Artist and architect Sofia Dona’s practice consistently reveals new ways to view familiar and historically forgotten objects. In her essay “Defamiliarization as Architectural Practice”, co-written with Giorgia Aquilar, Dona explains her practice with reference to Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “ostranenie”—originally claimed as a literary technique by which a familiar object is rendered strange, opening onto an enhanced understanding of its function. This method describes many of Dona’s projects, from architectural doublings in geographically disparate locations to miniature replicas and redubbed films. Keenly informed by art history and transpiring between Greece and Germany, Dona’s work is internationalist in concept and realisation, addressing landscape from the perspective of migrancy and cities with an eye to rejuvenated public space.
Cam Scott interviewed Sofia Dona to learn more about her approach to history, politics, economy, and symbolism.
Cam Scott: I am curious about how you balance your artistic and architectural practices and how these inform one another. Do you ever perceive a contradiction between the two practices?
Sofia Dona: My architectural practice consists of art installations, curatorial projects, teaching in art and architectural academies, writing, and, most importantly, being active in the city by participating in squats, discussions, and working together with groups of architects and artists. Through all these practices my main attempt is to question the responsibility of art and architecture in contemporary times. I do not make a distinction between architecture and art. I believe that the disciplines should open up to include more experimentation, towards a direction of new interdisciplinary practices.
CS: Your work often depicts the city in flux, as shaped by invisible market activity. In the spatial interventions of Twinning Towns, you adapt the idea of the sister city, often undertaken as a conciliatory postwar gesture, for the present day. Your project links Leipzig and Detroit on the basis of a trend toward abandonment and capital flight. What suggested this connection to you in the first place? And what were some of the most striking similarities that you discovered during the project's realization?
SD: I have always been interested in comparative urbanism, especially in the imaginary connection of cities. For example, it fascinates me that a ‘little Paris’ exists in almost every country in the world. By understanding those institutional sister-cities or imaginary twinnings, I focus on revealing stories of those cities, as well as the wider issue of globalization. My concept of twinning Leipzig and Detroit in 2010 was based on the fact that although the two cities are so far away from each other, with such different history, political and economic structures, both faced issues of shrinkage. I performed three actions for this twinning, having to do with the concepts of space, language, and people’s initiatives.
For the first act of twinning I produced a two-channel video installation showing two trombone players playing together in abandoned swimming pools, one in Leipzig and one in Detroit. Both pools belonged to buildings that were built and, decades later, abandoned in the same years. The second twinning was the exchange and installation of two signs belonging to abandoned stores, ‘Maria’s resale’ in Detroit and ‘Otto und Willy Schumachermeister’ in Leipzig. The third twinning focused on the activity of two initiatives taking over urban spaces, the ‘Yes Farm’ in Detroit and the ‘Hinz und Kunz’ in Leipzig. For this twinning I asked the two projects to exchange windows, one of the main architectural elements used in the renovation of their spaces.
Later on, in 2016, I realized the project La Puerta de las Californias, focusing on the border cities Tijuana and San Diego, which were twinned in 1993. It has been interesting to look at cities that are so close to each other and yet so incredibly different.
CS: That particular project, La Puerta de las Californias, seems to directly correspond to the violence of borders, and the border between the United States and Mexico specifically. You seize upon the image of a door, which you transport by truck back and forth from San Diego to Tijuana. This gesture—the transportation of a threshold across a threshold—appears to depict the operation of borders as a method of separation, rather than a physical location per se. What were you visualising with this demonstration?
SD: The door is a mistranslated object that resulted from changing inches and feet into metres and centimetres. It reveals the fact that in the border area architects design in both metric (metres and centimetres) and imperial (inches and feet) systems. [To me, this evokes] the history of colonization. I have been interested in this small mistake of mistranslating an “architectural language”, which produces a gigantic object, a door that instead of six feet and eight inches stands six metres and eighty centimetres. The door was constructed in Tijuana and transported to San Diego, crossing the border on a truck, thus making a one-way trip—the difficult or even impossible one from Mexico to the US. I really like your way of putting it, as “the transportation of a threshold across a threshold”. These works reveal different issues about the border. Constructing the door, obtaining permissions for filming in both Mexican and the US inspection centres, meeting the cargo drivers, all these difficulties reveal the border either as an “open economy” or a “method of separation and control”.
CS: I am curious about the status of the replica in pieces like Mailbox House, which places an exact copy of an actual house in front of its present address. I love this artwork, which on one hand seems like a sculptural tribute to its Oakwood neighbourhood as it was before a massive influx of capital; and on the other hand, reads as an ironic remark on some of the more superficial concessions to restoration, insofar as the likeness is preserved, but on a Lilliputian scale, such that it has no use value whatsoever. Could you talk a little about your engagement with this community and the thinking behind this intervention?
SD: During my Fulbright Scholarship in Los Angeles I started focusing on cases of evictions, especially in the neighbourhood of Venice Beach. While visiting archives and attending public hearings, I came across the story of Kinney-Tabor House back in the 1900. The developer of Venice Beach, Abbot Kinney, left his house to his African American friend and personal assistant, Irving Tabor. Since Tabor was not able to move and live with his family in the white and privileged neighbourhood of the Venice Canals, he decided to transfer the house in two pieces to Oakwood, the only African American neighbourhood in Venice Beach. I installed the Mailbox House (2016) in one of the last houses in Oakwood inhabited by African American people. With this action I tried to highlight this house in a neighbourhood that has been wildly gentrified by developers violently forcing people to move out. In a way, the miniature tries to leave a trace of the one-hundred year old houses that are demolished day by day, erasing the architectural past of the neighbourhood.
‘The copy’ is a practice that I have used before, in the 2009 project Der Balkon. On the facade of the Elephant Hotel in Weimar I constructed and installed a second balcony identical to the one that already exists, which was part of Adolf Hitler’s design for the reconstruction of the hotel in 1938. The doubling of this architectural element of the building aims to distort the strong symbolic character of the original balcony, which used to serve for Hitler’s speeches.
The process of copying creates an uncanny effect that I am interested in producing with my work, in order to slightly change the image and the way that we understand things, revealing hidden stories that might be extremely hard to look at.
CS: These miniature houses appear as mailboxes, which do have a certain utility. But many North American cities are discontinuing door-to-door delivery, further isolating the elderly, people with mobility issues, and so on. You explored the social dimension of the post in 2007, delivering mail in Athens. How did this experience influence your conception of the city?
SD: In 2007 I decided to work as a letter deliverer in the city of Athens, because I believed it would be an interesting way to explore the city. Indeed, taking a specific role, and especially that of the postwoman, gave me a totally different perspective on the city. First, the connection of the body of the letter deliverer to the city changes depending on various urban structures and the ways that they are approached: on foot, by bike or by car, and depending on the density of the centre to the sparse suburbs. Another fascinating element was each route that the letter deliverer followed depended on the street, the houses, and the density of the doors. These routes were informally redrawn by each letter deliverer in connection to their habits, such as drinking a morning coffee, taking a short break in a square, or meeting a friend in the neighbourhood.
Documenting those individual mappings became one of my main interests while working. I can only imagine how much the postman’s work has changed in Athens in ten years, with airbnb transforming thousands of flats and houses into short term rentals less likely to receive traditional mail.
CS: I think of the accelerated pace of development in cities, and real estate as a means of simply moving around money. Could you describe the conceptual background behind AKINHTO/AKINITO? I am attracted to this idea of immobility as a means of resistance, and this work in particular because it seems like a very practical intervention, as an artwork that uses the housing market and the law itself as a medium.
SD: AKINHTO/AKINITO started with my observation that legal complexity in Greece and especially in the city of Athens is in a way blocking big real estate agencies from entering the market. I was surprised that many housing initiatives in Northern Europe strategically use this complexity in order to protect houses that they buy from returning to the real estate market—claiming, for example, six hundred owners that will never agree together on selling the property. I am interested in how this dysfunctionality, which is negatively perceived in Greece, can be a means of resistance.
AKINHTO/AKINITO means “immobile”, and is a term used in other languages to define property, referring to a fixed connection to the ground [as in German, where “immobilien” corresponds to “immobile”, “property”, and “real estate”]. I use the same term to refer to immobility as resistance. I am interested for example in what I call “emotional property”, the family connection of someone with a property who is unwilling to use it for profit.
CS: Much of your work seems to challenge the split between inside and outside, public and private, in compelling fashion. In the Plaka district of Athens you and Dimitris Theodoropoulos renovated an apartment to include marble from the street immediately outside. This feels like a different kind of twinning, conveying something of public space to domestic life. Could you elaborate on this process?
SD: The specific house was designed for a good friend who is an archaeologist. This exact twinning that you refer to is what has been interesting for us, when we discovered that apart from saving and reusing the material—marble coming from Pendeli mountain—we also had the opportunity to bring one of the most beloved pedestrian streets of Athens—Aiolou Street—to the flat and yard of our archaeologist friend. It looks like a piece of public space was transferred to a private house. We have always imagined how many steps left their traces on this marble paved street.
A similar twinning that I have recently realised was the installation Winterschlaf in the gallery space Lothringer Halle 13 in Munich. This time a piece of public space, a winter cover protecting the fountain in Gärtnerplatz, was dismantled, transported, and installed in suspension. In the absence of the fountain the protective structure was highlighted. This action formed a second public space in the gallery, where people started standing under the fountain cover, replacing the fountain in a sense. Another interesting connection in this project is that Gärtner, the architect whose name is given to the square, was the architect of Otto’s Palace in Athens, which is now the building of the Greek Parliament. In a way it also activates the imaginary twinning of Bavaria and Athens and the neoclassical architecture of the nineteenth century that brings us back to the ancient Greek classical architecture.
CS: Fountain is a public performance set in Athens, at Syntagma Square, in which an increasingly agitated street preacher is drowned out by the central fountain and largely ignored by those passing. This seems to frame a statement on how some of life's rhythms persist amid apocalyptic pronouncements. I think of the demonstrations against austerity in recent years and how massive they were by comparison. What attracted you to the framing of this lone figure? And what was the duration of the performance outside of the video clip that we see? Did anyone engage?
SD: It was another project—and another square—that led me to the Fountain. In 2015 I was invited to participate with a project at Flaneur Magazine. I came across a very interesting and contradictory public event called the Spiritual Gospel Festival in the square of Kypseli, organized by the Nigerian community. During this event the Nigerian performers asked the audience to “pray for Tsipras”, the then recently elected left-wing Prime Minister. In the square the community posted tableau with slogans such as “We love and pray for Greece” and “May the Prime Minister be blessed”. Some months later the tweet #prayfortsipras travelled around the world, used by those supporting Greece on the austerity issue.
The project focused on the idea of the submission to the authorities through religious performance. Following the group’s activity in Athens Ι was introduced to the street preacher and started following his performances at different spots, such as the Areios Pagos on the Acropolis, the supreme civil and criminal court of ancient Athenians, where Saint Paul also preached. I was interested in the connection of preaching with symbolic spaces in the city, especially since preaching in Greece is illegal in public. I decided to film his preaching in Syntagma Square in order to connect a building symbolic of the Greek Parliament, and the former Palace of the Bavarian King Otto, to the demonstrations against austerity. What fascinated me was his choice to always stand next to the fountain, which covered his voice, forcing him to shout louder, which I perceived as an “oral battle” between religion, politics, and an architectural symbol of prosperity. In the end of the video a group of tourists gather to take a picture, disrupting the image of the lonely speaker and capturing the fountain, the square, and the parliament.
CS: Relatedly, your piece Capital Control visualises austerity, placing four hundred and twenty coins in various configurations, as handicraft or slogans. This number corresponds to the maximum amount of money one could withdraw per week in Greece under austerity regulations. How has being an internationally based artist helped you to conceptualise the ongoing situation in Greece?
SD: In September 2018, Greece began to ease its Capital Controls, a measure that started in June 2015. Capital control has been a very complicated and important measure, symbolising the strength of the people to say no to a strategy of austerity that had been destroying the country and leading to the privatisation of main sectors of the economy and infrastructure. The installation of four hundred and twenty Euro coins formed a doily, a decorative table cloth traditionally made by women, which was also given as dowry for their daughters or granddaughters, as part of a past economy. This installation was created for an exhibition called ‘PIIGS_An Alternative Geography of Curating’ at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Torino. PIIGS is an acronym used in economics for five of the most economically weak Eurozone nations during the European debt crisis: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
CS: As you move between Greece and Germany, I wonder if you observe a kind of inverted twinning in the relation of one economy to the other?
My video work Synchronization / Synchronisation is an attempt to conceptualise the twinning of Greece and Germany, starting in the Gastarbeiter times [ed: meaning ‘guest worker’; a work placement program for migrant workers in West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s] and following the most recent economic migrants from Greece to Germany. This video installation attempts a new interpretation of Fassbinder’s famous film Katzelmacher through translation. The video presents the German actress Effi Rabsilber dubbing the film in Greek parallel to the film screening. This interpretation results from the new reading by the actress, of the story of a Greek Gastarbeiter who moves to Germany to work. Named for the Greek word συνχρονισμός or synchronismos, which means “setting together in parallel time”, the project presents a synchronisation of actors, countries, and different stereotypes. Translation (μεταφραση or metatarsi) becomes a metaphor (μεταφορα or metaphors) of the stereotyping of one country by another.
CS: In the film Katzelmacher the Greek immigrant is played by Fassbinder himself, perhaps as a gesture toward the spuriousness of national typologies, and the kind of symbolic exchange about which you are speaking. It feels like your video alienates the Fassbinder film, displacing its content in a quite literal sense. Was the voiceover faithful to the original screenplay, or did it take interpretive license?
SD: The first time I presented the work Synchronisation it was a performance with two Greek women interpreting the roles of the actors in Fassbinder’s film. In the video installation I decided to ask the German actress Effi Rabsilber to take part; she had moved to Greece some years ago. I was interested in this reversal of place and role—a German actress that moves and works in Greece—and in the fact that one can recognize her German accent while she is translating in Greek. The parallel projection creates a new reading of the film and the metaphor of the stereotypes from one country to the other.
CS: I have a question about the symbolism of the nation-state. In a 2014 work, you use a sewing machine to alter the Greek flag, from the alternating white and blue stripes, and the cross representing the Orthodox Church, to a solid blue and solid white, like a reduced landscape. I wonder if you could describe this action, and the sense of your new design.
SD: The nine stripes in the Greek flag represent different things in various popular traditions, such as the nine syllables of the phrase ‘Freedom or Death’ in Greek (ε-λευ-θε-ρι-a ή θά-να-τος) or the nine Muses of ancient Greek mythology. Equally, the colours represent in the popular culture the sky and the sea. I cut out the stripes, reconnecting them to create the stereotypical Greek landscape—sky and sea, the touristic view of Greece that shapes its main economy. The action in a way is redefining the Greek flag, taking out the religious and nationalist part—the orthodox cross and patriotic phrase—and reducing it to a landscape.
CS: This reminds me of a 2011 video installation, Shared Landscapes, where relatively static shots of the horizon line dividing ocean and sky are combined to produce new, contrasting landscapes; or perhaps more properly, seascapes. I wonder how the specificity of landscape informs your work, which is so much about the exchange of formal and architectural elements. As your approach to urbanism feels both practical and holistic, I feel like landscape is already implicated.
SD: My interest in the representation of places led to Shared Landscapes. In this project I wanted to create an unfamiliar image by mixing landscapes and making new ones which could exist but also not. Shared Landscapes is inspired by Carl Rottmann’s twenty-three paintings of Greek landscapes from the mid-nineteenth century. Rottmann, commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, decided to capture cities such as Corinth, Olympia, Sparta, by depicting only traces of ancient ruins, creating a larger portrait of Greece as imagined by a German painter. In a new work I am preparing at the moment, I address landscape through possible or impossible ways of crossing, reflecting on migration.
To learn more about the work of Sofia Dona, click here.