Camouflage in Cyprus has a totalizing value; it does not give way to different uses or interpretations. Militarization is a sterile concept that revolves around the suppression of individuality and creativity, diminishing the soldiers to mere pawns, not leaving much space for questioning the commands. The action of up-cycling the fabrics of uniforms, not only raises questions about the true values of camouflage in everyday society, but it also evokes a democratic dialogue regarding the strong military presence on the island of Cyprus.
In Cyprus, the military is both a divisive and unifying characteristic in both communities, as it is an experience that both youth groups (are forced to) have access to. Camo is automatically linked here to military division, the compulsory military service and the assimilation of one’s personality and lack of personal identity. This lack of identity is present within the minds of all Cypriots, due to the nationalistic propaganda present on both sides of the buffer zone.
The Motivwv1.1 project aims to create a cluster of identities, a mixture of out-of-context patterns that visibly resemble each other, yet belong to different military forces with opposing mind-sets and agendas. Before the exhibition, several workshops were organized, with the aim of letting each participant customize and personalize their pieces with their individual touch, reflecting their own stories and experiences regarding their military service. The fabrics were thoroughly examined, manipulated, shredded, painted, dyed, stitched back together, embroidered with slogans and iconographic statements, and merged with other items of clothing that fit the street-wear aesthetic.
The wide variety of camouflage patterns from all over Cyprus, including the UN, British Forces and hunting gear, allows us to create both intricate and simplistic items that outline the multitude of uses and identities camo inhabits, along with the clarity and function that these “foreign” items have to offer.
The project is mainly based in Nicosia, where we announced designated fabric collection points and studios in which the workshops take place. An online forum is created where design ideas can be discussed and where dialogue can take place regarding the outfits. Also, tutorial videos and blueprints of the designs are uploaded and shared online, granting us constant feedback and broadening the reach of the community to other areas of the world. The workshops and the work produced in them are documented in pictures and short videos. The purpose of the project is to promote experimentation through the process of bricolage: taking the fabrics apart and putting them back together. The current stage of the project is purely experimental, it is a chance to provoke thought and start discussions between the inhabitants of the island on the current issues. Mixed camouflage is a visual tool, a tactile material that has not been examined enough, and we wish to collect actions and reactions when people are given the chance to interact with it first hand.
Display at the Participation Matters exhibition
Workshop on 12.11.2017 during the R! Festival
Workshop on 25.11.2017 during the R! Festival
Interview with George Kyrou
Olga: You have been selected to take part in R! with a particular work, but what characterizes your art more in general?
George: I have been a graphic design student for the past few years. The word that always comes up in this field is “problem-solving”. My project is rooted in this idea. I try to do things in a less commercial way, by finding alternative and creative routes to tackle issues. The problem that I saw in Cyprus was militarization and the many unused military clothes that lay around people’s closets. This pushed some buttons in my head. I found a problem and came up with a solution to it: an upcycling project. Our work is an enabler for people to have fun, to be expressive and to tap into their oppressed creativity because we usually forget how to be playful.
Olga: How do you relate to the R! theme with the work that was selected? R! covers a variety of themes and concepts, where all projects relate to notions such as participation, democracy, community media and/or power, always in very diverse ways. From your point of view, which of these concepts play a role in your project?
George: I think the participatory part of the festival is most important to me. We are social beings, speaking to each other and usually, the conversations that we have with other people is what forms who we are. If I surround myself with radicals, I am going to grow into a radical.
In my workshop, the concept entails that it is for everyone. By enabling participation in the art project, you remind people of how important art is. Especially with the hard-to-understand-art that we see in contemporary museums and galleries, people cannot really relate to art. Hence, by giving them something hand-held, something tactile, they feel more involved. And by involving people, you change mindsets.
Olga: Why do you think that participation is important for this kind of project and more generally?
George: Let’s go with the metaphor of knitting clubs. Why do old ladies join knitting clubs? It is this sense of community that they search. They all sit in a circle and they knit, without really speaking to each other. It is like going to a meditation class. You sit there, you are all doing the same thing and you are equal, you all belong. That space is a safe space.
Usually, we just sit in front of our computers. We talk to each other through the internet. There is still a community, but there is no physical connection between people. In my project, I wanted to create such sense of belonging, especially for people who are not really “good” at art because people think: “In order to be an artist, I have to be able to draw”. Or, “In order to be an artist, I have to be able to tell the difference between green and turquoise”. It’s this false sense of non-belonging. There is this fear that people have with art. If you just tell them that you are an artist they feel like you are either superior or inferior to them. It’s like Queen Victoria said: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous”.
In my project, I want to stress that art is for everyone. It should not be only something for people who go to art school. It’s there, it is in front of you, you have it in your closet. Take some threat, take scissors and make your own thing. Even I don’t even know how to do fashion. I had to find fashion designers to help me out. I am useless with a thread, I stick myself all the time. But it is fun! We forgot how to play like kids. We became boring. And, it makes people think, even after the workshop.
Olga: You are taking military camouflage fabric and put them into a new context. How do you thereby change the previously taken-for-granted meaning of those symbols and what does this transformation stand for?
George: I am not going to say that we are pioneers. Military up-cycling has been happening since the 70s. But it is that power that the jacket has that I want to transform. This power that oppresses your beliefs and labels you as a number, as a soldier. By implementing my project in Cyprus, it washes all of that away and lets people play with it. Why not just take it apart and have fun with it? And by taking it apart, you are also taking apart the politics of those fabrics, the division of Cyprus and all the surrounding hostilities. It enables to look at things from a different perspective not just theoretically, but you are physically shredding the fabrics into pieces, dying them in the paint, changing their value. And once you manipulate it, it becomes yours, not someone else’s.
Olga: So for you, these camouflage fabrics represent a certain oppressive power. Does empowerment play a role to change or reconfigure this power structure?
George: To me, it is not only about the fabrics’ meaning, but most of all, about the people acquiring new skills and the feeling that they can create art inside the workshop and outside of it, at home. I don’t know whether we are empowering people.
Olga: In your workshops, the distinction between artist and audience collapses, at least to some degree. The citizen becomes also an artist. The artist’s power to control the artwork seems to shrink, the participant’s power position as an active co-creator rises. Is this correct? And if so, why does it matter to your art?
George: Who is the designer? Who is the artist? These are good questions. I think, as the facilitator, I am an adviser because people do art and they do not even realize it as being art. Anyone with a phone in their pocket can create content. Put in the right context, that content becomes art. But they don’t really consider themselves as artists. This happens to many people. Most probably, in their daily lives, they use objects to make something creative without realizing that they are being creative. So the workshop is helping the designer to be the tutor for all these suppressed creative urges that people have.
But whose property is this at the end? Does this project really belong to me, or am I just the supplier of the fabrics, the workshops, or the skills? I am getting supplied as well because all the materials are donations. We create the space, enable the people to work on the fabrics and to take home whatever they produced, but we are also in charge of the documentation, we own the picture. It’s still us who guide the process. I would say that we can be called mentors of the inner artist in every workshop attendee. The designers who I work with are experts, they studied design or fashion. So they, as tutors in our workshops, have the power to change decisions. We are watching over the process, we’re not going to let someone who does not know what they’re doing shred a valuable fabric because we want the outcome or the experimentation with it to be as interesting as possible. We are still pumping in ideas, but, letting people do their own thing under our guidance.
Olga: Is there anything else that is important for you to mention and that relates to R!‘s themes?
George: I find the concept of up-cycling especially important in the Cypriot context because we believe we have bigger fish to fry: a Mercedes to buy and higher mortgages for the house to pay. We tend to forget how wasteful and unsustainable we are as a society. This project is not just about teaching people skills or changing the political meaning of camouflage in Cyprus. It is also about reminding people how to love and respect their own plot of land, themselves and their planet.