After two preparatory workshops held in conjunction with Dutch Art Institute and its post-graduate students, the Syndrome of the Present project commenced with the Thessaloniki meeting in January 2018, assembling the scholars and artists who are set to commit to the project’s following stages.
The decision of starting in the city of Thessaloniki was conditioned by a series of historical facts. Firstly, for more than two centuries, the city had been the host of the community who followed one of the inspiring figures of the project, Sabbatai Zevi. From the late 17th century to their exodus to modern Turkey, this community played an active role in the administration, social and economic life of the city. The imposed migration, a succession of different sorts of dispossession, nationalist deletion of cultural marks and the renewed discrimination in the new homeland are troubles that were not inflicted only to the Sabbatean community but all cultural components of the city, which is easily comparable with histories of neighbouring geographies, as well as with the current tragedies we witness along with recent waves of migration towards Fortress Europe.
The Thessaloniki meeting started with the keynote of Savas Michael-Matsas, addressing the main motives of Syndrome of Present and concentrated on the impacts of two historical figures, Zevi and Baruch Spinoza, on the dynamics of modernisation, secularisation and messianic time conception. Savas pointed also at continuities of past political contentions in the present, exemplified by the massive nationalist protestations in relation with the Macedonia issue and consequent aggressions, which coincided with the days of our seminar in the city. The space that hosted the lecture was Yeni Camii, the only mosque that was built by the Sabbatean community, back in 1902.
On the second day of the seminar, Marc David Baer read a passage from his book, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, which explains the cultural history and the stylistic codes of the mosque. The second day of the seminar resumed at the cafe Mama’s Taper with a cluster of academic and artistic presentations focused on the concept of messianism and the impacts of Zevi’s heritage on intellectuals like Walter Benjamin and Gershom Sholem and the political promises of messianism and the impossibility of their fulfilment. Also discussed in this afternoon the psychological connotations of the mediatory role of the Messiah between God and the individual, and the cases in which differences in this communication fall apart. The second and third day’s seminars proceeded with more presentations and screenings of artworks, video pieces or documentaries that touched issues such as eschatological visions, conversion, forced migration and fluid identities. Day three also included a keynote presentation by the Thessalonikian academician Dimitris Stamatopoulos, who gave an historical account of the ways in which religion, in particular Orthodox Christianity and Islam, has been instrumentalised by nationalist and neo-imperialist projects, such as in present-day Russia and Turkey.
An integral part of our project and even the primary reason for visiting different geographies are the city walks, intended to enhance and contextualise the knowledge exchange in the seminars. In the first morning of our Thessaloniki meeting, Iosif Vaena, an autodidact urban historian, guided the group to the historical centre of the city, demonstrating different layers of the city’s rich history, starting from its establishment in the Hellenistic time extending into the Ottoman rule and its Greek annexation. Vaena further detailed the official policies of selective remembering and deletion of the components of cosmopolitan richness — particularly, the dramatic apathy towards the city’s Jewish majority during the Ottoman period. On the second day, after Romm Lewkowicz’s introduction to his research on EU’s techniques of registration of refugees on the island of Chios, we had a bus tour to one of the refugee camps that is located near the city. In the afternoon, the young historian Michalis Daskalis Giontis guided the group to the historical White Tower, the architectural symbol of the city, which was transformed from a military compound to a city museum. We also visited the villa belonging to one of the most prominent families of the Sabbatean community, the Kapandjis. The Villa Kapandji hosts today the exhibitions and activities of the Center of Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece. Yiannis Epaminondas, the curator of the current exhibition, The Dusk of A Old City: Thessaloniki 1870-1917 generously guided our group to the sections devised to different topics (especially the section about the great fire of 1917) and answered our questions in detail.