Text : Dr. Yiannis Toumazis
Surveillance is the main axis around which the project of Stelios Kallinikou revolves, which, using photographic practices, deals with colonial surveillance policies through the history of Cyprus.
At first, the artist examines the fortresses-castles in the northern Pentadaktylos mountain range, namely those of Kantara, Bouffavento and St. Hilarion. The castles were built between the late 11th and the early 12th centuries, at a time when Cyprus was of great military and political importance for the Byzantine Empire because of the conquest of nearly the entire Asia Minor by the Seljuks. The beginning of the crusades at the end of the 11th century strengthened further the island’s strategic importance. The three castles, and especially Bouffavento, overlooking the Sea of Cilicia and the southern Asia Minor coast were considered perfect places for monitoring passing ships in the region and for sending news to Nicosia by means of fire signals. During Frankish rule, the existing Byzantine buildings were strengthened with the addition of new fortifications and living quarters, and for three centuries were used as forts, military observation posts, royal summer residences, but also as prisons. Gradually, the castles were abandoned as developments in warfare rendered them ineffective. Towards the beginning of the 16th century the Venetians, fearing that the three strongholds could fall into the hands of the enemy, proceeded to dismantle them and concentrated on strengthening the defenses of Nicosia and Famagusta.
Kallinikou captures with his photographic lens epic views of the island as these can be seen from the three castles. For the artist, the climb to the forts with the camera attached to the human body, as an artificial extension of the hand, is of particular importance. As he says, “it activates his gaze towards the mountain peaks, the plains and seas, as the guard in the Middle Ages would also do, except that the bow and the arrow are replaced by the camera.”
One could say that in those days the fortresses-castles functioned as primitive, “human” drones since the unobstructed visibility they offered because they were built at such high altitudes provided the guards with a bird’s eye observation, the ability to collect vital information for facing the enemy, and a great capability of action through an aboveground communications network (between the fortresses), just like modern satellites and spying antennas transmit information and activate unmanned drone attacks.
The impressive night photograph entitled Radar station (2018) depicts, on the one part, the starry celestial dome over Cyprus and, on the other, the white spheres located on the top of Troodos. In this case –and despite the universal serenity emanating from the Kallinikou’s composition as he balances the heavenly macrocosm with the terrestrial microcosm–, the implications to which it alludes are terribly threatening and, in fact, on a global scale.
The RAF (Royal Air Force) station located at Troodos is the oldest British military base in Cyprus (dating back to 1878) but also one of the most important British overseas military installations. Initially, it was used as a cool summer hospital for the British troops of the Egyptian Campaign (1882), while later the British army and government officials used it as a summer resort.
Declassified government documents indicate that the Troodos station was intercepting satellite communications on behalf of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), while documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that the programme continues, funded by the US National Security Service. Information from Snowden also indicates that the station is intercepting radio signals from the Middle East. Since 2006, the station also houses the Starbrook wide-field telescope of the British National Space Centre. It can detect any object orbiting in space that is larger than 1.5 metres.
The British Sovereign Base Area of Akrotiri has been another area of Kallinikou’s research in recent years. Akrotiri is a very particular area of the island: apart from the British military facilities, the Salt Lake of Akrotiri is also located there, a very important wetland for the wider region of the eastern Mediterranean with incredible biodiversity.
The Birdwatching series (2018), exhibited here, came up when the artist was working on the Flamingo Theatre project in 2015. It actually constitutes a photographic “alibi” for Kallinikou, which he created in order to mislead the British Military Police since photography is prohibited in the Sovereign Base area. Imitating, as he says, the conventions of amateur nature photography, he managed to avoid “further troubles and interrogations” in his photographic wanderings in the military area.
The deliberately idyllic atmosphere of these photographs, which also show the rare natural beauty of the area, is in stark contrast to the brutal reality that exists in Akrotiri. His work Sheep (2018) depicts a small flock of sheep and goats grazing against the background of the vast HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) facilities located in the area. HAARP is part of a global US surveillance network using the ionosphere. As the artist says: “These complex mechanisms, while geographically located in Cyprus, extend their activities to unknown longitudes and latitudes, defining new spectral boundaries.”
The British military exercises with parachuters, next to HAARP’s PLUTO II Over The Horizon (OTH) antennas, in contrast to the sudden flying of migratory flamingos that temporarily live at the salt lake, as well as the amateur operators of private drones looking at the sky, who also use Akrotiri, complete this peculiar conversation between the photographic medium and the topical and up-to-date threatening socio-political realities.
This ubiquitous colonial heritage of Cyprus is activated in the installation by the monotonous and eerie sound of the PLUTO II OTH radar, constantly reminding the viewer of the potential human inertia in the prospect of a total disaster.