On currents and currencies. Stefania Strouza in conversation with Antonia Rahofer

“This melting control”, 2015, plaster, clay, acrylic colour, textile fittings, 80 x 140 cm installation view from the solo exhibition “Shore”

It was a spring night in 2015 when I came across a square meter sized plate laying on the concrete floor of a Vienna gallery space. As I arrived late, the crowd of visitors who had attended the exhibition opening was slowly moving outdoors to the sidewalk, which gave me the opportunity to delve into Stefania Strouza’s solo show Shore accompanied only by a backdrop of dull voices from the streets.

Made of a mix of plaster, clay and acrylic colour, that plate with its black-white-grey marbled surface was in refreshing contrast with the pair of lightning blue textile fittings wrapped around it, like loosened buckles. Or where they just waiting to be re-tightened? Like the meandering crowd that got stuck on the sidewalk, liquid materials got petrified in “This melting control” (2016). The work was part of an installation that drew on a fictional topography of actions: processes of liquification which might have happened but which we cannot see. Similar to that plate, shores can  be considered as migrating forms: always in an in-between state at the very borderline between water and land. Not to forget the idea of off-shore markets: out of reach and outside the range of regulatory powers.

Using the double-meaning of the word “shore” for a fruitful reflexion on different physical states and crossings of space and time, Stefania Strouza further develops her distinct approach in her latest solo show in Athens. Under the title Currents and Currencies, the artist addresses, in another word game, different notions of fluidity both in terms of space and monetary values. High above the mosaic-like roof landscape of the megalopolis of Athens, Stefania and I sat down together to recap some of her most recent works – with a view to the coastline, and to the sea.

“Unaware of its location in the past”, 2015, plaster, silicon, metal sheet, dimensions variable installation view from the solo exhibition “Shore”

Antonia: Stefania, when I first visited your show “Currents and Currencies”, it immediately made me think of “Shore”, that other solo exhibition that you presented in 2015. The latter seemed to me like a nucleus of what followed after. What could you say about the link between the two shows—or rather, projects?

Stefania.: Without doubt, some of the topics I was concerned with in “Currents and Currencies” have already preoccupied me back then. “Shore” refers to a sort of ‘demarcation line’ between the solid and the liquid. It also alludes to a point of arrival. Currents are the socio-natural forces that have shaped long-distant interactions across oceans throughout the centuries. So both terms imply exchange, movement and negotiation of space, whether in physical or in metaphorical terms.

A.: Also, shores and currents have played a significant role within the context of a larger project you had been working a few years earlier, is that correct? I remember an iconic image of Maria Callas at this point…

S.: I guess you refer to To a certain degree sacredness is in the eye of the beholder”. This project was related to journeys across the waters of the Mediterranean and their role in the formation of a hybrid modern identity on its Eastern shores. Well, you could argue that in that earlier work, both ‘currents’ and ‘shores’ referenced two cultural encounters that took place in the Greek terrain: the famous boat trip by Le Corbusier and others from Marseille to Athens in the context of the 4th International Conference of Modern Architecture in 1933 and the journey, from Colchis to Corinth, of “Medea” in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s eponymous film from 1969. And that’s where Maria Callas comes in (laughs). In general, I would say that my work seems to circle around the idea of the “aquatic space”; a space bounded by shores and traversed by currents, peoples, and objects.

A.: Returning to your latest project, the title “Currents and Currencies” obviously uses alliteration as a stylistic device. What did that kind of double bind not only of words and letters, but of two similar, yet not identical terms implicate for you while developing this project? How do currents relate to currencies and how did you come across that label?

S.: The title of the exhibition came about through an extensive research on aquatic flows and their historical, as well as symbolic, relationship with society and the economy. Both water currents and currencies establish long-lasting connections between territories and economic systems by stimulating the circulation of ideas, goods, and values—both, ideational and monetary, I would say. What was important in this context is to remember that liquidity’ refers a powerful reality in contemporary finance, where capital movements can make or destroy entire economies within days, while still maintaining a strong symbolic connotation.

A.: Indeed, the double meaning of liquidity fits perfectly here: its literal meaning, on the one hand, and expressions like ‘liquidity risk’, ‘liquidity ratio’, ‘liquidity management’ that all stem from financial market terminology, on the other. What do these two meanings have in common? 

S.: Hmmm… I would say that it is the idea of flexibility and transformability what applies to both of them, what they seem to have in common.

A.: Does this definition also apply to historic currencies? 

S.: Well, it was surprising for me to discover that in many different parts of the world the earliest currency assumed the material form of seashells used in maritime trade—adding a surprisingly direct connection between water currents and financial flows. In the project, I aimed at reinterpreting these connections through sculptural forms and by focusing on the dynamics of the materials themselves.

A.: So you explicitly refer to ancient cultures and artefacts when it comes to the form and shape of your work(s)?

S.: There are references to the ancient world but not always in an explicit manner… In fact, the formal language of this new series of sculptures derives from antique maps, the shell exchange circles of pre-industrial societies such as the famous Kula ring or—with regard to contemporary, digital cultures—diagrams of internet connections and the information flows they enable. Despite the multiple associations, my aim is to keep a certain level of abstraction above these situated symbolic references, which, in a way, defines my overall artistic approach.

A.: So one could say that Currents and Currencies worked as a general theme, a larger title, under which very diverse topics such as the economy, the movement of people and information are being brought together?

S.: Yes, that’s how I would put it. Apart from the metaphorical space that the terms „currents” and „currencies“ establish, the work by the French historian Fernand Braudel, leader of the Annales School, on the Mediterranean and the current “Oceanic” turn in global histories, by historians such as David Armitage, were guiding me as well. In fact, I use ‘currents’ and ‘currencies’ as specific tools to condense different research subjects that have accumulated over time; subjects that I consider interdependent but difficult to access in their totality. Therefore, the function of the metaphor, of the symbolic, becomes for me a valid “research” tool, one that doesn’t just point out to a single answer but rather reveals diverse links and associations.

A: When listening to you, —especially when you talk about the initial or preparatory stage of your practice—profound research seems to be your first step; reading as a method, corresponding with academic research as for example in the field of cultural history or theory. You obviously don’t draw a strict line of separation among so called artistic practice on the one hand and research on the other; quite on the contrary: both components are vividly there for you, like the two sides of a coin.

S.: I define ‘research’ in broader terms: as something where rational arguments and historical information merge together with a more ‘emotional’ or idiosyncratic elements that emerge from my own thought process and lived experience. In this sense, something that might initially appear as peripherala reference on the margins of a page or a single-line quotemight in the end acquire a central role in the actual conceptualization and production of the work.

“Petrified Currents, Liquefied Currencies”, 2017, marble, aluminum, 90 x 120 cm

A.: Talking about currencies, your work entitled “Petrified Currents, Liquefied Currencies” immediately confronts us with coins, as a concept but also as a form. These ‘coins’ are made from aluminium and they seem somehow corroded or ‘petrified’. The outcome thus invites us to think about the processes through which the material was created. But what about the patterns engraved to their surfaces? And how do these relate to the marble pieces of the installation?

S.: Well, this piece acts as an introductory work to the whole project and its main concepts. It condenses the notion of ‘currents’ and ‘currencies’ into an abstract diagram, a relational space. The marble pieces in their semi-circular geometric form introduce ideas of movement and circulation, but also imagined enclosures or obstacles. The aluminum ‘coins’ are based on studies of different forms of currencies from antiquity. Their designs, however, represent the evolving notion of value, from the pre-industrial Kula ring to the present infrastructure of information flow.

A.: ‘Kula Ring’? You mentioned that before as well. What’s that? Could you please explain?

S.: The ‘Kula Ring’ is a well-known system of exchange of symbolic values (embodied in seashells) that the inhabitants of a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean transfer from one island to the next, in a circle that takes decades to complete. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski was the first to describe this system in 1922, resulting in studies on reciprocity (such as Marcel Mauss) that are still relevant for anthropology today. The movement and exchange of the shells marked the social status of its owner and functioned as a facilitator of societal bonds that spanned the Ocean. What I found astonishing was that in order for these shells to maintain their role and value they had to stay in continuous movement. This fact points again to the idea of currencies as something moving and continuously circulating.

“Petrified Currents, Liquefied Currencies”, 2017, marble, aluminum (detail)

A.: There’s a second and a third coin as well. They obviously have a different appearance than the first one.

S.: The second ‘coin’, which resembles more a geological form or an island, is a diagram of global migration flows—with countries lined up at the outer circle. It refers to other currents, the movement of people and populations, and the values (and moneys) they bring with them. Finally, the third coin is an abstracted global diagram of connections between the servers that underlie the internet. It introduces the idea of information as the primary currency of modern, knowledge-based societies. So in a way, this work describes the historical evolution of systems of values and exchange and the different types of movements that occur along the way.

A.: Looking at “Anaximander’s Mind”, I was wondering: Is that a map of the Mediterranean seen from the past?

S.: “Anaximander’s Mind” condenses several ideas of the project. I encountered this map while reading a book on network theories in the antique world and I was immediately struck by its radical form. Indeed, this map shows how the world was perceived in the 6th century B.C.: as an island that has this liquid center in the form of the Mediterranean and that is circumscribed by a circular current.

 A.: I find it quite striking how this ocean stream holds the mass of land together with the support of a very sharp end that leads nowhere. Plus the shape of Europe corresponds pretty much with the one we know from contemporary mapping.

S.: What interests me regarding this antique cosmology is that the world is surrounded and defined by a single ocean stream, the mythical river Oceanus. It is, as it were, an aquacentric view of the world. This stream was later renamed as the Ocean, and with the evolution of geographic knowledge it transformed into the separate Oceans that one can see on contemporary maps. That’s why the work is called “Anaximander’s Mind”: it represents a first mental concept of the world and the forces believed to organise it, rather than a geographic description of the actual shapes of continents and oceans.

“Anaximander’s Mind”, 2017, marble, aluminum, silica beads (detail)

A.: So this is to say that this exhibition accumulates references to different historical periods. Is it wrong to say ‘it materializes time’? Trying to imagine a timeline as a sculptural work would first evoke the idea of a linear object, but obviously, “Anaximander’s Mind” is quite the contrary of it. How does this question, of making time visible in three-dimensional objects, relate to the materials you chose to work with?

S.: Time is represented by three distinct materials: marble, aluminium, and silicon. More specifically, in order to engage with this question of representing time, I relied on some of the ideas and metaphors introduced by French historian Fernand Braudel, whom I mentioned before. He distinguished between different historical temporalities: geographic, social, and individual time, the first two referring to the slow moving “longue durée” and the third to the more fast-paced history of events. This distinction between three temporalities inspired my choice of these three materials.

A.: Marble, aluminium, and silicon.

S.: Marble is by definition a material that reveals the slow movements of the earth, the almost imperceptible changes in its composition. Aluminum, on the other hand, can be liquefied and transformed into a cast object. So, it has a complex temporality, passing from a fluid to a petrified form and vice versa.

A.: It is also a light metal, associated with travel and transport. It has an industrial feel to it.

S.: Right! It is a material characteristic of the industrial age, while stone—and shells—references archaic and premodern artefacts and materials. And last, silicon is interesting because of its malleable, post-industrial quality—and it has obvious connections to a certain valley in Northern California! In the form of silica beads, as used in Anaximander’s mind, it becomes an almost erratic substance, not unlike the hectic circulation of information around the contemporary world. In the map I brought the three materials together.

“Her Turbulence”, 2017, aluminum sheet, 200 x 200 cm

A.: Thinking of the set up at the actual exhibition, I very vividly remember a fragile aluminum sheet that was hanging from the ceiling and separated the room in two, a bit like an obstacle. It was a very thin and light surface, somehow in strong contrast to the other works that are so heavy in weight. You had worked on it with a hammer so it got corrugated and dented. And again, we talk about waves!

S.: This work is called “Her Turbulence” and it indeed created an obstacle within the exhibition. Even though movement and fluidity have been central preoccupations in the works, I also created this barrier as a ‘counter-argument’ to the idea of constant flow, of a world of free floating ideas, peoples, values. The work reflects turmoil, the fact that there is movement but there are also obstacles, moments of unrest and immobility. I wanted to visualise that in an abstract, non-representational, but emotionally evocative manner and focus more on the agitation of the material itself.

“Her Turbulence”, 2017, aluminum sheet (detail)

A.: If I remember well, you once called it a meta-manual, is that correct?

S.: No! (laughs) I called it a mental map: referring to turbulence not only as a physical phenomenon but also as a mental one; as the emotional agitation caused by the restraint on movement, by the impossibility of natural flow. So, this work has a double play in meaning, too.  It has an architectural function but it also represents an abstract diagram: the “mental map” of inner turbulences.

“Surfaces Disturbances, Crests of Foam”, 2017, digital print on textile, 10,15 x 1.40 m

A.: Talking about turbulence, I am also thinking of your space-filling installation “Surfaces Disturbances, Crests of Foam”: an enormous textile print which in a way serves as another nucleus of this project as it combines all themes and motifs we came across until now. Looking closer at its black-and-white, entangled pattern, I recognized coins; shells can be found on it as well. You play with the idea of assemblage, repetition, and sampling which also mirrors in the technique you carry out here: digital image editing.

S.: What I aimed for here was to highlight the actual objects that I refer to when I talk about currencies. This is why this work reveals both their older form, as seashells, and actual coins. But at the same time, it also condenses the attributes of the other works: turbulences, flows, liquidification and petrification, the three materialities and temporalities of flows.

A.: So, what we have here is a digital collage of material textures, an untamed stream of objects and obstacles. This fluctuating image reveals again moments of agitation…

S.: …clashing energies that the eye of the beholder follows along the textile’s surface.

A.: Funny enough, it all makes me think of movementeven though we talk about static works only, all this time! Maybe it’s the very, so called “single moment” that your work encourages us to focus on: frozen movement, comparable perhaps to a single frame in film or a film still.

S.:  It’s more an accumulation of “single moments”, caught between the ‘geological’ stone-like structures and the more liquid elements that interact with them. Movement is also implied by the materiality of the textile itself, that in contrast to the more sculptural works of marble and aluminium that are also heavier in weight and inherently static, produces this flowing and mobile quality. The fact that the textile is not hanging on the wall, but removed from it slightly underlies this contrast, as movements of the visitors body will produce a small echo of agitation on the surface of the textile.

“Surfaces Disturbances, Crests of Foam”, 2017, digital print on textile (detail)

A.: What I find remarkable as well is that the digital processing itself becomes very obvious here while it remains a hidden component when it comes the other works we discussed so far. Digital processing might be a work step in the course of production of the sculptures but it doesn’t necessarily show in its result, in what we might call the actual ‘work’ in the end.

S.: That is because I apply a different approach here than in the sculptural pieces. Digital processing was something I wanted to reveal in this work, since it gave an effect of elasticity, of artificiality, and created a space of distorted perspective. This comes in contrast with the other pieces of the project where I highlight processes that we encounter in nature such as erosion or fragmentation. “Surfaces Disturbances, Crests of Foam” is a work about an artificial moment where different forces simultaneously come into play, dissolve into each other and simulate an aquatic topography…

A.: …or a “complex of seas” as Fernand Braudel might have put it—with reference to the Mediterranean. Remarkably, we don’t have any water here, water is raised as an issue, an image or an idea but at the same time, it remains completely absent in this project.

S.: Yes, water serves as the underlying principle of fluidity and flow and doesn’t appear as an actual material.

A.: Throughout our discussion and through your works, it became clear to me once again how much sculpture has the potentiality to draw our attention to the very moment. It pauses time in a way, or makes us rather aware of us contemplating on time and objects. One could argue as well that sculpture gives us the opportunity to think about action, about movement, about things that are about to to develop and/or to change in a different way. Up to a certain degree, it is—not only, but also—about the ‘becoming’, I would say. I believe that it’s the very asset of this project on the whole that it makes us think not only of the single moment but rather of a chain of different moments, of a gesture or of something that is still yet to happen.

Mimetic Flows, 2017, engraving on marble, 50 x 50 x 2 cm

A.: There’s one more work I’d like to focus on: It’s called “Mimetic Flows” and brings in again the contrast of the digital vs. somewhat ‘brute’ materiality. Digital displays got translated or carved into marble here.

S.: “Mimetic Flows” works with the idea of information flows, but in a much more analytical manner. It directly refers to information as another kind of currency.

A.: Is it a specific diagram that is being shown here?

S.: The engraving is a reworked global diagram that shows how certain Google search terms first appear in certain countries and then flow towards the periphery, as it were: The populations of periphery search for the same term later on, imitating the interests and preoccupations of the core. The original diagram was of course much more complex and its lines were always connected from the beginning to their end. The fragmentation that occurred through its digital processing was for me extremely important. It implies that in actual reality information doesn’t flow without interruptions, breaks, distortions of meaning.

A.: As we all know, this kind of data and diagrams constantly evolve and change in real time and right on the screen, without any break. Are we then facing another ‘frozen moment’ here?

S.: I wanted to engrave this immaterial data on the very heavy material of marble and contrast the two different kinds of temporalities and dynamics: of the actual material, of slow geological processing, and the fast paced, frenetic exchange of ideas around the world, both of which are then represented in what you refer to as a ‘frozen’ moment. In that respect, “Mimetic Flows” consists of an overlap of two different kinds of currents and movements.

A.: Two different temporal modalities. And it visualises of an exchange of information.

S: Information that has become completely indecipherable. As in most of the works we talked about, what remains are the actual configurations of exchange rather than the individual information.

S.: …And in a comparably much more physical, material way than the cryptic style of such never ending data streams on the Internet.

Athens, February 2018

Stefania Strouza is an artist born in Greece and working in Athens and Vienna. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art; Bauhaus Foundation, Dessau; Wiener Art Foundation, Vienna (solo); Neue Galerie, Innsbruck, (solo); Athens & Epidaurus Festival, Athens, (solo); BOZAR, Brussels; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens amongst others. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau (DE), the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies in Princeton University (US) and in 2018 in Mexico City with the support of the Austrian Federal Chancellery. www.stefaniastrouza.com

Antonia Rahofer is a writer, curator and cultural manager based in Vienna and Athens with a special interest in Greek contemporary arts and visual culture. She holds a degree in comparative literature and cultural studies from the University of Innsbruck and currently works on a research project focussing on (video-)interviews as an artistic practice. Since 2009 Antonia Rahofer teaches at various universities and art schools in Austria and abroad. 2017-18 she was a curatorial fellow at documenta14 and founded ‘in ατhεns’, an artist residency which gives selected Austrian based artists the opportunity to live and work in Greece’s capital.

Image credits: Stefania Strouza and Antonopoulou Gallery