge of “inter-media”! Of course, here one can ask a lot of questions concerning my capacity to manipulate all these different expressions, about the theoretical basis of such a multi-disciplinary approach, the cultural legitimacy of experimentation, and many other issues.
I think the axioms of modern art can provide the foundation for a work. My question is: what defines the “beauty” of what you create? Is it the final goal of the artistic process or is it the essential feature of a work of art?
Without pretence of a dramatic need for experimentation — or of avant-garde passion –working at/within/beyond the limits of artistic production can be a method for creating. My unchanging goal in this fast-changing world is to continuously explore the interactions between the audible, the visual, the spoken, and the representational.
Q: If you were forced to work in only one art form for the next 5 years, what would you choose? What would be your approach?
DA: Unfortunately, I am already “infected’ by the “inter-media” virus! That is, of course, when a synthesis of media types best realizes the project. I do not consider it possible to distinguish a “pure” artistic act. In this spirit, in the coming years I hope to keep my poetic inspiration “performative” by using different materials and collaborating with other artists, musicians, and engineers. Let’s say that my stable objective is to engage in a continuous exploration.
GN: Do you consider yourself to be an existential poet?
DA: How can we define “existential”? Existentialist, but which stream, Sartrean, for example? Placing emphasis on sentiments, feelings and emotions? Avoiding intellectualism or academic expertise? I am interested more in the poetics of limits, in “performative poetics”, in going beyond the grammar and the conventions of language. So I am not “lyric” and I avoid using the “I”. As I work on my poems — which can be, in many cases, 10 years — the existential is diluted by the linguistic, the noetic, the formal, and the ideal.
GN: What is the greatest satisfaction you derive from creating a work?
DA: From the psychological point of view the first satisfaction in the process of carrying out an artistic project is the most painful thing, which is the elimination of its weak points…. elements and materials. Years after the work’s completion I derive a second satisfaction from having eliminated the unnecessary, so it is first the discipline, then the “freedom”, which is the real pleasure.
GN: How long did you live in Paris and why do you now choose to live in Athens?
DA: I lived in Paris during the 1970‘s. In the 1980‘s I decided to go back to Athens in order to rediscover the Greek language, Ancient Greek and contemporary Greek art and culture. It was a 2-3 year experiment, but I have stayed here for 30 years. It was intended to be a “return”, but it has been a “controlled exile”, because I was always active in the international arena of art.
GN: How do you begin a poem, with the sound of the words, with an idea for the entire poem? Does it take you a short or a long time to complete a poem?
DA: The first writing comes when I have a special “melting” feeling that emerges as my body and my breath become a micro-world, or part of one. Then the words — the letters, and their schemes — explode and flow as a series of turbulences. I treat this material many times and at different times. The text, which is almost prose, becomes a poem through a brave abstraction, an elimination of parts without poetic value or function through the use of criteria such as rhythm, figural potential, and economy of expression. This is a long process that can take from 2 to 10 years, a process during which I cultivate the illusion that I in the final poem I will have found again the original intensity of the poem’s first emergence as a world in itself.
GN: Do you decide to build on a poem by adding the interdisciplinary multimedia art forms to it or is there another order to your creation; that is, do you sometimes begin with an art form other than poetry?
DA: No. Each project, each work, requires a different approach, especially if there is a multiplicity of contributions. Very often the interaction is more crucial than the “first” genre, or a genre’s superiority. I initiate some works, certainly, but there is a critical contribution by other artists, technicians, or image and/or sound professionals…. I try to keep the interactions productive.
Mr. Agrafiotis’s anthology-formatted magazine Clinamen+, co-published by Erato Publications, Athens (1991-94), has been active for over a decade as an amalgam of Greek poetry and art with work from Europe, Asia and America. Seven artist’s books were published based on Clinamen (1980-1995). After 1996, ‘Clinamen’ is centered on the eighteen production of artist’s books.