SEA research visit | Onassis AiR

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Peer visit | Greece

Onassis AiR Open Day#5, Photo by Margarita Yoko Nkitaki for Onassis Stegi

Onassis AiR

Towards a process-oriented arts ecosystem

“At Onassis Foundation, we invest in people. We invest in human relationships, process, the offbeat look on things and the dynamics released between people different in nature. Interesting and restless minds that come together unexpectedly, in order to spark discussions and raise questions. Onassis Residents are carriers of contemporary civilization, travelers to different places on the planet. They trigger human curiosity, read, get inspired, gather experiences and create, making the local global and vice versa, but above all, their own”. Onassis AiR is an (inter)national artistic research and residency program based in Athens, offering ground for research and experimentation while applying alternative models of organizing. It stands as a platform for artist empowerment, agency and the building of sustainable connections. This text is written by a SEA Foundation’s team member and situated within our fold #09 on Empowerment, part of SEA Foundation’s ongoing research on art & sustainability.

I met Nefeli Myrodia and Sotiria Smyrnaiou in the office space of Onassis AiR. They introduced me to the horizontal residency organization concept. We discussed stories and practices of Onassis AiR ‘fellows’ and the Onassis AiR team gave me a tour of the spaces that host the program and the community. The Onassis AiR (Artist in Residence) Program commenced in 2019 following extensive research into the requirements of artists within the Greek cultural context, revealing a scarcity of residencies providing financial support and research resources.

Customised

“In 2018 we asked artists from different fields, curators and researchers, what their needs were. As you can imagine, the first one was resources and the second one, back then, was time. Working in the aftermath of the Greek economic crisis, practitioners in the cultural field had several jobs and projects going at the same time to earn a living wage.” The basic principle of Onassis AiR is to offer space, time and resources to do research, to reflect, and connect to other art professionals without the pressure of an end result. The focus on artistic reflection and research naturally confluences the residency being open to all artistic disciplines: visual arts, performance art, theater, choreography and dance, film, design, curation. Nefeli Myrodia shares that they like to keep the frame open to possibilities as to what can be considered artistic research, notably having a former resident whose practice encompasses culinary art. The Onassis AiR Program aspires to cultivate enduring connections with its fellows. Past participants have the opportunity to seek assistance, be it for rehearsal space, project funding abroad, or other resource requirements. A dedicated part of the program’s organisation’s budget is allocated to fullfil such requests from former fellows.

The Artist in Residence space building is located in the premises of Onassis Stegi and surrounded by residential buildings in an urban area of intense movement. The architectural structure is characterised by transparency to the outside, with large windows on both the front and rear enclosing an airy office space.The work surfaces and tables are all communal. Crossing the interior leads to an open amphitheater-like space surrounded by adjacent balconies. Above the offices lies a prototype urban vegetable garden. Sotiria Smyrnaiou shows me around accompanied by the residency’s cats, also members of the community. The studios are located on the other side of the amphitheater. During the tour, I am shown one of the common studios and meet the nine fellows who just joined the program. There are two spacious studios that comfortably accommodate up to ten fellows in shared workspaces. Recording and rehearsal studios are also at their disposal.

Co-designing possibilities

Τhe format of the artistic research residency might turn out today as a leverage that could also enable a radical rethinking of the role of art in society. Discussing program modifications and the annual Open Calls, the Onassis AiR team emphasises that participants actively contribute to decision-making on multiple levels. Since the program was initiated under the principles of horizontal collective design, its frame has been changing almost annually to adjust to the needs of its participants. This year’s Open Call was collaboratively composed by former participants through a series of community assemblies. Nefeli stresses that the program is designed to be dynamic and in flux.

“We don’t like to be stagnant; we wouldn’t wish the program to become rigid and continue in the same format for the next 20 years. We like the idea of changing forms every year based on what our artistic community needs”. The latest program is titled Tailor-Made Residencies. Central criteria on the selection process – which has to be rather strict, based on the 2000 applications received every year – are the questions of Why now? and Why in Athens? Proposals should be explicit about the need to conduct research within the local context and about the ways each project can benefit from working within an interdisciplinary community. “We have no individual studios, so it needs to be apparent in proposed projects that prospective residents will truly benefit from a collaborative environment and from collective moments with artists from other disciplines”. 

Collective support

Between 2019 and 2023, the program welcomed more than 130 participants. Residencies vary in duration and number of participants. During each residency period, current fellows are connected to previous ones in an organic way. Connecting processes include weekly collective lunches and knowledge exchange processes in the form of workshops, site and studio visits and discussions. Most activities organized in the frame of the residency are proposed and produced in direct collaboration between the Onassis AiR team and the fellows. “From the beginning we established the No Experts mentality; we do not believe in individual expertise. On a more general level you’ll see that all our groups are quite diverse, in different stages of practice. A young rap artist could be part of the same group with an established choreographer”. The team actively opposes the notion of expertise. No distinction is being made between emerging or established artists nor mentors and students. All activities and encounters are in a peer-to-peer format. In the same logic, workshops –  in the form of offerings back to the AiR community – are given to the community by fellows and current participants.

Expanded Community

Once a month, Onassis AiR opens its doors to the public. It is a presentation opportunity offered during the residency. During these Open Days, the Onassis AiR fellows can present their research in-progress in the way they prefer and in return they are open to discussion and feedback. ‘Besides inviting professionals from the field with an affinity to the fellows’ research interests we also invite the public. We were very happy to see how people of the neighborhood responded to these public events’. Reflecting on locality and geographical positioning, Nefeli shares that even though Onassis AiR is located in the urban setting of Athens, the Foundation goes beyond to support decentralization and a dispersion of art production towards other areas. In that direction, they support projects that have a connection to rural areas of the country, and the wider Balkan and Mediterranean regions.

Publication

Onassis AiR generously shared their publication The School of Infinite Rehearsals with us. The School of Infinite Rehearsals was a collective research program which took place in 2020-22 with a focus on topics of urgency during the global pandemic. The four-volume publication is a tangible outcome of this research, bringing together different disciplines, ideas, ideals and positions. The publication is available to read in SEA Foundation’s library.

Onassis AiR website
Onassis AiR team members: Nefeli Myrodia, Sotiria Smyrnaiou and Marina Troupi

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Pink house press installation_Photo by Sotiria Smyrnaiou
Performance curated by Panos Fourtoulakis, Onassis AiR Open Day #8, Photo by Andreas Simopoulos for Onassis Stegi
Presentation by Bryony Dunne, Onassis AiR Open Day#6, Photo by Margarita Yoko Nkitaki for Onassis Stegi