A VoxLox Book, 2010, 9"x9", 85 pages, 36 color and 24 black and white photographs, CD, DVD
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SKYROS CARNIVAL is the 2nd volume in the VoxLox book series of art/anthropology dialogues. It features sixty color and black and white photographs by Dick Blau, an ethnographic essay by Agapi Amanatidis and Panayotis Panopoulos, and a CD and DVD by Steven Feld. In the book's opening pages, each of the collaborators describes their role and entry point into the project.
I grew up in the theater, my father a director and my mother an actress. As a result, I developed a lifelong fascination with the dramatic moment, the heightened gesture, the mysterious transformation of self into other. I suppose it was inevitable that my abiding preoccupation with the stage would find its way into my photography. When Steve called one day a few years ago and told me that Panos had told him about Greece’s wildest and noisiest carnival, I put down the phone and began packing my bag and cameras..
What I eventually discovered on Skyros was not exactly what I spent the next few months imagining. I had been dreaming of Dionysius, Pan, and the Eleusinian mysteries in a smoky grove, but I found myself instead in a small Greek island town with an Internet café. Normal life continued amidst the wildness. Performers and audience were mixed together. And then there were the cameras. Everyone, it seemed, was either taking pictures or posing for them. This was not simply an ancient ritual; it was a modern media event.
In fact, the carnival was old and new at the same time. Skyros Carnival is a hybrid form in which the goat dancers, dressed in their rough, rank animal skins and festooned in huge clanking bells, mix easily with other performers who look decidedly of our moment. It hardly mattered I would be standing at dusk on the street waiting for the dancers to appear when a kid would float by wearing a cheap monkey mask from the grocery store, and I would instantly find myself swept up with him into the world of myth. This was what I had come for. It is the story my pictures try to tell.
I sailed to Skyros for the first time in 1992. I remember it well; a turbulent midwinter ferry trip across the Aegean, just a few weeks before carnival began. I had never heard of the island before seeing the Yeros’ face on the cover of a book that had been misplaced on a library shelf. I was overcome by the image of this goat-masked persona. It was a decisive moment for me as a student of the anthropology of ritual and performance.
I came of age in a time when intellectual and social debates on multiculturalism and identity were raging. As a child of Greek migrants to Australia whose family intermittently returned to live in Greece, my understanding of such issues was not just academic but lived. Anthropology offered me a way to bring academia and experience together. I was intrigued by the way that Greek communities celebrated their sense of place. Skyros and its carnival gave me a way to explore the community-building power of ritual.
Years and years of research have now culminated in a dissertation on Skyrian carnival. My ethnography explores the elusive and transformative power that first gripped me in that image of the yeros on the cover of that book.
The opportunity for expanded conversations with anthropologists and artists on this project makes possible a bringing together of my textual work with more sensual forms of representation. Alongside this book, my ethnography can be read in new ways. And my pleasure of researching and knowing the carnival can be shared anew with Skyrians.
I first met Steve in January 2003 at a hilarious balkan music-festival in northern Manhattan. He was there, along with ethnomusicologist Charles Keil and writer Angela Vellou, to promote Bright Balkan Morning, their fascinating multi-media publication with Dick about the lives and music-making of gypsy musicians in Greek Macedonia. By that time, I was working on an ethnographic study concerning the social life and symbolism of animal bells in Greek pastoral communities, while Steve had recently inaugurated The Time of Bells, his long-term project of soundscape compositions recording the social and cultural dynamics of bells in Europe and worldwide. He had brought his expertise and sensitivity acquired through years of studying and recording sound in the New Guinea tropical rainforests to bells’ sound production and perception. His move from birds to bells disclosed a rich new world of possibilities for conversation and collaboration between us.
From a rich source of inspiration, his work also became the field of an intimate dialogue between my ethnography and his soundscape compositions. Working together was a dream to come true next year, when Steve and Dick visited Greece and I suggested that we travel to Skyros carnival to record its spectacular bellscapes. There started a warm and lasting exchange of voices, sounds, images, but also of feelings and rich intellectual stimulation. Agapi was the ethnographic eye to complement our group. Agapi, Dick, and I went to Skyros carnival for a second time in 2006 for a second round of photographing. This time, it was colour that we added to our images. The constant flow of sounds, texts and images that is going on among us for the last four years forms the basis of this multi-media publication. We hope that this book of still and moving images, texts and sound compositions, will also convey some of our pleasure and cheerfulness in the long process of making it.
I went to the Skyros carnival in 2004 with Dick and Panos. Dick and I had already collaborated on Bright Balkan Morning and Bells and Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia. Our side-by-side documentary work explored the complementary voices of still photography, sound, and moving image media. Dick’s photographs evoked an acoustic presence for me very much like the way I wanted my audio soundscapes to be cinematic, to be hearable like a film soundtrack.
This synaesthetic interest also brought me together with Panos, whose anthropological work shared with mine a deep fascination with the senses and particularly the social powers of sound, an arena I call acoustemology, sound as a sensuous way of knowing. We had begun a conversation about how bells figured in ritual, especially carnival, where they both create and disrupt the experience of time and space. In Skyros we three created an in-the-moment documentary experiment, with a special focus on bells and the performance of masked dancers.
That initial work is now considerably expanded by a second trip that Panos and Dick made in 2006 with Agapi, whose fifteen years of ethnographic experience in Skyros created new opportunities and understandings at each and every turn. Now that we’ve all come together, I am particularly happy that this project has materialized with VoxLox, the publication series I created for new dialogues in art and anthropology.
DVD: Skyros Carnival 2004 11’38 Video by Steven Feld, with photographs by Dick Blau, edited by Jeremiah Ra Richards
Glimpses of participants becoming as the staging and performance of carnival is revealed through a dialogue of sounds, still (black and white) and moving (color) images.
CD: Voices of the Bells 32’15 Recordings by Steven Feld, Mixed by Bill Boaz, 4th World Recording Studios, Santa Fe
Carnival bells shape the acoustics of space and time, passing near and far with a mounting excess of repetitions, noise, and density. Three sound essays witness to their capacity to bring out or drown voices and music, creating new forms of sonic intimacy.
1-Inside the Taverna…the social warmth of talking while dining to recordings of familiar island songs is overlapped through window panes by the swelling outdoor processions of the yeri. 11’51
2-Outside the Disco… young people enter or leave with door openings that pump bass-rich hip hop sounds into the swirling bells of mingling yeri Advisory: explicit lyrics. 8’50
3-Thundering Bells…up-close and in the center of the mid-evening action, yeri pass, circle, and jump to ever wilder heights in a figure and ground dance of acoustic intensity. 11’32
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