City Paper is not for tourists
Artist Zoe Leoudaki presents a worldwide web of fears on the Internet.
Zoe Leoudaki’s life is full of fear, but, to judge by her studio, she isn’t afraid of the dark. In the basement of a building on O Street NW, Leoudaki creates her sound sculptures in a room with no windows. A child-sized abstract rendering of Little Red Riding Hood stands in one corner. Pieces of candy are scattered on the floor near its red cape. Nearby, a boombox repeatedly whispers the warning “Don’t go through the woods. Don’t go through the woods.” In the opposite corner, a rough sketch for a future sculpture hangs from the wall in front of a rickety desk and two chairs. A single light bulb illuminates the scene. Shadows enshroud everything.
Although Leoudaki feels comfortable in the dark, she knows that some people are terrified by it. Since May 1998, people from around the world have been sharing their terrors and trepidations with Leoudaki as part of her ongoing Internet art project, www.fear.gr.
Visit Leoudaki’s Web site and you are greeted by the image of a closed diary. Immediately, the image dissolves, and the book opens. Click on a link that asks, “What are you afraid of?” and a passage appears, stating, “I am seeking confessions about your darkest fears….Using the form below, please tell me about your fears. You can write anything and as much as you want.”
Every entry that is submitted eventually gets posted on another section of the Web site. In addition to their fears, Leoudaki asks visitors to provide their name, e-mail address, nationality, and gender, although many of the submissions arrive anonymously. Leoudaki displays her collection of fears according to the submitter’s country of origin. In all, there are more than 400 confessions on the site, chronicling the nightmares, phobias, and horror stories of people from 43 different countries.
Some of the submissions are commonplace, expressing aversions to clowns, spiders, and snakes. Some are bizarre, such as the fear of barnacles and navel oranges offered by a woman from England. Some are desperate, such as the one contributed by a man from Tanzania who had sex with an HIV-positive woman and now can’t sleep because of his fear of AIDS. Some fearsof death, of loneliness, of exile cut across nationality and gender. Other fears seem culture-specific, such as that of a Colombian woman who is afraid to smile. She wrote to Leoudaki, “I live in a country in which anyone can be afraid of anything, because here everything is possible.”
“I’ve always wanted to know what makes people click or not click. And so I probe,” says Leoudaki. “By collecting fears, I thought we’d see how many things we all have in common. The fears we have are a portal into a reality we feel we cannot control.”
Leoudaki was born in Athens, Greece, in 1962 and moved to Washington in the fall of 1998. She has been splitting her time between the United States and Greece for the past 12 years. “I have two lives,” she says, referring not only to her two homes but also to her twin occupationsjournalist by day, artist by night.
Leoudaki received an undergraduate degree in sociology from the American College of Greece in Athens in 1987 and a master’s in communications and documentary production at Syracuse University in 1990. She currently works as a cultural reporter for the Greek service of Voice of America.
Her training as an artist has been less formal. After graduating from high school, Leoudaki spent several years preparing to attend the Athens School of Fine Arts in Greece. She worked on her portfolio, participated in group exhibitions, and trained for the university’s three-hour admissions exam by refining her painting and drawing techniques. But, according to Leoudaki, her tendency toward abstraction didn’t conform to the university’s admissions criteria: “Abstract art was not in during the early ’80s in Greece.” She eventually decided to pursue other academic interests and to create her artwork outside a scholastic setting.
By the mid-’90s, Leoudaki found herself struggling to find a new artistic direction. “I’ve done abstract painting for a long time,” she says. “And I’ve done a lot of exhibitions in Greece. But I always thought there was a communication gap between me and the public. And I just wanted to find a different way to do art that people could connect with.”
Leoudaki’s career in radio journalism eventually directed her art along a new path. “I love interviewing people,” she says. “I like reaching that stage where you connect with the other person, and they tell you things that you didn’t expect to hear. I became interested in how you incorporate something like a recording of someone’s voice, which is tangible and clear-cut, with a piece of art.”
Accordingly, much of Leoudaki’s recent art combines aural and visual elements. Her sculpture Drunken Cookies, which was recently on display at the Art Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, combines a tactile tangle of wood and nails with a recording of her grandmother reading a family recipe.
Leoudaki originally conceived the fear project as a sound sculpture like Drunken Cookies. The initial inspiration for the project came to Leoudaki in 1996, while she was visiting the neo-Gothic synagogue in Manhattan that houses the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts. Leoudaki looked at the synagogue’s tiny altar and envisioned an installation in which visitors could watch a series of images projected into a basin of water and listen to a recording of people confessing their fears.
The subject of fear had long interested her. “I have always been my friends’ psychiatrist,” she says. “Everybody calls me up and tells me their endless problems. They always seem to start their sentences, ‘Oh, and I’m so afraid of this.’ And I find it fascinating.”
In 1998, Leoudaki decided to begin collecting such confessions. She considered interviewing her friends and asking them ‘What are you afraid of?’ but rejected the idea because she wanted a broader sampling of fears. She contemplated interviewing strangers in addition to her friends. But again, she decided against it.
“As a journalist, I’ve done numerous interviews,” says Leoudaki. “It can be intimidating to talk to a stranger about personal issuesand fear is very personal. I wanted a way for people to confess their fears in an anonymous setting.”
Leoudaki thought of setting up a telephone hot line, but she eventually decided to use the Internet. “I liked the idea of people sitting at their computer alone and writing about their fears,” she says. “I think when you write you are in a more introspective mood than when you are just talking. I wanted people to be sincere and thoughtful.”
Having decided on her medium, Leoudaki wrote the text that would greet visitors to the site and encourage them to submit their fears. “I wanted something that was simple, intimate, and straightforward,” she says. “I didn’t want anything that sounded like a psychology textbook. I wanted it to sound naive.” Leoudaki then worked with her husband, Web designer Lawrence Swiader, to create the site. “It became a truly collaborative effort,” she says.
Leoudaki originally created www.fear.gr as a way of achieving her broader artistic vision but now says that the site has taken on a life of its own. “I now see it as a free-standing piece of art,” she says. “I think it really works as a whole.”
The site has been displayed in numerous exhibitions, including the First Greek Festival of Art and Technology in Athens, the 1998 International Symposium of Electronic Arts in Liverpool and Manchester, England, and the 1999 Museums and the Web conference in New Orleans. The site is currently on view at the McLean Project for the Arts in Virginia as part of the juried exhibit “Futur Skulpture.”
Sculpture Magazine editor Glenn Harper, who served as the juror for “Futur Skulpture,” chose www.fear.gr for the show from among 108 submissions. Although works by 13 other artists were selected, Harper says that “Leoudaki’s piece helped set the tone for the whole exhibition. She is using a contemporary medium for soliciting an interchange about a primal human emotion.”
Visitors to “Futur Skulpture” experience Leoudaki’s work on a decidedly two-dimensional computer screen, but Harper sees no problem with including www.fear.gr in a sculpture exhibition. “It’s difficult to put an exact definition on sculpture,” he says. “But the sculptural aspect of Zoe’s work is actually the network of interactions between people in cyberspacepeople who live in three dimensionsmore than the actual design interface which you see on the computer screen. It’s sculpture in the same way that performance art can be sculpture. It’s conceptual sculpture rather than object sculpture.”
“There is an ambiguity about viewing it as a sculpture that really challenges people,” says Leoudaki. “I think that’s why Harper chose it for this exhibition.”
Leoudaki enjoys the rare occasions when she gets to watch people experiencing her site. “There’s always someone sitting there, reading the confessions, and saying, ‘Oh my God, I just told my psychiatrist the same thing,’” she says. “I think it’s cathartic not only for the people who confess but also for the people that read the confessions. I think it makes people feel less alone. They realize that they’re not the only person to worry about something.”
Over the past three years, the project has changed Leoudaki’s own understanding of fear. “You have to accept that certain fears are beyond your control,” she says. “At the start of the project, I didn’t believe that. I thought you could conquer your fears. I don’t want to get too psychoanalytic about coping with fear, but I think you have to be able to face your fear, even if it’s very painful or disagreeable. To hide away from fear, or to hide fear away from you, is unhealthyit will leak back into your life in curious ways. We shouldn’t be afraid of our fears. Fear helps us investigate various parts of ourselves. It helps us discover parts of our own psyches.”
For Leoudaki, that discovery occurs almost daily. Soon after a fear is submitted to www.fear.gr, it arrives in Leoudaki’s e-mail in-box. She checks her e-mail every morning, reading the new confessions before she opens her other messages. “At the beginning,” she says, “I was thinking that we should leave the site on the Web for a little while and then take it down. But now I’m like, ‘Why should I take it down?’ I love collecting them.”
Although some might describe her fascination as a morbid obsession, Leoudaki points out that the fears collected on her site can be innocuous. For example, Kyra, a female from Canada, writes, “I am 3 years old, and I am afraid of hippopotamuses. They are too big.”
“I love that fear,” Leoudaki says, laughing. “It’s adorable.” CP