Located in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens, Zoetrope is far from your typical gallery. In many ways, it is quite the opposite. The idea was born from an urgency to create a malleable space that invites all kinds of creators to pitch and develop their ideas, rather than putting finished and framed prints on the wall.
Founded by Alexandra Saliba and Yorgos Yatromanolakis—two avid book makers—as a home for Greece’s flourishing self-publishing community, Zoetrope has been used for workshops, demonstrations, reading groups and, most recently, a radio show. Describing it as a “project”, the space lives up to its namesake: it is a lively, elastic hub of activity, dialogue and research. Embracing trial and error, the two founders are set on creating an alternative outlet for artists—outside of the traditional gallery.
In this interview for LensCulture, Alexandra and Yorgos speak to Cat Lachowskyj about the local photobook scene, coming together as a community beyond photography and working out how to do things on their own terms.
Cat Lachowskyj: I think of book-making and photobooks as the foundation of Zoetrope. How did each of you get into photography and book-making, and how did this shape your ideas behind Zoetrope?
Yorgos Yatromanolakis: Photography and photobooks are interrelated concepts in my artistic practice. We were always enthusiastic about book-making and we would devote our time looking at books, doing research and having never-ending conversations, so it was natural to start developing Zoetrope around photobooks and book-making while bringing together a dynamic community of emerging book-makers.
Alexandra Saliba: I am a documentary filmmaker with a background in cultural studies and visual arts, and I got into book-making because it felt like an expanded form of filmmaking. Two years ago, when Yorgos and I were both working on our books, we realized that self-publishing was a growing practice in Greece, and while many photobook makers were becoming increasingly engaged in exploring and discovering new tools and manifesting new methods of artistic expression, they remained invisible, or with limited exposure. We wanted to create a space that fostered opportunities for self-published photographers to show and share their work. When we opened Zoetrope, our first exhibition, titled Plateau 034, consisted of Greek self-published photobooks, and that’s when we started mapping this network.
YY: We didn’t want to create a traditional exhibition event—we wanted to open up a dialogue between self-publishers and other people who work with books, like typographers, designers, and book-binders. We wanted to map out their needs while thinking of solutions for self-publishers. From the moment we started, we felt the need to run the exhibition collaboratively, so we brought together a number of photographers, researchers, and book-makers to open up a dialogue from different perspectives.
AS: In general, we prefer to be as inclusive as possible. We didn’t want it to just be Yorgos and myself selecting twenty books to be shown. It was very important for us to have a curatorial team made up of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. We wanted to create momentum, and we wanted to ignite a community of self-publishers, and this was part of it.
CL: Your programming stands out in comparison to other galleries and spaces because its core is rooted in interaction and curiosity, rather than standing back and quietly observing prints on display. Why do you think that is an important approach?
YY: This is Zoetrope’s main priority; we always thought of it as an archival project in the sense that everything we do should somehow leave a minimal trace instead of popping up and disappearing. We wanted to make projects in our space, but we also wanted to exchange experience and knowledge within it. Most importantly, we wanted people to do all of those things together.
Urgency is a keyword. It’s the urgency to create a library with Greek photobooks; the urgency to create an open photographic community; the urgency to experiment with other artists; the urgency to bridge artistic communities with social and political communities.
AS: One of the things that we discussed when we were thinking about creating Zoetrope was how we could open up the photographic community of Athens, because we felt that photographers were quite isolated from other communities. As Yorgos mentioned, we wanted it to be an artist-run space in its essence, but we didn’t want it to feel distinctly like its own solitary entity. To be honest, to this day we don’t know what Zoetrope is, because it is constantly in a state of becoming and re-definition. People are invited to take part in and shape its identity, and that is why we encourage people to interact with the community, engaging in dialogues, topics and issues that are really critical—connecting with global issues, but also connecting with the realities of Kypseli, the neighbourhood where we are based.
YY: We are far more interested in people showing their works-in-progress than a completed project, running workshops and dialogues so that different people can have conversations about projects from a bunch of different backgrounds and perspectives.
CL: Can you tell me about the library you created in your space?
AS: We quickly realized during our first exhibition that there aren’t any open libraries where you can find Greek self-published photobooks, and we also realized that most small-run books are hidden away in drawers, in houses, or in private collections. We wanted to create an opportunity for self-publishers to share their work with the Greek audience, so we thought it would be nice to create a physical space of reference. We kicked things off with an exhibition, where at least 600 people showed up, which is not a small number for such a small space. Many people outside of the photographic community visited. They were so impressed by the selections in the curation, the materials, and the content, and we considered it our responsibility to go a step further by creating this space and making these books visible to a wider audience.
YY: It is very difficult to find some of these books if you don’t already know that they exist, or if you do not know the author personally, so they simply weren’t accessible. Since the exhibition, curators and researchers from abroad ask to visit the space and look at the books, so it really has become a point of reference. For us, it isn’t just a library—it’s more like a project. We believe that the concept of the photobook in Greece is a relatively new phenomenon, and it will grow, so we will grow together, and we hope that we will make a bigger library in the coming years.
CL: Aside from the library, what is your favourite type of programming that you put together?
AS: We really enjoy working with communities. We are interested in how we can cultivate circumstances and opportunities for dialogue and social transformation through artistic practices and actions. For example, one of my favourite upcoming programs was submitted through our open call by German artist Karl Heinz Jeron, who works in media practices. He proposed the creation of a DIY pirate radio station, and will invite people from the diverse community of Kypseli to produce their own content. This will result in a location-based radio broadcast for a city walk so that people can tune in to the frequency of the station and listen to the content. To be honest, we feel awkward when we get proposals from artists who simply want to show their finished work. We are not a traditional gallery—we don’t really understand how to put something like that together.
YY: We have received a number of proposals that are typical in this way, where people want to make a solo exhibition with frames and flat prints—without encouraging any kind of interaction—and we wonder: why would they want to do that here? Most importantly, we can’t support it, because if you are a traditional gallerist, you have direct access to collectors and buyers, which is a network that we don’t really have and are not interested in developing. I love the programming we do where people work with alternative developing and printing processes, because all of these little things have a way of bringing people together. I have never worked at a collaborative studio before, and I like knowing that we have a space where we can bring artists together to share their knowledge with each other and work through things together.
AS: I think an important dimension of making work is breaking down the established art practices to find new methods, and working with people who are eager to share and learn these practices. We don’t want to be yet another artist-run space. We want to grow roots and we want to become part of our local network, and as a space we participate in many local initiatives. Kypseli contains an art scene full of people of color from around the world; it’s a community of people who see art in the same way as us, and they see how things can evolve, how we can be more inclusive, and how we can be more fair.
YY: And it’s not just artists. It’s also about merging political views, organization, and community, so we don’t feel like we are alone. We feel like we are part of something bigger.
CL: Moving forward, what are the ways you hope to use this space, and what are the biggest lessons you have learned through opening Zoetrope?
YY: First of all, I think that we make mistakes every day. But we always make something out of them. When we opened the space, we had no plans for how this would work. I think that we were very optimistic, and actually romanticized the idea—but we still try to keep that energy going. We didn’t know how many hours a day we would have to be there, or how Zoetrope would become sustainable. It was an improvisation.
AS: A traditional gallery has a really clear stature and purpose, but Zoetrope is constantly waiting to be discovered, resisting a fixed identity and remaining fluid. In terms of sustainability, it is very hard for us, because we have to organize things differently to create these spaces of opportunity and dialogue. It takes a lot of our energy. But there is this urgency to change things. Urgency is a keyword. It’s the urgency to create a library with Greek photobooks; the urgency to create an open photographic community; the urgency to experiment with other artists; the urgency to bridge artistic communities with social and political communities. What we earn from Zoetrope is this pleasure of meeting new people, and the joy of experimenting and discovering new possibilities and ways of making things happen with others.
YY: And I think what keeps us going is the fact that we have a lot of love and support from and for the community. We can also act as a bridge between communities and institutions, including festivals and museums, finding ways to work with these classical spaces, but integrating our own methodology—and this is very important.
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