DJs, Swords, Goblin People: Everything We Saw at Greece’s Narthex Festival

Founded by two Berlin-based DJs and held at the base of an active volcano, Narthex is where medieval fantasy and hard-style Sugababes edits unite.

15 October 2021, 8:30am

It’s a balmy late September evening, I’m in a new-build amphitheatre at the foot of an active volcano in remote Greece, and I’m watching a man with tribal forehead tattoos play a set of Tibetan singing bowls as an “opening ritual”.

If you were to spontaneously ask any of my friends to guess the last place on earth I would be, this would be it. But it’s good to try new and weird things before you get old and eventually crumble into dust, and so here I am at Narthex Festival – a three-day event organised by Berlin-based DJs and experimental artists Audrey Belaud and Simon Villaret, billed as “a place between the sacred and the profane”.

An architectural element typical of early Byzantine churches, a “narthex” is a lobby that was not considered part of the church, its purpose being to allow those not eligible for admittance into the general congregation to partake in the service. It was a place of transition; somewhere for the freaks and penitents of society to gather in hopes of divine communication. With this idea in mind, Audrey and Simon curated a line-up of artists that make heavy use of folklore and fantasy in their work, whether that’s an avant-garde noise artist who makes music inspired by video games, or a performance artist who also forges literal swords.

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021

It was easy to spot who on the ferry from Athens to the volcanic peninsula of Methana was going to the festival, based on their blue hair, elf ears and spearheading of an impromptu boat deck yoga session. I look down at the picturesque Tide-pod blue sea and wonder whether I’m witnessing some kind of pilgrimage; modern-day fringe dwellers coming together on an idyllic Greek island in an attempt at meaningful connection in an increasingly cynical and commercialised world. Then I wonder if Grimes will be there.

Originally from France but living in Berlin, Audrey discovered the festival site in the kind of serendipitous way you would imagine from someone who has put together a magical medieval festival. After ending up on the lesser-known Greek island (typically visited by tourists and people who like hiking) in May, Audrey quickly called Simon to join her. Soon after, they found themselves at a restaurant and got chatting to the owner, Theodoros – an infamous local Methanian man who has travelled the world and whose life goal is apparently to “open the mind of the local people”. They stayed the night, and the next morning he showed them the Roman-style amphitheater he had built by hand. 

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“We looked at each other and knew already that this was going to happen”, Audrey tells me over a video call after the festival. “The whole thing was really impulsive”, adds Simon, “we came up with the idea in May and [the festival] happened at the end of September.” 

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021, by Simon Villaret

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021, by Simon Villaret

The festival site is a short drive up the mountain: a strip of private land with beach access, a traditional Greek taverna and the aforementioned amphitheater. As the sun sets between two mountains, I watch a woman in a cobalt blue nun’s habit and a Macbook perform an operatic interval, followed by a man with a shock of white hair playing a witch house set whilst screaming. After the live performances are over, it’s time for the DJs: Belgian producer Kurama plays hyper-speed edits (including one of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”) and EDM remixes, followed by label-mate Fetva who spins emotional storytelling sets through the medium of club music. It’s my first time listening to live, loud music since before the pandemic started, and hard-style Sugababes edits are a perfectly stupid return.

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021, by Simon Villaret

Photo: Daniel Camargo-Grosso

The next day is spent at a deserted beach cove with crystal clear shallow water, interspersed with a characteristically slow, long Greek lunch. In the evening we head back to the festival site and, while watching NeuroDungeon, a queer “Sci-Fi fantasy corporation” whose performance includes two drag queens gyrating on stage, I get talking to the impossibly gorgeous barmaid who looks like a cross between Arwen from The Lord of the Rings and a beautiful cat. I ask her how she ended up at this strange gathering as we take a shot of ‘holy water’ together. (I will later find out this is Tsiporou, after it has ruined my life). She tells me she shared a cab back with Audrey after a dance recital, and decided to fly out on a whim to see the magical island and do yoga sessions. I wake up the next day with a lump on my head, the hugest bruise I have ever seen on my thigh, and [unrelatedly] Oscar Pistorious’ cousin’s business card on the floor next to my sleeping friend.

Due to the niche nature of the event and the fact that they were unable to promote it on the island because the conservative Greek Orthodox locals were not into the idea of a festival involving paganism in any way, the attendees consisted largely of the performers themselves – although, in the true spirit of the festival, it was often unclear who was there in a performance capacity and who was an audience member. This gave the event a surprising air of intimacy and exclusivity, like I’d been invited to a secret fairy forest gathering. For a lot of these artists, it was the first time playing out again since the pandemic hit, and an electric energy of mutual respect and support was palpable. 

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021

A cross-section of the people in attendance included a Mormon visual artist / pharmaceutical drug tester from Utah; a girl from London with a long blonde wig that made her look like Daenerys Targaryen in a pair of Cyberdog stompers; a lot of French people including Audrey’s mum and her gals; and two people who were cosplaying as goblins for the entire festival – or maybe all the time, it was unclear.

The final night was taken up mostly by a very long performance by a futuristic dystopian collective that is apparently very cool in the Berlin underground scene at the moment but, to my jaded eyes, mostly seemed like a bunch of annoying American kids raised on the internet who have some interesting ideas but definitely not enough to warrant three consecutive hours of anyone’s time.

Headliner and unofficial godfather of the video game-inspired club music genre Dark0 played a typically cinematic and ethereal set including plenty of Ariana Grande edits, followed by the ‘closing ritual’, which ended up being two French DJs going b2b and playing Belgian trap while doing shots.

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021

Photo: Narthex Festival 2021, by Simon Villaret

Although it felt more like a private party than a festival necessarily, Narthex provided the kind of genuine experience that more and more people seem to be hungry for in our capitalist hell-scape “post”-pandemic world: spiritual, intimate, and with very little influence from the outside world. True to their vision, the organisers created a separate universe for a weekend: a gathering of pagans in an atmosphere filled with both ancient primitivism and futuristic AI utopia. 

Afterwards, the event group chat was filled with glowing feedback from the artists and attendees, who all seemed to share a feeling of having shared a truly special, once in a lifetime experience. There is a sense of communal gratitude for this weekend of DIY musical exploration and slowness, for a festival that felt more like a space-age village fair in the best way possible. 

After their initial apprehensions, even the anti-pagan locals came to check out the event and ended up being won over by the good vibes and “beautiful creative young people” while calmly knocking back the (un)holy water. Unfortunately Grimes did not show up, but there’s always narthex 002.

@niluthedamaja

Tagged:

Greece, Festivals, fantasy, folklore

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