A Soundwalk in Elefsina
The bay of Elefsina, the modern name for ancient Eleusis, is a graveyard for ships named after gods and nymphs. I’m not allowed to say which ones, though, because the vessels remain the property of their owners, whose right to privacy apparently trumps public interest even after a fifty-thousand-tonne tanker has been fly-tipped rather than properly decommissioned. There’s one exception, the wreck of the Noor One, from which Europe’s largest ever shipment of heroin was unloaded in summer 2014.
This place, known as Vlycha, was once a beach, part of a coastline famed since antiquity. Now, to your left, there’s the Titan cement factory, as massive as its name suggests; behind you, the mountain that was blown up to feed it, destroying much of the ancient city in the process; to your right, Greece’s largest oil refinery; in front of you, the wrecks and a sea in which the oil and chemical spills shimmer and waft in the heat.
The concentrated industry in Elefsina and the wider Thriasian Plain accounts for 30 per cent of Greek GDP: a source of civic pride, horrible accidents, social mobility (including for immigrant communities) and environmental catastrophe. Vlycha has been one of the showpiece venues throughout Elefsina’s year as a European Capital of Culture (it took a slot that had been earmarked for a city in the UK before we holed ourselves below the waterline). I went there last month to see an ambitious work of community theatre with an awkward title, metamorphoSEA. Like the story of Persephone and Hades which inspired the mysteries that took place here 2500 years ago, the aim was to produce something that was both an elegy and a vision of rebirth.
The problem, as metamorphoSEA’s Greek producers Chorus explain, is that the ECOC approach, which has left a trail of white elephants in its wake since 1985, is still insufficiently concerned with questions of legacy. Claudia Woolgar of Brave New World Producties, Chorus’s producing partner (she’s now working on Oulu2026), suggested to me that the strategy around the scheme probably needs to be rethought, perhaps even prioritising the legacy plan above the artistic programme, and reallocating funds accordingly.
In Elefsina, according to Chorus’s Yannis Pappas, locals ‘detest that phrase, ship’s graveyard’, because it implies permanence, and what they want is for the hulks to disappear. Then again, ‘we know that the industrial aspect of Eleusis is a playground for artists, writers, architects, photographers.’ One of the key challenges of the project was how to harness the dystopian glamour of the site to attract a team who would then produce something that would meaningfully contribute to its transformation (‘a modern cleansing’, as the Capital of Culture programme puts it), rather than just a dazzling flash in the pan for disaster tourists.
The director they recruited, Sjoerd Wagenaar, is an anthropologist, urban planner and social activist as well as a theatre-maker. His work is inspired by Joop Schaminée, a professor of plant and landscape ecology who spent two years closely observing a single square kilometre of ground. Wagenaar aims to produce artworks, performances or exhibitions based on similarly focused anthropological deep reading, and they can take as long as they need to emerge, which sometimes means years. Woolgar described this as ‘the difference between properly site-specific and mere location theatre’.
The form Wagenaar seems to favour at the moment is the ‘soundwalk’, soundscapes for audiences to listen to through wireless headphones as they explore a landscape or building. The headphones are only partially noise-cancelling, so the recorded sounds merge and clash with real life, creating an aural palimpsest that reflects the complex layering of a space.
MetamorphoSEA began at dusk with a soundwalk through the cement factory, which stretches along the coastline for half a kilometre, along a public right of way that doesn’t seem like one because of Titan’s obtrusive security protocols. The factory came alive in our ears – whispers of the ancient languages of the mysteries – as dancers tugged at us from the shadows.
When we reached a clearer stretch of coastline, the sounds crystallised into the voice of an elderly woman who had worked at the oil refinery and remembered how refreshing it was to swim in the sea at the end of the day. Then we gave back our headphones and were led down to Vlycha, where the beach had once been, behind a protest banner onto which were projected images of the mythological Titans. ‘We have to be diplomatic,’ Pappas had said to me earlier. ‘But otherwise I’d be climbing on the ships breathing fire.’
Instead we found ourselves in a place from where it really was possible to imagine alternative futures: a square of imported sand with beach mats to sit on, the closest wrecks delicately lit, the moon nearly full, the refinery lit up and crowned with a flame, a storm flickering in the distance. The contrast with the impact of the site during the hottest part of the day, being buffeted by pollution from all sides, was astounding. Into this dream-space the dancers brought songs, stories and a series of disturbing vignettes, their bodies twisting in the sand: seven births; a woman being eaten by a worm from the inside.
MetamorphoSEA is part of Ulysses European Odyssey, a continent-spanning project, conceived by Seán Doran and Liam Browne of Arts Over Borders, to mark the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s staging eighteen interventions in eighteen European cities, inspired by the episodes of the novel. Elefsina got the 14th, the Oxen of the Sun, Joyce’s fiendish sequence of parodies charting the evolution of literary style, whose own inspiration was Odysseus’ ill-fated pit stop on the island of Thrinacia. (His crew feasts on Helios’ sacred cows, and Zeus kills them all with a lightning storm.) It’s a testament to the radical curatorial openness of UEO that metamorphoSEA fitted comfortably in its schema even though the connections to Joyce were gestural and abstract: images of childbirth and underlying themes of the sacred, the profane and the reborn.
And it’s a sign of Wagenaar’s clear-eyed instincts that instead of concluding with balletic abstraction, the performance ended with the testimony of Kavvadias, a lifelong resident of Elefsina, who had apparently said, after taking part in three of the community workshops that initiated the project: ‘I’m going to do this … I’m going to say what I feel.’ He spoke directly to camera, the recording projected onto the side of one of the ships:
They forced a city on us which did not meet our needs … Think about it. You have the sea before you. In the summer you want to swim in it. But you have to travel 20 km away from here. Can you imagine that? Can you even imagine that?