A message of love, or better yet, a powerful appeal for real human community, was recently sent from Athens through the eyes of children who “occupied” by proxy an Athenian wall—rather than Wall Street—on the cold afternoon of October 15.
Seventy-six posters featuring boys and girls aged 2-14 were pasted on a wall on Thessaloniki Street, in the historic center of Athens and opposite Technopolis—an emblem of the Athenian art scene—turning an ordinary wall into a public gallery, a cheerful archive of some of the city’s most innocent inhabitants.
An art event in and of itself, the wall-papering was part of the street realization of Eyes of Truth, a group action organized by the art platform MELD in response to and as part of the Inside Out Project of legendary street artist JR.
Photography Elias Mandouvalos
Bridging the ineffable gaps that society constructs at the cost of community, Eyes of Truth brought together the faces of children who live in the same metropolis, but come from different ethnic, national, religious and, above all, socioeconomic backgrounds—each of which, more often than not, keep them apart.
A positive gesture that affirmed their peaceful coexistence in Athens as sign of Greek filoxenia, it actively wished a true global melding in light of MELD’s radical global agenda. For, in spite of bringing attention to difference by strategically pairing the posters in diptychs that featured a child from a privileged background with a child from an unprivileged (and usually immigrant) background, the sheer impossibility of deciphering difference between the pair effectively erased difference by blurring it.
Leaving the passerby confounded and vainly guessing, “Who is the Greek kid?” or “Who is better off?” in each diptych, Eyes of Truth spoke volumes about the criminal biases that obscure our view of the “other.” With such a striking deconstruction of alterity, Eyes of Truth enacted a paradigmatic embrace of “the other” at a time in which economic crises make it more vulnerable than ever—in Greek society, as in others—calling upon us to stop living as “strangers to ourselves.”
Photography Aggelos Pouliasis
In addition to the fictions it deconstructs, Eyes of Truth reveals many other truths. Though no longer windows to the soul, the eyes of certain kids belie the naïve and rosy image of stereotypical childhood innocence; they instead point to the nightmares they have witnessed—part and parcel of their origins and journeys in a land of hope.
These eyes send us back to the website of Inside Out —a rapidly growing digital archive of humanity, giving voice to those deprived of representation around the world—where the original photographic portraits of each of the children in Eyes of Truth have been uploaded along with a statement revealing each child’s origins, and occasionally their dreams, in order to search for proof for our suspicion, learn their stories and hear their voices.
I, at least, am compelled by the piercing gaze of some Afghani boys to wonder about their story; they are children of recent refugees, as we learn—some of whom still long to reunite with their families, elsewhere. Anchoring our suspicion in facts is beyond the point, but it suffices to make a point about not assuming the homogeneity of these kids or their experiences as children. For in as much as Eyes of Truth blurs differences between its youthful sitters to evoke sameness as human beings, it offers a great opportunity to contemplate the sociopolitical reasons that have sharpened difference throughout history—including the symptoms that undo childhood, such as human trafficking, abuse and exile. For to embrace the other as the same also requires the understanding and celebration of otherness per se.
Photography Dimitris Soultas
Having closely followed the development of the Eyes of Truth—both as volunteer art curator for the second TEDx Academy in Athens, which warmly embraced the project as a parallel event, and as an estranged and disillusioned repatriate uplifted by degrees of collaboration by MELD—it is tempting for me to elaborate on my personal experience of Eyes of Truth.
I could go on about the passion and resilience with which Yvonne Senouf and Corinne Weber—the co-founders and soul of MELD—along with the rest of its collaborators, made Eyes of Truth possible. I could try to communicate the moving frisson of participants and audience on that cold afternoon in Gazi, when kids of disparate colors and backgrounds proudly and playfully mingled in the real-life realization of Eyes of Truth’s ultimate goal: mixing the paste, pasting up the images, enjoying their representation, worrying about its imperfect installation, vying for another moment in front of someone’s camera lens and, above all, posing side by side in front of their posters in a symbolic, egalitarian bonding, which, one hopes, their collective future won’t prove naïve.
Or, I could try to capture the tearful sheen of excitement in the eyes of their parents, whose hearts were warmed by this gesture of acknowledgement that engaged their children and themselves in a communal art project—especially poignant for those who had come from afar and have struggled through a difficult acculturation. But despite the powerful blow to my art-historian straightjacket, nonetheless marked by an ongoing concern about political art both within and outside of the institutionalized spaces of art, it is hard to shake my identity. Therefore, instead of my own personal lessons gained from Eyes of Truth, let me focus on an art-critical one.
Photography Dimitris Zarkadas
Eyes of Truth differs from most Inside Out projects thus far in its employment of professional photographers for its execution. Indeed, a series of volunteer photographers went outside of their usual artistic practices to find both non-native and native Greek families, gaining sufficient trust that the families allowed them to take pictures of their children for display in Athens’ streets and online.
Yet the success of Eyes of Truth lies in the suppression of aesthetic importance and distinction, further downplayed by MELD’s homogenizing requirement of frontal portrayal of the kids. For Eyes of Truth’s importance lies in its prioritization of collaboration and participation, as well as the lived gifts of interaction, as catalytic means for social change—rather than aesthetics—making it a prime example of “relational aesthetics.”
Indeed, Eyes of Truth is the product of a complex international collaboration that includes its conceivers (Senouf and Weber) and its photographers (Yannis Chiotopoulos, Adamantios Kafetzis, Stavros Makris, Ryme 36/Stateofmind, Ioanna Ralli and Alexandros Voutsas), the sitters and their families, the participants in the posting (who opted to paste, to entertain by singing, or to document by video-recording).
As an Inside Out Project, it also includes JR and his team, who sent the posters from NYC, transforming the photographs into this radically re-appropriated commercial public medium, which characterizes his interference in public space. By extension, it also includes the increasing number of participants in JR’s Inside Out Project around the globe.
The expanded network of collaboration that swallows authorship in favor of communal production metaphorizes the egalitarian community that Eyes of Truth envisions with a touch of necessary utopianism. But it is the creation of lived relations, best exemplified by the photographers’ interactions with the families and their kids, which brings Eyes of Truth closer to its goals as a project of sociopolitical concern, as an art project that cuts across art photography, new-media art, street art and sheer activism.
Photography Dimitris Zarkadas
Cassandras of the art world have doubted that the models of discursivity, sociability and conviviality, which relational art such as Eyes of Truth foregrounds, constitute more efficient means for social change that those of the traditional avant-garde. And the more optimistic among us still wonder, even while continuing to hope. As a drop of hope in an ocean of disappointment, however, Eyes of Truth strengthens belief in the power of art and the hope bestowed upon relational art to make a difference. Building relations across social barriers, it capitalized on the power of encounter—among the artists and the kids and their families, privileged and unprivileged members of our society who rarely intersect on equal terms, viewers of the project and the kids both in and outside the posters—to create effective human proximities. It is these proximities that—if not as life-transforming as hoped for everyone involved—promise to irreversibly affect the way each of us who participated feels and thinks about art, society and the other, hopefully engendering new forms of action that will restore community.
Photography Dimitris Soultas
Photography Aggelos Pouliasis
Facebook page for Inside Out
Meld on TEDxAcademy: here